'One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star'- Nietzsche
Get Adobe Flash player

Monthly Archives: August 2013


Richard Nixon’s legacy is more alive and well than it should be

Though Henry Kissinger has put his knee pads back in the prayer closet, Alexander Haig has gone back to being “in charge” of pushing up his daisies, my friend Dave has finally put away his National Lampoon Missing White House Tapes album (Lemmings was better), and old Daniel Ellsberg has put down his party kazoo and gone back to supporting the plight of embattled New York Times journalist James Risen full time, the 40th anniversary celebration of President Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon’s jowly resignation from office on August 8, 1974, has ended all too abruptly for my taste.
So, forgive me if I linger just a little longer over President Paranoid’s demise, and briefly consider what happened in the bracketed historical period After Dick, and discuss where we are today, politically speaking.
Even though America commenced to embrace the healing process necessary to restore confidence in the integrity of the world’s premiere Democratic Republican system just as soon as Nixon boarded that helicopter holding up his Double Vs, it didn’t start out well, for sure, what with new president Gerald Ford’s first order of business being the pardon of the eminently and imminently impeachable president for war criminality abroad and blatant treason at home.
Though the laundry cleansing had actually begun with the Congressional passage of the War Powers Act in 1973, significant reform didn’t seem fully on its way until Frank Church’s Senate hearings of 1975/76 resulted in intensive scrutiny of the extensive “dirty tricks” played by the CIA, NSA and FBI in implementing executive office criminality and in pursuing their own extra-constitutional agendas over a long period of time. The very fearful excesses they engage in now were activities they were engaged in back then as well.
On a 1975 Meet the Press segment, Church cited the breathtaking technological capabilities that US intelligence agencies possessed – even then – and warned that, such were their capabilities, that there would be “nowhere to hide” should those agencies turn their powers on Americans.  He added, “If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back…all agencies that possess this technology [must] operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss…from which there is no return.”
The hearings resulted in the creation of the FISA court in 1978. But neither the War Powers Act nor FISA could hold back the siren call of unbridled power.
In his 1983 Atlantic piece, “The Pardon,” investigative journalist Seymour Hersh recounts the general buzz of potential tyranny in the air around the White House in Nixon’s closing days: “The notion that Nixon could at any time resort to extraordinary steps to preserve his presidency was far more widespread in the government than the public perceived in the early days of Watergate or perceives today.”
Hersh implies that the instigating force of such a potential military coup had come from Nixon’s chief of staff, General Alexander Haig, who had at one point, in the closing days, suggested the possibility of bringing in the 82nd Airborne to surround the White House, ostensibly to protect a worried Nixon.
Hersh recounts a variety of disturbing encounters.  In an interview with an unnamed member of the Joint Chiefs, the four-star general told Hersh that in December 1973, when Nixon could see the writing on the wall, “He kept on referring to the fact that he may be the last hope, the eastern elite was out to get him. He kept saying, ‘This is our last and best hope. The last chance to resist the fascists [of the left].’ His words brought me straight up out of my chair. I felt the President, without the words having been said, was trying to sound us out to see if we would support him in some extra-constitutional action. He was trying to find out whether in a crunch there was support to keep him in power.”
Nixon’s secretary of defense, James Schlesinger, was so shaken by the possibility of a coup by the unstable president, writes Hersh, that he called meetings with high-ranking Pentagon personnel to secure assurances from them that no extra-constitutional support would be forthcoming should the Commander-in-Chief go that way.
But brutal military coups are hard to pull off and maintain in a nation prepared to fight back against tyranny.  But there’s more than one way to skin a catfish, as Mark Twain never said, and the most effective way to achieve the same goal softly would be by getting the People to voluntarily coup themselves.
Beginning in 2000, let’s just say, an unusual array of indisputable facts came together to give the neo-cons just what they dreamed about in their PNAC manifesto, Rebuilding America’s Defenses, which is actually an offensive policy of global interventionism. This American Enterprise think tank report came out two months before Bush stole the 2000 presidential election, and the manifesto’s wistful sigh – such dreams won’t soon come true “absent a new Pearl harbor” — were magically answered a year later, when repeated warnings of an impending attack were ignored in the White House, which, at least indirectly, led to the events of 9 Eleven.
By September 12, 2001, America (and her terrified allies) were ready to respond to any order the burning Bush barked. And the president said to the world, effectively, “You’re either fer us or agin us, and we’re comin ta git all the baddies, however long that takes, which will be forever, because ‘baddies’ will mean whatever we say it means on any given day forever.” And Dick “Dark Shadows” Cheney took off his gloves. And Karl Rove said, “We’re an Empire now.”
And then came the PATRIOT Act, essentially the 1996 Anti-Terrorism Act on steroids, with the Bill of Rights thrown out. No more War Powers worries.  No more FISA inconveniences. Out the window probable cause. Here comes police state secrecy, illegal willy-nilly wars in foreign lands, comprehensive eavesdropping without accountability or just cause, torture, murder, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Robert Bales, Raymond Davies, black sites, journalists shot or jailed, drone strikes on Americans and helpless children, and the prosecution of anyone who leaks truths. Fergusons will become more frequent. Welcome to the New American Century.
Most Americans, even Republicans, were glad to see the Bush era go, and gladly signed on to first African-American President Barack Obama’s message of hope and change, and repeated his mantra, “Yes, we can.” But as all but the wilfully blind see now, Obama is just one more tyrannical liar, but one who blatantly takes executive office excesses far beyond anything Bush would have dared to try.
Glen Ford at Black Agenda Report has accurately described him as “the more effective evil,” because Obama has taught the Left to accept the real politik of the killing fields of power and urged Democrats to join hands with right-wing ideologues and sing Kumbaya from the twisted recesses of Dante’s Inferno.
Easily the single greatest sign of the executive power’s over-reach is the ease with which the Justice Department signed into effect Obama’s justification for killing an American citizen abroad without due process.
In the aptly titled, “7 Pages That Gave President Obama Cover to Kill Americans,” Conor Friedersdorf of Atlantic Monthly shows how the memo weakens the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, and he writes, “As that length suggests, the memo, which could have resulted in a human’s death at any moment, was woefully incomplete as a legal analysis.” It is not merely ironical that the weak memo served the machinations of a Harvard-schooled constitutional scholar, it’s terrifying in its implications.
And if the Morbidly Obese Lady isn’t singing it’s only because her high blood pressure pills have knocked her out on the sofa.
There’s more than one way to skin a catfish.
This piece first appeared in the Prague Post on August 31, 2014.

It is fair enough to acknowledge Carl Plasa’s sharp point that Tennyson’s poem, “The Lady of Shalott,” is “a text whose operations are profoundly equivocal.”[1. Carl Plasa, “Cracked from Side to Side: Sexual Politics in ‘The Lady of Shalott,’ <ital>Victorian Poetry</ital> 30.3-4 (1992): 247-63.] Freudian (psycho sexual), Jungian (archetypal), socioeconomic, phenomenological, feminist – all are fair approaches to the bogglesome questions that the poem presents, and, of course, as we’ve learned during the evolution of literary theory, such different approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but are, rather, facets of a single thought-jewel.  Though Tennyson has long been one of my favorite poets, “The Lady,” was never one I gave much thought to, (I’ve previously essayed on “Tears, Idle Tears”) and I return to him now (gladly enough) after some 25 years, having to acknowledge a significant development in the way I “see” texts in general and “The Lady of Shalott” in particular. With years of more reading and having absorbed more “culture,” this poem has many more resonances and insight bursts than I’d formerly appreciated. In reading “The Lady of Shalott” this time, for instance, the Lady’s world of shadows recalls Plato’s allegory of the caves, where reality of true being is merely a shadow play on the wall before humans chained to their rigid positions.  I think, too, of the Edenic Curse, Eve throwing it all away as a result of innocently giving into wayward temptation; I think of Wagner, his mythological Ring Cycle, the moment when Siegfried awakens to consciousness as the result of hearing birdsong, just as the Lady awakens to her own consciousness at the sound of Lancelot’s transposed lark’s cry (and, the inversion, Siegfried going to the rescue of a Shalott-like figure on a kind of island that is rung with fire); and, there is the reverberation of Narcissus and Echo, and, back to Wagner again, the question of Tristan and Iseult.

And, of course, in LitCrit’s latest incarnation, there is reader response theory to consider, the relation of the text to the reader, and of the reader to the reader and of text to text. Paradoxically, in relation to “The Lady of Shalott” this approach makes the Lady not only ‘profoundly equivocal’ but perhaps jungly with overgrowth and perhaps impenetrable.  Consider, first, the physics of the eye itself, which already inverts what it sees for the brain, and the mirror that already reverses what is seen, so that spatial orientation is already a challenge to master, long before it’s all turned into a circus by the lion-taming of critical analysis and the trapeze work of acrobatic dialectics, gaze reflecting gaze. Add in the divisions of the self, the endless mystery of self in relation to selves.

And, finally, the task of understanding is certainly not made easier (or, perhaps, it is!) by Tennyson’s need to produce two distinct and significantly different versions of his narrative poem.

Given such daunting (and, in my case at least, somewhat hallucinogenic) givens, maybe it’s best to start with a structural and methodological consideration of the poem itself  and the poet’s technique, which may or may not be clue-ful in understanding this amazing poem. First, there is the form and structure to consider: Tennyson gives us four parts, which are essentially four stages of narrative development; each part consists of nine-line stanzas, with four stanzas in part 1 and 2 (setting and introduction of principal characters), five stanzas in Part 3 (climax), and seven stanzas in the original Part 4 (denouement)[2. In the 1842 version Tennyson edits out a stanza, resulting in only six.]; the stanzas alternate between iambic tetrameter and trochaic tetrameter lines; the rhyme scheme for each stanza is <b>aaaabcccb</b>; there are very few complex rhymes (usually mono-syllabic and simple vocabulary), although there is considerable additional internal rhyming as well; plenty of soothing soft consonance and evocative alliteration; and, there is often syntactical clause-cloaking woven into the lines before a subject and predicate appear.

The development embodied in the four parts is fairly straightforward in each version.  In both the 1833 and 1842 versions we provided a Part 1 that introduces the idyllic (“greensheathed daffodily,” “sunbeam-showers”), virtually animistic (“willows whiten, aspens shiver”), and the paganistic “fairy Lady of Shalott.”  in Part 2, we learn of the Lady’s apparent fate to weave a colourful narrative tapestry of life, as seen through an obscuring mirror, and with an implicit curse should she choose to stop. Importantly, Part 2 ends with the Lady observing  newlyweds (“about to consummate”) and lamenting her fateful malaise for the first time. Part 3 introduces a jaunty Lancelot riding alone on a road and downstream along the river toward Camelot. Crucially, this part ends with Lancelot tootling “tirra lira,” which turns out to be epiphanal music to the ears of our Lady  4 describes the Lady’s casting inside the loom and tapestry and, essentially, going in pursuit of Lancelot, a peculiar, sexual-mystical journey that leads to her demise. And here, in the lust lines, we find the most startling difference between the versions, with the Lady having the final mystical words in the 1832 rendition and Lancelot closing it out in the later version with his far briefer and seemingly more cryptic words.

The alternating metrics of the stanzas, the rhyme scheme, as well as the tetrametric abridgment of the lines (pentameter would slow its performance down ever so slightly), the sounds and images, the simple vocabulary that avoids static or stalling, even the minimal human utterances that would require readerly dialectical engagement, all suggests a driving, meandering and mesmerizing river-like flow that connects the island of Shalott physically and figuratively to Camelot between Shalott and Camelot is the ever-changing, never-ending river, which the two realms share.  This is a very effective technique and, for me, a wonderful musical composition to perform in the head. This is, of course, not all that could be said about the construction and technique of the poem, but it is enough for now, representing a kind of adumbration of the narrative’s play.

It’s more important here to examine the poem’s themes, motifs and intentions, and how these differ in each version, than it is to fall in love with the sound of Tennyson’s entrancing, but almost-distracting music.  The great contemporary Victorian cultural scholar Peter Gay once said, with erudite precision.

Perceptive historians have noted more than once that Queen Victoria

  was not a Victorian, in the same sense.  Freud was not a Freudian. 

They are not responsible for the myths that have woven around their

names.[3. Peter Gay, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud: Education of the Senses, Oxford, 1984, p.4.]

Such myth-making out of the ashes of reality is, of course, a constant problem for the very reasons that “The Lady of Shalott” illustrates, for, after all, which, in any one gaze, is the myth and which the reality (do you see a vase or a face?)?  But the point here is simply that, at least as far as this Tennyson poem goes, the poet is, like Victoria, not a Victorian. First, this is true because Tennyson’s first version of the poem pre-dates Victoria’s ascension to the throne in 1837, although his later version of the poem seems to be in reaction to that ascendancy and its implications.  But, first, before fleshing out how this lyrical leopard changed its spots, it’s worth briefly considering the seemingly dominant critical response to the first version.

I own that I have been stunned by the contemporaneous portraitures of “The Lady of Shalott,” many of which, such as those by John William Waterhouse, William Holman Hunt and Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, et al., emphasize clearly middle class women and their looms, which certainly connotate middle class domestication, as well as the rise of the great industrial mills of Mammon. Or else they depict Romantic over-boat images of a longing Lady, evoking dreamy expectations downstream, and the like.  Such artistic idealizations tell you something (I’m not sure what) about the readers and receivership of Tennyson’s work and their mythologizing tendencies. I have been equally taken aback by what seems to me an equally facile critical positing of the poem as a fundamental representation of the paradox between the necessary co-existence of the free-minded artist and societal order. Plasa puts it succinctly when he writes,

Far from being mutually exclusive, what Tennyson’s poem conversely

  demonstrates is that art and life, the aesthetic and the political, are fully

  interwoven the involvement in the social world which is symbolically

  the destination of the Lady in the poem is, from the first, a condition at

  which the poem has already arrived. [4. Plasa, p.248.]

There are these facets, of course, but such visions have not earned the right to dominate the critical space in which this ‘profoundly equivocal’ poem flits in and out of, like a simile that smiles and likes.  I like what Erik Gray says in relation to the notion of artistic “free will” as it applies to this poem. He writes,

The Lady of Shalott” depicts art as almost a parody of this ideal.

  The Lady submits her will, not to a “transcendent aw, “but to a

  curse.  She demonstrates admirable willpower in breaking the

  inertia of her original state, but exerts if toward a consciously

  imperfect aim. [5. Erik Gray, “Getting it Wrong in ‘The Lady of Shalott,’” Victorian Poetry 47.1 (2009) 45-59.]

But while I believe Gray’s analysis is an important on the rather Romantic application of free will in this instance.  I would still question whether “free will” even applies to the workings of this poem, or, if it does, whether it is, indeed, animated toward a transcendent figuration rather, as I would argue, toward a decadent but liberating process.

For what explodes around me like mental mortar shells are rather concerns and questions.  I see the aforementioned structural texture of the poem – its short lines, linguistic simplicity, weaving syntax, winding rhythms – creating a hermetically sealed organic whole. This is further reiterated by the fact that the only names mentioned in the poem are Shalott, Camelot and Lancelot, with binding rhyme endings: – ott, -ot, and -ot. Shalott and Camelot  and notes, with a pagan “faerie” Lady associated with one and the legend of Arthur and his chivalry code associated with the other. But not just places, but idealized realms. Idealized, but, as it turns out, not eternal. And in this poem Lancelot comes between both realms and, intentionally or not, ends up destroying both aspects of the Romantic – the Shalott that reaches back into the ancient and animistic past, and the Camelot that reaches forward into a future that will include Galahad and the Grail and the rise of orderly Christendom.  After all, the Lady is clearly seduced by Lancelot’s tootling and Lancelot has has or will (we don’t know what historical stage of Camelot we’re dealing with here) seduce the queen of Camelot.

What’s more, it’s interesting to note and consider that Shalott flows downstream to Camelot, already as a kind of mysterious giver of life value (water). It’s worth noting, too, that the reapers have the only other human voices in the poem(s) and that they use their words to both acknowledge the existence of the Lady to affirm her natural primeval context.  It is also worth noting that the reapers work from morn to night tending to barley- the manna of the day, providing food, alcoholic beverage, and medicine. The reapers (and Camelot commoners). Therefore, have no fear of the Lady’s mysterious ways and wind songs. Contrast this to the fear that pours out of the burghers and knights and assorted “well-fed wits” of the inner circle of Camelot, who “crossed themselves for fear” and who clearly do not recognize and cannot affirm her contextual power.  All of them except, of course, Lancelot.

I am further puzzled by Tennyson’s version endings where, in the original, he gives the final eloquence words to the Lady and, in the other, such oblique words to the knight.  What does it mean for one version to affirm what amounts to, in one important respect, an act of feminist liberation – the “this is I” of 1832, a condition that did not exist just several lines earlier, when she was seemingly fated to be, like a prototypical Emily Dickinson telling “all the Truth but telling it aslant, “ or some latter day Sylvia Plath not freed by the Truth, and not happy about its telling?  Instead, in 1842, we get an almost dismissive “she;s got a pretty face.” But maybe the answer here is in Tennyson’s own words to his son, Hallam, who records his father’s concerns about the “Victorian” condition of England and, by imperial inference, the world. Regarding the state of chivalry (and Tennyson’s beloved Idealism), Hallam’s father says,

When I see society vicious and the poor starving in great cities,

  I feel that it is a mighty wave of evil passing over the world. You

  must not be surprised at anything that comes to pass in the net

  fifty years.  All ages are ages of transition, but this is an awful

  moment of transition. [6. Hallam Tennyson, Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir, Leipzig, 1899, pp. 119-120. ]

Thus, we see Tennyson absorbed by the question of change, of the organic whole that encompassed by the pagan and chivalric realms under stresses that is also instructive, in continuing his conversation with Hallam, what he sees happening to the feminine Ideal as well:

Especially do I want people to recognize that women of our

  western hemisphere represent the highest type of women,

  greatly owing to the respect and honor paid to them by men,

  but that the moment the honor and respect are diminished,

  the high type of woman will vanish. [7. ibid.]

So, clearly for Tennyson, the days of chivalry, which informed manners and the social order are in the poet’s rear view mirror and a scantily-clad Carmen with the clacking castanets is hitch-hiking up ahead. 

Tennyson’s ‘weaving and unwinding’ of his text and contexts actually served to reinforce a view of the poem I had been chewing on and which made sense to me.  When I read the second version of the poem, I see a kind of seduction fantasy taking place, ironically along the lines of how Freud was describing hysterical neurotic women in the late 1890’s.  First, I don’t see it as irrelevant that the Camelot the Lady sees does not include a mention of Arthur or Guinevere, the realm’s wife and Lancelot’s mistress. This is exactly what happens in seduction fantasies. Secondly, the Lady first utters “I am half-sick of shadows” following her camera obscura vision of two newlyweds messing about in the riverside shadows: again sexual fantasy terrain.  Next Lancelot goes by on the road along the river, an act probably repeated in the past, given his Arthurian role. Tennyson provides a very attractive image seemingly designed to tempt the Lady’s gaze.

A red-cross knight forever kneel’d

To a lady in his shield

That sparkled on the yellow field,

Beside remote Shalott. (P3, S1, L 78-80)

And this is followed by all that gleaming, jingling, merry, jeweled saddle, well-hung horn, muscular steed, all that steady rhythm, and sexual images like, “The helmet and helmet feather”/Burn’d like one burning flame together” followed almost immediately by “starry clusters…bearded….trailing light…” so that when Lancelot finally utters his magical spell-breaking, curse-ensuing, “tirra lira” – well, a girl can only take so much.

And what of Lancelot’s simple utterance, tirra lira (“tirra lirra, tirra lira” in the original)? Apparently, it derives from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, and is spoken by the rogue Autolycus, who uses it to describe the sound of a lark, presumably ascending. And what of the name, Autolycus, which translates to “the wolf itself”? And what of the lyric, especially repeated twice in succession in the earlier version, a musical interlude which has a decidedly cunnilingual aspiration to its tongue-giving mechanics?

This utterance ties Lancelot to Autolycus.  But is not Lancelot already ‘the rogue’ itself, threatening the integrity and order of Camelot with his selfish, wolfish sexual consumption of the queen? (Is not Lancelot’s conquest the very vanishment of the high type of woman Tennyson prophesied above?) Would not Shalott have seen, in her endless weaving, Lancelot’s catastrophic transgression with the queen? So, already quivering in fantasy, is it any wonder the Lady dropped everything, what with lust looming, and went in pursuit of her idyllic idol”?  She drops the web (hymen), “the mirror cracked from side to side,” because she’s given up her virginity. Shalott hops in the shallop and slides down the river that is, like her woven narration, endless and ever-changing, and pursues her man until the light of day goes out. Then she lies down in her casket boat, having inscribed it, like a tombstone, with “THE LADY OF SHALOTT,” all the while, all through Part 4, she lets out a slow, low moan that is part “carol,” partly “mournful, holy.” One might say she died alright, but in the ironical style of a fallen Shakespearean character.  It is no wonder to this reader that assorted celibate knights and all the “well-fed wits” were horrified such feminine free verse. And then along comes the one knight who is unafraid, the wolf, the cad, the murderer (Gareth and Gaheris?), the psychopathic Lancelot, who may very well have heard that moan somewhere before, and who merely says essentially, ‘just another pretty face,’ and half-heartedly pays lip service to God’s merciful grace, knowing all along that grace is only conferred upon sinners and not usually required for dead pretty faces in flowing white dresses. Of course, in fairness to the blessed knight, the Lady may have been some kind of transfiguration of Guinevere, who famously ran away in shame, following Arthur’s death, and famously swore that Lancelot would never look upon her face, while alive, again, but ends up residing over her death rites, beholding her face again.

Naturally, I have only scratched the surface of what Tennyson’s intentions might have been in vising and re-vising this poem. I tend at present to lean toward Carl Plasa’s experience of the poem as sexually-political, and is a more mainstream sociological read- marriage and the role of women, etc – than my somewhat more extreme Leda-consents-to-the-swan take on the poem.  However, I expect I’ll be examining many more facets of this gem before my reading career is finished.


Gay, Peter. The Bourgeois Experience:Victoria to Freud: Vol. 1 Education of the Senses.  Oxford University Press. 1984.

Gray, Erik. “Getting It Wrong in ‘The Lady of Shalott,’” Victorian Poetry 47.1. 2009

Malory, Thomas. La Morte de Arthur. Project Gutenberg. Accessed at http://www.samizdat.gc.ca/arts/lit/malory/morte darthur1.pdf 

Plasa, Carl. “Cracked from Side to Side”: Sexual Politics in “The Lady of Shalott,” in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 30. No. ¾. Centennial of Alfred Lord Tennyson: 1809-1892 (Autumn/Winter, 1992)

Tennyson, Alfred. “The Lady of Shalott,” 1833 and 1842 editions combined. The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester. Http://mseffie.com/assignments/shalott/shalcomb.html

Tennyson, Hallam. Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir. Leipzig. 1899.