I wrote previously about student responses in my “Writing about Literature” course to Percy Shelley’s famous sonnet “Ozymandias,” which I set them to interpret on the basis of workshops in identifying the formal and meaningful elements of poems. Last week I set the same students to write up in class an interpretation of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (1797), a rather more challenging poem than “Ozymandias,” although Shelley proved challenge enough, but at the same time possibly easier to interpret because its phantasmagoria allows for considerable play on the part of the reader. Coleridge’s poem has its origin in a bizarre and unrepeatable incident. In September 1797 while a house guest of his friend William Wordsworth, who had taken him in because he found himself in a phase of indigence, Coleridge one morning took a dose of opium, as was his wont, and fell into a visionary trance. A major ode of some two hundred lines manifested itself to Coleridge, complete, during the psychedelic phase, and as he returned to ordinary consciousness he began to transcribe it. At that moment, one of Coleridge’s creditors came knocking loudly at Wordsworth’s door, and in the shock of hearing it, the majority of those two hundred finished lines slipped away from the poet’s grasp into oblivion. Coleridge could rescue only thirty-six lines, which constitute Part I of the poem as it was published, finally, in 1816. The poem appears in its paradoxical truncated entirety below. –
My department pays me fairly handsomely to teach a particularly futile course – one among no few others – that styles itself as “Writing about Literature.” The course is futile at both ends: Public education produces nowadays only an uneducated public, many individuals of whom, including those who are invited to college or university to matriculate, write only at the level of functional illiteracy; and none of whom has ever read anything that might qualify as literature. I approach the course as a fully remedial one because that, in effect, is what it must be. Dedicating the first half of the semester to “writing about poetry,” I offer up as fare for mental nourishment short poems, mostly sonnets, by writers of the Romantic generations of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries. I run the class-sessions as workshops in careful reading, or close reading, for which a sonnet by William Wordsworth or Samuel Taylor Coleridge or John Keats or Percy Bysshe Shelley is meet. I ask the students to begin by noticing the periods or full stops that divide the poem into its sentences and to notice, for example, that, in verse, lines and sentences do not necessarily correspond, so that their interaction must be carefully worked out. I ask them to notice the grammatical features of each poem. In what person is the poem couched? Whom does the speaker address? What setting is implied? What argument does the speaker make in his sequence of figures and images? I want students to see that language can function at a higher level than it does in a campus newspaper article or in the instructions for the latest cell phone. Readers of poems must slow down their thought processes so as to notice everything and they must let the poem provoke them into thinking word by word and line by line.
It is the end of the term, so my life consists of tall stacks of student papers, which I must read and evaluate. A number of patterns – or maybe a better term would be grammatical de-patternings – have forced themselves on my attention. There is, for example, the almost invariable “they” employed as the subsequent of a singular subject in a sentence. A half-dozen of these, at least, appear in every four-page theme, even in papers written by English majors. Twenty years ago, in a journal article, I referred to this as gemination – the one and only child miraculously becomes a set of twins. Many among the English professoriate no longer bother to correct this, but I do, insistently. While English is a latitudinous language in terms of its regularity, the logic of its pronominal system is rigorous. Someone is, precisely, one, not two people or more. Ditto anyone, everyone, and no one or none, the last being the contraction of its syntactic precursor in the sentence. In the real world, neither a person nor the man can suddenly become they or them. To write so, however, is surely to think so; and to think so is bad arithmetic even in the first grade. It is perhaps not an unrelated fact that when I give my students the instruction to subtract the number of questions they answered wrongly on the quiz from the total number of questions and to post the result as their score – they reach that result with glacial slowness through grimacing, dull effort.
Let us begin with two questions – what is literary criticism and who or what is a literary critic? The true answers to these questions might surprise someone who attends college and who associates literature almost solely with what is called academic or scholarly interest. Very possibly, only a few academicians or scholars are today genuinely deserving of the title literary critic. The humanities departments, having become all at once thoroughly and fanatically political and thoroughly and fanatically bureaucratic, what passes in them for literary criticism is largely the imposition of predetermined and stereotyped ideological matrices on novels, plays, poems, and stories such that, in the main, the novels, plays, poems, and stories disappear and all that remains is the ideological matrix. Practices still calling themselves literary and critical will work themselves out as though they were self-actuating algorithms (“apps” in contemporary parlance), in the functioning of which, no human intervention is necessary. The sole interests are hierarchy, which everyone knows to be “bad” and which everyone therefore loves to denounce, and the somatic attribute, conceived in the narrowest way, and assumed to distribute itself according to a moral hierarchy. * Such a practice can only issue in a debilitating self-contradiction, which is exactly what happens. Missing in the “deconstructive,” “postmodern,” “feminist,” “classist,” and related English-Department discourses concerning novels, plays, poems, and stories is any scintilla of Eros – that is to say of passion, desire, or love – and any sense that the critic might be far less significant than the object of his interest. We have, of course, not yet answered the two questions, but clearing away certain misconceptions is a necessary prequel to furnishing those answers.
Literary criticism – to tackle the first question – is best grasped as a subject’s passion, desire, or love for novels, plays, poems, and stories. The passion, desire, or love is so great that the subject, gradually forming himself into a critic, relinquishes his ego entirely to his transcendent project of understanding the object as itself, in its beauty, its meaning, and, as entailed by those, in the total organic relation of its parts to its whole. More than that, literary criticism, nourishing itself on individual items that inflame its ego-dissolving passion, develops an interest in the generic relation of one item to another, thus also in the distinctions of the genres, and in the history of those genres. The ultimate object of literary criticism would be literature in itself, or the essence of the literary, but the ultimate object would not be identical to the ultimate aim, the telos, of literary-critical vitality. The ultimate aim or telos of that activity would constitute itself in the transformation of the subject – his raising of himself to a higher level of conscious awareness. There is an old saying that intelligent readers never, in fact read books; rather, intelligent readers let the books read them. No serious person who reads a serious book should expect to be the same person afterwards. Reading, supposed by college students on the basis of their secondary school experience to be a tedious obligation, has been understood by bibliophiles since the Fourth Century BC to resemble mystic initiation, a rite de passage, one of many such in the unwinding journey between birth and death. We must return to these themes, Eros and so forth, reading as a rite de passage, but let us first tackle the second of the two questions, who or what is a literary critic.
My essay A Novel for Our Time appears at Baron Bodissey’s Gates of Vienna website. The “novel for our time” is Dark Angel (1952) by the Finnish writer Mika Waltari (1931 – 1979), a fictionalized account, drawing on historical sources, of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. Waltari’s work is today largely forgotten, but during his lifetime it received widespread appreciation and made itself available to non-Finnish speakers through translations in a dozen languages. (Waltari’s novel The Egyptian, for example, would become the basis of a lavishly produced Hollywood film of the same name.) Dark Angel is partly allegory, being a study in loyalty to civilization and its opposite; and it is partly a call to its audience to remember an event that is increasingly obscure or entirely unknown to most Western people. Most importantly – and most relevantly from the perspective of sixty years later – Dark Angel is an attempt to grasp the essence of Islam. Waltari’s characterization of Islam stands at an angle to a number of assumptions that critics of that creed at the present time make of it – and in a way that heightens the claim of radical incompatibility between Islam and the West.
According to our – very plastic – seminar-schedule, the tentative completion-date for our cooperative reading of Hegel’s Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics is the middle of June, which is approaching. I myself am now engaged in a second reading of the Lectures, with the aim of making careful notes to be the basis of a short essay. I will post that essay at The Orthosphere. The present short missive consists of what I hope are helpful hints to anyone tackling Hegel’s treatise.
Believe it or not, the Lectures show Hegel’s prose at what might be its most accessible and least abstract; its chapters are few, only five, and three of the five are relatively short. Readers should remind themselves on every turn of the page that the first four chapters constitute the preparation for the fifth chapter, where Hegel (at last, readers might well say when they reach it finally) addresses the topic entirely in his own voice. Being an historical thinker par excellence and, in his own terms, a dialectical thinker, Hegel, in the first four chapters, mainly rehearses the history of aesthetics and critiques other theories of fine art and the beautiful prior to or in contention with his own. Here again readers need to take care to keep separate Hegel’s summaries of what other, previous thinkers have had to say about fine art and beauty, and what Hegel himself holds to be the case.
Richard Cocks and I have proposed to ourselves a summer reading project on the linked topics of aesthetics and kallistics. We invite interested parties to join us, if they like. The reading-list consists of four items chosen because of their germaneness to the two topics, but also because they are relatively short and mainly accessible to non-specialists, such as the two of us. I give these four titles in the order in which we propose to read them. –
W. F. Hegel: Lectures on Aesthetics (1818)
Plotinus: On Intellectual Beauty (circa 250 AD)
Friedrich Schiller: Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794)
Plotinus: On the Three Initial Hypostases (circa 250 AD)
The curriculum is plastic. Richard and I plan to have read Hegel’s Lectures by the middle of June. We will write up a short summary of our discussion to be posted at The Orthosphere, with an invitation to comment. We plan to have read Plotinus’ On Intellectual Beauty by the end of June, and so on, encompassing Schiller’s Letters and Plotinus’ On the Three Initial Hypostases, which is, notwithstanding its odd-sounding name, also concerned with beauty.
It strikes both Richard and me that beauty is central to the Traditional view of “life, the universe, and everything.” It strikes us both that beauty is increasingly under attack in the postmodern dispensation, which either denies its existence or declares it to belong to the institutions of oppression. We believe therefore that a concerted introductory study of aesthetics and kallistics will be useful to those who participate, especially insofar as it results in a better understanding of beauty as an objective and integral element or character in the order of being and the structure of reality.
The titles given above in bold green typescript are links to online versions of the four items. I will be reading Hegel and Schiller in the convenient Penguin editions (in English translation); Richard will probably be reading Plotinus, as will I, again in the Penguin edition of the Enneads, in the translation by Stephen McKenna and B.S. Page. The Penguin edition, while no longer in print, is easily available in second-hand copies.
Lewis Spence (1874 – 1955) published his prophetic account Will Europe Follow Atlantis in 1943 at the nadir of Allied fortunes during the Second World War. Spence, beginning as a journalist and folklorist, had made an enduring reputation by the early 1920s as a major authority on myth and legend, certifying his knowledge of those subjects in numerous books on the ancient stories of the Celts, the Rhineland Germans, the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, and the Mesoamericans. These extremely useful compendia remain in print. In 1924, however, Spence issued a book that gained him notoriety for a different although related reason.
This book in question was The Problem of Atlantis, a study of Plato’s Atlantis Myth in its twin sources, the dialogues Timaeus and Critias, of related stories in myth and folklore, and, with a survey of geology and ethnology, of the plausibility in Plato’s account. In The Problem of Atlantis, Spence, in jazz terminology, played it cool. While arguing for a factual basis of the narrative in the Platonic texts, Spence avoided the occult vision of Atlantis as a prehistoric Utopia founded on lost sciences and technologies. He insisted on sober evaluation of the evidence, arriving at the conclusion that Atlantis had existed, as Plato wrote, in the oceanic gap between Western Europe and North America; that it was, prior to its submergence, a High Stone Age, what modern commentators would call an Upper Neolithic, society; and that, during a prolonged breakup of its landmass requiring many centuries, its inhabitants migrated via North Africa and Iberia to Europe’s Atlantic littoral areas and the British Isles. Ensconced in those new bases, they did their best to preserve their traditions and codify the knowledge of their origin. The fleeing Atlanteans, whom Spence calls Aurignacians, and whom he identifies with the Cro-Magnons, also crossed the ocean in the other direction, contributing to the cultural matrix of the emerging societies in North and South America. Spence’s argument about Atlantis was a radical version of a then-current anthropological theory known as dissemination or cultural radiation, which posited a monogenesis for human culture.
A few months before the US elections of 2016, my creative output cratered. I had got interested in the news, and begun to follow it. I stopped reading books, instead reading articles online. Most of them were pretty good, and I learned some interesting stuff from them. But what I learned was mostly obsolescent just a few weeks later. This is to say that it didn’t matter, and I shouldn’t have wasted my time on it.
If you want to be creative, or good, or in touch with things as they are, you simply must cut off almost all consumption of media. You must instead go for walks under the sky, read old books that don’t much pertain to our current travails, spend time in prayer, contemplation and silence, get away from the noise and the hurry of any sort, and turn your attention to heavenly things, and away from earthly things. Earthly things are all dead (this is why they vanish like chaff in the wind). Your life – your real life, your true life, the one that truly matters to you and to those whom you love (especially your children) – is hid with Christ in God. Seek it there. Seek him there.
OK: now to check up on Drudge …