Tag Archives: importance of literature

Alfred Tennyson’s “The Poet’s Song”

It has always somewhat saddened me how, whenever I casually inquire a group of minds as to the authorship of the lines, “Tis better to have lost and loved, Then never to have loved at all,” the most likely response (at least, in my experience) is to attribute the words to William Shakespeare, or even Charles Dickens.  Although his influence within the realm of British poetry and the common anglophone vernacular are enough to place Alfred Tennyson’s name amongst the giants of what makes up early modern literature, the fact remains that the man is relatively unknown to the layperson who more than likely has made use of one or more of his charming phrasings.

Tennyson’s poetic talents were best displayed through his idylls, which intimately capture the world through the senses of the subject narrating the simple, yet engaging, prose.  Tennyson excelled when he wrote candidly of the world he observed around him, often without resorting to the great emotionalism of the Romantics he admired, preferring instead to employ a reserved tone to inspire the feeling he wished his writing to convey to the reader.  His lesser discussed prose, “The Poet’s Song,” is a perfect illustration of Tennyson’s artistic approach.

The rain had fallen, the Poet arose,

He pass’d by the town and out of the street,

A light wind blew from the gates of the sun,

And waves of shadow went over the wheat,

And he sat him down in a lonely place,

And chanted a melody loud and sweet,

That made the wild-swan pause in her cloud,

And the lark drop down at his feet.

Tennyson’s opening lines work to convey the movement’s of the poet in tune with the harmony of nature; hence, the explicit indication of the poet’s scant interaction with the urban world he passes by, in contrast to the vivid details given about the natural world he observes.  The reason for this distinction suggest that the poet is by virtue of his character more in touch with the underlying order of life, rather than the artificial constructs that compose metropolitan living.  His chanting of a melody into this tranquil world further symbolizes his interest to gain a oneness with its features, so much so that it awes the creatures who come to hear it.  The poem goes on to state:

The swallow stopt as he hunted the bee,

The snake slipt under a spray,

The wild hawk stood with the down on his beak,

And stared, with his foot on the prey,

There is a subtle shift in the tone here (carried on from the last two lines of the previous stanza).  Whereas the poem began indicating the desired unity of the poet with the natural world, this same unity is now causing an obvious break in the normal flow of this natural order.  Thus, although the poet is harmonized with the natural world, he nevertheless is distinct from its actual cycle.

And the nightingale thought, “I have sung many songs,

But never a one so gay,

For he sings of what the world will be

When the years have died away.

The poet’s role within the natural order is to capture the moment for the posterity of those who will yet be born to enjoy the times.  He is an observer to it, but ultimately also the source that defines it.  The sweet song of the nightingale, passing and unrecorded by time, do not compare to the gravity of the poet’s song, which serves as the reference–the very embodiment of the era of the days, and world he observes.  So much so that, once the years have died away, the poet’s prose will come to simply be the moment for those who look back on it from the perspective of what will by then be a changed world.

Tennyson’s “A Poet’s Song,” is a testament to the first person who chose to sing his words rather than state them.  And the reason why such song’s still remain with us to this day, rather than having been lost to time.

Oscar Wilde’s Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: The Threat of Art

To mention the word controversial in the same sentence with Oscar Wilde is to be repetitive.  And the Irish writer’s The Picture of Dorian Gray–his only published novel–is nothing less but a testament to the man’s gift for astute social observation and spectacular prose.  If you have not read the work, I would advise you to do so immediately, as it stands as a superb contribution to the ranks of both romantic and gothic literature.

Upon its initial publication in 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray was instantly denounced by critics for its espousal of homoerotic and hedonistic indulgences.  So much so that Oscar Wilde saw it necessary to add a Preface to the original text as a defense of his work.  But the short Preface should not be seen as just a rebuttal to Wilde’s critics, instead it reads as a promulgation of art as a whole, and a denunciation of the cynic whose mindset is too narrow to grasp the fact that even though great (as well as bad) works of art are on display for the public, the true power lies in its strength to move the individual’s heart and mind.

Wilde begins the Preface by stating, “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.  To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim,” adding, “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.  This is a fault.”  Here, Wilde is addressing the specific critics of his novel, noting that it is not he, the writer–the artist–who is to blame for the offense taking by the audience of his work.  For, any perverse imagery that is elicited by the sensitive reader is a demonstration of the perversity of the reader’s own mind, and not necessarily that of the author or his prose.  Wilde’s further scoff against the fault of being corrupt without being charming is clearly an allusion to his title character Dorian Gray, who through all of his moral corruption at least manages to remain charming (and beautiful) to the world, something that his real life critics–who see fit to designate themselves as his moral superiors–don’t manage to do, in Wilde’s eyes.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.  Books are well written, or badly written.  That is all.”  It must have been telling for Wilde how all the critiques being leveled against his novel only focus on what are perceived to be obscenities within the text, and never the text itself.  If a book is rubbish than let it be shown how it fails to meet the value of worthwhile literature, and we can move on to better things.  But to deride a novel because it presents a topic a person does not wish to be discussed, or raises issues the public would rather be kept out of sight, is to reveal more about one’s own flimsy convictions than that of the author’s.  Or, as Oscar Wilde put it, “No art is ever morbid.  The artist can express everything.”  Any moral foundation that is distraught in the process couldn’t have been too sturdy to begin with.

“All art is at once surface and symbol.  Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.  Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.  It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”  We are the arbitrators of the mediums we choose to entertain ourselves with, thus when we feel repulsed by a piece of art, it is our responsibility to step away from it in bad taste–not to dictate to others about the need to stifle the offensive material.  If I shout out a cry of fear that something will corrupt society, you can rest assured that what you’re hearing is nothing more but a deep-seated panic that something will corrupt me.  But if a person is already at this stage, then he is already completely corrupted by the source of his worry.  He has already embraced the splendor of the art’s power, drawn into it to the point of drowning within it, and is now paddling anxiously to get back to the safe shore–away from the sea of unknown euphoria.

“We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it.  The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.  All art is quite useless.”  Unlike other disciplines, art holds no immediate pragmatic worth to the structural progress of human societies.  Buildings are not art for the sake of being art, they have an intended use.  Same goes for nonfiction books, whose goal is to inform, and not necessarily inspire the reader’s imagination.  Wilde was right that art, created solely for the sake of being admired and revered, is objectively useless.  Because its use resides within the subjective mind of those who care to indulge within its beauty.  And for those who don’t, any harm perceived is only made viable by the internal recesses of one’s own depraved mind.  That is the real threat of art.

Bibliography

Wilde, Oscar.  The Portrait of Dorian Gray.  “The Preface,” Barnes & Nobel Classics (New York: 2003), pages 1-2.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451& the People’s Tyranny

Like the dystopian novels that precede it (i.e. 1984Brave New World, etc.), Ray Bradbury’s 1953 Fahrenheit 451 is set in an ambiguously dated future, where human society has become subjugated by an undisclosed oppressive force.  The book depicts a future whose technological feats have advanced to a high enough pace that it allows the common citizenry to live in relative comfort and bliss–televisions are bigger and brighter, drugs and antidepressants are easily available to ease whatever malady a person may be feeling.  But, despite all of these luxuries, the outwardly happiness feels empty and artificial; something is missing from the humane experience.  Guy Montag is aware of this void in his life, but is initially unable to determine its source.  His occupation as a fireman provides the reader the vital insight necessary to explain the destitute state of the novel’s environment.  Because houses (and presumably other structures, too) are designed to be completely fireproof, the duty of the firemen in Fahrenheit 451 is strikingly different from what we normally expect it to be; namely, they start–as opposed to prevent–fires.  Moreover, firemen serve to specifically find and burn books (the forbidden contraband in the novel), due to the items having been banned in the distant past.

It doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that the message the author is trying to convey is the importance of imagination and creativity (i.e. literature) in making mankind feel wholly human.  Thus, the book’s protagonist, Montag, represents the isolated figure in society, who is being deprived of something he requires to truly function and understand the world around him properly (in this case, that something is the rigor and critical thinking invoked by the at times inspiring, at times agonizing, words of literature).  Although this theme of being unable to live a fulfilling life absent of books and substantive prose is an interesting concept to explore, the part that really makes the novel stand out from others in its genre is the way the author chooses to detail the genesis of the decadent state his characters are living in.

Early on, the narrative vaguely implies that the source of the repression of books in Montag’s society is some sort of governmental power, as seen by the comment his superior, Captain Beatty, makes about the state of mind of any person that sees fit to challenge the ban in place, “Any man’s insane who thinks he can fool the government and us” (page 33).  The mention of the “government” seems to indicate that the oppressor is the standard Big Brother type, ruling decrees from above.  However, as the story progresses, the reader quickly finds out that this initial assumption, though reasonable, is completely false in light of the reality of things.

Montag’s anxiety about his life and work eventually causes him to start to explore the written words in the books he has up to that point ignited for a living.  It is suggested that Captain Beatty is fully aware of Montag’s illegal activities, leading to a revealing exchange between the two, which sets the tone for the narrative from there on out, and sets Fahrenheit 451 apart from its dystopian precursors.

The exchange begins with Beatty openly telling Montag about the origins of the nationwide ban on books:

“Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere.  They could afford to be different.  The world was roomy.  But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths.  Double, triple, quadruple population.  Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of pastepudding norm / Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion.  Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera.  Books cut shorter.  Condensations.  Digests.  Tabloids.  Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending” (page 54).

What Beatty is essentially describing is the advent of the modern life.  As technology has become faster, and our dependency on technology has forced us to adapt our pace right along with it (i.e. our attention spans have decreased significantly).  Readers in the 21st Century will have no problem understanding this, as we trace the impact technological feats like the internet have had on the way we communicate, retain, and process information.  [What makes the parallel even more interesting is the fact that Bradbury wrote his book in 1953, with little knowledge of just how much more tech-dependent we were to become in the subsequent decades.]  Beatty goes on to explain how this change in technology influenced the way society prioritized itself:

“School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophy, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored.  Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work.  Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?” (page 56).

The focus on simply learning the menial tasks one needs to get by in a job takes away the individual’s burden to challenge, or even contemplate, her/his surroundings with any real depth; one does what one knows, because no one is taught to do anything more.  Of course, this routine also leaves people with a certain amount of leisure time, which must be filled with enough distractions, lest someone gets tempted to analyze the surrounding world too seriously.  And this is where luxuries come into play–to keep people content, happy, and too comfortable to start upsetting the balancing for everybody else:

“You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred.  Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all?  People want to be happy, isn’t that right?  Haven’t you heard it all your life?  I want to be happy, people say.  Well, aren’t they?  Don’t we keep moving them moving, don’t we give them fun?  That’s all we live for, isn’t it?  For pleasure, for titillation?  And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these” (page 59).

The source of the censorship in Montag’s world is not some ominous government figure or organization, it is the people themselves who urged for the ban.  As information became readily available to a growing population, the opportunity for offense increased, and the prevalence of offensiveness leads to a decrease in happiness (which can have detrimental affects on the governing order).  Books are a cesspool of offensiveness.  While the right book–with the right message–can inspire a person to great things, no book’s primary goal is to keep peace amongst differing ideas.  Books challenge the person, ridicule his beliefs and convictions, and in turn make him less peaceful.  Or as Beatty puts it, “The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that!  All the minor minor minorities with their navel to be kept clean” (page 57).  In a pluralistic society, the desire not to offend is very prominent.  But in a free marketplace of ideas the act is practically unavoidable (that which is inspirational and uplifting for one, is insulting to another).

The simple truth is that some ideas are better than others; and some positions are less viably defensible.  However, the means by which we determine which is which, is to debate and challenge one another in the public place of ideas.  But to challenge is to confront, to confront is to antagonize, and it takes little effort for antagonizing to lead to warring.  To fully remove the agitation ideas cause, it is best to remove the incentive for them altogether–make each man “the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are mo mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against” (page 58).  Yet, even characters like Beatty understand that the artistic spirit of the human mind is naturally drawn to formulating ideas (even if it is often just a recycling of other people’s ideas), thus he explains the prominence of feeding mundane trivia facts to the populace (that offer no opportunity for controversy or critical thought):

“Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘fact’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information.  Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving” (page 61).

[I feel the need to add as a side note that, while I can appreciate Bradbury’s appeal for the need books provide in creating minds that can evaluate the world critically, it should also be mentioned that simply reading works of literature, and than regurgitating trivial quotes back to others as your own is not the standard of a critical thinker; more than read, one must learn to dissect and scrutinize the words of books.]

The reason why I consider Fahrenheity 451 as separate from books like Orwell’s 1984, is the fact that it challenges the popular notion that oppression always stems from the ruling class’s thirst for power.  The will of the people can be equally tyrannical, and when convinced enough of its own sanctity, it won’t hesitate to impose its will on those who dare deviate from the established program.  The common man is not necessarily the noble spirit of humanity, but the oppressor looking to subjugate others for the sake of keeping himself content:

“It didn’t come from the Government down.  There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no!  Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.  Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time” (page 58).

Once public opinion submits to its desire to be censored and guarded and watched over, it doesn’t take much for opportunistic would-be rulers to step in and erode away at the individual’s liberties to consolidate their own power.  But one should not forget who sanctions their authority to begin with, and laid the foundation for the systematic coercion that follows.  In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury makes it clear who he considers “the most dangerous enemy to truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority.  Oh God, the terrible tyranny of the majority” (page 108).  The question that remains now is, how readily can oppression be recognized (let alone combated) if it is being sustained from the bottom-up?

Bibliography

Bradbury, Ray.  Fahrenheit 451.  Ballantine Books:  New York, 1953 (1996 reprint).