‘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.
Thursday, 24 January 2019
The War of All Against All
This is a pendant to my previous post about war, literature and post-Tolkienian Fantasy. I'm still trying to get my thoughts into some sort of order on this topic and, judging by the friction my earlier post generated amongst its (few) readers it's likely I'm barking up the wrong tree. But it has got me thinking about how one particular idea, widely held, has fared in recent years. That idea is, basically: ‘the underlying logic of the universe is war’, and I'm wondering if the way that idea has fared recently is: it has gained general currency. You might, yourself, think it gets at something important about the world, from a (let's say) Darwinian or a Sun Tzuian or perhaps a ‘cosmic struggle between good and evil’ point of view; but you would also, I'd hope, accept that there are other ways of thinking about the underlying logic of things. For instance you might think nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw is only a partial understanding of Darwin, and that collaboration and cooperation are actually more important, and therefore are closer to the ‘truth’ of things; indeed, you might deny that there is any underlying truth of things at all.
Bellum omnium contra omnes, Hobbes's famous phrase to describe the natural state of humankind, first appeared in the Preface of De Cive (1642):
I suppose I’m taking it as axiomatic—perhaps baselessly—that such a belief underpins what we might call ‘right wing’ political positions: it’s a jungle out there, competition is the nature of the universe, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, greed is good, business is war, there’s no evading the fight so we must be ‘strong’, which is to say: belligerent, ruthless, cruel. We must, as my old Nan liked to say, be like pharaoh, and harden our hearts. It may be that this nexus of beliefs, consciously rationalised or not, has become more deeply embedded in right-wing thought than it used to be; I’m not sure. I'm young enough to remember ‘compassionate Conservatism’ but I suppose that's more or less extinct now, at least in Britain and the US. Calling Trumpism ‘Hobbesian Conservatism’ might be thought to dignify the reflex narcissicism of an authoritarian, but it seems to me to get at something of the political appeal of the movement. The situation on the British right is, maybe, a little more complex.
But the question that interests me is whether there has been a similar shift in ‘left wing’ thought. Maybe the assumptions on the left have, over the last few decades, become more ‘you’re either with us or against us and if you’re against us then fuck you’ than they used to be—as opposed to, for the sake of argument, ‘you’re either with us or against us and if you’re against us then let’s think about the kinds of common ground on which we could meet, the best ways to reach out to you, to persuade you of our position and listen to you explain yours’. One case study might be the posthumous reputation of Andrea Dworkin. I first read Dworkin when I was a student, and I don’t think it’s just my scare-quotes liberal soft-left beliefs speaking when I say: back in the 1980s hers was an extreme position within feminist thought more broadly conceived. Now it seems to me her views are more-or-less accepted on the left. When I talk about ‘her views’ I’m referring to the argument she makes that, to the extent that it is situated within the ubiquitous context of patriarchal dominance, all heterosexual sex is rape, that men are all rapists and the only question is the degree of coercion and the extremity of harm. That used to be a position with which few people, even feminists, agreed. Nowadays the belief that straight sex inevitably takes place within and is framed by the larger context of ‘rape culture’ is much more widely accepted. I think it’s true to say that these views have moved from ‘extreme’ feminism to a much more mainstream feminist position (I could be wrong); but I'm surely on safer ground when I suggest that Dworkin’s views were underpinned by a belief that the gender universe is, in effect, a war. Homo feminae lupus.
I am, I suppose, suggesting more than that ‘we’ are more politically polarised than we used to be, though that’s surely true. I’m suggesting that there’s been a broad-front, perhaps unnoted spread of the underlying belief that the nature of reality is war. There used to be such a thing as the ‘politics of consensus’ but that was buried, without military honours, in the 1980s. Looking back all that 1960s/1970s utopian dreaming looks ... what? Quaint I suppose. Naïve. Hippy. Now everything is “us” versus “them”—who, nowadays, is singing in fey tones “us and them? After all we’re only ordinary men”? Now we’re all too wary to be taken in by such ingenuousness (an anthem for 2019: *sings* this is the dawning of the age of all-wariness, the age of all-wariness). “I don’t mind if you think me ruthless; just please don’t think me naïve, I couldn’t stand that.’ The ceremony of innocence, as somebody once put it, is drowned. Am I merely caricaturing where we are nowadays? Or is the belief that life is a war of all against all much more widely assumed, on the left as well as the right, than used to be the case?