Saturday, November 29, 2008

Shelley's OZYMANDIAS: A Romantic Poem?

Some of you may find my question a little odd: Shelley is a 'romantic' poet, therefore Ozymandias is romantic poem. As you probably know, things aren't that simple. So let's look at the poem:


I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

This would seem to be a simple, straightforward, unproblematical poem, and it would be if it weren't for one small, grammatical glitch--a slight ambiguity--which I shall get to shortly. What the poem seems to be saying--and is, in part--is pretty much what the Old Testament says, in Ecclesiastes: all is vanity. The paths of glory lead but to the grave. Anyone can come up with other such deep and traditional apothegms.

Now for the grammatical glitch. We tend to take the grammar of the stuff we read for granted, unless it happens to go seriously wrong. This reading habit, and others which are easily acquired from a steady diet of journalistic prose, can be dysfunctional (there must be a better word) when one is reading poetry. Poetry may pack several meanings into a few words, thereby putting pressure on grammar and syntax, whereas journalistic prose is diffuse, spreading its meanings and ideas across many.

The glitch in this poem occurs with the verb "survive": is it transitive or intransitive--meaning, does it or does it not, 'take' an object? Or both? Well, it can't be intransitive because then the clause, "The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed" would be left dangling, uselessly. So "survive" has to have, as its object, the words "hand" and "heart": the hand of the sculptor, the heart of Ozymandias. The subject of the verb is "passions", naturally, i.e. the passions written all over this (partially) shattered visage with its "frown/And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command" which is all that's left of both Ozymandius and the nameless artist who carved it. Who carved it knowing that this is how Ozymandias wanted to look; it is how he thought a king should look. But Ozymandias didn't understand that this is the look of a man who cares for nothing but power.

The fact that anyone who sees that visage now can tell at a glance what Ozymandias was really all about tells us something important: that ancient sculptor read the face of Ozymandias just as we do, ironically, and he "stamped" it, i.e. carved it into this block of stone in a way that both pleased the king and deceived him: Ozymandias did not understand that he was being mocked by a man whom he thought of (if he thought at all) as a mere lackey, a worm. Now, thanks to that worm, we can look at this face and see him for what he was. That sneer of cold command, which perfectly fits his arrogant and empty boasting, is all that's left of him--like the smile of the Cheshire cat in Alice In Wonderland. Here, thinks Shelley, something worth knowing: all these bastards are the same; human nature doesn't change. Art lasts longer than power. To Shelley that annonymous artist is a kindred spirit.

It is, in one way, a curiously unromantic poem: the idea that human nature is everywhere and at all times the same is not romantic but neo-classic. Samuel Johnson (see his great poem, "The Vanity Of Human Wishes") would have approved. On the other hand, the idea that Art is timeless is new. I think. It was the romantics who began to spell the word 'art' with an upper-case 'A' and turned artists into heroes.

Should you not be satisfied with my reading of Shelley's poem, consider the following bit (which I found recently on another blog):

The theme of this poem is the passing of human glory. The once great king, Ozymandias, modeled on an Egyptian Pharaoh, ruled domineeringly over a great empire. In his own lifetime he had a huge statue of himself erected to impress his subjects, who must have been then numerous in this part of the world, but it is now desert. The colossal statue has likewise been wasted by the passing of time, so that of the once bustling imperial scene nothing now remains but wreckage and sand–“Sic transit gloria mundi,” said the Latins–thus passes the glory of the world.... The imagery of the poem lies in the description of the desert scene. It is a vivid description, with one dramatic word after another that punches over the message: “antique…vast…shattered…frown…sneer…stamped…despair…colossal…wreck…boundless.” Such vocabulary builds up a powerful effect, climaxing in the eleventh line, dying away again in the return of the last three lines to the desert, where the poem began. In the beginning there is nature. Then man comes to “strut and fret his hour upon the stage,” but finally all that is left is – nature. Deserted nature at that. “Despair!” is indeed the key-word of the poem. Nothing in the 14 lines gives the hope that human affairs have any final meaning. The most that can be said, Shelley seems to tell us, is that human affairs can be impressive and mighty for as long as they last, but–as he clearly suggests through the inscription on the pedestal of the broken statue–they never do last.
Ozymandias was indeed once great. His ambition to command as King of Kings went well beyond reasonable bounds. Like Solomon in the Old Testament, he was driven to recognize that “all is vanity” (Eccles. 1:2), but even if he failed to achieve anything that lasted, nevertheless he affirmed by the striving of his “works” that there is more to life than just living out one’s life-span in material comfort with social security.
So against the complacent materialism of a modern world shutting out God and closing down human beings, the Romantics score heavily. Where they fail is that their affirmation of the Something More is not usually hooked to any reality tougher than their own instincts and feelings that there must be Something More. But supposing there is not? Feelings alone are not enough. And that is why Ozymandias finishes in despair. He sensed that human greatness had a meaning, and he lived greatly as though it did, but he never found that meaning. And so for Shelley there seems to remain nothing but the desert, forerunner of T. S. Eliot’s famous “Wasteland.”
Therefore the Romantics correctly see that sick modern man is making life into a poor affair. They protest, eloquently. They are right to protest. But unless they diagnose the sickness as being the cutting out of God, and unless they re-anchor their instincts and feelings in the greatness of the true God who invites all men to Heaven, then a few generations later the Romantics’ beautiful “feelings” and noble “instincts” and great “longings” will be cast out as so much kidology. Man lives by Truth. He demands truth to live by. And that is why the 20th century, however much it may have “longed” to be able to continue “feeling good” about life, saw a strong anti-Romantic reaction.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

LES MISERABLES And The Meaning of 'Romantic'

I remarked in an earlier post that in romantic poetry the pronoun 'I' has weight, power, authority as never before. Or, to say the same thing a little differently, poets before Blake did not think of themselves as actors in their poems or that the poems they were writing were 'about' themselves as well as things; they wrote about things and people in an objective world independent of themselves. But when poetry becomes subjective it must also sound authentic; that pronoun 'I' has to be more than a place-holder. It is not enough for the poet-as-actor-in-the poem to talk about his or her feelings and thoughts; the poem itself must enact or dramatize them. If a poem is any good, it authenticates itself--like any other work of art. And how do they do that? Well, that's the enduring mystery that artists--and critics, if they are any good--never stop thinking about. (Critics used to think there were rules and they tried to apply them to Shakespeare's plays--which trampled them into the dust.)

Hugo the story-teller is a tremendous presence in Les Miserables. Sometimes he takes on the role of historian-- of his own times, one who is very much engaged: a partisan historian who is also something of a scientist, drilling down to get at the facts, down through the mud and geological strata deposited by the various attempts of right-thinking society to obscure or obliterate the vital currents of hot magma let loose by the great volcanic eruptions of '89 and '93 and Napoleon. Paris, France, like the Revolution, are shown to be a work in progress. Paris changes before our eyes. The maze of streets that Jean Valjean, with Cosset, lose Javert in, no longer exists, we are told, but has been replaced by something more 'modern.' This historian may take us on an extended tour of the battle of Waterloo or the sewers of Paris and these tours are always relevant. Do we really need to know quite so much? Do we need to know, for instance, how successive governments beginning (at least) in medieval times have rebuilt or extended the sewer system? That successive 19th century regimes have extended the system by 226 kilometers? That by dumping its shit into the rivers and the sea instead of using it as fertilizer, as in China, France is wasting half-a-billion Francs a year? "With this five hundred million you could cover a quarter of our budget outlays. Man is so smart that he prefers to chuck this five hundred million in the gutter. It is the people's very substance that is being carried away, here drop by drop, there in gushing torrents, by the miserable vomiting of our sewers into the rivers and copious vomiting of our rivers into the ocean. Every time our cesspools hiccup, it costs us a thousand francs. This has two results: the soil is impoverished and the water is contaminated." This is a good sample of Hugo's prose, colloquial, 'earthy' as we say, and about as close as he can get to the language of the people he is writing about. The point is clear: their lives and talents are treated--wasted-- by this society and its laws as if they were no better than shit.

The vast, labyrinthian Paris sewer-system is thus a possible metaphor for the underground world that Jean Valjean has been trying to escape from for most of the novel. And this is the inky-black world where he, his future son-in-law, Marius (slung, unconscious across his shoulders), and Thenardier, the villain of this fantastic and improbable tale meet. And wonder of wonders, it is Thenardier (the Minotaur of this labyrinth) who has the key to the grate that blocks their escape and--for completely villainous reasons--uses it to let them out. Where--yet another fateful meeting--they fall into the hands of Javert.
That's how things work in such wildly improbable, larger-than-life tales as Les Miserables and Homer's Odyssey. That's what makes them 'romantic.'

One final note: it is appropriate and not the least bit improbable that Thenardier should escape, finally, to America and become a slave trader. Hugo thought we deserved him. His two nameless boys, aged seven and five, long since abandoned, are last seen in the Luxembourg Gardens eating a bit of bread that they have managed to snatch from the water before one of the swans could get it.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Les Miserables (2)

So, romantic epic or an epic romance? What's the difference? Why does it matter? Right names matter. An epic is not the same thing as a romance. A romance is a love story, which Les Miserables is not. What is an epic? First of all the epic is an invention of the ancient Greeks, specifically Homer. The Greek work 'epos' means that which is spoken or sung in words. The first epics, the Iliad and Odyssey recounted the heroic deeds of great men and were probably sung or chanted to music by professional poet-singers. The Iliad is the first tragedy; the Odyssey is harder to describe. It is the story of the strange and wonderful adventures of one of the warriors of the Iliad, Odysseus, who, following the fall of Troy, just wants to go home and never have to fight or be a hero again. Unfortunately, he has managed to offend one of the gods, Neptune, who thereupon becomes his implacable enemy. Sound familiar? Sounds like Jean Valjean and Javert does it not? Javert is not a god, to be sure; the god, in this case is the Law and Javert is merely one of its honest, honorable and uncorruptible servants--like the Gatekeeper in the great parable at the heart of Kafka's Trial. But the Law, in Hugo's novel as in Kafka's tale, is indistinguishable from Maistre's: if order is all you care about, anything goes.

Jean Valvjean has no home: that's what he is trying to find or create. For a time he thinks he has found one as Father Madeleine, mayor of Montreuil-Sur-Mer, a town that had had no future until he comes along and gives it one by reinventing its single industry. For a time all is well. No one thinks to inquire into the past of their great benefactor. And no one

One day, Jean Valjean hears about some poor bastard who is being accused of being Jean Valjean; if he (the poor bastard) can't prove that he isn't Jean Valjean, he will end his days as a galley slave. Jean Valjean responds heroically. As he sees it, he must either leave the poor bastard to his fate, or abandon the people of this town, whom he has saved from abject poverty, by obeying the dictates of the categorical imperative that his conscience is now in the process of making its own. After an inner struggle that turns his hair white, he decides to save the poor bastard at the expense of the town; utility, the principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, is considered only be rejected.

So once more, Jean Valjean is on the lam with Javert and the Law in hot pursuit. He is caught, escapes (no one, including the author) knows quite how, buries the money he has made in business, is retaken, returned to the galleys, escapes again (some of the details are supplied, this time, but much is left unexplained), makes his way to Paris (with money, acquired who knows how), disappears. All of which happens with lightning speed, just a few pages, which is very unnusual in this novel which is now about one-quarter of the way to its conclusion, the death and burial of the hero.

The Iliad ends with the burial of Hector, Breaker of Horses, but this is not a conclusion; the war will continue, as it must, because that is the will of the Gods--an arbitrary and capricious lot, as Homer makes perfectly clear. At the end of Les Miserables, the reader knows that the war for liberty and equality will continue, as it must--not because it is the will of God, as Hugo believes, but because that is the will of an increasingly well-informed people (as Hugo also believes).

The warriors of the Iliad know what they are fighting for: by being in the forefront of battle, they justify their privileged positions back home. The hero of this book is not fighting for anything but the right to be left alone; the battle that's being fought--over his head, so to speak--is Hugo's (and that of the liberal left, generally) for liberty (the rights set forth in our Bill of Rights, for example) and equality (equality before the law and equality of opportunity).

Since Jean Valjean himself is apolitical, what made the political bite of this book so painful that the Catholic Church wanted to have every copy confiscated and burned (and would have if it had the power)? What I think the Church found objectionable in this novel was the role of the narrator--Hugo--not the tale he is telling: the teller, not the tale. Hugo is very busy throughout the novel telling the reader what it all means; you would never know that Les Miserables is 'about' the on-ward march of history toward the destined goal of democracy if Hugo hadn't been constantly telling you so.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Victor Hugo's Romantic Epic, LES MISERABLES (1862)

This a a huge book and not just because of the number of pages it contains (1195 not including notes, in the Modern Library edition from which I have just emerged, blinking my eyes, as if from a vast cavern); it has a huge subject, post-revolutionary France (or Europe or the World), or: the human condition and the progress of the eighteenth century's enlightenment project in the nineteenth. (Whew! What a mouthfull.) I don't suppose many of you have read it, or will (here I am, at 77, just getting round to it) which is too bad because it is, as I now realize, the one book that just about says it all on the subject of modernity--or about as a much as anyone could have said on this subject in 1862. If there is one book that Joseph de Maistre. the great enemy of modernity, would have hated and feared beyond any other, this is it.

Size or heft, back then, was no deterrent. "In Paris, bookstores sold every copy within three days. Factory workers pooled their money to buy shared copies. Conservatives denounced a book that represented a criminal as a hero. Pope Pius IX placed Les Miserables on the Church's Index of proscribed books, and copies were publicly burned in Spain. In Paris and all around the world, Les Miserables solidified Hugo's reputation as the champion of the poor and the enemy of tyranny. The novel was devoured by everyone from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to soldiers on both sides in the American Civil War." Dickens and Scott had had that sort transatlantic popular readership as well.

Some other big books were appearing at around this time:Moby Dick was published in 1851, The Origin of Species in 1859. What do these books have in common? They posit an entirely natural world in which god is irrelevant. Schopenhauer's World As Will And Idea(1819) which eliminates God altogether, was beginning to be taken seriously at this time. None of these writers would ever be as popular with the masses as Hugo, and especially Les Miserables. Why? Because Hugo, in this book at least, never swerves from his belief in a providential God.

Les Miserables is permeated by a philosophy of history. History, it says repeatedly, is the same as Providence which is the same as destiny, is on the side of enlightenment and democracy. What looks like chance or randomness in history is really the will of God with his thumb on the scales. So to speak. Such a view of history is very convenient for a novelist, a 19th century novelist at any rate: the reader can feel that the coincidences, accidents, chances that knit the novel together, connecting high and low, good and evil, great and small, and moves the grand design of the plot along to its appointed destiny is not a mere fabrication of the novelist's but a figure in the larger carpet of history. When the plot connects people who would never in the real world connect, and when wonderful things happen as a result, it is not novelistic artifice or sleight of hand, not a mere deus ex machina, but a reflection of how things actually are. Yet Hugo, as a passionate prophet of modern enlightenment, also believed in modern science as its agent. I don't know how it is for other religions, but modern science is enlightening in ways that are not only incompatible with Catholic orthodoxy, as Maistre understood very well, but probably also with Hugo's vague faith in divine providence.

Victor Hugo died in 1885. He could never have imagined that the worst was yet to come, that Joseph de Maistre's Executioner would come into his own in the 20th century, that the lights would go out in 1914 and stay out for more than 30 years (and a lot longer than that in Russia and China.) He knew that explosions like the French Revolution create demons, as supernovas create metals, but neither he nor anyone else could have predicted Mussolini or Hitler or Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot. He thought that the energies released or generated--the fears, hopes, hatreds--by that revolution would work themselves out in the 19th century. No such luck.

When we first meet the hero of this novel, Jean Valjean at the house of the superlatively wise and good Bishop of Digne, Monseignor Bienvenu, he is a partially literate peasant who has spent the last nineteen years as a convict and a galley slave. It is the year of Waterloo, 1815. He is in his early forties. Somehow or other during those 19 years, he had managed to learn how to read, but he is still an inarticulate and savage animal. That same year, he pops up in another town and invents a process that changes its single industry from a marginal business to a profitable one. The town, enriched by his industry and good works, makes him its Mayor. Having literally reinvented himself, he is no longer a virtually illiterate peasant but an educated man of the world.

I know of no other novel of that century whose hero is so very nearly superhuman. Like Edward in King Lear, Jean Valjean can appear or disappear at will. He has the strength four ordinary men and perfect presence of mind--he never loses his cool, no matter how desperate his situation. He can climb walls like Spider Man and get out of tight spots like Houdini. His conscience, or moral imagination, is superhuman as well thanks to the shock of his encounter with Bishop Bienvenu, a man whose character--a cross between Socrates and Jesus--Hugo has devoted the first 50 pages of the book developing. The action of the novel is determined at key points by this conscience.

Why epic, why romance? Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

President Obama

In his moment of triumph (the first of many, perhaps) the other night, Mr. Obama alluded tellingly and movingly to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as he was giving credit to all those millions of annonymous people (of which I was one) "who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth." What, or how much, should we make of this implied comparison between the Civil War and the Bush presidency (for which Mr. McCain has taken the rap)? Well, had the Confederacy won that war, the Constitution would have been amended beyond recognition afterwards, and democracy would have become a losing if not a lost cause. Lincoln was right about that. You can't say the same for a McCain victory in this last election. What we can say, though, is that for eight years the Bush administration has, for the most "patriotic" of motives, conducted the most sustained assault on the Constitution that we have ever seen. Patriotism, said Samuel Johnson, is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

The phrase "government of the people, by the people, for the people" naturally raises the question: Who are the people and what do they expect of government? Should their expectations always be satisfied? Are there times when Presidents (or Kings) ought to be telling the people, their putative masters, be careful what you wish for? Well, of course the answer is yes. What many people mainly want is happiness as defined by Hobbes (see my posting, 2-2-08) but a state that gives itself over to liberty and the pursuit of happiness on these terms will soon find itself with a happy few on top and a resentful multitude down below.

These reflections were occasioned, in part, by a paragraph in a book I have been reading--for the first time!--Les Miserables (1862) by Victor Hugo. Hugo, here, is talking about the 'ethics' of success.

We live in a somber society. How to get ahead, succeed--that is the lesson that trickles down, drop by drop from the overriding corruption on high.
We might say, by the way, that success is pretty awful. Its deceptive resemblance to merit has people fooled. For the hordes, success looks just like supremacy. Success, that dead ringer for talent, has a dupe, history. Only Juvenal and Tacitus grumble about it. In our time, a more or less official philosophy has entered into service as Success's handmaiden, wears its livery and works its antechamber. Succeed: That's the whole idea. Prosperity presupposes capability. Win the lottery and you are a clever man. The winner is revered. Be born with a silver spoon in your mouth, that's all that counts. Be lucky and the rest will fall into place. Be fortunate and you'll be thought great.... All that glitters IS gold.

Does that sound familiar? Isn't that the siren song and rhythm from Republican woofers that never ceases to pound our minds and sensibilities? But liberty and the pursuit of happiness is but a part of the American dream--and, naturally, the American nightmare; equality, the other part, is what we don't hear so much about, or haven't for a while, though it is generally one of the great preoccupations of the Democratic party in all its deliberations. McCain poured scorn on the idea that one purpose of taxation is to spread the wealth around. There we have the great difference between these two parties--these two halves of the American constitution and the American soul: Liberty AND equality. If liberty is all that matters, we have people going around equating taxation and theft, and claiming that we deserve our fate, good or bad. If we happen to be lucky we deserve our luck and the wealth that comes with it; if unlucky, too bad--you probably deserved it. You know how it goes in Republican minds: the rich deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor. As for equality, well, we have seen and learned from the terrible experiences of the 20th century: when equality is all the matters, liberty disappears and life for many becomes poor, nasty, brutish and short. That is the brush that McCain was trying to paint Obama with. But communism is dead and with it the idea that perfect equality justifies the destruction of liberty. We now live in an imperfect world where liberty and equality must always exist in an uneasy relationship with each other, and all we know is we have to have as much of both as is consistent with anyone's having any.