Saturday, 22 December 2018

Logue scholion: the surface meaning

Logue  addition: the surface meaning 

I looked at Logue again while writing a talk about gay themes in 20th century poetry.
Logue made no reference to any gay identity in his autobiography, but other information suggests that he was gay. So this is “quasi-non-factual”, or similar.
When I wrote about Logue’s Homer translations (material included in The Long 1950s), I interpreted the choice of subject in terms of a satire on militarism. Satirising the expedition to Troy followed up Logue’s 1950s poems on British troops being sent to Cyprus for a dubious war. Many years into the project (which began in 1959), dubious wars, with British participation, saw invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003.
Is this enough as a motivation for a project which stretched over 40 years and amounted to some 400 pages? If Logue was writing an anti-imperialist poem, would he have left out, as he did, any material making an argument against 20th C imperialism, and spelling out the purpose of his poem, which actually remains inexplicit?
I think we can also see the long series of combats as a parade of male beauty and self-adornment, which expresses a gay aesthetic by turning young men into glamour objects. Endlessly, or at least serially, we see young men, showing off their physical prowess, exhibited for our gaze. The patient description of their dress and equipment is probably unique in modern poetry. We might be looking at all this detail, not to support hostile feelings about the aristocracy, but as expensive pin-ups.
Two parallels led me up to this change of view. Louis Aragon’s La semaine sainte is a novel about the painter Gericault taking part in the campaign of Napoleon’s army just prior to their utter defeat at the battle of Waterloo. A lot of the characters are dashing young cavalry officers, wearing brightly coloured uniforms and riding spectacular steeds. There is no apparent reason why a Communist would choose this subject, which has no relevance to class politics. But if we see it as a gay writer describing an endless series of brilliant young men wearing ornate and expensive clothes and trappings, it makes more sense. Secondly, I was responding to Christopher Whyte’s remark that George Mackay Brown staged a remarkable number of deaths, one every three pages (roughly!). Whyte asked why this was, and the answer (for me) is a peculiar eroticism of persecution, whereby sexual feelings towards young men are tangled up with a sense of punishment and doom. The feelings themselves attract punishment, and doom or “civil death” is the fate of the homosexual in a mid-20th C society. Having grasped this for Brown, I gradually came to see that the same pattern prevails in Logue’s version of the Iliad, and he was describing a vast series of glamourised deaths. The deaths are the climactic moments, and it is significant that these scenes mainly concern athletic young men.
We could also think of Cecil B De Mille. It was said that de Mille was the director who discovered the bathroom. Even in the 1920s, his Biblical epics had a strong element of sex, and there was a double basis for his popularity. Despite his overt interest in religion, he created a classic moment of eroticism in the scene in Cleopatra where Claudette Colbert appears in the bath of asses’ milk. If we see Logue’s Iliad as a Bronze Age epic of the Near East with a foreground morality and an emotional foundation in spectacle and eroticism, that brings it close to the Hollywood line of films about ancient history. Logue is economical with footage of women characters. If you imagine the Iliad remake as a film, and imagine yourself in the canteen with all the actors, then what you would be seeing is a throng of glamorous and narcissistic young men. This speaks for itself.
It could be hard to explain to someone why 20th C films expressed sexuality in terms of women unclothed but submerged in a bath, or ranks of young women kicking their legs up in a chorus line. Everything gets displaced– everything profound loves a mask, as Nietzsche said. It certainly is hard to grasp how AE Housman expressed erotic interest in young men so often in terms of murder and hanging. Mackay Brown unmistakably repeats the poetic pattern which Housman established (and which he took in part from homosexual Hellenistic epigrams of the Greek Anthology). I find this hard to grasp, and it yields to patient work on iconography. The emotional intent is deliberately concealed, and is complex in nature – de Mille made everything visual and explicit, rapidly graspable, but the opposite is true of modern poets. Brown may be using physical death as a metaphor for doomed love, and for love which was never allowed to flourish at all, but was cut short when only a thought, a fantasy. The epigrams are often about the death of a young man – this cannot be reduced to “the eroticisation of violence”, instead the subject is the poignancy of loss and of flowers caught by a frost in the spring.
The process of civilisation has been said to be follow a course in which basic impulses are subject to more and more elaborate restraints. This produces complex cultural achievements. What if the basic impulses are being restrained by fear? That could produce even more complex cultural achievements, in which what is precious and significant is carefully hidden. What was designed to be ambiguous can never be reduced to plainness and certitude. It is possible to be wrong – but, at the same time, just reading the surface meaning cannot be enough.

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