WAR AND CRITICISM

Here’s an (ugly?) truth that many of us do not want to face:

Every thought, every action, every conversation, and every human interaction in human life is a dreary, exhausting exercise in fighting, strategizing, gaining power, gaining advantage, and gaining knowledge towards gaining power, for the endlessly strategizing subject.

The world consists only of objects in relation to the strategizing subject. Life is war. When friends and family don’t call you, it’s not because they don’t love you, necessarily, it’s because human interaction, even when we don’t want it to be, is a battle.  Even when affection is involved—and perhaps even more when affection is involved—human interaction simply wears us out.

Yes, war is hell.  But war is all there is. Peace is merely a pause in the action, in order that more fighting can occur, and real, lasting peace (if that is possible!) requires war to give it a chance.

We can’t sleep well unless we’ve fought a good fight. We can’t relax unless we’ve gone to battle.

This is equally true in art as it is in life.  We must struggle to paint the peaceful picture, strain to produce the peaceful poem.

We can leave sports aside, which is quite evidently a battle within agreed-upon parameters, the “agreed-upon” part making this “battle” palatable to many of us on a certain level.

But to the non-athletes or “game nuts” among us, to those of us who refrain from, and disdain, gaming, gambling and the competition of sports, the truth is, the war of everyday life—on every level, whether you are a monk, a bishop, a gardener, or a yoga instructor—is far more fraught, simply because you are a human being, with infinitely complex, non-agreed-upon, make-or-break-whatever-rule-you-want, war maneuvers.  And this is not just an aspect of life—it is the whole of it.  One is either fighting, or resting up from fighting.

Pleasure itself is nothing more than a rejuvenation in order to fight more.

This is not some “realpolitik” rant from a four star general, or a war-gaming adolescent.  Remember, you are reading Scarriet.

It doesn’t matter how “laid-back” one’s personality is, or how “politically peaceful” one is, or whether one is a vegan, or not.  The complex psychological struggle of every human being is vast and endless.  The “game” is on, and it’s always on, whether you are trying to convince your fellow human beings to become a vegan, or whether you are tearing into a cow.

Every single thing you do is judged, whether you’ve written a poem, done (or not done) the dishes, or are just staring into space.  It doesn’t matter whether you are “on stage,” or not.  It doesn’t matter whether an audience is before you, or there is no audience present.  You will judge yourself.  Even if you hate all judgement, all quantifying, all opinion, all truth, or all half-truth, complex judging is going on within you and without you all the time.

Most would acknowledge this reality of what we are outlining here, but many would insist: they are not part of that; that is not them, or (in an unfortunate choice of words) I myself fight against that whole competitive, strategizing, cynical vibe.

Others will go on the offensive without apology: This whole thesis is just an excuse to fight, an excuse to be a jerk!

Yes, but “being a jerk” is not a good strategy.  The point here is not that we must strategize viciously or unfairly or randomly—just that we must always strategize.

So let’s go back to sports and its “agreed-upon” parameters for a moment.  How crucial is the “agreed-upon” aspect of this war—that we call life?    If the two choices are war with no rules and war with rules, obviously the “agreed-upon” aspect is very crucial.

But life is not a game, is it?  How much do “the rules” in life apply?

If strategizing involves knowing which rules to follow, which rules to bend, which rules to ignore, which rules are useful, which rules are not useful, which rules are coming, which rules are going, which rules apply to whom and when, then it is clear that strategizing itself is more important than the rules—which are nothing more, in sum, than a less complex aspect of random reality, and which still reflect the brute forces of reality which we all must continually navigate.

So are we rejecting the rule of law?  That which essentially civilizes us?  Are we naked, then, as we fight this war?

Yes.  Each of us is merely a soldier.  And alone.

But what unites us?  Surely it can’t be all of us against all of us all of the time?

It is.  Because we judge ourselves, we cannot escape judgment, and therefore no one can escape the state we have been busily describing above.

We may seek alliances, and many of us do this in order to mitigate the general lonely horror that is the fact of our war-like state, and this explains why the culture of partnerships and political parties can be acutely acrimonious and emotional.  But the truth is known only by ourselves and determined by ourselves, as much as we may be comforted by the warm, piss-temperature propaganda of the group.  As Da Vinci and Blake have told us, let your own eyes prove the case, not the wind of authority or hearsay.  The group is a lie.  We are alone to the degree that we are human.  The genius is not alone because he is alone; he is alone because he is a genius.

Epicurus suggested the only real escape from this horror: pleasure.  The body seeks pleasure as a means to replenish itself before the next round of war; this is really the epicurean philosophy in a nutshell, the whole philosophy of pleasure, really, as now stated here; it is taking whatever is naturally restful and replenishing to the body, mind, and soul, and isolating it as an end in itself.

Poetry has been described by the Romantics (Coleridge/Poe), Pater, and Helen Vendler, as that which has pleasure as its immediate object.  Poetry is how our brains temporarily relax.

Poetry naturally has two main parts: the vessel and what is contained within it; the vessel (the action of poetry) partakes of pleasure, but the further question is: what is in the vessel, for all language by its very nature is a double entity—signifier and signified.  If seeking pleasure is both the vessel and what is contained within it, we have pleasure for pleasure’s sake, art for art’s sake, the enjoyment of rest for the Epicurean, who desires simplicity and beauty for their own sake.

Criticism belongs to war, and is the opposite of poetry as defined above.

But as we can see, the greater poet will always be a critic first, and a poet second.

We can test our thesis by looking at actual poetry, and Alexander Pope proves our case; one of the greatest poets, Pope’s Poetry and Criticism are often the same thing.  Need a greater poet?  The same is true of Shakespeare, whose plays are Platonic dialogues and whose Sonnets are really Critical essays: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” questions the worth of simile and metaphor.

The best poets put Criticism in the vessel of Poetry, this being naturally more efficient, since in this way, the poet may fight and be at peace, may have their cake and eat it—which is even more than what Epicurus, nibbling on a cake in the meadow, promises.

LIBERALISM: AN INFINITE NUMBER OF ATOMS MOVING RANDOMLY THROUGH SPACE

How the World Became Modern—and Stephen Greenblatt Won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize

Stephen Greenblat’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011) can be usefully compared to Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka (1848).

Greenblatt celebrates modernity, and what can be called modern liberalism, in an ancient text, Lucretius’s On The Nature of Things (1st century), rediscovered by a pope’s secretary during the Renaissance—an era also celebrated by Greenblatt for its love of “beauty,” “pleasure” and “curiosity.”

The Swerve is your typical ‘science/philosophy/literature-for-the-layperson’ sort of book, the kind that wins prizes and dominates high-brow sections of bookstores; the language and message are simple:

The stuff of the universe, Lucretius proposed, is an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space. 

There is no master of plan, no divine architecht, no intelligent design.

In a universe so constituted, Lucretius argued, there is no reason to think that the earth or its inhabitants occupy a central place, no reason to set humans apart from all other animals, no hope of bribing or appeasing the gods, no place for religious fanaticism, no call for ascetic self-denial, no justification for dreams of limitless power or perfect security, no rationale for wars of conquest or self-aggrandizement, no possibility of triumphing over nature, no escape from the constant making and unmaking and remaking of forms.

What human beings can and should do, he wrote, is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things  they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world.

I marveled—I continue to marvel—that these perceptions were fully articulated in a work written more than two thousand years ago.  The line between this work and modernity is not direct: nothing is ever so simple.

Laid out for us in a nice, tidy package, Greenblatt informs us of the enlightened, ‘There’s no Santa Claus,’ scientific view of Lucretius which we modern, secular, intellectuals ought to call our own. 

Or should we? 

Should the modern view really be about following historical mankind’s long and winding “line” to modernity?   

If so, this begs the question: what is this holy grail of modernity, anyway?  Is it a slow waking up to atheism and pleasure?

Is Greenblatt giving us real wisdom, real science?

Or is The Swerve destined to disappear in a few years to make way for the next tome in the multi-billion dollar, science-for-the-lay-person, book industry?

The science-for-the-lay-person book is ubiquitous in our day, but we wonder whether its popularity is because it’s informative in a truly meaningful way, or rather because its food is illusionary, and it mass-feeds an increasingly empty need.

What if modernity, as Greenblatt and others use the term, is nothing but today’s prejudices?

What if what we call ‘the modern’ is merely wrong playing out now?

Are we certain that a world controlled by atheists, for instance, will be a better world than one controlled by priests? 

And what does this question have to do with whether there is an afterlife, or not, or whether one believes in an afterlife, or not? 

Or whether the universe is “an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space,” or a reflection (to whom?) of an “intelligent design?”

If, as a mortal on this earth, one ‘puts one’s eggs’ in the basket of today, or the basket of next year, or the basket of a thousand years from now, does it matter, finally, whether one is an atheist, or not?  Isn’t this a more practical matter of one’s personality?

Can any of us, no matter what our science, religion, or philosophy, escape momento mori?   

And who is better equipped to escape it?  A severely depressed pessimist?  Or a happy-go-lucky optimist?  And who is to say which personality happens to be the Protestant, the Jew, the Catholic, the Buddhist, the Hindu, the Muslim, or the atheist?  And which matters more?  The religion—or the personality?  We think the personality does. 

Is it the only valid, modern, scientific view, then, to think modernity, liberalism, progress, and enlightenment equal a movement through history away from all the major religions towards the holy grail of atheism, and the acceptance of “an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space?”  Can this ever be demonstrated to anyone’s satisfaction? 

Greenblatt certainly thinks so:

I marveled—I continue to marvel—that these perceptions were fully articulated in a work written more than two thousand years ago.  The line between this work and modernity…

Greenblatt “marvels” that what he calls “modernity” is not modern (not such a marvel if we rip the shroud from that word, modern).  Note also how Greenblatt registers with surety “the line between this work and modernity” (modernity, Greenblatt’s holy grail: a blithe “infinite number of random atoms”). 

Greenblatt continues:

The line between this work and modernity is not direct: nothing is ever so simple. There were innumerable forgettings, disappearances, recoveries, dismissals, distortions, challenges, transformations, and renewed forgettings. And yet the vital conneciton is there. Hidden behind the worldview I recognize as my own is an ancient poem, a poem once lost, apparently irrevocably, and then found.

The worldview I recognize as my own…  And why is this Greenblatt’s worldview?  Is it for all-important scientific reasons?  Or for the vaguely fashionable idea that Greenblatt considers himself, and this worldview, “modern?” 

Greenblatt traces the progress of the Lucretian, modern worldview:

When it returned to full circulation after a millennium, much of what the work said about a universe formed out of the clash of atoms in an infinite void seemed absurd. But those very things that first were deemed both impious and nonsensical turned out to be the basis for the contemporary rational understanding of the entire world.

What is at stake is not only the startling recognition of key elements of modernity in antiquity, though it is certainly worth reminding ourselves that Greek and Roman classics, largely displaced from our curriculum, have in fact definitively shaped modern consciousness.

More surprising, perhaps, is the sense, driven home by every page of On The Nature of Things, that the scientific vision of the world—a vision of atoms randomly moving in an infinite universe—was in its origins imbued with a poet’s sense of wonder. 

The Swerve is not a scientific work; Greenblatt is not interested in presenting any thing resembling a unified view of how the universe might actually work. 

Cosmogonies which rival and far surpass On The Nature of Things, most notably, Plato’s Timaeus and Poe’s Eureka, earn not a single mention in Greenblatt’s book.  The omission is glaring, since Poe’s Eureka is Lucretian to its very core (only far more accurate due to scientific advances made during two millennia) and Plato’s Timaeus is edifyingly and powerfully logical in the way it describes the underlying micro and cosmological forces of the universe in a purely scientific manner.

Greenblatt’s attempt to convey Lucretius’s wisdom in a general way fails, as well. Greenblatt has Lucretius renouncing war and rejecting “triumphing over nature.”  But nature, ‘red in tooth and claw,’ is the basis of war.  So how can one conform to nature and also be against war?  By presenting a laundry list of anti-religious points, Greenblatt is only fighting a religious war of his own, fueled by the very ignorance “modernity” supposedly exists to refute.  If “atoms randomly moving in an infinite universe” is the basis of Lucretius’ “vision,” why should this (or any other arrangement) make any difference to Hitler, Stalin, or Mao?  It’s never clear how “atoms” which are “random” have anything to do with those evils (both accidental and otherwise) which Greenblatt’s “modernity” (secular, wise, liberal, etc) is supposedly equipped to overcome as we travel in history towards this Lucretian vision of “modernity.”

The point here is not to argue with Professor Greenblatt’s politics, but to ask: What does a belief in “a universe formed out of the clash of atoms in an infinite void” have to do with reason, science, or modernity?

Greenblatt uses the word “infinite” in describing the Lucretian universe, whether he is talking of an “infinite number of atoms” or an “infinite void.”  And this is indeed how Lucretius described the universe: infinite.

Poe’s Eureka, a prose poem of imaginative force, argues that no atom could move if there were an infinite number of atoms. Gravity, the force which holds the universe together, is, as Poe points out, nothing less than every atom attracting every other atom—the consolidating principle of attraction, the basis of all the orbits; all the moons, planets, suns and stars, the very spheres themselves; all entropy; all centrifugal, all centripedal, movement;  all rectilinear, all deviatory movement in the universe. Is the universe “infinite?”  Here’s what Eureka says: 

Grant the abstract tendency of any one atom to any one other as the inevitable result of diffusion from the normal Unity:–or, what is the same thing, admit any given atom as proposing to move in any given direction—it is clear that, since there is an infinity of atoms on all sides of the atom proposing to move, it never can actually move toward the satisfaction of its tendency in the direction given, on account of a precisely equal and counterbalancing tendency in the direction diametrically opposite. In other words, exactly as many tendencies to Unity are behind the hesitating atom as before it; for it is mere folly to say that one infinite line is longer or shorter than another infinite line, or that one infinite number is greater or less than another number that is infinite. Thus the atom in question must remain stationary forever. Under the impossible circumstances which we have been merely endeavoring to conceive for argument’s sake, there could have been no aggregation of Matter—no stars—no worlds—nothing but a perpetually atomic and inconsequential Universe. In fact, view it as we will, the whole idea of unlimited Matter is not only untenable, but impossible and preposterous.

One cannot step into the river of Eureka without drowning in its one idea: the original Unity—of Nothing (since the True Unity has no Relation and thus no Matter) exploding into the Many (a finite, and finally discontinued explosion, in order ‘to work’ most simply—always the m.o. of the Creator, the Deity, the Design) which leads to the Great Return Back to the Original Unity (manifested as the Ubiquitous Law of Gravity)—returning, gravitationally, not to a place but to unity itself which gives rise to the Great Counter-force: Electricity (and its various attributes: Luminosity, Electro-Magnetism, Thought)—the Force of Resistance or Repulsion which makes Gravity’s Great Return back to the Original Unity tortured, lengthy, yet inevitable.

Greenblatt’s “enlightened” enthusiasm for “infinite atoms” cannot help but strike the reader of Eureka as slack—Greenblatt’s  The Swerve is modestly attempting partial historical observations; Poe’s Eureka is focused and ambitious in the extreme and is perhaps the most remarkable essay/prose poem ever produced by an American; yet we cannot help but note that Greenblatt is anxious to celebrate the details of a cosmogony he is quick to imbue with “modern” significance for the lay reader, yet the details of which are scientifically lax, in direct ratio to the intensity of its anti-religious, anti-human, anti-design philosophy. 

Poe was no religious fanatic; Poe admired Epicurus and believed in the truism that the end of life is pleasure (happiness).  There is nothing religious, per se, about Eureka, and it did offend the church in Poe’s day, even as some secular purists in our day might blanch at Eureka’s “intelligent design.” The belief—by certain ancient Greeks and Romans—in an atomistic universe, as opposed to a universe ruled by colorful gods, would certainly have been approved by Poe, and in this spirit, Greenblatt’s cheerleading for Lucretius is indeed heart-warming. 

But Greenblatt is presenting the entirety of an ancient text, with all its scientific errors, as an easy model for what he calls “modernity,” and also a model for a certain kind of political philosophy of which he (Greenblatt) approves—a political philosophy not perfect in itself, and far from perfect in its false link to a less than perfect science.

After reading The Swerve, the swerve one needs to make is towards Eureka.

%d bloggers like this: