Inside Whales and Lofts, Part 1

Let me momentarily make this place act like a regular blog and remark on a few things I’ve run across trying to do — or avoid doing — new work. Warning: these are not necessarily mainstream things of interest to most people, even people who read blogs about various poetry combined with a variety of original music.

While not sleeping one night this week I ran into an essay masquerading as a book review written by George Orwell at the end of the 1930s: Inside the Whale.  As per the dangers of doomscrolling, it was not the right piece to run into while trying to fall back to sleep. It’s long, covers a bunch of ground, and since it is Orwell it contains a lot of pithy observations and things that incite one to consider not merely what Orwell believes, but what you, yourself believe.

It starts off reviewing a book by the American writer Henry Miller that was already several years old. Or rather, it makes motions like it’s going to take on that task. Orwell tells you little specifically about what’s in Miller’s book, and he speaks of it and it’s outlook in alternatively dismissive and “it’s better than some” statements. Orwell concludes that, whatever the book’s failures and omissions, that Miller’s novel has stuck with him, and that its subjective effects on a reader might be worthwhile.

Then a full-fledged essay breaks out: a meditation on the changes he observes in the literary scene from the 20s to the 30s of his 20th century. In doing so, Orwell also is quite subjective, compressing the wide range of these two important decades with broad characterizations, summations that have the virtue of vigor. Orwell’s overall judgement is the 20s were an explosion of free expression and expansion of subject matter, and then the following 30s had taken a wrong turn into political statements and advocacy. Orwell’s historical summary is one that others have made as well, and as with all such “spirit of the age” high-level views, it can be contradicted by considerable examples of those who didn’t follow the big titles over their decades.

In my middle of the night reading, I found this wrong-turn judgment odd. Writers who avoided political stances or opinions? Orwell would never have been on such a list! He’s remembered specifically as a life-long critic writing on political ideas and operations. This verging-on-hypocrisy stance, similar to pundits and any odd people with Internet access criticizing actors, artists, and writers for expressing political opinions,* can be made rational if one extracts from his argument the more distinct point he’s making: that the expressed political stances and opinions opposed are wrong and based on falsity. But within this essay that point seems less clear, it’s more about the demonstrated failure of that art-for-political-change effort in the 30s leading Orwell to suggest that it’s likely/arguably the better of limited choices to simply write about ordinary life in a way that avoids any evidence of political thinking.**

I’m around twice Orwell’s age when he wrote this essay, and to the glowing 21st century screen I was reading him on, I talked back to him that he had just discovered a universal truth I’ve written here several times: All Artists Fail. Betting odds calculated from a past performance tout-sheet are not a singular reason to not attempt something in art — the odds are always against success in art, that’s partly why we revere it.

Two small things in Orwell’s long essay remain for me to note. There’s an anecdote of Miller meeting Orwell as Orwell was about to embark on his sojourn into the Spanish Civil War. Miller, Orwell says, told him he was crazy to put himself in harm’s way, and then gives Orwell a warmer jacket better than the meager suitcoat he was wearing. That act, that tiny scene, is Orwell demonstrating his point that ordinary life closely observed may illuminate more than many grander political statements. And the other, more poetry related, has Orwell go on this short aside about the American poet Walt Whitman:

It is not certain that if Whitman himself were alive at this moment he would write anything in the least degree resembling Leaves of Grass.  For what he is saying, after all, is ‘I accept,’ and there is a radical difference between acceptance now and acceptance then. Whitman was writing in a time of unexampled prosperity, but more than that, he was writing in a country where freedom was something more than a word. The democracy, equality and comradeship that he is always talking about are not remote ideals, but something that existed in front of his eyes. In mid-nineteenth-century America men felt themselves free and equal, were  free and equal, so far as that is possible outside a society of pure communism. There was poverty and there were even class-distinctions, but except for the negros there was no permanently submerged class.”

Taken in — as we might well in our age — as statement to be evaluated from a woke (or waking) political outlook, this has so many howlers and hold-my-artisanal-higher-hops-content beverage potential Tweet-takes! Start with the “Leaves of Grass  are always greener on the other side” view of America in general. Thanks, I guess, for the “negros” exception that is altogether too large and horrible for a sub-clause. No mention of the state-side colonialism regarding indigenous peoples. And, wait a minute, women! Orwell’s “America men” freedom isn’t just accidental language-convention-gendering in historical context. I could go on, with anti-immigrant prejudices galore, and….

But. What Orwell is demonstrating here, intentionally or not, is that Whitman painted a plausible reality, containing vivid details of ordinary, mundane reality, of an America that supplanted those things, where open desire, freedom, and comradeship existed in plus and overplus. Did Whitman fool the wily Orwell into thinking that was actually, abundantly so in the years before and during an American bloodbath, or is Orwell suggesting, however inadvertently, what art can try to do, and while failing and retrying, help to accomplish?

I sometimes misread the “darling buds of May” as the “daring buds of May.”  These seem so strange, so alien, as they emerge.


This is enough for a Part 1, but rest, and only later think about this: can your art spur on change — or rather, not just urge it on with the spur and the whip, but with the portrayal of where we must go in a hurry?

As to music, here’s another audio piece you may have missed, using a 1920 poem by German Anarchist writer Erich Mühsam that I translated into English. This post from last July tells what I learned about Mühsam’s life and that of his mentor who first published the poem, Gustav Landauer. In the post, there’s a Whitman connection. Player gadget below for some of you, or if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlinkwill play the audio piece.


*The hypocrisy of that is: the pundits most often have no more skin in the game in these matters than some artists; and that the ordinary Internet people, who often wish to self-proclaim their ordinariness, may have by definition no more expertise than another person whose job it is to observe and extract transmittable reality.

**Small, dear, peripheral, and personal aside here. Anaïs Nin was the writer specifically noted as existing inside the titular whale, Jonah-like, in the essay — and so, in Orwell’s judgement, then beneficially cut-off and protected from politically-charged writing. My late wife was once writing an article for a national “woman’s publication” on the cultural phenomenon of journaling, circa 1979. In a phone call discussing her sources for the article, her editor suggested she could setup an interview with Anaïs Nin. When the call ended, she and I had the writers vs. editors conspiratorial laugh over that unintentionally Ouija-level suggestion, as Nin was then two-years dead.

I Heard of Emerson and Wagons

“Hitch your wagon to a star”. We all know what it means, and we’re wrong.

Well, maybe we’re not exactly wrong: it’s human to draw a variety of meanings from what other humans communicate. The Emily Dickinson poem in the last post is perfect example. I don’t know exactly what Dickinson was trying to say in I Felt a Funeral in My Brain, but the strength of the language and music of her saying of it compels anyway. Poems, particularly short poems, often benefit from this kind of ambiguity. They become, in effect, several poems, poems that are experienced differently—even by the same reader—at each reading. In the end those varied readings become a kind of unstable hologram, a poem that the reader can see around corners in. I think that’s one of the benefits of these Parlando project recordings. You can listen to the words without making singular understanding the all-important goal as you enjoy the musical setting, and you can repeat the process of hearing them. A poem is not an important email from your boss that you must understand correctly immediately.

An essay on the other hand does prioritize clarity. “Hitch your wagon to a star” is from one of Emerson’s essays, and Emerson is a very clear essayist. You can read the published version of the essay, Civilization, where the famous quote appears here.

For the moment, I’m going to pass on Emerson’s racialist and sometimes racist views which saturate much of the first half of that essay. If you are an Indigenous American or a Central African, you may be so revolted by this section that anything Emerson says later may be lost on you. TLDNR: despite some nods to North African, Arabian, Buddhist, and Icelandic (Iceland! Was Emerson predicting Sigur Rós, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Björk?) cultures; civilization is kind of white, temperate zone, coastal U.S./European thing. Gee Ralph, checked your white privilege much lately?

In the second half of the essay, Emerson develops another point. He starts by saying “Civilization depends on morality.” What expectations does that sentence give you? Anytime you read that sentence in the last 50 years, you know what comes next:  a catalog of received, traditional, probably religious, precepts that the author will no-doubt find are being violated frequently by a fallen mankind who is ignoring this at their peril. You expect him to say “Stop screwing around with traditional morality, or civilization is doomed.” Is this what you get?

Nope. He’s soon launching into a rhapsody about the telegraph, and since he doesn’t mention that great mid-19th century technology by name, you could almost dump it word for word into the last part of the 20th century as praise for the Internet. As he talks about the telegraph’s “invisible pockets” you almost think he must be about to invent TCP/IP protocols more than a hundred years early! Instead of the Moral Majority, you get Emerson the Steam Punk.

And then he moves on to describe a then common Massachusetts technology, a mill that was powered by ocean tides, and at his observation of this, he says:

“Now that is the wisdom of a man, in every instance of his labor, to hitch his wagon to a star, and see his chore done by the gods themselves. That is the way we are strong, by borrowing the might of the elements.”

From there Emerson develops the thought that a natural morality of utility, justice, civil order and freedom is—like the geo-thermal power of tides—an undeniable force for progressive change and improvement.

This section of Emerson’s essay is still a complex and novel approach. Emerson’s fellow Transcendentalist Theodore Parker condensed this thought in a way that Martin Luther King often cited:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Is this not proof of the maxim? Emerson in the middle of the 19th century, suffering from the ignorance and misapprehensions of racialism and racism, yet works for abolition of slavery and his philosophy helps inspire others a hundred years later to bring about long-delayed progress?

So that’s why I say we misunderstand “Hitch your wagon to a star.” Emerson would approve the gist of our misunderstanding: that it’s good to set goals high—but that’s not what he meant. What he meant on striking the coinage was more like “align yourself with the natural moral laws of the universe and your struggle for change gains great power.”

Radio Flyer Wagon

Today’s audio piece, I Heard of Emerson and Wagons recounts my mother telling me to “Hitch your wagon to a star” when I was a child. She, like most of us, meant it in the “dream big” way, and in that busy-parent way “yes, that’s nice. Dream big, but I’m busy right now.”  In this piece, the young me is puzzled by just which big dream is the right one—just the thing that Emerson thought he was, in fact, offering guidance on.

To hear the LYL Band perform I Heard of Emerson and Wagons, just click on the gadget that will appear below.