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Sigmund Freud is noted as the founder of psychoanalysis (currently the therapy based on Freud’s teachings is called “psychodynamic”). His influence on the intellectual community, including the modernist writers, cannot be underestimated. His focus on the unconscious, what he took to be the larger part of the mind underlying conscious experience and from which childhood sexual fantasies and other “dark sides” of the self arise. The Id, Ego, and Superego, sounding much like Plato’s appetitive, spirited, and rational parts of the soul, are important concepts in Freud’s thought and among the concepts he discusses in his book, Civilization and its Discontents. The Id is the part of the self with the most primitive desires—sexuality is the focus at this level. The Ego is the self of which we are conscious, and the Superego is roughly equivalent to conscience. These concepts are involved in the two major forces that, according to Freud, drive civilization, Eros and Thanatos. As I read this, I thought I was reading what the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles would have written had he been an opium addict. Empedocles emphasized Love (Eros) and Strife as the driving forces in the universe as a whole. For Freud, Eros and Thanatos drive both personal and civilizational growth. Eros is the tendency toward oneness, toward union with another, while Thanatos, the death instinct, is about separation, division, destructiveness.

Freud stands in the great tradition of those thinkers, both East and West, who understood the world, or in Freud’s case part of the world, in terms of a conflict of opposites. This notion dates back to the famous Anaximander fragment (below is my woodenly literal translation):

But from whence things begin,
these things are also destroyed according to necessity,
for they render to one another justice and injustice
according to the order of time.

One can see how Jung could be Freud’s student—Freud himself uses a mythical notion to explain the driving forces of civilization. Eros seems to be broader than sex, though the drive to union is part of sexuality. The death instinct is not a bad thing—it must be held in balance with Eros for civilization to progress. Both instincts would be in the more primitive part of the unconscious mind, the Id, and are balanced out by the Superego as they coalesce in the Ego. The sum total of such effects in persons in a society creates and sustains civilization.

My problem with Freud is not with his notion of the unconscious, though the earlier concept of the “subliminal self” by F. W. H. Meyers makes more sense to me. The problem is with Freud’s system focusing so much on sexuality—such a system cannot be falsified, as Karl Popper noted, because if someone denies his problems arise from childhood sexual impulses, Freud can always appeal to repression as an “explanation.” The same applies to his view of the driving forces of civilization—there may be some truth to what he says, but his approach is overly simplistic—there are many other forces—economic, religious, cultural—that drive civilization that may not necessarily be reduced to Eros and Thanatos. Freud’s view of religion is naïve, ignoring the diversity of religions—Theravada Buddhism would not fit well into his system, and in any case his position says nothing about the truth or falsehood of religious claims unless Freud insists on committing the genetic fallacy.

However, one cannot downplay Freud’s significance in the general culture from the time that his work on the unconscious was published to the present day. There may be a difference in what unconscious forces are believed to play a role in behavior and motivation, but it is almost universally accepted that they do play a major role. The influence, as usual, began with the intellectual class, including the modernist writers, and spread down to the general public. Often Freud’s thought on the unconscious is combined with Neo-Marxist ideas about sublimated power motivators that are ideologically driven, though not all necessarily in conscious awareness. Freud, along with the other two members of the modern cultural trinity, Marx and Darwin, continue to mold the mindset of Western humanity.

On Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse


Reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is like floating on a cloud over a foggy landscape. The imagery is beautiful, deeply metaphorical, and captures the individuality of specific thoughts and emotions. Several thematic elements stand out: feminism, the nature of time and memory including the transience of life and especially of small moments of happiness, and the persistence of memory. The Proust-like stance on subjective time and on memory is one thing I found intriguing about the novel. It is interesting that as childhood seems to pass more slowly and stand out more in long-term memory, so the first part of the novel is by far the longest part.

There is a focus, found in Lily’s thoughts, on the meanings of words, or whether words have an objective meaning beyond the transient moment. The problem of perception, underlined in one of the Lily passages, is fascinating philosophically. Of course she, as a painter, must focus on perception and finding the truth through art. Yet given the subjectivity of perception, is that possible? The ending of the book suggests that it is and that the truth of a work of art trumps all utilitarian concerns. The artist becomes a Christ figure when she says at the completion of her work, “It is finished,” the last words of Christ in the Gospel of John.

Among the characters, it is Lily and Mr. Ramsey that I find most interesting. Lily has the heart and mind of an artist; Mr. Ramsey that of a philosopher—but both have deep self-doubts—something common to both creative artists and academics of all stripes.

The imagery is what impresses me the most. There is a pattern of conceptual thought-image-conceptual thought-image throughout the work. An example is from Mrs. Ramsey:

How then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch or taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive, ranged the wastes of the air over the countries of the world alone, and then haunted the hives with their murmurs and stirrings; the hives, which were people” (p. 51, Harcourt edition).

This simile is so detailed that it functions very much like a good metaphor, saying more than can be said by ordinary language and creating new meaning, as Paul Ricouer says, on the ruins of logical contradiction (people are not literally bees). What was most fascinating is that as I continued to read the dialectic between thought and imagery, I realized that I had seen that pattern before—in both the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. They move from description or dialogue to beautiful, detailed images, often of nature, and I wonder whether Woolf was influenced by those works in writing To the Lighthouse.

The triad pattern of events between two ten-year intervals, the final interval divided into fast vs. slow passage of time—is interesting—surely this is intentional. At the end, all moments are redeemed by James finally appreciating that his father is not a total ass, and this paints an optimistic end to the book (Lily would agree). Ten and three are numbers associated with perfection and completion, and two with the two natures of Christ, divine and human, in Christian theology, and Woolf was probably using the numerical structure to underline that point.

The problem of loss is particularly acute for those who no longer have religious faith—this is Woolf’s stance, and she has the task of preserving transcendence and meaning in the face of that loss. She does so by focusing on the small events which are epiphanies of natural grace such as Mr. Ramsey’s praising James—and that small moment of praise is sufficient for James to overcome his hatred of his father. Art itself—including the artistic work, To the Lighthouse, preserves the truth of a moment in time and draws the reader out of the subjectivity of the characters into seeing the truth that transcends each individual consciousness.

On T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland"


It is an interesting experience reading T. S. Eliot’s original version of “The Wasteland” and the result after he incorporated the majority of Ezra Pound’s edits. Eliot’s original title was a quotation from a humorous passage from Charles Dickens, “Me Do the Policeman in Different Voices.” Pound wisely encouraged Eliot to change the title. His other edits separated the images from the background, and transitions were deleted. The result is the collage effect that is sometimes compared with Cubism.

Eliot’s original epithet was from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, including Kurtz’s last words, “The horror! The horror!” I think this would have worked, but Pound preferred a classical reference, which Eliot took from Petronius. It is a reference to Sibyl who asked Apollo to live forever and forgot to ask for eternal youth. She ends up shriveling up and living in a jar as an insect-like creature at the marketplace.

The poem is filled with references to the Bible, to classical Greek and Roman literature, to Dante, to Shakespeare, and to both literary and popular novels of Eliot’s own day. As is the case with some of Pound’s more obscure works, it takes a great deal of intellectual capital to be invested to understand the poem.
“The Wasteland” begins with the famous line saying that April is the “cruelest month”—the world is coming alive, but new life is painful and cruel to the poet—he does not want to feel renewal and joy in April. Like Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes, the poet interprets the world as meaningless patterns of repetition. Even though the world is repetitious at one level, it is chaotic and unpredictable at another. This is because the forms of civilization that had held the world together since Westphalia in 1648 had broken down in the First World War. Most of the “crowned heads of Europe” whom Americans loved to disdain were now gone for good. What remained was a new, uncertain world in which Europe was poverty-stricken in a depression that would not reach the United States until the end of 1929. The old religious values, already weakened by the Enlightenment and its effects, did not, at least in Western Europe, withstand the strain of World War I. In such a world, what is one to do?

It seems that modern humanity is every bit as impotent as Prufrock in another Eliot poem, or as the Fisher King, of which there are references as well as references to the Grail story. These themes are prevalent in Eliot’s poetry. The movement from fairly traditional iambs at the beginning (though broken by enjambment) to a more chaotic structure parallels modern humanity coming apart. This is also shown by Eliot’ Switches voices from one persona to another, from ancient to modern writers and back again, to male and female voices in the narration and to and from high and low speech.

In a sense, “The Wasteland” is a horror poem. It is a poetic vision that parallels the prose vision in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Eliot would escape his own horror through accepting Anglican Christianity and embracing the English constitutional monarchy. Others will have to weave their own way out lest they be trapped in “The Wasteland.”

On T. S. Eliot's "The Journey of the Magi"


T. S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi” is a poem written after Eliot’s conversion to Anglo-Catholic Christianity. It is an account of the journey of the Magi to see the Christ child from their point of view. The narrator describes a difficult journey with both natural and human threats as well as the fear that their journey was a journey of fools. When they arrive in Bethlehem, the narrator describes the result as “satisfactory,” which is an understatement that ironically draws the reader’s attention. There is much Christian imagery—the three trees, for instance, that the Magi encounter represent the three crosses on which Jesus and the two thieves executed with him were crucified. There is a reference to “pieces of silver,” which is an allusion to the thirty pieces of silver that Judas received when he betrayed Jesus. The theme of life through death, of rebirth, is evident at the end of the poem. The magi, now believers in Jesus as the messiah, are no longer at one with the faith of their own lands. They are alienated from their former selves, or more accurately, their former selves have died and they have been reborn as new creations. They desire, however, to die now so that they can be finally be reborn in a world that will be more real to them than this world.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” offers the reader a fragmented, painful confession of an old man that reflects the state of modern society. Yet it is not a typical confessional poem, for Prufrock, an old, unattached man, is not confessing any conventional sin/crime such as murder or adultery. Rather, focusing on similar issues to the post-World War II existentialists, he confesses to the crime of living a life without passion and without risk.

Prufrock clearly considers his crimes to be such that he is the scum of the earth, one of Dante’s damned souls confessing from the depths of hell. He invites the reader into his world by using romantic imagery followed by grim imagery, as Dante invites us in with the lure of a mysterious deep words and the presence of the great Roman poet Virgil. Like Pound, the narrator’s emotions are communicated through imagery, in this case metaphor over metaphor. Like Eliot’s other great modernist works, the poem is in the form of a collage which makes it difficult to follow, despite Eliot’s use of “objective correlatives” to induce a particular emotional response in the reader.

Prufrock feels worthless and uses a number of metaphors to express this feeling: his baldness, the butt-end of cigarettes, lobster claws—and unlike Hamlet, his suffering fails to ennoble him, but rather accentuates his degeneracy. His “love life” is without meaning, more of a “sex without love” life than a love life, as he moves from one casual encounter to another. But love and sex are illustrations—Prufrock’s real focus is on living a life of risk and passion whatever that risk or passion might be. At the end of the poem there is a shift from “I” to “we,” which suggests that all of us in modernity live lives without passion and without risk. There is a suggestion that if modern people shift their values, there is hope—even for an old man such as Prufrock, to take the risk and find the love that he has fled all his life.

There are multiple references to the quest for the Holy Grail and to the Fisher King. The Holy Grail is the cup Christ used at the Last Supper. The Fisher King is a king who failed in his charge to guard the grail and was wounded either in the leg or in the thigh (with implications of impotence). The Fisher King eventually is redeemed. The Grail was never found. We will live in a world of uncertainty, but one in which hope remains present.

Thomas Stearns Eliot clearly places himself in the new critical tradition in his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” However, his sense of the importance of tradition does make more room for history than the standard caricature of the New Critics as ahistorical. He recognizes that romantic individualism, which holds that a literary work is the product of the creative imagination of the writer, denies the reality that any artist works within a tradition. He has the (correct) insight that a new literary work forces a reappraisal of the entire tradition. Hemingway, for example, rendered the earlier flowing, expansive style of American writing obsolete. Even Faulkner, despite his long sentences, clearly was not a Victorian writer since he used concrete imagery rather than abstractions in those sentences.

Eliot probably emphasizes depersonalization as a reaction against that romantic vision. However, Eliot’s view of depersonalization, in my judgment, goes too far. He is right to assert the unique nature of a work of art and that its effect on the reader does not presume biographical knowledge about the author. However, the work of art is the product of a tradition and stands as an object with some independence within that tradition. But tradition arises from real people with practical needs and wants, and it can be, in my judgment, helpful in interpreting a work to understand something of an author’s life. Plus, an emotion, by its very nature, cannot be “impersonal.” To say an emotion is part of a written document means nothing. An emotion in the reader may be invoked by a literary work, and the writer writes with some emotion that is communicated by a good writer to the reader. When I write, I am in that world about which I am writing. I feel the emotions of the characters. That emotion bleeds over into the writings and is accentuated, not diminished, by re-reading a piece. With that said, Eliot renders a valuable service in noting the inevitability of tradition as well as the flexible bounds in which it operates.

Ezra Pound’s free “translation” of an ancient Chinese poem reveals his interest in Asian culture and literature. Both Chinese painting and writing are filled with vivid natural imagery. That, combined with the picture drawn in the reader’s mind of the emotional anguish of the river merchant’s wife who hopes—most likely in vain—that her husband will return. She, who wanted her and her husband’s ashes mingled after they died, may never see her husband again. The butterflies, traditional symbols of renewal of life, only serve to accentuate her pain. As I read the poem, the beauty of the rhythm and words carried me into this ancient world and into the heart of the merchant’s wife.

I had not realized before learning of the historical background of this poem that this is one of the first persona poems without the use of irony. Pound simply writes in the voice of the river merchant’s wife—there is no self-consciousness about Pound taking a persona—rather, we hear the woman’s voice when we read the poem. It is ingenious for a poet as widely read as Pound to take on the persona of an illiterate person and do that convincingly, but Pound succeeds. Befitting the influence of Asian forms, the images carry the poem forward and express the shifts in mood of the woman as she moves from a shell-shocked child bride in an arranged marriage to falling in love with her husband (and vice versa) to the point that they want their ashes mingled after their deaths. Now that he, as a merchant, has moved away for a time, even the monkeys’ howls are sorrowful, reflecting the woman’s sorrowful mood at being alone, a sharp contrast to the paired butterflies she sees. Pound goes beyond the older tendency to describe emotions with abstract adjectives and adverbs and allows the imagery to do the work. His work was among the first to do what is now emphasized in any beginner’s writing workshop: “show, don’t tell.”

The poem ends on a hopeful note, since the woman writes that she will half the distance if her husband agrees to see her. This is not certain, but hope that she will see her husband is sufficient to keep her spirit up for the moment.

On Ezra Pound, "In a Station of the Metro"


I had no idea when I first read Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” that so much meaning could be packed into two lines of poetry. In order to adequately grasp Pound’s poetry, it is necessary to do background research. The title itself is revealing since, as Pound reveals in his own notes, the station is the La Concorde station in the Paris metro. The poem is an image and a reflection on that image, as if the second line contains a slice of literary criticism in the form of metaphor. The image in the first line is dark:

“The apparition of these faces in the crowd”

“Apparition” calls to mind ghostly figures, but in French, as the critic Ralph Bevilaqua puts it, the word “can and often does carry the special meaning of the way something appears at the viewer at the precise moment is it perceived” [italics Bevilaqua’s]. The dark image of the apparition also carries with it the idea of the descent into hell where identical dead souls stare, their individuality lost, a theme with which Pound would be familiar from his knowledge of the ancients and of Dante. The dead are, appropriately, underground where the Greek and Medieval Christian Underworld and Hell are located.

The poem is meant to be revelatory of an experience by presenting the linguistic equivalent of a “primary pigment” used by the Vorticist artists. It superimposes one image over another to better capture the heart of an experience of a moment in time and space. The second image, a metaphor, has the faces become petals, which suggests renewed life, but they are on a “wet, black bough,” suggestive of death in the children’s song, “Rock-a-bye Baby”

Rock-a-bye baby
on the tree top.
When the wind blows
the cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks
the cradle will fall,
and down will come cradle,
baby and all.

The poem is a classic example of metaphor as “seeing as,” an understanding of metaphor that requires it be more than mere comparison (a strong simile can have a similar effect, I believe, and is also not a mere comparison). I. A. Richards, Max Black, and Paul Ricouer have developed the interactionist theory of metaphor, according to which the meaning of a metaphor cannot be reduced to the meaning of its component terms. (Lakoff and Johnson are also in that tradition, but they go too far, in my judgment, in their epistemological constructionism). According to Ricouer, the metaphor is literally a contradiction. The mind tries to make sense of the contradiction and reorders itself, taking account of both similarities and differences between the terms of the metaphor, to create new meaning that could not be expressed in any other way other than through that metaphor. Pound succeeds, in my judgment, in capturing the experience of seeing people’s faces on a train platform through a metaphor in a way that could not be communicated via literal language.

On Ezra Pound, "A Retrospect"


Ezra Pound’s essay, “A Retrospect,” looks back on the changes in poetry he and others of his “school” suggested. They hold that writing poetry is a skill gained through years of effort and requiring technical expertise at least as great as required to master music. Pound begins with some principles of poetry he and H. D. worked out in 1912. The first, “direct treatment of the ‘thing, whether subjective or objective,” reminds me of the method of phenomenology that was at that time being proposed by Edmund Husserl (though the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce had proposed a similar method earlier). Husserl suggested that philosophy focus on particular experiences, with the philosopher bracketing himself from issues of the “reality” behind that experience and focusing on a detailed, disciplined description of the experience. In that way, Husserl suggested, nothing important about the experience as a whole would be omitted. Formal aspects, in some kind of Platonic sense, of the experience would then stand out.

Pound’s approach to poetry seems similar because of the focus on the “thing” while not being concerned with objectivity or subjectivity. There is an emphasis on a kind of accuracy using economy of expression and a music-like rhythm to capture an “image,” “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Pound, then, is in the imagist tradition. My familiarity with that tradition is through a minor figure in that movement, John Gould Fletcher, one of the Southern agrarians. I know French poetry was influenced by it for a time, and Robert Bly remains in that imagist tradition.

Much of Pound’s advice sounds familiar today—avoid superfluous (unnecessary) words in poetry. One should avoid abstractions. Today any beginning poetry workshop will emphasize these two points. Pound has good advice on knowing the various soundscapes that make up poetry such as alliteration and assonance. Presentation should be the mode of the poet, not description (“show, don’t tell”). I agree with Pound’s emphasis on the musicality and rhythm of poetry. His advice to the poet to read the classic Greek and Roman poets is surely good advice, though this is a time consuming process that is best done through the original languages of Greek and Latin.

I am not sure I accept his notion of an “absolute rhythm” that is in a one-to-one correspondence with a particular emotion. This is in tension with his later statement that one should be flexible and that some subject matters, due to this fact, cannot be adequately expressed in “symmetrical forms.” This leaves some wiggle room within a system that is otherwise one of great discipline and lifetime study and practice in the craft of poetry.

On Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises


Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, is deceptively simple, a multi-layered work in which the reader fills in the thoughts of the characters from their actions. Ostensibly a story of American and British expatriates traveling to Spain to see the Running of the Bulls in Pamlico, at a deeper level it is about the “lost generation” after the First World War. The old values that had held civilization together were fading. It is no surprise, then, that the narrator of the story, Jake Barnes, who, like all the characters but Cohn, is prone to overdrinking, is impotent due to a war wound. Lady Brett Ashley, the sexually irresponsible woman with inherited money to burn, represents the sexual freedom expressed, especially in Europe, in the period between the world wars. She is not condemned—other than Cohn, none of the characters are sharply judged except, perhaps, for Mike, who is mean when he is drunk. Jake loves Brett, as do his companions Mike, Robert Cohn, and later, a bullfighter, Romero. She loves Jake, but by necessity their relationship is Platonic, and they cannot reach the fulfillment they desire. She has an affair with Robert Cohn, which destroys his friendship with Jake (and the rest of the group) due to Cohn’s possessiveness after Brett leaves Cohn and gets engaged to Mike—jealousy is a non-starter in this world of the 1920s. After the carnage of World War I, the “transvaluation of values” Nietzsche predicted took place, though perhaps not in the form that Nietzsche envisioned. Brett eventually runs away with Romero to another quick relationship that does not last. The tension within the group comes to a head with Cohn fighting Romero and roughing him up badly, though not badly enough to affect his bullfighting skills.

There is a wonderful caveat when Jake and Bill go fishing. The description of the Basque country of Spain is so realistic I could picture being there. Yet throughout the book, Hemingway uses mainly short, report-like sentences and somehow makes them work to carry on the action of the novel. Even the description carries the action forward. The style reminds me of Julius Caesar’s Latin style in Gallic Wars, in which the action moves quickly and the reader hardly has time to rest. The Gospel of Mark has a similar style which is evidence in both English and in the original Greek—fast-paced action moved forward by short sentences. I prefer Hemingway’s style to William Faulkner’s style of extremely long sentences. If I wanted to make the mental effort to follow that style I would read German literature in German. Hemingway’s style is clear, realistic, sparse but highly descriptive, effective in creating pictures in at least this reader’s mind. It is also effective in revealing the characters’ thoughts, not through description, as was the case in Victorian literature, but through what they do. Aristotle said, “Action follows being,” and here we move from action to being.

Hemingway’s short sentences are also effective in the humorous banter between Jake and Bill on their fishing trip. I have read similar passages in contemporary novels, such as the banter between the police officer, Kinderman, and his friend, a Roman Catholic priest, in William Peter Blatty’s Legion. It is a fascinating discovery to know the source of that style of dialogue.

Numerous ethical issues arise from The Sun Also Rises. There is the promiscuous and irresponsible behavior of the characters that flouts traditional morality, though in the novel such behavior is a given and is not judged. More serious is the issue of bullfighting, a cruel, and, I believe, immoral practice that Hemingway defends. Most disturbing, however, is the anti-Semitism seen in the attitude of Jake and the others to Cohn’s Jewishness. Not only do they label Cohn with a derogatory term for Jews, but they also articulate various stereotypes about Jews being greedy, arrogant, and so forth. Since the novel is based on real events and Jake is a stand-in for Hemingway himself, these attitudes are particularly reprehensible—and creepy, given that twenty years after the events in the novel the Holocaust would have already occurred.

Finally, Hemingway’s style captures the restlessness of the Lost Generation, which moves from place to place, seeking different kinds of experiences, and never being satisfied. To me, this is poignant—the characters are rushing to find a sense of happiness and belonging—instead they find another place to go to kill the pain of a loss of place and meaning. Jake tries through self-sacrifice and forgiveness, remnants of old Christian virtues, to find a grounding in morality and a sense of self, but that goal remains elusive in the end.

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