July 2009


Yowzers, two posts in a day! As promised in my last post, I’m planning on blogging a lot more frequently as I read stuff on my orals lists, so here’s the first of a new series of posts where I will make bitchy comments about things on my orals lists. My lists? They’re still shifting and squirming around. This post is on Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History (not to be confused with Lectures on the History of Philosophy), which is on my Po-Co/Globalization list, which I might call “Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Globalization with Chinese Characteristics.” But the first few pages of Hegel, which is all the prose I’ve managed to stomach thus far, has inspired me to name my mainly-Victorian-novels-I-need-to-have-read-but-haven’t list “Past and Present in Victorian Fiction.” It’s not all that catchy, and it probably means I need to read Carlyle, but I think it’ll do well to focus my readings, and work toward either of the two dissertation projects I’m currently deciding between.

P of H begins with a classic Hegelian two-step: two broad categories, Original History and Reflective History, followed by the Hegelian whammy, Philosophical History. I’m less interested in his quaint notion that the best kind of history is “the exhibition of Spirit in the process of working out the knowledge of that which it is potentially,” than in the ways he articulates the different possible relations between past and present in the first two categories.

Original History is quite straightforward: the direct record of the events of his (sic) present time: what we would call primary sources. I had trouble parsing the different sub-categories of Reflective History, hence my scribblings here.

  1. Sub-category #1 is Universal History, which is confusing since H. uses the phrase for Philosophical History as well–maybe the translator’s fault. A less misleading term would be Collective History, since it’s the “history of a people or a country, or of the world”? Even though it’s collective/universal, H. emphasizes the historian’s subjectivity:  “[I]t often happens that the individuality of tone which must characterize a writer belonging to a different culture, is not modified in accordance with the periods such a record must traverse. The spirit of the writer is quite other than that of the times of which he treats.”
  2. #2 is Pragmatical. Whereas UH places the emphasis on a transhistorical sweep biased towards the present, Pragmatic History seeks to revivify the past, to take “the occurence out of the category of the Past and make it virtually Present,” often for didactic purposes. H. is skeptical of the possibility, as expressed in a wonderfully bitchy passage:  “But what experience and history teach is this–that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it. Each period is involved in such peculiar circumstances, exhibits a condition of things so strictly idiosyncratic, that its conduct must be regulated by considerations connected with itself, and itself alone.”
  3. #3  is Critical History, or “History of History,” what we would now call historiography. This is the argument over correct interpretations of the past, which somehow leads to “anti-historical monstrosities” and “putting subjective fancies in the place of historical data,”  i.e. the present invading into the past again.
  4. #4 doesn’t really have a name. These are things like “History of Art, of Law, of Religion,” which announce their fragmentary character on the very face of it.” H. is more okay with these, since they lead to “general points of view” connecting the fragmentary domain to the whole shebang.

Not bad as a heuristic for thinking about the different ways a narrator relates to her story.

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I’ve been meaning to do this post for a while now. I’m going to be blogging a lot more frequently, I’ve decided, to keep me going through my orals lists. I finished reading Flatland (1884) a few weeks ago, which isn’t on my orals, but hey, it’s c. 100 pages, which is a much more reasonable length than the average Victorian novel on my lists. I’ve recently finished a paper on how Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics actually dominated both scientific and popular discussions on the mechanics of evolution. (In keeping with frequent blogging, I’ll let my prose get as cumbersome as it wants.) Case in point from Flatland.

Flatland is about a two-dimensional society conveniently stratified by geometric phenotype. The narrator is “A. Square,” who is, I hope I’m not spoiling things for you, shaped like a square, the shape corresponding to the middle-class professionals of Victorian England. The more sides a Flatlander has, the higher they are in the social hierarchy, until the Priestly Circles. Descending the social hierarchy, the petty bourgeoisie are equilateral triangles, while the working classes are isosceles triangles, who are in turn ranked by the angle between their two equal sides, the with highly acute triangles being soldiers and rabbles. Women, naturally, are lowest of all, straight lines.

Since it’s a Victorian text, of course there’s progress involved. A. Square informs us, “It is a Law of Nature with us that a male child shall have one more side than his father, so that each generation shall rise (as a rule) one step in the scale of development and nobility.” But here’s the real Lamarckian bit:

With [the isosceles triangles] the Law of Nature does not hold; and the son of an Isosceles… remains Isosceles still. Nevertheless, all hope is not shut out, even from the Isosceles, that his posterity may ulitmately rise above his degraded condition. For, after a long series of military successes, or diligent and skilful labours, it is generally found that the more intelligent among the Artisan and Soldier classes manifest a slight increase of their third side or base, and a shrinkage of the two other sides. Intermarriages… between the sons and daughters of these more intellectual members of the lower classes generally result in an offspring approximating still more to the type of the Equal-Sided Triangle.

Rarely–in proportion to the vast numbers of Isosceles births–is a genuine and certifiable Equal-Sided Triangle produced from Isosceles parents. Such a birth requires, as its antecedents, not only a series of carefully arranged intermarriages, but also a long, continued exercise of frugality and self-control on the part of the would-be ancestors of the coming Equilateral, and a patient, systematic, and continuous development of the Isosceles intellect through many generations.

Probably modern readers would pay the most attention to the organized eugenicism so popular in the late nineteenth century–progress comes from “rational reproduction,” in Angelique Richardson’s words. But less obvious is the emphasis on acquired characteristics. I would argue that Abbott Abbott (gotta love Victorian cousin-marrying) and his readers would have seen “long, continued exercise” and “patient, systematic, and continuous development” as no less important to evolutionary progress. In other words, racial advancement depended upon the efforts of individuals during their lives as much as their choice of a good mate. This post has already taken me more time than planned, so just take my word for it that Lamarckianism wasn’t just a relic from pre-Darwinian science. Or check out Peter J. Bowler‘s work.

At some early point in the life of this blog, I envisioned that it could be used as a kind of group commonplace book. That never really went anywhere, but I’ll make one entry here:

You know there’s a good deal of printing to be done for the school sometimes–the questions in Latin and Greek and Algebra, and even when Mr. Ryder does have the proofs, it wants someone who really understands to see that the corrections are properly done. Old Smith used to do it, by real force of Chinese accuracy, but he has been ill for some time, and Mr. Froggart can’t see to do it himself, and Charlie won’t, and can’t be trusted either.

–Charlotte Yonge, The Pillars of the Family Ch. 3

Hmmmmm. I’ve definitely encountered the trope of China as place of meticulous yet meaningless craft, but I don’t think I’ve seen Chinese used as an adjective for this meaning.

Apologies for the radio silence of the past couple weeks. I assure you that I was not trying to pull a Sarah Palin; I was merely housesitting and didn’t feel like hauling the OBVV across Brooklyn with my laptop and the stack of other books that I didn’t manage to get around to reading. I’ve also been pretty mucked up in my dissertation chapter — I’ve pretty much just been rewriting the first twelve pages all month. But that’s a different post, maybe.

Those struggles are, however, obliquely related to something that I see happening in this week’s poem:

365. “The Last Wish” by Edward Robert Bulwer Lytton (1831-1892)

Since all that I can ever do for thee

Is to do nothing, this my prayer must be:

That thou mayst never guess nor ever see

The all-endured this nothing-done costs me.

(Just so we’re clear, this isn’t that Bulwer-Lytton — this dude is the son.)

I don’t think this poem needs a huge amount of explication, but I am really taking with this idea of doing nothing — or, as it comes in in that last line, the “nothing-done.” One of the things I’ve been struggling with conceptually in my dissertation is an argument I’m trying to make about suspension being a performative gesture, but of course what it does, much of the time, is, essentially, nothing — which potentially negates the whole “doing things with words” part of performativity. Nevertheless, there’s a residue in this nothing — and I can hear my undergrad adviser’s voice in my head saying “a no-thing that is not nothing, either” — this sense that “nothing” does take effort, that it rarely is simply void or interruption — or, for that matter, detachment or agnosticism. One of the things I’m trying to work through with Browning is how you can have a suspension of judgment that isn’t just a matter of rigorously marking the boundaries of the knowable and not going beyond them; I’m seeking a suspension that also maintains some kind of engagement, whether it’s an interest in the outcome or something more about the process and the working-through. Something more, well, performative, but a performative that “does nothing” in a kind of double sense. I would love to feel like Eve Sedgwick’s whole thing on the periperformative is helpful here — it may be in the same neighborhood (her metaphor), but I’m not sure where to put it yet.

And I’m well aware that at some level I’m probably giving this poem too much credit, that I’m writing more about Browning and my own life than “The Last Wish.” And it’s funny, too, because in the process of writing this post, I’ve begun to like this poem a lot less. I can almost feel the cliches swooping in — that whole “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice” kind of thing — and something that’s not a cliche, some inchoate idea of political inaction, a suspension, say, of judgment or action that does more damage than any other alternative. And the fact that I’m writing in such tortured sentences suggests that I’m still writing around what I actually want to say.

And even more so. To call this “The Last Wish” is, I think, a bit self-indulgent, but that also may be, now that I think about it, the most transparently performative part of this, at least in its aspiration. But one does not place an end to things by drawing attention to one’s overweening efforts to end them — in what is, the more I look at it, a strikingly passive-aggressive bit of verse. (To a certain extent I think the same argument could be made about “Two in the Campagna” and probably a lot of love poetry in general. Second book?) This whole, “oh, don’t look at me, suffering for your sake” kind of thing. It pains me more than a little to say that because it’s also an experience close to my own heart and because it also engages a couple of topoi that I hold near and dear. (The other one is prayer.) And I think there’s probably a way to pull off what this poem is trying to accomplish without sounding like a whiny asshat, but for whatever reason, this isn’t doing it for me.

There are also at least two elephants in this interpretive room. One, if you clicked on the Wikipedia link to Earl Lytton, you no doubt read that poetry (which he published under the pseudonym “Owen Meredith”) is really only a minor claim to fame; his other accomplishments include presiding, as Viceroy of India, over the Great Famine of 1876-78. Or, as Mike Davis and others have recently argued, for helping cause it in the first place. (I admit that I’ve only read the first chapter of this book and that was some time ago — Mia and Kiran, can you shed light where light is needed?) That doesn’t “settle” anything one way or another when it comes to this particular text, but we’ve certainly pilloried our poets for lesser offenses (Oscar Wilde, anyone?). And forgiving political wrongdoings is always partially an aesthetic choice — in general, good poetry by bad people still gets read. It may also be hard to come up with a critical idiom for relatively minor literary work by people who are politically prominent. In some ways, I think this is probably one of the great mysteries of human nature, but it does, at least in this case, place a bit of an extra chill between the poem and me.

The other elephant is named “Textual Criticism” and has to do with the fact that I couldn’t really date this poem. I admit that I didn’t try all that hard and that my GoogleBooks-fu pales in comparison to Mia’s mad computer skills. But I’m usually able to find some trace of even minor poems. The “having a very similar name to your literar-ily famous father” and “writing under a pseudonym” parts didn’t help either, I’m sure. What I did find was a poem called “To A Woman,” which is kind of like this poem but also not:

Since all that I can ever do for thee

Is to do nothing, may’st thou never see,

Never divine, the all that nothing costeth me!

The first line and a half are the same in both versions, but without the interruption of prayer (which makes the utterance of the first one into something of a citation), this one feels a lot more direct. I’m suddenly inspired to go out and start a relationship just so I can use this as my parting shot in the breakup email. It’s either that or Tori Amos, right?

I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing that by the Victorian era, long-ass book titles were a thing of the past. Anybody know when/why titles didn’t have to be an essay in themselves?

Of the use of Tobacco, Tea, Coffee, Chocolate, and Drams, Under the following Heads, I: Of Smoaking Tobacco, II: Of Chewing, III: Of Snuff, IV: Of Coffee & its Grounds, V: Of Tea, VI: Of Chocolate, VII: Of Drams, Clearly Shewing How the Sipping of these Hot Liquors, Sucking into the Body as much of Wind as Liquor, produces Flatulencies, which (by being debar’d a Free Passage Downwards) not only Grumble in the Bowels, & Cause Wind-Cholicks, Obstructions, Spleen, Vapours, &c But also (in Women of a more Strong Constitution) Recoil up to the Head, and Vents themselves entirely in Talkativeness, and other Distempers incident to Women – All which a Free and Seasonable Vent of the Wind Downwards might have prevented. This Book is Given Gratis, Up One pair of Stairs at the Sign of the Anodyne Necklace without Temple-Bar, At Mrs Gregg’s Hosier next Northumberland-House Charing-Cross, And At Mrs Garway’s, at the R Exchange-Gate, Cornhil Side (London, 1722)

I’ve just been to the Pickering and Chatto website fantasizing about the reference books I could buy if I had a million dollars. Seriously–don’t think $500 000 would cut it.

As you may have noticed (if you pulled yourself away from your work at all during daylight hours), we’ve been treated to one of the wettest summers in New York history. And for those of us who react to Vitamin D deficiency with extreme depression, lethargy, and feelings of isolation, it could be good to recall another Year Without Summer: 1816.

Following the largest volcanic eruption in 1,600 years, dust prevented sunlight from reaching the earth, lowering temperatures globally. The season’s uncharitable weather (frost killed crops across the northern hemisphere, leading to widespread starvation; Quebec City got a foot of snow in June) is associated with contemporary events and movements including the formation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the dusty tinge of the sky in Turner’s paintings.

More relevant to us literary folks, however, is the doom-and-gloom writing associated with the year, including Byron’s “Darkness” and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (begun in 1816). Is it possible that Romanticism is just the 19th century’s grunge period, a meteorological depression affecting a generation? Have I just traded one Seattle for another?

I will leave you with the Rogue Poem of the Week:

Darkness

I had a dream, which was not all a dream. 
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars 
Did wander darkling in the eternal space, 
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth 
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air; 
Morn came and went–and came, and brought no day, 
And men forgot their passions in the dread 
Of this their desolation; and all hearts 
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light: 
And they did live by watchfires–and the thrones, 
The palaces of crowned kings–the huts, 
The habitations of all things which dwell, 
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed, 
And men were gathered round their blazing homes 
To look once more into each other’s face; 
Happy were those who dwelt within the eye 
Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch: 
A fearful hope was all the world contain’d; 
Forests were set on fire–but hour by hour 
They fell and faded–and the crackling trunks 
Extinguish’d with a crash–and all was black. 
The brows of men by the despairing light 
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits 
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down 
And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest 
Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smiled; 
And others hurried to and fro, and fed 
Their funeral piles with fuel, and looked up 
With mad disquietude on the dull sky, 
The pall of a past world; and then again 
With curses cast them down upon the dust, 
And gnash’d their teeth and howl’d: the wild birds shriek’d, 
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground, 
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes 
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl’d 
And twined themselves among the multitude, 
Hissing, but stingless–they were slain for food. 
And War, which for a moment was no more, 
Did glut himself again;–a meal was bought 
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart 
Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left; 
All earth was but one thought–and that was death, 
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang 
Of famine fed upon all entrails–men 
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh; 
The meagre by the meagre were devoured, 
Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one, 
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept 
The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay, 
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead 
Lured their lank jaws; himself sought out no food, 
But with a piteous and perpetual moan, 
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand 
Which answered not with a caress–he died. 
The crowd was famish’d by degrees; but two 
Of an enormous city did survive, 
And they were enemies: they met beside 
The dying embers of an altar-place 
Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things 
For an unholy usage; they raked up, 
And shivering scraped with their cold skeleton hands 
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath 
Blew for a little life, and made a flame 
Which was a mockery; then they lifted up 
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld 
Each other’s aspects–saw, and shriek’d, and died– 
Even of their mutual hideousness they died, 
Unknowing who he was upon whose brow 
Famine had written Fiend. The world was void, 
The populous and the powerful–was a lump, 
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless– 
A lump of death–a chaos of hard clay. 
The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still, 
And nothing stirred within their silent depths; 
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp’d 
They slept on the abyss without a surge– 
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave, 
The moon their mistress had expir’d before; 
The winds were withered in the stagnant air, 
And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need 
Of aid from them–She was the Universe.