Keats’s “Hyperion” (Violence, Totality, and Reference)

A big puzzle about Keats is that his poetry is awful! Or rather, that, in the longer poems, the sensations evoked in those poems do not describe the poems themselves — gentleness, sweetness, subtlety, immediacy, and so on. His longer poems are difficult, full of obscure allusions, repetitive, hard to remember, non-immediate, tortuous, grammatically complicated,… the simplicity of the answer to this problem surprised me when I first realized it: why should it? Why should a poem about sweetness be itself sweet? … the reason is because we are so used to a reflexive, or rather, a totalizing view of art, even if we are fiercely anti-liberal, anti-postmodern, anti-hipster, and so on — which I am. I hate liberals, I hate modern art, I especially hate Obama. But anyways, “totalizing”, I mean, the idea that art should be about itself, that art should be transparent… there is an important but subtle distinction between totalizing and reflexive. Because Keats’s poetry is indeed reflexive — he is very self aware, he knows what he is doing, he knows about himself and his surroundings, his poetry is intelligent — but it is not totalizing precisely because his poem is not about the present, the construction of a imaginative reality, because it is not sweet, because of the disjunction pointed about above.

… I had written a pretty harsh polemic against ‘liberal aesthetics ideology’ here — but I deleted it. This is a rough time for me, election time, because I hate liberal propoganda so much and I’m exposed to so much stupid ‘intellectualism’ from the left. They are so goddamn full of themselves — they are so totalizing. They treat the world as if a quick talk could reveal all its order, as if education were the answer to everything. I’m rather glad that, however liberal women may be, conservativism, not of the narcissistic sort obviously, is always a minor turn on, maybe on the order of being able to drive stick or dress a deer or something.

But let’s talk about Hyperion. The poem is interesting, it is ‘aesthetic’ in the sense that it almost seems like a figural presentation of aesthetic theory. But for the poem the aesthetic is always something ‘out there’, and this is fascinating. Maybe out there is love, or softness, and so on? It’s about — well, we should rather say that it ‘takes place’, since there’s almost no action in it — it takes place after the fall of the Titans and the rise of the Pantheon of Greek Gods we are used to, and which is associated with an age of… passion, or freedom, or something. The Titans have this debate about why they fall, why they can’t arise, and so on — and Keats is ‘on their side’. For example, we might wonder even about ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’, where there is that famous line about truth being beauty: is this poem Greek or Titantic?

This is not merely ‘complaining’ of course, as if getting over a writer’s block, but it has to do with a struggle against the totalizing. Apollo is described as this youth of incredible lightness and beauty or something, but this is besides the point — that’s not what were interested in.

… let me put this another way, since I don’t want to suggest that we are instead after the ‘subversive’ or something. The totalizing is not the ‘violent’! — the problem with the totalizing is that it is weak and not because it’s imperialistic or strong … note that there is also the issue of the lethargic, the frozen, listless, as the titans are, but this is yet another category: this is a kind of defeated, tyrannical strength we will want to address below. But we often view the totalizing as a kind of imperialism, but no, the problem is really that it is, you know, useless. … this might be more of an expressive effort rather than anything I want to defend rigorously, but — you know, there are kids wearing Slayer Tshirts in Iraq. And Hollywood, for a long time, was viewed as a kind of ruthless, parasitic invasion around the world. And they’re still reading Stendhal in China. But there is no way that the hipster shit they come out with these days, including stuff like Family Guy, can be exported in such a way, can take hold of immature teen minds, and this is because they are ‘white’ in a totalizing, reflexive, self-aware, playful, ironic sort of way — they are somehow ‘about white people’ even though all the things I listed above are about white people too, at least on paper, even if the latter can be said to be more ‘sophisticated’ (well, except for Stendahl) than the former. However ideologically worthless anime is, there is still something to be said about its export value — and it feels awkward saying this since I would consider myself one of the last people to equate value and appeal in art.

The question is, what is the relationship between violence and reference, if violence does not stem from totality nor even from the reference? That which is referenced doesn’t matter much…..

* * * *

The big idea here is (1) that the value of a literature is not in its aesthetic imagery but what it is able to reference, and that (2) this referencing is a mode of violence, in itself, and not the image of what is being referenced. There is a lot we can do with this, and we can also stick with Keats. Keats was aware of this, which is why Hyperion seems a particularly cool poem. The defeated Titans are figures for referencing, they are the figure for the poem’s referencing. The Apollonian gods, which are always outside of the picture, are figures for imagery. There is a sense of blindness that has always been Keatsian but is particularly … vivid … here.

The question is how reference, and not imagery, functions as power and as violence, or how reference influences the form of violence. Violence is real, it is often undertaken blindly, which is quite apt — while reference is harder to grasp. When reference ceases to be the production of images (as in a totalizing system), then it is more directly applied to violence.


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