AND DEATH SHALL HAVE NO DOMINION: Dylan Thomas, Friedrich Nietzsche and Tragic Joy

dylan-thomas-hires-cropped

 

It is typical of the physically weak to emphasise the strength of life (Nietzsche); of the apprehensive and complex-ridden to emphasise its naiveté and dark wholesomeness (D.H. Lawrence); of the naked-nerved and blood timid to emphasise its brutality and horror (Me!)[1]

Dylan Thomas, “Letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson”, 1933.

For the God he praised is a pagan deity. Pagan is the “raging moon,” pagan is the worship of the trees, the night, the sun, and the sea; pagan are the visions of rebirth from fire and the burning stars; pagan are the images drawn from the deep well of the unconscious self and mingled with Welsh myth, folklore, and ancient rites; pagan is the animistic infusion of nature with these private visions; pagan is the celebration of this world and its joys and sorrows, and the refusal to be comforted by the blessings of another; pagan is the absence of symbols of guilt and sin to account for human failure and suffering; and pagan is the transubstantiation of religious symbols into the natural order of things.[2]

Hans Meyerhoff, “The Violence of Dylan Thomas,” 1955.

What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under.[3]

           Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

 

Dylan Thomas in Exile

Dylan Thomas’ path toward modernist English poetry was laid bare when he was a child. He was not taught the Welsh language deliberately – a decision taken by his father David John Thomas, a head teacher of English literature and an un-forked poet.[4] David, who was himself bi-lingual and taught Welsh lessons in his own home, inundated his son Dylan with sounds and books of English words, introducing him to the great works of English literature, including modernist poetry, psychology and philosophy. Thomas began to write poetry as a child, – the “Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive”[5] – and quickly began to edit his high school’s literary journal. Already involved in advanced intellectual, artistic and poetological questions and endeavours, Thomas, before the age of twenty, filled up notebooks with works which would, all in all, constitute around half of his poetic output – not counting his prose, screenplays, radio plays and short stories. Indeed, he showed no interest in other subjects, recognising very early that he would be a poet and writer.

Dylan Thomas left school at sixteen and began to work as a reporter. He fashioned journals and wrote poetry, and, after three years, published his first collection, Eighteen Poems, in 1933. This event paradoxically assured his exile from an “easy” life in quasi-traditionalist Wales. With his success, he began to roam the streets, pubs and salons of London, coming into contact with the state of the art of modernist poetics. Of course, just as quickly, he would return to Wales, for as he said in a letter, “Cities are death.”[6]  His nomadic, uneasy existence as a poet – and one in the English language – continued throughout his life, as he was caught in a web between Wales, London and later America. It was the utter lack of employment opportunities in Wales – especially as a poet – and his refusal to even consider another vocation – that gave birth to his permanent exile.  If one wished to be a Modern poet, one had to be in London or America – surely not in Wales (unless one could make one’s lucre elsewhere). Landing work with the BBC was later a great boon for Dylan Thomas, who contributed an English speaking Welsh perspective to the public corporation’s offerings. Under the neo-colonial thumb of British culture, the Welsh public and cultural spheres were and still are dominated by England and its media corporations, publishing houses and academic institutions.

It is not clear if this was David Johnson’s intention, but he is known to have been proud that his son had produced lyrical poetry and work of international significance. Nevertheless, he merely opened the door for Thomas, who went through willingly, single-mindedly working to create his own mytho-poetic world through the articulation of his lyrical, psychological and philosophical orientations and sensibilities. But, while his orientations were often centred around the tragic and brutal character of existence, of mortality, it was his longing for the Welsh landscape and its intimacy with nature which provided him with a sense of tragic joy, of the power of life (the concern of the physically weak), of the force of the “green fuse.”[7]  Indeed, Dylan Thomas acted as the Welsh druidic bard in his artistic channelling of the voices of his people[8], his wife, children and lifeworld, of the wind, the raging moon and the sea.  His father may have sought to make it “easy” for his son by giving him the language of the hegemonic power, but he could take away neither the accent of his voice, nor his perennial feelings of homelessness from Wales, necessitated by his extravagant exile.

Though his own life ended in the contradiction of his tragic existence, dead in New York in 1953, Dylan Thomas has been welcomed home in contemporary Wales, his legacy evidenced by the 2014 celebration of the Centenary of his birth. He is a celebrated son of a Wales that has enshrined bi-lingualism in its National Parliament. “Too English for the Welsh, Too Welsh for the English,”[9] Dylan Thomas died trying to escape the double bind of his predicament, though, as tragic, and intentionally so, he burned himself out through the ecstatic character of his lifestyle, his bohemian ethos – his own festival of tragic joy. Some would wish, as we will see, to bring sobriety to our view of Dylan Thomas, to pick his bones clean of any flesh, and to put to sleep or expunge his most riotous effects upon the youth (and patronisingly insulting adolescence in the process). On the contrary, however, it is precisely his eccentric rebellion that matters most about him as a tragic poet – especially one who also produced great works. That he is human, flawed, suffering, but also joyful and ecstatic, a creature of flesh and intoxication – and dying untimely – this makes him tragic in a way that allows people to empathise with him – in the first instance. The rebellion of youth may be “embarrassing” for those who have acquiesced to the nihilism of otherworldly hopes, but such denial of the tragic character of existence and fleeting possibility of joy is only a regretful revenge against the force of life, one provoked by the imminence of the night.

To read the rest of the essay, please visit And Death Shall Have No Dominion.

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Daggers and Spears: Lu Xun and Nietzsche on Cultural Revolution

Daggers and Spears: Lu Xun and Nietzsche on Cultural Revolution

James Luchte

Lu Xun Nietzsche

 

O my brothers, not long will it be until new peoples will arise and new fountains rush down into new depths.

For the earthquake—it chokes up many wells, it causes much languishing: but it brings also to light inner powers and secrets.

The earthquake discloses new fountains. In the earthquake of old peoples, new fountains burst forth.

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘On the Old and New Law Tablets’, 25.

 

Lu Xun – On ‘China’s Nietzsche’

Lu Xun was nineteen when Nietzsche died in 1900.  He had already begun to write poetry, in classical Chinese style, and came into contact with Western literature in Nanking, where he attended a mining school.  It was not until the following year however that he, with a government stipend to study mining in Japan, intensified his relationship with the available threads of world literature, European, British, and Russian – and Nietzsche. The work of which he had the most access was Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Japanese renditions of his thought, including the Untimely Meditations. Lu Xun travelled to Japan at the right time – amid the chaos of the post- war years, the reformation toward modernity, Japan sought to become an industrial and military power with the aid of Western, i.e. ‘Modern,’ science, including Western medicine and literature.

Lu Xun immediately recognized the political and cultural significance of literature, especially that of the English Romantics, Byron and Shelley (to the exclusion of the more introspective poets Wordsworth and Keats) in their individuality and defiance of a corrupt and oppressive cultural and political order.  He found a similar though deeper message in Nietzsche, one simultaneously of a poetic and philosophical order.  Yet, it is the meaning of this influence, and of Nietzsche’s message, that has remained controversial.

This current writing will be an attempt to dissolve this controversy through the exposure of the intellectual and artistic affinities of Lu Xun and Nietzsche upon their own respective and overlapping topoi.  It could be argued that Nietzsche had his most immediate impact in Japan, which already by 1903 (at a time which Lu Xun was already in Japan) had a ‘Nietzsche Dispute’, and had experienced ‘Nietzsche fever.’ Such an intellectual event could hardly have been missed by Lu Xun, and his first essays of 1907 and 1908 mention Nietzsche, echo Nietzsche, yet, from the perspective of a Chinese radical democratic ‘Mara’ poet.

Lu Xun is not served well by the name of ‘China’s Nietzsche’ – unless, that is, it is clear what we mean by ‘Nietzsche’.  Such clarity seems to have been lacking in many of the early receptions of Nietzsche, especially in regards to the notion of the Übermensch, which in the context of the early Japanese reception resembles more closely Zarathustra’s ape, a caricature of Zarathustra, of which Nietzsche had already anticipated, and which he warned would be due to poor reading, in his own prophesy of widespread mis-understanding of his philosophy.  In this light, I will cast into the light the caricature of Nietzsche in order to exorcise it from our subsequent discussions.

To read the rest of the essay, please visit Daggers and Spears: Lu Xun and Nietzsche on Cultural Revolution.

Mortal Thought: Holderlin and Philosophy

Mortal Thought will be published in 28 July 2016 by Bloomsbury Publishing.

Mortal Thought

Holderlin and Philosophy

Mortal Thought explores the radical philosophical innovations of the poet-philosopher Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) and their seminal influence upon philosophy from the 19th century to the present day. The study casts into relief Hölderlin as a tragic philosopher in the age of romanticism, responsible, according to Foucault, for the radical ‘return of time’ to Western thought. Beginning with the point of departure of Hölderlin in Kant and the post-Kantian debates, Luchte explores the emergence of Hölderlin as poet-philosopher and revolutionary, his influence upon the four dominant strands of Continental philosophy – Nietzsche, Heidegger, Critical Theory and post-structuralism – and his relevance for our own era.

Friedrich-Hoelderlin-Pastell-aus-dem-Jahr-1792

Of the Feral Children – A Novel of Rebellion – Kindle (Fire & Ice Publishing, 2015)

‘From the re-incarnation of a Dadaist Poet fixated on an Edwardian pornographic photo to the end of British Civilisation in an Apocalyptic Earthquake, this novel sprawls across the devastated landscape of the ‘teens of this century. The seedy underworld and the seedy overworld clash in a kaleidoscope of sex and violence leaving only the ‘feral children’ to make their own world from the wreckage.’

—- Robert Gilham

Of the Feral Children: A Mayan Farce (2012)

Go to: Of the Feral Children: Synopsis and Review

#LetGreeceBreathe MASS DEMO FEB 15, 2015 Trafalgar Square, London

Go to: The Ends of the British State in Planet Magazine: The Welsh Internationalist

Go to: “They Destroy, We Create: The Anti-Austerity UK Alliance” in Planet Magazine: The Welsh Internationalist

Go to: Athens Without Slavery: The Battle For Europe – Syriza and the New European Left

#LETGREECEBREATHE #DROPTHEDEBT EMERGENCY CALL OUT – THURSDAY FEB 19 6:30PM – PARLIAMENT SQUARE, LONDON

Go to: The Ends of the British State in Planet Magazine: The Welsh Internationalist

Go to: “They Destroy, We Create: The Anti-Austerity UK Alliance” in Planet Magazine: The Welsh Internationalist

Go to: Athens Without Slavery: The Battle For Europe – Syriza and the New European Left

#RiseUpEurope - EMERGENCY CALL OUT - fEB 19 6:30pm PARLIAMENT SQUARE