America has produced some real literary savages, people to whom you definitely don't want your publisher sending your book. No one is more gleefully brutal than Edgar Allan Poe, though. And boy did he despise the transcendentalists (at least until the so-transcendentalist culmination of his last major work Eureka.) Here he is going off on Margaret Fuller, in an essay on James Russell Lowell.
Miss Margaret Fuller, some time ago, in a silly and conceited piece of Transcendentalism, which she called an “Essay on American Literature,” or something of that kind, had the consummate pleasantry, after selecting from the listof American poets, Cornelius Mathews and William Ellery Channing, for especial commendation, to speak of Longfellow as a booby, and of Lowell as so wretched a poetaster “as to be disgusting even to his best friends.” All this Miss Fuller said, if not in our precise words, still in words quite as much to the purpose. Why she said it, Heaven only knows — unless it was because she was Margaret Fuller, and wished to be taken for nobody else. Messrs. Longfellow and Lowell, so pointedly picked out for abuse as the worst of our poets, are, upon the whole, perhaps, our best — although Bryant, and one or two others are scarcely inferior. As for the two favorites, selected just as pointedly for laudation, by Miss F. — it is really difficult to think of them, in connexion with poetry, without laughing. Mr. Mathews once wrote some sonnets “On Man,” and Mr. Channing some lines on “A Tin Can,” or something of that kind — and if the former gentleman be not the very worst poet that ever existed on the face of the earth, it is only because he is not quite so bad as the latter. To speak algebraically: — Mr. M. is ex ecrable, but Mr. C. is x plus 1-ecrable.
It may be that Poe was feeling even more irritable than usual, because Lowell had, in the book under review, published lines that actually have been hung around Poe's neck ever since.
Here comes Poe with his Raven, like Barnaby Rudge -
Three fifths of him genius, and two fifths sheer fudge.
Poe quotes these lines himself. It is quite an apt characterization of his authorship, I think.
I'm reading vaguely toward a book workingtitled American Yin Yang: On Emerson and Poe.
i'm telling you this is a discovery: someone's going to have to convince me that a more important straight-to-e book has been published.
A great and almost unknown American writer from New Hampshire, Nathaniel Peabody Rogers (1794-1846) was the most radical American political voice of the antebellum period. He is also an undiscovered American Transcendentalist, at his best comparable to Emerson and Thoreau. Both men acknowledged Rogers' influence on them, and Thoreau published one of his first essays - collected here - on Rogers' work, recognizing his excellence as both a political and a nature writer. Anti-slavery drove all his thought, and as an abolitionist writer, only Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips are his rivals. Rogers was an anarchist, a pacifist, a feminist, an environmentalist, a religious heretic, an individualist, an anti-capitalist and an advocate of animal rights.
His writings are collected here for the first time since 1849, along with Thoreau's essay "Herald of Freedom" and other materials about Rogers and American radicalism of the early 19th century.
nathaniel rogers was an amazing radical and an amazing writer, and if you want to see someone in 1840 who speaks up for animal rights, against capital punishment, against slavery, against the state, for environmentalism as that came much later to be understood, for indian rights, and so on, and did so with extreme clarity, creativity and vigor, you've got to check this out. he was a decade emerson's senior, and he is a fundamental american transcendentalist.
earlier in the year i did a series of entries on poe'seureka, which was published in 1848 (text of the essay here). i have really basted in it now, and am working toward some sort of illustrated edition with the wonderful artist (and beautiful lover) jane irish. i was saying things like 'reminds me of kierkegaard, but i'm not saying it's comparable to kierkegaard', etc. now, however, i regard the thing with kind of unbounded admiration, which i will express in the following terms.
there is no greater work in philosophy or in natural philosophy, in cosmology or in aesthetics, in the 19th century. i would say there is no more important work, but i don't actually believe that it had any influence, selling just a few copies. (one possibility: it might have leaked into european physics via baudelaire's translation?)
[remark on the text with the image above: it represents a position that poe is ridiculing. there are no degrees of impossibility; something either is or ain't impossible. if it is impossible to imagine a limitless space, and impossible to imagine a limited space, they are exactly equally impossible to imagine. that's not the only spot where he sounds like a slash-and-burn analytic philosopher.]
eureka begins with a methodological essay, in the typically poean form of a letter from the future, found by poe in a corked bottle and dated 2848. in a semi-successful and sort of half-assed satirical way, it attacks rationalism and empiricism, or aristotelian and baconian science, on the grounds that the worst possible idea is to restrict methodologies before you even start your research. and he really attacks the idea that there can be only two roads to truth, or some sort of synthesis of them (as in kant and hegel).
human knowledge - including scientific knowledge - may come through careful observation/experimentation or plodding applications of logical principles to things already known etc. but the real breakthroughs are intuitive, or poetical, or aesthetic, and he quotes kepler among others as saying just that: i guessed these things. (cf einstein: there was little evidence for his biggest ideas when he put them forward: they were confirmed retroactively; they came in flashes of aesthetic/mathematical intuition.)
then he proceeds to blow you away by doing it himself: he gives you extremely clear statements of big-bang-big-crunch cosmology, the cosmological principle, and the multiverse hypothesis. there are possible gropings toward dark matter, the curvature of space, black holes, and many other wild and possibly true notions. now, if anyone else was putting anything like that down in the mid-nineteenth century, i would appreciate someone telling me who it was. (he calls the method intuitive or poetical, but it also included reading all the science and philosophy coming out of europe, and poe read the european languages; the intuitive part comes after absorbing all the available science).
the big bang/expanding universe hypothesis is often attributed to georges lemaitre, in 1927. lemaitre groped much as poe did to name the origin: he used the term 'primeval atom'. poe uses 'primordial Particle'. they conceive it on exactly the same terms. explanations run out for both when it comes to what forces caused this particle, containing all the universe's matter at an excruciatingly dense single point,to explode, but it did: and then matter and perhaps space itself exploded outward in a sphere. eventually the force of this explosion is expended and the dominant gravitational pull for each particle is back toward the center. then the thing crunches at an ever-accelerating rate, etc. after the first event, everything proceeds by regular physical laws. the whole picture is in eureka, i tell you.
that is not to say that everything he says is true or that physicists have come to every single one of his results. for one thing, he does not have sub-atomic particles. but who did? there could be no such things by the definition of 'atom' from the ancients (the smallest indivisible bits). he thinks all atoms are the same, for the universe is the utmost complexity generated by the most simple possible means (it is maximally beautiful in that sense). but perhaps it will turn out that quarks and hadrons etc compose all atoms, or even that they themselves somehow consist of the same sub-sub-atomic particles. also, he thought the universe was contracting rather than expanding at this stage. also his account of planetary formation was wrong, etc.
now, it will be more impressive to you that he anticipated einstein and hawking et al than that he anticipated me, but i have to find the latter impressive too. he should be read as holding that knowledge is merely true belief, deleting the justification condition. he has a relational ontology and an ecstatic vision of all objects as entanglements and of all things as in relation to all things (directly, by gravitational and repulsive physical forces). he centralizes aesthetics in human inquiry, and holds aesthetic properties to be real properties of the universe. (going the other way again, he also gives a clear statement of the coherence theory of truth, which i do reject completely.) (and, to throw in a bit more criticism: the title is unfortunate, and the quality of the writing is a mixed bag; poe's writing is a mixed bag throughout - quite wonderful at times, at others overwrought, clotted, over-elaborate.)
he ends in an ecstatic positive pantheistic vision, reminiscent of emerson, which is extremely surprising, given that he ragged on the transcendentalists mercilessly throughout his career. (the whole is an amazing combination of pointed rationality and epiphanic intuition.) i like this because - honestly - poe was extremely dark, and came by that out of an incredibly difficult life. but it makes me glad too, for that positive vision was almost the last thing he wrote before his death, passed out on the streets of baltimore.
then again, there are many anticipations of the ideas scattered among his writings throughout.
In an infinite universe [more precisely, I would say, in a sufficiently large universe], most regions lie beyond our ability to see, even using the most powerful telescopes possible. Although light travels enormously quickly, if an object is sufficiently distant, then the light it emits - even light that may have been emitted shortly after the big bang - will simply not have sufficient time to reach us. . . . The important point is that regions beyond a certain distance...lie beyond our cosmic horizon. . . .
Using a two-dimensional analogy, we can compare the expanse of space, at a given moment of time, to a giant patchwork quilt (with circular patches in which each patch represents a single cosmic horizon. Someone located in the center of a patch can have interacted with anything that lies in the same patch, but has had no contact with anything lying in a different patch, because they're too far away.... The same idea applies in three dimensions, where the cosmic horizons - the patches in the cosmic quilt - are spherical, and the same conclusion holds: sufficiently distant patches lie beyond one another's spheres of influence and so are independent realms. (The Hidden Reality, 32)
and here is poe, from eureka (1848).
We comprehend, then, the insulation of our Universe. We perceive the isolation of that - of all that which we grasp with the senses. We know that there exists one cluster of clusters - a collection around which, on all sides, extend the immeasurable wildernesses of a Space to all human perception untenanted. [This a spherical space, for Poe.] But because on the confines of this Universe of Stars we are compelled to pause, through want of further evidence from the senses, is it right to conclude that, in fact, there is no material point beyond that which have thus been permitted to attain? Have we, or have we not, an analogical right to this inference that this perceptible Universe - that this cluster of clusters - is but one of a series of clusters of clusters, the rest of which are invisible through distance - through the diffusion of their light being so excessive, ere it reaches us, as not to produce on our retinae a light impression - or from there being no such emanation as light at all - or, lastly, from the interval being so vast, that the electric tidings of their presence in Space, have not yet - through the lapsing myriads of years - been enabled to traverse that interval. . . [We have a right to infer] - let us say, rather, to imagine - an interminable succession of the "clusters of clusters" or of "Universes" more or less similar. (Library of America Poetry and Tales, 1328-29)
marilynne robinson's essay on edgar allan poe in this month's nyrb is profound. here's an example of the motivations underlying my view that knowledge is merely believing the truth, and does not require any particular sorts of reasons or justifications:
Poe’s mind was by no means commonplace. In the last year of his life he wrote a prose poem, Eureka, which would have established this fact beyond doubt—if it had not been so full of intuitive insight that neither his contemporaries nor subsequent generations, at least until the late twentieth century, could make any sense of it. Its very brilliance made it an object of ridicule, an instance of affectation and delusion, and so it is regarded to this day among readers and critics who are not at all abreast of contemporary physics. Eureka describes the origins of the universe in a single particle, from which “radiated” the atoms of which all matter is made. Minute dissimilarities of size and distribution among these atoms meant that the effects of gravity caused them to accumulate as matter, forming the physical universe.
This by itself would be a startling anticipation of modern cosmology, if Poe had not also drawn striking conclusions from it, for example that space and “duration” are one thing, that there might be stars that emit no light, that there is a repulsive force that in some degree counteracts the force of gravity, that there could be any number of universes with different laws simultaneous with ours, that our universe might collapse to its original state and another universe erupt from the particle it would have become, that our present universe may be one in a series.
All this is perfectly sound as observation, hypothesis, or speculation by the lights of science in the twenty-ﬁrst century. And of course Poe had neither evidence nor authority for any of it. It was the product, he said, of a kind of aesthetic reasoning—therefore, he insisted, a poem. He was absolutely sincere about the truth of the account he had made of cosmic origins, and he was ridiculed for his sincerity. Eureka is important because it indicates the scale and the seriousness of Poe’s thinking, and its remarkable integrity. It demonstrates his use of his aesthetic sense as a particularly rigorous method of inquiry.
right: aesthetic reasoning. might lead you very wrong. but it might lead you very right. and if you think that aesthetics isn't central to science or reason or practices of inquiry or justification, i don't think you've been watching!
don't tell anyone, but i love the poetry of sylvia plath. the july 11 new york review of books features a piece by terry castle ("the walter a. haas professor in the humanities at stanford") that is extremely hostile toward plath, reviewing a couple of new biographies. it's a good thing that terry is a woman, because if the piece were written by a man, there'd be a mob of angry feminists stringing him up right now.
so, first off, she really goes for the 'slut-shaming': she seems to regard plath's promiscuity as discrediting, though she summarizes: "Her erotic quest seems at once impressive, chaotic, lascivious, and pathetic." or try this: "As many of her college contemporaries have since reported, the feverish Plath not only sought kudos for her studies, she also sought the role of reigning Smith-girl nympho."
or how about this, claiming to defend plath but just trying to rip her - or indeed american women of her era in general - to shreds:
In her defense: Plath used the pain as best she could. Though attempts over the decades to see her as a proto-feminist oracle fail to convince, it has to be said that Plath's writing captured the central and most disturbing psychic component in the lives of conventional middle-class American heterosexual women of the 1950s and early 1960s: a toxic, typically unconscious longing - sadomasochistic in structure - to be both adored and degraded, cherished and abjected, by a powerful man resembling one's father. The fantasy contaminates (and sickens) any number of now-canonical Plath poems: "Electra on the Azalea Path," "Two Views of a Cadaver Room," "Medusa," "Cut," "Daddy," "The Jailer," "Lady Lazarus" - all those kitsch near-masterpieces that make the poet a sensation still (sometimes) among bulemic female undergraduates. Plath exposed, as no one had before, the quintessential "nice-girl" sex anguish of her time: a mode of female desiring as incoherent, narcissistic, passive-aggressive, and self-canceling as it was misogynistic, daddy obsessed, and morbidly heterosexual.
in a way, i admire the extreme violations of political correctness, though i might think that if castle wants a misogynist, she should look in the mirror. but i do think the piece as a whole is extreme in its attempt to discredit the work by discrediting the life, or indeed the whole era. it could have actually been a defense. ok, so maybe i do recognize this psychic formation she's identifying, though she goes awfully general. but so, i believe, did sylvia plath. she not only used her pain as best she could, she explored it, and all the issues that castle identifies, with consummate self-consciousness. if many, many young women, even bulemics (wait, did you just make fun of bulemics? also, your female students?), saw themselves in these poems, they also came to a sort of self-consciousness about their situation, and amassed a repertoire for expressing it. and then, there is the great music of her words. it wouldn't matter without that.
Soliloquy Of The Solipsist
I? I walk alone; The midnight street Spins itself from under my feet; When my eyes shut These dreaming houses all snuff out; Through a whim of mine Over gables the moon's celestial onion Hangs high.
I Make houses shrink And trees diminish By going far; my look's leash Dangles the puppet-people Who, unaware how they dwindle, Laugh, kiss, get drunk, Nor guess that if I choose to blink They die.
I When in good humor, Give grass its green Blazon sky blue, and endow the sun With gold; Yet, in my wintriest moods, I hold Absolute power To boycott any color and forbid any flower To be.
I Know you appear Vivid at my side, Denying you sprang out of my head, Claiming you feel Love fiery enough to prove flesh real, Though it's quite clear All your beauty, all your wit, is a gift, my dear, From me.
h.l. remarks that if you can't make a living in the usa (in 1922), you're not trying, or you're trying to sell americans something they could not understand what it would mean to want. "Whenever I hear a professor of philosophy complain that his wife has eloped with some moving picture actor or bootlegger who can at least feed and clothe her, my natural sympathy for the man is greatly corrupted by contempt for his lack of sense. Would it be regarded as sane and laudable for a man to travel to the Soudan trying to sell fountain-pens, or Greenland offering to teach double-entry book-keeping or counterpoint?. . . Let him bear in mind that, whatever its neglect of the humanities and their monks, the Republic has never got half enough bond salesmen, quack doctors, ward leaders, phrenologists, Methodist evangelists, circus clowns, magicians, soldiers, farmers, popular song writers, moonshine distillers, forgers of gin labels, mine guards, detectives, spies, snoopers, and agents provocateurs." (from prejudices: third series).
this sort of research gives research a bad name. really? you're going to derive large-scale conclusions about the culture by sheer quantitative enumeration of the words used in books? look one thing this may reflect, for example, is changing conventions of narration or in general authorship. for example, use of the first-person singular has become much more frequent in academic writing. well, that is a shift in the conventions of authorship, but i doubt it reflects anything in particular about individualism: really we were trying to avoid the passive voice. maybe a higher percentage of novels are narrated in the first person now (thank god, few are narrated by 'we'); nothing directly follows about the 'individualism' of the culture. you know, some things still require thinkers with antennae; some things can only be addressed from some point of view or semi-artistically and not by counting.
i'm glad that the pulitzer people finally figured out that fiction sucks. somebody made that shit up. naw fiction can be good and amusing and absorbing. all you professors have to stop pretending it can transform lives though. i know you had a big experience with catcher in the rye when you were 14 and realized that life sucks (something tells me you'd have realized that anyway eventually). but really it's ok for entertainment to be entertaining without being the meaning of life. ulysses changed human consciousness forever, or at least seventeen people's consciousness for a few hours, insofar as staring at ink stains is a different conscious experience than not, and staring at these ink stains a different conscious experience than staring at those. we'll get by until next year without a pulitzer winner.
i want to say about the post below that i tend to express critical judgments with a sledge-hammer. it took me awhile to reach the point of not deferring to what various other people think and reaching my own judgments cleanly. then it was another step to hammering them home like that. i realize it can seem kind of over-aggressive and arrogant. true true! but one little idea i have is that something like that is action without consequence (like, say, academic philosophy). i love action without consequence; it is extremely liberating. now, i could be wrong about burroughs. it's even probable. one thing my hostile response entails is not reading all the books (a couple, though, way back). the last thing i propose to do is read the complete works of ginsberg so as to spend the next ten years criticizing him in detail. but - who knows? - if i did i might slowly ameliorate the harshness. but anyway say i am wrong. so what? burroughs' reputation is in many hands and has been built up over decades by many authoritative voices. it's not going to harm him, or even those that love him, to say wait that sucks, though it might irritate them a bit. if i say the italian renaissance basically leaves me cold and has been wildly overrated since 1550, that would be a bold, counter-consensus, possibly ridiculous position. but it wouldn't - doesn't - damage anything or anyone, though it might puzzle or offend someone. it has no ethical upshot or implication. so, hammer back! like ziffel, e.g. it's like playing a video game: you can shoot stuff without killing anything! it's complete moral liberation! free yourselves through brutal criticism, my friends, from the cycle of samsara.
it's important in evaluating me the critic that i don't hate everything, and i'm just as intemperate in my loves as in my hatreds. and then it really matters whether or not i'm expressing these opinions in a clever or funny or sharp way, which i'll leave others to judge (brutally, no doubt).
ok briefly on the italian high renaissance, particularly michelangelo and raphael: it has the opposite problem from the beats: the perfection, embodied in perfectly poised compositional structures, has an inhuman or blank quality. (it's not like i'm the first person to notice that: people started reacting immediately, or cf. caravaggio.) it is pervaded by platonism: the aspiration to transcend this world into an ideal realm. but i don't think that's possible, and i don't think it's admirable. further in, not out, is the course i'd recommend: durer. van eyck. also it is very stuck between paganism and christianity, and between sexual obsession and asceticism, between the actual concrete reality of the human body and human body as a sign of something that can have no body: between self-adoration and self-loathing. the tension is productive, but that's not to say it's resolved. naked bodies everywhere, but weirdly purged of particularity: signs, not things. does michelangelo celebrate or transcend embodiment? does he seek a sexual release or a release from the material world altogether? the sexuality is omnipresent, obsessional, but is, almost ridiculously, also repressed: all these naked bodies have...nothing to do with sexuality. that's...dishonest. the sublimation of sexuality into spirituality is at least as old as the symposium and has a certain profundity and a certain quixotic nobility. also a certain ridiculousness. like: just admit you want to fuck. and what the hell, i think the cult of greeks, as liberating as it felt to roman catholics in the 15th and 16th centuries, or to germans in the 19th, was overwrought. and the patronage structures in which these folks were embroiled were excruciatingly problematic. wait maybe that wasn't so brief!
obviously luc sante is a fan of william s. burroughs. but this review of a collection of his letters just makes burroughs more obviously grotesque, ridiculous, and idiotic than he was already. really: orgone boxes, e-meters, random cut-and-paste or 'stroboscope' as literary techniques, drugs drugs drugs: surely these and myriad other details bespeak a miserable, insufferable human being and an obvious literary charlatan. there is not a moment in this review that would give you any reason to do anything but ignore burroughs for the rest of time. do. his status as legend etc is just a sign of critical credulousness. like a lot of the clowns and monsters that emerged in the golden age when shooting heroin and then your wife was an irrefutable indication of transcendent genius, burroughs shows what happens when you actually take modernism seriously as a road to artistic liberation. well, i ain't too impressed by ginsberg, kerouac, de kooning, dylan, etc either. thank god that shit is over, but now we've got to kill the nostalgia too.
it's true that 'literary quality' or even craft can be oppressive, that immediacy, spontaneity, and unfinishedness have their place in the aesthetic repertoire. mere conventionality or following the rules doesn't get you anywhere in the artistic realm. ok! it doesn't follow, as all these folks and their fans believe with such deep conviction, that the worse something sucks, the better it is, that one's intelligence corresponds to the amount of ridiculous crap one accepts, that the nastier and grosser a person is the freer, etc. etc. y'all seem kind of confused.
john ashbery has finally been recognized for a lifetime of sheer gobbledygook by the national book awards. if no one understands it, it must be important: the slogan of intellectual poseurs everywhere. when i'm searching for something to pretend that i've read, i look for that perfect combination of emptiness and pretension.