Gathering flowers for the mind

IMG_0064 (2).JPGThis morning I pulled down from my bookshelf a cardboard box that contains a hundred or more index cards on which I had written in the 1980s and 1990s when I was a student, and before computers, quotations, drawn from my reading. This old habit is like gathering flowers for the mind, and the sewing together of wisdom or insight or simply perceptive observations from writers of the canon has long been a foundation of the essay genre.

Montaigne’s essays after all are patchworks of the classical authors. I open the complete essays at a random page, and there in the first two paragraphs of “Of not communicating one’s glory,” I see Montaigne quoting a verse by Tasso, who I confess I do not know, and writing, “For as Cicero says, even those who combat it [the concern for reputation and glory] still want the books that they write about it to bear their name on the title page, and want to become glorious for having despised glory.”

These cards remind me of what I have strived to be, a custodian of a cultural inheritance, a poet in destitute times, a prophet of the banished. I shuffle through the names – Arendt, Adorno, Heidegger, Rene Char, Foucault, Derrida, Benjamin, Beckett, Norman Brown, Barthes, Wallace Stevens, Weber, Schiller, Kafka and more. For years I reached for the titans in my mind; I sought to scale my mind’s mountains, “cliffs of fall/ Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. (Hopkins)” Did it bring me anything but knowing I had sought the summit? These cards are my souvenirs, my pressed wildflowers of those long hours of walking into maelstroms of black thoughts and lightless uncertainty.

I find from Schiller’s Letters on Aesthetic Education (letter 6):

“Everlastingly chained to a single little fragment of the whole, man himself develops into nothing but a fragment; everlastingly in his ear the monotonous sound of the wheel he turns, he never develops the harmony of his being, and instead of putting the stamp of his humanity upon his own nature, he becomes nothing more than the imprint of his occupation or of his knowledge.”

So long I have sought transcendence of that petty imprint, the husk I have known I have lived in, with the disappointment of not finding a way to make a living in accordance with my deepest humanity, in this infinite conversation, whose ghosts and night whispers I have recorded on these cards.

And this curse of being adrift in the world of work in a way that wars with my spirit I find annotated from Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilised coal is burned. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the saint like a “light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become a housing as hard as steel [or an iron cage]”

There I find myself and my struggles again in the summoning of the irresistible force that took me far from the life of the mind and the way of life I most love. There in the hint of dark prophecy – when the last ton of fossilised coal is burned – I see my own troubled relationship with our times, driven by both an ethic of responsibility to act in the world, not merely to paint word pictures of it, and a deep unease with the people and preoccupations of corporations and contemporary governments.

I read Arendt’s musing on whether political traditions exert their force most powerfully on human minds when the living force of the tradition has died, and people can no longer even think to rebel against it. And I wonder how I can be a vessel for a more vital tradition, a tradition of political thought that honours the ordinary virtues of governing well, if only I allow all that I have been to flow through me and become all that I might be.

And then, at last, I remember Mikhail Bakhtin, and his sense of the carnivalesque and the dialogic, and his words, from Speech Genres and other essays, may best complete this glimpse of recovery of the imagination and of the narrative of my life:

There is neither a first word nor a last word. The contexts of dialogue are without limit. They extend into the deepest past and the most distant future. Even meanings born in dialogues of the remotest past will never be finally grasped once and for all, for they will always be renewed in later dialogue. At any present moment of the dialogue there are great masses of forgotten meanings, but these will be recalled again at a given moment in the dialogue’s later course when it will be given new life. For nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will someday have its homecoming festival.

When, beyond the flames and ash of the burning archive, will be my homecoming festival?


The disenchantment of the world

I have long known this phrase – in German die Entziehung der Welt – from Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and known it as the long historical process in which rational, scientific and commercial action stripped the objects of the world of their magic, spirit and divine presence. The life world became a set of manipulable objects, and the mind a calculating machine in which symbol and unreason were shamed, caged and denigrated. Weber’s great essay came from the deep spring of this conflict in his own mind, following his mental collapse, his crisis of depression, his reintegration of the mystic spirit he imbibed from his mother and that made him resent the hard casing of rational vocation and mourn the disenchantment of the world.

In truth, hard practical rationality, perhaps some might call it modernity, although that word was born only in the late nineteenth century and has a troubled heritage, this useful reason that dominates our lives never completed vanquished the spirits enchanting the world, and never completely terminated the mourning for a world in which at least the artist could commune with the spirit world, newly abstracted as the imagination. So Wallace Stevens, late in his Hartford study, would speak to his interior paramour, and “for small reason, think/ the world imagined is the ultimate good.” And well before the graceful emperor of ice cream, it was Schiller who coined the concept, the disenchantment of the world. In his 1788 poem, the “Gods of Greece” – the year this great island where I write was settled by modern European peoples and modernity would encounter tragically peoples bound differently in spirit with this new claimed land – Schiller mourned the vital aesthetic world of the Greeks and spoke of die engotterte Natur – nature from which gods have been eliminated. Later, Hegel wrote in Phenomenology of Spirit:

Trust in the eternal laws of the gods has vanished and the Oracles, which pronounced on particular questions are dumb. The statues are now only stones from which the living soul has flown, just as the hymns are words from which belief has gone… The works of the Muse now lack the power of the Spirit, for the Spirit has gained its certainty of itself from the crushing of gods and men.

It is in the mourning of this disenchantment of the world that Gabriel Josipovici places the spirit and the history of modernism in Whatever happened to Modernism?  Its spirit he evokes by expressions of the remorseless need to go on producing art despite an irrecoverable loss that severs the artist, the writer, the thinker, the musician from communion with spirit, continuity of tradition, certainty of authority, divinity of passion. So Kafka:

Nothing is granted me, everything has to be earned, not only the present and future but the past too – something after all which perhaps every human being has inherited, this too must be earned, it is perhaps the hardest task. (Letters to Milena)

So Wittgenstein:

Certain events would put me into a position in which I could not go on with the old language games any further. In which I was torn away from the sureness of the game . (On certainty)

So Kierkegaard: “What is really missing is the strength to obey, to yield to the necessary in one’s self, what might be called one’s limits.”

It is so, Josipovici argues, that Modernism ought not be understood as a passing art period, but rather as “the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities, and therefore as something that will, from now on, always be with us.” It is as such a response to the disenchantment of the world, and so remains as a continuing vital tradition, a never ending work of mourning response to the loss of the cultural, historical and psychological attachments that offer redemption for frailty and failure. It is in this spirit that I am still a modernist, and that modernism, understood not as ideas but as a work of speaking truth in the face of trauma, offers a way to restore a public culture of love and compassion, tragedy and comedy, a public culture that reaches beyond the callow illusions of marketing to the deeper longings we all hold within.