An Army of One

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.”

1 thought on “An Army of One”

  1. Funny, how the whole self-reliance thing could be culled from the Romantic rejection of militarism and its effects in France. Once those big Revolutionary ideas got some guns behind them…I thought “Romantic” got its bad rap because of the French Revolution. It started with the participation of the first generation. With the exception of Blake, who prophecied the revolution, the individualism of Wordsworth (“Prelude”) and Coleridge(“Lime Tree Bower”) is concerned with reacting to either participating in or retreating from the events. The second generation of Romos (heh, just kidding) bought entirely into the abstractions of the retreat of the first (without the benefit of physical participation to mellow them out) and expanded on it, until you got something like Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” which was suggesting huge things… claiming ontological powers and all that… absolutely colossal.With the Revolution deflated, and industrialization taking human thought down to the simple, all consuming detail of cogs, gears, workers, factories, and mechanization, I’m sure the Romantics cut somthing of a ridiculous figure. Even their social participation, when it was happening, was for a cause which perhaps seemed in hindsight, to be contrary to the goals of industrialization. The era of Industry lasted a LONG time! We’ve just recently bagun to return to huge abstractions (which, being a litle marxist, I’m kind of liking the downfall of industry), now that nanotechnology is coming to the fore, and cloning, and all kinds of issues industry brought about, but was incapable of suppressing the larger moral issues behind them.Durr, all this to suggest that the French Revolution and Industrialization gave the Romantics their flighty connotation, and now industrialization proposes to assembly-line soldiers under the pretext of individuality within the masses!
    Actually, I think the whole engagement/withdrawl crisis is more of a Victorian thing (Tennyson, more specifically). Byron spoke out in parliament against putting the Luddites to death (the second, and I believe the last time he used his seat), and was certainly engaged with social/political issues as he died in the Greek wars of independence. Hardly a comical way to be socially engaged. Shelley might have been more buffonish as a pamphleteer, and by the time the second generation rolled around Wordsworth was headed toward being a conservative, poet-laurate type. Byron hated Wordsworth, and Shelley, though he admired him ridiculed him too. Byron however liked Coleridge, so it’s hard to say that the later generation either embraced or rejected the first completely. Blake was pro-American, but ant-French revolution. Most were, except Byron, who had this whole Napoleon obssession. Wordsworth actually embraced, in many ways, the industrial revolution (see “Lines Composed on Westminster Bridge”) and Blake isn’t nearly as ant-industry as is usually thought. “Dark Satanic Mills” is an allusion to Eziekiel, not the industrial revolution! My point really was that these oversimplifications don’t hold up. Engagement/withdrawl is a Victorian reading of the Romantics, not a romantic (second generation) reading of the romantics (first generation).
    Oh, and I think you’re reading far too much into “Lime Tree Bower.” He twisted his ankle and had to sit things out, once! It doesn’t get much more engaged than “He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small” (Rime of the Ancient Mariner). It’s a far cry from Tennyson’s outright anxiety (should I stay or should I go) in “Locksley Hall,” or better still, “The Lady of Shallot.” Oh, and the Coleridge quote they “would sacrifice the each to the shadowy idol of all.” is a reaction against the French Revolution, actually. Wordsworth and Coleridge were liberal in their early years, and conservative in their later years— part of the reason why Byron and Shelley (and to a lesser extent, Keats) rejected them.
    Byron died of a cold in the Greek wars for independence. But, where I get revolutionary with “Lime Tree” was the “slip of smooth clear blue betwixt two IslesOf purple shadow !” Also, got caught up with the imagery of the “sinking orb,” something I used with both Blake and Wordsworth in school papers to indicate disillusionment with French enlightenment rationalism. But, you’re totally right.Plodding over to bookshelf finding Romanticism reader and the stuffy Harold Bloom anthology of Romantic criticism.
    Sniffle 😉 Technicalities, technicalities… For Coleridge’s thoughts on France why not try “France: An Ode”? It starts out hopeful: “blest be the paeans of delivered France, / And hung my head and wept at Britain’s name” just after the revolution, and then turns to declare that they “insult the shrine of Liberty with spoils / From freemen torn; to tempt and to betray.” As far as Blake’s thoughts (besides The French Revolution, of course), I’ve always read, in The Book of Ahania, Fuzon’s character as being a perverted French version of Orc, Blake’s “revolutionary” character. Orbs are a really dense and complex thing in Blake’s work; I’ve got a fat section in a paper somewhere about that.

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