Category Archives: Romanticism

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Jeremy Corbyn and the Irony of History

Last week, the Glastonbury Festival in the United Kingdom saw an unexpected on-stage appearance by Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labour Party. Corbyn recited the closing lines of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy: Rise, like lions after slumber/ In unvanquishable number!/ Shake your chains to earth like dew/ Which in sleep had fallen on you:/ Ye are many—they are few!

As this video shows, the Glastonbury crowd received 19th-century poetry rather well, giving Corbyn his own football chant in return. Yesterday, an article in the New Statesman pointed out that by quoting Shelley, Corbyn was tapping into a longstanding tradition of Left politics. It quoted the poet Michael Rosen, who said:

“When any of us from the left quote people from the past, we’re saying that we have traditions… We’re making a claim on our authenticity… just in the same way as the right and the establishment draw on the pageantry of the Queen, or talk about Parliament or quote Winston Churchill. These are our traditions, which are different. You hardly ever come across it, either in newspapers or history lessons or anything.”

And:

“Shelley was campaigning for freedom, for free thought, for free love. He was campaigning for a fairer society; it was a time of incredible oppression. He said there’s loads of us, it’s just a little corrupt crew – well, of course that applies now.”

Apart from pointing out how Shelley’s lines have become Corbyn’s de facto political slogan, the New Statesman article quotes a number of instances where the poem has been used before – at Tianmen Square, Tahrir Square, and by former Labour Party leader Michael Foot. All those instances, however, are of political movements that were defeated without ever coming remotely close to power. Corbyn’s labour party, on the other hand, forced a hung Parliament in the recently concluded British general election, leading to several policy climbdowns from the ruling Conservative Party, and is widely accepted to have infused an enthusiasm for politics among young people that has rarely been seen before.

If is here that the irony of a successful political leader making Shelley his standard-bearer becomes interesting, because both in his time and after, Shelley – who was passionate about politics and about protest – was the embodiment of the failed and ineffective rebel. In his lifetime, he protested, leafletted and wrote poems about revolution, but accomplished nothing of significance. Mathew Arnold called him “a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” His ill-fated phrase, poets are the unacknowledged legislators of this world“, achieved such notoriety that it was parodied relentlessly by modernist poets in the mid-20th century. And more than anything else, Shelley was one of the centrepieces of Milan Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere, a savage critique of youth, lyric poetry, and of revolution:

And Percy Bysshe Shelley, who like Jaromil had a girlish face and looked younger than his age, ran through the streets of Dublin, he ran on and on because he knew that life was elsewhere. And Rimbaud, too, kept running endlessly, to Stuttgart, to Milan, to Marseilles, to Aden, to Harar, and then back to Marseilles, but by then he had only one leg, and it is hard to run on one leg.”

And, in a remarkable long passage:

The processions had already passed the reviewing stand in Wenceslas Square, improvised bands had appeared on the street corners, and blue-shirted young people were starting to dance. Everyone was fraternizing here with both friends and strangers, but Percy Shelley is unhappy, the poet Shelley is alone.

He’s been in Dublin for several weeks, he’s passed out hundreds of leaflets, the police already know him well, but he hasn’t succeeded in befriending a single Irish person. Life is elsewhere, or it is nowhere.

If only there were barricades and the sound of gunfire! Jaromil thinks that formal processions are merely ephemeral imitations of great revolutionary demonstrations, that they lack substance, that they slip through your fingers. 

And suddenly he imagines the girl imprisoned in the cashier’s cage, and he is assailed by a horrible longing; he sees himself breaking the store window with a hammer, pushing away the women shoppers, opening the cashier’s cage, and carrying off the liberated dark-haired girl under the amazed eye of the gawking onlookers.

And then he imagines that they are walking side by side through crowded streets, lovingly pressed against each other. And all at once the dance whirling around them is no longer a dance but barricades yet again, we are in 1848, and in 1870, and in 1945, and we are in Paris, Warsaw, Budapest, Prague and Vienna, and these yet again are the eternal crowds crossing through history, leaping from one barricade to another, and he leaps with them, holding the beloved woman by the hand…”

Kundera’s Shelley (and Mathew Arnold’s Shelley, and the modernist poets’ Shelley) is the dreamer, the idealist, and the lyricist, who longs to bring about revolution with the stroke of a pen, but instead only succeeds in wandering around his own, self-constructed hall of mirrors. Instead of taking the world as he finds it, Shelley dreams up his world and writes it, but finds the hard edge of reality coming up against his imagination, and inevitably – to paraphrase Charles Segal – the intransigence of the reality prevails over the plasticity of language. As Kay Wye wrote mockingly:

The Unacknowledged Legislator of the world/ Was heating his morning coffee/ With a sheaf of his own poems./ It is natural remarked a fellow Legislator/ Who hopefully dropped in/ That the product of intense passion/ Should go up in visible combustion!”

And yet, after all that, two hundred years later, it is Shelley and his verse that is on the banner of a left-wing, avowedly socialist political movement that has come closer than any other of its kind (in recent history) to obtaining political power – and may yet obtain it.

Such is the irony – or the revenge – of history.

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Lermontov and Coetzee

Over the week, I finally knocked off two books that have been near the top of my reading list for a long time: Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time and Coetzee’s Disgrace. They are both classics, and have been thoroughly analyzed over the years, so I don’t feel I can add anything very new, but here are some fleeting impressions:

A Hero of our Time

– I don’t agree with this repeated characterization I’ve seen equating Pechorin to Byron, and to the “Byronic (anti-)hero more generally. That is not, of course, to deny Byron’s tremendous influence upon Lermontov – Lermontov wrote a poem called Not Byron, if I recall correctly, and Byron is referred to at a couple of points in the book. It is not even to deny that Pechorin shares certain characteristics with your typical Byronic protagonist. But for me, what sets Pechorin apart – and makes him, indeed, a more interesting character than, say, a Manfred or a Childe Harold – is a sense of self-awareness and self-critique. Pechorin explicitly calls himself a “moral cripple”. You can’t imagine Byron’s characters being that frank about themselves (quite possibly because they aren’t at the cripple stage yet, but that is another matter)

Another way of looking at it: Yes, Manfred and Childe Harold are bitter, brooding, disillusioned and all the rest – and what’s more, they take their disillusionment rather earnestly and seriously. Pechorin refuses to take himself seriously, and indeed, consistently mocks himself in a manner that Byron’s men don’t. This is specifically evident when it comes to love. Both Manfred and Childe Harold are suffering because of some great love in their youth that they lost, and much of their bitterness is due to that. Pechorin at times hints at something similar, but refuses to take love seriously either. In short, Pechorin is almost a nihilist at times, he’s like a precursor in many ways to Camus’ Outsider more than he is a successor or Byron.

– This, on the other hand, is very Byronic. Reminiscent of the roving, roving poem:

“I am a mariner born and bred on board a buccaneer brig whose soul has become so inured to storm and strife that if cast ashore he would weary and languish no matter how alluring the shady groves and how bright and gentle the sun. All day long he paces the sandy beach, hearkening to the monotonous roar of the breakers and gazing into the hazy distance to catch in the pale strip dividing the deep blue from the grey clouds the flash of the long-awaited sail that at first is like the wing of a seagull and then gradually stands out from the white of the spray as it steadily makes for its lonely anchorage… “

– Lermontov does descriptions spectacularly. Consider:

All around, wrapped in the golden mist of morning, the mountain peaks clustered like a numberless herd, while in the south Elbrus loomed white, bringing up the rear of a chain of icy summits among which roamed the feathery clouds blown in from the east.

Disgrace

– Coetzee’s story of the mental and moral degradation of an individual, serving as a synecdoche for a rapidly disintegrating society is, of course, a brilliantly powerful book, raising a whole host of questions about aging, morality, personal and structural violence, and the rest. I was particularly drawn to how language plays its part, always in the background, always unmistakable. I don’t mean here the rather conscious and deliberate irony in the protagonist teaching a class on “communication”, while the entire book is about a breakdown in mutual communication in society. I mean the sense that at any given time, language is meant to – roughly – represent reality, and also mask some of its more unpalatable aspects, the relations of domination and subordination (see, e.g., James Scott). There are times, however, when language can’t keep up with life, when it no longer serves to cast that veneer upon reality, when there are fractures and slippages – and Disgrace is an account of one such time. Coetzee captures that sentiment perfectly, when he writes:

The language he draws on with such aplomb is, if he only knew it, tired, friable, eaten from the inside as if by termites. Only the monosyllables can still be relied on, and not even all of them.

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Filed under J.M. Coetzee, Lermontov, Romanticism, South Africa

La Tristesse Durera Toujours: The Poetry of Lermontov – I

Mikhail Lermontov (1814 – 1841) is considered to be among the greatest of the Russian poets, and a very important figure in Russian literature of the 19th century, as well as the Russian romanticist movement. His life-history is a case-study in tragedy: he was estranged from his father in early youth, with the latter possibly dying as a consequence, and in any event, occasioning tremendous guilt in his son;  his life at university was brought to an abrupt end, and he joined the military; on the death of Pushkin, he famously wrote the poem “Death of a Poet“, all but accusing the establishment for causing Pushkin’s death in a duel. For this, he was exiled to the Caucasus, where he composed some of his best poetry, that brought him (temporary) fame and recognition. An unhappy time at St Petersburg and a doomed love affair were followed by a second exile to the Caucasus – and eventually, his death (like Pushkin) in a duel at the age of… twenty-seven.

I’ve found Lermontov’s poetry (quite apart from his famous novel, A Hero of Our Time, which is brilliant) fascinating and intriguing (notwithstanding having to struggle through some absolutely horrendous translations). In particular – and despite being placed firmly in the romantic tradition – Lermontov is a poet who defies classification and pigeonholing. It is the varied dissonance of his poetry, the clashing and conflicting themes and ideas, that interest me most – and it is these that I propose to examine over the next two posts.

The Sail

A far sail shimmers, white and lonely,
Through the blue haze above the foam.
What does it seek in foreign harbours?

What has it left behind at home?

The billows romp, and the wind whistles.
The rigging swings, and the tall mast creaks.
Alas, it is not joy, he flees from,
Nor is it happiness he seeks.

Below, the seas like blue light flowing,
Above, the sun’s gold streams increase,

But it is storm the rebel asks for,
As though in storms were peace.

I start with this piece because I think it is representative, to a great degree, of Lermontov’s ethos, the ethos that is visible in most of his poetry. Like Byron, Lermontov seems to me to be an anti-romantic romanticist: he feels the powerful allure of the romantic creed, an allure he cannot resist, and it forms an integral part of his poetry; and yet, at the same time, he is aware, all too aware, of its limitations; and this, again like Byron, takes the form of a constant, ubiquitous and self-aware ironising, an ironising that is pungent, biting and at times, extremely bitter.

And The Sail is an example par excellence. The first eleven lines express some of the classic romantic themes: the ship as a metaphor, both for exile, and for an endless quest; detailed descriptions of the sea, that in this poem comes to embody nature, the nature that is yet unspoilt by the mechanistic age; a solitary endeavour (presumably because no-one else shares in it); and the neverending yearning of the romantic, a yearning to escape from the dull, quotidian and altogether inadequate world that he finds himself trapped in, into a place that will allow his soul to find utterance. The penultimate line approaches the apotheosis: “but it is storm the rebel asks for…” – yes, wearied of the tame world in which life is an illusion, the poet is longing for the storm, the chaos, that will allow him to truly live. And then Lermontov, in the last line, shatters with one wry observation all that he has painstakingly built up through eleven lines of sense, imagery and emotion: “As though in storms were peace.” To the reader expecting the high climax, this is a profoundly disorienting denouement. What is Lermontov trying to say here? Perhaps that the quest itself is hopelessly misguided; that the perennial flight from is fated to only ever remain that – a flight from, but a flight to nothing; that escapism, the raison d’etre of romanticism is impossible, because there is no destination to escape to; and that the dream-world, even as dream world, on its own terms, not only cannot transcend its own illusory essence, but must always remain painfully self-aware of the illusion. Complete deception is unachievable, and so comfort in that deception is a vain hope. But above all else, there is doubt, doubt about the one thing that romanticism considers beyond all doubt – the validity of its constructed world (think of how, in The Biographia Literaria, Coleridge focused so strongly and powerfully on the primacy of the imagination). And this, I think this is a rather acute diagnosis of the romantic condition, because it explains perfectly why, in the poetry of Shelley, Keats and Coleridge (I hesitate to include Byron), despite the relentless construction of dream-worlds, there is a near-constant, all-pervasive sense of melancholy, of incompleteness, of entrapment. 

Lermontov addresses the construction of dream-worlds in a similar fashion. The First of January is a poem that touches upon a very familiar romantic theme: it is a lament for lost and irrecoverable love. After registering his disgust with the shallow throng that he now finds himself amidst (“motley crowd“, “foolish whisperings of speeches“, “false politeness“), and after traveling back in time and space to the site of his young love, with poignant and melancholic descriptions (“a quiet pool under a net of grass“, “the mists – above the lawns so endless…“), without any kind of warning, he gives us this:

I think about her, I weep and I do love,                                                                                                                                              I love my sacred dreams’ creation… 

Astonishingly affirming the unreality of something that defines the romantic ethos: the concept of romantic love itself. Lermontov returns immediately to the traditional romantic theme of contrasting the depth of his love with the pale mockery that he sees around him, ending the poem with a savage yearning to “cast in their eyes my iron verse/ steeped in bitterness and hatred!“, but those two lines have destabilised the reading of the poem. It is as if, just for a moment – yet knowingly, premeditatedly, very deliberately – the curtain has fallen from the romantic vision, and its inadequacy has been laid bare.

Nor does Lermontov believe in a love that exalts the being. In The Beggar, he finds an astonishing image to describe his unrequited love: a beggar who, in the throes of anguish, asks for a piece of bread – and is given, instead, as a cruel jest, a “cold stone”. 

The romantics had an abiding faith in the power of poetry to change the world. Shelley famously claimed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world“. And Arthur O’Shaughnessy, in his famous “Ode“, writes:

    And out of a fabulous story
    We fashion an empire's glory:
    One man with a dream, at pleasure,
    Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
    And three with a new song's measure
    Can trample an empire down.

Lermontov, however, is having absolutely none of that. In The Poet, he compares the influence of poetry to that of a dagger, once constructed and wielded to accomplish great deeds, but now fallen into disuse, rusted away, “harmless and inglorious“. And the poet?

In our tame age, ah poet, think how you

Have lost significance…

Exchanged for gold that power which hitherto

Commanded reverence!  

Both the poet and the dagger, Lermontov finishes with a brilliant bit of imagery, are “rusted by contempt.” And interestingly, in the 1960s, Bateson and the Movement would make much the same point in their battle against the Victorian and Georgian romantics. Lermontov anticipated them by a hundred and twenty-five years.

If Lermontov has little patience with the poets’ delusion of grandeur, he has even less time for sentiment. A number of his poems represent a quite Lucretian yearning for the absence of emotion. In The Clouds, for instance, comparing the southward-bound clouds to his own exile, he ends thus:

No! O’er those barren wastes heedlessly journeying,

Passion you know not or anguish or punishment;

Feeling you lack, you are free – free eternally,

You have no homeland, for you there’s no banishment.                                                                     

 Equating freedom with the inability to feel, to long, to yearn, to love, to suffer – well, there is an argument to be made for that, of course, and Lucretius and the Stoics have made it – but it is a strange one for a romantic to endorse. Moreover, there is a clear sense that this antipathy for the emotions (much like Byron) stems from the weariness of satiety. The prevailing sense is that emotions were indulged in to the hilt during misspent youth, and laid waste to such an extent that now there is nothing but exhaustion, emptiness and a desire to be rid of the whole business. So, Lermontov writes:                                                                                                                   

 To love… Whom?.. If briefly, ’tis not worth the effort…

Fore’er?                                                                                         

Vain longing, since love cannot last.

Look into your heart: joy and torment – all paltry, and there

Remains not a trace of the past.

The passions?.. Sweet ailment that reason will easily cure,

A cold word of logic arrest…                                                                                                                                                                                            

Could you have a more express denunciation of romanticism than in the last two lines, a more emphatic embrace of the Enlightenment, against which the former creed set itself up?

It is an unusual romantic, indeed, who ironises and mocks four of romanticism’s great themes: escapism through imagination, romantic love, the power of poetry and the importance of emotion and sentiment. I think there’s no better word for Lermontov’s poetry than to call it “Byronic” – it is, like I said in the beginning, romantic in precisely the same way as Byron’s verse is. Unsurprising, since Byron’s influence on the young Lermontov is well-documented; and Lermontov even writes one poem dedicated to Byron, and another titled, “Not Byron… of another kind…” And it seems to me that in these poems – and I’ll come to this point in detail in the next post – Lermontov is in the grip of the same existential agony that Byron suffered from: a despair that stems from the twin-pronged awareness of the futility of the world around, and the impossibility of an alternative.

 

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January 21, 2013 · 9:05 pm

Baudelaire, Swinburne and the Ugliness of Beauty

In a previous post, I discussed the similarities between Baudelaire’s conception of the unattainable ideal in To A Passerby, and Swinburne’s narration of the Rudel story in The Triumph of Time. Yesterday, while thumbing through my copy of Fleurs du Mal, I perceived what I think to be another affinity between the two poets: a similarly contradiction-laden view of the intertwined concepts of beauty and love.

That there do exist contradictions in the very nature of these concepts is nothing new. It has been a common theme for poets through the ages. As far back as the Greek lyric age, Anacreon wrote:

I love and yet I do not love,
I am out of my mind – and I am not out of my mind. (fr46)

Most famously, perhaps, the Roman poet Catullus:

hate and I love. Why would I do this, perhaps you ask?                                                                                                        do not know, but I realize it happens and I am tormented. (Catullus 85)

And, of course, the troubadours:

I never held it but it holds me
all the time in its bail, Love,
and makes me glad in angerfool in wisdom 
(Arnaut Daniel)

And the idea perhaps reached its apotheosis with the romantics. But what, I think, is crucial to note here is that the contradictions are, in virtually all cases, mirror images of each other (something that becomes clear on a close reading of the chiasmus in each of the lines). Furthermore, all these are examples of what Parry, in his article on Virgil, calls “the sublimation of sorrow”: that is, the so-called negative emotions that love and beauty evoke – hatred, madness, the absence of self-control, rage, foolishness – are, in a certain sense, every bit as high, pure, beautiful and noble (“sublime) as their opposites. If there is pain, then it is, in its own way, as glorious and uplifting as joy, it is, in a sense, to be as much desired as joy – and both joy and pain are two integral parts of the complete and fulfilled experience.

So far, so romantic. But the fascinating thing about Baudelaire and Swinburne is how, in their poetry, they emphatically reject this entire tradition of love-and-beauty versification, and focus upon a very different kind of contradiction. Let’s start with Baudelaire’s L’Ideal (Aggeler translation):

It will never be the beauties that vignettes show, 
Those damaged products of a good-for-nothing age,
Their feet shod with high shoes, hands holding castanets, 
Who can ever satisfy any heart like mine.

I leave to Gavarni, poet of chlorosis, 
His prattling troop of consumptive beauties, 
For I cannot find among those pale roses 
A flower that is like my red ideal. 

The real need of my heart, profound as an abyss,
Is you, Lady Macbeth, soul so potent in crime,
The dream of Aeschylus, born in the land of storms;

Or you, great Night, daughter of Michelangelo,
Who calmly contort, reclining in a strange pose
Your charms molded by the mouths of Titans.

This piece has the first hints of what later poems make explicit: namely that, in its entirety, beauty has an aspect that resists sublimation, that isn’t simply a reflection of pure virtues. “Profound as an abyss“, “soul so potent in crime“, “… contort, reclining in a strange pose…” – all these bear not only clear suggestions of an unabashedly carnal yearning, but also an essence that escapes a simple division into opposites (love and hate, foolishness and wisdom, and so on). And it is impossible, on reading this, especially the lines about Lady Macbeth and crime, to not be reminded of these lines from Swinburne’s Dolores:

Seven sorrows the priests give their Virgin;
But thy sins, which are seventy times seven,
Seven ages would fail thee to purge in,
And then they would haunt thee in heaven:
Fierce midnights and famishing morrows,
And the loves that complete and control
All the joys of the flesh, all the sorrows
                That wear out the soul.

In Baudelaire, this theme becomes even more explicit in Hymn to Beauty:

Do you come from Heaven or rise from the abyss
Beauty? Your gaze, divine and infernal
Pours out confusedly benevolence and crime, 
And one may for that, compare you to wine.

You contain in your eyes the sunset and the dawn; 
You scatter perfumes like a stormy night; 
Your kisses are a philtre, your mouth an amphora, 
Which make the hero weak and the child courageous.

Do you come from the stars or rise from the black pit
Destiny, bewitched, follows your skirts like a dog; 
You sow at random joy and disaster, 
And you govern all things but answer for nothing. 

You walk upon corpses which you mock, O Beauty!
Of your jewels Horror is not the least charming,
And Murder, among your dearest trinkets,
Dances amorously upon your proud belly.

The dazzled moth flies toward you, O candle!
Crepitates, flames and says: “Blessed be this flambeau!”
The panting lover bending o’er his fair one
Looks like a dying man caressing his own tomb, 

Whether you come from heaven or from hell, who cares, 
O Beauty! Huge, fearful, ingenuous monster
If your regard, your smile, your foot, open for me 
An Infinite I love but have not ever known?

From God or Satan, who cares? Angel or Siren, 
Who cares, if you make, — fay with the velvet eyes, 
Rhythm, perfume, glimmer; my one and only queen! 
The world less hideous, the minutes less leaden?

There are a number of different things at work, I think, in this poem. First, notice his use of the chiasmus, as compared to the example of the lyric poets. Some of them – “joy and disaster”, “governing all things, but answering for nothing” – would not be out of place in the latter – but the rest certainly would be. “Heaven and abyss”, “divine and infernal”, “benevolence and crime”, “stars and the black pit” – none of these, I think, are the images of romanticism – quite the contrary. They suggest, again, an aspect that is the very opposite of purity and sublimity, that is almost… repulsive. That brings me to the second point – the feeling of repulsion – although not very strong just yet – is reinforced by the words he appends to describe Beauty: “horror”, “murder” and “monster” cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be sublimated in the same way that “madness” or “foolishness” or “pain” can. And this – the third point – in turn, is reinforced by his personification of Beauty – or rather, the personification of two body parts that are decidedly anti-romanticist: the “proud belly” (upon which murder is dancing “amorously”) and the foot.

There is, again, something decidedly similar in the Swinburne’s fervent declamations in Dolores: 

Fruits fail and love dies and time ranges;
Thou art fed with perpetual breath,
And alive after infinite changes,
And fresh from the kisses of death;
Of languors rekindled and rallied,
Of barren delights and unclean,
Things monstrous and fruitless, a pallid
               And poisonous queen.

By the hunger of change and emotion,
By the thirst of unbearable things,
By despair, the twin-born of devotion,
By the pleasure that winces and stings,
The delight that consumes the desire,
The desire that outruns the delight,
By the cruelty deaf as a fire
               And blind as the night.

As for Baudelaire, the repulsion finally becomes unambiguous and express in this single line the final quatrain of I Adore you as much as the Nocturnal Vault:

I advance to attack, and I climb to assault, 
Like a swarm of maggots after a cadaver
And I cherish, implacable and cruel beast, 
Even that coldness which makes you more beautiful.

This is a truly extraordinary image. Moths and flames is part of the standard imagery of love; but who would ever describe the pursuit as a swarm of maggots chasing after a cadaver? And that is not all: Baudelaire has a complete poem that is called, unsurprisingly, The Carcass: 

My love, do you recall the object which we saw, 
That fair, sweet, summer morn!
At a turn in the path a foul carcass
On a gravel strewn bed,

Its legs raised in the air, like a lustful woman, 
Burning and dripping with poisons,
Displayed in a shameless, nonchalant way 
Its belly, swollen with gases.

The sun shone down upon that putrescence, 
As if to roast it to a turn,
And to give back a hundredfold to great Nature 
The elements she had combined;

And the sky was watching that superb cadaver 
Blossom like a flower.
So frightful was the stench that you believed 
You’d faint away upon the grass.

The blow-flies were buzzing round that putrid belly,
From which came forth black battalions
Of maggots, which oozed out like a heavy liquid 
All along those living tatters.

All this was descending and rising like a wave, 
Or poured out with a crackling sound;
One would have said the body, swollen with a vague breath, 
Lived by multiplication.

And this world gave forth singular music, 
Like running water or the wind,
Or the grain that winnowers with a rhythmic motion 
Shake in their winnowing baskets.

The forms disappeared and were no more than a dream, 
A sketch that slowly falls
Upon the forgotten canvas, that the artist 
Completes from memory alone.

Crouched behind the boulders, an anxious dog 
Watched us with angry eye,
Waiting for the moment to take back from the carcass 
The morsel he had left.

— And yet you will be like this corruption,
Like this horrible infection,
Star of my eyes, sunlight of my being, 
You, my angel and my passion!

Yes! thus will you be, queen of the Graces,
After the last sacraments,
When you go beneath grass and luxuriant flowers, 
To molder among the bones of the dead.

Then, O my beauty! say to the worms who will
Devour you with kisses,
That I have kept the form and the divine essence 
Of my decomposed love!

I don’t think I need to say anything about this poem – it speaks for itself, far more eloquently than any critic ever could. The imagery is stark and brutal. Swinburne never goes quite this far, but he does have a stanza that is vaguely suggestive of the same idea, along with the use of the words “corpses” and “barren”:

For the crown of our life as it closes
Is darkness, the fruit thereof dust;
No thorns go as deep as a rose’s,
And love is more cruel than lust.
Time turns the old days to derision,
Our loves into corpses or wives;
And marriage and death and division
               Make barren our lives.

While highlighting the similarity between the two, I think it is also important to note that they come from very different places. Yes, both Swinburne and Baudelaire reject the romanticist conception of love as feeble, withered, incomplete, pale. But Swinburne’s poetry, as is especially evident from Hymn to Proserpine and The Last Oracle is full of anger against Christianity, which he believes has diluted and watered down real life to an unacceptable extent (“the pale god’s kingdom come“) through its emphasis on abnegnation, on a weak morality, on sinning and forgiveness, and so on. Dolores can also be read, perhaps best, as an attack on stifling Victorian morality (recall that the press in his day castigated Swinburne as “that libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs“), and that’s why, much of the focus of Dolores is on uncontrolled and uncontrollable passion. On the other hand, one of the points that Walter Benjamin makes in his book on Baudelaire, or at least, so I gathered, is that Baudelaire was writing lyric poetry but was also, first and foremost, a poet of the city, the city and the arcades of mid-19th century Paris. This essentially is one of the causes of the seeming tension in his work, between lyric form and style and themes, and subjects and images that are entirely alien to traditional lyric poetry (the situation is somewhat similar to Byron’s Don Juan).

Nonetheless, I love to read both Swinburne and Baudelaire for precisely this reason: they fly to where other great poets fear to tread, make prey where others dare not perch, exploring the ugly and repulsive side of love and beauty to its very depths, and coming up with a very different kind of paradox: that it is precisely that ugliness and repulsiveness that is alluring, without which the experience would be, in a sense, only partial. That a decaying and putrefying corpse can nonetheless be possessed of a strange and inexplicable enchantment of its own, a kind of horrifying fascination that can’t just be rendered sterile by simply making it, like I said before, a straightforward mirror of the straightforward pleasures and joys of love and beauty that have, by now, become almost quotidian.

And lastly, the difference between Baudelaire/Swinburne and the great romantics comes out beautifully, I think, in this instance, where Baudelaire and Keats invoke precisely the same image in radically different ways. Consider:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task… (Keats, Bright Star)

For Keats, the image of the star suggests steadfastness, loyalty, beauty, splendour, eternity. But Baudelaire, in one his poems (which I have, at the moment, shamefully forgotten) finds in that same image simply the suggestion that the star, hung up in isolation in the sky, will burn for all time in utter pointlessness. It is two great poets simply looking at the world in radically different ways, and perhaps, both philosophies have something to recommend themselves.

Fleurs du Mal: http://fleursdumal.org/1868-table-of-contents

Swinburne’s Dolores: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/swinburne/dolores.html

Keats’ Bright Star: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/bright-star/

 

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January 4, 2013 · 6:34 am

The Impossibility of the Ideal – An Addendum: Ibsen’s Love’s Comedy

Still on the topic of the impossibility of the ideal: a conversation in the comments section of the previous post reminded me of what is perhaps the most stark and vivid treatment of the concept that I’ve come across. It is Ibsen’s early play, Love’s Comedy. It would be accurate, I think, to say that Ibsen begins where Baudelaire and Rudel leave off; in Love’s Comedy, through the characters of Falk and Svanhild, he shows us precisely what would happen if Baudelaire found his city-woman again, or Rudel his Lady of Tripoli. Ibsen takes the argument right to the bitter end, does not flinch from the disturbing consequences of his own logic, and has both the dramatic skill and the human sensitivity to carry the whole thing off very convincingly.

Love’s Comedy, like all Ibsen, is primarily social commentary: set in a late-nineteenth century Norwegian country boarding-house, it deals with the subjugation of women and the stifling nature of conventions – interrelated themes, both. But what I’d like to discuss is the other theme that weaves its way around these two, that is, Ibsen’s treatment of a certain kind of love, a love that would be avowed by a Lermontov or a Byron, and which, with some discomfort, but for want of a better label, I will tentatively classify as “romantic love“. This is the love between Falk and Svanhild, that sets itself up in opposition to and in conflict with the more… conventional forms that it takes in the relationships between the other – rather more traditional – members of the country house.

A brief account of the characters: Falk is the revolutionary poet, the rebel against society, a Lermontov or a Shelley. Svanhild is the woman trapped in the stifling webs of social convention and, ostensibly, longing to escape. All the other characters – Mrs Halm, the proprietress; Stiver, the lawyer and Miss Jay, his fiancee; Guldstad, the wholesale merchant; Lind, Falk’s friend and fellow-student and his fiancee, Anna; and Strawman, the clergyman are society at its most conventional – although with their own individual twists.

The scene is set at the very opening, when Falk is reciting a poem for the gathering, a poem in which he celebrates the fleetingness of moments:

I will live in song and gladness,—
       Then, when every bloom is shed,
     Sweep together, scarce in sadness,
       All that glory, wan and dead:
     Fling the gates wide! Bruise and batter,
       Tear and trample, hoof and tusk;
     I have plucked the flower, what matter
       Who devours the withered husk!

Immediately after that, Falk claims that if he had control over the dictionary for one hour, he would expunge the word “next” from the lexicon, because we ruin our lives and we ruin our moments by thinking of what is to come next. We then learn that back in the day, when Stiver the lawyer was first in love, he wrote reams of poetry in office hours. And yet, he hasn’t written a word since he became engaged with the woman he loved. At one level, one could view this as a simple commentary on how social conventions destroy all depth of feeling. But at another level, if we look at this in light of Falk’s opening poem, there is a deeper point here: the wellspring of your inspiration that flowed freely when you were pursuing your ideal dries up utterly when you attain it. This is what Falk really means when he says that an engagement destroys love. This is the hidden truth behind his subsequent contemptuous dismissal of Strawman the clergyman:

FALK [looking after STRAWMAN who appears at the window].
 He was once so brilliant and strong;
Warred with the world to win his mistress; passed
For Custom’s doughtiest iconoclast;
And pored forth love in paeans of glad song—!
Look at him now! In solemn robes and wraps,
A two-legged drama on his own collapse!
And she, the limp-skirt slattern, with the shoes
Heel-trodden, that squeak and clatter in her traces,
This is the winged maid who was his Muse
And escort to the kingdom of the graces!
Of all that fire this puff of smoke’s the end!
Sic transit gloria amoris, friend.

Falk then comes up with the classical romanticist desire of finding a woman to be his muse, one who will inspire him to write great poetry.


Let blindness veil the sunlight from mine eyes,
I’ll chant the splendour of the sunlit skies!
Just for a season let me beg or borrow
A great, a crushing, a stupendous sorrow,
And soon you’ll hear my hymns of gladness rise!
But best, Miss Jay, to nerve my wings for flight,
Find me a maid to be my life, my light—
For that incitement long to heaven I’ve pleaded;
But hitherto, worse luck, it hasn’t heeded.

At this point, Svanhild enters, and her very first lines are redolent of tragedy:

I’ll pray that such may be your destiny.
But, when it finds you—bear it like a man.

And then, replying to Falk when he wonders whether her faith in prayer will be adequate to provide him what he has always unsuccessfully asked for: 

Wait till sorrow comes,
And all your being’s springtide chills and numbs,
Wait till it gnaws and rends you, soon and late,
Then tell me if my faith is adequate.

And there you have it. Live by romanticism and, by Lermontov, you will die by it! Falk doesn’t answer, but suddenly, there is a sense of foreboding, and a sense of the inevitable. In a sense, we know what is going to come. Falk will fall in love, he will write poetry, he will live his life like it was a poem, he will live in every moment for the moment, but he will be utterly unable to carry the logic through to its conclusion. Like Faust, he will want the moment to last as long as it can, and in wanting that, he will betray himself and his own professed ideals, and that… well, you know what that will bring.

There is another point at issue here. In his conversation with Svanhild, Falk stresses on how important she is to him, how much she means to him, as a muse.

FALK.
 Yes, free, for freedom’s all-in-all
Is absolutely to fulfil our Call.
And you by heaven were destined, I know well,
To be my bulwark against beauty’s spell.
I, like my falcon namesake, have to swing
Against the wind, if I would reach the sky!
You are the breeze I must be breasted by,
You, only you, put vigour in my wing:
Be mine, be mine, until the world shall take you,
When leaves are falling, then our paths shall part.
Sing unto me the treasures of your heart,
And for each song another song I’ll make you;
So may you pass into the lamplit glow
Of age, as forests fade without a throe. 

In my previous post, a commentator remarked about how Baudelaire doesn’t necessarily want love as much as the feeling of being in love. Something similar is at work, I think, when analyses of A une Passante indicate that to the flaneur, the city-woman serves essentially as an inspiration, or a literary device. And something similar is happening here. The ideal serves not as something we desire, but something that exists so that we can experience the feeling of desiring it, and in that feeling, either (in the case of the flaneur) find a better representation for our own consciousness or, in the case of Falk, be inspired to write great poetry.

I would love to discuss the brilliant interplay between Falk and Svanhild, but that will have to wait for another post. Suffice it here to say that Svanhild rejects him at first – and understandably so – you wouldn’t want to have your existence defined and exhausted by being someone else’s muse, would you? She exhorts him not to write but be (echoes of Kundera’s house of mirrors here); Falk then has a bitter and violent argument with the rest of the members of the household about love, marriage and convention, during the course of which his eloquence and passion is such that Svanhild falls in love with him. They resolve to march to battle against the enemies Society and Convention together. Falk has further arguments with individual members of the household. He and Svanhild determine to leave and travel elsewhere. But then in comes Guldstad, the dry, prosaic, quotidian wholesale merchant, and he asks Svanhild to marry him.

It sounds utterly absurd at first – two lovers, in all the passionate blaze of youth, who have just determined to initiate a war against all the forces of convention; and a grey-haired wholesale merchant who is as much a part of the establishment as a high-backed and cushioned armchair. Surely, if he tries to match arguments with Falk, it is going to be a complete mismatch. But then Guldstad puts forward his claim: 

GULDSTAD [completing his sentence].
That heartfelt love can weather unimpaired
Custom, and Poverty, and Age, and Grief.
Well, say it be so; possibly you’re right;
But see the matter in another light.
What love is, no man ever told us—whence
It issues, that ecstatic confidence
That one life may fulfil itself in two,—
To this no mortal ever found the clue.
But marriage is a practical concern,
As also is betrothal, my good sir—
And by experience easily we learn
That we are fitted just for her, or her.
But love, you know, goes blindly to its fate,
Chooses a woman, not a wife, for mate;
And what if now this chosen woman was
No wife for you—?

FALK [in suspense].
Well?

GULDSTAD [shrugging his shoulders].
Then you’ve lost your cause.
To make happy bridegroom and a bride
Demands not love alone, but much beside,
Relations that do not wholly disagree.
And marriage? Why, it is a very sea
Of claims and calls, of taxing and exaction,

Whose bearing upon love is very small.

In short, he makes a passionate case for safety, stability and security over “lawless passion” However, it isn’t Guldstad’s argument that is so very interesting, as is Falk and Svanhild’s response to it, once he has left, after asking them to make their choice. I quote it in full:

SVANHILD.
But if love, notwithstanding, should decay,
—Love being Happiness’s single stay—
Could you avert, then, Happiness’s fall?

FALK.
No, my love’s ruin were the wreck of all.

SVANHILD.
And can you promise me before the Lord
That it will last, not drooping like the flower,
But smell as sweet as now till life’s last hour?

FALK [after a short pause].
It will last long.

SVANHILD.
“Long!” “Long!”—Poor starveling word!
Can “long” give any comfort in Love’s need?
It is her death-doom, blight upon her seed.
“My faith is, Love will never pass away”—
That song must cease, and in its stead be heard:
“My faith is, that I loved you yesterday!”
                    [As uplifted by inspiration.
No, no, not thus our day of bliss shall wane,
Flag drearily to west in clouds and rain;—
But at high noontide, when it is most bright,
Plunge sudden, like a meteor, into the night!

FALK.
What would you, Svanhild?

SVANHILD.
We are of the Spring;
No autumn shall come after, when the bird
Of music in thy breast shall not be heard,
And long not thither where it first took wing.
Nor ever Winter shall his snowy shroud
Lay on the clay-cold body of our bliss;—
This Love of ours, ardent and glad and proud,
Pure of disease’s taint and age’s cloud,
Shall die the young and glorious thing it is!

FALK [in deep pain].
And far from thee—what would be left of life?

SVANHILD.
And near me what were left—if Love depart?

FALK.
A home?

SVANHILD.
Where Joy would gasp in mortal strife.
                                      [Firmly.
It was not given to me to be your wife.
That is the clear conviction of my heart!
In courtship’s merry pastime I can lead,
But not sustain your spirit in its need.
                [Nearer and gathering fire.
Now we have revell’d out a feast of spring;
No thought of slumber’s sluggard couch come nigh!
Let Joy amid delirious song make wing
And flock with choirs of cherubim on high.
And tho’ the vessel of our fate capsize,
One plank yet breasts the waters, strong to save;—
The fearless swimmer reaches Paradise!
Let Joy go down into his watery grave;
Our Love shall yet triumph, by God’s hand,
Be borne from out the wreckage safe to land!

FALK.
O, I divine thee! But—to sever thus!
Now, when the portals of the world stand wide,—
When the blue spring is bending over us,
On the same day that plighted thee my bride!

SVANHILD.
Just therefore must we part. Our joy’s torch fire
Will from this moment wane till it expire!
And when at last our worldly days are spent,
And face to face with our great Judge we stand,
And, as righteous God, he shall demand
Of us the earthly treasure that he lent—
Then, Falk, we cry—past power of Grace to save—
“O Lord, we lost it going to the grave!”

FALK [with strong resolve].
Pluck off the ring!

SVANHILD [with fire].
Wilt thou?

FALK.
Now I divine!
Thus and no otherwise canst thou be mine!
As the grave opens into life’s Dawn-fire,
So Love with Life may not espoused be
Till, loosed from longing and from wild desire,
Pluck off the ring, Svanhild!

SVANHILD [in rapture].
My task is done!
Now I have filled thy soul with song and sun.
Forth! Now thou soarest on triumphant wings,—
Forth! Now thy Svanhild is the swan that sings!

[Takes off the ring and presses a kiss upon it.
To the abysmal ooze of ocean bed
Descend, my dream!—I fling thee in its stead!

    [Goes a few steps back, throws the ring into the
      fjord, and approaches FALK with a transfigured
      expression.

Now for this earthly life I have foregone thee,—
But for the life eternal I have won thee!

The underlined verses present, I think, the core thought. Paradoxically, it is only in parting that Falk and Svanhild’s love can survive. It is in the nature of the human condition for everything – including love – to decay, to fade, and eventually, to die with use; and so, there is but one solution to keep it alive: the lovers must deny themselves attainment and fulfillment. Baudelaire has found his city-woman again, but he can’t love her – his delirium, his vision of tempests, his resurrection – these can only ever happen if he sees her once, for a fleeting moment, in a crowd. And so, the second time, Baudelaire walks away. Rudel has come at last to the Lady of Tripoli, but how can he sustain his amor de lonh, and have the birds of autumn remind him of his faraway love, when she is right there in front of him, to touch, to grasp, to know? And so, Rudel must depart – whether or not it is to his death. That single, intense, divine passion that has characterised and defined one’s being must, at its very apotheosis, be rejected if it is not to be utterly destroyed.

Is it a happy conclusion? Anything but. We can sense the helpless, suppressed, thwarted anger bubbling within Falk as he bids his farewells to the company:

Forgive me my offences great and small, I resent nothing;— [Softly. but remember all.

And we can sense, only too vividly, the hopeless despair of Svanhild when, having accepted Guldstad’s proposal, and on seeing Falk depart, she says:

SVANHILD [Looks after him a moment, then says softly but firmly:
Now over is my life, by lea and lawn,
The leaves are falling;—now the world may take me.

And the last lines of the play:

CHORUS OF FALK AND THE STUDENTS.

And what if I shattered my roaming bark,
It was passing sweet to be roaming!

We leave – or at least, I left – Love’s Comedy with a distinct of sadness, at the inescapability of the paradox, the inevitability of the logic. It is as if Ibsen is saying, this is the game, and if you decide to play it, this is the only possible end. So choose – either play it and be a Falk or a Svanhild, or opt out, and be a Guldstad. 

It seems, in its original and classic sense, a Catch-22.

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Reading Faust – II: On the Faustian Pact

In a beautiful essay called The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality, the great philosopher Bernard Williams examines our very human desire to live forever. He concludes (inter alia) that our mortality is precisely what gives our life the meaning that it has. You will notice, at once, that this is the very anti-thesis of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. Williams neither affirms nihilism in the face of the imminence and inevitability of death, nor advocates peace in a kind of Stoic acceptance. In fact, for Williams, the Sisyphean allegory would be a gross distortion of the human condition. Because our lives are short, because time is fleeting, because nothing lasts for ever, and not even a very long time, life has the beauty and the meaning that it does.

The title of the piece comes from a famous opera by the great Czech modernist composer, Janecek, written between 1923 – 25. Elina Makropulos, born in 1585, has been using an age-defying potion that has allowed her to live for three hundred years, in perpetual youth. And having lived so very long, Elina has come to a point where she is defined by one thing, and one thing alone: apathy. This apathy – or ennui – is reflected in her attitude towards love, in particular, her treatment of her multiple suitors: her falling asleep while one of them pleads his case, her Lysistratan coldness towards a second that she spends a night with (albeit blackmailed to do so), and her callous indifference on hearing that a third has committed suicide after having been spurned. And as the potion wears off, Elina realises that such a life is not worth living. Even though she has the formula that will allow her to live for another three hundred years, she rejects it, offering it to those around her. Nobody takes it, apart from one of the characters, who does so only to cast it into the fire.

This is a gross oversimplification, and omits many crucial plot points and dramatic turns, but it will do. The idea, as Williams points out, is that a mere extension of our physical lifespan will not change the other ways in which we are composed, the other things that make us human – and all of that is entirely at odds with immortality, or even with an inordinately long life-span. Not only our bodies, but our tastes, our passions, our desires – all these, to use a beautiful expression from Swinburne, “endure for a breath”. It is a long lifetime, not a short one, that would trivialise them to the point of irrelevance.

To take a very different example, recall the spacers in Asimov’s Robot novels. Having migrated from earth, living elsewhere in the galaxy, they have also managed to increase their lifespans to Makropulos levels. And for all their posturing, for all their sense of superiority, for all their contempt of “short-lived humans“, do you not sense a deep, profound bone-weariness in them? Asimov treats this brilliantly by showing us that in the Spacer society, because of their inordinately long life-spans, love as a concept has vanished from the lexicon, and from lived experience. “Sex is boring!” complains one of the characters, and proceeds to copulate with a robot (leading to the central conflict in the story), because she looking for something new, something that hasn’t yet been rendered prosaic, everyday and quotidian by repeated identical experiences.

That brings us to the Faustian pact. Recall that Faust offers up his soul in return for experiencing that one moment that he could wish would last for eternity.

When thus I hail the Moment flying:
“Ah, still delay—thou art so fair!”
Then bind me in thy bonds undying,
My final ruin then declare!

What are we to make of this?  Well, first of all, Goethe himself writes, elsewhere, these famous lines:

Alles in der Welt lässt sich ertragren,                                                                                            Nur nicht eine Reihe von schöen                                                                                             Tagen.”

I believe that the accurate translation is “Nothing is harder to bear than a succession of fair days.” At the very least, that captures the essence. Think about it. Keats’ one kiss wouldn’t really yield him the eternal bliss he craves if it simply goes on forever, would it? In other words, we long for a moment that we would long to last forever, but if that desire comes true, then the very raison d’etre of valuing that moment so much would disappear.

This is the interesting paradox. While Faust is asking for a moment that, with its beauty, would so entrance him that he would find himself wishing that it lasted an eternity, he isn’t asking for it to really last an eternity. He can’t be. To bring it back to Williams, it is the very momentariness of these moments that makes them as beautiful, as precious, as rare as they are. And while they do last, they last not as moments, but as memories. That is what gives them their unique, exquisite, bittersweet flavour: they aren’t dead, they aren’t gone, but nor do they exist entirely. They live in a twilight zone, somewhere between substance and shadow, between reality and dreams, between world and word. The moment is beautiful not only for what it gives us, but also for how we are destined to remember it through the trackless years, with longing, with desire, and a whole smorgasbord of complex emotions that would also include, at times, pain, regret and loss. If that was to go, swallowed up by the moment itself, as it stretched on interminably through time, there would be so much that we would lose! Wouldn’t we?

And so, when in the throes of some deep and beautiful emotion, we spontaneously say something such as “How I wish this could last forever!“, what we have actually picked out and identified is, contrariwise, the very fleetingness, transience, impermanence of the moment in which we are living. That is what makes such instants what they are. And that, I think, is what makes the Faustian pact so… perfect. Goethe realises this, and so he has Faust exchange for his soul that most profoundly beautiful of all conceivable human experiences, a moment so wondrous in its momentariness, that notwithstanding the complete irrationality of the wish, it nevertheless compels you to wish that it would last an eternity.

I would joyously give up my soul for such a moment. Wouldn’t you?

(To be contd.)

A synopsis of that brilliant opera, The Makropulos Affair: http://www.leosjanacek.co.uk/makropulos.htm

Bernard Williams’ essay (only an abstract, unfortunately; it’s available in hard copy in his book, Problems of the Selfhttp://ebooks.cambridge.org/chapter.jsf?bid=CBO9780511621253&cid=CBO9780511621253A012

A one-page synopsis by Camus on The Myth of Sisyphushttp://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/users/00/pwillen1/lit/msysip.htm

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Filed under Bernard Williams, Goethe, Philosophy, Romanticism

Reading Faust – I

Recently, I read Bayard Taylor’s translation of Goethe’s Faust. I’d like to discuss a couple of rather fascinating issues that I think the poem/drama raises. I understand, of course, that I’m not a Goethe scholar or even a literary critic, but nonetheless…

Within the pages of Faust, I was held spellbound by what found to be the central conflict at stake: not one about the saving of souls or the damnation thereof, but the conflict between two world-philosophies, two radically opposed ways of looking at the world and our place in it: enlightenment and romanticism. To put it very, very crudely, the philosophy of reason against the philosophy of sentiment. Kant against Rousseau. The philosophers of the Enlightenment, which had its apotheosis in the 18th century, believed that reason, rationality and science, these were enough to reveal everything there was to know about the world; and that sentiments were a burden, a drain, a curse that, like the flesh dragging down the soul, lowered reason to their own brute level. Romanticism reacted against this view of the world (think of Rousseau’s Emile), instead choosing to place the sentiments, the emotions, the passions on a pedestal (recall, again, Keats’ elision of “truth” and “beauty” – the beauty of a nightingale’s song – in Ode to a Nightingale). In Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, for instance, he speaks of the “imagination” with the reverence that you would normally accord to a deity. The conflict is revealed, most starkly I think, by these beautiful lines from Keats’ Lamia:

Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made

The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

The image of science “unweaving the rainbow” is beautiful, bitter, heartbreaking – and justly famous.

With this background, let us examine the text of Faust.

Mephistopheles sets the scene in the Prologue, in his confrontation with God. Referring to man, God’s own creation, with utter scorn, he echoes a very Rousseau-esque view, that our reason is the cause of our suffering:

How men torment themselves, is all I’ve noted.
The little god o’ the world sticks to the same old way,
And is as whimsical as on Creation’s day.
Life somewhat better might content him,
But for the gleam of heavenly light which Thou hast lent
him:
He calls it Reason—thence his power’s increased,
To be far beastlier than any beast.

Of course, this is the devil speaking, and we can dismiss his words without much concern. But then the scene shifts to earth, and in his first monologue, Faust recounts all his years of scholarship, his expertise over a vast swathe of realms of knowledge, only to find:

that nothing can be known!
That knowledge cuts me to the bone.

He longs to stand upon a high mountain, bathed in moonlight; floating over meadows in twilight; to be liberated from the “fumes of lore”; he curses the dungeon he’s in, the “worm-eaten” dusty books, and cries out: “Such is my world. And what a world!” The imagery and the metaphor combine to give us an overwhelming sense that knowledge is a burden, an oppressive weight upon the heart, and that freedom lies far, far away from books.

Later in the same scene, Wagner comes in, the quintessential young enlightenment scholar earnestly seeking truth in texts, and this is how Faust admonishes him:

Is parchment, then, the holy fount before thee,
A draught wherefrom thy thirst forever slakes?
No true refreshment can restore thee,
Save what from thine own soul spontaneous breaks.

The last line is extremely interesting, for spontaneity was the one thing that Romanticism valued above all else (recall Keats famously telling us, if poetry does not comes not as naturally as Leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all). Spontaneity, free imagination, as opposed to calculated reason.

And lastly, at the end of the scene, when he recalls his own religious experience, Faust breaks out, in lines of astounding beauty:

A sweet, uncomprehended yearning
Drove forth my feet through woods and meadows free,
And while a thousand tears were burning,
I felt a world arise for me.

A “sweet, uncomprehended yearning“. Burning tears at something whose beauty we cannot plumb, cannot understand with human faculties of reason, but a beauty that we simply sense by virtue of being human, and in fact, it is the sheer inexplicability of that beauty, our inability to fathom it, that draws us to tears. That is the new “world aris[ing” for us, a world that in its very mystery and wonder, like the weaved rainbow, is at its most beautiful.

This then, is Faust. The greatest scholar in all the world, who now finds his scholarship a canard, his knowledge useless, all his expertise a waste, and longs for something else entirely, something he cannot even give a name to.

And Faust recognises the duality, the dichotomy, the irreconcilability of his situation, of the human condition. Walking in the countryside, with Wagner being, well, Wagner, Faust puts the issue starkly:

Two souls, alas! reside within my breast,
And each withdraws from, and repels, its brother.
One with tenacious organs holds in love
And clinging lust the world in its embraces;
The other strongly sweeps, this dust above,
Into the high ancestral spaces.

And this is where Mephistopheles comes in. Back in his study, Faust is in agony. He feels the pull of the opposing impulses, he feels himself torn asunder, tossed this way and that upon the spindrift of doubt, he cries out:

One yearns, the rivers of existence,
The very founts of Life, to reach…

And, immediately afterwards:

Why must the stream so soon run dry and fail us,
And burning thirst again assail us?

Faust is in this state of mind when Mephistopheles reveals himself. And notice what it is that Mephistopheles promises:

My friend, thou’lt win, past all pretences,
More in this hour to soothe thy senses,
Than in the year’s monotony.
That which the dainty spirits sing thee,
The lovely pictures they shall bring thee,
Are more than magic’s empty show.
Thy scent will be to bliss invited;
Thy palate then with taste delighted,
Thy nerves of touch ecstatic glow!
All unprepared, the charm I spin:
We’re here together, so begin!

Notice the use of words: ‘senses’; ‘pictures’; ‘scent’; ‘palate’; ‘nerves’; ‘ecstatic glow’; it is a direct appeal to the passions, to the “non-reasoning” part of ourselves – in other words, to the appetites.

And when Mephistopheles comes back for the second time, Faust is in even greater agony. Such agony, in fact, that he longs for death, that he renounces everything in the world, and in a passage that could be right out of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, endorses a world in which it is impossible to feel anything, just a… neutral void:

Though some familiar tone, retrieving
My thoughts from torment, led me on,
And sweet, clear echoes came, deceiving
A faith bequeathed from Childhood’s dawn,
Yet now I curse whate’er entices
And snares the soul with visions vain;
With dazzling cheats and dear devices
Confines it in this cave of pain!

Cursed be, at once, the high ambition
Wherewith the mind itself deludes!
Cursed be the glare of apparition

That on the finer sense intrudes!
Cursed be the lying dream’s impression
Of name, and fame, and laurelled brow!
Cursed, all that flatters as possession,
As wife and child, as knave and plow!

Cursed Mammon be, when he with treasures
To restless action spurs our fate!
Cursed when, for soft, indulgent leisures,
He lays for us the pillows straight!
Cursed be the vine’s transcendent nectar,—
The highest favor Love lets fall!
Cursed, also, Hope!—cursed Faith, the spectre!
And cursed be Patience most of all!

It’s a wild, passionate outcry, but Mephistopheles, of course, is having none of it, and he offers Faust a way out of the pain. His service in this world for Faust’s soul in the next. And what will the Faustian pact be? What will Faust ask for? As the tension builds to an unendurable pitch and as the stakes are raised beyond all reckoning, this is what Faust asks for, in this quatrain of quite astounding poetic power:

When thus I hail the Moment flying:
“Ah, still delay—thou art so fair!”
Then bind me in thy bonds undying,
My final ruin then declare!

In other words, if Mephistopheles can give to the world-weary, anguished Faust one moment that he wishes will last for eternity, the bargain is complete, and Faust will relinquish his soul.

I will have more to say about the nature of the Faustian pact in a subsequent post, but for now, let’s only notice that again, this idea of “living in every moment“, and of longing that a single moment of delight lasts forever, is a classically Romanticist idea. Again, I call upon Keats, from Endymion (admittedly, not entirely apposite, but it will serve, and there are more than enough similar lines scattered around the corpus of the Romantics):

Now a soft kiss – 
Aye, by that kiss, I vow an endless bliss.

So Faust, the paragon of Enlightenment scholarship and learning, is giving it all away for a single moment that will bring him to the pitch of sensual delight. And if there was any doubt about it, here it is, confirmed, after the bargain is struck:

The thread of Thought at last is broken,
And knowledge brings disgust unspoken.
Let us the sensual deeps explore,
To quench the fervors of glowing passion!
Let every marvel take form and fashion

Through the impervious veil it wore!

And this sublime use of the chiasmus:

I take the wildering whirl, enjoyment’s keenest pain ,
Enamored hate, exhilarant disdain.
My bosom, of its thirst for knowledge sated,

Shall not, henceforth, from any pang be wrested,
And all of life for all mankind created
Shall be within mine inmost being tested:
The highest, lowest forms my soul shall borrow,
Shall heap upon itself their bliss and sorrow…

Because, at the end of the day:

I feel, indeed, that I have made the treasure
Of human thought and knowledge mine, in vain;
And if I now sit down in restful leisure,
No fount of newer strength is in my brain:

I am no hair’s-breadth more in height,
Nor nearer, to the Infinite.

Knowledge is a lie, Faust says, an illusion, a deceptionif the ultimate aim is to understand the Infinite, that famous “oceanic feeling” that Freud refers to, then the Enlightenment is not going to lead us there. 

Faust, thus, has triumphantly affirmed romanticism and rejected the Enlightenment. And he is a powerful spokesman. But what are we to make of it all? Because the moment he goes out of the room, Mephistopheles reverses everything in his soliloquy:

Reason and Knowledge only thou despise,
The highest strength in man that lies!
Let but the Lying Spirit bind thee
With magic works and shows that blind thee,
And I shall have thee fast and sure...

And suddenly, it’s the devil who is affirming reason, the “highest strength” in man, and gloating that he’s going to use “magic works” to “blind” Faust (surely, a symbol for passions blinding reason), and triumph over his soul in this way. And also, notice this: when he was talking to Faust, Mephistopheles made the argument that sensual delight is more than “an empty magic show”; now he uses the same language, and repudiates himself: “with magic works and shows that blind thee…” At this point, as a reader, I found myself rather disoriented and confused, and completely unsure about where my own sympathies lay in this tug-of-war. Perhaps that was the idea.

(To be contd.)

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Filed under Enlightenment, Goethe, Romanticism