Inscription and Modernity charts the vicissitudes of inscriptive poetry produced in the midst of the great and catastrophic political, social, and intellectual upheavals of the late 18th to mid 20th centuries. Drawing on the ideas of Geoffrey Hartman, Perry Anderson, Fredric Jameson, and Jacques Rancière among others, John MacKay shows how a wide range of Romantic and post-Romantic poets (including Wordsworth, Clare, Shelley, Hölderlin, Lamartine, Baudelaire, Blok, Khlebnikov, Mandelstam, and Rolf Dieter Brinkmann) employ the generic resources of inscription both to justify their writing and to attract a readership, during a complex historical phase when the rationale for poetry and the identity of audiences were matters of intense yet productive doubt.
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About the Author
John MacKay is Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University.
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Inscription and Modernity
From Wordsworth to Mandelstam
By John MacKay
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2006 John MacKay
All rights reserved.
Being and Structure in Romantic Inscription
The primacy of the ontological, in the Romantic period, has something to do, surely, with the drawing back of the curtains of tradition and the customary, of the sacred and its conventions, of what seemed to derive a meaning from other spaces than those of human praxis and construction. Now, for a brief period, something like a "window" of the ontological, Being in all its meaninglessness and calm persistence becomes visible, like the ocean floor or the bottom of a lake, before bourgeois conventionality and a whole new system of artificial "values" come to obscure it again. — Fredric Jameson, "Ontology and Utopia"
Their churches contain no visual representations of God, so that everyone's left free to imagine Him in whatever shape he chooses, according to which religion he thinks is best. — Thomas More, Utopia
Open to the Day
It seems safe to say that epitaphic inscriptions offer tributes — sometimes, ironic tributes — to whomever or whatever they commemorate. The famously death-obsessed Samuel Johnson, after quickly bracketing the possibility of satiric epitaph in his "Essay on Epitaphs," defines epitaph as simply "an Inscription engraven on a Tomb in Honour of the Person deceased." And surely we can still accept this definition as functionally valid for panegyrists (whoever they might be) of our own day: their poems are occasions for the enunciation of discovered, publicly acknowledged (and presumably not just monetary) worth.
In this chapter I use Johnson's definition as a starting point for an inquiry into the late-eighteenth- to early-nineteenth-century ("Romantic") inscriptive mode, and also subject the definition to historicizing inquiry. What happens, I want to ask, when the traditional bases of "honor" — or the idea of honor itself — fall into dishonor, or at least into question; what happens when the panegyrist comes to hesitate about which (human) attributes are worthy of tribute? This kind of falling and hesitation is what beset European culture across the "revolutionary arch" linking Johnson's 1740 essay to Wordsworth's betterknown "Essay upon Epitaphs" (1810), and we can briefly contrast the two discussions as a way to bring into focus a central shift in consciousness occurring over that seventy-year span: a relativizing of values, and a concomitant and continual reevaluation of the category of nature and its relation to the social.
For Johnson, the motivation for epitaph is fundamentally ethical and educative — or, as we might say today, ideological. Epitaphs are required not only to preserve the memory of a deceased person but also to preserve and make known something of that person's exemplary worth, so that others may be incited "to the Imitation of their Excellencies" (p. 511):
Nature and Reason have dictated to every Nation, that to preserve good Actions from Oblivion, is both the Interest and the Duty of Mankind; and therefore we find no People acquainted with the Use of Letters that omitted to grace the Tombs of their Heroes and wise Men with panegyrical Inscriptions. (p. 510)
Importantly, "Heroes and wise Men" are hardly the only or even the main recipients of epitaphic honor, for "every Man may expect to be recorded in an Epitaph" (p. 510). Indeed, "the best Subject for EPITAPHS is private Virtue." The great ones of truly major virtue — Johnson mentions a person who has "delivered his Country from Oppression, or freed the World from Ignorance and Errour" — will never find many emulators, whereas those who through the more prosaic strengths of "Firmness of Heart and Steadfastness of Resolution" may well prove able, through the mediation of epitaph, to "animate Multitudes" (all from p. 515). The foremost task of the epitaph writer thus becomes "drawing the Character of the Deceased" (p. 515) in order that the valued kernel might be vividly delineated for appreciation, veneration, emulation.
Wordsworth apparently never read Johnson's "Essay on Epitaphs," but he finds occasion in his own postrevolutionary "Essay upon Epitaphs" to attack another of Johnson's affirmations (from Lives of the English Poets) of the link between epitaph and the worth of the deceased. On this later occasion, Johnson reached a distinctly less democratic conclusion:
The difficulty in writing epitaphs is to give a particular and appropriate praise. This, however, is not always to be performed, whatever be the diligence or ability of the writer, for the greater part of mankind "have no character at all," have little that distinguishes them from others equally good or bad, and therefore nothing can be said of them which may not be applied with equal propriety to a thousand more.
Wordsworth counters that "the objects of admiration in human-nature are not scanty, but abundant: and every man has a character of his own, to the eye that has skill to perceive it." But, as it turns out, Wordsworth's defense of epitaph will have little to do with fashioning memorials to worthy "character" in this sense at all. He assents to the obvious point that epitaphs are sometimes properly justified by tribute to "conspicuous or beneficial [acts] of local or general utility," but he does so in passing, and almost grudgingly. Initially, his whole conception of epitaph seems less grounded in social function than in an apparently religious faith, inasmuch as he finds the motivation for epitaph in a transpersonal "consciousness of a principle of immortality in the human soul," without which
[m]an could never have had awakened in him the desire to live in the remembrance of his fellows: mere love, or the yearning of kind towards kind, could not have produced it.
Wordsworth immediately extends and transcends this claim to assert that the very possibility of social solidarity, and of "sympathies of love towards each other," depend on the belief in some sort of general and persisting human substrate, which he calls "our internal Being":
[I]t is to me inconceivable, that the sympathies of love towards each other, which grow with our growth, could ever attain any new strength, or even preserve the old, after we had received from the outward senses the impression of death, and were in the habit of having that impression daily renewed and its accompanying feeling brought home to ourselves, and to those we love; if the same were not counteracted by those communications with our internal Being, which are anterior to all these experiences, and with which revelation coincides, and has through that coincidence alone (for otherwise it could not possess it) a power to affect us. ... Were we to grow up unfostered by this genial warmth, a frost would chill the spirit, so penetrating and powerful, that there could be no motions of the life of love; and infinitely less could we have any wish to be remembered after we had passed away from a world in which each man had moved about like a shadow. (pp. 51–52)
Wordsworth takes death very seriously. Its sheer irrefutability, its ruthless trivialization of any claims but its own would seem to validate (if it were possible to "identify" with death) a kind of indifference or non-relation to the world, and, most important, toward "each other." The Wordsworthian epitaph attempts not only to counter this despair but also to undermine its very basis: first, appellatively, by starkly making claims upon memory, and claiming the worth of memory; and, second, through a legitimating act of discovering or indexing the immortal — that is, the generally human. In a kind of mirroring or performative tautology, the continuance of epitaph is said to testify to the continuance of our conceptions of human nature, and, by extension, to human nature as such. Yet mere appellation or repetition can hardly be sufficient; the successful epitaph writer must also find a way to appeal poetically to this "internal Being," even if only negatively or through figuration.
The poet's conviction here may well be superstitious, but it seems wrong to call it religious in any strong sense. Although "revelation" is mentioned, neither visions of an afterlife nor divine command significantly energize epitaph for Wordsworth. His "principle of immortality" is a distinctly earthly substrate that both links persons to one another and perseveres beyond all contingent glories (or squalors) of "character" and value:
[W]e suffer and we weep with the same heart; we love and are anxious for one another in one spirit; our hopes look to the same quarter; and the virtues by which we are all to be furthered and supported, as patience, meekness, good-will, justice, temperance, and temperate desires, are in an equal degree the concern of us all. Let an Epitaph, then, contain at least these acknowledgments to our common nature; nor let the sense of their importance be sacrificed to a balance of opposite qualities or minute distinctions in individual character; which if they do not (as will for the most part be the case), when examined, resolve themselves into a trick of words, will, even when they are true and just, for the most part be grievously out of place; for as it is probable that few only have explored these intricacies of human nature, so can the tracing of them be interesting only to a few. But an epitaph is not a proud writing shut up for the studious: it is exposed to all — to the wise and the most ignorant; it is condescending, perspicuous, and lovingly solicits regard; its story and admonitions are brief, that the thoughtless, the busy, and indolent, may not be deterred, nor the impatient tired: the stooping old man cons the engraven record like a second hornbook; — the child is proud that he can read it; — and the stranger is introduced through its mediation to the company of a friend: it is concerning all, and for all: in the church-yard it is open to the day; the sun looks down upon the stone, and the rains of heaven beat against it. (p. 59)
The epitaph becomes here a virtual agora in which all members of the community can participate, and in ways that, despite all their diversity, somehow also add up to a demonstration of commonality, and indeed an overcoming of social "enmity" (p. 58). In order for this to happen, one might think that an exceedingly complex, almost encyclopedic writing would be required: a kind of book of the world, or perhaps the open, "dialogic" and "genre-less" text sometimes valorized by ideologists of the novel. For Wordsworth, the epitaphic (and perhaps the lyric) path is different, and moves instead toward a kind of reduced surface upon which any number of impulses might play (Wordsworth hopes they will be good ones). This means, on the one hand, that the epitaph should be popular, indeed accessible to the point of banality:
[I]t is not only no fault but a primary requisite in an Epitaph that it shall contain thoughts and feelings which are in their substance commonplace, and even trite. It is grounded upon the universal intellectual property of man; — [...] truths whose very interest and importance have caused them to be unattended to, as things which could take care of themselves. (p. 78)
Wordsworth is aware of the danger of a fabricated or simulated triteness, and insists both that the commonplace "truths" in question be genuine ("instinctively ejaculated, or [...] rise irresistibly from circumstances" [p. 78]) and that they effect some sort of surprise by virtue of their sheer, unexpected, and witless familiarity. At the same time, it would seem that the guarantor of this authentic triteness is not popular reception (however measured) but rather the poem's own proximity, in its corporeal and inscribed plainness, to the vicissitudes of the day, to the sun, the rain, to extra-linguistic being itself. The response to death's socially chilling effect turns out to be a kind of poetic re-appropriation of the inorganic (the realm of the dead), and the re-imagining of its vast indifference as a ground for generalized community. To be a truly popular, universally accessible poetry, the epitaph not only must be "simple" but must sink almost unmarked into the exposed, mute surface upon which it is inscribed: a surface rather like photographic film, one is tempted to say. Might the garden-variety snapshot be the fulfillment of the Wordsworthian epitaph, by managing at once to be common (i.e., trite) and to point to what is common (i.e., that extra-linguistic reality that leaves its (mediated) trace in the photo)?
Yet the crux, as always, lies in the "almost." That such a poetry would run the danger of being passed over as "unremarkable," of being unrecognized as poetry, or indeed (at a certain outer limit) of simply remaining unperceived, is obvious enough. Equally important, Wordsworth makes it clear in a famous passage in the third essay that the epitaph writer has vital cultural work to perform precisely by making language function in this purified, "onto-popular" way. Language, far from constituting an agora by itself, can undermine community as much as reinforce it:
Words are too awful an instrument of good and evil to be trifled with: they hold above all other external powers a dominion over thoughts. [...] Language, if it do not uphold, and feed, and leave in quiet, like the power of gravitation or the air we breathe, is a counter-spirit, unremittingly and noiselessly at work to derange, to subvert, to lay waste, to vitiate, and to dissolve. (pp. 84–85)
The preface to Lyrical Ballads, among other texts, leaves us with no doubt as to the historical ground for Wordsworth's reflections on language in the later "Essay on Epitaphs." There the poet is far more explicit about how his own project is ranged against an unprecedented proliferation of discourses, spawned by "the rapid communication of intelligence" and "the increasing accumulation of men in cities" — in short, by modernity itself. By Wordsworth's time, the "multitudes" that Johnsonian epitaph had hoped to animate had become much more diverse and numerous; the likelihood of discovering a common code "exemplary" for one and all, much less.
The problem extended, one should note, even to epitaphic function much more narrowly considered. Thomas Laqueur has shown in his work on the emergence of the modern cemetery in the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century how "the old community of the dead was breaking down" right at the time that Wordsworth was using the epitaph to reassert community. The cemetery — as opposed to "the lumpy churchyard or the crowded public crypt" — was a middleclass space of "private memory," and "made possible an undreamed of elaboration of personal commemoration and contemplation," and whole new codes of posthumous distinction (and indistinction). Wordsworth's decision to envision epitaph as pointing beyond codes per se to a corporeality presumably common to all is prompted by factors beyond the strictly poetic but ones that might indeed threaten the very idea of the poetic; his is a historical, here masking as a linguistic, predicament.
On a wider view, Wordsworth's own solution seems to trace out an unlikely space of convergence between the twin antipodes of what we might call (in shorthand) Heidegger-and-Hallmark: that is, the Romantic/post-Romantic "lyric of being" (we might think of writers as diverse as Shelley, Fet, Whitman [at times anyway], Perse, Stevens, and Rilke as representative practitioners) somehow reconciled with its standardized/mass cultural ("trite") opposite:
Yet now is the moment to expand this range of possibilities by reflecting on other counterparts to what we have identified as Wordsworth's two master terms. The "autonomous" (not to say hermetic) quality of the modern "lyric of being" should be set against the possibility of a more anonymous, collective, or "folk" poetry that retains, through its roots in traditional modes of labor (agricultural, craft), some affiliation to the natural world in relatively un-alienated (i.e., non-individualized) form; this horizon can be distantly perceived in a poem like "Michael," for example, and we will see it rather more clearly in the work of some of the early-twentieth-century Russians. For its part, the mass-cultural can be contrasted with the comparably standardized but more class-specific production of official or "elite" verse, very important within old-regime culture right through to the mid-twentieth century and still with us, for example, in the form of occasional monumental inscriptions and in the very category of the "Poet Laureate." We can map out this fuller range of oppositions and label their tentative resolutions in the following way (on the model of the Greimassian "semiotic rectangle"):
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Table of Contents
AcknowledgmentsIntroduction: Inscription and Modernity1. Lifeless Things: Being and Structure in Romantic Inscription2. Empty and Full: Poetry, Self, and Society in Lamartine, Baudelaire, and Poncy3. Kernels of the Acropolis: Poetry and Modernization in Blok, Kliuev, and Khlebnikov4. Unkind Weight: Mandelstam, History, and CatastropheConclusionCoda: In Descending SizesNotesWorks Cited and ConsultedIndex