Thursday, December 24, 2009

Joseph de Maistre and The Magic Mountain (2)

Here are some lines from The Petersburg Dialogues (1821) that will give you some sense of the power and clarity of de Maistre's mind (if you accept his assumptions, you have to accept his conclusions):

Do you realize, gentlemen, the source of this flood of insolent doctrines which unceremoniously judge God and call him to account for his orders? They come to us from that great phalanx we call "intellectuals" and whom we have not been able in this age to keep in their place, which is a secondary one. At other times there were very few intellectuals, and a very small minority of this small minority were ungodly; today one sees nothing but "intellectuals"; it is a profession, a crowd, a nation; and among them the already unfortunate exception has become the rule. On every side they have usurped a limitless influence, and yet if there is one thing certain in this world, it is to my mind that it is not for science to guide men. Nothing necessary for this is entrusted to science. One would have to be out of one's mind to believe that God has charged the academies with teaching what he is and what we owe him. It rests with the prelates, the nobles, the great officers of state to be the depositaries and guardians of the saving truths, to teach nations what is bad and what good, what true and what false in the moral and spiritual order: others have no right to reason on this kind of matter. They have the natural sciences to amuse them, what are they complaining about? As for those who talk or write to deprive a people of a national belief, they should be hung like housebreakers.... What folly it was to grant everyone freedom of speech! This is what has ruined us. The so-called philosophers have all a certain fierce and rebellious pride which does not compromise with anything; they detest without exception every distinction they themselves do not enjoy; they find fault in every authority; they hate anything above them. If they are allowed, they will attack everything, even God, because he is master. See if it is not the same men who have attacked both kings and the God who established them....

Now, read these lines from The Magic Mountain. The Jesuit, Naphta, is speaking:

All the pains of the Church, even the stake, even excommunication, were inflicted to save the soul from everlasting damnation . . . . any system of pains and penalties which is not based upon belief in a hereafter is simply a bestial stupidity. . . as for the degradation of humanity, the history of its course is precisely synchronous with the growth of the bourgeois spirit. Renaissance, age of enlightenment, the natural sciences and economics of the nineteenth century, have left nothing undone or untaught which could forward this degradation. Modern astronomy, for example, converted the earth, the center of the All, the lofty theater of the struggle between God and the Devil for the possession of a creature burningly coveted by each, into an indifferent little planet, and thus—at least for the present—put an end to the majestic cosmic position of man . . . . There is no such thing as pure knowledge. The validity of the Church's teaching on the subject of science, which can be summed up by the phrase of Saint Augustine, Credo, ut intelligam, ["I believe in order that I may know and understand"], is absolutely incontrovertible. Faith is the vehicle of knowledge, intellect secondary. Pure science is a myth. A belief, a given conception of the universe, an idea—in short, a will, is always in existence; which it is the task of the intellect to expound and demonstrate. It comes down every time to the quod erat demonstrandum ["that which was to be demonstrated," a phrase traditionally used at the conclusion of a geometrical proof.] Even the conception of evidence itself . . . contains a strong element of voluntarism. [The great medieval philosophers] were agreed that what is false in theology cannot be true in philosophy. We can, if you like, leave theology out of the argument; but a humanity, a cultural conception, which refuses to recognize that what is philosophically false cannot be scientifically true, is not worthy the name. The accusation of the Holy Office against Galileo stated that his thesis was philosophically absurd. A more crushing arraignment could not well be . . . . Whatever profits man, that is the truth . . . He is the measure of all things, and his welfare is the sole and single criterion of truth. Any theoretic science which is without practical application to man's salvation is as such without significance, we are commanded to reject it.. . . Let me assure you that mankind is about to find its way back to this point of view. Mankind will soon perceive that it is not the task of true science to run after godless understanding . . . it is childish to accuse the Church of having defended darkness rather than light. She did well . . . to chastize as unlawful all unconditioned striving after 'pure' knowledge of things—such striving, that is, without reference to the spiritual, without bearing on man's salvation; for it is this unconditioned, this a-philosophical natural science that always has led and ever will lead men into darkness. . . . What is called liberalism—individualism, the humanistic conception of citizenship—was the product of the Renaissance. But the fact leaves me entirely cold, realizing as I do that your great heroic age is a thing of the past, its ideals defunct, or at least lying at their latest gasp, while the feet of those who will deal them the coup de grace are already before the door. You [Settembrini, the liberal humanist, to whom Naphta is talking] call yourself a revolutionist. But you err in holding that future revolutions will issue in freedom. In the past five hundred years the principle of freedom has outlived its usefulness. An educational system which still conceives itself as a child of enlightenment, with criticism as its chosen medium of instruction, the liberation and cult of the ego, the solvent of forms of life which are absolutely fixed—such a system may still for a time, reap an empty rhetorical advantage; but its reactionary character is, to the initiated, clear beyond any doubt. All educational organizations worthy of the name have always recognized what must be the ultimate and significant principle of pedagogy: namely the absolute mandate, the iron bond, discipline, sacrifice, the renunciation of the ego, the curbing of the personality . . . . Liberation and development of the individual are not the key to our age, they are not what our age demands. What it needs, what it wrestles after, what it will create—is Terror. . . .

And the bringer of this terror?

That power is evil, we know. But if the kingdom is to come, then it is necessary that the dualism between good and evil, between power and the spirit, here and hereafter, must be for the time abrogated to make way for a single principle . . . This is what I mean by the necesssity for the Terror.

But the standard-bearer?

Do you still ask? Is your liberalism still unaware of the existence of a school of thought which means the triumph of man over economics, and whose principles and aims precisely coincide with those of the kingdom of God? The Fathers of the Church called mine and thine pernicious words, and private property usurpation and robbery. They repudiated the idea of personal possessions, because according to divine and natural law, the earth is common to all men, and brings forth her fruits for the common good. They taught that avarice, a consequence of the Fall, represents the rights of property and is the source of private ownership. They were humane enough, anti-commercial enough, to feel that all commercial activity is a danger to the soul of man. They hated money and finance, and called the empire of capital fuel for the fires of hell. The fundamental economic principle that price is regulated by the law of supply and demand, they have always despised from the bottom of their hearts; and condemned taking advantage of chance as a cynical exploitation of a neighbor's need. Even more nefarious, in their eyes, was the exploitation of time; the monstrousness of receiving a premium for the passage of time—interest, in other words—and misusing to one's advantage and another's disadvantage a universal and God-given dispensation. . . They were revolted by the idea of the automatic increase of money; they regarded as usury every kind of interest-taking and speculation, and declared that every rich man is either a thief of the heir of a thief. Like Thomas Aquinas, they considered trade, pure and simple, buying and selling for profit, without altering or improving the product, a contemptible a contemptible occupation . . . . Now then: after centuries of disfavor these principles and standards are being resurrected by the modern movement of communism. The similarity is complete even to the claim for world-domination by international labor as against international industry and finance; the world-proletariat, which is today asserting the ideals of the Civitas Dei in opposition to the discredited and decadent standards of the capitalistic bourgeoisie. The dictatorship of the proletariat, the politico-economic means of salvation demanded by our age, does not mean domination for its own sake and in perpetuity; but rather in the sense of temporary abrogation, in the Sign of the Cross, of the contradiction between spirit and force; in the sense of overcoming the world by mastering it; in a transcendental, a transitional sense, in the sense of the Kingdom. The proletariat has taken up the task of Gregory the Great, his religious zeal burns within it, and as little as he may it withhold its hand from the shedding of blood. Its task is to strike terror into the world for the healing of the world, than man may finally achieve salvation and deliverance, and win back at length to freedom from law and distinction of classes, to his original status as child of God.

Thus Thomas Mann draws out, brilliantly, the logical consequences of de Maistre's totalitarian principles. But his great novel is not nearly finished; the chapter from which the foregoing selections have been taken—Of The City of God And Deliverance by Evil—occurs at mid-point. The preposterously regal personality, the incoherent Dionysius, Pieter Peeperkorn, has yet to appear—having appropriated the love of the hero's life. Like Naphta, he will take his own life—but not, like Naphta, in a frenzy of destructive dialectic, destructiveness for its own sake.

Naphta's suicide proves nothing; it dramatizes the great fact that the argument between liberal humanism and de Maistrian—or Marxist—totalitarianism (Settembrini and Naphta) has no rational outcome.This book provides no aid or comfort—none— to believers in Reason. There is no escape from the nightmares of history. History never proves anything. Hume was right: reason is and can only be the slave of the passions. That's why people and their states fight wars.

I know of no other book of its time, the period between the great wars, so prescient of the destructive frenzy to come.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Science And The Modern World: The Trouble With Physics

What is science? What is it about the modern—Western—world that has historically encouraged or at least permitted science and  scientific institutions to flourish? These are two different but related questions.

The best answer to the first question, just now, can be found in Lee Smolin's deep analysis of the String Theory movement which threatened for a time—roughly the last quarter of the 20th century— to turn the study of physics in the U. S. into a purely theoretical science. (See The Trouble With Physics, 2006) Physics is not a purely theoretical or a priori science like mathematics; at some point its equations must have solutions that lead to experimentally verifiable predictions about the way things behave in the real world. The inability of String Theory to produce such predictions was bound to be fatal to its pretensions. What's surprising is how long it took the international scientific community to conclude that that this particular emperor had no clothes.

This story that will be painfully familiar to at least some of those who fought in the other academic culture wars of that same period; certain features of the String Theory saga remind me, at least, of the way Post-modernism politicised liberal arts curriculums during those years. These very different ideologies had similar causes (too many Ph.D.'s, relentless pressure to publish—ready or not—and too few jobs) and produced similar power struggles. There is a fundamental difference between String Theory and Post-modernism, however: physics is a science and therefore (unlike the Humanities) has built-in methods for rationally adjudicating the claims of theories

Science is an open, public, democratic enterprise, an institution, with its own rules and its own egalitarian code of ethics. There are no hidden procedures or secret evidence or private languages. All evidence is public, open to all, all claims must be verifiable by any qualified inquirer, all experiments repeatable. This is not a complete answer to the question, What is science? but it's a start.

Notice what my second question implies about the relationship between science, or knowledge, and power: knowledge is not power, as Francis Bacon and others have claimed; it is those who have power who decide what counts as knowledge. The Soviet State tolerated the science of physics for its own state interests—it wanted nuclear weapons; it destroyed the science of biology when it came into conflict with Marxist ideology.

So long as the Church was powerful, it controlled what counted as knowledge; when it began to lose power, it lost its control of knowledge.

Power, in the modern world—or at least in the constitutional democracies of the modern world—is not concentrated in a single office or institution but spread around. Science can flourish under such conditions because its findings don't threaten the interests of all of the people all of the time; just some of the people, some of the time.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Joseph de Maistre and The Magic Mountain

Trying to be clear about the meaning of the word 'modernity', or at any rate what I myself thought it meant, I set down the following remarks in the Introduction to my book on Shakespeare, Shakespearean Questions (2007):

"A realist, like Machiavelli, Shakespeare had no illusions about the future. It would be, he knew, a world that hardly bothered any longer to pretend that the state has morals as well as interests; a world in which one necessarily renders unto Caesar what is Caesar’s—who leaves one in no doubt about what that is—while the question of what in this life belongs to God becomes harder and harder to answer; and ideas of a transcendent Good, or of Reason, disappear entirely. He could not have foreseen, though he might have guessed, that modernity would be characterized by a cacophony of different and sometimes incompatible gods, goods and rights; free markets, free elections, a free press; secular governments and societies; utilitarian politics, Machiavellian politicians, parliamentary democracies—and ‘authenticity’, a term which no longer refers, merely, to the provenance of certain documents or works of art but to a quality that the irresistible power of the corporate state and its innumerable institutions has forced us to demand and invent: what Marianne Moore calls “aplace for the genuine.” Shakespeare anticipated the concept of authenticity in Hamlet and Coriolanus, as he anticipated the concept of (modern) cynicism and embodied it in Iago, some hundreds of years before Europe caught up with him. Finally, we must include the deep premise of King Lear, which is also the premise of all scientific inquiry: nature is all.

"The world I have been referring to as ‘modern’ is the relatively safe and prosperous world that a fortunate few inhabit (temporarily perhaps) now: the modern, western or westernized world that the scientific revolution, the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment managed somehow or other to produce."

I knew when I wrote these words that I'd left out something huge, Germany, where Enlightenment ideas and assumptions were not generally acceptable in the 19th century, for obvious reasons: everyone knew what such ideas and assumptions had led to in France;
serious people in Germany throughout the 19th century—and well into the 20th—were more likely to be influenced by the totalitarian conservatism of Joseph de Maistre than by Voltaire or Rousseau. [See the essays on de Maistre that I posted in February, 2008.] It is easy to understand why this story is not well known: de Maistre, the arch-reactionary, is a scary thinker who puts the executioner and the inquisitor ahead of the legislatures and the courts; he despised democracy, science and "human rights;" he set his face against the entire liberal tradition, and he lost—or rather his cause, a totalitarian Church, lost; which doesn't quite explain why de Maistre has virtually disappeared from the history books, despite the fact that his ideas were still being taken seriously in Germany, between the wars: by the philosopher and theologian, Ernest Troelstch, for instance, and by a very great writer and novelist, Thomas Mann. One of most important characters, or voices, in his great novel—or allegory—The Magic Mountain, is based on de Maistre: it is the Jesuit, Naphta who speaks for and in the intransigent spirit of that radical and terrifying thinker. The other voice, with whom Naphta is locked in eternal combat, is that of the liberal humanist, Settembrini, who brilliantly but also somewhat predictably defends the ideas and values of the Enlightenment, and modernity, which for now at least seem to have won the day. It was not at all clear, in 1924, when Mann's novel was published, and it certainly would not have been clear to Mann himself, who or what—Naphta or Settembrini, de Maistre or America—would finally win out.

I call this novel an allegory and I make it sound like uninterrupted intellectual warfare of a kind that only academics or ideologues could possibly take pleasure in. It is richer and more various than that—though, admittedly, at 700 pages, too long. Nobody has time to read such long books, especially books written so long ago.

The events of the novel occur during the years preceding the great war. The hero of the book, Hans Castorp, is an intelligent young engineer from Hamburg. He comes to visit his cousin who is a patient at a TB sanitorium in Switzerland, but is himself diagnosed as tubercular and ends by staying there for seven years. These are, as it turns out, his formative years. His mind is formed by the arguments of Naphta and Settembrini who, also ill, are living nearby, and regard him as someone whose mind and soul are worth fighting over. Settembrini, at least, loves him like a son. Meanwhile he falls hopelessly in love with another patient, a married woman who eventually returns to Daghestan where she will, presumably, be destroyed by war and revolution. By 1914, his body cured—a rarity—his education complete, but lost and fit for nothing, with no idea what to do with himself, Mann sends him off to the trenches and leaves them there with a shrug; he too will in all probability, says the narrator, be destroyed.

This novel is about death, among other things: the death, above all, of European civilization as Mann had known it (he was born in 1875). For he knew that WW I was just the beginning, that the peace of 1918 was just an intermission.

I can see that I have not succeeded in showing why this is a book that everyone should read. I've actually read it twice.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Conventional, The Real and The Genuine

A convention is a thing agreed upon—perhaps by the relevant authorities, at a convention; or, perhaps by The People, tacitly. The U.S. constitution was hammered out in 1787 at a meeting or convention—a coming together— held in Philadelphia. There are conventions or rules, believe it or not, for various forms of violence. The Geneva Conventions are rules for the treatment of prisoners, worked out in Geneva in 1949; an earlier convention set rules for the way nations at war should conduct themselves. We have many conventions for the way we treat others in a vast array of social situations. Those who are ignorant of these conventions have no manners. Soliloquies on stage can only be overheard by the audience—that's a theatrical convention, which, like those of grammar or spelling or good manners, just happened, no one knows how. If you are a man or woman of your word, you will earn the respect of others—anywhere; if not, not. That's a convention, I suppose.

With the word 'conventional', things get stickier. Conventional behavior is behavior according to the relevant conventions, or agreements, or rules, or social norms; conventional ideas don't stray far from those that have been approved . . . by . . . the relevant authorities or experts; the same goes for conventional opinions, which are ready-made, so to speak, or off-the-shelf. Conventional expressions of feeling have been used so often as to become lifeless.

None of this is fresh or new or original—what I've just been saying is the conventional wisdom about conventionality. I have a point, however: this way of thinking has a history. According to my authority on all such matters, The Oxford English Dictionary, the word 'conventional' did not acquire these vaguely restrictive or oppressive implications until, approximately, the 1840s. In other words, it has not always been necessary to assume that society is, or may be, the enemy of sincerity and authenticity.
Now consider this sentence from Chekhov's "Lady With The Dog", which I quoted in my last essay:

"He had two lives: an apparent one, seen and known by all who needed to know it, full of conventional truth and conventional deceit, which perfectly resembled the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life that went on in secret." Gurov's secret life is his real, genuine life; his public life is merely the "shell" that hides and protects it. And he assumes that this public-private fault-line is universal—at least among those "cultivated" people who can afford to maintain it: everyone who is anyone is keeping up appearances in order to protect their real lives from . . . what? Exposure? And, though it is hard to be sure, Chekov seems, in this story at least, to endorse the idea of a public-private, appearance-reality, fault-line—with its corollary, universal deceit.

What mainly interests me here, and what I want to try to be clear about, is this use of the word 'conventional' as an adjective modifying 'truths' and 'deceits' so as to imply that there is no difference at all between those words: the artificial, or conventional, surface or facade of social life is theatrical; whether it is true or deceitful is irrelevant—only people who have never been in a theater before confuse art and life in plays or movies; only similarly unsophisticated people fail to understand that at certain levels of wealth and class, social life becomes essentially theatrical. That strikes me as a deeply cynical view of upper-class life, coming from a writer who is never cynical. What's going on here? It may be that what comes across as cynicism in English is not present in Russian, an accident of translation, though I doubt it. I know nothing about the Russian word that is being translated here as 'conventional' but it has to mean pretty much the same as the English word: that which has been agreed to, by those who have power, as the proper way to appear to behave.

Or maybe the word I'm looking for is 'paradoxical.' It is at least paradoxical that Gurov, after a life of conventional truths and deceits, should discover within himself the possibility of a secret and genuine inner life, sheltered by the very conventions or conventionalities he is violating—as if he had gone underground and were living in a cavern hollowed out of the very rock our hypocritical civilization is built on.

I remarked, above, that it has not always been necessary to suspect that society may be the enemy of authenticity and sincerity; I don't know exactly when or how that idea became so potent that it began to change the meaning of the word 'conventional'—the romantic revolution had a lot to do with it—but I think I know where it makes its first appearance: in Hamlet. Something is rotten in Denmark and nobody can put it right because that is how societies are: all societies have been corrupted by power in one way or another. But you'll have to read my essay, "Tragic Virtue", if you want to see why Hamlet is the quintessential modern hero.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Chekhov and The Inner Life

Chekhov said in one of his letters, "there's no making out anything in this world" and a little later in one of his stories—About Love (1898)—has one of his characters elaborate on that idea: "So far only one incontestable truth has been stated about love: 'This is a great mystery': everything else that has been written or said about love is not a solution, but only a statement of questions that have remained unanswered. The explanation that would fit one case does not apply to a dozen others, and the very best thing, to my mind, would be to explain every case separately without attempting to generalize. Each case should be individualized, as the doctors say." A year later, in 1899, Dr. Chekhov offers us just such a case, in one of his greatest stories, "The Lady With The Dog," and at one point comes pretty close to violating his cardinal rule about not attempting to generalize.

A rake, Dimitry Dmitrich Gurov, meets a younger woman, Anna Sergeyevna von Dideritz at the resort town of Yalta, and seduces her as he has seduced many others—though he knows that this affair, like all the others, will end badly: "Oft repeated and really bitter experience had taught him long ago that with decent people . . . who are irresolute and slow to move, every affair which at first seems a light and charming adventure inevitably grows into a whole extreme complexity, and in the end a painful situation is created. But at every new meeting with an interesting woman this lesson of experience seemed to slip from his memory, and he was eager for life, and everything seemed to so simple and diverting."

And so it proves. But this time something new happens: for the first time in his life, Gurov falls
in love—and gets a life, a genuine life, but not a life that he can publicly acknowledge. As his real life goes underground, he has the following revelation: "He had two lives: an apparent one, seen and known by all who needed it, filled with conventional truth and conventional deceit, which perfectly resembled the lives of his acquaintances and friends, and another that went on in secret. And by some strange coincidence, perhaps an accidental one, everything that he found important, interesting, necessary, in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, which constituted the core of his life, occurred in secret from others, while everything that made up his lie, his shell, in which he hid in order to conceal the truth—for instance his work at the bank, his arguments at the club, his "inferior race" [which is how he had habitually referred to women], his attending official celebrations with his wife—all that was in full view. And he judged others by himself, did not believe what he saw, and always supposed that every man led his own real and very interesting life under cover of secrecy, as under the cover of night. Every personal existence was upheld by a secret, and it was perhaps partly for this reason every cultivated man took such anxious care that his personal secret should be respected."

As that last sentence would seem to indicate, Chekhov himself was powerfully drawn to this vision of a secret, authentic inner life—of sincerity, truth, honesty—concealed as if by a theatrical shell from the 'real' word of conventional truths and conventional falsehoods—as if the social world were a theater in which we all act our parts while our real lives go on out of sight, off-stage, behind the scenes. (Chekhov found it much more difficult and, he said, less rewarding to write plays than stories.) And indeed it would be hard to exaggerate the power of this idea or myth—one of the formative myths of modernity as well as romanticism, as it seems to me—or its tenacity: if the inner life is the authentic core of our being, where we feel "sincerely", how can we account for the well-known fact that it is just as easy—maybe easier—to deceive our selves as others? (Isn't that what Gurov is doing? Is he not, as an adulterer, living a lie? Tolstoy would certainly have thought so.)

This is a huge subject. So far as I know, its history has yet to be written. Were I to begin writing such a history, I think I'd start with the authoritative use of the first-person pronoun in the poetry of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was Keats who said he believed in the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of the imagination.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Chekhov And The Two Cultures

Chekhov is unique: a great writer who understands, not abstractly but from the inside, that both art and science are forms of inquiry: radically different forms of inquiry, equally valid but virtually incompatible ways of knowing. I know of no other modern artist or scientist who fits this description.

Here are some selections from his letters. (Like Keats, who was also trained in the medical science of his day and died young of TB, Chekhov was a copious and wonderfully charming letter-writer).

It seems to me it is not for writers of fiction to solve such questions as that of God, of pessimism, etc. The writer's business is simply to describe who has been speaking about God or about pessimism, how, and in what circumstances. The artist must be not the judge of his characters and of their conversation, but merely an impartial witness. I have heard a desultory conversation between two Russians about pessimism—a conversation that settles nothing—and I must report that conversation as I heard it; it is for the jury, that is, for the readers, to decide on the value of it. My business is merely to be talented—i.e. to know how to distinguish important statements from unimportant, how to throw light on the characters, how to speak their language. Shtcheglov-Leontyev blames me for finishing the story with the words, "There's no making out anything in this world." He thinks a writer who is a good psychologist ought to be able to make it out—that is what he is a psychologist for. But I don't agree with him. It is time that writers, especially those who are artists, recognized that there is no making out anything in this world, as once Socrates recognized . . . The mob thinks it knows and understands everything; and the more stupid it is the wider it imagines its outlook to be. And if a writer whom the mob believes in has the courage to say that he does not understand anything of what he sees, that alone will be something gained in the realm of thought and a great step in advance. (from a letter to Suvorin, May 30, 1888)

How would a writer write who knows he doesn't understand what life is all about and, like Socrates, knows that he is not wise? Well, that is a kind of knowledge, and a form of wisdom which is never on display. Chekhov is a stylist without an obvious style, a writer who, like Flaubert, stays out of sight: not an explainer but a shower. In story after story he shows what it's like to be another person. In "The Kiss" (1887) for instance, he shows us from the inside what it's like to be one of the multitude of losers who, through no fault of their own but just because of the way life—the only life we will ever get—has diminished them—understand at last that they've been irrevocably shut out of the party: "And the whole world, the whole of life, seemed to Ryabovich an unintelligible, aimless jest. . . . And turning his eyes from the water and looking at the sky, he remembered how Fate in the person of an unknown woman had by chance caressed him, he recalled his summer dreams and fancies, and his life struck him as extraordinarily meager, poverty-stricken, and drab. . . ." (from "The Kiss", 1887) There are also stories in which the loser manages or contrives actively to bring this fate upon himself.

Don't get me wrong and assume that Chekhov mostly writes about losers—though, come to think of it, lose is what most people do, mostly, in this preposterous pig of a world.

As you might expect, Chekhov despised critics and pundits, especially those who solemnly ponder big ideas, like materialism or liberalism or the state of the Russian soul, while most of the people, the peasants, live poor, nasty, brutish, ignorant lives that are mostly (and mercifully?) short. What especially irks him is that these so-called intellectuals don't even begin to know what they are talking about—they prate about materialism but know nothing at all about the science of matter which was changing the world as they spoke.

The novel is interesting . . . it is clever, interesting, in places witty, somewhat fantastic. As to its defects, the chief of them is his pretentious crusade against materialism. Forgive me, but I can't understand such crusades . . . whom is the crusade against and what is its object? Where is the enemy and what is dangerous about him? In the first place, the materialistic movement is not a school or a tendency . . . if is not something passing or accidental; it is necessary, inevitable, and beyond the power of man. All that lives on earth is bound to be materialistic. In animals, in savages, in Moscow merchants, all that is higher and non-animal is conditioned by an unconscious instinct, while all the rest is material, and they of course cannot help it. Beings of a higher order, thinking men, are also bound to be materialists. They seek for truth in matter, for there is nowhere else to seek for it, since they see, hear and sense matter alone. Of necessity they can only seek for truth where their microscopes, lancets and knives are of use to them. To forbid a man to follow the materialistic line of thought is equivalent to forbidding him to seek truth. Outside matter there is neither knowledge nor experience, and consequently there is no truth. I think that when dissecting a corpse, the most inveterate spiritualist will be bound to ask himself "Where is the soul here?" and if one knows how great is the likeness between bodily and mental diseases, and that both are treated by the same remedies, one help refusing to separate the soul from the body.

. . .To speak of the danger and harm of materialism, and even more to fight against it, is, to say the least, premature. We have not enough data to draw up an indictment. There are many theories and suppositions, but no facts . . . The priests complain of unbelief, immorality, and so on. There is no unbelief. People believe in something, whatever it may be . . . .

As to immorality, it is not people like Mendeleyev [who figured out the periodic table] but poets, abbots, and personages regularly attending Embassy churches, who have the reputation of being perverted debauchees, libertines, and drunkards. (from a letter to Suvorin, May 7, 1889)

By the way, if you are looking for a good book on Chekhov, Janet Malcolm's Reading Chekhov is a winner. And it's not too long, either.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

T. S. Eliot and The Pure Poetry of Despair: Ash Wednesday (1930)

Ash Wednesday is supposed to be about Eliot's recovery of faith—he had joined the Anglican Church in 1927—but that's not how it sounds. Here's how it begins:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope [a line from Shakespeare's sonnet #29]
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where the trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for a time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
And I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And I pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgment not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners not and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

The poem has six sections or chapters, of which I have given you the first. The last section is not about the recovery of faith; it is about loss. I quote, in part.

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and death
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of the quail and whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth . . . .

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Helen of Troy: Romantic Illusion or Tragic Realism

"Was this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?" asks Christopher Marlowe's Faustus (in the play—written about 1590— that got the Faust legend going in Europe.) "Sweet Helen," he says foolishly (for she is but an image and his request is blasphemous--or would have been), "make me immortal with a kiss." And, in a sense, she does, for these are famous lines.

A little more than 400 years later, John Updike, gives (shall we say?) a modern, anti-romantic, view of the women who, according to Homer started the war that forms the subject of his great poem, the Iliad:

Fair Helen

Helen of Troy, shining from Priam's porch,
her absent-minded gray gaze telling all
the dying, striving warriors below
that she suffices, the glorious cause
for Hector's and Achilles' men to die for,
held coiled within her a yard or two of shit,
of fecal matter waiting for its truth
to find the Turkish air and disappear.

The purplish blue of her well-hidden bowels
was not the sea-mist tint with which her gaze
accepted Menelaus and the horde
of men adoring her for giving them
the rage to die. The shit below, the shit
within are incidents; she turns and shines.

Now, I have to say that this, one the last poems that Updike ever wrote, is uncharacteristically crude, and adds nothing interesting or even relevant to what we necessarily know about her or anyone else: who doesn't have a gut full of shit inside them? Homer's own portrait of Helen in her bitterness and despair is much more deeply and significantly realistic: "I wish bitter death had been what I wanted, when I came hither following your son [Priam's son, Paris] forsaking my chamber, my kinsmen, my grown child, and the loveliness of girls my own age. It did not happen that way: now I am worn with weeping —slut that I am. Did this ever happen?" (Bk. 3, lines 171-80, in Lattimore's translation.) Homer's Helen, like Achilles, is tragic. The Iliad is the first tragic poem. The art of tragedy begins with Homer.

And what is tragedy? NOT just some very bad, very sad event or action but a whole set of circumstances in which someone has managed to trap herself. When there are no good choices or outcomes, when equally rational arguments and courses of action lead to equally disastrous results, when you're damned if you do and damned if you don't—no exit—that's tragic.

For those who have Faith, in God or Reason, there is no such thing as tragic experience.

In 1914, the great powers of Europe stumbled into the trap that their leaders had been busily but unknowingly preparing for themselves, and found no exit. Now, after almost a hundred years of virtually incessant warfare, the intellectual elites of the West have largely lost their faith: no God, no Reason.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Updike did it all— fiction, essays, reviews, poetry—and always with wit, wisdom, learning and style.  Should you be looking for a first-rate study of his works, read W. H. Pritchard's book, Updike: America's Man of Letters (University of Massachusetts Press, 2005). No academic jargon, I promise you. I don't know if it's still in print but copies are not hard to find.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Restless Leg

A pinch of Copenhagen (long cut) stops it cold.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Emperor of Ice-Cream, by Wallace Stevens

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be the finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Impure Art

Holman Hunt's Shadow of Death (1872), as an example of impure Art—bourgeois art, needless to say (perhaps). Wouldn't cubism—or at least Impressionism—have come as a relief? You can see why the Pre-Raphaelites were not much thought of in Paris . . .

Pure Poetry & Mr. Wallace Stevens

The second edition (1931) of Harmonium was reviewed, as follows, by Percy Hutchison in the New York Times. I don't think it is a good review but it does me a service here by explicating the idea of pure poetry and by expressing his hostility—which is so intense that he can't even begin to understand the poetry, not even the one poem he chooses as his test case.

That was all a long time ago, you say; why flog a dead horse? Because Hutchison's ideas and prejudices—like those of Wallace Stevens, say—never die. Pure poetry, like the pure art of Cezanne, is of the essence of modernism—a word that has never been well-defined; yet the work of modernist artists like Cezanne fetches huge prices at auctions and is the subject of learned monographs. Stevens too has attracted learned commentary, but the same people who flock to exhibitions of Matisse, Picasso or Cezanne, will look at a poem by Stevens and yawn.

Enough.  Here is Hutchison's review.

"More than one critic and not a few poets, have toyed with the idea of what has been termed: 'pure poetry', which is to say, a poetry which should depend for its effectiveness on its rhythms and the tonal values of the words employed with as complete a dissociation from ideational content as may be humanly possible. Those who have argued for such 'pure poetry' have frequently, if not always, been obsessed with some hazy notion of an analogy between music and poetry.  In the second decade of this century . . . numerous poetic schools drove theory hard. . . there were the Imagists, and there was Vorticism and Cubism, and many more 'isms' besides. For the most part, these schools have died the death which could have been prophesied for them. Poetry is founded in ideas; to be effective and lasting, poetry must be based on life, it must touch and vitalize emotion. For proof, one has but to turn to the poetry that has endured. In poetry, doctrinaire composition has no permanent place.

"Hence, unpleasant as it is to record such a conclusion, the very remarkable work of Wallace Stevens cannot endure. The verses which go to make up the volume Harmonium are as close to 'pure poetry' as one could expect to come. And so far as rhythms and vowels and consonants may be substituted for musical notes, the volume is an achievement. But the achievement is not poetry, it is a tour de force, a 'stunt' in the fantastic and the bizarre. From one end of the book to the other there is not an idea that can vitally affect the mind, there is not a word that can arouse emotion. The volume is a glittering edifice of icicles. Brilliant as the moon, the book is equally dead. Only when Stevens goes over to the Chinese does he score, and then not completely, for with all the virtuosity that his verse displays he fails quite to attain the lacquer finish of his Oriental masters. The following, "Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores," is the piece that comes nearest to the Chinese, and this is marred by the intrusion in the last line of the critical adjective 'stupid.'

I say now, Fernando, that on that day

The mind roamed as a moth roams,

Among the blooms beyond the open sand;

And that whatever noise the motion of the waves

Made on the sea-weeds and the covered stones

Disturbed not even the most idle ear.

Then it was that the monstered moth

Which had lain folded against the blue

And the colored purple of the lazy sea,

And which had drowsed along the bony shores,

Shut to the blather that the water made,

Rose up besprent and sought the flaming red

Dabbled with yellow pollen-red as red

As the flag above the old cafe—

And roamed there all the stupid afternoon.

"For the full tonal and rhythmic effect of this it must be read aloud, chanted, as Tennyson and Swinburne chanted their verses. Then, within its limits, its very narrow limits, "Hibiscus" will be found to be a musical attainment not before guessed at. But it is not poetry in the larger meaning of the term. And it is not actually music that one has here, but an imitation of music. And if there is a mood conveyed, the mood could have been equally as well conveyed by other lines equally languid of rhythm. No doubt the theorists in poetry have enriched their craft, but at a disservice to themselves. Wallace Stevens is a martyr to a lost cause."

Hutchison despises the idea of a poetry purified of moral ideas, a poetry or an art that is, or at least gives the appearance of being, about itself—art for art's sake—it's gaze firmly averted from life and its struggles; an art (perhaps) like that proposed by the aristocratic hero of Villiers de L'isle-Adam's play, Axel's Castle (1885): "As for living, we shall leave that to our servants." That's a line that could have been used in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest,  which may be the purest work of dramatic art you will ever see.

Now go back and read the poem that Hutchison quotes without comprehending, Hibiscus On The Sleeping Shores. Look at the unpoetic words Stevens uses, 'blather' and 'stupid' but also look and listen to the way they are used, the poem begins to sound. I hear the sound of exasperation, as if the poet were exasperated by the way his mind works.

So the word "stupid" actually tells us something about the subject of the poem: boredom; and, what the exasperated poet or speaker finds most exasperating of all, the tendency of his own mind as, turning away from the "purple of the lazy sea" and its sounds which to the "idle ear" are so pleasant; but pleasant is not good enough,  he has to have more . . . until the sounds of  the sea become just so much "blather" and his monstered moth of a mind rises up in a sort of rage, in search of . . . what? A "flaming red" (like the red of ancient Chinese lacquer, perhaps?) but what does he actually find? A red like the flag on the old cafe. And there the mind roams, fixated, mindlessly moth-like, "all the stupid afternoon." 

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Keats' Ode On Melancholy

I think I like this one best of all Keats' poems, though I don't know why—perhaps because I like the lines about the strenuous tongue deliberately bursting joy's grape against one's palate in order to 'taste' the deeper, gloomier, more enduring essence of Being. (I have to admit that I don't know how to do that—or, if I did, wouldn't be able to bring myself to do it.)

(Now it occurs to me that Keats may have 'said' in this poem all that needs to be said in response to Moneta's lecture on the "misery of the world" (cf. Keats' late, fragmentary, Fall of Hyperion.))

NO, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist 

Wolfs-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine; 

Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d 

By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine; 

Make not your rosary of yew-berries, 

Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be 

Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl 

A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries; 

For shade to shade will come too drowsily, 

And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul. 

But when the melancholy fit shall fall 

Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud, 

That fosters the droop-headed flowers all, 

And hides the green hill in an April shroud; 

Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose, 

Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave, 

Or on the wealth of globed peonies; 

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows, 

Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave, 

And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes. 

She dwells with Beauty - Beauty that must die; 

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips 

Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh, 

Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips: 

Ay, in the very temple of Delight 

Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine, 

Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue 

Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine; 

His soul shall taste the sadness of her might, 

And be among her cloudy trophies hung. 

About a hundred years later, in 1923, Wallace Stevens published at the age of 44, Harmonium, one of the most remarkable collections of pure and semi-pure poems ever written. It was his first book. It contains a number of poems which can be thought of as odes to or on melancholy. Here is one of them:

The Snowman  

One must have a mind of winter

To regard the frost and the boughs

Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time

To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think

Of any misery in the sound of the wind,

In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land

Full of the same wind

That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Keats, Modernity, Pure Poetry

The movie, Bright Star, is worth seeing as a plausible portrait of the woman, Fanny Brawne, who had the honor of being loved for a short time by a very great poet. Such a portrait is worth having; unfortunately, that is about all the makers of this movie have seen fit to give us:  you would never know, from this movie, that Keats had transformed himself into a thoroughly professional poet by force of will as well as talent by the time he met Miss Brawne (November 1818); or that he had been thinking through the process as well as the theory of this extraordinary make-over in wonderfully fluent, witty, playful, brilliant letters—lots of them. If you really want to know something about Keats himself and the modernity of his mind, you can begin by reading his letters—a resource that this movie makes little use of, not surprisingly, perhaps, since none of Fanny Brawne's letters to Keats survive, and his to her were written near the end of his short life.  

The most striking characteristic of Keats as a letter-writer is the direct, lucid, unpretentious simplicity of his style—the style of man who never stops thinking for himself, and never falls back on ready-made or conventional ideas; a man who has no religious or political opinions to defend, a man without side, or party, or dogma and knows it. Such a style requires a certain kind of intellectual and moral stability, or patience, or virtue: a negative capability he calls it in a famous letter to his brother George (12-28-1817). In the midst of some sort of dispute or disquisition with a friend of his (Dilke), he says, "several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a man of achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason . . . ." 

A little less than a year later (10-27-1818), he shows that he understands very well what it means to be a negatively capable poet:

“As to the poetical character itself (I mean that sort of thing which, if I am any thing, I am a member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing—it has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—it has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation. A poet is the most unpoetical thing of any thing in existence; because he has no identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other body—the sun, the moon, the sea and men and women who are creature of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures. If then he has no self, and if I am a poet, where is the wonder that I should say I would write no more? Might I not at that very instant have been cogitating on the characters of Saturn and Ops? It is a wretched thing to confess; but is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature—how can it, when I have no nature? When I am in a room with people if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins so to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated—not only among men; it would be the same in a nursery of children: I know not whether I make myself wholly understood: I hope enough so to let you see that no despondence[dependence?] is to be placed on what I said that day.”

But what kind of poetry might we expect a negatively capable poet without a fixed identity to write? That was a question that no one, including Keats, had ever asked and yet by the spring, summer and fall of 1819 Keats had practically answered it with the pure poetry of the great odes, and in particular the Ode to Autumn, which I print here not because it is necessarily the greatest of Keats' odes but because it so perfectly demonstrates its own perfection and purity:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cell.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir, the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

What is 'pure poetry'? Poetry without moral or religious or political content, poetry in which the poet virtually disappears, poetry which like music is essentially about itself:  modern poetry, or rather the poetry of a few modern poets, like Eliot and Stevens and Frost, in a few poems; the poetry that Baudelaire was searching for in 1852 (and not finding) in his reading of Edgar Allen Poe. (See my posting of 7-11-08, "Baudelaire and E. A. Poe")

Coleridge may have written one of the great pure poems in English when, it seems, he accidently composed 
Kubla Kahn— and was so dumfounded by what he had done that he concocted a really stupid story to account for it, about an opium dream and some fellow from Porlock who had interrupted it. Here's the poem which, it seems to me, is about nothing but itself.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree :

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round :

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;

And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh ! that deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover !

A savage place ! as holy and enchanted

As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon-lover !

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,

As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,

A mighty founrtain momently was forced :

Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst

Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,

Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail :

And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever

It flung up momently the sacred river.

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,

Then reached the caverns measureless to man,

And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean :

And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far

Ancestral voices prophesying war !

The shadow of the dome of pleasure

Floated midway on the waves ;

Where was heard the mingled measure

From the fountain and the caves.

It was a miracle of rare device,

A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice !

A damsel with a dulcimer.

In a vision once I saw :

It was an Abyssinian maid,

And on her dulcimer she played,

Singing of Mount Abora.

Could I revive within me

Her symphony and song,

To such a deep delight 'twould win me,

That with music loud and long

I would build that dome in air,

That sunny dome ! those caves of ice !

And all who heard should see them there,

And all should cry, Beware ! Beware !

His flashing eyes, his floating hair !

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread,

For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

So much for pure poetry. But we can't be true to the modern, myriad minded genius of Keats if we leave it at that; Keats himself refused to do so. 

Keats had begun writing an epic poem about one of the ancient pre-Homeric gods, Hyperion, after he had finished with Endymion; it hadn't gone well and he put it aside. Sometime during the fall of 1819, he took a look at his Hyperion fragments and made something radically new out of them. This too he finally abandoned but not before he had taken a new look at what it means to be a poet in the modern world. The poem is in the form of a dream vision, in which the poet-dreamer enters a strange temple and begins to climb the stairs leading to the altar; only to be told, in no uncertain terms by the priestess who is also the goddess of memory, that he is nothing but a dreamer, and therefore worthless: "none can usurp this height," she says, "but those to whom the miseries of the world are misery, and will not let them rest.  All else who find a haven in the world, where they may thoughtless sleep away their days, if by chance into this fane [temple] they come, rot on the pavement" before this altar. 

So there, says Keats (in effect) is the choice that the modern artist faces: perfection of the life or perfection of the work. One or the other, you can't have both. By that time, he had already chosen the latter and despite his short life and meagre opportunities, made (as W. B. Yeats says) "luxuriant song."