Brian A. Bremen: On "The Descent of Winter"

This sense of "our own otherness" finds its expression in the first entry of William's The Descent of Winter (1928), where Williams asks:

"What are these elations I have

at my own underwear?

 

I touch it and it is strange

upon a strange thigh. "

Here Williams's use of quotation marks and italics makes a strange beginning even stranger. Certain only of the ownership of his underwear and the fact that he is touching it, Williams's voice remains detached from any sure point of reference, including his sense of himself. This idea of referentiality is picked up in the very next entry, as the "steward" removes the bed to which the sign for "Berth No. 2" referred, and

only the number

remains

·2·

 

on an oval disc

of celluloid

tacked

 

to the white-enameled

woodwork

with

 

two bright nails

like stars

beside

 

the moon

The sign--"·2·"--divorced from its referential surrounding enters the realm of what Jameson elsewhere calls the "schizophrenic," becoming "ever more material--or, better still, literal--ever more vivid in sensory ways" even though "meaning is lost." Using Lacan, Jameson explains that "the experience of personal identity over months and years--this existential or experiential feeling of time itself--is also an effect of language" in that language "has a past and a future" and "because the sentence moves in time." Because the schizophrenic has no knowledge of "language articulation" in this way, "schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, dislocated, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence. The schizophrenic thus does not know personal identity in our sense, since our feeling of identity depends on our sense of the persistence of the 'I' and the 'me' over time."

The materiality of the signifier, however, shifts our experience of language toward being that of a "substantial abstraction," and as such the material receives Williams's emphasis in the image--"an oval disc / of celluloid / tacked // to the white-enameled / woodwork / with // two bright nails." Immediately, however, this isolated "image" is made continuous with the simile--"like stars / beside // the moon." I think we need to read this simile--perhaps an attempt to posit meaning in order to "relieve the tension" of this "schizophrenic state"--as a projection by the authorial subjectivity that completely "destroys" the original object. As Williams says later in The Descent, the "realization" of poetic vividness "has its own internal fire that is 'like' nothing. Therefore the bastardy of the simile." The use of simile is a resort to that "crude symbolism" of given associations, and so Williams criticizes himself in his next entry (as it appeared in The Exile in 1928):

There are no perfect waves--

Your writings are a sea 

full of misspellings and

faulty sentences. Level. Troubled.

 

A center distant from the land 

touched by the wings of nearly 

silent birds that never seem 

to rest, yet it bears me 

seriously--to land, but without 

you.

 

This is the sadness of the sea--

waves like words all broken--

a sameness of lifting and falling mood.

With "me" and "you" being carried farther apart, with writing that is "a sea full of misspellings and / faulty sentences," Williams's second simile--"waves like words all broken"--forms part of yet another "faulty sentence" that begins now to work against a smooth understanding of the analogy. With this confusion of "waves" and "words," Williams returns to the scene's materiality--"watching the detail / of brittle crest"--holding out hope for the formation of some "coral island" that will rescue him, only to confront the reader in the next entry with the following image:

and there's a little blackboy 

in a doorway 

scratching his wrists

 

The cap on his head

is red and blue

with a broad peak to it

 

and his mouth 

is open, his tongue 

between his teeth--

Unlike the sign "·2·" the "little blackboy" remains free of any associated ideas or images, and so maintains his own materiality to both reader and author. What Jameson referred to as the "schizophrenic image" is here an other who maintains his own "tenacious otherness" against Williams's subjectivity. In other words, by maintaining that tension between "I" and "me," between sign and suspended referent, Williams also maintains the separation of subject and object. In this way, Williams says, "I will make a big serious portrait of my time." By fitting together these "blocks" of poetry--like the "brown and creamwhite block of Mexican onyx" or the "rock shingles of Cherbourg"--Williams confronts the reader with the unsituated materiality of his own poems, "like stones fitted together and that is love." Williams explains that, "there is no portrait without that has not turned to prose love is my hero who does not live, a man, but speaks of it every day." By presenting his "portrait" in a "prose" that defeats codification and simple understanding, Williams enables his "hero" to live in the dialectic he creates between his "prose" and his "poetry." A "hero who does not live, a man"--Williams's "love" here is very much like Benjamin's mother who in "reflecting" her baby's behavior, provides that "recognition" needed by the infant. Williams's poetry, in "reflecting" his world with as little subjective imposition as possible "speaks" of the need for that love "every day" in the datelines of each separate entry.

Moreover, this "schizophrenia"--which as Jameson explains is a descriptive and not a diagnostic term--is characterized by the same lack of identity and intense experience of the present that Williams valorizes throughout the work, most notably in his several discussions of Shakespeare, whose poetry Williams confronts in the "yellow leaves / and few" that are juxtaposed with "a young dog" jumping "out / of the old barrel." In the entry entitled "Shakespeare," Williams explains this "schizophrenic" style:

The difficulty of modern styles is made by the fragmentary stupidity of modern life, its lacuna of sense, loops, perversions of instinct, blankets, amputations, fulsomeness of instruction and multiplications of inanity. To avoid this, accuracy is driven a hard road. To be plain is to be subverted since every term must be forged new, every word is tricked out of meaning, hanging with as many cheap traps as an altar.     The only human value of anything, writing included, is intense vision of the facts, add to that by saying the truth and action upon them--clear into the machine of absurdity to a core that is covered.

"To be plain" is to speak according to known conventions, and the purpose of Williams's "terms" is to expose that "machine of absurdity" to its impenetrable "core." Cut loose from these conventions, a "poem is a soliloquy without the 'living' in the world" and the poet must learn to defeat his own sense of subjectivity and "be nothing and unaffected by the results, to unlock and flow, uncolored, smooth, carelessly--not to cling to the unsolvable lumps of personality (yourself and your concessions, poems) concretions--." Like the "sagas," Williams's poems must "seem to have been made on the spot," and by lifting his "signs" literally from their surroundings, Williams can achieve sagalike magnification:

And in runningpants and 

with ecstatic, æsthetic faces 

on the illumined 

signboard are leaping 

over printed hurtles and

"1/4 of their energy comes from bread"

 

two

gigantic highschool boys

ten feet tall

But, as Williams asserts, "this is modern, not the saga. There are no sagas--only trees now, animals, engines: There's that." The condition of "schizophrenia" is still a painful one, and it remains far removed from that state of "intersubjectivity" that Benjamin asserts.

The "context" of commercial exploitation forms the grounds that rob the modern of "the old dignity of life," and most often the "schizophrenic" signs that Williams presents are connected either with buying and selling, or with the political, as in "Coolidge" saying "let there be imitation brass filigree fire fenders behind insured plateglass windows and yellow pine booths with the molassescandygrain in the wood instead of the oldtime cake-like whitepine boards always cut thick their faces!" By uprooting the "grammars" that enable us to connect signifier and signified, Williams juxtaposes abstract nouns with concrete images in order to resituate the meanings of "abstractions" such as:

The justice of poverty

    its shame its dirt

are one with the meanness

    of love

 

its organ in a tarpaulin

    the green birds

the fat sleepy horse

    the old men

 

the grinder sourfaced

    hat over eyes

the beggar smiling all open

    the lantern out

 

and the popular tunes--

    sold to the least bidder

for a nickel

    two cents or

 

nothing at all or even 

    against the desire 

forced on us

This "subtext" of convention and economic exploitation--along with the ideal of forming some new relationship beginning in that schizophrenic split between sign and signifier, subject and object--all coincide to "organize" the context in which we must read both "A Morning Imagination of Russia" and the story of the poem's "hero." The "hero" of The Descent, of course, is "Dolores Marie Pischak ... born, September 15, 1927, 2nd child, wt. 6 lbs 2 ozs." Williams once remarked that he got his poetry "out of the mouths of Polish mothers," and the sections describing "Pischak's place" mix the broken, Polish accents of its inhabitants with "the feeling of Fairfield" that is neither romanticized nor nostalgic. "Here one drinks good beer," and "the stupefying monotony of decency is dead, unkindled even by art or anything--dead: by God because Fairfield is alive, coming strong." But even "A dell with a pretty stream in it below the garden and fifty feet beyond," is right next to "the board fence of the Ajax Aniline Dye Works with red and purple refuse dribbling out ragged and oily under the lower fence board." Dolores's older sister "has jaundice," and her father--"A man who might be a general or president of a corporation, or president of the states. Runs a bootleg saloon. Great!" Still, "This is the world. Here one breathes and the dignity of man holds on.. . . Peace is here--rest, assurance, life hangs on. Oh, blessed love, among insults, brawls, yelling, locks, brutality--here the old dignity of life holds on--defying the law, defying monotony."

As in "To Elsie"--"something is given off," in Fairfield even if it is "only in isolate flecks"--and Williams hints at the "love" that could potentially "cure" the "fragmentary stupidity of modern life" in his visit to Dolores's home. Here, at the heart of "Pischak's place" is Benjamin's "recognition scene"--the infant Dolores nursing in her mother's arms:

She lies in her mother's arms and sucks. The dream passes over her, dirt streets, a white goose flapping its wings, and passes. Boys, wrestling, kicking a half inflated football. A grey motheaten squirrel pauses at a picket fence where tomato vines, almost spent, hang on stakes.     O blessed love--the dream engulfs her. She opens her eyes on the troubled bosom of the mother who is nursing the babe and watching the door. And watching the eye of the man. Talking English, a stream of Magyar, Polish what? to the tall man coming and going.

Williams's "female psychology" of the concrete focuses on the event that "grounds" both his and Benjamin's psychologies--the act of nurturing and "recognition" by baby and mother. The "eye of the man ... [t]alking English" is the figure of Williams as doctor in The Descent, and his empathic "contact" with mother and child is echoed in the "contact" he achieves throughout the work, suggesting that "intersubjectivity" that will serve as "remedy."

This empathic "intersubjectivity" is achieved on a larger scale in "A Morning Imagination of Russia," and it is here that we see clearest the relationships between the "subtexts" of the "culture" and the "individual." The opening lines make clear that interplay between the individual and his surroundings, as Williams says:

The earth and the sky were very close 

When the sun rose it rose in his heart. 

It bathed the red cold world of 

the dawn so that the chill was his own 

The mists were sleep and sleep began 

to fade from his eyes, below him in the 

garden a few flowers were lying forward

Gone are "the walls / against desire save only for him who can pay / high, there were no cities--he was / without money." This condition of economic poverty and existential richness will be later echoed in Williams's own statement that "I make really very little money. / What of it?," and the relationship between subject and city here is nearly as complex an empathic "identification" as we will find in Paterson:

The very old past was refound 

redirected. It had wandered into himself 

The world was himself, these were 

his own eyes that were seeing, his own mind 

that was straining to comprehend, his own 

hands that would be touching other hands 

They were his own!

Gone also is the "schizophrenic" estrangement that began The Descent--"'what are these elations I have / at my own underwear?'"--as the subject here "recognizes" both self and other, as well as the "self in the other." Moreover, his next act will be one of communication and cooperation, as "He would go / out to pick herbs ... He would go out and ask that old woman, in the little / village by the lake, to show him wild ginger. He himself would not know the plant". Jameson sees that "schizophrenic" condition of the "floating, material signifier" as "consonant with" the conditions of late capitalism, where commodity production is closely tied in with styling changes that obviate against notions of continuity in "a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind that all earlier social formations have had in one way or another to preserve." While I am by no means making a case for Williams's Marxism in "A Morning Imagination"--he later called the poem merely a "sympathetic human feeling--non-political--roused by thoughts of Russia"--Williams does make this connection to capitalism and style in the lines:

Cities are full of light, fine clothes 

delicacies for the table, variety,

novelty--fashion: all spent for this. 

Never to be like that again:

the frame that was. It tickled his 

imagination. But passed in a rising calm

The "frame that was" is an "ideology" whose "grammar" determines the meaning (and price) of "this"--a floating signifier that remains open to perpetual redefinition according to the economic "grounding" it receives. Williams calls America a "Soviet State decayed away in a misconception of riches. The states, counties, cities are anemic Soviets," saying that "Russia is in every country" and that "The United States should be in effect, a Soviet State." While we will discuss Williams's politics more specifically later, we need to keep two things in mind here: first, Williams's "Soviet" is a participatory form of government that allows for full "identification" in an uncertain, local, cooperative effort--"he was himself / the scales. The local soviet. They could / weigh. If it was not too late. He felt / uncertain many days. But all were uncertain / together and he must weigh for them out / of himself." Next, I think Williams shares in the then common, progressive perception of Russia as a site for the achievement of democratic ideals. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, the immediately perceived threat of the Bolshevik revolution by the leadership of the United States was that it would lead to greater democratic reforms:

Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State Robert Lansing warned that the Bolshevik disease, were it to spread, would leave the "ignorant and incapable mass of humanity dominant in the earth." The Bolsheviks, he warned, were appealing "to the ignorant mentally deficient, who by their numbers are urged to become masters, . . . a very real danger in view of the process of social unrest throughout the world"; it is, as always, democracy that is the fearful threat. When soldiers' and workers' councils made a brief appearance in Germany, Woodrow Wilson expressed his concern that they might inspire dangerous thoughts among "the American negro [soldiers] returning from abroad." Already, "negro" laundresses were demanding more than the going wage, saying "that money is as much mine as it is yours," Wilson had heard. Businessmen might have to adjust to having workers on their boards of directors, he feared, among other disasters if the Bolshevik virus were not exterminated.

Williams's position with regard to the Left is a vexed and confusing one, and I think "A Morning Imagination of Russia" is just that: an "imagination" of the soviet, and not a substantial relationship to Communism. The appeal, as I think it always is for Williams, is to a more democratic form of government, one that will erase "the feeling / that there is a piece of glazed paper / between me and the paper--invisible / but tough running through the legal / process of possession--a city, that / we could possess--." What one gets from "A Morning Imagination of Russia" is "touch. The eyes and the ears / down on it. Close."--that "tactus eruditus" that Williams mentions in the "Della Primavera" and that Burke calls attention to in nearly all his writings about his friend. As Williams explains in "A Morning Imagination"--"It's in art, it's in / the French school"--but it is also potentially in America--"Russia is every country, here he must live, this for that, loss for gain. Dolores Marie Pischak." As Williams continues:

... Loss and gain go hand in hand. And hand in hand means my hand in a hand which is in it: a child's hand soft skinned, small, a little fist to hold gently, a woman's hand, a certain woman's hand, a man's hand. Thus hand in hand means several classes of things. But loss is one thing. It is lost. It is one big thing that is an orchestra playing. Time, that's what it buys. But the gain is scattered. It is everywhere but there is not much in any place. A city is merely a relocation of metals in a certain place.--He feels the richness, but a distressing feeling of loss is close upon it. He knows he must coordinate the villages for effectiveness in a flood, a famine.

The "mutuality" of "hand in hand" means "my hand in a hand which is in it": a child's hand, a woman's hand, a man's hand. It also means "loss and gain," and I read Williams's melancholy here as that kind of melancholy that Heinz Kohut says results from the transformation of "narcissistic energies," as "the cathexis is transferred from the cherished self to the supraindividual ideals and to the world with which one identifies." The sense of "time" that it "buys" is that sense of continuity over time that might "heal" Jameson's "schizophrenia." "It is a pure literary adjustment," Williams says, but it is not the sense of tradition that is the "supremacy of England." Rather, it is a sense of identity and difference one gets from "The very old past ... refounded / redirected." And so Williams ends The Descent with a reminiscence about his own family--his grandmother and grandfather, his brother, and, most important, his greatest avatar of the imagination after Shakespeare, his own mother.

Williams explains his "poverty" in the rich recollection of his family's history. Here economic distrust and betrayal mix with pride, love of Paris, and "identification":

When my brother was happy he would sing, walking up and down kicking out his feet: Si j étais roi de Bayaussi-e, tu serais reine-a par ma foi! You made me think right away of him.

The Descent of Winter ends in the middle of winter--"12/18"--and it is only in the "imagination" of Russia that an empathic act of "identification" actually occurs, although the act remains potential in the scene between the infant Dolores and her mother. Ultimately, though, the environment we face here is one that "does not respond," and so we are left with images of "splitting" and "schizophrenia." One kind of "splitting," for example, occurs between the implied "I" that identifies with Mrs. Pischak and the bigoted "you" of "you sit and have it waved and ordered. . . . And nothing to do but play cards and whisper ... of the high-school girl that had a baby and how smart her mama was to pretend in a flash of genius that it was hers.... Or lets us take a ran up to the White Mountains ... Not Bethlehem (New Hampshire) any more, the Jews have ruined that like lice all over the lawns." The kind of "intersubjectivity" that Benjamin proposes is never fully accomplished in this work, and the "mutuality" that is Williams's "desire" and "love" never fully remedies the "schizophrenia" of separation. Still, Williams's "philosophical grammar" exposes those conditions of poverty and power that cause this lack of communication. The exposed "subtexts" of "culture" and "identity" are organized too fully, however, to allow "rapprochement" to occur. The "signs" of Fairfield remain in their schizophrenic state of materiality, and Williams remains as separate from his "self" and world as he was from his wife Flossie when he wrote The Descent.

The dialectic between poetry and prose that Williams creates in The Descent of Winter offers even fewer distinctions between the two forms of writing than the one in Spring and All, forcing the reader even more to find the "poetry hidden in the prose" and the "prose hidden in the poetry." In this freer exchange, the voice of the other gains expression as we hear those "Polish mothers" speak for themselves. Through our own empathic "identification" of and with the voices of the poem, we begin that process of "rapprochement" that Williams sees as ultimately frustrated in his world. In ending this chapter, then, I'd like to look at two more works from around the same time as The Descent and examine more closely both the forms of domination that Williams sees as responsible for this sense of separation, as well as some of the conditions that allow for both the possible achievement and the re-presentation of an act of "intersubjectivity."

From William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Brian A. Bremen: On "The Descent of Winter" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Brian A. Bremen Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture
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