Monday, January 10, 2011

Boston in Winter

It is a beautiful, snow-covered day here in Colorado: the sun has finally graced us with its presence after two days of cloudy skies that shed this snowy, white fluff onto our majestic mountains. I sit with a hot cup of coffee reading Henry James and think about the turn of the century--not the most recent one, but the 19th Century--and my favorite US city, Boston. How different is the winter scene!


Childe Hassam's painting, "Boston Common at Twilight," always brings back memories of my time spent in Boston. The scene is so serene despite the busy, city street with its zooming street cars. For some reason, I always imagined the painting to be of Boylston Street looking up towards Copley Square; but now that I take a closer look, I realize it must be Tremont Street, because of the location of the setting sun: walking South on Tremont Street the sun would set in the West over Boylston Street. The demure, unexaggerated hues the sun casts on the street scene always draw my attention and make me wish for brighter colors, so I could see the scene better, in more detail. But that is precisely what draws me to the painting, and so the fulfillment of my wish would destroy its principle source of attraction.

The painting captures the clash of modernity with simpler pleasures and beauty of a natural landscape with human agency being at the center of their causal relation. The smartly-dressed ladies and gentlemen strut in between the modern Boston and the snow-covered wonderland of the Common with its bare, ancient trees and cliques of playful birds inhabiting their branches. People transform the land, crowd it with artificial structures and street cars. Yet the Common overwhelms the scene as if it wanted to resist the trend and regain its control over the inhabitants of the city. In fact, the children in the foreground demonstrate the park's irresistible power and a human affinity for simple pleasures.

The children's feeding of birds stands in direct contrast to the crowd's implied occupation during this winter evening in the city. The fashionable coats and top hats of the gentlemen suggest they are coming back from the theater, which at that time would probably have been the Bijou. The Bijou Theater (later B.F. Keith Memorial Theatre and now the newly renovated Boston Opera House) was just a block away from the scene on Washington Street. The entertainment at the theater--a vaudeville perhaps, quite fashionable in the 80s--delighted its audience by providing a temporary escape from the reality outside the theater. The children, however, are able to find pleasure in the natural scene that winter in the city offers.

I cannot help but notice the predominance of top hats in the background and at the same time the focus seems to be on the domestic, warm foregrounding scene of the woman with her children. Was Hassam, painting during the time of the Boston feminist movement, trying to make a statement? If so, it is quite ambiguous. On the one hand, the emphasis on the woman suggests a progressive move towards a new social consciousness and importance of women in modern society. On the other hand, it establishes women in their stereotypical position of being child-bearers belonging in the domestic scene.

"Boston Common at Twilight" delights both the eye and the mind. I love the painting not only for its uncomplicated beauty and its larger social context but also for the feeling of melancholy and nostalgia it so successfully creates. Living in Colorado in the 21st Century, reading a book by Henry James about the turn of the 19th Century, and looking at this painting, I wonder at the vast temporal and spacial displacement and at the power of imagination. How tremendous is the mind's ability to wander through space and time! How capable of mental vagrancy is one sitting at home in Colorado on a snowy morning with a cup of coffee and a book! Thank you, Museum of Fine Arts, for posting the painting on Facebook! I miss you, Boston!

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Egotistical Sublime

In Being and Time, published in 1927, Martin Heidegger writes, "Time must be brought to light--and genuinely conceived--as the horizon for all understanding of Being and for any way of interpreting it. In order for us to discern this, time needs to be explicated primordially as the horizon for the understanding of Being, and in terms of temporality as the Being of Dasein, which understands Being" (39). If Heidegger is right that time is a primordial, intrinsic part of our very nature--in fact, it is being itself--than any avid scholar of human nature and its relation to the outside world would be concerned with the understanding of time. If we consider the Romanticism a self-reflexive movement, then the Romantic obsession with time has its justification, although the anachronism suggests that the Romantic writer/ poet was not fully conscious of the root of his/ her obsession. This hypothesis undermines Richard Terdiman's thesis that the Romantic anxiety of the past being severed from the present has a historical source in the French Revolution. And, further, it suggests that the Romantic poet was much more egotistical than Terdiman could ever admit. Because if the source of the Romantic hyper-sensitivity over the nature and the passage of time is the poet's/ writer's conscious desire to further the understanding of one's own existence in the world rather than an unconscious response to historical events, then we need to question the Romantic engagement in the humanitarian, political, and social agenda of the time. If we are right, then the Romantic mind was much more introverted, misanthropic than its poetry seems to suggest at first glance.

To back up a bit: to what extent are the Romantics invested in the issue of Time anyway? And how do they deal with it?

Starting with William Wordsworth, who seems to be terrified of getting old lest he loses his poetical talent, which he is convinced trickles out of him like sand in an hourglass with every passing moment, one way of dealing with the problem is to incessantly rewrite his poems and turn from the worship of nature to the worship of a Christian god. His increasing faith in institutionalized religion of the Anglican church suggests a growing fear of death. If William James is right when he proclaims, “Religion is a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism,” then Wordworth's turn to institutionalized religion takes his egotism to a whole new level.

P. B. Shelley's solution to the inevitability of a temporal connection between human existence and the outside world is to offer another realm where the concept of Time is more fluid, flexible, abstract, where Time is personified and, therefore, given will or agency. In "Ozymandias" and "Mutability," change is the only thing that endures through Time. In Prometheus Unbound, human agency in political change is reduced to subordination to greater forces of Necessity, which is directly associated with Time. In the first two poems, Time seems to be an enemy, whereas in the drama, it becomes a liberating force. It displaces the significance of political and social activism with personal and erotic relations or Love.

Thomas Lovell Beddoes, a representative of the "third generation Romantics," has a much more pessimistic, morbid solution to the temporal problem of human existence. His poetry, by far the most personal of the three, seems to hang in between two realms: life and death. The grotesque coexistence or simultaneity of the two worlds reaffirms and at the same time denies the importance of temporal forces associated with human life. The mingling of life and afterlife undermines the significance and finality of death. Death is merely a gateway to another world and Time becomes a non-issue.

I think it is significant to point out, that Shelley, one of the most (supposedly) political poets of his time, was Beddoes' greatest hero and influence. Yet Beddoes' own poetry does not reflect any of Shelley's apparent commitments to social or political agenda. What we see instead is Shelley's disciple's engagement with his master's Utopian ideas of transcendence of Time through rebirth, resurrection, as in Prometheus Unbound or "Dirge for a Year." This observation suggests that Shelley's real concern was first and foremost his own personal relation to the world, and only by extension a more general socio-political ideology, which would explain its inconsistency and impracticality so often criticized in his writings.

Is John Keats then excluded from this Romantic phenomenon? After all, he attributed the "egotistical sublime" to Wordsworth and, in his letter to Mr. Woodhouse, distinguished his poetry from that of the other proclaiming that a poet has no identity. He is a "camelion" who adopts everyone's identity and has none of his own.  But that does not necessarily mean that his identity as a human is not of his greatest interest. It just means that he is presumptuous enough to think that he can speak for everyone: represent  human nature in general, beyond his own self. To be absolutely fair to Little Johnny, in his poetry I find the least, out of all the others representatives of the age, interest in time, politics, or religion.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mental Vagrancy

Happy New Year! An entire new year has started, and it is time to think about the previous year. Looking at the scarcity of my blogs, I cannot deny a vacancy of productivity in the past few months. It seems I have done nothing useful. I worked for others rather than for myself and, besides a measly improvement in finances, I have painted myself into a corner of mental and physical stagnation. In fact, I nearly gave up my ambitions, my passions, a desire to do what I do best. Yes, with the purchase of a new house, I not only gave up my literal vagrancy, but I also almost renounced mental vagrancy and became a domesticated automaton. I stopped thinking. I stopped writing. I stopped reading with pleasure. I stopped having meaningful conversations. I even stopped offering sarcastic comments on Facebook.

So now, after months of spiritual death, I arise, like Lazarus, from the ashes of my own complacency from whose bourn many never return. For this renewed enthusiasm, this necromancy, I must credit my students at RMC+D. In the process of preparing the syllabus and lecture plans for this semester, I needed to justify my choice of the overwhelming amount of Romantic texts to art students, who would rather draw than read and consider the entire reading endeavor quite useless, especially things as "irrelevant" to their lives as ancient poetry from two centuries ago. Of course, the real reason for this Romantic syllabus of mine is the need to prepare for my comps, but I doubt my students would appreciate this explanation. I figured that the best way to involve my students would be to close the gap between me--the instructor of English-and them--students of art. The artist at the end of his project has something plastic, tangible, physical to show for it: his creation has a definite form. The graduate student's of English literature--as opposed to a creative writer's--most valuable product of academic effort is perhaps a new way to think about literature, a new way to relate one poet to another, one literary period to another, one method of interpretation to another. In other words, all we are are mental wanderers, and we like it that way. Even if we do produce a piece of writing, it is merely esoteric. On the other hand, an artist needs to enter that realm of mental vagrancy before he/ she can create a meaningful piece of art. So a true artist takes the enterprise of mental vagrancy a step further than the graduate student of English.

Perhaps this explanation touches on the problem of motivation in doctoral studies in English as well: because if all we have to show for years of thinking and rethinking literature, theory, and philosophy is a paper or a book that a few will read and even fewer understand, then why are we doing it in the first place? Is it really worth the effort? The sleepless nights? The anxiety? The gray hair? The time devoted to reading endless books filled with complex ideas that no one in the real world seems to care about anyway? It helps to have an adviser or a mentor who will be just as enthusiastic about your new theory about the Romantic fascination with time that opposes those of the ones we tend to call "Great" and place on the pedestal of modern literary criticism, such as Harold Bloom and Marilyn Butler. But in the end we just need to remind ourselves that the entire doctoral studies are just a way of avoiding real work so that we can sit at home with a glass of wine and a book and engage in shameless mental vagrancy. Here's to the New Year!