Three Takes on Satan

First, there Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, the guy who would famously rather “reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” He created quite a stir in his neoclassical age. The critics of that age liked for everything to fit into their symmetrical boxes, but there was some conundrum about what to do with Satan. Everyone naturally wanted Adam or the Messiah to be the hero of the poem, but no one could deny that Satan was the most interesting, most memorable, the dominant character who lingers in the imagination. Not that Milton had anything subversive in mind, at least not when it comes to the Christian world view. (His regicidal politics are another matter.) Milton is no doubt a God-fearing Protestant, but Satan steals the show nonetheless.

A century later, William Blake finds a way out of the conundrum. Blake also identifies as Christian, but his way out of Milton’s knot gave no succor to more orthodox Christian souls. Blake had his own visions of divine history – quite literally, as a result perhaps of some psychotic or paranormal power – which, he claimed, confirmed Milton’s epic vision in every respect but one: Milton misnamed the Messiah “Satan” and misnamed Satan “The Messiah.” Blake could not deny his own essentially religious visions of divine reality but he could not accept the principles of orthodox Christianity, which he found deadening and counter to the spirit of the human soul. He and Milton would probably agree that Milton’s Messiah represents restraint and reason, and that Milton’s Satan represents an unrestrained desire, a passion that exceeds all accepted bounds. It’s just that for Blake, that means Milton’s “Messiah” represents everything deadening to the human spirit and Milton’s “Satan” represents the liberating and redemptive power. At first glance, indeed, it seems like Blake puts a lot more energy into debunking Christian orthodoxy than offering anything favorable to Christianity. (The archetypal figures in his visionary works can be interpreted in a way that is commensurate with the Christian mythos but they are not limited to that interpretation.) Blake, however, reminds us in a letter to Thomas Butts: “I still and shall to Eternity Embrace Christianity and Adore him who is the Express image of God.”

Leave it to Percy Bysshe Shelley, the man who was kicked out of Oxford in his youth for writing a pamphlet called “The Necessity of Atheism” and mailing it to every Bishop in England, to take the next move. Shelley keeps Blake’s archetypal structures intact, embracing the Romantic view of imagination and passion and desire as liberating forces and conventional thinking and restrained rationalism as deadening, but Shelley breaks the whole mythos free of the Christian shell. Shelley agrees that Milton’s Satan is morally superior to his God, but he would prefer to draw his archetypal heroes from the likes of Prometheus, as someone who can represent the great forces of our collective unconscious without the risk of pulling the reader into the realm of nominal superstition.

So is that the end of Satan? I doubt it. Even today, Milton’s Satan can capture the imagination of readers – both professorial and everyday ones. And I know religious philosophers after Shelley – Kierkegaard and Husserl come to mind – have wrestled with the role of imagination and desire in a religious framework (although I can’t recall them bringing Satan into it in the same concrete way).

Then there’s Dracula and such villains who seem carved from Satanic stone, but I’m not sure we should start down that road. After all, Satan may be the ultimate reference point for all villains (but especially for gothic villains). So maybe we’d better stop here and ponder 😊

“Meanwhile the Adversary of God and Man,
Satan with thoughts inflam’d of highest design, 
Puts on swift wings, and towards the Gates of Hell
Explores
 his solitary flight.” (Milton, Paradise Lost, Book II, 1667)

 “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” (Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, ca. 1790-99)

 “Milton’s poem contains within itself a philosophical refutation of that system [Christianity], of which … it has been a chief popular support. Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost.” (Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, 1821)

Who were the hippies?

Intrigued by my hippie posts and new novel, some of my younger friends have asked for a nutshell clarification on who the hippies were. They are aware that a kind of cultural revolution was taking place in the late 1960s, but remain a little vague on it. Here’s my one-page summary.

Let’s start with the Vietnam war, which probably more than anything drove the urgency of the hippie movement. Teenagers were being sent involuntary (through the draft) and in droves to fight, die, and get maimed for no clear reason they could see other than to save the pride of some old white guys in stuffed shirts and suits in Washington. And it was ubiquitous – everyone in every neighborhood knew kids who went to Vietnam: hence, widespread anti-war rallies and public (and illegal) burning of draft cards.

The anti-war movement brought anti-Establishment thinking, which already had some threads in rock and roll and beatnik culture, in recent memories of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Gandhi’s pacifism, to a new level of cohesiveness and to a whole new set of ideals. It was no longer just, “Fuck the Man, I’m going to celebrate my own eccentricities”; now it was, “There’s a whole generation of us fed up with the Establishment, and we’re bonding together in the public sphere – we can do this, we can effect a cultural paradigm shift and move out of the era of materialism, the era of the crushing corporate state, into a new age of peace and harmony, with a newfound respect for nature and simplicity.” So you had this fairly coherent anti-Establishment movement, absorbing the anti-war movement, civil rights and feminist movements, old beatniks like Allen Ginsberg, nascent environmentalism, a mushrooming interest in Eastern religions and philosophies as a possible alternative to the dead-end Establishment of the West. You had all of these groups together on the anti-Establishment wagon, and then you had the emerging phenomenon of the outdoor rock festival, a moveable public venue for the expression of mass solidarity. In 1962, Elvis Presley’s “Return to Sender” was the biggest hit of the year; by 1967, it was Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers – an enormous change in the sonic contours of the culture in a very short span of time. It did look like it might be a millennial paradigm shift, a tidal wave ready to sweep all away before it. At least it scared the hell out of my grandma and Richard Nixon.

By the early 1970s, the hippie scene was faltering, a victim of both inner contradictions and external forces. The Vietnam war resistance, psychedelic drugs, sexual openness, the freedom of the commune – it seemed that everything about the 1960s could be incredibly liberating or wildly destructive. The hippies were perhaps not savvy enough to counter the destructive forces within and without and bring their beautiful ideals to full flower. But the cultural ground they broke was broken for good, and their legacy continues threading its way through subsequent cultural formations (from music to the fight for gender and racial and sexual orientation equality to organic foods and yoga centers). One could argue that the hippie dream of rewriting culture from the ground up around the ideals of peace, love, and flowers, not war, money, and machines, is not dead but running in multiple channels underground. The next time the Establishment gives us a catalyst with the same level of urgency as the Vietnam war, hippies might return in a more mature aspect, and “the world might wake up and burst into a beautiful flower” (Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums). Is this just a pipe-dream like Shangri-la or Atlantis? Maybe, but could it not also be that such visions in the collective unconscious only await a strong enough call from the next generation? Might I refer you to flower-child hippie, Donovan Leitch, as he invokes messianic forces from those submerged regions in the 1968 “Atlantis”?

And as the elders of our time choose to remain blind
Let us rejoice and let us sing and dance and ring in the new
Hail Atlantis!

(YouTube h/t: Carlos Lara)

The HIPPIES are coming(click to view)

. . .

My new HIPPIES Facebook page

Notes to myself on William Butler Yeats: a terrible beauty is born

“Terrible beauty” is the signature oxymoron in William Butler Yeats’s “Easter 1916.” I am not particularly a Yeats scholar, but it seems to me that this is also the signature oxymoron of Yeats’s poetic landscape in general.

If I were to presumptuously set up a one-session primer on Yeats, I would include “Easter 1916,” “The Second Coming,” and “Leda and the Swan.”

All three have to do with rupture, paradigm shift, or, to wit, the moment in which some “terrible beauty is born.” In “Easter 1916,” numb Victorian complacency shatters with a revolutionary eruption, beautiful in its sudden move from deadening complacency toward freedom, passion, and authenticity, but terrible in its violence.

On a personal level, the rupture may recall for some the Romantic move from Innocence to Experience (explicit in Blake but implicit in all six canonical Romantic poets). For Yeats, this may be best marked by his sudden, disruptive passion upon meeting Maud Gonne, whom he loved unrequitedly for decades.

On the level of cultural history, the vision is one not of gradual evolution but of long ages punctuated by violent eruptions/paradigm shifts. Although the paradigm shift in “Easter 1916” is political, a spiritual world view infuses Yeats’s vision. Look at “Leda and the Swan” and “The Second Coming” and you see supernatural eruptions every 2000 years that determine the next historical cycle (Helen of Troy is conceived in “Leda and the Swan,” Christ is born about 2000 years later, and in “The Second Coming” Yeats sees forces gathering at the beginning of the 20th for another supernatural explosion). This sense of paradigm shift was shared by Yeats’s younger contemporaries like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. And indeed it was a cultural paradigm shift that cut across all disciplines. The modernist style of Joyce and Woolf and Eliot broke radically from the Victorian style of Dickens and Tennyson. Cp. Picasso in painting (sense of depth yields to colliding surfaces), Stravinsky and DeBussy and the sudden rise of atonal, impressionistic music that would have been utterly nonsensical a few years earlier (and indeed was still nonsensical to many contemporaries), Freud, Einstein, the rise of existentialism. Not to mention the drastic review of the “meaning” of life precipitated by the trench warfare of World War I and then the rise of Hitler.

You can see this stuff all over in our selection – “Leda” begins with a “sudden blow” and drives forward with a swirling mix of beauty and terror, a power both gigantic and indifferent, richly sensual but cosmic as well. This is not a rational, Newtonian universe. And it applies on all levels – personal growth, political/cultural history, cosmic/mythological history. (For an exquisitely personal sense of this alien omnipresence indifferently driving our fates, you might see Emily Dickinson, also a contemporary of Yeats though a cultural world away.)

“The Second Coming” starts with an almost pure physics approach to the same kind of break, “turning and turning” toward the rupture point when all hell will break loose. It’s a combination of the Book of Revelation, trench warfare, the premonition of Hitler, the obliteration of innocence, etc., etc., all delivered in richly concrete terms.

Much more could be said about particular word choices and image patterns, but I’d close by saying that, for me, the key things to look for in Yeats are suddenness, fracture, power, terrible beauty, and the three primary levels to frame them with are cosmic/mythic, historical/political, personal.

Bakunin’s Anarchy

Review of Mikhail Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy, 1873

Statism and Anarchy offers a collectivist anarchy, an anti-capitalist communal vision that emerges within the Marxist/socialist orbit but against Marx’s reliance on a statist transitional period. Bakunin sees an “anarchist social revolution” as “an elemental force sweeping away all obstacles. Later, from the depths of the popular soul, there will spontaneously emerge new creative forms of social life.” This sounds a little like the 1960s Age of Aquarius, but Bakunin remains, like Marx, economics-centric and reliant on violent upheaval over pacifist incrementalism. He is still in the age of homo economicus, per my fine previous blog on the topic.

The attacks on Marx’s “statist” phase for its inherent contradictions ring true. The so called proletarian elite, “the Communist party, meaning Mr. Marx and his friends,” will be just like old elite statists. This is well-argued, borne out by history, and most coolly captured by The Who in the 1969 song, “We Don’t Get Fooled Again.”

But Bakunin seems to have his own contradictions to wrestle with. Unlike the Marxists on one side or capitalists on the other, Bakunin does not want to “thrust upon our own or any other people any scheme of social organization.” And yet he needs some kind of general superstructure. He even admits that “the principal evil which paralyzes the Russian people, and has up till now made a general uprising impossible, is the closed rural community, its isolation and disunity.” On the one hand, he seems in principle committed to total local autonomy, and yet without some larger superstructure, the local unit gets wiped out, as Bakunin himself complains in regard to experimental pacifist communes like New Icaria. As much as he reviles any stage of statist superstructure, it’s not clear to me that he has figured out a way around it, at least during some revolutionary transition phase, and then in perpetuity if his collectivist anarchy is not global and thereby free from external threats.

Now, 150 years after Marx and Bakunin, it might also seem like overthrowing a government is easy compared to dismantling the powerful multinational formations of capitalism. Autonomous anarchist collectives sound great, but how can they overcome these gigantic formations of wealth and power without aggregating themselves into something like a statist block with enough concentrated power to rattle those formations? The hippies perhaps struggled with this and lost. But might the grass-roots collectivist anarchy of the hippies, refueled by the decentralized energies of social media, come back again with greater force next time? May the Age of Aquarius be still rising?

 

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

I can’t say I’m very invested in the debate about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature, but I can picture how the deliberations might have played out. The plus side is fairly simple. His songwriting played an enormous role in shaping the sensibilities of a seismic cultural shift in the 1960s and thus (insofar as it was a seismic shift) of cultural trajectories thereafter. I imagine all at the table would also grant that Dylan has proven himself both a great and highly prolific songwriter.

But, respond the naysayers, songwriting is at least as much about instrumentation and melody and musical coordinates as it is about the verbal. Dylan may have had as profound an impact on culture as such previous winners as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison, but does the verbal element in the songs, on the page without the music, reach the same level of word-built architecture as One Hundred Years of Solitude or Song of Solomon? Or if one defines “literature” more broadly to include the musical elements, then does the next short list include McCartney/Lennon and a host of other songwriting megastars? Such stars deserve their awards but should a literature award be reserved for more purely literary forms? Or should we just give awards for art in general, avoiding all discrimination of genres?

The arguments that weighed against the choice of Dylan must have been no light load. Perhaps we could say that a purely formalist assessment of the words Dylan has written weigh against the choice. This is not to slight the formal beauty of Dylan’s output (I share the enthusiasm for the early Dylan songs of dubious love, social justice, and the crash of human nature into the historical moment, but for the full artful textures of songs and lyrics, give me Blood on the Tracks), but when measured specifically against other winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, one might argue that the verbal element on the page in Dylan has not the same stature. But then the historical assessment — the gigantic, multidisciplinary cultural impact – swings back in his favor.

I will leave the pendulum swinging, or if you prefer, suspended in mid-air, to make a curious observation about Dylan’s songs and historical impact. For being such a powerful catalyst for the counter-cultural tide of late 1960s hippiedom and all that came after it, Dylan’s own temperament is not at all “hippie.” If he is a poet, he is a Beat Generation poet, with a little extra 1930s social protest thrown in. Sure, there are threads of idealism, or at least an awareness of the seismic cultural shift (“the times they are a-changing”) in Dylan, but for the most part, any idealism in Dylan remains simmering under the rubble of gritty realism, and tales of hard times in boxcars and back alleys, and a chip on his shoulder that won’t go away (think of “The Idiot Wind’s” chilling response to the woman who misunderstands him, or the all-time masterpiece of schadenfreude, “Like A Rolling Stone,” or even the cynical humor in the love songs). One more easily pictures him among the black-clad poets of North Beach than among the colorful bell-bottomed waifs of Golden Gate Park. It’s easy to imagine Dylan fidgeting in impatience at the naïve idealism of the flower child generation, although the movers and shakers of that generation, from Jimi Hendrix to the Byrds, were drawing vital energy from Dylan’s repertoire.

The irony of that disconnect between Dylan’s innate cynicism, his street realism, and let’s say it – his crankiness – and the beautiful, flowery idealism he helped spawn, may in fact be one way of explaining his smirk at his own fame, the distemper that always seems to dog the space between him and any award he receives. It’s almost as if he sees his counter-cultural minions – and the award committees honoring him – and he looks skyward and says, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Or to focus back on the irony of the Nobel Prize itself, he wants that recognition for his art – for the sheer formal beauty and power of the songs – but shakes his head at the fact that the real recognition is coming not for that formal beauty but for the historical impact of his songs, an impact curiously out of sync with the Beat-shaded sensibility in which they were written. I imagine that Dylan gets the irony. Perhaps much more than the award committees do. Can we blame him then, if commingled with genuine gratitude, he brings that quiet Dylan smirk to the ceremony?

See also Led Zeppelin and Dr. Freud 

Freud’s Wolf Man and Joyce’s Dubliners

It’s hard to read Freud’s case histories of the Rat Man (1909) and the Wolf Man (1918) and not be fascinated. Most intriguing of all is how Freud slowly pieces together the patient’s unconscious backstory using what little the patient gives him, small memories that have stuck with the patient for some reason: he was holding his mother’s hand as a toddler, and she was lamenting her illness to a doctor she was seeing off at the train station, and her words made a deep impression; he was standing with his governess in front of the house watching a carriage drive off with his father, mother, and sister, and then walked peacefully back into the house with his governess; there was a picture book with a wolf standing upright that his sister had used to frighten him. Each snapshot seems insignificant but left its mark, and indeed these “insignificant” moments become defining moments, albeit unconsciously, that shape all the subsequent life of the patient’s psyche.

Notice the similarity to James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914). Joyce spearheaded a turn in the history of the novel away from the perfectly crafted plotlines of Dickens toward something more subjective. What happens when you can no longer rely on plot milestones and neat closures to frame the flow of meaning? What happens – at least if you are in the early 20th century – is you stumble into a Freudian frame of meaning. In Dubliners, each story captures a moment with no big drama but with an impression left on the protagonist’s mind – the character’s disappointment in “Araby” when he arrives too late at a fair and is unable to get a gift for the girl he secretly loved, the child’s sense of the corpse’s presence at an in-home wake (“The Sisters”), the sense of something peculiar and transgressive in the old man’s approach in “An Encounter.” These moments have the same kind of vitality as the memory-scenes in Freud’s case histories. No bells and whistles, but they capture an impression that leaves a deep mark on the psyche.

I don’t know how deliberate Joyce’s Freudian ground of meaning was, but history makes some cross-pollination inevitable. Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press was offered (but declined) Joyce’s Ulysses for publication around the same time that they were publishing English translations of Freud’s on-going works (and poems by the likes of T. S. Eliot). Certainly all these towering early modernists – Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Pound, D. H. Lawrence – were moving in the same circles, with Woolf’s Bloomsbury Group as one of the nuclei. But however tenuous the cross-connects, there is no doubt that Joyce’s Dubliners participates in reshaping the form of fiction away from the organizing principles of plot and climax. (Woolf’s To the Lighthouse [1927], to me, would be the greatest example of the modernist novel built around subjective points of reference, but Dubliners is closer to the kick-start.) Joyce thus helps to reshape modern identity – first by changing the form in which we see these human stories transacted, and secondly by changing the role of the reader. The reader must orient differently to Dubliners than he had to Dickens. No more of the objective markers that make Dickensian characters so memorable (one thinks, e.g., of Gradgrind, “whose head was all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie”), or of the dramatic climax that brings all the plot threads together. In the trajectory of fiction from Dubliners to Woolf, the reader herself is cast into the role of psychoanalyst, peering into the minds of minor characters, looking for how lasting impressions are made of seemingly trivial events. It’s not about what the characters are doing so much as it is about the dynamics of being.

So was Joyce deliberately deploying Freud? Was Freud perhaps influenced by modernist writers and artists of the day? I’ll let others measure out the exact influences, but I’d recommend this experiment for my own readers: Pick up a copy of Freud’s Three Case Histories, which includes the Wolf Man, notice how reading it places you into the role of psychoanalyst, and ask yourself if the reader is not cast into the same role when he or she reads Dubliners or To the Lighthouse. And ask yourself if that shift in orientation about how we read does not partly reflect and partly implement a shift of human identity into its modern form.

Related: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon/Sula; Jung on Joyce’s Ulysses

Screwjack Hysteria

You can find this line in Hunter S. Thompson’s Screwjack: “We live in a jungle of pending disasters.” There you have it. Hunter S. Thompson in one sentence — the journalistic earnestness encroached upon by a drug-induced paranoia so fraught with anxiety that it turns inside out and becomes hilarious. “Will my plane crash tomorrow? What if I miss it? Will the next one crash?” And on and on. The master of the “hysterical” voice, because his prose is fully hysterical in both senses — expressing an unhinged reaction to the circumstantial detail around him, and eliciting robust laughter from the reader. He reconciles the irreconcilable, those two zones of hysteria’s meaning, the serious psychoanalytic condition and the comical delight. I’m just never quite sure if I’m laughing with or at the deranged voice coming off the page.