The Women at Point Sur

Even as the brilliant Apology for Bad Dreams was being published, Robinson Jeffers was working on his most ambitious project, The Women at Point Sur (CP vol. 1). He seemed convinced at the time that this was to be his greatest work, but this narrative poem, by far the longest he would ever write, lacks narrative drive; the wandering, distracted story-arc that he had conceived for it seemed to collapse under its own self-indulgent weight, and as if that weren’t enough, Jeffers could not leave his misconception of Nietzsche-as-nihilist alone.

Point Sur was the first serious disappointment that Jeffers would experience since becoming “a success,” and it would play a part in what was perhaps Jeffers’ greatest tragedy, the drama of his own rise and fall. This book (difficult to call it a poem) was deserving of its critical and popular failure, but it was not without value. Perhaps the great tragedy of it was the fact that it sacrificed so much beauty to its own ugly ambition. Jeffers seemed to be toying with human sin and post-Christian nihilism, chanting manically while molesting his puppets as if he were living out the life of the malignant caricature that he had crafted in Dr. Arthur Barclay.

 

Flames of Desire

Tamar’s fires return in earnest in this work. Great fires burn within close proximity of the narrative’s beginning and end. The Prelude describes an explosion of oil tanks in a thunderstorm. Deep beneath the rock, the oil has long lusted to burn:

      “Immense ages

We lay under rock, our lust hoarded,

The ache of ignorant desire, the enormous pressure, ...” [1]

At the same moment, other fires are born:

(In the yellow inland no rain but the same lightning,
And it lights a forest.) [2]

The poem itself concludes with the wind stealing embers like seed from campfires to ignite a mountainside:

The south wind that in better years blows rain on men’s fields

This year blew fire, it rose in the night and snatched the embers of the fires

Across the sleeping people, it sowed them in the dry grass. …[3]

The prelude is quite good, as is the embedded lyric that constitutes part XII of Point Sur. The work in its entirety is, however, generally disappointing.

 

Size Matters

Jeffers outdid—and undid—himself with the heaping scoops of sin in this narrative: adultery, incest, nakedness, prostitution, masturbation, homicide, suicide, mothers murdering daughters, fathers raping daughters, and Lesbians. How could anyone possibly ask for more?

Of course we guess that Jeffers is making a point with all of this aberrant behavior. The question is: is the moral of the story worth all of this pageantry?

When Robinson Jeffers presented The Women at Point Sur to his editor, he boasted that it would be the Faust of his generation. When, not long later, a hail of criticism befell the massive opus, he struck back contemptuously, accusing readers and critics of an inability to follow parallel streams of thought.

Faust? I don’t know, but Point Sur does seem, at a certain level, to be an attempt at a neo-Calvinist refactoring of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, only not so truly subversive, and with less poetry. In this rehashing, God lives, albeit in the image of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (Section X; CP 1:282):

“... to make men like God / Beyond good and evil. …”

In turn, as the old Christian retort would have it, Zarathustra is declared dead (Section XI; CP 1:284).

But the protagonist, appearing like a common caricature of Nietzsche’s overman, quickly becomes a ghastly monstrosity of nihilism: [4]

“God thinks through action, …”

Seeking to manifest his new-found freedom—and divinity—in action, Dr. Arthur Barclay partakes in anti-moral acts through which he might establish himself beyond good and evil. The degradation that ensues then makes this poem seem to be a critique of Nietzsche. But that is hardly an anti-Nitzschean position, for that post-Christaian nihilism embodied by Barclay was just the kind of outcome that Nietzsche was most worried about.

But Jeffers is not Nietzsche. Unlike Nietzsche, he isn’t deeply concerned with reforming human values. He’s above all that. He recognizes that human sin is inevitable (sounds rather ... Christian). He sees Dr. Barclay’s unraveling as characteristic of the human condition, though he exaggerates the human condition beyond recognition. To Jeffers, the only way for an intelligent person to transcend, or escape, the inevitability of what Jeffers sees as original sin, is to steer one's mind away from humanity. This is easy to see because Jeffers breaks out of his narrative mode to deliver the moral directly to his congregation:

I say that if the mind centers on humanity and is not dulled ... the mind will go mad. (Section XVII; CP 1:308)

Thus Jeffers, like a preacher lifting his nose out of the Good Book to explain an otherwise indecipherable fable, explains that when Dr. Barclay rapes his daughter, the girl is driven insane by her own failure to unhumanize her own thoughts — as though incestuous rape weren't scandalous enough, Jeffers wants us to blame the victim.

To be sure, there is plenty of blame to chuck around. First there’s the war and a dead son and brother. Then there's the evil mischief of the land itself. This evil manifests itself in human sin, and not just of a wayward preacher: it seems that just about everyone's a scoundrel. But as Jeffers would later report in Advice to Pilgrims, “twice duped is too much.” (SP 579) If you can’t flush the human race from your consciousness, you’re going to go mad and that’s on you.

Fortunate for the reader, the protagonist is thoroughly unlikable, so there is little temptation to become unduly invested in the human affairs of the narrative. The reader can thus remain securely detached and therefore sane. To date, the poem only appears to be read by loyalist professors as academic fodder, faithfully pronounced as one of the poet’s most significant works—even his high mark. Jeffers himself claimed that Point Sur was worth several Tamars, after all. Maybe he meant to say that it’s the size of several Tamars. That would have been only a slight exaggeration.

Beauty, alas, remains in the eye of the beholder. An artist, like anyone else, cannot make any claim to the value of his art except through his own intimate encounter with it. Who, we should ask, has come away from reading Point Sur with any sense of awakening other than after passing out from boredom?

Has anyone ever bothered to recite Point Sur? Perish the thought. How can such incoherence function as poetry? Though I find profound beauty and strength in much of Jeffers’ work and even occasionally in Point Sur, I for one have not drawn great Inhumanist confidence from this overwrought monstrosity, though it has given me a profound sense of the depth to which the human narcissism of a professed Inhumanist can sink. In this respect, Point Sur is countered by the mature critique that inhumanist individualism would be given in Give Your Heart to the Hawks.

 

[1] The Women at Point Sur, Prelude (SP 155)

[2] The Women at Point Sur, Prelude (SP 155)

[3] The Women at Point Sur, Section XXVII (CP 1:346)

[4] CP 1:253–4, 262, 265, 271

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