Monday, January 4, 2010

Poets for destitute times

I encountered Eliot's poetry long before I knew anything about him.  I was very impressed by it.  Perhaps Eliot had Fascistic tendencies.  I read a biography and the first half of the first volume of his letters years ago but don't recall them.  He was an aristocratic prig and an unpleasant personality.  He whined a lot.  In a review in the London Times of the second volume of his letters, the reviewer dealt with the whining by saying he really was sick and so was his wife.  Furthermore, the reviewer adds, people who cared about him really did want to know. 

The question of whether one should reject or at least demote a person's work when one learns his life has serious flaws is an interesting one.  It has been dealt with almost continually in Western thinking.  For example, Origen was a very important "church father" but he was also a very independent thinker and many of his ideas were later declared heretical, "universal salvation" was one such "heretical" idea.  The Church couldn't reject him entirely.  Many of the doctrines that the Church (Protestant as well as Catholic) still holds came from Origen.  But Church leaders were cautious in dealing with his works. 

One of the major controversies in the early Church was whether one could denounce Christianity, under duress, and later (after the coercive force was removed) recant the denouncement.  The Donatists believed that a Church in which traditors both existed and dispensed the sacraments was no church, and baptism administered by traditors was no baptism.  Traditors, surely, were eternally lost, but the Church eventually came around to the view that this denouncing, this cooperating with the coercive power, could not be an "unforgiveable sin" for had not Peter denounced Christ three times without losing his salvation?

And what of all the French as well as German traditors?  Their sins weren't settled in Church Council, but they were settled in that Western tradition.  A "secular council" was created to deal with them, the Nuremberg.  Certain individuals, the coercers, were considered to have committed unforgiveable sins and executed.   But those coerced, the traditors, were for the most part accepted back into non-Fascist societies as members in good standing.  They were forgiven.

            The question I was attempting to explore was first of all, what Heidegger had in mind when he asked "what are poets for in destitute times?"  This essay of his was based on a lecture he delivered in 1946 on the 20th anniversary of Rilke's death.  I doubt that Heidegger could have answered his own question in any definitive way.  He liked Rilke, but said in his lecture Rilke was less of a poet than Holderlin; so only Holderlin measures up completely.  I have the Penguin Classics edition entitled Selected Poems and Fragments, and can see, somewhat, why Heidegger appreciated him, but just because Holderlin was Heidegger's "Poet in a Destitute Time" doesn't mean we are stuck with this one example.   

The Waste Land was the first poem that came to my mind when I searched for an Anglo-American "Poem" for a time of destitution.  If instead of all the "critics" who wanted to tell us what Eliot's symbols and references were we had historians explaining this poem, then we would see, I believe, that it was of a piece with the destitute times in England and Europe in which Eliot lived.    Eliot didn't go on being a poet for a destitute time, in my opinion, but he was when he wrote The Waste Land.

            Another Poem that comes to mind is Paradise Lost.   Surely Milton lived in a destitute time, and was the poet for it.  What better subject for such a time than the loss of paradise?  This was a great poem for the Revolutionary times in which Milton lived.  Milton's critics both in the (Protestant) church and out of it are critical of Milton's heretical beliefs – some of which appear in his poem if we look in the right spots – and these "spots" are easier to find, if I recall correctly, than Fascist ideas in Being and Time.


1 comment:

John Taratuta said...

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.