Oct 10, 2008

On the Beauty of Puddles

Did you happen to notice and read the graduation speech of David Foster Wallace’s published by the Wall Street Journal upon the news of his suicide? The main point of his talk to the graduates, which you can find at the WSJ web site, was to find spiritual strength and perhaps happiness in recognizing that water is WATER. Twice he told the grads to say to themselves, “this is water, this is water” when they come upon a spill or a puddle or a pool or a pond. By cultivating amazement at the recognition of the magical, mysterious existence of water, Wallace believed they will be able to get through the tiresome, nettlesome days of their humdrum lives to come. (The photo is one of mine, of a pond in a garden here at Michigan State University.)

It doesn’t surprise me that a literary, or High-Cult, writer came up with this idea in this chatty, witty talk to students (and I think fairly highly of Wallace’s writing, I must add as disclaimer). Writers and critics by the hundreds have proffered marvel and wonder as the highest purposes of literature, particularly poetry. My view is that this idea, as insipid as it is, has become a leading cliché in our dominant literary culture, as I have pointed out and discussed a couple times on this blog already. I believe it stems from Romanticism, this hyper-concern with knowing small, commonplace things to be amazing. We see the idea everywhere. One of the most idiotic manifestations I can think of off the top of the head is from the somewhat recent Oscar-winning film American Beauty, in which a main character marvels at his videotape of a plastic shopping bag being blown about an empty sidewalk (by the way, I’d love to see some more examples). Is this the best and most important work poetry and literature can perform, to help us marvel and wonder at small things? Yvor Winters would have wretched at the thought. The idea reached one summit in Oscar Wilde’s discussion of beauty in “The Critic as Artist,” in which he proclaims his belief that finding beauty is the essence of all things:

Æsthetics are higher than ethics. They belong to a more spiritual sphere. To discern the beauty of a thing is the finest point to which we can arrive. Even a colour-sense is more important, in the development of the individual, than a sense of right and wrong. Æsthetics, in fact, are to Ethics in the sphere of conscious civilisation, what, in the sphere of the external world, sexual is to natural selection. Ethics, like natural selection, make existence possible. Æsthetics, like sexual selection, make life lovely and wonderful, fill it with new forms, and give it progress, and variety and change. And when we reach the true culture that is our aim, we attain to that perfection of which the saints have dreamed, the perfection of those to whom sin is impossible, not because they make the renunciations of the ascetic, but because they can do everything they wish without hurt to the soul, and can wish for nothing that can do the soul harm, the soul being an entity so divine that it is able to transform into elements of a richer experience, or a finer susceptibility, or a newer mode of thought, acts or passions that with the common would be commonplace, or with the uneducated ignoble, or with the shameful vile. Is this dangerous? Yes; it is dangerous -- all ideas, as I told you, are so.

This sort of talk is a cross between what Winters called the Hedonistic and Romantic theories of literature, as deliberated in the “Foreword” to In Defense of Reason. The overt hedonism of such thinking about literature did not so much morally trouble Winters as overwhelm him with the pointlessness of the idea:

The chief disadvantage [of the Hedonistic theory] is that it renders intelligible discussion of art impossible, and it relegates art to the position of an esoteric indulgence, possibly though not certainly harmless, but hardly of sufficient importance to merit a high position among other human activities. Art, however, has always been accorded a high position, and a true theory of art should be able to account for this fact.

Is Wilde’s brand of emotionally indulgent, antinomian thinking dangerous (Wilde, by the way, gleefully admitted that it IS antinomian), as Yvor Winters might have thought, or is it just trite? Or is it dangerous because it’s so trite? Any views? And how are the Hedonistic theories and the Romantic theories of literature interrelated, as I believe they are?

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