‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Friday, 3 January 2020

Provincialism



One of the things I did last year was to re-read Middlemarch, adding my thoughts to those by other readers on Gail Marhsall's excellent Middlemarch month-by-month blog. 200 years since her birth, you see. Here, for instance, is my final blogpost, on Eliot, Pascal and infinities. Now: one of the things taking part in that process encouraged me to do was reconsider provincialism in art as such. One of the other contributors to Gail's collective blog, Ruth Livesey (a colleague of mine, actually) is presently an AHRC Leadership Fellow 2019-20 looking into questions of ‘Provincialism: Literature & Cultural Politics’, by way of ‘exploring how Eliot was shaped by the education and experience she received while living in the Midlands, and how she believed “art had a responsibility to show a provincial life could be just as full of insight and moral courage as one on the great world stage.”’ It's a very interesting question. Eliot is certainly both a great artist and an intensely local, midlands one. One might say the same about Tolkien.

It's thrown me back on some earlier thoughts. There always has been localist literature; plenty of topographic specificity in 18th-century poetry, but where this is sometimes styled as (and sometimes self-presents as) a withdrawal from politics, that very act of withdrawal strikes me as political, or ideological-aesthetic. A good deal of 18th-century localism actually embodied a Cincinnatus-style withdrawal from the national stage to the local focus of one's provincial life. Cincinnatus was a much more important figure to the neoclassical world than is something realised, I think; and one of the aspects of that is the sense that national, or global, politics are inevitably corrupt and corrupting, such that a principled retreat from the larger stage to the local one is seen as a cleansing action. In the nineteenth-century too, the mainstream of Byronic international cosmopolitanism, or Tennysonian civic performance, existed alongside a more modest strand of provincial poetry, a la Clare or Barnes. But the question that really interests me is whether the 19th-century as a whole sees a shift away from a mode characteristed by large-scale social engagement towards a Cincinnatian withdrawal; from an attempt to make art systematic and global to a valorisation of the local in art.

The question is whether this correlates to a kind of abdication of the larger social project to understand the world—to, indeed, change it. In Dickens we see various textual strategies that are designed to use the metropolis as a way of apprehending and comprehending the whole world: all of society, men and women, young and old. Something is amiss, the world is not as it could be, and Dickens wants to understand what, and to see what can be done about it. London, according to this reading, is the urbs mundi; the whole of the world—the English countryside, America (in Chuzzlewit), France (in Bleak House and Dorrit) are all positioned in terms of London, as not-London from whence the story must inevitably return to London. London, in other words, is Dickens’s modular way of engaging with the largest questions. Compare this with Hardy, from the century’s end. Hardy’s Wessex is not a microcosm of the whole world; it is, quite specifically, Wessex. That's very much its point. The stories Hardy tells are human stories, and like all human stories they scale more generally as commentaries upon human experience; but they are local stories. The extent that Hardy’s writing represents a withdrawal from the ambition of a write like Dickens—the ambition to find a way of apprehending the whole, of writing systemically about the system—is precisely the extent to which Hardy’s writing is elegiac in tone, tragic in mode, a literature of enclosure rather than disclosure.

A parallel case (it is, perhaps, not the parallel that would spring readily to most people’s minds) is the career of Alan Moore. By which I mean: is there a similar withdrawal in his body of work? -- from the larger, politically engaged narratives of texts such as V for Vendetta and Watchmen—works that use the melodrama of the graphic novel mode to interrogate questions of the largest social and political relevance—into the private realms of pornographic sexual fantasy (Lost Girls) and localism—Moore has increasingly committed himself artistically to his native Northampton. The question, then, is: how fair would it be to describe this as a retreat from the very idea of the ability of writers to alter the larger political debate? In the case of Moore, his 1980s anti-Thatcher work was the product of a time (which I remember personally) when the left had a recognisable enemy, and was, broadly, fired-up and ready for the fight. Speaking (again) broadly, much of this energy was dissipated through the 90s and into the noughties, when the UK Labour Party was in power and instituting its nominally socialist, practically Thatcherite programme. Some of the harder left did rail against this, of course (the most effective rallying call was the Gulf War). Some were converted to New Labour; but many simply retreated from national political engagement altogther, to, as it were, plant cabbages in their back garden or become involved in local history. Or, for all I know, pursue elaborate pornographic fantasies or write mournful lyric poetry about dying.

Does something like this account for the drift towards localism in the later nineteenth-century? The struggle seems to avail naught, so the fighter withdraws as gracefully as possible from the national ring, and focusses instead upon private pleasures (Lost Girls) or local history, topography and life (in, say, Northampton).

Actually, now I'm starting to wonder if we might read Edwin Drood as about this: the (good) Cincinnatian remove to the countryside of Dickens's childhood and country residence, set against the (bad) abdication of social responsibility in favour of individual sensual pleasure represented by opium.

Thoughts provoked, or re-provoked, by the recent election result, staring down the barrel of five years of Johnsonianism and Brexit, five more years (likely enough) of Trump and the integral intensity and hostility of what passes, under the regime of social media, for non-local public discursive spaces. Sigh.

12 comments:

  1. The image at the head of this post is form here; an artist-unknown oil on board of a provincial scene, provincial art in the fullest sense.

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  2. I am picturing a retired mafia don tending his flowers... but wait! This is about "Cancel Culture" and "Twenny Twenny". From one old fart to another, don't let those punks at Millennialcon get you down. They don't know anything - just think about what you really knew in your 20s and 30s. They still needs guys like you, even if they think they don't.

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    1. Thanks, Paul! Off to carve fake teeth from an old orange peel now.

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  3. This makes me think of local knowledge and the role of anthropology in the work of Le Guin. Perhaps an anthropological approach might help here more broadly, in terms of local knowledge (Geertz) productions and how they structure narratives in particular ways. Comparing for example how culture shapes both Dickens and Eliot in term of how cosmopolitical they are and then mapping that back out across a range of overlapping (or nested) scales...yours is a very geographical post! I love it!

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    1. Thanks Gwilym, and a double thanks for alerting me to Geertz's book concerning which, to my shame, I had not heard, but which looks very interesting.

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  4. Hmm. While you may be ventriloquising Dickens (and Hardy), you're treading very close to the trope that Life happens in London (and one or two other places), which undervalues the lives that are lived in the rest of the country rather drastically. I much prefer Eliot's vision, which seems quite different - if Middlemarch is about retreat it's a very different kind of retreat. Eliot is firmly optimistic about the world-changing potential of living one's own hidden life in one's own locality, even if in the long run one is liable to end up dead and one's tomb unvisited. ("And rest in unvisited tombs" still brings me up short - come on, George, leave us something...)

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    1. I hold up my hand. I fear this is my (as you quite rightly note) pe-existent bias. When I was growing up, in Croydon and Sydenham (so hardly the heart of the metropolis) I can remember thinking how odd it was that people lived anywhere except London. We'd go on family car trips to visit relatives in Cheshire and kid-me would stare out the window in a kind of amazement at all these non-London houses, all these non-London people ...

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    2. Whereas I made that discovery at 21 or so - growing up in Croydon (snap) I assumed that everywhere was either London or a pale imitation of London looking over its shoulder at the real thing (or else some sort of country village or something). Then I came up North and was amazed - all these non-London places, all these non-London people...

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