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Posts Tagged ‘aesthetics’

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and the Literary Quality of his Prose

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Emerson, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Poetry, Rhetoric, Writing on June 11, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s writings are known for their literary qualities.  The Class Poet at Harvard, the son of a famous poet, and a lifelong devotee of Emerson, Holmes often rendered his judicial writings in poetic prose.  Consider the following lines from Gitlow v. New York, which I have reformulated as a poem:

 

                 Gitlow v. New York[i]

                 A Poem[ii] (1925)

Every idea

is an incitement.

It offers itself for belief

and if believed

it is acted on

unless some other belief

outweighs it

or some failure of energy

stifles the movement

at its birth.

The only difference

between the expression

of an opinion and an incitement

in the narrower sense

is the speaker’s enthusiasm

for the result.

Eloquence may set fire

to reason.

But whatever may be thought

of the redundant discourse

before us

it had no chance of starting

a present conflagration.

 

The plain, raw idioms and variable feet in these lines resemble those characteristically employed by Stevens and William Carlos Williams. Holmes’s language here is similar in tone and rhythm to Williams’s in “The Red Wheelbarrow,” which was published just two years before this dissent. Holmes’s alliterative use of the letter “n” emphasizes mobility, momentum, and ignition: “incitement,” “energy,” “movement,” “incitement,” “enthusiasm,” “conflagration.” These nouns suggest provocation, stimulus, instigation; they are tied to ideas themselves, as in the line “every idea is an incitement,” hence the correspondingly alliterative “n” sounds in the words “expression” and “reason.” The metrical regularity of “Every,” “offers it…,” “for belief,” “failure of,” “energy,” “stifles the,” “at its birth,” “difference,” “narrower,” “Eloquence,” and “had no chance” accents the activity associated with thinking insofar as these dactylic words and phrases pertain to ideas or beliefs. Holmes follows a series of dactyls with spondaic feet just as he describes the possibility of combustion: “Eloquence [stress / slack / slack] may set fire [stress / stress / stress / slack] to reason [stress / stress / slack].” It is as though he wishes to create the sense of building pressure and then of sudden release or combustion. Two unstressed lines abruptly interrupt the heightened tension; the first appears with the transitional conjunction “But,” which signals a change in the tone. Holmes appears to reverse the intensity and calm his diction as he assures us that the “redundant discourse,” a phrase made cacophonous by the alliterative “d” and “s” sounds, has “no chance of starting a present conflagration.” A sudden move to iambic feet and hence to a lightened tone rounds out these lines and suggests that Holmes has smothered or extinguished whatever energy had been building with the three-syllable feet. These lines have become some of the most famous in American constitutional history most likely because of their memorable qualities, which contributed to the eventual vindication of the dissent.

Be that as it may, feet and meter are basic to English speech and writing and may be displayed in many other legal writings by less able judges and justices. It would be difficult to prove that Holmes deliberately set out to invest these lines with literary features, at least those pertaining to alliteration and feet. Holmes no doubt had an ear for language and probably intended to employ alliteration, rhythm, and rhyme in his writings, but how far does his intent extend?  Does the scanning exercise above give Holmes too much credit and attribute to his writings undeserved praise?  There is no empirical way to answer this question, but the speculation is, I think, worth the time.

 

[i] Gitlow v. N.Y., 268 U.S. 652 (1925).

 

[ii] My addition.

 

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Nietzsche on the Writer or Artist

In Art, Artist, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 5, 2011 at 9:23 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following post first appeared here at The Literary Table.

 

“[O]ne does well to separate the artist from his work, which should be taken more seriously than he is.  Ultimately, he is no more than its pre-condition, the womb, the soil, possibly the manure and midden upon which, from which it grows—and thus, in most cases, something which must be forgotten before the work itself can be enjoyed.  Insight into the origin of a work is a matter for physiologists and vivisectors of the spirit: but never one for the aesthetic men, the artists!”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

It’s easy, reading Nietzsche, to fall into anachronism: to consider his comments about divorcing the author from the text as indicative of something akin to the New Criticism, a hermeneutic that isolated texts from externalities such as authorial intent and that treated the aesthetic object as self-contained and autonomous.  That is not at all what Nietzsche meant.  For Nietzsche, the text, or the aesthetic object, is not isolated from externalities, but merely removed from and, in a way, prior to the author; the text is plugged into externalities, shaped and molded by them, so much so that the author is but the incidental medium through which the text speaks.  The text, in other words, has its own authority apart from its creator, who, through the will, channels social and cultural energies to generate aesthetic output.  The writer or artist is “no more than its pre-condition, the womb, the soil, possibly the manure and midden upon which, from which it grows.”  Discourse impregnates the writer or artist, who, thus implanted with ideas and alphabets, carries vocabularies through their prenatal stages and into a rebirth—or new expression—in the form of art.  

According to Nietzsche, the objects and ambitions of the writer or artist as a thinking actor are not, or ought not to be, overstated because the writer or artist is the ultimate example of the effect of action and will.  For the writer or artist is not independent from discourse and ethos—indeed, he is constituted by them, and so, by extension, is his textual production: the aesthetic object.  We may forget the author; if anything, he or she only impedes the pleasure we derive from texts and aesthetics.  The author is “something which must be forgotten before the work itself can be enjoyed.”

Why does Nietzsche posit this view?  What is he after?  Among other things, he’s criticizing the writers and artists who would have us believe that they are above and beyond others, somehow able to divine the real and the eternal.  These writers and artists treat the ascetic ideal as part and parcel of aestheticism—i.e., they conflate the ascetic with the aesthetic to maximize their feeling of power.  Although writers and artists promote themselves in this way, as if they had privileged access to universal yet remote knowledge, they realize, Nietzsche says, that on some level their ascetic ideal is an unreality or falsity—what Baudrillard might have called a hyperreality or simulacrum.  The ascetic ideal is escapism: a fleeting respite from the reality of the will to power, the impulse that the writer or artist seeks to evade, suppress, and disguise.  The conflict of the writer or artist lies in the desire to escape both to and from asceticism; for the intoxicating powers of the ascetic ideal are sobered by the boredom and angst of knowing that the ideal is but therapy and relief.  That realization means that therapy and relief are themselves, paradoxically, the grounds for further escapism—for further therapy and relief. 

All of this suggests that ascetic ideals do not signify.  As Nietzsche says, ascetic ideals “mean absolutely nothing!”  What is so remarkable about these ideals is that they are contingent and contextual such that they amount to nothing and everything at once, and that we will, despite ourselves, and despite our longing for meaning, chase after nothing rather than not chase at all.  That, alas, is why the artist lacks independence in this world.  That, alas, is why no artist is disinterested.

Wallace Stevens and Imagination

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Communism, Conservatism, Creative Writing, History, Imagination, John William Corrington, Literary Theory & Criticism, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Santayana, Wallace Stevens, Western Civilization, Writing on May 4, 2011 at 10:54 pm

Allen Mendenhall

This post first appeared here at themendenhall.

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It would seem at first blush that American modernism is incompatible with American conservatism.  But this impression pivots on a too-narrow conception of both “modernism” and “conservatism.”  The aesthetes who animated modern American poetry were, many of them, social and political conservatives.  This fact has been lost on those intellectuals who do not admit or acknowledge alternative and complicating visions of the world in general and of modernism in particular.  In the wake of the radical 1960s, many intellectuals simply ignored the contributions of the conservative imagination to literature, preferring to will away such unpalatable phenomena by pretending they do not exist.  However well-meaning, these intellectuals either assume without much hesitation or qualification that all modernist theories and practices were progressive, or they brush under the rug any conservative tendencies among writers they admire.  American modernism was progressive in its adaptation of forms, but it does not follow that avant-garde aesthetics necessarily entails progressive political programs.  Nevertheless, under Frankfurt School and Marxist auspices, among other things, the literati and others in the academy have rewritten the history and thought of modernist American poetry to purge it of all conservative influence.  George Santayana, Allen Tate, T.S. Eliot, Yvor Winters, Marianne Moore—these individuals, according to progressive mantras, were intellectually challenging and therefore, the argument goes, politically leftist.  Such revisionism will not do. Read the rest of this entry »

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