Text and Con/text: Both

 Review of Both by Paul Metcalf, Jargon 1982. $15.00. Available from: Inland Book Company, 22 Hemingway Ave. East Haven CT, 06512

 

 

South-Seamen, however, advance a step beyond their prototypes of the North, inasmuch as while they collect, they may also be said to manufacture their cargo, by the practice they pursue of separating the useful from the more cumbrous and unimportant parts of the whales they capture; and thus, (in the place of the putrefied mass which composes the lading of a Greenland ship,) bring their freight to port in a state but little less pure than when it passes into the hands of the consumer.

—Frederick Bennett, Whaling Voyage Round the Globe from the years 1833 to 1836, London: 1840 (along with Thomas Beale's Natural History of the Sperm Whale the prime source for the cetology sections of Moby-Dick.)

 

          Metcalf's Both is his apologia, discourse on method and the method exemplified, the skeleton key and the skeleton fleshed out, fiction from fact (a mirror of the method of Booth the actor —truth disclosed to the extent that he is “unreal”) and a long poem (called a contradiction in terms by Poe); in short, both. The subjects and personae of this work are Edgar Allen Poe and John Wilkes Booth, together. Yet not biography is revealed to us, but instead a territory is opened made of points of intersection, where Poe and Booth meet. It is a territory exclusively of edges. The boundaries between: life/death and art/life (poetic method: the painter painting the portrait of his lover, his muse—“`This is indeed Life itself!' turned suddenly to regard his beloved:—She was dead!”); being buried alive (and also, by implication, living a life that is “dead” to the world); land/water (the dugong, “the mammal that breathed air, but took to the sea” and the mermaid/siren; prose/poetry; male/female (the woman Otilia becomes the man Parker, as the art becomes real).  We learn that “...the final act,/ [is] to make the unreal real” through the method that turns real accounts into fiction. And in a book that is necessarily a defense as well as a demonstration, Metcalf shows us how life is created from the surrender of life, art as cannibalism.

 

...there had for centuries been a tradition that in such circumstances, with no immediate prospect of rescue...      

cannibalism was permissible.

...There was something almost sexual in the feeling....

 

          Bertolt Brecht complained of the timidity of the times, our times, wanting a return to that boldness that allowed the ancient Chinese to write a text of 100,000 lines with 90,000 taken from other men’s works.  He wanted to not only honor the sources of art—other men's labor—but also to strike a blow at the fetishism of ownership and bourgeois preoccupation with possessing art. So Brecht made extensive use of Kipling (and thereby redeemed him from the condemnation of history, a minor but significant development). And of course Melville and Shakespeare, great writers, great plagiarists, using whatever source they needed. Acts of eating the flesh to redeem the flesh.  Cannibalism. But also reincarnation. The movement of a single text through time. Naturally, Metcalf is drawn to Poe (“...wrote a book, ...which was a paraphrase of another’s original...”) and Booth (“The sound of gunshot that killed the President was thought to be ‘an introductory effect preceding some new situation in the play.’ ”; and we learn from the book jacket that Metcalf “was a member of the Hedgerow Theatre”; and “and he said he has been suspected of trying to pass a fifty dollar counterfeit note....”).  Art. Life. Art and life.  Booth shoots Lincoln, leaps to the stage: “...his ankle collapsed under him, the bone broken, and he hopped, no longer the graceful actor, but ugly! like a bullfrog!” Once the boundary is bridged, then a miserable transformation. It is the place between, where art and life meet, that the creative work is realized. “Pure gold can be made at will, and very readily from lead in connection with certain other substances....”  In connection with.

 

When Flaubert finished his novel Salammbo he wrote about it:

          It will: 1) annoy the bourgeois; 2) unnerve and shock sensitive people; 3) anger the archeologists [critics]; 4) be unintelligible to the ladies; 5) earn me a reputation as a pederast and a cannibal.  Let us hope so.

                                  Bohemian versus Bourgeois by C. Grana, NY: 1967.