Tag Archives: romanticism

“All things counter, original, spare, strange”: Poetic Philosophy through the Ages?

A while ago, I observed that when T.S. Eliot, in his book of literary criticism, The Sacred Wood, says that good poetry must aim at “that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations” – he is echoing the aesthetic arguments of the Russian defamiliarists, in particular, Victor Shklovsky who, four years before, in 1917, had written:

“… and art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.“ 

It seems that the Romantics (first generation and second generation) were on to something similar a hundred years before. In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge writes the following about Wordsworth:

Mr. Wordsowrth… was to… give the charm of novelty to things of every day… by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us… but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

The similarity is striking not only because the same word “familiarity” is used in the same context, but the entire sense of the two paragraphs is very proximate. Both Shklovsky and Coleridge lament the moribund nature of custom that deadens and dulls our perception of the world into something; and both advocate the point of art (poetry) to be – through defamiliarisation – to reawaken this perception to its full and rich state: so that we can feel things and the stone is made stony (Shklovsky), so that the eyes, ears and heart can see, hear and feel again (Coleridge).

And today, while reading Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, I came across this paragraph:

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”

Followed by:

[Poetry] makes us inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being… it creates new the universe after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration. It justifies that bold and true word of Tasso – non merita nome del creator, se non Iddio el di Poeta.”

Shelley is, of course, very evidently channeling Coleridge here, and elaborating upon the basic point: familiarity suppresses beauty by casting a veil (of commonality?) over it; poetry tears down this veil and reveals beauty to us through defamiliarising the sensations and perceptions that we have come to expect and become accustomed to. He is also channeling Wordsworth himself, who in Lyrical Ballads spoke of how extraordiness can serve as an act of “reforming perception.”

The irony here, of course, is that Eliot had a famously low opinion of the romantics – and yet they both seem to have been subscribing to a broadly similar philosophy of poetry.

But I think the most striking statement of this philosophy comes neither from the romantics, nor from the modernists, but from a representative of the intervening period – Gerard Manley Hopkins, Victorian poet, famous for the sprung rhythm. In Pied Beauty, Hopkins puts it pithily – and perfectly:

All things counter, original, spare and strange…

Counter – against the grain, and therefore, unfamiliar; original – by definition, un-imitated, and therefore unfamiliar; spare – in old English – meant “scant”, or rare – and therefore, unfamiliar; strange – naturally, unfamiliar by virtue of being so. What I like best about Hopkins is that while Coleridge, Shelley, Shklovsky and Eliot all express their philosophy of sensing-beauty-through-defamiliarisation through prose, Hopkins does it through poetry – and increases the impact tenfold. It is something similar – but not identical – to Blake expressing his philosophy in a single line of pure magic:

To be an error, and to be cast out, is a part of God’s design.” 

Of course, I’d like to believe that god’s design is at least, in part, aesthetic perfection, in which case Blake would join the illustrious list cited above, but that apart – I think it’s quite fascinating how poets separated by centuries, poets belonging to very different – and in fact, diametrically opposed schools of poetry, poets who would differ fundamentally on aspects such as rhyme, metre, vocabulary, scansion – nonetheless seem to agree on the most fundamental issues of them all: at the ultimately abstract level, what is poetry for, and how must the poet fulfill his task?

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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

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