Friday, October 23, 2009

Ode on a Grecian Urn and William Faulkner's momma

William Faulkner said:
The writer's only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much that he can't get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.

I think it's no accident that the writer is a he and those he'd sacrifice are females. I mentioned this statement in my essay The Asshole License, written a few years ago.

I was gratified when recently I found that my essay was being linked-to by many people during the time of the Polanski arrest because of the connection between that and the response of the French and Hollywood to the arrest - outrage that a Great Man of the Arts should be treated like any common child-rapist. I wasn't aware of Polanski's crime when I wrote that essay but I certainly would have mentioned it if I was.

I recently discovered this excellent essay about the Polanski issue that expresses my sentiments perfectly in regards to Faulkner's statement:
Being a great artist (or having the personal history that Polanski has suffered through--from Holocaust Poland to the Manson Family murder of this wife and unborn child) should not exempt from justice.

Plenty has come to light about the judge in the case and possible prosecution misconduct. Polanski couldn't face a better time to make his case.

Of course, his timing is gruesomely horrible--think of any number of ironic twists in his movies--he gets nabbed just as the country is awash with the Mackenzie Phillips incest story. But Polanski does seem to have more apologists around than Papa John.

D. H. Lawrence once said, "we shed our sicknesses in books."

I'm not so sure. I think very little gets shed writing songs or making movies. The figures on the urn are finally just figures on the urn.

It's what we do with the old ladies, or young girls, I think, that ultimately matters.

Furthermore, I doubt John Keats would have sacrificed his mother - who never got to be an old lady but died fairly young of tuberculosis (which also killed Keats at age 25) for his poem.

Presumably Faulkner felt differently about his own mother. Here's the poem he would trade her and others for:
Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thou express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring'd legend haunt about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal - yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

more Keats here