Last year, while reading Danilo Kis’ book of short stories, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, I was particularly struck by an observation made by Joseph Brodsky in his Introduction. After observing that European totalitarianism was a theme that was treated often in the 20th century, Brodsky went on to write:
“By virtue of his place and time alone, Danilo Kis is able to avoid the faults of urgency which considerably marred the works of his listed and unlisted predecessors [Koestler, Orwell etc]. Unlike them, he can afford to treat tragedy as a genre, and his art is more devastating than statistics… with his emphasis on imagery and detail, combined with ironic detachment, Danilo Kis’s obviously poetic prose puts his horrid subject matter into the most adequate perspective by alerting the reader to the prose’s own intelligence. Thus, the reader’s ethical evaluation of the phenomena described ceases to be merely a matter of his distraught sentiment and comes out as a judgment made by his profoundly offended supreme human faculties. It is not that the thought is felt but, rather, that the feeling is thought.”
That critical distance allows the aestheticisation of tragedy in a way that makes the work of art all the more impactful, is not new. I’ve read it before, in analyses of the scene from the Aeneid, where Aeneas sees his ancestors’ statues in Carthage, and of course, in Eliot (“poetry is an escape from emotion).
Recently, I have been re-reading Edward Said’s beautifully rich “Culture and Imperialism“, and I came across this quotation from R.P. Blackmur, on Yeats’ poetry:
“His direct association with Parnell and O’Leary, with the Abbey Theatre, with the Easter Uprising, bring to his poetry what R.P. Blackmur, borrowing from Jung, calls ‘the terrible ambiguity of an immediate experience.’ (Blackmur, Eleven Essays in the European Novel, p. 3).”
I haven’t read Blackmur’s book (it’s unavailable in India), so I don’t know the context in which Blackmur used this phrase, and I’m not entirely sure what Said means by it. I looked up what Jung seemed to mean by it; he uses the phrase in a lecture at Yale, saying that “if, therefore… a person should be convinced of the exclusively sexual origin of his neuroses, I would not disturb him of his opinion, because such a conviction… particularly if it is deeply rooted… is an excellent defence against the onslaught of the terrible ambiguity of an immediate experience.” This interpretive article opposes the terrible ambiguity with “the reassurance of logical systems.” The point, I suppose, is that distance allows you the luxury of fitting the experience in a systemic context of prior and subsequent causes, temporal and logical sequences, and allows you to explain it by imposing symmetry and order upon it.
Immediately after, Said goes on to write:
“Yeats’ work of the early 1920s has an uncanny resemblance to the engagement and ambiguities of Darwish’s Palestinian poetry half a century later, in its renderings of violence, of the overwhelming suddenness and surprises of historical events, of politics and poetry as opposed to violence and guns (‘The Rose and the Dictionry’), of the search for respites after the last border has been crossed, the last sky flown in.”
I suppose that, in applying Jung’s words to the poetry of Yeats and Darwish, Blackmur and Said are trying to say that immediacy of experience can liberate you from the explanatory structures that distance will impose. Art that expresses – or embodies – the ambiguity of an immediate experience is not inferior with art that sublimates it with the benefit of distance.
There will be two very different kinds of art, of course. But perhaps the point is that contra Brodsky, we need the “faults of urgency” as much as we need the aestheticisation of distance, and neither of the two are inferior to each other.