Tuesday, January 5, 2010

On Poets for destitute and other times

John Taratuta has left a new comment on your post "Poets for destitute times":

The concept of "universal salvation" seems to have floated back, oddly enough, by way of Heidegger or rather under Heidegger's influence.

'Anonymous Christian' is the concept introduced by the theologian Karl Rahner (1904 - 1984) a student of Heidegger, declares that "people who have never heard the Christian Gospel or even rejected it might be saved through Christ."

Another poem that seems to reflect some destitution of the spirit is "I AM" written by John Clare (1793 – 1864). It is believed to have been written in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum.

Lawrence replies,

            Tillich also was a Universalist, if I recall correctly, but how much he was influenced by Heidegger in this regard, I can't see, but perhaps Rorty could (see below).   

            In regard to John Clare's poem "I Am," I would agree that it reflects "some destitution of the spirit" but don't think he or his poem fit the description as being for a destitute time.  I take Heidegger to have an exalted view of "the poet for a destitute time."  He liked Rilke, and thought Rilke wrote some important poetry and may have been for a destitute time, he said diplomatically, but time would tell. 

            Your invoking of Clare suggests a more egalitarian approach to the idea of "what is the poet for in a destitute time?"  I assumed Heidegger had an elitist view and only Holderlin fulfilled what he had in mind.  I have suggested Eliot and Milton as fulfilling the elitist qualification. 

            But if we insist on our right to borrow from Heidegger and then modify what we borrow as we see fit, we could take a more egalitarian view.  We could declare that any poet who bemoaned the destitute times in which he lived was living up to the Heideggerian ideal, but I rather think Heidegger would have a problem with that.  I think he would come closer to granting me Eliot and Milton, than he would granting Clare.

Consider a comment made by Rorty on page 19 of Essays on Heidegger and Others: "I would grant that Heidegger was, from early on, suspicious of democracy and of the 'disenchanted' world which Weber described.  His thought was, indeed, essentially anti-democratic.  But lots of Germans who were dubious about democracy and modernity did not become Nazis.  Heidegger did because he was both more of a ruthless opportunist and more of a political ignoramus than most of the German intellectuals who shared his doubts.  Although Heidegger's philosophy seems to me not to have specifically totalitarian implications, it does take for granted that attempts to feed the hungry, shorten the work day, etc., just do not have much to do with philosophy.  For Heidegger, Christianity is merely a certain decadent form of Platonic metaphysics; the change from pagan to Christian moral consciousness goes unnoticed.  The 'social gospel' side of Christianity which meant most to Tillich (a social democratic thinker who was nevertheless able to appropriate a lot of Heideggerian ideas and jargon) meant nothing to Heidegger."

Perhaps I infer too much, but just as feeding the hungry or shortening the work day would have meant nothing to Heidegger, I suspect that Clare's personal anguish would have meant nothing to him either.   

On page 18 Rorty writes, "The pragmatist and Heidegger can agree that the poet and the thinker (in Heidegger's special 'elitist' senses of these terms) are the unacknowledged legislators of the social world.  But whereas Heidegger thinks of the social world as existing for the sake of the poet and the thinker, the pragmatist thinks of it the other way around.  For Dewey as for Hegel, the point of individual human greatness is its contribution to social freedom, where this is conceived of in the terms we inherit from the French Revolution."  If Rorty is correct here then (I infer) "THE POET" is to ordinary poets what the ubermensche is to ordinary men.  Personally, I'm more comfortable with the Poet in this role than the political leader.  And I don't intend this as a cheap shot at Heidegger for having thought for a while that Hitler might be that great leader.  Even if we concede that Heidegger probably had a leader in mind with the qualifications of Frederick the Great, and even if Frederick was as great as Thomas Carlyle thought he was, I would rather muddle through with the inferior Liberal-Democratic leadership we are accustomed to than risk the downside of totalitarianism. 

In thinking further about Milton, his ambition was to write an epic poem, something to match The Iliad and The Aeneid.  If that was his sole goal, then he might say it just happened that he lived in destitute times and it was merely coincidental that his poem might be seen as a metaphor for those times.  Eliot too wanted to prove himself as a poet, to demonstrate his greatness, but he also lived in destitute times and could think of no other subject suitable to his task than the waste and confusion that followed World War One. 

Milton wanted to write an Epic Poem and Eliot did not.  Heidegger doesn't seem to have an exalted view of the epic poem.  His poet will not seek to follow that ideal but will instead seek something else.  Heidegger concludes his essay by writing, "Holderlin is the pre-cursor of poets in a destitute time.  This is why no poet of this world era can overtake him . . ."

"If the precursor cannot be overtaken, no more can he perish; for his poetry remains as a once-present being.  What occurs in the arrival gathers itself back into destiny. . . ."

Two American poets come to mind as having failed in these regards.  They sought to write epic poems.  The first was John Brown's Body written by Stephen Vincent Benet.  He wrote the poem in 1928 about the destitute times of the Civil War; which Heidegger might say was doing things backwards.  There is something prophetic in Holderlin's poetry.  There is something historical in Benet's. 

The second failure is Hart Crane's The Bridge.  He had exalted ambitions but perhaps they never took on a form that he could truly believe in.  This is from Wikipedia: "'Faustus and Helen' was part of a larger artistic struggle to meet modernity with something more than despair. Crane identified T. S. Eliot with that kind of despair, and while he acknowledged the greatness of The Waste Land, he also said it was 'so damned dead,' an impasse, and a refusal to see 'certain spiritual events and possibilities.' Crane's self-appointed work would be to bring those spiritual events and possibilities to poetic life, and so create 'a mystical synthesis of America.' This ambition would finally issue in The Bridge (1930), where the Brooklyn Bridge is both the poem's central symbol and its poetic starting point."  Critics didn't like Crane's poem.  And Crane evidently came to view it as a failure.  Why would the negative poem about destitution, The Waste Land, succeed while his more positive poem about "spiritual events and possibilities" fail?  Perhaps some of it had to do with Eliot's superior ability, but perhaps also it had something to do with Eliot reaching honestly into the abyss -- whereas Crane resolved to reach elsewhere, and in doing so wrote of what "ought to be" rather than what the abyss held.  He might have succeeded had he truly resolve questions of the abyss, but I don't think he did.  He was as destitute as John Clare, but rather than write about it as Clare did (dying in 1864 [in an asylum] 'after years addicted to poetical prosing'), he leaped off the aft end of a ship into it.


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