Sunday, August 29, 2010

Anywhere Out of the World: Locating Romanticism

It's the end of August, and I'm already back to teaching. Since I've got a seminar on Romanticism this fall, I've been trying to think through just what that term has meant.

Definition's a tricky business. On the one hand, one doesn't want to fall into the trap of believing in trans-historically valid ideal types, or eternal forms. That is, you just don't want to treat Romanticism as a simply definable essence of some kind that pops up here and there in history, perhaps locked in battle with another trans-historical absolute called Classicism (I do, though, see Romanticism as a structure of feeling that didn't end when Queen Victoria hopped on the throne, and hasn't gone away yet — it comes out of conditions that haven't entirely disappeared). On the other hand, it's just as dubious to go over into some boneheaded nominalism, and refuse to believe that any word other than a proper noun has any meaning whatsoever. Abstractions may well repress certain elements of the whole truth, but they also express important things that we can't get at any other way. Besides, abstractions are like rationalizations: just try getting through a week without using one.

My usual move, when I want to define something, is to root around a bit in the history of the term, looking at how it's been used over a period of time (Raymond Williams is my guide, here, and Keywords my holy text). In the case of the term Romanticism, I'm not quite up to tracing the whole history, but a look at how it's been defined by some of the major critical thinkers over the last century or so is a decent enough start. It's what I did in an essay about Nick Cave and Romanticism I just finished drafting, and from which the rest of these remarks are adapted.

Carl Schmitt argued that Romanticism was all about the individual's "subjective occasionalism," a kind of fetishizing of the moment of individual spontaneity — in a literary context one might think of Jack Kerouac, hopped up on Benzedrine, and clattering away on his scroll-fed typewriter, or shouting "Go, man, go!" at Ginsberg's Six Gallery reading of Howl as the late-blooming apotheosis of sort of Romantism. The Encyclopédie Larousse tells us that it's really all a matter of form, of artists who "freed themselves from the classical rules of composition and style" — one thinks of Paganini cutting loose with defiantly flashy and unruly solos. M.H. Abrams says it's all a matter of emphasizing the visionary imagination, with the mind seen as a light-casting lamp, not a mirror reflecting the world as it is. Morse Peckham said it was all a matter of self-assertion, and so did Bertrand Russell ("Titantic cosmic self-assertion," said Russell, thinking of Lord Byron as the first great rebel without a cause). Irving Babbitt went a step further, saying Romanticism was an "anarchy of the imagination," such as you might find in Rimbaud (not an example he uses). But Karl Mannheim went the other way, saying Romanticism was fundamentally conservative; dead-set in opposition to the ever-rising "bourgeois-capitalist mode of experiencing things" — if you've had a look at Wordsworth's depiction of Bartholomew Fair as a Dantean circle of hell (it's in The Prelude), you've seen this kind of Romanticism.

Since Romanticism can appear in so many aspects, it's no wonder, really, that Arthur O. Lovejoy shook his head in despair and said we should give the term the chuck, or at least speak of "Romanticisms" (a move that doesn't really solve the problem, any more than saying there are "types of poetry" solves the problem of defining poetry). I was almost willing to join Lovejoy, though, until the great Franco-Brazilian sociologist Michael Löwy set me straight. What holds all these loose strands we want to call "Romantic" together, for Löwy, is their opposition to capitalist modernity – their sense of not fitting at a comfortable angle vis-à-vis industrialism, the quantification and rationalization of all things, technocracy, and the general disenchantment of the world. Anarchists? Backward-looking reactionaries? Imaginative visionaries? Stylistic malcontents? Individualist outsiders? Come on in, people — Löwy's bigtop is a commodious place.

The bigtop's inhabitants all have one thing in common, though: the modern world has left them homeless — sometimes literally, in the form of the poète maudit kicked out of his garret by a greedy landlord— but usually in a more metaphorical way. It makes sense. Think about the state of things when the first generations of Romantic writers came of age: the arts, long the handmaidens of church and state, had lost that affiliation in the breakdown of the old social order, and had yet to find a new one in the gaudy commercial world that would take its place. Displaced from their old social roles, Romantic writers would leap into invented worlds, like Blake did. Or they'd dream of a transformed future world, of revolution and Utopia, like P.B. Shelley. Or they'd look to what they imagined as a lost, better world: like childhood, or village life deep in the provinces — Wordsworth's great themes. Sometimes they yearned for the fuller, more organic social life in the middle ages, the period of the romances that gave the Romantic movement its name. If they were particularly bright and observant, like the nineteen year old Mary Shelley, holed up in Switzerland with her husband Percy, Lord Byron, and their egos, the Romantics would dream of monstrous outsiders whose great minds and open hearts meant nothing to the torch-and-pitchfork bearing peasants who drove them to endless wanderings. The world did not fit, felt these dislocated artists and intellectuals, and wherever they looked, it was to turn away from the modern bourgeois world of getting and spending that seemed to have no place for them. Perhaps Baudelaire got at the situation best, when he called for a voyage going "anywhere out of the world."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

In Which I Get My Hate On

The other day I received an email in which the offending writer referred to me as "insistently upbeat and chipper." I think it was meant as a compliment, but I was utterly aghast. I mean, it goes against my self-image. When I was young and pretentious, I used to think I glowered and scowled like some kind of Byronic wanderer-upon-the-earth, in quest of Truths beyond the ken of normal men. Then I sort of caught on to my own jive, and came to see myself as a more of a garden-variety lumpy grouch. Am I now to relinquish even that delusion? Never! Fight on, I say!

But how? The last time I can remember making a whole swath of people think of me as a negative jerk was an incident almost a year ago, on Facebook. There was some kind of meme going around, in which one was meant to name something that one hated, but the most people loved. An answer sprang immediately to mind: dogs. I fucking hate dogs. I find them needy, filthy, and vaguely dangerous – like adjuncts (I kid! I kid! — but only about adjuncts. As I may have mentioned, I fucking hate dogs). As one might imagine, the response was swift and brutal, with the united forces of all of Facebook's dog lovers crashing down upon me, baying for blood.

I thought I'd played the game well — some people had put in responses like "paying taxes" and "paper cuts," neither of which seems likely to be beloved by the majority (except perhaps in certain Japanese fetishistic subcultures). But you've got to watch out for these dog-lovers: their sense of acceptable objects for critique ends when Schnookums' big wet eyes and butthole-exposing bobtail enter the picture.

So anyway. I thought I'd try to do some damage to this incipient sense of an upbeat Archambeau by listing things, other than dogs, that I just can't stand. If some of these are things you admire, more power to you: I speak not with the Universal Voice of Wisdom, merely with the curmudgeonly voice of the portly academic.

  • Unitarianism, the appletini of religions.

  • Profs who call themselves "doctor" more than six months after receiving the degree.

  • Diplomas on display. You are not a kid. Your office is not a refrigerator door.

  • Hyper-correct grammaristos, including those who use "one" where everyone else says "you."

  • Pictures of oneself giving a reading from one's own book.

  • Suits of any kind on people of any gender in any non-wedding, non-funeral context. (This rule does not apply to Michael Caine).

  • Did I mention dogs?

  • Crazy bitches.

  • iChat conversations, because I never know how to end the damn things without making up some kind of household emergency such as a cat in the chimney or a pretend bee-sting.

  • Grapefruit.

I think that's about it. One must not go overboard in one's bitching.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Aesthetically Poor and How They Got There

One of the more common arguments one hears, regarding the relative lack of popularity of one or another poet, is that said poet's work is "difficult." Such arguments are often followed by homiletics regarding the virtue or importance of difficulty. I should know: I've made them myself more times than I can remember.

I suppose it's because of this that I feel like posting a few paragraphs from the big-ass social history of aesthetic autonomy (with reference to poetry) that I've been plugging away on for a couple of years. Here's a passage where I'm talking about Arthur Henry Hallam's review of one of Tennyson's first books. Tennyson would go on to drop many of his relatively obscure symbolist tendencies and become the most popular English poet of his generation (or of any subsequent generation), but at the time Hallam wanted to defend obscurity. The attitude to the audience is, shall we say, interesting — and a kind of aesthetic mirror image of the free-marketeering, self-made-man ethos of the Victorian middle class.

Hey, I just study this stuff...


E.D.H. Johnson has argued, with regard to the Victorian poets, that “artists of their generation were the first to face the problem of communicating with a modern reading public little sensitive to the life of the imagination.” Arthur Henry Hallam, in his short life, was nevertheless among the first English poets to see the problem clearly. What to make of the relative unpopularity of highly skilled poets like the young Tennyson of Poems, Chiefly Lyrical? What could be done about the obscurity of those trafficking in difficult symbolism and indecisive negative capability, especially in a world where literacy of a basic sort was growing, and beginning to displace more elite forms of reading in the marketplace? Hallam phrases the question a little differently, claiming (in the manner of the Wordsworth of the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads) a special sensitivity for the poets: “how should they be popular,” Hallam asks, “whose senses told them a richer and ampler tale than most men could understand, and who constantly expressed, because they constantly felt, sentiments of exquisite pleasure or pain, which most men were not permitted to experience?”. His answer begins with a gesture of conciliation toward the advocates of a socially engaged art: “Undoubtably the true poet addresses himself, in all his conceptions, to the common nature of us all,” says Hallam, for “art is a lofty tree, and may shoot up far beyond our grasp, but its roots are in daily life and experience.” In the end, though, the responsibility of bridging the gap between the difficult poet and the bewildered public lies with the reader, not the poet. Apprehending the wholeness and harmony of the organic form of aesthetic works is, quite simply, hard work. Readers have the potential to grasp refined aesthetic pleasures, if only, says Hallam (sounding as Victorian as a Victorian should) they would, through diligent work, make themselves worthy of such pleasures:

…since the emotions of the poet, during composition, follow a regular law of association, it follows that to accompany their progress up to the harmonious prospect of the whole, and to perceive the proper dependence of every step on that which it preceded, it is absolutely necessary to start from the same point, i.e., clearly to apprehend that leading sentiment in the poet’s mind, by their conformity to which the host of suggestions are arranged. Now this requisite exertion is not willingly made by the large majority of readers.

The aesthetically poor are poor, it seems, because they are lazy.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Twilight of the Comments Streams

The poetry blogosphere has been wearing a black armband lately, as it mourns the demise of the comments stream at Ron Silliman's blog, and remembers the recent loss of another comments stream, over at the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog. Much buzz has been generated about the whys and whences of it all. I have no deep insight to offer, but I do think that a recent post at the Pathologos blog offers a clue as to what's afoot.

In the middle of the post, the blogger offers a little confession about his own contribution to what many see as the hostile culture of poetry snarkiness:

i'm embarrassed to admit that on at least 2 occasions i inserted insults into blog posts that i wouldn't have otherwise included because i knew that, as a completely unknown commentator, i'm more likely to be taken seriously (or at least engaged with) the more insulting i am.

This is interesting, in that it indicates where we might lay the blame for the current state of affairs. No, not on the now-reformed blogger at Pathologos, nor even on his eschewal of capital letters — but on the attention-economy of poetry, in which people want to be noticed any way they can.

I think this attention-seeking condition is endemic to the whole American poetry culture now, and at root the issue is the surplus of supply (of poems, of opinions) compared to the demand. It is with poets as it is with aspiring Hollywood starlets: there are a multitude of them on the scene, hoping to be noticed, and few stunts are too low for someone to stoop down to them. I haven't seen any poets doing the "exposing underwear while getting out of a limo" trick, but I'm sure it can't be too far off — I just pray it isn't Silliman who goes there.

It's not that I want to impose a moratorium on poetry, or on the discourse about poetry — far from it. I just wish people didn't yearn, so much, for the few rays of limelight that do penetrate the fog.

I suppose, in the end, what we have is a failure to adjust our expectations to the new conditions under which we write poetry, and write about poetry. When the dissemination of poems and commentary was limited by the technology of print, relatively few people were able to disseminate their work, and they could imagine that the audience for what they had to say was larger than the number of other publishing writers. Now everyone with a laptop can get their work out there, but getting it noticed amid the crowd is an issue.

Everyone is famous, now, to fifteen people. We can get upset about this and hurl insults in an attempt to get noticed. Or we can roll with it. Accepting it may not be easy for the ego that yearns for recognition, but there really is no going back. And, I might add, we'd be foolish to want to go back. I am (I hate to say it) old enough to remember the curious silence that surrounded most poetry in America before the internet took off. What we have now is better in just about every way, if only we'd let go of the fantasy of recognition.


UPDATE: Bobby Baird has some good things to say on this topic.