Friday, November 30, 2012

Sublime Knowledge: Bertrand Russell and the Intellectual as Hero

I find myself compelled, from time to time, to gorge myself on the work of a particular writer, for reasons that often remain opaque to me until much later. For the last month or so I've been tearing through the works of Bertrand Russell — philosophical essays, memoirs, polemics, and even a little of his work on mathematics. I think, now that I'm coming to the end of this fit of Russellmania, that the whole thing has been a powered by an unconscious need to provide some kind of counter-weight to my other reading for the month, a series of investigations into Gnosticism, undertaken in preparation for the panel on American Gnostic poetics on which I'll be speaking at the Louisville conference this coming February. What better way to clear one's mind of the eight heavens, the archons, and the emanations of early Christian heresy than by turning to Russell, the village atheist to end all village atheists? 

Russell's atheism, though, turns out to be the least interesting thing about him. Much more fascinating, at least to me, is his notion of the intellectual. For Russell, the intellectual isn't just a heroic figure, he's something grander altogether: he's sublime. And not just sublime in some general sense of being grand. The intellectual is sublime in the Kantian sense of that word.

For Kant, objects themselves are never truly sublime.  Rather, it is the effect of certain kinds of objects on us, on our consciousness, that is truly sublime, though we tend to attribute the quality of the sublime to the objects themselves.  "Volcanoes in all their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of devastation, the boundless ocean in a state of tumult," says Kant, are things "we willingly call... sublime," but this is only because of their effects, because "they raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height and discover in us a faculty of resistance... which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature."  That is, we look at these terrifying things and, provided we are not reduced to sheer terror, we feel not only their grandeur and fearfulness, but also our own capacity to stand in their presence, afraid but not merely reduced to fear.  We feel their grandeur, but also the capacity of our own little light to withstand their mighty winds and not be blown out.  And it's our awareness of that capacity in ourselves that is truly sublime.  "In this way nature is not judged to be sublime in our aesthetical judgments insofar as it excites fear," says Kant, "but because it calls up that power in us... of regarding as small the things about which we are solicitous (goods, health, and life), and of regarding its might... as without dominion over us..." This is why, according to Kant, so many people from so many different kinds of societies have a certain kind of respect for soldiers, those people who put self-preservation aside and, quite often willingly, put themselves up against overwhelming force. "What is that which is, even to the savage, an object of the greatest admiration?" asks Kant. "It is a man who shrinks from nothing, who fears nothing, and therefore does not yield to danger, but rather goes to face it vigorously with the fullest deliberation. Even in the most highly civilised state this peculiar veneration for the soldier remains..."

When we look at Bertrand Russell's depictions of what it means to be an intellectual, we see something remarkably like the Kantian sublime at work.  Often, this takes the form of a historical panorama in which an intellectually advanced cohort resists an overwhelming barbarism, brave despite the overwhelming odds of defeat.  Here, for example, he describes his earliest sense of intellectual heroism in the communities of Greeks left behind in what is now Afghanistan in the wake of Alexander's conquests:

Already in youth I felt an interest, which has remained with me, in solitary outposts of civilization, and men or groups who were isolated in an alien world.  I did not then have the knowledge I have since acquired about such matters but I already wished to have it.  This interest led me in later years to read about the Bactrian Greeks, separated from the mother country by deserts and alien monarchies, gradually losing their Hellenism, and finally subdued by less civilized neighbors, but passing on as they faded away some part of the cultural heritage of Greece in the Buddhist sculpture they inspired.
Here, in a passage about Ireland during a time of barbarian invasion, we get an even stronger sense of the preservation of a small, flickering flame of intellectual achievement in an ominous and darkening world:
I contemplated with vivid interest the civilization of Ireland that was destroyed by the Danes.  This civilization, which was created by refugees of from the barbarian invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries, kept alive in one corner of the extreme West the knowledge of Greek language and Greek philosophy, which elsewhere in the West had become extinct; and when at last the Danes began their destructive inroads France was ready to accept the heritage at the hands of John the Scot.
Or, to take things from the panoramic to the more personal, here is Russell on the meeting of Christian missionaries in pagan Germany:

I liked to think of St. Boniface and St. Virgilius, two holy men engaged in the endeavor to convert the Germans, meeting in the depth of the Teutonic forest, glad for a moment of each others' society but quarreling desperately on the question of whether there are inhabited worlds other than our own.

Against all those dark forests, the mind shines a small but indomitable light — that's the stuff of sublimity.  And it's what led Russell to form a belief in an enduring tradition of the life of the mind, in, as he put it, "the indestructibility of certain things which I valued above all others, the things which make up our cultural heritage, and which have as yet persisted through all the various disasters from the time when Minoan civilization was destroyed until our own day."  A "gradually increasing power of intellect and knowledge" persists, sometimes falters, but never dies, due to the efforts of heroic individuals and embattled minorities — that's Russell's position.  

When we consider Russell's own intellectual formation, it becomes clear that this sense of the sublimity of the intellectual is tied to another strain in Russell's thinking: his yearning for certainty.  Russell's first career, before he became a public intellectual, was as a kind of hybrid logician-mathematician.  He gave himself a Quixotic task: to put mathematics on logically solid foundations, without any reliance on intuition.  For most of us non-mathematicians, it probably comes as a surprise to know that there is a strong element of intuitive thinking in mathematics, but there is.  Consider geometry (the field that first inspired the young Russell).  In classical, Euclidian geometry, many of the basic axioms from which all else derives are not actually proven, but rather taken as intuitively true, in a "we hold these truths to be self-evident" kind of way.  For example, Euclid tells us that if we draw a line, and then mark a point outside that line, there's only one line we could draw through that point that will be parallel to the first line.  Euclid doesn't prove this, he just takes it as true because it is intuitively correct — it's hard to envision how it could possibly be wrong.  That was good enough for Euclid, and for a great many mathematicians and logicians of Russell's youth — Henri PoincarĂ©, for example, argued for an intuitive basis for mathematics;But it wasn't good enough for Russell, who spent many agonizing years working on the Principia Mathematica in an attempt to prove, with complete logical certainty, the basis of mathematics.  The attempt alienated him from his field, from his wife, and quite frequently from his collaborator, Alfred North Whitehead.  But despite the overwhelming odds against him, the project did not reduce Russell to despair.  His was a sublime, and lonely, intellectual heroism during the long years of his formation, and this was certain to have an effect on his conception of the intellectual's particular virtues.

In a strange way, this desire for certainty that underlay Russell's notion of the intellectual as sublime all comes back to his status as the village atheist, the author of Why I am Not a Christian and similar tracts.  The desire for certainty, after all, comes from somewhere, and in Russell's case it came from his early loss of faith.  Since Russell lived so long, and kept his wits sharp until the very end, it's easy to forget that he was very much a Victorian.  Born in 1872, he was almost thirty when the old queen died.  What is more, after the early death of his parents he was raised in a regime of rules and devotions created and enforced by his grandmother Countess Russell, a high Victorian virago if ever one trod the earth.  She insisted upon the worship of a terrifying, vengeful God of the fork-bearded paternal punisher type — and when the very young Russell lost his faith in this monster, he was left with the kind of void only a Victorian could have.  Matthew Arnold plugged the hole with culture, but young Russell plugged it with geometry, which seemed to him to offer the very kind of absolute certainty he'd lost when he cast his grandmother's god out of the sky.  So, in a roundabout way, the sublime intellectual, defiant against an enormous, encroaching darkness, was born when Countess Russell's God died.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Reading the Renaissance

I don't suppose I'm alone among people who take an interest in poetry and poetics in being better read among Italian Renaissance poets than among the prose writers of the same era.  I'm a fair enough hand when it comes to the big names from Petrarch to Ariosto, given the fact that Italian doesn't feature in the slim portfolio of languages I can more-or-less read.  And I've read some of the big names of Italian fiction of the period (Boccaccio and company).  But I've always felt a bit of a gap when it came to the non-fiction prose of that time and place, so I made it a bit of a project to browse around a bit this fall, between reading other things for my seminars (a lot of English Romanticism), my research (Auden and his crew), and the mere hell of it (Tintin and sociology, mostly).  Here, for what it's worth, is what struck me most.

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

I know I was supposed to read this as an undergraduate and, judging by the frayed nature of my old Penguin paperback, somebody must have read the thing — maybe even me.  But if I did manage to get through it, it made no impression whatsoever.  Coming to it now, I was struck mostly by how it failed to live up to its reputation as scandalous and wicked.  It seems more like a descriptive manual for how to keep order.  Of course it does include advice for how best to carry out the massacre of one's political enemies (all at once, not a few at a time). But even this advice seems weirdly innocent of the depths to which people will sink: Machiavelli says that no ruler could maintain his position if he kept on purging and purging enemies for years on end, and this, or course, is exactly what Stalin did, and he died in bed, not at the end of a noose.  In the end, The Prince reads less like a manual for seizing power than a strangely conservative book, one in which the preservation of civic order (even at the expense of liberty and tolerance) is the primary virtue.  "One should bear in mind," he writes, "that there is nothing more difficult to execute, nor more dangerous to administer than to introduce a new order of things..."

Francesco Guicciardini, The Ricordi

Guicciardini was an actual statesman, and he knew Machiavelli, who wasn't.  You won't be surprised to learn he didn't think much of bookish old Niccolo.  Where Machiavelli displays his knowledge of classical Greek and Roman civilization like some kind of exotic library peacock, Guicciardini says all knowledge comes from experience, and that there's no point in looking to history as a guide to politics, since no two sets of historical circumstances will be truly parallel.  He also scorns theory ("it is a great mistake to speak of worldly affairs indiscriminately and absolutely... for almost all of them are different and exceptional and cannot be grasped by one single measure") and has a very clear sense that even dazzling intellect is no substitute for experience.  He writes in maxims, which itself is a kind of argument against theory and intellectual abstraction: the form is inimical to argumentation, and lends itself to the presentation of the distilled results of long experience. Guicciardini is an appealing figure, not least because there's a touch of stoicism about him.  He says, for example, that like all men, he has "desired honor and profit," but notes, too, that "having obtained more of both than I had desired or hoped... I never found in them the satisfaction which I had imagined; a very powerful reason... for curbing the vain cupidity of men."

Giovani Pico Della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man

The balls on this guy!  First, he reads everything on everything by everyone.  Then he writes nine hundred theses and he distributes them to a host of scholars and calls a conference in Rome where he's prepared to defend all of them against all comers.  But the Pope freaks, bans the conference, has his goons go through the theses and then condemns them for thirteen different heresies.  Pico has to skip town for the boonies (France), but he works his magic with Lorenzo de' Medici and manages to get back to civilization under that dodgy bastard's protection.  Anyway, the Oration was meant to be the keynote for the conference in Rome, and it is astonishing.  He invokes the medieval world view in the form of the great chain of being, and then claims that mankind has no fixed place in that scheme -- that alone of all beings, including the angels, we have the freedom to determine our own identity.  This is Jean-Paul Sartre's "existence precedes essence" 400 years before existentialism, and the implications are enormous for the freedom, the individualism, and the ideal of self-determination that we find later in the Renaissance.  And he has a wonderful idea about what this freedom can mean: "Let some holy ambition invade our souls," he writes, "so that, dissatisfied with mediocrity, we shall eagerly desire the highest things and shall toil with all our strength to attain them, since we may if we wish.  Let us disdain earthly things, despise heavenly things,  and, finally, esteeming less all the things of this world, hasten to that court beyond the world which is nearest to the Godhead.  There, as the sacred mysteries relate, Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones occupy the first places.  Let us emulate their dignity and glory, intolerant of a secondary position for ourselves and incapable of yielding to them the first.  If we have willed it, we shall be inferior to them in nothing."  This is no mean ambition: it combines a desire for enlightenment with a pride worthy of Milton's Satan.

Leon Battista Alberti, The Book of the Family

In contrast to Pico Della Mirandola, there's this shitheel.  On the one hand, the two men share a sense of freedom and possibility: both think that the individual chooses his own destiny, making them both precursors of bourgeois liberal individualism, with all its virtues and vices.  On the other hand, Alberti's so much more bourgeois that he ought to be outfitted with an anachronistic top hat and monocle and unleashed in a hedge maze that looks like the board from Monopoly.  I mean, he goes on about how one should marry for money and good breeding possibilities, how one should save one's pennies, how throwing the occasional party is a terrible expense but probably necessary if one wants to avoid the practical consequences of being seen as stingy, and so forth.  Pico Della Mirandola wants us to aspire to enlightenment.  Alberti just thinks we should use our freedom to make sure our 401(k)s are in good order.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks

When you look at da Vinci's sketchbooks, you marvel at the audacity of the man.  When you read his notebooks, you recoil a little at his insecurity and defensiveness.  He's defensive about being a painter, and makes a point of saying that people who despise paintings can't really love philosophy or nature (so there, you snobs!), and he's always drawing attention to what he thinks others may consider his shortcomings ("Even though I may not... be able to quote other authors...", say, or "I am fully conscious that, since I am not a literary man, certain presumptuous persons will think it proper to despise me, alleging that I am not a man of letters").  Maybe it's good to have one's sense of Leonardo's grandeur decreased a little, given how he's become something like a figure for genius itself.  Maybe not.  If you don't want to have that sense of grandeur decreased, though, I'd say stick to the sketchbooks.

Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier

This is just great.  Not all the bits about how a courtier ought to know how to ride but not to juggle (the first impresses the peons with one's martial prowess, the second just makes one look too eager to please).  And not the bits about ladylike behavior or the how writers are greater than warriors because they make warriors' deeds immortal and therefore more real (a point Oscar Wilde steals for "The Critic as Artist").  Those are okay, and one gets, in the fine Platonic symposium of Castiglione's various characters, a sense of the man's wit, urbanity, and charm.  But the real jewel here is a grand speech near the end about the nature of love.  It's really a riff on what Dante had to say in the parts of the Vita Nuova where he describes meeting Beatrice, and feeling his earthly love climb higher to a kind of mystical love of the divine.  I want to quote about 2,000 words of the thing, but let's just go with this instead:

I say, then, that according to the definition of the ancient sages love is naught but a certain desire to enjoy beauty; and as desire longs only for things that are perceived,perception must needs always precede desire.... Therefore nature has so ordained that to every faculty of perception there is joined a certain faculty of appetite.... But speaking of the beauty we have in mind, which is that which is seen in bodies and especially in faces, and which excites this ardent desire that we call love, — we will say that it is an effluence of divine goodness, and that although it is diffused like the sun's light upon all created things, yet when it finds a face well proportioned and framed with a certain pleasant harmony of various colours embellished by lights and shadows and by an orderly distance and limit of outlines, it infuses itself therein and appears most beautiful... like a sunbeam falling upon a beautiful vase of polished gold set with precious gems. Thus it agreeably attracts the eyes of men, and entering thereby, it impresses itself upon the soul, and stirs and delights her with a new sweetness throughout, and by kindling her divine goodness excites in her a desire for its own self…. Love gives the soul a greater felicity; for just as from the particular beauty of one body it guides her to the universal beauty of all bodies, so in the highest stage of perfection it guides her from the particular to the universal intellect. Hence the soul, kindled by the most sacred fire of true divine love, flies to unite herself with the angelic nature, and not only quite forsakes sense, but has no longer need of reason's discourse; for, changed into an angel, she understands all things intelligible, and without veil or cloud views the wide sea of pure divine beauty, and receives it into herself, and enjoys that supreme felicity of which the senses are incapable.

That's the stuff.  It captures the Renaissance's neoplatonic love of a transcendent divinity, and also the love of the physical world and its beauty, suddenly respected by those concerned with the intellectual and the spiritual.  Certainly there were some dubious things the Renaissance brought us—the self-serving acquisitiveness of Alberti, the preening insecurity of da Vinci, the shifty-eyed calculation of Machiavelli.  But it also gave us the worldliness and skepticism of Guicciaridi, the existential, spiritual ambition of Pico Della Mirandola, and this—the strange, poised balance of physical and spiritual love.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Rereading the New Criticism: Highly Recommended!

Rereading the New Criticism, a book edited my Miranda Hickman and John McIntyre that includes a chapter I wrote on the ethical dimensions of the old New Crit, has been out for a few months — but the following short review has only just now appeared in Choice, the journal in which the American Library Association assesses new scholarly work.  They like the book.  I hope you will, too.

Rereading the New Criticism, ed. by Miranda B. Hickman and John D. McIntyre.  Ohio State, 2012.  255p bibl index afp; ISBN 9780814211809, $49.95; ISBN 9780814292792 CD, $14.95. Reviewed in 2012 November Choice.

 Anyone who has taught introductory undergraduate literature courses at an American university will readily admit that New Criticism has remained an important influence on contemporary theory and pedagogy, despite continuing reports of its demise. This edited volume offers a welcome reassessment of the continuing legacy of the New Criticism and as such updates and complements The New Criticism and Contemporary Literary Theory, ed. by William Spurlin and Michael Fischer (1995). Hickman (McGill Univ.) and McIntyre (Univ. of Prince Edward Island) arrange these essays in three broad categories: the first explores some distinctive and sometimes surprising ways that New Criticism anticipated more recent critical positions on politics, gender, and ethics; the second considers the close relationship between New Criticism and modernism; and the third offers an analysis of the influence of New Criticism on literary pedagogy, including calls for developing a new formalism for the 21st century. Though all of the essays are strong, particularly useful are Hickman's introductory essay exploring the ways in which histories of literary theory tend to oversimplify and distort New Criticism and Tara Lockhart's treatment of the significance of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's contributions to literary pedagogy through their textbooks. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. -- R. D. Morrison, Morehead State University

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Bruce Andrews Archive Goes Live!

We've got good news, people, and we've got bad news.  Let's start with the bad: Hurricane Sandy has left NewYork in a bit of a shambles, and the Fordham University symposium on the poetry of Bruce Andrews scheduled for tomorrow has been postponed.  Information on rescheduling will be posted as soon as it is available.  Let's hope the impressive raft of originally scheduled speakers—Charles Bernstein, Bob Perelman, Peter Nichols, and others—will be available for the event when it occurs.

The good news is that Fordham has put an impressive array of Andrews resources online, including an array of materials by Andrews and a huge compilation of critical responses to Andrews, including work  by Marjorie PerloffJed RasulaAl FilreisRon Silliman, and the present humble blogger.  So while the good people of New York fire up their sump pumps and reach for their bailing buckets, the rest of us can indulge our Bruce Andrews habits to satiety and beyond.


In other news, a fascinating article on Mad Men's Don Draper, and his reading of Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency, has appeared in Cultural Studies Review.  It makes interesting use of my own writing on the topic, and can be downloaded here.