Monday, July 20, 2015

Something I Read #15 -- Eugenio Montale

Something I came across last night; one of those moments of someone stating things in terms not thought before. From the Introduction to the Everyman's Library edition of the Mandelbaum translation of the Divine Comedy (12-13); originally the final address delivered April, 24, 1965, at the International Congress of Dante Studies in Florence, held to mark the 700th anniversary of Dante's birth..

My conviction, however -- and I state it for what it is worth -- is that Dante is not a modern in any of these respects: which does not prevent us from understanding him at least partially, nor from feeling that he is strangely close to us. But for this to happen we must also come to another conclusion: that we no longer live in a modern era, but in a new Middle Ages whose characteristics we cannot yet make out. Since this is a personal conviction of mine, I shall refrain from discussing the reasons for it here, where it serves only as an hypothesis. The era which lies before us does not allow for short-term predictions, and to speak of a new Middle Ages is to speak equivocally at best. If the future sees the ultimate triumph of techno-scientific reason, even accompanied by the weak correctives which sociology can devise, the new Middle Ages will be nothing but a new barbarousness. But in such a case it would be wrong to speak of them as 'medieval,' for the Middle Ages were not merely barbarous, nor were they bereft of science or devoid of art. To speak of a new Middle Ages, then, could seem a far from pessimistic hypothesis to the man who does not believe that the thread of reason can unwind ad infinitum; and yet an entirely new barbarousness is possible, a stifling and distortion of the very idea of civilization and culture.

To understand this, you have understand the term "barbarous" (which he uses in a normal, historical sense). It is an interesting idea, one which I grasp through seeing the modernist period (and post-structuralist philosophy, philosophy always lagging behind art) as the climax of an aesthetic discourse that began with the Romantics and (and German Idealism); through seeing that that aesthetic impulse gave way, finally, to the more dominant current of what is here called a rising Middle Ages (whose origins lie as far back as the Enlightenment era). The question, though, one that is more narrow geopolitically, and more focused upon the idea of barbarousness, is this:

Can it be said that US, except for very localized moments that lasted only very short periods of time, has ever climbed out of barbarousness?

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Something I Read #14 – Edmund Wilson

Read in the wonderful collection The Permanence of Yeats (1950). Originally from the also wonderful Axel's Castle (1931).

"And in spite of the immense amount of poetry published and read to-day, the personality truly and naturally poetic seems to be becoming rarer and rarer. It may be true that the kind of dignity and distinction which have been characteristic of the poet in the past are becoming more and more impossible in our modern democratic society and during a period when the ascendancy of scientific ideas has made man conscious of his kinship with the other animals and of his subjection to biological and physical laws rather than of this relation to the gods. It was easy for the lyric poet, from Wyatt's age to Waller's, to express himself both directly and elegantly, because he was a courtier, or, in any case, a member of a comparatively small educated class, whose speech combined the candor and naturalness of conversation among equals with the grace of a courtly society. It was possible for him honestly to take up a residence in an intellectual world where poetic images stood for actualities because the scientific language and technique for dealing with these actualities had not yet come to permeate thought. But themodern poet who would follow this tradition, and who would yet deal with life in any large way, must create for himself a special personality, must maintain a state of mind which shall shut out or remain indifferent to many aspects of the contemporary world. This necessity accounts partly, I suppose, for Yeats's preoccupation in his prose writings, with what he calls the Mask or Anti-Self, a sort of imaginary personality, quite antagonistic to other elements of one's nature, which the poet must impose upon himself. It is hard to imagine a seventeenth-century poet being driven to such a theory -- a theory which makes one's poetic self figure as one of the halves of a split personality [. . . .]."