"Arcadia" and "Art"

By Stan Persky | August 12, 2001


The Argentine-born writer Alberto Manguel gave me a copy of his compatriot Tomas Martinez’s book, The Peron Novel, and inscribed on its flyleaf, "et in Arcadia ego," a phrase popularized in the Renaissance (and sometimes credited to Virgil). It means, "And (even) in Arcadia, I am," a stark reminder that Death is everywhere present–yes, even in the earthly paradise of that region of the Greek Pelopponesian peninsula, Arcadia, where amorous shepherds engaged in pastoral dialogues.

In summer 1992, at a gathering of writers held in the Banff Centre for the Arts–a rather Arcadian place itself, located amid the alpine forests of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, Canada–I met Martinez, whom Alberto, as the host of the sessions, had invited as a guest. When I asked him to autograph my copy of his novel, he wrote, along with expressions of friendship, "Scripta manet," "the writing remains"–beyond our mortality. I’ve long had the sense that writing, puny as it often seems, is our weapon against time, yet at the same time, it always recalls us to our human fate.

In Nicolas Poussin’s seventeenth century painting, Et in Arcadia ego, the phrase is discovered on a tombstone by a group of shepherds. Arcadia is inextricably linked to the homoerotic desire proclaimed in the shepherds’ love for each other, recorded in the poems of the old bards. The linkage is found in contemporary texts, too. In Gore Vidal’s memoir, Palimpsest (1995), he describes his boyhood love affair in the early 1940s with 17-year-old Jimmy Trimble as one in which "there was no guilt, no sense of taboo." Vidal adds, with characteristic arch wit, "But then we were in Arcadia, not diabolic Eden." Eden is read as a site of original sin; Arcadia renders homosexual love almost innocent.

Perhaps a year or so after reading Vidal’s book, in summer 1996, Thomas Marquard (a friend of mine from Berlin) and I rode on an afternoon bus along the twisting, mountainous road that threads through Arcadia. Not many shepherds in sight but, as we drove along the main streets of the villages of Arkady, old men in black sitting at tables in their roadside cafes, watching the infrequent passing traffic. Former shepherds, ex-loves?


Normal art: I’ve lately begun to entertain the perverse idea that making art, or meaning, or trying to understand the world, are, contrary to popular notions, normal activities of human beings. It is the failure to do so that should be seen as abnormal, odd, demented, and not the other way around.

Art and Politics: While there’s no requirement for art to be "political," Art itself ought to be seen today as an active cultural politics against Entertainment, which is the capitalist form of culture. For example, books vs. TV.

Reasons to Write: the writer Brian Fawcett gave a talk on "reasons to write," offering such reasonable motives as money, ideology, keeping a record, healthy curiosity and of course, the muse. The poet Lisa Robertson wittily added revenge and love to the list. When I mentioned the subject to Robin Blaser, he immediately said, "Because of life," pointedly invoking the idealistic concept of Life, with a capital L, in its pre-modern, romantic sense. That is, the condition of our existence is sufficient reason to interrogate it.

What I mean by "life" is not a definition, but the sense conveyed by an Arthur Rimbaud poem, c. 1870, translated twice by Charles Olson:

… (O saisons, o chateaux!

         What soul
is without fault?

Nobody studies

Every time the cock crows
I salute him

I have no longer any excuse
for envy. My life

has been given its orders: the seasons

the soul and the body, and make mock
of any dispersed effort. The hour of death

is the only trespass

Or, again:

…what soul
isn’t in default?

can you afford not to make
the magical study

which happiness is? do you hear
the cock when he crows? do you know the charge,

that you shall have no envy, that your life
has its orders, that the seasons

seize you too, that no body and soul are one
if they are not wrought

in this retort? that otherwise efforts
are efforts? And that the hour of your flight

will be the hour of your death?

(See Charles Olson, Selected Poems, California, 1997, "Variations for Gerald Van de Wiele.")

Art and Auschwitz: Theodor Adorno sternly declared in the wake of the Holocaust that lyric poetry is impossible after Auschwitz. I think that the best way to interpret that remark is not that good poetry can’t be written after Auschwitz, but that good writing now requires an understanding of the Holocaust.

Charles Olson’s dictum: "Art is life’s only twin." That’s the banner under which we ride into the fray.

Art, Life, and Imitation: Equally, there’s John Berger’s assertion, "Art does not imitate nature, it imitates a creation, sometimes to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature." (See The Sense of Sight, Pantheon, 1985.)

Aug. 13, 2001


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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