Romanticism and Organic Form
Robert Harrison & Denise Gigante.
Entitled Opinions Stanford University
- RH: Here’s a dandy on the so called Romantic temperament:
- “Sensitive, emotional, preferring colors to form; the exotic to the familiar, eager for novelty, for adventure; above all for the vicarious adventure of fantasy. Reveling in disorder and uncertainty. Insistent on the uniqueness of the individual to the point of making virtue of eccentricity, the typical romantic will hold that he cannot be typical for the very concept of the typical suggests the work of the pigeon holing intellect he scorns. Though his contempt for this world of reason and common sense calculation may push toward other worldliness the romantic is too much of a man of words then sensations to make a good mystic. He may admire the mystic, especially the exotic mystic from the east but he himself is a good westerner.”
Amazing what you come across sometime when you are researching the topic for a show as I do week in and week out when Entitled Opinions is on air. The venerable commentator I quoted goes on to state:
“However difficult the romantic personality may be to isolate in analysis it can be recognized all through western cultural history. Euripides and Catullus were surely romantics. The odi et amo, The hate and I love of Catullus is a classic assertion of romantic ambivalence. ….”
Crane Brinton you were a distinguished scholar in your day, but as John McEnroe once said at Wimbeldon, “You cannot be serious.”
Or maybe it’s your aping of romantic bombast that’s getting in the way of your otherwise perfectly cogent remarks. I agree with you by the way that there is such a thing as the romantic soul or temperament which exists independently of the movement that we know as romanticism. Or quotingBrinton again quote:
“ There are then in our western civilization presumably always born romanticists and born classicists.”
If Brinton’s declaration is true then I guess I am one of those people who are born romantic. The fact that I believe you can be born one thing or another already qualifies me as an essentialist and therefore probably also as a romanticist. That’s why it’s also so important to specify what we mean by romantic. Yet here’s the dilemma, while I feel I am at heart a romantic I’m not at all what that means exactly since I have only an indeterminate obscurely metaphysical mostly intuitive understanding of the concept. To put it crudely it is primarily because I believe in the existence of the soul, of an irreducible principle of individuation and animate selfhood that I believe I’m romantic. Yet while I feel relatively certain that I share with romantics the belief that there is in living things a unified core of vitality from whose matrix both organic and aesthetic forms arise. The nature of that vital core remains opaque and mysterious to me. So what I’’m left with finally is more of a feeling than a reasoned position. Or better, what I’m left with is a strong sympathy which is different in nature than intellectual agreement with the philosophical and aesthetic intuitions of various individuals whom we identify as romantic. Individuals like Goethe, Cooleridge, William Blake, Schlegel, Schiller, Baudelaire, Rimbaud to name a few. It’s because I’m in need of some basic clarification of what it means to be a romantic that I’m especially pleased to welcome to EO a guest who has just published a book that goes to the very heart of the issues that interest me the most about romanticism. Denise Gigante is an associate professor of English here at Stanford and the book in question is called : Life, Organic Form and Romanticism which came out a few weeks ago with Yale University Press, Denise welcome to the program I’m glad you could join us today.
2. DG: Thank you Robert I’m glad to be here.
3. RH: It’s surprising when you think about it or when I think about it that after more than four years and 70 episodes of EO that I still haven’t done a show on romanticism not until today that is. Since as I mentioned I feel a real affinity to the romantics, but in retrospect I’m glad it turned out this way because your new book Denise deals with something that really fascinates me namely the philosophy of life that informs so much of what I would call romanticism’s choreography, by which I mean things like it’s championing of the imagination, spontaneity, intuition, medievalism, infancy, heroic individualism, myth, symbol, revolutionary politics and so forth. These are important manifestations of the romantic spirit to be sure, but what appeals to me most about your new book is it’s effort to reconstruct and probe the philosophical doctrines or theories of organic form that underly and in many ways provide the foundation for that spirit. Am I representing you correctly when I say that?
4. DG: Yes. I would make, since this is your first show on romanticism I hope there will be more, one qualification though to the definition of romanticism which you said is as a movement independent from something we might call the romantic soul or temperament. I would say that romanticism as a movement is not separate from that but romanticism as a historical period is separate from that. The difference I think lies in how we conceptualize literary history, literary period designations, and part of what I’m trying to do in the book is make a case for romanticism as a Zeitgeist, a spirit of the age, a collective movement, which is not really the way it’s been seen over the past two to three decades. There’s been a change in the academic study of romanticism to categorize it as a historical period falling between certain dates. So if we take the French Revolution 1789 on the one hand and the reform bill of 1732 on the other that’s one way of defining the period. If we take the publication of lyrical ballads in 1798 and the death of Wordsworth in 1850 that would be another way of defining the period. some critics have preferred a romantic century which would run from 1750 to 1850 and would allow for a lot of the continuities that I see between the 18th and the 19th centuries. What gets lost with thinking about romanticism as a historical period is exactly the geist, the sense that there is a movement and a soul to the collective spirit of the imaginative literature and philosophical thought that was in circulation at the time.
5. RH: Can I ask why you say that something gets lost with the notion of the period because the Geist, the spirit, is part of the spirit of the age, no? So it would seem that spirit is connected to age or least historical period or do you understand Zeitgeist differently?
6. DG: No, it is connected to historical period and I think if we think about romanticism as it’s own thing that in Europe it varies from nation to nation the historical dates by which we define that, it’s different in France from Germany from Britain, and yet if we think about it as a movement or a Zeitgeist it pervades really the whole period from the late 18th through the early 19th centuries and transgresses not only national boundaries but disciplinary boundaries as well. Poets at the time and when we talk about the tradition of British romantic poetry we’re talking about Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Keats, Shelley, Lord Byron, those are the big six. If we talk about poets at the time we have to keep in mind that they were also quite seriously philosophical thinkers as well and scientists. Coleridge experimented with electricity.
7. RH: Yeah, that’s actually when we get to the part that interest me most in your work. Is that these were not just poets on the Mediterranean composing little lyrics a la Byron. They had a extremely reasoned reflective, philosophical position or commitment to certain doctrines. And above all this doctrine of life. And if I can read to you some of your own prose from your introduction about how you describe what you’re up to in your book you say that,
“ This book seeks to recover the era of vitalism roughly 1760 through 1830 as a context for making sense of the life contained in the poetry of the time at the level not only of content but also of form. It aims to test the literary critical value of the analogy by juxtaposing artistic expressions of living form with biological ideas in circulation at the time and offers a pragmatic methodology for reading certain seemingly formless poems and central symbolic figures contained within them as living forms.”
Now we’ll speak about what these formless poems are that you deal with later in the book, but first could you flesh out this connection between the aesthetics of romanticism and these biological ideas that were in circulation at the time. Which you actually reconstruct at the beginning of your book. What were the most important biological ideas that the Zeitgeist of romanticism was connected with?
8. DG: Okay, well let me back up from that and address the question of analogy which is I think extremely important as a conceptual tool for legitimating Zeitgeist. There was an analogy for the romantic poets and philosophers between how nature produces organisms living creatures and how poets and artists of other media produce living form. So there was an analogy established between the organism and the organic form of the art work. That was absolutely central to romanticism and vital to what most authors were trying to do. So let me recur then to Coleridge because Coleridge says that for the artists the essence of nature must be mastered. The natura naturans which is distinct from natura naturata a concept of nature as process verses a concept of nature as an already formed created mechanism. He says that this presupposes a bond between nature and this higher sense and the soul of man. Artists must imitate that within the thing active through form and figure as by symbols and only in so far as he seizes this by vitally imitating it has he himself created anything truthful. So there was a difference between poetry as craft and poetry as living form. And genuine poetry to borrow Wordsworth phrase from the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, genuine poetry has to be living form. Poetry as craft is mechanism and it doesn’t rise to the level of what most romantic artists I believe were after which was to capture what William Hazlett called Gusto or the internal character the living principal of art.
9. RH: So if I understand Coleridge correctly the natura naturans is a active internal process of coming into form intrinsic to an organism which is self forming in a certain sense. Is that, correct me if I’m getting this wrong, as opposed to another concept of organic form which would be preformationist I think is the technical term. Where the forms of living things have their construct from outside or superimposed on them usually by God in the Christian context. Aristotle also believed that there were well we don’t want to get into Aristotle and his teleologies of nature, but nevertheless. For the artist or poet to imitate, which I think already is a bad word, a nonromantic word the way I understand romanticism it’s not part of imitation. I’m not even happy with the term analogy because it means that two things are happening parallel in similitude rather than participating in the vital essence that is common to both. Nevertheless, Coleridge is pointing out this hugely important difference between a romantic aesthetic and some other kind of aesthetic.
10. DG: That’s right. The term that you mentioned: “preformation,” or what we today think of as “creationism” is actually a concept of creation opposed to organic form at least in the time that we are talking about now. Preformation entails the idea of an external creator pressing form as one would press a mold onto wax; pressing preformed form onto matter. The opposite of that which really sort of started coming to the fore around the 1760’s was the idea of epigenesis and this does go back to Aristotle and Aristotle’s notion of self organizing matter. The idea that form somehow organizes itself. And I think when the romantic poets were attempting to produce living form and I believe very consciously a poet like William Blake sets out to create living form. They were intending to play God by capturing the same kind of potential energy in the material forms of their work as they saw happening in nature.
11. RH: Well you could say they were playing God, you could also say they were playing Life. In so far as life is self forming, no?
12. DG: Which is more accurate. So if you take for example the critic M.H. Abrams concept of natural supernaturalism the idea that God in the 17th century gives way at this time to a spirit of nature. A very variously described spirit of nature. Pantheistic is how some people think of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s idea of this. Yet there is also Shelly. You know many people think of Shelly as an atheist because he publishes a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism and gets kicked out of Oxford University for refusing to renounce that pamphlet. Yet what Shelly means by atheism is what he calls a bug bear to scare children. It’s an idea of going against established institutionalized Christianity. For Shelly the soul is, and I’m reading from the book here: “That which makes an organized being to be what it is without which it would not be so.” And he says in his letters, “What is man without his soul. He’s not a man. What are vegetables without their vegetative power, stones without their stoney? Each of these as much constitute the essence of man, stones etc, as much make it to be what it is your God does the universe.” He extends that to mechanical things and he says that the soul of a clock is gravity.
13. RH: Coleridge also in one of his works speaks of living form as unity in multiplaity.
14. DG: Multeity.
15. RH: Multeity, what does he mean by that?
16. DG: So, multeity is a word that pretty much we associate with Coleridge but he claims he picks up from the scholastic tradition which is a way of saying multiplicity without the idea of multiplicity. Multeity is coterminous with the idea of organic form in which the many still seen as many become one. That is aligned with the idea of the symbol which as you say is a much more accurate or romantic way of understanding Zeitgeist than analogy I think. Analogy is a little mechanistic compared to symbol.
17. RH: When you use the term mechanistic we understand say an organism or something a composite which is made up of different aggregate parts aggregated together lets say mechanically rather than organically. Whereas the organic whole is different from the mechanical whole in so far as if you believe in the vitalism of the period which I believe many of these romantics did the whole is always greater than the sum of it’s parts because there is this unity that unifies the multeity. Is that getting it right?
18. DG: Exactly. Yeah. That’s driving straight to the heart of the matter. Unity in multeity is how Coleridge defines life. He lived with a physician for the last years of his life and he helped write Theory of Life for this physician to present at the Royal College of Surgeons. In this theory of life which is a very vitalist document he defines life as unity in multeity. Elsewhere in his lectures on aesthetics or what we call the lectures on the principles of genial criticism, genial being genius, he defines beauty as multeity in unity. So life and beauty or vital power and aesthetic power are somehow precisely the same if not an analogy certainly a symbolic unity. That, I think, is at the heart of romanticism. I think what’s important about this moment for considering organic form is that it is this moment precisely when science collides with aesthetic theory and practice in a way that it perhaps hasn’t since. Most of the great romantic thinkers were polymaths and very interested in the mechanical workings of the empirical world as they were the unifying spirit which they pretty much all believed in.
19. RH: Yeah, good for them. And good for Coleridge. I like the way you put it. You know last week we had a show on the music of Beethoven with Stephen Hinton. Our discussion, it was a two part show, a lot of it revolved around the aesthetic of Beethoven as something having an organic quality to it. Which would be either outright romantic or proto- romantic in so far as we went through some examples of his symphonies especially the fifth where there are all these parts. It’s made up of different multeities. There’s no doubt that in the four movements there. And yet through the variation of the themes and motifs and so forth you get a unity of the whole which is far greater than the sum of all those parts. So that the part, no part can really be intrinsically divorced from the whole which amounts to an aesthetic that when theorized might become romantic. Perhaps it’s an aesthetic principle which applies to all different kinds of aesthetic styles not necessarily only romantic, but it’s the romantic movement’s theorization of organic form I think that makes romanticism so distinctive and exciting.
20. DG: Right and I think what’s also important is the fact that not only did the romantic poets feature the question what is life thematically in their greatest poetry and I think we can include there Wordsworth’s Prelude, Shelly’s Triumph of Life so forth and so on, Keat’s Fall of Hyperion. Not only did they thematically hammer away at the question of what is life especially when life is considered as a power, but formally. This is the idea of attempting to produce living form. It wasn’t enough to analyze allegorically the quest for the principle of life. It was enacted in poetry and this is where there is a difference in the romantic period between narrative and poetry. For example, Frankenstein, which haunts the entire period I think is in the dialogue between Mary Shelly and Percy Shelly, considered a sort of mechanistic allegorical way of telling the story about the quest for the principle of life. In her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelly says that her husband was not up to inventing the machinery of the story. Instead what a lot of us find ethereal in the kind of poetry that Shelly produced is an attempt to embody that power rather than an attempt to narrate allegorically. My discussion of his poetry focuses on the use of symbol which is very important. I think probably a way of understanding character in general in the romantic period.
21. RH: Yeah, lets talk about that in a moment, but first about Frankenstein because I’m very curious the role that novel plays in your in this larger framework. Did I understand you to be saying that Mary Shelley understood it as a kind of allegory of a mechanistic form of production? Not only is the monster kind of mechanically produced but that she wrote the book on aesthetic principles which were somehow imitating the same mechanistic process?
22. DG: Yeah, I think she accepted Percy Shelly’s idea that that was the case. There was a fundamental distinction between narrative and poetry. And that poets somehow rose above. Shelly puts narrative in the category of history. Whereas he puts poetry in the category of philosophy. The difference is that something historical events happen as they occur accidentally. Whereas philosophically events must happen. Let me read from the book what Shelly says about this it might be more clear:
“ A poem is the very image of life expressed in it’s eternal truth. There is this difference between a story and a poem. That a story is a catalogue of detached facts which have no other bond of connection than time, place, circumstance, cause and effect. The other is the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature as existing in the mind of the creator which is itself the image of all other minds. The one is partial and applies only to a definite period of time and a certain combination of events which can never again recur. The other is universal and contains within itself the germ of a relation to whatever motives or actions have place in the possible varieties of human nature.”
So a poem is philosophical in nature in so far as it’s universal and that idea that it contains the germ of all possible relations means that every time we read it it enacts itself anew. It wakes itself up in the reading. That is not the same thing as a story in which parts are prearranged. Frankensteins monster is a monster precisely because his parts don’t cohere. Frankensteins effort, Victor Frankensteins effort is to put together the most beautiful parts he can find into the most beautiful human form that he can imagine and animate it. And that would be like that’s the version of playing God allegorically. The monster comes to life, but he doesn’t cohere. There is no unity in multeity evidenced in the creature, Frankensteins creature, and for that reason he causes disgust and horror in anybody who encounters him. That’s as much a aesthetic response as it is anything else.
23. RH: So I think that passage you read from Shelly was, it’s very interesting I think it derives from Aristotle’s distinction in the Poetics between the empiricism of history verses the universality of poetry. Is the poet then, does his participation in the vital force the vital power of life take place through the agency of intuition of imagination some transrational or super rational faculty or is there a better term for it?
24. DG: Well I think imagination which was actually taboo for many years in critical discussion was very much considered to be a power. A soulish power if you will akin to and in sympathy with the kind of vital power that was seen to animate the world. So for Coleridge the soul is everywhere and in each and forms all into one graceful and intelligent whole. That’s the same definition that he uses for the imagination and he borrows the German term einsbildungskraft for imagination. Kraft, power; bildung, formation; and eins into one. The formation through a power into one kind of unity, unity in multaity. There are political implications to this too. Which I might just mention here. It’s best laid out by Schiller in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man where he talks about the polypoid character or the sort of epigenetic or self forming character of a state that’s not a state of compulsion, but a state of freedom. And when parts are to cohere on their own, when parts are to self organize and we consider this social parts each individual must have the capacity to grow into the whole. That is Blake’s version of what he calls the minute particular. The moment, the single entity wether it’s a person or an idea which has the capacity to remake the whole in it’s image. That’s opposed to mechanic form such as for example more of an autocratic system in which power is imposed from without.
25. RH: As usual I think the most compelling interesting philosophical doctrines are the ones that have the most profound fault lines and perhaps even contradictions in them. And in this case of romanticism the one thing I, it’s either a limitation of my own understanding of it or it is a true fault line where there’s so much insistence on organic wholeness and organic unity or multiplay, or unity in multiplayity or something…
26. DG: Multeity.
27. RH: Multeity that, you would think that a doctrine of that sort would be naturally sympathetic to the principle of monarchy for example which was traditionally understood as the King being the body of the body politic as a whole that everything was summarized in the body of the KIng and in the Kingdom. All parts were organically and holistically related to the greater transcendent principle of the monarch. I think Burke in his critique of the French Revolution was holistic in this way. Of course we associate the romantics, especially the British romantics with being on the side of a radically republican politics in which there is a kind of supremacy of the individual citizen and an insistence on the individuals autonomy from the larger kind of societal network of political organization. Is that a fault line or just the fact that my understanding of it is merely partial?
28. DG: Well I would say that the understanding of monarchy as the political body or the body of the state being one with the monarch is not exactly as you describe it. So if you think for example of the Frontispiece to Hobbes’ Leviathan in 1651 which has an image of the Leviathan or the state the monarch, the very sort of the Stewart kind of head a top the body and the body contains inside it tiny tiny tiny images of citizens all facing and looking up toward the head. So it’s not exactly that the monarch is the body of the state. The monarch sits a top the body of the state. He’s the head running the mechanism of the body. That is fundamentally different from the idea of the State as self organizing which comes along with the liberal politics of the 18th century and so forth in which parts from underneath in theory are supposed to organize themselves into the kind of a whole which only exists and only has logic in so far as it exists for the sake of the parts.
29. RH: Your right. For me I just cannot get beyond the image of decapitation as the precondition for a republican politics namely a severing of the unity of a body, chopping off the head of the King as a symbolic figure for the liberation of a new possibility for unity but that severance, I’ve always had trouble conjugating that severance of the Kings body with a romantic concept of organic holistic form.
30. DG: Yeah.
31.RH: Now, Denise, your book deals with the biology of the time the vitalism and then it has a particular fascination with monstrosity. We’ve talked about Frankenstein although Frankenstein is not one of the main works you analyze. But you do have chapters on Christopher Smart and on Shelly as you mentioned. You also have a chapter on William Blake. So the works that you are dealing with are works that have been traditionally understood to defy, again paradoxically, defy the whole notion of an aesthetic unity. In the case of Smart it is Jubilate Agno. In Blake’s it’s the Jerusalem. In Shelly, Vitalist Witch, and then finally Keats’s Lamia. Why did you choose to deal with these works which have been traditionally or conventionally understood as monstrosities?
32. DG: Okay. So, I think one of the things that I’m arguing in the book is that organic form as it’s talked about today and derived from romantic philosophy and poetics is simplistic. Is something that Coleridge for the most part …unity which displaces differentiation of multiplicity is not the kind of unity that’s involved here. The book is trying to look at long seemingly formless forms that I believe also instantiated living form but not in the way we traditionally understand that. So Smart’s poem is a whacky seven folio page manuscript poem composed while he was in the madhouse four years running two or three lines a day. Critics look at that poem and debate wether or not it’s a poem. I read that poem as an instantiation of organic form and very self consciously so. So that it’s formally as well as in content looking at science and suggesting other ways of understanding organization and power. Shelly and Keats both have poems which are traditionally read as allegories. Yet they don’t work that way. I’m trying to get inside the poems and read them from their symbolic centers or, as in the case of Smart and Blake … It’s very useful to understand Smart as an influence on Blake. Blake certainly had access to the manuscript of Jubilate Agno when he was working out his relief etching, his illuminated printing style as we see it in all of his works from the The Songs of Innocence and Experience through Jerusalem. There is a concept of organic form here that defeats, if you want to say, telos often.
33. RH: Yeah, yes, nice. In fact the vitality could be so excessive that it overflows the possibilities of containment by traditional forms.
34. DG: Exactly, so Kants definition of monstrosity, can I give you Kant’s definition, because this is what I’m reading as underlying a romantic redefinition of monstrosity. Classically, traditionally, all the way through ancient times monstrosity is seen as an ill assemblage or misconstrued conjunction of parts, parts that don’t add up to a harmonious whole: deformities, abnormalities. Whereas in the romantic period once life is not seen as structure anymore but is seen as power, monstrosity becomes identified with an excess of power that potentially can defeat form. Kant says that an object is monstrous if by it’s magnitude it nullifies the purpose that constitutes it’s concept. What does that mean? It’s monstrous if it’s magnitude nullifies the purpose that constitutes it’s concept? The idea that forms of nature as well as aesthetic forms are purposive is a very romantic idea, there is a teleology inherent in all things according to which they realize there own innate form and the possibility that there is too much power, a power that goes beyond the sublime into monstrosity is I think what comes out in these works also.
35. RH: Sure, excess is the path to the palace of wisdom? Did I get that right?
36. DG: The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
37. RH: There you go. I’m fascinated by …in your chapter on Smart. This poem is so totally amazing he speaks about this ocular harpsichord that’s designed to play colors instead of musical notes. This might be old hat to you people in the English Departments, but for someone outside of the English canon, who as an Italianist, I found this totally fascinating. I’m reading here from the poem where he declared outright that Newton’s notion of colors is “a-logos, unphilosophical for the colors are spiritual.” this is very much like what Rimbaud does with vowels when he gives them a particular colors, no? He gave in response his own revitalized rainbow so quote:
“ for white is the first and the best
for there are many intermediate colors before you come to silver
for the next color is a lively grey
for the next is blue
for the next is green of which there are ten thousand distinct sorts
Next is yellow which is more excellent than red though
Newton makes the red the prime. God be gracious to John DeLap
for red is the next working round the orange
for red is of sundry sorts till it deepens to black
for black blooms and it is purple
for purple works off to brown which is of ten thousand acceptable
for the next is pale. God be gracious to William Whitehead
for pale works out about to white again.
Now that color is spiritual appears in as much as the blessing of God
upon all things descends in color.”
When you read something like that you say that I could live with romanticism for the rest of my life and I don’t have to you know go anywhere.
38.DG: Well it’s gorgeous isn’t it? And it’s evidence I think of Smart writing in the 1760’s as a romantic. Which again is another one of the implicit arguments here. The response to Newtons rainbow throughout the 18th century and into romanticism was complex. It was immense. It was intense. There have been books written about it. This will be a good way to talk about Keats in a nutshell. At a dinner party held by Benjamin Hayden the romantic painter, the romantic essayist Charles Lamb, Hazlett and others toasted to the dissolution of Newton’s rainbow, Newtons rainbow represented the mechanization of the wonder of nature. If we can analytically break the rainbow down into it’s quantifiable parts and those are very calculable through the mechanism of the prism then we have wonder reduced to science. I believe what Keats was up to in his poem Lamia, His narrative poem Lamia that I read symbolically more than anything else is the bringing back the power the vital power of the rainbow and the beauty of the rainbow through this monstrous female monster who embodies life and she’s ..she’s too much, she’s too big for the story, she’s too big for the poem, she’s too big for her lover, she’s monstrous in her too muchness and that’s Keats’s response to Newton’s rainbow I think. That here is power which we don’t understand which is not calculable in a way that physical force is calculable. I would say one thing here. Newton left the origin of his understanding of physical force out of his scientific system. It was not something he was capable of understanding in his belief. Life scientists used that as an excuse if you will to say well there is such a thing as vital power. The human organism or the living creatures contain a kind of power that’s bigger than physical force and just as Newton said the origin of gravity is out of our realm of knowledge we don’t have to explain the source of vital power we know it’s there. The difference being that you cannot calculate vital power or quantify it the way you can physical force. It doesn’t reduce to a formula just like the rainbow doesn’t reduce to a spectrum of light waves.
39. RH: (MM 45:01) I’m curious when you say that we cannot understand the force of gravity or the force of vital power wether the same injunction could apply to a poem like Lamia. Where when I hear about this monstrously big woman whose too big for her lover is too big for the world in a certain sense the first temptation of the reader is conventionally to allegorize such a figure . But allegorization is a mode, is an attempt at explanation and understanding and so I guess I have two questions for you in this regard. First, you definitely do not allegorize that figure in your reading. And the second question would be would not the same apply to Moby Dick in Melville? I mean I know that you are not an Americanist but nevertheless the typical kind of spontaneous desire on the part of readers is to allegorize the whale as this that or the other and somehow stabilize it’s signification in a conceptual framework. Whereas in my reading of Moby Dick it so transcends any possibility of containment through an allegorical imposition that I would see it very much in those terms.
40. DG: (MM 46:23) Absolutely, you know as in so far as Melville is romantic. These figures that are greater than life, these mythical creatures who burst out of this period such as Moby Dick or the vampire who then gets co-opted later in the 19th century narrative in Dracula. The vampire comes out of the romantic moment as a force again of excess life. Blood was seen as one of the places in which the supervenient vital power might live and the romantic vampire is a creature that sort of explodes out of narrative just as Frankenstein explodes out of ultimately the story he can’t be captured he’s figural, he’s symbolic. I think Moby Dick absolutely falls into the category of you know that which really can’t be analyzed. Let me just, uh I found the passage from Keats’s Lamia where he talks about the loss which comes about with the rainbow. So his says, in Lamia: “There was an awful rainbow once in heaven. We know her woof her texture she is given in the dull catalog of common things. Philosophy will clip an angels wings. Conquer all mystery by rule and line. Empty the haunted air and numbed mind. Un weave a rainbow.” So the implication is that the awful rainbow, the sublimity that was once accessible in nature has been reduced to a catalog and taxonomy was very much a part of this od common things. Is another distinction I think between for example natural history and natural philosophy which is a way this period is separating itself too. Natural History was all about examining the pieces of God’s world and like a mosaic figuring out how they went together through empirical investigation without worrying too much about causes because God was the cause. Whereas Natural Philosophy becomes the concern of romantic poets which does search for causes. The pieces are supposed to be infused with this unifying power in a way that Natural Historians didn’t worry about. Historians put together the parts as a kind of aggregate and that would add up to God’s nature. Natural Philosophers at the end of the 18th century without that external creator sought to understand how nature through a kind of power analogous to the imagination pulls itself together and fills in it’s own cracks.
41. RH: (MM 49:20) Do you want to say a word about Blake?
42. DG: Okay, ah yes.
43.RH: One of the most fascinating figures. Why don’t we also agree that we’ll do a show on Blake in the future devoted to him, but at least a few words about him.
44. DG: (MM 49:31) Okay. I would love to say a few words about Blake. Blake intentionally set out to produce what he calls the living form. In his words “Living Form is Eternal Existence.” I would say that Blake was very much like Shelly in attempting to deconstruct his own systemization. He portrays his artistic hero Loos (?) striving with artistic systems to deliver individuals from those systems. So Blake really didn’t set out to give a preformed system in his poetry but what he did do in the attempt to produce living form was invent entirely new, he worked against the mechanistic production of art in the late 18th century which would take text to a typesetter. It would take visual design to an illustrator. It would take the illustration to an engraver. It would take the whole product to a book producer who would put the pieces together and that would add up. Blake opted out really of the commercial print system by producing artwork in what he called relief etching style or illuminated printing style in which he maintains autonomy over all processes of production. Each of his artworks, each of his poems is an original. There is no way to reproduce Blake unless we do it now on the internet. Which is you know probably subject for a later show. It’s very much bound up with this idea that Blake was attempting to melt apparent surfaces away or structures to reveal the infinite which was hid. This is the way he describes it in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “To melt apparent surfaces away to reveal the infinite which was hid.” And …do you want me to explain?
45. RH: Yes I do, that ‘s my favorite part about Blake.
46. DG: (MM 51:47) Okay, so if we, so Blake says this style of illuminated printing came to him in a vision from his brother Robert who had passed away. He was Blake’s favorite brother. Robert came to him in a vision shortly after his death and said to him this is how you are to produce your work. It was the exact opposite of how the reproductions of illustrations were traditionally done. Intaglio etching involved covering a copper plate, there was no photography, so covering a copper plate with wax and taking a buren a kind of stylus and etching away at that wax image so that when you were done you took the design and what was printed on paper was the background for the design that would have been etched into the copper. Blake did the opposite. He took a brush dipped it in an acid resistant wax. Drew all of his plates by hand backwards keeping in mind that the script has to go on the paper backwards so he drew these elaborate visuals backwards. The burned away the excess with an acid so that the infinite which was hid which was his own design would come out of the copper almost like one of Michelangelo’s sculptures coming out of the rock.
47. RH: Unbelievable. You know I believe there are some people in our midst our past who are extra terrestrial and that Blake was one of them. In fact you know I began the show in the monologue quoting this guy Crane Brinton and you know I kind of poked a little fun at him but some of his statements are actually you know maybe on the mark but give me your opinion about what I quoted there when he speaks about the romantic “That though his contempt for this world of reason and common sense and calculation may push him toward other worldliness the romantic is too much a man of words and sensations to make a good mystic. He may admire the mystic. Especially the exotic mystic from the east but he himself is a good westerner.” Can one say that of Blake?
48. DG: Yeah, I think…
49. RH: Was Blake not a true mystic?
50. DG: (MM 54:24) I think the biggest mistake in reading Blake is to read him as a mystic. Blake had this concept of what he calls abstraction. His concept of abstraction is very close to what the romantics mean by allegory which is an abstraction from sensory experience. The idea presumably of mysticism as getting out of nature and out of material really I think was antithetical to Blake. Blake was very much you know Blake knew change had to come about through material means. He was a realist, even as a visionary I think he … Well put it this way: whatever was going on in Blakes mind we don’t understand. It’s entirely possible there was a physiology there that produced synesthetic experience. I have a student in one of my Blake classes who has synesthesia. When she sees words she sees color. It’s entirely possible something like that was happening with Blake and he made the most of it. He was not somebody who wanted to escape into a visionary world. He wanted to transform world through his ..he carried the manuscript of Jerusalem around under his arm.
51. RH: Yeah, so Brinton gets the last word here?
52. DG: Oh, I think so.
53. RH: That’s great. To conclude our show Denise you brought along actually a very interesting piece of music that we’re going to get to and we’ve been talking around this whole issue in a certain sense of symbol and allegory in a very conventional way kind of championing symbolism. properly understood over allegory and mechanism. Thank God there’s no more demonian fascism around to police our discourse that’s sympathetic toward the symbolic. Would you like to say a word about symbol and allegory before we pass on to this very interesting piece of music that you brought to end with.
54. DG: (MM 56:44) Yeah, So the basic background between symbol and allegory is that Coleridge defines symbol as “something that always takes part in the reality which it renders intelligible and while it annunciates the whole abides itself as a living part of that unity of which it is the representative.” That is contrasted with allegory which is nothing but an abstraction from objects of the senses according to Coleridge. There was a movement when deconstruction was popular in literary criticism to say well that allegory gets actually closer to the truth in so far as it doesn’t pretend a ideological unity. It recognizes parts as parts and respects the disjunction between those parts and doesn’t attempt an aesthetic ideology as it were. So it is true that going back to a discussion of symbol as organic form is going back to romantic conception of organic form. I think that’s at play in Smarts poem. So that the passage that your speaking about is what I call Smart’s Instruments. It’s a passage from his poem which takes on a life of it’s own as a part within the poem and in that sense is epigenetic or self organizing, self developing and can rise into the whole. The most typically known part of the poem is My Cat Jeoffry. It’s a section in which he describes the morning antics of his cat. There are a lot of other passages including the rainbow that you just read that we can see as parts of the poem that sort of emerge from the organic mass of the poem and rise into a thing of their own. So Smart’s Instruments is set to music by Benjamin Britten.
55. RH: So we’ll just leave it at that I guess and let it speak for itself.
56. DG: Well did you want … I think maybe some of the lyrics, did you want to …
57. RH: “For the Instruments are by their rhymes.
For the Shawm rhymes are lawn, fawn, moon, boon and the like.
For the Harp rhymes are sing, ring, string and the like.
For the Cymbal rhymes are bell, well, toll, soul and the like.
For the Flute rhymes are tooth, youth, suit, mute and the like.
For the Bassoon rhymes are pass, class, and the like.”
And it goes on in this vein. So I think we’ll leave our listeners with that. Thanks again for coming on. We’ve been speaking with Denise Gigante Professor of English here at Stanford. For Entitled Opinions my name is Robert Harrison thanks again to Harris Fiensod our production manager. We will be with you again next week. Bye bye, thanks for coming on Denise.
58. DG: Thank you.