July 19, 2008

1. Pablo and the Postman

Saw a movie called The Postman (Il Postino), an Italian movie about a humble postman on a small island off Sicily. His job is to deliver mail to one person — the famous Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. The Postman is a comedy, with a little romance, and a touch of tragedy. According to Kierkegaard, “The comical always lies in a contradiction.” Here the contradiction is between the simple-minded postman and the sophisticated poet. An additional contradiction arises when an elderly woman takes the stage, and complains to Neruda that the postman is corrupting her niece; since this elderly woman is even less educated, less literary than the postman, the contradiction is even more intense, the comic element even stronger.

I first saw The Postman about twelve years ago. I liked it a lot then, and I liked it a lot the second time. The music is excellent, as are the views of land and sea.

The Postman prompted me to read about Neruda. I learned that Neruda became a communist after his friend, the Spanish poet Lorca, was killed by Fascists during the Spanish Civil War. (The American novelist John Dos Passos became an enemy of communism after one of his friends was murdered by the communists in the Spanish Civil War.) Neruda called Lenin “the great genius of this century”. When Stalin died in 1953, Neruda paid homage to him in verse. Neruda’s communist sympathies often put him at odds with the Chilean government; he spent long periods in hiding, and made several dramatic escapes over the mountains.

Neruda’s communist sympathies also put him at odds with his former friend, the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. Paz said that communist intellectuals like Neruda “began in good faith, but insensibly, commitment by commitment, they saw themselves becoming entangled in a mesh of lies, falsehoods, deceits and perjuries, until they lost their souls.” Nonetheless, Paz called Neruda “the greatest poet of his generation.”

Neruda supported the socialist politician Salvador Allende, and Allende later appointed Neruda ambassador to France (like Paz, Neruda held various diplomatic positions in his lifetime). Shortly after Pinochet took power in Chile, Neruda died, and his death touched off a public expression of grief and protest.

2. Visions

Saw a moving documentary called “Two Days in October,” part of the American Experience series. It deals with the Vietnam War — the campus protests, and the jungle battles. I recommend it highly.

A woman named Diane Sikorski is interviewed, and tells how she had a dream/vision/nightmare of her brother calling her name and reaching out to her. He was badly wounded, dying. She says the vision was very convincing, very real. A day or two later, the doorbell rings, the family is told that Diane’s brother, Danny, is dead. This sort of vision might be called telepathy; it often occurs between people who are close, such as siblings, and it’s often connected to death.

Emerson said, “Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due.”1 Diane’s vision of Danny was an “involuntary perception,” and Diane knew that a “perfect faith” was due to this perception — in other words, she knew it was true, it was real.

“But Emerson wasn’t talking about that kind of perception, he was talking about the perception of a new truth, a new theory. Look at the context of the passage:

When we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams.... [Diane wasn’t discerning ‘truth’, general truth, she was discerning a specific fact, her brother’s death.] Thoughtless people contradict as readily the statement of perceptions as of opinions, or rather much more readily; for they do not distinguish between perception and notion. They fancy that I choose to see this or that thing. But perception is not whimsical, but fatal. If I see a trait, my children will see it after me, and in course of time all mankind — although it may chance that no one has seen it before me. [Clearly, Emerson is talking about a general truth, such as Darwin’s theory or Copernicus’ theory, he’s not talking about a specific fact.] For my perception of it is as much a fact as the sun.

“So you’re bringing Emerson into a discussion where he doesn’t belong.”

But the two cases are essentially identical: the perception of a specific fact and the perception of a general truth are essentially the same. Vision is vision is vision. In both cases, perception carries with it a powerful feeling, “this is true, this is real.” Can we define a thinker as one who perceives not only specific facts, but also general truths?

Diane’s vision of Danny’s death seemed to occur at the same moment as Danny’s death. But there are also visions of events that haven’t yet occurred. A couple years ago, I had a vision of myself dying before my wife. I discussed such visions in an earlier issue, in an aphorism called “Anticipations.” Diane perceived something far away; her vision made space disappear. Visions of future events make time disappear. In general, the occult makes space and time disappear, hence it’s baffling to reason. The occult also makes causality disappear; the occult happens by synchronicity, which is acausal. In sum, the occult makes space, time, and causality disappear, just as Kant’s “thing-in-itself” is beyond space, time, and causality. What I call the occult is what Kant called the ultimate reality, the thing-in-itself.

When I was about 15, I picked up a book about the Renaissance at my grandmother’s house, and I had a sudden perception, a powerful feeling, that this was me, that I was going to be part of a Renaissance, that my generation was a Renaissance generation. This feeling gradually grew into my theory of history. I’m still confident that this theory is true, though thirty years have passed and still there’s no sign of a Renaissance.

Where does the power of vision come from — this awesome power, this power that all people possess (and perhaps some animals, too)? We might trace this power to the unconscious. Emerson calls it “the aboriginal self.... that science-baffling star, without parallax, without calculable elements.” (I use the phrase “baffling to reason,” Emerson speaks of “science-baffling.”) Again approaching our concept of the unconscious, Emerson speaks of “that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions.... We lie in the lap of immense intelligence.” This is strikingly similar to what I call the Philosophy of Today — equating virtue with spontaneity, not rational conduct, equating genius with Intuition, not with reasoning/thinking/studying. Surely Emerson belongs among the non-rational philosophers.

3. Henry Adams

Henry Adams was born into an illustrious family of Presidents and ambassadors, and became one of the foremost men-of-letters that America has produced. He moved in political circles, intellectual circles, social circles; he was familiar with the levers of power, had much experience as a journalist, and was widely traveled. He achieved distinction in several different literary genres. His history of the U.S. in the early 1800s is highly regarded, he wrote two novels (Democracy and Esther), and he wrote a study of medieval culture called Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. But the work for which he’s chiefly remembered is his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams. The great sorrow of his life was the suicide of his wife, Clover, at age 42 (she had become depressed after her father’s death). Clover charmed many people. In a letter to Adams, John Hay described her as,

That bright, intrepid spirit, that keen, fine intellect, that lofty scorn for all that was mean, that social charm which made your house such a one as Washington never knew before and made hundreds of people love her as much as they admired her.

Apparently Henry James was also charmed by Clover, and used her as the model for the heroines of Daisy Miller and Portrait of a Lady.

4. Henry James

Like Henry Adams, Henry James was born into a prominent, wealthy, American family. As Adams’ brother, Brooks, was a distinguished intellectual, so James’ brother, William, was a famous philosopher/psychologist. Henry James is more popular with critics than with readers. Critics praise three novels from his later years: The Golden Bowl, The Ambassadors, and The Wings of the Dove. Readers, on the other hand, are more fond of early works like Washington Square and Daisy Miller. The style of these early works is more clear and readable than the style of his late works. Perhaps James’ best novel is a product of his middle years, Portrait of a Lady, which is a favorite of both critics and readers. James spent most of his adult life in England, and a recurrent theme of his fiction is Americans encountering Europe.

During James’ lifetime, his works had a mixed reception. In 1890, his novel The Tragic Muse fell flat. He vowed to quit writing novels, and he began writing plays. But in 1895, when his play Guy Domville was booed, he returned to novel-writing. James was also a prolific non-fiction writer, trying his hand at autobiography (he wrote three volumes of autobiography), travel narrative (his Italian Hours is still popular), and literary criticism (his Art of Fiction is frequently quoted, and he wrote a book-length study of Hawthorne).

His father was a Swedenborg disciple, and his brother had a strong interest in the occult, so it isn’t surprising that Henry James had some interest in the occult. When one of his friends stopped communicating, he said he was beginning to wonder if he had done anything “in some dark somnambulism of the spirit, which has... given you a bad moment, or a wrong impression.”

“To be completely great,” Henry James wrote, “a work of art must lift up the heart.” Stendhal defined beauty as “a promise of happiness.”

5. American Critics

Norman Podhoretz is an American critic and essayist. Podhoretz wrote a book called Bloody Crossroads, which contains some fine essays on contemporary writers such as Solzhenitsyn, Kundera and Kissinger. Podhoretz is one of the few American writers who can be called “a man of letters”; he writes for the general reader, not the scholar, and he’s conscious of style — both as a writer and as a reader.

Podhoretz borrowed the phrase “bloody crossroads” from Lionel Trilling, one of the leaders of the so-called New York Intellectuals. Trilling respects literary values as few American writers ever have, and he tries to point the way to a healthy literary culture. He wrote some fine essays, which were collected in books like The Liberal Imagination.

For many years, Trilling taught at Columbia, and one of his colleagues there was Jacques Barzun. Barzun was born into a cultured French family, then came to the U.S. and attended Columbia. Barzun’s specialty is cultural history; he’s at home with visual art, music, literature, philosophy, etc. He’s particularly interested in the French composer Berlioz, and the American philosopher William James. He often wrote about higher education, and he helped design Columbia’s curriculum, which was wide-ranging and classics-oriented — like Barzun himself. Barzun was often critical of modern culture. One of his most popular books is a tome called From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present.

Simon Schama is an English-born Columbia professor. Though not as wide-ranging as Barzun, Schama writes both history and art history. He made a popular documentary called A History of Britain, and another documentary called Simon Schama’s Power of Art. He has written books about Rembrandt, the French Revolution, the Golden Age of Dutch culture, and other subjects.

Perhaps the most famous American literary critic of the 20th century was Edmund Wilson. Wilson was a layman’s critic, not a professor’s critic; he thought criticism should be literature, not science. He published critical essays in periodicals, later collecting them in books. One of his best-known critical works is Axel’s Castle, which discusses modern writers like Joyce and Proust. He also published a study of socialism called To the Finland Station, and numerous autobiographical volumes. Wilson’s private life was stormy, and he had numerous wives. It is said that when he quarreled with one of his wives, the critic Mary McCarthy, he would go to his study and lock the door, and she would stuff burning papers under the door.

When Isaiah Berlin met Wilson, he was surprised to find “a thick-set, red-faced, pot-bellied figure not unlike President Hoover.”2 When people meet great writers, they’re often surprised to find that they don’t look like great writers, they look like ordinary mortals. One who met Tolstoy, for example, expected to find an imposing prophet, and was surprised to find a stooped old man who supported himself with a cane. And when Proust met Anatole France, he was shocked to find an ordinary mortal with a goatee, and a nose that curled like a snail-shell. The literary self and the everyday self aren’t the same; the literary self is six inches taller than the ordinary self. If we’re familiar with the literary self, the everyday self surprises us. Conversely, if we’re familiar with the everyday self, the literary self surprises us; as Proust put it, we can’t believe in the genius of a person with whom we went to the opera last night.

After the death of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wilson seemed to lose faith in American literature, in the potential of American literature. The great generation was fading away. The only American writer who interested Wilson was J. D. Salinger.

6. Bernard Berenson

Bernard Berenson was born into a Jewish family in Lithuania in 1865, but grew up in Boston. Like many intellectuals, Berenson read voraciously during his teenage years. After studying ancient languages at Harvard, Berenson received a scholarship to continue his language studies in Europe. While he was in Europe, he became interested in visual art, and he discovered that there was much uncertainty about who had painted what. While having breakfast with a friend at an Italian café, he decided to make a thorough study of Italian painting, using the scholarly methods he had learned as a language student. “Here at Bergamo,” he said to his friend, “and in all the fragrant and romantic valleys that branch out northward, we must not stop till we are sure that every Lotto is a Lotto, every Cariani a Cariani, every Previtali a Previtali.”3

Berenson’s first books were on Italian painting. The Harvard professor William James, who had taught psychology to Berenson, praised Berenson’s early work for its application of psychology to art criticism. One of Berenson’s early works, Italian Painters of the Renaissance, is a favorite of mine — highly readable and interesting. Like Freud, Berenson turned to more general, philosophical works in his later years. These late works — such as Sketch for a Self-Portrait and Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts — might be the best forgotten books of the 20th century. Art specialists have little use for these late works, which were written for educated laymen, for generalists. These late works have no audience today because, in our specialized age, generalists are an endangered species.

Though he was a U.S. citizen, Berenson spent most of his life in Italy. He was often consulted by people who wanted to authenticate paintings, and his consulting work made him rich. He bought a spacious home near Florence, I Tatti. When World War II broke out, he couldn’t bear to leave his beloved home, so he lingered in Italy until it became impossible to leave; eventually the Germans took over his house, and he barely avoided arrest.

Like Hemingway, Berenson was known for his good looks and his numerous affairs. Like Hemingway, Berenson had female descendants who were famous actresses/models. Berenson had the complicated, multi-faceted personality that Hemingway had. Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, said that Hemingway had as many different facets as the sketches in a geometry text. Likewise, Kenneth Clark said, “The personality of Mr. Berenson was so strange and complex.”4

While Ruskin exemplifies the Victorian age, Berenson represents the intersection of the nineteenth century and the twentieth century. Berenson lived through both world wars, and finally died in 1959 at the age of ninety-four. Berenson tried to carry classical Western culture into the twentieth century. Berenson defended the old values of Western civilization when they were threatened by totalitarian politics and by “modern art.” Berenson lacks Ruskin’s moral fervor. But Berenson didn’t bury himself in the fine points of painting; he believed that visual art should be part of culture in general, and culture should be part of life. Berenson published several volumes of journals, journals that integrate culture and life. His passion for culture didn’t flag in his old age; when he was 80, he wrote a book called One Year’s Reading for Fun.

Like many people before him, Berenson enjoyed life more when he felt it drawing to a close; when he was approaching 90, he said, “I would willingly stand at street corners, hat in hand, asking passers-by to drop their unused minutes into it.”5 He was unwilling to die, and leave his house and library; he wanted to stay around after death, and haunt it. Surrounded by his books, his paintings, his gardens, and his friends, Berenson said, “I have attained Goethe’s promise that what one ardently desires when young one will realize in old age.... It is easy now to live in ecstasy.”6

7. Parker and Percy

Saw an interview with a columnist named Kathleen Parker. She’s somewhat conservative, but her writing doesn’t have a partisan edge. She says she dislikes political TV, especially the shows that have partisans screaming at each other. Like many columnists, her columns are archived at certain websites, such as Townhall. Her writing seems to be popular “outside the beltway,” in the heartland — less popular in the power centers. She’s from the South; she grew up in Florida, and now lives in South Carolina. She’s devoted to the late Southern writer Walker Percy, whom she once met in an airport. She says she keeps Percy’s Signposts by her bed.

Walker Percy was born into a distinguished Protestant family, was rocked by the suicides of his mother and father, found guidance in Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, and ended up a devout Catholic. According to Wikipedia, Percy “devoted his literary life to the exploration of ‘the dislocation of man in the modern age;’ his work displays a unique combination of existentialism, Southern sensibility, and deep Catholic faith.” Percy made his reputation with philosophical novels, but also wrote numerous non-fiction works, such as Diagnosing the Modern Malaise. Percy was a close friend of the historian Shelby Foote. (Foote and Percy once drove to Faulkner’s house, but Percy was too shy to get out of the car.)

Percy’s leap of faith, his conversion to Catholicism, reminds me of Kierkegaard’s leap of faith. In both cases, the leap seems to have resulted in a lifetime of spiritual peace. If, however, the leap was an act of desperation, if it involved violence against one’s own intellect, then perhaps Percy and Kierkegaard paid too dearly for spiritual peace. Can we “have our cake and eat it, too”? Can we achieve spiritual peace in a way that satisfies our intellect? This is the task of philosophy in our time — the construction of a worldview that satisfies both intellect and spirit.

© L. James Hammond 2008
visit Phlit home page
make a donation via PayPal

1. “Self-Reliance.” Schopenhauer said something similar: “Deep truths may be perceived, but can never be excogitated.” back
2. Quoted in “Missionary: Edmund Wilson and American culture,” by Louis Menand, New Yorker, August 8, 2005 back
3. Sketch for a Self-Portrait, Part 1, Ch. 11, p. 60 back
4. Another Part of the Wood, p. 133 back
5. Kenneth Clark, The Other Half, Harper & Row, 1977, ch. 4, p. 107 back
6. Sketch for a Self-Portrait, Part 3, ch. 11, p. 175. Ernest Samuels wrote a 2-volume biography of Berenson (and a 3-volume biography of Henry Adams, which won both the Bancroft Prize and the Pulitzer Prize). back