JUXTAPOSITIONS Hart Crane “The Broken Tower”


“At issue is not univocal being but an endowing source of plurivocity. To be in communication with the plurivocity and the doubleness that seeds the equivocity is to be tempted to fall out of plurivocal community into a counterfeit world—-a world in which we counterfeit being by reconfiguring it in terms of our own intimate conatus and idiotic monstrousness. The world as given offers a primal ethos saturated with life-affirming being. Even the beings we humans fear and hate participate in the self-affirming love of life too. We humans reconfigure this primal ethos in terms of our own endeavor to be; seeming to subject it we create a counterfeit creation in the process. If one were religious one might speak of a fallen world, but a fallen world is not an entirely corrupt world. It is double, mixing good and evil, equivocal beyond good and evil. The counterfeit pays its complement to the more original reality it dissimulates. In analogous fashion, our reconfiguration pays its complement to a more primordial community of being in which we are endowed. And in which we participate, even when we go on to deform and mutilate it, so great is this, the forgiving generosity of the being process. If we think the counterfeit world is the real world, then we are in bad shape. Our own bad shaping of things becomes the measure of things.”
William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, 228f.

There are few more vivid images of the destructive power of creative energies than Hart Crane’s “The Broken Tower.” Having published in 1930 his modernist epic “The Bridge,” Crane (1899-1932) was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1931 and spent a year in Mexico intending to write a long poem but produced little. On his return from Mexico he committed suicide by jumping overboard.

I make almost no use of biographical context in these commentaries but “The Broken Tower” appears to reflect a manic phase in the last year of Crane’s life. That suggestion is dwarfed by the massively eloquent evocation of the shocks suffered as the poet witnesses “the primal ethos” in his “conatus” or effort to be a sovereign self. The poem witnesses “a more primordial community of being” even as it experiences the emergence of a “counterfeit” world that engulfs the present moment. Please note the use of “counterfeit” acknowledges the urgency of the poet’s response to an irreducible aspect of the original—-equivocity. Crane’s vision of the doubleness of experience in the Between is faithful to the plurivocity of being. “The stars are caught and hived in the sun’s ray”—-the image is framed as part of the lyric narrative as quest.

At which point the poet’s voice—-the “conatus” or will—-asserts: “The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower…” This happening is the moment of turning/recognition that gives shape to the lyric. The poem’s intelligible form begins to emerge. The lyric narrative recharges itself in light of this emergent form. “And so it was I entered the broken world/To trace the visionary company of love…”

The word “trace” communicates and acknowledges the frailty of the commitment. An account of deformation is coupled with the original, now-broken image, an image rooted in a primordial community. The capacity to witness “each desperate choice’ of love is measured as an instant. This is, it is measured as an aspect of the scattered visionary self embodied by the emerging form of the poem.

So, the poet has his doubts. Rather than follow through with the lyric narrative’s capacity to reinvision the failed conatus in terms of transcendence, the other to thought, the radical other confronted in the porosity of the mortal/immortal between, this poem asserts its redoubled vision of the old univocal imagery of “crystal Word” as a rape of the flesh “cleft to despair.” This rich evocation of tyrannical love is the counterfeit of agapeic love, which remains as other to the vision of conflict that dominates the narrative of Crane’s poem. Metaxical criticism is rooted in the excess of the good, an excess that eventually overwhelms the erotic drive of the protesting poet’s self. By “eventually” I mean this commentary reaches beyond the limited self-understanding of the poet. Metaxical criticism sometimes executes a double reconfiguration, returning the poet’s reconfiguration, the “counterfeit,” of the original experience to the flow of the porosity of the mortal-immortal between. Crane’s loss of erotic selfhood illuminates the agapeics of being.

As in certain visionary poems by Rimbaud, things could not be clearer. Rimbaud’s key work “Season in Hell” likewise reframed the original polyvocal community of love as a mirage, an indulgence of idealism. Rimbaud acted on his reconfiguration and became a small-time gunrunner in the Near East (more TK). Crane’s reframing is less radical. It struggles with the narrative of lyric, refusing the moment of “desperate choice” that would acknowledge an other that eclipses the poet’s horror of the “shadows in the tower.” In its stunning confessional clarity, “The Broken Tower” illuminates “the generosity of the being process” which provides each potential reader with contexts true to the intimate universal beyond Crane’s vision.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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