EssaysWeekend

Thomas McEvilley: And Autumnstruck We Would Not Hear the Song

by Charles Bernstein on March 2, 2014

McEvilley

Thomas McEvilley (photo by Joyce Burstein)

When autumn lay like a drawn sword in the hills
And chilled us with its deathly radiance,
We flushed like leaves that beauty’s fever kills
And asked what lover loves with permanence.

And rising to the trail we rode away
From fever of that blade, and would not see
Where all around the dreams of lovers lay
Which once the summer guarded jealously.

And autumnstruck we would not hear the song
That echoes in the painful hearts of these
Who lingered by love’s fountain overlong
And lost their dreams among the fallen leaves.

                                                                     —Thomas McEvilley

Everyone talks about working outside the box but most of us don’t even know what box we’re boxed in by so we box ourselves in all the more. The work of Thomas McEvilley not only shows the imaginary fly the way out of actual fly bottles but also shows that preposterous insect, who represents our homing instincts (nostos), how to get back in, even though the ‘in’ is not what it was or what it will be either, once you sit down, take the several loads off your mind, and think about it.

Scholar, poet, novelist, art historian, critic, and translator, McEvilley was born July 13, 1939 and died March 2, 2013. He grew up in Cincinnati, where he studied Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and classical philosophy in the classics programs of the University of Cincinnati (BA), and the University of Washington (MA).  In 1969, he received a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati in classical philology. He taught at Rice University from 1969 to 2005, commuting there for many years after he moved to New York. In 2005, he founded the M.F.A. in Art Criticism and Writing Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

His art essays are collected in several books published by Bruce McPherson of McPherson & Company: Art & Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity (1991), Art & Discontent: Theory at the Millennium (1992), The Triumph of Anti-Art: Conceptual and Performance Art in the Formation of Post-Modernism (2005), Yves the Provocateur: Yves Klein and Twentieth Century Art (2010); and Art, Love, Friendship: Marina Abramovic and Ulay (2010).  His other books of art criticism and history are Sculpture in the Age of Doubt (Allworth Press, 1999) and The Exile’s Return: Toward a Redefinition of Painting for the Post-Modern Era (Cambridge University Press, 1994). In addition, McEvilley wrote monographs, catalog essays, and critical reviews of James Lee Byars, Carolee Schneemann, Julian Schnabel, Les Levine, Pat Steir, Antoni Tapies, Sigmar Polke, Dennis Oppenheim, Kara Walker, Nancy Spero, Thornton Dial, Leon Golub, Richard Tuttle, Agnes Martin, Joseph Beuys, Paul McCarthy, William Anastasi, Susan Bee, and many other artists.

In 1984, McEvilley published in Artforum a critical account of William Rubin’s and J. Kirk Varnedoe’s 1984 Museum of Modern Art show “Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.” This essay, and the exchanges that followed, illustrate McEvilley’s rhetorical power to show the willfully parochial world of institutional high art that there is an outside to their jealously guarded inside, an outside which, for the moment, let’s call non-Western cultures. This outside continues to exist not only adjacent to our inside but also under it: it is the ground on which we walk.

McEvilley’s more important, harder to grasp, teaching is that our erection of the dog and pony show of Western Civ has disconnected us from the living Western tradition that is our classical inheritance, an inheritance we have systematically misrecognized, squandered, and disfigured.

In 1987, McPherson and Company published McEvilley’s North of Yesterday, which, like The Arimaspia, or Songs for Rainy Season, is a Menippean satire. These two literary works are closely related to each other and distinct in genre from McEvilley’s other works. McEvilley also published two monumental philological studies that bear directly on The Arimaspia: The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies (Allworth, 2001) and Sappho (Spring, 2008). At the time of his death, he was working on a study of The Greek Anthology, which overlaps with The Arimaspia.

 The Greek Anthology is a gathering of about 4,500 short Greek poems by about 300 poets. The poems cover a millennium of Greek verse, from the 7th century BCE to the 6th century CE (from the time of Homer to the Roman age). As a source for The Arimaspia, McEvilley used the Loeb Classical Library edition, which published a set of translations by W. R. Patton in 1916-1918.

Cover cut 02072014 Meleager of Gadara (first century BCE) was the most important compiler of The Greek Anthology and Meleager included his own great poems in the collection. McEvilley seeds The Arimaspia with a set of ten of his own arresting Meleager translations, many of which were composed in the 1960s (these can be identified fairly easily in the narrative since they are framed by references to Meleager). The narrator of The Arimaspia is a poet/philosopher from Gadara, a latter-day follower of Meleager, who journeys from Gadara to India with “the idea of … of establishing a philosophy school in India and fomenting a synthesis of Greek and Indian thought.” Perhaps the narrator — who went to college in Antioch (Greece, not Ohio!) and graduate school in Alexandria, and who is serially reincarnated over the hundreds of years of the story – is an avatar for the author. For in The Arimaspia, palimpsest displaces continuity: the unreliable narrator is a figure of imagination.

Gadara was a Greek city in ancient Syria (it sits at the border of present-day Jordan, Israel, and Syria). Apart from Meleager, Gadara’s most famous son is Menippus (third century BCE) and though the work of this wit does not survive, his followers established the genre of Menippean satire. Menippean satire is a speculatively mixed-genre genre: it is an essay in the sense of a trying or testing. The Menippean moves from socially satirical prose to lyric verse, philosophy to fiction, often touching on current topics. McEvilley’s version of Menippean satire is digressive, wild, fantastical, and has shifting points of view; it is intermittently comic, with strong narrative threads. The Arimaspia and North of Yesterday are exemplary contemporary Menippean satires. North of Yesterday was labeled as a “novel” and there is much to justify calling The Arimaspia a novel. But I prefer to think of The Arimaspia as a picaresque epic poem because it continually pivots on lyric poems that unhinge plot while casting the narrative like a fisherman casts his line. Bahktin saw the hybridization in Menippean satire as germinal for the carnivalesque novel and Menippean is sometimes just used to mean broad social satire. As company for McEvilley’s sense of the Menippean, beyond Sterne, Pound, and Joyce, who were key writers for McEvilley, I’d propose (in American literature), William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, John Dos Passos’s U.S.A,  Raymond Federman’s Take It or Leave It, Nathaniel Mackey’s epistolary poem/essays/novels, The Midnight, and The Nonconformist’s Memorial (Susan Howe’s mixed genre works), Madeleine Gins’s Helen Keller or Arakawa, Leslie Scalapino’s How Phenomena Appear to Unfold and Zither & Autobiography, as well as my own My Way: Speeches and Poems and Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions.

Then again, with all the sophists who populate The Arimaspia, it might be just as well to think of this work under the sign of ’pataphysics, Alfred Jarry’s swerve-inducing science of imperceivable solutions to opaque problems. The Arimaspia is filled with mind-twirling zen dialogues and epigrams, suggesting if not Heraklitus on acid than Homer retold by Thomas Pynchon.

The title Arimaspia comes from a lost ancient road trip poem of that title by Aristeas of Proconnesus, from the seventh century BCE Herodotus says that the Arimaspi were a one-eyed people from Scythia who fought an ongoing battle with the griffons to capture their hoard of gold. This book is the site of that battle.

The Arimaspia is a work of grand collage and radical pastiche, in which McEvilley’s own poems, translations and narrative are hard to distinguish from the cascade of borrowed materials. Indeed, The Arimaspia is replete with citation and quotation: even the material that was not appropriated sounds as if it could have been — and each rubbing (as of an epitaph) comes across as fresh insight, made new for new time.

Stunning in its archaic originality, The Arimaspia is a work of extraordinary learning, steeped in classical references that go well beyond the ken of most readers. At a certain point, the dance of the sources gives way to an immanent experience of refamiliarization, in which long-elided classical works come to life.

It’s Greek to me! The marvelous conjuring trick of The Arimaspia is to take up Isocrates’s notion that to be Greek is to absorb Greek thought, a Hellenocentric idea adopted by Alexander the Great whose concept of merging East and West in his campaign to Hellenize (invade rather than colonize) India in 326 BCE is central both to The Arimaspia and The Shape of Ancient Thought, which can be read as twin works (and indeed the narrator of The Arimaspia follows an intellectual and geographic itinerary — from Greece to India — similar to that of The Shape of Ancient Thought).

The Arimaspia incorporates extensive sampling and adapting of Nonnus’s Dionysiaca (from the 4th or 5th century CE), often in italic inserts. This long poem chronicles Dionysus’s voyage to India (Zeus ordered Dionysus to conquer India) and as such is especially relevant for McEvilley’s engagement with the crossover between Indian and Greek culture in the Axial era, to use Karl Jasper’s term for the period hundreds of years before and after Homer. Because of the extensive quoting from this source, Dionysus might be the presiding spirit of The Arimaspia. McEvilley uses W. H. D. Rouse’s translations from the Loeb Classical Library (1940), usually adding lineation to Rouse’s prose translations. Other sources include Homer, Orphic lore, The Contest of Homer and Hesiod, sophist Phiostratus the Elder and essayist Clement of Alexandria (both from the 2d century CE), along with Greek Anthology translations by McEvilley of Anacreontea poems and poems by Philodemus (like Meleager also from Gadara).

Amidst the narrative and the web of citation are two startling poems by McEvilley, published here for the first time though probably dating from 1964. One of these is the epigraph to this preface. Listen to the other:

About his head no dark no dark blooms dove,
Confusing his passion invulnerable and so
Blossoming cruel flowers of the grave.

But pacing among the slain he sought the grove
Whence stirred the dreams in which those sleepers lay
about whose heads the dark, the dark blooms dove.

So underneath his body and above
The blood made pitiful armor where he lay
Strewn with scarlet flowers of the grave.

Then we, like restless sleepers who, alive,
Scream for the rest that laid that hero low
About whose head the dark, the dark blooms dive,

Bore him away, laid by the breaking wave,
Safe, safe in the gracious fingers of the sea
that proffered splashy flowers for the grave,

and laid on his whitest breast the gold, the mauve,
grand robes of innocence, and then we knew
about our heads the dark, the dark flames dove;
blossomed hideous flowers of the grave

*   *   *

In early September 2013, I got a call to come visit Tom. He was sick with esophageal cancer. I got off at the wrong subway stop — it was after nightfall and the rain was coming down so thickly I couldn’t read the street signs or see more than a foot ahead. Often disoriented, I proceeded to walk many blocks in the wrong direction. When I finally arrived at Tom and Joyce’s apartment on the deep lower east side, late and soaking, I found Tom in a big hospital bed that had been installed in the living room. He talked with me about the surgery he would be having at Memorial Sloan Kettering. I saw him one more time at home and then began visiting him in the hospital, where he went in and out of intensive care. Tom stayed in the hospital a little over four months, and his hospital rooms became a shadow world between death and life. While his death often seemed imminent, so did his recovery; and it went like that, with hope undercut by close calls, Tom taking this final journey — alive to each moment of consciousness he could fight for against the rapacious clutches of his afflictions.

One day in early March, I tried to call Tom at the hospital but could not get through to him or to Joyce. Late that night, sleepless, I began to write a poem sparked by two lines in the 15th-century ballad, “The Not-Browne Mayd” that had been going through my head, though I didn’t know why:

Wherfore I wyll to the grene wode go;
Alone, a banished man.

As I was finishing the poem, I got a note from Joyce.

Tom was sleeping.

He died two days later.

The Green Wood is the imaginary space of the outlaw and of banishment, from which we can begin our voyages of return (nostoi).

It is, like all Tom’s work, a testing ground.

Song of the Wandering Poet

For Tom

I must now to the green wood go
And make a house of clay and stone
And lay upon the barren floor
And weep for what I have no more.
There will I make a diadem
Of broken glass and borrowed hemp
Remembering true times I’ve spent
In wasted moment’s sweetly scent
Torn by maelstroms, frail, unkempt.

*   *   *

Celebrating the life and work of Thomas McEvilley (1939–2013) and the publication of his new books The Arimaspia: Songs for the Rainy Seasonfrom McPherson & Co, and Seventeen Ancient Poems: Translations from Greek and Latin.

The tribute will feature Carolee Schneemann, Holland Cotter, Pat Steir, Les Levine, William Anastasi, Susan Bee, George Quasha, Richard Fletcher, Bruce McPherson, Stacy Szymaszek, Dove Bradshaw, Ann McCoy, David Shapiro, Joyce Burstein, Charles Bernstein (emcee), and special video tribute by Marina Abramovic.

The event will take place Wednesday, March 5, 8pm, at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church (131 E 10th Street, East Village, Manhattan).

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.

Previous post:

Next post: