Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bentham: The Greatest Happiness of Greatest Number

When, Hobbes (Leviathan, 1651) defined 'felicity', i.e. 'happiness', as the maximal satisfaction of desires (whatever they may be), why did it not occur to him to generalize his principle across an entire society?--as Bentham would do at the end of the 18th century. If you are thinking about the basic principles of a democratic state (Bentham was a great admirer of the U.S.), you have to be thinking about the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Politicians who don't satisfy the demands of their constituents for ever increasing levels of happiness, don't get reelected. That's just common sense, right? Common sense now, maybe, but not in 1800 and certainly not in 1651. England at that time had just emerged from a bloody civil war about religious principles which had been won by the religious left-wingers of that time, i.e. Puritans. The King, Charles I had been beheaded by the victors in 1649. In 1648, Europe had emerged, so to speak, from 30 years of even bloodier religious warfare, wich had reduced the population of the German states, or statelets, by about 30%. What the world needed, thought Hobbes, was a new kind of state, a secular state, based on secular not religious principles, a state so well organized and so powerful as to make rebellion impossible. Having seen or heard what happens--a war of all against all--when government collapses and the citizenry are thrown back on their own resources, he thought anything was better than that.

Happiness for Hobbes is happiness of this world; there is for him no other. Bentham, who often sounds like Hobbes, clearly shares his secular bias. The legal and political theory he invented, applied, and taught is known as Utilitarianism, which is an unfortunate name--Bentham was not thinking of usefulness in any narrow sense. By 'utility' Bentham means whatever increases pleasure and minimizes pain. So defined, utility can be measured and claims about either increasing or decreasing utility can be verified. Reformers have something real to point to, instead of abstractions. Bentham, through his voluminous writings and many disciples (James Mill and his son, John Stuart Mill, were the first and most famous) became the master spirit of his age. In his very fine book on Bentham (1983), Ross Harrison says that "to a large extent the Benthamite state has come to pass: for better or worse, the Benthamite state is our state."

The Benthamite state has its detractors, of whom John Rawls is the most recent and now, following the collapse of Marxism, the most influential. Rawls' main point is that the
Benthamite state does not do enough to protect the rights of minorities and the disadvantaged and Rawls is right. It is not entirely clear, however, how the structure of the Benthamite state--which is the state we've got--should or can be modified to guarantee for all time that the greatest happiness of the greatest number is not practically and therefore politically inconsistant with the greatest possible happiness of all.

Slavery was implicitly recognized in the U.S. constitution and we fought a desperate and bloody war (costing us at least 2% of the population) over the principle (now clear in retrospect) that the rights of minorities cannot be trumped by the rights of majorities. The 14th amendment to the U.S. constitution now guarantees due process and equal protection of the laws to everyone. As our subsequent history has taught us, however, such constitutional guarantees or rights are empty so long as the political will to enforce them is lacking.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tristan & The Wasteland: A Foot-Note

Near the beginning of T.S. Eliot's Wasteland, two quotations from Tristan And Isolde are used to bracket some cryptic lines about a young woman and a hyacinth garden. Here is how it goes:

Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein Irisch Kind,
Wo weilest du?

'You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
'They called me the hyacinth girl.'
--Yet when we came back,late, from the hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Oed' und leer das Meer.

The first lines ("Fresh blows the wind/ Homeward bound/ My Irish girl/ Where are waiting?") occur at the beginning of Wagner's opera, as Tristan's ship is bringing Isolde back from Ireland to Cornwall, to marry King Marke, Tristan's uncle and stepfather. One of the sailors is singing this song, which Isolde (an Irish princess) can only hear with bitterness, having fallen in love with Tristan--who has, almost unbeknownst to himself, fallen love with her. His efforts to resist are thwarted by the intentions of others, beginning with Isolde who asks him to seal a pact of atonement with her since they both have crimes to atone for (don't ask me to explain). Isolde, in her desperation, really intends to poison them both and Tristan, guessing her intention, agrees to drink with her. Her handmaid, Brangwen, doesn't like this idea and gives them a love potion instead of poison. As you might expect, the effects are the same; it just takes a little longer.

Naturally, these two adulterers are discovered. Tristan is mortally wounded and carried off to his home island by a faithful friend and retainer. He thinks that Isolde will come to heal his wound and keeps asking if her ship can be seen coming into the harbor. "Empty and barren the sea," says the lookout. We never hear what happened to Isolde; no doubt she drinks that poisonous draught. Tristan, happily self-deceived, dies dreaming not only that Isolde has come to heal him but that King Marke has followed her in order to forgive them both.

The question is--I invite comments--what is the connection between Eliot's lines about the hyacinth garden and girl, and Wagner's opera?

Here is what I think:

Eliot's lines, bracketed as they are by those lines from Tristan would seem to be about impotence and failure. The phrase "heart of light" also occurs in a later poem, "Burnt Norton", which is about possibilities never realized, a rose- garden that was never entered, children that were never born. Eliot's own marriage was a disaster. "Empty and barren the sea." Why the lover (so to speak) in these lines is looking helplessly into "the heart of light, the silence" instead of at his hyacinth girl is anybody's guess. Wagner's tragic opera is about passion, betrayal, delusion on a grand scale; Eliot's lovers seem diminished by the implied comparison.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Wagner's Anti-Romance: Parsifal

Combine equal parts of superstition and sanctimony and what do you get? A loathsome and possibly toxic cocktail known as a Parsifal. Having shown us how cold and merciless Heaven could be in Tannhauser and Lohengrin, and given us a great romance, i.e. a tale of love, sex and violence, Tristan and Isolde, oh yes and the intellectual confusion of The Ring, Wagner must have thought he had something to atone for; perhaps he also thought he might be losing his audience. But what do I know? Nietzsche hated it as the Mt. Everest of hypocrisy (not his exact words) but thought the music sublime, which I guess it is. No doubt the superstitious and sanctimonious Germans of Bismark's new Reich found it intoxicating.

How I wish Saul Bellow's Herzog had finished his great work on Romanticism and Christianity!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Nietzsche, Romance and Christianity

OK, so a romance is a tale of love, sex and violence; why is romance such a large part of romanticism? Why does the great change in the uses of subjectivity (and not just in the arts but in philosophy as well) that I am defining as the essence of the romantic revolution coincide with the rise of the romance as a popular art form? Well, here is what Nietzsche had to say; it is the best answer to my question that I know of.

The passions become evil and insidious and they are considered evil and insidious. Thus Christianity has succeeded in turning Eros and Aphrodite--great powers, capable of idealization--into hellish goblins... In themselves the sexual feelings, like those of pity and adoration, are such that one human being gives pleasure to another human being through his delight; one does not encounter such beneficent arrangements too frequently in nature. And to slander just such a one and corrupt it through bad conscience! To associate the procreation of man with bad conscience!

In the end this transformation of Eros into a devil wound up as a comedy: gradually the "devil" Eros became more interesting to men than all the angels and saints, thanks to the whispering and the secret-mongering of the Church in all erotic matters: this had the effect, right into our own time, of making the love story the only real interest shared by ALL circles--in an exaggeration which would have been incomprehensible in antiquity and which will yet be laughed at someday....

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Wagner's Tristan and Isolde

I want to take back what I said about about this opera some time ago. Tristan And Isolde is certainly one of the great romantic operas. I'm not going to discuss it in detail here or now; if you care about great music and great opera--or if you want to understand the meaning of 'romantic', you should acquire the DVD in one way or another and watch it.

(Someone remarked, recently, that Wagner's music is all very well but the librettos are "stupid."
Name-calling is not an acceptable form of criticism. Whatever you make think about Wagner, he was not a stupid man. The operas I've just been discussing are brilliant works of art--even The Ring, which I don't care for and find incoherent on its own terms. Whatever its faults, it is not stupid.)

What is a 'romance'? As I remarked some time ago, a romance in medieval times was a story written in French, a romance language, i.e. a language based on the language of Rome. These romances acquired a certain character which is exemplified in a remark by a very proper, very moral English humanist of the late 16th century, Roger Ascham: profane tales, he called them, of "bawdry and open manslaughter," unfit for Christian consumption. Well, there you have it: a romance is a profane tale of love, sex and violence. It is a long way from the medieval romances to the new found subjectivity of romantic poetry and fiction in the 19th century.

Tales of love, sex and violence will never lose their popular appeal. It was the genius of Wagner to take the ancient materials of myth and legend and use them for his own modern purposes. Tannhauser is a critique of contemporary sexual hypocrisy. Both Tannhauser and Lohengrin attack Chritianity at its roots by showing us "the injustice of the skies." I'm still not sure I understand what The Flying Dutchman is all about but I took it in with rapt attention nevertheless. The tragedy of Tristan and Isolde seems timeless. I have still not seen Parsifal.

Here is the poem by Yeats, "The Cold Heaven" (published in 1914) that I referred to earlier:

The Cold Heaven

Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that or this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?

Friday, August 1, 2008

'romantic' and 'cynic'

Looking back at some of the stuff I've said about the words 'romantic' and 'romanticism' I feel slightly ashamed. So superficial! And while it is true that these words were coined after the fact by literary historians trying to get a handle on the way the mentality of western Europe had changed in the early 19th century (none of the poets we call 'romantic' now would have used that word in talking about themselves or their work. I don't think Wordsworth ever uses it in his "Preface" to the Lyrical Ballads that he and Coleridge had planned to jointly publish), that doesn't mean we should discard them; what would we use instead? What would I use? I call The Flying Dutchman a romantic image and the young woman, Senta, who falls in love with it a romantic. That seems right, does it not? What other word should I use?

Romantic poets, so-called, use the pronoun 'I' in a way that none of the poets that preceded them would have done. "I wandered lonely as a cloud...." says Wordsworth... Or Blake:

I travel'd thro' a Land of Men,
A land of Men & Women too,
And heard & saw such dreadful things
As cold Earth wanderers never knew....


As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy....

'Romanticism' is the word we use to describe the revolution in the uses of subjectivity that occurred sometime around the end of the 18th and the early years of the 19th.

The romantics were idealists; they believed in truth and beauty and justice. Wordsworth welcomed the French Revolution, before it went sour.

The word 'cynic' has a very different history, and very different uses, but it enters our modern vocabulary at about the same time as the romantic revolution in the uses of subjectivity.

The original Cynics composed a philosophical school or sect in the Hellenistic era, after the deaths of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, and before the rise of Christianity. They regarded themselves as the only true followers of Socrates. They thought and taught that virtue is the only good and that none of the goods prized by the Greek and Roman elites--wealth, power, fame--were goods at all but vicious shams and delusions. The only goods are honesty, integrity, and--a modern word for which there was no ancient equivalent--authenticity. They adopted lives of voluntary poverty and went about teaching the poor. The ancient philosophical and literary elites regarded them with scorn and, since they had the power, were able to define them on their own terms which may be why we don't really know very much about them. They were called Cynics, from the Greek 'kunakos' or dog-like, by those who despised them and the name stuck. It may be that Christianity made them irrelevant for they disappeared sometime in the second or third century A.D. And then the word 'cynic' essentially died, existing only the lexicons written by their enemies.

Now here is something strange: sometime in the early 19th century, the word 'cynic' got dusted off and came back into use, not as the name of a philosophical school, but as the name of someone who disbelieves in the very possibility of honesty, integrity, authenticity. He or she might agree with the ancient cynics that these are the highest virtues, but deny that anyone actually practices them. And this revival of the word 'cynic' happened at about the same time as the romantic revolution.

Romanticism and (modern) cynicism, are polar opposites it seems to me. One can't be a romantic and a cynic at the same time. Is that right? What do you think?

The Flying Dutchman As Romantic Image

Elsa (in Lohengren) has already dreamed of just such a knight and fallen in love with him well before she meets him. So much for dreams! Senta, the captain's daughter in The Flying Dutchman has fallen in love with his portrait and his story, before she meets him. Falling in love with an image, actual or dreamed, is a romantic trope--is it not? I'm trying to think of instances but all I can think of are some lines by Yeats:

What portion in the world can the artist have
Who has awakened from the common dream
But dissipation and despair?

And then there is Desdemona, in Othello, who falls in love with him because of the romantic tale he tells about his own life.

Anyway, Senta's father meets the Dutchman at a nearby anchorage and corrupted by the treasure his ship is carrying, sells his daughter to him. He has no idea who he is. The Dutchman (he has no other name) asks him if he will take him home with him; then he asks if he can live with him as part of his family; then, when he learns that the Captain has a daughter, he pulls from his pocket a handful of pearls and other gems and asks for the daughter's hand in marriage. And the Captain, with a covetous grin and gleam in his eye, says it's a deal.

Here I must digress, You all know the story but here it is: the Dutchman's ship, some centuries ago, had been trying to round Cape Horn and, repeatedly twarted by contrary winds, had sworn to keep trying for all eternity if necessary. Satan heard his prayer and cursed him and his ship to sail the seas forever, or until he found a woman who would be true to him till death should them part. Every seven years he is allowed to go ashore to seek such a wife. Every seven years he has tried--and failed. Desperate, he has been trying to end his life but without success. Even pirates flee from him when they find out how he is. Now he fears that only the extinction of the world will end his misery.

When the Dutchman enters the Captain's house, Senta recognizes him from his picture--her dream suddenly becomes reality--and agrees to marry him. But there is a difficulty. Unbeknownst to all, she has already promised to marry a local boy, Erik, a professional hunter. When Erik hears what's going on, he comes to plead with Senta. The Dutchman overhears this conversation and says that's it, I'm outa here.

As the Dutchman is returning to his ship, Senta throws herself into the sea and swims after him. He grabs her, they both sink out of sight, the ship sinks also and that is the end of the story.
Be careful what you wish for.

What attracted Wagner to this story? I'm still thinking about this....