Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Spring is in the air. Before going away for Easter, I promised to follow up on my post on hatred with a post on love. As it happens, I spent most of last week thinking about the troubadours, those medieval craftsmen of "courtly love". So I've got quite a bit to say, most of which derives from Ezra Pound's ideas on the subject (especially chapter 5 of The Spirit of Romance, which I'll cite as SR).

Pound was fond of quoting Spinoza's suggestion that "the intellectual love of a thing consists in understanding its perfections ... all creatures whatsoever desire this love" (SR, p. 91, see also GK, p. 73). As scholars, too, we must strive to understand the perfections of things, which is to say, we must have some love for the subject we are studying.

"If love be not in the house," says Pound in his Cantos, "there is nothing" (116/810). One of the most beautiful passages in that difficult work is about the importance of love in the development of craft:

What thou lovest well remains,/ the rest is dross*
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs/ or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee (81/534-5)

Four decades earlier, Pound had glossed a remark of Horace's as follows:

The accurate artist seems to leave not only his greater self [to posterity], but beside it, upon the films of his art, some living print of the circumvolving man, his taste, his temper and his foible—of the things about which he felt it never worth his while to bother other people by speaking, the things he forgot for some major interest; of these, and of another class of things, things that his audience would have taken for granted; or, thirdly, of things about which he had, for some reason or other, a reticence. We find these not so much in the words—which anyone may read—but in the subtle joints of the craft, in the crannies percerptible only to the craftsman. (SR, p. 88)

What the craftsman lovest well remains, we might say. There is a wonderful poem about this by Leonard Cohen, which takes its title, "The Rest is Dross", from the passage from Canto 81 I quoted above. It is about the meeting of two old lovers after (as I read it) many years and many loves have passed:

surprised that we've survived as lovers
not each other's
but lovers still
with outrageous hope and habits in the craft
which embarrass us slightly
as we let them be known
the special caress the perfect inflammatory word
the starvation we do not tell about

The influence of Pound's reading of the troubadours is obvious not just in the title, but in the emphasis on the retention of an accuracy (of address, if you will, and of caress; word and deed) in the "habits" of "craft". This precision stems from a love of the object, an understanding of its (in this case the lover's) perfections. "God I am happy," says Cohen, "we've forgotten nothing."

It's this happiness that we feel when we return to a project that we love. The materials are there, and we understand their "subtle joints". Our "outrageous hope" is supported by a mastery (Cohen says the lovers now "own [their] own skins"). We have, as Pound puts it (back in Canto 81), "gathered from the air a live tradition".

In the pursuit of this intellectual love of things, there is no room for vanity. We cannot let the fact that our love for the subject is revealled in our facility with the relevant materials embarrass us more than "slightly". As Cyril Connolly reminds us, vanity is that which prevents us from learning from our mistakes; it is the refusal to do something badly. "But to have done instead of not doing," Pound writes, "this is not vanity.// ... Here error is all in the not done,/ all in the diffidence that faltered" (81/536).

Interestingly, this diffidence of love appears in a poem by Cohen's friend and mentor, Irving Layton, which gives us a somewhat scrappier image of love. "Love is so diffident a thing," he complains, and enumerates some of the places he has failed to find it. "I am confused, forsaken," he laments. "I have lost the way." He now rejects some commonly suggested remedies (a woman's eyes and kisses). Then he gets down to it:

Love, I call out, find me
Spinning around in error.
Display your dank, coarse hair,
Your bubs and bulbous shoulder.
Then strike, witless bitch, blind me.

Layton has his way of putting things. Perhaps, however, he is talking about the same thing as Pound, who says that "there is, in what I have called 'the natural course events', the exalted moment, the vision unsought, or at least the vision gained without machination" (SR, p. 97).

This post is turning into an anthology of what poets say about love. (But who else would we turn to to learn about love?) I will apply these ideas more directly to the problems of scholarship on Friday. For now, let me just note that the troubadours did not simply wait for their visions. Their appreciation of the perfections of things (and fair maidens, of course) was grounded in a hard won discipline, supported by a tradition, their "true heritage". Pound talked of a medieval "cult for the purgation of the soul by a refinement of, and lordship over, the senses" (SR, p. 90). On specific subjects (our chosen specialization), we can cultivate this refinement too. And, as Pound reminds us, "Here error is all in the not done". We have to work at it.

*Update: For a discussion of the meaning of "dross", see this post.

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