Postmodern Animality and Spectrality: Ted Hughes’s
Wodwo and Crow
- Author: Park Jung Pil
- Publish: The Journal of English Language and Literature Volume 58, Issue6, p1143~1165, Dec 2012
Tinted with ontological concern, Ted Hughes passes through an existential climate, eventually confirms death( or nothingness) as the new foundation of his poetry, and explores the various paradoxical effects of nothingness. Nihilism, fraught with rather negative and traumatic themes such as death, melancholy, and despair can, however, generate being (even in multiple modes), animalistic vitality, and insubstantial specters. Among these new functions of nothingness animality and spectrality are the most notable in Hughes’s poetry. A considerable number of animals and bioorganisms that Hughes introduces exhibit the enormous energy derived from the dignity of death, from subversive challenges against the established hierarchy, and from new and dynamic multifaceted sources of nothingness. In other words, Hughes’s animals, yield surplus power beyond themselves, as if they are demi-gods; in short, they feature the sublime as unidentified terrifying effects of nothingness. In a sense, animality means allowing some level of violence without legal sanction. Hughes inaugurates this kind of all bigotry-eradicating violence and attempts to subvert higher beings such as humans and gods, and existing doctrines: thrushes rise up against the animal and human worlds; a rush of ghostly crabs at night press through the human world. Hughes also resists the highest being, God, employing the technique of rewriting God’s theology. Dirty, anomalous crows attack, subvert, and dismember the delicate, indurate, and thorough system of logos. Hughes, of course, does not place the animals merely in lofty regard, aware of the ulterior deprivation of the sublime animality, the trace of existential negativity. Thus, a seemingly omnipotent crow can become a mere beggar guzzling ice cream from the garbage bin on the beach. In addition, the violent and dignified aspects of nothingness can be transformed to reveal the thin and trivial traits as unreliable specters. Dark, heavy, and terrible nullity lessens its own volume and mass, and exposes the airy waves of shadows or specters. However, owing to nullity’s untraceable track, the scarcity and unfamiliarity of the phantoms inversely display their foreign gigantic effects such as fantasy and violence.
nothingness , animality , violence , spectrality , fantasy
Since Ted Hughes’s poems are persistent with “an ontological need,” as Anthony Rowland suggests (49), they venture in their explorations beyond the scope that the various titles of his poems might imply. They thus appear to be traditionally metaphysical. Indeed, different discourses have been culled in the interpretation of Hughes’s ontological orientation.1 Some critics see it as Hughes’s being directed toward a permanent essence, while others prioritize the notion of unstable existence as more than essence in his ontology. More radically one critic proposes that postmodern concepts—such as the inexpressible real in Lacan’s terms, which serves as a source of trauma — can be applied to Hughes’s works. Combining existence and essence, and drawing on Adorno’s concept of “peep-hole metaphysics,” which involves capturing the ulterior whole through the peep-hole of a parapet, Rowland maintains that, even if there remain some uncertainties, Hughes ultimately attains “humanist salvation” and “transcendental being” through “the [non-humanistic and dark] metaphysics of
Exitenz” (50-54).2 Of course, we seem able to unearth such a trait in the last part of “Pike,” and in “Lines about Elias,” on which Rowland particularly focuses as sites of locating a rare transcendence; however, under scrutiny, Hughes’s “naked innocence and defencelessness” ( CP743) are grounded in nothingness itself rather than in traditional essence characteristic of stable plenitude and the ultimate union between individual beings, which surpass nullity and difference.3 We cannot ignore that— as inferred from the phrases “killers from the egg,” “submarine delicacy and horror,” “gloom of their stillness,” and “they spare nobody” ( CP85) — death, dissension, inhumanness, and incertitude are always hidden, intimated, and, in many cases, very dominant in Hughes’s ontology, a treatment of which Rowland partially approves. According to Thomas Osborne, there is no transcendence in Hughes, because death is an aspect of life itself, and daily life is reinterpreted in the turmoil of life, death, and violence (54).
Calling attention to the poet’s often ill-tempered use of violence, Geoffrey Thurley already claims that Hughes’s representative poetry collection
Crow, which he referred to as “the abandonment of human perspective” and “the abandonment of the transparent language of a metaphysical self,” leads human preconception to distortion or fragmentation (189). In a similar way, Paul Bentley makes an argument that, fraught with “the fragments of discursive collisions, ” Crowis distinctive in what Mikhail Bakhtin terms “the plurality of discourses” beyond authorial intent (28). Many poems by Hughes are, in fact, filled with proclamations of the great transformation of ontology, namely, the foregrounding of a meager nothingness as superior to an ample being, and of a disjunctive difference rather than an integrated identity, the thing that represents postmodern Zeitgeist. In the new topology of this changed ontology, the concepts surrounding traditional metaphysics — such as origin, perfection, plenitude, reason, and union— are doomed to being marginalized and reinterpreted; instead, death, nothingness, uncertainty, and difference, which were established through two apocalyptic World Wars, are positioned as fundamentally constitutional, and their diverse specifics including fantasy, spectrality, and animality are explored. Crow, discerning of animality and spectrality—the products of death and nothingness— demonstrates this revolution; it describes sublime and subversive animalism, and frivolous play, extravagant fantasy, and frightening haunting that spectrality exhibits as well as the traumatic experiences of terror and melancholia arising from nullity.
This article approaches Hughes from a postmodern sensibility and traces the process by which Hughes becomes inducted in nothingness and mines diverse modes from it. I will locate the point at which an animalistic and sublime power emerges from nothingness, and extends to terrific violence. In addition, I will explicate how this extreme energy is attenuated and transposed into insubstantial spectrality and again how its indefinite spectrality contains the potent ambivalence of fantasy and violence. Finally, I will briefly criticize some inadequacies of Hughes’s perspectives.
1Hughes’ s themes have deep roots in the questions concerning being, nothing, essence, existence, identity and difference. 2In the same vein, Leonard M. Scigaj argues that Hughes, deeply recognizing the limitations of dichotomous and rational Western culture, attempts to escape from the fixed structure and that surpassing logocentrism is to experience “the realization of the fullness of nothingness” that exists before cultural assumptions and cognizance (134). This is partially persuasive but does not effectively explain that for Hughes nothingness does not eradicate instability entirely, instead, rather connoting anxiety and destruction. 3Rowland contends that victims and non-victims in the prisoner’s camp blend in ontological harmony through the music in “Lines about Elias” (53-54). However, it is noticeable, taking the phrases, “music uttered / The dumbness of naked bodies,” “Music poured out of nowhere,” “Strange food,” and “Escaping their humanity,” into consideration, that Hughes’s temporary transcendence includes such traits as otherness, the inhuman, and nothingness.
Preceding Hughes’s prominence of postmodern ideologies, is, of course, his existential sense of immense defeat, preemptive despair, the complete lack of a sense of life itself, and the absence of choice, a sensibility generated particularly by two abominable World Wars. By using the surrealist technique of collage, Hughes describes the ghostly marches of weary military men as holding “their hopelessness / from the millions of the future” in “Scapegoats and Rabies”—a portrayal that exposes and parodies the nonsense of the Great War. In “Heptonstall,” he, in fact, makes a powerful metaphoric reference to the already declining period as “the great geographies / drained to sutures / of cracked windowsills” (
CP171). In “Wings,” the title of which implies that existentialists wear merely broken wings, Hughes characterizes Sartre as a person who ponders on “the sea /. . . / licking the last of pages” in a doubly dark room, and Kafka as a horned owl wearing hopeless feathers ( CP178). Hughes also displays this existential dilemma in “You Drive in a Circle.” Locked out from “the powerful rain,” the car driver is wedged in anxiety and soaked with sweat:
The unremitting impossibility of anchorage emphasizes the notion that there is no egress from the foredoomed despair of the present and the future and that human beings have lost even the smallest foundation on which they were once able to stand. Standing alone in the empty middle of a desert, the self-dejected persona in “Existential Song” shakes his fists at the universe, rejecting his absurd destiny; but he presently recognizes that his arms and legs will fall off, that dogs will tear them apart, and that “life was being lived only by the dogs” (
CP203). Without aiming at the cornucopia of being, humans should sustain the unalleviated bleakness of death, and even willingly “descend” into some sort of destruction (Faas 205). More generally, in “Gog” Hughes professes that everything—including the sun, moon, grass, and stones—is dust, death, and nothingness ( CP162). The pagan title “Gog” connotes that the emerging king in a new period is nothing more than dismal death; therefore, people, who had been able to seek final shelter in religions and metaphysics and had enjoyed the freedom of will, can now only confront and inhabit uneasy and alien nothingness.
Acknowledging that all things are capsized, Hughes defines the bright new moon of January as the “sail of death” in “New Moon in January”(
CP167). Nothingness—another name for death—subverts beings and is now posited even at the summit of ontology, proclaiming that nihility itself is the primary standard, which must be accepted as such, not as a discarded marginal element:
As the capitalized word “Emptiness” suggests, here absence is foregrounded as a sort of essence propping up all existences; so it can provide complacency, though a facet of it is like a “[b]lackbird in wet snow,” retaining melancholia in its innermost being. Hughes’s poem, “Pibroch”— originally a funerailles performed with Scottish bagpipes, but also used as a military march—also represents such dual notions of nullity, a negative agent of protracted depression and a powerful authority controlling individuals’ subsistence. In this poem all things such as the sea, pebbles, wind, and a tree are imprisoned in nothing for an incredibly long time. Furthermore, an old woman, even losing her mind, prolongs her life by embracing the incomprehensible deprivation, not to mention that the tree struggles to create many new leaves:
The speaker eventually declares that, due to its inducing the long melancholy, nothingness is the indispensable and authoritative prime mover, not a negligible or secondary bystander, which stars worship, and which can either deter or nurture everything. Nullity as a decategorizing agency generates waste, and arouses anxiety and melancholia; conversely, it can become the genetic sources that propagate and develop all individual beings, which now acknowledge that coexisting with nothing is not terror, nor “a bad variant.” Chiefly containing dark modalities, the void of nothingness paradoxically becomes the space for originating beings by reversing negativity. The poppy, a symbol of numerous deaths in wars in the poem “Out” is not only “the mouth of the grave,” but also “the mouth of the womb searching” (
CP166). We also uncover this transformation of nihility through Hughes’s fictional persona, Wodwo, who is half human, and half animal, and is somewhat like a larval being (Sagar 297) or a “goblin” ( PM62), attempting to define his identity. However, trapped in uncertainty, he poses endless questions instead. He then confesses that “I seem / separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped / out of nothing casually I’ve no threads / fastening me to anything,” however, for that reason, he is positive of his abundant possibilities in the future, saying that he can go anywhere ( CP183). Nothingness is now defined as a new basis and a potential leap.
The paradoxical productivity of inert and barren nothingness, as if to self-abnegatedly deny or to camouflage its own immobility, can engender even very energetic animals such as crows, wolves, and bears, ensuring maximum potency. Hughes’s animals are so extremely vigorous as to subvert the established order and values, and wage wars, with ease, even against gods, demonstrating the sublime. The nullity, of course, dims and lightens the great capacity of animals again, turning massive dynamics into playful laughs, surface effects, or spectral phenomena without substance. But the weightless, shadowy nonentities can evince more immense effects than an intense reality, as vacuous places sometimes foster an illusion of unidentifiable things looming like specters. Therefore, Hughes’s nothingness abounding in implication displays enormous power through animality, and both its frivolity and puissance as spectrality.
Hughes once said that he invented his crow as “autochthonous without cultural or traditional addition” as if it were created from the entire destruction of all libraries (
Letters339). As Calvin Bedient notes, the crow bares its “incisors” when civilization collapses and utopia evaporates (95). The presentation of the crow without preconception implies that nothingness is the womb of it, as the phrase intimates, “Suddenly the stone [which slept incessantly] opened its eyes. / Crow blinked at the world” ( CP191). In “Conjuring in Heaven,” the only remnant of the world, the nullity extends and multiplies its nothingness in every direction, plastering “nothing with nothing.” The crow then appears on the scene from the breaking of the nullity. The void siphons out the opposing dynamic power from itself, or the crow ( CP235), which discharges even godlike terminal violence. Paradoxically, impotent nothingness predicts self-contrary animality within its inertia. The animality in nothingness is a site in which nullity ejects its indefinite energy infinitely, or a dynamic atmosphere in which nothingness reveals its overwhelming authority or performs a masked character disguising its static aspect. As is well known, many critics have remarked on the animality in Hughes’s works, but few studies have contributed to uncovering the diverse characteristics of postmodern animality especially in relation to Hughes’s philosophical ideas.
Some critics have observed that Hughes concentrates on exploring the inner psychology of animals while excluding human perspectives, to the extent feasible. He portrays animals’ behavior and psychology concretely after being infused into and identified with animals. But strictly speaking, in addition to injection, there is a “meticulously realistic description” (53) or a considerably modern and objective approach in Hughes’s cognition of animals, as Margaret Dickie suggests. Of course, no animal experiments or genetics are detected in his works, but, looking into “Otter,” “Pike,” “Second Glance at a Jaguar,” and “Sheep,” the speakers undertake a more delicately objective examination into animals?an examination associated with faunal survey and ethology. However, in multiple cases, we wonder whether Hughes, projecting himself into them or observing them, approaches animals without any subjective reinterpretation. Scrutinizing such statements as “His wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet” (
CP19) in the second stanza of “The Hawk in the Rain,” and “No arguments assert my right” ( CP69) in “Hawk Roosting,” the hawks appear as Hughes intends to characterize them. The truth is more akin to Hughes perceiving the animals from his own perspective. In addition, the animals are utilized as instruments through which his contemporary ideologies are confirmed and exercised.
Hughes’s animals, in fact, often outclass biological and cultural categories; they are instead endowed with cosmic and philosophical concepts. As Bedient points out, the animals of Hughes are represented as “the lords of death and life”(96) or as agents with immeasurab le energy, which includes asymmetrical magnitude compared to human beings, as in the example of a “cosmic dragon” given by Keith Sagar (289). In particular, because Hughes prefers “surrealistic imagery” in his transition from the early poems to
Lupercaland Wodwo(Dickie 55), his animals are prone to being exposed to supernatural situations, easily going to and coming from cosmic space: Hughes’s crow is, in fact, viewed as the protagonist of a saga, who passes through “all sorts of extremes” ( Letters303); Hughes states that the small pike in “Pike” is “Michael” the Archangel, or the Angel of Water hanging in the radiant glory around God’s throne, possessed of terrible holy power ( Letters606). In the background of this supernaturalism are located Hughes’s philosophical ideas, which, not so much relying on traditional discourses as re-appropriating them, are strong in contemporary traits, positioning animals in dark chasms, horrible nothingness, the alien sublime, and fictional beings in tales. Though they tolerate profound isolation, darkness, and defeat, Hughes’s animals, as the result of radical topological transformation, are not restricted to below the sphere of humans and already extend above it, not only drawing up titanic energy from their unknown interiors, and engaging with numerous heroic works, like the sun, but also utilizing unprecedented subversion — they jibe at human beings; even surpass huge monsters and gods; and revolt and provoke a war against them. In short, they become sublime. Lyotard theorizes that the sublime linked to the “without-limit” of the object, or “formlessness” exceeds what imaginative thoughts can grasp, and suggests a magnitude or a force that surpasses the power of presentation, not admitting of any comparison (52-53, 59, 78, 80). The hawk and the jaguar shown in Hughes’s early poems, “Hawk” and “Jaguar,” exhibit properties appropriate to the boundless and unrepresentable sublime; Hughes remarked in an interview that, if we think of various facets of jaguars, one of them is a Dionysian symbol (Fass 199). The bear is also such an animal in “The Bear”— one that, while so easily expanding his scope of activities, can enact cosmic works even in unconsciousness: The bear “dig[s] / . . . / Through the wall of the Universe / With a man’s femur and glueing / Beginning to end in a sleep”( CP160).
The excessiveness of the sublime animality reaches the self-strangeness or the self-otherness beyond animals themselves, which Derrida defines as a bare animality. Derrida pictures a scene in which an animal suddenly enters his room and inadvertently looks at his nude body before they introduce themselves. This peculiar circumstance leads both the animal and himself to ask a question such as “who,” refusing any conceptualization of each other. Both amount to having “the point of view of the absolute other” (9-11). This nudity provides people and the animal with the opportunity to experience the bottomlessness of an uninterpretable and indefinitive abyss. Humans recognize “the abyssal limit of the human,” or the inhuman that humans are “the apocalypse” itself. Even gods do not know this chasmic otherness, which the naked animality suggests; namely, the gods themselves are stunned at the extrinsic factors in their creatures or inferiors, which expose “the finitude of gods” (17). The emergence of Hughes’s crow, in fact, reflects such an alien sublime, for he survives the World Wars and grows oddly exalted to the surprise of humans, gods, and even the crow himself, then pursues “a renaissance of potential” (Robinson 54) as an origin of a new cosmic world, while retaining his negative image as a “king of carrion” (
CP209). According to Lyotard, the “other feeling” derived from the sublime provides the subjects with the presence of “something that transcends the object,” not being resolved, or of something strange and “more than a phenomenon” (228, 233-34). As if beside himself, the crow takes an uncannily immense leap from a filthy animal to the level of an omnipotent god, when he, so far from rectifying its bad reputation, declares that he alone is mightiest in the world in “Examination at the Womb-door”:
Parodying Christian catechism, Hughes makes a parade of death and then posits the crow both as the progeny and as the conqueror of death, one that is his unique response to the demands of postmodern topology. Proclaiming the superiority of the too arrogant crow includes “jeer[ing] at only its own death,” spitting at it, and swallowing it (
Hughes’s sublime animality extends from familiar yet threatening animals to insignificant or tiny animals, that metamorphose uncannily into existence with monstrous energy. Exceedingly small animals, not conscious of their triviality, become amplified and can secure their sublime independent spheres as if to outdo even the universe. The dancing gnats under the shades of trees turn to “their own sun / . . . . / [a]t large in nothing” and are singing in their own brimming over, “not afraid of the sun” or caring about “the cycles of this [u]niverse” (
CP181); and the mosquito, once terrified by the surrounding lakes, mountains, and stars while coming into life, inversely makes them “tremble”and eventually flies up singing as “a midget sun” ( CP593). Furthermore, the sublime animality overflows onto the realm of static plants; they demonstrate their immobile magnificence or exude their murky yet intensive stream?like a volcano oozes lava?in their innermost. The fern’s frond “unfurls a gesture,” to which the whole earth can dance gravely ( CP153); and “the incomprehensible cry / [f]rom the boughs, in the wind” leads readers to listen to “below words,” the utterance of darkly profound rocks (CP 153).
However, Hughes’s animality is not always successful in exhibiting massive energy because it primarily maintains an apocalyptic mood and its ensuing vulnerability to ineffable terror; depleting surplus energy, it takes the route of descent as well as that of ascent. The sublime in postmodernism is still bequeathed with the depravation of Existentialism on its reverse side, and, as Lyotard asserts, it underscores “the possibility of nothing happening,” which is associated with such anxiety as the thinker faces with a desert of thought (
Lyotard Reader198-99). Hughes’s animals are not obtuse to such limitations as irresistible defeat, foredoomed despair, and inscrutable terror. The slightly moving wolf in “The Green Wolf,” whose frozen stillness doubles the horror, comprehends definitely in “The Howling of Wolves” that he should manage to live for his earthly subsistence. After knowing that he is stunted and meager in intelligence, the wolf whimpers sadly, trailing his haunch ( CP180). In “Crow’s Playmates” Hughes portrays this process of underperformance frankly and funnily using the technique of the fable. The crow, who has great capacity like a creator, feels lonely and creates many gods for his playmates; but the gods tear themselves away and disperse after they grow independent, an event that exhausts the crow. Straggling and draggling his remnants, the crow eventually becomes only “his own leftover” or “the spat-out scrap” of the least-living object extant ( CP240). Many other birds, such as the eagle, the swallow, and the owl play their own ostensible roles, but the crow only sticks his noses into the dirty garbage on the beach and “guzzles a dropped ice-cream,” spreading his legs, in “Crow and the Birds” ( CP210).
To elevate animality to the sublime could be considered to validate even the unrestricted resort to violence, as the brutality of the animal world is not subject to any ethical or jurisdictional restrictions. Lyortard asserts that sublime violence is like lightning or a sudden blazing, in which the teleological machine explodes (54-55). Hughes’s sublimated animals tend to relish such an unlimited force beyond a certain level at which humans commonly understand their power—a level that is associated with pagan gods or “demons” (Bedient 96). In particular, Crow is “martial” to the extent that a trivial thing can be a source of tremendous savageness, such that one critic proposes that behind it there might be belligerent Teutonic mythology before Christianity (Witte 38).4 As Lyotard explains that the sublime pleases through “resistance” (149), Hughes’s violence refuses “the terrific magnetic power of the tradition.” Since it follows the pattern by which new streams of ideas arise when the old rituals and dogma have lost creditability, the violence frequently displays a reversal of the established order.
Hughes’s energetic revolt breaches the insurmountable disparity fixed between the two ranks in the hierarchy of the universe with ease; petite things incite a war against gigantic things as thistles and crabs threaten the human world. The weedy plant, thistles, which shove away from earth’s gravity and extend above the crust of the earth, are replete with “a revengeful burst / [o]f resurrection” as they “pike the summer air / [o]r crackle open under a blue-black pressure” in “Thistles.” With only fragmented arms, the small prickly plants dare venture to fight back against “the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing / hands of men” ; and they even descend their hostile intentions to their offspring while they are fading (
CP147). Also, as if conducting human-wave tactics, such small bioorganisms as crabs intend to inundate and invade the superior human world in “Ghost Crabs.” As Bedient points out appropriately, many of Hughes’s poems regard humans as “the paltriest” organism and express contempt for them (97):
Evoking the image of science fiction and fantasy novels, the crabs in an unfounded fit of anger—implied by a series of explosive words, such as “disgorging,” “spill,” and “bubbling”—landslide on the beach at night like ghosts and trespass the space of civilization with great force in order to colonize it; and finally the human species deteriorate to “bacteria” (
Hughes’s dauntless provocation and subversion reach their peak especially when inferior organisms dissent from, scoff at, and rebel against God, the Creator of the universe. By using the technique of the fable, which is considered to be easily read and to exploit personification very effectively, Hughes conjures up certain organisms that exist before the Creator, and taunts and manipulate Him, rewriting theological system. “Theology” as a parody of traditionally dominant religions and of the mythology of human creation in Genesis provides an entirely different milieu:
The poet-speaker disfigures the established network laid down in Genesis and ruptures the accepted hierarchical relationships between man and woman, between creatures, and between God and mortals: in particular, the lowest serpent reverses all of his superiors and, as if above the existing supervisor, even irks the first and last of the system, God, into giving up the management of the whole structure. In “A Childish Prank,” the crow like the serpent divides the worm, God’s only son, into two writhing halves, inserts the tail half into Adam and the head half into Eve, and makes the two persons combine without knowing this fact. During these operations, God, who is asleep, does not notice the disarray perpetrated by this trivial animal, a fact that triggers the crow’s laugh (
CP215-6). God’s perception and intelligence are also affected by blind nothingness, disclosing God’s limitations in potency. Furthermore, the hyperactive crow owns the capacity to manipulate humans and even gods in the locus above the Creator in “Crow Blacker than Ever.” While the Creator and human beings turn their backs, sick of each other, the mischievous crow unites the two with pounding nails. Humans then shriek in the voice of God and God bleeds in the blood of man, at the sight of which the crow smirks ( CP244). Hughes intends to express that the more things slant toward this union, the more the disjoining pressure between them arises.
Another case in which the Creator’s bafflement is magnified is when His command and education, which are commonly delivered vertically, are relocated. Hughes constructs a scene in which the crow receives a lesson on love from God but continuously misrepresents the schooling as differing from God’s intentions. In “Crow’s First Lesson,” God urges the crow to pronounce the word love correctly to train the bird in His love, but, as soon as the crow opens his mouth, disturbing anomalies—such as the white shark crashing into the sea; the mosquito seeking the pot of meat; and the separate human head without a body appearing—protrude, events that echo Lyotard’s statement that conciliation does not truly erase the difference; it displaces it, and its sign, resistance itself, will reappear “elsewhere” (149):
As if to listen to a foreign language, the crow obstructs the performance of God’s directive and teaching by displacing them into mere noise, in which the disjointed parts of a human organism burst out: human’ heads separate and stick out; man’s eyes swivel; and his mouths murmur gibberish. The gap or hole made when the crow gapes its mouth, multiplies metaphoric differences and breeds the eccentric effects of the abyss, such as nausea.
In addition to the defiance to God’s command, Hughes’s subversive power more specifically targets God’s stringent principle or logos governing the cosmos, the nervous system of the universe, and is executed as attempting the dismantlement of the coherent structure, which Hughes considers as including mathematics, science, law, and words. Asserting that “theorems wrenched men in two” (
CP222), Hughes, briefly, assumes a stance of “anti-intellectualist”5 as labeled by Osborne (55). Hughes maintains that the high rate of energy consumption sacrificed for the sake of practical uses in modern society is due to “the ineptitude of the rigidly rationalist outlook” (Faas 200). In “Logos” Hughes debilitates and crushes the rational constructs that are indicative of God’s elaborate establishment:
The sea in this poem, which elicits traumatic symptoms, is portrayed as a deconstructive agent that continuously spoils old law, word, and truth—namely, the holistic and calculating logos—and shreds them into only partial objects.6 Its status is elevated even to that of God’s mother, who is conjured up as “God’s nightmare” (
Letters296) or a symbol of inner heterogeneous difference, opposing God’s own intention. In a similar manner, when the inhuman crow chooses as the object of its attack the computer, the apex of modern technology, in “Crow’s Feast,” his ultimate motivation is to disarrange the greatest accomplishment of human rationality to disjunctive fragments. The crow perforates the eyes of the computer operator, and, picking out his intestines, shouts that what God does not want is mine ( CP200), a process which symbolically abolishes the artificially and meticulously programmed framework, in a word, “the western analytic ego,” as Sigaze asserts ( CP200). Scientific objectivity eradicates imagination, which facilitates people to becoming “mechanical monsters,” degenerating them with chronic diseases (Schofield 33).
4Under the same rubric, Hughes chooses mythology rather than theology, folklore rather than science and reason, and the mean crow, which employs “super-ugly language” (Faas 208), rather than the eagle. 5The White Goddess by Robert Graves provides context for this statement: the book, as Neil Roberts explains, sees Jewish monotheism, Greek rationalism, the Reformation, and the scientific revolution as a patriarchal system that “expels goddesses” (16-17). 6Hughes’s blind ferocity tearing off any sort of attempt at configuring wholeness and consistency tends to result in shattered fragmentations or partial objects. The last part of “Scapegoats and Rabies” is the scenario in which Big Ben, a symbol of the order of time, breaks apart and then its “splinters” fly off (CP 191). As the phrase suggests —“His crown is the last splinters / Of the vessel of life” (CP 209) —pieces or parts of objects, however, are revalued and reconstituted as new factors that, implementing appropriate strategies, present diverse performances for Hughes. Deleuze argues that we live in the age of “partial objects,” which, as pure difference and plurality, are “irreducible” to any kind of unity or harmony without the fundamental or final whole (42). The “bodiless prodigious head” (CP 211), the partial object, in “Crow’s First Lesson,” functions as evidence of the heterogeneous element deviating from the tight language system, or as the resistant agent against the suffocating logical structure. Moreover, the partial objects sometimes take pleasure in free play without any sense of crisis as people’s arms and legs fly off into the air in laughter (CP 233).
Besides demonstrating colossal authority, daring to undermine any establishments, and crossing any fixed borders, condensed violence contains another ulterior aspect for Hughes. The other side of excessively realistic savagery embraces unreal hollowness, which obscures and further enervates the ruthless reality, so that no impact of serious devastation is felt: cars collisions erupt with luggage and babies while laughter scampers around; the nose-diving of an aircraft concluding with a boom occurs in laughter (
CP233).7 Hughes’s frenzied battles are waged, funnily enough, within feathery nothingness like those of shadows. A shadowy echo with only big reverberation supplementarily tempers intense dynamics. In “Crow’s Account of the Battle,” the crow asserts that there is a time when the pealing battle unexpectedly grows calm and empty. It enumerates that the most terrible grimace is like footprints in mud, that shooting somebody’s midriff is like striking a match, and that to demolish the whole world is like “slamming a door” with a thud ( CP223). Similarly, in the poem, “In the Land of the Lion,” red is but one of many colors, even if the color red radiates the worst anger; and, though the color black darts its lightning, it barely reaches the edge of the picture frame ( CP260), which mirrors Lacan’s symbol, a paper tiger that indicates a separated and caricaturized form from its original being.8
The seemingly somber poems of Hughes, surfeit with a dark timber, are dilated and even entirely superficial on the verso. Hughes employs the notion of a phantom or a shadow to convey this thin, unreal, and mercurial dimension of reality. Extreme events are converted to ignorably small shadows or insubstantial ghosts. That is, the sublime and violent animality possesses another facet, spectrality, which Derrida proposes as a significant postmodern trait, and the weightlessness, indeterminacy, repetition, multitudinousness, and intensity of which he explores. Derrida claims that the postmodern spectrality suggests “life as forgetting itself,” the reducing of its weight, the forgetting of its consciousness, the forgetting of the maternal to make the obscure and thin spirit live in oneself (
SM109). The unconscious buoyancy that spectrality implies leads crisis and destruction to be attenuated and buffered, turning them into surface effects, that pilot us to see the bulk and density of reality as dimly achromatic: the crow’s brutality can be considered to be very aerial.
Hughes imagines the midnight intrusion of crabs on the shore in procession into the human world as the advance of phantoms in “Ghost Crabs”:
These numerous crabs, like specters, multiply9 and venture to do revolutionary work such as invading and conquering human space. However, it is noteworthy that, because their advances seem to take them as harmlessly through the city as flies flit around bulls’ faces, the magnitude of the power that they yield looks rather feeble from another perspective. Their movement appears to overlay their traces in human societies without using tangible physical methods. In a similar vein, the astonishing achievement of a small mouse is only one of the muffled activities of a shadow without volume or mass, in “Song of a Rat”:
Detached from fierce reality, this shadow of the rat, although wielding the bloody power of “hell,” looks to be inflated, probably due to the poem’s repetitious use of the word, “shadow.” Hughes presents this sort of tenuous fictionality particularly by applying the device of a fable narrative, the high readability and distant safeness of which are very efficient for underplaying and stabilizing any large or serious events. When formidable animals are displaced unawares into the hilarious spaces of parables, their energy takes on an aspect of vain, childish power.
However, with no mass, pale spectrality sometimes generates surprise effects no less than reality, or even more than reality, owing to its astoundingly superficial flexibility, its tenuous absence, and its vacant otherness. Nick Bishop claims that, because there is a quality of a shadow in the imagery of Hughes’s crow, the animal can perform things “above and beyond humans,” even if it is technically below them. Although the shadow is inferior to consciousness and selfhood, it can swim without restraint, and resist against and even do harm to the intention of consciousness as “sheer animal unconsciousness” (112-13). What is lightsome becomes heavy, serious, and even terrible again, as the visit of unplaceable and unintelligible phantoms evokes an eerie atmosphere bracing for horror. Derrida contends that the more intimate lives exist here, the heavier “the specter of the other” is. This insubstantial spectrality “intensifies and condensed” itself within our realistic lives; no other thing is more serious than this (
This looming and unconstrained spectral effect again includes two features: attraction and repulsion—or fantasy and violence. Hughes qualifies the fantastical function of spectrality with teeming visual imagery and strong personification in “Ballad from a Fairy Tale,” in which the speaker observes the new moon, appearing to be a white swan, in a Yorkshire valley, and reinterprets it as a dazzling fairy:
This moon was once a melancholic nothingness and made the circulation as death in “New Moon in January” (
CP167); but here it—even if “disintegrating”—transforms into an embossed fantasy suppressing the dark night as a black screen in terms of Lacan,10 and overwhelms and magnetizes the adjacent areas by emitting prodigious radiance, as though to flaunt its magical powers. Although lacking tactile and weighty reality, the improbable spectrality of the resplendent moon, seemingly more than reality, produces the strikingly phenomenal impact of concocting a gigantic angel.
The insubstantial spectral shadows, on the other hand, exhibit dreadful forces from tenuous and untraceable spheres, as well as transmit cajoling illusions. In “Crow’s Elephant Totem Song,” Hughes depicts the embodiment of this appalling force by reappropriating from a beast fable: it is when the elephant passes through spectral situations that he eventually acquires the gargantuan energy. At first, the Creator makes the elephant a delicate, small animal, leading the hyenas to yearn for the elephant as a being that can save them from their hellish lives. Therefore, they remain close to the elephant but, after realizing that their metamorphosis is impossible, they tear out his entrails and even swallow the rest. After his miserable death, the elephant, by virtue of the pallid “blue shadow” of the afterlife, revives as a life form with mammoth energy, armed with “toothproof body and bulldozing bones” (
The spectral, inane, yet threatening force is linked to inconceivable reversal, which ignores any discrepancy between lower and higher levels: it is from the shot of its puny shadow, which has no impact upon anything, that the small rat makes the paramount Heaven tremble in “Song of a Rat”:
Central to this poem is the idea that the most trivial thing can penetrate any quality of existence regardless of its magnitude and invisibility. The rat, although it casts only the shadow of “[a] mouthful of screeches,” (
CP170) wields enormous power—enough to make the highest celestial bodies undulate and even pierce the obscure unconscious souls. In addition, the startling spectrality is interlocked with vicious procedure such as the permission of inhuman destructive power, which is utilized for revenge. In “Revenge Fable,” the ghostly realm, coldly infuriated by the abuse of logo-centrism, symbolically judges and subdues the scientific. The poem institutes the cacophony between mother and son again: the mother as a victim takes revenge on her son, who unquestioningly believes the authenticity of numbers, equations, and laws, and incriminates and murders his mother. The poet develops a scene where the mother, “in ghostly weeping,” dies and wreaks vengeance on her heartless son, who falls off like a leaf ( CP245).
7This superficiality is, on the other hand, reinterpreted as the capacity for metamorphosing things into multiple forms. As Jarold Ramsey maintains, the crow like a trickster, in a sense, plays the diverse roles of devil, human, a medium, Christ, and a practical animal that seeks prey (178). 8Lacan claims that being from the perspective of postmodernism suffers “a fracture” or a splitting between itself and a paper tiger. The paper tiger as a thrown-off being or a mask plays its effects of shrinkage and exaggeration (106-07). 9Derrida argues that specters are “number[s]” that increase themselves because they are everywhere, and that, if we remove “a mob of specters” in a certain place, they still intrude in all places (SM 135). 10Lacan asserts that every picture possesses an “absent field” or the hole of a “screen,” which makes objects either retreat or become foregrounded (107-09). In this poem, like the double functions of a screen, the moon is exceptionally dazzling, because it is too conspicuous, while the other parts in the area recede from it.
In an interview with Ekbert Faas Hughes said that he was conscious of “a complete abolition of everything” in Crow and sought a new foundation in “pure inertia”—not in traditional metaphysics, but in strange animality such as that suggested by a crow (Fass 207). Therefore, in the study of Hughes, to trace the apocalyptic mood and the sense of existence is indispensable for comprehending his primary tenor. As in Philip Larkin’s
The North Ship, we can ascertain that the abysmal aftershock of the First and Second World Wars occupies the poet’s unconsciousness, particularly if we look into his early poems. While passing through melancholia, despair, death, and nothingness, Hughes cannot pursue other alternatives, such as strategies of returning to classical metaphysics. He rather corroborates nothingness itself, then attempting to demonstrate how nonbeing, sustaining its dark realm, can generate diverse positive effects inclusive of his particular animality and spectrality, the most prominent features in his works; in a word, he declares postmodernity. His singular response to postmodern conceptualization verifies that death and nonentity own more authority than classically dominating notions of being and life, sublime animal energy, weightless playfulness, and spectral fantasy and violence.
However, it is doubtful whether the questions that Hughes proposes are more complex and profound than those presented by William Butler Yeats, Wallace Stevens, or John Ashbery. Before seeing traditional theologies as consolidated logos systems, Hughes should have remarked on the negative theology of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, and reconsidered the locus of nothingness in it. He seems to lack awareness that, even if logos can be included among God’s attributes, irrational states, such as ignorance and vacancy, can play significant roles in negative theology, that a logical system is not always disapproving, and that nothingness sometimes demands or even promotes rationality. In other words, the diverse traits that rational categorizations possess should be examined in greater depth. Also, as a result of allowing in overabundant violence, even to the degree of abusing the sublime, Hughes renders the dignity and sincerity of the sublime itself less useful. Derrida develops the paradoxical logic that in postmodernism the exploitation of violence procreates the restraint of it owing to self-negation. Hughes of course acknowledges the necessity of social rites because the wanton use of excessive violence is always a complex issue in society. However, we still wonder why he does not inscribe peace and justice more profoundly inside postmodernism.