“Wherefore poets in a destitute time?”: Part Two of Three

by Chris McCaffery

If I had no choice about the age in which I was to live, I nevertheless have a choice about the attitude I take and about the way and the extent of my participation in its living ongoing events. To choose the world is not then merely a pious admission that the world is acceptable because it comes from the hand of God. It is first of all an acceptance of a task and a vocation in the world, in history and in time. To choose the world is to choose to do the work I am capable of doing, in collaboration with my brother, to make the world better, more free, more just, more livable, more human. And it has now become transparently obvious that mere automatic ‘rejection of the world’ and ‘contempt for the world’ is in fact not a choice but the evasion of choice.

—Thomas Merton

Perfectio artis consistit in judicando.

—Saint Thomas

 

I

Prior Ground, and Departure

If irony negates the world, is there any way back? In Part One, our image of irony seemed like a powerful tool of escape from forces which might otherwise consume us. Given a violent society, which drags any sincere opposition down to the level of consumerism and would rather rest in self-satisfied avoidance of pain than risk a pursuit of the good life, what more can be done? If the inability to live honestly, to pursue the good life, is truly of no concern to those who, when reaching out to grab us, will only refuse to listen—how can we present a true alternative, not simply become another night’s entertainment? To fight back can’t lead us to anything true, and so in a sense we must stay with them. Again, it seems that “It’s not revolution, it’s incrementalism.”

The intuition of something more than “daily prodigalities” is the first step, covered in Part One. It’s certainly possible to run to the hills and cool your heels with the Dharma Bums. But as we’ve realized, that’s just temporary. Irony is the next step, because it is the first thing to reverse the flow of power—now we can inhabit the modern world without being deceived by her false images of happiness. But this iconoclasm has nothing to offer but skepticism and some hope of attuning ourselves to something better—and how long can this uncertain incrementalism be sustained in a vacuum?

These are our themes, then: 1) the dangers of irony, and how the ironist can learn to limit his irony to what is corrupt while keeping it from what is good, with the caveat that, at the start, he appears to not know what is good, but only that he does not have it; 2) art as an ethical object that will instruct the ironist whom we’ve described about the task of using irony in this way, without being a polemic doctrine about what ought to be good (this would quite obviously defeat the purposes, outlined in Part One, of the flight from the world itself).

Let’s make a return to the start of our investigation, with Barthelme and his ironist in “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel”. What does irony create?

The object is deprived of its reality by what I have said about it. Regarded in an ironical light, the object shivers, shatters, disappears. Irony is thus destructive and what Kierkegaard worries about a lot is that irony has nothing to put in the place of what it has destroyed. The new actuality—what the ironist has said about the object—is peculiar in that it is a comment upon a former actuality rather than a new actuality.

So far, so ironic. But we’re on the cusp of the trap I’d teased in Part One. Irony, as a way of life, seems necessary. But it offers nothing but parasitic comment on prior realities—if it ever becomes total, it offers an ever-more horrific life than the useless culture it sought to reject. Applied to individual acts of violence, irony is a potent prescription; applied to the world, it’s an image of the good life more horrific and self-consuming than the inquietude-laced milieu which is the subject of its skepticism. The unthinking consumerist may seem like a cave-man to him who sees the illusion for what they are and takes the first step away. But if he makes an idol of this new power, and finds in it an intoxicating subjective freedom, not just from falsehoods but from the world itself, the gaping maw of estrangement will swallow him whole. “Irony becomes an infinite absolute negativity . . . . The whole of existence has become alien to the ironic subject.” The world has been vanquished, but there is no one left. Surely one road of postmodernity leads down this path. How can it be avoided?

We all know people who, trained up in this way of irony and escape, don’t know when to stop. It’s the particular disease of our time and culture. At its perverse apotheosis, irony wholly rejects any value. Despairing of finding an unclichéd way of life, irony subtly and unconsciously grows to encompass the “common denominator”—existence itself, at its depth. The antidote for a sick city becomes a non-existent city, purely solipsistic and unable to communicate or provide an account of anything like the good life.

With all difference erased, this despair becomes total. The initial escape was grounded on some feeling of the insufficiency of the goods contemporary culture presents and a hope of a higher, fulfilling authenticity. Reality does not present a satisfactory answer, but simply partial stopping-points in a hipster “incrementalism” on the way to nowhere in particular. Ultimately, we find that the basis on which we had rejected society, when unchained, provides a suitable wrecking ball for all the insufficiencies of human existence.

Love, after all, has been done before.

Better to be a localist than a democratic soul . . . but perhaps better a democrat than Father John Misty, or The Drowsy Chaperone’s Man in Chair. On this slow climb of a second part, the central problem has come to light: we must not let our “magic power” become our highest faculty. But what can guide us when the only way we can speak about the world is a criticism? All our other attempts are swallowed, and can’t teach us anything positive about the best way to live and to order a community.

II

Literature and the Real

How, exactly, is Kierkegaard unfair to Schlegel?

Barthelme’s ironist is on the ascent. He’s discovered the nature of his “magic power” to throw things out of the world, and Kierkegaard has shown him the inherent danger. For Kierkegaard, “the actuality of irony is poetry.” For Kierkegaard, our ironist explains, Schlegel’s novel Lucinde is “poetical . . . By which he means to suggest that Schlegel has constructed an actuality which is superior to the historical actuality and a substitute for it.” It’s a “victory over the world”, but this is not what Kierkegaard wants. Schlegel’s literature is the perfect irony, because it obscures the world and provides an alternative, but this is not what Kierkegaard wants. This is not reconciliation with the world, but an escape that softens and obscures all things under an unreal dream. Having been shown the deep nihilism that awaits an ironist, Barthelme’s character seems to have been given an ‘out’, a chance to recognize the danger and pursue that return to the world that Kierkegaard championed and we ourselves have concluded is necessary.

But he fails, he trips, he’s thrown down into the trap that awaited him. He wants the victory to go to Schlegel, and proclaims his ultimate protest: “What is interesting is my making the statement that I think Kierkegaard is unfair to Schlegel. And I think the whole thing is nothing but a damned shame and a crime!” In utter self-consciousness, he knows that even this statement is an irony, an attempt at provocation rather than a criticism of Kierkegaard. But he is beyond caring—he must annihilate Kierkegaard himself “in order to deal with his disapproval.” The ensuing conversation with his interlocutor seals his fate:

Q: Of Schlegel?

A: Of me.

. . . .

A: But I love my irony.

Q: Does it give you pleasure?

A: A poor . . . A rather unsatisfactory. . . .

Q: The unavoidable tendency of everything particular to emphasize its own particularity.

A: Yes.

Q: You could interest yourself in these interesting machines. They’re hard to understand. They’re time-consuming.

A: I don’t like you.

Q: I sensed it.

A: These imbecile questions . . .

Q: Inadequately answered. . . .

A: . . . imbecile questions leading nowhere. . .

Q: The personal abuse continues.

A: . . . that voice, confident and shrill . . .

Q (aside): He has given away his gaiety, and now has nothing.

But whether or not Kierkegaard is fair to Schlegel, is he fair to poetry?

Jacques Maritain, the great mid-century philosopher, claimed of artists that “by the very fact that they will exercise a disinterested activity, that the human race will live.” But what are they disinterested in? That “beauty will save the world” has become almost, dare I say, cliché, or derided as so much wish-fulfillment fantasy-building1. Critic Kenneth Burke complains in an essay that “the greater the dissociation and discontinuity developed by the artist in an otherworldly art that leaves the things of Caesar to take care of themselves, the greater becomes the artist’s dependence upon some ruler who will accept the responsibility of doing the world’s ‘dirty work’.” A “disinterested” art seems precisely guilty of Schlegel’s romantic escape; in Barthelme’s words, “creating their own worlds which are thought to have nothing to do with the larger world.” But Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s programmatic Nobel Prize address, so often cited, presents the power of art in an echo of our own concerns:

However, there is a special quality in the essence of beauty, a special quality in the status of art: the conviction carried by a genuine work of art is absolutely indisputable and tames even the strongly opposed heart. One can construct a political speech, an assertive journalistic polemic, a program for organizing society, a philosophical system, so that in appearance it is smooth, well structured, and yet it is built upon a mistake, a lie; and the hidden element, the distortion, will not immediately become visible. And a speech, or a journalistic essay, or a program in rebuttal, or a different philosophical structure can be counterposed to the first—and it will seem just as well constructed and as smooth, and everything will seem to fit.

As we’ve investigated the contemporary world, the severe problem of response and of alternatives has troubled us at every turn. It’s the lesson which Socrates demonstrates in Book I of the Republic: countering a violent, self-interested sophist in his cave can tell us nothing about justice, but simply succeed at the fundamentally flawed game of domination. The hard-lost hopes of American counterculture make this clear, and it is this useless counterculture make this clear, and it is this useless exercise which the hipster incrementalist localism has no time for—to their credit.

These preceding examples can allow us to accept Solzhenitsyn’s call for “beauty to save the world”. His is not the mystical, or abstract-metaphysical, hope of a self-justifying artist too dreamy, twee, or idealistic for the real work of polemic and politics. In the same way as the maligned hipster, he undergoes a valid and necessary flight of “disinterest” from the world.

Solzhenitsyn’s brief assertions need shoring-up however. It obviously won’t do to leave the case for art as simply another, more beautiful way of arguing. This can too quickly become the aesthetic romanticism Kierkegaard derided. We need a certain kind of literature—not Schlegel’s, but a literature which can teach the ironist how to live with his irony.

In November’s Forum, Dr. Dwight Lindley asked “What Does Literature Have to Do with Reality?” If literature simply functions to present us with a dream, to elide and escape from the failures of living in the world, then Kierkegaard has judged profoundly fairly. But this is not the image Lindley presents.

Plato, Aristotle, and Horace give the discussion boundaries. Is poetry, respectively, the inspired work of some irrational muse, or an imitation of reality through rhythm, language, and harmony, or is it rather “to teach and delight”? Lindley offers all three: Literature is imitation, as Aristotle suggests. But it is not imitation which presents some alternate reality, but it imitates in a way that teaches us, though the intuition of the artist, how to approach and learn from our reality. It’s this vision of literature that I want to argue will give us a way back to reality, by instructing us how to judge what is and is not worthy of our irony, and discern well the first steps up from the useless structures of contemporary culture in a way that will orient us towards truth, rather than nothingness.

And here in Solzhenitsyn’s call, we see the next step. It is not a simple shunning of the realities of politics for the dream world of art. He wants to “tames even the strongly opposed heart” in a way that cannot be consumed by more self-interested rhetoric. Art needs to be in touch with reality, it cannot obscure: “a work of art bears within itself its own confirmation: concepts which are manufactured out of whole cloth or overstrained will not stand up to being tested in images, will somehow fall apart and turn out to be sickly and pallid and convincing to no one.” So here we have an indication of the next step for an ironist. Rather than simply resting in his subjective freedom from society in a way that will tip into a rejection of everything, the artist has the power to affirm a new vision that cannot be counterposed as an equal to the old. If the consumer culture has truly presented an image of the good life out of touch with reality, then the images of an artist, so far as they stand or fall having their very power from being in touch with reality, can pose this reality without entering back into the fray.

Barthelme himself suggests an answer in an essay on writing, “Not-Knowing”. Discussing the role of postmodern literature, the kind practiced by himself and many others, he responds to criticisms

that this kind of writing has turned its back on the world, is in some sense not about the world but about its own processes, that it is masturbatory, certainly chilly, that it excludes readers by design, speaks only to the already tenured, or that it does not speak at all, but instead, like Frost’s Secret, sits in the center of a ring and Knows.

This criticism is consonant with the criticism of the contemporary hipster which we saw Joe Keohane engage in Part One. But his writing, Barthelme claims, is a response to problems and questions that have everything to do with what art is, and especially with language itself. His postmodern art is an attempt to free language from clichéd dryness and political and social contamination, a result of “the pressure on language from contemporary culture in the broadest sense—I mean our devouring commercial culture— which results in a double impoverishment: theft of complexity from the reader, theft of the reader from the writer.” In order to find a language that is relevant, language that is not “aggressively inarticulate”, as Editor-in-Chief Madeline Johnson decried in “Common Nouns and Action Verbs” last month [Forum November 2015], the writer is forced to new modes of expression and invention in language.

But this detachment from the audience is precisely at the service of rendering the world in art, and placing art into the world so that it may interact with the reader: “Art is a true account of the activity of mind. Because consciousness, in Husserl’s formulation, is always consciousness of something, art thinks ever of the world, cannot not think of the world, could not turn its back on the world even if it wished to.” By stepping out of the reflexive use of language, the writer is forced to approach his object in a way that establishes the piece of writing as art, and not simply description. Through his form and style, the writer takes advantage of “the combinatorial agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they’re allowed to go to bed together, allows the writer to surprise himself, makes art possible, reveals how much of Being we haven’t yet encountered.” This is an essential part, for Barthelme, of making the work of art not simply an imitation of the world but an object in it, which allows art’s project to be “fundamentally meliorative. The aim of meditating about the world is finally to change the world. It is this meliorative aspect of literature that provides its ethical dimension.”

III

Foreword

Let’s return to where we began: the hipster. To repeat the problems of our first part, “The hipster is ungrateful. They don’t want the world they’ve been given. They’d rather mock and posture than change the world, or even get a job. Besides, once we sink to their level and embrace their values, they’re just as clichéd and vacuous.” From here, we can see in greater detail the ingratitude in a principled irony. The irony which fixes upon the consuming aspects of the world in order to give the ironist freedom from them is a just thing. The perverted values of the society they’ve been given can no longer sway them, and they retain freedom from the image of the good life which values money, power, and glory, self determination and submission to passions, over what New York Times columnist David Brooks calls “eulogy virtues”. These virtues are a contrary image, more in keeping with man’s true end.

But irony as a group identity, as a new societal norm, is the losing of ingratitude. It too becomes a cliché or a way of keeping up possessions and appearances, but precisely in the mode of rejection—when raised to the place of virtue, as the criterion for societal honor, rejection of the world that has been given, not just the poor values of consumerism. We’re transformed from wanting the wrong things into wanting nothing. Nothing can be appreciated as itself; any good is either fed into the fulfillment of internal passions, pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, or found to be lacking and useless.

And it is here, ultimately, where I will take up Part Three. Josef Pieper indicated in Only the Lover Sings that “Music, the fine arts, poetry—anything that festively raises up human existence and thereby constitutes its true riches—all derive their life from a hidden root, and this root is a contemplation which is turned toward God and the world so as to affirm them.” My thesis will explore this problem. Two models of the good life which cannot affirm the world: one a way of rejection, of resigned self-pity; the other only self-love and naïve rush for fulfillment in the world. We have seen that art has an essential part to play in this, presenting us with the good of human existence without evacuation its true value into some polemic or perverse passion—true art, to answer the questions always put to art, cannot be kitsch or clichéd. It is demanded of the artist and his “disinterested activity”. This power of showing must not be underestimated. It can exhibit reality and persuade us to follow it, against the two paths which cannot help but disguise, either first the faults in worldly goods, or second the good in worldly faults. Is there any third path to walk?

Chris McCaffery is a senior studying English. He is a member of the Dow Journalism Program.

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