The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections
The Renewal of Literature is an Emersonian essay in cultural criticism; Emersonian, because many of its concerns—originality, power, genius, language—are Emerson’s, and because Richard Poirier’s procedures, like Emerson’s, are interventions rather than sequences of argument. Indeed, the book may be interpreted as a development of Emerson’s assertion, in “Self-Reliance,” that “power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.”
But I must go against the spirit of the book to the extent of describing some of its instants of repose, its resting places.
The first is an attack on “the humanistic intentions and values commonly ascribed to the arts,” the belief that “the writing and reading of literature have a culturally redemptive power.” Poirier argues that “this belief cannot be sustained by the actual operations of language in literary texts.” Literature itself “shows the futility of this quest for truth, values, and exaltations.”
The particular values that Poirier ascribes to humanism are those that endow the human presence in the world with the birthright of selfhood. Humanism encourages us to believe that everyone is, apparently by divine definition, a continuous entity, whether it is called self, as in psychology, or soul, as in morality. Each self acts in the world by virtue of the energy that we call its will: a lapse into passivity marks a crisis in our humanity and, if it persists, a disaster. The reading of literature is supposed to sustain us because it shows the obstacles the will has to surmount and its eventual success in those endeavors.
Poirier is casual in defining the humanistic tradition. Perhaps he thinks it sufficiently described as Arnoldian. But Arnold points in many directions. The humanistic one would be best indicated by a reference to I.A. Richards as marking its culmination, because in Science and Poetry (1926) Richards claimed that “poetry is capable of saving us.” Arnold thought that poetry would save us by enabling us to retain the emotions of spirituality without having to believe in anything. Richards thought it could save us by showing, in achieved poems and fictions, that the inevitable conflicts among our impulses may be resolved. The equilibrium of a central nervous system in good working order is Richards’s model, since it is constantly subject to shocks and constantly recovers itself.
In The Renewal of Literature, as in Poirier’s previous books, when Arnold is arraigned T.S. Eliot isn’t far behind. But Eliot can’t be blamed for humanistic consolations. In “The Humanism of Irving Babbitt” (1928) he attacked humanism as a specious substitute for religious belief. In “Arnold and Pater” (1930) and again in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933) he rounded upon Arnold for setting up Culture in the place of Religion, and leaving Religion “to be laid waste by the anarchy of feeling.” Eliot’s view was “that nothing in this world or the next is a substitute for anything else; and if you find that you must do without something, such as religious faith or philosophic belief, then you must just do without it.”
I will describe in a moment how Poirier intends to discourage the humanistic exaltations, but first I have to mark the second of his resting places. This is an attack on Modernism; or rather a complaint that Eliot single-handedly captured literature on behalf of procedures we now call modernist. These procedures were his own, to begin with, and then by affiliation those of Pound, Joyce, and Wyndham Lewis. Eliot contrived to establish Modernism as identical with modern literature by enforcing the impression that his own practices in poetry corresponded to historical inevitability and therefore were of great consequence. His “promotional genius,” as Poirier calls it, had its immediate impact upon F.R. Leavis in England and, in the US, the conservative “Fugitive” critics, notably John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks. A few years after the publication of The Waste Land and Joyce’s Ulysses, these critics presented the procedures of Eliot, Pound, and Joyce as virtually canonical.
The clearest sign of Modernism was the immediate difficulty of the works in question, especially The Waste Land, Ulysses, and Pound’s Cantos. Poirier refers to
the effort by a particular faction of writers to promote the idea that in twentieth-century literature, difficulty is particularly necessary and virtuous, and, second, in the complicit agreement, by a faction of readers, that the act of reading ought to entail an analogous degree of difficulty attributable, again, to cultural dislocations peculiar to this century.
This account of the rhetoric of Modernism elides some important details. Ransom wasn’t enchanted by Eliot or The Waste Land; he reviewed the poem harshly, and quarreled with Tate about it in both public and private. I don’t know that Ransom and his colleagues took much account of Joyce till Finnegans Wake appeared in 1939 and Ransom wrote about its aesthetic implications. In the early days the New Critics were concerned just as much with Conrad and Yeats and Hardy as with Eliot. But I don’t quarrel with the general outline of Poirier’s literary history, and I agree that the widely used text Understanding Poetry (1938) by Brooks and Warren, and Brooks’s Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939), worked much in Eliot’s favor. I agree, too, that difficulty, especially in the form of paradox and a range of historical and mythical allusions, soon began to count as a sign of the artist’s scruple and conscientiousness.
Poirier argues that one of the dismal consequences of establishing Modernism under Eliot’s domination was the suppression, in American universities and colleges, of every other sense of literature and life. The particular neglected sense for which he cares is Pragmatism, specifically the version of it that he traces back from Dewey, William James, and C.S. Peirce to Emerson. He maintains that the pragmatic tradition running or darting from Emerson to the philosophers and certain poets—notably Frost and Stevens—was overshadowed by Modernism and, until recently, “kept in hiding or repressed.”
The connection between Emerson and American Pragmatism was first made, so far as I know, by Kenneth Burke in his Attitudes Toward History (1937). Burke took some of his evidence from the chapters in Ralph Barton Perry’s The Thought and Character of William James (1935) that deal biographically with Emerson and the elder Henry James and then with the relation between the latter and his son William. Critics of Emerson, notably Harold Bloom in his Agon (1982), have been emphasizing the Pragmatist side of Emerson. Richard Rorty’s essays, especially those gathered in Consequences of Pragmatism (1982), have provided a vocabulary in which some relations between Pragmatism and literature may be discussed; though he hasn’t drawn the line of Pragmatism back as far as Emerson.
I gather from George Herbert Mead’s Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century that the first commandment of Pragmatism is that “the process of knowing lies inside the process of conduct.” Knowledge apart from its role in determining conduct is not to be considered. In that characterization, I don’t see how Pragmatism is a philosophy at all; it is rather a method of proceeding, an expedient to avoid the delay of dealing with metaphysical questions. A Pragmatist doesn’t ask, What is Truth or Being or Substance, but rather, What are the likely consequences if I assume that such-and-such a state of affairs is or is not the case? Dewey’s Experience and Nature, William James’s The Meaning of Truth, Pragmatism, and A Pluralistic Universe allow me to think that Pragmatism is a labor-saving device by which the true is declared to be, as in James, “the good in the way of belief.” What Pragmatism recommends is “the attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.” I can’t see how a Pragmatist would have anything to say about last things, but about intermediate things he would be encouraging. The political value of Pragmatism is also clear, and I note that the best thing about Dewey, according to Rorty, is that he used philosophy “as an instrument of social change.”
Pragmatism is useful to Poirier because it helps him to trace certain congenial attitudes continuously from Emerson to Frost and Stevens and to find them still active in Norman Mailer, John Ashbery, A.R. Ammons, and John Hollander. The crucial attitude is a willingness to live by change, transition, and mobility, rather than to demand the security of an ontological guarantee. The Emerson whom Poirier reveres is the one who recommends practices that can’t quite be performed, workings that can’t be content to end as works, thinking so volatile that it resists the fate of sinking to rest as a thought, genius that acts upon the means rather than toward the end. Like Emerson, Poirier would have us dart from whatever system is in place to acts that disrupt it; from the syntax of a language to the interventions that dissent from it; from a concept to the performative utterances that play upon its surface. He is something of a Luddite in these incitements, but I concede that for each of them he has Emerson’s authority, and he quotes his master brilliantly.
Occasionally, Poirier’s reading of Emerson is debonair, and I am left wondering why he needs to be so bold. Here is one such passage:
More than Cooper in Home as Found, more even than Henry James in the book on Hawthorne, Emerson saw that America’s bareness did not make it innocent of inherited culture. It actually made it more complicit, as if the country’s “enormous disproportion of unquickened earth” (Journals, October 1842) totally exposed it to foreign radiations.
But this is not what Emerson says in the Journals for that date:
This feeling I have respecting Homer & Greek, that in this great empty continent of ours stretching enormous almost from pole to pole with thousands of long rivers and thousands of ranges of mountains, the rare scholar who under a farmhouse roof reads Homer & the Tragedies adorns the land. He begins to fill it with wit, to counterbalance the enormous disproportion of unquickened earth. He who first reads Homer in America is its Cadmus & Numa, and a subtle but unlimited benefactor.
“Exposed it to foreign radiations” isn’t anywhere implied in Emerson’s passage.
It is a problem, as acute in Emerson as in Poirier, that the rhetoric of transition and mobility which enhances the darting rather than the aim makes the aim, the substantive resting place, seem far more stolid than it is or has to be in practice. The state departed from, too, has to appear dogged, by comparison with the force of mind that flies from it. Poirier writes of the psychological or moral self, either in the humanist or the Christian dispensation, as if it were fixated upon its unity; but, whatever may be the case with humanism, the moral self according to Christian morality is agent and victim, and if without grace, it is more liable to chaos, temptation, and sin than to unity of self. Again when Poirier writes of language, he makes it appear a glum and literal-minded structure, like Esperanto, until the game of “troping” begins. By troping Poirier means,