Tag Archives: poetry

Walter Pater – Marius the Epicurean (1885)

In lieu of a plot summary (which would amount to very little: Countryside, Flavian, Aurelius, Rome, Fire), some questions:

How is their a built-in poetics in a novel that consciously moves away from poetry to prose…as the form appropriate to late Rome (historically transitioning from Paganism to Christianity)?

The novel searches for the good in terms of particular generic aesthetics (porse, poetry, philosophy, etc..): so what exactly is the relation between poesis and ethos? And even though it’s about different genres, there is a question about the form of a novel that tries to hold all these genres together. For instance, what about plot? What about character? Can we think of the interiority of Marius, Aurelius, Cornelius, Flavian, etc.? Relate this to the larger question fo inside and outside…is there a counter-psychology at work that disallows the very production of the “novelistic?” Is this what it means to write a properly historical novel? Need to think about how the past and memory work together (the act of remembering doesn’t really enter the picture, but rather casts it homogenizing hue over the entirety of the novel: Greece, Rome, Shakespeare, Goethe: all exist within the same representational field. Perhaps relate this to Waverly’s “sixty years since” or Middlemarch’s “thirty years” or the practice of historical fiction-making in Scott’s Redgauntlet.

It is impossible to measure the distance between discoure and story. Contrast with Dorian Gray, which is plotless but turns into an adventure novel at the end. Marius does have a fire at the end but it doesn’t resolve much.

Talk about how narrative authority is established–the spatial or temporal distance that is necessary for taking up a narratorial position.

Is Culture synchronic (structural) or diachronic (historical). The answer is always something like structural-historical. Is infinity a synthesis of these positions?

Chapter 5 is about the golden book, the book of books. It plays a crucial role in Marius’ education–in short, “it awakened the poetic or romantic capacity…It made, in that visonary reception of every-day life, the seer, more especially, of a revelation in colour and form” (38). Relate this to the yellow book in Dorian Gray, and also to the golden water in Mill on the Floss, and the golden hair of Sydney Carton’s imaginary son.

Talk about the politics of pastoral: what does it mean to treat the Greeks like children. Discuss the difference between mode and genre. Pastoral mode in a novelistic genre?

How does Pater’s history of a historical transition tell the history of a contemporary transition? What happens when the ontological “perpetual flux” of elemental forces overflows: abolishing historical coordinates and the division between subject and object? And how can one form an ethical relationship to this flux? Does one join it, experience it, attempt to represent it? Can relate this Auror Leigh.


Jacques Derrida – “From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve,” in Writing and Difference (1967)

A reading of Bataille’s reading of Hegel. Derrida explains the difference between lordship (grasping) and sovereignty (exploding). He then draws attention to the comic aspect of all lordship: it is funny that the slave has the advantage. Sovereignty comes with the ability to laugh at lordship. Hegel was blind to this laughter, which Bataille associates with the poetic, and this limit to his knowledge is what gives Hegel coherence but ultimately irrelevance with regard to LIFE. This is then read back on to the master-slave dialectic, in which the subject risks death in order to be truly live. Derrida points out that we must experience this death while living, in fact, which is a comic structure, after all. This is Hegel’s blindspot:

The blindspot of Hegelianism, around which can be organized the representation of meaning, is the point at which destruction, suppression, death and sacrifice constitute so reversible an expenditure, so radical a negativity—here we would have to say expenditure and a negativity without reserve—that they can no longer be determined as negativity in a process or a system. (259)

Hegel’s “revolution” was taking the negative’s “labor” seriously. Bataille does not take it seriously.In sacrificing meaning, sovereignty submerges the possibility of discourse: not simply by means of an interruption, a caesura, or an interior wounding of discourse (an abstract negativity), but, through such an opening, by means of an irruption suddenly uncovering the limit of discourse and beyond of absolute knowledge. (261)

“As a manifestation of meaning, discourse is the loss of sovereignty” (262)

“[Bataille’s] continuum is the privileged experience of a sovergein operation transgressing the limit of discursive difference…. Pushing itself toward the nonbasis negativity and od expenditure, the experience of the continuum is also the experience of ansolute difference, of a difference which would no longer be the one that Hegel had conceived more profoundly than anyone else: the difference in the service of presence, at work for (the) history (of meaning).” (263)

Sovereignty, like lordship, makes itself independent through risking its life, but does not conserve or attach itself to anything. It does not maintain itself or collect the profits. It cannot be defined as possession. [Cf. Andrew Cole’s reading of the Hegelian dialectic as being about the possession of land, transition from feudalism to capitalism]…” Soveriegnty must no longer seek to be recognized.”

Concludes with description of major vs. minor writing. Major writing exceeds the logos of meaning (lordship, etc.), while the minor merely interrupts it (?). This calls for a different type of reading, not bound by the constellation of philosophical concepts that Bataille is critiquing.

Sovereignty and discourse:

“To relate the major form of writing to the sovereign operation is to institute a relation in the form of a nonrelation, to inscribe rupture in the text, to place the chain of discursive knowledge in relation to an unknowledge which is not a moment of knowledge: an absolute unknolwedge from whose nonbasis is launched chance, or the wagers of meaning, history, and the horizons of absolute knowledge.” (268)

[Relate this to Levinas’ discussion of saying and the said, Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the self-interrupting flesh, and then show why Deleuze (and Judith Butler, ??) are different.

“Sovergeignty transgresses the entirety of the history of meaning and the entirety of the meaning of history, and the project of knowledge which has always obscurely welded these two together. Unknowledge is, then, supra-historical, but only because it takes its responsibilities from the completion of history and from the closure of absolute knowledge, having first taken them seriously and having betrayed them by exceeding them or by simulating them in play.”

[Relate to Benjamin’s “The Storyteller,” where transmission and meaning only become possible at the moment of death, as well as angelus novus excerpt; also, Adorno’s conclusion to minima moralia, in which all philosophy must be conducted from the end of history; also Deleuze in What is Philosophy?, in which creation and becoming are a turning away from history rather than continuation of them.]

Writing and the General Economy: “Senseless loss (production of useless excess) is sovereignty.” Hegel’s Aufhebung and phenomenology are both restricted economies. They are restricted to the circuit of reproductive consumption, the utilization of wealth—all of which can determine difference only as work (the activity of the slave, after all). The Hegelian dialectic therefore exists within the restricted economy of history itself.

John Stuart Mill

What is Poetry? (1830)

– Poetry is not metrical composition. (4)
– What makes poetry is felt. (5)
– Stories are more primitive, poetry is more advanced and mature (7)
– Poetry does not conjure the real, but it conjures a displacement of the real. (8)
Eloquence is heard, Poetry is overheard (12)
– Poet supplements the real with spontaneous imagination (20)
– Oratory/narrative/poetry


On Liberty (1859)

Mill puts for the counterintuitive requirement of government not to protect the interest of the majority only, but also to protect the interest of the minority: “protection against the tendency of society to impose, but other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them” (9). The appropriate region of human liberty is 1. the inward domain of consciousness 2. tastes and pursuits 3. to unite with other individuals for any purpose not involving harm to others. (18).

The mode of argument is strangely Darwinian: if minority opinions are repressed (represented as heresy) then culture will not be able to grow and evolve. Society, in other words, depends on these mutations. Thus individuality must be protected because it fulfills the role of sexual selection and proliferation: “The initiation os all wise or noble things, comes and must come from individuals; generally at first from some one individual” (82). On the other hand, thought and discussion serve as regulative activities, much like natural selection. “It is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied” (65). Indeed, Mill goes so far to declare the act of non serviam, the “mere example of nonconformity,” as an act of “service” (83).

Mill’s worries look forward to Hardy’s worries about an homogenized affective steady-state, and also to Nietzsche’s concerns with the stoical “acting according to nature” which results in our being metabolized by natural forces of decay:

The demand that all other people shall resemble ourselves,  grows by what it feeds on. if resistance waits till life is reduced to nearly on uniform type, all deviations from that type will come to be considered impious, immoral, even monstrous and contrary to nature. Mankind speedily becomes unable to conceive diversity, when they have been for some time unaccustomed to see it. (91)

This conflation of biologic and cultural diversity (or not) is picked up again in much of the vitalist philosophy of the early 20th-century. But Mill stays focused on the State (of England) as the crucial object of critique. He worries that a commitment to efficient social “machinery” is repressing the innate human capacity to think and live freely. The value of a state is comprised by the individuals in the state—they are the chief end. If they are sacrificed for the sake of state machine, then the vital energy required for that machine to run will be sapped away. Again, relate to Nietzsche, in which knowledge depends on life, even if it is opposed to it.


Autobiography (1873)

Opens with an extensive account of his education as conducted by his father, under the aegis of Benthamite utilitarianism. Cultivated exclusivity as means of avoiding the vulgar influences of other boys. Feeling was denigrated, as was imagination, and therefore poetry was not valued. From this Mill learned to never accept half-solution (an interesting intervention into the language of “half” that pervades poetics from Wordsworth through Tennyson). But all this led to a “Crisis in my Mental Life,” that led to Wordsworth and Coleridge and his subsequent salvation. From this he developed his theory of indirect happiness, based on Carlyle’s idea of “anti-self-consciousness.”

 I never, indeed, wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life. But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it a direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of other,on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as means, but as itself and ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. (92)

Indeed, Mill goes on to reject any system except that which acknowledge “the system” to be far more complex than we could ever hope to understand (104). But he nevertheless accepts an historical system of organic vs. critical eras. It seems as if his current period is one of transition: “when old notions and feelings have been unsettled, and no new doctrines have yet succeeded their ascendancy” (162). The development into an organic era depends on culture to educate the masses into a system that no longer divides along class lines–in which private property becomes coextensive with a socialist ideal. Mill connects this with the division between Intuition and Experience or Association. The latter, he claims, is more conducive to a politics of reform.

Interesting to think of Autobiography as a Bildungsroman of sorts…with JS Mill being the exact opposite of an orphan. He becomes both the giver and the receiver of education, without the sort of temporal trickery that allow sDavid Copperfield to be both subject and object of his story.

Autobiography, The Library of Liberal Arts (Bobbs-Merrill: Indianapolis, 1976)



Matthew Arnold

“Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864)

The introductory piece to his collection Essays. In it he develops the term disinterestedness as the crucial attitude that the critic takes up in relation to objects in order to see “how they really are.” Elsewhere, he talks about seeing things really and whole. He describes the difference between epochs of concentration and epochs of expansion. Criticism functions within epochs of concentration (like the one after the French Revolution) in order to see beyond them. Criticism, therefore, is a type of avant-garde that strives to know the best that is thought and known–or what he will later call “culture.” The critic must cultivate disinterestedness by staying aloof from the practical view of things. It is this “a slow and obscure work,” very much akin to waiting, reamining poised and flexible. The critic must be cosmopolitan, but within the confines of Europe, which Arnold sees as a coherent cultural whole. In epic in which true criticism is not possible, criticism is the highest form of creation. Indeed, we will never reach the promised land where criticism is no longer necessary: we can only “salute that promised land from afar.”


Culture and Anarchy (1869)

Culture has three different meanings: 1. Different cultures, etc, i.e. the terms set by cultural studies. 2. Name for representations by which culture makes sense of itself, i.e. anthropology. 3. Relationship to cultivation, the possibility within society for it to perfect itself. This can be related to Raymond Williams Culture and Society, where society is the Bethamite “collection of parts,” and culture is the Coleridgean organic narrative. Or, this is seen in Burke, between the landed interest (the earth, continuity soil, etc.) and the moneyed interest (exchange development, etc.), or in terms of Disareli, who proposed the concept of “Two Englands,” and upper and a lower, who’s disparity could be solved by a sort of symbolic feudalism that would sustain technological development but maintain the paternalism of feudal England. One can think of Middlemarch, when the machine breaks and progress stops, as the ludic counterpoint. Tennyson and the Apostles proposed myth as an organizational method for ordering social units. Barret Browning presented the presented in an archaic mode, vital mode, a system so capacious that observation would not be a form of dissection: All this leads to Arnold’s poetics: trying to understand poetry as an opposition that is not one: epics of expansion and epics of concentration. This relates to other modes of historical explanation:

Reflection/Sensation (Hallam)
Objective/Subjective (Browning)
Natural/Transitional (JS Mill)

“Sweetness and Light” is an argument for the political necessity of men of culture. After the iron force of adhesion (religion) has begun to yield, we need to begin to think about what order will take its place. importantly, then, culture is not only about seeing or watching, but also about desiring culture to prevail and integrate into everyday life of the masses. Culture is not an individual project: it is necessarily collective, drawing others along. People often confuse culture (the true end of a nation) with “mere machinery” such as health, money, industry, etc. No, even religion is a form of machinery which culture must supersede if it is going to play its true role. Like the critic, men of culture are not saliently active, but they “prepare currents of feeling.” Culture, in short, is the pursuit of perfection FOR ALL, and by “humanizing knowledge” the rather elitist trappings of Arnold’s argument make a bid on equality.

The Study of Poetry (1880)

Arnold wants to avoid both historical estimation of poetry and personal estimation of poetry–the former over-rates the poem by seeing it as a manifestation of a nation’s historical development; the latter over-rates by coloring the poem with our own interests, likings, etc. Poetry, “which is thought and art in one,” should be assessed according to their poetical quality, a ridiculous but very  common tautology (169). Poetry differs from history in its possession of “truth and seriousness” (169). The rest of the piece thus excerpts from Chaucer, Wordsworth, Pope and Dryden, using short, unexamined citations to stand in for a theory that has very little substance. Claims that we start our affiliation with personal, which is then checked by the historical. He then ends, in classic Arnoldian fashion, with a panicked portrayal of the present time:

Even if good literature entirely lost currency with the world, it would still be abundantly worth while to continue to enjoy it by oneself. But it never will lose currency with the world, in spite of momentary appearances; it never will lose supremacy. Currency and supremacy are insured to it, not indeed by the world’s deliberate and conscious choice, but by something far deeper,–by the instinct of self-preservation in humanity. (184)

Very curious placement of poetry as somehow written deeply into the instinctual processes of species development. One wonders then how poetry distinguishes itself from mere natural development–perhaps the claim is that nature and history produce and excess that stands in tension with it–and then we’re close to Nietzsche and Marx. Interesting contrast with Mill, who believes in an oscillating history, between organic and critical. Is it that nature and history are always pregnant with a poetry that comes too late…? The Arnoldian penultimate? Anyway, just one moe instance of self-preservation being aligned with rather than opposed to art.