HOME / THE POETS / ESSAYS / THE NUTS AND THE BOLTS / RESOURCES.


Simon Jarvis, these Greeks and Poetry as initiation.

This (as with all things Jarvis) may take some time. I'm going to try to pay attention to and think about the Greek 'element' in Dionysus Crucified' and its tricky relationship with the early church. I think when I originally wrote about this piece of startling excess I'd made a decision to concentrate on form rather than content. I now see this as an error primarily because I've now encountered Euripides' Bacchae and both (as I should have realised) infrms the other. My only excuse is the radically different nature of the 'look' of the words on the page dragged me in the wrong direction.

I'm often of the view that readers should concentrate on the poem and what it says rather than the surrounding flummery that often gets in the way of both appreciation and readerly pleasure. I find that I have to make an exception in the case of DC because the subject matter relates directly to the flummery. my other excuse is that some of the poem is written in the 'manner' of Euripides' Bacchae.

In terms of reference, I'm going to lean heavily on Richard Seaford's work on Dionysos in general and on Bacchae in particular and lightly on the Enitharmon recordings of the exchange between Rowan Williams and Simon at the launch of Night Office last year. I'm going to ignore, for the moment, most of the second half of the poem in order to follow this through on the next Jarvis 'installment' .

Starting with some of the basics DC begins with:


    I to the land of Thebes I Dionysus son of Zeus have come have come and son of daughter of KADMOS SEMELE have come too born of divine fire.

and Bacchae begins with:


    I am come, son of Zeus, in this Theban land, Dionysus, to whom
    the daughter of Kadmos once gave birth, Semele, midwived by
    lightning-borne fire.

This is a clear indicator that we're starting with the Greek and what follows is , as with the play, an account of the clash between Dionysus and Pentheus, the king of Thebes. The basic thrust of the play is the struggle for supremacy between the cult and the state. The identical conceit in Dis the lengthy exchange between our two protagonists by means of (v technical term) stichomythia which the OED helpfully defines as " In classical Greek Drama, dialogue in alternate lines, employed in sharp disputation, and characterized by antithesis and rhetorical repetition or taking up of the opponent's words". Here's a small part of such an exchange in the Bacchae;


    Dionysus     Sir, it is still possible to arrange these things well.

    Pentheus     By doing what? Being a slave to my slaves?

    Dionysus      I will bring the women here without using weapons.

    Pentheus      Alas! now this is a trick you are devising against me.

    Dionysus      What kind of trick, if I wished to save you by my arts?

    Pentheus      You and the women made this compact, so that you may be bacchants perpetually.

and this is from Jarvis, 'Π' denotes Pentheus as does 'Δ' for Dionysus.


                                                                                                                             Π
    Scrounge transcendentally then: I from the earnt work of growth in each lived and indelible rhythm walk out in blessed relation and love.
                                                                                                                             Δ
    Beating your bounds with the salaried hirelings alone: everyone else has gone down to the disco to try to forget their unbearable meaningless work.  
                                                                                                                              Π                        
    Yes, there are idylls; the task may recede and the path may go down to long grass at the side of the river where indolence dangles a finger.
                                                                                                                              Δ
    Get out the brochure, then: every city in EUROPE has subsidized airports: one of them must need an unemployed hierophant looking for work as a cicerone.
                                                                                                                              Π
    D is for disincarnetion, DIONYSUS, long dissolutions and dark disappearances down to the loss of real irrefragable substance of perduring soul.
                                                                                                                              Δ
    PSEUDO-DIONYSUS naming divinely the shadows of angels, Pentheus, priest, your personificatory prose-paraphrasable phoneme parader, ear your dead letter.

Pentheus imprisons Dionysus who then escapes by supernaturally destructive means and successfully tempts Pentheus to spy on the bacchic rituals where he is attacked and torn apart by the maenads, including his own mother, - the female followers of Dionysus.

I think it's fair to propose that Simon is very critical of many aspects of life under capitalism and views the materialism that it thrives on as both illusory and destructive. As noted above, we have this clash between the strength and violence of the state and the joyous frenzy of the cult. Again, I've needed to resort to the OED for several of the words in the DC dialogue:

Hierophant. " An official expounder of sacred mysteries or religious ceremonies, esp. in ancient Greece; an initiating or presiding priest".

Cicerone. "A guide who shows and explains the antiquities or curiosities of a place to strangers".

Irrefragable. " That (which) cannot be refuted or disproved; incontrovertible, incontestable, indisputable, irrefutable, undeniable".

Perduring. " Lasting, permanent, enduring continuously."

Phoneme. ". A unit of sound in a language that cannot be analysed into smaller linear units and that can distinguish one word from another" and / or - "A speech sound".

Before I get on to the standard arduity big word rant, I think that this exchange is particularly brilliant in that it presents the 'essence' of Bacchae in a way that speaks directly to us in the 21st century. I'm trying hard not to get overly lit crit here but the work that is said to be both meaningless and impossible to tolerate carries more than an echo of Marx' critique of the dystopian condition of the proletariat. I feel a kind of bleeding-heart liberal unease about the disco sneer and am tempted to launch a vigorous defence of popular culture but I'd rather concentrate on the line as a whole. I'm reading the 'salaried hirelings' as being all of us that live under the sway of free market capital and support the workings of the state in its ongoing efforts at making us docile. One of the most tragic aspects of Late Capital is that the vast majority of people are content / happy to live the intolerable life because they don't see any viable alternative and they don't recognise their lives as unbearable.

Now for the big words, this is a work that should be read by everyone who has an interest in poetry but it won't be if it makes use of a vocabulary that most people will be so deterred by that they won't bother with it. Such usage effectively bars most people from the poem and this makes me sad.

Part of the Jarvis project is to emphasise and demonstrate our various complicities in a pernicious and destructive system yet it's significant in the discussion that both he and Williams agree that it is possible to be professionally part of the establishment but somehow 'against' it. I'm of the view that this isn't the case, I started to work for the state in the secondary means of oppression that we call social work and found myself paid to police the children of the underclass and to simultaneously 'rescue' the victims of abuse but still felt that I was doing political work to change a system that I (angry young man) despised. I now see this as hopelessly naive because I under-estimated the power of the state to accommodate and nullify any kind of active opposition. So, complicity is complicty is complicity but Jarvis is nevertheless effective in making us ex-hirelings give this further consideration.

Now for initiation, one of the apsects of Greek culture (even though it was derided by Plato) was the belief that most poetry was allegorical and that these allegories 'masked' hidden truths that contained religious insights into the ways of the gods. This was also the view of some early Christian scholars. It is becoming increasingly apparent that acquiring knowledge of these inner meanings was a crucial part of the initiation of individuals into a particular cult. In my small brain this triggers off a thought about contemporary work, especially the late/high modernists and whether my readerly attention is in part a means of self-initiation into a group that I want to be part of. I'd like to emphasise here that I don't feel at all that poetry in any way has privleged access to the 'truth' but I do accept that I might want to be part of the wider poetry 'gang' and that access to this gang might involve paying close attention to what some work points or alludes to. I'm also reminded of the line from Prynne's To Pollen: "...Or does that tell / you enough, resilient brotherhood is this the one / inclined".

This isn't that tangenital because the next part of the DC dialogue is an extended riff on Augustine and Origen who was the main proponent of reading scripture as standing for other things rather than solely a historic account.

I'd like to finish this extended piece of guesswork with a reflection to Simon's view of the relationship between joy and pain. This is Jean-Paul Vernant on the role of Dionysus in Bacchae:

The spectators also see that foreigner but realize that he is a disguise for the god, a disguise through which the latter can eventually be made known fo what he is: a masked god whose coming will bring the fulfillment of joy to some, but to others, those unable to recognise him, nothing but destruction.