IS POLITICAL INTRACTABILITY GOOD FOR LITERATURE?

Santayana: Born in Madrid in 1863, died in Rome in 1952; at Harvard with Eliot and Stevens.

We don’t see how those who are morally and politically simple, no matter how well-intentioned they are in matters of politics and morals, could be very interesting writers.  To write well is to enjoy solving problems, and to think about politics in a mature way is to constantly wrestle with problems; yet, increasingly in this country, politics means agreeing with one group of people while ridiculing another group of people on issues that are only explored in the most superficial manner.

We have seen the old abortion debate blow up into an unfortunate “legitimate rape” smackdown; homosexuality, taxes, regulations, the enviroment, health care and race continue to cloud our political discussions in simplistic, divisive, ugly ways.

In order to win a democratic election, one must appeal to the masses in sound-bites, and thus elections turn even smart people stupid, because intelligence is nothing more than thinking through problems at length, patiently, far away from the arena of personal insult.  More and more, it seems democracy prevails by insult. Who escapes insult the best?  Who can insult most cleverly?

Democracy of the school yard bullies.

Politics is so fraught with ugliness that in other areas of our lives, we can choose to do one of two things: escape it all together, or continue the fight by other means.

Literature and politics are much alike: both are comprised of rhetoric, neither one are very scientific, but we might say literature is slow and politics is fast.  If we indulge in politics, we do so quickly, with certainty, and then get on with our lives.  If we indulge in literature, we do so slowly, and dreamily, and perhaps we puzzle things out, and have trouble getting on with our lives, or, maybe, we get into our lives.

The poets have long since gotten out of the political debate. Poets dream; they don’t orate.  Once they did both: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, Tennyson…but that was then, and politics and poetry have gone their separate ways—no room for dreaminess in our politics.  Ginsberg’s political poetry hasn’t any poetry: it’s merely politics.  Ginsberg wasn’t a poet when he was being political.  We know Ginsberg as ‘a poet,’ and if we blur our vision, we might be able to kid ourselves that he is both political and poetic—but in actuality, he is never the same together.  One can be brutally honest in a personal manner and come to a certain political point of view that way—think of Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Larkin or Seidel, perhaps, but the personal never manages to be very political in poetry.

Modernism, with its attention to forms, forgot content, and thus politics.  Politics was cast aside and replaced with intimacy, subjectivity and obscurity.

George Santayana, a Spanish philosopher who taught Wallace Stevens at Harvard, wrote the kind of poetry in the early 20th century that was then falling off a cliff, and disappearing forever.

Modernism made poets like Santayana and Clark Ashton Smith vanish.  It’s a pity.  Look at these two poems by Santayana: both brutal and dreamy:

“As in the Midst of Battle There is Room”

As in the midst of battle there is room
For thoughts of love, and in foul sin for mirth,
As gossips whisper of a trinket’s worth
Spied by the death-bed’s flickering candle-gloom;
As in the crevices of Caesar’s tomb
The sweet herbs flourish on a little earth:
So in this great disaster of our birth
We can be happy, and forget our doom.

For morning, with a ray of tenderest joy
Gilding the iron heaven, hides the truth,
And evening gently woos us to employ
Our grief in idle catches. Such is youth;
Till from that summer’s trance we wake, to find
Despair before us, vanity behind.

Solipsism

I could believe that I am here alone,
And all the world my dream;
The passion of the scene is all my own,
And things that seem but seem.

Perchance an exhalation of my sorrow
Hath raised this vaporous show,
For whence but from the soul should all things borrow
So deep a tinge of woe?

I keep the secret doubt within my breast
To be the gods’ defense,
To ease the heart by too much ruth oppressed
And drive the horror hence.

O sorrow that the patient brute should cower
And die, not having sinned!
O pity that the wild and fragile flower
Should shiver in the wind!

Then were I dreaming dreams I know not of,
For that is part of me
That feels the piercing pang of grief and love
And doubts eternally.

But whether all to me the vision come
Or break in many beams,
The pageant ever shifts, and being’s sum
Is but the sum of dreams.

—G. Santayana

These poems embrace the sort of thinking one needs to plow into politics and fight in that arena.

And look at these marvelous quotations from Santayana:

Life is not a spectacle or feast; it is a predicament.

Sanity is a madness put to good use.

To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.

The truth is cruel, but it can be loved and it makes free those who love it.

The wisest mind has something yet to learn.

To knock a thing down, especially if it is cocked at an arrogant angle, is a deep delight of the blood.

Why shouldn’t things be largely absurd, futile and transitory? They are so, and we are so, and they and we go very well together.

Should poets allow great material like this just to drift away?

2 Comments

  1. marcusbales said,

    September 1, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    Everybody Dies

    We hide our self-forgiving ways
    And failures, and disguise
    As best we can in dull cliches
    Our blunders with our lies.

    We plead for one anothers’ praise
    And plot for every prize
    For proof approving our displays
    Of ploys ‘The Prince’ supplies.

    We occupy a stale malaise
    Attempting to revise
    The law each one at last obeys:
    Everybody dies.

    • thomasbrady said,

      September 1, 2012 at 12:22 pm

      Bales,

      If cynicism were beautiful, you would be beautiful. But alas, it is not.

      Tom


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