Resurrecting Henry Fool: the Faun, Dynamo Humming and Teaching Poetry

What is the secret of education? What knowledge should we develop in its pursuit? In The Education of Henry Adams, the narrator is haunted by how to get knowledge out of the Paris “World Fair” of 1900. His mentor, a Francis Bacon disciple, teaches him that science is the development or the economy (management) of forces (1). What are these “forces” and how did I get here? While teaching Mallarmé’s “Afternoon of a Faun,” about a satyr or faun trying to remember his failed attempt to seduce two nymphs, and using as an intertext Frank Zappa’s modern day “Dinah Moe Humm,” about a singer’s bet with a prostitute to bring her to ecstasy, a student suggested another intertext -- that I see Henry Fool, a 1997 Hal Hartley film about an intellectual “hobo” Henry Fool, a failed writer, and his influence on a blue collar worker to write a great poem that is scatological and yet in perfect iambic pentameter form. What are the forces that make art instead of obscenity, people poets instead of writers? Can we teach them? One force is in the symbol. Roger Haight, a theologian, sees the divine sphere of transcendent experience approachable only through symbols. A symbol, like the resurrection experience, needs to be explained, not only in its historic context, but also in its present day situation, including a “wisdom” of how the experience teaches us to live (62). The resurrection symbol is an exaltation of Christ to the sphere of God as the bearer of salvation and grace as he appeared to his immediate disciples and then to present day believers. The physical resurrection would undermine the symbolic representation that has to do with faith in Christ and how Christ is the bearer of love (202). Poetry is language at the transcendent level. This paper will study the symbol of the poetry teacher as a faun and a fool who attempts to seduce students into loving them and their subject. Students become readers of poetry. Some become known poets while the teachers remain forgotten or at best clowns and fools. However the teachers will be resurrected by the works that they inspire although they themselves remain virgins in writing art. After studying the role of the faun in Mallarmé’s poem and the faun’s resurrection as the singer in Zappa’s “Dinah Moe Hum, and the meanings of humming in Henry Adams’s two views of forces, I will look at Henry Fool as a film that resurrects the teacher as poet.

                        The Teacher, the Blaspheming Faun and the Chastised Clown

Wallace Fowlie says the the “faun” stands out from the rest of Mallarmé’s work by its marked erotology. “Mallarmé is an erotic poet, but almost never obviously so as he appears in L’après-midi d’un faune … the faun’s monologue represents Mallarmé’s most significant inquest into the problems of eroticism and especially into the perplexing but omnipresent relationship between the sexual dream world of the poet and his creative life as practicing poet (148). The faun has had an experience with two nymphs, both a failed sexual experience and a failed creative experience of putting his afternoon to music. The first three lines set up the whole poem.

These nymphes, I want to perpetuate them.

                                                                      So clear,

Their light rose color, that it floats into the air

Heavy with woodsy sleeps.

                                             Did I love a dream?


Ces nymphes, je les veux perpétuer.

                                                                       Si clair,

Leur incarnat léger, qu’il voltige dans l’air

Assoupi de sommeils touffus.

                                                 Aimai-je un rêve? (vv1-3)


“Perpetuate” can be the desire for copulation or for preservation by means of art (Fowlie 152). The poet, through the faun, will recreate the erotic experience in the traditional 12 syllable alexandrine lines.  He tries to reconstruct the dream:



Let us think…

                                    Or whether the women you gloss (interpret)

            Figure a desire of your fabulous senses!



                                        Ou si les femmes dont tu gloses

            Figurent un souhait de tes sens fabuleux!   (vv8-9)


“Gloses” is a pedantic professor word. The poet is two people here: the faun who has had the experience and the professor who tries to explain it. He will also become the artist as he alludes to his only proof -- the sounds murmured by his flute (v16). He asks the swamp to tell the story, but he immediately takes over explaining that he was cutting reeds (les creux roseaux v26), an improvised instrument, when he saw a group of swans (cygnes) who became nymphes and fled from him.

            Ce vol de cygnes, non! de naïads se sauve

            Ou plonge. . .

                                    Inerte, tout brûle dans l’heure fauve (vv31-33)


The faun tries to improvise the “A” note and predicts that he will wake up alone like a virgin or lily (lys v37)), as Fowlie says, “naïve in experience, but very experienced in desire (156). He has a tooth mark on his chest, but it could have been self induced by the dream (vv39-42). With music, he will replace the experience (vv47-51).

            He talks to his flute calling it “Syrinx” referring to the myth of Syrinx who, being chased by the arch satyr Pan, was changed into a reed by the river nymph goddesses. Pan cut the reed and made it an instrument. Here the faun sees himself as Pan the hero taking the nymphs’ belts off (vv55-6). At the end of the first act he is drunk and “playing” the empty grapes.

            Thus when I have sucked the light from the grapes,

            To banish a regret dispelled by my pretense,

            Laughing I raise to the sky the empty bunch

            And blowing into their luminous skins, avid

            With drunkenness, until evening I look through them


            Ainsi, quand des raisins j’ai sucé la clarté,

            Pour bannir un regret par ma feinte écarté,

            Rieur, j’élève au ciel d’été la grappe vide

            Et, soufflant dans ses peaux lumineuses, avide

            D’ivresse, jusqu’au soir je regarde au travers.  (vv57-61)


The poet is reduced to a clown “un rieur” who has lost the prize and is playing the grapes saying he wanted to get drunk in the first place denying the pretense of being Pan and the musician (Fowlie 158-9).

            In the second act of the poem, the poet-faun explains the details of the seduction. Asking the nymphs and himself to inflate the memories (O nymphes, regonflons les souvenirs divers v62) as he compares the struggle of desire for seduction to the day which flees the oncoming night. “Où notre ébat au jour consumé soit pareil” (v74).  The culminating point of the drama—his “crime” was that he hoped the innocent one would be turned on (tinted) by watching him with the experienced one.

            For, scarcely had I hidden my passionate laughter

            Under the happy folds of one of them (holding

            With a little finger so that her feather whiteness

            Should be tinted at the emotion of her sister growing excited,

            The smaller one, naïve and not blushing:)

            When my arms, relaxed by vagues deaths,

            That prey, forever ungrateful, liberates itself

            Without pity for the sob with which I was still drunk.


            Car, à peine j’allais cacher un rire ardent

            Sous les replis heureux d’une seule (gardant

            Par un doight simple, afin que sa candeur de plume

            Se teignit à l’émoi de sa soeur qui s’allume,

            La petite, naïve et ne rougissant pas:)

            Que de mes bras, défaits par de vagues trépas,

            Cette proie, à jamais ingrate, se délivre

            Sans pitié du sanglot dont j’étais encore ivre.”  (vv 85-92)


Instead, the younger one became afraid and fled and left the faun in a “sob” of uncompleted “orgasm” (vague deaths). The faun consoles himself (Tant pis v93) with the thought of future conquests. He talks to his passion comparing it to a bursting pomegranate buzzing with bees (v95). This passion becomes his blood falling in love with what will seize it flowing for the eternal swarm of desire.

            Tu sais, ma passion, que, pourpre et déjà mûre,

            Chaque grenade éclate et d’abeilles murmure,

            Et notre sang, épris de qui le va saisir,

            Coule pour tout l’essaim éternelle du désir  (vv94-97)


As he ends his drama, the pomegranate bursting becomes Etna and the faun sees Venus on the lava, but this dream ends quickly, the length of a broken alexandrine, as he grows weary of his dream-making and empty of words.

I hold the queen!

                            O sure punishment . . .

                                                                   No, but my soul

Empty of words and my heavy body

Succumb late to the proud silence of noon:

Without more I must sleep in forgetting the blasphemy,

Lying on the thirsty sand and how I love

To open my mouth to the potent star of wines!


Couple, goodbye; I go to see the shadow that you became.


Je tiens la reine!

                           O sûr chatiment . . .

                                                             Non, mais l’âme

De paroles vacante et ce corps alourdi

Tard succombent au fier silence de midi:

Sans plus, il faut dormir en l’oubli du blasphème,

Sur le sable altéré gisant et comme j’aime

Ouvrir ma bouche à l’astre efficace des vins!


Couple,  adieu; je vais voir l’ombre que tu devins. (vv104-110)


He must sleep now without dreams forgetting the blasphemy. What is the blasphemy? Is it his god-like desire to be a creative poet? Is he blaspheming the reeds that the gods have made a musical instrument? Or is he cursing the poetic side of himself who is refusing to continue to create poetry. His final note compares himself to the thirsty sand and sun (potent star of wines) and a final reminiscence of the couple that are turning into the pure shadow, the pure emptiness that they became.

To Wallace Fowlie, the artist faun is a virgin—an adolescent who searches self-understanding, especially in the secret forces that formed him as artist. (165). Fowlie raises this poem to the level of “pure poetry” emptied of didactic elements. The form arises from the power of language (164). The Alexandrine is a classic unity in French tradition that produces clarity in complex experiences. Here the twelve syllable verses come out of the complicated drama of desires and failures of the faun. The teacher Mallarmé creates a faun who gives a classical form to his primal instincts of seduction and creativity. This requires discipline, and a little blasphemy. The teacher becomes the animal who changes into a musician and poet, as the dream becomes the poem.

            The faun in the poem fails in his quest to recapture the experience/dream. Mallarmé was a failed teacher in school, but a successful poet in the art world. The faun keeps resurrecting. Debussy composes a prelude. Njinski dances it in the Ballets Russes. Matisse painted it in the 1906 Joie de vivre. In 1973 Frank Zappa rewrites the faun as a singer successfully seducing his public of two prostitutes. 

Dinah Moe Humming:  The Faun Seduces the Nymphs

From the 1973 album Over-nite Sensation, Frank Zappa’s “Dinah-Moe-Humm,” like Mallarmé’s Afternoon of a Faun, is a multi-voiced dramatic monologue where a singer-narrator has a bet with a prostitute who in turn has a bet with her less wise sister about all men.

            I couldn’t say where she’s comin from

            But I just met a lady called Dinah-Moe-Humm

            She stroll on over, say look here, bum

            I got a forty dollar bill say you can’t make me cum

            (Y’jes can’t do it)

            She made a bet with her sister who’s a little bit dumb

            She could prove it any time all men was scum


The narrator struggles at length, but cannot reach what the prostitute says is a “spot that gets me hot.”  She explains that mysteriously “she can’t get into it unless she is out of it and that she has to be out of it, before she gets into it.” Transcendence is involved and something more than physical orgasm is desired. The “spot” is more spiritual or symbolic. The narrator then turns his actions and attention to the sister. Where Mallarmé’s faun fails in arousing the younger nymph by his actions with the experienced one, Zappa’s faun succeeds as Dinah-Moe “watched from the edge of the bed/With her lips just a twitchin an her face gone red.” The narrator comments that all Dinah-Moe needed was some “discipline.” Is he alluding to the Apollo-Dionysus duality of passion and form? In the second chorus he succeeds in “hearing” – “some Dinah-Moe-Humm.” How is Zappa reading Afternoon of a Faun ?  Why does his faun succeed? Is the “hum” spiritual artistic ecstasy between artist and audience? One of my colleagues suggested an allusion to “The Dynamo and the Virgin” in The Education of Henry Adams, an autobiographical work written in the third person by the historian-journalist-diplomat-novelist of the title.

                                    Dynamos and Virgins: Ways of Knowing

In that text, Adams displays his theories on the forces in education seen in the symbols of dynamo and the virgin. His scientist mentor Langley prefers the force of dynamos that will empower future cars and planes. Adams compares the “humming” of the dynamos as a sign of its creative energy, but prefers the sign of Venus and the Virgin for their symbol of fertility and creation -- especially the virgin who developed the forces of faith that built the cathedrals. The mechanical nature of education deals with what is measurable in the dynamos. The historian/ artist side of the scientist tracks the force of virgin: creative desires -- where they came from and where they are going. The “pencil,” says Adams, acts as a staff guiding one in a labyrinth of education, modeling ideas and material into forms that suit them best, going from Zeno to Descartes, hand in hand with Aquinas, Montaigne and Pascal (18). The “symbolic” pencil then guides the lines of force in one’s mind that transforms material images and concepts and develops/explains them into newer images and concepts more adaptable to the present history. Mallarmé’s faun transforms sexual desire into creative desire and puts it to music. Zappa personifies the humming of the dynamo as a sign of a super sensual, both physical and mental seduction. Over-nite Sensation is the title of the album, but it is also a symbol of transforming a physical sensation into an eternal form of desire. Zappa rescues Mallarmé’s faun with Henry Adams’s “pencil” “re forming” the faun as a successful lover. Failing in the classroom, Mallarmé, becomes a successful poet teacher moving others to “exalt” the symbol of the faun’s desire falling asleep under the sun’s rays and being reborn from the shadows. The teacher/poet desires a reading loving relation with his students/readers. As the faun wants his nymphs to be turned on sensually he also wants to be desired artistically. Poetry can be born in the space between the teacher and the student, the poet and the reader.

                                    Simon Grim Resurrects Henry Fool

            In Hal Hartley’s film, Henry Fool, the title character is a “teacher” who will eventually become recognized through his creations. He is a clown who will become “chastised” and resurrected as an artist. In the opening scene, we see Simon Grim in his garbage truck world surrounded by tires and humming machines, drinking a Budweiser and then voyeuristically watching a young couple starting to engage in sex. Henry Fool, a writer?, rents a basement room in Simon’s house inhabited by his sex starved sister and pill popping mother. Henry stacks several grammar school type composition notebooks containing his “confession” which he describes as:

 a philosophy. A poetics. A politics, if you will. A literature of protest. A novel of ideas. A pornographic magazine of truly comic book proportions. It is, in the end, whatever the hell I want it to be. And when I'm through with it it's going to blow a hole this wide straight through the world's own idea of itself.


He encourages Simon to write. We see Simon, who appears slow and dim-witted, slaving to write with a close-up of a used pencil. The result is a scatological poem in perfect iambic pentameter. Henry knows poetry when he sees it. He encourages Simon not to be discouraged when publisher Angus James first refuses the poem.

Can you sit there, look me straight in the eye and tell me that you don't think this poem is great? That it is not at once a poem of great lyrical beauty and ethical depth; that it is not a genuine, highly profound meditation on the miracle of existence?


Henry advises Simon to change vocations.

Look. In my opinion, this is pretty powerful stuff. Though your spelling is Neanderthal and your reasoning a little naive, your instincts are profound. But the whole thing needs to be given a more cohesive shape. It can be expanded, followed through, unified. Do you see what I'm getting at? Are you willing to commit yourself to this? To really work on it? To give it its due in the face of adversity and discouragement? To rise to the challenge you yourself have set? And don't give me that wonderstruck "I'm only a humble garbage man" bullshit, either.


Simon has a natural “virginal” attitude towards poetry. He finds old poetry books in the garbage and  prefers to read them in their “pristine” condition without modern footnotes against the scholar Fool’s recommendation of up-to- date editions. Henry shows him the library, but Henry is torn between researching literature and “looking for chicks” like the true faun that he is, mingling his sexual desire with his creative urges.

Most of the readers are patrons of “The World of Donuts,” a convenience store where Henry buys beer and where he first posts Simon’s poem. There are many reactions to the poem. The counter girl Gnoc Deng is a mute who, upon reading it, starts to sing. The couple, Warren and Amy, whom Simon originally spied on, are patrons. Warren, who now campaigns for a right wing politician, is appalled by the poem, like the Board of Education which has also condemned it. The girl, Amy, is editor of a high school paper and wants to print it. Mr. Deng, the proprietor, argues with the censorship people claiming that it is poetry. Maria, Simon’s mother, at first looks at the Confession and starts to play the piano, but stops because she is not “remarkable” enough. On the next reading she commits suicide. When Fay, Simon’s sister, reads it her menstrual cycle is upset. She will become pregnant by Henry, who had previously seduced her mother and later confessing to Simon that it was not a good idea. Henry also has had a dubious past, having spent time in prison for having relations with a minor. On Henry’s suggestion, Fay puts the poem on the Web.  Simon, upon becoming a known poet, changes roles with Henry as he teaches Henry how to operate the humming garbage machines. Henry, now a garbage truck driver, does seduce Fay in a scatological marriage proposal in the bathroom and their union does produce a child, Ned. Simon, although not critically endorsing Henry’s “Confession,” does try unsuccessfully to publish it. After a five year interval, Ned manages to reconcile Henry with Simon, now a well dressed sophisticated writer. Henry does chastise himself by killing Warren, the right wing campaigner who has become a wife beater and child molester. Simon saves Henry from arrest by sending him to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize in the persona of Simon Grim.

Henry says that his name was spelled F o o l e in the 15th century (the way we see it in old Shakespeare editions). He is a clown and a failed writer, but he is a teacher who inspires a poet. Simon’s poem, which is never seen or heard by us viewers, is a “symbol” of the force of poetry that penetrates through common prose. Hal Hartley resurrects Henry Fool in a deus ex machina ending by turning him into the poet Simon Grim. We are in Henry Adams ‘s world of dynamos and virgins. We have the engine house world of the garbage trucks and tires and the poetic world of the donut shop. Henry, accompanying himself on piano, gives Simon a grammar lesson on the word-sound “their” in a crescendo of statements: “there are the donuts;  it is their donut;  and they’re the donut people. The donut wheels are the cooking creative world where the center is cut out—the prose—to create the poetry on the edges. Donuts represent the forces of poetry.

The faun wants the nymphs to love him. The singer wants Dinah-Moe to hum. Poets want people to read them and turn their words into poetry. It is us readers who create the forces that turn prose into poetry. In (publisher) Angus James’s office, two salesman are promoting the digital age saying that the book is a thing of the past. Novels, articles, and newspapers will be downloaded on computers (we are in 1997). The publisher laments the age of reading books on television, but he does ask how the digital revolution will help sell books. He was looking at it from a “Langley” point of view of economic forces and not a poetry readers “angus” – I mean angle!

Mallarmé was a failed teacher – a virgin - but a great poet who created many different types of readers in the future centuries. Music readers, dance readers, art readers, rock music readers and teacher readers, like my teacher Wallace Fowlie who first explained Mallarmé to me in the poem “The Chastised Clown.”  We have all read the faun and are humming our own tunes. The blasphemy of the faun has become our religious language. We are the donut people.

                                                            Works Cited


Adams, Henry.  “The Dynamo and the Virgin” in The Education of Henry Adams: An

Autobiography. Boston and New York: Houghton & Mifflin, 1918. This chapter can be found at < html>. The numbers in the text are the paragraph numbers.

Fowlie, Wallace, Mallarmé. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1970.

Hartley, Hal. Henry Fool.  Sony Pictures Classics, 1997.

Haight, Roger, SJ. The Future of Christology. New York and London: Continuum, 2005.

Mallarmé, Stéphane. “L’après-midi d’un faune.” In French Literature: an Anthology. Ed.

Thomas Bishop. Yale UP., 1971.

Zappa, Frank. “Dinah Moe Humm” in Over-nite Sensation, 1973.