Sunday, 25 May 2014

The Storming of the Brain: a preliminary commentary

The Storming of the Brain: a preliminary commentary

note. this was published in the Cambridge Review as an introduction to the first publication of a Charles Madge poem from 1950. The poem is of interest partly because it is a sound from a silenced moment of history, the mid-century death. At that time the scene repressed the most ambitious poetry and hid it from view - something which went on until 2000, in many ways. To see the poem you have to find that issue of Cambridge Review.

 It was some thirty years ago [written 2009] that fans became aware of a style in English poetry which was later known as the Cambridge School. It was a nebula of intellectual and reflexive poetry which appeared in The English Intelligencer from 1966 and was later featured in Ferry Press and the Grosseteste concern. Since hundreds of poets who went to Cambridge manifestly have nothing to do with it, the term Ferry Press-Grosseteste school is less misleading although even less familiar. This pervasive and surprising artistic code had clearly developed over a long period and was all involving, but without public statements by the poets or the help of a critic who could write intelligently about them it defied understanding. Notoriously, those inside it denied that any school existed and a hard outline was only visible to those outside it driven by envy or a need to scrub it out of the reckoning. Clearly, entire decades of poetic development were missing from the record. Rumours (spread by Martin Seymour-Smith) of Madge's long and unpublished poems of 1949-50 seemed to point to the sink hole where the true line of English poetry had vanished underground in the face of Cold War conservatism and academic disapproval. When I reviewed Madge's Selected Poems in 1995, I claimed that there is a foreshadowing in Madge of the Ferry-Grosseteste school - a thought many people have had. [The review is now reprinted in Origins of the Underground, Salt Publishing, 2008] The publication in 1987 of A Various Art (edited by Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville) erected a monument but made the problem of interpretation or classification simply more acute. Madge's poems, apart from transforming our knowledge of his career, seemed to offer an early stage of differentiation which might show more marks of process and be more identifiable. Perhaps we could resolve the enigma of a cultural moment by a sidestep into resolving previous cultural moments - climbing the mountain from the bottom up.
Both Madge and the associates of Prynne, John James, etc., wrote poems which advance steadily into the unknown, without the self-betraying regression into the received and familiar: but does this amount to affinity? In the space of analogies, we can make out several traces of affinity. If we look for poetry which deals with abstract ideas and the life of the intellect; which has a continuous line of sense rather than breaking up into illuminist gabble; which is more precise than everyday speech (or consciousness); which pursues clarity about the objects of knowledge rather than simply projecting the self; which is of Marxist inspiration but avoids the styles of Marxist poetry developed variously in France, Germany, and the Soviet Union; then at each point we find Madge standing near the Ferry-Grosseteste School. The way in which Madge's poetry points ahead to them is hard to verbalise, also because the overall unity of that group, lax and elusive although unmistakable, has yet to be verbalised. The other point about that 1995 volume was that after publishing books in 1937 and 1941 nothing had followed up until 1995 - a fifty-four year gap. During that time he had, however, composed most of the poems in the Selected. ‘The Storming of the Brain’ is dated 1950 in the typescript but, as you see, was not published until now, in 2009.
A few observations about gross design. The first meaning of a 'brainstorm' was undoubtedly an epileptic or epileptoid fit, the intense local electrical activity in part of the brain being equated with a 'storm' in the atmosphere. This has little to do with the poem. The poem is about 250 lines long. The start is a portrait of an unnamed site being exposed to an attack, which it cannot possibly resist, by what seems to be a large part of mankind: millions of people. We then find out it is a castle. At the end of the poem we hear about 'the submerged cathedral', which again has a monumental building being assailed and dissolved. The continuity of imagery leads us to believe that the entire poem is about an assault, that this assault is a merely symbolic process, and that the title accurately describes the theme: the brain under attack from something else, equally human, which takes it over, and that the 'castle' imagery' belongs to an extended metaphor in which the brain has defences which can be assailed and breached. Madge had published a book called The Disappearing Castle already in 1937. If I could sum up the poem in one line it would be that the surrender of identity is a form of self-transcendence and leads us out of rigid positions and property into the unknown.
I have numbered the stanzas (which is not without ambiguity). So in stanza 1 we hear about the 'sea of men' as besieging army, in stanza 4 we hear about spies which the possessors of the citadel are going to send out into the besieging army, in st. 5 someone asks if we should simply let them in, as they admire what we have, but (st.6) this would disperse the treasure accumulated here over time and we would fall into decay. It is noticeable that the besiegers get no lines, although much of the poem is dialogue. Another defender, (speaker B) in a dialogue, proposes atomic, radiation, and bacterial weapons, the latter being engineered to kill selectively. Speaker A says that the possessors are diseased and decaying and should not inflict similar damage on other people. Speaker B (possibly) proposes using a dream weapon. But it seems that the garrison are overcome by darkness, they look out (st.13) and see the light from torches held by the camp outside, revealing them to be behaving peacefully. Speaker B (st.15) says that, if it is not so, the camp is 'such a gathering of souls' that no resistance would be possible, and that the treasures will be theirs, and mentions the ‘secret inner life' of the castle. Speaker A (probably) retorts that this ‘life’ is missing as some of the garrison are already dead, while in general it is abstract, ‘rare and mental’. Speaker A (possibly) goes on (st. 18) to ask whether, now the threat of hostile intentions has been dispersed, by the incidence of light, they should proceed to speech and reconciliation with the multitude. He reveals that the gap between those inside and out is as between an elite seeking knowledge and the uninstructed. The speakers agree and stanzas 20-23 (from the line ‘Iron-handed fathers leaning on your ploughs’) are an address by the group inside to those surrounding them; they are addressed severally in a tripartite classification which parodies the Trinity (fathers, then sons, then spirits, ‘embodied vacancies of magic flame’, appearing visually like the flames of the Pentecost). Then the defences are dropped; ‘Open the strait gate’. The crowd throngs in (st. 25-8) and gawps at the castle like a museum. It emerges that the garrison are angels: finding it hard to ‘love the sons of men’, but that they are capable of being contaminated by humanity. The description ‘relics of angel nebulae’ may mean that they are aliens rather than Biblical angels; their biological relationship is a source of doubt (st. 29-34). As the poem ends there is peace and there has been a merging of identities: ‘For those we feared are here in us and we/ Stand in them’. The poem ends with a reference to Monet’s series of paintings ‘La cathédrale engloutie’, where the cathedral in Rouen is not literally engulfed by anything, but gradually loses outline in the encroaching twilight. It implies an engulfing shift of perception but no damage.
The intentionality of the encampment or besiegers allows us to exclude the link with a literal brainstorm, viz. epilepsy. The attribution of sides in the debate to two speakers is proposed, but after all every stanza could be spoken by a different person (or it could be one mind arguing with itself).
The paraphrase demonstrates, I think, that the plot I have suggested is correct. It is necessary though to recall that the whole poem is dreamlike or superreal and so that the test of consistency is not a wholly valid one: the poem is composed of disparate objects. The event described is abstract - it is a brain which is being stormed; the reference to ganglia ('And in the ganglia, soft-syllabled/ A population') is the single moment which confirms this; but the poem also unfolds as a story about a literal siege, with a cast of millions of people. The most striking feature of the poem is the coherence of the literal, sensuous level, comparable to some surrealist painting in which we see impossible things but the visual organisation is of perfect smoothness and cohesion. Madge is in great contrast to the Poundian line of poetry dealing with ideas, where the montage splits between disparate streams of data are emphasized and little attempt is made to make sense flow across them. His poem flows from one signed object to another, with a continuous sensuous line; thirty or so signed objects are the vital spine of the poem. In fact one could imagine a wordless film showing a series of symbolic objects which would express a great part of the poem on their own. The 1940s did see quite a few noble families losing their land, even if they did not always live in castles. Latifundia were broken up and distributed to smallholders in Rumania and East Prussia, and to some extent in South Italy. There was, in 1950, a section of European conservatism which was literally monarchist and pro-aristocratic and wanted the whole of modernity to be rolled back, and these people had their meetings in Paris, Munich, or Madrid; but it was hardly a sector of great importance. Indeed, the castle image seems to be an attack on aristocratic culture a hundred and fifty years late, nimbly bypassing the bourgeois culture which had been a hard-to-miss feature of the nineteenth century. The image of sacking castles full of tattered ancient relics belongs primarily to the 1790s, when the manants sacked châteaux and monasteries in large numbers. As the castle is not sacked we are more probably seeing the renewal of a civilisation: all the cultural objects in their keeping are old, so the moment is one of revitalisation of an old fabric by barbarian innocence and energy, like the Franks in the fourth century flooding but preserving Northern Gaul.
The phrase ‘great arcane’ sounds like an occultist term. Brief research suggests that it is not a familiar and set term. In the Tarot there are the 'greater arcana', but not simply ‘great’. Citadel in Latin is arx, and this is in obvious relationship to the adjective arcanus; arguably anything locked up in a citadel is arcane. The phrase ‘arcanum magnum’ occurs in a sixteenth-century text by Johannes Trithemius (Tritheim) called Steganographia, which has to do with magic as well as ciphers.
The theme of a castle as arrogant private property invites a contrast with Pound’s 'Malatesta Cantos', where he describes a building (the Tempio) built for Sigismundo Malatesta, for him a symbol of violent and defiant individualism. ‘The Storming of the Brain’ is more or less the opposite of this. The use of a building as an object symbol for the strife between individualism and collectivism may be a retort to Pound.
One could try to interpret the poem as directly about communism seizing the relics of high European culture and absorbing them into a new culture available to everybody, which has only been delayed by the hostile attitude of the servile bourgeois who regarded the arrival of the masses as a loss for culture. I reject this, as the poem would not have the design it does if its intent were so simple. The attack on relict culture is especially vivid but is the part of the poem which is closest to conventional symbolism and which is most easily seen as mortgaged to shared communist cultural ideas of the 1940s.
I think the poem has the integrity and ambiguous quality of finished myth: application to European culture in the reconstruction era of the 1940s is defensible and valid, but the poem should absolutely not be restricted to that. I do not find any reference in the poem to political authority: the castle is simply a repository of knowledge and culture. If the manants come there, it is not to kill their rulers, but to acquire the culture - which is therefore desirable and not simply moth-eaten tapestries and unplayable music manuscripts.
Another interpretation of the poem is that it refers to the acquisition of ideas by mankind in a schema of evolutionary ascent, with mankind leaving the animal condition by storming the brain and acquiring the faculty of abstract thought. The ancient artefacts with which the castle is littered could not in fact have pre-existed this moment but could act as symbols of what abstraction made possible. Another interpretation is that the whole poem is about the unstoppable rise of the colonial peoples as they take over history, or take it back, from the Europeans, who appear universally as an effete, cloistered, elite of excessively cultured people. This overlaps quite a lot with the communist version. The reference to ‘fetching wood/ And water’ takes us to Ham, son of Noah, seen in recent times as the ancestor of the Negro peoples, thus predestined to do the hard work; but this description would do for the European peasants and proletarians, equally well.
We can, instead, see the whole thing as a subjective experience: starting out with a set emotional position and a given social position, defended like a property, and moving towards a dissolution in which we become open to everything of which the whole of mankind is capable, as if we were becoming millions of people, as the brain’s defences are stormed and we lose personal identity to become part of the whole species. This would then be like a certain notion of dreams, in which we undergo experiences we would never have in waking life. This idea of the collective life, so close to anthropology, with an idea of the infinite range of experiences of which humans are capable and the restriction of possibilities through encoding as one grows up in the semantic complexes of a given society, is bound to remind us of Mass-Observation, the surrealist anthropological movement which was co-founded by Madge in 1937. The sea imagery of the poem is particularly strong, and seems to foreground the archaic (we all come from fish) and the loss of all restraints (the sea has no memory and dissolves everything). The mention of the ‘primal sea’ chimes with a series of collocations, in myths of various countries. The sea remains primal, it does not decay:

We hear the language of your waves
And we prepare to lave ourselves in you
And to be born again out of the flood.

The phrase, about ‘we, the relict of angel nebulae/ who scarcely stain time’ is a crux. For me it has echoes of the Neo-Platonist theory of the cosmos, whereby ideas come from the stars and penetrate our world as radiation, giving form to vegetation and to human life. I take it that ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’ here. This draws the poem close, momentarily, to Madge’s ex-wife Kathleen Raine:

The tree of night is spangled with a thousand stars;
Plenum of inner spaces numberless
Of lives secret as leaves on elm-tree
Living maze of wisdom smaragdine
Open in cell, in membrane, in chains in vein
Infinite number forming in waves that weave
In virgin vagina long-world forest of form
(from ‘The Hollow Hill’, published 1965)

(The emerald or Smaragdine tablet is a sacred Hermetic text in Latin which, perhaps, was found in a cave by Apollonius of Tyana.) Briefly, then, we seem to be watching some Gnostic or Rosicrucian drama as the astral and untaintable pure ideas are transmitted to human seekers after knowledge. In Madge's first book, the disappearing castle turned out to be the Grail castle; this time too the castle may be the object of a quest which is resolved by the spiritual transformation of the people carrying it out. 'Open the strait gate': those coming in can enter because they have been refined and attenuated.
The phrase ‘interior castle’ comes from the book El Castillo Interior (1577) by St Teresa of Avila. Avila was an archaic walled city in the province which was named Castile because it was full of castles. In her book, architecture is a symbol for psychological processes. We cannot think about the brain except through symbols. The soul is seen as a castle of seven concentric walls which represent the progressive attenuation of pride and desire and the submission to a divine authority which lives in the centre and observes every other point, rather like a panopticon. In Teresa's book there are vermin, vipers, spiders and so on which represent the organic but disobedient and low desires of the acolyte. These may anticipate the spiders, bats, etc. in 'The Storming' — 'forcing in/ Past all the gossamer and the shrieking birds'.
There was really no outlet for poetry of this kind in the 1950s, although some parts of the closely related ‘Poem by Stages’ appeared in a marginal Poundian magazine called Nine (under the title of 'Poem in Forty Nights and One Night’). This was immediately before the composition of 'The Storming'. Charles Olson is mentioned in Nine issue three as 'Olsen', in an advertisement for a New York magazine containing his 'Projective Verse'. This flash in 1950 excuses us for looking ahead to 1966 and The English Intelligencer. The editorial programme of Nine is 'to re-establish creative contact with the past', and it is licit to suppose that 'The Storming' describes exactly that process, and that, perhaps, Madge was thinking of Nine and of publishing his poem in Nine along with their translations of Sicilian pastorals and Classical Persian lyrics - so that

For these then be the lutes with broken strings
For these the moth corrupted tapestry
The faded fresco and faint clavichord
For these the treasures of our impotence [.]

refers directly to the faded stateliness of the other texts in Nine. Nine's axis was deeply restorational, anti-democratic, anti-twentieth century, and Madge's relationship with them was brief. The lack of a possible audience made it likely that Madge would withdraw from poetry rather than continue to face such frustration and incomprehension. It is sentimentality to speak of 'buried streams' when the flow ceased and life seized up. Madge’s poems remained unknown, where no link could grip. Fifteen years later, a kind of transcription error moved the Poundian or Objectivist line from Far Right to Far Left. A new kind of verse began, as later captured in A Various Art. The use of the word ‘intelligencer’ in ‘Storming’ (a kind of Mass-Observer?) is not connected to the use of the word in The English Intelligencer. The organ of continuity is more probably the abiding vitality of the leftist intelligentsia, with a life flow surging through print, for example the Left Book Club, Tribune, the New Left Review, and so on, rather than in some regional depot in a castle keep in Cambridge. More documents will allow us more glimpses of this process.

In 2014 I can add that the poem may be influenced by Arnold Toynbee, in whose work A Study of History (now unread) there is a phase of a tired civilisation handing over its attainments to a vigorous, expanding, but uncultured one.

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