Friday, 30 July 2010

Cartesian Spectacles

T.S. Eliot was both a great poet and a great critic, and a very clear writer; for me the clarity of a sunny day after the impenetrable winter storms of Joseph Brodsky – that wrecked the landscape; levelled it in mud and slush.

One of his talents was to appreciate different kinds of poetry, and to synthesise this taste into interesting criticism. In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism he looks at the poetry, but is more interested to trace the development of English literary criticism, linking its growth, in part, to its understanding and appreciation of other writers and poetry. He quotes Dryden:

The Composition of all poems is or ought to be of wit; and wit in the Poet, wit writing…, is no other than the faculty of imagination in the Writer; which, like a nimble Spaniel, beats over and ranges through the field of Memory, till it springs the Quarry it hunted after; or, without metaphor, it searches over all Memory for the Species or Ideas of those things which it designs to represent. Wit written is that which is well defined, the happy result of Thought, or produce of imagination.

Eliot, whose own conception of the creative process is very different from this – it goes on below the conscious mind -, says that while this criticism is not as profound as Coleridge or Wordsworth it is nevertheless a ‘happy description, in the language available in Dryden’s time.’ He then goes on to argue against Herbert Read, and I think correctly, that this is not just a description of Dryden’s own poetry, but his view of all poetic composition.

Dryden’s notion of the creative process is that of man outside a greenhouse – all of our mind is on view, we just have to go in and pick the ideas we need. It is the belief that our minds are transparent to our consciousness (an idea which is still with us, even in Freud). We look, find and pick our thoughts; and then we join them together in interesting combinations – the broken pot, with the torn lily leaves; our youth clothed in age’s rags.

However, could I be wrong? His imagination, it would appear, is not so easy to reduce to this simple formula:

The first happiness of the poet’s imagination is properly invention, or the finding of the thought; the second is fancy, or the variation, deriving, or moulding of that thought, as the judgement represents it proper to the subject; the third is elocution, or the art of clothing and adorning that thought, as found and varied, in apt, significant, and sounding words, the quickness of the imagination is seen in the invention, the fertility of the fancy, and the accuracy in the expression.

There is an extended analysis of this invention by Eliot: for him it is the discovery of new thought, a creation, ‘the sudden irruption of the germ of a new poem.’ That is, he understands it to mean something similar to what he believes is the unconscious creative process. But is this correct? Eliot interprets this passage thus:

‘Finding the thought’ does not mean finding a copybook maxim, or starting with a synopsis of what we are going to put into verse, finding an ‘idea’ which is later to be ‘clothed and adorned’ in a rather literal interpretation of the metaphor… It is not casting about for a subject, upon which, when found, the ‘imagination’ is to be exercised; for we must remark that ‘invention’ is the first moment in a process only the whole of which Dryden calls ‘imagination’….

The problem for Eliot is that Dryden qualifies the word ‘invention’ to mean precisely the opposite of what he says – it is about ‘finding the thought’ (those tomatoes in the greenhouse). And he must have wrote this for a reason: to distinguish what was new in his criticism, from previous generations; he wanted to limit the meaning of ‘invention’.

The rest of Eliot’s paragraph is a caricature of this interpretation. What Dryden is referring to can perhaps best be understood by a reference to Descartes’ innate ideas:

…that ideas are actually present in the mind in the way that information is present in a book – though the reader of course does not and cannot consult all of it all the time. (John Cottingham)

Hume, writing many years later, to be sure, defined the imagination as the linking together of ideas in new combinations – that is, the active work of the reasoning mind.

…though it cannot exceed that original stock of ideas furnished by the internal and external senses, it has unlimited power of mixing, compounding, separating, and dividing these ideas, in all the varieties of fiction and vision.

For Hume, and for Locke (though the distinctions are not so clear in the latter), these ideas come from experience; from, in Hume’s words, impressions. A new thought is a new impression turned into an idea. It was these ideas, and others like them, which were to later influence the Romantic movement, from out of which come the sources of Eliot’s belief in the ‘sudden irruption’ of the creative act.

Dryden, it appears, puts much greater emphasis on the mind as a source of these ideas, than does Eliot. Eliot, writing after the Romantic hurricane, can’t quite capture this world (he also likes the poetry, and needs to justify it). For Dryden wrote in the time of Descartes andLocke, and of the new science. A time of transition, where the old scholasticism was decaying; Cartesian thought was alive and powerful (though no longer the avant-garde, and reduced perhaps to a number of simple, and widely disseminated, ideas), but at the same time also losing influence to the new theories of Newton and Locke (who himself was heavily influenced by the Frenchman). For Descartes ideas were innate, and our good ones were clear and distinct: they jump into clarity, in a mind that:

…always thinks, and that… has the actual perception of ideas in itself constantly…(R.S. Woolhouse)

This view can overemphasise the role of the mind: it can become the source of all knowledge (think of Spinoza, who tried to ground the world through first principles). And thus poetry becomes simply a means of mental play, a ‘happiness’, to use Eliot’s felicitous word.

Basil Willey, writing of the turn of 18th century, captures this well:

…it was not the ambiguity of ‘Nature’ which people felt most strongly; it was rather the clarity, the authority, and the universal acceptability of Nature and Nature’s laws. The laws of Nature are the laws of reason; they are always and everywhere the same, and like the axioms of mathematics they have only to be presented in order to be acknowledged as just and right by men. The historic role of ‘Nature’ at this time was to introduce, not further confusion, but its precise opposites – peace, concord, toleration, and progress in the affairs of men; and in poetry and art, perspicuity, order, unity, and proportion.

…it produced a ‘climate of opinion’ in which supernatural and occult explanations of natural phenomena ceased to satisfy, and the universe became more and more to be regarded as the Great Machine, working by rigidly determined laws of material causation.

Doesn’t this sound like Dryden? As a writer, and ‘in the language available’ of his time, isn’t it likely that he would have viewed the world through Cartesian spectacles, if only poor, and second hand ones? I think so, and we have to try and understand that world, which in some important ways is very odd, and quite different from our own.

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