Wednesday, December 9, 2009

All ye need to know

A commenter writes of this post on an inappropriate literary reference:
"Aw, come on, no need to cll it inappropriate. They probably think they have made a profound, beautiful slogan! XD"

My response is apparently too long to fit in the comment box, so here it is as a blog post. It occurs to me that when I spot literature in advertising I would do well to explain what's going on, so that this blog could be educational rather than just a place for me and my friends to laugh at the inappropriateness of quoting that particular line from Keats on the wall of a drug store.

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Right, Dare, the glibness of the quotation -- the idea that you could just take that line and attribute it to John Keats like he was giving you life advice, or beauty tips -- is exactly what's so hilarious, because in the context of the poem that line is incredibly problematic. That particular line was a bone of contention for the New Critics and the subject of a famous essay by Cleanth Brooks in The Well Wrought Urn (1947), precisely because of its fortune-cookie quality, its apparent quotability. Brooks quotes T.S. Eliot as writing of it, "this line strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem; and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue."

Whatever you feel about the New Critics, I think it has to be agreed that you can't take the line straight. Keats is not offering you life advice. Brooks writes that "[t]he very ambiguity of the statement, 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty' ought to warn us against insisting very much on the statement in isolation, and to drive us back to a consideration of the context in which the statement is set." Brooks, for his part, points out that the line quoted on the pharmacy wall is "spoken" not by a lyric "I" but by the urn, a work of art whose beauty lies in its silent withholdings.

As my friend Charlie Légère has pointed out, Brooks, with disconcerting pro-rape cheerfulness, describes the scene painted on the urn as one "of violent love-making." This is the painted scene -- of a rape -- that Keats praises in the "Ode," and indeed, the urn itself partakes of the nature of the scene that it depicts.

"Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness" -- what a beautiful line, and what a troubling one. The figures depicted in the scene are suspended in time, just on the point of rape, "the maiden," as Brooks says (with offputting enthusiasm), "always to be kissed, never actually kissed." But the "still unravish'd bride" is not the woman on the urn; it is the urn itself, still unravished, always on the point of being ravished -- by quietness, not by loud speech (nor by an ad slogan) but by "quietness," the soft speech that could undo the urn (the soft speech, one might speculate, of criticism).

For Brooks, the source of tension is this deathly stillness, the contrast between the violence of the rape scene ("What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?") and the fixity of the art work. That the rape is never actually completed seems to Brooks to be -- not a defect, for it's the condition of the urn's status as art, but a loss. The art work, by being art, must exit life and movement. It's a reading enabled by the theory that rape is something to be followed through with, a consummation of life itself! -- Which, no doubt, it is, for certain values of "life."

A somewhat less pro-rape reading might see the suspension of both maiden and urn in their about-to-be-raped state as a suspension in dread, a fixing of a moment of terrible intensity. It's like that feeling you get reading L'Assomoir and having to put the book down for a while because you know Lantier is about to show up, and you know it will be seriously bad news. You dwell in a state of dread.

The urn, Keats writes, will persist in its fixity long after we're gone; "Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours." Being in midst of woe seems to be the point, the enabling condition for that final, rather too-smug sentence, "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'" The maiden frozen in the terror of facing a rapist, the urn "still unravish'd" only because it can be ravished, we amidst our woe and some future viewers of the urn amidst theirs are all canceled out, and yet fed upon, by that final line. Does beauty trump woe when it (because it) encodes a permanent state of violence? The urn may tell us that, but is it right?

Of course, everything I've just said has to do with the internal logic of the poem. A more obvious source of incongruity is that "beauty" in the "Ode" is a timeless, unmoving beauty in art, a beauty rather fearsome for being so very suspended in time, so chilly, so violent. In the photo, it's sitting above a shelf full of "beauty products," where "beauty" is now a debased commercial term for the stuff you're supposed to do to your body to avoid social censure, a "beauty" to be acquired by means of apricot scrub.

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