Thursday, August 30, 2007

Sick and tired

I want to throw a passage by Raymond Williams, somewhat haphazardly, at the question of Modernism's Old Man Fetish that we were kicking around way back. This is from "Individuals and Societies," an excerpt from his 1961 book The Long Revolution given in The Raymond Williams Reader, and it clarifies his theoretical distinction between "subjects" and "servants":

"The subject, at whatever violence to himself, has to accept the way of life of his society, and his own indicated place in it, because there is no other way in which he can maintain himself at all … It is not his way of life, in any sense that matters, but he must conform to it to survive. In the case of the servant, the pressure is less severe, though still, to him, irresistible. The subject has no choice; the servant is given the illusion of a choice, and is invited to identify himself with the way of life in which his place is defined. It is an illusion of choice, because again, like the subject, he has no obvious way of maintaining his life if he refuses. Yet the illusion is important, for it allows him to pretend to have an identification with the society, as if the choice had been real. The subject will have few illusions about the relationship which is determining him; he will know that the way of life is not his but must be obeyed. The servant, on the other hand, may come to identify himself with the other way of life that is determining him; he may even, consciously, think of himself as a member … Yet at many levels of his life, and particularly in certain situations such as solitude and age, the discrepancy between the role the individual is playing and his actual sense of himself will become manifest, either consciously or in terms of some physical or emotional disturbance. Given the right conditions, he can play the role as if it were really his, or in situations evoking his deepest personal feelings, the identification breaks down." (77-78)

I'm thinking here in particular of Yeats, in such a poem as "Among School Children," where the "role" of poet as public "servant" (in his own phrase, a "smiling public man") is unexpectedly decimated under the pressure of lyric "disturbance." Is this what Yeats (and maybe Eliot) are trying to embody in their personae — the kind of lack of faith in society experienceable not by rebellious youth (Joyce's/Stephen Dedalus' "Non serviam") but only by old men who've spent themselves in trying to serve?