Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Trilling on Eliot, V (Marx, Wordsworth, Hardy, Henley)

Trilling writes, “. . . it is incidentally significant that . . .  in every nation touched by the Revolution, the novel should have taken on its intense life.  For what so animated the novel of the nineteenth century was the passionate – the ‘revolutionary’ – interest in what man should be.  It was, that is, a moral interest, and the world had the sense of a future moral revolution.  Nowadays the novel, and especially in the hands of the radical intellectuals, has become enfeebled and mechanical: its decline coincides with the increasing indifference to the question, What should man become?

“The heightened tempo of events will go far toward explaining the change – the speed with which calamity approached, or sense of the ship sinking and our no doubt natural giving to survival the precedence over the quality of the life that was to be preserved.  Much of the change can be laid to the account of Marx, for it was Marx, with his claim to a science of society, with his concept of materialistic and dialectical causation, who, for his adherents, made the new emphasis seem unavoidable.  Considerations of morality Marx largely scorned; he begins in morality, in the great historical and descriptive chapters of Capital, but he does not continue in it, perhaps because he is led to believe that the order of the world is going to establish morality.  He speaks often of human dignity, but just what human dignity is he does not tell us, nor has any adequate Marxist philosopher or poet told us: it is not a subject which comes within the scope of their science.

“Yet not merely upon the tempo of events nor upon Marx himself can we lay the indifference to the morality and to aims.  It must fall . . . on the total imagination of our time.  It is the characteristic of this imagination so to conceive the human quality that it diminishes with ever-increasing speed before the exigencies of means.

“Lenin gave us the cue when, at the end of The State and Revolution, he told us that we might as well postpone the problem of what man is to become until such time as he might become anything he chose.   One understands how such a thing gets said; but one understands, too, that saying it does not make possible a suspension of choice already made and the making of it was what gave certain people the right to wonder whether the ethics and culture of Communism were anything else than the extension of the ethics and culture of the bourgeois business world.  For many years the hero of our moral myth was the Worker-and-Peasant who smiled from the covers of Soviet Russia Today, simple, industrious, literate – and grateful.  Whether or not people like him actually existed is hard to say; one suspects not and hopes not; but he was what his leaders and the radical intellectuals were glad to propagate as a moral ideal; that probably factitious Worker was the moral maximum which the preoccupation with immediate ends could accommodate.

“[This] diminished ideal . . . represented by that Worker is what Mr. Eliot would perhaps call, in his way, a heresy.  But from another point of view it is also a practical, a political, error.  It is the error which lies hidden in materialist and rationalist psychology.  Against it a certain part of the nineteenth century was always protesting.  Wordsworth was one of the first to make the protest when he discarded the Godwinian view of mind . . . it was in protest of the view of man shared alike by Liberal manufacturing Whig and radical philosopher, the view that man was very simple and individually of small worth in the cosmic or political scheme.  It was because of this view that Wordsworth deserted the Revolution; and it was to supply what the Revolution lacked or, in some part, denied, that he wrote his best poetry.”

COMMENT:  It is pertinent to think again of Ferry & Renaut’s French Philosophy of the Sixties, subtitled “an Essay on Antihumanism.” Ferry & Renaut’s essay was written in 1985, 45 years after Trilling’s essay on Eliot.  Not all of these Antihumanists could have been known by Trilling, but the idea of them would have been.  That is, Foucault is mentioned, but he is mentioned as deriving from Nietzsche, and Derrida from Heidegger, Bourdieu from Marx and Lacan from Freud.  Trilling didn’t assert that any of the (latter) philosophers had set out to dehumanize man, nor do Ferry and Renaut make this allegation, but an effect of their philosophies has been to diminish man.  What can the “good life” be in the face of such destructive arguments?  What can the intelligent novelist, i.e., the novelist who accepts some form of anti-humanism, write about that is not colored by despair?  Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, The Return of the Native, and The Mayor of Casterbridge come to mind as examples. 

Is there some way to rise above or repudiate the rampant anti-humanism that pervades our thinking?  Religion has that potential.  The Anti-Humanists have all declared God Dead, but backing away from that un-provable hypothesis is a start.  In the West we are used to Christianity.  We Christians are not left in doubt as to what we should become.  The Holy Spirit, Scriptures tell is, is transforming us into the image of Jesus Christ.  Transforming us kicking and screaming seems to be the case for most of us, but the ideal, the goal is out there for us to see and we don’t repudiate it. 

Many Christian thinkers today oppose what they perceive as an exalting of man over God, calling it “humanistic.”  But the modern philosophers they have in mind aren’t interesting in elevating man.  There is very little of that in their philosophies.  I was most recently reading Heidegger and a major concern of his was a despairing harking back to tradition as a probably-vain hope that something better could be made of Germany.   The Russian followers of Marx exalted the Worker as Trilling describes, but that Worker and his paradise were shams. 

Wordsworth was no Christian, but he saw the emptiness of a belief in Godwin’s philosophy.  He didn’t advance any alternatives that impressed Trilling.  Eliot turned to Christianity for several reasons.  Anyone who has become a Christian later in life can trace the path through several reasons (or arguments) that led to his becoming a believer.  At least one of those reasons was pragmatic.  Eliot couldn’t survive the conclusions of The Waste Land.  He couldn’t survive the conclusions he drew of the First World War and its aftermath.  

Could Eliot have been faking it, using Christianity as a means and not an end?  That doesn’t seem possible.  What benefit could he have found in a Christ he didn’t really believe in?  Paul wrote in First Corinthians 15 words to the effect that if Christ was not raised from the dead then we are the most miserable of men.  In order to be a Christian one must so believe, and if this belief is entered in to optimism becomes a possibility.  Jesus said, “In this world ye shall have tribulation, but be not afraid for I have overcome the world.” 

Or one can take the approach of Hardy who envied those who can experience optimism:

. . . At once a voice arose among

    The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

    Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,

    In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

    Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings

    Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

    Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

    His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

    And I was unaware.

Or one might try for the self-encouragement of William Earnest Henley partially recovering from a disease writing,

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

I tend to take a pragmatic view of these matters.  Henley was a sickly fellow who spent years in hospitals.  His unconquerable soul lasted him only 53 years. 

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