Monday, April 27, 2009

Shades of The Prison House

Shades of the prison house begin to close
Upon the growing boy. . . .

I thought of these lines from Wordsworth's great Ode: Intimations of Immortality (1803-6) as I was watching the PBS production of Dickens' novel, Little Dorrit in which the prison house is a metaphorical as well as a literal presence. The house in which the hero, Arthur Clenham is brought up is not a home but a house of business and, as he experiences it as a boy, a prison house as well--and one run on calvinistic principles. (Dickens's hatred of organized religion, especially Calvinism, perhaps, is especially fierce in this novel.) Incarceration and modernity, as is now well understood, go or come hand-in-hand. It was Bentham who designed the first modern prison, which he called the Panopticon, because the prisoners could be kept both in isolation and under constant surveillance. Though I don't think this thing was ever built--Bentham tried unsuccessfully to sell the idea to the British government--out of it emerged the modern penitentiary, so-called because the prisoners were to be given ample opportunity to learn penitence and repent by being kept in solitary confinement. The first of these was built by the Quakers in Pennsylvania where it was eventually discovered that when people are kept in solitary confinement for a long time they go mad.

The prison house that Wordsworth is talking about is more metaphorical than literal; he is thinking of the force or weight of social rules and conventions, of received ideas, of ready-made or pre-formed thoughts--clichés--and in his "Preface" 0f 1800 to Lyrical Ballads the condition of "savage torpor" that the modern mass media (even then!) was reducing the minds of readers to. That is the weight that, in the following lines (also from Wordsworth's Ode), crushes innocence, spontaneity, originality:

Full soon thy soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight,
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!

The idea of the body as the prison-house of the soul is a Christian cliché; nobody had ever thought of society in this way--or at any rate, no poet before Wordsworth: it was Rousseau who said that man is born free but is everywhere in chains. Wordsworth was a pioneer in another way also: no poet had ever thought of himself in heroic terms--literally: Wordsworth's autobiographical poem, The Prelude ("Or Growth of a Poet's Mind") is written in the epic style of Milton's Paradise Lost. What's so important about the mind of a poet, as opposed to the mind of a scientist or philosopher--or a great leader or politician, for that matter? Why should the "growth" of a poet's mind be a fit subject for an epic poem? Here is what Wordsworth has to say, in that 'Preface': The man of science seeks truth as a remote and unknown benefactor; he cherishes and loves it in his solitude: the Poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly complanion. Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science. Emphatically may it be said of the poet, as Shakespeare said of Man, "that he looks before and after." He is the rock of defence for human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love. In spite of differences of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs: in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed; the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth and over all time. The objects of the Poet's thoughts are everywhere; though the eyes and senses of man are, it is true, his favorite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings. Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge--it is as immortal as the heart of man. If the labors of Men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we materially receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present: he will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet's art as any upon which it can be employed. . . If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put, on as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.

"If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put, on as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man." In 1818, the wife of a fellow-poet, Mary Shelley, would publish the (much misread and much misunderstood) story of just such a Being, Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus. That subtitle is important and largely ignored. Prometheus was the god, according to an ancient Greek myth or story, who stole fire from the heavens and gave it to us humans (as if were too stupid to figure out how to make it ourselves) thus making civilization possible. 'Frankenstein' is the name of the scientist in Mary Shelley's novel who--stealing fire from the heavens--figures out how to use the power of modern science to create life. Frankenstein is not a mad scientist; his intentions are entirely benign; it is only after he has succeeded that, horrified at what he has done, he runs away, abandoning the virtually helpless human being he has created. That Being is naturally good; it only becomes a monster after being mistreated by his creator, or father, and the human community he desperately wants to join. Mary Shelley's book is like that initially nameless and helpless being: it became a tale of science gone mad because that's what its readers wanted it to be and twisted it into.

Where am I? The preceding paragraph is a sort of foot-note. What I wanted to say is that Wordsworth's (romantic) claims for poetry--and by extension, Art--had never (and would never again) be pitched so high. Shelley would say something almost as grand: poets, he said, are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, an idea that would be echoed by the young, would-be poet, Stephen Dedalus, hero of Joyce's semi-autobiographical novel, Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man(1915) as he exits saying, "I go to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." Joyce himself would never have said anything so naively grand, and certainly no one else would as the catastrophic 20th century crushed the romantic illusions of the 19th.

Wordsworth's ambitions for poetry are clearly excessive (I don't think he knew much about science, or ever entered a scientific laboratory) and characteristically romantic: poetry and the arts generally were redefining themselves but in ways that no one felt clear about. More was expected of poets, but what? It was becoming a little more common for poets to go or be thought mad--like Chatterton, or Smart, or Blake, or Claire or Beddoes, a phenomenon recognized by Wordsworth in the longish poem, "Resolution And Independence": "We poets in our youth begin in gladness;/ But thereof come in the end despondency and madness." Were the poets, then in the early 19th century becoming comparable to canaries in coal-mines? And if so, why? What was it about modernity that they were warning us about? The following lines from a poem by Yeats in 1919 shows us that after a hundred years the question had become more urgent, more suggestive:

What portion in the world can the artist have
Who has awakened from the common dream
But dissipation and despair?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

John Updike & Victor Hugo

I should admit right now that I don't know where, exactly, this comparison is going. Here, to get us started, however, are some facts. Both Updike's four 'Rabbit' novels and Hugo's Les Miserables are fictional biographies on an epic scale: both are huge (1500 and 1300 pages respectively) and in both the hero's life is part and parcel of huge transformations--social, political, economic--in every aspect of human life, in the very fabric of history. Neither hero is equipped to understand the way life is changing around him. Jan Valjean is entirely self-educated--to a degree beyond anything that could be rationally accounted for--but knows nothing about history or science and Harry Angstrom, with his typically paltry, high school education knows even less. There similarities cease; Hugo and Updike work from very different assumptions about history. Hugo not only believes in providence and progress but thinks they are fundamentally the same. The memory of the great Revolution and its failure was still alive and kicking for Hugo and many others of his generation. The Revolution lives. History, they believed, has a direction, guaranteed by God: liberty, equality and justice for all. Sound familiar? The men who made the American Revolution and wrote the American constitution had read the same books as the men of '89 and '93.

Writing a little more than a century after the publication of Les Miserables, Updike shows us how the world looks now--now that all the gods have died. Absent Providence-- Divine, Hegelian, whatever--history becomes literally aimless: just one damn thing after another. And that is how it appears to Updike's "pilgrim" (as he refers to him in his Preface), 'Rabbit' Angstrom--though, of course, Rabbit would not able to talk about the historical transformations he observes and comments on, resentfully, in these terms.

When history becomes aimless and progress is no longer built into the scheme of things, the bottom drops out of the American Dream, which not only assumes that the system is basically egalitarian and basically fair but is becoming more so:
I may have had a rotten deal but my kids will have a fair shot at the good life, i.e. a happy life in Hobbesian terms: continued success in getting and keeping worldly goods. As long as it seemed that the supply of goods was unlimited, all was well with the American Dream. Now we know for a fact that the supply of goods is not unlimited (which now sounds like an understatement) and that success in acquiring them goes to the powerful and the lucky. But of course we've always know that; the American Dream was sustained by hope, and a belief in progress. When hope fails and illusions fade, how do you feel? Resentful?

Resentment is one of the passions that keep our political pot on the boil--it is what the powerless feel when they feel, or are made to feel, how powerless they are. There are more losers than winners, and the losers don’t like being told that they deserve to be losers. The fact that our political culture is both libertarian and egalitarian means that there is a natural audience out there just waiting to have its resentments stroked. And now that the future holds little promise for ordinary people, that audience can only grow larger.

My first thought, as I was reading the 'Rabbit' novels was that it was an epic of resentment. Harry ('Rabbit') Angstrom is a man of ordinary intelligence and imagination, but badly educated like just about everyone else, with no marketable skills, no prospects and many resentments. But resentment is boring, and by the end of Rabbit Redux (Rabbit Returns) I was heavy bored by Harry Angstrom.

Updike had to give Rabbit a boost if he wanted to go on writing about him, and in the third volume, Rabbit Is Rich, he does so. Rabbit without money is a man with nothing but resentments; with money, he can begin to do things that make him interesting and, in scene after scene (the edge of his resentments dulled), richly comic-- like the scene in which Rabbit is trying to read Consumer Reports while his wife Janice, unnoticed at first, is trying to get his sexual attention. I also like the way conversations in this book always make me feel as if I too were walking a sort of tight-rope, a sense of tensions under control but only just. This book is so good, it makes me think I have been unjust to the first two. I have yet to read the last. I'll let you know what I find.