Beyond the Tragic Vision
Man’s Rage for Chaos
Art and Pornography
The Triumph of Romanticism
Nomen est omen. Christened Morse, he was likely to find himself in semiology, sign behavior. (The Morse code surfaces in his arguments.) The intellectual experience which he offers has its similarities to that offered by another polymath professor who has chafed his way out through the confines of the English Department: Marshall McLuhan.
But first the gists and piths of Morse Peckham’s five books. Beyond the Tragic Vision (1962), for all its boisterousness, stayed more or less within the bounds of the known-to-be-daring; its subtitle, at once vibrant and academic, is “The Quest for Identity in the Nineteenth Century.” Its agonized heroes pass by, not with the hard-won pain of stations of the cross, but with the brisk illuminations of subway stations. (“PART FOUR/ILLUSION AND REALITY, XIII Transcendentalism in Difficulty, DISRAELI—CARLYLE—BALZAC.”). Its closing pages announce assuredly: “Thus Nietzsche solved the problem of the nineteenth century.” Biting back the flippant impulse to murmur Tiens one may yet prefer Peckham wry.
Schematic yet hasty, preoccupied with value but casual and even willful in its own valuations, this first book already located what have been Peckham’s crucial concerns: “man’s drive to dominate, control, and master his environment” and “the gratification of the orientative drive.” “The true dialectic lies in the eternally transvaluating encounter between the mind’s instrumental constructs and reality in a continuous restructuring of orientations.”
The argument was extended and modified in the next book, Man’s Rage for Chaos: Biology, Behavior, and the Arts (1965). Peckham gives a lucid and impartial summary:
It seems to me that a primary drive of human beings is towards order, that is, to perceive the environment as comprehensible and to make successful predictions about the future. I am convinced that to every situation a human being brings an orientation which is not derived from that situation but already exists in his perceptual powers before he comes to that situation. Such an orientation works only because it filters out from the situation any data which is not relevant to the needs of the moment. This orientation is the manifestation of the drive to order. However, the successful employment of the orientation means that much of the data of the situation is ignored or suppressed. But since an orientation does not prepare an individual to deal with a particular situation but only with a category, or kind, or class of situations, much of the suppressed data may very well be relevant. Moreover, every successful use of an orientation reinforces the tendency both to use it again and to do so without correcting it by relevant data. Thus arises the paradox of human behavior: the very drive to order which qualifies man to deal successfully with his environment disqualifies him when it is to his interest to correct his orientation. To use an old expression, the drive to order is also a drive to get stuck in the mud. There must, it seems to me, be some human activity which serves …
Judging Art September 23, 1971