Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Modernist Poetry and Common Readers: Notes Of A Barbarian

 As many of you know, something odd happened to the arts sometime around or shortly before the fateful 'turn' of the 20th century: music, art, and poetry began to become 'modern' and then 'modernist'—a process that seems to have begun with what Kandinsky called the "the discrediting of the object" in impressionist painting (something similar was happening in the 'symbolist' poetry of Mallarm√© and Valery); the arts became self-consciously difficult and obscure; and the middle classes began to assume that whatever Art was all about, it had nothing to do with them—a situation that still persists.

It's significant —but significant of what?— that the modernist revolution in the arts preceded the first World War and the political revolutions—communist or fascist—that had been brewing for a long time and which that war ignited; after that war, modernism became the dominant 'paradigm' in the arts (I'm not satisfied with this word but can't think of a better).

Some of the greatest artists, musicians, poets and novelists of the 20th century came of age during years that preceded WW1—Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Picasso, Joyce, Frost, Proust, Stevens, Stravinsky, Berg, for example—and did much or most of their finest work after it. What no one has ever been able to explain, convincingly at least, is how or why or even if the extraordinary flowering of modernist art during the first decades of the 20th century is related to the horrendous political revolutions that were occurring at or about the same time. (For that matter, we still don't know or at least can't agree about what that word 'modernist' means.)

When art began (in Kandinsky's phrase) discrediting its objects, its only purpose was to free itself from the officially imposed (in France) shackles of classicism. But, like all revolutions, this one had unforeseen consequences: when art ceased to be mimetic, when it ceased to hold a mirror up to nature or life and began to strike out on its own as a self-justifying enterprise, it made itself irrelevant to all but the hyper-sophisticated literati; the masses went to the movies.  Which, I suppose, was inevitable, in any case.

Different countries responded differently to the siren songs of modernism that were coming from France: England, for example—and here one thinks especially of Hardy and Larkin—ignored them; American poets, with the notable exceptions of Robert Frost, W. C. Williams and Marianne Moore, listened and were bewitched.

I've already said quite enough about T. S. Eliot. I've recently been reading a lot of (and about) Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), America's greatest symbolist poet and a man (in Helen Vendler's words) "of chilling reticence." (Someone once quipped "that the French read Edgar Allen Poe and thought they were reading Stevens.") The best way to think about symbolist poetry is to think of it as poetry written in a private language; you can see why a man bent on revealing as little as possible about his inner life (or his public life as a vice-president of the Hartford Insurance and Indemnity Co.) and the miseries of an unhappy marriage, might want to write in a private language. Add to this the fact that his interest in the way imagination constructs reality is entirely esthetic and that he took no interest whatsoever in the politics or sociology of American democracy, and you have a poet whose poetry was bound to become increasingly desiccated as he aged, increasingly devoid of moral or human or intellectual content. This is a poet who pushed the theory and practice of art for art's sake about as far as it could go and didn't give a damn about his audience; or even whether or not he had one. The experts will say that I'm wrong; the poetry, especially the later poetry—"Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction" for example—is full of beauty, vitality and intellectual power; you just have to let the experts tell you where and how to look for it. Now I have read some of these experts—especially Helen Vendler—from whom I have learned a lot; I still have to say, however, that I still don't get it—reading that poem, and not only that one but just about all of his long poems, I never know where I am.

Has something has gone wrong with our literary culture when a common educated reader like me cannot read a poem, by a person universally acclaimed as great, without the help of academic critics—help that never helps him answer such basic questions as, where am I? What's going on?

I still think that most of Stevens best poetry is to be found in his first book, Harmonium (1923), written at a time when his life was anything but harmonious. "Sunday Morning," "The Snowman," "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," "The Death Of A Soldier," "The Dwarf," "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,"
and "The Idea of Order At Key West," will be read long after most of the later poetry is only to be found on dusty, dimly lighted shelves.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Grief, Sorrow and the consolations of philosophy: Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson wrote “The Proper Means of Regulating Sorrow”  (Rambler #47) on August 28, 1750. His reflections, as always wise and powerfully phrased, are those of a stoic moralist analysing as well as calmly reflecting on a common human passion: grief, sorrow. 

His beloved wife Tetty, was still alive.

“Of the passions with which the mind of man is agitated, it may be observed, that they naturally hasten towards their own extinction, by inciting and quickening the attainment of their objects. Thus fear urges our flight and desire animates our progress; and if there are some which perhaps may be indulged till they outgrow the good appropriated to their satisfaction, as it is frequently observed of avarice and ambition, yet their immediate tendency is to some means of happiness really existing, and generally within the prospect . . . . Sorrow is perhaps the only affection of the breast that can be excepted from this general remark, and it therefore deserves the particular attention of those who have assumed the arduous province of preserving the balance of the mental constitution. The other passions are diseases indeed, but they necessarily direct us to their proper cure . . .  But for sorrow there is no remedy provided by nature; it is often occasioned by accidents irreparable, and dwells on objects that have lost or changed their existence; it requires what it cannot hope, that the laws of the universe should be repealed; that the dead should return, or the past should be recalled.
Sorrow is not the regret for negligence or error which may animate us to future care or activity, or that repentence of crimes for which however irrevocable, our Creator has promised to accept it as an atonement; the pain which arises from these causes has very salutary effects, and is every hour extenuating itself by the reparation of those miscarriages that produce it. Sorrow is properly that state of mind in which our desires are fixed upn the past, without looking forward to the future, an incessant wish that something were otherwise than it has been, tormenting and harassing want of some enjoyment or possession which we have lost, and which no endeavors can possibly regain. Into such anguish many have sunk upon some sudden diminution of their fortune, an unexpected blast of their reputation, or the loss of children or of friends. They have suffered all sensibility of pleasure to be destroyed by a single blow, have given up for ever the hopes of substituting any other object in the room of that which they lament, resigned their lives to gloom and despondency, and worn themelves out in unavailing misery.
Yet so much is this passion the natural consequence of  tenderness and endearment, that however painful and however useless, it is justly reproachful not to feel it on some occasions . . . 
It seems determined by the general suffrage of mankind, that sorrow is to a certain extent laudable as the offspring of love, or at least , suffered to increase by indulgence, but must give way after a stated time, to social duties and the common avocations of life. It is at first unavoidable and therefore must be allowed, whether with or without our choice . . . something will be extorted by nature and may be given to the world. But all beyond the bursts of passion or the forms of solemnity is not only useless but culpbable; for we have no right to sacrifice, to the vain longing of affection, that time which Providence allows us for the task of our station.
Yet it too often happens that sorrow, thus lawfully entering gains such a firm possession of the mind, that it is not afterwards to be ejected . . .”
Two years later his wife, Tetty, died. He was 43. 

In 1759, Johnson wrote a short philosophical novel called Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, which begins with the following grim address to the reader: Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas prince of Abissinia. And, Johnson might have added, don’t expect much from the consolations of philosophy when misfortune strikes, at it inevitably will. One the stories recounted in this book makes this point with poignant clarity:

As he [Rasselas] was one day walking in the street, he saw a spacious building which all were, by the open doors, invited to enter: he followed the stream of people, and found it a hall or school of declamation, in which professors read lectures to their auditory. He fixed his eye upon a sage raised above the rest, who discoursed with great energy on the government of the passions. His look was venerable, his action graceful, his pronunciation clear, and his diction elegant. He shewed, with great strength of sentiment, and variety of illustration, that human nature is degraded and debased, when the lower faculties predominate over the higher; that when fancy, the parent of passion, usurps the dominion of the mind, nothing ensues but the natural effect of unlawful government, perturbation and confusion; that she betrays the fortresses of the intellect to rebels, and excites her children to sedition against reason their lawful sovereign. He compared reason to the sun, of which the light is constant, uniform, and lasting; and fancy to a meteor, of bright but transitory lustre, irregular in its motion, and delusive in its direction. He then communicated the various precepts given from time to time for the conquest of passion, and displayed the happiness of those who had obtained the important victory, after which man is no longer the slave of fear, nor the fool of hope; is no more emaciated by envy, inflamed by anger, emasculated by tenderness, or depressed by grief; but walks on calmly through the tumults or the privacies of life, as the sun persues alike his course through the calm or the stormy sky.
He enumerated many examples of heroes immovable by pain or pleasure, who looked with indifference on those modes or accidents to which the vulgar give the names of good and evil. He exhorted his hearers to lay aside their prejudices, and arm themselves against the shafts of malice or misfortune, by invulnerable patience; concluding, that this state only was happiness, and that this happiness was in every one's power. Rasselas listened to him with the veneration due to the instructions of a superior being, and, waiting for him at the door, humbly implored the liberty of visiting so great a master of true wisdom. The lecturer hesitated a moment, when Rasselas put a purse of gold into his hand, which he received with a mixture of joy and wonder.
“I have found, said the prince, at his return to Imlac, a man who can teach all that is necessary to be known, who, from the unshaken throne of rational fortitude, looks down on the scenes of life changing beneath him. He speaks, and attention watches his lips. He reasons, and conviction closes his periods. This man shall be my future guide: I will learn his doctrines, and imitate his life.”
“Be not too hasty, said Imlac, to trust, or to admire, the teachers of morality: they discourse like angels, but they live like men.”
Rasselas, who could not conceive how any man could reason so forcibly without feeling the cogency of his own arguments, paid his visit in a few days, and was denied admission. He had now learned the power of money, and made his way by a piece of gold to the inner apartment, where he found the philosopher in a room half darkened, with his eyes misty, and his face pale. “Sir, said he, you are come at a time when all human friendship is useless; what I suffer cannot be remedied, what I have lost cannot be supplied. My daughter, my only daughter, from whose tenderness I expected all the comforts of my age, died last night of a fever. My views, my purposes, my hopes are at an end: I am now a lonely being disunited from society.”
“Sir, said the prince, mortality is an event by which a wise man can never be surprised: we know that death is always near, and it should therefore always be expected.” “Young man, answered the philosopher, you speak like one that has never felt the pangs of separation.” “Have you then forgot the precepts, said Rasselas, which you so powerfully enforced? Has wisdom no strength to arm the heart against calamity? Consider, that external things are naturally variable, but truth and reason are always the same.” “What comfort, said the mourner, can truth and reason afford me? of what effect are they now, but to tell me, that my daughter will not be restored?”
The prince, whose humanity would not suffer him to insult misery with reproof, went away convinced of the emptiness of rhetorical sound, and the inefficacy of polished periods and studied sentences.
In 1776, in a letter to Mrs. Thrale on the death of her son, Johnson wrote, “I know that a whole system of hopes, and designs, and expectations is swept away at once and nothing left but bottomless vacuity. What you feel I have felt and hope that your disquiet will be shorter than mine.” And a couple of years later, in a letter to Mr. Elphinston who had just lost his wife, he repeats this thought: “A loss such as yours lacerates the mind and breaks the whole system of purposes and hopes. It leaves a dismal vacuity which affords nothing on which the affections can fix, or to which endeavor may be directed. All this I have known.”  In 1780, in a letter to Dr. Thomas Lawrence, whose wife had recently died, Johnson wrote:
“He that outlives a wife whom he has long loved, sees himself disjoined from the only mind that has the same hopes, and fears, and interest; from the only companion with whom he has shared much good or evil; and with whom he could set his mind at liberty, to retrace past or anticipate the future. The continuity of being is lacerated; the settled course of sentiment and action is stopped; and life stands suspended and motionless, till it is driven by external causes into a new channel. But the time of suspense is dreadful”.