A Masque in the Form of A Cento
hole chapbooks, Calgary/Philadelphia/Vancouver, 2000
Available from: Rob Manery, 2664 William Street, Vancouver, B.C., Canada V5K 2Y5; $7.00
From 1977 through 1981, "Meeting of Minds" was shown on public television in the United States. The project, developed by comedian Steve Allen over a period of eighteen years, brought together actors who portrayed historical figures such as Plato, Francis Bacon, Marie Antoinette, and Galileo and sat them around a table to mildly assert the theories for which they were most generally known. It was also in 1977 that Ammiel Alcalay composed Masque in the Form of a Cento, the characters of which Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and John Dryden (with cameos by Bunyon, Bradstreet and Marvell) proclaim various samplings of their published work on a stage divided into three sections; there are also spoken parts given to a narrator and the foils Lisideius, Crites and Neander.
First things first: while a masque is indeed related to "masquerade," the term as English majors know and love it is more accurately defined (by the OED) as "a dramatic composition ... originally consisting of dancing and acting in dumb show ... afterwards including dialogue (usually poetical) and song." And the Latin word cento is a "garment of patchwork, also the title of a poem made up of various verses"; thus, "a composition formed by joining scraps from other authors." It's completely accurate, then, to use the words "composed by" with the author's name; in a note at the end of the masque, he says that he has
long striven to "level the playing field" by
allowing different roles (poet, translator, scholar, editor, critic, journalist, teacher, reader, person) dictate working priorities back to me. One of the first steps in allowing this to happen, for me, has been the experience of immersion into the words of others and the use of myself as conduit or channeler of those words.1
In providing these definitions and notes, however, I hardly want to make this work seem less strange, and thus provide "any facile assimilation of [it] within familiar categories or uninformed cultural and historical assumptions."2 Indeed, if there's a word that would not apply to Alcalay, it's "uninformed"; among the roles he mentions above, he's perhaps best well-known as a Middle Eastern scholar, one whose pioneering book After Jews and Arabs sought to re-define and re-focus the conflict between these peoples as a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean mosaic. Inasmuch as we're inclined to see Israel as a "western" country surrounded by "Eastern" enemies, Alcalay directs us to the common semitic roots between the peoples, in the process helping to uncover a shared mizrahi and Sephardic culture in the region that had been almost completely ignored. He takes us back to the "golden age" of Levantine culture, from the ninth century when much that was Jewish was actually written in Arabic and when the two peoples had close interpenetration and commerce to the expulsion of Jews and Arabs from Spain (and, incidentally, the Judeo-Arabic culture from European culture) in the 15th. By implication, he mourns the artificial divisions of statehood that have obscured that fact, and that history.3
Thus, a central concern for Alcalay has been the recovery of memory that's been obliterated by exclusionary and exclusivist histories imposed by "religious fanaticism and retrograde nationalism," as Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo has it in the preface to Alcalay's recent book of essays Memories of Our Future.4 In one of those essays, a review of Goytisolo's own poetics, Alcalay recalls Cervantes' "ability to create a completely new reality by freeing a remarkably diverse range of existing characters from the strictures of their history and generic circumstances."5 Later in the same essay, he comes even closer to describing the masque at hand, quoting the Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris, who speaks of an "imaginary constellation" where you can steep yourself in a theater, so to speak, of plural masks that bear on the travail of humanity; in an orchestration of ancient and modern histories and characterizations and imageries as well revolving, so to speak, around a transitive principle or musical chord.6
So to speak. And what is that "chord" around which the various characters "revolve" in this masque? It has something to do with the clash of certain triumphal states of mind with the more ground-level journalistic observations of the writer/characters. Defoe, for example, is given privilege of place and time, the only character stage left who both opens and closes the proceedings. On a mattress in "a garret or attic room," he reads (from A Journal of the Plague Year) about those who "perished in the streets and fields for mere want, or dropped down by the raging violence of the fever upon them." This dispassionate recital is followed by a disembodied but cheery narrator (lights on, stage center) giving more "official" history: "It was that memorable day, in the first summer of the late war, when ... the two most mighty and best appointed fleets which any age had ever seen, disputed the command of the greater half of the globe." Then Defoe again, indirectly refuting this rather smug and opportunistic propaganda: "So in the plague it came at last to such violence that people sat still looking at one another, and seemed quite abandoned to despair."
When Swift comes onto the scene (on a small rowboat away from the other boats stage center), he disputes the view of Crites that "almost a new nature has been revealed to us" with the observations of a character in Gulliver's Travels, namely, that
the historical account I gave him of our affairs during the last Century ... was all only an heap of Conspiracies, Rebellions, Murders, Massacres, Revolutions, Banishments; the very worst effects that Avarice, Faction, Hypocrisy, Perfidiousness, Cruelty, Rage, Madness, Hatred, Envy, Lust, Malice and Ambitions could produce.
So there. This isn't just a contest between competing versions of history, though; the familiar phrase "history is written by the winners" doesn't take into account the death and destruction that allows that history to be written. Swift is here indicting not just the English, but a universal cast of mind that assumes one standard of belief or judgment (or, for that matter, aesthetics or politics) will serve for all: "I hate and detest that animal called man," Swift says later, evoking the misanthrophy with which many of these writers are popularly associated, "although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth."
Similarly, Alcalay brings into counterpoint one Neander, who finds it convenient to "pronounce of our present poets, that they have far surpassed all the ancients, and the modern writers of other countries" with Pope, who ridiculed a similar view expounded by "Martinus Scriblerus" in The Art of Sinking in Poetry, and whose lines from Book IV of The Dunciad
There marched the bard and blockhead, side by side,
who rhymed for hire, and patronized for pride.
find inclusion here, as do Dryden's "When tragedy was done / Satire and humour the same fate have run / And comedy is sunk to trick and pun." These rather severe judgments were made partly because most of the poets with whom these writers were familiar had "learn'd to please, and not to wound." As Pope writes, in lines included here:
Those who cannot write, and those who can
All rhyme, and scrawl, and scribble, to a man.
Newborn nonsense first is taught to cry,
Maggots half formed in rhyme exactly meet
And learn to crawl upon poetic feet.
How mean!, some of us might say. Indeed, although the writers here included are all honored subjects of study in Jack Spicer's English Department of the Soul, and thus seemingly not the victims of historical destruction, it's also true that their popularity has waned more than waxed in recent years; as Alcalay says in his note, in 1977 they "couldn't have been more unfashionable or, apparently, distant from what I supposedly thought my concerns were." Edward Dorn, in another interview in 1980, had this to say about the 18th century's reputation:
People were willing to insult each other in that century. All the time. It was a total century of insult. And it was a brilliant century. It invented the modern. ... I mean, it's now looked back on as unsanitary. It's now looked back on as arch, in this kind of pernicious way.7
Rather than arch, then, we can also look back on these writers as public commentators, for whom there was no separation between their art and their political sensibilities; in fact, they were models of the "public literary activism" Alcalay says inspires his writing. "What's more," says James Scully in a slightly different context, "their aesthetic achievement is because of their politics, not in spite of it. ... It is a poetry that talks back, that would act as part of the world, not simply as a mirror of it."8 Pope's Dunciad began as a typical Scriblerus literary prank, yet by Book IV 15 years later, the ridicule of certain of Pope's contemporaries evolved into a full-scale assault against a cosmic principle of dullness that was overtaking the world:
Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
The meteor drops, and in a flash expires. ...
Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal Darkness buries All.9
The year 2000 did not show us any general apocalypse, but we have had the chance to preside over the years in which this masque was composed and now published over the deaths and destructions of various smaller "worlds," from Beirut and Sarajevo to Srebenica and Rwanda. Is it really true, Alcalay asks rhetorically in an interview collected in Memories of Our Future, that
the example of a multiethnic community in the Bosnian fashion, including mixed marriages, tolerance, and mutual respect, might actually turn out to be contagious and pose a real threat to the sterility of dead ended politics, and the further concentration of power and capital[?]10
In other words, the current enemy isn't a lot different than Swift's or Dryden's; globalization, and a "greater concentration of capital now in fewer and fewer hands"11 has aesthetic consequences as well as political ones. Similarly, if the history of Jewish/Arab contact in the Mediterranean can be seen to stretch back to the ninth century and not merely to 1948 is our sense of "literature" really not large enough to include these enlightenment writers of the eighteenth century? Everyone who has written in, or been translated into, English is potentially at least part of our inheritance; as Alcalay says in his concluding note, "the past remains open before us, waiting to be mined."
Strictly from a writer's standpoint, it's fascinating how, as more than a few people have said, we all write (or compose!) the same poem over and over. As noted, this masque was composed in 1977, long before the Levantine studies and travels that have made Alcalay's primary reputation, yet as I've tried to show here it's not finally very different from his current concerns. Defoe closes the masque with remarks that might as well apply to Bosnia, or Lebanon, or Toledo and Granada in the Golden Age: "neither shall I say anything more of it but that it remains to be lamented."
1 Edward Dorn, in a 1976 interview responding to a question about the function of the poet, had similar thoughts about process: "Part of the function is to be alert to Spirit, and not so much write poetry as to compose the poetry that's constantly written on air. What I've read and what I hear merge to make the field in which I compose." Edward Dorn, Interviews (Bolinas: Four Seasons Foundation, 1980), p. 66.
2 Ammiel Alcalay, Memories of Our Future (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1999), p. 148 (speaking of the work of Juan Goytisolo).
3 Somewhat ironically, this review is being written just after a two-week "summit" between the Israeli government and Palestinian representatives at Camp David has concluded without a peace agreement (although both sides are being careful to accentuate the positive aspects and new talks are scheduled).
4 Op cit., p. xxi.
5 Ibid., p. 151.
6 Ibid., p. 151. These comments are reminiscent of Charles Olson's comment on Pound's cantos: "Ez's epic solves problem by his ego: his single emotion breaks all down to his equals or inferiors. ... Which assumption, that there are intelligent men whom he can outtalk, is beautiful because it destroys historical time, and / thus creates the methodology of the Cantos, viz, a space-field where, by inversion, though the material is all time material, he has driven through it so sharply by the beak of his ego that, he has turned time into what we must now have, space & its live air" (my italics). Selected Writings of Charles Olson (New York: New Directions, 1966), pp. 81-82.
7 Edward Dorn, Views (San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1980), p. 22.
8 James Scully, Line Break: Poetry as Social Practice (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988), pp. 5-6.
9 Alexander Pope, Selected Poetry & Prose (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1972), pp. 513-514.
10 Ammiel Alcalay, Memories of Our Future (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1999), p. 261.
11 Ibid., p. 261.
[Back to Readme]