The illusion of having dealt with it adequately

Robert Warshow on the New Yorker in Partisan Review (“Melancholy to the End,” vol. 14, no. 1, 1947):

The New Yorker at its best provides the intelligent and cultured college graduate with the most comfortable and least compromising attitude he can assume toward capitalist society without being forced into actual conflict. It rejects the vulgarity and inhumanity of the public world of politics and business and provincial morality, and it sets up in opposition to this a private and pseudo-aristocratic world of good humor, intelligence, and good taste. Its good taste has always been questionable, to be sure, but the vulgarity of the New Yorker is at least more subdued and less persistent than the ordinary vulgarity of journalism.

The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately.

Knowers on a limited scale

From Matthew Price’s review of Alfred Kazin’s diaries in Bookforum:

Cook questions Kazin’s liberal anti-communism—the Soviet Union appalled him—but Kazin would savagely rebuke the neoconservatives. He went to town on the snobbish Mr. Sammler’s Planet in the New York Review of Books, calling it a “normal political novel of our day, didactic to a fault.” (Bellow accused Kazin of slander: “You were saying that its author was a wickedly deluded lunatic.”) After an evening with Irving Kristol and other ex-leftists in 1969, Kazin bitterly ruminated in his journal: “They are all such specialists, such knowers on a limited scale, such professors impaled on their own bitterness. They have to be right . . . the world can go to hell, but they are right.” Kazin despised people who knew that they knew; he often knew that he didn’t know.

Already too long nauseated

From Swift’s “apology” to A Tale of a Tub, in its fifth edition (1710):

The greatest part of that book was finished above thirteen years since, 1696, which is eight years before it was published. The author was then young, his invention at the height, and his reading fresh in his head. By the assistance of some thinking, and much conversation, he had endeavoured to strip himself of as many real prejudices as he could; I say real ones, because, under the notion of prejudices, he knew to what dangerous heights some men have proceeded. Thus prepared, he thought the numerous and gross corruptions in Religion and Learning might furnish matter for a satire, that would be useful and diverting. He resolved to proceed in a manner that should be altogether new, the world having been already too long nauseated with endless repetitions upon every subject. The abuses in Religion, he proposed to set forth in the Allegory of the Coats and the three Brothers, which was to make up the body of the discourse. Those in learning he chose to introduce by way of digressions. He was then a young gentleman much in the world, and wrote to the taste of those who were like himself; therefore, in order to allure them, he gave a liberty to his pen, which might not suit with maturer years, or graver characters, and which he could have easily corrected with a very few blots, had he been master of his papers, for a year or two before their publication.

Not that he would have governed his judgment by the ill-placed cavils of the sour, the envious, the stupid, and the tasteless, which he mentions with disdain. He acknowledges there are several youthful sallies, which, from the grave and the wise, may deserve a rebuke. But he desires to be answerable no farther than he is guilty, and that his faults may not be multiplied by the ignorant, the unnatural, and uncharitable applications of those who have neither candour to suppose good meanings, nor palate to distinguish true ones. After which, he will forfeit his life, if any one opinion can be fairly deduced from that book, which is contrary to Religion or Morality.

Preceding this is a satirical list of forthcoming works:

Treatises wrote by the same Author, most of them mentioned in the following Discourses; which will be speedily published.

A Character of the Present Set of Wits in the Island.
A panegyrical Essay upon the Number THREE.
A Dissertation upon the principal Productions of
Grub-Street.
Lectures upon a Dissection of Human Nature.
A Panegyric upon the World.
An analytical discourse upon Zeal,
histori-theophysi-logically considered.
A general History of
Ears.
A modest Defense of the Proceedings of the
Rabble in all ages.
A Description of the Kingdom of
Absurdities.
A Voyage into
England, by a Person of Quality in Terra Australis incognita, translated from the Original.
A Critical Essay upon the Art of
Canting, philosophically, physically, and musically considered.

And from the long-last opening, after pages of other prefatory material:

WHOEVER hath an Ambition to be heard in a Crowd, must press, and squeeze, and thrust, and climb with indefatigable Pains, till he has exalted himself to a certain Degree of Altitude above them. Now, in all Assemblies, though you wedge them ever so close, we may observe this peculiar Property, that over their Heads there is Room enough, but how to reach it is the difficult Point; it being as hard to get quit of Number, as of Hell.

Evadere ad auras,
Hoc opus, hic labor est.

To this End, the Philosopher’s way in all Ages has been by erecting certain Edifices in the Air; But, whatever Practice and Reputation these kind of Structures have formerly possessed, or may still continue in, not excepting even that of Socrates, when he was suspended in a Basket to help Contemplation, I think, with due Submission, they seem to labour under two Inconveniences. First, That the Foundations being laid too high, they have been often out of Sight, and ever out of Hearing. Secondly, That the Materials, being very transitory, have suffered much from Inclemencies of Air, especially in these North-West regions.

I must set it to music

From Berlioz’s Evenings in the Orchestra (1854), translated by Charles E. Roche, pp. 314-315:

Beethoven, when carried away by the subject of Leonora, or
Conjugal Love, saw in it only the sentiments it gave him the
opportunity of expressing, and never took into account the sombre
monotony of the spectacle It presents. The libretto, of French
origin, was first set to music in Paris by Gavaux. Later an Italian
opera was made out of it for Paer, and it was after having heard
in Vienna the music of the latter’s Leonora that Beethoven had
the naive cruelty to say to him: “The subject of your opera pleases
me; I must set it to music.”

It was not the only quip Ludwig had in him. There’s also this, from Anton Schindler’s biography Beethoven as I Knew Him:

On New Year’s Day, 1823, Beethoven, his nephew, and the author were sitting at their noon meal, when the master was handed a New Year’s card from his brother who lived close by. The card was signed, “Johann van Beethoven, Land-owner.” Immediately the master wrote on the back of the card, “Ludwig van Beethoven, Brain-owner,” and returned it to him.

Almost unable to despise

The thirty-second of Leopardi’s Pensieri (Thoughts), written in 1837, translated by J.G. Nichols:

As he advances every day in his practical knowledge of life, a man loses some of that severity which makes it difficult for young people, always looking for perfection, and expecting to find it, and judging everything by that idea of it which they have in their minds, to pardon defects and concede that there is some value in virtues that are poor and inadequate, and in good qualities that are unimportant, when they happen to find them in people. Then, seeing how everything is imperfect, and being convinced that there is nothing better in the world than that small good which they despise, and that practically nothing or no one is truly estimable, little by little, altering their standards and comparing what they come across not with perfection any more, but with reality, they grow accustomed to pardoning freely and valuing every mediocre virtue, every shadow of worth, every least ability that they find. So much so that, ultimately, many things and many people seem to them praiseworthy that at first would have seemed to them scarcely endurable. This goes so far that, whereas initially they hardly had the ability to feel esteem, in the course of time they become almost unable to despise. And this to a greater extent the more intelligent they are. Because in fact to be very contemptuous and discontented, once our first youth is past, is not a good sign, and those who are such cannot, either because of the poverty of their intellects or because they have little experience, have been much acquainted with the world. Or else they are among those fools who despise others because of the great esteem in which they hold themselves. In short, it seems hardly probable, but it is true, and it indicates only the extreme baseness of human affairs to say it, that experience of the world teaches us to appreciate rather than to depreciate.

I think of the opening of Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry”:

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important
beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it,
one discovers that there is in
it after all, a place for the genuine.

To discover the why of it

From the introduction to Robert Hughes’s book on modern art, The Shock of the New:

I am not a philosopher, but a journalist who has had the good luck never to be bored by his subject. “Je resous de m’informer du pourquoi,” Baudelaire wrote after seeing Tannhäuser in 1860, “et de transformer ma volupté en connaissance”: “I set out to discover the why of it, and to transform my pleasure into knowledge.” Pleasure is the root of all critical appreciation of art, and there is nothing like a long, steady project to make one discover (and with luck, convey) what it was in the siren voices of our century that caught me as a boy—when I first read Roger Shattuck’s translations of Apollinaire, hidden from the Jesuits in the wrapper of a Latin grammar—and has never let me go.

In the same vein see Barthes on jouissance, and Ortega y Gasset on amor intellectualis; in the opposite vein, the Wordsworthian trope of murdering to dissect.

The acid of proof, the fire of criticism

The opening two paragraphs of Octavio Paz’s “Knowledge, Drugs, Inspiration,” in Alternating Currents, translated by Helen Lane:

There is more than one similarity between modern poetry and science. Both are experiments, in the sense of “testing in a laboratory”: an attempt is made to produce a certain phenomenon through the separation or combination of certain elements which the experimenter has either subjected to the pressure of some outward force or left to develop according to the laws of their own nature. This operation takes place in a closed space, in the most complete isolation possible. The poet deals with words as the scientist deals with cells, atoms, and other material particles: he extracts them from their natural medium, everyday language, isolates them in a sort of vacuum chamber, combines them or separates them; he observes and uses the properties of language as the scientific researcher observes and uses the properties of matter. The analogy might be carried further, but it is pointless to do so because the similarity lies not so much in the outward resemblances between verbal manipulations and laboratory testing as in the attitude toward the object.

As he writes, as he tests his ideas and his words, the poet does not know precisely what is going to happen. His attitude toward the poem is empirical. Unlike the religion believer, he is not attempting to confirm a revealed truth; unlike the mystic, he is not endeavoring to become one with a transcendent reality; unlike the ideologue, he is not trying to demonstrate a theory. The poet does not postulate or affirm anything a priori; he knows that what counts is not ideas but results, not intentions but works. Isn’t this the same attitude as that of the scientist? Poetry and science do not imply a total rejection of prior conceptions and intuitions. But theories (“working hypotheses”) are not what justify experiments; rather, the converse is true. Sometimes the “testing” produces results that are different from or entirely contrary to our expectations. The poet and the scientist do not find this difficult to accept; both are resigned to the fact that reality often acts quite independently of our philosophy. Poets and scientists are not doctrinaires; they do not offer us a priori systems but proven facts, results rather than hypotheses, works rather than ideas. The truths they seek are different but they employ similar methods to ascertain them. The rigorous procedures they follow are accompanied by the strictest objectivity, that is to say, a respect for the autonomy of the phenomenon being investigated. A poem and a scientific truth are something more than a theory or a belief: they have withstood the acid of proof and the fire of criticism. Poems and scientific truths are something quite different from the ideas of poets and scientists. Artistic style and the philosophy of science are transient things; works of art and the real truths of science are not.

There’s a whole university curriculum embedded in these two paragraphs. One course it contains is a study of modern poetry. The accent falls indeed on modern: these are not axioms poets of earlier periods (or later, for that matter) would endorse—the anti-expressionism, the emphasis on “objectivity,” the talk of the “object,” the repudiation of religious and mystical fervor (cf. Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” T. E. Hulme’s rejection of romanticism as “spilt religion“), and of course the willingness to draw an analogy to science in the first place.


That comparison is a whole genre unto itself. Sometimes it takes the form of a concrete image; I think first of Eliot’s chemical imagery in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1921):

It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science. I shall, therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.

[…]

The analogy was that of the catalyst. When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.

In the “Defence of Poetry” (1840) Shelley mixes a proto-modernist discourse of impersonality with an older tradition of ecstatic inspiration—the poet as the vehicle of the muse, or of his own inner, inscrutable genius, in either case the body of a force he does not control—in the image of the fading coal:

Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from which all spring, and that which adorns all; and that which, if blighted, denies the fruit and the seed, and withholds from the barren world the nourishment and the succession of the scions of the tree of life. It is the perfect and consummate surface and bloom of all things; it is as the odor and the color of the rose to the texture of the elements which compose it, as the form and splendor of unfaded beauty to the secrets of anatomy and corruption. What were virtue, love, patriotism, friendship—what were the scenery of this beautiful universe which we inhabit; what were our consolations on this side of the grave—and what were our aspirations beyond it, if poetry did not ascend to bring light and fire from those eternal regions where the owl-winged faculty of calculation dare not ever soar? Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.

In a different direction, Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry (1949) can be read as one long meditation on the relation between poetry and science.


Then there is the talk of “ideas.” Even among (American) modern poets there are detractors. On one side Paz might find an ally in the William Carlos William line, those poets who demand “No ideas but in things.” And Eliot had written in memory of Henry James in 1918 in the The Little Review:

He was a critic who preyed not upon ideas, but upon living beings. […] It is in the chemistry of these subtle substances, these curious precipitates and explosive gases which are suddenly formed by the contact of mind with mind, that James is unequalled. […] James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence. He had a mind so fine no idea could violate it.

On the other side there is the Wallace Stevens line, those for whom “It must be abstract.” (Though at times Stevens is quite fond of things, as in “Man Carrying Thing,” where the poem “must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.” Elsewhere he puts the whole planet on a table.)


Another generative strain of thinking in the passage from Paz is the question of testing one’s words. Testing them against what, Paz doesn’t say—but this is a productive ambiguity. Eliot, again, gives one meaning, in an essay on George Herbert in the Spectator (1932), though it departs from Paz, and indeed from much of modernity, in its talk of feeling and sincerity, and its look back to a prior tradition of religious verse:

All poetry is difficult, almost impossible to write: and one the great permanent causes of error in writing poetry is the difficulty of distinguishing between what one really feels and what one would like to feel, and between the moments of genuine feeling and the moments of falsity. This is a danger in all poetry: but it is a particularly grave danger in the writing of devotional verse. Above that level of attainment of the spiritual life, below which there is no desire to write religious verse, it becomes extremely difficult not to confuse accomplishment with intention, a condition at which one merely aims with the condition in which one actually lives, what one would be with what one is: and verse which represents only good intentions is worthless—on that plane, indeed, a betrayal. The greater the elevation, the finer becomes the difference between sincerity and insincerity, between reality and the unattained aspiration.

It must be sought out

From Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music in the form of six lessons (1948), translated by Arthur Knodel and Ingolf Dahl:

For myself, I have always considered that in general it is more satisfactory to proceed by similarity rather than by contrast. Music thus gains strength in the measure that it does not succumb to the seductions of variety. What it loses in questionable riches it gains in true solidity.

Contrast produces an immediate effect. Similarity satisfies us only in the long run. Contrast is an element of variety, but it divides our attention. Similarity is born of a striving for unity. The need to seek variety is perfectly legitimate, but we should not forget that the One precedes the Many. Moreover, the coexistence of both is constantly necessary, and all the problems of art, like all possible problems for that matter, including the problem of knowledge and of Being, revolve ineluctably about this question, with Parmenides on one side denying the possibility of the Many, and Heraclitus on the other denying the existence of the One. Mere common sense, as well as supreme wisdom, invite us to affirm both the one and the other. All the same, the best attitude for a composer in this case will be the attitude of a man who is conscious of the hierarchy of values and who must make a choice. Variety is valid only as a means of attaining similarity. Variety surrounds me on every hand. So I need not fear that I shall be lacking in it, since I am constantly confronted by it. Contrast is everywhere. One has only to take note of it. Similarity is hidden; it must be sought out, and it is found only after the most exhaustive efforts. When variety tempts me, I am uneasy about the facile solutions it offers me. Similarity, on the other hand, poses more difficult problems but also offers results that are more solid and hence more valuable to me.

The confusion is not my invention

The rubric for a grade of C in Matt Bell’s brilliant “My Grading Scale for the Fall Semester, Composed Entirely of Samuel Beckett Quotes” at McSweeney’s:

We wait. We are bored. Confusion amounting to nothing. Despite precautions. The confusion is not my invention. You must not think of certain things, of those that are dear to you, or rather you must think of them, for if you don’t there is the danger of finding them, in your mind, little by little. A disturbance into words, a pillow of old words. All life long, the same questions, the same answers. The churn of stale words in the heart again. The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. This tired abstract anger; inarticulate passive opposition. I pushed and pulled in vain, the wheels would not turn. How hideous is the semicolon.

Recondite but fertile analogies

The opening of Bertrand Russell’s preface to a 1914 translation of Poincaré’s Science and Method:

Henri Poincaré was, by general agreement, the most eminent scientific man of his generation—more eminent, one is tempted to think, than any man of science now living. From the mere variety of subjects which he illuminated, there is certainly no one who can appreciate critically the whole of his work. Some conception of his amazing comprehensiveness may be derived from the obituary number of the Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale (September 1913), where, in the course of 130 pages, four eminent men—a philosopher, a mathematician, an astronomer, and a physicist—tell in outline the contributions which he made to several subjects. In all we find the same characteristics—swiftness, comprehensiveness, unexampled lucidity, and the perception of recondite but fertile analogies.