Unacknowledged Legislators

Unacknowledged Legislators

I haven’t discussed poetry around here much lately, mostly because I already know that I disagree with everyone in my particular reading circle. I expect a lot from poetry. Mike Snider wrote:

It’s no small achievement to express a common experience in such a way as to make that way the one people remember. It can be better, though it isn’t necessarily, when a poet can expose some usually neglected part of experience to consciousness. Poets don’t, as a rule, have the training or think rigorously enough to do anything original on those lines, and when they try, it’s usually embarrassing: Goethe and perhaps Milton are the only exceptions I can think of, and not in their poetry. The only thing about which poets have privileged information is making poems, and, in common with all artists, paying attention to the feeling of being human.

So I don’t expect poems, even great poems, to surprise me intellectually—the Stevens Gould, Hawking, and Pinker can do that. I do expect great poems to help me pay attention in ways I hadn’t before, to help me recognize and feel and empathize with the humanity of others—including of, course, the humanity of their intellect and wit.

Many great poets have surprised me intellectually in their poems, William Blake and Percy Shelley in particular. Some have surprised me intellectually in their prose—I would count Coleridge in that column. The key word in Mike’s appraisal of those who try to combine philosophy/theology in poetry is embarrassing. I don’t find anything embarrassing about Shelley or Blake or Yeats, though most people more aligned with the modernists do. I don’t care for the experiential turn in contemporary poetry, particularly when it turns away from confronting deeper issues for fear of “embarrassment.” I despise Browning and Tennyson’s turn to role-playing in their poems as a way of sublimating the real meat of poetry— its power to express the most complex philosophies in tangible experiential form— in more comfortable dialogic constructs. So there you have it. Odd man out—Romanticist to the core.

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Wordsworth on Language

Another Tangent

I’m intrigued by a bit of Wordsworth quoted by Jonathon Culler in his essay “The Mirror Stage” from The Pursuit of Signs:

Language disrupts or displaces the self-sufficient visual presence of object to subject in the mirror stage. Poets may, of course, hope for a perfect correspondence between language and thought, knowing, as Wordsworth wrote, that

If words be not an incarnation of the thought but only the clothing for it, then surely they will prove an ill gift; such a one as those poisoned vestments, read of in stories of superstitious times, which had power to consume and to alienate from his right mind the victim who put them on.

The child, told that in the language of adults he is “William” or “George” or “Mary,” might well, if he could rise to philosophic complaint, find language an ill gift, garments he is loth to put on; but it is a gift he must accept—in the hope, as Wordsworth says, that it will become a sustaining yet invisible medium, like the air we breathe, or else a stable operative principle that can be taken for granted like a force of gravity. “Language,” Wordsworth continues after raising the spectre of poisoned vestments, “Language, if it do not uphold and feed, and leave in quiet, like the power of gravitation or the air we breathe, is a counter-spirit, unremittingly and noiselessly at work to derange, to subvert, to lay waste, to vitiate, and to dissolve.” (166-7)

The Wordsworth Culler cites is from “Essay on Epitaphs III” from Wordsworth’s Literary Criticism (1974). I wish I had time to track it down, but for now I’ll just note it here. Lisa Hirschfield’s article
Between Memory and History: Wordsworth’s Excursion is also interesting and worth a look.

Cave of Demogorgon

The Cave of Demogorgon

One must shed the bad taste of wanting to agree with many. “Good” is no longer good when one’s neighbor mouths it. And how should there be a “common good”! This term contradicts itself: whatever can be common always has little value. In the end it must be as it is and always has been: great things remain for the great, abysses for the profound, nuances and shudders for the refined, and, in brief, all that is rare for the rare.

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, “The Free Spirit” (43)

An important thought occurred to me yesterday regarding the genealogy of Demogorgon. I have spent a great deal of time reading Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound in the last few years. Suddenly, and with a shudder, a new thought intruded—the possibility of an infernal reading of Act II scene IV—the cave of Demogorgon interlude.

Demogorgon is a strange character, the motive force of the play—sometimes read allegorically as Shelley’s notion of necessity. In the final act, it is Demogorgon who dethrones Jupiter, casting him into the pit, triggering the apocalypse. His motive or reasons for acting are nebulous. His speeches in Act II scene IV are marked by obscure pronouns (a Shelley trademark) and not much in the way of answers. A shadowy figure, he is described in distinct allusion to Milton’s description of Satan in Paradise Lost:

Panthea:                          I see a mighty darkness
Filling the seat of power, and rays of gloom
Dart round, as light from the meridian sun,
Ungazed upon and shapeless; neither limb
Nor form, nor outline; yet we feel it is
A living spirit.

Demogorgon:        Ask what thou wouldst know.

Asia:        What can thou tell?

Demogorgon:                All things thou dar’st demand.

At first, the questions and answers are straightforward: “Who made the living world?”— “God.” But when the questioning turns to lordship and misery, Demogorgon evades by using a pronoun.

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from Introducing Hegel


                                      If the abysm
Could vomit forth its secrets–but a voice
Is wanting, the deep truth is imageless;
For what would it avail to bid thee gaze
On the revolving world? What to bid speak
Fate, Time, Occasion, Chance and Change? To these
All things are subject but eternal Love.

Percy Shelley, Prometheus Unbound Act II Scene IV

Sometimes reading Hegel sounds awfully familiar. I wonder if Shelley read Hegel? It’s hard to say.

Higher Innocence

Higher Innocence

The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true. as I have heard from Hell. For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at the tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite. and holy whereas it now appears finite & corrupt.

This will come to pass by a improvement of sensual enjoyment.

But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul, is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and
medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 14

I read this for the first time when I was fourteen years old. I tracked it down once I found out that this passage, and not Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception was the root for the name of The Doors. Through the lens of age (and more in-depth study of Blake) it seems well worth revisiting right now. Several nuances need to be explored, beyond the sentimental rebellious perception of either myself, as a boy, or Jim Morrison’s limited understanding of Blake— The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is not a sales pitch for psychedelic drugs. Blake was not a Satanist. Going back to the third plate, here is the definition Blake offers of Hell:

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.

From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason[.] Evil is the active springing from Energy.

Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

Performing the easy substitutions (and noting the ironic nature of “Hell”) it is clear from this that Blake’s “infernal method” is caustic, melting away the “apparent surfaces” of things, to reveal the “infinite” that is hid. I would submit to my compatriots Duemer and Delacour that the infinite is not hid by sentiment, but rather through an underdeveloped notion of what “sentiment” really is— reverting to a Chaucerian definition— sentiment is deeper than sensation alone, and beyond the chinks of the cavern. The apocalypse of vision which Blake proposes shall come about by “the improvement of sensual enjoyment,” through the reintegration of body and mind. Revelation happens when the notion that “mind” and “body” are distinct and separate is destroyed. All discourse involves feelings; commonplace feelings, or sentiments, are really the first step on the ladder toward deeper ways of feeling— what Blake scholars call “higher innocence.”

My adulation of transparency, of dispassionate inquiry into representation using people like Walker Evans as idols has become deeply tempered by acceptance that all expression evokes— and includes— feelings which though easily exploited, are inseparable from art. Discarding the commonplace sentiments is an exercise which was for me essential to the pursuit— not of dispassionate knowledge— but of higher feelings. I know this is what Duemer and Delacour are really on about. I’m just playing with the vocabulary, obviously. The mode of inquiry which purges sentiment can be a trap as well, worse than anything that might be lost by too deep an exploration of sentimentality. Too much corrosion destroys the plate— it’s a delicate balance. Growth happens through “an improvement of sensual enjoyment” not the purging of it. That is what The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is all about (at least in part).

The oppression of sentiment does not really get you closer to truth— it merely promotes oppression, control, reason. Sentiment naturally fades with experience— it need not be purged. In Literature in its Place, James Britton cites some really beautiful evidence from the empirical study of reactions to poetry. Almost universally, adults reject poetry which contains powerful emotions— unless they are cloaked in complexity. Why this happens is hard to say— I suspect that it’s because of the social construction of identities that are trained to distance themselves from their bodies, their feelings— the rejection of sentiment is very pronounced as we reach adulthood. Using a group of poems, some “real” poems and some horribly sentimental fabrications, Britton charted the reactions of children from 13-18 years old. The fabrications were enjoyed by adolescents, but older children gradually began to prefer less overt expressions of emotion. Britton has an interesting theory about the cause:

We suggested at the time that under the strain of the emerging adult world, the adolescent may need to withdraw into some imagined world: when the strain is too great, it may be into the most docile and accessible world that he or she withdraws— a world represented by sentimental values. In matters of emotion, the familiar and safe kind of love— love of animals, pity— may be acceptable where passionate love is too threatening. (46)

The summation of that study, quoted in the book, echoes the sentiments of Warren Zevon and Charles Lamb that I quoted last night:

Such imagined experience— the stock response, the unoriginal, undisturbing type— gives time to recover balance, but does not itself allow for grown, reintegration, advancement into living. For this we must try to graft genuine poetic experience onto the counterfeit, regarding a taste for the counterfeit in adolescence as the first rung on the ladder rather than the first step to damnation. (47)

Feeling, or sentiment, is an important first step. It’s important that the progression from it to deeper and more complex feelings be natural and not forced. I like Britton’s usage of graft to describe the process of growing to appreciate deeper things. Many artists flirt with the sentimental and some (like Kertéz), have the depth to portray truly poetic experiences within the most commonplace of frames. This flirtation with the child-like, sentimental world— an improvement of “sensual enjoyment” is in many ways what I think Blake was on about regarding higher innocence.

Cultivate Wildness

Thomas Rowlandson — “Dr. Syntax Sketching the Lake” — 1813

Cultivated Wildness

Another topic which came into sharper focus for me in conversations with Joe Viscomi is the incredible shift in the perception of nature which occurred in the romantic period. The mid-eighteenth century promoted the rise of gardening, but the gardens (particularly in France) were constructed to convey a sense of humanity’s conquest of nature. Carefully trimmed hedges in neat geometric rows— sculpted greenery to show how man had tamed the base nature of the wilderness. These gardens were not natural in any sense, other than in the presence of green objects. Of course, the translation of the bible into vernacular tongues set up a sort of oppositional value too: which had higher authority— nature untamed, controlled only by the hand of God— or the word, printed on a page and interpreted by humans.

The enclosure of common lands in England brought with it a sort of nostalgia for nature untamed. Gardening shifted its virtues from overt control, to a new sort of cultivated wilderness— the park replaced the commons. The rise of nature as a moral teacher was coincident with the fall of nature under the hand of man, and thus was born the desire for cultivated wildness. It was against this backdrop that modern book illustration developed, and the romantic impulse resurfaced after the waves of mid-eighteenth century moral abstraction from an imperfect source— a view of nature which few men had access to, let alone appreciation of. The “nature-lovers” of the romantic period were mostly city dwellers, who sketched their impressions from cultivated ground.

The situation in America was different. It was unenclosed, wild, and seemingly limitless. The American park system is constructed both of wholly prefabricated wilderness (of which Central Park in New York City is a prime example), carefully choreographed to appear wild— and fenced and improved natural lands, with roadway systems and easy access, like Yosemite. There is a mythic quality to the American park, but it is filtered through a European sensibility.

As McPhee points out in the first book of Coming into the Country, the concept of wilderness is foreign to those thrust from society into it. It’s a matter of unfathomable scale, of interconnectedness without end, which can never be fully subdued. The “natural” philosophy of the western tradition was ill-equipped to deal with the sheer expanse of mountains, lakes, and rivers of the America of the early eighteenth century. The primary tools of subjugation are the creation of parks, cultivated wildernesses where city-dwellers might visit and get “closer to god” through a flirtation with wildness. These days are little different; it takes a high-tech arsenal of camping supplies to even approach it— wilderness is always more comfortable in the mythic park around the corner. Few people want to wrestle a grizzly. They just want to inscribe the lessons of nature into a book.

Natural’s not in it

Exploring Nature

I made it through the first book of John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, and then I had to take a nap. I’ve got a low threshold for this sort of thing. It’s a book about Alaska, an extended non-fiction piece. The first ten pages nearly made me ill with the literary (and journalistic) pretensions. But it got better. There’s nothing that makes me want to puke quicker than literary/metaphoric explorations of fishing. Unfortunately, one of my teachers has a thing about that, so I think I’ve read at least five different variations on that theme in the last two years.

I’ve never been able to get the “nature” thing. For a long time, this impeded my reading of people like Wordsworth and Emerson. Joe Viscomi put an interesting twist on the problem during his seminar on the Songs. He said: “It’s only recently that the word ‘nature’ began to mean the green stuff.” It’s another one of those inventions of the romantics that has become a commonplace. I resolved to look into this a bit deeper, so after my nap I did some more tripping through the OED.

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