In a recent session of the “Birth of the Modern” course I teach, we examined a few texts by precursors – a brief story by Kate Chopin, two excerpts from Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Emily Dickinson’s “After Great Pain,” a passage from Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, and Baudelaire’s “To the Reader.” [On the photocopied pages were also a few mournful lines from Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears” and some lines from Mallarmé’s “At Gautier’s Grave.”] The point of these excerpts was to forecast the qualities of the modern shift in the rendering of consciousness (a far-reaching breakthrough particularly in the arts and the social sciences, akin to Kuhn’s idea of the “paradigm shift”).
We began with Americans, for this course takes place in Cleveland, Ohio. In Chopin’s 1894 story, “The Story of an Hour,” a married young woman hears of the accidental death of her husband and finds that after she weeps “with sudden, wild abandonment,” she must withdraw to her room. There, her mind fills with a burgeoning consciousness of what is occurring outside her window, “the tops of trees…all aquiver with the new spring life…[the] delicious breath of rain,…a distant song,…countless sparrows twittering in the eaves,…patches of blue sky.” Finally the sense of being “free” becomes clear to her, free to “live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending her….And yet she had loved him – sometimes….[Yet:] What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in face of this possession of self-assertion, which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being.” She discovers an independent will and consciousness as a woman previously subject to the “will” which her loving husband “imposed” upon her with “blind persistence.”
Part of what is adumbrated here is the centuries-old history of progress for women’s rights; finally in 1920, of course, women in the United States gained the right to vote. As interesting as this prefiguring of the steps ahead is the accuracy of Chopin’s rendering of the woman’s consciousness, the sense in her of upwelling liberation and freedom. Certainly the abruptly bitter ending of the story suggests that her liberation cannot quite survive in the society of 1894 America, for the rumor of the husband’s death was false, and when he returns to their door, she dies at the threshold – of “heart disease.” But earlier, we had witnessed the emergence of her new-born consciousness and then her laying claim to an independent will and self-awareness transcending any negotiations with her husband and transfiguring the image of his “loving” will into her own “possession of self-assertion.”
A transfiguring self-awareness is given full voice in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” In the fourth poem, for example, he speaks of the streaming images of existence which “come to me days and nights and go from me again, / But they are not the Me myself.” A sort of flanneur, “watching and wondering” on a city street, he stands “both in and out of the game.” “Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am.” The stream of listed images encompass his life and all he touches, including “some man or woman I love,” or the hallowed “leaf of grass no less than the journey-work of the stars,” or “the plutonic rocks,” or the “esculent roots” of some barbaric and prehistoric swamp. Yet for all the sensuous and gigantic capaciousness of his “incorporating” imagination, he maintains a distance, a core of self-awareness which is the site of freedom and liberated consciousness for him.
Both Whitman’s self-celebrating self-awareness and Chopin’s story of the wife’s discovery of her self-possessed prefigure modernity's exploration of the 'self,' of subjectivity, evident in the “stream of consciousness” novels of the period, in its self-conscious poetry, and in its developing philosophy of phenomenology. These developments are illuminated by at least a brief engagement of Hegel’s thought about the dialectical relations between master and servant in the “Phenomenology of the Spirit” (published in 1807), and of course Marx’s thinking is similarly illuminated. It is not that I see Chopin or Whitman or, more generally, modernity as Hegelian. [I remember once my questioning John Cage’s aleatory music of ‘chance’ sounds, to which my critical older brother replied in exasperation, “You’re so Hegelian.”] It’s rather that Hegel can help us understand some of the logic at work in modern explorations of consciousness.
Hegel’s paragraph 194 in the “On Masters and Servants” section of “Phenomenology” analyzes the way in which the subject who serves the master must introject a consciousness of the master’s ‘mentality’ and needs, in order to serve them successfully. And the servant also maintains his awareness as a subject “worker” (the term is used by Hegel and emphasized in Kojève’s commentary). In this way, the worker develops a critical self-consciousness about each role, becoming doubly aware as he comprehends or ‘psyches out’ both modes. But this double consciousness distances him from life; the resulting critical distance from immediate existence mirrors yet transcends the master’s ‘withering scrutiny’ and, more deeply, his centeredness on himself, his “being-for-itself.” The critical distance of double- or self-consciousness functions finally like the ‘ultimate master’ death in negating all that is not itself, subjecting all – including itself – to a deadly exposure. This simultaneously negating and empowering self-consciousness casts all into a state of doubt where “everything solid and stable has been shaken to its foundations. But this pure universal movement, the absolute melting-away of everything stable, is the simple, essential nature of self-consciousness, absolute negativity, pure being-for-itself, which consequently is implicit in this consciousness.” Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” will echo just this passage when he evokes the Bourgeoisie, which as it upturns the aristocratic order creates a world of constant expansion and continuous change; the working class is left broadly aware of the resulting exploitation, the dizzying chaos, and the death of order: “All that is solid melts into air, all this is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” The Phenomenology of Spirit (The Phenomenology of Mind)
Hegel’s own insistence on the idea of destabilization, on the negation at work in “self-consciousness,” that “absolute melting-away of everything stable,” is striking. Paradoxically joined together here are of the awareness of death (death of the “ordinary” self and of “ordinary” society) with the opening-up of creative potential achieved by self-consciousness with its capacity to see multiple perspectives and to use its critical distance in order to liberate a rich sense of possibility. It is as if the death of former selves leads to liberated new selves, new potentiality.
The confrontation with death in modern thought is evident in works that prefigure the modern. In Baudelaire’s mid-nineteenth-century poem “To the Reader,” spiritual death yields an ennui, an apathy or boredom, that would “willingly annihilate the earth” as it “chain-smokes yawning for the guillotine.” Yet this form of death spurs a sort of self-lacerating “shriek,” the poem’s punishing intensity of address: “you – hypocrite Reader – my double – my brother!” Even Tennyson (and maybe especially he) is fixated on the destruction of a world, of ‘everything stable,’ and on the necessity to mourn for “the days that are no more” in language what is achingly vulnerable and continually polite. Two decades later, Mallarmé (“At Gautier’s Grave”) raises his “empty cup” in an “insane toast to nothingness, because the non-existent corridor gives hope,” for within that grave “nothingness questions the abolished man” and “shrieks” that the dead man’s evanescent poetry (“this toy”) “say what the earth was.” The point here is not merely that life is short, and art lasts; it is rather that death is a portal: a sort of gaping maw through which knowledge of what life might be yet speaks. This paradoxical melding of death and life is envisioned too by Emily Dickinson in her Civil War poems. For example, in 341, “After great pain,” she brings just such stark knowledge out of the experience of nothingness, of death and of mourning. Here she bares her knowledge in images of a snow-bound death (“First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go”) as well as of the chemical elements (“A Quartz contentment, like a stone – / This is the Hour of Lead”). [At some point, perhaps we’ll take a look at how Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” discerns various modes of death and models the insight that ‘death is a portal’ through which transfiguring knowledge might enter.] In any case, as World War I approached, needless to say, conceptions of how to confront and understand death were rather desperately needed.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
My newly completed novel is The Fall of the Berlin Wall, about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. My 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]