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A seachange this

I. Thalatta! Thalatta! (5)

Seawater lingers in the mind of Stephen Dedalus. With him it is a sort of death, bringer of death and home of death.

Stephen begins his day trapped, as ever, between England and the Roman Catholic Church—appearing first in their homely guises of Haines and Buck Mulligan. It is Mulligan who first invokes the sea:

God, he said quietly. Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a grey sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtighening sea. Epi oinopa ponton. Ah Dedalus, the Greeks. I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother. Come and look. (5, Modern Library hardcover)

These words of Mulligan’s persist, as when Stephen, walking on Sandymount Strand, cannot but see the sea as “snotgreen.” (37) This sea is associated with Stephen’s exile. Buck Mulligan becomes the usurper who evicts (in Stephen’s mind) Stephen from his home, by taking his key. This after a long string of explicit and subtle torment, as for instance (a minor instance) when Mulligan refers to England as a “country full of rotten teeth and rotten guts. (14, cf. 50) When, at the end of Telemachus, Stephen sees Mulligan’s “sleek brown head, a seal’s, far out on the water, round,” it is a sign that the sea is a hostile place for Stephen.

Later, for instance, as he walks by the water, he begins to be sucked into the muck of sand. As his feet are slowly engulfed, his thoughts return home: “He has the key. I will not sleep there when this night comes. A shut door of a silent tower entombing their blind bodies, the panthersahib and his pointer.” (44) The sand embodies physically what his mind is imposing mentally, the sense of being trapped.

The sea is the home of corpses. Quite literally it is the new home of the drowned man who is fished up a short time later, a “bag of corpsegas sopping in foul brine.” (50) But even more it is the home of Stephen’s corpse. Mulligan calls Stephen a “poor dogsbody” (6)—one who does odd jobs. But—lest anyone think that when Stephen “lifted his feet up from the suck,” he was escaping the trap of Mulligan and Haines (44)—Stephen immediately comes across an actual dog’s body, “a bloated carcass of a dog.” Stephen makes the connection explicit, in his thoughts: “Ah, poor dogsbody. Here lies poor dogsbody’s body.” (46)

All of this is established by the operations of Stephen’s mind: the connections he makes between the sea and his own sense of exile make the sea itself the harbinger of that exile, or the locus of it. It is death to him.

II. The dead sea (61, 72)

Putting myself at risk of placing the predicate before the middle term, and so ruining the syllogism, I turn next to Poldy, who also lingers, mentally and physically, by the seaside. Bloom is of a much more even keel than Stephen.

It does not seem so at first. Bloom first thinks of the sea in what is one of his darkest moments of the day. A cloud covers the sun, and the world is, for a moment, gray. Bloom’s thoughts:

No, not like that. A barren land, bare waste. Vulcanic lake, the dead sea: no first, weedless, sunk deep in the earth. no wind would lift those waves, grey metal, poisonous foggy waters. Brimstone they called it raining down: the cities of the plain: Sodom, Gomorrah, Edom. All dead names. A dead sea in a dead land, grey and old. Old now. It bore the oldest, the first race. A bent hag crossed from Cassidy’s clutching a noggin bottle by the neck. The oldest people. Wandered far away over all the earth, captivity to captivity, multiplying, dying, being born everywhere. It lay there now. Now it could bear no more. Dead: an old woman’s: the grey sunken cunt of the world. (61)

Characteristically of Bloom, however, this does not last. Of course, as I looked at earlier today, Bloom’s mood recovers with the thought of returning to his wife. But even beyond that, the image of the dead sea is made innocuous. As Bloom goes to the chemist’s to pick up a concoction for his wife’s skin, Bloom recalls a picture he saw:

Where was the chap I saw in that picture somewhere? Ah, in the dead sea, floating on his back, reading a book with a parasol open. Couldn’t sink if you tried: so thick with salt. Because the weight of the water, no, the weight of the body in the water is equal to the weight of the. Or is it the volume is equal of the weight? It’s a law something like that. (72)

Here the dead sea is a curiosity, a strange region of the earth that offers a certain amusement to tourists: the sea where you cannot sink. It provides as well an opportunity for Bloom to stretch his brain on a math/science problem, though he does not fair well. No hint remains of the apocalyptic vision of before. It is characteristic of Bloom’s relative tranquility of mind that he quickly stabilizes after disturbances, and here is no exception. Perhaps there is a causal connection between the two events—perhaps the apocalyptic vision prompted, in some fashion, the later recollection of the curiosity—but all the as it were spiritual overtones are vanished and replaced. Bloom’s constitution is robust.

III. the sea the sea (783)

Moving on, then, to my final subject. Here I shall be more circumspect—I cannot read quickly enough to finish Ulysses in a single day, at least not if what I am doing is to deserve the epithet ‘reading’—as the passage I wish to discuss comes from the very end of Ulysses, as Molly Bloom recollects both past lovers and her choice to marry Leopold. Amidst these recollections comes a reprise of Buck Mulligan’s cry, with which I began—Thalatta! Thalatta!—only not in the Greek now, rather in the vernacular.

…O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire… (783)

Molly is caught in a torrent of thought, and here is one ecstasy within it. No longer is the sea a morass of turbid gloom, snotgreen, or a bloater of corpses, saltwhite: it flashes red with the sun. It is not musty and old, but vibrant. Nor is the play of light of the sun like the ominous image created much earlier, in Nestor: “On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.” (36) It is euphoric.

There may be reason to doubt this euphoria. As a good friend and perceptive reader commented on my very first post on this blog, there is something ambiguous about it, perhaps even empty. I may be downplaying these ambiguities. (Having not reread Penelope today, it is hard for me to say.) Nonetheless, I cannot help but see this repetition of Mulligan’s cry, with a total opposition of valence, as a culmination of the move of the book from negation and death to affirmation—however ambiguous that affirmation might turn out to be.

IV. A seachange this (50)

For each character, the sea takes on the shape and color that fits their moods and swings of moods. Joyce looks at the sea, not in itself, but only in relation to those who interact with it, both physically and mentally. The sea is a receptacle for Stephen, for Bloom, for Molly. It is ample enough to contain them all.

Thus ends my Bloomsday.

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Why I mistrust D.H. Lawrence

2014/06/16 1 comment

It being Bloomsday, I have set aside the novel that had been occupying my idle hours—D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love—and taken up Ulysses. Fortunate timing, for reading Women in Love was becoming more and more a task and not a pleasure. I do not know if I will return to the book when I complete Ulysses. Since, however, I have found in Ulysses passages that help clarify the grounds of my mistrust of Lawrence, I will take time out of my Bloomsday to excavate publicly these grounds.

A brief biography, to begin. I read and loved Sons and Lovers, and so became eager to read Women in Love. It seemed at first that that novel would equally become a favorite. But somewhere around 200-250 pages into it (about halfway), I began to become skeptical. Continued reading confirmed and deepened that skepticism, and now I have reached the point where I am not sure I was right to have enjoyed Sons and Lovers.

The basic source of the mistrust is Lawrence’s extremism—the value that he places in extreme emotions. There is no bare existence, in a Lawrence novel. Every moment is life or death, hatred or love, suffocation or intoxication. There is no ambivalence, only absolutes. But, someone will say, doesn’t Lawrence capture beautifully those moments in which, say, Gudrun Brangwen is torn, having heard Gerald Crich say just what she wanted to hear, yet nonetheless unable to go fully along with it? Yes, but this is a false ambivalence—it is two absolutes, two extremes, coexisting unstably.

This, it seems to me, is a myth. The mythical quality of Lawrence’s world may be expressed in a dilemma. Imagine for a moment that there is a perfectly real place the events of which Lawrence is attempting to describe accurately. Assume, that is, that Women in Love is a history rather than a novel. This history may be accurate, or it may be inaccurate. If accurate, it is a myth, because it leaves out the everyday, that general blankness in which the vast majority of human life is spent. The characters rocket from extreme to extreme, without passing through the middle: natura facit saltus. There is no everyday in this world. If inaccurate, it is still a myth, because it falsifies the everyday. Every slight animosity is not a hatred; every attraction not a love. Every blankness is not a death, nor every displeasure.

In either case, then, Lawrence is perpetuating a myth. The fundamental tenet of the myth states that what is valuable in life is a certain intensity of feeling—even irrespective of the valence of this feeling. I find a poverty in this tenet, and so I mistrust Lawrence. Ulysses offers a valuable alternative.

Both Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom begin their day under the spell of death—Dedalus, the death of his mother, long enough ago that his grief is controlled but still present, yet recent enough that he still dresses in mourning clothes, Bloom, the death of Dignam, a casual acquaintance. Of these two, Stephen comes closer to Lawrencian extremes, whereas Bloom is more even-keeled.

As the novel begins, Buck Mulligan, usurper, is jovially tormenting Stephen Dedalus, who is showing signs of frustration. When Mulligan asks him what it is, Stephen recounts an episode shortly after his mother’s death, in which Buck Mulligan said, “O, its only Dedalus whose mother is beastly dead.” (8) [Page references are to the Modern Library hardcover.] Shortly thereafter, as we glimpse into Stephen’s consciousness, we are treated to the sight of “the gaping wounds which the words had left in his heart.” Yet what causes these wounds is not “the offence to my mother,” but rather, “the offence to me.” (8-9) Stephen’s melodrama here is narcissistic at its base. This recasts his earlier rejection of Mulligan’s offer of a pair of grey trousers on the grounds that they were not mourning colors. The stately seriousness with which Stephen upholds the etiquette of death now seems less a tribute to his mother than a vapid sort of self-love. It is not contemptible, but it bespeaks an emptiness in Stephen’s grief. There is something disingenuous about it.

Bloom, by contrast, is neither extreme nor narcissistic. There is one moment of extremity, when a cloud covers the sun: “Desolation.” (61) Yet this is quickly dispelled by the thought of his wife’s “ample bedwarmed flesh. Yes, yes.” So too in his relation to Dignam. While walking in the street, he runs into Mr. O’Rourke. “Stop and say a word: about the funeral perhaps…” (58) Yet when he speaks, he says nothing about the funeral. Why not? I suspect because it affects him more than he lets on. Even still, Bloom, at the end of the funeral service for Dignam, thinks: “Were those two buttons of my waistcoat open all the time. Women enjoy it.” (83) This sort of vulgarity is characteristic of Bloom: at once sincere and bestial. He treats Dignam’s death with no special gravity, but with honesty. And throughout it all there is a mildness, an averageness, an unremarkableness.

Stephen’s extremes are something of a put on, disguising a lack of substance. They convey a real lack of richness, a proper emptiness. Bloom’s mildness, by contrast, is lacking nothing, for all its constraint within narrow limits of intensity. Of course, it would be wrong to identify Stephen’s extremes with those of Lawrence’s characters. The point is rather that I think the picture Joyce provides, through Stephen, is more reliable than that of Lawrence. I do not believe one can feel perpetually such strong emotions as Lawrence suggests; nor do I think one should want to.

When I first began reading Emerson and Nietzsche, I did not read them well. In particular, I read them as offering me just the sort of extremity that I find in Lawrence. At the time, I had a sense that I was dead, inside, that I could not feel much of anything. I thought Emerson and Nietzsche held the promise of a sort of perpetual ecstasy. This was a myth, my own—the myth of intensified feelings, I called it, for myself. It took me some time to disabuse myself of it.

I mistrust Women in Love because its attractions seem to want to suck me back into this myth I spent such effort overcoming. I even mistrust Sons and Lovers retroactively—I worry that what it appealed to in me was nothing more than the latent remains of this myth.

Happy Bloomsday.

Addendum: This is not really a proper Bloomsday post; I will have another up sometime later.

Skepticism at the margins V: On the possibility of pure zoomorphism

[My human/animal seminar met for the final time today. These thoughts were occa­sioned by a discussion therein. I will miss it dearly.]

John Cage apparently related the following story about Morton Feldman. Reflecting on the phrase “free as a bird”, he went to a park to observe them. Upon returning, he remarked, “You know? They’re not free: they’re fighting over bits of food.” (The story may be found, I am told, in his Silence: Lectures and Writings.) I wish to understand this as a zoomorphic experience.

I obtained this concept—which I am now perverting—in a discussion in my human/animal seminar. One student distinguished anthropomorphism—placing human characteristics onto animals—from zoomorphism—using animals to learn about humans. I was perplexed; I found it difficult to see how we could use animals to learn about humans without anthropomorphizing. The context of the discussion was the use of animals—actual animal bodies and representations of animals alike—in art, so I ran through works of art I find particularly successful at using animals to teach me something about what it is to be human. In every case, I found human interests guiding the treatment of animals. Animals were viewed not as they are, but as they are for humans. And so, I expect, is how it must be. What we wish to learn about ourselves from animals, we first place upon them. Then we extract them back out, perhaps with remarkable artistry and great insight, but this still does not amount to a pure zoomorphism.

Is zoomorphism that does not collapse into anthropomorphism possible? I think it is, in the form of a skepticism that creeps in at the margins. What I am envisioning is a visceral, direct experience of animals that brings us to the realization of just how distorting our anthropomorphisms are, how much we humanize animal life in order to learn from it. In such an experience, we are forced to confront the fact that animal lives do not exist for us, that what they are for animals is no doubt wholly distinct from what they are for us, and that we have very limited access to what animal lives are for animals.

Joyce’s conception of epiphanies might serve as a model for such an experience. I conceive of it as transformative. We have a dominant mode of relating to the world, one in which we treat of animals insofar as they are useful to us, whether materially or conceptually. These experiences crystallize a skepticism about this dominant mode. They compose, as it were, a minor strain moving below the surface, occasionally rising into view. They make us realize—and force us to reflect upon—the differences between animal life for animals and animal life for humans. They bring us to see our everyday anthropomorphism as something truly imposed upon animals.

Cage’s story about Feldman is an example of such thinking. Birds as a model of freedom is a well-worn trope, one that is inherited and taken for granted, more or less unquestioned. Yet Feldman took it upon himself to investigate directly, and found it lacking. Birds fighting over food are not free. Certainly they are not concerned with serving as an inspiration for humans. They are concerned about getting food, though this still gives us little insight into what it is to be a bird fighting for food. This is a zoomorphic experience.

I think there is an even better example of zoomorphic experience: that of Montaigne, playing with his cat. At some point, playing with his cat, Montaigne realizes that he is treating the cat as a partner in his play, as something with whom Montaigne is playing. But then he asks: “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” (This may be found in his “Apology for Raymond Sebond”, the longest by far of his Essays.) This amounts to a realization, not at an abstract level but quite concretely, that he has taken for granted his cat as a thing for him to play with, and that he is equally as much something for his cat—though what this something is, neither he nor anyone else can say. The only individual capable of saying is the cat itself, and it cannot speak. The experience Montaigne records is the purest instance of zoomorphism I have encountered.

I have praised experience over thought. Why is this? It comes down to my expectation that a genuine zoomorphism will be transformative, will change, for however brief a time, the way one relates to animals. And, in brief, I distrust the ability of pure thought to effect such a transformation. I call Nietzsche to my aid. In Daybreak §30, he makes an insightful comment about the inheritance of customs: “In its ultimate foundation – in this case that means: in its first generation. For when the habit of some distinguishing action is inherited, the thought that lies behind it is not inherited with it.” [Cambridge edition.] It is easy to inherit a sort of zoomorphism as a habit of thought, a custom one follows as it were thoughtlessly, without connection to direct experience. In praising zoomorphic experience over zoomorphic thought, I am praising zoomorphic thought in its first generation, and not as mere habit.

I lack faith in thought. Speaking for myself only, though I am sure I am not alone, thought without a direct connection to experience, to its instances of application, is effete. It spins frictionlessly, making no contact with action or the world. Or, as Nietzsche puts it in another place, “The most confident knowledge or faith cannot provide the strength or the ability needed for a deed, it cannot replace the employment of that subtle, many-faceted mechanism which must first be set in motion if anything at all of an idea is to translate itself into action.” (Daybreak §22) By contrast, I expect experiences of the sort I have countenanced to possess that power.

With such experience, an old thought becomes original. I do not believe in progress for the simple reason that I must go over the same ground as those before me, must grapple with the same enduring problems. I cannot much trust my inheritance until I have made it my own through experience. Zoomorphism as thought is nothing new, and it is easy to think. But to really experience it is to accomplish something new and original, in the only sense of originality one can countenance in a world where the sun shines each day on the nothing new (my gratitude to Samuel Beckett). What is so remarkable about Montaigne’s essays in general is the manner in which he applies his experiences in order to work on himself. He is not merely thinking, he is going over the ground of thought with the aid of his individual set of experiences. Because of that, he achieves, at least once, a pure zoomorphism.

Talis ac tanta depravatio hujus seculi, O quirites

2013/07/10 3 comments

In a hospital, as it is getting on to be late at night, Buck Mulligan, usurper, participates in the time-honored tradition of postlapsarianism:

Mr Mulligan however made court to the scholarly by an apt quotation from the classics which as it dwelt upon his memory seemed to him a sound and tasteful support of his contention: Talis ac tanta depravatio hujus seculi, O quirites, ut matres familiarum nostrooe lascivas cujuslibet semiviri libici titillationes testibus ponderosis atque excelsis erectionibus centurionum Romanorum magnopere anteponunt: while for those of ruder wit he drove home his point by analogies of the animal kingdom more suitable to their stomach, the buck and doe of the forest glade, the farmyard drake and duck. (Ulysses, Gabler edition, pp. 329-330)

The Latin in this passage—my choice for the single funniest line in the oft-hilarious Ulysses—may be translated roughly as: “Of such a kind and so great is the depravity of our generation, O Citizens, that our matrons much prefer the lascivious titillations of Gallic half-men to the weighty testicles and extraordinary erections of the Roman centurion.” (From Gifford and Seidman’s Ulysses Annotated)

Most precisely, to speak of the postlapsarian is to speak of the time after the fall from the Garden of Eden, i.e. the time post-lapse. I am using it more broadly to speak of any tale of a fall from a higher state of existence to a lower one. Mulligan’s postlapsarianism is fairly mild: once there was a time when matrons rightly preferred extraordinary erections to lascivious titillations, but we have decayed since that time. Mulligan’s form is mild because it admits the possibility of recovery: there is no principled reason why the valuations of the matrons could not reverse again and undo the decline. Stronger forms of postlapsarianism do not admit this possibility: the Garden of Eden is not re-attainable, at least not on Earth.

I want here to look at a use Emerson makes of a weak postlapsarianism in his Divinity School Address. I want to understand how such a position seems incompatible with Emerson’s position, and to explore the possible reasons why Emerson might have chosen to use it regardless. I am using the version of the essay found in the Library of America volume of his Essays and Lectures (pp. 73-92); all page references are to that volume (but not to that essay, necessarily).

Emerson is addressing a divinity school’s senior class, so he has been charged with the task of giving them advice that will be helpful in their future careers as preachers. (This, at least, is primarily what Emerson focuses on.) Midway through the essay, he writes:

From the views I have already expressed, you will infer the sad conviction, which I share, I believe, with numbers, of the universal decay and now almost death of faith in society. The soul is not preached. The Church seems to totter to its fall, almost all life extinct. (83)

Emerson explicitly opposes faith to the “sleep of indolence” and the “din of routine” (84), so we can see right away that Emerson’s faith is not quite faith as is generally understood. Rather, for Emerson, it is a sensitivity to the divine law that pervades all things, but which can never be adequately formulated or grasped. But Emerson is not thereby apophatic about the object of faith; rather he sees it as partially, temporarily grasped in creative acts—precisely those that rise above “the din of routine” that threatens to drown faith in conformity. Emerson later rails against imitation: the creative act that grasps the divine law cannot be repeated, and to imitate it is to confess inferiority, to relinquish one’s own right to grasp the divine for oneself, through one’s own creative acts. The enemy of faith, then, is trust.

Emerson, in his address, is trying to enlist the Church, through its future leaders, to embrace this notion of faith, instead of a particular set of doctrines. (Whether Emerson’s call here is compatible with the very idea of a church, is certainly debatable, but it is not my issue here. Nietzsche, that great Emersonian, argued at length for the negative position.)

The immediate purpose of Emerson’s use of this tale of decay is obvious from the very next sentences: “On this occasion, any complaisance would be criminal, which told you, whose hope and commission it is to preach the faith of Christ, that the faith of Christ is preached” (83). (By “the faith of Christ is preached,” Emerson means the view that there is a doctrine of Christ that can be taught and followed—a form of imitation.) By telling a tale of decay, Emerson simultaneously accomplishes two things. First, he lends a sense of urgency to his call: look at the state of things! Second—and here the distinction between strong and weak postlapsarianism is crucial—by suggesting that the tale is one of decay, he implicitly suggests that a non-decayed state is recoverable. That is, he promises his charges that success is a possibility. A similar promise of a return to Eden would, by contrast, ring hollow.

But is this weak postlapsarian tale really compatible with Emerson’s overall position? Emerson is commonly seen as a philosopher of democracy, not without cause, but he has a strikingly elitist side that is just as essential to his thought. (The constant tension in his writing between democratic ideals and elitism is one of the prime exemplars of what Emerson means when he says, in “Self-Reliance”, that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” A prime source of Emerson’s greatness of mind is his refusal to find a consistent resolution to this tension; instead he let the two contradictory drives coexist and push his thought forward.) In “The American Scholar”, this elitist tendency comes out in a striking passage:

Men in history, men in the world to-day are bugs, are spawn, and are called ‘the mass’ and ‘the herd.’ In a century, in a millennium, one or two men; that is to say,—one or two approximations to the right state of every man. All the rest behold in the hero or the poet their own green and crude being,—ripened; yes, and are content to be less, so that may attain to its full stature. (66)

(I nurture a pet thesis that Nietzsche and Emerson are the same soul in two bodies. This is, of course, hyperbole, but when I read passages like this in Emerson, it doesn’t seem hyperbolic.) Here Emerson gives away his hand (admittedly in a distinct essay—he’s not incautious with his rhetoric!): it is not just “men in the world to-day” but also “men in history” who are “bugs” and “spawn” and “herd.” Imitation—equivalent to the absence of faith—is always present and always dominant. What Emerson calls the “soul-destroying slavery of habit” (89) is not at all a new phenomenon, just now gaining prominence.

What, then, licenses Emerson to utilize such a tale, false by his own admission? What justifies it, I think, is that Emerson is magnifying a very real phenomenon. Recall the relation between creation and imitation I mentioned above. It is creative acts that are imitated. Faith manifests itself in the world in the initial creative act, ever-repeated, for the faith of Christ—which means, in all honesty, not so much anything specifically Christian, but rather Emersonian creativity—is never “preached” but always requires further preaching. It is these creative acts that are imitated, and become habit. Shakespeare says, brilliantly, originally, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” and now we use it in our day-to-day lives for nothing so momentous as Hamlet. Faith, then, constantly decays into habit. Even our own creativity can turn into our own habit, when we do one new thing and then rest our laurels, only ever managing to imitate ourselves.

It is not so much, then, that Emerson is falsifying matters by speaking of the decay of faith into soul-destroying habit. In the passage with which I began, Emerson is simply magnifying the phenomenon to a historical scale. In fact, the decay happens constantly in our lives. It is a danger always to be guarded against. What is won does not long stay won, but must be won ever anew. This magnification heightens the felt urgency of this, and moreover reveals the task as collective. The future priest should not solely fight against the conformity in himself, but provoke his congregation to faith as well. Moreover, the magnification is also legitimate in that there is something historically relevant. The Christian church models itself on the creative acts of a particular individual, Christ. Emerson, speaking 1800 years after these acts, recognizes the vast expanse of history between Christ’s teaching and those listening to the address he is giving. And, in this historical span, there is indeed decay. But, as Emerson would surely grant, this decay is not anything new—it almost certainly began immediately after Jesus died, if not before. Even the New Testament itself would, for Emerson, be a testament to such decay, at least in part. Emerson neglects to mention this, since it would detract from the rhetorical force of his address, but it is easily inferable from what he has said.

Emerson’s postlapsarian narrative should not be taken as Emersonian doctrine. Early in the essay, Emerson explains his view on the purpose of teaching, a view that follows directly from the opposition between faith and conformity. He writes:

Meantime, whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing. (79)

Emerson here admits his impotence. He cannot lead anyone into the temple. There are no beliefs that he can transmit that will make someone creative. Creativity is not received secondhand. Emerson’s use of his story of decay, then, is not to impress upon people: how depressing our current state is! Rather, he is capitalizing on the prevalence of sentiments of that sort as a means of provocation. He is subverting existing sentiment (and the sentiment that one’s time is a fallen time is surely always prominent) to his own ends, as a way of pointing others toward their own ends. For those of ruder wit, some other means of provocation might be preferred, but Emerson knows his audience.

Poetry and the thawing wind

2013/06/23 4 comments

This post will be much more rewarding if you first read and reflect upon Robert Frost’s poem “To the Thawing Wind”. (It will also be more rewarding if you’ve read either of James Joyce’s last two novels, but I won’t insist on that one.)

In a variety of posts, I’ve tried to push the notion of art as a serious form of inquiry into the possibilities of being alive and human in various times and conditions, following up on a rich suggestion by David Foster Wallace. I urge this in opposition to the positions of those such as Alexander Rosenberg, who argues that fiction is merely fun, but makes no contribution to knowledge. While Rosenberg might not see it as such, I think this amounts to a denigration of art, amounts to seeing it as dispensable, alongside attempts to make sense of what art offers to us. He mitigates this conclusion by suggesting that, while science and naturalistic philosophy can do without art, that does not mean human beings can do without it. I think this is exactly backwards. While science may be able to do without art (Catharine Z. Elgin has argue to the contrary, though I found her position rather lukewarm), insofar as a naturalistic philosophy wants to address the Kantian question “what should I do” (or its Nietzschean/Deleuzean variants, phrased in terms of modes of existence), it must take art seriously. On the flip side, human beings may be able to do without art—and this we learn from art itself. Indeed, part of what it means for a naturalistic philosophy to take art seriously is to recognize the very real possibility that we could entirely do without art.

This post is my exploration of this possibility, through the explicit lens of Frost and the implicit lens of Joyce. The Frost poem linked at the start of this post explores the idea explicitly. The poet invokes the thawing wind of spring, which will bring the birds & the flowers and will free the brown earth from white snow. These tasks of the wind at first seem like orders—do this, do that, do the other—but they are soon revealed to be more like acknowledgments of the wind’s busy schedule. Why acknowledge these impersonal tasks of the wind? Because the poet has a personal request, a favor the wind can do for him, a favor that he needs the wind to do for him. “But whate’er you do tonight, / bathe my window, make it flow, / Melt it as the ice will go”.

What happens when the wind melts the window? It will “Run the rattling pages o’er; / Scatter poems on the floor; / Turn the poet out of door.” What the poet is invoking the wind to do is precisely to disrupt his poetry, to turn him outside so that he might experience nature directly. This happens when nature bursts into his surroundings, his shelter. We can imagine the wind not granting his request, with the result that he stays inside. He is inviting nature to confront him, to give him no choice in the matter, for if he can choose he will stay in, working on his poems. I cannot help but see here a pun in Robert Frost writing a poem about the thawing wind turning the poet out of door: what is the object of the wind’s thawing but the frost? With this pun in mind, the real request is that the wind thaw not only the ground but also the poet.

Why should the poet imagine nature disrupting poetry? If one function of art is exploring modes of existence, possibilities for being alive, then a fundamental problem that art must face is the distinction between recognizing a possibility and fulfilling it. To know that such and such possibility for being human exists is not to manifest that possibility in your own life. Seen in this way, then, art is an intermediary, and we can imagine skipping over it, moving directly into the mode of existence it envisions. “Books are for the scholar’s idle time,” Emerson wrote (“The American Scholar”). Experiencing a poem about the richness of nature is not experiencing the richness of nature. Nor, to impale Emerson on his own sword, is reading an essay about “Nature”. I imagine Emerson walking willingly and with great dignity onto this sword he has prepared.

Reflection on the content of works of art may make this more plausible. The modes of existence explored by art are rarely modes of existence in which one is wrapped up in art. Here I want to take Joyce as an example. I have long considered writing a post, half serious and half in jest, titled “Joyce’s (elitist) undermining of elitism.” Literature has always been for the elite (in social status, which of course I do not confuse with real worth) in that (written) literature is by default accessible primarily to the literate. Even with the increase in literacy (part of) the world now enjoys, there is still literature that confines itself to the elite. Joyce falls into this camp: his work, at least his later work, is accessible only to those willing not just to read it but to study it, to struggle through it.

While this is indisputably the case, we must nonetheless consider the nature of Joyce’s characters, particularly his heroes. Leopold Bloom is an intelligent and educated man, to be sure, but to call him “erudite” would be going too far. He is not the type of person who would read Ulysses, though he might use its pages for toilet paper. (Not out of disrespect, mind!) Yet he is, more clearly than anyone else in Joyce’s oeuvre, healthy. Stephen Dedalus certainly is not; he is much more likely to read Ulysses than Bloom. Nor is Gabriel Conroy—indeed, all of the characters of Dubliners are paralyzed in one way or another. I confess, my forays into Finnegans Wake are insufficient to say whether HCE or ALP can be called healthy. Probably they can. What matters, in any event, is that Leopold Bloom is cast again and again in heroic terms in a book that he would almost surely never read.

If we want to give the book its due, then I think we have to take this fact into account. Ulysses is an exploration of a mode of existence—Bloom’s—that does not have time for or interest in books like Ulysses. What does that say about the readers of Ulysses? That they are not Leopold Bloom, for one. And what does that mean? It means that, in recognizing the heroism of Bloom, we have to recognize as the flip side of that the possibility that Ulysses is dispensable. When we consider the juxtaposition in the book of Bloom and Stephen—Stephen who would read Ulysses and develop crazy theories about it, as he did for Hamlet—this thought should only strengthen.

Of course, I do not believe that art should stop existing. Nor did Joyce see no need for Ulysses, nor did Frost disavow his own poetry. The very fact of their art’s existence speaks against that belief. What these two examples (and, though I discussed it less, the example also of Emerson’s corpus) reveal is that art exists in a strange tension with the thought of its disappearance—indeed it may be the secret task of art to make us, as readers, viewers, listeners, etc., mindful of the possibility of its disappearance. Mindful of this possibility, moreover, not as a loss, but as a gain.

[I must acknowledge the influence of Richard Poirier on this post—his book The Renewal of Literature first got me to take seriously the idea of the disappearance of literature. The discovery of this idea in the poetry of Frost and of its implicit presence in Joyce, as well as its relation to Rosenberg, however, are my own.]