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Against Sinister Pantheism

By Richard Marshall.

Black Mountain College. Experiment in Art. Vincent Katz. MIT, 2013.

Juan Manuel Bonet says that ‘’methods of teaching art are in need of oxygen.’ Black Mountain College was an open-air American Bauhaus with plenty and then some. It lasted twenty-three years, from 1933 to 1956. It gave us Olson, Creeley, Duncan, Dorn, Levertov , Rauschenberg, de Kooning, Motherwell, Cage, Cunningham, Fuller, Noland, Greenberg and a whole bunch of other astonishments.

They formed an oppositional community to be understood in a special sense. There’s was a vagrancy away from an unbenign and benighted political reality. They were drawn to a visionary radiance of the self with tinctures of deep ecology. They sought a new human, the ‘virtuoso bacterium’ of Ted Hughes, rejecting the old ego and all its possessions in a bid to reclaim equality with all life. The education at the College was an education for Lear’s fool, Tolstoy’s vagrants and the whole Beckett plenum. What did they oppose? The wandering symbols of Satan. All those damned emblems. What did they create into? Nothing but the toothy certainty of ‘emptiness and error, nothing but this idiotic race that every man seems condemned to engage in for no gain and which seems rather, as in Kafka, to be the effect of some divine curse’, as Beckett puts it. It amounts to Milton’s ‘Insuperable height of loftiest shade.’

They were about seeing through conventional ‘malignements’, the crafty artfulness Rimbaud warns us about. They worked against all tedious uniformity that bends itself to duty. Such duty uses history as a barrier between selves and lives. Black Mountain College was about seeing, says Vincent Katz, and this suggests the Emersonian organic eye. The philosopher Kenneth Winkler’s deft readings of American idealism support this. He writes ‘… that American idealism rests, as George Santayana claimed, on the “conceited notion that man, or human reason, or the human distinction between good and evil, is the centre and pivot of the universe.’ I summarise some of Winkler’s insights about Idealism because if Katz is right then the Black Mountain College owes much to this Idealist Americana. America likes its philosophy stereotyped as a go-to, scientific and urban (urbane) pragmaticism. But though American Idealism is practical it has a religious, green and eerie (mystic/wisdom) shimmer disturbing that self-appointed secular image. Perhaps from over here in Europe it’s clearer to see its metaphysical smoke.

Creeley points to this Idealism explicitly by making Emerson central to Olson’s poetry. Emerson manifests a nineteenth century reaction to American eighteenth century Puritanism. Jonathan Edwards, the greatest of the latter, presented a powerful Pantheistic world where every reality diminished through being subsumed into a single Divine substance. Autonomous individuality was erased in this fierce vision. Emersonian Idealism countered it, but never obliterated it. Like gothic ruins, struts of the old puritanism continue to poke through.

What drove Edwards to such an extreme vision? In defending the Calvinist doctrine of ‘original sin’ Edwards needed to show that any difference between my identity and Adam’s was not significant enough to prevent the transmission of a shared guilt. By dissolving all identity claims into a theory that made all such claims the result of an arbitrary Divine Will, Edwards argued that our identity with Adam is akin to the identity an adult has with their infant self. The identity is based on salient qualitites and relations that allow for vast differences that are nevertheless non-corrosive of that identity. Similarly, there are salient qualities and relations communicated to all via God’s Will that make each of us guilty of those sins committed by Adam.

The moral ineptness of this is hard to ignore. Adam’s sin contaminates all later generations only because God arbitrarily wills that it does so. This is Kafka’s world where innocence is the final proof of guilt. Edwards’ strange ontology is minimalist. A Divine substance is the sole agent in a universe of absolutely separated atoms and souls. The identity of anything with anying else is via God’s will. Perhaps the will of God creates objective reality, or perhaps merely a Divinely inspired Humean fictionalism.

Edwards’ Calvinism presents a powerful and disturbing sense of Pantheism, where God is the only substance, a dark eerie Gnostic onanism where our universe is merely a projected holographic spectacle of the Divine substance screened by and for itself. This unbelievably bold view severs the link between justice and human agency. It eliminates any notion of an enduring subject of change capable of receiving contraries and of making creative acts. Identity relies on God’s constitution. Believing everything to be Divine implies a sinister Pantheism. The connection between Calvinism and Pantheism was recognise by Emerson’s time, and accounts for an enduring suspicion of Pantheism. Channing wrote: ‘ The doctrine that God is the only Substance, which is Pantheism, differs little from the doctrine that God is the only active power of the universe. For what is substance without power? It is a striking fact that the philosophy which teaches that matter is an inert substance, and that God is the force which pervades it, has led me to question whether any such thing as matter exists: whether the powers of attraction and repulsion which are regarded as the indwelling Deity, be not its whole essence. Take away force, and substance is a shadow, and might as well vanish from the universe. Without a free power in man, he is nothing. The divine agent within him is every thing. Man acts only in show. He is a phenomenal existence, under which the One Infinite Power is manifested: and is this much better than Pantheism?’

The nineteenth century American Brahmin class recoiled from this vision. The country had moved from being a parochial theocracy to a secular democracy by the time Emerson confronted it. The early Puritans had become unreadable. Edwards was an offense. Calvinism and Pantheism were considered equally morally repulsive. Emerson’s organic eye confronted Edwards claims that God is the only active substance, that Humanity acts only in show, that God is the sole agent and power in the universe. He offers a benign Pantheisim as a replacement.

Emerson argued that it is wrong to place time between ourselves and God. He wrote: ‘The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poety and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?’ Emerson asked that we live spontaneously as if every moment was a new creation. He contended that there was a sense of ‘nature’ that was dependent on the integration of parts of a whole via ‘the plastic power of the human eye.’ For this the integrating eye is required, working as the poetical ego. This is a sign or type of the more ambitious ego of heart and mind. By integrating landscapes through the plastic organic eye we have the key to his Idealism. It can sound like Edwards’ Pantheism at times. But he resists it through a kind of anthropocentrism, creating four aspects of nature: beauty, commodity, discipline and language. He writes this in chapter two of ‘Nature’: ‘Whoever considers the final cause of the world, will discern a multitude of uses that enter as parts into that result. They all admit of being thrown into one of the following classes; Commodity; Beauty; Language; and Discipline’. Advantages owed , love of beauty, the vehicle of thought speak to the two cardinal facts that oppose Edwards: ‘ the one, and the two… Oneness and otherness. It is impossible to speak, or to think, without embracing both,’ he writes. ‘We live in succession, in division, in particles’ even as ‘ within man is the soul of the whole…’ Emerson insists on the immanence of the world. ‘The world! There is no other world.God is one and omnipresent: here and nowhere is the whole fact.’

It’s still Idealism. It is Idealism in the Berkeleyan sense – like Beckett, Emerson reads Berkeley carefully. Emerson resists Hume’s counter to idealism that says that the mind won’t allow idealism to be credible (regardless of whether it is true or not) by saying that culture, poetry, ethics, mathematics and science overrides the mind. So Emerson is an Idealist and even a Pantheist of a sort. But this is an imminent Pantheism, a type of Coleridge’s ‘another world but not to come.’ God is not transcendent. Emerson’s Pantheism is less sinister than Edwards. The synthesizing eye is not God’s and affirms’… the divinity of man. . . [as well as a] … debt to bread, & coffee, & flannel, & heated room.’

The organic poetic eye, so important to Emerson in bringing the objective world into a moral and sensible unity independent of God, is what a hundred years later the artists, writers and musicians of the Black Mountain College were seeking to extend. It was set up by John Andrew Rice, a colleague of John Dewey. He had been fired for establishing a Socratic enquiry-based curriculum at Rollins College in Florida in 1933. Rice wrote in 1935: ‘…those who are responsible for the founding of the College reverted to a form of government found in the older universities of England and once fairly common in this country, namely, government by the faculty, or self-government … [t]he idea of including a member of the student body on the Board was borrowed from the Middle Ages.’ Rice placed the arts at the centre of his Black Mountain College, although he didn’t want it to become an arts college. ‘There is no expectation that many students will become artists; in fact, the College regards it as a sacred duty to discourage mere talent from thinking itself genius: but there is something of the artist in everyone, and the development of this talent, however small, carrying with it a severe discipline of its own, results in the student’s becoming more sensitive to order in the world and within himself than he can ever be through intellectual effort alone.’

Joseph Albers was drafted in from the recently closed down Bauhaus to manage and inform the college art activity. He was strict and fierce. Later his style was thought too overbearing by some of the students. The Bauhaus had a strong social agenda, attacked the division between arts and crafts, attacked neo-classical and historicizing architecture, combined high with low arts, used industrial manufacturing technologies and techniques alongside art ones, was stylistically modern and socially democratic. It was accused of being Communist and the Nazis closed it. The combination of anti-modernistic education in the name of popularist sloganeering by right of centre politicians is depressingly familiar. ‘Immediate stoppage of Bauhaus funding. Foreign teachers must be dismissed without notice, for it is irreconcilable with the responsibility of worthy municipal leadership towards its citizens that German comrades go hungry while foreigners are handsomely paid from the taxes of a starving nation’ was a Nazi flyer. Josef and Anni Albers both came to the Black Mountain College from this.

Anni Albers established modernist weaving and argued that marginalized crafts could be developed into great art in the rights hands. She subtly critiqued the sexism of some of the initial Bauhaus positions. ‘Life today is very bewildering… We have no picture of it which is all-inclusive, such as former times may have had. We have to make a choice between concepts of great diversity. And as a common ground is wanting, we are baffled by them,’ she wrote in 1937. She saw creativity as standing in relation to a complex unknown: the terrible international situation pressurized art into a role as rebuilding. ‘Our world goes to pieces: we have to rebuild our world. We investigate and worry and analyse and forget that the new comes about through exuberance and not through a defined deficiency. We have to find our strength rather than our weakness. Out of the chaos of collapse we can save the lasting: we still have our ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, the absolute of our inner voice – we still know beauty, freedom, happiness … unexplained and unquestioned.’ She thought art built personal courage to continue.

Josef wanted education to be something rather than something that would get something. Similarly, art shouldn’t be subordinated to any ‘loftier’ end. He saw this as a step towards stopping the largely invisible dismissal of the unintellectual by intellectuals formed by a meritocratic education system. He said his goal at Black Mountain College was to open eyes. He explored tonal possibilities of colours developed in his series ‘Homage to the Square.’ He demonstrated that the geometric could be as free as freehand and freehand as abstract as the geometric. Fernand Leger visited in 1941 stressing ‘Truth’ in colour and form. He thought ‘pure tone in painting is reality.’ He said that ‘education, religion, the ‘decorative life’ are three inventions, three envelopes created to conceal truth.’ They were fighting the Nazis the best way they could at a time when the US state department wasn’t.

Lyonel Feininger saw the Cubists in 1911 and exhibited with the Blaue Reiter group with Kandinsky and Klee. Feininger compared oils with charcoal drawings, watercolours, photographs of unfinished works and elaborated and increased complexities in his work. His time at the Black Mountain group resuscitated his sense of dead identity. Fanny Hillsmith was interested in Klee when there. Ilya Bolotowsky had once studied in New York ‘s national Academy of Design in 1923 where ‘colour was known to be something rather evil.’ Then he worked with Afro-American William Henry Johnson who was a ‘fantastic colourist.’ With others he formed the American Abstract Artists group in 1936. He was at the Black Mountain College and his teaching influenced Kenneth Noland, who when at Black Mountain College studied with Albers, Bolotowsky, Cage, Clement Greenberg, Willem de Kooning and Buckminster Fuller.

Albers wasn’t interested in style but in technique and materials and so encouraged diversity. Xanti Schawinsky left Italy when the political scene was beginning to get grim in 1936. He collaborated with the composer John Evarts and had a vision for music and theatre and experimentation. ‘While the work at the Bauhaus Theatre aimed at the modernization of theatrical means and concepts, and had a definite professional and artistic scope, at Black Mountain college an educational crack at the whole man seemed to be in order.’ He didn’t understand the politics which tried to remove Rice from the college in 1938, and they caused him dissatisfaction and misery. Jean Charcot worked with Mexican muralists and tempered their ‘youthful violence with his culture and equanimity and illuminated [their] problems with lucid visions’ according to Jose Clemente Orozco. He was a formalist and connected to modern abstract art. He was described as embodying the ‘true spirit of purification’ in his art. Solids were defined by three co-ordinates without ‘unlimited spatial sensation with its romantic or impressionistic connotation’. Amedee Ozofant used surreal biomorphic elements in his work comparable with Yves Tanguy. His ‘Crazy Rocks’ of 1945 are shaped like Ernst’s ‘Robing of the Bride’.

Black Mountain was poor on accepting blacks and gays. According to Vincent Katz it never really came to terms with gays. This is disappointing. Jacob Lawrence in the 1940’s believed that painting put himself on canvas, an attitude linking him to the Abstract Expressionists. Leo Amino made insect-like beings in metal and complex combinations of casts in various colours. He had worked for a Japanese wood importer. He worked for a time with Chaim Gross who was a proponent of direct carving. He worked in polystyrene in 1946. He used translucent and transparent plastics. He liked transparency because ‘ the distinction between its physical aspect and surrounding space is less conspicuous’ whilst at the same time ‘refraction and optical illusion created by light on transparent form … actually intensify the difference, thus creating a greater sense of three-dimensionality.’ ‘Head with Horn’ in 1946 used colour as biomorphic surreal form.

Richard Lippold sculptured with humanistic strains and seems a precursor to large-scale visions of contemporary artist Anthony Gormley. He was interested in the music of John Cage and had evenings together with Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. He was interested in the use of two dimensions in Egypt and the Middle Ages. ‘Variation Within a Sphere’ of 1948 could also be seen as part of his exploration of time in painting, as well as spatial topology. Ben Shahn was Lithuanian and was ‘unwilling to regard man as of use value.’ The human was ultimate and he disputed that non-objective art was anti-humanistic. He used images that never generalized. He thought art should be used for social justice not merely formalist statements. He thought Aaron Suskind and Robert Motherwell failed to live up to this standard.

Motherwell taught at Black Mountain in the summers of 1945 and 1951 and his roots were in surrealism not Abstract Expressionist. Motherwell’s writings impacted on mid-twentieth century art writing. He wrote of Mondrian ‘ [Mondrian] has spent his life in the creation of a clinical art in a time when men were ravenous for the human…’ Motherwell disliked formalist perfection because it reduced the ego. The human had to renounce too much. His strange humanism is expressed when he writes: ‘ The ‘pure’ red of which certain abstractionists speak does not exist no matter how one shifts its physical contexts. Any red is rooted in blood, glass, wine, hunters’ caps, and a thousand other concrete phenomena. Otherwise we should have no feeling toward red or its relations, and it would be useless as an artistic element.’ He worked to disconnect himself from Cubism. Colour and oil paint redeemed his project to recuse himself from theory. Oil painting ‘continually threatens, because of its motility and subtlety, to complicate a work beyond the simplicity inherent in a high order of abstraction.’ He connects this complication and complexity to the ego and the humanistic. It connects to Beckett when he writes of wanting to punch holes through to the other side of language. Beckett, though often minimilist in his resources and abstract to a high degree, continually retains the threat of complication. Motherwell thought art couldn’t be taught but could be learned. A silence that perturbs and an erasure that mounts a formidable negative presence against positive reality haunts some of this, although perhaps more so in Rauschenberg’s white on white paintings.

Greenberg thought that if artists were to say what they had to say they had to free themselves of the geomentric cubist abstractionism that insisted on finish and rectangular and curvilinear regularity. The fugitive and informal were superior to any finished ultimatum. De Kooning and Gorky were criticized by Greenberg in this way. Black Mountain College had Abstract Expressionist teachers alongside Willem de Kooning. Franz Kline, Theodoros Stamos, Jack Tworkov, Estaban Vicente, Emerson Woelffer all taught and Robert De Niro and Pat Passlof were distinguished students. De Niro remained figurative. De Kooning at Black Mountain moved to break from his black and white abstract enamel painting. Pollock had appeared in 1949 and a year earlier de Kooning was reintroducing colour. De Kooning taught by waiting for the students to present their problems on canvas and then discussed options, unlike Albers who presented students with problems for them to solve. Elaine de Kooning was devoted to Wilem but was significant apart from him. She was doing surrealist shapes as late as 1947. She had a hot earthy palette.

Theodoros Stamos imagined the mountains of Black Mountain College as Chinese. Franz Kline relied on a black and white scheme and Greenberg commented that ‘… what is at stake… is the preservation of something – a main pictorial resource – that is suspected of being near exhaustion; and the effort at preservation is undertaken …. By isolating and exaggerating that which wants to preserve.’ Similar high stakes played out in Paris with Godot, Endgame and the rest of Beckett’s scrap with silence. Kline has been identified with an obsession with massive interactions of primal forms. Robert Creeley writes that ‘There are women who will undress only in the dark and men who will only surprise them there. One imagines such a context uneasily…’ and this is an old sturdy principle that makes dark absence of light. Kline is mysterious. He drew his paintings delicately and then painted them onto huge canvases. ‘Painting’ of 1952 was done at Black Mountain College and shows geometry going ‘haywire’. Jack Tworkov disn’t let his subconscious dominate his paintings like the other Abstract Expressionists were supposed to. He was a draftsman who didn’t exploit accidents.

John Cage wrote that ‘Any experimental musician in the twentieth century has had to rely on painters.’ Cage and Merce Cunningham contacted Black Mountain College in 1948 offering a performance. Cunningham and Cage worked separately having agreed a rhythmic structure then came together to perform. The performance of Eric Satie’s ‘The Ruse of Medusa’ was a highlight following Cage’s attack on Beethoven and the Romantics in his talk ‘In defence of Eric Satie.’ He worried about the decadence of Beethoven and rejected the emotional metabolism of tonality. He replaced them with indeterminacy and chance. The group working on this included Buckminster Fuller and one legacy of the college was the obligation to act, regardless of consequences. The unorthodox was a matter of going with your impulses. Chance operations were codified by Cage by tossing a coin three times and then picking out pages from the I Ching or Book of Changes. In 1952 he went back to the college and wrote a four hundred page score for a work of four minutes. He became interested in Robert Rauschenberg who was painting his white on white series. He then wrote 4’33”. He was also influenced by reading Artaud’s ‘The Theatre and Its Double’ from which Cage said ‘we got the idea from Artaud that theatre could take place free of text, that if a text were in it, that it needn’t determine the other actions, that sounds, that activities, and so forth, could all be free rather than tied together … So that the audience was not focused in one particular direction.’ Cage thought that the atmosphere at Black Mountain College was conducive to trying to work with such ideas. ‘Theatre-Piece No 1’ was the result.

Black Mountain College had a savvy innocence that meant they accepted the experimentalists of Vienna following the Anschluss. Members of Schoenberg’s circle arrived . It also recruited Afro-American scholars and musicians. The alto Carol Brice came, plus Roland Hayes the son of a slave, a student at Juillard and the first black winner of the Naumberg performance prize. At his recitals efforts were made to ensure that the audience was not segregated. In the spring term of 1946 black composer Mark Fax was hired. Henrich Jalowetz organized a celebration to mark Shoenberg’s seventieth birthday . John Sessions wrote of the college: ‘ The college, which is situated in the Blue Ridge Mountains, was founded by a group of idealists who believed that education is a kind of collaboration between individuals differing in experience and knowledge but between whom barriers arising from positions of authority are minimized to the utmost extent. In practice this results, as I was abundantly to observe, in an amazing freedom of discussion which to one coming quite unprepared from the outside world, is extremely impressive in its testimony to the maturity and seriousness of which young Americans are capable.’ Sessions sent a lecture from the college to Schoenberg who was very impressed. What impressed Sessions was Schoenberg’s ability to continue to go his own way without compromise and his remaining ‘ the most dangerous enemy of the musical status quo.’ The resistance to market driven music culture and continual experimentation overcame earlier dissatisfaction. Schoenberg was seen to summarise a fundamental musical crisis.

According to Calvin Tomkins Merce Cunningham was more traditional and depended on his powers of invention more than Cage. He was interested in translating events from ordinary life into dance. Sets were designed by Rauschenberg. Buckminster Fuller’s great aunt was Margaret Fuller, a leading feminist who had set up the Dial with Emerson. He analysed buildings and wondered about how to use technology to maximize the benefits of the maximum number of people. He had the idea of airlifting buildings to the needy all over the world. ‘Dymaxion’ was an advertising slogan combining ‘dynamism’, ‘maximum’ and ‘ions’. Fuller designed Dymaxion cars, buildings and bathrooms. The dymaxion Deployment unit was patented in 1941. The US military used it in the Persian Gulf and Pacific in WW 2. His Geodesic Domes are still important in thinking about how to solve global housing problems. He demonstrated them at Black Mountain College in 1948. Kenneth Snelson wrote that ‘ The mastery of universal forces tensegrity implies is meaningful, however, not simply because it will enable us to make larger structures. More important , and perhaps central to Fuller’s genius, is the insight his ideas gave us into universal order. That is an achievement which ranks him with other great poets, scientists and artists.’

Susan Weil went to Black Mountain College with Robert Rauschenberg. She didn’t like all the rules Albers had to run the college but got a lot from the drawing classes. Rauschenberg feared Albers fierce criticisms and never asked for them. Weil created ‘Secrets’ in 1949. Katz says ‘To make Secrets , Weil took a page from her journal, ripped it into judiciously-selected shreds, and assembled the bits in such a way that the edges float off the surface, giving the impression of scraps in a pile on a desk or floor. The tantalizing character of this work, in which communication is intentionally obfuscated, derived from Weil’s interest in fragmentation.’ What she learned from Black Mountain College was that what you learned at art college was invalid.

She worked with Rauschenberg and Twombly and Motherwell. Rauschenberg worked on his white on white series. Modern art became a state of elimination. Cage compared Satie and Rauschenberg’s vision. ‘We have … many examples in contemporary visual art of things brought to simplicity. I recall, for instance, the white paintings of Robert Rauschenberg, which don’t have any images. It’s a highly simplified situation that we are able to see things as dust or shadows carefully painted, [whereas] in Rembrandt, any other shadow entering the situation would be a disturbance and would not be noticeable, or if noticeable, a disturbance.’

Cy Twombly buries sexual fetish in a violent surface according to Motherwell. Peter Voulkos taught ceramics and transformed his idea of a pot. Ray Johnson was a student at Black Mountain College and became known for his mail-art work. He was influenced by Albers and Cage. He created moticos in cardboard and burned notes taken from Albers classes in 1950 in order to break free. His suicide in 1995 is a terrible and strange coda.

Beaumont Newhall taught photography at the college but said of himself that ‘Although I photograph, I am not a photographer.’ Clemes Kalischer was. He took portraits of Cage and Stefan Wolpe. Wolpe was described by Adorno as ‘an outsider in the best sense of the word.’ He embraced Dadaism and leftist politics, and had been driven out of Germany in 1933. He had been part of the Weimer Bauhaus. He had an amazing range: twelve-tone, modal systems of classical Arabian music, had worked with John Carisi, the arranger for Miles Davis, Elmer Bernstein and Mike Stoller. His music was organic, an ‘interplay of curves, a simultaneous release of waves.’ It was a musical field of intense gestures. Hazel-Frieda Larson created archetypical Black mountain photography: ‘ a classical yet modest sense of balance, tempered by a humanistic reverance for life expressed in her photograph’s gentleness of detail.’ Aaron Siskin made a shift towards abstraction in his photography. De Kooning, Kline and Tworkov admired his work. In 1951 he was the only photographer invited to show in the Ninth Street Show of Abstract Expressionist painters. His photo ‘North Carolina 10, 1951’ shows an open book on a floor. It links with Charles Olson’s ambitions for the literary life of the College.

Harry Callahan and Arthur Siegal were invited photographers. Jonathan Williams was a photographer but also multi-disciplinary. When Albers and Ted Drier left in 1950 the college entered its late phase, severed from links with its beginnings. Olson wrote his ‘Projective Verse’ essay in 1950. Poetry was a process of exploration or discovery. Lines were shaped by breath and speech not trad prosody. Organic forms emerging from a writing process was something associated with their approach. They wrote essays about this which put them in a slightly off key relationship to other contemporary groups such as the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance and the New York School. Line, syntax and page space are taken as key sites of poetic experiment. They saw themselves as flowing from Pound, W.C. Williams, the Objectivists, Gertrude Stein and H.D.. ‘Notes on Organic Form’, Ideas of the Meaning of Form,’ and ‘Towards an Open Universe’ are key texts.

Charles Olson became the dominant figure. He spoke of himself as an ‘archeologist of the morning.’ Merce Cunningham called him ‘a very serious elephant.’ Olson told everyone, ‘ limits are what any of us are inside of…’ He said, ‘I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Fulsom Cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here, large. And without mercy..’ Writers were always a presence throughout the college’s history. Thornton Wilder, Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, Irwin Panofsky, Anais Nin, Eric Bentley, Paul Goodman, Alfred Kazin visited or taught. Olson’s ‘Encounter at St Elizabeth’s’ confronted Ezra Pound and ‘Call Me Ishmael’ was a groundbreaking study of Melville. Olson wrote; ‘ There came a man who dealt with whiteness. And with space. He was an American. And perhaps his genius lay most in innocence rather than in the candor now necessary. In any case, he was not understood.’

Olson saw history as Herodotus’s ideas not Thucydides’ facts. He studied the Mayan glyphs of Lerma. A glyph acted in itself and carried additional weight for Olson. He thought primal forces were important. “Projective verse’ saw the page as a canvas, so words didn’t have to follow meekly after each other. The Concrete poets of Brazil were contemporaries. Robert Creeley was a staunch ally. Words could be abstract experiments rather than meditations on a theme. Writing from Lerma in Yukatan to Creeley he said, ‘ Christ, those hieroglyphs. Here is the most abstract and formal deal of all the things this people dealt out – and yet, to my taste, it is precisely as intimate as verse is. Is, in fact, verse. Is their verse. And comes into existence, obeys the same laws that, coming into existence, obeys the same laws that the coming into existence, the persisting of verse, does.’ Olson was incredibly sexist sadly, and so the atmosphere was poor for women. Dorothea Rockburne said of the college, ‘ It was a strange and wonderful place, but it was very sexist, and I’d never experienced that before. You would talk, and it was like you were invisible. Except as a sexual object.’ During this period the learning experience became less structured.

Robert Creeley said that if poetry was to move forward it would depend on Olson. Creeley was a significant advance for poetry. He visited Black Mountain in 1954 and 55. The college was dwindling by then. Olson and Creeley attacked academic poets in the 1950’s. Students at Black Mountain at this time include Ed Dorn, Joel Oppenheimer, Michael Rumaker and John Wieners. Olson considered Dorn to have ‘an Elizabethan ear.’ Like Duncan he accepted that incoherence would be a part of any event. Writing was about following the sounds. Duncan said that from the poetic organism came ‘something actually seen in the process of the poem, not something pretended or made up.’ The Black Mountain Review was initially an advert for students. The college by 1954 was in financial trouble and needed them. Creeley was still living in Mallorca at first. It was an attack on what Creeley and Olson saw as elitist modernism.

In its first edition it attacked Dylan Thomas and Theodore Roethke. Kenneth Rexroth was offended. The last edition was in 1957 and signs on the San Francisco Renaissance poets and the Beats, equally expansive types of underground writing. This was not only a natural but a strategic opening that threw the arc wide open, in tune with the proliferation of City Lights, Grove Press, New Directions, the Evergreen Review, Yugen, Big Table and Measure. Donald Allen’s ‘The New American Poetry: 1945-60’ came out of this, missing only the Deep Image and Subjective Verse poets because they were too linked with European poets such as Char, Ekelov, Lorca and Ungaretti and European avant-gardes. So no Bly, Kelly or Rothenberg. Olson and Creeley were looking to an alternative ego-structure to that in the mainstream. Everyone was to find their own bibliography.

Olson rejects Snyder, Lew Welch and Philip Whalen as San Francisco softheaded mystics. Duncan seemed to him too heritage influenced, drawing too much from English Romantics. He had questions for the nature-driven boys too, such as William Everson and Thomas Merton. He was against wisdom as such in his search for post-modern man. Wisdom as such was dismissed as ‘a completely adolescent address to the world in which he finds himself.’ The second review includes Artaud translations. Kevin Power describes Artaud as ‘ the dark angel of surrealism, uncontrolled and apocryphal, representing the initial pessimism and revolt of the group – the man who, as Breton said, went right through the mirror…’ Poems by Herman Melvile were also included because for Creeley he understood reality as ‘… the apprehension of the absolute condition of present things.’ Creeley too was ‘the figure of outward.’

The Black Mountain Review 3 saw Duncan’s first appearance with ‘Letters for Denise Levertov: An A Muse Ment.’ Cid Corman attacked Karl Shapiro and ‘… the Auden-American gang.’ He used the phrase ‘gorgeous dilapidation’ as a term of abuse. I’d have worn it as a badge of honour. The fourth issue had the only woman in the gang included so far, Denise Levertov. She was appreciated because she was able to maintain the rhythms of life in her verse without falling into the sloppiness of the Beats. Creeley wrote on Kline and another piece on Francis Parkman’s recognition of history. ‘By God Pomeroy, you’re here’. The fifth edition was an annual, bigger and the influence of Abstract Expressionist artists dominated. Duncan answers Olson’s charges against him in ‘Against Wisdom as Such.’ Duncan pleads guilty to the charges but thinks the glamour of English Romanticism can push him to a mystic reality bringing love and lust together.

Review 6 has a Dan Rice cover. Duncan discusses a new dimension in Olson’s writing, that of ‘internal sensation.’ Along with mastery of ear and eye mastery of the inner voice had been achieved. ‘On the level of reference, the gain from Whitman’s address to his cosmic body to Olson’s address to ‘the waist of a lion/for a man to move properly’ is immense.’ And he writes ; ‘I point to Emerson or Dewey to show that in American Philosophy there are foreshadowings or forelightings of Maximus. In this aesthetic, ‘conception cannot be abstracted from doing’, beauty is related to the beauty of an archer hitting the mark.’ Review 7 was the final issue. Allen Ginsberg was contributing editor. His poem ‘America’ was included. ‘America when will we end the human war?’ Keroac’s ‘October on the Railroad Earth’ is there too, plus sections of Burroughs’ ‘Naked Lunch’, poems by McClure, Snyder and Whalen and a section from Hubert Selby’s ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn.’ William Carlos Williams writes on Marsden Huntley and Ford Maddox Ford. There’s a negative review by Rumaker of ‘Howl.’ Creeley thinks it balanced. It says things like, ‘The poem does not contain itself … The poem builds to hysteria. The last section is chaos, the logical conclusion to the build-up. The poem scatters itself, finally, on its own pitiful frenzy. A way has not been found.’

The Black Mountain School was more interested in the formal use of the line than either the Beats or the New York school. Rumaker describes Creeley’s writing as ‘a scrupulous and highly exact examination of conscious processes. His own clearences, then as now, are in areas of excruciating wakefulness. If his demons are ‘conscious’ ones, they are, paradoxically, no less real and terrifying than those lurking in the dark under-roots of the unconscious. Yet much of the writing has the quality of dreams, in definitions of consciousness so newly realized that they have an other worldly aura, so foreign are they, seen from the prospect of his unique and stripped down acute angle of vision.’ He aimed to turn language into an active principle.

Vincent Katz, Martin Brady, Robert Creeley and Kevin Power have put together a superb overview. MIT Press have reproduced some wonderous pics. The College had no money in the end and was forced to close.

Something haunts all this. I return to the organic eye of Emerson. His eye is no passive absorber but is a restless interpolator seeking coherence. Schopenhauer makes a connection between the self, knowledge and sight: ‘ … the “I” is the dark point in consciousness, as on the retina the exact point at which the nerve of sight enters is blind, as the brain itself is entirely without sensation, the body of the sun is dark, and the eye sees all but itself.’ Roy Sorensen notes that this captivated Wittgenstein. ‘Wittgenstein interpreted the eye geometrically rather than organically.’ Wittgenstein writes in the Tractatus, ‘ Where in the world is a metaphysical subject to be found? You will say that this is exactly like the case of the eye and the visual field. But really you do not see the eye. And nothing in the visual field allows you to infer that it is seen by an eye.’ And Sorensen writes: ‘ If the self is a boundary of reality rather than an element within reality, there is a convergence between solipsism and realism.’ And he comments on the close alignment of Idealism with this perspectivalist solipsism. This is the recognition that Idealism taken through to its logical conclusion leaves us absolutely alone. And if Idealism implies the world is mind-dependent then a blindspot is a metaphysical impossibility. As such it’s false.

What is false doesn’t exist. But like Beckett in Europe, the imperceptible aversion to positive reality emancipated Rauschenberg, Cage et al. Because there was no life other than the false one life’s catalogued defects – including Edwards’ old sinister pantheism – became the mirror image of an erased ontology. This is the same post-mortem art that has Hamm cry, in ‘Endgame’, ‘certain of the incontestable boredom of existence’, as Adorno puts it,’What in God’s name could there be on the horizon.’ The mature grit in their art was the pathos drawn from theology that resists the terrifying consequences of nothingness.

The College’s Lake Eden campus is now used as a boys-only summer camp for Christians.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 12th, 2013.