Originally posted over ten years ago now. I’d love to hear what the humanities experience is like for students these days. Can you simply read literature/poetry with intellectual rigor? What about reading and writing without a direct focus on the ‘-ist’ narratives (feminism, racism, sexism, classism)? I must have some things wrong.
‘The best thing that could happen to poetry is to drive it out of the universities with burning pitch forks. Starve the lavish grants. Strangle them all in a barrel of water. Cast them out. The current culture, in which poetry is written for and supported by poets has created a kind of state-sanctioned poetry that resists innovation.’
Has the institutionalization of poetry done it much good?:
‘Lilly’s contribution (and contributions) to the Poetry Foundation are the only reason it is what it is today. In other words, it’s not through any intrinsic or hard-earned merit that the Poetry Foundation is surviving and flourishing today, but because of a drug baron’s fantastic wealth.’
Maybe it wasn’t Emerson that kept Whitman going, but rather, the thought of returning to his tenure track position after a long hiatus. Yet should there be no state funding at all of poetry…only patronage?
And in the meantime, this process is dovetailing with the loudest, most strident voices in the postmodern soup taking ideological control of the supplies of someone else’s money.
For many Westerners, perhaps there is no longer a God revealing Himself to Man, but there are expanding fields of knowledge and human endeavors able to light the way forwards onto a future of hope and progress; backwards onto human origins.
In the popular media (such as in the publications displaying the photo above), perhaps this knowledge can align with current popular sentiment and belief. An imprimatur, of sorts.
Such thinking can also coincide with a rather Romantic Idealization of Nature; a vision of Man without dominion over Nature, necessarily, but rather men, women, children and an ever growing list of humans (and animals, even) living both frustratingly apart, but also interconnected within Nature, following Nature’s lead alone and with each other.
Most people, I suspect, often without such specialized knowledge (not specifically trained in the sciences), require a lot of moral oughts and shoulds regarding how to live and what to do.
Furthermore, people tend to organize into groups united by shared principles and beliefs, and so often, in the modern world, beneath political ideals and political ideologies. Even if these political ideals and ideologies aren’t explict moral philosophies, necessarily, they can certainly end-up engaging the moral sentiments, basic human desires and motivations of the people within them.
Such movements are certainly understood by many of their members as posessing truth and knowledge enough to write the laws and rules we all must follow, prescribing our own personal moral behavior enough to align us with the people who ought to be in charge of us.
Perhaps the poet or Romantic genius can help guide Man into the Self and the Self into Nature. The poet/thinker’s example can be full of grief, anguish and Nature’s brutality, indeed, but it can also offer moments of self-actualization, beauty, consolation and transcendence. It can be taught as part of a civilizing hierarchy or canon, a reef of traditions and structure enough to develop seriously good artists and produce quite a few educated citizens.
I suspect there’s always been a tension between the poet/artist and the Man of Science and Mathematics; people generally more concerned in seeking the underlying order and patterns within Nature, discovering the probabilistic and mathematical laws able to accurately describe and predict the strange world in which we seem to find ourselves. Such laws can be beautiful, and symmetrical, and true just for their own sake, sure, but like a good poem, a mathematical law remains curiously silent about how to live and what to do.
Addition: Perhaps, I might add, but perhaps not. Perhaps it’s worth thinking about just which dangers accompany such lights, and which problems endure.
‘The claim that “open societies” are now increasingly threatened would probably meet with little argument. But what is the nature of the threat, and what are its roots? Here less agreement might be found. Some would say an essentially religious clash of civilizations is the main cause, and point to the growing struggle between Islam and the West.
Others might point to Russia under President Putin, finding evidence of a long-standing political tradition that owes relatively little to the Russian Orthodox Church, but has always found liberty odious.
And then there’s a third and troubling possibility — that from an evolutionary perspective, taking a long view of our historic and prehistoric origins, open societies where voluntaristic principles prevail are new forms of human association only recently arrived from the distant tribal past, and in the more violent trouble spots around the world they never arrived at all.’
The late Ken Minogue:
On the many dangers of political idealism, and using political theory as the limits of your field of vision:
‘We may sum this up by saying that the more the style of what used to be called politics becomes theorized, the more political problems come to be reintrepreted as managerial. Working out the least oppressive laws under which different and sometimes conflicting groups may live peaceably together is being replaced by manipulation and management of the attitudes different groups take towards each other, with the hope that this will ultimately bring harmony. In other words, in the new form of society, human beings are becoming the matter which is to be shaped according to the latest moral idea.’
-Minogue, Kenneth. Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. (Pg 111).
“‘…a morally concerned style of intellectual atheism openly avowed by only a small minority of individuals (for example, those who are members of the British Humanist Association) but tacitly accepted by a wide spectrum of educated people in all parts of the Western world.”
Roger Sandall, Australian critic of romantic primitivism and the Western’s Left’s penchant for the Noble Savage: His home page where his essays can be found. Here’s “The Rise Of The Anthropologues“ and…
Robert Hughes, Australian and often fierce critic of modernism and post-modernism.
Somewhere up in the clouds of Venus, there’s Phosphine [possibly]. So far, there’s no known naturally occurring reason for this, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. On Earth, when bacteria farts in our guts and in swamps, that’s when you get Phosphine. I’ll bet it smells nice.
Maybe in those clouds of sulfuric acid, racing above surface temperatures high-enough to melt lead, there’s some ammonia? Maybe this ammonia is neutralizing the cloud PH balance enough for some kind of bacteria to survive?
These are questions to which a little exploration can provide answers.
You know the moment you notice that the world has fallen away for awhile? You’re leisurely enjoying a photograph, or a painting, or a poem…
‘In the critical terminology of the time, Ghirri’s close-up photographs of the details of atlases and other maps question the link between signifier and signified, referring to a supposedly ‘natural’ environment that has long since become a simulacrum, and revealing the specific aesthetics harboured within ‘objective’ representation.’
The NIGHT of the BLURB! It’s postmodern, it’s (S)elf referential, it’s….alive. It’s dead. It’s…subjectivity and objectivity combined!
And now for a ‘modern’ poem.
The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter To regard the frost and the boughs Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time To behold the junipers shagged with ice, The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think Of any misery in the sound of the wind, In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land Full of the same wind That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow, And, nothing himself, beholds Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
“For the 2020-2021 graduate admissions cycle, the University of Chicago English Department is accepting only applicants interested in working in and with Black Studies,” the program said in a statement on its website.‘
Some academics stood up to the administration and the decision:
The letter’s signatories include several of the university’s most respected academics, including Professor Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s pre-eminent historian, Dr Michael Rosie, senior lecturer in sociology, Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy, and Jonathan Hearn, professor of political and historical sociology.
During my humanities education, I developed an increasing suspicion of the postmodern rejection of tradition, rules, laws, rituals and beliefs, at least with regard to reading, writing and thinking. In engaging with some dull, and other absolutely mesmerizing, works of the creative imagination, I realized many of my own rituals and beliefs were being challenged. There are many experiences, and views, and ways to understand both myself and the world.
This is a good reason to get a good education!
It also slowly dawned on me that the lack of pedagogy, endless deconstructionist academic discussions, canon-less syllabi and increasing identitarian drift (is this person a professor because he/she’s the best poet/teacher or because he/she’s black/female or some mix of both?) were a problem.
A lot of this aimlessness and rebellion had ramped-up in the 1960’s, but since then, I’ve come to understand there are even deeper problems.
I aim to be open-minded, but not so much as to notice my brains falling out.
Interesting paper presented by Erika Kiss, beginning about minute 32:00 (the whole conference is likely worth your time for more knowledge on Oakeshott).
According to Kiss, Oakeshott’s non-teleological, non-purposive view of education is potentially a response to Friedrich Hayek, Martha Nussbaum, and Allan Bloom, in the sense that all of these thinkers posit some useful purpose or outcome in getting a liberal education.
Friedrich Hayek’s profound epistemological attack on rationalist thought is still a system itself, and attaches learning to market-based processes which eventually drive freedom and new thinking in universities. The two are mutually dependent to some extent.
Martha Nussbaum attaches liberal learning to ends such as making us ‘Aristotelian citizens of the world’, or better citizens in a democracy, which has struck me as incomplete at best.
Allan Bloom is profoundly influenced by Straussian neo-classicism, and wants love, classical learning, honor and duty to perhaps be those reasons why a young man or woman should read the classics. This, instead of crass commercialism, the influences of popular music, deconstructionism and logical positivism.
Via A Reader-Isaiah Berlin’s Lectures On The Roots Of Romanticism. Romanticism–>Modernism–>Postmodernism–>Wherever We’re Heading Now
Maybe it all started with Beethoven: Everyone’s a (S)elf.
Isaiah Berlin pretty much blackballed Roger Scruton, so it’s not all roses.
“The works of Shakespeare contain important knowledge. But it is not scientific knowledge, nor could it ever be built into a theory. It is knowledge of the human heart”
“…in the days when the humanities involved knowledge of classical languages and an acquaintance with German scholarship, there was no doubt that they required real mental discipline, even if their point could reasonably be doubted. But once subjects like English were admitted to a central place in the curriculum, the question of their validity became urgent. And then, in the wake of English came the pseudo-humanities—women’s studies, gay studies and the like—which were based on the assumption that, if English is a discipline, so too are they.”
“And since there is no cogent justification for women’s studies that does not dwell upon the subject’s ideological purpose, the entire curriculum in the humanities began to be seen in ideological terms.”
Terry Eagleton, British Marxist and professor in the humanities, debates Scruton below.
Will Marxism & continental philosophy become further guiding lights for the humanities here in America as we find much more so in Britain?
The nihilist claims are deeper than you may think, and the Nietzschean, and Will–>Will to Power German influence is also deeper than most people think; offering profound criticisms of the scientific project, liberalism, liberal institutions, and a secular humanism which is the air many folks breathe these days.
Here’s a somewhat similar vein of thought. From friesian.com:
Although Anglo-American philosophy tended to worship at the feet of science, the drift of academia to the left has led to characteristically totalitarian political attacks on science itself — this despite the leftist program to use “climate science” to impose a Sovietized command economy on energy and the tactic to smear climate skeptics, i.e. “Deniers,” through associaton with Creationism or Neo-Nazi Holocaust denial. None of that has stopped the “post-modern” move…’
I’m still stopping short of anarchy (interesting discussions abound with ‘they’ and Michael Malice).
Some of what you might have heard about the Kyle Rittenhouse trial might be true, but a lot of it is likely manufactured and politically motivated bullshit. When it comes to facts and law, we really need to support a reasonable discovery of facts and reasonable application of law. In my opinion, if generally better men, seeking to protect the public square from generally worse men, are actively punished by the law for mostly bad reasons….well, don’t say you weren’t warned. We’ll see which, if any, charges stick.
As mentioned, I saw the same dynamic emerge with C.H.A.Z. or C.H.O.P. here in Seattle. What might have possibly resembled legitimate protest, and any semblance of reason, appeared briefly at the beginning of this systemic failure of law and order. By the time C.H.O.P emerged, the protest model was thoroughly exhausted (long before then). Over the next few weeks, unsurprisingly, within the anarchy, crazier and more thuggish people made their will felt.
Members of the ‘John Brown Gun Club’ and various other Leftist militia types started doing what the vacated police could not. There were murders and a few rapes.
As I see things, the anti-authoritarian authorities (Seattle political leadership) pretty much failed in describing and understanding reality and human nature, as the fruits of their ideas ripened in the public square.
As always, use your judgment and keep many files open as to what’s true. My biggest concern: Violence is not prohibited, and is, in fact, actively encouraged, within radical doctrines. Religious belief, tradition and much patriotism is shared only by a plurality or only a minority of Americans these days.
My dead horse to beat: It’d be nice if many liberal idealists, instead of mostly leaning on Boomer over-built institutions (while shrieking at conservatives and Republicans and the clusterfuck found therein), would admit that behind the rainbow flag was always a certain amount of anarchy and radical violence. Now it’s just spilled from the academic enclaves into the public square.
What’s caught my eye is a tweet by Mary Harrington regarding Wendell Berry. I don’t see many folks dipping into the Twitter Catholic enclaves (I have my doubts) nor mentioning Berry’s poems.
I’ve recognized in Berry a very good poet, as well as a poet offering potential direction to the Romantic-Modernist-Postmodern conceptualization of (N)ature. It appears Harrington is conceptualizing Berry’s appropriation below as ‘post liberal’. On the further Left, such conceptualization often occurs in the form of Romantic Primitivism, celebration of The Noble Savage, social constructionism, and ‘any-oppressed-people-is-a-friend-against-my-Oppressor’ logic.
Amongst many liberal idealists, such conceptualization often occurs as progressivism and progressive idealism, Boomer secular-one-world-humanism (the Beatles, man….the Beatles and maybe the World Bank too), global institutional collectivism and the hipster return to the nature in your backyard (a serious over-simplification).
A lot of the Civil Rights logic has resulted in a vast expansion of Federal Authority (the same used to oppress) now backing into a lot of technocratic bureaucracy and Statist authority.
‘But in the year 2000, with Fascism and Communism both discredited, why, I wondered, were so many turning back toward Rousseau? What was the attraction of romantic primitivism? How had ethnic culture become a beau ideal? Cities certainly have their problems, but why did New Yorkers see tribal societies as exemplary and tribespeople as paragons of social virtue?’
If you do manage to develop a bedrock of secular humanism in civil society (subject to that society’s particular traditions and history), won’t that society still have need of its own myths?
Even though Fascism and Communism have been discredited in theory and in practice, adherents remain (look no further than most American academies).
Sandall notes the Popperian elements discussed as from ‘The Open Society And Its Enemies‘, which as a theory, stretches deep into human nature and the West’s Greek traditions.
Is Popper’s ‘critical rationalism’ some of what we’re seeing from the intellectual dark-webbers, or at least many bright people pushing against the fascistic elements found within many far-Left movements, just those movements endorse and feed a far-right, identitarian and ideological response?:
‘…the people and institutions of the open society that Popper envisioned would be imbued with the same critical spirit that marks natural science, an attitude which Popper called critical rationalism. This openness to analysis and questioning was expected to foster social and political progress as well as to provide a political context that would allow the sciences to flourish.’
Sandall again on Popper:
‘His 1945 The Open Society and Its Enemies started out from the contrast between closed autarkic Sparta and free-trading protean Athens, and used it to illuminate the conflict between Fascism and Communism on the one hand, and Western democracy on the other.’
‘Is an ‘open society’ also supposed to be an ‘open polity’ with open borders? Médecins sans Frontières is all very well: but states cannot be run on such lines. Popper’s is a theory of society, not a theory of the state—and it seems to me that his book offers no clear account of the wider political preconditions that enable ‘open societies’ to both flourish and defend themselves.’
So, how did Sandall see the idea of ‘culture’ having its orgins?:
‘But at a higher philosophical level, and starting out in England, it owed more to the energetic publicising of Herder’s ideas by the Oxford celebrity Sir Isaiah Berlin — ideas of irresistible appeal to the post-Marxist and post-religious liberal mind.’
Open borders and open societies? A desire a ‘culture’ has to forge and solidify its own identity?
‘Now, I do not regard Berlin’s value pluralism as objectionable or even as wrong, except to the extend that it is irrelevant to the MORAL issue and so proves nothing for or against liberalism. Liberalism will indeed recommend itself if one wishes to have a regime that will respect, within limits, a value pluralism.
‘J.S. Mill, etc., continue to be better philosophers than Berlin or Gray because they understand that there must be an absolute moral claim in the end to fundamental rights and negative liberty, however it is thought, or not thought, to be justified. Surrendering the rational case does not even mean accepting the overall “value pluralism” thesis, since Hume himself did not do so. ‘
Back to Sandall:
‘Then something happened: the English word “culture” in the sense employed by Matthew Arnold inhis 1869 Culture and Anarchy got both anthropologized and Germanised — and anthropological culture was the opposite of all that. It meant little more in fact than a social system.’
Any thoughts and comments are welcome.
A rather tangled web indeed…
Further entanglements on this site, possibly related:
‘Popper’s World 3 is in some respects reminiscent of Plato’s realm of the Forms, but differs in that Popper takes World 3 to be something man-made. As I noted in the earlier post just linked to, this makes his positon at least somewhat comparable the Aristotelian realist (as opposed to Platonic realist) view that universals are abstracted by the mind from the concrete objects that instantiate them rather than pre-existing such abstraction.’
“…and if there could be such a thing as socialism combined with individual liberty, I would be a socialist still. For nothing could be better than living a modest, simple, and free life in an egalitarian society. It took some time before I recognized this as no more than a beautiful dream; that freedom is more important that equality; that the attempt to realize equality endangers freedom; and that, if freedom is lost, there will not even be equality among the unfree.”
The complaints come first, the questionable art second, then the entrenched and endless complaints, sometimes becoming violent.
The world we’re building isn’t the one on the horizon, it’s the one right here in the museum lobby and street corner.
‘Tate Modern, one of the most important and influential modern art galleries in the world, is expressing its commitment to public engagement by inviting people to complain. In the echoey space, plastered with Guerrilla Girls’ agitprop posters, members of the public are invited to sit at a table filled with coloured paper and pens, scribble out their complaints and pin them to one of the boards around the room. After a couple of days, the boards were full of complaints about everything from elitist art collectors to low wages for cleaners, from the lack of affordable housing to the misuse of the apostrophe. The boards created a silent, confused, colourful cacophony of grumbling.
Are we supposed to take this seriously? I would say so. The Guerrilla Girls, an activist collective of female artists based in New York, has been complaining for over 30 years.’
This stuff trickles down, you know…
Damien Hirst’s Diamond Skull here, which is entitled ‘For The Love Of God.‘
As found yesterday, November 13th, 2016…in a Seattle Eastside Supermarket.
It’s worth thinking about Western culture and the travels of the individual artist through romanticism, modernism and post-modernism and to wherever it is some of those artists are headed now. As for Damien Hirst, it was probably inevitable that someone who couldn’t draw all that well, and didn’t have many of the basics down, would rocket in and out of the spotlight, capturing the moment.
‘Damien Hirst’s output between 2005 and 2008 – the period of his greatest success – has subsequently resold at an average of thirty per cent less than its original purchase price. Moreover, a third of the almost 1700 Hirst pieces that have gone to auction since 2009 have failed to sell at all. Most recently, in November, his gloss-and-butterfly collage Sanctimony failed to reach its lowest pre-sale estimate at a Sotheby’s auction’
So what’s lacking in the humanities? Roger Scruton had some keen insights:
“The works of Shakespeare contain important knowledge. But it is not scientific knowledge, nor could it ever be built into a theory. It is knowledge of the human heart”
So forget the recent, and rather desperate, attempts to make the humanities into a science (however…it’s been done before with some success). Scruton suggests it’s been a long slide for the humanities to arrive where they’ve arrived:
“In the days when the humanities involved knowledge of classical languages and an acquaintance with German scholarship, there was no doubt that they required real mental discipline, even if their point could reasonably be doubted. But once subjects like English were admitted to a central place in the curriculum, the question of their validity became urgent. And then, in the wake of English came the pseudo-humanities—women’s studies, gay studies and the like—which were based on the assumption that, if English is a discipline, so too are they.”
And now that we’re left with somewhat balkanized and politicized departments of English, these departments have become a target of the political right, dragging many people into a nasty fight that eats up political capital:
“And since there is no cogent justification for women’s studies that does not dwell upon the subject’s ideological purpose, the entire curriculum in the humanities began to be seen in ideological terms.”
So how to restore the vision? Scruton advised to restore (and not eschew) judgment:
” Of course, Shakespeare invites judgment, as do all writers of fiction. But it is not political judgment that is relevant. We judge Shakespeare plays in terms of their expressiveness, truth to life, profundity, and beauty.”
This is deep insight and I think the better part of Scruton’s thinking in the article comes when he resisted his own political (anti multi-cultural, pro-conservative, pro-church of England conservatism) impulses. Here are the last few lines:
“It will require a confrontation with the culture of youth, and an insistence that the real purpose of universities is not to flatter the tastes of those who arrive there, but to present them with a rite of passage into something better.”
One could argue that this is necessary though how to arrive there is in doubt.
“The young man who has not wept is a savage, and the old man who will not laugh is a fool.”
On another note: Despite the importance of beauty, the refinement of our experiences through poems and prose, the difficult work of cultivating”taste” for ourselves as well providing a rite of passage for our youth: Aren’t we still attaching the humanities to something else?
We know the humanities will never be a science. Politics is always in conflict with the arts. Much philosophy is indifferent to the humanities at best. In fact, Plato was quite suspicious of their influence on the republic (good overview here).
A reader sends a link: Curtis Yarvin is questioned by David Friedman in Yarvin’s debate with Robin Hanson over the truth claims of Futarchy.
Potential deeper subtexts-Monarchy vs anarcho-capitalism as forms of political arrangement and maybe some Hobbes v Locke in terms of property and incentives.
Just as the Universitarian Universalists promote a mish-mash of secular humanism, ‘religion’-lite ethics and alignment with many progressive causes (rainbow flags aloft), some of what’s in the air is an undermining of legitimate forms of authority into the postmodern soup.
I’m pretty sure members of the activist Left have driven much of the social change beneath the banner of liberal ideals (rainbow flags aloft), and further entrenched an incredibly cynical and ruthless take on all forms of authority (generally people you don’t want in charge of anything).
Most radicals mostly see liberal idealism and pragmatism as obstacles to be defeated on the way to….liberation and revolutionary praxis.
From another reader: Has the Homo lineage, Homo Sapiens particularly, domesticated himself by forming coalitions of beta-males to resist the natural tendency towards one alpha male among a group of breeding females? Is utilizing fire (cooked food, protection) a primary means of this domestication? Have we carved out a little spot for guided evolution?
Bio-anthropology might have some insights.
The cleaner sciences tell us only about the laws of nature, and relatively little about the (how/why/what does it all mean?) questions we’re bound to ask about ourselves.
A minor aside: What’s with the academic and Romantic tendency to additionally celebrate broad and general categories like ‘women’ and ‘minorities’ under the idea of secular humanism (readers know I harbor skepticism towards the latest moral cause and the ‘-Isms’)?
I’d argue such skepticism is a political third-rail these days, but likely a longer-term good position to hold (you can support individuals and other people without such ideas).
I have feet in many camps, but I think each of us is subject to constant reinforcement and reification of our group’s basic beliefs (academics are no different). Tell me who you walk with and I’ll tell you who you are…to some extent.
Of note: When the economic and military strength of one nation (let’s say America) is over-estimated and due for an update, and that of another (let’s say China with cutting-edge AI capabilities) also doesn’t match current many estimations, treaties, and alliances…watch out. Conflict is more likely.
My take: There are, and will be, rules, and authority. This emerges from deep within us. Leaders are stewards. Sometimes the authority’s pretty corrupt (serving the wants/needs of individuals claiming to serve all but incentivized to serve their faction while enriching themselves). There’s always some corruption and politics is a necessary evil. Existing institutions can easily be co-opted, and usually will, by less honorable, loud, and driven people.
We can all actively benefit, but must be very careful handling, coalitions of men. Men in committed marriages, having earned respect for their judgment and experience, with large networks of business and social connections, motivated by an urge towards decency and protection of their families, are often the ones you want in charge.
‘The most useful definition of modernist fiction I’ve encountered comes from Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction. He says modernist fiction tends to “foreground epistemological questions” such as “How can I interpret the world I’m part of? What is there to be known? Who knows it? What are the limits of that knowledge?” In contrast, postmodernist fiction tends to “foreground ontological questions” such as “What is a world? What kinds of worlds are there and how are they constituted? What happens when…boundaries between worlds are violated?’
As to the epistemological questions surrounding Modernism, below are four poems. Hopefully, each is a representative example of a move away from the Romanticism that had been prevalent up until the late 1800’s.
In addition to the move away from traditional Romantic rhyme and meter towards modern blank verse, there’s also a certain conception of the Self rendered in them; a presentation of our natures that might be worth examining in some detail.
I believe we can see clearly a move away from tradition towards the Self, the Poet isolated, the poem itself as a means of communication, and an anxiety so common within the 20th century.
‘At the heart of Bloom’s project is the ancient quarrel between “poetry” and “philosophy.” In Bloom’s opinion, we ought not have to choose between Homer and Plato; we can have both, as long as we recognize that poetry is superior.’
Says the guy who writes about poetry…
What does one find within, as one looks without, waking from sleep and dream?
What kind of world is this, and can the poet actually help us know it?
You tossed a blanket from the bed You lay upon your back, and waited; You dozed, and watched the night revealing The thousand sordid images Of which your soul was constituted; They flickered against the ceiling. And when all the world came back And the light crept up between the shutters And you heard the sparrows in the gutters, You had such a vision of the street As the street hardly understands; Sitting along the bed’s edge, where You curled the papers from your hair, Or clasped the yellow soles of feet In the palms of both soiled hands.
The world will stain you, and it is a fallen, modern world, rendered profoundly and exquisitely.
As consciousness creeps in, building a bridge to the day, to the world, to the facts left as though they were the first facts, the light as though it were the first light, what one finds is distressing, both within and without.
That distress must be ‘made new,’ which is to say, the suffering (original?) in which we all sometimes find ourselves must match our experiences within the modern city and world, at least, the world created within Eliot’s lyrical verse.
Of the four poems, only the first and last have a 3rd-person subject.
Wallace Stevens‘ ‘I’ is in a more contemplative state, but it’s an ‘I’ exploring similar themes, and experiencing some distress in trying to know how the world actually is, and what might lie within.
The journey to The Self may not be a journey for the faint of heart.
The Poems Of Our Climate (stanzas II and III)
II Say even that this complete simplicity Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed The evilly compounded, vital I And made it fresh in a world of white, A world of clear water, brilliant-edged, Still one would want more, one would need more, More than a world of white and snowy scents.
III There would still remain the never-resting mind, So that one would want to escape, come back To what had been so long composed. The imperfect is our paradise. Note that, in this bitterness, delight, Since the imperfect is so hot in us, Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
Even if the verse can describe a perfected world, delivering us, perhaps, a little closer to perfection, our poet is still not free from the impulses and desires which simply never cease.
Interestingly, we end-up not with a discussion of the heart, the spirit, libido etc. as a source for those desires (for Plato, the irrational), but rather, for Stevens, just a mind.
We also find more Romantic elements of language and an almost baroque/rococo arrangement of words and ideas, dandyish even, yet combined with an intense effort to abstract, define, and clarify. From here, the poet may proceed on his task of flawed words and stubborn sounds.
***I find myself thinking of elements of modern architecture and abstract-expressionist painting. The meaning, or at least some delivery from our restless existences, can be found within the abstract itself. Or at least within a retreat to the abstract for its own sake, away from the world.
The modernist, glass-walled house on the hill will exist in its own space, offering and defying meaning. The structure’s own shapes will be stripped down to often mathematically precise forms interacting with Nature. These shall guide Man, or at least offer individual men a little refuge.
It is perhaps in Stevens’ poem we can see the questions of knowledge about the world suggesting questions about whether there is a world at all, or, at least, what kind of worlds each Self might be able to inhabit.
The Self is extremely isolated. In fact, Lowell went more than a little crazy. Unlike the known nervous breakdown of Eliot from which Eliot recovered, Lowell’s life was essentially one long breakdown from which he never recovered.
Here he is, looking back:
Those blessed structures plot and rhyme- why are they no help to me now i want to make something imagined not recalled? I hear the noise of my own voice: The painter’s vision is not a lens it trembles to caress the light. But sometimes everything i write With the threadbare art of my eye seems a snapshot lurid rapid garish grouped heightened from life yet paralyzed by fact. All’s misalliance. Yet why not say what happened? Pray for the grace of accuracy Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination stealing like the tide across a map to his girl solid with yearning. We are poor passing facts. warned by that to give each figure in the photograph his living name.
The weight of having to make that meaning, for yourself, and by yourself, is a horrible weight indeed. One can glorify one’s Self and family, but that, alas, only goes so far. Rhyme and form still carry one’s living name, as far as they do.
Of course, there’s still wonderful rhythm and form here (this is excellent verse), but blanker now, with a relentless focus on the ‘I.’ The poet is perhaps talking a little more to himself, and the poem keeps self-consciously calling attention to itself.
In fact, it reminded me of the poem below, by Robert Creeley, which was published a few years afterwards.
From this page:
‘Creeley was a leader in the generational shift that veered away from history and tradition as primary poetic sources and gave new prominence to the ongoing experiences of an individual’s life. Because of this emphasis, the major events of his life loom large in his literary work.’
There’s Nothing but the Self and the Eye seeking and making meaning, by itself within a void of emotionally compact and precise language (of course there’s still form and other things besides).
Can the poet fit inside the little abstract chapel of words he’s building for himself (let alone the world, tradition etc.)?
For all the talk about ‘space,’ there seems very little.
Position is where you put it, where it is, did you, for example, that
large tank there, silvered, with the white church along- side, lift
all that, to what purpose? How heavy the slow
world is with everything put in place. Some
man walks by, a car beside him on the dropped
road, a leaf of yellow color is going to
fall. It all drops into place. My
face is heavy with the sight. I can feel my eye breaking.
The distress is still there…but I’d argue that we are now a good distance away from the grandness of Eliot’s vision, his religiosity and virtuosity with form and meter at the dawn of Modernism. Very few people can/could do what Eliot did (addition: even if he can help us gain knowledge of our Selves or the world).
That said, it’s unclear there’s enough tradition and confidence to even undertake such a project, now, even as such talents come along. The state of things is more scattered. We’re in a very different place of selves and artists isolated, of anxiety and post-anxiety.
Aside from the very accomplished poets above, in terms of both knowledge (epistemology) and being (ontology), we often have writers feeling pressure to weigh-in on such questions without even being about to write that well; artists who can’t draw or paint that well, and frankly, quite a bit of bullshit besides.
So, where are we headed? Who’s ‘we’ exactly?
Predictions are hard, especially about the future.
‘In “Sea Change,” Graham becomes Prospero, casting spells by spelling out her thoughts to merge with ours, and with the voices of the elements. The result is a mingling of perceptions rather than a broadcasting of opinions. Instead of analysis, the poems encourage emotional involvement with the drastic changes overwhelming us, overwhelm- ing the planet.’
‘Strengths and weaknesses, flows and ebbs, yet every poem in “Sea Change” bears memorable lines, with almost haunting (if we truly have but 10 years to “fix” global warming) images of flora and fauna under siege. Jorie Graham has composed a swan song for Earth.’
What are these poems being asked to do?
And moving away from poetry into the realm of ‘performance art,’