An Army of One
Watching the third season finale of the Sopranos, I was amused by the conversation about sending Anthony Jr. to military school. The US Army’s slogan is “an army of one.”
“What if this ‘army of one’ decides it doesn’t want to go over the top of the foxhole?” Tony asked.
“What if he doesn’t want to be an army and would rather be a veterinarian?” Carmella wondered.
The classical notion of life as a battle just doesn’t mesh well with getting by in the real world; self-reliance doesn’t have to be militaristic. Often, the transcendentalist notion of “self-reliance” is bashed and smashed in the modern world of social modeling. More often than that, the conception of “the romantic self” is demonized in scholarly circles as a myth to be overthrown by “socially situated” postmodern praxis.
But this romantic myth never existed. It comes from a misreading of the Romantics, and I suspect the Transcendentalists too. I blame TS Eliot (I always do), and to a lesser extent, Jerome McGann. There are lots of names for it: “the egotistical sublime” (a label more properly applied to Milton, I think, than Wordsworth) or, “the romantic genius.” There are six major canonical figures in British Romanticism. It is odd to me that this misconception should be applied wholesale, when it really only applies to two writers of this revolutionary period. The period was one of intense social activism, and deep exploration of notions of self which fueled the American Transcendentalists.
McGann attempted to shape all of Romanticism in the image of Byron (last of the big six), though he later retracted much of his thesis regarding The Romantic Ideology. Eliot shaped it into the image of Wordsworth (second in line, but in Eliot’s time it was the big five rather than the big six and Wordsworth was number one— Blake was added later). Most of the popular misconception is based in a misreading of the word genius. Genius, in the eighteenth century sense, was not so much an individual attribute, but a quality of connection with a larger spiritual (and social) wholeness. Genius, derived from genie, was really another word for spirit.
One of Blake’s (first of the big six) primary concepts was “the poetic genius” which might best be translated as the spirit of god, in men. His conception of the “self” was not unary, but rather fragmented and split into four “Zoas” which were constantly at enmity with each other. Wordsworth chose himself as a topic, but was far more concerned with the spirit of god reflected in nature rather than man, and unlike Blake— Wordsworth’s concept of self was unary. Coleridge (third of the big six) differs from Wordsworth in that his later concepts of self were trinitarian: reason, religion, and will. Reason was “a science of cosmopolitanism without country” (sounds pretty social to me). Keats, fourth of the big six, was big on the dissolution of identity in great authors (negative capability), and Shelley (the fifth) was nearly Buddhist in proclaiming that he didn’t exist as an individual, but as only as a momentary manifestation of the “one mind”. That leaves Byron, as the sole purveyor of the Faustian individual who controlled the world through his will. Only two, of all these writers, were champions of romantic individualism!
These guys all had very little in common, really. So why does “romantic” have such a negative connotation? It pisses me off. All were socially conscious (except perhaps Keats), so why does romantic mean an anti-social, egotistical, individual in the context of contemporary social criticism? Coleridge put it succinctly: they “would sacrifice the each to the shadowy idol of all.” Rereading The American Scholar by Emerson shows that these people were hardly simplistic when it comes to sorting out just what is important. We are both individuals, and social creatures. One cannot be sacrificed at the expense of the other. All of these people were hardly naive, and never believed half of what they are accused of today.
Like I said, it just pisses me off. Fragments, removed from context, paint an ugly picture of “solitary geniuses” who slaved and suffered; it’s utter bullshit. None of the British Romantics were foolish enough to believe that there is “one true self” except maybe Byron and Wordsworth. While I enjoy Byron a lot, I’ve got to side with I.A. Richards’ contention that “Wordsworth was the greatest poem that Coleridge ever wrote.”