Friday, September 22, 2017

Something I Read #21 – C.K. Stead

C.K. Stead on Eliot, literature, and morality:

Yeats in his maturity returned to a position comparable with that of Blake, in the sense that his poetry seems to have behind it a 'philosophy'; but Yeats prevents any simple test of his poems according to what they 'mean' by the assumption of a series of dramatic masks. Eliot is more radical even than Yeats in his refusal to consider poetry as a discursive medium. He insists, for example, that the activities of poet and philosopher are 'better performed inside two skulls than one', that 'neither Shakespeare nor Dante did any real thinking – that was not their job'.

Yet Eliot came with astonishing dexterity and quickness to perceive what Wilde never, and Yeats in his criticism only slowly, perceived: that the refusal to accept the moralist's role which the Victorians imposed on their poets need not imply a rejection of all commerce between morals and literature. Popular morals are generalized statements which have no place in literature; urgent, argumentative morals compel the poet to debase his work to rhetoric. But a true mimesis, a faithful reflection of experience, implies subtle distinctions between particulars which need never be forced, but simply exist in the work. The aesthetic concern, in short, could be elevated to a higher kind of morals. This, I believe, is Eliot's particular achievement. So we find him writing as early as 1922:

The character of the serious stage, when he is not simply an ordinary person, is confected of abstract qualities, as loyalty, greed, and so on, to which we are supposed to respond with the proper abstract emotions. But the myth is not composed of abstract qualities; it is a point of view, travsmuted to importance; it is made by the transformation of the actual by the imaginatice genius.

The modern dramatist, and probably the modern audience, is terrified of the myth. The myth is imagination and it is also criticism, and the two are one. [. . .]

The most profound moral quality of literature does not proceed from the author's 'conscious moral judgments', for these judgments are of the surface mind, of the 'personality'. Yet 'all first rate poetry is occupied with morality'. How, then, is the poet to achieve this moral quality? Eliot's answer is quite simple: by a total conscious preoccupation with _technique_.

The New Poetic: Yeats to Eliot (132-33). Quotations from Eliot from "The Romantic Englishman" and "The Lesson of Baudelaire".

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Something I Read #20 – Carl Jung

I began re-reading though Jung's works a few weeks ago. Don't be surprised if he shows up here a few more times.

"The sun breaks from the mists of the horizon and climbs to undimmed brightness at the meridian. Once this goal is reached, it sinks down again towards the night. This process can be allegorized as a gradual seeping away of the water of life: one has to bend ever deeper to reach the source. When we are feeling on top of the world we find this exceedingly disagreeable; we resist the sunset tendency, especially when we suspect that there is something in ourselves which would like to follow this movement, for behind it we sense nothing good, only an obscure, hateful threat. So, as soon as we feel ourselves slipping, we begin to combat this tendency and erect barriers against the dark, rising flood of the unconscious and its enticements to regression, which all too easily takes on the deceptive guise of sacrosanct ideals, principles, beliefs, etc. If we wish to stay on the heights we have reached, we must struggle all the time to consolidate our consciousness and its attitude. But we soon discover that this praiseworthy and apparently unavoidable battle with the years leads to stagnation and desiccation of soul. Our convictions become platitudes ground out on a barrel-organ, our ideals become starchy habits, enthusiasm stiffens into automatic gestures. The source of the water of life seeps away. We ourselves may not notice it, but everybody else does, and that is even more painful. If we should risk a little introspection, coupled perhaps with an energetic attempt to be honest for once with ourselves, we may get a dim idea of all the wants, longings, and fears that have accumulated down there – a repulsive and sinister sight. The mind shies away, but life wants to flow down into the depths. Fate itself seems to preserve us from this, because each of us has a tendency to become an immovable pillar of the past. Nevertheless, the daemon throws us down, makes us traitors to our ideals and cherished convictions – traitors to the selves we thought we were. That is an unmitigated catastrophe, because it is an unwilling sacrifice. Things go very differently when the sacrifice is a voluntary one. Then it is no longer an overthrow, a 'transvaluation of values,' the destruction of all the we held sacred, but transformation and conservation. Everything young grows old, all beauty fades, all heat cools, all brightness dims, and every truth becomes stale and trite. For all these things have taken on shape, and all shapes are worn thin by the working of time; they age sicken, crumble to dust – unless they change. But change they can, for the invisible spark that generated them is potent enough for infinite generation. No one should deny the danger of the descent, but it can be risked. No one need risk it, but it is certain that some one will. And let those who go down the sunset way do so with open eyes, for it is a sacrifice which daunts even the gods. Yet every descent is followed by an ascent; the vanishing shapes are shaped anew, and a truth is valid in the end only if it suffers change and bears new witness in new images, in new tongues, like a new wine that is put into new bottles."
– Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation (356-57)

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Something I Read #19 – Carl Jung

Jung on scientific rationalism and traditionalism (which, I argue, is but another form of rationalism):

When we see how much trouble Jesus took to make the symbolical view of things acceptable to Nicodemus, as if throwing a veil over the crude reality, and how important it was -- and still is -- for the history of civilization that people whould think in this way, then one is at a loss to understand why the concern of modern psychology with symbolism has met with such violent disapprobation in many quarters. It is as necessary today as it ever was to lead the libido away from the cult of rationalism and realism -- not, indeed, because these things have gained the upper hand (quite the contrary), but because the guardians and custodians of symbolical truth, namely the religions, have been robbed of their efficacy by science. Even intelligent people no longer understand the value and purpose of symbolical truth, and the spokesmen of religion have failed to dliver an apologetic suited to the spirit of the age. Insistence on the bare concretism of dogma, or ethics for ethics' sake, or even a humanization of the Christ-figure coupled with inadequate attempts to write his biography, are singularly unimpressive. Symbolical truth is exposed undefended to the attacks of scientific thought, which can never do justice to such a subject, and in face of this competition has been unable to hold its ground. The truth, however, still remains to be proved. Exclusive appeals to faith are a hopeless _petitio principii_, for it is the manifest improbability of a symbolical truth that prevents people from believing in it. Instead of insisting so glibly on the necessity of faith, the theologicans, it seems to me, should see what can be done to make this faith possible. But that means placing symbolical truth on a new foundation -- a foundation which appeals not only to sentiment, but to reason. And this can only be achieved by reflecting how it came about in the first place that humanity needed the improbability of religious statements, and what it signifies when a totally different spiritual reality is superimposed on the sensuous and tangible actuality of this world.

[. . .]

[. . .] Some people profess to be very shocked when I do not shrink from bringing even the sublimest spiritual ideas into relation with what they call the 'subhuman.' My primary concern, however, is to _understand_ these religious ideas, whose value I appreciate far too deeply to dispose of the with rationliastic arguments. What do we want, anyway, with things that cannot be understood? They appeal only to people for whom thinking and understanding are too much bother. Instead, we ask for blind faith and parise it to the skies. But that, in the end, only means educating ourselves to thoughtlessness and lack of criticism. What the 'blind faith' so long preached from the pulpit was ablt to do in Germany, when that country frinally turned its back on Christian dogma, has been bloodily demonstrated before our eyes by contemporary history. The really dangerous people are not the great heretics and unbelievers, but the swarm of petty thinkers, the rationalizing intellectuals, who suddenly discover how irrational all religious dogmas are. Anything not understood is given short shrift, and the highest values of symbolic truth are irretrievably lost.

[. . .]

'Legitimate' faith must always rest on experience. There is, however, another kind of faith which rests exclusively on the authority of tradition. This kind of faith could also be called 'legitimate,' since the power of tradition embodies and experience whose importance for the continuity of culture is beyond question. But with this kind of faith there is always the danger of mere habit supervening -- it may so easily degenerate into spiritual inertia and a thoughtless compliance which, if persisted in, threatens stagnation and cultural repression. This mechanical dependence goes hand in hand with a psychic regression to infantilism. The traditional contents gradually lose their real meaning and are only believed in as formalities, without this belief having any influence on the conduct of life. There is no longer a living power behind it. The much-vaunted 'child-likeness' of faith only makes sense when the feeling behind the experience is still alive. If it gets lost, faith is only another word for habitual, infantile dependence, which takes the place of, and actually prevents, the struggle for deeper understanding. This seems to be the position we have reached today.

Symbols of Transformation (1956; 226-27, 229, 232)

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Something I Read #18 – Mircea Eliade

Actually, I should say "something I've re-read," and not for only the second time.

From the close of Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (trans. Willard R Trask, NY: Harcourt, Inc., 1987, 1959).

Yet the contents and structures of the unconscious are the result of immemorial existential situations, especially of critical situation, and this is why the unconscious has a religious aura. For every existential crisis once again puts in question both the reality of the world and man's presence in the world. This means that the existential crisis is, finally, "religious," since on the archaic levels of culture being and the sacred are one. As we saw, it is the experience of the sacred that founds the world, and even the most elementary religion is, above all, an ontology. In other words, in so far as the unconscious is the result of countless existential experiences, it cannot but resemble the various religious universes. For religion is the paradigmatic solution for every existential crisis. It is the paradigmatic solution not only because it can be indefinitely repeated, but also because it is believed to have a transcendental origin and hence is valorized as a revelation received from an other, transhuman world. The religious solution not only resolves the crisis but at the same time makes existence "open" to values that are no longer contingent or particular, thus enabling man to transcend personal situations and, finally, gain access to the world of spirit.

This is not the place to develop all the consequences of this close relation between the content and structures of the unconscious on the one hand and the values of religion on the other. We were led to refer to it in order to show in what sense even the most avowedly nonreligious man still, in his deeper being, shares in a religiously oriented behavior. But modern man's "private mythologies" – his dreams, reveries, fantasies, and so on – never rise to the ontological status of myths, precisely because they are not experienced by the _whole man_ and therefore do not transform a particular situation into a situation that is paradigmatic. In the same way, modern man's anxieties, his experiences in dream or imagination, although "religious" from the point of view of form, do not, as in homo religiosus, mark part of a Weltanshauung and provide the basis for a system of behavior. An example will show the differences between these two categories of experiences. The unconscious activity of modern man ceaselessly presents him with innumerable symbols, and each of them has a particular message to transmit, a particular mission to accomplish, in order to ensure or to re-establish the equilibrium of the psyche. As we have seen the symbol not only makes the world "open" but also helps religious man to attain to the universal. For it is through symbols that man finds his way out of his particular situation and "opens himself" to the general and the universal. Symbols awaken individual experience and transmute it into a spiritual act, into metaphysical comprehension of the world. In the presence of any tree, symbol of the world tree and image of cosmic life, a man of the premodern societies can attain to the highest spirituality, for, by understanding the symbol, ­he succeeds in living the universal. It is the religious vision of the world, and the concomitant ideology, that enable him to make this individual experience bear fruit, to "open" it to the universal. The image of the tree still quite frequently appears in the imaginary universes of modern nonreligious man; it is a cipher of his deeper life, of the drama that is played out in his unconscious and that concerns the integrity of his psychomental life and hence his own existence. But as long as the symbol of the tree does not awaken his total consciousness and "open" it to the universe, it cannot be said to have completely fulfilled its function. It has only partly "saved" him from his individual situation – for example, by enabling him to resolve a deep crisis and restoring his temporarily threatened psychic equilibrium; but it has not yet raised him to spirituality – that is, it has not succeeded in revealing one of the structures of the real to him. (210-12)

"[S]ince on the archaic levels of culture being and the sacred are one" . . . a phrase that might be my theory of the aesthetic in a nutshell. Of course, having been crammed into a nutshell, it necessitates a hell of a lot of unpacking.

The book never itself speaks to the idea of the aesthetic. Nevertheless, it is a book I highly recommend for anyone interested in literature and the arts as an aesthetic – as opposed to merely cultural – endeavor.