Ana Schwartz responds to Ed Simon’s Apocalypse is the Mother of Beauty
Wallace Stevens grants us that “we die for good.” He and Ed Simon agree on this. And they might even agree on the use of that collective “we”—designating not only those two, but me and you, and maybe the rest of the planet, too. But Stevens, at least in his poem, “Table Talk,” diverges at that varnished wood. “Life, then,” and probably also the canon, “is largely a thing of happens to like,” he concludes, “not should.” The poem goes on to speculate about the conditions that might determine “happens to like,” sketching out a science of humane inquiry that would preserve the vivacity of happenstance and random chance while at the same time avoiding some of the norms and prescriptions—for living, for literary value—that often follow close on the pursuit and the accumulation of knowledge.
Remarkably, Stevens offers little by way of direct description of his own happening-to-like. In one of Western literature’s least enthusiastic endorsements of an attraction to the sight of “gray grass and green-gray sky” (presaging symptoms of the environmental apocalypse, probably), Stevens merely wonders, “Gray, green, why those of all?” Stevens probably knew the difficulty of preserving that attraction in written representation, whether or not he cared to participate in the curation of a canon such as the one Simon advocates in his recent essay, “Apocalypse is the Mother of Beauty.” Stevens’ poems are unusually skilled at demonstrating that the most memorable and enriching representations of our shared world often don’t result from direct, explicit attempts to preserve or communicate that experience of beauty. Such representations often appear unexpectedly, out the window of a vehicle on its way somewhere else.
This observation from Stevens’ poems, this one and others, doesn’t mean I reject Simon’s premise of “New Curation” in toto. Far from it. What a pleasure it would be to be tasked, for example, with selecting and organizing the documents for an anthology of “The Literature of the Waters.” I would begin, of course, with the waters above which the Genesis spirit hovers, and I will try very diligently to limit my excerpts from Moby Dick. My reservations to Simon’s premise, however, best appear in a more recent piece of writing, one from 1933. It’s hyperbole to say—but hyperbole too is a literary technique—that this is one of Western civilization’s more striking descriptions of water’s profundity, illogical opacity and mystery, and how such qualities are not diminished but highlighted by their juxtaposition to human artifice.
This description doesn’t appear in a work of “literature,” though—it’s not from a novel or a poem or a film about large bodies of water, in this case, the seas of the Netherlands, those large lakes and bays that, pressing in on cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam, contributed to the production of the philosophy of Spinoza; and of Nescio’s singular assemblage of short stories; and of the prodigious paintings and etchings of Bosch and Durer, Vermeer and Rembrandt. All these artists knew that sea well. They knew, and knew daily, the omnipresent, potentially imminent threat of the “war of attrition” about which Simon and all his scientific sources remind us. But we remember those artists for other works.
No, one of the best descriptions of water’s sublime power appears, only briefly, though quite impressively, in a revision of a scientific lecture composed by an Austrian Jew. It appears belatedly, too, in a simile attempting to explain something else: “It is easy to imagine,” writes Sigmund Freud in his New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, “that certain mystical practices may succeed in upsetting the normal relations between the different regions of the mind; so that, for instance, perception may be able to grasp happenings in the depths of the ego and in the id which were otherwise inaccessible to it.” Those depths, however, were best approached by his nascent science, psychoanalysis, which he called “a work of culture—not unlike the draining of the Zuider Zee.”
Ed Simon’s essay, which likewise is attracted to the potential horrors of the sea’s unbounded erosive energy, might benefit from Freud’s perspective, if not necessarily a psychoanalytic one. Simon’s essay indeed has ambitions to persuade and convince of a more generous, benevolent, and minutely appreciative disposition toward the world, a challenge that Freud, too, encountered. Like Freud, and sure, Boethius, Simon cherishes the lessons of the past and brilliance of the vehicles by which those messages—at least some of them—have reached us. Simon is a little more worried than Freud. To be fair, Freud, even in the wake of the First World War, hadn’t to worry about the ecological disaster Simon glosses. Recent climatologists like Linda Marsh and Roy Scranton certainly paint a bleaker picture than Freud or Boethius or the Saxons could have imagined. In response, and inspired by efforts such as the Long Now Foundation or the Future of Humanity Institute—and, maybe tacitly, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on a Norwegian Island in the Arctic recently depicted in the film Seeds of Time—Simon reaffirms the value of the canon, though one approached more deliberately. He endorses discrimination, but more deliberately.
Simon warns us that the historians of the future won’t understand the culture wars, so it’s probably futile to try to excavate those debates, which raged hottest when he and I, rather than fretting about the Anthropocene, were out playing on trampolines, if we were lucky, on green, not gray, grass. We don’t need, here, to rehash explanations of how the canon affirms systems of exclusion that in turn help reproduce those marginalized subjects whose participation in practices of writing and cultural creativity Simon does, briefly, acknowledge. Nor will I spend much time encouraging him at very least to consider naming, rather than casually and distantly sensationalizing, those for whom the conditions of apocalypse are and have been here for quite a while—for some, half of a millennium. We are closer than he imagines.
Instead, I’d like to ask Simon to elaborate on how he imagines the transmission of those cultural treasures. Briefly, he mentions libraries. But those easily burn, and, when they don’t, they demand preservation that’s material, not just intellectual. They’re often made of paper, which crumbles, and they require complicated and expensive infrastructures, some parts of which are visible—[the shelvers and] the shelves and those who shelve them—and some not—air conditioning, university money. Moreover, the balance between preserving texts and creating enclosures for certain privileged humans is difficult to strike. And even then, as Derrida observed in his “Paper Machine” essay, full bookshelves feel like masoleums, burying their owners alive with ever-thickening walls. This is a real problem.
It’s true that I’d be disappointed if preservation turns out not to take the form of producing and publishing thematic anthologies. Of the writing of many books, wrote the ecclesiastical teacher, there is no end. Especially in the face of the apocalypse, as Derrida, too, observed twenty years ago. He wasn’t on his way elsewhere then, but, to be fair, in 1984, he was writing about the brink of immediate nuclear apocalypse. Where else was there to go? If the New Curation produces no new literature, my choice for such desert island texts would be, less than modestly, singular. I’d choose the collected works of Sigmund Freud.
Why? Well, of course, Freud’s insights on the manifold complexity of the individual mind have enduring value for the West. Those insights and their value have been chronicled and archived in monographs safely shelved in libraries. Freud’s work itself functions like a library, the richness of his erudition and his love for the literature of the past is throughout his work evident in his use of citation, allusion and evocation—at times, as in his later “historical novels,” the storied past even becomes a subject matter of his analysis.
Yet beyond these reasons, Freud’s work might merit unique preservation because of its explicit aims. When Freud turns to beauty or here and there creates it, he is typically striving for something else, something often (but not always certainly) beyond our grasp: the alleviation of a psychic debt, what he described in his own post-apocalyptic reflections (1915) on war and death as a life “beyond our means”—an inevitable psychic bankruptcy caused by the same conditions that have precipitated our likewise subtle contemporary environmental disaster. Now, we call it, ahem, The Anthropocene. Freud’s equivalent, then, might have been civilization. Beauty won’t save us from it, but it might persuade us towards a life less stressfully coerced by it.
Most urgently, though, and perhaps discarding the twenty-plus volume corpus altogether, Freud’s thought, in the end, offers a more diffuse, egalitarian—dare we say democratic?—approach to beauty, an approach more prepared to be skeptical of the civilization that determines canonicity through the repressive processes of institutional education. Freud, in his science, drew on techniques of attention, description and analysis, what in the discipline of literary studies looks a lot like close reading and, more importantly, close listening. But Freud expanded their applicability beyond the paper page. In his thought, he did not limit these techniques to the “great works” of history, but would apply them lucidly, and at times brilliantly, to the stuff of everyday life, the things we casually say, the things we casually don’t say, the things we don’t realize we forgot to say, or the things that bypass speech altogether, such as our gestures, reflexes and embodied spasms.
I’m thinking primarily of his Psychopathology of Everyday Life. In it, Freud composes some lovely little parables that draw on the same desire for cosmic order that Boethius, and his devout followers, understood as the Great Chain of Being. Today we call it irony, or more generously, poetic justice. Sometimes his sense for beauty is more direct. He has a great ear for the luminous in literature. He is endlessly quoting Shakespeare or Goethe, and one gets a sense that his attraction to those writers derives not only from the opportunity to participate in their preservation but also from an insistence that these texts too participate alongside more casual phenomena such as hiccups or nervous tics, equals with novels and epics as objects of humane analysis. And sometimes, beauty is only briefly sketched, described in its opaque, sideways effects, as when Freud himself, in an unusual autobiographic anecdote, narrates a late train that takes him along the Zuider Zee and that strands him in Rotterdam and the Hague for a day. What luck, now, to discover the existence and simultaneous fulfillment of a desire to witness what he never actually describes: the shadows and everyday faces of Rembrandt’s portraits.
There’s an Auden poem somewhere, worth excavating, that praises Freud better and more concisely than I can—and along the way, has a pretty thing or two to say about the weather. I’ll hurry to my conclusion. Most of all, Freud matters because of the impression one gets, ultimately, that he’d rather us to give up our affection for his thought as a discrete object, leaving it behind as just another symptom of civilization. And then turn our attention to the world we have, in the flesh. I haven’t finished reading the Complete Psychological Works yet, but I have the whole post-apocalypse ahead of me in which to do so. And if it never arrives, no worries, Freud teaches us that encounters with the living are also a source for the experience and the theory of beauty—or of comedy, or of pathos—a source as rich as the accounts of Aristotle or Plato or Wordsworth, extant or long-perished. What we ought to preserve from such books even after their pages dissolve, is that every body is a repository of history and culture, even if those effects—and their beauty—are submerged, waiting for drainage and reclamation.
Feature image from Wikimedia Commons