A Philosophical Review of Tales of the Buckman Tavern

What’s it to me
if these continue on and live
without a history?
My best friend died;
the winds, the pines, the redwoods are allied.
I am outside; does no one live inside?
                         — from “The King,” Tales of the Buckman Tavern
Forgetfulness is white,—white as a blasted tree,
And it may stun the sybil into prophecy,
Or bury the Gods.

I can remember much forgetfulness.
                         — Hart Crane
Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows round it. With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of whither it is to lead.
                         — William James

The contradiction is that the self is transported into the larger spaces of heightened imagination and perception, undoubtedly, through the poetics, and yet the existence of the self is repeatedly questioned, not with the urgency of High Modernist objectivity, but with an instinctive scrutiny of any such ostensibly effortless union of self and world. And so we have Ben Mazer’s records of the habitual eye; but for the fact that normal ‘seeing’ in these poems preclude complete faith in the optical spectacle.

That is one possible interpretation of the form of his sensibility, for the language fluidly embodies the unreachable aims of the aesthetic, without deception, stunts, or trance-like agreeability; a lyricism that does not trace back to sylvan beginnings. Are we on Bergsonian time? I think we are still with Mazer, where the world is given its lavish particulars precisely to set us back into a contingency of self. This is not identical to the conflation of emotion with the external world, amounting to second-rate distortion, in order to achieve the aesthetics of an eroded, tenuous self. Here we do not have a metaphysics intended to pillage the dark Unconscious, or the hard mechanized external world by contrast; we have a strange trade between the two, softened, if only in the sense that there are gradations of color that palpitate within shadow and shade, and which is, for lack of a more civilized term, pseudo-innocent in its apparent profusion of memory and vision. As Ruskin wrote, “A bough is never drawn rightly if it is not wayward.”

Ergo, Tales of the Buckman Tavern.

“In a word, we consider matter before the dissociation which idealism and realism have brought about between its existence and its appearance,” wrote Henri Bergson in his 1910 introduction to Matter and Memory. The dissociation is an invitation, or so the work of Ben Mazer would have us believe. In place of a Bergsonian appeal to common sense, suspended between Descartes and Berkeley (the usual suspects), we have heightened sense. Je me souviens. The ‘I’ of memory is fraught with unpleasant energy, but to cause little visible strain on the surface of the work. The kiss of abstraction.

Memory and dissociation; perception and illusion. This is shared terrain between philosophers and poets. In a word: metaphysics. What place, after all, does metaphysics have for us now? It is a strange question. In the realm of morality, metaphysics once reigned supreme. Two categories: realist and anti-realist, which splintered into many further categories. The question of whether moral values are objective hasn’t died out, just refer to Derek Parfit’s latest hefty volumes. The objectivity of value remains one of the bedrock philosophical questions, as moral values are one of many such items that have treacherously stimulated the theoretical need to fit them into (i) the world of natural things, or (ii) the world of the mind. And that is the very same metaphysical impulse which crosses over to language and memory.

Or is it? Here it is less a matter of metaphysical position than pose. The pose, in all its splendor of artifice, must have some grounding in a self. If language and memory do not require theoretical justification, and if it is possible, in a breath, to dissociate from memory’s epistemic ruins, then in what does the self consist?

For the philosopher, this is a non-self belonging to absolutely nowhere, which is a very bad philosophical result for all but the nihilists; for the poet, the self does not especially need to exist. To claim that the self is unnecessary is not equivalent to the claim that the self is not present in the work itself. There are degrees of presence, and typically, they correspond to the poet’s metaphysics: the more ‘necessary’ the self, the more ‘epistemic’ the memories, and therefore, the more fully fleshed the poet’s embodiment in the work. However, it might be said that the Modernists favored a severance of these clinging strands. Not because this was how reality presented itself, or that reality was to be thrown yet again into dispute; no, and quite clerically, because there was a quandary that did not admit of any readily available resolution, that the self seemed most present in the work because it was unnecessary on every level (memory being considered the deepest, most elusive layer). All of the artifice of the metaphysical pose, applying particularly to the most elegant, is, then, (self-) incrimination.

Yet all good metaphysical poets with high-minded flair wish to avoid buggery.




And from Oscar Wilde:

The new manner in art, the fresh mode of looking at life, suggested so strangely by the merely visible presence of one who was unconscious of it all; the silent spirit that dwelt in dim woodland, and walked unseen in open field, suddenly showing herself, Dryad-like and not afraid, because in his soul who sought for her there had been wakened that wonderful vision to which alone are wonderful things revealed; the mere shapes and patterns of things becoming, as it were, refined, and gaining a kind of symbolical value, as though they were themselves patterns of some other and more perfect form whose shadow they made real: how strange it all was! He remembered something like it in history.
                         — The Picture of Dorian Gray

There is quite the open space between the Platonic and the Decadent. It would not be prudent to deny the force of the question of decadence, another pose, the consequence of separating the aesthetic from the real, the entanglement of beauty and death. Hence, the repeated questioning in Buckman Tavern of what is being signified. If progress (moral, social, individual) and decadence are in opposition to each other, but the opposition itself is regarded as illusory, entirely estranged from the real, then we must assent to the conclusion that language and thought have exacerbated the condition of their imaginary tension. What is the correct tone to take? Simple indignation that decadence has signified nothing of real, concrete, epistemological value? What of the tremulous, insistent, quasi-observational tone, the twists and turns of a sparkling and, yes, decadent imagination; of an undeterred yet sparing skeptic? I think this is one of the few tones to have, that draws a bit of blood from an honorable lineage I daren’t mention, yet belongs to Mazer alone. So that is all. I want to say at this point, ‘You don’t read a poet for his theories. You read him for the poems. Read the poems.’ However, have we not been appointed to delve into the qualities of the aesthetic experience that follow from an engagement with Mazer’s work? It would not be sufficient to touch upon the metaphysical pillars of realism / empiricism versus idealism, or objectivity and nihilism, or the Platonic and the Decadent, or however one wishes to conceptualize these matters while evaluating a work along the dimension of (degrees of) Modernity, to whisper or to bellow in high tones of praise, then have the dark red curtains drawn together again.

I should like to say something about the compass of the aesthetic experience itself.

For it is on account of this tone that I believe Tales of the Buckman Tavern is well-situated. It is impossible to have a first reading of Buckman Tavern without consideration of its natural tone, which caresses the flare-ups of Modernism. On subsequent readings, one is thrown, without cordial regret, into a delicate troubledness over the purpose of this, or perhaps of any, aesthetic experience. There are many open sources of emotion, yet there is a property urging us against the complacent belief that aesthetic appreciation qua appraisal is solely emotional. The joints of this body of thought are exposed and hidden according to the intentions, conscious and unconscious, of the author. Ben Mazer. So should we be concerned that these poems are merely a record of certain vice-laden patterns of forgetting—and remembering—of a particular cognizer-poet? A record of fragmented introspective peculiarities?

No, this would be a serious miscalculation: the concern is something other than this. Namely: that the simple endeavor of preservation through memory cannot be the case, in terms of the individualistic act,i as applied to any individual, regardless of how collective forms of memory apply pressure upon the individual. The individual really is alone in this. At first glance, this does not square with Mazer’s work in aesthetics, where he has declared investment in epiphany and the denial of ambiguity’s monopoly on poetry’s expressive properties, in favor of the “atomic fact” of the poem (these facts fortifying the poem to withstand interpretation). Mazer’s work in aesthetics and the elusiveness of the poems themselves are as antithetical to each other as they ought to be. I have stated that the concern present throughout Buckman Tavern is with the impossibility of the individualistic act of memory; the aim of preservation. Philosophers and psychologists propose theories about what exactly is preserved by memory; it would appear that the truth-seeking poet is in no condition to make good on these theories. It is a tall order for the poet to deliver the result that the basic metaphysical elements of reality are both (i) crucially unmotivated (rife with perceptual gaps) and (ii) a unity in the empathic consciousness of the poet. I am undecided as to the terminus of this complexity in Tales of the Buckman Tavern—as reviewer, I cannot say. As writer, I should know better than to say.

It is, however, electrifying.

For now, I wish to put forward that the poet is embedded in the intuitions and anti-intuitions of memory, a kind of prisoner of memory, who is concerned with the traces of a life and self that appear to be in need of construction. There is no purity. It is all vice. Memory amoralii (or at least ‘lacking mores’, 72), memory without language (‘Wordlessly as memory’, 68): we now have pieces of evidence of the formal fatalism of memory and language. The light glares, and windows, the hinges upon which vision can be turned inwards or outwards, are tired, ragged things. This is in part the world of Buckman Tavern. The metaphysics grow stranger still in poems such as ‘Gethsemane’, ‘Hell’s Angels’, and the fabulous ‘Monsieur Barbary Brecht’. The ‘shabby port’, the preservation of ‘some semblance of royal order’ (‘New South Wales’, 52) have all gone to hell in a handbasket, as we reach the baldest declaration of this line of thought in the ramblings of tragedy in ‘The Double’ (58), where visual logic has turned in on itself: ‘One sees who is going by all right, but one doesn’t see who is going by.’

As such—hints at open sources of emotion suddenly become closed:

(And such a face will pin me with its meaning.)
(And warm warm breasts that have no need for feeling,
portraiture depending from another ceiling.)
                         — ‘The Microfilm City’, 70

And we have an estranged Idealism:

Scenery that no one sees.
Perpetual vacuities.
                         — ‘Second Rhapsody on a Winter Night’, 66

Why do we care what has happened to ‘the figurement of the Platonic wall’, then? (‘While You Were Watching Richard Harris’, 72). There is nothing that cannot be reversed—seasons, faces, distance, causality, vision, celluloid, and let it be said, the most divine method of perceptual extension, poetry: ‘Poems are but evidence of poetry’ (‘Death and Minstrelsy’, 61). The aesthetic experience—consisting here by virtue of the medium of language, faults and all—is meant to surviveiii the ambit of these admissions. If that is so, and I intend to leave this open, then the aesthetic experience must have a certain shape to it. It is narrower, is it not? The formal, aesthetic and expressive properties are compressed—for the moral properties are shown to be orthogonal to the purpose of memory, and the cognitive properties of the artwork are rendered so volatile as to overthrow the project of memory altogether—into a considerably autonomous characterization of the aesthetic experience.

One might say that there is a lack of ethical design in Buckman Tavern—there are emotions the formal structures are intended to support, but they are not obviously morally-laden. Because this—that the only mandated emotional response is ambiguity (particularly moral)—has been played out so often as a superior decision in modernist poetry and literature, it is important to see that there has been an individual conflict to resuscitate and reclaim it all over again. I wonder about this. When are formal gestures of defeat aesthetically honorable? When is the defeat ever enhanced by redundant attempts to re-trace the steps leading up to it? How do we know history, the trials of our literary forefathers of 1910? Weren’t these works great because they made available to us, slyly if you like, more than what they mandated?

First, to compress is not necessarily to reduce. Certain forms of aesthetic compression can liberate possibilities. It is on the generation of these possibilities that the artwork ought to be judged. The philosophy of art that follows from Buckman Tavern is one that radically separates the aesthetics of poetry from other realms of practice. This is why poems are but evidence of poetry: they cannot be evidence of anything else. This is also why a philosophical review of Buckman Tavern cannot, in principle, be taken at face value. Poetry has dimensions other than purely aesthetic ones, quite uncontroversially, yet there is a force at work in Buckman Tavern that compresses everything ultimately into an aesthetic value. And it holds up. Some reviewers have noted the traditional poetic forms in which Mazer succeeds (including verse drama, cf. A City of Angels, Cy Gist Press) as though he were some kind of Romantic, or what might be termed an idle, nostalgic formalist, or worse, an implausible amalgamation of the two.

I think this misses the point, as the forms are beautiful surfaces despairing at times over their own purpose, which isn’t nostalgia, and if intuition can morph into a form of intellectual entrapment, then this isn’t Romanticism. A philosophical assessment is most desirable for what is at stake in Tales of the Buckman Tavern, especially as some of the poems strike one as thought experiments involving the invention of language, the invention of ambiguity, destabilizing the surfaces; however, it is in some sense judiciously blocked. For this reason, the aesthetic is purposefully uncertain. It provokes and denies the same principle; an asymmetrical consequence of such a powerful celebration of the apriority of the poet’s holistic authority. While I withhold judgment as to the scope and origin of this authority, I put it to you that Mazer’s stance is clever, as regards the task of handling permanent metaphysical temptations.

Behind every brick there’s a visual trick,
an encapturement that’s luminoso,
in the rain, in the brain, in the strain, in the wane
of enrapturement, tres furioso.
It’s a kind of a click, that may not or may stick,
and may trap what I meant, I suppose so.
Like back issues of old magazines might reflect
a spectrum of tissues—Monsieur Barbary Brecht!

Wittgenstein, most sensibly, urged us against the fallacy of wordless thought. Yet, in Tales of the Buckman Tavern, we have proof of an American lineage, establishing a baseline of aestheticism but rising above by its intense instigation of the experience of language. I admire the work.

November 2012


  1. The word preservation is used throughout Buckman Tavern, almost fixatedly. In any case, one could complicate the argument by treating the individualistic and the social acts of preserving memory not as separate acts but as overlapping. And that is a task for some other review.
  2. ‘I know it is good when the good of it is not noticed.’ Furthermore:
    ‘I am constantly reminded of George Washington
    when I look in at the shapes of windows. Social courtesy looms
    and throws lavish parties.’
    This is a delightful line, social courtesy being the diluted contrast (and trivial cousin) to morality; as we all know, morality in 20th-century analytic philosophy was constantly under threat of being reduced to table manners.
  3. Language, Paul Celan said, was the only thing that remained intact for him after the war.

D.M. STEWART is a writer and philosopher living in New York City.

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