Sunday, July 3, 2011

"Novelty" and Romanticism

To return again to F.L. Lucas and to The Decline and Fall of Romantic Poetry, this time to his comments on "novelty" in poetry. "The goddess Novelty," he writes, "is one of the immortals. Her handiwork is everywhere." As an example he notes finding, "in a remote part of Cornwall," a new kind of tea cup, with a square base instead of a round one, fitting into a square depression in the saucer. Later he writes that "novelties may tickle the conscious curiosity; but deeper levels are stirred by older impulses -- things whose echoes go back to the childhood of the individual and the race. Modernity may bring new awakenings; but one wine and old memories bring dreams."

One has to keep in mind that Lucas was writing in 1936 and also that he was one of the few English academics (R.G. Collingwood was another), who were warning against the Germans. In a footnote he mentions receiving an "ungrammatical" and "unprintable" letter from Ezra Pound, who is "a total stranger to me," threatening violence, "because I had written to the press on behalf of the unfortunate Abyssinians."

Thus, though Lucas loved Romantic poetry, especially its wealth of images and its ability to express "less conscious levels of the mind," he deplored what he saw as the excesses of this liberation as they were manifest in the politics, society, and culture of the early 20th century. It strikes me that he might have gone a step further and linked Romanticism and Novelty. Let us see how Addison and Bodmer treated this subject of "Romanticism avant la lettre."

You may recall that Addison had written that "every thing that is Great, New, or Beautiful, is apt to affect the Imagination with Pleasure." Of the new or uncommon he wrote that "it fills the Soul with an agreeable Surprise, gratifies its Curiosity, and gives it an Idea of which it was not before possest. We are indeed so often conversant with one Sett of Objects and tired out with so many repeated Shows of the same things, that whatever is new or uncommon contributes a little to vary human Life, and to divert our Minds, for a while, with the strangeness of its Appearance" (Spectator, 412).

Bodmer follows Addison closely in respect to the Great and the Beautiful. For instance, he imputes the effect of beauty to the human desire for reproduction. Thus, the sight of a country house surrounded by woods, meadows, and so on arouses desire for possession. Likewise, the the effect on the imagination of grand natural phenomena, which fill the soul with amazement. Our response to these phenomena are grounded in our nature as humans.

Novelty, however, Bodmer rejects precisely because it is not grounded in human nature, but in the sentiments. Bodmer uses the term "Gemüthe," which is a notoriously difficult term to translate, but let me say that "Gemüthe" is characterized by its fickleness. It is culture-dependent, responding to passing things, a product of changing fashions, unlike the beautiful and the great, which affect people equally, at all times, no matter their different cultural interpretation of those categories. Think East and West, Tahiti and the France of Louis XIV. Thus, in place of novelty, Bodmer introduced the concept of the turbulent (das Ungestüme), which include such violent phenomena as shipwrecks, tsunamis, the Flood, plagues, and, of course wars. All affect humans equally.

Lucas writes in a similar vein of "universals": "There are ... certain qualities that we have learned spontaneously to value because life has proved them valuable. This instinctive admiration is like the instinctive pleasure we taken in other wholesome things; but more distinterested, more aesthetic. Vitality, strength, courage, devotion, pity, grace -- these move us, as directly as beauty moves us." For Bodmer and Addison, those values were incorporated in great literature, representing "the very Spirit and Soul of fine Writing " (Spectator, 409). As Lucas recognized, no one in 1936 could agree on such values, but he was certain that "the qualities by which men have survived are hardly irrelevant to the survival of literature. One may doubt if it is to 'hollow men' that the future world belongs." (Did I mention that Lucas was also a critic of T.S. Eliot?)

Let me tie all this together by returning to Alexander McQueen, on whom I posted earlier, wondering how to classify his "creations." One cannot doubt the excellence of his craftsmanship, and certainly craftsmanship is something to admire, especially if one has visited the galleries in Chelsea lately. However, as Addison might have written: "our Thoughts [are] a little agitated and relieved at the Sight of such Objects as are ever in Motion, and sliding away from beneath the Eye of the Beholder." Thus, despite the fact that many of McQueen's "dresses" are cringe-inducing, one cannot deny that they are exceedingly and successfully novel. Otherwise, why would there be lines snaking all the way across the second floor of the Metropolitan and crowds inside the exhibit? People are curious. As Addison writes, novelty "serves us for a kind of Refreshment, and takes off from that Satiety we are apt to complain of in our usual and ordinary entertainments."

I hope the above does not suggest that I am retreating for my earlier approval of "Spiel" in art, on which I posted several times, including in connection with McQueen. However, I think that Lucas brings up an important point about excellence in craftsmanship, writing of the neoclassical aesthetics of the 18th century: "if it had become easy to say what was good in poetry, it had become strangely rare to write it."

(As can be seen from the pictures above from our recent outing to visit our friends Steven and Martina, we are also in favor of "Spiel," even while discussing such weighty matters.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We see this tension throughout the history of art (and politics) that we know--what T.S. Eliot called "Tradition and the Individual Talent." And Eliot would know. That most traditional of personalities...his novelties, like "The Wasteland," were surely influenced by the artistic excesses we find in Shakespeare. (Some irony here.) Eliot's criticism of "Hamlet": goodness gracious. How can the author of "The Wasteland" opine that Shakespeare's "Hamlet" fails in that it is lacking somehow in form or objective correlative?

At any rate, one of my "qualifying" essays in grad school compared Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" to Colingwood's structurally similar theory of history or the tension in history as enacted in critical moments. (Churchill knew his Aristotle; better yet, he embodied it.) Collingwood's autobiography is one of the most enjoyable and intellectually stimulating books I've ever read. Another analogous "structure" or "tension" (also used by Gadamer in "Truth and Method") is Aristotle's dialectic of convention (tradition, law, piety) and nature (prudent ACTION, natural justice--versus conventional justice--and critical thinking). The best example of this is the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The novelty in Lincoln's form and content that caught people's imagination had to do with his mastery of tradition (Bible, Shakespeare, Western law and American history), on the one hand, and his moral and literary genius, on the other. Not to mention his political deftness, not to say, or repeat the word, GENIUS. It was thrilling, indeed, to listen to Professor Alan Guelzo the other day...on a Dennis Prager broadcast featuring Guelzo on the Lincoln-Douglas debates! A wonderful way to begin the Fourth of July weekend!