Month: March 2015


      Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible,—or from one of our elder poets,—in a paragraph of to-day’s newspaper.

——George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872)

      The word “that” in the first sentence of the novel immediately suggests restriction: not just any kind of beauty, not some kind of beauty left to the vagaries of the reader’s imagination, but a specific kind of beauty that, if the reader does not recognize it from the data in the first paragraph, will be explicated further in several of those that follow.

      […] In order to understand the kind of beauty that poor dress throws into relief, we have to imaginatively place Dorothea’s hand and wrist into the sleeves of the garment of the Blessed Virgin as she appears in Italian paintings. If we have never seen Italian paintings of the Virgin, we may be more than a bit stuck. Allusion performs a rhetorical and a social function here: it takes us to the right metaphor; it escorts us, as well, to the right sense of our own social and cultural place.

——Elaine Freedgood, Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel

      The gesture of allusion is shaped by a nostalgia for the lost event; the object serves only as a souvenir of our knowing. In allusiveness we seek to follow the trace of the event to its origin, an origin which eludes us. The impossibility of repetition precludes an authentic engagement with the text of the event. We move, therefore, from the authentic to the aesthetic. The impossibility of recapturing the point of origin produces a desire which is sublimated by a transformation of the self.

      […] the allusive relationship is a conjunctive one—the author cannot proceed without a mutual knowledge held with his readers regarding the referentiality of the text. In allusion, the indirectness of reference is used not to trick the reader so much as to signal to the reader that he is in on the trick.

      Thus every allusion, from “Brush up your Shakespeare” to Thackeray’s “Had Caroline read of Valancourt and Emily for nothing?” (A Shabby Genteel Story, Chapter V), is the articulation of a statement of membership.

——Susan Stewart, “The Pickpocket: a Study in Tradition and Allusion”

      She was thinking of a passage in that letter which George had written to her during his honeymoon—a passage in which he said: “My childish little wife is watching me as I write this—Ah! how I wish you could see her, Clara! Her eyes are as blue and as clear as the skies on a bright summer’s day, and her hair falls about her face like the pale golden halo you see round the head of a Madonna in an Italian picture.”


      I am afraid the young man belonged to the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, for he had spent a most unconscionable time upon the accessories of this picture—upon my lady’s crispy ringlets and the heavy folds of her crimson velvet dress.


      Yes, the painter must have been a pre-Raphaelite. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets, with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid brightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait.

      It was so like, and yet so unlike. It was as if you had burned strange-colored fires before my lady’s face, and by their influence brought out new lines and new expressions never seen in it before. The perfection of feature, the brilliancy of coloring, were there; but I suppose the painter had copied quaint mediaeval monstrosities until his brain had grown bewildered, for my lady, in his portrait of her, had something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend.

      Her crimson dress, exaggerated like all the rest in this strange picture, hung about her in folds that looked like flames, her fair head peeping out of the lurid mass of color as if out of a raging furnace. Indeed the crimson dress, the sunshine on the face, the red gold gleaming in the yellow hair, the ripe scarlet of the pouting lips, the glowing colors of each accessory of the minutely painted background, all combined to render the first effect of the painting by no means an agreeable one.

——M. E. Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret (1862)


Response to Drugs

On March 4, the Electric Text read two twentieth century American poets.

On April 4, a member smoked a joint, ate a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Americone Dream, and wrote about it.

Fittingly, the session began distracted. A quote from Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking (2012) sent the group on an “intellectual errand.” How does one buy pot in a lid?* A quick trip to Urban Dictionary revealed that a “lid” of pot was “common terminology used in the 1960’s and 1970’s in the United States to describe approximately one ounce of marijuana.” Apparently, before a scale was typical pothead paraphernalia, a coffee can lid did for approximating—something akin to a dime bag.

The first piece was “Recuerdo” (1919) by Edna St. Vincent Millay and the second was Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” (1923). How might we think about these pieces together? And why would we want to think about them in relation to drugs?

The twentieth century scholars pointed out that Millay and Stevens aren’t really the “sort of modernists” that interest NYU’s English department, which tends to favor T.S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, and Frank O’Hara. More importantly, however, English scholarship in general just doesn’t seem to be invested in literature and drugs. Literature and sex, yes, but not drugs.

The first task became methodological, a question of fit. If, as Fisher reminds us, there is “a lid for every pot,” what type of academic project pairs with marijuana? There seemed to be a consensus among the group that it isn’t that we can’t write about drugs. It’s that something feels wrong about doing it.

A member then asked for clarification: Were we interested in drug taking as an analytical tool or an object of study? Poets like Allen Ginsberg, for instance, write openly about drug use and its effects on “the best minds of [their] generation,” and scholars have little difficulty discussing the historical use and effect of drugs (see Tanya Pollard’s Drugs and Theater in Early Modern England, Oxford University Press, 2005). But to seriously consider drug use as a creative if not productive research tool or question is something different, even if poems like “Recuerdo”** remind us of the ways a particular substance once unfolded our interiority and opened our senses to “seeing without limitation” the “importance of objects” in all of their “beautiful strangeness.”

Indeed, the suggestion of drug use as a methodology for the reading and writing of literature almost instantly incited the group to Romantic musings of ephemeral inspiration. Yet the subjective experience of drug use seems to pose an impossible barrier to a legitimate argument or discussion of/for/with it in the academy. The evening’s group leader discussed the difficulties encountered during one attempt to do just that, not the least of which was a feeling of compromised authority given the position from which one typically writes an academic essay. An argument that would take seriously “high” thoughts and experiences would, in some way, be expected to a) posit those thoughts and experiences as useful and not irresponsible and b) assert some “expertise” regarding those types of experiences, what would elsewhere be referred to as “street cred.”


Such concerns with expertise, authority, and control (characteristic of the paranoid academy) seem antithetical to theoretical inquiry about a mode of perception to which one “relinquishes control.” As one member pointed out, what we mean when we talk about a drug’s ability to key us into the “beautiful strangeness” of objects (apples, pears, and ferries and cigars, wenches, and ice cream) is similar to the kino-eyes (Kinoks) of early twentieth Russian film-making—“life caught unawares” by the eye of the camera—the reification, perhaps, of Emerson’s “transparent eyeball”: “I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God” (“Nature” 1836). Within a field that embraces, in so many ways, the deconstruction of identity and its relationship to the body, it does seem odd that, in the case of drug use, the taboo “presumes an authentic self” that can only ever be compromised by the very physical experience of taking “mind-altering” substances.

Must such experiences be sacrificed to the gods of professionalism?

Does it matter that I wasn’t high when I wrote this?


* “Anyway it worked because Charlie actually managed to marry twice, (probably someone with nursing ambition), which just goes to show that there’s a lid for every pot. Sometimes there are as many as nine lids for the same pot. Also when I was a teenager I could buy pot in lids. But I don’t think you can anymore… can you?” (44-45).

**Recuerdo, a souvenir, memory, or memento.


“Anyway it worked because Charlie actually managed to marry twice, (probably someone with nursing ambitions), which just goes to show that there’s a lid for every pot. Sometimes there are as many as nine lids for the same pot. Also when I was a teenager I could buy pot in lids. But I don’t think you can anymore . . . can you?”

(Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012. p 44-45)



Edna St. Vincent Millay

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.
(Published in Poetry magazine in May 1919)


The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Wallace Stevens

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.


(published in Steven’s first book Harmonium by Vintage Books in 1923)

© 2024 Electric Text

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑