Collected Poems 1915-1967
The Complete White Oxen
Language as Symbolic Action
Towards a Better Life (Second Edition)
Counterstatement (Second Edition)
The Philosophy of Literary Form
In 1924 Kenneth Burke published his first book of fiction, The White Oxen, and Other Stories. His first book of criticism, Counterstatement, appeared in 1931. Now, ten books later, we have his Collected Poems. The collected short fiction, The Complete White Oxen, includes the book of 1924 and additional pieces rescued from magazines living or dead.
It is good to have the early fiction available again and a new edition of Towards a Better Life, Burke’s sole novel. When we put these beside Counterstatement, we have the generating source of the Complete Works, subject to the excellent qualification that Burke is still working, eloquent and sleepless as ever, a born insomniac. The later books are his Enigma Variations on themes discovered in the early stories and proposed for contemplation in Counterstatement. This is in keeping with Burke’s procedure from the beginning: discovering something in practice, he ponders it in principle. Criticism is the tribute he pays to creation. Prince Llan, hero of an early story, devotes himself “to seeing how, if a given thing is so, other things follow.” Given experience, he looks for the symbols of experience, as T. S. Eliot distinguished between the experience and its meaning, knowing that a man may have one and yet miss the other.
In a recent autobiographical story, “The Anaesthetic Revelation of Herone Liddell,” the hero offers a design for living, sleepless in his lonely tower. Start, he counsels, with “the sheer physicality of life,” the human organism “as simply one more species of alimentary canal with accessories.” But then, in keeping with “the thinking of the body,” allow for the sustaining miracle of language, since man is the symbol-using animal. Finally, consider the motives peculiar to this special property, “this miracle, or accident, or morbidity, of language—a plane of symbolism capable of pointing toward ‘perfections’ intrinsic to itself.” To live by these perfections, the prone hero reflects, would be to live under the sign of their sheer formality, according to ultimates proper to the medium. Such a life, he concedes to his quarrelsome self, would be a fiction, from the standpoint of the body, but it would have the sanction of its own coherence. What more could a patient in a hospital want?
Later, the hero develops the design in musical terms, appropriate to an author who for a time wrote musical criticism for The Dial. Suppose you are a musician, a composer, and suddenly a theme occurs to you, “like an unopened bundle of possibilities.” You accept what the gods have given, and you develop variations on the gift: “successively, you make it brisk, playful, plaintive, pensive, solemn, grandiose, nostalgic, muscularly ingenious, and the like.” At the very least, he says to himself, “you have produced a form by carrying a principle of consistency into an area that threatened it with disintegration (disintegration insofar as the principle of consistency risked becoming lost in the variety).”
It is my impression that this is the principle, born of Counterstatement …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.