Epic Poetry Reading, Birmingham Unitarian Church (UU)
Frederick Glaysher reading from The Parliament of Poets: An Epic Poem, at the Birmingham Unitarian Church (Unitarian Universalist), Birmingham, Michigan, April 6, 2013.
From BOOK I (in medias res), BOOK II (Black Elk and Chief Seattle; Japara, Australian Aborigine), and BOOK VI (Buddhist Mogao Caves, Dunhuang, China). Copyright (c) 2012-2013 Frederick Glaysher.
The last several minutes include questions and answers on epic poetry, world religions, and other background material and reflections.
Tags: Birmingham Unitarian Church, Black Elk, Buddha, Buddhism, Buddhist, Chief Seattle, China, Dunhuang, Epic, epic poetry, Frederick Glaysher, Mogao Caves, poetry, Poetry Reading, Unitarian Universalist, UU
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“I loved this book as a help in focusing on our human family. The image of our green-blue planet from the moon is a symbol of humanity without borders. Perhaps this is the greatest image ever seen. “The indifferent wealthy, whose souls had grown cold, hardened against human cries of hunger and pain”. “Our duty is to give hope to the hopeless, love to the loveless, sustenance to the poor”. “The man that is kind and righteous, treating all as his own, attains immortal being.” The poets that are identified in this fascinating book see a universal brotherhood, as to why they are full of love for our planet. The eternal and universal creative process is in every man, women and child.”
Epic Poetry Reading, Albany Poets Word Fest, April 21, 2012
Albany Poets News, (February 8, 2013) “If you were at the 2012 Albany Word Fest Open Mic at the Albany Public Library you will remember Frederick Glaysher and his epic poem The Parliament of Poets. His work certainly wowed the crowd at the library with the performance and the words themselves. …read an extended section from lunar epic “The Parliament of Poets,” with the 20th Century Afro-American poet Robert Hayden as guide.”
“I found myself sitting in my study, dozing
over a book, Cervantes’ Don Quixote,
surrounded by volumes of world classics….”
Copyright (c) 2012 Frederick Glaysher.
The entire reading is available on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL21F9D6C4DA6FE818
Read a free chapter, BOOK I, The Parliament of Poets: An Epic Poem
Two Reviews of The Parliament of Poets
Goodreads, Ratul Pal Jan 25, 2013, rated it
LibraryThing, “A wonderful book. As a fan of poetry and especially epic poetry I found this book to be up to the standards set by Homer. I met some new poets that I have looked up and added to my collection. This book also is very thought provoking as it brings into question what humanity is doing to the Earth and each other. I highly recommend it.”
( ) | wtshehan | Oct 25, 2012
Read a free chapter, BOOK I, The Parliament of Poets: An Epic Poem
Decadence, East and West
The scholar Jacques Barzun provides our initial definition of decadence, taken from his brilliant survey of intellectual history, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 years of Western Cultural Life (2000): “All that is meant by decadence is ‘falling off.’” His discussion ranges over Western art, music, religion, and literature, documenting and critiquing the many figures, changes, and evolutions up to the reigning vision of our time, which he succinctly epitomizes while defending the term of his assessment: “When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur; it is a technical label.” Barzun goes on to explain how one can identify when a culture declines into decadence:
“How does the historian know when Decadence sets in? By the open confessions of malaise, by the search in all directions for a new faith or faiths…. To secular minds, the old ideals look outworn or hopeless and practical aims are made into creeds sustained by violent acts….”
From this perspective, modern Western culture has been in free-fall for over a hundred years, arguably even longer. Whether high or low, such is the story of Western civilization, and, to the extent that it became modern civilization, its decadence has long been passed around the world, into the vitals of every regional civilization on the face of the earth. Together, we have all sunk into the dark pit of cynicism, frivolity, and despair, “fallen off” into nihilism.
By now, the story is an old one. We all know it by rote. Artists, poets, philosophers, and scholars have rubbed it deep into our souls for decades, as have the media on their lower cultural levels, print, radio, and film. The Dark Vision is the Truth of Life. Modernity has intoned with Nietzsche “God is dead.” The theaters of the absurd have dramatized it in endlessly boring detail. All kinds of crud have been smeared on museum walls lest we fail to see it. Cacophony has droned it into our heads. No one of intellectual respectability dare deny it, East or West. As Lionel Trilling confided to his diary in 1948, we have become “assimilated to the literal contents of the art we contemplate [so] that our contemplation of cruelty will not make us humane but cruel; that the reiteration of the badness of our spiritual condition will make us consent to it.” We become the “adversary culture.” Such are the a priori assumptions and propaganda of modern decadence.
Many have observed that the decline into moral and social decadence has been accompanied, paradoxically, by the dramatically opposite phenomenon of exponential scientific and technological advance, unprecedented in the history of humanity. As the poet Czeslaw Milosz noted in 1999, prior to his death in 2004, in “A Dialogue of Cultures” in New Perspective Quarterly:
“A race is on between disintegration and construction. And each aspect is related to the other. The advances of science and technology have further eroded the religious imagination. For that reason, believers and non-believers are in the same boat because the quality of the imagination does not depend upon what you believe, but how that imagination is conditioned by technological civilization and science. …when the world is deprived of clear-cut outlines, of up and down, of good and evil, it succumbs to a peculiar nihilization.”
The splitting apart of science and religion, throughout modernity, has increasingly widened the gap between humane, spiritual principles and beliefs and the relentlessly stripped-down nihilism that has firmly sunk its grip into the soul of man. From the withdrawal after the Wars of Religion in Europe, typified by Thomas Sprat’s famous 1722 account, in The History of the Royal Society, of scientists withdrawing into their own realm, the divide has widened, carrying modern culture ever further away from the moderating influence of the moral and spiritual imagination, constituting a decline into an ever-worsening dehumanization and alienation from the deepest springs of human nature. When humanists, such as Barzun and Milosz, make this criticism, it is not of science and technology, that is, systematic knowledge and the study of the natural world and its application, but of the hubris involved in imagining such valuable material advances render unnecessary a compatible development in moral and spiritual growth, required for humanity to protect itself from the misuse of its own increased knowledge and discoveries. All of which explains the frequent contemporary sense, often felt in our time, of things being extremely complex and out of control, in a frightening state of affairs and decline, despite the highly sophisticated development of material culture.
In “Questions for the Third Millennium,” in 1991, Milosz provided a significant insight into the evolving way out of the malaise, the resolution of the severing of the unity of being and consciousness into artificially separated realms, writing about quantum mechanics that it
“restores the mind to its role of a co-creator in the fabric of reality. This favors a shift from belittling man as an insignificant speck in the immensity of galaxies to regarding him again as the main actor in the universal drama—which is a vision proper to every religion (Blake’s Divine Humanity, Adam Kadmon of the Cabbalah, Logos-Christ of the Christian denominations).”
I would add all the global forms of transcendence and spirituality to his list, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, along with The Dreaming and the other indigenous forms of the human meeting the Divine. The rocky road of modern nihilism has cleared the ground for all humanity to come together before the universal meaning and affirmation of human existence, in all humility and awe, science and the humanities, before the Unknowable Essence that governs all of us and the cosmos.
The Bengali writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri, in Thy Hand, Great Anarch!: India, 1921 – 1952, bemoaning the decadence of Bengal and Hindi-speaking northern India, England and the West, including Canada and the United States, where he lived for a short time, spending the last twenty-five years of his life in England, wrote,
“But even the highest intellects of today do not see the darkness as I see it. They do not admit that there is any cultural or social decadence. This is due in the first instance to the insensibility to decadence which any historical movement of decadence always creates…. In such ages the general habit of intellectuals is to refuse to face all realities, and their incurable disposition is to impose a pattern of words on all reality. This disease is universal in the world of today (962).”
Given his global perspective on decadence, Chaudhuri probes profoundly into the nature of the last hundred years and our continuing plight. For even as a way out of it can now be discerned, as culture has increasingly evolved towards universality, the keys of the kingdom, so to speak, are often in the hands of intellectuals who bar the way through the door, to a new and healthier stage of civilization, healthier than smugly self-righteous, fanatical nihilism. Chaudhuri’s most brilliant insight into modernity was that “The really dangerous aspect of decadence in human communities is the insensibility to it which it always creates.” After the pathetic little piety that “God is dead,” no denial is more common among the worst type of radically politicized intellectuals, especially in American universities, than the rejection of any critique of social and cultural decadence. To allow such an assertion would open the door to morality, and that was supposedly slain by Nietszche along with God. Better to have “a pattern of words,” empty abstractions and discourse than anything approaching a moral and spiritual understanding of the human being.
Unlike the crowd of intellectuals whom Chaudhuri criticizes, sycophants for the most part who mindlessly mumble the platitudes of received nihilism, Philip Rieff, an outstanding intellectual and critic of Freud and modern psychology, in his book My Life among the Deathworks, critiques modern Western art and nihilism, writing a highly sophisticated and nuanced analysis of modernity, in which he uses a scaffolding of terms based on first, second, and third world paradigms, the last referring not to the developing world but to the post-Christian and post-religious one of nihilism:
“What the third world needs, but refuses to admit. There is a desperate need for an elite that carries an interdictory sense, a reading elite that carries illuminative certainties. Third world elites will not allow the development, or redevelopment, of such a reading elite. Our new age elite cannot and will not tolerate such authority (195).”
Essentially agreeing with Chaudhuri, Rieff emphasizes that the way is barred through the conventional doors of the academy and its associated cultural institutions, to which I’d add, its publications, whether book or journal, including wider circulation magazines, such as The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, Harper’s, TLS, The Guardian, and other such monopolizing arbiters of cultural opinion in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. I recall that Czeslaw Milosz often criticized American small press literary magazines for their intellectual and spiritual vacuity. It was in the early 1990s that their moral and spiritual sterility, along with piles of rejection slips, led me to decide to stop submitting my writing to them, as well as the Catholic and Christian journals in which I had published, realizing I didn’t belong in them either.
Basically for the same reasons, some years later, I resigned in 1996 from teaching at Oakland University. It was with the deepest sense of revulsion and loathing that I had come to understand the American university was not capable of respecting and sustaining anyone, including myself, who believed in the moral and spiritual nature of the human being. I chose to follow what I considered the way of all the great masters, solitude, trusting that God would somehow open the door. I affirm it was the wisest thing that I’ve ever done.
This entire process of decline into decadence was noted and expounded by the ancients, foremost among commentators, by Plato, in The Republic, written approximately in 380 BCE, about twenty-five years after the collapse of Athenian democracy into tyranny, wherein Socrates describes the “luxurious city” in a “fevered state,” compared with a healthy one:
“It is not merely the origin of a city, it seems, that we are considering but the origin of a luxurious city…. But if it is your pleasure that we contemplate also a fevered state, there is nothing to hinder. For there are some, it appears, who will not be contented with this sort of fare or with this way of life, but couches will have to be added thereto and tables and other furniture, yes, and relishes and myrrh and incense and girls and cakes—all sorts of all of them. And the requirements we first mentioned, houses and garments and shoes, will no longer be confined to necessities, but we must set painting to work and embroidery, and procure gold and ivory and similar adornments, must we not?”
Socrates’ point is that in the decadent “luxurious state” the emphasis has all been placed on the material, far beyond the necessities of life. Those who “will not be contented” desire more and more things. Much later, in Book IX, Socrates asks his interlocutor, “is it not generally true that” men who are “concerned with the service of the body partake less of truth and reality than those that serve the soul?” Expanding on this question, Socrates summarizes for Glaucon,
“Then those who have no experience of wisdom and virtue but are ever devoted to feastings and that sort of thing are swept downward, it seems, and back again to the center, and so sway and roam to and fro throughout their lives, but they have never transcended all this and turned their eyes to the true upper region nor been wafted there, nor ever been really filled with real things, nor ever tasted stable and pure pleasure, but with eyes ever bent upon the earth and heads bowed down over their tables they feast like cattle, grazing and copulating, ever greedy for more of these delights, and in their greed kicking and butting one another with horns and hoofs of iron they slay one another in sateless avidity, because they are vainly striving to satisfy with things that are not real the unreal and incontinent part of their souls.”
“You describe in quite oracular style, Socrates, said Glaucon, the life of the multitude.”
Socrates further explains how the law courts become corrupt, undermining the state and leading to tyranny. Decline into the luxurious city produces its rotten fruit. The remedy lies in the soul. Men seek satisfaction in “things that are not real,” as quantum mechanics has shockingly, scientifically proven to be the case, have lost touch with who and what they really are.
The Italian Giambattista Vico, writing in the 18th Century, in his book The New Science, noted the same process of decline into luxury and the decadence of “each man thinking only of his own private interests,” and ultimately returning through the choice of self-destruction to “primitive simplicity”:
“But if the peoples are rotting in that ultimate civil disease and cannot agree on a monarch from within, and are not conquered and preserved by better nations from without, then providence for their extreme ill has its extreme remedy at hand. For such peoples, like so many beasts, have fallen into the custom of each man thinking only of his own private interests and have reached the extreme of delicacy, or better of pride, in which like wild animals they bristle and lash out at the slightest displeasure. Thus no matter how great the throng and press of their bodies, they live like wild beasts in a deep solitude of spirit and will, scarcely any two being able to agree since each follows his own pleasure and caprice. By reasons of all this, providence decrees that, through obstinate factions and desperate civil wars, they shall turn their cities into forests and the forests into dens and lairs of men. In this way, through long centuries of barbarism, rust will consume the misbegotten subtleties of malicious wits that have turned them into beasts made more inhuman by the barbarism of reflection than the first men had been made by the barbarism of sense. For the latter displayed a generous savagery, against which one could defend oneself or take flight or be on one’s guard; but the former, with a base savagery, under soft words and embraces, plots against the life and fortune of friends and intimates. Hence peoples who have reached this point of premeditated malice, when they receive this last remedy of providence and are thereby stunned and brutalized, are sensible no longer of comforts, delicacies, pleasures, and pomp, but only of the sheer necessities of life. And the few survivors in the midst of an abundance of the things necessary for life naturally become sociable and, returning to the primitive simplicity of the first world of peoples, are again religious, truthful, and faithful. Thus providence brings back among them the piety, faith, and truth which are the natural foundations of justice as well as the graces and beauties of the eternal order of God” (424).”
Vico continues that it was “choice” that brought all this about, “not fate,” an act of the mind, done with “intelligence”: “That which did all this was mind, for men did it with intelligence; it was not fate, for they did it by choice; not chance, for the results of their always so acting are perpetually the same” (425). He concludes that “Hence, if religion is lost among the peoples, they have nothing left to enable them to live in society: no shield of defense, nor means of counsel, nor basis of support, nor even a form by which they may exist in the world at all” (426). It is that loss that has led to “each man thinking only of his own private interests,” in the “pride” of his own heart, lashing out at others, as the entire civilization descends again further into barbarism.
Writing largely of the cities and desert dynasties of the Maghrib, Northern Africa, the great Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun makes much the same observations, in the 14th Century, in An Introduction to History:
“Senility is a chronic disease that cannot be cured or made to disappear because it is something natural, and natural things do not change…. Many a politically conscious person among the people of the dynasty becomes alert to it and notices the symptoms and causes of senility that have affected his dynasty. He considers it possible to make that senility disappear. Therefore, he takes it upon himself to repair the dynasty and relieve its temper of senility. He supposes that it resulted from shortcomings or negligence on the part of former members. This is not so. These things are natural to the dynasty. Customs that have developed prevent him from repairing it. Customs are like a second nature….”
“Group feeling has often disappeared (when the dynasty has grown senile), and pomp has taken the place it occupied in the souls of men. Now, when in addition to the weakening of group feeling, pomp, too, is discontinued, the subjects grow audacious vis-a-vis the dynasty. Therefore, the dynasty shields itself by holding on to pomp as much as possible, until everything is finished….”
“At the end of a dynasty, there often appears some show of power that gives the impression that the senility of the dynasty has been made to disappear. It lights up brilliantly just before it is extinguished, like a burning wick the flame of which leaps up brilliantly a moment before it goes out, giving the impression it is just starting to burn, when in fact it is going out” (245-6).
Later, Ibn Khaldun brings these themes together and concludes,
“From all these customs, the human soul receives a multiple stamp that undermines its religion and worldly well-being….”
“All this is caused by excessive sedentary culture and luxury. They corrupt the city generally in respect to business and civilization. Corruption of the individual inhabitants is the result of painful and trying efforts to satisfy the needs caused by their luxury customs; the result of the bad qualities they have acquired in the process of satisfying those needs; and of the damage the soul suffers after it has obtained them. Immorality, wrongdoing, insincerity, and trickery, for the purpose of making a living in a proper or an improper manner, increase among them. The soul comes to think about making a living, to study it, and to use all possible trickery for the purpose. People are now devoted to lying, gambling, cheating, fraud, theft, perjury, and usury. Because of the many desires and pleasures resulting from luxury, they are found to know everything about the ways and means of immorality, they talk openly about it and its causes, and give up all restraint in discussing it, even among relatives and close female relations, where the Bedouin attitude requires modesty and avoidance of obscenities. They also know everything about fraud and deceit, which they employ to defend themselves against the possible use of force against them and against the punishment expected for their evil deeds. Eventually, this becomes a custom and trait of character with most of them, except those whom God protects” (285-287).
Ibn Khaldun shares with Plato and Vico all the classic observations of decadence in a civilization: luxury, the excessive desire for and valuing of material goods, leading to moral corruption of the individual and society, the loss of spiritual qualities, characteristics, and morals, that safeguard the individual and social order, and the collapse into disorder, violence, and barbarism. The Greek polis or city, the Italian city-state, the Islamic dynasties, have become the world, with all our global problems and dilemmas leading back to the corrupt and suppurating soul, wandering lost, in the nihilistic landscape and spiritual vacuum of modernity.
All modern people, in Jacques Barzun’s sense, have “fallen” into decadence. Christians are not exempt, nor the members of any other faith, many of whom are caught, to varying degrees, in various “backward,” fundamentalist movements and flights into fantasies of by-gone days, evangelicals and otherwise, none of which are tenable in the modern world. All such movements are a sign of decadence. The fullness of human experience cannot be repudiated and result in a satisfying vision for our time. The “graying out” of the mainline Christian denominations demonstrate decadence as well, by construing Christ’s teachings in terms of doctrines, what Tolstoy called “sorcery,” and tending to the flock of plutocrats that often support them, not the poor Christ cared about. Christian fundamentalism and fanaticism are essentially rearguard nihilistic flights into the past. Humankind can only go forward, together, into the permanent pluralism of our quotidian experience, of what is universally human and Divine. From the moon, together, we can see it.
Like all the great religions, too, in modern times, Islam has fallen into fanaticism and fantasy, mistaking a backward, retrograde movement for the real thing. Modern nihilism has taken many forms, with Islam having its own. Islamo-fascism and authoritarianism is a form of nihilism that the great Sufi poets would have repudiated. They would never have mistaken it as a vehicle in which they could have traveled toward the Simorgh. The famous hadith states, “Seek knowledge even unto China,” but much of Islam stopped following that injunction centuries ago, as it has fallen, for some, not all Muslims, into fanaticism and terrorism. Religious violence is the surest sign of decadence. Many observers, historians, and others have remarked that very little of scientific worth or innovation has been produced in Islamic countries for a very long time. I would argue, too, as some Muslims have said, the majority are closer to the Sufis than the Wahhabis, though the majority marginalize the Sufis. To that extent, what has happened to Islam in the modern world has also been a global decline into decadence. Hinduism, too, has had its backward conservative movements into the past, as an attempt to deal with the modernity that Milosz identifies as “peculiar” to our time.
The Quran (9:29) says, “Fight those who believe not in Allah, nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth, from among the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya [tax] with willing submission and feel themselves subdued.” There are many other similar verses. They’re well known to anyone who actually reads the Quran. For the fanatics, and some moderate Muslims, that’s Islam. And it cannot be soft-pedaled. Nothing discredits Islam more than its reduction to a political power symbol, as Ibn Khaldun recognized, and the use of violence and terrorism in an attempt to install it. The great jurists who developed and practiced the principles of “ijtihad,” a moderately balanced interpretation of the Quran, did, have, and would condemn such violence, lack of compassion, and a sense of the historical moment. Their sense of the fullness of the text of the Quran would note, “Let there be no compulsion in religion”; “Unto you your religion, unto me my religion”; “God has respited the People of the Book”; “If God had pleased, He would have made you all one people. But He has done otherwise.” Hearing only one part of the voice of God in the Quran turns it into an idol, and the individual into a decadent fanatic, seeking through pride and violence to impose his distorted interpretation on others.
In his “Farewell Address” of 1796, President George Washington spoke about the positive role that religion plays in civilization:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Similarly, Vico, emphasized the role of religion in inspiring and sustaining morality and social order:
“For religions alone can bring the peoples to do virtuous works by appeal to their feelings, which alone move men to perform them; and the reasoned maxims of the philosophers concerning virtue are of use only when employed by a good eloquence for kindling the feelings to do the duties of virtue” (426).
Comparatively, the cloying cliques of modernity have their hands clasped over their ears, like Muslim fanatics, shutting out all voices other than the received wisdom of what Saul Bellow once so rightly called “knee-jerk nihilism.” The deeply felt awe before the sublime, the experience of the divine, is one thing, while the emotional impulse to fanaticism and persecution is another. The former, properly understood and guided, leads to humility, selflessness, and service before other human beings, because one who has experienced the transcendent realizes others, too, are a creation of the Divine, to be cherished and nurtured. The emotional fanaticism that leads to persecution, whether religious or secular, is based on a sense of exclusivism run amok, that denies the humanity of the other, including the others’ unique interior consciousness and spirituality. Along those lines, the emotions and “reason” of the officially atheist regimes of Marxism and communism demonstrated their inability to respect the individual and responded by murdering over a hundred million people during the 20th Century.
Part of modernity’s litany is that religious feeling and belief are always wrong, arrogantly failing or refusing to recognize the vast extent to which “Enlightenment” thinking and its offspring, such as Marxism, can and has led to cruelty and violence. The notion that stripping humanity of “religion” will produced Utopia is woefully unlessoned by history. Another one of modernity’s reflex actions, which works against its finding a resolution to our modern problems, before it is too late on so many fronts, is its tendency to react like a bull, confronted with a red cape, when it hears words such as “religion,” “spiritual,” and “God.” It thinks it understands the meaning of those words, when it doesn’t, having lost the meaning, often generations ago, and rejects making any effort to understand that perhaps significantly new definitions are being used or have evolved, instead of the caricatures it prefers. All of this is part of why we live in such an endangered moment of world history, armed to the teeth with enough megatonnage to easily kill more than a billion people, without the moral, humanizing restraint that religion cultivates. All sides, as currently conceived and constituted, are inadequate for providing an alternative to such carnage and a common basis or vision for a secure social order.
Beginning with I. A. Richards in the 1920s through the New Critics and onward through post-structuralism and Deconstruction, the Age of Criticism has served well neither the literary Tradition nor the culture. During the last thirty years, the American academy has often betrayed the deepest principles of the Tradition and of civilization. Every imaginable form of intellectual decline, decadence, and banality has long been the daily gruel served up for its students, debasing and corrupting the entire culture, spreading around the globe. Critics do not own the Tradition. Poets, writers, and artists are the fiduciary agents of the Tradition. Critics have too often lost and forgotten what their role is in the culture, secondary, and should go back to the 2,500-year-old Berlin Painter’s Rhapsode Amphora, meditating long and hard, on their knees, in their offices, begging the gods to help them remember and understand it. Fortunately, perhaps, the Internet and Post-Gutenberg publishing have been developed by science and technology just at the moment when the spirit requires new channels through which to flow, circumventing the decadent bastions of much of the American university, especially its vitiated English departments, and its corrupt cultural institutions and influence, global now, toward a fourth world of universality.
In 1928, Julien Benda, the Frenchman and author of The Betrayal of the Intellectuals, was one of the earliest observers of the rise of modern nihilism and its pernicious affect upon literature and culture. Leveling a particularly prescient critique of Nietzsche and Marx, Benda wrote that of such decadent men of letters, it was hard “to imagine them turning against the tide of their intellectual decadence and ceasing to think that they display a lofty culture when they sneer at rational morality” (155). Even as early as 1928, Benda realized they were beyond the reach of rational argumentation, locked away in their loathing and intolerance of moral and spiritual categories of thought and would not tolerate any such perspective. Sunk deep into a state of intellectual, moral, and spiritual decadence, holding humanity in their death grasp, many loathe even the very idea of morality and spirituality. Although Benda’s understanding comes out of the lesser universalism of the Catholic Church, he is right when he states, “The nature of moral action is precisely that it creates its object by affirming it.” Everywhere, around the globe, where nihilism has performed its paradoxically salutary function of clearing the ground, it yet suppresses the universal at precisely the time when humanity needs it the most, to save ourselves from self-destruction. Benda’s vision, though, like that of Barzun, Milosz, Chaudhuri, and Rieff, the ancients, Plato, Ibn Khaldun, Vico, and Washington, is not ultimately a despairing one. All of them evoke the possibility and time when, as Benda writes, “a handful of men at desks” are “able to succeed,” once again, in helping “humanity believe that the supreme values are the good things of the spirit.” Now on our laptops, uploading to our blogs and global social networks.
Tags: Beyond Postmodernism, Beyond Postmodernity, Czeslaw Milosz, Decadence, Frederick Glaysher, Gambattista Vico, George Washington, Ibn Khaldun, Jacques Barzun, Julien Benda, Nirad C Chaudhuri, Philip Rieff, Plato, Religion, Socrates
Tagore and Literary Adaptation
Accidentally including three or four poems by another poet among his collection of short poems, Fireflies (Lekhan), what Tagore did was discussed in 2002, in a different context, by Richard Posner, in “On Plagiarism” in The Atlantic Monthly:
“…the writer who plagiarizes out of … forgetfulness, the latter being the standard defense when one is confronted with proof of one’s plagiarism.”
It was a mistake. Tagore immediately owned it. He was human, too, and graciously admitted he had erred, when it was pointed out to him, dealing with many manuscripts from years ago, jumbled together. Why should it be held against him by later sticklers?
Unlike his honest mistake, using material from another writer in a different context for literary purposes should not be confused with the niceties of English 101 pedagogy. There are other kinds of borrowing and using material from other writers, of which much of English literature would be the worse without:
“Shakespeare himself was a formidable plagiarist in the broad sense in which I’m using the word. The famous description in Antony and Cleopatra of Cleopatra on her royal barge is taken almost verbatim from a translation of Plutarch’s life of Mark Antony: “on either side of her, pretty, fair boys apparelled as painters do set forth the god Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with which they fanned wind upon her” becomes “on each side her / Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids, / With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem / To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool.” (Notice how Shakespeare improved upon the original.)”
There are many instances of such “plagiarism” in Shakespeare. The Tempest also comes to mind, from Ovid. Posner continues,
“In The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot “stole” the famous opening of Shakespeare’s barge passage, “The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne, / Burn’d on the water” becoming “The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne, / Glowed on the marble.”
“If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism. They show that not all unacknowledged copying is “plagiarism” in the pejorative sense. Although there is no formal acknowledgment of copying in my examples, neither is there any likelihood of deception. And the copier has added value to the original—this is not slavish copying…. Eliot and Mann wanted their audience to recognize their borrowings.”
I would argue, the more expansive the scope, the more necessary to his craft—that the poet will find himself compelled to lean on the tradition to reach his audience, educate it, realizing readers cannot be assumed to follow the sweep and depth of his own study, unless he pays tribute to the original sources within his work, adapting and raising the material to the service of his vision. What is germane, is, as Posner suggests, does it work? Does the poet lift the sources to something new? Tagore’s little gaffe never reached the level of these questions that no conscientious poet can fail to ask him or herself because it truly was a mistake.
It seems to me that Posner is right, though, about Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, and Thomas Mann: They stole whatever they needed and wanted, leaving it to readers to recognize the sources, as extended allusion, if nothing else, in some cases. Footnotes in a creative work would be contradictory by nature and disruptive of the reader’s concentration. The proverbial pedant might think highly of them, especially today, struggling to get tenure, what better way to justify one’s self than alleging plagiarism and creating an uproar, preening self-righteously, but consider Shakespeare’s lampooning of Polonius! The Bard knew what that kind of thing amounted to.
For a writer it’s hard to know sometimes what to do. I’ve read widely for forty years, yet can’t assume the reader in the US or elsewhere has, quite the reverse, in an age of nauseating, dehumanizing specialization. How do I attempt to embody and represent the fullness of human reflection without *using* the originals? I went through much agonizing over all this through the years, but decided the tale must come first. Its roots must be allowed to draw from the soil of literature and culture whatever they need to produce and sustain their fruit. Many writers have done that. I studied extensively many years ago the original Puritan documents that Hawthorne and the playwright Arthur Miller used, put to similar uses. Ultimately, there’s no easy answer, I suppose, but hope that there will be those who will acknowledge I serve the higher aims of my vision.
Much of the literary world has become closed off in doctrinaire nihilism and rhetoric, cocooned in the Myth of the Enlightenment, clutching to its chest its Goddess of Reason, ignoring the extent to which these ideas have led to or participated in many of the most bloody upheavals of modernity, around the globe, and lie at the core of many of our continuing dilemmas. Intellectual rigidity, politicization, and closed-mindedness supplant the search for truth. In this sense, there’s little difference between the “truth” of the complacent cultural elite and various fundamentalists that they castigate. Most cultural organs and publications are fanatically devoted to the secular god of modernity. Like the worst of Christian fundamentalists that many enjoy caricaturing, lumping all people of spiritual sensibility together with them, liberals and progressives, in and out of the university, can be just as closed off to other visions of life and human possibility.
Basically noting this, the theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, of the Higgs boson particle, has observed in The Guardian about Richard Dawkins that
“What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists…. Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind.”
I think these are also refreshing and interesting passages from Peter Higgs:
“The growth of our understanding of the world through science weakens some of the motivation which makes people believers. But that’s not the same thing as saying they’re incompatible. It’s just that I think some of the traditional reasons for belief, going back thousands of years, are rather undermined.”
“But that doesn’t end the whole thing. Anybody who is a convinced but not a dogmatic believer can continue to hold his belief. It means I think you have to be rather more careful about the whole debate between science and religion than some people have been in the past.”
I have had the books of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens for a long time, and have read chunks of them, on and off, following their arguments in various ways for many years. A year ago I read, with a group of Unitarian Universalists, Greg Epstein’s Good Without God, sort of an attempt to turn atheism into a religion. There have been and are other such attempts. To my mind, they are logical descendants of modernism and scientism, and I don’t find that persuasive, especially when they become as fanatical and smugly self-righteous as any fundamentalist Christian or whatever. Peter Higgs is a more balanced and nuanced voice.
What constitutes “religion” or *a* religion, is much of the question to me. I wouldn’t include organizations and institutionalized “religions.” By the time that happens, it seems to me that religion is no longer the concern. Cultural politics is often no more a search for truth than fundamentalist sects. I try to grapple with all this in my epic: “One of the major themes . . . is the nature of science and religion, as well as the “two cultures,” science and the humanities.” I think the language of poetry is the best way in which to do that.
The media, too, often uses a definition of “religion” that is a caricature to my mind, very narrow and tiresome, the “old man with a long beard.” Awe before the mystery and majesty of creation is beyond all that, experience of that, not abstractions. Exclusive claims to truth demonstrate a certain problem in their own way, whether “religion,” literary “theory,” or science. The modern understanding of religion and spirituality is much of our problem today, as the exclusivism of all the traditional religions have shown themselves ever further out of touch with experience, life as it has come to be lived, which is much more global and human, universal, than the narrow, isolated cultures of the past in which they all arose. The eyes of the child, or poet, before nature, the awesomeness of the cosmos, as it continues to unfold deeper and deeper *out there*, is the quintessential response to life and is part of what I try to explore in my epic.
For years now with Facebook opening up access for global communication, I have wondered and hoped that perhaps India holds the key for confronting modern nihilism and turning the tide, East and West, if you will, to allude to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” It should be understood that I am not one who naively thinks India is the “mystic East.” My essay about India and Indian literature makes precisely that point, “India’s Kali Yuga,” about the loss of a spiritual vision in various modern Indian writers, as in the West.
I thank a Facebook friend, Pradip Ray, for reminding me of T. S. Eliot’s words in his essay on Philip Massinger, in The Sacred Wood, which my marginalia tells me I read decades ago:
One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. Chapman borrowed from Seneca; Shakespeare and Webster from Montaigne… (Methuen & Co edition, 1972 reprint. Page 125.)
I must admit that I read this choice passage from The Sacred Wood in my twenties, but had largely lost all memory of it, absorbing it really, for it seems the idea has always been with me. As an aside, the “sacred wood” refers to Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and the wood and grove of Greek and Western early religious experience. It’s partly why I named my collection of essays The Grove of the Eumenides, although thinking primarily of Sophocles’ grove in Oedipus at Colonus.
Eliot’s passage fits precisely how the old masters can be given a new lease on life. That was very much in my mind in writing my epic poem. In the US, it can be a common criticism that many young would-be poets no longer read the work of important writers of only a few decades ago, let alone the ancients, East and West. Everything has become one’s personal life, some dehumanizing academic theory or formalism, obsession with language and technique, the usual trivialities of decadent literary periods. Despite all that, I hope I have honored the great masters, who have meant so much to me throughout my life, who still speak to our time, if we will but listen carefully, with reverence.