Introduction. The American poet William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) began his authorship with imagist poems and quirky mixtures of prose and verse like Spring and All (1923), a book that intersperses paragraphs of speculation concerning poetry, consciousness, and the world with seemingly improvised but in reality carefully composed verse-effusions that attempt an audacious transformation of the banal into the sublime. Scholars of Twentieth-Century American poetry invariably categorize Williams as modern or avant-garde, but I would argue that Williams continues strongly in the Transcendentalist or American-Romantic tradition of the century previous to his own. Spring and All, supposedly an epitome of idiosyncratic American modernism, offers a case in point, even in those statements where Williams appears to reject tradition altogether and extols the virtue of “the imagination, freed from the handcuffs of ‘art.’” In an early prose-sequence of Spring and All, Williams denounces those whom he calls “The Traditionalists of Plagiarism.” Williams uses the term plagiarism in an unusual way, as a failure of consciousness and perception to rediscover the newness and beauty – indeed even the sublimity – of the given world in all its particulars. In effect, in Spring and All, Williams engages a new version of the Romantic critique of complacency, recording, as he puts it, “our despair at the unfathomable mist into which all mankind is plunging.”
Complacency is the failure of imagination to invest fully in the structure of reality and the order of being; complacency is the epistemological and cognitive counterpart of original sin. Williams, like all good Romantics, aims at redeeming humanity from its wretched lapse, its Winter of Discontent, so as to establish men and women in the paradisiacal springtime of refreshed apprehension.
The other day in my Introduction to Literary Criticism course, I contested a student’s objection to my thesis that, whereas there might be many plausible interpretations of John Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian urn,” it would nevertheless not be the case that every interpretation of “Ode on a Grecian urn” was equally plausible or even plausible at all. Furthermore, I reasoned, the range of interpretations might be graded according to their plausibility, from least to most, in a hierarchy. The student’s agitated insistence was that, “everybody has his own opinion.”* (As if no one had ever heard that before.) I immediately responded that “opinion” was an irrelevant category; and that, in any case, where it concerns any particular topic, the number of opinions is strictly limited. In respect of Topic X, there are probably only two opinions, or at most three. The claim that “everybody has his own opinion” is therefore absurd. To put it in plausible English, one would have to say that, “In respect of X, everyone has one opinion or another, of a limited set.” One of the definitions of “opinion” is that an opinion is a freely circulating, conformist view about a topic, entirely unoriginal and non-proprietary. People never have opinions; they borrow or endorse them, at which point the opinions have them.
In preparation for teaching a literature course in the 1950s, René Girard reread some of the classic novels. In the process he realized that the novelists had had profound insights into aspects of the human condition and that to a large degree, they were the same insights…
In Deceit, Desire and the Novel, possibly René Girard’s best book, he argues that denying the existence of God does not remove the desire for transcendent meaning. Thwarted from seeking spiritual satisfaction from above, the desire gets directed towards other people who it is imagined have god-like qualities of self-sufficiency and autonomy and that we alone have been excluded from this divine status – creating resentment and compounding human misery.
Likewise, various utopian ideas are an attempt to create heaven on earth, frequently creating hell on earth. Trying to satisfy transcendent desires in the realm of the immanent is a disaster, both in politics and in relationships between people.
In this essay published at the Sydney Traditionalist Forum, I also draw connections between Girard and St. Augustine’s notions of the role of God in human life.
The poem to which this essay’s subtitle refers is one of the much-excerpted and much anthologized verse-interpolations in the Menippean combination of verse and prose, Spring and All (1921), that the New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) produced at the acme of his self-consciously Imagist phase in the years after the First World War. The poem carries no title, but, according to the tenets of Imagism, presents itself to the reader as an instance of res ipso loquitur or “the thing speaks for itself.” In a later phase of his insistent creativity, Williams would adopt as his poetic motto the formula, “no ideas but in things,” the implication of which is that experience is not solipsistic, nor consciousness hermetic, but that any self-aware navigation of the world presupposes an intentional relation between the navigator and the world that he navigates, which he records as images, ideas, or concepts. Williams’ poetry in all its phases possesses the charm that its author maintains equal interest in the reality and workings of the external world and in the mystery and joy of the mind that represents and cognizes that reality and those workings.
Williams’ oeuvre offers itself seriously in two other ways: Its author knew that consciousness, language, and culture intertwine with one another aboriginally, so that any investigation of one necessarily entails an investigation of the two others; and he knew that consciousness is historical, that it has traceable origins that suggest the mechanism of its making.