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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This article is taken from PN Review 35, Volume 10 Number 3, January - February 1984.

Adrian Stokes Revisited Donald Davie

FIFTY years ago, when Pound in The Criterion applauded Adrian Stokes's The Quattro Cento, he exclaimed: 'It is almost incomprehensible that any man can have as great a concern for the shapes and meanings of stone beauty as Stokes has, without its forcing him to take the tools in his hands. In fact one can only suppose that he in some way regards himself as the forerunner of some sort of sculptural amelioration, or at any rate is trying to clear up incomprehensions and to distinguish between pure and mixed sculptural values.' The comment is endearingly characteristic of Pound, who could never make a distinction, nor endorse one made by someone else, without at once doing something about it, taking the tools in his hands. But the reflection is a natural one, all the same: if Stokes wasn't himself going to sculpt (as he wasn't), and if he didn't want principally to clean up messy notions about sculpture and also architecture (as it soon appeared that he didn't), then what was his concern in The Quattro Cento (1932), Stones of Rimini (1934), and Colour and Form (1937)?

It was only incidentally the concern of a judicious historian, distinguishing in a given period the positive or healthful tendency from others that were dubious. And it was not the concern of a critic, if by 'critic' we understand (with a humility nowadays hardly met with) someone who discriminates among pleasures so as to sharpen them for himself and others. Although these splendid books did have that effect - and some of us are profoundly grateful for being thus educated by them - that seems not to have been Stokes's conscious motive for writing them. Before long we were to see that he approached his subject not as artist, not as historian, not as critic, but as clinician - and in a strikingly narrow sense.

In the first years after Stokes learned from Melanie Klein to relate his art studies to infantile behaviour, construing his initial distinction between carving and moulding into allegedly analogous binary oppositions (rough and smooth, aggressive and reparative, inside and outside), his monographs continued for a while to interest those of us whose interest wasn't therapeutic. But it didn't last; and soon, for my part, I was throwing his books aside with a disappointed yawn. One reason for this was Stokes's prose style, which had always been what Pound called it: 'floribund'. Once the prose could not be checked against particular art-works experienced, its 'waftiness' became tedious. Moreover, whereas one had begun by believing that Melanie Klein's kind of Freudianism did not have to be reductive, one came to see that it was as reductive as any other kind, when applied to art-works. Even at Stokes's hands artifacts were being explained by being explained away. Predictably, his discourse became interesting to aestheticians and philosophers in proportion as it became boring to artists and to those artists' admirers. The finest connoisseur of his generation had turned into a theorist with a following.

If Melanie Klein's revisionist Freudianism is reductive, much more so is the sort currently on offer, the revised Freudianism of Jacques Lacan, as we encounter it in two recent books, Alan Durant's Ezra Pound: Identity in Crisis (1981) and Paul Smith's Pound Revised (1983). (1) Indeed, reduction could hardly go further than in an essay by Marcelin Pleynet from Tel Quel, a piece that both Durant and Smith cite admiringly, in which all that we need to know of the author of The Cantos, and all we need so as to estimate justly that and all his other works, is deduced from animated pondering of, and associating around, the three syllables of his name: 'EZ-RA-POUND'. This, we must all agree, is a wondrously labour-saving device; a trenchant simplification such as could have occurred only to a compatriot of René Descartes. And we may be grateful to Smith and Durant for tracking the piercing perception through one or two pages of Pound's verse and prose, so as to make it accessible to us slow and earth-bound Anglo-Saxons.

Paul Smith (loc. cit. p. 43) explicitly adduces the Stokes/Pound relationship to support his and Durant's and Pleynet's contention that Pound's vision can be discounted because it is manifestly 'phallocentric'. (Not to worry too much, however; for so, it appears, is Homer's - Smith, p. 53.) Giving me the credit some of which should go to Sister Bernetta Quinn, Paul Smith writes:


Davie has noted the variable recurrence in the poem of images of stone, marble, glass and crystal, water and so on. These notions, derived from Adrian Stokes's emphasis on the kinship of marble and water, are corroborated by a certain connection of Jung's: there, the body 'is carbon . . . also it is well known that the diamond is a carbon crystal. Carbon is black - coal, graphite - but the diamond is purest water.'


The text from Carl-Gustav Jung (which is quoted only from an essay by 'E. Mottram') is not presented to us as part of any commentary on Canto 17 or on any other of the Cantos, nor on renaissance stonework. It comes to us therefore simply as one Swiss psychotherapist's meditation on certain elementary facts of physical chemistry. Accordingly it can constitute 'corroboration' only to those for whom a psychological theorist like Jung enjoys a specially privileged status, so as to be a last court of appeal in all forms of discourse whatever. If we refuse to give psychological theory this pre-eminence, we are back where we started from, not a whit the wiser. But behold what this specious 'corroboration' opens before us! -


'This formula's metonymic connections may be used' [Note that 'may be', and ask: 'By what code of scholarly decorum or relevance may it be?']. . .'This formula's metonymic connections may be used to underscore Pound's thematics: not only does it position the blackness of historical ignorance from which the crystal is supposed to arrive in Pound's poem, but in its connection about (sic) the body it produces the suggestive possibility of the body itself becoming the crystal, and so it presages the metamorphosis of the ball of crystal into 'That great acorn of light bulging outward' in almost comic suggestion of the glans of the penis . . .'


Not almost but entirely comic, we may think, is this train of speciously logical links by which the overt concern of Stokes's and Pound's ruminations - that is to say, the worked stone of Venice and the Rimini tempio - is unmasked as being really (and much virtue in that 'really') what always tediously awaits us at the end of every such chain in Freudian discourse: the penis. The penis; or else the anus. For Smith's case against Pound is that by him, as not by Joyce in Finnegans Wake, the penis is consistently (and how illiberally!) preferred before the anus. That is what is meant by calling Pound distressingly 'phallocentric'. And Smith is not so much shocked as resignedly unsurprised when I, pointing out the contribution to Canto 47 of Stokes's analogies between the male act in copulation, the carver's carving of the block, and the ploughman's grooving of the earth, fail to shake my head at the phallocentrism of, or behind, these analogies. Rather plainly I and also Stokes are phallocentric, even as Pound is. Since we already know that Homer stands convicted of the same disability, I at any rate (since Stokes and Pound are dead) am not as disturbed by this revelation about myself as Paul Smith thinks I ought to be. And meanwhile the multifarious juxtaposed or contending images and actions in The Cantos are reduced to one: penis (or if you like, phallus) versus anus. It is such a reduction as Adrian Stokes, even at his most benightedly Kleinian in later life, did not aspire to; nor would he (I like to think) have countenanced it.

Alan Durant's Ezra Pound: Identity in Crisis is an altogether weightier affair. Indeed Paul Smith's subsequent slim volume is much of the time only a grotesque parody-version of Durant's much more rigorous and powerful application of Lacanian theory to the body of Pound's work. It is certainly because of Durant's greater good sense that he nowhere engages with Stokes directly, as Smith tries to do. In his pages as in Smith's, Lacan's Freudianism is reductive of Stokes's and Pound's insights. But with Durant this can be shown only by a teasing out of buried implications - a process which takes longer, but is that much more educational, since it involves us in pondering, as both Stokes and Pound did, the specific nature of sculpture among the other fine arts. On the other hand it's no good pretending that this process is anything but tedious: Lacan's terminology is deliberately - some would say, insolently - obfuscating in French; the anglicizing of it, whether by translators or by epigones like Smith and Durant, produces a discourse so thoroughly larded with gallicisms that only by a sort of legalistic fiction can we regard it as English at all. What it is, is franglais: an inherently free-floating lingo (not strictly a jargon, nor yet a dialect) in which virtually all fashionable criticism is now conducted, including criticism that is not at all under the aegis of M. Lacan. Accordingly, most of the time, when we want to profit by literary criticism now in vogue, we are committed to translating franglais into English. And it may as well be said that in general the game isn't worth the candle; the profit to be gained cannot justify the effort expended.

In the present case the exercise will be worthwhile only if it provokes us to recall, to re-experience, just what it is like to see the stonework of Agostino di Duccio and Matteo de Pasti at Rimini, of the Lombardo brothers at Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Venice, or more generally of hand-worked and weather-worked stone anywhere at all. And already I have deliberately begged the question, or set a trap. For I have spoken of seeing these sculptures. But of course all theories of sculptural effect confirm what we have experienced for ourselves if we have ever seriously tried to take the impact of sculpture: that seeing it is only the beginning of the experience; that the encounter with it is kinetic or tactile at least as much as it is visual. This is why those who know the sculptures of the tempio only through photographs, however good, cannot be said to know those sculptures at all. Early in The Cantos Pound writes of this, of the sculptor's vision as comprehending the inside and the outside, the back and the front and the sideways all at once, even before the first stroke of the chisel upon the block. We all know this when we delay judging a free-standing sculpture until we have at least walked round it. Low-relief sculpture like that in the tempio cannot be walked around; but we are failing to experience this sculpture also, if we station ourselves at a fixed point and merely look at it as if it were a picture in stone. (That way for instance we precisely miss the miracle of several receding planes established in the depth of only a few millimetres skinned off the original stone-surface.) What, then, are we to make of Alan Durant's glossing a sentence from The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry by saying (p. 82): 'Gaudier-Brzeska could, according to Pound, read Chinese quite well by bringing to bear his sculptor's visual sensibility'? Might we not say that merely by that unthinking conjunction - 'sculptor's/visual' - this commentator has shown himself incapable of understanding just what it was about sculpture that most interested both Stokes and Pound?

This may be thought nit-picking, and unfair. And so it would be, if it were an isolated instance. On the other hand, this is a matter quite central to the Lacanian thesis, as both Smith and more particularly Durant expound it. What are involved arc two Lacanian terms which Durant translates as 'specularity' and 'scopicfield'. And here I start trying to translate Lacanian terms into plain English, knowing full well what elegant and necessary ambiguities they have, and are meant to have, in French. 'Specularity', then, appears to mean the giving to the eye undue pre-eminence over all the other organs of perception; and 'scopic field' appears to mean that vista which we can from a fixed point command. The notion of 'command' is vital to the Lacanian analysis, because the imperiousness implicit in the word enables the eye to stand in for the phallus; and thus from a Lacanian standpoint an art which is insistently visual is by just that token 'phallocentric', or likely to turn out so. (Those who know even a little of Freudian procedures, and the crucial role played in such procedures by the neat manoeuvre 'Heads I win, tails you lose', will not need to be told that the most phallocentric male writers are those whose possession of the phallus is least secure. And so on . . . I surely needn't expatiate.) Thus, insofar as Pound is an artist determined to see and to make us see, this characteristic strengthens the case that he is a phallocentric artist, a man who, because his possession of the phallus is uncertain must repress his anxieties on that score by vehemently and insistently claiming otherwise. But what happens to this argument if Pound is not a visually oriented artist? Durant thinks he is, and arrays quotations, variously persuasive and less persuasive, to prove as much. But as we have seen, Pound's respect for the sculptor's vision, and his invocations of it, are taken as proof of this alleged predisposition, whereas in truth they prove rather the opposite. And there is other evidence: for instance an article by Pound in The Criterion for January 1923, in which he assails Ford, the self-declared impressionist 'because he bases his criticism on the eye, and almost solely on the eye. Nearly everything he says applies to things seen. It is the exact rendering of the visible image, the cabbage field seen, France seen from the cliffs.' (2) And for that matter Durant himself quotes from Canto 94, inattentively (p. 172):


Was it Frate Egidio - 'per la mente'
  looking down and reproving
'who shd/mistake the eye for the mind' . . .


- a warning against trusting the eye too implicitly, just the same warning in fact that Pound made in prose (citing the same Egidio, commentator on Cavalcanti), when he introduced reproductions of paintings by La Martinelli. Thus Pound has been at considerable pains not to give the eye pre-eminence over other organs of perception. But of course the Freudian fail-safe device - 'Heads I win, tails you lose' - is equal to this, as to all other emergencies: 'Why is he at such pains not to exalt the eye, if he were not tempted to do so?' There is no arguing with a logic thus self-sealed at both ends. I don't expect to persuade Alan Durant, only a few who may have been swayed by his plausibilities.

However, for those who have open minds, the entire Lacanian enterprise is endangered by such considerations as these. For as Durant usefully and carefully makes plain, Lacan's revision of Freudian doctrine (a radical revision, for the Viennese pioneer is declared to have been wrong about the unconscious from the start) rests on two importations from linguistics: first, Saussure's distinction between the signifier and the signified; and second, Jakobson's differentiation of metonymy from metaphor. And we cannot help but wonder, when such favoured status is claimed for verbal language and the linguistic arts, what status is left for what we are used to call the vocabularies of the other, the non-linguistic arts. Is this a slack usage that we must learn to objure? Is there no acceptable sense in which we may speak of architecture or sculpture as possessing each its own artistic 'vocabulary'? Certainly on the face of it there seems no place for either metonymy or metaphor, whether in architecture or sculpture. And yet metonymy and metaphor are declared to represent the two determining impulsions behind psychic life (roughly, metaphor encoding repression, metonymy encoding desire). If the non-verbal arts cannot incorporate either of these alternative and contending mechanisms, or even one of them, must we conclude that these arts are necessarily much more imperfect vehicles for the human condition than the arts of literature? Lacan, perhaps foreseeing this objection, has invaded at least one of the other arts, painting; and his admirers are ready to think that his privileged status in the theory of psycho-analysis enables him to beat the art-critics at their own game, as well as the literary critics. It is indeed Lacan's examination of a painting, Holbein's 'The Ambassadors', that introduces into Lacanian discourse both 'specularity' and 'the scopic field'. But as we have seen, though these concepts can with some difficulty be brought over from painting to apply to literature, it is not clear how they can be made applicable to either sculpture or architecture.

I spare you Durant's Lacanian solemnity about inadvertent and in fact illusory puns, and also his dexterous use of the Freudian fail-safe device so as to explain how it is that this allegedly so 'specular' poem, The Cantos, sets up as specially authoritative witnesses the two blind persons, Tiresias and Homer. We may gratefully return from these sterilities to the young Stokes, whose inspired meditations about architecture and sculpture so excited Pound, after he and Stokes in the 1920s had met on the tennis-courts in Rapallo. I will dare to complain that, whereas my argument for a Stokesian presence in Cantos 17 and 47 has been generally accepted, no one to my knowledge has looked for that presence in other cantos where it seems to me much in evidence. This is particularly the case in The Pisan Cantos where, as I read the sequence, Pound in extremis was stayed and comforted time and again by just what the young Stokes had compellingly purveyed: a well-curb, a coign of worked marble, some emblem (figurative or not) out of renaissance Rimini or Venice or Urbino; in any case magnificently enhanced by what Stokes first perceived and named as stone-bloom or stone-blossom, lichens and weathering and the soft attrition of human hands. In Stokes's understanding, by this conjoined operation of human and non-human agencies the stone artifact became splendidly expressive without being self-expressive of any one person - all of it outward, all (Stokes's own word) 'manifest'. It is especially pitiful that when Stokes himself was in extremis - we now have 18 poems of his written when he knew himself under death-sentence from cancer (3) - such emblems, which had comforted Pound, comforted Stokes not at all, nor did he turn to them so that they should. His Freudian indoctrination had been too thorough, over too many years, for him any longer to have access to the consolations that his own youth had uncovered for others.

What we see in Stokes's career as a whole is a determining crisis after which he turned back to specifically human nature away from that larger than human nature which Pound had reminded him of when, reviewing Stones and Rimini, Pound had remarked: 'Stokes's "water" concept is, whether he remember it or no, - in harmony with the source of all gods, Neptune, in Gemisto's theology.' For this crucial turn in Stokes there were compelling human reasons - Stokes had a schizophrenic daughter. All the same, we do not have to accept nor even understand the role of Gemistus Pletho in Pound's eclectic metaphysics, to take the point that Pound was offering Stokes a metaphysical significance that Stokes would not accept. What, in Stokes's conditioning or his temperament, turned him back from the elemental energies that his own attention had uncovered - predominantly water, and stone, and the one folded within the other - to drearily calculable variations on the infant's experience of breast-feeding? Why the turn back in, never thereafter outward? The discoveries that Stokes had made in the Rimini tempio - discoveries not in the first place scholarly, but unearthed simply by a finely tuned sensibility - could be glossed either psychologically, or metaphysically. Why did Stokes decide that the psychological gloss automatically had priority?

These questions may be regarded as rhetorical. For every one of us of the post-Poundian generations has been conditioned so as to think that, wherever there is a choice between metaphysical and psychological explanations of an experience, however laborious the psychological explanation, still intellectual integrity demands that it always be preferred. Thus Alan Durant (pp. 86-88), after considering with sufficient care the verbal arrangement of 25 or so lines from Canto 17 (beginning, 'Flat water before me . . .'), declares with no real danger of being challenged: 'What this structure of difference sets up is not the intuition of the unseen, but the conditions of the unconscious, and of desire.' If we respond, 'Prove it!' this will be thought a breaking of the rules. And indeed it is so; for the tacit rule is that if a passage can be elucidated by appeal to a psychology - in this case, the very special psychology that depends on a Lacanian understanding of 'desire' - such an elucidation necessarily takes precedence over any elucidation resting on 'the intuition of the unseen'. Of course all movements of the psyche are 'unseen', and psychology of whatever school consists of nothing but intuitions of or about them, but Durant hasn't noticed this. The point is so obvious that I blush to spell it out. A passage in Durant (p. 30) on Derrida and Saussure will do as well as any other to make the point that all the behaviourist sciences - including, quite notably, linguistics - are of their nature atheist; and from them a theist - as it happens polytheist - artist like Pound cannot in any circumstances earn anything but a 'thumbs down'.

We come back to the situation of the young Adrian Stokes or the young Pound or it may be ourselves, confronting the sculptures in the Rimini tempio and trying to find words in which to articulate the effect that this art-work has on us. Stokes, it will be remembered, articulated it by saying: 'the stone block is female, the plastic figures that emerge from it on Agostino's reliefs are her children, the proof of the carver's love for the stone.' To the gallant Paul Smith (p. 46) this betrays a 'neglect of the feminine', by which 'a damage is done, a sexual parti pris firmly taken.' Does he accordingly, having confronted these sculptures for himself, offer us an alternative fantasy, a different and better articulation? Of course not. For in the overwhelmingly verbal universe of the Left Bank word-spinners, as of those in the U.K. and the U.S. who wait upon their pronouncements, our encounters with sculpture and architecture have no status and no significance. It was not thus that either Stokes or Pound regarded the monuments, past and present, of these classic arts.

    NOTES
  1. Paul Smith, Pound Revised. Croom Helm. 176pp.
    Alan Durant, Ezra Pound. Identity in Crisis. Harvester Press. 206pp.
    (also Barnes & Noble.)

  2. Pound/ Ford - The Story of a Literary Friendship, ed. Brita Lindberg-Seyersted. Faber 222pp. p. 68.

  3. Adrian Stokes, With All the Views. Collected Poems, ed. Peter Robinson, Carcanet Press. 183pp.


This article is taken from PN Review 35, Volume 10 Number 3, January - February 1984.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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