Full post here. (The link may not last long. For future reference, it is the Richard Bacon show on the BBC, Tue June 29th, 2:13:00).
Is agnosticism a convenient middle path…a cop out…a way to split the difference and not confront the balance of evidence?
Here’s a quote from Betrand Russell:
“As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God.
On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.”
“But it is not just that old tunes are being replayed, but that they are being replayed badly. The classic performance was given by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, written in the middle of the 18th century. “
and Blackburn’s last paragraph:
“The upshot ought to be not dogmatic atheism, but sceptical irony. Of course, the latter is just as infuriating to those making special claims to authority, perhaps more so. Men and women of God may find it invigorating and bracing to meet disagreement, but even benevolent mockery is mockery. They would find that it is much harder to bear the Olympian gaze of the greatest of British philosophers.”
Dalrymple claims that the new round of atheists, (or at least some of the current spokesmen of popular atheism) are glossing over the deep metaphysical questions surrounding the existence of God. Very few popular thinkers who attempt to address the depth of the God arguments succeed, but those who do so within Christianity strike me, as does Dinesh D’Souza, as ignoring a few hundred years of thought as they gaze out from within their own doctrines.
Isn’t the pursuit of scientific inquiry and truth (fortunately) a separate enterprise from the religious pursuit of truth?
Some atheists seem to be in danger of becoming adherents rather than free thinkers.
Addition: More on Roger Sandall’s blog here, as he discusses Roger Scruton.
One question seems to be whether we choose to give religious arguments any quarter at all. The hard atheist line seems to be no. Mine is…perhaps…
Another Addition: Agnosticism, right? Thanks to a friend for bringing this up. Here’s a pretty nasty critique of agnosticism from the atheist point of view.
Link sent in by a reader. A British affair, but interesting:
‘For those who don’t believe in God, but do believe in humanity, how should we view religion? O’Neill argues for tolerance. That means we should be free to express our beliefs as we see fit, and others should be to criticise and even ridicule those beliefs’
But radical humanism, or renewed faith in humanism, must still ground itself in claims to knowledge and truth, in rationality, or in some thinking which can maintain civil society and mediate other competing claims according to its lights. Why and how should humanists manage the public square?
Here in America, we’re arguably witnessing the decline of organized religion in public life and in many of our institutions, and perhaps the rise of greater numbers of unaffiliated individuals exercising their freedoms and arranging their lives in other ways.
It’s become quite easy to mock the religious and religious figures (Christian, mostly) as representatives of a defunct/backwards way of thinking, thus marginalizing them from public debate. Of course, in my opinion, there remain good reasons to be skeptical of many claims to knowledge and truth made by the Church, to satirize the ignorance and abuses of earthly power, as well as the zeal of religious belief, but I’m generally content to leave it up to the individual should they choose turning inward to a relationship with God, to religious texts, or a church.
Perhaps the flip-side to liberal secular humanist faith is a lack of faith. Surely some deep, liberal thinker out there has become thoroughly convinced that people are no good, after all, and can’t be trusted with their freedoms apart from his/her thinking or ideological commitments. Perhaps there’s a secular humanist political leader somewhere thoroughly sick of humanity for the time being, simply accruing more political power and influence because they can.
As far as satire or mockery goes, they would be just as worthy, no?
Recently, British popular thinker Alain De Botton floated the idea of building an ‘atheist temple’ in the heart of London. He recommends combing through religious practices for useful organizing principles in response to the New Atheists. You can read more about it here, which includes a radio interview/podcast.
Towards a theme: Perhaps you’ve also heard of the Rothko chapel, in Houston, Texas:
‘The Rothko Chapel, founded by Houston philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil, was dedicated in 1971 as an intimate sanctuary available to people of every belief. A tranquil meditative environment inspired by the mural canvases of Russian born American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970), the Chapel welcomes over 60,000 visitors each year, people of every faith and from all parts of the world.’
“‘…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.”
A potential truth: A lot of people (most of us, most of the time) don’t really think for ourselves. We often confuse our father’s wisdom for timeless and universal truth, when our father’s wisdom may be wise in some situations, unwise in others (I don’t think we should aim to rationalize/clear the ground with every thought). We need a model for our hearts, minds and souls, especially while young.
In my experience: We’re often more interested in our own positions within our own relationships and status hierarchies, as self-interested rule-following punishers. Smart kids, of course, think through ideas quickly, bore easily, but are no less subject to youthful arrogance, over-confidence and lack of experience. A lot of people, a lot of the time, will subordinate truth, new ideas and new possibilities if it means a steady paycheck, or some praise, or continued influence or promise of future influence.
Or in the worse cases, if it means basic gratification of the desires (all manner of rationalization and self-delusion can accompany each of us)
We like to know where we stand, and we like rules, teams, and a royal ‘we’ to which to belong. Standing on principle is hard, especially if it requires steep costs.
Remember back to your middle-school days: Fitting-in for a thirteen year-old is serious business. Puberty has set-in. Some boys are fighting for status and rank. A lot of girls are gossiping and sometimes physically fighting for status and rank. Weaker kids, with fewer looks, muscles, skills, positive attributes etc. are scrambling for a foothold. Nature is kinda ruthless. It comes from without, and within, I suspect, and requires civilization to provide some ground rules.
In my generation, time and place, there were some basic ground rules and expectations, and these were usually enforced seriously. Back then, there was less anti-hero worship, less self-esteem talk and miscalibrated focus on the (S)elf, and less feminine sentimentalization of all problems (women=good, men=bad, freedom is next).
Don’t worry, it’ll all work out.
Again, a lot of people are not in the habit of thinking much, nor deeply, nor skeptically. Many people require a set of received opinions, beliefs, and commands to act upon, and will hold this bundle as gospel, especially when they sense their own abilities, value, and status is low.
Departments of education, and universities, attract both dull and quick minds. Both are especially subject to the modern hostility against tradition. I believe they are falling into the trap of rationality/irrationality, and into the postmodern, anything goes irrational response to most problems of ourselves and the world. I believe this helps explain the capture by much narrower ideologues, Left-radicalism, and arguably much worse ideas.
That’s all that’s required for action: True-belief, some money, influence and rank, and……endless promise of liberation. If you don’t water the trees of conservation, wisdom, speech and liberty…
‘Intersectionality is not just a branch of feminism, a means by which to advance women’s interests, or an analysis of matters of social concern. It is an all-encompassing philosophy that advances a unique politics, metaphysics, aesthetics, and epistemology, as well as its own (rather bizarre) interpretation of history. It is effectively a secular religion.1′
Many liberation-based ideologues and radical discontents have ridden the postmodern waves into academies and various other institutions of influence.
This blog operates under the assumption that, generally, people who’ve only conceived of the world as a series of power relationships, or fumblings of Self against the objectively meaningless void, or through lenses of collectivist oppression and victimhood, are generally people to be nowhere near positions of authority and stewardship.
Hey, it’s just the Arts & Sciences, as well as your freedoms.
Who is ‘Rasta Dale’?
Despite his humble beginnings as the bastard son of an itinerant diplomat and the global-warming journalist sent to cover him, Dale has worked hard to become the supreme leader of Peace Pavilion West. He oversees daily work assignments, Temple activities and breeding celebrations.
Protecting the environment, promoting women’s freedom and protesting warmongers here on Spaceship Earth are all in a day’s work in the community, and for Dale.
Here are some recent articles Dale wholeheartedly supports:
As I’m doing PR for PPW, I like to include my commentary when relevant.
Community Gardens IN THE SKY!
Of course Dr. Seuss should get political! Make everything political!
Dale had a dark period after the last EPA raid. He was found in the Temple by himself mumbling ‘Now we are all zero-waste:’
‘…”yes, a God-like being plays a central role in Smith’s ethics.” In making that argument, he believes that he is in agreement with a long list of Smith scholars, and I am on that list.‘
Whether or not it’s the new Technocratic (S)cientific Consensus of (M)an, or the new Gospels of (M)an, we might want to remember much of the context the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers had.
I hope we don’t get too esoteric and Straussian.
Because you didn’t ask:
I think of enviro-preachers more on the Gospel side of things. They move like unwell country pastors, seeking-out soapboxes near the Sunday Service.
‘Is he still married?’ Doesn’t he live out near Cooper’s farm?’
The original sin is industrialization, you see, and we are all sinners. The cure always seems to be more Humanist/Anti-Humanist gospel. Liberal idealists hate to be caught too close to such utopian, poorly-groomed men, where questionable dressing habits usually indicate a (C)ommitment the (C)ause.
‘I hear he rides his e-bike eighteen miles one-way from Stockbridge to buy ox-meat.‘
‘It is all very disconcerting. From her breakdown, to her recitation of carbon-emission facts, the Greta that emerges in Our House is on Fire doesn’t feel like an individual. She feels like a fictional device. A God’s fool-style character, descended down to Earth to expose our folly.’
Come on down!
Shit! Tell me you didn’t buy a house with The GovCo Collective Housing & Blackrock Authority?
‘…if I understand your thesis correctly, you argue that the beliefs, mindsets and manners that animated earlier Protestantism have not been abandoned, but instead have been projected on to the political realm.’
‘The Mainline churches helped define American culture in several ways. First of all, the churches were mostly apolitical, which has had a profound effect on American culture. For instance, there’s never been a great American political novel. The average French streetwalker in a novel by Zola knows more about politics than the heroes of the greatest American novels. What is it to be an American? At the highest artistic level, it is to be concerned about the cosmos and the self. Politics is incidental to Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn. And that’s because Mainline Protestantism rendered politics secondary to what it deems is most important — namely, salvation and the self.’
‘Yes. There’s an extraordinary point here. Walter Rauschenbusch [an American theologian and a key figure in the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries] lists six species of social sin.’
Nothing religious about chanting and chasing Charles Murray away, with violence if necessary:
In light of all the flak Ross Douthat was getting for his opinion piece on the death of G.H.W. Bush ‘Why We Miss The WASPs.’
How did money actually work among those in America’s elite?:
But the old monopoly of power had gone, and the country was the poorer for it. “The tragedy of American civilization,” Auchincloss wrote in 1980, “is that it has swept away WASP morality and put nothing in its place.”
Here’s another Auchincloss quote from a reader (haven’t checked this one out…probably a quote site). The prose strikes me as kind of post-Wharton, mannered and dull:
“I used to go to church. I even went through a rather intense religious period when I was sixteen. But the idea of an everlasting life — a never-ending banquet, as a stupid visiting minister to our church once appallingly described it — filled me with a greater terror than the concept of extinction…”
If such things be true, then many of the best and the brightest seem busy contructing a meritocracy in the old WASP establishment’s place; an enterprise of many unresolved personal conflicts between political ideals of activist change, progress, and ever-expanding personal freedoms on one hand and deeply held religious beliefs, traditions and customs on the other.
There seems to be an ex post facto character to much of the ol’ meritocratic enterprise, where a healthy skepticism is warranted.
In fact, it’s probably made [more] room for the same old Socialism.
On that note, I have a healthy respect for contrarians, frankly, when merely speaking out in favor of…:
‘the importance of traditional marriage values in ensuring children’s future success…’
…involves controversy and professional censure.
It’s so bland!
In fact, what will you do with your own blandness, dear reader, entombing the flaming desire to be woke within; the little half-opened doors of ecstasy and ‘environmental justice’?:
Earth Quaker Action Team is ON IT. (I’m not sure the Quakers ever had much institutional authority…so this could well be a marketing ploy to start more Quaking)
Helen Andrews offers a critique of the meritocratic system she sees dominating U.S. education (more grades, achievement and performance-based…less legacy and WASP based).
Yes, the old system had its problems and horrors, but she cites its end in a Victorian redesign of the British civil service, a redesign whose counterpart is now thriving here in the U.S. since the 1960’s.
‘Others favor the slightly more radical solution of redefining our idea of merit, usually in a way that downplays what Guinier calls “pseudoscientific measures of excellence.” She even has a replacement in mind, the Bial-Dale College Adaptability Index, the testing of which involves Legos. (Why are you laughing? It is backed by a study.) This is even less likely to work than fiddling with the equality-of-opportunity end. For one thing, the minority of families willing to do whatever it takes to get into Harvard will still do whatever it takes to get into Harvard.’
‘My solution is quite different. The meritocracy is hardening into an aristocracy—so let it. Every society in history has had an elite, and what is an aristocracy but an elite that has put some care into making itself presentable? Allow the social forces that created this aristocracy to continue their work, and embrace the label.’
Is there proof of a causal mechanism from which this meritocracy will thus harden into an aristocratic elite?
If so, will it just be an elite of different ideals, assumptions, blind-spots and stupidities…now with top-down social-science and pseudo-scientific bureaucratic/administrative oversight?:
As I see it, yes, these schools were always about grooming ambitious, wealthy, and well-connected people to some extent; grooming them into institutions that often govern the rest of us.
***I’d add that much like the deeper logic behind a more general multiculturalism, its practitioners and the younger people raised within this system can easily lose sight of the lenses they’re using to view the world (shared ideals and assumptions about moral virtue, truth and knowledge claims, the idea of moving towards the telos of a ‘better world’ which can now become the social glue of the institutions themselves).
***I should add that I’m rather sympathetic to Andrews’ slow-change, tradition-favoring, conservative-ish, position.
The below ideas surely manifest themselves within politics. Yet, the goal should lie in demonstrating that many unfounded truth and knowledge claims, forged into belief, and acted upon righteously, have real-world consequences. Some environmentalist fools can be dangerous, sure. There are kooks and violent nutbags living on the edge of chaos, preferring the end of their own lives and relative unimportance to be transcended through end-times activism.
Such people can be found amongst church pews, communes, art-colonies and flophouses; pretty much where all people can be found.
The extremes don’t necessarily define the middle either, even though a few loud, strident voices often become the cutting-edge of policy and groupthink.
It’d be nice if more people in the middle approached such ideas with skepticism:
I don’t mean to imply some people have turned their limited understanding of climate data into an anti-human, anti-science cult. Given human nature, such a turn of events is completely unforseeable!
Aside from passionate crazies, however, there are certainly not people who’ve turned global warming into a gnawing, apocryphal certainty; certain enough to offload their own fears of death into abstract ideals which might live beyond them. This can lead to technocracy as a form of leadership; knowledge implemented through institutional bureaucracy and more diffuse accountability. Plenty of journalists and aspiring professionals will follow those incentives into careers, opportunity and authority.
One debate exists between environmentalists, conservationists and ecologists who often push for economic regulation through activism and the laws; usually in order to protect a natural area, habitat or species (some harbor an “holistic” vision of nature, though it can be much more complex, including a simple love of nature and natural beauty) against the doctrines that do much to maintain individual, economic and political liberty.
“For today’s ecologists, their hope of regeneration presupposes a return to primitivism, and thus, whether they wish to enunciate it or not, concomitant anarchy, the burning before the replanting, the cutting down of the dead tree. The father of the movement is an utter rejection of all that is, and for at least three millennia all that was.”
Libertarians would generally see many environmentalists as a threat to their definition of liberty.
-Another environmentalist root comes by way of the’ Tragic Earth’ romantic lament, which may have as much to do with the rise and fall of post-modernism in American Universities as it does with Nature, and the restless attempt to fill the post-modern void in a post-Nietzschean world. I think part of this is due to the collapse of the modern liberal arts curriculum to its current state, which has followed excessive relativism and multi-culturalism to some of its logical conclusions. The “science is settled” may be appealing to many in filling that void. Of course, good poems and poets transcend the often strange things good poets can believe, but I suspect this has something to do with it. Al Gore has probably been influenced by this school of thought, though he is a politician, carbon-credit-salesman, and a poet.
Whatever your view of the science, its transition and use for ideological, economic and political purposes should give intelligent people pause, not just those who see threats to liberty.
Self-reliance may still be a better intellectual American influence, even with some downside to pragmatism.
‘Across all cultures, raising a child is considered one of the most rewarding things a person can do. Yet a chorus of campaigners, scientists, and journalists suggest that everyone should think twice before procreating.’
“Only when humans are again permitted to build authentic urbanism — those cities, towns, and villages that nurture us by their comforts and delights — will we cease the despoiling of Nature by escaping to sprawl.”
‘The present totalitarian threat comes not from government, as it once did, but from the universities and the intellectuals, or semi-intellectuals, that they turn out.’
Just a reminder: People who want to control how you think and feel are letting you know now how they will behave in the future. You can’t necessarily count on institutions, politicians and authorities to maintain your freedoms, should you suddenly find intolerant people with bad ideas wielding influence over you.
Eventually, such folks get into government.
Peaceful protest, adhering to a cause which threatens the current Canadian political authority, is punishable by imprisonment, fines and lack of financial access.
Imagine your worst political enemies, cracking down on a peaceful protest out in the streets. Let’s say you’re passing by, and out of basic concern, you hand a bottle of water to a protestor. It’s possible the punishment for this simple act (apolitical) could follow you home, leading to fines and threats of imprisonment, staining your future financial and employment opportunities.
The technology is already here.
Surely you trust the people following the latest moral cause not to abuse the authority and technology they wield?
What about you and your people?
The previous two cents and two cents more gets you close to a nickel: Twitter as a platform is what it is (especially good at brief bursts of condensed information, data gathering, and disasters). It’s the kind of internal, open chat platform within a company, scaled more broadly. All you need is a device, free software to download, and voila, you’ve become a node on a vast network. This has advantages.
Communication, however, is obviously a pathetic prosthetic for human contact and real conversation. I suspect the people curating Twitter of playing a dumb, dumb game by favoring their favored biases (like all of us, to some extent) instead of just letting speech flourish.
This creates echo-chambers.
Via David Thompson, I don’t think I’d want to live in a Titan II Missile Complex, but it’s only $495K. Get in on the ground floor, and go down from there.
As posted, Land Art is often about removing the monetary value, commodification and fungibility of a piece of art and making something big enough, weird enough, useless enough; maybe making a beautiful/ugly enough imitation of Nature or man’s design within Nature.
I’d argue such thinking (the Romantic conceptualization of Nature, and Man’s relation to it), has social and political consequences for all of us.
Here’s Wikipedia, keeping it simpler:
‘Land art, earthworks (coined by Robert Smithson), or Earth art is an art movement in which landscape and the work of art are inextricably linked.’
The young can always be forgiven some youthful idealism, I suppose. As for idealism being the highest thing around…Brooklyn used to be a place where working-class people could afford a house.
Mind you, no one ever put-up a neon-sign, flashing away into the night and visible from the suburbs (unless it was probably done ironically, mocking the ‘crass commercialism’ of a ‘bygone’ and fetishized era), but there have been some interesting demographic shifts going on. The words ‘community’ and ‘craft,’ ‘artisanal’ and ‘fair trade’ get thrown around a lot.
‘The hipster haunts every city street and university town. Manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself, this contemporary urban harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions (the mustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone). He harvests awkwardness and self-consciousness. Before he makes any choice, he has proceeded through several stages of self-scrutiny. The hipster is a scholar of social forms, a student of cool.’
Christian Lorenzten has a less flattering take, in order to get at a more pure definition of ‘cool’:
Under the guise of “irony,” hipsterism fetishizes the authentic and regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity. Those 18-to-34-year-olds called hipsters have defanged, skinned and consumed the fringe movements of the postwar era—Beat, hippie, punk, even grunge. Hungry for more, and sick with the anxiety of influence, they feed as well from the trough of the uncool, turning white trash chic, and gouging the husks of long-expired subcultures—vaudeville, burlesque, cowboys and pirates.
Of course, hipsterism being originally, and still mostly, the province of whites (the pastiest of whites), its acolytes raid the cultural stores of every unmelted ethnicity in the pot.
As for the progress that actually might arrive through a large, bureaucratic structure…
What if through the social sciences and American institutional innovation (IQ tests for the military, academic placement testing), there dripped-down a battery of tests given to all American schoolchildren? After an hour or two taken out of a child’s day, a thick envelope would arrive at home a few weeks later; to be examined or unexamined by the parents and/or child:
What about good ‘ol Jeffrey Dahmer?
While possessing above-average intellience, JEFFREY scored high for violent imagery and/or ideation. JEFFREYmight display a predilection to become fixated on objects, animals and/or other living things in his attempts to understand and navigate the world. Providing positive and rewarding outlets for JEFFREY will likely enhance learning opportunities and the chance to develop fruitful interpersonal relationships.
Oh, there are a few more out there…
As posted, someone’s going to be running our institutions and making rules out of a presumed universal and common sense set of assumptions:
Gurri offered an interesting take on matters socio-cultural:
The dilemma is that this present is defined by a radical distrust of the institutions of industrial society, and of the elites that control them, and of their statements and descriptions of reality. The conference organizers got our predicament right. At every level of contemporary social and political life, we are stuck in the muck of a profound crisis of authority.
‘The senior people, largely white and male, seemed to believe that, in punishment for the sins of their fathers, trust had fractured along identity lines. Women today were thought to trust only women, for example. Muslims trusted Muslims, and no one else. Some archetypical essence of “woman” or “Muslim” made internal communications possible, and separated each group from the rest of the human race. It was, to be sure, a disaster of biblical proportions – the story of Babel told in the times of the tweet – and it left the men in charge desperate to put forward individuals of a different sex and skin coloration, to say the things they wanted to hear.
For younger elites, trust involves a sort of cosplay of historical conflicts. They put on elaborate rhetorical superhero costumes, and fight mock-epic battles with Nazis, fascists, “patriarchs,” slave-owners, George III, and the like. Because it’s only a game, no one gets seriously hurt – but nothing ever gets settled, either. Eventually, the young cosplayers must put away their costumes, take one last sip of Kombucha, and set off, seething with repressed virtue, to make money in the world as it really is.’
‘One remembers Weber’s epitaph for the Protestant Ethic, as he contemplated a devitalised bourgeoisie spiritlessly tending the petrified mechanism their ancestors had raised. Adapted, without apology, it might also be used to depict that petrified Utopia of the New Ruling classes of the East.
There’s a popular narrative that drug companies have stolen the soul of psychiatry. That they’ve reduced everything to chemical imbalances. The people who talk about this usually go on to argue that the true causes of mental illness are capitalism and racism. Have doctors forgotten that the real solution isn’t a pill, but structural change that challenges the systems of exploitation and domination that create suffering in the first place?
No. Nobody has forgotten that. Because the third thing you notice at the American Psychiatric Association meeting is that everyone is very, very woke.
‘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,’