Saturday, January 08, 2005


Free associations

And when I say "free associations," I mean really free.

From Ian McEwan's short story, "The Diagnosis," in The New Yorker:
A second can be a long time in introspection. Long enough for Henry to think, or sense, without unwrapping the thought into syntax and words, that he was wrong. ... The assertions and the questions don’t spell themselves out. He experiences them more as a mental shrug followed by an interrogative pulse. This is the preverbal language that linguists called mentalese. Hardly a language, more a matrix of shifting patterns, consolidating and compressing meaning in fractions of a second, and blending it inseparably with its distinctive emotional hue, which itself is rather like a color. A sickly yellow. Even with a poet’s gift of compression, it could take hundreds of words and many minutes to describe.
I've been enjoying Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac D'Israeli (1766-1848), which is being serially published by Misteraitch of Giornale Nuovo. (Via Siris.) Here's a sample from the chapter, "Sketches of Criticism":
IT may perhaps be some satisfaction to show the young writer, that the most celebrated ancients have been as rudely subjected to the tyranny of criticism as the moderns. Detraction has ever poured the “waters of bitterness.”

It was given out, that Homer had stolen from anterior poets whatever was most remarkable in the Iliad and Odyssey. Naucrates even points out the source in the library at Memphis in a temple of Vulcan, which according to him the blind bard completely pillaged. Undoubtedly there were good poets before Homer: how absurd to conceive that a finished and elaborate poem could be the first!
This reminded me of themes in an earlier post of mine. Perhaps our contemporary debates about "intellectual property" and the pillaging of books are not that new. A needed reminder in these debates is the one that D'Israeli gives us: good writers cannot help but be influenced by the good writers that precede and surround them.

Another quote I recently came across makes a similar point. In Natural Supernaturalism, a brilliant analysis of Romantic poetry, M.H. Abrams reports that Percy Shelley was accused in 1819 of having "imitated Wordsworth in his Revolt of Islam." Shelley's answer:
[All poetry draws] from the new springs of thought and feeling, which the great events of our age have exposed to view, a similar tone of sentiment, imagery, and expression. A certain similarity all the best writers of any particular age inevitably are marked with, from the spirit of that age acting on all. [p. 335]
What Shelly meant by the "spirit of the age," of course, was an almost mystical, Hegelian Geist, working behind the art and literature of the period. Nonetheless, this too reminded me of questions raised in another post of mine, about "climates of opinion."

What was the "climate of opinion" in which Romantics like Shelley and Wordsworth wrote? And how does it help us understand the tone of their "sentiment, imagery, and expression"? Abrams' classic study argues that the Romantics rejected both the orthodox Christianity of their past and the scientific rationalism of their present. Their poetry was an extended attempt to find a way between these two extremes.

Influenced profoundly by Enlightenment skepticism, Romantics did not believe in the personal God of Christianity. But unlike many of the most skeptical philosophes, Romantics replaced God with Nature, rather than Reason. Their Nature was not the mechanistic clock of Enlightenment deism; it was the true source of spiritual reality. And the proper way for humans to relate to Nature, according to the Romantics, was not merely through the use of scientific and instrumental reason, but also through expressive feelings and intuition. This is why Romantic poets are always ascending rugged mountains, setting their faces into the howling wind, and claiming to feel that their souls have been swallowed up by love for the universe. Consider Wordsworth's "The world is too much with us":
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
For Wordsworth, humanity is alienated, "forlorn," "out of tune" with Nature. Harmony can only be found by seeing the winds and tides in a particular, poetic way. "Our hearts" have been given away to the powers of instrumental reason -- a "boon" to be sure, but a "sordid" one. And Wordsworth's "Great God" is clearly not the God of orthodox Christianity, since he is much too eager to embrace the "outworn" creeds of pagan mythology. Wordsworth cannot return to Christianity, but he cannot get comfortable with Enlightenment, which sees little in Nature "that is ours." And Abrams calls this discomfort Natural Supernaturalism.

"Natural supernaturalists" longed for order in a world that had been shaken by political revolutions as well as philosophical ones. The French Revolution was a particularly disorienting event for many of them. After investing high hopes in the Republic as the consummation of Reason, their hopes were dashed by the Reign of Terror and a long night of imperial wars. Romantics, in short, felt alone in a Newtonian and Napoleonic universe. Yet they lived on the edge of contradiction, because they could find comfort neither in science, nor in religion -- only in poetry.

Romantic poets were not the only ones dissatisfied by both major forks in the post-Enlightenment road of European thought. In fact, reactions against Kant and "universal reason" occupied European thinkers for most of the nineteenth century, so that even the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey, writing towards the century's end, poignantly reflected the spirit of Shelley and Wordsworth:
Metaphysics is silenced -- but in the quiet of the night there still rings from the stars, even for us, a harmony of the spheres that the noise of the world merely drowns out. ... This produces an indissoluble metaphysical mood which undergirds every demonstration and will outlive them all. [Dilthey's Introduction to the Human Sciences, p. 198]
The poignancy here is in the "even for us." Dilthey knows better than to believe in a harmony of the spheres, but he can't help himself. He cannot shake off the "metaphysical mood." It surfaces constantly in the mind -- even if only in the form of a "mental shrug," followed by an "interrogative pulse."

Speaking of Romantics, for Christmas I received a copy of The Portable Romantic Poets, from which the poem above is taken. It's one of a series of Penguin "Portable" books, like The Portable Shakespeare or The Portable Margaret Fuller.

In the class I taught last fall, I assigned an excerpt from the latter. Margaret Fuller was a nineteenth-century feminist and Transcendentalist (the American version of a Romantic) who witnessed the Italian Revolutions of 1848 firsthand. She wrote dispatches for the New York Tribune about what she saw in Paris and Rome. In an essay for the class, one of my students remarked that Fuller's globetrotting life was one reason she is now remembered as "The Portable Margaret Fuller." I couldn't really argue with that.

An excerpt from Margaret Fuller's, "New-York Daily Tribune Dispatches," in The Portable Margaret Fuller, ed. Mary Kelley. Undated.
There are three species [of Americans in Europe]: first, the servile American -- a being utterly shallow, thoughtless, worthless. He comes abroad to spend his money and indulge his tastes. His object in Europe is to have fashionable clothes, good foreign cookery, to know some titled persons, and furnish himself with coffee-house gossip, which he wins importance at home by retailing among those less traveled, and as uninformed as himself.

I look with unspeakable contempt on this class -- a class which has all the thoughtlessness and partiality of the exclusive classes in Europe, without any of their refinement, or the chivalric feeling which still sparkles among them here and there. However, though these willing serfs in a free age do some little hurt, and cause some annoyance, it cannot last: our country is fated to a grand, independent existence, and as its laws develop, these parasites of a bygone period must wither and drop away.

Then there is the conceited American, instinctively bristling and proud of -- he knows not what -- He does not see, not he, that the history of Humanity for many centuries is likely to have produced results it requires some training, some devotion, to appreciate and profit by. With his great clumsy hands only fitted to work on a steam-engine, he seizes the old Cremola violin, makes it shriek with anguish in his grasp, and then declares he thought it was all humbug before he came, and now he knows it; that there is not really any music in these old things; that the frogs in one of our swamps make much finer, for they are young and alive. ... He criticises severely pictures, feeling quite sure that his natural senses are better means of judgment than the rule of connoisseurs -- not feeling that to see such objects mental vision as well as fleshly eyes are needed, and that something is aimed at in Art beyond the imitation of the commonest forms of Nature. ...

The Artistes form a class by themselves. Yet among them, though seeking special aims by special means may also be found the lineaments of these two classes, as well as of the third, of which I am to speak.

3d. The thinking American -- a man who, recognizing the immense advantage of being born to a new world and on a virgin soil, yet does not wish one seed from the Past to be lost. He is anxious to gather and carry back with him all that will bear a new climate and new culture. Some will dwindle; others will attain a bloom and stature unknown before. He wishes to gather them clean, free from noxious insects. He wishes to give them a fair trial in his new world. And that he may know the conditions under which he may best place them in that new world, he does not neglect to study their history in this.

The history of our planet in some moments seems so painfully mean and little, such terrible bafflings and failures to compensate some brilliant successes -- such a crashing of the mass of men beneath the feet of a few, and these, too, of the least worthy -- such a small drop of honey to each cup of gall, and, in many cases, so mingled, that it is never one moment in life purely tasted, -- above all, so little achieved for Humanity as a whole, such tides of war and pestilence intervening to blot out the traces of each triumph, that no wonder if the strongest soul sometimes pauses aghast! No wonder if the many indolently console themselves with gross joys and frivolous prizes. Yes! those men are worthy of admiration who can carry this cross faithfully through fifty years, it is a great while for all the agonies that beset a lover of good, a lover of men. ... Blessed are they who ever keep that portion of pure, generous love with which they began life!

Collective Improvisation:

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