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.

1 comment:

  1. The last sentence you cite from Wordsworth sounds like the press today, more than two centuries later. Nevertheless, we humans are intelligent, analytic creatures who are always capable of further exploration if given the opportunity.