Gertrude Stein described the experience of coming from Oakland in these terms:
‘What was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.’
(Gertrude Stein: Everybody’s Autobiography)
When Augé (in Un ethnologue dans le metro) describes the non-space of the Metro as ‘the collective without the celebration, and the solitude without the isolation’, he too is reflecting how it feels to have a form without substance, to find a label attached to some sort of empty cabinet, to be in a situation where there is no experience (or no ‘there’) there, where the extensional, the denotative, seems to be the only option because the connotative, the intensional, is either denied or is suppressed or has gone missing.
If modernism proceeds, typically, by finding ways to ‘make it new’, as a revolt against or overturning of tradition, whatever ‘tradition’ means, then one question raised by these comments is whether this particular fish is rotting from the head inwards and downwards or outwards from within. Whether, in terms of one of the false dilemmas posed by modernism, form takes precedence over content, an endless sequence of new moulds into which something is poured and thus reshaped, or whether content pushes form. (It scarcely matters here that form and content are actually indivisible; it’s how we think of them that counts. And, of course, there are parallels between ‘content’ and movement, or grass roots politics, on the one hand and between ‘form’ and the avant garde, or party structure, on the other.)
Varèse seems clear enough, at least at first, that content pushes form:
‘Form is a result – the result of a process. Each of my works discovers its own form. I have never tried to fit any of my compositions into any known container.’
(Edgard Varèse: Rhythm, Form and Content)
So too is Creeley. ‘Form is never more than an extension of content’; this in a letter to Olson. Olson quoted it in Projective Verse. Creeley later expanded on it as follows to make poetry analogous to something naturally occurring:
‘Form is what happens. It’s the fact of things in the world, however they are. So that form in that way is simply the presence of any thing.
‘The what of what was being said gained the how of what was being said, and the how (the mode) then became what I called form.’
(In Martin Lammon: From an interview with Linda Wagner, in Written in Water, Written in Stone)
In fact, both the proposed relationship between form and content and their perceived relationship with the natural are ambivalent.
For Zukofsky, for example, ‘Poetry convinces not by argument but by the form it creates to carry its content.’ (Zukofsky: Test 52, from A Test of Poetry, 1948). However, that’s because he conceives of poetry as a sort of totalising procedure in which ‘content’ changes its meaning to become poetry’s organising forms just as the ‘content’ of science is a formalisation of the world with which it engages, which is somehow formless without it:
‘[I]t appears that the scientific definition of poetry can be based on nothing less than the world, the entire humanly known world.
‘Like the theories of science which are valid because they explain most, this definition will be valid inasmuch as it will be comprehensive.’
(Zukofsky: Poetry / for my son when he can read, 1946)
Which is why, in the spirit of Zukofsky, Ron Silliman can say in a curious formulation, about the work of Alan Davies, that ‘the content of form is anger’ and of Zukofsky himself that there are two alternative readings: ‘Zukofsky as suggestion of possibility’ on the one hand and ‘Zukofsky as horizon or limit’ on the other. Whilst for his own part Silliman himself claims to use form (‘The purpose of the poem, like that of any act, is to change the world’) as a technique to break down, a sort of exemplary act, his own cognitive limits:
‘When I wrote the first volume of Ketjak in 1974, I used a systematic methodology to break down certain habits of mind that prevented me from focusing on the sentence as the point of perception.’
(Ron Silliman: Wild Form)
‘A book is a machine to think with,’ according to I A Richards. (Richards: Principles of Literary Criticism, 1926) Williams too, conceives of poetry in these industrial terms rather than those of Nature:
‘To make two bold statements: There’s nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant.
‘Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.’
(William Carlos Williams: Introduction to The Wedge)
But in fact what Zukofsky and Williams both represent is actually quite a ‘tame’ view of form, in which the world is codified but somehow not engaged with except with rubber gloves. (An earlier post on technology may give a flavour of what I mean.) For Zukofsky ‘form’ implies a sort of conceptual syntax, permitting no unorganised conception and no excess of the natural over conception. For Williams it’s more explicit: nothing is ‘sentimental’, ‘ill defined’ or ‘redundant’; everything becomes part of an idealised mechanics, just as the ideal of ‘science’ hovers over Zukofsky.
Of course it’s Kerouac (hence the title of Silliman’s piece) who represents (quite self consciously) what ‘wild’ means in this context. But Kerouac’s rhetoric is solipsistic, even bombastic. Indeed there’s a self contradiction. What ought to come from the future or from outside or from the natural (‘discovery’) actually comes from the past and from within, from the confected: ‘every image and every memory’. So that the encounter isn’t, in the end, with the alterity of, say, an undiscovered wilderness but with his own ‘exploding’ mind. As with a tantrum in a playpen there’s a reaching out towards totality, for a freedom of speech that denies others’ freedom not to listen, but at the same time an awareness of limitation which functions for Kerouac rather as shame does for Levinas:
‘What I’m beginning to discover now is something beyond the novel and beyond the arbitrary confines of the story… into realms of revealed Picture… wild form, man, wild form. Wild form’s the only form holds what I have to say – my mind is exploding to say something about every image and every memory…. I have an irrational lust to set down everything I know.’
(Jack Kerouac: letter reproduced in J C Holmes: Nothing More to Declare)
Of course the dilemma I posed at the start (which comes first, form or content?) and its essential absurdity may still seem somewhat abstract. And yet if one thinks about composers things get a good deal clearer. Consider, for example, the apparent opposition between Milton Babbitt’s total serialism, theoretically total control, and Cage’s indeterminacy. Whereas for Babbitt form arises out of the rigorous construction of content, for Cage the content (which is often something quite unknown) is invited to participate, a revelation of Sound corresponding to Kerouac’s Picture, through the rigorous prior construction of ‘arbitrary’ formal constraints.
And so to Ayckbourn, which might well seem at first a very odd leap to have made.
But Ayckbourn’s conceptual approach resembles that of Cage at least in this respect, that he uses form, a priori, rather as Cage does, to compel the arrival of results for which the corresponding causes don’t exist and thus to break the discursive, organising syntax of what we think of as reality.
And yet this resemblance masks a sharp distinction.
Augé describes what interests him about the Metro as ‘the play between the subway map – which is there, and is imposed on us – and the various ways we find to move through it’. Ayckbourn’s characters are likewise at odds with his plots. They live with what Gloria Anzaldúa calls the ’emotional residue’ of unnatural boundaries. They struggle to get free of them and, in the end, remain imprisoned together by what is randomly positioned, orthogonal or parallel relative to them but which is emphatically not them at all. When, for example, Tom punches Norman in Table Manners (one of The Norman Conquests) it’s by way of protecting Annie; however Tom has misunderstood. When Doug knocks Vic into the swimming pool in Man of the Moment, indirectly causing his death, he ought to be taking revenge. In fact, it’s out of a sort of knee-jerk chivalry, like an emotional Groundhog Day. And so on.
Whereas, and this is a major distinction, the thrust of Zukofsky, Williams, Cage et al is to open up new frontiers (progress: the impulse to colonise and coerce, to ‘civilise’ through the operation of boundaries or of science, to deny the idea of the ruin) Ayckbourn deals with what Benjamin calls the ‘refuse of history’ and what Freud called the ‘refuse of the phenomenological world’, that which is left behind by such constructed objects as rugs, board games and swimming pools:
‘Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition.’
(Gloria Anzaldúa: Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza)
‘… to demonstrate a historical materialism which has annihilated within itself the idea of progress […] Its founding concept is not progress but actualisation.’
(Walter Benjamin: The Arcades Project, N2,2)
‘Where the categorical network is so closely woven that much of that which lies beneath is concealed by conventions of opinion, including scientific opinion, then eccentric phenomena which have not yet been incorporated by this network at times, take on an unexpected gravity.’
(T W Adorno: On the Logic of the Social Sciences)
Whereas Cage’s approach is inclusive, bringing into account what the attention would have overlooked simply by widening the scope, even though in practice someone of a later generation like Silliman behaves as a sort of gatekeeper, drawing a Manichean distinction between the ridiculously named ‘post avant’ and those he dismisses grandly as the ‘School of Quietiude’, the effect of Ayckbourn’s stagecraft is quite otherwise and exclusive: aspects of experience and motivation are cut off arbitrarily rather as Peter Pan’s shadow is cut off by the closing window.
Thus Jack’s morality in A Small Family Business has a purely denotative quality, it acts as an empty label since he crumbles like the rest. So too the play’s attempt to reconcile the Thatcherite principles of individual greed and family solidarity, which excludes Jack’s daughter, Samantha. Likewise Vic in Man of the Moment, whose self reinvention has been only of his image in the media. And Nerys, Vic’s original victim and now Doug’s wife through the exigencies of the plot, who has been excluded from the play altogether.
In bringing exclusion into the mechanics of the plays, in other words, Ayckbourn writes not as the victor or about the loser but rather out of the state of defeat, out of abjection, out of the dream and reality of Oakland, or rather of East Grinstead, less heroic even than Hastings, not as one of the tramplers but out of what has been divided, broken, trampled and left behind as progress goes on progressing.
So maybe what Benjamin said of Baudelaire could find some relevance here:
‘That which the allegorical intention has fixed upon is sundered from the customary contexts of life: it is at once shattered and preserved. Allegory holds fast to those ruins…
‘Baroque allegory sees the corpse only from the outside; Baudelaire evokes it from within.’
(Benjamin: The Arcades Project, J56,1 and J56,2)