THE VALUE OF QUIETUDE AND THE NEED FOR ROOTS
Toward the end of his life, in a forward to the New Directions edition of his Selected Prose, Ezra Pound wrote : “re USURY. I was out of focus, taking a symptom for a cause. The cause is AVARICE.”
Is it possible that our advanced poetry schools of today – both academic and fringe – for whom Ezra Pound is an originary daimon – have somehow missed the import of this statement?
What Pound’s acknowledgement amounts to, is that his career-long jeremiad against the political economy of the West was... not so much wrong, as misdirected. He doesn’t retract his assertion that there is a problem: he says that he analyzed the problem on the wrong basis, at the wrong level, with the wrong tools.
What he’s admitting is that the crisis of his world is not what he used to think it was – that is, an obvious engineering problem, which only a little political tinkering will put to rights.
Instead, the roots of the problem are moral. The roots are planted deep in human nature. To put it an old medieval way – the roots have to do with a propensity for one of the mortal sins (and perhaps by implication, a propensity for them all).
The condition of poetry these days reflects that of the arts in general, only in more concentrated form (because poetry is such a “specialty market”). The atmosphere shifts between radical discouragement, high (frustrated) political dudgeon, and artificial giddiness.
We appear to inhabit a late-modern era, which parallels – in shapes of grotesquery and burlesque, of shriveled civic hopes, of forebodings of plague and war – the late medieval period of the 14th-15th century. The satires of Swift and Orwell have nothing on the comic inversions of language and conscience found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Pardoner, the Summoner and the Wife of Bath would feel right at home in the stews of current Celebrity, and the epicurean, post-Christian society it reflects.*
The Modern World, of course, views everything as an engineering problem. The United States (which I know best) produces its political partisans, facing each other down with mutual sloganeering. Now we have Red and Blue Americas, resembling the color-coded riot system of ancient Byzantium. Each team works up its smug (and self-serving) manuals for systemic tweakage, blaming the other for All Existing Irritations.
And with so many semi-employed software engineers, who needs poets? Poetry’s backed into a corner, seething with pent-up vanity and papered with its own mildew. The causes are many. Some blame the hegemony of prose fiction; others blame the movies. Some blame American Puritanism and its workaholic ethic (even San Francisco no longer offers much reprieve). Poets are not recognized players in the vita activa of private enterprise, so a special farm has been established for them in academia, with its own degree programs and publications. (This works well, if you don’t mind being domesticated and part of a stable.) The rich, fat, happy middle class gets the minor verse it has always deserved, in the odd margins of its magazines.
The Venting Avant-Garde just hates this situation, but plays along as best it can – making sure that it flaunts its own distinguishing colors in the byzantine one-upmanship races. American poet and blogger Ron Silliman, for one, has made a specialty of this color-coding operation. With him, it’s the New Americans vs. the School of Quietude. It’s Red-Blue political pigeonholing on a smaller, aesthetic scale. And pigeonholing, of course, is a technical term drawn from Civil Engineering.
But what’s on the other side of the moon from vita activa? Why, it’s the vita contemplativa. Another name for “quietude”. Chaucer – like Dante before him – constructed elaborate, elegant and searing models of the social world. Within their sustaining spine lurks a Christian-Platonic concept of the Whole Good, the common good – that goodness which surpasses all private and partial and worldly and epicurean goods (on behalf of which Chaucer’s pilgrims hilariously condemn themselves out of their own mouths). A design which depends on, and from, the vision of a dual cosmos – an architecture which the contemporary world has trouble visualizing.
In the dual cosmos, there is Spirit and Flesh, Soul and Body, Heaven and Earth. And History is an undertaking from on high to reconcile the two, by way of those values which diametrically oppose the values of the worldly Epicurean : humility & good works for pride; poverty & charity for greed; chastity & compassion for lust. And this vision of the Whole Good is not an intellectual prize or academic acquisition – it is, rather, an inward product of contrition and penitence.
Simone Weil, a curiously medieval person of the 20th century, summarized this missing reality in her book’s title phrase : “the need for roots.” By which she meant: spiritual roots.
When the modern world dismissed monasticism and its disciplines, the social role of the vita contemplativa was also displaced. The new scripturally-infused individual was supposed to have everything needful right there in the family Bible. And certainly there was something true and liberating about this change. But something was lost as well: the imaginative efflorescence of spiritual contemplation. And when this was gone, the underlying rationale or ground for a certain (medieval) kind of social critique and literary engagement also dissipated in the West. Eliot, Pound, Joyce – to name only a few of the most prominent modern exponents – give evidence, in their nostalgic re-workings of Dante, of an awareness of some missing factor.
It is a concept of cosmic natural law and divine Providence – emanating from what Chaucer calls heaven’s “stability”. Sustained in a prophetic debate or dialectic with the world – the world mired in those three malign arch-vices, given various names, anatomized by John the Evangelist long ago as “the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life” (avaritia, luxuria, vanitas). These are the spiritual enemies – the complex of human foibles – which Chaucer descried and anatomized as the real source of the “engineering problems” stirring the ideological conflicts and debates of his age.
Today, it is novelists who engage in this kind of imaginative-sympathetic-satirical anatomy. The unread poets are left with their various second or third choices – whining political rants, private aesthetico-psychic-symbolic mystagogy, drug-enhanced persiflage, sit-down comedy routines, and so on. Or, one can join a promotional subculture-team, and find some minimal ego relief and career advancement there.
Or, perhaps... one can choose... that old rocky road to Quietude. And human relevance.
*see Paul A. Olson’s study, The Canterbury Tales and the Good Society (Princeton Univ. Press, 1986), for a remarkable presentation of these issues.