‘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.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Readthrough 3 -- Antinomies of Realism chapter 4: Tolstoy

The Tolstoy chapter is not only mercifully much shorter than the Zola one, but more to the point too. The main thrust of the argument is that ‘when we come to affect, whether registered in solitude or in interpersonal relationships, Tolstoy is surely unequalled’ [93]. To advance this case Jameson doesn't lay out the bits of War and Peace you might think he would—say, Nikolai Rostov fleeing battle, consumed by a vivid desire to live epitomized by the bit of blue sky he can see. Instead he discusses a more downbeat episode from Book 2 chapter 6 when Prince Andrei (‘Prince Andrew’, J. calls him; which I suppose is OK) carries the news of a small victory in the 1807 war back to the military high command at Brno. The emphasis is on Andrei’s jittery four-seasons-in-one-day mood swings—he is excited, and anxious, and then gloomy, affronted when made to wait and so on, until in the end he experiences a kind of anti-climax after the message is delivered. This, apparently, is the heart of the Tolstoyan ‘affect’: ‘Not the content of these moods, but rather their rapid succession is the mark of Tolstoy’s peculiar sensibility' [84]. It is, it seems, ‘this changeability and variability, this capacity for sensitivity (in the sense of irritation) and for sudden bouts of ennui, for passing enthusiasms, obsessions, drops in enthusiasm and niveau’ [85] that is the heart of what Tolstoy achieves. I’m prepared to ponder this, although it doesn’t quite match my experience of reading War and Peace: certainly a superbly varied novel, but also one characterised (I would have said) by a remarkable solidity and steadiness of aesthetic momentum, almost a placidity. Still, I could be wrong.

I am on surer ground, I think, when I deny that this agitated, cyclotropic ‘affect’ starts with Tolstoy the way Jameson is arguing. J. compares Mahler’s music [85-6] and then quotes Fourier, of all people [86] before coming back to War and Peace. But the elephant in the room is surely Byron. This dramatically moody self aggrandizing self lacerating pose is paradigmatically Byronic; and the jittery emotionally febrile ‘affect’ Jameson here pegs as starting with Tolstoy actually informed an entire post-Byronic English poetic movement, the ‘Spasmodics’. They’re all forgotten nowadays of course (except to nerdy Professors of 19th-Century Literature like me); but they were symptomatic of a broader set of specifically Romantic cultural fascinations. J. characterises Tolstoy the man like this (‘the self-doubt and the evanescence of whole projects, the abandonment of the early works in mid course’ [87]—but, wait, he rewrote War and Peace in its entirety nine times! That to me speaks to an almost preternatural capacity for sticking doggedly at a thing); sees it in the novel on a formal level (‘the multiplicity of characters … the brevity of multiple chapters’: seriously?) and connects it, with a degree of randomness, to ‘the syndrome named Attention Deficit Disorder, whose symptoms are well known.’ Right.

One other thing bugged me, and it is this thing:
There are no villains in Tolstoy (another feature of the great realists to be discussed later on): for categories of good and evil are, as we shall see survivals of those melodramatic forms and stereotypes that realism must necessarily overcome. [91]
I don’t think this is right, at least not in terms of the specific claim being made here. I think there is a villain in War and Peace, and his name is Napoleon. Great stretches of Part 3 are given over to characterising his pettiness and delusions of grandeur, his restlessness and the huge misery it has caused. No?

[Part 4 of this readthrough is here]

1 comment:

  1. I'm afraid applying the "has read War and Peace" filter has diminished the potential commentariat rather. (Mutatis mutandis, maybe that's how Jameson got away with it? I'm semi-serious - Colin Wilson made a decent career out of namedropping books his readers had never quite got round to. The image of George Steiner - what Barthes would probably have called the Steinerity of Steiner - rests on something similar.)

    OTOH, it drives me up the wall when people start bragging about not having read Middlemarch, so maybe I should stop bragging about not having read W&P.