August 15, 2014 | by Chantal McStay
Visualizing opium dreams through the etchings of Piranesi.
It’s Thomas De Quincey’s birthday today—what better time to tour the mind-bending architecture of his laudanum-fueled dreams? The famed Romantic opium addict described his vivid dreams as “the immediate and proximate cause of my acutest suffering.” In his 1821 Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, he outlines their disturbing qualities. They’re extremely productive—pretty much anything he thinks about at night ends up in them; they resurrect deeply repressed memories from his childhood, accompanied by intense anxiety and melancholy, and they seem to expand time and space to the point of “unutterable infinity.”
What might this madness look like? Here De Quincey turns to ekphrasis, invoking Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), a series of etchings that depict surreal, classical-inspired dungeons:
Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi’s, Antiquities of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist, called his Dreams, and which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever. Some of them (I describe only from memory of Mr. Coleridge’s account) represented vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, &c. &c., expressive of enormous power put forth and resistance overcome. Creeping along the sides of the walls you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further and you perceive it come to a sudden and abrupt termination without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him who had reached the extremity except into the depths below. Whatever is to become of poor Piranesi, you suppose at least that his labours must in some way terminate here. But raise your eyes, and behold a second flight of stairs still higher, on which again Piranesi is perceived, but this time standing on the very brink of the abyss. Again elevate your eye, and a still more aerial flight of stairs is beheld, and again is poor Piranesi busy on his aspiring labours; and so on, until the unfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall. With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams. In the early stage of my malady the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural; and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye unless in the clouds.
Completed in the mid-eighteenth century, Piranesi’s Prisons, with their vast cavernous archways and creeping staircases, remind of the impossible constructions of M. C. Escher, though Piranesi precedes Escher by nearly two hundred years. And there’s an expressiveness to Piranesi’s line, a level of permitted imprecision radically different from Escher’s mathematically inspired print work—a certain nightmarishness, even. Through the Prisons, De Quincey manages to evoke the strange, haunting infinity of his dreams. And by setting these expansive dungeons in the mind of an addict, he gets at something key about the particular creepiness of Piranesi’s constructed prisons: the crush of infinity. There’s something claustrophobic about their sheer expansiveness. The shadowy inmates of imaginary prisons, like opium eaters, are enslaved in surplus, sentenced to learn the restrictive power of excess.
Chantal McStay studies English at Columbia University and is an intern at The Paris Review.
July 17, 2014 | by Chantal McStay
Many eminent American poets have elegized Holiday, attempting to capture something of her exquisite voice, whose unique tough-tender grain suggested a life of extremes. Langston Hughes’s “Song for Billie Holiday,” Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” and Rita Dove’s “Canary” are just a few of the diverse poetic responses to the loss of Lady Day; Kevin Young’s anthology Jazz Poems devotes an entire thoughtfully curated section, “Muting (for Billie Holiday),” to her memory.
These works belong to the larger tradition of the jazz elegy, a genre that attempts something next to impossible: to commemorate and preserve music that’s defined by its immediacy and transience. The grain of the voice. The physicality of the performer. The improvisations and flourishes and intangibles that exist for one night only. If the essence of jazz exists in the moment of performance, then much of the work of the jazz elegy is to make such music legible while also acknowledging the futility of such a project.
Rita Dove’s “Canary,” from 1989, begins:
Billie Holiday’s burned voice
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.
June 15, 2014 | by Chantal McStay
Game of Thrones and medieval poetry.
Game of Thrones, of which the season finale is tonight, is the rare show that affords Middle English enthusiasts a chance to geek out: the series makes many nods to medieval literature. Scholars have noted that it draws on the themes and features of such canonical medieval works as the Canterbury Tales and Beowulf. But as I watch, I’m reminded of another, more obscure work from the period, the fifteenth-century dream-vision poem “Mum and the Sothsegger,” which bears a number of striking parallels to Game of Thrones.
“Mum” is a strange, alliterative work about gossip and government and bees (yes, bees). No one is sure who wrote it, and its beginning and end are missing, which only adds to the mystery surrounding its composition. The poem essentially investigates whether it’s better to stay mum or to speak the truth; the titular Mum and Sothsegger personify the two sides of the debate. The work is a product of Lancastrian England, a time when—after Henry IV had overthrown and executed Richard II to become king—the royal court used severe censorship to quell dissent. Measures like the Arundel Constitution of 1409 meant you could be burned at the stake for expressing any vaguely defined “heretical” beliefs. In light of its historical moment, “Mum” is most convincingly read as a poem about succession anxiety and managing dissent. The poem is interested in the same questions of political philosophy that drive GoT, trying to work out how a person should be and how the state should comport itself toward its citizens.
Henry IV’s status as a usurper, much like Robert Baratheon’s after the overthrow of the Mad King in Thrones, sets a possible precedent for overthrow, raising the question of whether the old rules of succession still apply. In the face of brute force, lineage and birthright appear to be irrelevant—now if you kill the king, you are the king. In “Mum,” the anonymous poet walks a fine line in bringing the justness of Henry’s rule into question. He couches backhanded compliments in what appear to be lavish bouts of praise for the new king. He lauds Henry for being “witte and wise” and “cunnyng of werre,” but the passage is incendiary by dint of what’s left out—there’s no mention of lineage (the defining kingly quality), because the king has none. Henry is characterized as a “doer in deedes of armes”: seemingly a compliment to his battle skills, but also a way of carefully underscoring the violent means by which he took the throne. Read More »