Daniel Barbiero

On Philip Lamantia’s “The Image of Ardor”

“Ardor” is a modifier, a description of a shading of an action or psychological state. We do something with ardor, believe or desire something with ardor, feel something with ardor. “Ardor” describes a quality of our orientation toward something, whether that something is a thing, a thought, an image, even another person; it describes something fundamental about us and indirectly, about whatever it is we are oriented toward. When we say that we act with ardor or believe with ardor or desire with ardor, we not only say something about the specific act or psychological state, we say something or grasp something about our relationship to ourselves as able to be committed to something—we disclose something of interest about the way we project ourselves into the world, as well as about the world into which we project. To act, believe, desire or be in relation to something with ardor is to reveal the act, belief, desire or thing as meaningful in a profound way—it is to invest ourselves, to commit ourselves in such a way that our being seems to be at stake. Ardor is heat, ardor is a multiplier; as such, ardor is an overcoming of reason.

To understand ardor as the passionate overcoming of reason is an ancient insight and one that has gone by different names. An illuminating early notion of ardor was articulated with the complex Greek concept of thumos (θυμός), which runs from Homer through Aristotle; thumos was understood as “spiritedness,” a heatedness or intensity of feeling or, as one element in Plato’s tripartite model of the psyche, passion. The essential intuition is of a profound affect pervading one’s action or psychological state—an affect that, as Euripides’ Medea exclaims, is stronger than rational intention. Ardor as thumos not only is an intensifier of action, it is an engine impelling the action it intensifies; it motivates as well as colors the act it motivates. And by doing so it goes beyond the individual act to disclose something more broadly: an existential commitment to what one is or must be, through the amplification of what one does or desires. Ardor is, in its own way, totalizing: during the moment it defines one, ardor defines the whole of one’s orientation toward and grasp of the world.


Philip Lamantia’s poem “The Image of Ardor” appears in his 1967 Selected Poems, in the section titled “Revelations of a Surreal Youth (1943-1945).” It originally was published in the 1966 collection Touch of the Marvelous, the title of which definitively declares its Surrealist inspiration. “The Image of Ardor” falls into that early period of Lamantia’s development as a poet when, having discovered Surrealism in 1942 through retrospective exhibitions of artists Salvador Dali and Joan Miro in his hometown of San Francisco, he underwent something of a conversion experience: a conversion to orthodox Surrealism. In a letter of 8 October 1943 to André Breton, the leader of the Paris Surrealist group then in wartime exile in New York, Lamantia responded to Breton’s demand, expressed in a previous letter to Lamantia that subsequently was lost, that, as Lamantia paraphrased it, he, Lamantia, “state [his] position on various matters of importance, mainly on Surrealism.” Lamantia’s reply: “I proclaim a formal adherence to Surrealism.” He further embraced the general positions Breton had set out in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism. With this declaration of adherence Lamantia in effect took the “poetic marvelous” and the unconscious—the two main principles of Surrealism--as “the true inspirers” of his poetry. And not only his poetry, but his will to rebel,which he proclaimed was the “immediate objective of poets.” He was fifteen years old.

No surprise, then, that Lamantia’s poetry during this early, orthodox Surrealist period is shot through with marvelous imagery and the associatvely-generated logic that Breton, in “Marvelous versus Mystery,” held would arise from language set loose when “the reins of common sense are dropped.” But it also reflects his time of life. Lamantia’s early Surrealist poems, “The Image of Ardor” among them, were written in his mid-to-late teens. As precocious as he was as a poet in engaging the poetic principles he chose, he was also an adolescent. The parallel to Rimbaud naturally suggests itself and certainly played a part in Breton’s embrace of Lamantia as a poet, as did Lamantia’s ardent identification, expressed in the letter to Breton, with “[t]he voice of Lautréamont, pure, young, and feeding the fire that has begun to issue from my depths.” “The fire that has begun to issue from my depths:” this is an image of ardor.


Ardor is fire; ardor is heat. Not only the overall atmosphere of “The Image of Ardor,” which seems a hothouse of delirium, is inflamed, but many of the images it contains directly allude to fire or to other phenomena associated with extreme heat. Lamantia invokes “mountains of flame;” “lava;” “flaming torches;” “heated bottles” and “heated jewels.” There is a fevered, Gothic lushness to the scenes that Lamantia calls up, such as when:

...the wounded children
separate, become machines of wonder
follow their thorned fathers
whose mouths contain lakes,
sweet-scented candles,
murdered girls with the eyes of zebras;
follow them to the lamps of flesh/that burn through our diamonds
that draw sweat from the trees of blue iron.

To try to picture this is to run up against the limits of stimulation.

If some of the imagery seems overwrought it may be a reflection of the tempestuousness and emotional volatility of Lamantia’s stage of life at the time he wrote the poem as much as of the poetic models he found in Surrealism proper as well as in Rimbaud and Lautréamont. This overwroughtness doesn’t work against the poem but instead imbues it—by pushing it to an extreme--with the sense of emotional immoderation and unbalanced urgency inherent in the state of being it emblematizes: ardor as a kind of temporary madness, as an excess of experience over language. That urgency pervades Lamantia’s work from this period, much of which reads as the record of an occultation of reason through a cathartic excess of affect. In this poem in particular that excess discloses itself as an overcoming of reason by a state in which one is oneself overcome. It isn’t hard to imagine Lamantia’s ardor as the reawakened image of thumos, a force so powerful and extraordinary that it can be imagined as something coming to one from outside, like the divine madness visited on the characters in a Greek tragedy.

Or, from deep inside. As a self-consciously orthodox Surrealist Lamantia would have understood the source of “The Image of Ardor” to be the unconscious. We know that at the time he wrote it he was experimenting with the classic Surrealist technique of automatic writing; his poetic vision was based in part on the effort to short-circuit rational control over language—to drop the reins of common sense--in order to reveal the marvelous images thought to inhabit the unconscious. If there is a divine madness here it is manifested in the procession of figures drawn from the recesses of the psyche; it is released by an opening of the way to an outpouring of the symbolized expression of irrational impulses.


Ardor is the heat of the irrational—a form of intoxication. For Lamantia as for orthodox Surrealism, the intoxicant is desire. As it is communicated in the poem, ardor is the defining quality of desire, and desire is the ground and alibi for ardor. The poem announces this with the image that opens it:

In the tropical islands
that cut through hearts

This is a classic Surrealist image to the extent that, consistent with Breton’s often-repeated formulation, it brings together two distant realities in a relationship based on more than a simple comparison or superficial likeness. “Tropical islands” and “hearts” belong to distant ontological regions; they are very different things from each other. Yet they work together in a way similar to the way a more traditional metaphor works in that these two unlike things suggest each other through an affinity based on a shared attribute, which in this case is heat: the literal heat of the tropical climate on the one hand, and the metaphorical heat of the body’s seat of passion on the other. Ardor is what brings them together; each suggests in its own way the combustive volatility of desires real and imagined, the pursuit of which Lamantia suggests with the image of “wanton youths/who search for ravens lost in swamps.” What better image to represent the semi-understood object of desire, secreted in the less transparent regions of the psyche, than a black bird lost in a relatively inaccessible piece of ground?

As enigmatic as is this image of ravens being searched for in swamps, it represents the positive side of desire—the side where one projects oneself outward toward an object the obtaining of which will make good some lack, no matter how dimly either the lack or the object is perceived. But there is also a negative side of desire, one which Lamantia explicitly addressed himself to in his letter to Breton. That is the desire for rebellion. The desire for rebellion is defined by a rejection of what is in favor of what often is a more or less undefined something else. What is are the artificial constraints imposed by social conventions that are, by the rebel’s definition, unjust. The rebellious rejection of social constraint was an animating force within Surrealism; it’s understandable that the adolescent Lamantia would have found it attractive. And in the will to rebel we see the image of ardor in its guise as another one of the manifestations of thumos—indignation at perceived injustice. (Indignation of the thumos at a perceived injustice is what drives Achilles to refuse to help the Greek army before Troy. Thus it is with an image of ardor provoking rebellion that Western literature begins.) In “The Image of Ardor” the drive to rebel makes itself felt in the cumulative extravagance of the imagery rather than in any single image or explicit allusion. But the violence of rebellion is always there as a possibility implicit in the poem’s atmosphere—like something felt in the air as the pressure drops before a storm.


Although “The Image of Ardor” is a very early poem of Lamantia’s, it prefigures much of what would follow over the course of the poet’s life and career. Whether in relation to Surrealism, or poetry, or Catholicism, Lamantia was defined by cycles of conversion and deconversion and reconversion, of adherence and rejection and reacceptance. Cycles of rebellion—rebellion against what was within him as well as what was outside of him—conducted with the ardor manifested in his first poems.


Works Referenced:

André Breton: Manifestoes of Surrealism, tr. Richard Seaver & Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 1972).

_____: “Marvelous versus Mystery,” in Free Rein, tr. Michel Parmentier and Jacqueline D’Amboise (Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska Press, 1995).

Philip Lamantia: Preserving Fire: Selected Prose, ed. Garrett Caples (Seattle & New York: Wave Books, 2018)

Philip Lamantia: Selected Poems 1943-1966 (San Francisco, CA: City Lights, 1967)

Daniel Barbiero is a double bassist, composer and writer in the Washington DC area. His music is based on the complex interrelationship between pitch and timbre in the context of free improvisation and the interpretation of indeterminate compositions. His album In/Completion (2020) presents his realizations of graphic and open-form scores by contemporary composers from Greece, Italy, Japan and the US. As a composer, he creates verbal, graphic and other scores using non-standard notation for soloists and small ensembles; his scores have been realized by performers in Europe, Asia, and the US. As an instrumentalist, he has performed at venues throughout the Washington-Baltimore area. He writes on the art, music and literature of the classic avant-gardes of the 20th century as well as on contemporary works for various online journals, and is the author of As Within, So Without, a collection of essays published in October, 2021.
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