Poetry in remembrance of the Shoah

Theodor Adorno wrote that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” But there are good reasons not to agree with Adorno. There is a body of powerful, respectful, and penetrating poetry that has been written in reflection upon the Holocaust. And these works are another valid way for non-participants in the evils of the Holocaust to be brought to understand, respect, and reflect upon the suffering that occurred. Consider the beautiful, sorrowful, and indicting poem written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1961, “Babi Yar”. Yevtushenko helps the reader to mourn and recognize these children, women, and men who were murdered at Babi Yar. And he points a finger of accusation against the continuing anti-Semitism rampant in the Soviet Union in which he lived. Wim Ramaker’s powerful elegy for the thousands of Dutch Jews who departed from Westerbork in The Netherlands to the extermination camps of Poland is equally powerful. And Czesław Miłosz’s poem “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto helps the reader to feel and think about the human loss and suffering that occurred in Warsaw and throughout Poland. Vasily Grossman was not a poet; but some of his passages in “Ukraine Without Jews” and “The Hell of Treblinka” are deeply poetic and expressive of a profound emotion that helps the reader to experience the depth of what has been lost. 

BABI YAR
Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Kiev, Ukraine
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
a Jew.
Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be
Dreyfus.
The Philistine
is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars.
Beset on every side.
Hounded,
spat on,
slandered.

Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace
stick their parasols into my face.
I seem to be then
a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The barroom rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
‘Beat the Yids. Save Russia!’
Some grain-marketer beats up my mother.

O my Russian people!
I know
you
are international to the core.
But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.
I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these antisemites—
without a qualm
they pompously called themselves
the Union of the Russian People!

I seem to be
Anne Frank
transparent
as a branch in April.
And I love.
And have no need of phrases.
My need
is that we gaze into each other.
How little we can see
or smell!
We are denied the leaves,
we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much—
tenderly
embrace each other in a darkened room.
They’re coming here?
Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring:
spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
No, it’s the ice breaking . . .
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
like judges.
Here all things scream silently,
and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
turning grey.
And I myself
am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am
each old man
here shot dead.
I am
every child
here shot dead.
Nothing in me
shall ever forget!
The ‘Internationale,’ let it
thunder
when the last antisemite on earth
is buried for ever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all antisemites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
I am a true Russian!

————

Westerbork, debarkation point for Dutch Jews

Wim Ramakar

Sta een ogenblik stil: Monumentenboek 1940/1945

The Netherlands

Who dares to raise his voice here?

Departure point of a whole people:

with known destination left for Auschwitz,

Sobibor, Theresienstadt, Bergen-Belsen, Kosel …

And nobody saved them

To be sure there was much waving when they passed by

A gesture that always touched the deported deeply

but nobody shifted the point to life,

or changed the track

Scores of trains have left from here,

according to schedule

often Tuesdays,

exactly on time, because no one was allowed to die too late

Stand for a moment …now the point of departure and arrival have almost caught up with 

each other

Here left a whole people:

more than one hundred and two thousand Jewish fellow citizens, children, mothers, fathers,

fathers, mothers, children

and also babies and those old of days

were gassed, shot, burned alive,

beaten to death, hanged

while we waved

At last the rails are shifted

of sadness twisted

and at the place where they were readied for their journey

stand telescopes

to amplify their silent whispering in the universe

and to wave again

when they wave.


A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto

Czesław Miłosz

Warsaw, Poland

Bees build around red liver,

Ants build around black bone.

It has begun: the tearing, the trampling on silks,

It has begun: the breaking of glass, wood, copper, nickel, silver, foam

Of gypsum, iron sheets, violin strings, trumpets, leaves, balls, crystals.

Poof! Phosphorescent fire from yellow walls

Engulfs animal and human hair.

Bees build around the honeycomb of lungs,

Ants build around white bone.

Torn is paper, rubber, linen, leather, flax,

Fiber, fabrics, cellulose, snakeskin, wire.

The roof and the wall collapse in flame and heat seizes the foundations.

Now there is only the earth, sandy, trodden down,

With one leafless tree.

Slowly, boring a tunnel, a guardian mole makes his way,

With a small red lamp fastened to his forehead.

He touches buried bodies, counts them, pushes on,

He distinguishes human ashes by their luminous vapor,

The ashes of each man by a different part of the spectrum.

Bees build around a red trace.

Ants build around the place left by my body.


I am afraid, so afraid of the guardian mole.

He has swollen eyelids, like a Patriarch

Who has sat much in the light of candles

Reading the great book of the species.

What will I tell him, I, a Jew of the New Testament,

Waiting two thousand years for the second coming of Jesus?

My broken body will deliver me to his sight

And he will count me among the helpers of death:

The uncircumcised.


————


Ukraine without Jews

Vasily Grossman

Ukraine

When our forces enter the villages of Left-bank Ukraine under a volley of fire and the din of hand grenades, domestic geese rise up into the air. Flapping their enormous white wings, they circle above peasant huts, above lakes covered in water lilies, above fields and gardens.

There is something worrisome and strange in the heavy, arduous flight, and the sharp, alarming and sorrowful cries of these domestic birds. It is as if they are calling the soldiers of the Red Army to witness heartbreaking and frightening images of life, as if they are rejoicing at the arrival of our forces, simultaneously weeping with joy and lamenting, screaming of great losses, and of the tears and blood that have aged and salted the soil of Ukraine.

...

And it occurred to me that just as Kozary is silent, so too are the Jews in Ukraine silent. In Ukraine there are no Jews. Nowhere—not in Poltava, Kharkov, Kremenchug, Borispol, not in Iagotin. You will not see the black, tear-filled eyes of a little girl, you will not hear the sorrowful drawling voice of an old woman, you will not glimpse the swarthy face of a hungry child in a single city or a single one of hundreds of thousands of shtetls.

Stillness. Silence. A people has been murdered. Murdered are elderly artisans, well-known masters of trades: tailors, hatmakers, shoemakers, tinsmiths, jewellers, housepainters, furriers, bookbinders; murdered are workers: porters, mechanics, electricians, carpenters, furnace workers, locksmiths; murdered are wagon drivers, tractor drivers, chauffeurs, cabinet makers; murdered are millers, bakers, pastry chefs, cooks; murdered are doctors, therapists, dentists, surgeons, gynecologists; murdered are experts in bacteriology and biochemistry, directors of university clinics, teachers of history, algebra, trigonometry; murdered are lecturers, department assistants, candidates and doctors of science; murdered are engineers, metallurgists, bridge builders, architects, ship builders; murdered are pavers, agronomists, field-crop growers, land surveyors; murdered are accountants, bookkeepers, store merchants, suppliers, managers, secretaries, night guards; murdered are teachers, dressmakers; murdered are grandmothers who could mend stockings and bake delicious bread, who could cook chicken soup and make strudel with walnuts and apples; and murdered are grandmothers who didn’t know how to do anything except love their children and grandchildren; murdered are women who were faithful to their husbands, and murdered are frivolous women; murdered are beautiful young women, serious students and happy schoolgirls; murdered are girls who were unattractive and foolish; murdered are hunchbacks; murdered are singers; murdered are blind people; murdered are deaf and mute people; murdered are violinists and pianists; murdered are three- year-old and two-year-old children; murdered are eighty-year-old elders who had cataracts in their dimmed eyes, cold transparent fingers and quiet, rustling voices like parchment; murdered are crying newborns who were greedily sucking at their mothers’ breasts until their final moments. All are murdered, many hundreds of thousands, millions of people.

The people have been murdered, trampled in the earth.

Did the Iliad have an author?

Did the Iliad have an author? Since this is probably the best known text from the ancient Greek world,  one might find the question a puzzling one: of course the Iliad had an author; it was Homer. But it turns out that this answer is no longer accepted by experts in classical literature — and hasn’t been for at least ninety years. Adam Kirsch’s recent piece in the New Yorker, “The Classicist Who Killed Homer,” sheds light on the topic, and also raises highly interesting questions about the nature of imagination, narrative, and story-telling. Kirsh’s piece is a discussion of Robert Kanigel’s biography of Milman Parry, Hearing Homer’s Song: The Brief Life and Big Idea of Milman Parry. Parry was a young professor of classics at Harvard in the 1930s, and his treatment of “Homer” created, according to Kanigel, a permanent change in the way that classicists conceived of the making of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The time of Homer — or at least, the time at which the oral poems that eventually became the Iliad and the Odyssey originated — is perhaps five or six centuries before the time of Socrates; it was ancient history, even for the ancient Greeks. Homer is indeed discussed by Aristotle, Herodotus, and Plutarch, but with essentially no basis in historical fact. So how could modern scholars — scholars in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries — arrive at evidence-based conclusions about the authorship of these great works? This is the question that Parry sought to answer; and here is Kirsch’s summary of Parry’s considered conclusion: 

Parry’s thesis was simple but momentous: “It is my own view, as those who have read my studies on Homeric style know, that the nature of Homeric poetry can be grasped only when one has seen that it is composed in a diction which is oral, and so formulaic, and so traditional.” In other words, the Iliad and the Odyssey weren’t written by Homer, because they weren’t written at all. They were products of an oral tradition, performed by generations of anonymous Greek bards who gradually shaped them into the epics we know today. Earlier scholars had advanced this as a hypothesis, but it was Parry who demonstrated it beyond a reasonable doubt. (73)

The primary clue that Parry pursued was the most evident stylistic fact about the poems: their meter and their continual use of stylized epithets for the key actors. The epithets and the meter of the verses give the oral poet a manageable framework from which to create line after line of verse.

Rather, [the poet] had a supply of ready-made epithets in different metrical patterns that could be slotted in depending on the needs of the verse, like Tetris blocks. As Parry wrote in one of his papers, “The Homeric language is the work of the Homeric verse,” not the other way around. (75)

Most interesting is the account that Kirsch provides of Parry’s method of research and argument. Biblical scholars came to the conclusion that the Hebrew Bible was not the work of a single author as well. But their arguments were largely textual: each of the books had a distinctive style and vocabulary, and it was straightforward to argue that these texts are an amalgam of multiple earlier texts. Parry proceeded differently in his treatment of the Iliad and the Odyssey. From a textual point of view, these poems are fairly consistent over their thousands of lines. But Parry asked himself a different question: how do pre-literate communities compose and transmit their stories? And he investigated this question through fieldwork in the 1930s. He undertook to observe the process of the creation of an oral tradition in the making. He functioned as a kind of “ethno-poeticist” — an observer and collector of oral traditions in these “spoken-word” communities of Yugoslavia.

Here is an especially interesting part of Parry’s research in Yugoslavia:

Parry’s research showed that, in an oral-performance tradition, it makes no sense to speak of a poem as having an authentic, original text. He found that, when he asked a guslar to perform the same poem on consecutive days, the transcripts could be dramatically different, with lines and whole episodes appearing or disappearing. With the guslar he considered the most gifted, a man in his sixties named Avdo Međedović, Parry tried an experiment: he had Međedović listen to a tale he’d never heard before, performed by a singer from another village, and then asked him to repeat it. After one hearing, Međedović not only could retell the whole thing but made it three times longer, and, in Lord’s recollection, much better: “The ornamentation and richness accumulated, and the human touches of character imparted a depth of feeling that had been missing.” (75)

What is interesting to me in this experiment is the light it sheds on the cognitive and creative process of the oral poet him- or herself. What seems to be going on in this account is a complex act of narrative cognition: hearing the unfamiliar story, linking it to a broader context of allusions and metaphors within the ambient oral tradition, remembering the story, and retelling the story with embellishments and refinements that make it more complex and more aesthetically satisfying to the listening audience. Parry seems to be observing the process of “oral poetry composition and transformation” in action, through the skilled intellectual and poetic work of the guslar Međedović. It is skillful improvisation joined with an immersion in a tradition of heroes and other stories, leading to a better and even more satisfying story. If this were Tolstoy’s work, we might say that the refinement of the story is the result of a repetitive process of drafting, editing, rewriting, and enhancement; but that iterative process is plainly absent in Međedović’s performance. Instead, Međedović is given the frame of the story and the key details, and — in real time — he weaves together an ornamented and rich version of the story “with a depth of feeling that had been missing.” This is a very plausible mechanism for explaining the richness and complexity of the storylines of the Iliad and the Odyssey — not a single Tolstoy writing an epic, but a series of more and less talented “guslars” in the pre-Athenian world rehearsing, refining, and extending the stories in a way that is astonishing in its comprehensiveness and richness by the time it was collected and recorded.

Kirsch doesn’t provide this analogy, but we might say that Parry proceeded somewhat analogously to Darwin in his careful observation of finches and other organisms in the Galapagos, supporting eventually a powerful hypothesis about the genesis of species (natural selection based on differential reproductive success). In Parry’s case, the result is an account of the multigenerational genesis of stories told by specialized story-tellers like Međedović — or the proto-Homers who contributed to the construction of the Iliad and the Odyssey over a period of centuries.

Notice how different this process of story composition and transmission is from other kinds of familiar narratives — novels and academic histories, for example. When David Hume attempted to tell the story of a century of English politics in The History of England, his narrative is structured by written sources, extensive notes, and a narrative plan. And it is an iterative process of editing and revision, with a conception of the whole that guides corrections throughout the narrative. When Tolstoy composed War and Peace, he too had the opportunity of revision, reconciliation, and recomposition, to ensure consistency of plot and character development. The oral poet, by contrast, is doing his creative work in real time; no corrections, no going back to an earlier chapter, no reminding himself/herself of the gist of the plot in earlier stages of the story. This presents an entirely different problem of creative cognition for the oral poet that is quite different from that facing the historian or the novelist. Memory, metaphor, fable, and humor through the unexpected all play a role in the oral poet’s performance.

Is there a field of cognitive psychology that studies narrative improvisation? Interestingly enough, there is. Here is an interesting research report (link) from a group of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology who have studied improv theater. The group includes Brian Magerko, Waleed Manzoul, Mark Riedl, Allan Baumer, Daniel Fuller, Kurt Luther, and Celia Pearce. They describe the object of their research in these terms:

Improvisation is a relatively understudied aspect of creativity and cognition. One way of viewing improvisation is as the act of real-time dynamic problem solving [12]. One of the most recognizable manifestations of improvisational problem solving comes from the theatre arts community. Improvisational theatre – or simply improv – is a rich source of data for reaching a better understanding of improvisational problem solving and cognition [11, 32]. This is in part due to the diversity of performative activities in improv, which allows us to manipulate independent variables for purposes of experimentation, and the decoupling from real-world problems (e.g., emergency management) that are hard to control or recreate. Focusing on improv theatre, we can more specifically define improvisation as a creative act to be the “creation of an artifact and/or performance with aesthetic goals in real-time that is not completely prescribed in terms of functional and/or content constraints.” Our definition here intentionally focuses on the process of creating; improvisation is viewed as an active endeavor that is equally, or more, important than the final product. That is, how you get to an outcome is more important than the outcome.

Like the topic of skilled bodily performance discussed elsewhere here (link), there is a great deal of room for important research on the question of improvisational narrative composition. This refreshes my own notion that many of the most ordinary parts of human life repay fascinating results when studied from a fresh point of view.

(I realize that I myself have had a little bit of personal experience of this kind of story-telling. Over the past six years or so I have developed a tradition with my grandchildren of an ongoing series of stories about a young French boy (Pierre) who worked with the French intelligence agency in the 1960s. Pierre has many adventures, and each story is initiated by a “seed event” that I bring to mind and then embroider with many exciting and laughable adventures. Among other things, I’ve learned that drama and humor must be mixed — the boys love absurd situations and wordplay as much as they enjoy complicated and sinister plots with figures like the mysterious X and Y. Most recently on vacation we enjoyed a few new stories based on Pierre’s secret visit to Dien Bien Phu and Dien Bien Phuie. In a very simple way, this is the work of a guslar! Here are a few of the stories that I’ve written down and recorded for the grandchildren during the pandemic; link.)

Orwell’s study of mentality and culture

George Orwell wrote a great deal of literary criticism, book reviews, and intellectual commentary, almost always with a down-to-earth plain speaking that entirely rejected the lofty English conventions of academic writing. (Here is a fairly comprehensive Kindle collection of his essays, A Collection of Essays.) What I find interesting about Orwell’s literary commentaries is their honesty, seriousness, and nuance. They are completely fascinating to read. Orwell really wants to get to the bottom of this point or that, whether it concerns Tolstoy, Dickens, Kipling, or Henry Miller. Orwell was extremely broadly read, both in English literature and European literature more generally. And he has specific, thoughtful reactions to all of it. Moreover, his opinions are non-doctrinaire. Although Orwell brings his own orientation about the social realities of England and Europe and he is always aware of the social conditions of workers and farmers that are often unnoticed in literature, he rejects entirely the cant of English Marxist theory and vocabulary. 

His analysis of Tolstoy’s surprising polemic against the literary value of Shakespeare as a playwright (“Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool”) is a good example of Orwell’s literary imagination. He takes Tolstoy’s claims seriously, tries to give a credible interpretation of them, and refutes Tolstoy’s central biases against Shakespeare. Likewise, his extensive treatment of Charles Dickens is enthralling — Orwell finds that Dickens has almost no acquaintance with ordinary laborers in spite of his sympathy for the poor, and that his desire to improve society turns almost entirely upon an exhortation to the rich to be more kind rather than a demand for structural change in society. And his treatment of Kipling — an author usually dismissed as a pure jingoistic cheerleader for British colonialism — is quite nuanced.

[Kipling] identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, ‘In such and such circumstances, what would you DO?’, whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions. Where it is a permanent and pensioned opposition, as in England, the quality of its thought deteriorates accordingly. Moreover, anyone who starts out with a pessimistic, reactionary view of life tends to be justified by events, for Utopia never arrives and ‘the gods of the copybook headings’, as Kipling himself put it, always return. Kipling sold out to the British governing class, not financially but emotionally. This warped his political judgement, for the British ruling class were not what he imagined, and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery, but he gained a corresponding advantage from having at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like. It is a great thing in his favour that he is not witty, not ‘daring’, has no wish to ÉPATER LES BOURGEOIS. He dealt largely in platitudes, and since we live in a world of platitudes, much of what he said sticks. Even his worst follies seem less shallow and less irritating than the ‘enlightened’ utterances of the same period, such as Wilde’s epigrams or the collection of cracker-mottoes at the end of MAN AND SUPERMAN.

Literary criticism is one thing; but Orwell has another goal in discussing the published word that has nothing to do with literary values. Rather, in his treatment of popular literature — penny novels, boys’ magazines, murder mysteries, even poetry — Orwell is interested in discovering something important about the mental worldview of a particular generation. In particular, he is especially interested in the generation of young English men of his own age, born in 1900 or so, living through the Great War, and plunged into World War II, fascism, and totalitarianism. He tries to form a connection between the content, style, and social assumptions of a body of “boy’s stories”, for example, and the effects these assumptions and styles are likely to have had on the mental frameworks of the boys of a specific generation. He provides a fairly detailed content analysis of these stories and their presentation in the pulp magazines of the period.

Orwell is quite explicit in believing that the earliest influences on the development of a child — books, stories, comics, postcards — have a profound effect on their adult sensibilities and imagination. In “Why I Write” he puts it this way:

I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in–at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own–but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.

Take the interesting example of A. E. Housman’s Shropshire Lad.

Among people who were adolescent in the years 1910-25, Housman had an influence which was enormous and is now not at all easy to understand. In 1920, when I was about seventeen, I probably knew the whole of the SHROPSHIRE LAD by heart. I wonder how much impression the SHROPSHIRE LAD makes at this moment on a boy of the same age and more or less the same cast of mind? No doubt he has heard of it and even glanced into it; it might strike him as cheaply clever–probably that would be about all. Yet these are the poems that I and my contemporaries used to recite to ourselves, over and over, in a kind of ecstasy, just as earlier generations had recited Meredith’s ‘Love in a Valley’, Swinburne’s ‘Garden of Proserpine’ etc., etc. 

It just tinkles. But it did not seem to tinkle in 1920. Why does the bubble always burst? To answer that question one has to take account of the EXTERNAL conditions that make certain writers popular at certain times. Housman’s poems had not attracted much notice when they were first published. What was there in them that appealed so deeply to a single generation, the generation born round about 1900? (“Inside the Whale”, 1940)

Or in other words, what can we learn about the mentality of boys and adolescents around the time of the Great War from the resonance and importance of the poetry of Housman for them? Here are the makings of a theory:

But Housman would not have appealed so deeply to the people who were young in 1920 if it had not been for another strain in him, and that was his blasphemous, antinomian, ‘cynical’ strain. The fight that always occurs between the generations was exceptionally bitter at the end of the Great War; this was partly due to the war itself, and partly it was an indirect result of the Russian Revolution, but an intellectual struggle was in any case due at about that date. Owing probably to the ease and security of life in England, which even the war hardly disturbed, many people whose ideas were formed in the eighties or earlier had carried them quite unmodified into the nineteen-twenties. Meanwhile, so far as the younger generation was concerned, the official beliefs were dissolving like sand-castles. The slump in religious belief, for instance, was spectacular. (“Inside the Whale”, 1940)

Now consider an even more interesting influence of words on boys: the adventure stories published for decades in pulp magazines in England (“Boys’ Weeklies”, 1940). Orwell writes of the news shops where these magazines were sold:

Probably the contents of these shops is the best available indication of what the mass of the English people really feels and thinks. Certainly nothing half so revealing exists in documentary form. Best-seller novels, for instance, tell one a great deal, but the novel is aimed almost exclusively at people above the £4-a-week level. (Orwell, George. A Collection of Essays. Kindle Edition)

This is Orwell’s distinctive insight: the popular literature for boys implicitly records the features of a mentality at a time and place. More exactly, these publications (pulp magazines) both reflect the mental worlds of young boys and shape those mental frameworks; and, in Orwell’s view, the shaping of values and social assumptions is quite purposeful on the part of the bourgeois publishers who stand behind these magazines. In order to uncover that mental worldview, Orwell provides an analysis of the whole group of magazines that fill this niche:

Falling strictly within this class there are at present ten papers, the GEM, MAGNET, MODERN BOY, TRIUMPH and CHAMPION, all owned by the Amalgamated Press, and the WIZARD, ROVER, SKIPPER, HOTSPUR and ADVENTURE, all owned by D. C. Thomson & Co. … 

Each of them carries every week a fifteen–or twenty-thousand-word school story, complete in itself, but usually more or less connected with the story of the week before. The Gem in addition to its school story carries one or more adventure serial. Otherwise the two papers are so much alike that they can be treated as one, though the MAGNET has always been the better known of the two, probably because it possesses a really first-rate character in the fat boy. Billy Bunter. 

The stories are stories of what purports to be public-school life, and the schools (Greyfriars in the MAGNET and St Jim’s in the GEM) are represented as ancient and fashionable foundations of the type of Eton or Winchester. All the leading characters are fourth-form boys aged fourteen or fifteen, older or younger boys only appearing in very minor parts. Like Sexton Blake and Nelson Lee, these boys continue week after week and year after year, never growing any older. Very occasionally a new boy arrives or a minor character drops out, but in at any rate the last twenty-five years the personnel has barely altered. All the principal characters in both papers–Bob Cherry, Tom Merry, Harry Wharton, Johnny Bull, Billy Bunter and the rest of them–were at Greyfriars or St Jim’s long before the Great War, exactly the same age as at present, having much the same kind of adventures and talking almost exactly the same dialect. And not only the characters but the whole atmosphere of both Gem and Magnet has been preserved unchanged, partly by means of very elaborate stylization.

Here are the main conclusions that Orwell reaches:

Of course no one in his senses would want to turn the so-called penny dreadful into a realistic novel or a Socialist tract. An adventure story must of its nature be more or less remote from real life. But, as I have tried to make clear, the unreality of the WIZARD and the GEM is not so artless as it looks. These papers exist because of a specialized demand, because boys at certain ages find it necessary to read about Martians, death-rays, grizzly bears and gangsters. They get what they are looking for, but they get it wrapped up in the illusions which their future employers think suitable for them. To what extent people draw their ideas from fiction is disputable. Personally I believe that most people are influenced far more than they would care to admit by novels, serial stories, films and so forth, and that from this point of view the worst books are often the most important, because they are usually the ones that are read earliest in life. It is probable that many people who would consider themselves extremely sophisticated and ‘advanced’ are actually carrying through life an imaginative background which they acquired in childhood from (for instance) Sapper and Ian Hay. …

If that is so, the boys’ twopenny weeklies are of the deepest importance. Here is the stuff that is read somewhere between the ages of twelve and eighteen by a very large proportion, perhaps an actual majority, of English boys, including many who will never read anything else except newspapers; and along with it they are absorbing a set of beliefs which would be regarded as hopelessly out of date in the Central Office of the Conservative Party. All the better because it is done indirectly, there is being pumped into them the conviction that the major problems of our time do not exist, that there is nothing wrong with LAISSEZ-FAIRE capitalism, that foreigners are un-important comics and that the British Empire is a sort of charity-concern which will last for ever. Considering who owns these papers, it is difficult to believe that this is un-intentional.

Orwell finds that there is a specific social worldview, an ideology, permeating these stories, and that this worldview serves to frame the social and political perceptions of boys as they enter adulthood. Further, he believes that the ideological content is deliberate: 

ALL fiction from the novels in the mushroom libraries downwards is censored in the interests of the ruling class. And boys’ fiction above all, the blood-and-thunder stuff which nearly every boy devours at some time or other, is sodden in the worst illusions of 1910. The fact is only unimportant if one believes that what is read in childhood leaves no impression behind. Lord Camrose and his colleagues evidently believe nothing of the kind, and, after all, Lord Camrose ought to know.

The worldview that is embedded in these stories is one grounded in snobbism, the natural superiority of the wealthy, the inevitability of rich and poor (and winners and losers in society), and the permanence of the current social order. What is unlikely to emerge from such stories is — rebelliousness, resistance, and rejection of oppression.

And yet — all of those mental characteristics of rebelliousness and resistance did emerge among some children, soon to be adults, in the 1930s in England — including in Orwell himself. So at the most, we must regard this “worldview-shaping” power of children’s books and stories as being a partial thing, just one of many influences that eventually shape and constrain the imagination and perception of the adult. How would Orwell explain his own escape from the mental constraints of this ideological framework, into the independent-minded socialism that guided his actions for the rest of his life? From the autobiographical essay (“Such, such were the joys”, 1947),  published posthumously, the thread of an explanation is visible: “I was always an outsider, I conformed externally but never within myself.” He describes his own development in these words in “Why I Write”:

I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.

Isolated, undervalued, lonely; independent, critical, socialist, committed to acting as I think best. The clue seems to be that independence of mind is nurtured by a certain degree of “outsiderness”. 

Here is something akin to a manifesto from the same essay:

The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, AGAINST totalitarianism and FOR democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows.

It is striking to reflect that the United States in the 1930s does not seem to have produced its own version of George Orwell — leftist, independent, honest, anti-totalitarian, and non-ideological. There were Communist intellectuals; but I cannot think of the kind of independent-minded social critic in the United States whose work might be thought to be as original and penetrating as that of Orwell. Why is that? Was there a particular niche for non-conformist intellectuals like Orwell in England that was lacking in the United States in the 1930s? And did that culture persist into the 1950s and beyond? How close to the Orwell example of social criticism does Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath come (both the novel (1939) and  the film (1940))? Are Michael Harrington, Howard Zinn, Murray Levin, or Noam Chomsky analogous intellectuals on the left?

Literature and memory

As a way of finding some interesting distraction in the social isolation of Covid-19 I have been reading Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. The book primarily treats the way that literate English soldiers, educated in a certain way and immersed in a particular public school culture, found words and phrases to capture part of their horrendous experiences in trench warfare over the months or years that extended between the moment of enlistment and death. Pilgrim’s Progress plays a central role in many depictions, and some of Britain’s most striking poetry of the twentieth century comes from this time.

Fussell is primarily interested in exploring the ways that British poets who served during World War I chose to express their experience of war and the violence, fear, and chaos of the trenches. He captures the bitterness, irony, and cynicism created in this generation by the war in authors and poets like Robert Graves (Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography), Siegfried Sassoon (Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man), Edmund Blunden (Undertones of War), and Wilfred Owen (“The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”).

The book is interesting in part because of the particular moment that we are all enmeshed in right now, from Mumbai to Milan to Manchester to Detroit. The world of Covid-19 feels a bit apocalyptic — even if there are no heavy artillery pieces thundering away in the distance. It seems certain that we will all have memories of this period that will be clear and sharp, and colored by the illness and deaths of so many people around the world and the country. Also similar is the pervasive sense of the utter incompetence and arrogance of the national government (in the United States, at least), in its lack of preparation and foresight and its continuing efforts to minimize the crisis. Just as the officers and soldiers of 1916 despaired at the complacent idiocy of the general staff, so we have come to despair at the moral and scientific buffoonery that emanates from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Reading Fussell led me to reread Robert Graves in his autobiography, Good-Bye to All That. Graves himself was seriously wounded by artillery fire during the battle of the Somme, at the age of twenty. His colonel mistakenly wrote a letter of condolence to his mother, saying “I very much regret to have to write and tell you your son has died of wounds. He was very gallant, and was doing so well and is a great loss” (Graves, 274). That turned out to be premature; Graves survived the war. But a pleasure he took with him throughout his life came from the words that were said about him when it was believed in London that he was dead: “The people with whom I had been on the worst terms during my life wrote the most enthusiastic condolences to my parents: my housemaster, for instance” (281). But there was a disadvantage in being dead: “The only inconvenience that my death caused me was that Cox’s Bank stopped my pay and I had difficulty in persuading it to honour my cheques.” An advantage was also possible, though; he was able to make changes to his own obituary. During recovery in Wales with his friend Siegfried Sassoon, he writes, “We made a number of changes in each other’s verses; I remember that I proposed amendments which he accepted in his obituary poem ‘To His Dead Body’ — written for me when he thought me dead.” And he and Sassoon agreed about the idiocy of the war: “We no longer saw it as a war between trade-rivals; its continuance seemed merely a sacrifice of the idealistic younger generation to the stupidity and self-protective alarm of the elder.”

The items that Graves took back with him to the front following his recovery are quite interesting — the list makes one think of Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam book, The Things They Carried.

I went back as an old soldier; my kit and baggage proved it. I had reduced the Christmas tree that I first brought out to a pocket-torch with a fourteen-day battery in it, and a pair of insulated wire-cutters strong enough to cut German wire (the ordinary British army issue would only cut British wire). Instead of a haversack I had a pack like the ones the men carried, but lighter and waterproof. I had lost my revolver when I was wounded and had not bought another; rifle and bayonet could always be got from the battalion. (Not carrying rifle and bayonet made officers conspicuous in an attack; in most divisions now they carried them, and also wore trousers rolled down over their puttees like the men, because the Germans had been taught to recognize them by their thin knees.) Instead of the heavy blankets that I had brought out before I now had an eiderdown sleeping-bag in an oiled silk cover. I also had Shakespeare and a Bible, both printed on india-paper, a Catullus and a Lucretius in Latin, and two light weight, folding, canvas arm-chairs, one as a present for Yates the quartermaster, the other for myself. I was wearing a very thick whipcord tunic with a neat patch above the second button and another between the shoulders; it was my only salvage from the last time out except the pair of ski-ing boots which I was wearing again, reasonably waterproof — my breeches had been cut off me in hospital (293-294)

The whipcord tunic was the same clothing he wore when wounded by shrapnel at the Somme — hence the neat patches in two places front and back.

What is particularly interesting about The Great War and Modern Memory is the creative selectivity that it illustrates. Fussell chooses particular poets, particular poetic devices, and particular features of a subaltern’s war experience to tell his story. But there is a limitless range of choice in all these features. Fussell could have told many different stories, using boundlessly different sources and perspectives. There is no final and comprehensive story for building out the title “The Great War and Modern Memory“. Fussell’s genius is his synthetic ability to take a handful of details from multiple sources and fuse them into a powerful, unified story. His development of the theme of euphemism in war is a brilliant example. But of course it is just one such story. And there are limitless materials that would add insight to the story but that have never been studied — including countless military records of specific engagements, unpublished but archived memoirs and diaries of soldiers who served at the Somme or nameless corners in the trench system, or home-side newspaper accounts of life and war in France. Fussell makes use of materials like these, but his examples are only a small fraction of those available. 

Jay Winter’s introduction to the book captures Fussell’s perspective on his material very precisely: angry, disgusted at hypocrisy, and entirely cynical about the top officers. Part of what Fussell brought to this book in his own duffle bag of equipment was his own service in the US Army during the Battle of the Bulge, an experience he describes in Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. And of course he wrote this book during the final years of the war in Vietnam — a war with similar futility, irony, and waste. Winter writes:

Fussell was a great historian, one who found a way to turn his deep, visceral knowledge of the horrors and stupidities of war into a vision of how to write about war. … How did he do it? By using his emotion and his anger to frame his understanding of memory, and his insight into the way language frames memory, especially memories of war. War, he knew, is simply too frightful, too chaotic, too arbitrary, too bizarre, too uncanny a set of events and images to grasp directly. We need blinkers, spectacles, shades to glimpse war even indirectly…. The indelible imprint Paul Fussell left on our understanding of war was on how language frames what he termed “modern memory”. (kl 102)

Paul Fussell was both an angry and a witty man. He was drawn to the poets and novelists of the Great War in Britain in part because they were, like him, truth-tellers about war. But his earlier work on Augustan poets of the eighteenth century predisposed him to the delights of irony and the savagery of words usefully applied to the cruel masters of the world. (kl 122)

This is sense-making — both by the poets like Graves and Sassoon whom Fussell analyzes, and by Fussell himself, in trying to work out the relationships that exist between experience, language, and poetry in our efforts to make sense of the Yossarian-like things we are often subject to in the crises of modern life.

Links between literature and the social sciences

Some novelists take as part of their task the description and evocation of certain social realities. James Baldwin captured one slice of African-American life in the 1950s and 60s. Tim O’Brien captured aspects of infantry life in Vietnam in The Things They Carried. And Tolstoy caught much about social attitudes and relations in elite Russia at a certain time and place. We could interpret these sorts of novels “realistically” and ask a range of questions about them: how accurate are they? Do they leave out important aspects of the picture? And what was the epistemic location of the author, such that he/she could claim to observe and portray accurately?

If we take this function of literature seriously, then it is natural to ask how this creative act relates to various areas of the social sciences. Does the knowledge offered by Baldwin complement the work of sociologists and historians of race in America? And, for that matter, can the realistically-minded novelist find valuable synergy in the research of historians and sociologists?

These questions are taken especially seriously by critics who are developing the framework of “critical realism”, including especially Satya Mohanty. Particularly valuable is Identity Politics Reconsidered (Future of Minority Studies), edited by Linda Alcoff, Satya Mohanty and Michael Hames-Garcia. The topic is a core concern for the Future of Minority Studies project (link).

So, what about it? Can a work of fiction have realistic, referential content? Is a novel sometimes an empirical statement? Can a fictional character truthfully represent aspect of what it is like to be black in America, South Asian in Manchester, or gay in a suburban Illinois high school? For that matter, can a novel be faulted for “getting it wrong” — for example, for representing an American Muslim as being completely oblivious to issues of racism?  Or is “right” and “wrong” out of place when it comes to evaluating the relationship between a novel and the world?

Here is one possible answer: fiction is always fiction, and normally does not have empirical validity. If we want to make empirical statements about social relations, class attitudes, or typical social values of specific groups, we need to do so based on valid methods of social research: surveys, focus groups, interviews, and observations of behavior. And we need to analyze the data we collect according to valid methods of aggregation and inference. That is what is required in order to arrive at knowledge about the social world.

Another very different response goes along these lines. Novelists are sometimes skilled social observers, and some of these are also skilled “painters” or evokers of what they have seen. A great novelist can pull together his/her many insights and observations into a powerful description of a fictional world or experience that captures an important sociological truth about the society depicted.  So these novelists do in fact gain knowledge of social life through observation, and they represent that knowledge through the fiction they produce. Both parts of this epistemic process are subject to criticism; but both are valid knowledge practices.

According to the second view, readers have the possibility of gaining real knowledge about the social world through the novel.  Seen in this way, a novelist is somewhat akin to an ethnographer, trying to make sense of a complex system of behaviors and meanings and expressing his/her findings in a way that is truthful to the social reality observed.

It seems that one would have to be a pretty narrow-minded epistemologist to hold that there is only one kind of knowledge, and that literature necessarily falls outside its bounds.  This might have been credible when the program of logical empiricism still seemed possible — that there are observations that can be unambiguously arrived at, and that theories are evaluated through a specific logic of confirmation marshaling a domain of observations in support of hypothetical statements.  But this epistemology doesn’t work well even in the sciences.  And within the framework of an anti-foundationalist epistemology, it seems reasonable enough to believe that literature has the potential of revealing important aspects of the social world.
This brings us back to the question of linkage between literature and the social sciences.  If we think that Platoon or The Things They Carried express some important truth about the nature of the experience of that war for American soldiers, this suggests the possibility of framing other sorts of social-science investigations to probe the extent and variation of these characteristics on the ground.  In other words, there is a simple kind of synergy that can exist between novelists, sociologists, and historians, when it comes to framing interpretations and explanations of a complex social reality, and designing further empirical studies to evaluate and qualify these findings.

Mental life








We are all persons with thoughts, desires, emotions, memories, and awareness. In some sense we have first-hand knowledge of all this — we are the ones who experience the situation of going through a difficult job interview, of feeling angry at an aggressive driver, of trying to decide what to do in a moment of important choice, of remembering an incident that occurred months or years earlier. We’re not in the position that Thomas Nagel assumed when he tried to reason about what it feels like to be a bat (“What is it Like to Be a Bat?” in Ned Block, ed. Readings in Philosophy of Psychology v.1). And yet we have a surprisingly thin set of theories of what is involved in this active experiencing of the world as a thinking, acting person — and some of our theories are obviously wrong. So why is it so hard to formulate a clear, simple philosophy of the mind — an overarching sketch of how various mental states and processes relate to each other within the functioning person?

One sign of the confusion this subject engenders is the great variety of terms we use to capture what we’re talking about: the mind, the agent, the self, the person, the subject, the knower, the actor, the ego, the conscious being, the soul. Each of these terms might be said to refer to the same thing — the experiencing, wanting, acting human individual. And yet each highlights a different aspect of the topic: the act of perception, the gathering of knowledge, the experience of wants and desires, the fact of subjectivity, the problematic unity of the self, the process of decision making and action, the causality of the emotions, the situation of awareness. And, sure enough, there is a separate strand of philosophical thinking about each of these perspectives.

So here is my question: is it possible to sketch a basic theory of the conscious human being that allows us to assign a place to each of the mental activities and processes that we think are taking place; and can the various parts of psychology and neuroscience give us greater understanding of how this system works and greater confidence in the theories we advance? Can we arrive at a schematic but phenomenologically and behaviorally adequate sketch of how these bits of mental activity and process fit together? The diagrams above are pulled from the web with the search term “models of mind.” They illustrate some very different ways of representing these different aspects or features of the person’s mental experience, and they are, in some sense, the sorts of theories I’m looking for in this posting. But none is close to being satisfactory. So the question is, can we arrive at a sketch that can be defended on the basis of the evidence of logic, phenomenology, and behavior?

I think this was a large part of William James’s goal in writing The Principles of Psychology. James wanted to explore the complexities of human mental life as presented through introspection; and he wanted to do this in a scientific fashion. (See a very good article from SEP on James here.) James describes his scientific goals in these terms in the first few sentences of the work:

Psychology is the Science of Mental Life, both of its phenomena and their conditions. The phenomena are such things as we call feelings, desires, cognitions, reasonings, decisions, and the like; and, superficially considered, their variety and complexity is such as to leave a chaotic impression of the observer.

Scientific psychology left this program behind almost a century ago, although parts of the effort are reflected in current cognitive psychology and social psychology. But it isn’t sufficient to simply legislate the problem away; it is impossible to deny that memories, impulses, intuitions, aversions, feelings, desires, emotions, daydreams, and calculations all play roles in human mental life and action. So we need to have at least a sketchy idea of how we think the mental world we experience is organized and how this soup of mental life is related to action and behavior.

The effort to find concepts and frameworks in terms of which to analyze human mental life has been a continuing part of philosophy, in the fields of the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of psychology, and cognitive philosophy. One place to start on this large field is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, with articles on folk psychology, mental representation, the computational theory of mind, memory, and Merleau-Ponty. Philosophers have continued to take seriously the questions of consciousness, subjectivity, representation, and thinking.

But another place where one can turn in attempting to get a handle on the nature and organization of mental experience is literature. Great novels often capture a lot of the complexity of ordinary human mental experience in their narrations of individuals as they navigate life: Stavrogin in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, Julien Sorel in Red and Black, Rufus Scott in Baldwin’s Another Country. These are “interior” novels — novels where the author is making a sustained effort to get inside the head of the character, giving the reader a view of the nature of the subjective experience and thoughts that the character undergoes. And it seems to me that the intellectual work that the author is doing is very similar to the work of a philosopher in grappling with the nature of consciousness: he/she is attempting to arrive at a language that allows for description of these fleeting interior moments, and a framework of observation about how they may fit together — how passion or jealousy affects action, how calculation interferes with love, how the experience of discrimination colors one’s relationships. These theories aren’t necessarily true — in fact, one of the things we can do as critical readers is to see how well the novelist’s framework of mental life holds together from the points of view of consistency and phenomenology — but they represent significant intellectual efforts at understanding mental life nonetheless.

I think the subject is important for understanding the social world, because the subjective, active human individual is the “molecule” of social life. The ways in which individuals reason, act, form beliefs, create affinities, and emote are deeply important to social processes. And we won’t understand many features of social life unless we can make some degree of progress on the problem of formulating an abstract model of the human person.

Greenblatt in the world

I recently read Stephen Greenblatt’s brilliant biographical book on Shakespeare, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, and I was once again struck by what a large contribution Greenblatt might make to the social sciences. His innovations in literary theory are well known, particularly in his pioneering work on forging “the new historicism” (for example, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare). (Here is a link to a nice website on the new historicism.) Greenblatt’s interpretive imagination, his ability to think clearly and innovatively about identities and meanings, and his remarkable ability to link a series of observations into a startling inference and insight — these abilities would be most beneficial to the problems associated with “understanding society.” We need some new ways of framing the tasks of understanding social and historical reality — and Greenblatt’s incisive mind provides many new perspectives on these sorts of issues.

And, in fact, the idea isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. Greenblatt’s contribution to Sherry Ortner’s The Fate of “Culture”: Geertz and Beyond shows his ability to turn ethnographic, as does his book on the writings of the colonial navigators who brought Europe to the new world (Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World). In each case he demonstrates how fertile the connections are between literary, ethnographic, and historical interpretation. He is particularly profound when it comes to thinking about social identities — they ways they are formed and expressed, and the ways they vary across time and place.

But let’s focus here on what makes Will in the World such an interesting book. Greenblatt does a simply stunning job of constructing an interpretation of Shakespeare’s mentality and his creative mind, linking the grainy historical context in which Shakespeare was writing to the brilliance and startling novelties expressed in his plays. Greenblatt is pursuing a bold ambition here because there is so remarkably little evidence about Shakespeare’s life that would serve as the basis for a traditional biography. Moreover, Greenblatt’s goal is somewhat different from that of the traditional biographer. He is interested in getting a better understanding of the author’s mental and experiential world, based on his personal chronology, many very specific details about England’s history during this half century, and a profound knowledge of Shakespeare’s writings.

Greenblatt freely admits that much of his interpretation exceeds the historical facts. There are few documents that would directly establish Shakespeare’s feelings about his marriage or his family; the situation of the persecution of England’s Catholics; or his attitudes towards Marlowe, Greene, and the other brilliant bohemian playwrights of the London scene. And yet he makes a case for his interpretation that is deeply compelling and evidence-based — though the evidence is largely internal to Shakespeare’s body of writing. (Even the lack of diaries or personal notes is taken as a kind of evidence — evidence of the very great danger that the persecutions by the Crown created for anyone suspected of involvement in Catholic conspiracies. Greenblatt writes vividly of the rows of heads on spikes that would have greeted him as he entered London for the first time — often the heads of Catholic conspirators.)

Another kind of evidence in Greenblatt’s case is the collation of knowledge of historical conditions in the mid-sixteenth century in England that we do know quite a bit about — the availability (or non-availability) of books, the character and content of schooling, the history of the expulsion of the English Jews — with the series of developmental experiences that Shakespeare certainly went through. Even if we know next to nothing about Shakespeare’s youth, the fact that he is likely to have attended the Stratford grammar school under the tutelage of a Simon Hunt, tells Greenblatt quite a bit about the kinds of drama and history to which he would have been exposed.

The Crown’s fierce oppression of the Catholics in the early to mid-sixteenth century is a particularly important element of Greenblatt’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s mentality. Greenblatt hypothesizes that this period of terror touched Shakespeare and his family fairly closely. The smashing of Catholic images in churches, the dismissal of the local priests, and the occasional hunt for persistent Catholic practices in private homes all touched Stratford directly. And John Shakespeare himself had evidently signed a Catholic “spiritual testament”, discovered in the eighteenth century hidden away between the rafters and ceiling of the Stratford home. In this setting, Greenblatt considers a scenario for the missing year of Shakespeare’s life at the age of 16: he considers that the young man may have served as a private teacher in the household of John Cottam, a prominent secret Catholic in Lancashire. And there he would have had vivid exposure to the drama surrounding the illicit activist Jesuit priest, Edmund Campion. (Campion was apprehended, tortured, and executed in 1581.) Greenblatt finds many traces of this personal history of covert Catholicism in Shakespeare’s plots, language, and life.

What I find most thought-provoking in Greenblatt’s work here, is his ability to bring history, literature, and life story together into one extended interpretation. The book sheds light on ordinary life in sixteenth-century England — rural and town. In this respect it serves as vivid social history. And it sheds light on the literature as well — the many ways in which themes and turns of language can be related to Shakespeare’s own itinerary, as well as the astonishing ability the writer had to transform the ordinary into something transcendent.

Literary tradition and social identity

Literary traditions are sometimes thought to have an underlying interconnectedness and coherence that makes them more than simply a group of works sharing geography or group. Irish poetry and drama, for example, extend over several centuries, involving writers with a range of voices and preoccupations; and yet it is often thought that they are distinctively “Irish.” How should we conceptualize this notion? And how does it relate to the concept of a social identity?

One might speculate that the continuity of a literary tradition derives from two social factors: first, that authors directly and indirectly respond to the writings of other authors in their tradition; and second, that writers express themes in their work that derive from a cultural tradition that they hold in common with other writers in this literary tradition. If, for example, there is a long oral tradition of popular songs and poetry that would have been a formative part of most Irish writers’ experience as children, then it would be understandable if the cadences and phrases of this oral tradition infused their literary writings. If there are historical moments in the history of the Irish people — Easter 1916, perhaps — that are focal points for cultural meanings and historical turning points for ordinary Irish people — then, once again, we might expect that themes surrounding these historical moments will recur in the production of Irish literature. And, of course, once a Goldsmith, Joyce, Yeats, or Heaney has created his poetry — this constitutes an exemplar within the literary tradition itself that influences other Irish writers.

So there are a couple of social mechanisms that we can cite as providing “microfoundations” for the production of a national literary tradition. However, there are dimensions of variation and dissent that make the idea of a coherent and guiding literary tradition more difficult to sustain. It is recognized within most literary traditions that there are different streams of influence, with diverging literary styles and presentations. It is also recognized at a point in time that some great writers offer a literature that is strikingly at odds with the tradition from which they emerge. And it must also be recognized that large literary traditions — the literature of India, American literature, Caribbean literature — represent the confluence of different voices and different cultural experiences. And often these voices are deeply at odds with each other and with the dominant social order — Jack London’s novels represent a very different perspective on the United States than those of Henry James.

Within the literature of the United States — what is often called “American literature” in US college English courses — we can find a diversity of influences at almost every level of scale: the New England novel, African-American songs and stories, women’s novels and journals, … And within each we can discern important variations with cross-cutting influences — the African-American voice of the deep south is evidently different from that of Chicago or Harlem or Los Angeles.

So we would certainly want to recognize that great writers are more than simply an expression of their literary or social tradition; rather, they find their voice and perspective through a dense interaction with culture, history, daily experience, race, gender, poetry, song, and dozens of other influences. And their products are often both innovative and “traditional”. The novels of James Baldwin capture and embody many aspects of African-American experience and literature; they in turn contribute to the meaning of African-American literature post-Baldwin; but in the end they transcend the framework of a fixed formula. Baldwin’s novels are original and particular — not simply an expression of “the African-American tradition.”

So from this point of view it seems that the idea of a literary tradition recedes from the metaphor of a compact, tightly bunched set of texts, to a meandering confluence of many cultural traditions and voices. This suggests that we need a metaphor that captures the diversity of voice and influence better than the idea of a river or stream.

This set of questions is relevant to the idea of a social identity as well. First is the obvious connection: if there is such a thing as “Irish social identity,” it is plausible that this identity plays into the production of Irish literature. But the points raised here about diversity of experience and the non-reducibility of one writer’s literature to a formula are also valid when we consider ascriptions of social identities. Rather than imagining that a person embodies the social identity of her own group, we should recognize that each person’s social identity is a complicated mix of influences and commitments. Rather than “Sally is catholic”, we might be better to observe that: “Sally is a mid-western Catholic with a feminist bent and a taste for punk music.”

This suggests to me that we encounter in both traditions and identities, a kind of social construct that in a sense disappears as we increase the resolution of study; through closer study we come to see the variations as much as the commonalities within a group of people or a group of texts. Does this imply that identities and traditions do not exist? It does not. Both function as real social causes and influences. But both need to be understood as fluid, heterogeneous compounds rather than as essential, abiding realities.

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