Giovanni’s Room – skin colour, sexuality, and unstable identity.

James Baldwin

In his 1985 editorial in Critical Enquiry, “Writing “Race” and the Difference it Makes,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. states:

Race, as a meaningful criterion within the biological sciences, has long been recognized to be a fiction. When we speak of “the white race” or “the black race,” “the Jewish race” or ‘the Aryan race.” we speak in biological misnomers […]”(4)

He goes on to refer to categories based on skin colour as “pseudoscientific,” and to describe them as “arbitrary constructs, not reports of reality”(6). He does not, however, deny the strength that has accrued to such constructs, nor how commonly such ideas have been held, nor that they had, up to the time of writing, continued to be used as excuses for killing (ibid.). James Baldwin attested to the artificial nature of these constructs in his conversation with Nikki Giovanni: “People invent categories in order to feel safe. White people invented black people to give white people identity”(88); and Audre Lorde put it thus: “[…] that we must identify ourselves (because if we don’t, someone else will to our detriment) is a human problem” (Hammond 10). Taxonomy is a process of exclusion rather than inclusion, and Baldwin was well aware of the problems that white Americans’ self-taxonomising had created for those excluded, as the encounters between the races showed in his 1953 novel Go Tell It On The Mountain.

Such is the strength of issues of race, particularly in Baldwin’s debut novel, that in critiquing his second novel, which appears to have no black characters, academics such as Aliyyah I. Abur-Rahman and Josep M. Armengol have attempted to ‘re-race’ this novel, or to “[recover] the underlying racial antagonisms” in it (Abur-Rahman 478). To Abur-Rahman, Giovanni’s Room is a “risky attempt at racial transcendence.” (479) Both critics point to the protagonist David’s first homoerotic encounter with the ‘brown’ boy Joey, Abur-Rahman going so far as to call it “cross-racial”(481), and assume that all differences of national identity or complexion in the novel stand for the difference between black and white. Armengol prefaces his article with Baldwin’s own words from 1989, “[t]he sexual question and the racial question have always been entwined.” In this article I will challenge these critics’ views, and will suggest that Baldwin did not intend that entwining to be considered as inextricable, nor that issues of race and sexuality in his works could not be considered discretely*. Further, I will suggest that there is another more pressing theme in Giovanni’s Room, that of alienation and its effect on identity.

JamesBaldwin3Baldwin was of course not the first African-American author to attempt to write ‘raceless’ fiction, or rather to cross the colour-line, as ‘raceless’ fiction seems to default inevitably to ‘white’. Caryl Phillips gives as examples Paul Laurence Dunbar, presumably for his 1898 novel The Uncalled, and Ann Petry’s mid-twentieth-century novel Country Place which do just that (viii). He also cites William Gardener Smith’s Anger at Innocence, although this does have the theme of prejudice against Hispanic-Americans. Credence can be given to Giovanni’s Room’s being Baldwin’s attempt to exercise a universal talent and the freedom to write about anything or anybody he pleased (Phillips vii), and to write a candidate-work for the American literary canon that would “seem to transcend value judgments of the moment, speaking irresistibly to the human condition”(Gates 2). However, the novel’s first paragraph very bluntly refers to the protagonist’s Anglo-Nordic-American features, putting it squarely into the default position. This is not necessarily a setting up of race as a primary concern, however, as Abur-Rahman would have it (480), but more probably an unsubtle ‘establishing shot’, necessary because without it a reader, being familiar with Baldwin’s previous novel, might have assumed another African-American protagonist and an autobiographical novel. The opening clear identification of a white ‘voice’ is what gives critics such as Abur-Rahman and Armengol their first step in assuming that all stereotypical white-American prejudices are brought along as a package. However, Baldwin’s second paragraph establishes the mise-en-scène in France, and thus introduces the first step away from America and things American, a process which continues throughout the novel.

Race is, of course, the important American aspect that Abur-Rahman and Armengol attempt to reinsert. In their ‘re-racing’ – or “race-ing” (Armengol 673) –  of Giovanni’s Room, “race is deflected onto sexuality with the result that whiteness is transvalued as heterosexuality, just as homosexuality becomes associated with blackness, both literally and metaphorically” (ibid.). Thus homophobia becomes a coded reference to racism. This would be more convincing if, by inversion, racism in Baldwin’s writings could be seen as a coded reference to homophobia; although homosexuality is a sub-theme in Go Tell It on the Mountain, Gabriel Grimes being spat at in the street does not stand for his white abuser’s supposed hatred of homosexuality (164). It would also be more convincing, given how central to the African-American experience racism was and is, if Giovanni’s Room were more specifically about homosexuality; however, Baldwin says that it is not:

[…] Giovanni’s Room is not really about homosexuality. It’s the vehicle through which the book moves. Go Tell It on the Mountain, for example, is not about a church and Giovanni is not really about homosexuality. It’s about what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody. Which is more interesting than the question of homosexuality. (Baldwin & Goldstein)

Rather than supporting Abur-Rahman and Armengol, this tends to support the hypothesis of this article, i.e. that we are dealing with alienation – the “what happens” for the protagonist David.

Even their emphasis on Joey’s being “brown” (Giovanni’s Room 14) can be questioned; it may be a relative rather than a racial description, as it is delivered with no greater flourish than “sweaty,” “beautiful,” and “smaller” (ibid.). Thus it is not necessarily emphasised. When David says “my body seemed gross and crushing” (ibid.), it is against himself that his loathing is turned, not against Joey, and it is he himself who is “both pollutant and contagion” (Abur-Rahman 481) rather than the smaller and more beautiful boy. His later bullying of the younger boy has no overt racial component, and seems more like senseless adolescent spitefulness than anything else (Giovanni’s Room 15). Armengol insists nonetheless that David’s boyfriends, Joey and Giovanni, are “racialized as black”(679), and Abur-Rahman refers specifically to Giovanni as “darker-skinned” than David (482). However, Giovanni at his most abject is revealed as “dead white” (Giovanni’s Room 316), his skin-colour therefore equated to David’s. Armengol again declares, with added emphases:

Terrified of “losing his manhood,” he describes Joey’s body as “the black opening of a cavern,” insisting that “a cavern opened in my mind, black. . . full of dirty words” […] Significantly, then, David establishes a literal association between homosexuality and blackness, which stands for the anus and the racialized body, both of which, in turn, he connects to “dirty words.” Obviously, David’s unconscious association derives from his specific racial, religious, and gender background, which defines interracial homosexuality as doubly immoral, shameful, and dirty. (680)

Phillips puts this hyperbolic interpretation down to an “over-reading” of the text (2017 email).

Internalised homophobia is definitely in David’s character, however, whether he has absorbed it from his white American culture, along with the “dirty words”, or there is something almost ‘essential’ in him  in which loathing and craving – both “No!” and “Yes”(64) – are inextricable. If it alienates him from normative American culture, he seems prepared to accept that some degree of overt homosexual behaviour happens in the Bohemian milieu of Paris, at arm’s length as it is from the USA. But equally David expresses unease at the grotesqueness of the culture and the denizens of “Jacques’ favourite bar” that he describes in such detail (29-30). It is these denizens who, rather than hinting at unmentionable “dirty words”, liberally apply slurs to each other – folle (‘queen’), môme (‘girl’, applied facetiously to a boyfriend), and salop[e] (‘bitch’) (30, 54, 104). David moves amongst them, but thereby holds himself apart from them. In this milieu he is content to be known as “monsieur l’americain” (53), though Giovanni scolds him as a “vrai americain” and praises him as “not an American at all” (85); however, David sees his compatriots in the American Express Office as single entity, everybody sounding

[…] unless I listened hard, as though they had just arrived from Nebraska. At home I could have seen the clothes they were wearing, but here I only saw bags, cameras, belts and hats, all, clearly, from the same department store. At home I would have had some sense of the individual womanhood of the woman I faced: here the most ferociously accomplished seemed to be involved in some ice-cold or sun-dried travesty of sex, and even grandmothers seemed to have had no traffic with the flesh. And what distinguished the men was that they seemed incapable of age; they smelled of soap, which seemed indeed to be their preservative against the dangers and exigencies of any more intimate odor. (86)

He stands outside this crowd, feeling atypical, and they seem to him to be devoid of anything individual or carnal.

GiovannisRoomTo his father, from whom David is separated by virtue of despising him (20) more than simply by geographical distance, and who seems more anxious than he that he should come “home,” he is still “as American as pork and beans” (87); but this estrangement from his father keeps David apart from another aspect of American culture – money, either hard-earned or on deposit. He has money in an account, but his father is reluctant to send it (26) and he to ask for it (109) even though Giovanni has lost his source of income. Up till then, in the domestic microcosm of the ‘room’, Giovanni had been the provider and David the housewife, though only in half-hearted play, gaining no satisfaction from it (84-85); thus David is alienated from both normative masculine and feminine domestic roles.

The clearest advocacy for that normativity does not come from America, but from his expatriate Italian caretaker in the South of France – neither Armengol nor Abur-Rahman equate her nationality with race – who declares that men like David need women to tell them the truth, that it is not good for them to be alone, that a woman and babies are a necessity for happiness (67-69). Yet David’s only response is to clean the house, just as he cleaned Giovanni’s room, and think of his ex-lover’s approaching execution. Hella, whom he had met in France, admits to a longing for that norm:

‘You know, I’m not really the emancipated girl I try to be at all. I guess I just want a man to come home to me every night. I want to be able to sleep with a man without being afraid he’s going to knock me up. Hell, I want to be knocked up, I want to start having babies. In a way, it’s really all I’m good for.’ (117-118)

This revelation precipitates David’s decision to announce to his father that he wants to marry her, but its repetition is no antidote to his guilt at having deserted Giovanni (151-152). Allowing her discovery of him in the company of sailors seems like the realisation of a wish to obliterate any remnant of adherence to the American heterosexual norm (153).

David’s final and fundamental alienation is from love itself. The word hardly occurs in the book. He resists saying it aloud to anyone, even indirectly in a foreign language, only replying to Giovanni’s “Je t’aime” with “Je le sais”(105). He expresses love for Hella and Giovanni only in the narrative (107, 114), and seems untouched by Jacques’ plea “‘Love him […] and let him love you’”(57). The novel’s final metaphor is the fragments of the blue envelope that had contained the details of Giovanni’s execution blowing back towards David; he is carrying nothing away intact, nothing lasting from his relationships and acquaintances, and yet he cannot, at the last, entirely escape from them. In terms of identity, his longing to fulfill the words of the Apostle Paul about becoming a man (158) has come to nothing, and the novel has been a narrative about the diminishing of identity. It is difficult to see that as having to do with race; Baldwin, an eloquent spokesman for African-Americans, needed no coding to write on a black theme, having done so in Go Tell It on the Mountain, and doing so again in his later work. The argument that he has done so, covertly, in Giovanni’s Room does not seem convincing. David’s whiteness, his other-than-black-ness, fades to irrelevance; he puts nothing in place of all the things that he is not, consciously creates nothing beyond his failed straight-male façade; if his identity can be said to be stable at all, it is only because it is ultimately nihilistic.



*A caveat does need to be offered. Abur-Rahman’s and Armengol’s arguments can be successfully challenged, but the danger of relying too heavily on Gates’s statement that skin colour is a pseudoscientific distinction, and forgetting his reminder of the violence done in the name of such distinctions, risks a tendency, as Audre Lorde puts it, “to try to disprove the reality of the Black experience” overall (Hammond 10).



Works cited

Abur-Rahman, Aliyyah I. ““Simply a Menaced Boy”: Analogizing

Color, Undoing Dominance in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s

Room.” African American Review, vol.41 No.3, 2007,

pp.477-486. www /stable/40027408.

Armengol, Josep M. “In the Dark Room: Homosexuality and/as

Blackness in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.” Signs, vol.37

No.3, 2012, pp.671-693. www /stable/10.1086/662699.

Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. Penguin Modern Classics, 2001.

—. Go Tell It on the Mountain. Penguin, 1991

Baldwin, James, and Nikki Giovanni. A Dialogue. Lippincott, 1975.

Baldwin, James, and Richard Goldstein. “James Baldwin on being

Gay in America.” Village Voice online, 22nd June 2018.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. “Writing “Race” and the Difference it Makes.”

Critical Enquiry, vol.12 No.1, 1985, pp.1-20.

www /stable/1343459.

Hammond, Karla M. “Audre Lorde: Interview.” Denver Quarterly,

vol.16 No.1, 1981, pp.10-27. Scanned copy received from Linda


Phillips, Caryl. Introduction. Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin,

Penguin Modern Classics, 2001, pp.-xi.

—. Untitled, private email received by Paul Thompson on

15thOctober 2017.

The bookloo…

… or perhaps an exercise in dry-stone walling, an attempt to recreate Maes Howe. My colleague and friend June Louise Laurenson, with the bulk of the books for the 2019 James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the shortlisted books in the foreground.

2019-18-04 02 June

The “male gaze”

In 1975 Laura Mulvey coined the phrase “male gaze” to describe how visual images of women produced from a male perspective objectify the women depicted. As a peripheral part of my PhD research involves male diabazophilia – the equivalent of scopophilia when applied to the consumption of written or printed material – I thought I would present to you the images below. They are from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, and they show the rich young men at the exclusive nightclub enthralled by Maria’s dance.

They illustrate the concept of “male gaze” beautifully, but the double irony here is of course that we are not looking at the object, but at the gazers; and as what they are looking at is not a woman but a sophisticated automaton, it is already an object, it is the “False Maria,” a simulacrum of the prophetess and saintly guardian of the workers’ children. This is not to take anything away from Laura Mulvey’s theories; the male gaze she postulates concerns more than simply the representation of the woman in view, but the man behind the camera, the male characters in the film, and the spectator in the audience.

Metropolis eyesIn Lang’s film, what is presented is the gaze of the privileged, of the hedonistic, and it is shown to be a false gaze. Lang was absolutely aware of what he was depicting, how he was depicting it, where the camera was, and how the finished product would be seen. Some of the images below are from frames a split-second apart, showing subtle changes in the men’s faces*. Eventually the faces form a drifting montage of eyes, the eye being the organ of gaze†. The scene is intercut with the hallucinations of the character Freder, who sees the animated statue of Death playing a bone flute and swinging his scythe; both Freder’s agonized face and the figure of Death loom towards the viewer.

Metropolis - male gaze 3

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Metropolis - male gaze 14

A film – or at least a film such as Metropolis – is a confrontation. In watching Metropolis we gaze at the imaginary and the illusory, and they stare back at us. Whether it is Death, or the maddened Freder, or the lustful men in the nightclub, or the metamorphotic Moloch, or the robotic face of the False Maria, the gaze is mostly outward, unsettling the audience. Metropolis comes from an era when cinematography was if not in its infancy then certainly in its experimental adolescence. Film was trying out many things, before settling into the easy-winner, mass production of Hollywood panem et circenses. The early 20c was a very dynamic time in art and entertainment, where the attempt to experiment often clashed but sometimes melded with the drive to “create a market,” to pander to tastes or more strictly to persuade audiences that they liked or wanted or needed something that the companies had to sell. Was this where the male gaze was born?

Well, maybe in films, but it is said with some justification that it has been with us since men first depicted women in any manner. Certainly you can argue for its being there in something like Tintoretto’s portrait of Veronica Franco, the 15c Venetian courtesan. The subject of the painting does not confront us, her look is to the side, while we gaze at her and see her left breast partly exposed. But that portrait is also replete with symbolism, which Tintoretto may have had uppermost in his mind. But the further back we go, even into prehistory, we are confronted by something that shakes the very idea of “male” and “female.” Monique Wittig said, “The category of sex does not exist a priori, before all society” (5), challenging us to accept that the way we taxonomise “male” and “female” – not a process of grouping together but of exclusion – is what actually created what we now consider to be the “natural” differences between the two. It created not only social attitudes, our behaviours, and our looks, but exaggerated our bodily differences. There was a time, then, when we didn’t gaze, because, like Adam and Eve, we didn’t know we were naked.



*However, I believe Lang actually used a certain footage at least twice in this sequence.

Deeper and more basic than that, below the level of “male” and “female,” it is the organ of sense with which we most strongly encounter the instantaneous phenomena of the world.


cited work:

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

Screen, vol.16 No.3, 1975, pp.6-18.

Wittig, Monique. The Straight Mind and other essays.

Beacon, 1992.

G is for Golub

The second half of the 20c was a period of dirty little wars, many fought as proxies for the Cold War standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. The period saw the rise of the mercenary – not simply a paid soldier, but someone who could be hired to carry out undocumented, unattributable murders and atrocities. Leon Golub produced a series of paintings on the theme of the mercenary. The one shown here is Mercenaries IV. Golub’s technique involved applying paint, scraping it off with a meat cleaver, and reapplying it, repeating the process until he got the desired effect.

The men in the painting, in their ill-assorted combat dress, are confronting us. But the tension is between them – the only thing holding them together is the money – and they are eying each other with undisguised contempt. Golub has constructed a kind of realism, something that shows menace, without being strictly representational.


Basil Bunting’s ‘Briggflatts’: The problem of meaning and interpretation of text.

bunting 2
Basil Bunting, poet and Quaker.

When Basil Bunting says that reading in silence is the source of half the misconceptions that have caused the public to distrust poetry, and that without the sound of recited poetry “the reader looks at the lines as he looks at prose” (Bunting and Mottram 4), he presents the first problem that has to be faced when dealing with interpreting Briggflatts. My heading speaks of “text”, which, in its commonest and most easily understood definition refers to the written or printed word rather than the spoken, though latterly the study of linguistics has extended that definition to the spoken medium (“Text”, CODL). Prose, to Bunting, exists to convey meaning, whereas the business of poetry is to convey beauty – “This needs no explaining,” he says, “to an audience which gets its poetry by ear” (Bunting 42). This is something that Bunting emphasised to anyone who asked him about Briggflatts, or begged for some clarification. A glossary of the handful of dialect words in the poem contains the mildly irascible “O, come on, you know that one” (38), whilst an address to potential readers and students of poetry is openly hostile about the “charlatans” who “fill chairs and fellowships at universities,” people who set examinations (43) and, by extension therefore, damning of an academic or analytical approach to his poetry. Instead, Bunting draws attention persistently to its sound, refers to its “audience” rather than its readership, and says that it is dead on the page until some voice brings it to life (42). He equates meaning with sound “just as the sound of the notes played […] is the meaning of any piece of music” (40); he was prepared to discuss the poem’s structure, and  to  draw  a  diagram  of  the almost  alpine  profile  of that structure

bunting poetry diagram

(Bunting, Quartermain, and Tallman 9), but for the most part he refused to discuss textual meaning. This insistence, and his acknowledgement of the influence of Scarlatti’s B Minor sonata, urges critics to regard Briggflatts as a poem that “works like a sonata” (Hatlen 54), or even to call it a sonata outright (Tomaney 355). Yet the same insistence on the poem’s musicality, the apologia for sound as meaning, and classifying it as a sonata leads directly to a problem, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty points out:

The musical meaning of a sonata is inseparable from the sounds which are its vehicle: before we have heard it no analysis enables us to anticipate it; once the performance is over, we shall, in our intellectual analyses of the music, be unable to do anything but carry ourselves back to the moment of experiencing it.

Merleau-Ponty further argues that, to someone who experiences both language and the sound of music, language is the more transparent because most of the time we remain within the bounds of constituted language, providing ourselves with its available meanings; in music, by contrast, no vocabulary is presupposed, meaning appears to be linked to the empirical presence of the sound, and therefore music “strikes us as dumb” (188). So apart from the experience of the sound as a phenomenon in itself, there is no tangible “meaning” to grasp, and Bunting’s insistence appears to be in vain.

There seems, therefore, to be no alternative for the seeker after meaning other than to return to the printed text, to grapple with its obscurities, and possibly to come up with “repulsive” interpretations (Bunting 40). In 1985, at a time when there was little help for a reader who wanted an informed engagement with the poem, Peter Barry noted that these obscurities had cost Bunting many readers, and offered to clarify them in an article (Barry 208) – an approach of which Bunting, who did not lay claim to clarity, might have disapproved. But even this helpful attempt cannot be relied on absolutely. Consider this excerpt:

Her parents in bed
the children dry their clothes.
He has untied the tape
of her striped flannel drawers
before the range. Naked
on the pricked rag mat
his fingers comb
thatch of his manhood’s home.

[…] to wash him inch by inch,
kissing the pebbles.
Shining slowworm part of the marvel.
(Bunting 15)

The first six lines of this passage are straightforward and descriptive. Barry refers to the whole episode as the children’s “erotic exploration” (210), but this is not a definitive interpretation. Christian Wiman says specifically that they make love (39), whilst Donald Davie baldly ridicules fellow critic Michael Schmidt for inferring just that (Davie 165). Over such a minor matter there is a critical cacophony. Having started out plainly, Bunting lapses into coy euphemism. A double meaning of “pricked,” contained in the description of the domestic ‘proggy mat’, would be an assumption too far; whereas in the case of the “thatch of his manhood’s home” it would not be a long step from assuming that means the boy’s pubic curls to taking it as his capital hair, wetted by the earlier rain, covering not his specific but his general “manhood” – his passing from boy to young man. The mention of the slowworm harks back to the presence of the creature itself in natural surroundings earlier in Briggflatts (13), but Burton Hatlen interprets its undoubted phallic imagery to say specifically that the girl kisses the boy’s penis and testicles (57), despite the full stop between “kissing the pebbles” and the marvel of the slowworm. Having moved from description to euphemism, Bunting reverts to relative clarity to finish this pair of stanzas:

The mason stirs:

Pens are too light.

Take a chisel to write.
(Bunting 15)

A reader may not be in a position to demand an explicit sex scene, let alone an explanation, but the euphemisms are ironic, given that the poem was published during the same decade as the frank Towards a Quaker View of Sex, and at a time when the discussion of sexual matters was beginning to become more open. There is, however, a tension between the youngsters’ Edenic nakedness and the furtiveness of their erotic exploration, carried out while the girl’s parents are asleep, which the euphemisms maintain. This suggests that the lack of clarity here is not coy but a deliberate re-insistence on euphony before sense, “the thatch of his manhood’s home” being one of a pair of rhyming lines.

Notwithstanding euphony’s being Bunting’s aim, the fact that throughout Briggflatts his grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure are precise and conventional pulls the reader towards an expectation of meaning. But that precision is not always obvious:

Grass caught in willow tells the flood’s height that has subsided;
overfalls sketch a ledge to be bared tomorrow.
No angler homes with empty creel though mist dims day.
I hear Aneurin number the dead, his nipped voice.
Slight moon limps after the sun. A closing door
stirs smoke’s flow above the grate. […]

In the passage above, the opening of Canto IV, sentences seem to be populated with as few words as possible; often definite and indefinite articles are done away with, for example. This would not disturb the flow of a recitation, but when the passage is read in silence, pace Bunting, the reader is brought up short. “No angler homes with empty creel” is nonsense until “homes” is correctly identified as a verb. In “I hear Aneurin number the dead, his nipped voice” the apodosis seems unrelated to the protasis until a repetition of “I hear” is understood. “Slight moon limps” hints at personification that almost jars with “the sun”, the latter graced with an article. This sparseness occurs in what is the densest part of the poem, in terms of line length, the longest in the canto being seventeen syllables.

To Professor Stefan Hawlin, the first fifty-one lines of this dense canto represent the central locus of the poem’s cultural and social criticism (642) and therefore presumably the section of the poem most redolent with significance and vital meaning. By invoking Norse and Cymric bards, and the missionaries of Celtic Christianity, Bunting appears to take their mantle upon himself as poet-as-prophet (ibid.). But he warns us who read in silence, “Follow the clue patiently and you will understand nothing” (Bunting 27), whilst Hawlin dwells on the weight and resonance of these fifty-one lines, and the proposition that their message lies in the medium itself.

[…] what the verse is, in its fusing of meaning and music, contemporary culture is not. The pace, resonance, and trenchant majesty of the verse, the irony, quick-wittedness, and sheer suppleness of its meaning, are a damning of our hollow, rapid, breathless world of noise, speed, and advertising, the self-conscious trivializations of ‘post-modernism’.
(Hawlin 642)

Hawlin nails his colours to the mast – Briggflatts is a masterpiece in this respect, conveying its creator’s meaning exactly how he intended. Certainly if that view is accepted then later, post-modernist texts such as J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash, with its bunting 1deliberately pornographic tenor, its paucity of vocabulary, and its setting in the world of noise and speed, and Martin Amis’s Money, set in the chaotic world of advertising and film-making, are its antithesis and typical of its post-modernist target. Opposing such specific fetishism, the poet’s view of the value of the world appears to be the all-inclusive “splendour to splendour, excepting nothing that is” (Bunting 27). Though this may have a resonance for a modern Green, four and three decades plus a few years respectively have passed since the Ballard’s and Amis’s novels were published and five since the poem. Therefore not only does Hawlin, writing in 1999, put the cart before the horse in making the earlier a critique of the later, but also Bunting’s message – his meaning wrapped in his medium – is retreating from our comprehension as the world changes ideologically and technologically.

A major problem with any avant-garde – and Bunting as a modernist poet, though a late one, must nonetheless be considered part of such a vanguard, if only historically – is, that they are by definition a cadre, an elite, and thereby at a distance from those they hope to influence, no matter how hard they proselytise. Bunting’s position as poet-prophet – if Stefan Hawlin’s assessment is to be accepted – can only work, like the speaker in tongues of angels, in as far his universalist pronouncements of splendour to splendour with nothing excepted can be readily interpreted by the congregation to which it is addressed, or by someone in that congregation with the gift of interpretation. To have it interpreted and written about, however, would not be the same as to hear and experience the original ‘music’. The lack of followers, loss of readership, and thereby non-existence of a consensus of interpretation, remain the major obstacles to mining and refining meaning. Briggflatts  is an outstanding poem in its own right. It continues the determination that is found in modernism to rediscover and rebuild anew the art of poetry; it shows traits of fragmentation and deliberate obscurity typical of the movement. Since Bunting established his poetics and made his plea to be heard, the new worldwide technologies have taken away the impetus of Briggflatts. The blogosphere – on which, paradoxically, much can be found about the poem, including this post, of course – has diverted his potential audience, which could have engaged in the creative process of hearing and interpreting, towards a rapid and ever-changing contemporary culture. Here on the internet, anyone can set up as an almighty “Author-God” (Barthes, 146) and flood us with words of their own, in ignorance of the richness of the creativity of participating in and collaborating with existing art. Bunting, to whom medium and meaning are inextricable, is at risk of getting even more lost in the noise.


Works cited:

Barry, Peter. “A Reading of Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts.” Forum for

Modern Language Studies, vol.21 No.3, 1985, pp.208-224. DOI:


Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. translated by Stephen Heath.

Fontana 1977.

Bunting, Basil. Briggflatts. Bloodaxe, 2009.

Bunting, Basil, and Eric Mottram. “Conversation with Basil Bunting

on the occasion of his 75thBirthday.” Poetry InformationNo.19, 1978,


Bunting, Basil, Peter Quartermain, and Warren Tallman. “Basil Bunting

talks about Briggflatts.”Agenda, vol.16 No.1, 1985, pp.8-19.

Davie, Donald. “One Way to Misread Briggflatts.” Basil Bunting: Man and

Poet, edited by Carroll F. Terrell. National Poetry Foundation, 1981,


Hatlen, Burton. “Regionalism and Internationalism in Basil Bunting’s

Briggflatts.” The Yale Journal of Criticism, vol.13 No.1, 2000, pp.49-66.

DOI: 10.1353/yale.2000.0009.

Hawlin, Stefan. “Bunting’s Briggflatts: A Quaker Masterpiece.” The

Modern Language Review, vol.94 No.3, 1999, pp.637-646.

www. /stable/3736990.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception. Translated

by Colin Smith. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962.

“Text.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics, 2014.

Tomaney, John. “Keeping a beat in the dark: narratives of regional

identity in Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts.” Environmental and Planning,

vol.25 No.2, 2007, pp355-375. DOI: 10.1068/d411t.

Wiman, Christian. “Free of our humbug: notes on Basil Bunting.” New

Criterion, vol.22 No.8, 2004, pp.38-42.

bunting 3 rawthey [edit]
The River Rawthey, near Briggflatts.


It’s remarkable how things sometimes come together. As I write this blog post, I know I’m going to be harking back to things I have posted before, things about perception, existence, and so on. And all this is because The Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology landed on my doormat the other day. The first article, “A phenomenological Grounding of Feminist Ethics” by Dr. Anya Daly, not only fed into my research project (as does anything on the issues of gender, sexuality, and so on) but also brought me head-on into conflict with one of my (now) favourite phenomenologists, Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

merleau-ponty 3I am rather fond of the French phenomenologists, particularly Gaston Bachelard but also Merleau-Ponty. They have given me much food for thought, and have informed my studies of such diverse writers as Samuel Beckett, W.G. Sebald, and Basil Bunting. I am particularly fond of them because they are inventive with language and with imagery, writing more, or so it seems, like poets than philosophers. Daly points out that Merleau-Ponty’s later writing contains “terms such as reversibility, chiasm, wild being, wild logos and flesh” (8), in what context we would have to read those later writings, but I can tell you right now that I am avid to do so, to fill in the gaps in my Merleau-Ponty-lore.

What I want to do in this post is tackle Merleau-Ponty’s dictum of the ‘view from everywhere’, which he proposed as a rebuttal of the rationalists’ ‘view from nowhere’ or ‘God’s-eye-view’. But first let me go back further in philosophy, to solipsism and scepticism, because my own thoughts on these affect my thinking on everything else. I have often wrested the famous saying of René Descartes – je pense, donc je suis– to my own purposes, taking it to mean a little more/less than he intended. In 1641, he declared: “hoc pronuntiatum: ego sum, ego existo, quoties a me profertur, vel mente concipitur, necessario esse verum.” I translate this as “This proposition: I am, I exist, whenever spoken by me or conceived in my mind, must be true.” The implication is that his existence depends on his being clearly aware of his existence, on “ego sum” meaning “I am (thinking)” rather than being a simple alternative to “ego existo.” I go deeper and, translating “je pense donc je suis” as “I am aware, therefore I exist,” state that I do not have to be aware of my existence as such – I do not have to be saying that phrase or conceiving of it in my mind – for my awareness to prove my existence; any level of awareness, right down to the most absent-minded reverie or the stirring of consciousness in a yet-unborn child, is proof enough of the existence of the conscious and aware entity. Caveat: neither the famous and ringing phrase nor my translation supplies, implies, or even attempts any definition whatsoever of “aware” or “exist.” In fact it doesn’t even define “I,” “am,” or “therefore.” Neither does it give any indication of my interface with ‘reality,’ and I’m afraid ‘reality’ has to go in quotes for now… maybe for ever.

This is the point at which we come up against solipsism, and scepticism of course, because there simply is no guarantee that anything exists outside of myself, and even if it does there is no guarantee that I see it clearly and truly. Unlike phenomenologists everywhere, I am happy to acknowledge this. Unlike Merleau-Ponty for one, whose overall project is to overcome them once and for all (Daly, 7). But I do not regard solipsism and scepticism as stones of stumbling, but as stones of humbling. They serve as reminders that in order to go further – and we must go further or we are suspended in philosophical stagnation – a leap of faith is required, an assumption of things without any convincing proof. It is a great leap, a leap into the unknown, and I think we should all be both bashful and joyful about having made it. It is not a conquering, but an accommodation – we have shaken hands with solipsism and scpticism, have agreed between us that it’s not worth the effort of struggling, and have gone on our way whistling. And I for one am happy with that (lack of) resolution.

Having leapt, therefore we are conducted right back to the spot from which we made our leap, by phenomenology, because phenomenology concentrates our attention on what we experience, and that happens right here, right now. It is as though our leap was not forward at all, but on the spot, only now we feel the thump of our soles on the ground and hear the noise of the impact. Nevertheless we still whistle – why not!

In passing, I am very interested in Heidegger’s refutation of Descartes:

This certainty, that “I myself am in that I will die,” is the basic certainty of Dasein itself. It is a genuine statement of Dasein, while cogito sum is only the semblance of such a statement. If such pointed formulations mean anything at all, then the appropriate statement pertaining to Dasein in its being would have to be sum moribundus [I am in dying], moribundus not as someone gravely ill or wounded, but insofar as I am, I am moribundus. The MORIBUNDUS first gives the SUM its sense.

To Heidegger it was the finitude of awareness, not its continuity, that summed it up. To me it is its momentary nature, but more of that later.

Let us turn to the rationalists’ view from nowhere. It is, as Daly says “a totalizing God’s-eye-view with pretentions to objectivity” (2). It insists on constructing a dais from which to view the world, insisting that if it can see the purely mathematical relations between each component it can understand the whole. My objection to this is simple: it does not touch reality at any single point, but operates wholly in the imagination. How can it do otherwise? But try telling anyone who deals in viewing the world in that way that they depend solely on imagination, and not on data, and they will scoff[1]. Nevertheless I defy them to offer any cogent refutation. Once they are on that dais, then it is luck rather than logic by which they have tapped into the workings of the universe with any degree of sense or accuracy. They have provided us with a first class knowledge of the nuts-and-bolts of existence, but not of the motive principle. How could they, if they aim to stand apart from participating in it?

merleau-ponty 2Daly introduces us, as I said, to Merleau-Ponty’s principle of the view from everywhere. In rejecting the rationalists’ divine dais, Daly tells us, Merleau-Ponty also rejects perspectivism: “If we allow that perceiving subjects are embodied and situated, then surely this reduces the epistemic status of perception to a relativism and correlatively claims to knowledge are rendered unreliable and impotent” (9). Yes, but only if we disallow ourselves that leap of faith I mentioned before, only if we accept the idea that the impact with the ground and the sound of our landing are totally without meaning; this, by the very act of leaping, we do not reject. My shoes making their sound as hit the ground may not be the same thing as your shoes making their sound as you hit the ground – that much is relativistic, certainly – but our leaping severally and collectively has meant that we accept a correlation, we have a kind of hand-shaking. Merleau-Ponty says this:

To see is to enter a universe of beings which display themselves […] Thus every object is the mirror of all others. When I look at the lamp on my table, I attribute to it not only the qualities visible from where I am, but also those which the chimney, the walls, the table can ‘see’; the back of my lamp is nothing other than the face which it ‘shows’ to the chimney. I can therefore see an object insofar as … each of them treats the others around it like spectators of its hidden aspects and a guarantee of their permanence. (79)

This is where he and I seriously part company. We perceive a Gestalt, a whole that is other than its parts. But that whole is not necessarily comprehensive. If we are somehow conscious of a reverse side to something, it is because we have brought something with us that prompts us to attribute a kind of augmentation to the thing we are observing, experiencing, interpreting, as Merleau-Ponty himself implies:

[…] this table bears traces of my past life, for I have carved my initials on it and spilt ink on it. But these traces in themselves do not refer to the past; they are present; and in so far as I find in them signs of some ‘previous’ event, it is because I derive my sense of the past from elsewhere, because I carry this particular significance within myself. (Perception, 413, my emphasis)

Therefore it is not the chimney’s or the walls’ perception that augments the bare and unadorned view of the lamp. It is our own memory, and, as we are dealing with the-past-in-the-present, that memory cannot function without imagination[2]; borrowing Conrad Russell’s summary of Gaston Bachelard’s view of memory, it is fictive, relying for its vividness on a creative process involving the imagination (14). So that when Merleau-Ponty says “Whenever I try to understand myself, the whole fabric of the perceptible world comes too and with this comes others who are caught in it” (15), I say no, I imagine myself in context, and I bring into it a multiplicity of resonances and repercussions (Bachelard 7) almost beyond my control. But were the Gestalt to involve truly a “view from everywhere” it would be all-encompassing, it would attribute the idea of the whole being “greater than the parts” rather than “other than its parts,” as we are not dealing with a process of addition[3].

Where, then, is the view from, the view that makes any sort of sense? I call it the view from somewhere. Not ‘nowhere’, not ‘everywhere’, but somewhere. That somewhere is not fixed, not immutable, not a constant, no matter how hard I try to define and pin down the “I” in “I think therefore I am.” The disruptive nature of the encounter with each instant makes both standing outside (“nowhere”) and standing where all else is encompassed (“everywhere”) utterly impossible. As moment succeeds moment that “somewhere” shifts, is different, is imbued both with new phenomena and with unpredictable associations. Though I jump on the spot and land where I leapt from, what I “cogito” in that instant of experiencing my landing adds an “else” on the end of “somewhere.”

For me, it is this that gives phenomenology a celebratory quality. As photographs of Merleau-Ponty always seem to show a slight smile playing on his lips, I think he might have appreciated that. I’ll leave the subject for you to digest, and maybe we’ll return to it another day.



[1] I do not wish to denigrate the imagination at this point – far from it – but I make no apology for applying it, like a fool’s bladder, to the backside of the rationalists.

[2] As I said, I’m wasn’t denigrating imagination before; it is actually a very important part of how we interface with the world.

[3] I am paraphrasing psychologist Kurt Koffka here, but I’m afraid I can’t find a precise reference. I would be grateful if any reader can help me out.


Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Marie Jolas, Penguin

Classics, 2014.

Daly, Anya. “A Phenomenological Grounding of Feminist Ethics.” The

Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, vol.50 No.1, pp.1-18.

Heidegger, Martin. History of the Concept of Time. Indiana UP, 1992.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin

Smith, Routledge, 2006.

—. Signs. Trans. Richard C. McCleary, Northwestern UP, 1964.

A celebrity psychiatrist’s living space

Research takes you down some strange tracks. I was reading Valerie Taylor’s 1957 paperback Whisper Their Love, which contains a brief foreword with the byline Richard H. Hoffmann. It was not uncommon to see such an item at the beginning of some of Fawcett Gold Medal’s racier fiction – an item praising the seriousness of the novel’s intent and its vital place in any concerned parent’s library. According to Valerie Taylor, it could well have been penned by the office boy, but in fact the name is indeed that of a celebrity psychiatrist, who made his name (and money) not simply by his practice, but also on TV shows like What’s My Line.

Hoffmann’s home was 870 Park Avenue, New York, and in 1942 he had it rebuilt and re-styled by Ely Jacques Kahn, whose ziggurat-like buildings can still be seen throughout the metropolis. The house itself is relatively small, dwarfed by neighbouring buildings. The Kahn facade no longer exists – the building was remodelled later by the firm of Robert A. M. Stern – but two interior photographs do. Perhaps they do not do the overall architecture justice, but they do show the living space of a once well-known TV personality and professional from the 20c. The photograph of a corner of the hallway shows the elegant sweep of the staircase, and that of the living room something of how Hoffmann laid out his furniture, decorations, and ornaments. I include the photos here as nothing more weighty than something of passing interest…