Friday, June 14, 2013

Asceticism and the Fire of the Imagination

1. The slow meander — Beauty in criticism; 2. Talking as injury — Talking as love; 3. Pater’s hard gem-like flame and the ironist — The strong poet’s fire; 4. Thoreau’s vital heat — Against obsession — Leisurely consumption and the art of chewing; 5. Romanticism of profusion — Asceticism and suffocation

1.     In what is purportedly the last piece Rorty wrote for publication, Rorty quotes two snatches of poetry that he “had recently dredged up from memory and been oddly cheered by” while he was dying of pancreatic cancer. The first is from Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “Garden of Proserpine”:
          We thank with brief thanksgiving
               Whatever gods may be
          That no life lives for ever;
          That dead men rise up never;
          That even the weariest river
               Winds somewhere safe to sea.
The second, Walter Savage Landor’s “On His Seventy-fifth Birthday”:
               Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art:
          I warmed both hands before the fire of Life;
               It sinks; and I am ready to depart.
Of these snatches, Rorty says this:
I found comfort in those slow meanders and those stuttering embers. I suspect that no comparable effect could have been produced by prose. Not just imagery, but also rhyme and rhythm were needed to do the job. In lines such as these, all three conspire to produce a degree of compression, and thus of  impact, that only verse can achieve. Compared to the shaped charges contrived by versifiers, even the best prose is scattershot.
I like Rorty’s perspective on poetry. It is a kind of aesthetic perspective that, oddly enough, I’m not really allowed as a professional literary critic, at least in my professional capacity. You get frowny faces if you say you don’t love the beauty of literature, but you also get frowny faces if you try and write about it. There are two reasons for this, I think. One is the simple reason that it’s terribly difficult to write about. Our profession has too many bad memories of early shitty writing about what makes X, Y, or Z beautiful. And when we began to professionalize, say around 1900, the crap gained a stamp of authority that legitimized it in a way it previously lacked. As critics began to feel queer about the personal nature of what was deemed beautiful, they either fell back on Kantian-style aesthetic inquiry or purged it explicitly in order to smuggle it in implicitly as the study of pure form—this was New Criticism. New Criticism and Kantianism began to be rejected in the ’60s, but for many different, not always compatible reasons. One of those reasons was my second reason for why the current profession frowns on beauty—the (re)rise of post-Marxist debunking. Many think of talking about beauty as taking part in an ideological regime, so specifically stigmatize it as a bourgeois conspiracy to keep the people down. That’s changing, thank god, and many of us—and this is where my department largely falls—have felt and feel like beauty is important somehow, but feel uncomfortable talking about it, let alone writing about it.

2.     However, that being said, Rorty once said something in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity that fell a little odd on our instincts as literary critics. In a kind of concluding aphorism during his discussion of Heidegger, Rorty says that the only solution to the problem of how to properly treat Heidegger’s power-words (e.g., noein, phusis, alētheia), which are part of his attempt to speak Being without talking about beings, is: “do not put Heidegger’s works in any context, do not treat them as movable pieces in a game, or as tools, or as relevant to any questions save Heidegger’s own. In short”—and here’s the bit—“give his words the privilege you extend to a lyric which you love too much to treat as an object of ‘literary criticism’ – a lyric which you recite, but do not (for fear of injuring it) relate to anything else” (CIS 115).

I thought this really interesting, and asked a friend of mine—who gets poetry in a way I do not—what she thought of it. She said it seemed really wrong. She expresses her love by talking about it.

That has to be, in some way, right for us talkative literary critics. And yet, I still feel like both attitudes of expression are right. I’m not sure I fear injuring Emily Dickinson, but I do know that I love reading her poetry and hate talking about it. (Or, maybe that’s just because I hate looking foolish.) But my friend is right certainly in one sense—Rorty has no business, qua pragmatist, thinking words, i.e. harnesses of relating, hurt anything. That’s a rare moment of ineffaphilia for Rorty. In the context of “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” however, with its description of Rorty’s intensely “snobbish” and solitary love of orchids, we might get a finer-grained picture of what Rorty means by the private/public distinction—some private things we do with friends, but some we do only by ourselves. Sometimes we express our love by burning outwards, engulfing others; sometimes we hold the flame away from the buffeting winds.

3.     It’s not a mistake that I’ve recurred to fire imagery, for this last piece of Rorty’s I’ve been quoting from takes its title from that line of Landor’s: “The Fire of Life.” [1] I don’t know why, but Rorty never quoted from Walter Pater, though the most famous passage in The Renaissance pretty much sums up the romantic view of the strong poet that so fired Rorty’s imagination:
To burn always with this hard gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. Failure is to form habits; for habit is relative to a stereotyped world; meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well catch at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems, by a lifted horizon, to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange flowers, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. [2]
Failure for Rorty’s ironist, hero of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, would be to take too seriously his own final vocabulary, which is largely inherited through that form of mass hypnosis we call “education.” Beliefs, for pragmatists, are habits of action, and Pater here perfectly describes the fear ironists have—that they’ll miss life if they aren’t able to discriminate finely the gradations between each person’s, thing’s, situation’s unique quality.

Rorty was caught by fire imagery at the end of his life. In “Philosophy and the Hybridization of Culture,” Rorty says that it might be sad if the ability to read ancient Greek and Latin died out, but if wouldn’t be a tragedy—“human creativity and diversity may flourish nonetheless. The human imagination may burn even brighter, even though many of the fuels that fed it are no longer available.” [3] This sense of fire as the imagination that destroys the material that keeps it alive is remnant of an earlier passage Rorty wrote for his contribution to a festschrift for Richard Bernstein, “Philosophy as a Transitional Genre”:
For members of the literary culture, redemption is to be achieved by getting in touch with the present limits of the human imagination. That is why a literary culture is always in search of novelty, always hoping to spot what Shelley called “the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present,” rather than trying to escape from the temporal to the eternal. It is a premise of this culture that thought the imagination has present limits, these limits are capable of being extended forever. The imagination endlessly consumes its own artifacts. It is an ever-living, ever-expanding, fire. It is as subject to time and chance as are the flies and the worms, but although it endures and preserves the memory of its past, it will continue to transcend its previous limits. Though the fear of belatedness is ever present within the literary culture, this very fear makes for a more intense blaze. [4]
Here we get a sense of the strong poet’s self as a bonfire, needing to be fed more and more, burning hungrily through the materials we eventually run out of. There are certainly these Faustian types in literature and life, and there’s often a bit of melancholy surrounding Rorty’s treatment of the Hegels and Wordsworths, who outlived their brightest point, and a bit of embarrassed relief at the Byrons and Nietzsches, who didn’t. [5] And, too, we get a sense of the strong poet’s self as a forest fire, taking on the Nietzschean accents wherein we get cultural traditions as the product of the burning of a poet’s imaginative exercises. And, of course, Nietzsche got that from Emerson: “Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration has broken out in a great city, and no man knows what is safe, or where it will end.” [6]

4.     But does the self necessarily burn itself out? That’s a problem of imagery in the passage above—the imagination consumes, but what is the imagination if we abdicate the Kantian faculty psychology Rorty strictly forbids? There’s a weird hypostatization of imagination that Rorty rarely indulges in—endlessly consuming, subject to chance but enduring, it will continue to transcend. And if we turn back to those fragile lyrics, what does it mean for them to be consumed if we can continue to return to them?

Pater’s sense of the ironist self as a “hard gem-like flame” gets at a self that is more relatable, I think, to the less self-destructive ironist than the strong ironist. And here it’s helpful to turn to another user of fire imagery—Thoreau. In the opening chapter of Walden, Thoreau begins developing an extended metaphor around the notion of the “vital heat” necessary for life that should not be confounded with the tools we use to generate it and keep it.
According to Liebig, man’s body is a stove, and food the fuel which keeps up the internal combustion in the lungs. In cold weather we eat more, in warm less. The animal heat is the result of a slow combustion, and disease and death take place when this is too rapid; or for want of fuel, or from some defect in the draught, the fire goes out. Of course the vital heat is not to be confounded with fire; but so much for analogy. It appears, therefore, from the above list, that the expression, animal life, is nearly synonymous with the expression, animal heat; for while Food may be regarded as the Fuel which keeps up the fire within us,—and Fuel serves only to prepare that Food or to increase the warmth of our bodies by addition from without,—Shelter and Clothing also serve only to retain the heat thus generated and absorbed.
Most of “Economy” is given over to railing against our having become beholden to the mere things we created to help us keep up our vital heat, life. What once kept us alive, now keeps us from living. “But lo! men have become the tool of their tools.” Sliding Rorty’s Deweyan-Wittgensteinian notion of language being a tool to help us get what we want over Thoreau gives us this: the fire inside not only destroys but creates—the trick is to not become obsessed with any particularly product for risk of starving your fire.

I find Thoreau’s notion of the necessary “vital heat” in the self hiding behind the final paragraph of Rorty’s “The Fire of Life”:
I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths; there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp. Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts—just as I would have if I had made more close friends. Cultures with richer vocabularies are more fully human—farther removed from the beasts—than those with poorer ones; individual men and women are more fully human when their memories are amply stocked with verses.
To extend our metaphor: the fire inside destroys, consumes artifacts thrown into it, but in so destroying, it produces by an act of transformation. But how to describe that product? Rorty always recurred to Wittgenstein’s notion of throwing away the ladder after climbing it. But might we not want to remind ourselves of that act of transformation, particularly if we backslide? And now I picture Rorty, comfortably sitting back in a stairless 10th-story apartment, roasting chestnuts by an open fire. Or perhaps, roasting them in the pan itself: “we were put into our bodies as fire is put into a pan to be carried about…. [W]e are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it,” says Emerson in “The Poet.” We don’t precisely transform again by going over all our favorite aphorisms or lines of verse or favorite scenes of books or movies—but we do recapture something like that earlier moment. These chestnuts are leisurely consumables. And sometimes they surprise us—sometimes they flare to life again and teach us something new. (The best kinds, of course, are the ones that don’t burn down easily at all. This was the implicit definition of “universal” that I think Harold Bloom always had in mind in his late work—what we haven’t thought through because it is still us thinking. That’s a flame still burning on the fuel it was given. You might roll Landor around in your mouth for a bit, but Stevens’s “Of Mere Being” requires an awful lot of chewing.)

5.     There’s one surprising thing in this final passage from Rorty—his definition of what it is to be “fully human.” Rorty has as little business defining what it is to be human as he does suggesting words harm anything—pragmatists, and particularly Rorty’s pragmatism, abjures such theoretical positioning. The way to read this, I think, is as a last bit of cultural politics. It’s a rhetorical flourish, though certainly not a metaphysical definition of human nature. “Cultures with richer vocabularies are more fully human.” This is the Nietzschean romanticism of profusion, the form that finds most suspicious of all power-plays the ascetic. If the imagination is the engine of moral and intellectual progress, then a full mind with a polychromatic palette to paint with is the most likely to produce surprising patterns. The imagination needs material—fires need material to burn in them. An empty mind is just simply less likely to produce the bright flourishes that delight us and cause us to rethink our previous commitments and prejudices. That’s the main contention of Nietzschean romanticism. It is simply not the case that an ascetic form of life cannot produce moments of moral or intellectual progress. It’s just not likely. A mind that burns only one fuel is emaciated, and there’s nothing inherently special about an underfed mind.

This is cultural politics because Rorty doesn’t want to suggest that asceticism is illegitimate in any strong sense—it shouldn’t be eradicated, for example, for the health of the state. Mill’s “experiments of living” forbids such a maneuver. But Rorty is pretty sure we shouldn’t encourage it. That being said, I don’t have anything better than Nietzsche to entitle myself to the idea that a full mind will have a higher probability of helping humanity. I know of no empirical studies, and I can’t imagine them being done. After all, to formulate the study-question is to beg the question against asceticism. All us romantic Nietzscheans have on our side is the sense that thinking about your inherited form of life is best when it’s critical and that to be critical is to take a standpoint outside what it is you’re criticizing. That means the more available “outsides” you have, the better opportunity you will have to be critical of your inherited assumptions and predilections. You might be able to breathe for a time on the assumed power of a favorite book, but a hermetically sealed tradition will eventually suffocate the fire of life.


[1] This was published in Poetry, November 2007. It can be found online here

[2] From the Conclusion of Studies in the History of the Renaissance. Studies is the first edition, which was subsequently edited and rereleased in its iconic form as The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. Current scholarship suggests that Pater was under some pressure to tame down the first edition, particularly the sexual connotations that so inspired people like Oscar Wilde, but however that may be, I certainly prefer the diction of the first edition in this passage.

[3] Published in Educations and Their Purposes, eds. Roger T. Ames and Peter D. Hershock, 2008, p. 44.

[4] Published in Pragmatism, Critique, Judgment, eds. Seyla Benhabib and Nancy Fraser, 2004, p. 12. This essay was reprinted with revisions in PCP, and the parallel passage is at 94, sans the Shelley (which is from The Defense of Poetry) and fire imagery. I suspect Rorty noticed he had too many metaphors going on. Happily, though, I've learned that Christopher J. Voparil, in his admirable collection The Rorty Reader, reprinted the original and not the cut PCP-version. Perhaps we could've lived without the fire metaphors, but there's a final section on Oscar Wilde and Rorty's vision of a literary culture that is excellent and now more centrally preserved.

[5] My favorite line of Rorty’s on Hegel is “What could he possibly do after the Phenomenology as an encore?” (Robert Solomon, in his In the Spirit of Hegel, reports that Rorty said this during an APA symposium on Derrida in 1978.)

[6] From “Circles” in Essays: First Series.

[7] Rorty himself doesn’t distinguish between the ironist and the strong poet, a conflation in the book that gets him in a lot of trouble.

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