Monday, November 17, 2014

Preferring the culture that produced Shakespeare

Consider this from Northrop Frye’s “Antique Drum”:

“The First World War discredited the view that northern, liberal, largely Protestant cultures of England and Germany were, with America, the architects of a new world. Latin and Catholic Europe began to look like a cultural as well as a political ally. The essay on Blake in The Sacred Wood is full of anti-Nordic mythology: Blake’s prophecies ‘illustrate the crankiness, the eccentricity, which frequently affects writers outside the Latin tradition.’ So although Eliot’s view of literature is ‘classical,’ his Classicism regards Latin medieval culture and Dante in particular, as the culmination of the Classical achievement. Dante’s greatness is partly a product of a time when Europe was ‘mentally more united than we can no conceive.’ At such a time literature achieves its greatest power and clarity: ‘there is an opacity, or inspissation of poetic style throughout Europe after the Renaissance.’ So Eliot explicitly prefers the culture which produced Dante to that which produced Shakespeare.”

Why pay any attention to Eliot now? As Bloom writes on page on off Modern Critical Views: T. S. Eliot, “. . . anyone adopting the profession of teaching literature in the early nineteen fifties entered a discipline virtually enslaved not only by Eliot’s insights but the entire span of his preferences and prejudices.” I was a few years behind Bloom and don’t recall an enslavement but Eliot was taken very seriously. But since that time for me was the Unabomber who believed fervently that we should return to an earlier time, a time very much like Frye says Eliot preferred. It is also indicative that (as Bloom I think writes elsewhere) Eliot was opposed to the idea of evolution. There is no “evolution.” We aren’t getting better and better we had best look back to an early perfect or at least better time and strive to return to that.

The Unabomber would have us abandon our technology and return to simpler ways of doing things. Eliot would at least have us exalt an earlier simpler time and the literature that was produced then. Literature produced later is cranky and eccentric. On the other hand evolution is still at work. Richard Leakey in one of his books predicted that Homo Sapiens wouldn’t last much longer than any other species, but he is reasoning from the past and not from ideas the products of evolution are opening up to us. How long will it be before homo sapiens is living in the Moon, Mars and elsewhere in the universe? Some humans eventually will not be subject to the damage done or about to be done to this earth.

And what is the impact of evolution upon poetry. We can’t draw any conclusions but we do know that our minds have been impacted by technology, software, information. There is now something “new under the sun.” We are dealing with matters not conceived of by Dante. We are doing things with our minds we never did before. Is the crankiness and chaos that produced Shakespeare really such a bad thing? Is it impious to predict new sorts of poetry, and poets at least as good as any who have gone before, maybe in a few hundred years, maybe sooner?

No comments: