I love talking to new groups of people about the different things that I work on. If you are interested in having me come to your school, conference, seminar, institute, or other gathering, contact me! Some of my favorite topics are listed below, but feel free to ask me to talk on anything!
Western Fantasies of Chinese: Webb, Fenollosa, Pound
In the West there has been much speculation about the characteristics of an ideal language, both in the Greek tradition (Plato’s Cratylus) and the Judeo-Christian (Genesis). As knowledge of China came to the West’s attention, fantasies of an ideal language started to become focused on Chinese, which seemed to have powers exceeding those of Western languages. I will look at two writers who suffered strongly from Chinese-envy, John Webb (who wrote, in 1669, the first book on Chinese published in the West) and Ezra Pound, whose ideas about and translations from Chinese have had incalculable influence on English letters.
Wagner and Naming
Names are important to the study of Richard Wagner’s music dramas in two ways: 1) the hero often has a concealed or riddling name; and 2) his musical themes often seem to have names–sometimes concealed, in that Wagner’s semantic intentions may be unclear, and he did not authorize any guide to his leading motives. I believe that these are two aspects of the same problem, and I will propose (with many recorded examples) a method for solving it.
Yeats and Art History
W. B. Yeats attended an art school, not a college, and, although he gave up any intention to pursue his father’s occupation, painting portraits, visual imagery is of great importance in his poetry. I discuss his debt to formal art history (particularly to the art historian Josef Strzygowski) and Yeats’s way of devising his theories of historical cycles by studying, not politics (as Toynbee and others did) but painting and statuary.
Symbolism in Painting
I believe that Symbolist painting, especially in the late nineteenth century, obtained much of its power by borrowing techniques from poetry–by becoming, in effect, a poem written in a language of paint. I discuss (and show many examples from) paintings by Rossetti, Redon, Rops, Delville, and others from the fin de siècle, as well as some works from the Renaissance and from the late twentieth century, particularly those by Keith Haring.
Symbolism in Music
In setting to music the plays of Maurice Maeterlinck, the composers Claude Debussy and Paul Dukas developed a rich and complex vocabulary of musical symbols, and I discuss, with many musical examples, how it is possible to make musical equivalents to the half-visual, half verbal symbols common in the Symbolist art found in other artistic media at the end of the nineteenth century.
Pound and Surrealism
Surrealism was not central to Pound’s poetics; but it is possible to argue that Pound was a Surrealist without quite knowing it. According to the usual taxonomies of twentieth-century art, Pound stands almost diametrically opposed to the Dadaist/Surrealist movement: if Tristan Tzara, Max Ernst, André Breton work to obliterate normal meaning, Pound works to intensify meaning, to kindle concrete particulars into ideogrammic blazes of meaning. But nonsense and excessive sense are extremes that tend to converge.
Extensions of Lawrence’s Women in Love into Painting and Music
D. H. Lawrence considered that art was, to some extent, independent of its medium: painting and music and literature are various ways of doing the same thing. In his novel Kangaroo he argues for a vision of literature as a sort of wireless telegraphy between author and reader, a notion that dismisses the importance of the medium through which the communication is transmitted. The painters and sculptors depicted in his novels are good or vicious, effective or ineffective, in exactly the same way that a writer might be: just as the painter Paul Morel in the autobiographical novel Sons and Lovers is clearly a transposition of Lawrence himself, so other media easily operate as transpositions of literature. I look at the artist-figures in Lawrence’s novels, especially Women and Love, and at Lawrence’s extremely detailed responses, in his letters, to the music of Philip Heseltine and to the paintings of Mark Gertler and Duncan Grant. (Many examples of painting and music will seen and heard.). Finally I will discussing Lawrence’s own paintings as attempts to mediate between his interest in abstract art (particularly Grant’s) and his insistence on concrete particularity as developed in his theoretical writing on the novel, as well as in the novels themselves.