Thursday, June 7, 2007

Wilson's Castle

So I’ve been reading, alongside Papa Yeats, this crazy cat name of Stéphane Mallarmé. Don’t get me started. As I understand it, Mallarmé’s oeuvre is pretty much the beginning of French literature’s transformation from a highly classical, conservative corpus into what we know it as today: i.e. the sexy mess of decadence, philosophical theory, radical rhetorical gestures, delicate aestheticism and willful oddness that proves so endlessly generative for English and American literature over the course of our long twentieth century. I’ll try to say more about the actual poetry of M. Mallarmé in the coming days; I’m still coming to grips with it at the moment. It’s difficult stuff, especially for someone with as shaky a grasp of French as my recent experiences in Paris have just proven me to have.

Lucky for me, I have the most reassuring tour guide I could wish for, that redoutable Princeton alumnus Edmund Wilson. His first book
Axel’s Castle deals with the legacy of French Symbolism in the work of several of the major Modernists, including Yeats, Eliot, Proust, Joyce and Stein. Wilson’s thesis, set forth in his first chapter, is that what we call Modernism is “not merely a degeneration or an elaboration of Romanticism, but rather a counterpart to it, a second flood of the same tide." Both Modernism (a term not yet in vogue by 1931, the year of Wilson’s writing) and Romanticism are seen as reactions against a rational, scientific view of the universe and human nature, which he associates with classicism and an obsession with perfected form, in favor of a more subjective aesthetic grounded in individual singularity, experience, and fantasy.

What I find more interesting than this basic framework is Wilson’s account of the triangulation of influence between American, French and English literature in the mid-19th century. According to Wilson, English literature had largely been running on its own steam, reacting to the anomaly of eighteenth-century classicism with the revolt of Romanticism and then a steady tempering of that impulse with Victorian poets, like Browning and Tennyson. Meanwhile France, which has a much stronger tradition of classicism than England, adopts the measures we associate with Romanticism, or even Elizabethan poetry (irregular meters, mixed metaphors) but value those measures not as though they were traditional but as though they were radical, which for French poets they were. “The French called [poetry written in English meters]
vers libre, but it is ‘free’ only in the sense of being irregular, like may poems of Matthew Arnold and Browning." The technical innovations of Symbolism, then, are in a certain way only a catching up to what the English had already, unintentionally, done: “it will not be till the advent of the Symbolists that French poetry will really become capable of the fantasy and fluidity of [Shakespearean] English.”

Where America comes in, according to Wilson, is in providing a kind of late-Romantic aesthetic theory which the British, finding the gestures of Romanticism to be more or less conventional, had little interest in formulating. The French, on the other hand, eat aesthetic theory for breakfast, and so stuff like Poe’s theory of poetic composition (translated by Baudelaire in the 1850s) becomes a key basis of Symbolist thought and self-explanation. What we have emerging here is a picture where the British are Romantic, or anyway steeped in Romanticism, without even having to think about it; the Americans, having inherited the English language and culture, are slightly more prone to analyzing that tradition; and the French, emerging out of a completely different and more rigorous tradition, are dutifully striving after a freer, more irregular aesthetic which they feel they can only achieve by following the dictates of American literary theory. (I think, to a reader today, the similarity to the situation of New Critically-trained Americans attempting to absorb French existentialism and post-structuralism in the 50s and 60s will be immediately striking.) What the French really bring to the table, then, is an idea that the old Romantic ideas and methods are somehow new and unprecedented — and more than that, that their newness, their ability to bring about and sustain a sort of poetic revolution, constitutes their
a priori literary value. Thus the revolutionary, generative strangeness of much late 19th-century French poetry is, in Wilson’s account of things, more a matter of revaluation than actual innovation; a decision that literature is at the beginning of something, despite historical evidence to the contrary.

Then there’s the question of the actual
symbols used in Symbolism, and what they have in common with the more immediately readable symbols of a writer like Yeats. Greg mentioned Yeats’ investment in allegorical figures like Cathleen ni Houlihan as a hallmark of Modernism’s simultaneous oldness and newness, its appeal to ancient communal traditions without losing the emphasis on strangeness, fantasy and subjective experience which Romanticism had brought in. Wilson is very good on these matters, I think, and interestingly he seems to define French Symbolism in contradistinction to the sort of national and religious symbols Yeats is habitually attracted to: he says that "the symbols of Symbolism are to be defined a little differently than symbols in the ordinary sense – the sense in which the Cross is the symbol of Christianity or the Stars and Stripes is the symbol of the United States. This symbolism differs even from such symbolism as Dante’s. For the familiar kind of symbolism is conventional and fixed; the symbolism of the Divine Comedy is conventional, logical, and definite. But the symbols of the Symbolist school are usually chosen arbitrarily by the poet to stand for special ideas of his own — they are a sort of disguise for those ideas."

In light of this formulation, then, could we say that Yeats is applying the personalizing techniques of the Symbolists, which they used only for very specific idiosyncratic constructions without obvious referents (Mallarmé's faun, for instance), to the more definite symbols of conventional allegory, ones like a cross or a flag or a Cathleen or an Uncle Sam? In order to reveal how these seemingly “definite” symbols (Barthes, of course, would call them signs) are themselves “a sort of disguise for … ideas”? I think Yeats is both too much of a mystic and too much of a propagandist for the charge to really stick, but we could certainly say it of Joyce, and Yeats’ dual engagement with the arcane algebra of French Symbolism on the one hand and the rallying points of Irish national feeling on the other clearly points the latter author on his way. I’ll say for now that I’m very interested in how Yeats gets from attending Mallarmé’s salons in Paris where “literature was unknown as a trade” (according to Arthur Symons’
The Symbolist Movement in Literature) to being “the sixty-year-old smiling public man” of “Among School Children,” without ever fully renouncing the aesthetic stance of the former — and I’ve got a feeling this dual definition of the symbol as personal mask and cultural totem has something important to do with it.