Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Apotheosis of The Romantic Will: Fichte

Now, where was I when that whiff of a spring breeze blew me away and left me on the shore of Walden Pond? Let's see: I was thinking about the house that Hobbes built and about the people who were trying to get out it, and now here I am in the house that Thoreau built. It doesn't look big enough to accommodate all that crowd. Nor, to tell the truth, does it offer the amenities and diversions to which they'd become accustomed--like treasure hunts, spin-the-bottle, dancing and drinking parties, sexual games of hide-and-seek, gambling, contact sports, bare-knuckle or brass-knuckle down-and-out, winner-take-all brawls.... Nope. Most people just wouldn't be happy in the house that Thoreau built. They think they would but they couldn't have stood it for an hour. This is borrrring. Heavy boredom. Get me outahere! Which is sort of how they behaved when they began to realize that they'd got themselves into the house that Hobbes, Newton and the French philosophers had built. They took the free, high-powered Will that Kant had invented and used it like a wrecking-ball.

Fichte may have been first philosopher to see the power of this new iron-clad Will and seize it. (And here I am quoting from Isaiah Berlin): "Fichte is the true father of romanticism, above all in his celebration of will over calm discursive thought. A man is made conscious of being what he is--of himself as against others or the external world--not by thought or contemplation, since the purer it is, the more a man's thought is in its object; self-awareness springs from encountering resistance. It is the impact on me of what is external to me, and the effort to resist it, that makes me know that I am what I am, aware of my aims, my nature, my essence, as opposed to what is not mine; and since I am not alone in the world but connected by a myriad strands, as Burke has taught us, to other men, it is this impact that makes me undertand what my culture, my nation, my language, my historical tradition, my true home, have been and are. I carve out of external nature what I need, I see it in terms of my needs, temperament, questions, aspirations: 'I do not accept what nature offers because I must,' Fichte declares, 'I believe because I will.'

"It is the need to act that generates consciousness of the actual world: 'We know because we are called upon to act, not the other way about' A change in my notion of what should be will change my world. The world of the poet is different from the world of the banker, the world of the rich is not the world of the poor...the world of those who think and speak in German is not the world of the French. Fichte goes further: values, principles, moral and political goals, are not objectively given, not imposed on the agent by nature or a transcendent God; 'I am determined by my end: the end is determined by me.' If I am to understand myself and my significance, and be what at my best, I could and should be, I can only understand this by action: 'Man shall be and do something.' 'We must be a quickening source life, not an echo of it or an annex to it.' The essence of man is freedom, and although there is talk of reason, harmony, the reconciliation of one man's purpose to that of another in a rationally organized society, yet freedom is a sublime and dangerous gift: 'Not nature but freedom itself produces the greatest and most terrible disorder of our race...' Freedom is double-edged weapon; it is because they are free that savages devour each other. Civilized nations are free, free to live in peace, but no less free to fight and make war; 'culture is not a deterrence of violence but its tool.' Fichte advocates peace, but if it be a choice between freedom, with its potentiality of violence, or the peace of subjection to the forces of nature [or perhaps any form of subjection whatsoever], he unequivocally prefers--and indeed thinks it is the essence of man not be able to avoid preferring--freedom. Creation is of man's essence; hence the doctrine of the dignity of labor, of which Fichte is virtually the author--labor is the impressing of my creative personality upon the material brought into existence by this very need, it is a means for expressing my inner self--the conquest of nature and the attainment of freedom for nations and cultures is the self-realization of the will: 'Sublime and living will! Named by no man, compassed by no thought.'"

(to be continued)

Friday, March 28, 2008

Thoreau Builds His House

Here, to celebrate the coming of spring, is the finest English prose ever written in modern times:

Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it. It was a pleasant hillside where I worked, covered with pine woods, through which I looked out on the pond, and a small open field in the woods where pines and hickories were springing up. The ice in the pond was not yet dissolved, though there were some open spaces, and it was all dark-colored and saturated with water. There were some slight flurries of snow during the days that I worked there; but for the most part when I came out on to the railroad, on my way home, its yellow sand-heap stretched away gleaming in the hazy atmosphere, and the rails shone in the spring sun, and I heard the lark and pewee and other birds already come to commence another year with us. They were pleasant spring days, in which the winter of man's discontent was thawing as well as the earth, and the life that had lain torpid began to stretch itself. One day, when my axe had come off and I had cut a green hickory for a wedge, driving it with a stone, and had placed the whole to soak in a pond-hole in order to swell the wood, I saw a striped snake run into the water, and he lay on the bottom, apparently without inconvenience, as long as I stayed there, or more than a quarter of an hour; perhaps because he had not yet fairly come out of the torpid state. It appeared to me that for a like reason men remain in their present low and primitive condition; but if they should feel the influence of the spring of springs arousing them, they would of necessity rise to a higher and more ethereal life. I had previously seen the snakes in frosty mornings in my path with portions of their bodies still numb and inflexible, waiting for the sun to thaw them. On the 1st of April it rained and melted the ice, and in the early part of the day, which was very foggy, I heard a stray goose groping about over the pond and cackling as if lost, or like the spirit of the fog.

So I went on for some days cutting and hewing timber, and also studs and rafters, all with my narrow axe, not having many communicable or scholar-like thoughts, singing to myself,

Men say they know many things; But lo! they have taken wings- The arts and sciences, And a thousand appliances; The wind that blows Is all that anybody knows.

I hewed the main timbers six inches square, most of the studs on two sides only, and the rafters and floor timbers on one side, leaving the rest of the bark on, so that they were just as straight and much stronger than sawed ones. Each stick was carefully mortised or tenoned by its stump, for I had borrowed other tools by this time. My days in the woods were not very long ones; yet I usually carried my dinner of bread and butter, and read the newspaper in which it was wrapped, at noon, sitting amid the green pine boughs which I had cut off, and to my bread was imparted some of their fragrance, for my hands were covered with a thick coat of pitch. Before I had done I was more the friend than the foe of the pine tree, though I had cut down some of them, having become better acquainted with it. Sometimes a rambler in the wood was attracted by the sound of my axe, and we chatted pleasantly over the chips which I had made.

By the middle of April, for I made no haste in my work, but rather made the most of it, my house was framed and ready for the raising. I had already bought the shanty of James Collins, an Irishman who worked on the Fitchburg Railroad, for boards. James Collins' shanty was considered an uncommonly fine one. When I called to see it he was not at home. I walked about the outside, at first unobserved from within, the window was so deep and high. It was of small dimensions, with a peaked cottage roof, and not much else to be seen, the dirt being raised five feet all around as if it were a compost heap. The roof was the soundest part, though a good deal warped and made brittle by the sun. Doorsill there was none, but a perennial passage for the hens under the door-board. Mrs. C. came to the door and asked me to view it from the inside. The hens were driven in by my approach. It was dark, and had a dirt floor for the most part, dank, clammy, and aguish, only here a board and there a board which would not bear removal. She lighted a lamp to show me the inside of the roof and the walls, and also that the board floor extended under the bed, warning me not to step into the cellar, a sort of dust hole two feet deep. In her own words, they were good boards overhead, good boards all around, and a good window"- of two whole squares originally, only the cat had passed out that way lately. There was a stove, a bed, and a place to sit, an infant in the house where it was born, a silk parasol, gilt-framed looking-glass, and a patent new coffee-mill nailed to an oak sapling, all told. The bargain was soon concluded, for James had in the meanwhile returned. I to pay four dollars and twenty-five cents tonight, he to vacate at five tomorrow morning, selling to nobody else meanwhile: I to take possession at six. It were well, he said, to be there early, and anticipate certain indistinct but wholly unjust claims on the score of ground rent and fuel. This he assured me was the only encumbrance. At six I passed him and his family on the road. One large bundle held their all- bed, coffee-mill, looking-glass, hens- all but the cat; she took to the woods and became a wild cat, and, as I learned afterward, trod in a trap set for woodchucks, and so became a dead cat at last.

I took down this dwelling the same morning, drawing the nails, and removed it to the pond-side by small cartloads, spreading the boards on the grass there to bleach and warp back again in the sun. One early thrush gave me a note or two as I drove along the woodland path. I was informed treacherously by a young Patrick that neighbor Seeley, an Irishman, in the intervals of the carting, transferred the still tolerable, straight, and drivable nails, staples, and spikes to his pocket, and then stood when I came back to pass the time of day, and look freshly up, unconcerned, with spring thoughts, at the devastation; there being a dearth of work, as he said. He was there to represent spectatordom, and help make this seemingly insignificant event one with the removal of the gods of Troy.

I dug my cellar in the side of a hill sloping to the south, where a woodchuck had formerly dug his burrow, down through sumach and blackberry roots, and the lowest stain of vegetation, six feet square by seven deep, to a fine sand where potatoes would not freeze in any winter. The sides were left shelving, and not stoned; but the sun having never shone on them, the sand still keeps its place. It was but two hours' work. I took particular pleasure in this breaking of ground, for in almost all latitudes men dig into the earth for an equable temperature. Under the most splendid house in the city is still to be found the cellar where they store their roots as of old, and long after the superstructure has disappeared posterity remark its dent in the earth. The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.

At length, in the beginning of May, with the help of some of my acquaintances, rather to improve so good an occasion for neighborliness than from any necessity, I set up the frame of my house. No man was ever more honored in the character of his raisers than I. They are destined, I trust, to assist at the raising of loftier structures one day. I began to occupy my house on the 4th of July, as soon as it was boarded and roofed, for the boards were carefully feather-edged and lapped, so that it was perfectly impervious to rain, but before boarding I laid the foundation of a chimney at one end, bringing two cartloads of stones up the hill from the pond in my arms. I built the chimney after my hoeing in the fall, before a fire became necessary for warmth, doing my cooking in the meanwhile out of doors on the ground, early in the morning: which mode I still think is in some respects more convenient and agreeable than the usual one. When it stormed before my bread was baked, I fixed a few boards over the fire, and sat under them to watch my loaf, and passed some pleasant hours in that way. In those days, when my hands were much employed, I read but little, but the least scraps of paper which lay on the ground, my holder, or tablecloth, afforded me as much entertainment, in fact answered the same purpose as the Iliad.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hobbes, Enlightenment, Kant

Remember Hobbes' definition of 'happiness'--and it's endless pursuit? That idea is deeply embedded in modern capitalism and Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. It went largely unquestioned (I believe) by the other philosophers and thinkers of the Enlightment, just as they did not question but on the contrary welcomed the mechanistic universe promised by modern i.e. Newtonian science, with its corollary, Deism. Paley's argument for the existence of God pretty well sums it up: just as a watch implies a watch-maker, so this great machine the universe implies a Designer and an Engineer rolled up into one. Since the universe is entirely deterministic, the possibility of Providence disappears. It also creates or seems to create a dilemma for anyone who believes in the freedom of the will (Hume said the opposite but we'll have to let that go til later.)

Kant, a scientific pioneer himself, set out to give a rational explanation and justification of the methods of the natural sciences which he rightly looked upon as the major achievement of the age. Instead, as Isaiah Berlin shows in an essay which ought to be read by anyone interested in modern history, "he lifted the lid of a Pandora's box which he was among the first, with perfect honesty and consistency, to disown and condemn."

The determinism of modern science put Kant in an ethical box from which there seemed to be no escape. But Kant was a philosophical Houdini: he found or invented a stunningly clever escape module which enabled him to preserve both science and the freedom of the will--but at a price, wnich I will get to in a moment. First, I have to admit that I do not understand Kant's "transcendental" metaphysics very well. Basically, insofar as I understand it, Kant turned the problem of knowledge inside-out: the rational order we find in the universe is an order that our minds have created and imposed on it--including its deterministic structure. And the price? Well, if science is an a priori creation of pure reason, what is reason reasoning about? If our knowledge of world and universe is a human invention, how do we know it's true? And here it seems to me, Kant lost it. (But what do I know?) He invented an unknowable Substance as the foundation for reality, and he called that Substance "things-in-themselves." Why did he do this? Because if determinism is merely a rational construct of the mind, the mind--far above that grubby and unknowable Substance down at the unknowable base of reality (down at the quantum or even Planck scale had he only known)--is free to ignore it: one can assert one's freedom by an act of will. That (I guess) is where we encounter Kant's "categorical imperative" which is more or less equivalent to the golden rule: live by the same rules you would impose on others; or, which is not quite the same perhaps, act in conformity to the rules that you would willingly make universal. Anyone who makes it a point of honor to act consistently according to a principle of this kind (or of any kind, perhaps) is heroic. This is not a new idea; the ancient Stoics, or Christians waiting to become lion food knew all about it. But Kant added conditions that raised the bar almost impossibly high: if one acts under the influences of causes which one cannot control, whether external such as physical compulsion or internma such as instincts or desires or passions, then the act whatever its consequences, good or bad, have no moral value. The Self, Kant tells us, must be "raised above natural necessity", for if we are ruled by the same laws as which govern the material world,"freedom cannot be saved" and without freedom there is no morality. So Kant, without intending to, made the exercise or rather the assertion of raw will morally compelling in itself.

In what follows, I shall be drawing heavily on Isaiah Berlin's essay, "The Apotheosis of The Romantic Will."

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Romanticism, Romantic, Romance

At first, in the 13th or 14th centuries or thereabouts, a romance was a story written in what was then the premier romance language, French. A French story or poem. As we can learn by reading Don Quixote (1607) these were wildly improbable tales in which just about anything could happen and the heroes lived and acted according to an extraordinarily noble code of behavior. No one could accuse Don Quixote of not doing his best to live up to his own chivalric ideals. Other writers, Tasso, Spenser, Sydney, for example had used the romance form for their own purposes, but Cervantes was the first to make his story self-referential thereby leaping at one bound into hypermodernity.

The Romance is an aristocratic art-form; the novel invented (I guess) by Defoe is thoroughly bourgeois and not in the least bit romantic--though the characters may from time to time act in 'romantic' ways. Romanticism, is a response to or reaction against the accelerated rate of economic, technical, industrial development that occurred, first, in England in the late 18th and early 19th century; continental Europe quickly followed. Revolutions are not pretty. There are likely to be more losers than winners. The losers may look back nostalgically to the past; they may try to conserve as much of it as possible. Looking back, we may see the vast popularity of Scott's novels of medieval life as evidence of future-shock.

Here is a sonnet by Wordsworth that gives us something of the essence of romanticism:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It move us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

ps: Anyone who thinks that name-calling is an acceptable form of criticism does not deserve a hearing.

Monday, March 24, 2008

"The German System of Romantic Thought"

What did Troeltsch mean by that phrase, "the German system of romantic thought"? Well, what he has to say on this subject is both interesting and complicated, so be prepared to pay attention for a little while:

The peculiarity of German thought, in the form in which it is nowadays [remember, this in 1922] so much emphasized, both inside and outside Germany, is primarily derived from the Romantic Movement... Romanticism too is a revolution, a thorough and genuine revolution: a revolution against the respectability of the bourgeois temper and against a universal equalitarian ethic: a revolution, above all, against the whole of the mathematico-mechanical spirit of science in western Europe, against a conception of Natural Law which sought to blend utility with morality, against the bare abstraction of a universal and equal Humanity. Confronted with the eruption of West-European ideas of Natural Law, and with the revolutionary storms by which they were accompanied, Romanticism pursued an increasingly self-conscious trend in the opposite direction of a conservative revolution. In the spirit of the contemplative and the mystic, the Romanticists penetrated behind the rich variety of actual life to the inward forces by which it was moved, and sought to encourage the play of those forces in a steady movement towards a rich universe of unique and individual structures of the creative human mind.

Please understand that Troeltsch is not speaking as a defiant German nationalist; he is trying to understand what the war was all about and how Germany can move beyond its rift with western-Europe: "Our duty to German traditions is not to push them to an extreme and one-sided conclusion... but to bring them into new contact with all the great movements in the world about us."

German romanticism in the 19th century would seem to be reactionary, in the spirit of Joseph de Maistre. What was it reacting against? The French Revolution with its rationalistic, ahistorical doctrines of human rights most obviously, but also what Troeltsch calls the "mathematico-mechanical spirit of science in western Europe"--to which, as it happens, the Germans had contributed as mightily as anyone else. Even as he was writing, in 1922, German mathematicians and physicists were creating modern quantum mechanics; Einstein, in 1905, won the Nobel prize for his papers on Special Relativity, the photo-electric effect and Brownian motion; ten years later he completed his work on General Relativity. To all of this, Troeltsch seems oblivious. But so what? He is right to be emphasizing the profoundly conservative nature of German pre-war Romanticism. That's a fact. Which leads to the question I want to ask: Wasn't Romanticism an inherently conservative, even reactionary, response not only to science but to technology and the industial revolution, to modernity in general? And not just in Germany but throughtout Europe? Even in France, the mother of all revolutions?

(to be continued)

Friday, March 21, 2008

As Germany Saw It

If the great German philosopher and theologian, Ernst Troeltsch, had had a chance to read The Wasteland, he might have said to himself "I knew it all along!" Here he is in 1922, reflecting on Germany's defeat in WW I and the fundamental differences between the "Romantic thought" of Germany and the soul-destroying individualism and utilitarianism of the West:

"Here we touch the core of the contrast. We begin to see, on the one hand, an eternal, rational, and divinely ordered system of Order, embracing both morality and law; we begin to see, on the other, individual, living, and perpetually new incarnations of an historically creative Mind. Those who believe in an eternal and divine Law of Nature, the Equality of man, and a sense of unity pervading mankind, and who find the essence of humanity in these things, cannnot but regard the German doctrine as a curious mixture of mysticism and brutality. Those who take an opposite view--who see in history an ever-moving stream, which throws up unique invividualities as it moves, and is always shaping individual structures on the basis of a law which is always new--are bound to consider the west-European world of ideas as a world of cold rationalism and equalitarian atomism, a world of superficiality and Pharisaism."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

More About Yeats

Thomas Banks wonders what I think of the poems in (and before) Yeats' 1899 volume, "The Wind Among The Reeds." It's a good question, because Yeats 'modernized' his style around the turn of the century. Early Yeats is different from later. It's a long time since I've read or thought about this very great poet and I'm glad to be doing that now. Some of the earlier poems, like the Lake Isle of Innisfree ("I will arise and go now . . ."), The Song of the Wandering Aengus and Who Goes With Fergus? never lose their charm. The Rose of the World takes us straight into the fin de siecle sensibility of a poet like Ernest Dowson. (We use to pay our kids so much a foot to memorize poetry and The Song of the Wandering Aengus was one of the poems they especially liked.)

Yeats wrote a number of poems about the kind of poetry he was trying to write; or about the way he had changed his style as a poet. The following come to mind: Adam's Curse, To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing, A Coat, Ego Dominus Tuus, The Fisherman, The Circus Animals Desertion. What he says of Dante applies to him: "He set his chisel to the hardest stone." Like Eliot and Pound, he wanted to put as much distance as he could between his own poetry and conventional notions of poetry as self-expression, which he despised as bourgeois. And I'm pretty sure Frost and Wallace Stevens--and probably most of the other great modernist poets and artists would have agreed, though not perhaps in quite those terms. Modernist art, then, is implicitly aristocratic. Which is why it is not popular among post-modernist intellectuals and academics, and why they would like to pretend that it doesn't exist.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Poet And Poem

I am about to do the very thing I said critics shouldn't do: connect poet and poem. But then I am not a critic but something far less important, a student of literary as well as other kinds of history i.e. "a harmless drudge" as Samuel Johnson says.

Let us suppose--as others have--that The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is a satiric self-portrait. It is of course a virtuoso performance which Prufrock himself would have been quite incapable of. Eliot, however much he may have resembled Profrock in his relations with women, is not only a brilliant poet but an accomplished scholar, learned in the ancient languages, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and ABD in Philosophy. He is studying philosophy in Germany in the summer of 1914; when Europe descends into the state of war, he moves to England. He is 26 years old. He writes to his friend Conrad Aiken, "I am very dependent upon women (I mean female society)" and complains that he is still a virgin. He meets a young woman, intelligent, gifted and no doubt pretty, named Vivienne Haigh-Wood who, I guess, promptly seduces him. They are married in June, 1915. It is a miserable marriage. Vivienne, it turns out, is not only gifted but deranged--"hopelessly so" perhaps, says Hugh Kenner. Later, in his sixties, Eliot had this to say: "I came to persuade myself that I was in love with Vivienne simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England. And she persuaded herself (also under the influence of Pound) that she would save the poet by keeping him in England. To her, the marriage brought no happiness. To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land."

Eliot worked on that poem for a long time but couldn't pull it together or finish it. Like his marriage, it was an incoherent mess when he took it to Pound and asked him to make sense of it. Which Pound did--though it is not at all clear that poem as we now have it is the poem that Eliot intended to write. One thing, however, IS pretty clear: the mind that created this poem was in a state of despair.

To read The Wasteland is to encounter a cacophony--or echo-chamber-- of disparate, disconnected voices. That in itself would seem to be a metaphor for modernity: Once upon a time, the poem implies--the time of the universal Church, perhaps--life was more liked a choir than a cacophony. If there were nothing more to the poem than that, I don't suppose we would still be reading and thinking about it. But the voices of this poem, even the annonymous voice or voices of the poet, are voices of strangely intense individuality--even the flat banality of this one: "In the mountains, there you feel free." One of these voices is almost certainly the voice of Vivienne, in Part II ("A Game of Chess"). This section begins with an allusion to Shakespeare's Cleopatra: "The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne/ Glowed..." but then Cleopatra disappears, to be replaced by an extraordinary (and, I believe, intentionally incoherent) tangle of allusions, metaphors and images. Then we hear this:

Footsteps shuffled on the stair.
Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair
Spread out in fiery points
Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.
"My nerves are bad to-night. Yes bad. Stay with me.
"Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? Think."

The Wasteland is a desert where nothing can grow; Eliot's marriage was equally barren. He and Vivienne had no children. Later, Eliot allows himself to dwell briefly on a world where things might have been otherwise--as here in Marina (1930) for example:

What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping at the bow
What scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter....

What is this face, less clear and clearer
The pulse in the arm, less strong and stronger--
Given or lent? more distant than stars and nearer than the eye

Whispers and small laughter bwtween leaves and hurrying feet
Under sleep where all the waters meet.

Burnt Norton (1936) begins with a glum meditation on the hopelessly unredeemable nature of time: "If all time is eternally present" (as it would be in the mind of an omniscient God), then "All time is unredeemable," and

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibiliity
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden....
Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world....

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitely, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might of been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

The following poem by Yeats would seem to sum up the sad life of T. S. Eliot. It is called The Choice:

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.

When all that story's finished, what's the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day's vanity, the night's remorse.

Eliot said it himself: since he was not a prolific poet, every poem (and he never knew after he had written one whether he would ever write another) had to be "perfect." But there was one poem that was not perfect--The Wasteland--which he published anyway.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Modernist Anomalies

I can think of at least two. The first of these may not strike you as odd but the predilection for primitivismn in many modernist artists would seem to be on the face of it at least slightly paradoxical. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring comes to mind. D.H. Lawrence remarks (in Women in Love) on the modern fascination for African art. Think of Gaugin's paintings or those of Henri Rousseau--or for that matter, the work of Picasso.

The other anomaly is deeper and more unsettling. When the great modernist poets, Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Frost and Stevens broke away from their romantic predecessors, the rupture was not only stylistic but political. Both Eliot and Yeats were politically conservative, to say the least, but while both found Fascism tempting, they did not--unlike Pound-- take the plunge. Some of Eliot's lesser poems, and much of Pound's, are uglified by anti-semitism. Frost had a low opinion of progressives and liberals. Stevens was a business man and, by all accounts a very good one. His poetry is apolitical. Since the poetry audience tends to be progressive and liberal, a certain tension began to characterize its attitudes toward some at least of these white men. This tension could not easily be resolved for a reason that is easy to say but hard to explain: these men are truly great poets; the poetry they write is beautiful and unforgettable. Here is single example of what I'm talking about, a poem by Yeats entitled "In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz"(1927):

The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
But a raving autumn shears
Blossom from the summer's wreath;
The older is condemned to death,
Pardoned, drags out lonely years
Conspiring among the ignorant.
I know not what the younger dreams--
Some vague utopia--and she seems,
When withered old and skeleton-gaunt,
An image of such politics.
Many a time I think to seek
One or other out and speak
Of that old Georgian mansion, mix
Pictures of the mind, recall
That table and the talk of youth,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.

Dear shadows, now you know it all,
All the folly of a fight
With a common wrong or right.
The innocent and the beautiful
Have no enemy but time;
Arise and bid me strike a match
And strike another till time catch;
Should the conflagration climb,
Run till all the sages know.
We the great gazebo built,
They convicted us of guilt;
Bid me strike a match and blow.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

My Mistakes

Upon rereading--or rather reading around in--The Pound Era, by Hugh Kenner, I realize that I've gotten some important matters wrong. Prufrock was written in 1911, before Preludes, and it is not written in free-verse but in a sort of loosely flowing iambic pentameter. I also failed to make proper use of what I knew but only partly remembered about Eliot's debt to those symbolist poets I referred to, Baudelaird and LaForgue. It is important to get such matters right.

So I was only partly right in what I said about Preludes: that Eliot in this poem is giving the city its own voice. Those symbolist poets had shown Eliot how to disappear as an active feeling, thinking, suffering person or self in the poem; the voice we hear in Prufrock, Preludes and indeed all of Eliot's poetry is almost not the voice of an individual person, with an actual historical life to refer to--or for a critic to discuss as they are doing what critics almost always do: talk about the relationship between a poet's life and his or her poetry, instead of the poetry itself, because it is always so much easier to do the one than the other. Eliot eluded the critics by becoming invisible. But that was not his only reason for doing so.

Eliot was on the cutting edge of an anti-romantic artistic and literary revolution which has now been largely forgotten. He and others wanted to escape from the romantic idea that a poem is about self-expression; that the greater the poet the greater the self, so that to be great poet is to be sort of hero--a hero, as Shelley says, who falls upon the thorns of life and bleeds . . .

James Joyce was part of the anti-romantic avant-garde. Stephen Dedalus is not speaking for Joyce when at the conclusion of Portrait of The Artist As a Young Man, he goes off saying, so very grandly, "I go to forge the conscience of my race in the smithy of my soul."

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Preludes and The Wasteland

The annonymous voice of "Preludes" speaks with god-like compassion, as follows:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

As I read this poem, the dully animate city itself with its volices and images of passive despair, is the "thing" referred to in these lines.

The images and the compassion are wiped away with a bitter but cynical laugh: what are you getting all teary-eyed about? It's the way of the world, brother: the smart and the tough and the lucky get rich and rightly so; the others end up in furnished rooms contemplating their sordid lives, or gathering fuel in vacant lots.

What might such a poem have been a prelude to? Well, it was followed by "Prufrock"(1915), a dithering and ineffectual esthete, who ends up on the beach wondering who he is and what's it all about. Not a promising subject, you would think. Is this what Eliot thought of the literary culture and his fellow poets in 1915, when a thousand years of European civilization were going up in smoke? But the subject is almost irrelevant: no one had ever written free-verse of such sinuous, stunning intensity before. Who, having read this brilliant monologue by Eliot (and there were more to come), would ever again be satisfied by Browning?

The Wasteland (1920) surprised the hell out of everyone. Nothing in either "Preludes" or "Prufrock" would have led one to expect such a cataclysmic repudiation of modernity. (We now know that Ezra Pound, who had his own gripes about modernity, is responsible for giving the poem its present form, if you could call it that. The war, Pound thought had been fought for nothing, "For a botched civilization... For two gross of broken statues, for a few thousand battered books.")

Eliot's poem is generally thought, mistakenly, to be obscure. At first no doubt many found it so but there is now no way anyone can miss Eliot's point which, interestingly, is the same point that Shakespeare had made four hundred years previously in Troilus and Cressida: no longer nourished by its own moral and spiritual traditions, Western civilization has become a sterile wasteland where nothing new or good can grow, and people die of boredom or expend their energies in frantic but futile efforts to amuse themselves. Joseph de Maistre would have agreed.

And what of the city that the poet had tenderly grieved for in "Preludes"? Here's what the voice of the modern wasteland has to say (echoing Dante's at the gates of Hell):

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his own eyes before his feet.

Friday, March 14, 2008

'Modern', 'Modernist', 'Modernism'--and 'Modernity'

Back in the 20th century, just about any anthology of modern British and American poetry would have included several poems, at least, by T.S. Eliot--whose actual output was remarkably small for an indisputably major poet. "Preludes" would have been among them. Why were these poems modern but not, say, those of Tennyson or Browning or for that matter any other Victorian poet? Why is Matisse modern but not Burne-Jones? Why is Hemingway modern but not Trollop--or Dickens? Or Henry James?

The word 'modern', in those days or decades shortly before or immediately after WW I, conferred upon its literary or artistic or musical (never scientific) objects a certain distinction, an allure, that was and still remains elusive, hard to explain, even controversial. The word clearly meant something more than 'contemporary', but what?

The various revolutions that had been simmering throughout the 19th century all exploded--literally--in the 20th. A lot of artists and writers thought that revolutionary times demanded radical stylistic as well as intellectual changes. All of this is and has always been obvious; the connection between style and content (to put it crudely) is rarely obvious. It's easy to say that Eliot's purposes in "Preludes" require a style that dulls or deadens affect but it is not easy to show how that works--or to justify claims about Eliot's purposes. And when a writer invests his own political or spiritual aspirations in his work--as Eliot notoriously does--literary criticism begins to make severe demands of the critic.

Allow me to hazard a generalization here: 20th century writers and artists who were or became self-consciously modern are modernists; modernism is what you get when modernists are reacting to modernity.

[Thomas Banks remarks: One thought on the tag "Modernist-" it's a desceptively fluid label, to be sure; I was reading Montaigne the other night and he refers to Bocaccio, Froisart and others who preceded him by a couple of hundred years as "Moderns." Ergo, he conceived of himself as being "Postmodern."
To which I reply: 'modern' in the 16th c. generally meant post-medieval. But when Rosalind in As You Like It uses the word, it seems to mean 'modish.']

And what about 'post-modernism'? That's what you call yourself when you longer know or care anything about modernism but suspect that it was a movement dominated by white, conservative, or reactonary males (which is partly true) and you know you don't want to have anything to do with THAT, but you've got to call yourself something that shows you've got a grip on history.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Savage Torpor

Wordsworth's remarks about the effects of city-life are, so far as I know (a phrase I find myself using more and more frequently), unprecedented. I'm pretty sure that no one before him had ever claimed that "savage torpor" is a characteristic malaise of cities. As times goes on, however, and the pace of technological and economic innovation picks up, the modern city becomes increasingly problematical--especially it would seem for literary intellectuals. The brilliantly modernistic innovations of T.S. Eliot's poem, The Wasteland may obscure the fact that the intellectual and literary tradition of which it is a part was more than a 100 years old when it was written. No one before Eliot, though, had managed to capture in poetry the sound, sense and tone of 'savage torpor' before Eliot pulled it off in one of his earliest poems, Preludes. Here is how it begins:

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o'clock.
The burnt out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
And showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

And so on. You get the idea, perhaps. Should you care to read the rest of the poem (it is not very long), you can easily find it in, say, The Norton Anthology

Lao Qiao said...

Thanks, Piers, for introducing me to Eliot's "Preludes." which does indeed describe a world of savage torpor, a beautiful expression. My own experience of the city, however, is not one of "dingy shades" or "broken blinds and chimney pots" and certainly not of "ancient women gathering fuel in vacant lots." Instead of "savage torpor" I feel a world of distant cooperation, of sympathetic discourtesy, of casual creativity.

I reply: Compare "Preludes" (musical, like Chopin's) to Ww's "Westminster Bridge" sonnet:

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This city now doth, like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

(In other words, the city is most beautiful when the city is being least like a city.) Eliot's poem systematically dulls itself down, deadening all affect (a technique he learned from Baudelaire and Laforgue but that's another story.) That's what I meant by applying Ww's term "torpor" to it. Ww tells us how to feel about the city in his poem; Eliot lets the city in all its poor, dull, torpid, speechless misery speak for itself--at least in the first of these preludes. (This a kind of poetry that did not exist in 1800 and which I doubt that Ww or any other poet of his time could have imagined.) As the city wakes up, he speaks to it or for it in a very indirect way. That 'you' could be and does refer to any inhabitant of those "furnished rooms." "He" could be any more conscious sufferer. When finally the poet speaks (possibly) for himself, he is answered instantly by a voice (possibly his own) much more hardened and innured to poverty who laughs and says that poverty is so much a part of the structure of reality, so universal, that even the worlds revolve like old women gathering fuel in vacant lots.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

'Wild' Nature and The Human Mind

The words "wild" and "rank" work together in Burke's phrase, "growing wild from the rank productive force of the human mind," to create an idea of the mind as a force of nature, spontaneously generating all manner of life-forms in wild, lush, rough, coarse and indiscriminate profusion. The past is not a garden but a jungle. A statesman, as he amply demonstrates, must also be a historian hacking a path through the tangled mass of historical records and conflicting stories, in order to find a usable path from the past to the present.

Burke was not the only thinker at the end of the 18th century who was thinking new thoughts about the powers of the human mind. There was Kant for instance, who,"shocked out of his dogmatic slumbers" by Hume's reduction of Reason to reasoning, turned the mind into the only creative force in the universe: whatever order we find in it could only have been created by our own minds.

Kant I leave to the philosophers, with the observation that the motives that drove Kant to write the Critique of Pure Reason are relevant to the way we understand that extraordinarily difficult book--just as Burke's motives are relevant to the way we understand his metaphor for the workings of the human mind; both writers have a polemical purpose.

Consider now the following quotations. First, some lines from Wordsworth's poem, "Tintern Abbey" (1798):

For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Second, some lines from Wordsworth's "Preface" to the second edition (1800) of his Lyrical Ballads:

For the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulents; and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and dignity who does not know this, and who does not further know, that one being is elevated above another in proportion as he possesses this capability. It has therefore appeared to me, that to endeavor to produce or enlarge this capability is one of the best services in which, at any period, a Writer can be engaged; but this service, excellent at all times, is especially so at the present day. For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident which the rapid communication intelligence hourly gratifies.

There's nothing wild or rank about nature for Wordsworth. I remember being impressed by the absence of mosquitos when I visited Wordsworthland (the Lake Country) many years ago. Not only are there no mosquitos in Wordsworth's poems, there are no varmints or predators. Nature, as we can see in the lines I've quoted from "Tintern Abbey," is a pantheistic spiritual presence that is always with him; it is the benign deity that eases the burden of this "unintelligible world" when from time to time he is forced to live in the cites that he hates; it is the muse that makes it possible for him as a poet to do for others what that deity does for him: reverse the numbing, coarsening effects of city-life and popular culture. This makes Wordsworth the first modern poet. No other poet before him, so far as I know, had thought of his mission in these terms.

By the way, Wordsworth was--at first-- very unthusiastic about the Revolution in France; The Terror, and Burke's Reflections changed his mind.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"Growing wild from the rank productive force of the human mind"

This wonderful phrase takes us straight to the heart of Burke's political morality.

If you'll go back to that long quotation from Burke, in my last posting, you'll see what he's talking about: the vast array of monastic institutions, with real estate and clergy, that France had inherited from the so-called middle-ages. By the late 18th century, these institutions, along with the feudal social structures and politics that supported them, oh yes and religious beliefs too, had become, shall we say, 'obsolete'-- a word that could only have come into use with modernity. The Revolution was, in large part, a rebellion against the ancient feudal world with its hierarchies, ranks, privileges, beliefs--the whole thing to be swept away, root and branch, including Christianity and the Church. No half-measures. So, at one fell swoop, the revolutionaries confiscated all the Church real estate and sold it on the open market, the proceeds going to pay off the national debt AND provide backing for the new national (paper) currency call the "Assignat." This was, of course, a hare-brained scheme and as Burke predicted, created pure financial chaos.

O.k. What Burke was objecting to was not, simply, the economic stupidity of this 'reform' nor (like Maistre)) did he object on religious grounds; Burke's objection are more like those of an ecologist today who is forced to watch, appalled, as the vast botanical and zoological resources of the Amazon river basin (for instance) are squandered to make room for soy-beans and beef-cattle. Human institutions are human inventions,"the rank productive force of the human mind,"
growing naturally in rank profusion in the soil of human cultures. The grow, they evolve 'organically,' like plants or mushrooms, fertilized by history. Designed for one purpose, they take on others. Or they become obsolete. But there they are, a resource or 'power', to be used by intelligent, imaginative statesmanship. There are all sorts of useful purposes that the monastic institutions of France could have been put to. Once destroyed, these things can never be recreated. What a waste.

Burke is a conservative but in a way that preserves or conserves the connection, often lost, between conservatism and conservation. The question is, to bring this down to the politics of today, two hundred years later, what does it mean to be a conservative now, in the U.S. of A.? Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Conservation or Conservatism?

Napoleon coined the word 'ideology' and he did so contemptuously. A philosophical theory becomes an ideology when it is used to justify a grab for power. Napoleon didn't need an ideology because he had the guns and he happened to be at the right place at the right time (timing is everything): "a whiff of grape-shot" was all it took (as Edmund Burke had predicted) to end the Revolution and make the ideologues shut up.

'Ideology' is another word, like 'reactionary' and the paired opposites 'left' and 'right', that we owe to the French Revolution.

The 20th century was an ideological century and we have the scars to prove it.

Whenever Burke is referred to nowadays, which is not often, it is as a 'classic conservative' which is about right, I guess, but not very helpful. Burke is a classic in the same way that great museums are classical institutions: they select and preserve the most perfect objects of each particular type or class. Unfortunately, the qualities that make Burke a classic make him a little tough to read: the 'thickness' of his knowledge of history, government and political institutions, tends to complicate his style in a way that is similar though not exactly comparable to the complications we notice in the style of Henry James.

Burke understood that government and the rule of law are human inventions that have evolved (in a Darwinian sort of way) over many centuries to meet changing human needs. Religion, for instance, is one of those needs. Though Burke himself is or at least presents himself as a religious man, his understanding of the way the Church of England functions, politically (in a broad sense of that word), is entirely secular. Thus, it is not for theological but practical reasons that he criticizes the revolutionary government in France for destroying the institutions and the clergy of the Catholic church. The following will give you a pretty good idea of the nature and flavor of Burke's conservatism:

There are moments in the fortune of states when particular men are called upon to make improvements by great mental exertion....A politician , to do great things looks for a power, what our workmen call a purchase [i.e., a place where it is possible to apply leverage]; and if he finds that power in politics as in mechanics he cannot be at a loss to apply it. In the monastic institutions [of France], in my opinion, was found a great power for the mechanism of politic benevolence. There were revenues with a public direction; there were men wholly set apart and dedicated to public purposes, without any other than public ties and public principles; men without the possibility of converting the estate of the community into a private fortune. Men denied to self-interests, whose avarice is for some community; men to whom personal poverty is honor, and implicit obedience stands in the place of freedom. The winds blow as they list. These institutions are the products of [religious] enthusiasm; they are the instruments of wisdom. Wisdom cannot create materials; they are the gifts of nature or of chance; her pride is in the use. The perennial existence of bodies corporate and their fortunes, are things particularly suited to a man who has long views; who meditates designs that require time in fashioning; and which propose duration when they are accomplished. He is not deserving to high rank, or even to be mentioned in the order of great statesmen, who, have obtained the command and direction of such a power as existed in the wealth, the discipline, and the habits of such corporations, as those which you [the French] have rashly destroyed, cannot find any way of converting it to the great and lasting benefit of his country.... To destroy any power, growing wild from the rank productive force of the human mind, is almost tantamount, in the moral world, to the destruction of the apparently active properties of bodies in the material. It would be like the attempt to destroy (if it were in our competence to destroy...the power of steam, or of electricity, or of magnetism....

Lao Giao's comment on the word 'ideology' is relevant here: I'm not sure what Napoleon was up to when he coined the word "ideology," but political philosophers who took power would have to include the Founding Fathers, whose success antedated Napoleon's conquests. Madison's Constitution was a beautiful ideological work that has served us well for more than two centuries. Any takers?