Thursday, 30 April 2015

Isaiah Berlin and Romanticism

One of a handful of intellectuals in Britain with a deep sympathy for the golden age of European culture known as German Romanticism, Isaiah Berlin nevertheless resisted what he thought of as the intoxicating effects of the more extreme Romantic ideas. (The handful would surely also include the literary critic George Steiner - like Berlin, an √©migr√© of Jewish descent). The end result of the “passionate, fanatical, half-mad” doctrines of Romanticism, he concludes in his study The Roots of Romanticism, is an understanding of the plurality of values and therefore - paradoxically - “liberalism, toleration, decency and the appreciation of the imperfections of life”.

This sane and erudite liberalism naturally also colours Berlin’s readings of Russian intellectual history (e.g. in the volume Russian Thinkers from which the quotes that follow are drawn) - which arguably constitute his other main contribution to British intellectual life. His understanding of German romanticism makes him uniquely able to discern its massive impact on 19th century Russian thought, allowing us to conceive the then emerging Russian intelligentsia - more than the French or American, and certainly more than the English - as the true heirs of the ideas of Herder, Schelling and Hegel.

Central to German Romanticism, Berlin perceived, was a recognition of the limitations of the mechanistic understanding of the universe which the European Enlightenment had brought to the fore, and a consequent exploration of non-scientific modes of understanding the world. While enlightenment thinkers sought to extend the methods of natural science to understand culture, the romantics sought a generalised hermeneutics modelled on the intuitive, unformalisable way we understand works of art, or each other. No longer a giant machine composed of separate parts, the universe became “a single spirit, a great, animate organism, a soul or self, evolving from one spiritual stage to another”. Understanding such a universe was therefore closer to aesthetic experience or mystical vision than a patient accumulation of facts and a formulation of laws.

Though sympathetic to these ideas, Berlin rejects them not merely because of the harmful political consequences he identifies them as having, but because they “vastly exaggerated the power and reliability of this kind of intuitive and poetical insight”. The romantic programme, despite important kernels of truth such as “the notion that the many activities of the human spirit are interrelated”, is ultimately “a fantasy, or at any rate a form of highly subjective poetry in prose”. Such judgements echo those of the logical positivists (with whose work Berlin would have been thoroughly familiar - he was a lifelong friend of A J Ayer, for example) who dismissed the entire history of metaphysics as literally nonsensical, or at best a form of poetry misunderstanding itself as philosophy.

There is, however, an air of confusion in this criticism of German romanticism. For if, as Berlin recognises, the romantics consciously modelled their epistemology on aesthetics, the idea that their theories can be seen as a product of ‘fantasy’ (a word whose greek etymology points towards imaginative insight, despite the negative connotations of the term in modern usage), and a form of ‘poetry in prose’ should be highly congenial to them: far from being a criticism of their theories, it could be seen as their consequence. Berlin half-recognises this problem in qualifying the term ‘poetry’ with the phrase ‘highly subjective’ - as if recognising that his criticism would be weakened if the poetry were of a more universal kind. A non-subjective, universal poetry, one that expresses the ‘spirit of the age’ and ultimately “the spirit of the universe conceived pantheistically as a kind of ubiquitous divinity” was of course just the kind of poetry Berlin accurately describes the romantics as striving for.

So the crux of this particular criticism of German romanticism is whether such a universal, non-subjective poetry (Progressive Universalpoesie was Schlegel’s definition of romantic poetry) is possible, or whether attempts to realise it inevitably degenerate into something purely subjective. And this question in turn depends on how we understand the distinction between subjectivity and the universality it is supposed to lack. On the romantic conception of subjectivity or selfhood, subjectivity and universality are not necessarily opposed. The idea of a ‘merely subjective’ poetry presupposes an enlightenment ideal of scientific objectivity whose pretensions the romantics sought to deflate. 

Berlin is ready to grant that “the French philosophes may have exaggerated the virtue…of the application of the criteria of the natural sciences to human affairs”. Perhaps not surprisingly, a proper evaluation of German romanticism hinges on understanding the precise extent to which modern man has exaggerated the power of science to bring ‘objective’ knowledge of the world, as opposed to merely providing the tools to transform it.

Berlin concludes The Roots of Romanticism with the claim that the romantics were “hoist with their own petard” because their ideas lead naturally to a sceptical, pragmatic liberalism, despite the romantics’ intentions. Perhaps the truth is exactly the opposite: a sceptical, pragmatic liberalism leads naturally to a scepticism of exaggerated claims to scientific objectivity, and therefore a renewed appreciation for the ‘subjective’ powers of the romantic imagination.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Occultism and ‘the Movement’

In considering the relation between twentieth century British poetry and the occult tradition it is natural to think first of the occult leanings of the great modernists: the Frazer-inspired occultism of ‘the Waste land’; the ‘mythic method’ of Joyce’s Ulysses; Ezra Pound and the mystical psychology of the troubadours; the ‘strange gods’ of Yeats’ supernaturalism; not to mention Lawrence’s Paganism, or HD’s mythic Hellenism… the list goes on. All this seems at first sight to contrast sharply with ‘the Movement’, often thought of as responding to the excesses of Dylan Thomas and ‘the new apocalyptics’ with a sober and sceptical return to the ordinary.

But on closer inspection there are surprising survivals of occult tradition in the Movement. For one thing, there is Elizabeth Jennings, one of the poets included in the famous ‘New Lines’ anthology. Throughout her life Jennings was involved in a complex and passionate engagement with the more mystical stream of Catholicism, an engagement that resulted in a book-length investigation of the relation between poetry and mystical experience, Every Changing Shape (which perhaps significantly takes it’s title from Eliot’s early work ‘Portrait of a Lady’).

It would be easy to write off Jennings as an exception, were it not for a mystical strain reaching to the heart of the poetics of the Movement. Donald Davie’s essay ‘Purity of Diction in English Verse’ is often thought of as the closest thing the movement had to a ‘manifesto’. The term ‘purity of diction’ is ultimately defined by Davie in reference to the still under-rated work of Owen Barfield. Davie is discussing Barfield’s claim that figurative language is essential to true poetry, a claim that may seem antithetical to the Movement’s admiration for the ‘virtues of good prose’. Barfield writes:

If you take away from the stream of European poetry every passage of a metaphorical nature, you would reduce it to a very thin trickle indeed, pure though the remainder beverage might be to the taste. Perhaps our English poetry would suffer the heaviest damage of all.

Davie points out, however, that by Barfield’s own criteria, even poetry that takes the form of simple and literal statement can be profoundly figurative, due to the activation of dead metaphors in apparently literal language. Consequently, for Davie, the ‘purity’ mentioned by Barfield can be seen as a virtue. Far from damaging English poetry, purity of diction for Davie becomes a means of purifying the language by reviving its hidden powers.

Part of the reason for Barfield’s continuing neglect, of course, is his long and sincere association with Rudolf Steiner’s Anthoposophy, perhaps the most refined expression of modern occultism. Though Barfield underplays the connections in the work (Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning) discussed by Davie, the connections are there. The notion of reviving dead metaphor, for Barfield is closely connected to the Anthoposophical understanding of the history of the soul. As Barfield tells it, the development of human powers of rationality in modernity can be seen as having eroded our intuitive sense of the connection between, among other things, the natural and the spiritual world. Barfield gives a scholarly and logical argument for seeing the history of language as one in which single meanings - meanings embodying what from our current point of view appear as intuitive syntheses of key dichotomies: nature vs spirit, abstract vs concrete - tend to split up into a number of separate and often isolated concepts. The dead metaphors in our language, for Barfield, are thus often linguistic remnants of a primordial conceptual and perceptual holism. It is not much of a stretch, therefore, to see Davie’s program of purifying the language by reviving such earlier meanings as running in parallel with the occultist program of bridging the gap between nature and the world of spirit.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Schellenberg's Skeptical Religion: thoughts on 'belief in' vs 'belief that'

In his book The Will to Imagine: A Justification of Skeptical Religion, Schellenberg offers a neat set of concepts with which to approach the old problem of the relation of faith and reason. For Schellenberg, religious skepticism - by which he means, neither believing nor disbelieving religious propositions - is fully justified. His proposal, however, is that the religious skeptic may nevertheless have religious faith. Specifically, he may have propositional faith in religious propositions, defined as follows:

Propositional faith involves voluntary asset to a proposition, undertaken in circumstances where one views the state of affairs it reports as good and desirable but in which one lacks belief in the proposition. In thus assenting to a proposition, one adheres to a certain policy: a policy of mentally going along with its content in relevant contexts (as opposed to questioning or criticising or ignoring it, or simply keeping it at arm's length) - of imagining the world to oneself as including the relevant state of affairs and mentally endorsing this representation ( in thought 'taking its side', aligning oneself with it, deciding in favour of it, selecting it to guide one). (p3)

One can have propositional faith in regard to any of the world's great religions, but Schellenberg argues that the best object of propositional faith is a sort of generalised religion he calls 'Ultimism': the view that "what is deepest in reality (metaphysically ultimate) is also unsurpassably great (axiologically ultimate) and the source of an ultimate good (salvific)" (xii) This kind of general faith is to be recommended over particular faiths on the basis of an intellectual virtue religious skeptics will readily recognise - the virtue of openness, understood as encompassing 'intellectual vigilance', 'evenhandedness', and the 'readiness or willingness to accept' the widest possible range of significant religious propositions.

The idea that ultimism is to be preferred in this way is plausible, since being open to the widest possible range of religious propositions will naturally lead one to want to leave open one's commitment to any one such proposition by committing instead to the most general version of such propositions. But it could be argued that the momentum of this argument actually takes one even further than Ultimism. For the extreme openness of the genuine religious skeptic will naturally lead him to doubt, not only whether ultimism is true - which is strictly irrelevant to the question of the adoption of propositional faith - but precisely whether it is the best object of propositional faith. For instance, she will be driven to consider whether a version of Satanism (in which what is axiologically ultimate is not also salvific) or naturalism (in which what is metaphysically ultimate is not axiologically ultimate or salvific) might not be better objects of propositional faith than Ultimism. Note that if she is a religious skeptic, neither believing nor disbelieving in religious claims, the fact that these views imply atheism do not make them inappropriate as objects of propositional faith - since for such a skeptic atheism is just as much a matter of faith as religion.

Perhaps a more significant way in which the openminded skeptic will be led to question Ultimism, however, relates to the very concepts in which Ultimism is formulated. Genuine openness would surely include openness to other ways of conceptually formulating and expressing the ultimate object of one's propositional faith. It would include, for instance, vigilance regarding the intellectual histories of such words as 'axiological' and 'salvific' (and the terms with which such words are explicated), and regarding whether such words might have undesirable or unwarranted metaphysical or Christian connotations. What this suggests is that there may be a problem with the propositional aspect of propositional faith: for in being tied to a particular proposition - a particular logical concatenation of particular concepts - propositional faith seems to lack the fluidity required by skeptical openness.

It is interesting in this context to recall the distinction between 'belief that p' and 'belief in X'. H H Price argued that some uses of 'belief in X', and in particular belief in God, are not reducible to 'belief that p', i.e. to any combination of propositional beliefs. Schellenberg implicitly draws an analogous distinction in his account of propositional faith, which is essentially 'faith that p' rather than 'faith in X'. But if belief in X is not necessarily reducible to belief that p, then 'faith in X' may not always be reducible to 'faith that p' (and observe that this latter is by far the less natural idiom). Consequently, the fact that skeptical openness involves an openness to the variety of possible propositional formulations of the object of faith, suggests that the object of this skeptic's faith may be best expressed in the idiom of 'faith in X'. The phrase 'faith in God' , for instance, might be said to possess the same combination of maximal generality with specifically religious content as Schellenberg's Ultimist proposition, while avoiding the limitations of being tied to specific propositional commitments. (Note that an assumption being made here is that the skeptic avowing this kind of 'faith in God' will not understand the word 'God' in such a way as to commit himself to the kinds of propositional claims affirmed in specific religions).

The move from propositional to non-propositional mental attitudes also threatens to undermine Schellenberg's fundamental distinction between faith and belief. For a key point about propositional faith, for Schellenberg, is its compatibility with the absence of propositional belief. But if belief in God is quite distinct from believing some range of propositions about God, there may be no need for the religious skeptic to make a leap from belief to faith, in order to avoid commitment to particular propositions; instead, all that may be required is a move from avowals of 'belief that' to avowals of 'belief in'.

Monday, 7 January 2013


Automatic writing is to poetry what Jazz is to composition.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Freedom and Transgression: Sontag on Artaud and Breton

That Artaud found Breton's thinking shallow - that is, optimistic, aesthetic - follows from the fact that Breton did not have a Gnostic style or sensibility. Breton was attracted by the hope of reconciling the demands of individual freedom with the need to expand and balance the personality through generous, corporate emotions; the anarchist view, formulated in this century with the greatest subtlety and authority by Breton and Paul Goodman, is a form of conservative, humanistic thinking - doggedly sensitive to everything repressive and mean while remaining loyal to the limits that protect human growth and pleasure. The mark of Gnostic thinking is that it is enraged by all limits, even those that save. (Susan Sontag, 'Introduction' to Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings)

Susan Sontag's sensitive portrait of the difference between Artaud and Breton only slightly exaggerates Breton's often unacknowledged sympathy with ideas of human development often located within the more romantic strands of liberalism (Hegel, von Humboldt, to a lesser extent J S Mill). And the question at issue, of whether the ideal of developing one's creative faculties may be in tension with a profound kind of freedom, must seem crucial in our libertarian age.

One way to doubt whether there really is a tension here may be to ask why it seems so appropriate to describe the Gnostic opposition to limits as a matter of rage. Might not such rage, even while it provides the energies required for a transgression of limits, involve experiential limitations of its own, in particular by closing off the pleasures of growth? And granted that a certain kind of fidelity to growth and pleasure also involves intrinsic limitations (and perhaps it is precisely these that particularly enrage the Gnostic Artaud) is it not precisely the function of such loyalty to open up more choices than it closes off?

Bataille wrote that in Surrealism "the accent is placed not on the fact of choosing but on the content of the choice proposed". Although the fact of choosing must remain central to anyone deeply concerned with freedom, the issue between Artaud and Breton may indeed come down to the concrete structure of freedom: not how many limits should be transgressed (for how, in any case, should they be counted) but which limits - and what it is that lies beyond them.

Bataille and Surrealism: Skepticism and Optimism

"Too many fucking idealists". In the age of Auschwitz and the Gulags, where a black pessimism can seem the only rational response to one's historical situation, it is easy to identify with George Bataille's well-known condemnation of the Surrealists' aim of synthesizing dream and reality. Likewise, if the underground stream nourishing modern thought since Descartes is an increasingly thorough skepticism, Bataille's atheistic mysticism of non-knowledge can seem more absolument moderne than the Surrealist preference for mythic imagination over reason.

But what this condemnation fails to recognise is the way the surrealists had already lived through the pessimism and skepticism of modernity in the form of Dada. That the skepticism of Surrealism was at heart more profound than that of Bataille can be judged from their more complete renunciation of logical argumentation. While Bataille cannot rid himself of the need to explain himself (as he ruefully observed with regard to the sociological impetus of The Accursed Share), the surrealist manifestos are free of anxieties of justification, their criticisms of the age ultimately personal, rather than rational.

Surrealism in fact shows how the most profound skepticism triumphs even over pessimism. Far from being the consequence of his skepticism, Bataille's rigorous refusal of hope, both personal and political, can be seen to result instead from a residual addiction to the idea of being constrained by the bleak truth of reality, a reality in which the surrealist Icarus will be cast back to earth by the dark sun of necessity. By contrast, the Surrealists understood that if nothing is true, everything is permitted - even optimism.

Thursday, 12 July 2012


How often, when reading a work by X, we think to ourselves, "if only X had read Y - Y deals with exactly this point but more lucidly, profoundly etc." The art of wide reading lies in being able to diminish such reactions in readers of one's own work.

Video art is to film what poetry is to the novel.