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Questions of Substance, Questions of Style

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I’d like to start by pointing out that nobody asked me who I thought was “a great writer.”  The term of choice was “admired as a writer.”  If you’d asked me who I thought was a great writer, the answers would be significantly different.  But if I’m asked who I admire as a writer, I’m going to talk about the writing.

And the truth is, as I’ve said before, that I’m not much interested in plot, and that I don’t read novels or plays or even g to movies for plot.  There are a limited number of possible plots.   They’ve all been done to death already, with nothing new to come on that front, ever, except some changes of setting and a few twists added by technology.  I don’t see the point.

But that brings me to the place I thought I’d be at about a week and a half ago, which is to the book I’m reading–actually, a compendium of three books and a long essay–by Yvor Winters, called In Defense of  Reason.

I’m nearing the end, which means I’m in the middle of book three, called The Anatomy of Nonsense. And even if this collection had done nothing else for me, it introduced me to an American poet named Jones Very, and to an early poem by Wallace Stevens called “Sunday Morning.” 

Very is interesting for a couple of reasons, only one of which is that he wrote very fine poetry.  He was also a contemporary of Emerson and Thoreau, and a New  Englander born (like Hawthorne) in Salem, but the crisis in Calvinism made him not opt for the Romantic delusion but to become more Calvinistic.  Which, considering the internal contradictions of Calvinism, must have been an interesting balancing act, psychologically and morally.  But I recommend to any of you a poem called “the  Still-Born.”

That said, the interesting thing, to me, about this book (okay, collection of books, I don’t know what to call it) is the fact that it’s written by a man who assumes that discussion about literature will be of a certain kind, and that the concerns about literature will be of a certain nature, and who therefore proceeds without explaining why he is doing what he is doing.

This is actually the kind of dicussion about literature I was hoping to find when I first went to college, and mostly didn’t.   Winters was not a New Critic, and didn’t have much patience for them, but even the New Critics were going out of fashion when I got to Poughkeepsie.

There are also a few hints here about something I wish  I knew more about:   Winters says that his study of literature made it obvious to him that God must exist, but he says elsehere that he is neither a Christian nor capable of being one.  Since these volumes were mostly put out in the 1930s–and since he shows no signs of going in for  Buddhism or that kind of thing–I’d really like to know what form this belief in God took.  

What he does do, what the purpose of each of these collected volumes is, is to stand up for absolute values and absolute truth.  The “nonsense” in The Anatomy of Nonsense stands for relativism, hedonism and the Romantic impulse.  That’s how I ended up learning about Jones Very.  In the second of these volumes, called Maule’s  Curse, Winters compares the New England Transcendentalists, and especially Emerson, to Very and  Very’s resurgent Calvinism.

I agree with Robert that we have, at the moment, exchanged one ossified system for another, but what should have happened, what u sually has happened, historicaly, when a system ossifies, is not just that it breaks down but that it resurgence not of a new system but of a new form of an old one.

The Victorians didn’t invent “Victorian morality.”  They discarded both the looseness of Renaissance morals and the rigidities of early Protestantism to constuct a newly workable framework for the Christian consensus. 

They even managed to keep several of the things the Enlightenment did right–like a commitment to the use of reason in human affairs, the investigation of the material world by material means, and the sea-change that made government more a matter of parliaments than of kings.

Or Queens.  One of the most depressingly disappointing experiences of m life was to finally find, about five years or so ago, a good biography of Victoria, only to find that–the strenuous efforts of the writer notwithstanding–she seems to have been a largely mediocre woman who was simply in the right place at the right time.

Winters points out that Deism, in itself, was the seed of the Romantic revolt, because Deism assumed not only what I’d always been taught–that God made the universe and established its laws, and then ceased to be at all interested in its day to day operations–but that,  God being good, the creatures and the laws he made must also be good.  Therefore, the nature of man must be, at base, also good, and man could make himself happy by learning to understand “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” and following them.

For Winters, the study of literature is an essentially moral project not because literature will make us better men and women but because literature is one of the ways, and the chief way for most people, that human beings ask and attempt to answer moral questions.

I am, I think, making a mess of things here in ways that I can’t begin to unravel, but I think what  I’m getting to comes down to this:

The Victorian dispensation was a reaction to the moral and social excesses of the eras that proceeded it, and most immediately to Romanticism. 

That reaction, and the establishment (or re-establishment) of conventional and rule-bound morality was accomplished by the middle class.

But “middle class” here means not what we take it to mean here in America in the 21st century, but by what we now call the “upper middle class”-by the very people the  Republian party likes to call “the elites”–not the very rich, but the liberally educated members of the gentlemen’s professions, the owners of substantial business enterprises.

The Sixties was, in a sense, the resurgence of the Romatic revolt against reason.  If history repeats itself, then we should be seeing a return of conventional moral strictures in precisely those people and places–the Gold  Coast of Connecticut, Westchester County, the Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C.–who are now so enthusastically championing the exact opposite thing.

In a way, of course, the moral strictures have reappeared–but where they should have reappared to enforce compliance with an old code, they’ve reappeared to enforce compliance with a new one.

And, of course, it’s not working.  When the middle classes of Victoria’s reign lowered the boom on Romantic moral laxness, they were influential not only because they were an “elite,” but because the rules they wanted to enforce had always been generally accepted to be valid, even if honored mostly in the breach.

That meant that the classes under the middle respected the rules even if they couldn’t or wouldn’t always follow them–but in that respect came at least attempts at compliance, and in those attempts came a reformation of society that lasted over a hundred years and gave us some of the most important intellectual and cultural work ever produced on this earth.

The new moral strictures of America’s upper middle class today, however, are laregly foreign not only to the public at large but even to themselves–the exception being the enormous importance placed on commitment to work almost bove all other things. 

Winters didn’t live long enough to see any of this, but I wonder what he would have thought of it.

Written by janeh

July 26th, 2009 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Questions of Substance, Questions of Style'

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  1. Our reading of the cycles is somewhat different. Looking at promiscuity, illegitimacy and general unbelief, I’d have called this the Third Great Breakdown, at least in the English-speaking world. The first would be late Tudor (say Mary and Elizabeth) and was followed by the Puritans. The second was late Georgian (George III and IV) and followed by the Victorians. I don’t know what will follow this one, but I expect my grandchildren to be quite a bit more strait-laced than my Boomer contemporaries.
    The new norms currently being enforced look to me more like Revolutionary France’s “Republican virtue” and Goddess of Reason, or some of the similar programs in the Europe of the Dictators. Whether good or bad, they have no roots and tend not to last long. I expect Gaia worship to go the way of liberty trees, and crackpot (but credentialed!) psychology to be one with humors and bleeding. Have patience: phrenology wasn’t discredited in a day.

    Note also that when you vastly expand the reach of government–and we have–every fanatic with a Cause now has an opportunity to impose his or her will on others. Often the others care only a little, but the fanatic cares a LOT. And there are a lot of fanatics, and a lot of Causes.

    As for plots, note I generally say “story.” There is a tale that someone observed to Bach that soon all the possible music would be used up. He pointed to the sea and said “look! here comes the last wave.” Heinlein said there were only three plots, but he wrote many more good stories than that. I’ve never seen a listing of “narative arcs” but I doubt that’s an upper limit either.

    On the other hand, if the story is uninteresting, telling it in exceptionally clear English won’t take me far into the second chapter. Larding it with obscure references won’t even work that well. Story-telling is not the same as writing the London TIMES crossword.


    26 Jul 09 at 1:38 pm

  2. I tried to find The Still-Born with google. All that turned up was Hildegarde! That is impressively fast work by google!


    26 Jul 09 at 4:57 pm

  3. Ditto, moi. It’s not listed in any of the sites that collected Very’s work.


    26 Jul 09 at 7:04 pm

  4. For “Poems and Essays” by Jones Very (1886):
    Then search for “Still-Born” in search box to left. Poem is on page 162

    Lee B

    26 Jul 09 at 9:36 pm

  5. PS–you’ll need to switch to plain text before searching to get a linked table of contents

    Lee B

    26 Jul 09 at 9:39 pm

  6. Thanks, Lee.


    27 Jul 09 at 3:16 am

  7. Lee’s url worked for finding the book but I have no idea of how to switch to plain text in FireFox! :(


    27 Jul 09 at 5:29 pm

  8. jd–once you go to the page, look at the line on the website right under the blue bar which has the title & author. There’s a link near the right which says ‘Plain text’. Just click that. You can also put 162 in the box in the middle of that same line, right next to the white with blue background right & left arrows. The first will get you to the table of contents, the second directly to the poem.

    Navigating Google Books is not very intuitive.

    Lee B

    27 Jul 09 at 8:36 pm

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