“Here we have on extended display the understanding of art as a prophetic calling, a primary vehicle by which the height and depth of reality can be explored with representative significance for the modern age.”—David Walsh, editor of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 6: Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics
Voegelinian Readings of Modern Literatureby Charles R. Embry (Editor)
The work of renowned thinker Eric Voegelin is largely rooted in his literary sensibility. Voegelin’s contributions to the field of philosophy grew from the depths of his knowledge of history’s most important texts, from ancient to modern times. Many of the concepts he emphasized, such as participatory experience and symbolization in philosophy, have
The work of renowned thinker Eric Voegelin is largely rooted in his literary sensibility. Voegelin’s contributions to the field of philosophy grew from the depths of his knowledge of history’s most important texts, from ancient to modern times. Many of the concepts he emphasized, such as participatory experience and symbolization in philosophy, have long been significant to literary criticism as well as philosophical study. Voegelin himself even ventured into the field of criticism, publishing a critical examination of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw in 1971. Since it is so strongly influenced by the written record of man’s search for meaning, Voegelinian thought makes an ideal framework for the study of twentieth-century literature.
For Voegelinian Readings of Modern Literature, scholar Charles R. Embry has collected essays that consider particular pieces of literature in light of the philosopher’s work. These essays supply a theoretical grounding for the reading of novels, poems, and plays and reveal how the Voegelinian perspective exposes the existential and philosophical dimensions of the literary works themselves. As a unit, this collection of essays shows how modern pieces of literature can symbolize their creators’ participation in the human search for the truth of existence—just as myths, philosophical works, and religious texts always have.
Voegelin’s primary concern as a philosopher was to expose the roots of the disturbances of the modern era—religious conflict, imperialism, war—so that the sources of order leading to meaning are revealed. The openness of Voegelinian thought and the many ways he considered the levels of reality generate intriguing themes for literary criticism. In these essays, noted Voegelin scholars focus on American and European literary artists from the 1700s through the late twentieth century, including Emily Dickinson, Henrik Ibsen, Thomas Carlyle, D. H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust, and Hermann Broch.
While the intersection of the work of Eric Voegelin and literature has been a part of Voegelin scholarship for decades, this book explores that relationship in an extended form. Through a broad collection of thoughtful essays, Voegelinian Readings of Modern Literature reveals how much Voegelin did to break down the barriers between literature and philosophy and makes an engaging contribution to Voegelin scholarship.
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Voegelinian Readings of Modern Literature
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Chapter One"The Iceberg Rises and Sinks Again"
Elizabeth Bishop's Pneumopathologic Imagination
* * *
In "The Imaginary Iceberg," from her first book, North & South (1946), Elizabeth Bishop argues, "We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship, although it meant the end of travel." English American poet Anne Robinson calls "The Imaginary Iceberg" and the poem that precedes it, "The Map," texts that have as their subject "the nature of imagination." In North & South and in all future volumes of collected poems that she published during her life, Bishop placed "The Map" and "The Imaginary Iceberg" in first and second position. As well as acting as a preface to her published work, these two poems can also be seen as an introduction to her experience of the imagination.
Bishop's imagination was cold, an iceberg afloat in an unstable and hard universe, or, as she phrases it, in seas of "moving marble." The poet struggled to find a home at several coordinates on her interior map of the universe, but the ship containing the other faculties of her consciousness—will, reason, emotion—
... steers off where waves give into one another's waves and clouds run in a warmer sky. Icebergs behoove the soul (both being self-made from elements least visible) to see them so: fleshed, fair, erected indivisible.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, in a letter to his wife, counseled her to "keep the imagination sane,—that is one of the truest conditions of communion with heaven." Committed artist, closeted lesbian, and discreet alcoholic, Elizabeth Bishop learned throughout her life that the sanity of the poetic imagination comes at a price. The author of North & South was at a particular disadvantage and paid an unusually high price for her sanity because her "self-made" imagination never mapped the "waters" of her personal universe in a coherent fashion. On the contrary, Bishop imagined a disordered, impenetrable universe, and as a result her consciousness was, to use Eric Voegelin's term, pneumopathologic, spiritually alienated.
Bishop's alienation speaks to many at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In 1995 Thomas Travisano described "The Elizabeth Bishop Phenomenon" in an article of that title in New Literary History, and Publisher's Weekly noted in 2007 that in the almost three decades since her death in 1979, Bishop had "become one of America's most popular 20th-century poets." Bishop died of a cerebral aneurysm in Boston on October 6, 1979. Since then dozens of scholars have scoured the archives of the poet's papers at Vassar College, her alma mater, in Poughkeepsie, New York. Bishop's letters, journals, and uncollected poems and drafts are slowly being edited, and critical editions with full scholarly apparatus are inevitable. Many monographs about Bishop have been written not only in the United States but also in Canada, where she was raised between the ages of four and six, in Brazil, where she lived on and off for twenty-two years, and in England, where she has numerous admirers. The following Voegelinian contribution to the critical literature argues that Bishop's posthumous popularity stems in part from her obsessive effort to reformulate Christian symbols of transcendence from which she had become alienated and that for many like her have lost their form and power.
The beauty of Bishop's poems results partially from her compositional practice. In the sonnet "Elizabeth Bishop 4," Robert Lowell asked his friend:
Do you still hang your words in air, ten years unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps or empties for the unimaginable phrase—
It was a joke with Lowell and others close to her that Bishop would spend decades working on a poem, waiting patiently for her muse to call. Bishop adopted this practice in an effort to infuse a density of meaning into each of her poetic lines. Why was the task so time-consuming?
As Bishop knew, her poems describe reality without a "philosophical adhesive," in particular without the biblical cement that held together the imagination of the two English poets that she had admired in her youth, George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Richard Wilbur described a conversation with Bishop near the end of her life in which she addressed her dilemma:
Then Elizabeth began mentioning points of Christian doctrine that she thought it intolerable to believe. She said, "no, no, no. You must be honest about this, Dick. You really don't believe all that stuff. You're just like me. Neither of us has any philosophy. It's all description, not philosophy." At that point Elizabeth shifted to talking about herself and lamenting the fact that she didn't have a philosophic adhesive to pull an individual poem and a group of poems together, but she was really quite aggressive at that point. It surprised me because of her bringing up, [from which she] had many Christian associations, cared about many Christian things, and had got [them] in her poems here and there. I think that's what she was left with, the questions, if not the answers of a person with a religious temperament.
Bishop found much Christian doctrine "intolerable to believe," yet, because of her upbringing, was attached to the Bible. She was determined in her poems, however, to separate her biblically inspired images from their mythic source and so transform them into personal symbols illustrating the evolution of her own consciousness. In an early phase of that evolution and in a rebellious era, the young poet decided that direct appeals to the divine were morally dangerous. Struggling to guard herself from a language she could not believe, Bishop throughout her career would only gesture obliquely and with a critical attitude toward the invisible ground that supports consciousness as well as toward the Christian doctrines designed to make that ground visible.
Plato has given a name to the illness, nosos of the soul, in which poets like Bishop propose a starting point for reality in a place other than the divine Psyche. Bishop's consciousness, born on February 8, 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts, came of age in and around Boston and New York during the Roaring Twenties, a time and place liberating itself from Christian myth through science. (Walter Lippmann's 1929 best-seller A Preface to Morals is an enduring portrait of the exhilaration and confusion of the time and place that shaped Bishop's adolescence.) As a girl, Bishop had been exposed to her Canadian grandparents' Baptist hymns and Bible and then, in youth, became an atheist. All her life, Bishop's consciousness resisted divine appeal, but what Voegelin, in one phase of terminological invention, called "transcendence" cannot be willed out of existence; it continues to call even in a consciousness that resists the quest for the images that can evoke order from disorder. In Bishop's case, the human response to divine appeal manifested itself in nostalgia for the brief Canadian idyll of her childhood and in the biblical symbols of her poems.
What is the most appropriate Voegelinian approach to Bishop's poetry? Voegelin was, among other things, a diagnostician of the ills of contemporary consciousness, a philosopher who developed terms for describing the frequent alienation of that consciousness. In the essay "The Beginning and the Beyond," he traces the mutations of Sophistic nosos throughout Western history and praises Schelling's analysis of the phenomenon at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Jerry Day has shown that Voegelin himself coined the word pneumopathology, indicating the spiritual origin of diseased consciousness, from his reading of Schelling. An analysis of Bishop's poetry as pneumopathologic seems more appropriate than other Voegelinian diagnostic frameworks such as the second reality, his term for the state of consciousness in which the deformed imagination obliterates truth and refuses to live openly in the tension of existence. Bishop never created a second reality but, instead, alternately suffered and fled from existential tension in the first reality. She invents characters—the Unbeliever, the little girls of her nova Scotia and Worcester poems, Tobias the cat—who are ill at ease in the first reality but who never completely embrace untruth. Her poetry is pneumopathologic but does not propose a second reality.
Both Bishop and Voegelin struggled with "transcendence." Unlike Bishop, Voegelin did not reject the symbol; instead, feeling as much as she did its insufficiency, he "transcended" it. From The New Science of Politics in 1952 until The Ecumenic Age in 1974, Voegelin often used the dyad "transcendence-immanence" to symbolize the divine and the earthly, as when he accused utopian social movements of seeking an "immanentization of the eschaton," the creation on earth of a final transcendent state. In the last decade of his life, however, this dyad disappeared. What broke it apart was Voegelin's growing awareness of the participatory (metaleptic) nature of consciousness and his development of the symbols "the Question" and "the Beginning and the Beyond." In his last writings, Voegelin most often replaced the term transcendence with "ground of being," a symbol that reverses the spatial metaphor, placing the "divine" not above the bodily supported consciousness but below it. Bishop was in flight from the ground of being, but the metaleptic nature of consciousness forced her again and again to ask the Question and to seek against her will the Beginning and Beyond of her existence.
When young, Bishop committed herself to mastering reality through detailed description of the phenomenal world. Her friendship with Marianne Moore, whose first book, in 1923, was entitled Observations, reinforced her decision. According to Voegelin, reality, because of its very structure, has multiple meanings. Reality is an object of cognition to be acknowledged as real by a man or woman in an experiential process. For the Hellenic philosophers, reality is true, and the Greek aletheia carries the sense of something both true and real. Bishop has a commonsense understanding of the truth of reality and hopes that description alone will bring her knowledge of its structure.
The phenomenal world, however, is only a part of reality, and Bishop in midlife found herself bogged down in a poetic practice that could never give her true knowledge of either the ground or the community of being. Her breakthrough, as she well knew and her critics acknowledge, came at the end of 1951 when she found a "seashore town," Rio de Janeiro, and a respite from anxiety in the mutual love she shared with Lota de Macedo Soares. The absence of English, the presence of Portuguese, the distance from New York literary fashions, the proximity of exciting and new Brazilian literary classics, the arms of her friend and lover, who for a decade sheltered her from the storms of alcoholism, freed Bishop to change her poetic practice. At the age of forty-one, Bishop became a poet of description and memory. The turning point was the composition of "In the Village," the prose-poem that tells the story of her mother's descent into insanity. Throughout the second half of her career, Bishop touchingly established a reflective distance to the events of her own life in an anamnetic meditation that never became self-assertive. On the other hand, her symbolizing consciousness never fully opened to the formative Parousia of the Beyond. The lesson of her experience is clear: a fusion of description and memory in itself cannot provide a mythological framework for consciousness. Bishop's understanding of the complex experience of reality remained an echo of the place and time—the Roaring Twenties—in which her consciousness had articulated its first opinions, commitments, and resistance.
Reality is bracketed by consciousness and language, and together these three living structures conceptualize and symbolize truth. One of Voegelin's great discoveries, the complex "consciousness-reality-language," is the origin of both the form and symbols of things. The reality at the center of the complex has two meanings: It has a quality of existential thingness and at the same time is a comprehending event. Voegelin calls the first meaning the thing-reality, the phenomenal world as an object of consciousness, and the second the It-reality, the event in the world that comprehends the community of being.
Consciousness-reality-language receives its "character" from the paradox of intentionality and luminosity. When consciousness comprehends reality in its thingness, it intends an object; when consciousness comprehends reality as an event with its origins in its own mysterious It-ness, consciousness is luminous. Intentionality and luminosity are existential states in which language "characterizes" consciousness and reality. Bishop intended a poem from her observations, and her resistance to divine appeal sometimes manifested itself in an inability to attain luminosity. That is to say, Bishop observed the thing-reality and worked ferociously and long to transform her moment of observation into an event in the It-reality. She spent twenty-six years writing the poem "The Moose," which had as its starting point a bus ride that she took in 1946 from nova Scotia to Boston, during which the driver had to stop for a moose; this is the most striking example of the difficulty she had in passing from intentional observation to luminosity. The poetry of Bishop's mentor, Marianne Moore, is founded on Moore's Christian faith, and its luminous insights are too comfortable to interest many contemporary readers. Bishop's poetry, on the other hand, has an edge resulting from the poet's struggle, shared by many of her admirers, to transcend self-imposed prohibitions on asking the Question.
Bishop described herself as a visual poet, and a complex symbolism of colors structures many of her poems. The mapmaker of "The Map," for example, is a poet (from the Greek for "maker"); her imagination is green when it is land, although its Labrador is yellow and its tan shelf meets a blue sea. The final line of the poem states, "More delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colors." The colors of the poet's imagination are more delicate than the historian's because, as Bishop states in the list that concludes "The Imaginary Iceberg," the imagination is human ("fleshed"), is beautiful ("fair"), and has integrity ("erected indivisible"). The colors of this fair and fleshed iceberg may kill, but they make "a scene a sailor'd give his eyes for."
Voegelin in In Search of Order approached the imagination with less awe than Bishop and an even greater wariness. Voegelin focuses on "imaginative deformation," and a Platonic mistrust of the poet runs through his philosophy. Voegelin's definition of imagination is based on the event in the It-reality: "The event, we may say, is imaginative in the sense that man can find the way from his participatory experience of reality to its expression through symbols." Inspired by a participatory and comprehending reality, the imaginative event occurs in the metaxy, the site in consciousness where the interpenetration of the nous, reason as created by the divine, and the ground that supports it occurs.
A philosopher is not a literary critic. He works with a multitude of texts written over three thousand years that create and invent language symbols; he must penetrate as best as he can their meaning, then add his own symbols in a continual reinvention of the philosopher's language. Voegelin developed his terminology to analyze the philosophical texts and events that mediated his knowledge of reality. They are powerful tools, but they were not invented to analyze products of the poetic imagination, and by themselves they are not adequate to the task. However meaningful the insights they have occasionally yielded, a limit has always been reached in their usefulness, and a Voegelinian literary criticism with its own founding texts and a stable place in the learned revues has never developed. Voegelin has not played the role in literary criticism that Edward Said has in postcolonial studies or Laura Mulvey in film theory.
Excerpted from Voegelinian Readings of Modern Literature Copyright © 2011 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Charles R. Embry is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Texas A&M University–Commerce. A resident of Commerce, Texas, Embry is the author or editor of several books, including most recently The Philosopher and the Storyteller: Eric Voegelin and Twentieth-Century Literature (University of Missouri Press).
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