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Back to Where We Have Never Been:

James Merrill and Philhellenism

By Lowell Lloyd 

 

Expatriate writing starts from loss: exile from the homeland, and the loss of the imagined Ideal of the newly settled place. Expatriate writing is an attempt at an evocation of the “thingness” of a place, and the inevitable lack of complete retrieval. An innocuous yearning for a physical place and sense of being-in-the-world tends to be the attempt to capture the philhellenic Ideal: a perfect, incorruptible, revolutionary, scraggy, sun-shot Greece with discernible, felt links to antiquity.  

A place’s thingness is often most powerfully produced through the deployment of a choice noun. Hemingway dotted his works with wines, military objects, and streets that can be found tangibly by the reader outside the text. Hemingway yokes the thingness of the real to his writing, morphing their actuality with language. Heidegger, on going to Greece, is disgusted by the thingness of modern hotels, and everything they do and represent. He finds his Greek Ideal only at uncorrupted Delos. 

Though ideals anchored by place differ, they can reveal psychological drives and desires for reconciliation between mind and exterior, the text and the “real”. They form a symbolic knitting of personal loss, regret, absence, freedom, and trauma, within a physical, worldly place that functions as a totem of this powerful blend of symbolism.  

This physical space can buckle, however.  

Places revealed in literature as anchoring nouns function as lone catalytic vessels upon the vast sea of memory, seemingly capable of taking us to the shores of the Ideal. Luxuriating in the elegiac mournfulness of remembrance for a prior time and (often faraway) place is of course only one of the intended functions of the well-placed noun. The primary function—or alternatively: the function which establishes the necessary conditions for recollection—is the specificity of thingness, which at its most singular and unequivocal gives nouns an almost spatial, geographical, phenomenological, and numeric precision. In ‘Ashglory’, Paul Celan writes that ‘No one / bears witness for the / witness.’ The expatriate writer forces this witnessing into literature. James Merrill’s ‘To My Greek’,  

Coastline of white printless coves  

Already strewn with offbeat echolalia,

Forbidden  salt  kiss  wardrobe  foot  cloud  peach

—Name, it, my chin drips sugar, radiant dumbbell, each  

Noon’s menus and small talk leaves you  

Merrill’s sparse noun evocation and his restraint in landscape description is the poetic recreation of the dissonance between language and place. When Merrill arrived in Greece, he had only his limited knowledge of classical Greek from his college days to draw on. Even demotic conversations overheard on the harbour-front, streets, and backs of tavernas, were, in their opaque unintelligibility, capable of swelling his imagination with the exotic. In a 1982 interview for The Paris Review, Merrill reveals the depths of significance of this immersion for him and his partner David Jackson:  

“Greeks who spoke English or French had to be extremely charming for us to want to see them more than once. We wanted to learn Greek and we also wanted to learn Greece, and the turn of mind that made a Greek.” 

Merrill quickly became fluent. Enough anyway, as he so poignantly put it, to “barely ask for bread and love”. Though this fluency was enough to mourn the death of his initial lack of understanding, which brought with it a smaller sense of the world. From the same interview he laments:  

Interviewer: “If, by analogy, you went to Athens to get away from things in America, what was it you found there?"

Merrill: “Things that have mostly disappeared, I'm afraid. The dazzling air, the drowsy waterfronts. Our own ignorance, even: a language we didn't understand two words of at first. That was a holiday! You could imagine that others were saying extraordinarily fascinating things the point was to invent, if not what they saying, at least its implications, its overtones.”  

Merrill’s eventual exhaustion of Greece is important in understanding his time spent there. The complex interconnection of Merrill’s early philhellenism with his gilded but constricting New England life and the promises of Greece—its geography, people, language—for sexual liberation and febrility of poetic imagination seems, eventually, to lead to future failure.  

But of course, the closing of the Ideal did not herald the end of Greece as Merrill’s muse, nor the end of his best work. Rather, the process of learning Demotic developed in duality with an artistic transformation—one that showed a change not only in Merrill’s philhellenism, but a wider move within literary philhellenism. The Ideal of longing and the fetishising of the exotic no doubt appealed to the younger Merrill as it had for many before and since. Adrienne Rich, a contemporary of Merrill, and a fellow Europe-bound émigré wrote of,  

‘The exotic — that way of viewing a landscape, people, a culture as escape from our carefully constructed selves, our “real” lives — a trap for poets… Being mostly white, we saw European culture as the ancestor of ours: we romanticised that ancestry, half in awe at its artefacts, half convinced of our own national superiority. In essence, Europe’s glorious past had been saved from barbarism and for us: a huge outdoor museum.’

This view of philhellenism as emanating colonialism and something generally pernicious, a false Ideal borne from schoolbooks, that, when played out in the world, demoted contemporary Greeks to extras amongst the stage-set of Greece—to borrow Racheal Hadas’ phrase, was no doubt acutely felt at the time. The best philhellenic writers and poets: James Merrill, Rachel Hadas, Henry Miller, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Kevin Andrews, Lawrence Durrell, listened to Greece and in doing so produced a generous voice, one that honoured the Greek present, without regressive crypto-conservatism:  

‘Instead of just reading Greece, they were hearing the Greek people, and hearing some of their contradictions, their ferocious generosity, their loves and prejudices—their reality.’

The overcoming of the seductive Ideal gives way to a more open form of being, capable of opening itself to Greekness, and not ignoring the complicated Greek present, a Greece affected by the experience of occupation and civil war. It seems evident that such a change, based on cultural immersion, is not necessarily a given. There was no guarantee that Merrill or others were fated down this path. An equally persuasive assumption is that if such an evolution takes place it is an internalised artistic process, reliant on a great amount of artistic talent. Such a notion may well be true, but I do not believe it gives the whole picture. What ultimately dooms the Ideal? Certainly the fact that the subjectivity and “personalness” of recollection seems incompatible with a false past, but this is not precisely it. And is the path of redemption shown (an opening of voice to the present) after the failure of the ideal the only one available?  

The particular form of recollection or evocation where physical place functions as sign and the Ideal as destination, is not simply memory plain and simple, i.e. voluntary memory. Rather it is spontaneous, like Proust’s madeleines or Venetian cobblestones. Like much of Proust’s past in À la recherche du temps perdu, the past of the Ideal is pure. Proust is not concerned with general questions of time in its universal or objective sense; rather Proust’s reflections are seated within the phenomenology of human temporality: how we experience the ‘time of our lives.’ This pureness, or my choice in designating it as such, stems not from any process of recollection that somehow brings with numinous splendour an exact objective past back into the present. Because we are not concerned here with objectivity, but rather the fact that temporality is arguably the foundation of all subjectivity, the pureness of a past comes from its dual truth and falsity that satisfies our personal relationship to past, present, and future as temporal beings. Witness Deleuze’s brilliant exposition of this past formation in regards to Proust’s evocation of Combray:  

‘Combray reappears, not as it was or as it could be, but in a splendour which was never lived, like a pure past which finally reveals its double irreducibility to the two presents which it telescopes together: the present that it was, but also the present present which it could be. Former presents may be represented beyond forgetting by active synthesis, in so far as forgetting is empirically overcome. Here, however, it is within Forgetting, as though immemorial, that Combray reappears in the form of a past that was never present: the in-itself of Combray… the present exists, but the past alone insists and provides the element in which the present passes and successive presents are telescoped.’

I feel the nagging problem of the ‘never-lived’ in regards to the Ideal is somewhat exonerated by the ‘never lived’ aspect of all temporal experience, including places that have a direct a priori “livedness” to the subject in question in that part of a pure past is constituted by potentiality: the ‘what could have been’. If my linkage of the Ideal to Proustian conceptions of the past seems haunted by a slight speciousness, perhaps by delving deeper into Proust, Deleuze’s musings on him, and the interrelationship between sign and place in regards to the Ideal, we can overcome this.  

In Proust and Signs, Deleuze breaks the vast amount of signification over the stretch of all seven parts of Proust’s work, down into three distinct categories:  

1. Worldly signs. These are signs that stand in the place of thought and action. ‘Nothing funny is said at the Verdurins,’ and Mme Verdurin does not laugh; but Cottard makes a sign that he is saying something funny, Mme Verdurin makes a sign that she is laughing.

2. Sensual signs. These, perhaps the most notable in the work, are the physical signs (madeleines, cobblestones, etc.) that act as catalysts for spontaneous acts of remembrance.  

 

3. Signs of love. These signs are arguably the most central and in important to the work, as such I quote at length: ‘To fall in love is to individualise someone by the signs he bears or permits. It is to become sensitive to these signs, to undergo an apprenticeship to them… love is born from and nourished on silent interpretation. The beloved appears as a sign, a “soul”; the beloved expresses a possible world unknown to us, implying, enveloping, imprisoning a world that must be deciphered, that is, interpreted… To love is to try and explicate, to develop these unknown worlds that remain enveloped within the beloved… The lover wants his beloved to devote to him her preferences, her gestures, her caresses. But the beloved’s gestures, at the very moment they are addressed, still express that unknown world that excludes us… (Jealousy) is the destination of love, its finality. Indeed, it is inevitable that the signs of a loved person, once we “explicate” them, should be revealed as deceptive: addressed to us, applied to us, they nonetheless express worlds that exclude us and that the beloved will not and cannot make us know. Not by virtue of any particular ill will on the beloved’s part, but of a deeper contradiction, which inheres in the nature of love and in the general situation of the beloved.’

The natural cognitive leap from reading Deleuze on Proust and thinking of the presence of the landscape within philhellenic writing, reduced to its noun essence, is maybe to think that these words—‘rock, air, sky, and all the elementals’ to quote Lawrence Durrell—are much the same signification, in function and type, as the landscape based sensual signs in Proust. Whilst the initial act of signification, the signal setting forth association of memory, is the same (i.e. they are physical worldly objects or places) as that of the sensual signs, the full meaning and consequence is closer to that of the signs of love. Return to a prior place, with the powerful temporal element of disjuncture between change and stasis—whether it is the change of the revenant and the stasis of the place that is in the moment dominant, or vice-versa: rarely could you say the one truly elides the other, everything changes—is present throughout all society, history, and literature. 

As chasers of the elusive Ideal of Greece (or interpreters of the literary remnants of others chasers) we attribute to it love. Physical signifiers, hard nouns, seem to be crunchier, terser, and hold a power to evoke unequivocal Greekness without slippage. This occludes the deception of them.  

Perhaps illustrative of this centrality is that elsewhere in his cannon, Merrill pens a direct ode to Proust (in ‘For Proust’), moreover one that captures the deception of love present in Proust’s work,  

And you, because your time is running out, 

Laugh in denial and begin to phrase 

Your questions. There had been a little phrase

She hummed, you could not sleep tonight without 

Hearing again. Then, of that day she had sworn 

To come, and did not, was evasive later, 

Would she not speak the truth two decades later, 

From loving-kindness learned if not inborn? 

After the awesome initial impact of the physical sign to us, the disjuncture between physical reality and our long held beloved, the philhellenic Ideal, can only ever lead to a lasting state of disquiet and melancholy.  

This state comes into being due to the opacity and muteness of these signs, like an unreceptive lover ignorant of our symbolic gestures. This is however, constructed far more by the seeker of the Ideal than anything inherent in the signs themselves—we cannot with any degree of sensibility be angry at rock, or sea for their muteness. Rather it is the operation of attachment of long held imagining to landscape that is at fault. This psychic crossing of the wires, a corrupting of the hard drive, dooms the fate of the Ideal. The writer acts like Lucien Freud—who trapped his sitters into remarkably long sessions—when he asks a country to stay still, to look and sound immaculate, that is, to not to sound at all as it is. Under the philhellenic ideal, signs are polished to be as hard and smoothly impenetrable as the columns of the Parthenon.

Recognising the failure of the Ideal is succeeded by the lifting of the muteness it had enforced. In its place a sensory revolution begins. The western gaze and ear, hitherto reliant on its own projections, turns from harsh, cragged, sun-soaked landscape, and the unintelligible language emanating from its dwellers, to one of wide-eyed receptiveness. The language is learnt, the cloying closeness of a fear of ‘knowing’ is dissipated, and youth-anchored mysticism shed; in its place, a remarkable generosity of voice, at once capable of receiving and listening, but in turn also with honesty and authenticity inscribing what is heard to the page. I quote the following poem in full, not only because it would be a sin to rupture Merrill’s perfect cadence and metre, but to edit more ruthlessly seems out of key with the essence of this essay: the transformation from muteness to voice. The poem hints at a vast temporal being, one that spans times as great as the rocks, and sea, and marbles. But one that is fuller, where past and present collide with every instance of thought, action, and utterance, rather than the infrequent spontaneous eruptions of the landscape of signs. The past is brought forth constantly, and yet the present is never allowed to drown beneath the falsity of the Ideal’s past. Rather through the constant animation of voice, past and present reverberate, becoming one:

Sit, friend. We’ll be drinking and I’ll tell you why. 

Today I went to Customs to identify 

My brother—it was him, all right, in spite of both 

Feet missing from beneath his Army overcoat  

  

He was a handsome devil twice the size of me. 

We’re all good-looking in my family. 

If you that brother, or what’s left of him, 

You’d understand at once the kind of man he’d been.  

 

I have other brothers, one whose face I broke 

In a family quarrel, and that’s no joke: 

I’m small but strong, when I get mad I fight. 

Seven hundred vines of his were mine by right

 

And still are—fine! He’s welcome to them. 

I’m twenty-two. It’s someone else’s turn to dream,


I liked our school and teacher till they made me stop

And earn my living in a welder’s shop.  

 

Cousins and friends were learning jokes and games 

At the Kafeneíon behind steamed-up panes. 

I worked without a mask in a cold rain of sparks 

That fell on you and burned—look, you can still see marks.  

 

The German officer stubbed his puro out 

On my mother’s nipples but her mouth stayed shut. 

She lived to bear me with one foot in the grave 

And they never found my father in his mountain cave. 

 

He died last year at eighty. To his funeral 

Came a NATO Captain and an English General. 

Our name is known around Herakleion


In all the hill towns, just ask anyone.  

 

Outside our village up above Knossós 

A railed-in plot of cypresses belongs to us,  

Where we’ll put my brother, and if there’s room 

One day I’ll lie beside him till the crack of doom.  

 

But I’d rather travel to a far-off land, 

Though I never shall, and settle, do you understand? 

The trouble here is not with sun and soil 

So much as meanness in the human soul.  

 

I worked a time in Germany, I saw a whore,

Smile at me from inside her little light door.

She didn’t want my money, she was kind and clean

With mirrors we submerged in like a submarine.  

 

The girl I loved left me for a Rhodiot. 

I should be broken-hearted but it’s strange, I’m not. 

Take me with you when you sail next week, 

You’ll see a different cosmos through the eyes of a Greek. 

 

Or write my story down for people. Use my name. 

And may it bring you all the wealth and fame 

It hasn’t brought its bearer. Here, let’s drink our wine! 

Who could have imagined such a life as mine?

 

Lowell Lloyd is a graduate researcher at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, and Theory Editor of Pericles at Play.  

Image: 

Clyfford Still

1947-H-No. 3

1947

Dimensions: 232 x 146 cm

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California