Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A revolution in the meaning of 'imagination': Johnson & Coleridge

We take it for granted that imagination is a good thing; it is not a compliment to say that someone has no imagination. This has not always been the case; when Coleridge lamented the loss of "the shaping power of imagination" in his great poem of 1802, Dejection: An Ode, he was giving a new meaning to the word.  Were you to consult Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of The English Language (1755), you would not find the word 'imagination' associated in any way with the creative energies of the mind in the arts or sciences. For Johnson the word meant either 'fancy': "the power of having ideal pictures, or the power of representing things absent to oneself or others," adding that "Imagination is of three kinds: joined with the belief of that which is to come; joined with the memory of that which is past, or as if they were present: "for I comprehend [and here he is quoting Bacon] in this imagination feigned and at pleasure as if one would imagine such a man to be in the vestments of a Pope, or to have wings"; or, 'conception': the power of having an image or idea in the mind.

[And here I must add a sort of foot-note: for William Blake, Coleridge's "shaping power of imagination" would have been nothing new, but Blake comes from an intellectual and religious tradition that poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley—and of course, Byron—knew nothing about; as a tradesman, moreover, and a man who worked with his hands as an engraver, none of the romantic poets would have been likely to have met or even heard of him in 1802.]

Johnson himself distrusted the imagination. And here I should like to refer you to Johnson's Rasselas (1759), which is by the way one of the greatest books about the search for happiness ever written.

Rasselas is an Abyssinian prince who has escaped from the boredom of the artificial paradise—"The Happy Valley"— in which all the royal princesses and princelings are kept safely ignorant of life in the real world. He and his sister (and servants) escape with the help of one of their tutors, a scholar and man of the world named Imlac, who becomes their guide and teacher in the ways of the world and especially the possibilities it offers in the way of happiness. (It will not surprise you to learn that Rasselas never finds an answer to his question about the way of life most likely to lead to happiness.)

At one point, Imlac tells his little group of tourists that a visit to the great pyramid might be instructive
and this visit is duly made. Imlac has a purpose in making this visit: it gives him an opportunity to warn his royal students about the way the "hunger of the imagination" can distort one's life by creating desires for things one does not really need. Indeed, Rasselas can be thought of as a book about the various disorders to which the imagination is prone. (Johnson thought and said repeatedly, that people need to reminded rather than informed.) So here is Imlac's lecture on the "hunger of the imagination that feeds on life":

"Having  passed through the galleries, surveyed the vaults of marble, and examined the chest in which the body of the founder is supposed to have been reposited. They then sat down in one of the most spacious chambers to rest a while before they attempted to return. “We have now, said Imlac, gratified our minds with an exact view of the greatest work of man, except the wall of China.

“Of the wall it is very easy to assign the motives. It secured a wealthy and timorous nation from the incursions of Barbarians, whose unskilfulness in arts made it easier for them to supply their wants by rapine than by industry, and who from time to time poured in upon the habitations of peaceful commerce, as vultures descend upon domestick fowl. Their celerity and fierceness made the wall necessary, and their ignorance made it efficacious.

“But for the pyramids no reason has ever been given adequate to the cost and labour of the work. The narrowness of the chambers proves that it could afford no retreat from enemies, and treasures might have been reposited at far less expence with equal security. It seems to have been erected only in compliance with that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life, and must be always appeased by some employment. Those who have already all that they can enjoy, must enlarge their desires. He that has built for use, till use is supplied, must begin to build for vanity, and extend his plan to the utmost power of human performance, that he may not be soon reduced to form another wish.

“I consider this mighty structure as a monument of the insufficiency of human enjoyments. A king, whose power is unlimited, and whose treasures surmount all real and imaginary wants, is compelled to solace, by the erection of a pyramid, the satiety of dominion and tastelesness of pleasures, and to amuse the tediousness of declining life, by seeing thousands labouring without end, and one stone, for no purpose, laid upon another. Whoever thou art, that, not content with a moderate condition, imaginest happiness in royal magnificence, and dreamest that command or riches can feed the appetite of novelty with perpetual gratifications, survey the pyramids, and confess thy folly!”

There you have it: for Johnson there was nothing creative or even good about the imagination—or the hunger for novelty that it feeds. "I consider this mighty structure," says Imlac, "as a monument to the insufficiency of human enjoyments"—and, he might have added, the endlessness of human desires, which is a Hobbesian thought. Johnson would not have wanted to be connected with Hobbes in this or any other way, but if human desires are endless so too is the struggle for power—for without power our hunger for novelty must go largely unsatisfied.

Bear with me as I digress, briefly, on that 'Hobbesian thought', which is relevant not only to the quest for happiness in Rasselas, but also to be the central idea of Coleridge's poem. The following lines, are taken from Hobbes' Leviathan (1651):

By 'manners' I mean here . . . those qualities of mankind that concern their ability to live together in peace and unity. To which end we are to consider, that the felicity of  this life consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such "Finis Ultimus", (utmost aim),  nor "Summum Bonum" (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers. Nor can a man any more live, whose desires are at an end, than he whose senses and imaginations are at a stand. Felicity is a continual progress of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former being but the way to the latter. The cause whereof is, that the object of man's desire, is not to enjoy once onely, and for one instant of time; but to assure forever, the way of his future desire. And therefore all the voluntary actions, and inclinations of all men, tend, not only to the procuring, but also the assuring of a contented life; and differ only in the way which ariseth partly from the diversity of passions, in divers men; and partly from the difference of knowledge, or opinion each one has of the causes, which produce the effects desired.

So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death. And the cause of this, is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight, than he has already attained to; or that he cannot be content with a moderate power: but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more.

Turn now to the following lines from Coleridge's "Dejection" Ode:

 My genial spirits fail;
And what can these avail
To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?
It were a vain endeavor,
Though I should gaze forever
On that green light that lingers in the west:
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.

O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!
And what we aught behold, of higher worth,
Than that inanimate cold world allowed
To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd,
Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud
Enveloping the earth—
And from the soul itself must there be sent
A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth
Of all sweet sounds the life and element. . . .

We in ourselves rejoice!
And thence flows all that charms or ear or sight,
All melodies the echoes of that voice,
All colors a suffusion of that light.

There was a time, though my path was rough,
This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:
For hope grew round me, like the twining vine,
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.
But now afflictions bow me down to earth:
Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth;
But oh! each visitation
Suspends what nature gave me at my birth;
My shaping spirit of Imagination.

For not to think of what I needs must feel,
But to be still and patient, all I can;
And haply by abstruse research to steal
From my own nature all the natural man—
This was my sole resource, my only plan:
Till that which suits a part infects the whole,
And now is almost grown the habit of my soul. . . .

"O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live . . ."

For Coleridge, the shaping (or, as we would say, creative) spirit of imagination is what makes poetry and art possible and life worth living, and I don't suppose Blake or Wordsworth or Keats, or Shelley or, any other artist would have disagreed. But Blake, at least, would not have agreed about much else, since he regarded Nature as Satanic—which is not the same thing as saying that Nature is Darwinian, though to us at least it comes close. Yet we, who know very well that Nature is Darwinian are likely to find these lines false as well as beautiful: Nature doesn't need us at all, and will manage finally to get rid of us. (But that is the rational mind talking; when I turn it off, it is the beauty and moral truth of these lines that I'm mainly conscious of. Though I am not a Christian I remember Jesus's parables and sayings, and especially what he had to say about the Kingdom of Heaven being within.)

Wallace Stevens said that a world without imagination had itself to be imagined, and that's what Coleridge is doing in the lines that follow those I have just quoted:

O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!
And what we aught behold, of higher worth,
Than that inanimate cold world allowed
To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd . . .

To conclude this shapeless mess, I should like to comment on what to Coleridge as well as Blake is the real enemy of the imagination. Coleridge blames his loss of the shaping power of imagination on his philosophical inquiries, and Blake would have agreed for it was he who first declared war on reason, philosophy or the analytical proclivities of the meddling intellect as the enemies of imagination in poetry and art—a disjunction or antipathy that seems now to be a permanent feature of the modern cultural landscape. Critics do not often write good poetry but some famous poets have been famous critics; I doubt that the same is true in the other arts—art critics and historians are not usually, or even ever, significant artists; and I know of no great artist or musician who ever bothered to write criticism.


Friday, November 4, 2011

The Arts and The Sciences: Two Cultures

We put the arts and sciences at the center of a liberal arts educational curriculum, in the U.S. at least, and sometimes something comes of that juxtaposition: a few students learn that the arts and sciences are so radically different in their methods and assumptions, in the questions they ask and in the criteria they use in judging a piece of work; that no amount of learning in the arts is of any use in the sciences and vice-versa. That's worth knowing; it tells one something about the structure of the world we live in and try, as best we can, to understand; it tells one that modern science (including the language of science, mathematics) has nothing in common with modern (or modernist) art; and vice-versa. 
So one can be the world's  foremost authority, on, say the art of Picasso and know nothing about relativity, or quantum mechanics, or the mathematics of symmetry; what one cannot be ignorant of as an authority on the art of Picasso is art-history. The sciences are different: one can be a great physicist and mathematician without knowing much about the history of physics and mathematics; a physicist today does not need to know very much about Aristotle or Galileo or Newton; or Gauss or Euler.

These two cultures (art and science) as C. P. Snow once labelled them, have not always been as isolated from each other as they are now: science, engineering and the arts were once, during the Renaissance, in Rome and Florence, part of single discipline which I suppose we might call architecture. Leonardo de Vinci, possessed the sort of “unified sensibility” (the phrase seems to have been invented by T. S. Eliot), that felt equally at home in the arts and sciences.

For a long time, no one seems to have thought of art and science as antagonistic ways of understanding the world—that one had to choose: you could be a scientist or an artist but not both.
As late as 1800, Wordsworth was confident that the poet and the scientist  were basically singing the same song. Here is what he had to say in his ‘Preface’ to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads

To this knowledge which all men carry about with them, and to these sympathies in which without any other discipline than that of our daily life we are fitted to take  delight, the Poet principally directs his attention. He considers man and nature as essentially adapted to each other, and the mind of man as naturally the mirror of the  fairest and most interesting qualities of nature. And thus the Poet, prompted by this feeling of pleasure which accompanies him through the whole course of his  studies, converses with general nature with affections akin to those, which, through labour and length of time, the Man of Science has raised up in himself, by  conversing with those particular parts of nature which are the objects of his studies. The knowledge both of the Poet and the Man of Science is pleasure; but the  knowledge of the one cleaves to us as a necessary part of our existence, our natural and unalienable inheritance; the other is a personal and individual acquisition,  slow to come to us, and by no habitual and direct sympathy connecting us with our fellow- beings. The Man of Science seeks truth as a remote and unknown  benefactor; he cherishes and loves it in his solitude: the Poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion. Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science.  Emphatically may it be said of the Poet, as Shakespeare hath said of man, "that he looks before and after." He is the rock of defence of human nature; an upholder  and preserver, carrying every where with him relationship and love. In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs, in spite  of things silently gone out of mind and things violently destroyed, the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread  over the whole earth, and over all time. The objects of the Poet's thoughts are every where; though the eyes and senses of man are, it is true, his favorite guides, yet  he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings. Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge--it is as immortal as the  heart of man. If the labours of men of Science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we  habitually receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present, but he will be ready to follow the steps of the man of Science, not only in those general indirect  effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the Science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or  Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet's art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us,  and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective Sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and  suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called Science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and  blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.   

It was not to be—for all sorts of reasons, chiefly the fact that by 1800, the sciences had already progressed to such a point that the only way to understand them was to unlearn all the literary or philosophical wisdom you had painfully acquired and learn a new language and new discipline. Nothing you thought you knew would be of any use in, say, Michael Faraday's laboratory. That was something that a man like Goethe, for example, who had been born in 1749, could never have done. The wisest man in Europe, according to Santayana, he refused to accept Newton’s theory that all the colors are combined in white light; what is more he wouldn’t even consider the evidence that supported Newton’s work; nor, did he ever change his mind. He had his own more ‘organic’ theory, which he developed in a book which eventually ran to more than a thousand pages when it was published in 1810. It was a book that he was inordinately proud of; he really seems to have thought that his optical studies rather than his literary works constituted his most lasting achievement. 
Here is what one of his biographers, Peter Boerner (Goethe: London, 2005) has to say: “Typical for Goethe’s approach is a passage in the didactic section of the Theory of Colours: The eye owes its existence to light. From neutral animal auxiliary organs, light calls forth an organ similar to itself; and thus the eye is created by light for light, so that the inner light nears the outer. We recall in this connection the old Ionic school of thought, which emphasized that only like can recognize thought; and also the ancient mystic’s words, which can be expressed thus:

Were the eye not like the sun,
How could we behold the light?
If no godly power lived in us,
How could we find in God delight?

"No one will deny the direct relationship between light and eye, but imagining  the two to be one and the same is more difficult. It may be easier to grasp if one asserts that the eye has within it a still light that is aroused at the slightest internal or external prompting. In the dark we can call up the brightest images using our power of imagination. In dreams, objects appear to us as if in clear daylight. When awake we notice the slightest beam of external light; indeed when the eye is struck by accident, light and colors emanate from it." (p.80-82)

It is painful to hear such obscurantism coming from such a man. But Goethe was a man from another age, saturated in the literary and philosophical traditions that had defined Western culture for more than 2000 years. Though he greatly admired Spinoza, and Spinoza's Ethics, he could not accept the   mechanistic Nature that is so central to Spinoza's philosophy.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

I've never been much interested in this play. And now, having recently seen it in action (so to speak) for the first time, at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival, in Oregon, I am wondering why Shakespeare wrote it. You would never know, from reading or seeing this play, that Julius Caesar was one of the most brilliant and charismatic men of classical antiquity, who wrote Latin prose of such clarity, simplicity and power that even Cicero who didn't like him at all, admired it. Shakespeare's Caesar is indecisive, superstitious, a spent force at the age of 56, which wasn't at all the case. Where did Shakespeare get these ideas? Not from Plutarch; I think Shakespeare's portrait of Caesar is entirely made-up. So why might Shakespeare have wanted to diminish Caesar in this way? I don't know. If anyone else knows, I'd like to hear about it.

To make matters worse, the folks in Ashland cast Caesar as a woman! What could they have been thinking of?—if they were thinking at all.

This play isn't even a tragedy. Caesar was a man who lived his life to the full and was cut down in his prime. That's tragic but not in any Shakespearean sense of that word; this play is not a Shakespearian tragedy. It is quite unlike any of Shakespeare's other tragedies. Shakespeare, who knew as much about tragedy as anyone, missed his mark. No doubt he thought he'd hit it; I just don't what it was.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Nietzsche, on knowledge and the intellect

"In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of 'world history'—yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.

"One might invent such a fable and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no further mission that would lead beyond human life. It is human, rather, and only its owner and producer gives it such importance, as if the world pivoted around it. . . . 

"There is nothing in nature so despicable or insignificant that it cannot immediately be blown up like a bag by a slight breath of this power of knowledge . . . . It is strange that this should be the effect of the intellect, for after all it was given only as an aid to the most unfortunate, most delicate, most evanescent beings in order to hold them for a moment in existence . . . . That haughtiness which goes with knowledge and feeling, which shrouds the eyes and senses of man in blinding fog, therefore deceives him about the value of knowledge by carrying in itself the most flattering evaluation of knowledge itself.  Its most universal effect is deception; but even its most particular effects have something of the same character.

"The intellect, as the means for the preservation of the individual [creature] unfolds its chief powers in simulation; for this is the means by which the weaker, less robust individuals preserve themselves, since they are denied the chance of waging the struggle of existence with horns or the fangs of beasts of prey. In man this art of deception reaches its peak: here deception, flattery, lying and cheating, talking behind the back, posing, living in borrowed splendor, being masked, the disguise of convention, acting a role before others and before oneself—in short, the constant fluttering around  the single flame of vanity is so much the rule and the law that almost nothing is more incomprehensible than how an honest and pure urge for truth could make its appearance among men . . . ."  (1873)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Byron, Byronism, Romanticism

Handsome, witty, brilliant, proud and, unfortunately, entitled (literally) to the privileges of a noble Lord, Byron was tumbled out into the world in 1788 without a father or any other close male relatives to teach him how to become a man; much less a nobleman. He had to figure it out and, often, fight it out, for himself. The personality he invented for himself (in the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, 1812) was one that is now hard to admire, but it fascinated Europe for almost 100 years. No other English poet was more widely read or admired in Europe than Byron. No other  English poet or writer created his own personal ideology—Byronism—or for that matter would have wanted to. For it was not very nice being Byron or Byronic: he was a man beset by demons of his own creating. While he had immense charisma he did not always use it wisely or well. Sexually precocious and predatory, he despised women, especially those who were so unfortunate as to fall in love with him; these he treated badly. Though he fathered a few children, he essentially abandoned them. Lady Caroline Lamb nailed him with the phrase, "mad, bad and dangerous to know." Charlotte Brontë got the point and put him into her novel, Wuthering Heights, as Heathcliffe.

 No one but nuts like me reads Childe Harold today or any of the others—like The Giaour (1813), The Corsair (1814) or Lara (1814)that made him famous; they're mostly unreadable now with the notable exception of Don Juan (1819-24) which made him infamous when it first appeared. 

I've been reading Byron's poetry out of curiosity, for it was in his poetry that Byron created his own myth, which we now refer to as Byronism: the story of a passionate man of artistic genius who though he is of high social rank—and lets everyone know it—nevertheless prides himself on belonging nowhere; a terrific snob like Coriolanus who thinks he can stand as if he were the creator of himself, apart from and superior to the reactionary and corrupt societies of the world. The story of Coriolanus ends tragically and it seems to me that Byron's story is tragic as well. It is a story of talents wasted and energies misused; unlike Coriolanus who knows at the end that he is only a fallible human being, I don't think Byron ever understands that his pursuit of fame, glory and sex had led him into a life of futility and loss. Though Byron understood the uses of irony, he never turns that tool of self analysis upon himself; irony, for Byron, was never anything but a weapon to be used on those he thought of as his enemies.

As W. H. Auden pointed out almost fifty years ago, Don Juan is Byron's one great achievement—a poem in which Byron re-invents himself—not as another romantic personality but as an ironic observer, speaking in an absolutely new anti-poetic style; Don Juan is a modern, comic, anti-romantic poem and the only poem of Byron's that can still be read with pleasure.

Here is how it begins:

I want a hero: an uncommon want,
  When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
  The age discovers he is not the true one;
Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,
  I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan,
We all have seen him in the pantomime
Sent to the devil, somewhat ere his time.

The choice of a hero for this poem is, perhaps, not as arbitrary as the poet subtly implies; Byron was himself a sort of Don Juan and a pretty destructive one at that. Does that mean that he is—as usual—putting himself in his poem? If he is, it is as an extraordinarily innocent and harmless person: this Don Juan is a handsome as well as innocent young man who never learns anything; things happen to him but he almost never makes things happen. He is, thus, a glamorous vehicle for Byron's mockery of cant and hypocrisy in others. He is not, however, a mirror in which Byron can examine his own imperfections. That would have been too much to expect; poetic ironies are never, or hardly ever, directed inward, toward the poet. There are a few of Shakespeare's sonnets that seem to be exceptions to this rule, and possibly a few of Donne's but for the most part the kind of irony I am talking about is a modern, 20th century trope. For example? Well, how about Eliot? The voices we encounter in Preludes, Prufrock, Portrait Of A Lady, Sweeney Among The Nightingales strike me (though I couldn't prove it) as ironic stand-ins for the man Hugh Kenner calls the invisible poet.

Though Byron never saw himself ironically, others did: the theatrical persona he had invented and taken on as his very own, as well as the the ideology that went with it—Byronism—had obviously become a joke by the time Shaw wrote Arms And The Man (1894) in which an upper-class dolt who imagines himself to be a great soldier—and likes to strike Byronic attitudes— is compared to a real professional soldier who knows his business—and is in fact a middle-class business-man—and never pretends to be anything but what he is, a modern man.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Goethe: A telling anecdote

In 1826, the Bavarian historian Karl Heinrich von Lang was passing through Weimar and thought he might like to meet the great man—who had a reputation for being not particularly hospitable to strangers. Here is how Herr Lang tells the story: "On my journey I stopped at Weimar, where dazzled by the devil, I sent a note that spared no subservient obeisances to the city's old Faust, Master von Goethe, in hopes of meeting with him. I was received at half-past noon. A tall, old, ice-cool, stiff, imperial councillor came toward me in a dressing gown, gestured to me to seat myself, accepted everything I told him about the King of Bavaria and then barked: "Tell me, no doubt you have a fire insurance office in your Ausbach region?" Yes, indeed. —Then came the invitation to recount to the last detail the procedures that were followed when fires occurred. I responded that it depended on whether the fire could be extinguished or the town or the house actually burnt.—Let us, if I may say so, permit the town to go up in flames.—And so I fanned my blaze and let it consume everything, with the fire engines rushing around in vain; set out on my inspection the next day, obtained an estimate of the damages and pared it down as much as possible; made some superficial sketches of the buildings that will remain neglected by the Munich supervisors, while the poor burnt-out wretches languish in shanties; and finally in two, three years paid out the compensation sums after they have been reduced to almost nothing. The old Faust listened to this and said: I thank you. Then he continued: What is the population of such a district in your area? I said: Something over 500,000 souls. — So! So! he intoned. Hm! Hm! That is indeed something. (To be sure, more than twice the entire Grand Duchy of Weimar.) I said: Now, as I have the honor of being here with you, there is one soul less. However, I shall get myself hence and take leave of you. —Whereupon he gave me his hand, thanked me for the honor or my visit and accompanied me to the door. I felt as if I had caught a cold while putting out fires."

What does this story tell us? It tells that Goethe, that old Faust, is indifferent to human suffering and the rule of law—which as readers of the Faust poem we have already guessed. Imagine how different the history of modern Europe—or even the world— might have been had this man been a thinker instead of an esthete. Herr Lang had him pegged. Like Werther, Goethe was entirely self-absorbed. I can't think of any other Great Man of the romantic period who counts for so little.

[This story is recounted in Peter Boerner's biography, Goethe published in 2005.] 

Monday, June 6, 2011

"The short and simple annals of the poor": Gray's Elegy and the common reader

Does anyone read Gray's "Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard" (1750) any more? It was, once, a very famous poem. I remember reading it in 8th grade a long time ago. We didn't learn much about poetry and we didn't read much of it, but our teacher thought we ought at least to be exposed to Gray's famous Elegy. (And there were a few others which, I'm glad to say, I've completely forgotten—except for a part of a line which remains stupidly lodged in my memory: "Abu Benadem(?) may his tribe increase . . . .")

Here's how Gray's Elegy goes (in part):

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
  The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
  And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
  And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
  And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds:

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower  
  The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such as, wandering near her secret bower,
  Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
  Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
  The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
  The swallow twittering from the straw-build shed,
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
  No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
  Or busy housewife ply her evening care;
No children run to lisp their sire's return,
  Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
  Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
  How bowed the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Let not ambition mock their useful toil,
  Their homely joys and destiny obscure;
Nor grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
  The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
  And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Await alike the inevitable hour.
  The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
  If memory o'er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where through the long-drawn aile and fretted vault
  The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

Can storied urn or animated bust
  Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
  Or flattery soothe the dull cold ear of death?

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
  Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed
  Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.

But knowledge to their eyes her ample page 
  Rich with spoils of time did ne'er unroll;
Chill penury repressed their noble rage,
  And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
  The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
  And waste its sweetness on the desert air. . . . 
[You should read the rest of it; consult almost any anthology of English poetry.]
Death, of course, is the great equalizer, but why leave it at that?  Since life is more comfortable and more fun for those who have money and education than it is for those who have neither, why not make it a little easier for the poor to better their lot?  It is not much comfort for those whose lives have been stunted by "chill penury" to be told that "the paths of glory lead but to the grave." But mine are modern thoughts; no one was thinking along these lines in 1750.

William Empson noticed a long time ago that those images of gems at the bottom of the sea and flowers wasting their "sweetness on the desert air" make us feel that the waste of human energies and talents that Gray is commenting on is part of natural order of things; that's just how it is. Those gems don't mind being at the bottom of the sea and nor do those flowers care if there is no one around to appreciate them.

The fact that even Johnson, who knew all about the injuries of class, admired this poem, reminds us—if we need reminding—what a recent (and perhaps temporary) thing democracy is. In his chapter on Gray, in Lives of the Poets, he commented on the universal acclaim that Gray's poem had received and said that he rejoiced "to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be decided all claim to literary honors." This remark is of particular interest because Virginia Woolf used Johnson's idea of "the common reader" as the literary and organizing principle for her two magnificent volumes of literary scholarship and criticism, the first and second Common Readers, which though uncorrupted by literary prejudices or dogmatic learning are not exactly what the common readers of today are likely to find entertaining. For there is, perhaps, no one at any time who remains entirely uncorrupted by literary prejudices. I know I am, as you can see by my remarks on Gray's famous poem: to me, Gray while not being in the least romantic, is shamelessly romanticizing the desperate lives of the English peasantry. And I have an ulterior motive: I want you to compare Gray's poem with a passage from a novel by George Gissing written in 1886 and quoted byVirginia Woolf in her chapter on this now largely unknown writer. Gissing is describing a cemetery in the East End of London:

"Here on the waste limits of that dread east, to wander among tombs is to go hand-in-hand with the stark and eyeless emblems of mortality; the spirit fails beneath the cold burden of ignoble destiny. Here lie those who were born for toil; who when toil has worn them to the uttermost, have but to yield their useless breath and pass into oblivion. For them is no day, only the brief twilight of a winter's sky between the former and the latter night. For them no aspiration; for them no hope of memory in the dust; their very children are wearied into forgetfulness. Indistinguishable units in the vast throng that labors but to support life, the name of each, father, mother, child, is but a dumb cry for warmth and love of which fate so stinted them. The wind wails above their narrow tenements; the sandy soil, soaking in the rain as soon as it has fallen, is a symbol of the great world which absorbs their toil and straightway blots their being."

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Updike's Leviathan—and ours

I am haunted by an image from one of Updike's poems—not the serious ones, but the "light verse" that he segregated from the others at the back of his Collected Poems:

                                                . . . . blue whales
          Grin fathoms down, and through their teeth are strained
         A million lives a minute; each entails,
         In death, a microscopic bit of pain.
                                                               (from Caligula's Dream)

I never thought about the krill that baleen whales, eat or what it might be like to be one of them; thanks to Updike that little gap in my understanding of Darwinian nature has just been filled.

All over the world hundreds of millions are being treated like krill. Here in America we are destroying the lives of only 20 million unemployed people and their families; the politicians of both parties are content to regard their pain as microscopic. It isn't.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Voices of the romantic revolution: Charlotte and Emily Brontë

The following remarks are taken from an essay by Virginia Woolf (in The Common Reader, 1925).

"There is in them some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to observe patiently. This very ardour, rejecting half shades and other minor impediments wings its way past the daily conduct of ordinary people and allies itself with their more inarticulate passion. It makes them poets, or, if they choose to write in prose, intolerant of its restrictions. Hence it is that both Emily and Charlotte are always invoking the help of nature. They both feel the need of some more powerful symbol of the vast and slumbering passions in human nature than words or actions can convey. It is with a description of a storm that Charlotte ends her finest novel, Villette. 'The skies hang full and dark—a wrack sails from the west; the clouds cast themselves into strange forms.' So she calls in nature to describe a state of mind that could not be otherwise expressed. But neither of the sisters observed nature accurately as Dorothy Wordsworth observed it, or painted it minutely as Tennyson painted it. They seized those aspects of the earth which were most akin to what they themselves felt or imputed to their characters, and so their storms, their moors, their lovely spaces of summer weather are not ornaments to decorate a dull page or display the artist's power of observation—they carry on the emotion and light up the meaning of the book.

"The meaning of a book, which lies so often apart from what happens and what is said and consists in some connection with things in themselves different have had for the writer, is necessarily hard to grasp. Especially is this so when, like the Brontës, the writer is poetic, and his meaning inseparable from his language, and itself rather a mood than a particular observation. Wuthering Heights is a more difficult book to understand than Jane Eyre, because Emily was a greater poet than Charlotte. When Charlotte wrote she said 'I love', 'I hate,' 'I suffer'. Her experience, though more intense, is on a level with our own. But there is no 'I' in Wuthering Heights. There are no governesses. There are no employers. There is love, but it is not the love of men and women. Emily was inspired by some more general conception. The impulse that urged her to create was not her own suffering or her own injuries. She looked out upon a world cleft into a gigantic disorder and felt within her the power to unite it in a book. That gigantic ambition is to be felt throughout the novel—a struggle, half thwarted but of superb conviction, to say something through the mouths of her characters which is not merely 'I love' or 'I hate', but 'we, the whole human race' and 'you, the eternal powers . . .' the sentence remains unfinished. It is not strange that it should be so; rather it is astonishing that she can make us feel what she had it in her to say at all. It surges up in the half-articulate word of Catherine Earnshaw, 'If all else perished and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger. I should not seem part of it.' It breaks out again in the presence of the dead. 'I see a repose that neither earth nor hell can break, and I feel an assurance of the endless and shadowless hereafter—the eternity they have entered—where life is boundless in its duration, and love in its sympathy and joy in its fulness.' It is this suggestion of power underlying the apparitions of human nature and lifting them up into the presence of greatness that gives the book its huge stature among other novels."

Friday, May 27, 2011

Updike's unmodernist poetry

Updike, like Frost, Williams, Hardy and Larkin, never wrote a modernist poem. He too speaks in his own voice out of his own experience of the real, the given, the substantial world. Metaphors and other figures of speech, do not become symbols of spiritual things or meanings outside or unsupported by tangible connections with the real, the given, the substantial world.  When Updike was growing up in Shillington, Pennsylvania, he felt no hankering to be another Rimbaud—or Wallace Stevens. He wanted to be a cartoonist.

He wrote his first poem when he was 21, and has this to say about it in the "Preface" to his Collected Poems 1953-1993: "The very first poem here, bearing a comically long title, yet conveyed, with a compression unprecedented in my brief writing career the mythogenetic truth of telephone wires and poles marching across a stretch of Pennsylvania farmland. I still remember the shudder, the triumphant sense of capture with which I got these lines down, not long after my twenty-first birthday."
          Why the Telephone Wires Dip
and the Poles are Cracked and Crooked

             The old men say
             young men in gray
             hung this thread across our plains
             acres and acres ago.

             But we, the enlightened, know
             in point of fact it's what remains
             of the flight of a marvellous crow
             no one saw:
             each pole a caw.

Here's another poem I like, written about thirty years later:


            Pain flattens the world—its bubbles
            of bliss, its epiphanies, its upright
            sticks of day-to-day business—
            And shows us what seriousness is.

            And shows us, too, how those around us
            cannot get in; they cannot share
            our being. Though men talk big
            and challenge silence with laughter

            and women bring their engendering smiles
            and eyes of famous mercy,
            these kind things slide away
            like rain beating on a filthy window

            when pain interposes.
            What children's pageant in gauze
            filled the skulls ballroom before
            the caped dark stranger commanded, Freeze?
            Life is worse than mere folly.  We live
            within a cage wherefrom escape
            annihilates the captive; this, too,
            pain leads us to consider anew.

I could show you many more poems that would be worth your attention; I prefer tell you about certain qualities in Updike's poetry that I don't much care for. He has more to say about his sex life than I at least want to hear. And he likes to show us how much he knows about science—and how wittily he can write about such deep matters as entropy or the valence bonds that bind atoms in molecules. His poem about the moons of Jupiter is a tour de force; but that's all it is.

I don't understand why this poet makes so little use of rhyme—and the music of rhyme— in his 'serious' poetry. (You can feel the power of rhyme as you feel the power of "pain" as it "leads" us to reconsider our view of life in the poem I have just showed you.) Rhyme, he thinks, belongs in "light verse", which he carefully separates off from the good stuff in a special section at the end of the book. It's as if he were afraid of his own wit, afraid that his serious poetry might be contaminated by it. But wit is what makes his good poetry good; a little more music would have made it better. Remember what the Duke said: "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

I welcome comments from Updike's other admirers. Stick to the poetry though.



Monday, May 23, 2011

Philosophy & Curiosity (by Justin E. H. Smith, NY Times, 5-23-11)

 Must one be endowed with curiosity in order to become a philosopher?

Today, in the academic realm, at least, the answer is surely and regrettably no. When a newly minted philosopher goes on the job market, her primary task is to show her prospective colleagues how perfectly focused she has been in graduate school, and to conceal her knowledge of any topic (Shakespeare's sonnets, classical Chinese astronomy, the history of pigeon breeding etc.) that does not fall within the current boundaries of the discipline.

Curiosity-driven activities like insect-collecting and star-gazing have been downgraded to the status of mere hobbies.

But how were these boundaries formed in the first place? Did they spring from the very essence of philosophy, a set of core attributes present at inception, forever fixed and eternal? The answer to that latter question, is also no. What appears to us today to be a core is only what is left over after a centuries-long process by which the virtue of curiosity, once nearly synonymous with philosophy migrated into other disciplines, both scientific and humanistic. As this migration was occurring, many curiosity-driven activities such as insect-collecting and star-gazing, long considered at least tributaries of philosophy were downgraded to the status of mere hobbies. This loss of curiosity has played an important but little noticed role in the widespread perception that professional philosophy has become out of touch with the interests of the broader society.

Let me rush to qualify what no doubt sounds like a harsh assessment of the state of my own discipline. I am certainly not saying that, as individuals, philosophers will not often be curious people in the very best sense of that phrase, but only that they are habituated by their discipline to make a sharp distinction between their sundry interests  and what they do professionally, as philosophers. The distinction is as clear as that between Richard Feynman contribution to theoretical physics and his enjoyment of Tuvan throat-singing.

Today's natural scientist easily distinguishes his own work not only from his hobbies, but also from the activity of his pseudoscientific counterpart. When we look back in history, however, it becomes difficult to keep this distinction in view, for it has often happened that false beliefs have produced significant experimental results and have led to real discoveries. It is no less difficult  to separate the history either of science or of pseudoscience from what I will dare to call the real history of philosophy, for until very recently, what we now call science was not merely of interest to philosophers, but was in fact constitutive of philosophy. In fact, it was not called science at all, but rather natural philosophy.

Thus, tellingly, among the articles in the Philosophical Transactions of 1666, the first year of the journal's publication, we find titles such as "Of a Considerable Load-Stone Digged Out of the Ground in Devonshire" and "Observations Concerning Emmets or Ants, Their Eggs, Production, Progress, Coming to Maturity." Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, researchers studying the properties of magnetism continued to refer to their area of interest as the "magnetical" philosophy and as late as 1808  John Dalton published A New System of Chemical Philosophy. A year later Jean-Baptiste Lamarck brought out his Philosophie Zoologique. Yet by the early 20th century, this usage of the word philosophy had entirely vanished. What happened?

One of the charges brought against Socrates in Plato's great dialogue, "The Apology" is that he speculated about the heavens above, and searched into the earth beneath. Today philosophers are more likely to pick out the other charges—sophism, corrupting the youth, atheism—as most relevant to our understanding of the Socratic-Platonic revolution in the history of Western thought. But what are we to make of this charge of curiosity? It may be that in restyling themselves as scientists, natural philosophers or curiosi, have succeeded in the past few hundred years in overcoming their bad reputation. Little awareness lingers at this point (excepting, say, the occasional nuclear meltdown, when we start to feel we've gone too far too fast) of what might have made the activity of looking into the earth and the heavens a crime.

This restyling occurred over the course of the early modern period, at just the same time as questions that were once purely speculative concerning, for instance, the nature of life, or the causes of planetary orbits, came to be much more tractable than before, thanks to the increasing mathematization of the sciences, and to newly emerging standards for scientific observation and experimentation. Their new tractability by scientists left the philosophers to establish themselves on their own. But what exactly is left over for philosophy to do once the earth, the heavens, the animals and plants, are turned over to this new breed of scientists to explain?

There will certainly always be a place for epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. But in order for a theory of knowledge to tell us much, it needs to draw on examples of knowledge of something or other. And so philosophy agrees to a partial reconciliation with the sciences some years after its divorce from natural philosophy; Philosophy comes back to physics with the philosophy of physics, and to biology with the philosophy of biology, even though physics and biology are no longer part of philosophy itself.

Many philosophers today suppose that to take an interest in a false theory from the past implies a rejection of the idea of truth itself.

Now surely it is a good thing that today there are, say, helminthologists, who can devote all their time to the study of worms without having to worry about how these creatures fit into the cosmic  order, or into God's design, as you wish. But if helminthology has cleared away the cosmological dross that weighed it down back when it was part of natural philosophy, philosophy meanwhile may have lost something that once helped to fuel it: a curiosity about the world in all its detail; rather than to bound its pure activity off from the impure world of worms and so on, philosophy might approach its task through that succinct preposition, 'of', as in "philosophy of physics", or "philosophy of law" which would permit philosophy to stand apart, but not implicitly above, the mundane objects of its attention.

So long as contemporary philosophy conceives itself in that way, it is rather a difficult task to pursue the sort of research on the history of philosophy that is adequate to the material it studies, that respects actors and categories, and that takes seriously theories and entities that have long since been rejected by reasonable people. Consider Kenelm Digby's 1658 account of the "weapon salve," or the treatment of wounds at a distance by manipulation of the weapon that caused them. Digby in fact offered a fascinating, sophisticated application of early modern corpuscularianism [sic] yet many philosophers today suppose that to take an interest in a false theory from the past such as this one, to research it and to write about it, implies a rejection of the idea of truth itself. I myself was once dismissed as insufficiently postmodernist by a referee for a journal to which I submitted an article on the Digby's weapon salve.

There is no basis for such an accusation. For among the great many truths in the world is this one: a man named Digby once believed something false. To take an interest in that false belief is not to reject the truth, but only to wish to fill out our picture of the truth with as much detail as possible, and not because of some aesthetic inclination to the baroque, but rather because false theories are an important part of the puzzle that we as philosophers should be trying to complete: that of determining the range of ways people conceptualize the world around them.

This is a project, I believe, that philosophers ought to recognize themselves as having in common with the other human sciences, and most of all with anthropology, as well as with newer disciplines such as cognitive science, which takes the substantial interconnection between philosophy and the study of the natural world as seriously as it was taken in the 17th century. The new experimental philosophy movement is also returning to an earlier conception of the inseparability of philosophical reflection and scientific inquiry, though curiously "x-phi" advocates describe themselves as breaking with traditional philosophy, rather than as returning to it, which is what in fact they are doing.

But for the most part philosophers prefer to keep their distance from the world, to do philosophy of this or that, and to disavow any interest in reckoning up the actual range of ways in which people, past or present, have explained the world. For some historians of philosophy, this makes things difficult, since we find we cannot live up to the expectation of our colleagues to show the immediate philosophical pay-off of our research, by which of course is meant the relevance to the set of issues that happen to interest them. I believe it is imperative, indeed that it amounts to nothing short of respect paid to the dead, that historians of philosophy resist this demand for relevance. Scholarship in the history of philosophy must not aim to contribute to the resolution of problems on the current philosophical agenda. What it must do instead is reveal the variety of problems that have in different times and places been deemed philosophical, thereby providing a broader context within which current philosophers can understand the contingency, and future transformability, of their own problems. In this way, historians of philosophy contribute to the vitality of current philosophy, but on their own terms, and not on the terms dictated by their non-historian colleagues.

Recently I have noticed, when holding forth on, say, G. W. Leibniz's interest in the pharmaceutical properties of the Brazilian ipecacuanha root, the way in which the term 'erudite' now serves in some philosophical circles as a sort of back-handed compliment. What it really says is that the compliment's recipient cannot quite cut it as a real philosopher, which is to say as a producer of rigorous arguments, and so instead compensates by filling her head with so much historical trivia. Rigor has decidedly won out over erudition as the reigning philosophical virtue, yet it is with a curious lack of rigor that philosophers assume, without argument, that there is a zero-sum competition for space in our heads between rigor and erudition. As Laurence Sterne said, in a related context, this is like assuming that you cannot hiccup and flatulate at the same time.

It is noteworthy in this connection that in 1682 a journal was founded in Leipzig, as the German response to the Philosophical Transactions, with the title Acta Eruditorum, or Acts of the Erudite. This journal, too, contained much on the generation of maggots and other such matters. Now the figure of the eruditus was in the 17th century very close to the curiosus, and it is around the same time that we also witness the foundation of societies of natural philosophers with names such as the Societas Leopoldina Naturae Curiosorum (the Leopoldine Society for Those Who Are Curious about Nature).

It was before the members of this very society that Leibniz, in 1695, at the very peak of his innovation as a metaphysical thinker of the first order, presented what he described as his most important contribution to learning so far: a treatise entitled On the New American Antidysenteric, namely ipecacuanha, better known today through its derivative product, syrup of ipecac. It had already been known that this root, first described in Willem Piso's Natural History of Brazil (1648) could be used to stop diarrhea, and indeed its usefulness in saving Louis XIV from a bad case of dysentery was legendary around Paris when Leibniz lived there in the 1670s. But in front of the audience of German curiosi 20 years later Leibniz could claim for himself the credit for discovering the emetic properties of the root, and again, he would, evidently without hyperbole, compare this discovery favorably to everything else he had yet accomplished, and for which he remains so widely known today.

This is, to put it mildly, very curious. It shows at the very least that Leibniz conceived of his life's work, as a learned man, as a curiosus, and as a philosopher, very differently from the way we conceive of it today, and very differently from the way philosophers today conceive of their own work. And this different conception matters to the historian of philosophy, since to take an interest in Leibniz's pharmaceutical (or mine-engineering or paleontological) interests might, just might, reveal to us something we would not have noticed had we limited ourselves to the canonical treatises. And it might, finally, force us to reconsider the adequacy of our current list of philosophical problems. And even if it doesn't, something else from philosophy's past that has fallen off the list eventually surely will.

As a historian of philosophy I believe it is a terrible thing to attempt to fit figures from the history of philosophy into the narrow confines of a conception of philosophy that has really only emerged over the most recent centuries. Such confinement fails to do justice to the scope and richness of their thought. Perhaps more importantly, it deprives us of the possibility of rediscovering that spirit of curiosity that fueled the development of philosophy during its first few millennia.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Goethe's Faust—A Critique of Modernity?

I shall admit first of all that I don't undertand this poem or its hero, Faust, very well; maybe that's because I don't know German though I doubt it: Goethe was trying to do too much and loaded his poem down with more philosophical and allegorical baggage than it could carry.

I may have a better idea of what Mephistopheles is all about however and shall therefore try to focus my remarks on his role in this poem or play.

Though the poem begins, like Job, with an argument between God and Mephistopheles about the faith or virtuousness of Faust, Goethe loses interest in that question almost immediately; there is nothing even remotely Job-like about Faust or this poem. And since the state of Faust's soul (damned or saved) is not in question either, as it is in earlier versions of the story, including Marlowe's, why does Mephistopheles attach himself to him? What does he have to gain?

Notice, first of all, how different Goethe's Mephistopheles is from Marlowe's. When Marlowe's Dr. Faustus tells Mephistopheles that he (Faustus) doesn't believe in hell or damnation, Mephistopheles proceeds to set him straight:

F: Tell me, what is that Lucifer thy lord?
M: Arch-regent and commander of all spirits.
F: Was not that Lucifer an angel once?
M: Yes, Faustus, and most dearly loved of God.
F: How comes it then that he is Prince of devils?
M: O, by aspiring pride and insolence;
For which God threw him from the face of Heaven.
F: And what are you that you live with Lucifer?
M: Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer?
Conspired against our God with Lucifer,
And are for ever damned with Lucifer.
F: Where are you damned?
M: In hell.
F: How comes it then that you are out of hell?
M: Why this is hell nor am I out of it.
Think'st thou that I who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?
O Faustus! leave these frivolous demands,
Which strike a terror to my fainting soul.

None of this makes any impression on Faustus:

What, is great Mephistopheles so passionate
For being deprived of the joys of heaven?
Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude . . . .
Had I as many souls as many souls as there be stars,
I'd give them all for Mephistopheles.
By him I'll be great Emperor of the world. . . .

Marlowe's Mephistopheles, surprisingly, has principles and feelings; he is appalled at Faustus' foolishness but willing of course to take advantage of it; that's his job.

Goethe's Mephistopheles,  by contrast, is a cynic who has neither feelings nor principles; he does not believe in the possibility of virtuous or disinterested action: those who do strike him as funny. He stalks Faustus because he has a use for him: together they will construct the modern world. Absent from their notion of modernity is any concept of the rule of law.

But first Faust has to be shorn of his humanity. The destruction of Gretchen (first she is seduced, and impregnated, then abandoned) serves this purpose: conscience stricken at first, Faust soon forgets her entirely. So later on, when an old couple refuse to move in order to make way for progress, Faust tells Mephistopheles to get rid of them. He never looks back. He has the kind of power that Marlowe's Faustus had wanted and had never gotten (how odd that Faustus should have been willing to settle for so little) and becomes, not the great benefactor of humanity that he thinks he would like to be, but something monstrous: something like a modern dictator.

The Faustian story is one that Goethe had had plenty of chances to observe during his lifetime, 1749-1832.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Modernist Poetry and Common Readers: Notes Of A Barbarian

 As many of you know, something odd happened to the arts sometime around or shortly before the fateful 'turn' of the 20th century: music, art, and poetry began to become 'modern' and then 'modernist'—a process that seems to have begun with what Kandinsky called the "the discrediting of the object" in impressionist painting (something similar was happening in the 'symbolist' poetry of Mallarmé and Valery); the arts became self-consciously difficult and obscure; and the middle classes began to assume that whatever Art was all about, it had nothing to do with them—a situation that still persists.

It's significant —but significant of what?— that the modernist revolution in the arts preceded the first World War and the political revolutions—communist or fascist—that had been brewing for a long time and which that war ignited; after that war, modernism became the dominant 'paradigm' in the arts (I'm not satisfied with this word but can't think of a better).

Some of the greatest artists, musicians, poets and novelists of the 20th century came of age during years that preceded WW1—Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Picasso, Joyce, Frost, Proust, Stevens, Stravinsky, Berg, for example—and did much or most of their finest work after it. What no one has ever been able to explain, convincingly at least, is how or why or even if the extraordinary flowering of modernist art during the first decades of the 20th century is related to the horrendous political revolutions that were occurring at or about the same time. (For that matter, we still don't know or at least can't agree about what that word 'modernist' means.)

When art began (in Kandinsky's phrase) discrediting its objects, its only purpose was to free itself from the officially imposed (in France) shackles of classicism. But, like all revolutions, this one had unforeseen consequences: when art ceased to be mimetic, when it ceased to hold a mirror up to nature or life and began to strike out on its own as a self-justifying enterprise, it made itself irrelevant to all but the hyper-sophisticated literati; the masses went to the movies.  Which, I suppose, was inevitable, in any case.

Different countries responded differently to the siren songs of modernism that were coming from France: England, for example—and here one thinks especially of Hardy and Larkin—ignored them; American poets, with the notable exceptions of Robert Frost, W. C. Williams and Marianne Moore, listened and were bewitched.

I've already said quite enough about T. S. Eliot. I've recently been reading a lot of (and about) Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), America's greatest symbolist poet and a man (in Helen Vendler's words) "of chilling reticence." (Someone once quipped "that the French read Edgar Allen Poe and thought they were reading Stevens.") The best way to think about symbolist poetry is to think of it as poetry written in a private language; you can see why a man bent on revealing as little as possible about his inner life (or his public life as a vice-president of the Hartford Insurance and Indemnity Co.) and the miseries of an unhappy marriage, might want to write in a private language. Add to this the fact that his interest in the way imagination constructs reality is entirely esthetic and that he took no interest whatsoever in the politics or sociology of American democracy, and you have a poet whose poetry was bound to become increasingly desiccated as he aged, increasingly devoid of moral or human or intellectual content. This is a poet who pushed the theory and practice of art for art's sake about as far as it could go and didn't give a damn about his audience; or even whether or not he had one. The experts will say that I'm wrong; the poetry, especially the later poetry—"Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction" for example—is full of beauty, vitality and intellectual power; you just have to let the experts tell you where and how to look for it. Now I have read some of these experts—especially Helen Vendler—from whom I have learned a lot; I still have to say, however, that I still don't get it—reading that poem, and not only that one but just about all of his long poems, I never know where I am.

Has something has gone wrong with our literary culture when a common educated reader like me cannot read a poem, by a person universally acclaimed as great, without the help of academic critics—help that never helps him answer such basic questions as, where am I? What's going on?

I still think that most of Stevens best poetry is to be found in his first book, Harmonium (1923), written at a time when his life was anything but harmonious. "Sunday Morning," "The Snowman," "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," "The Death Of A Soldier," "The Dwarf," "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,"
and "The Idea of Order At Key West," will be read long after most of the later poetry is only to be found on dusty, dimly lighted shelves.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Grief, Sorrow and the consolations of philosophy: Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson wrote “The Proper Means of Regulating Sorrow”  (Rambler #47) on August 28, 1750. His reflections, as always wise and powerfully phrased, are those of a stoic moralist analysing as well as calmly reflecting on a common human passion: grief, sorrow. 

His beloved wife Tetty, was still alive.

“Of the passions with which the mind of man is agitated, it may be observed, that they naturally hasten towards their own extinction, by inciting and quickening the attainment of their objects. Thus fear urges our flight and desire animates our progress; and if there are some which perhaps may be indulged till they outgrow the good appropriated to their satisfaction, as it is frequently observed of avarice and ambition, yet their immediate tendency is to some means of happiness really existing, and generally within the prospect . . . . Sorrow is perhaps the only affection of the breast that can be excepted from this general remark, and it therefore deserves the particular attention of those who have assumed the arduous province of preserving the balance of the mental constitution. The other passions are diseases indeed, but they necessarily direct us to their proper cure . . .  But for sorrow there is no remedy provided by nature; it is often occasioned by accidents irreparable, and dwells on objects that have lost or changed their existence; it requires what it cannot hope, that the laws of the universe should be repealed; that the dead should return, or the past should be recalled.
Sorrow is not the regret for negligence or error which may animate us to future care or activity, or that repentence of crimes for which however irrevocable, our Creator has promised to accept it as an atonement; the pain which arises from these causes has very salutary effects, and is every hour extenuating itself by the reparation of those miscarriages that produce it. Sorrow is properly that state of mind in which our desires are fixed upn the past, without looking forward to the future, an incessant wish that something were otherwise than it has been, tormenting and harassing want of some enjoyment or possession which we have lost, and which no endeavors can possibly regain. Into such anguish many have sunk upon some sudden diminution of their fortune, an unexpected blast of their reputation, or the loss of children or of friends. They have suffered all sensibility of pleasure to be destroyed by a single blow, have given up for ever the hopes of substituting any other object in the room of that which they lament, resigned their lives to gloom and despondency, and worn themelves out in unavailing misery.
Yet so much is this passion the natural consequence of  tenderness and endearment, that however painful and however useless, it is justly reproachful not to feel it on some occasions . . . 
It seems determined by the general suffrage of mankind, that sorrow is to a certain extent laudable as the offspring of love, or at least , suffered to increase by indulgence, but must give way after a stated time, to social duties and the common avocations of life. It is at first unavoidable and therefore must be allowed, whether with or without our choice . . . something will be extorted by nature and may be given to the world. But all beyond the bursts of passion or the forms of solemnity is not only useless but culpbable; for we have no right to sacrifice, to the vain longing of affection, that time which Providence allows us for the task of our station.
Yet it too often happens that sorrow, thus lawfully entering gains such a firm possession of the mind, that it is not afterwards to be ejected . . .”
Two years later his wife, Tetty, died. He was 43. 

In 1759, Johnson wrote a short philosophical novel called Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, which begins with the following grim address to the reader: Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas prince of Abissinia. And, Johnson might have added, don’t expect much from the consolations of philosophy when misfortune strikes, at it inevitably will. One the stories recounted in this book makes this point with poignant clarity:

As he [Rasselas] was one day walking in the street, he saw a spacious building which all were, by the open doors, invited to enter: he followed the stream of people, and found it a hall or school of declamation, in which professors read lectures to their auditory. He fixed his eye upon a sage raised above the rest, who discoursed with great energy on the government of the passions. His look was venerable, his action graceful, his pronunciation clear, and his diction elegant. He shewed, with great strength of sentiment, and variety of illustration, that human nature is degraded and debased, when the lower faculties predominate over the higher; that when fancy, the parent of passion, usurps the dominion of the mind, nothing ensues but the natural effect of unlawful government, perturbation and confusion; that she betrays the fortresses of the intellect to rebels, and excites her children to sedition against reason their lawful sovereign. He compared reason to the sun, of which the light is constant, uniform, and lasting; and fancy to a meteor, of bright but transitory lustre, irregular in its motion, and delusive in its direction. He then communicated the various precepts given from time to time for the conquest of passion, and displayed the happiness of those who had obtained the important victory, after which man is no longer the slave of fear, nor the fool of hope; is no more emaciated by envy, inflamed by anger, emasculated by tenderness, or depressed by grief; but walks on calmly through the tumults or the privacies of life, as the sun persues alike his course through the calm or the stormy sky.
He enumerated many examples of heroes immovable by pain or pleasure, who looked with indifference on those modes or accidents to which the vulgar give the names of good and evil. He exhorted his hearers to lay aside their prejudices, and arm themselves against the shafts of malice or misfortune, by invulnerable patience; concluding, that this state only was happiness, and that this happiness was in every one's power. Rasselas listened to him with the veneration due to the instructions of a superior being, and, waiting for him at the door, humbly implored the liberty of visiting so great a master of true wisdom. The lecturer hesitated a moment, when Rasselas put a purse of gold into his hand, which he received with a mixture of joy and wonder.
“I have found, said the prince, at his return to Imlac, a man who can teach all that is necessary to be known, who, from the unshaken throne of rational fortitude, looks down on the scenes of life changing beneath him. He speaks, and attention watches his lips. He reasons, and conviction closes his periods. This man shall be my future guide: I will learn his doctrines, and imitate his life.”
“Be not too hasty, said Imlac, to trust, or to admire, the teachers of morality: they discourse like angels, but they live like men.”
Rasselas, who could not conceive how any man could reason so forcibly without feeling the cogency of his own arguments, paid his visit in a few days, and was denied admission. He had now learned the power of money, and made his way by a piece of gold to the inner apartment, where he found the philosopher in a room half darkened, with his eyes misty, and his face pale. “Sir, said he, you are come at a time when all human friendship is useless; what I suffer cannot be remedied, what I have lost cannot be supplied. My daughter, my only daughter, from whose tenderness I expected all the comforts of my age, died last night of a fever. My views, my purposes, my hopes are at an end: I am now a lonely being disunited from society.”
“Sir, said the prince, mortality is an event by which a wise man can never be surprised: we know that death is always near, and it should therefore always be expected.” “Young man, answered the philosopher, you speak like one that has never felt the pangs of separation.” “Have you then forgot the precepts, said Rasselas, which you so powerfully enforced? Has wisdom no strength to arm the heart against calamity? Consider, that external things are naturally variable, but truth and reason are always the same.” “What comfort, said the mourner, can truth and reason afford me? of what effect are they now, but to tell me, that my daughter will not be restored?”
The prince, whose humanity would not suffer him to insult misery with reproof, went away convinced of the emptiness of rhetorical sound, and the inefficacy of polished periods and studied sentences.
In 1776, in a letter to Mrs. Thrale on the death of her son, Johnson wrote, “I know that a whole system of hopes, and designs, and expectations is swept away at once and nothing left but bottomless vacuity. What you feel I have felt and hope that your disquiet will be shorter than mine.” And a couple of years later, in a letter to Mr. Elphinston who had just lost his wife, he repeats this thought: “A loss such as yours lacerates the mind and breaks the whole system of purposes and hopes. It leaves a dismal vacuity which affords nothing on which the affections can fix, or to which endeavor may be directed. All this I have known.”  In 1780, in a letter to Dr. Thomas Lawrence, whose wife had recently died, Johnson wrote:
“He that outlives a wife whom he has long loved, sees himself disjoined from the only mind that has the same hopes, and fears, and interest; from the only companion with whom he has shared much good or evil; and with whom he could set his mind at liberty, to retrace past or anticipate the future. The continuity of being is lacerated; the settled course of sentiment and action is stopped; and life stands suspended and motionless, till it is driven by external causes into a new channel. But the time of suspense is dreadful”.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Poetry and Paul Valery

"Did Racine know where that inimitable voice of his came from, that delicate tracery of the inflection, that transparency of the dialogue, all the things that make him Racine, and without which he would be reduced to that not very considerable personage about whom the biographies tell us a great many things which he had in common with ten thousand other Frenchmen? The so-called lessons of literary history have little bearing on the arcana of the making of poems. Everything happens in the artist's inner sanctuary, as though the visible events of his life his life had only a superficial influence on his work. The thing that is most important—the very act of the muses—is independent of adventures, the poet's way of life, incidents, and everything that might figure in a biography. Everything that history is able to observe is insignificant.

"What is essential to the work is all the indefinable circumstances, the occult encounters, the facts that are apparent to one person alone, or so familiar to that one person that he is not even aware of them. One knows from one's own experience that these incessant and impalpable events are the solid matter of one's personality.

"All these people who create, half certain, half uncertain of their powers, feel two beings in them, one known and the other unknown, whose incessant intercourse and unexpected exchanges give birth in the end to a certain product. I do not know what I am going to do; yet my mind believes it knows itself; and I build on that knowledge, I count on it, it is what I call Myself. But I shall surprise myself; if I doubted it I should be nothing. I know that I shall be astonished by a certain thought that is going to come to me before long—and yet I ask myself for this surprise, I build on it and count on it as I count on my certainty. I hope for something unexpected which I designate. I need both my known and my unknown.

"How then are we to conceive the creator of a great work? But he is absolutely no one. How define the Self if it changes opinion and sides so often in the course of my work that the work is distorted under my hands; if each correction can bring about immense modifications; and if a thousand accidents of memory, attention, sensation that cross my mind appear, finally, in my finished work to be the essential ideas and original objects of my endeavors? And yet it is all certainly a part of me, since my weaknesses, my strength, my lazy repetitions, my manias, my darkness and my light, can aways be recognized in everything that falls from my hands.

"And so, let us give up hope of ever seeing clearly in these matters, and comfort ourselves with an image. I imagine this poet with a mind full of resource and ruse, dissembling sleep in the imaginary center of his still uncreated work, waiting to seize the moment of his power which is his prey. In the  vague depths of his eyes, all the forces of his desire and the springs of his instinct are stretched taut. There, intent on the hazards from which she chooses her nourishment, very shadowy there, in the midst of the webs and secret harps that she has made out of language—those interweaving threads, those vaguely and endlessly vibrating strings—a mysterious Arachne, huntress muse, keeps watch."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Jesus on inequality

No one seems to have known what Jesus was talking about, 2000 or some years ago, when he said, "To those who have more shall be given, but from those who have not the little they have shall be taken away." (I quote from memory.) It would be interesting to know when people began to take note. Now, at any rate, in our bright and shining plutocracy, his meaning ought to be abundantly clear.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Some more poems by Thomas Hardy

The following poems were written after the death in 1912 of Hardy's first wife, Emma Gifford. 

Without Ceremony

It was your way, my dear,
To vanish without a word
When callers, friends, or kin
Had left, and I hastened in
To rejoin you, as I inferred.

And when you'd a mind to career
Off anywhere—say to town
You were all on a sudden gone
Before I had thought thereon,
Or noticed your trunks were down.

So, now that you disappear
For ever in that swift style,
Your meaning seems to me
Just as it used to be:
"Good-bye is not worth while.

The Going

Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly, after the morrow's dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here, up and be gone
      Where I could not follow
      With wing of swallow
To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!

       Never to bid good-bye
       Or lip me the softest call,
Or utter a wish for a word, while I
Saw morning harden upon the wall,
       Unmoved, unknowing
       That your great going
Had place that moment, and altered all.

Why do you make me leave the house
And think for a breath it is you I see
At the end of the alley of bending boughs
Where so often at dusk you used to be;
       Till in darkening dankness
       The yawning blankness
Of the perspective sickens me!

       You were she who abode
       By those red-veined rocks far West,
You were the swan-necked one who rode
Along the beetling Beeny Crest,
       And, reining nigh me,
       Would muse and eye me,
While Life unrolled us its very best.

Why, then, latterly, did we not speak,
Did we not think of those days long dead,
And ere your vanishing strive to seek
That time's renewal? We might have said,
       "In this bright spring weather
       We'll visit together
Those places that once we visited."

       Well, well! All's past amend,
       Unchangeable. It must go.
I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. . . . O you could not know
       That such swift fleeting
       No soul foreseeing—
Not even I—would undo me so!

[These last lines are not strictly true; Emma had been unwell for some time and he must have known it; he just hadn't been paying attention, that's all.]

After A Journey

Hereto I come to view a voiceless ghost;
  Whither, O whither will its whim now draw me?
Up the cliff, down, till I'm lonely, lost,
 And the unseen waters ejaculations awe me.
Where you will next be there's no knowing,
  Facing round about me everywhere,
           With your nut-coloured hair,
And gray eyes, and rose-flush coming and going.

Yes: I have re-entered your olden haunts at last;
   Through the years, through the dead scenes I have tracked you;
What have you now found to say of our past—
   Scanned across the dark space wherein I have lacked you?
Summer gave us sweets, but autumn wrought division?
   Things were not lastly as firstly well
           With us twain, you tell?
But all's closed now, despite Time's derision.

I see what you are doing: you are leading me on
   To the spots we knew when we haunted here together,
The waterfall, above which the mist-bow shone
   At the then fair hour in the then fair weather,
And the cave just under, with a voice still so hollow
   That it seems to call out to me from forty years ago,
           When you were all aglow,
And not the thin ghost that I now frailly follow!

Ignorant of what there is flitting here to see,
   The waked birds preen and the seals flop lazily;
Soon you will have, Dear, to vanish from me,
   For the stars close their shutters and the dawn whitens hazily.
Trust me, I mind not, though Life lours,
   The bringing me here; nay bring me here again!
           I am just the same as when
Our days were a joy, and our paths through flowers.