Consciousness, Culture, and Art: Informal Comments on an Imagist Poem by William Carlos Williams

flowers-in-pot-01

Ou Li Da

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.

Continue reading

That Hideous Strength

Who has read and remembers That Hideous Strength – of the gigantic oeuvre of CS Lewis, the capstone, masterpiece, and summation – and who has lately followed the news in the alternative media must have noticed a horrible semblance of these last weeks to the gathering storm that novel so masterfully presents, of good and evil human, natural, and supernatural rising to a tremendous pitch of intensity and power as they drive each inexorably to a titanic, shattering battle. I do not mean here to specify all the parallels, but they are almost all there: corrupt government agencies with noble sounding names and ends that work in fact deep evil; a cruel fat sadistic lesbian harridan, plaything and willing instrument of obscure Satanic masters; inner circles within inner circles, each more vicious and twisted than the last; sexual sin run amok; young victims; hubris on a vast scale, pretensions to a Babelonian New World Order and a New Man; nominalist obfuscation, nihilism and relativism; sophistical professors and rotten priests; contempt for all that is good, true and holy, old and homely, right, simple, and sweet, or even simply and honestly rational (all in the name of rationality) – the whole nine yards. And arrayed against these Powers, a pitiful few doughty hapless writers and scholars, talking mostly to each other in a remote corner of the world of what is good and right, true and holy, strait and wise, solid and reliable.

Continue reading

Romanticism & Traditionalism

caspar-david-friedrich-wanderer

Introduction. The movement called Romanticism belongs chronologically to the last two decades of the Eighteenth and the first five decades of the Nineteenth Centuries although it has antecedents going back to the late-medieval period and sequels that bring it, or its influence, right down to the present day.  (I write late in 2016.)  Historically, and in simple, Romanticism is the view-of-things that succeeds and corrects its precursor among the serial views-of-things that have defined the eras of the Western European mentality by constituting a dominant worldview – and that precursor would be what historians of ideas call Classicism, which they identify as the worldview of the Enlightenment.  A good definition of Classicism is: The exclusive devotion to prescriptive orderliness for its own sake in all departments of life; the submission of all things to measure, decorum, and, using the word metaphorically, the geometric ideal; implying disdain for or suppression of anything deemed not in conformance with these criteria.  Classicism implies the conviction that reason, narrowly delimited, is the highest faculty, and indeed almost the sole faculty worth developing.  The Classicist believes that life can be perfected by rationalization.

Certainly this is how the Romantics saw Classicism, but it is also in broad terms how the Classicists saw themselves.  According to its own dichotomy, Romanticism would be a view of existence consisting of tenets diametrically opposed to those of Classicism.  And so largely it was or is, as Romanticism is by no means a dead issue.  As the Romantic sees it, imposed or conventional order tends to distort or obliterate the natural order; and by “natural order” the Romantics would have understood not only the order of nature, considered as Creation, although not necessarily in Christian terms, but the order present in social adaptation to nature, as when agriculturalists follow the cycle of the seasons and attune their lives with the life of the soil or when builders of monuments and temples go to great effort to align them astronomically.  In addition, the Romantic believes that a bit of disorder might stimulate and enliven life, preventing it from becoming stiff and ossified; that the quirky and unexpected, in other words, can exert a benevolent influence.  The Romantic also values emotion and intuition as much as he values reason, which he by no means disdains although he defines it more broadly than the Classicist.  The Romantics explicitly rejected the utilitarian arguments of the Classicists.  Romanticism prefigures and is the likely source of what in the second half of the Twentieth Century came to be known as Traditionalism.

Continue reading

Dominique Venner on Nihilism and “The Religion of Humanity”

Venner

I offer, as best I can, a translation of a section from Dominique Venner’s masterwork Histoire et tradition des Européens: 30,000 ans d’identité [The History and Tradition of the Europeans: 30,000 Years of Identity,] published in French in 2002 by Éditions du Rocher.  The excerpt originates in Chapter 10, “Nihilisme et Saccage de la Nature” [“Nihilism and the Exploitation of Nature”].  Venner wrote in a style that runs to the ironic and telegraphic: Phrases in brackets represent my attempt to overcome the occasional obscurity that his tendencies of irony and compression, or self-allusion, entail.  Flora Montcorbier, whom Venner cites in the excerpt, is a writer of the French New Right.  I give the French original of the text first, followed by my attempt at an idiomatic English rendering.

Continue reading

When Nothing Changes

Zola Paradise

In case my tendency to allude to the classroom might strike anyone as tedious or repetitive, I offer an apology in advance and invite the uninterested to skip the following.  The classroom is nevertheless a consistently renewed sample of the contemporary cohorts as they advance up the ladder of what remains of actual social initiation hoping to join the ranks of the accredited when testing the job market for the first time as prospective adults.  In my classroom, a mid-tier state-college classroom, I therefore have the opportunity (and I take it) to observe the diminishing returns of the near-criminal enterprise of North America’s public primary and secondary instruction, especially where it concerns the inculcation of literacy of both the strict and cultural varieties.

In the just-completed semester, my department chair had asked me, as she regularly does, to supervise the graduate-level “Business in Literature” course that English teaches at the behest of and as a favor to the School of Business’s five-year accountancy program.  I like teaching this course because over the years the five-year accountancy students have demonstrated themselves to be cooperative and disciplined in degree sufficient to distinguish them from the general run of students.  In any given semester, I ask the students to read a short anthropological study – The Gift  (1925) by Marcel Mauss – and three or four novels that take as their setting a recognizably “business” milieu.  This semester’s syllabus obliged the enrollment to read the two “Vinland” sagas, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) by William Dean Howells, Tono-Bungay (1909) by H. G. Wells, and The Paradise of Women (1883) by Emile Zola, the last the basis of two recent television serials and a forgotten French sound-film from 1932.  As a means of putting moral pressure on students to complete the reading, I require them to turn in reading-notes, documenting in detail their progress through the chapters, on a regular basis.  I am fairly certain that most of the accountancy enrollment in the just-completed semester did ninety percent of the reading.  (By contrast, in most of my classes, I would estimate that only sixty per cent of students do as much as sixty per cent of the reading.)

Continue reading

Sketch of the Ecology of Knowledge

Homeostasis

Since the 1960s everyone has been familiar with the idea of ecology. Nature, before humanity, as the ecologists argue, constituted a balanced and indeed a self-balancing system. James Lovelock in his various books with Gaia in the title argues that nature before humanity constituted a “homeostatic” system that was not only self-regulating but capable of responding to gross unbalancing influences by vigorous redistributions of the disturbance so as to restore the norm of homeostasis. These observations apply largely to nature considered as the terrestrial biosphere, but Lovelock’s theory extends by implication beyond the restricted earthly system – all the way out to the asteroid belt.

According to the theory of natural ecology, every element of nature is linked recursively, by plural feed-back loops, to every other element; the elements work together as a whole to maintain a settled norm overall. Environmentalism, a political development of the idea of natural ecology, claims, however, that the human element of the system is an emergent anomaly whose presence upsets the ability of nature to maintain homeostasis. Whether the environmentalist claim concerning humanity is true or false, the general notion that a self-regulating system might suffer disruption from influences that are somehow external to it is highly plausible.

The term ecology is an ingenious coinage, probably needed at the time it entered into usage. The Greek word oikos means “house” or “household”; the Greek word logos – as its derivative logic suggests – is not only the orderly discussion of a phenomenon but also the internally self-regulating, form-endowing law that renders a phenomenon thus-and-such rather than something else and that keeps the phenomenon in this character steadily so that it remains recognizable and amenable to cognition. The term ecology thus elegantly, although perhaps not intentionally, reflects the notion of the universe as an orderly artifact, corresponding to a rational plan and having a discernible goal – that of steady self-maintenance.

Continue reading

The Structure of Reality is the Structure of Revelation

This essay follows a previous one on the relation of education to faith; it is the second of three essays intended to critique the prevailing modern worldview of the West’s ubiquitous liberal regime by demonstrating the narrowness and insipidity of liberal views. I argued in “The Structure of Education is the Structure of Faith” in favor of several pre-modern ways of viewing education. I rehearse that gesture again, this time in respect of the prevailing modern sense of the encompassing reality in the context of which people must live their lives. A third essay, following this one, will deal with memory considered as an institution.

Continue reading