Sunday, May 16, 2010

Blake and the Dialectic of Enlightenment

This is a fairly uninteresting piece, gerrymandered together out of reading Blake, Horkheimer and Adorno (H/A), and a Romanticist named Mark Lussier (for a class reflection in ecocriticism). In my understanding, H/A formulated one of the most thorough articulations of the post-Rousseauian longing for total revolution, a phrase borrowed from Bernard Yack. I think this longing is one of the most important conceptual pieces to understanding much about modern thought. Once one identifies society as the problem and pervasive, you begin to wish it would all go away--somehow. English Romanticism contains this longing, but like Rorty, I see something else going on, too. I think American Romanticism--Emerson--does much to overcome the problem of this longing, and I take it to be the tension between what Emerson termed "solitude and society" and the identification of that tension as power.

There isn't any of that here, but what Harold Bloom calls Emerson's "dialectics of power" has echoes in this discussion of people "across the pond" (as we stuffy litcrits apparently like to say), and what I identify below as Blake's sly humbling through metonymy is Emerson's mode in Nature. So while below I suggest that Blake's Platonism can't break through H/A's formulation of the dialectic, the real problem isn't Blake's Platonism (which I take to be ironic like Emerson's), but the formulation--the longing--itself. In Blake, the dialectics of power that shirks this longing shows up as the dialectic between Poets and Priests found in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, also not discussed here. To understand this dialectic, between self-alone and self-among-others, it helps to translate Blake's categories into Bloom's: poetry and belief. Santayana helps beautifully with this, too: "Poetry is called religion when it intervenes in life, and religion, when it merely supervenes upon life, is seen to be nothing but poetry" (Interpretations of Poetry and Religion v). Working out the involution of that sentence will move one far towards understanding what Rorty means by metaphors as the catalyst of cultural change and his public/private distinction.

What I have left to work out in these stories is the relationship between mathematics (an enemy common to H/A in the Dialectic of Englightenment and Heidegger in, e.g., "The Age of the World Picture") and the ironic Platonism I find in Romantics from Blake and Emerson to Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison. I suspect that I find their Platonism ironic precisely because Platonism took the path of method identified with mathematics, and that this path ironically transformed into materialism in the New Science (an irony charted by Blumenberg)--hence, the needed irony of a return to Plato and Greek idealism.

References are to an article by Lussier, "Blake's Deep Ecology," in Studies in Romanticism Fall 1996 (my pagination is not coordinate to the hardcopy). The H/A translation of the Dialectic of Englightenment used throughout, except one place noted, is to the new Jephcott translation.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


The story Horkheimer and Adorno tell about the history of thought is compressed and dense, but one of its central components is that “in thought, human beings distance themselves from nature in order to arrange it in such a way that it can be mastered” (Horkheimer and Adorno 31). What Horkheimer and Adorno fear is the instrumentalization of thought, the turning of thought into merely a tool: “blindly pragmatized thought loses its transcending quality and, its relation to truth.”[fn.1] The disturbing thing in Horkheimer and Adorno’s picture is that once the dialectical path is stepped upon, there is no getting off until the bottom. Like Marx’s sense that once the division of labor is made, the rest of history is but an extension of that first moment, it is difficult to find in Horkheimer and Adorno where the wrong but civilization-creating turn was. What they term “enlightenment” is out to destory myth, but it is a hopeless battle: “Just as myths already entail enlightenment, with every step enlightenment entangles itself more deeply in mythology” (8). So the question is: can we turn back the clock? Can we break the dialectic of enlightenment?

Mark S. Lussier has suggested that Blake has, indeed, formulated a way through. By driving straight at Blake’s dualism between humanity and nature, and suggesting that they are deeply symbiotic, Lussier hopes to capitalize on Blake’s formulation of the fall from innocence that marks the birth of modernity Blake stands astride. And much like Horkheimer and Adorno, Lussier highlights Blake’s fingering of Bacon for complicity in the act. Horkheimer and Adorno say that “Nature, before and after quantum theory, is what can be registered mathematically…” (18). Mathematics bring the “self-satisfaction of knowing in advance” (18) which is ironically coupled with the “apotheosis of advancing thought” (18). Galileo is associated with the former and is the treatment of “nature as self-repetition” (12). But in its repetitious nature, there is the endless scribbling to reinstate math’s preplanned plan—experimentation, of which Bacon is the father. Scientific thought advances in empirical experimentation, just as math makes the experiments less and less interesting.

Lussier references one of Blake’s handy lists of mathematizing, empirical culprits, “Bacon, Locke & Newton” in Milton, but I’d like to refocus on that same list in Jerusalem: “I am your Rational Power!/Am I not Bacon & Newton & Locke who teach Humility to Man!” (Jerusalem, Ch. 3, v. 16-17) This line tells us something important about the spirit of Bacon and enlightenment—they teach humility before nature. Rather than treating nature as a god to be fought with, as the myths show us, we must acknowledge nature’s power. We must bow respectfully before it and simply trace its contours. But through humility, we gain power. Horkheimer and Adorno’s reading of Odysseus help unlock this process: “The formula for Odysseus’s cunning is that the detached, instrumental mind, by submissively embracing nature, renders to nature what is hers and thereby cheats her” (Horkheimer and Adorno 45). By reducing ourselves, we reduce nature—much along the lines of Lussier’s reversal of Blake’s formula: “just as ‘nature is barren’ in the absence of man, so too, by necessity of the proverb’s own symmetries, man is barren in the absence of nature” (Lussier 5). This reduction of nature’s power by draining ourselves of our own functions along the lines of Harold Bloom’s figure of kenosis, and Bloom assigns the trope of metonymy to this poetic maneuver—the trope Blake is constantly using, as in his use of “Bacon.” By this logic, the enlightenment stands humbled before nature, promising to experiment and test nature slowly, in order to circumscribe nature with mathematics. And Blake humbles himself before “Bacon & Newton & Locke” in order to circumscribe them with his poetry.

The difficulty in breaking the dialectic Horkheimer and Adorno map out still lies before us, though: “Any attempt to break the compulsion of nature by breaking nature only succumbs more deeply to that compulsion” (Horkheimer and Adorno 9). Even a humbling is a succumbing to the dialectic. It isn’t clear how Blake’s Platonism can save him, for it still posits a dichotomy between humanity and nature, and even if they are symbiotic, the trouble is that humanity would rather debase themselves by instrumentalizing their thought than suffer nature’s tyranny. “Human beings have always had to choose between their subjugation to nature or its subjugation to the self” (25). In such a dark formulation of the problem of enlightenment, it’s difficult to see how a regression to Platonism, the earlier metaphysics which was the first step past myths (which inexorably produced it), is the way through. And as Lussier, quoting a deep ecology mission statement, agrees, “nothing short of a total revolution in consciousness will be of lasting use” (Lussier 5). The trouble that even stunted Horkheimer and Adorno was in how to conceive of it.

To ferret out this problem in Blake’s Platonism, I would reread a selection of the Book of Thel that Lussier glosses:
Ah! Thel is like a watry bow. and like a parting cloud.
Like a reflection in a glass. like shadows in the water.
Like dreams of infants. like a smile upon an infants face.
Like the doves voice, like transient day, like music in the air; (I, v. 8-11)
Lussier says that, “in an interesting reversal,” “it is consciousness, and not nature, that ‘mirrors’” (4). This strikes me as just wrong, and it signficantly elides the dialectical danger of Platonic dualism. Lussier wants the reversal so he can say, “See—nature and man need each other so that neither is barren.” But the reversal is not strongly tuned in Lussier’s direction. Noting Bloom’s comment that “Thel” is Greek for “will,” Lussier, I think correctly, identifies Thel with consciousness. But whereas Lussier is focused on Thel’s transformations through the repeated and varied simile, I think one needs to slow down and look at what exactly Thel is like, particularly “a reflection in a glass” and “shadows in the water.” Thel, consciousness, is “like a reflection in a glass”—consciousness is paired with “reflection,” which means nature, as earlier in the Vision of the Last Judgment, is the mirroring glass. “Shadows in the water” is even more Platonically disturbing for consciousness—the water, nature, again reflects back consciousness, and what it reflects are transitory shadows, like those in the Plato’s Cave.

It isn’t clear to me that Blake proposes a total revolution, nor is it clear that he even wants to escape Horkheimer and Adorno’s dialectic. In the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he says “Without Contraries is no progression.” (Plate 3) An other-worldly, Platonic-like answer would be to shunt progression, then, to avoid the dialectical devolution portrayed by Horkheimer and Adorno entirely. But Blake says these contraries are “necessary to Human existence.” (Plate 3) The escape of an Edenic Heaven is always paired with the energy and vitality of Hell and Milton’s Satan. For Blake says, “this history has been adopted by both parties” (Plate 5).


[1]This is the old translation by John Cumming, which I greatly prefer to Edmund Jephcott’s translation: “thought in its headlong rush into pragmatism is forfeiting its sublating character, and therefore its relation to truth” (xvi).

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