A Cubist Meditation on the Modern Condition

On Meta-Talon today, please enjoy the full text of the presentation given by Carl Peters, recently the author of Studies in Description, to an audience of about 100 attendees at the Modern Languages Association convention in Philadelphia, PA, on January 7, 2017.


Liberties taken with punctuation intentional. A lecture is a performance. There’s a craft to it. I’m not saying that lecturing is performance art – I don’t believe it is – I do not see it that way. But, as bpNichol said, in the reality of writing one is always envisioning the speech in order to speak the vision. That is what I am trying to do

Look, I realize that my abstract is more than an abstract but what follows is just a small part of what I could do. I’m going to talk around Hemingway’s greatest achievement, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” presenting my comments as a Cubist meditation on the Modern Condition (with reference to Duchamp and some others)

“So what you say is a perfect way for me to describe what I mean” (Jerry Zaslove, in conversation)

Paris in the early twentieth century was a mecca for artists. There they found Picasso inventing the modern composition, cutting up objects and other reality fragments and inserting them into his compositions. This new approach was not lost on the modern poet, especially Gertrude Stein, Hemingway’s mentor, who instructed that “the business of art was to be contemporary.” The new – the “really new” – is Duchamp’s inversion of a common urinal into a “Fountain,” advocating a turn in the visual arts from the retinal to the cerebral and ultimately – the performative – the imagist poem is a “gesture”

The promethean energy of the modern work lives inside of the characters of many novels and lies in the feeling that they need to reject their society and its values and throw off anything that limits their freedom and self-recognition of their place in a world too narrow for them, too suffocating

You might recall this scene from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris


Buñuel, Man Ray enter. Dali introduces them to Gil

GIL: It sounds so crazy when I say it, and you’ll think I’m drunk, but I’ve got to tell someone I’m from a different time – a whole other era – the future – and I pass from the two-thousandth millennium to here – a car picks me up – I slide through time

MAN RAY: Exactly correct – you inhabit two worlds – so far I see nothing strange

One thinks of the horror of Conrad

After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candour, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth – the strange commingling of desire and hate

I’m trying to show, the meaning of Hemingway’s story is its struggle with style (“to give a name to”), pushing the individual and the subjective to new modes of being, new techniques of communication, expression, and abstraction; and how language has limits that can be broken up

I’m trying to show, all those Modernists went through what I call ‘the shock of thought.’ We wake up one day and realize that we are thinking about thought, but we can’t let it take over and fool us into thinking that there is something like salvation from thought or that we are not real in the world

I’m trying to show, Art is the offspring of creative confusion

Hannah Arendt writes

Now living with yourself means, of course, talking to yourself. And this talking-to-yourself is basically thinking – a kind of thinking that isn’t technical, but a kind of which anybody is capable. And so, there may be situations in which I become at disunity with the world to such an extent that I can only fall back on conversing with myself – [The] proposition that someone who is powerless can still think

Some resist, but I’m trying to show

I’m trying to show, radical doubt is the heart of this creative process, which includes doubt about how to see the present (discovering the present)

Alfred Kazin writes

All his writing life Hemingway laboured after that true sentence. He sought, I think, the sentence that would have the primacy of experience, [a sentence that] would relive a single unit of experience. But the “true sentence” could be recognized only if it had the right cadence and the tease of subtlety in some culminating word. He wanted to unsettle the reader just enough to make him sit up and notice a different way of saying things

Figuration (“first intensity”—Eliot/Pound) is the word I use that comes out of modern aesthetic praxis and means a combination of performance, bringing to performance, and presentation

In painting I use it to mean the active style of a work, the Form of the work

Often this expresses itself in immanent forms of expression looking for genres, enactments, embodiments, and figurations in art and literature that cannot be framed by representations. I mean by representation what is usually understood as content or idea. Art is made, created. Of course it has subject matter that ‘represents,’ but art exists as a form of reality that is created

I am thinking of ready-mades as acts of seeing, trying to get the viewer to ‘listen’ to the transitional objects in their life as some kind of writing or narrative

Figuration, even depiction, falls into ‘expression,’ but there’s no way to avoid that fall. The modern writer struggles to discover their own voice or whatever one calls that resistance. ‘Radical doubt’ is part of that voice. The ethics of ambiguity is in there as a voice

Minimalism is the negation of self-expression

Hemingway resists his own conscience in this story

The story outlines neither an ethics of reading that is the imposition nor the illustration of theory but the formation of being

Making – or “figuration” – opens up a pathway between the unconscious (where the image resides without a name) and consciousness (the naming of the name)

An image that comes to mind that depicts this process is a scene from Pasolini’s The Decameron. A pupil of the painter Giotto arrives in Naples to paint a mural. We see the painter study an illustration and then he acts, painting the whole mural, which he knows by heart

The scene shows creative process is precisely the reverse of the tableaux that is shown

Duchamp’s ready-mades are other examples, the material reality of mind confronting temporal reality; the ready-made object is a linguistic gesture – as the titles always show (Duchamp is adamant about this) – the direct treatment of the thing engenders the objective experience of creation

The imagist poem is a sentence-image

Sparseness of object enlarges vastness of space – “dichten = condensare” (Pound)

Imagism for a time seemed like a way out of the derivative confronting the modern realities

William Pratt in The Imagist Poem says

William Carlos Williams especially recognized the limits of imagism; Williams felt that imagism failed because it lost structural necessity, while Wallace Stevens observes “not all objects are equal. The vice of imagism did not recognize this”

Contrary to Williams’s claim, Eliot’s “Prufrock,” for example, is a syntax of image; his filmic vision opens up the possibilities of the interval (collage and montage), movement-image and text-image

Gertrude Stein said, “Because the way of living had changed the composition of living had extended and each thing was as important as any other thing”

If garbage can be material for art then maybe art’s garbage

When Pound said “Make it New” he was talking about the tradition, keeping it awake (George Bowering, in conversation). Those moribund Victorian rimesters he did not like were not deriving from Shelley and Coleridge. They were leaning on them

Say it: No ideas but in things—invent

From this viewpoint, we are looking at how things made sparse make space, is how I’d say it

Authorship is continually being framed around the leaking boundaries of life itself as something that imposes itself, and when the psychic elaboration stops before it is finished [as it did for Eliot in the aftermath of his religious conversion that is marked by the publication of “The Hollow Men” in 1927] pain of some kind emerges – a kind of time that needs to be abolished so that a temporal perspective can live a long time or longer time, so to speak

When you are working with languages, you can’t help but enter that movement, that fine, splendid difficulty of the relation between order and disorder. Thanks to Hemingway, we realize we can do something more than simply look at pictures and understand their mechanisms, which is the prototype of the structuralist way of working (see Foucault). We can do something beyond that

Why write at all? The modernists who count had to answer that, to that. Also, that is the urge and need to “depict” and not just represent the already given; not even to make the “new” as Pound Pound-ificated but to project and then to have “found” what one needs to stay whole and alive. That was Hemingway’s objective

Hemingway is constantly moving between order and disorder – I think most artists are

Eliot’s darkness is Hemingway’s light and I can illuminate that

Eliot accepts

A condition of complete simplicity
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one
(“Little Gidding”)

Remember this is the same poet as the author of “The Hollow Men.” “For Thine is” / “Life is” – nevertheless, in his closing statement, Eliot emphasizes “all manner of thing” (singular) and that’s noteworthy

Hemingway rebukes with a singular denunciation

It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada
Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; “then nothing,” “so anyway”

This kind of nihilism is minimalism

Eliot, that big name, called it “a continual self-sacrifice,” and nowhere in modern literature does a voice suffer more than the one I hear whimpering in “The Hollow Men.” It is here, in 1927, that the self, placed under devastating scrutiny, is cut down once and for all – the poem breaks in two, unable to voice as its liturgical fragments “For Thine is” / “Life is”

This is the basis of romantic aesthetics, but ‘mind’ cannot be separated from feeling, affect, and emotion

The modern work brings the observer closer to the object and yields meaning not from some outside abstraction of some ultimate object, extending ‘love’ to the ‘love’ of objects which may take on a life of their own

This aesthetic was a breakthrough into reality of writing as a form of reality, art as a form of reality. Writers were establishing the basis of literature as such

The viewer constructs the view; the view includes the viewer

The art object constructs the observer


Friday, February 3, is Gertrude Stein’s birthday. Below is a page from my recent annotated critical study of the full text of Tender Buttons, Studies in Description. Stein was fond of writing portraits. In their construction one could arrive at an objective description of the person (as an object among other objects in the world). I have selected “A White Hunter” to mark her birthday. I read “A White Hunter” as a portrait of Hemingway (and the modern condition)


Arendt, Hannah. The Last Interview: And Other Conversations. Brooklyn & London: Melville House, 2013. 58

Caillat, François. Foucault Against Himself. Trans. David Homel. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2015. 77–109

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: The Modern Library, 1999. 88

Eliot, T. S. “Little Gidding.” Four Quartets. Web

Hemingway, Ernest. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Web

Kazin, Alfred. “Hemingway as His Own Fable.” The Atlantic. Web

Pratt, William. The Imagist Poem. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1963. 37

Stein, Gertrude. Picasso. Boston: Beacon Press, 1960. 12