Nov 15, 2006

Romanticism Leads to Madness, Reason to Evil?

One last time, I want to come back to Hilton Als’s review in the New Yorker of the handsome new edition of Hart Crane’s poems (and letters) in the Library of America. Als’s review draws attention to the issue of homophobia, suggesting that it played a larger role in Crane’s psychological difficulties than many once believed and that it influenced Allen Tate, Yvor Winters, and others among Crane’s critics to some degree in their objections to some aspects of his work and life:

For readers like Tate and Winters, Crane’s suicide was the inevitable, artistically fitting conclusion to a deeply disordered life, and the chief symptom of that disorder was his homosexuality. In Tate’s major essay on Crane’s poetry, what was ostensibly literary criticism now appears as Freud-era homophobic code: Tate speaks of Crane’s “failure to impose his will upon experience,” his “locked-in sensibility [and] insulated egoism.” Winters, still more explicit, regards Crane’s sexuality as comparable to his alcoholism, a “weakness” that he “cultivated on principle.”

This last comment about Winters is accurate, but whether that Winters believed that the “chief symptom” of the disorder in Crane’s life was homosexuality, as Als implies, is questionable (I do not know about Tate, though I’d be interested to hear from my readers on what they might know about him in this matter). In the essay Als quotes from (a passage of “The Significance of the Bridge,” the last essay of In Defense of Reason), Winters does imply that homosexuality is a weakness of like kind to alcoholism. Yet in all my reading in Winters about Crane, including in his letters, I see little evidence that he considered homosexuality in itself to be sinful or evil or some sort of gross aberration. It is possible that his reference to homosexuality as a “weakness” was based on widespread assumptions about what we more recently have called the “homosexual lifestyle” -- that, to put it bluntly (for I see no other way to put it), the homosexual is commonly promiscuous.

I believe that this is most likely what Winters meant in pairing homosexuality and alcoholism in the passage. But whether this small distinction diminishes Winters’s fault or whether Crane’s homosexuality was indeed a significant element in his “dissolution,” which, Winters argues, led to his eventual suicide are matters that I will have to deliberate. Also worth pondering is whether promiscuity of any kind can or should be considered a symptom of dissolution. Addiction to alcohol is commonly considered to be psychologically and spiritually injurious, but Winters’s implied relationship between moral dissipation and Romanticism is certainly little better than tenuous. I note that Als doesn’t make a to-do about Winters’s apparent disapproval of homosexuality, assuming, it appears, that the censure of homosexuality was a matter of course in the 1920s.

On the larger question of the causes of Crane’s general dissoluteness (if his behavior can be characterized as such, which I concede is a wide-open question), it is very clear that Winters thought that Crane’s hyper-Romanticism was the final cause of his dissipation and moral difficulties, manifested in various “symptoms,” and finally bearing bad fruit in his psychic collapse. For Winters, Crane’s story became a singularly decisive test case of Romanticism, as many critics have pointed out recently. Yet is it true as well, as critics lately have been stating regularly and appears true, that mostly as a result of this one stark and massive failure of Romanticism in the life of Hart Crane, Winters damned Romanticism as a whole and extolled Reason? Perhaps putting it that strongly makes the case appear a bit overstated. Winters had many other reasons for opposing Romanticism than its outcomes in the life and death of Hart Crane -- though it is indisputable that Crane’s coming to such a bad end profoundly and decisively burdened Winters’s thinking against Romanticism. He referred to the Crane "test case" over and again, sometimes quite elliptically, in his writings.

But, accepting for the moment that Crane’s suicide can be attributed mostly to Romanticism, is Winters’s case against Romanticism on the grounds of its consequences in the life of this one man, Hart Crane, in itself reasonable? Can we rationally draw any firm, general conclusions about the value or truth of particular Romantic ideas or the general system (which is so diverse as to be almost indefinable) from the purported effects Romantic ideas had in the life of one person? Winters’s argument from Crane against Romanticism in itself constitutes a non sequitor, does it not?

Consider this: if Romanticism as a system of ideas (so wildly varied that calling it a ”system” appears to be nonsense) is damned because of its evil effects in the life of one man (laying aside for the moment the question of whether Crane's blood stains Romanticism’s hands alone), can Reason alike be damned because of its evil consequences in one instance? I ask this because another recent New Yorker book review illustrates an extreme failure of Reason. The review, by Adam Gopnik, concerns two new books about the French Revolution, one a new history specifically of the Reign of Terror and the other a new biography of Maximilian Robespierre, one of the Terror’s architects. This review is still available on line at:

To me, it appears definite, judging from the evidence of the conduct of the Terror by the determinedly reasonable Robespierre, that even Reason can at times go wickedly astray. So what keeps Reason from destruction? That’s a central question for Wintersians. It’s something I will be pondering in the weeks ahead.

Here are the conclusions Gopnik draws about the final works of Robespierre, sobering thoughts for all committed to Reason:

The bloodlust of the time [of the French Revolution] makes the attempt to trace the Terror to any single intellectual source, or peculiar circumstance -— to Enlightenment rationalism gone mad, or to the paranoia of the encircled Republicans -— feel inadequate to the Terror’s essential nature, which was that it didn’t matter what the ideology was. The argument that a taste for the ideal and the tabula rasa leads to terror, after all, would be more convincing if its opposite —- a desire for an organic, authentic, traditional society -— didn’t lead to terror, too. The Red Terror led to a White Terror; Robespierre’s head had hardly fallen before the Gilded Youth were attacking the now helpless Jacobins. It sometimes seems as if history had deliberately placed Hitler and Stalin side by side at the climax of the horror of modern history simply to demonstrate that the road to Hell is paved with any intention you like; a planned, pseudo-rationalist utopianism and an organic, racial, backward-looking Romanticism ended up with the same camps and the same carnage. The historical lesson of the first Terror is not that reason devours its own but that reason cannot stop us from devouring each other.

To sum up Yvor Winters's ideas on a complex issue very simply, Winters enjoined a balance between Reason and emotion in works of literary art and in life, with Reason standing in control of the emotions. Late in his career, especially in his final work Forms of Discovery, he even carefully laid out the good Romanticism has done for literature, particularly in giving us examples and models by which to perceive the world more clearly and fully. Yet the dangers of Reason is a matter we must ponder carefully as we study the critical ideas of Yvor Winters and his case against Romanticism.

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