In quest for the romantic imagination (I): Irving Babbitt's synthesis.
Professor, literary critic and moralist, Irving Babbitt (2 Aug. 1865; Dayton, Ohio-15 Jul. 1933; Cambridge, Massachusetts), the son of Edwin Dwight Babbitt (a physician) and Augusta Darling, spent his childhood and adolescence in New York (at one time he used to sell newspapers on the streets, often strong-arming neighbourhood urchins), East Orange (New Jersey), Madisonville (Ohio; at the Darling farm, on the outskirts of Cincinnati, he helped with fruit and vegetables picking) and Cincinnati. He attended Woodward High School of Cincinnati. He was educated at Harvard University starting from 1885 (he lodged at College House), whence he graduated in 1889, with Final Honors in Classics (he studied French, German, Italian, Spanish, Greek and Latin). At the College of Montana, in Deer Lodge, he is offered the first teaching position (Greek and Latin), which he holds between 1889 and 1891. In 1891 he leaves America to further his study at the Sorbonne (the Practical School of High Studies, Paris), where he takes on courses on Sanskrit, Pali and Hindoo philosophy (including buddhism). In 1892 he returns to Harvard again (the Graduate School), for a master's degree in Oriental studies; here he and Paul Elmer More (1864-1937) are the only two students in Professor C. R. Lanman's class; More was to become his friend for life. Babbitt gets his M.A. in 1893 (Sanskrit was included among his interests in this period). He teaches Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian) and a course on Dante at Williams College for a brief period (1893-1894), as a substitute for Professor Morton. In 1894 he obtains a teaching position at Harvard: between 1894 and 1902 he is an instructor of French. In 1895 he presents a lecture on The rational study of the classics, at the University of Wisconsin (in 1897 he publishes it in The Atlantic Monthly, this being his very first work to appear in print form). Also in 1895 he offers the lecture What is humanism?, in which he launches his attacks on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's excesses. In 1900, while in London, he gets married to Dora May Drew--his former Radcliffe student, with whom he has a daughter (Esther, born in 1901), and a son (Edward Sturges, born in 1903). His wife had been born and educated in China, being the daughter of a Protestant missionary (Edward B. Drew) to China. She was to influence his interest in the Orient for rest of his life. In 1902 he becomes assistant professor at Harvard. In 1908 he publishes his first book, Literature and the American college. In 1909 T. S. Eliot attends his course on Literary criticism in France with special reference to the 19th century. In 1910 he publishes his second book, The new Laokoon: an essay on the confusion of the arts. He is "increasingly disenchanted" with the President of Harvard University, Lawrence Lowell, and starts looking for other places where he hopes to find a better teaching position (Panichas 1999: 201). In 1912 he receives an offer from the University of Illinois to be promoted to full professor; Harvard only then offers him an equivalent position, so that now he becomes professor of French literature. He introduces the study of comparative literature at Harvard at this time, mostly teaching the students of the comparative literature department (cf. Panichas 1999: 8, 194ff). Still in this year (1912) he publishes his third book, The masters of modern French literature. In 1915 he works in Dublin, New Hampshire, on what was to be his critical masterpiece: Rousseau and romanticism, published in 1919 (his fourth book). In 1920, Arthur Lovejoy publishes in Modern Language Notes a review of Rousseau and romanticism, accusing Babbit of the fact that he was a "romantic" in his very "anti-romanticism" (cf. Panichas 1999: 202). Between October 1921 and February 1922, Babbitt is a Harvard visiting professor at Yale University. In April 1922 he is West lecturer at Stanford University. In 1923 he holds lectures at the Sorbonne, again as visiting professor. In France he is even more famous than at home in America. He is often the main attraction for Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Hindoo students. In 1924 his fifth book is published: Democracy and leadership (initially entitled Democracy and imperialism). In 1925 Katharine Babbitt, his beloved sister, dies in a car accident. In 1926 he becomes a corresponding member of the Institute of France (Academie des Sciences Morales et Politiques). In 1927 he starts to write the study titled Buddha and the Occident--a "spiritual testament" published posthumously as the Introduction to his translation of The Dhammapada (1936); selections from it also appear as Romanticism and the Orient (in On being creative and other essays, 1932; cf. Panichas 1999: 203). In 1930 he is elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (he also is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences). In 1932 he is offered by Bowdoin College the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters (Panichas 1999: 8); he publishes now his sixth and last book, On being creative and other essays. On 15 July 1933 he dies at home in Cambridge.
Babbitt was a harsh critic of all the excesses perpetrated by the "arch-apostle" of romanticism--Rousseau, whom he called "the great master of paradox" (Babbitt 1908: 238)--, but for whom he makes numerous concessions, as he likewise did for romanticism. For instance, Babbitt admitted that romanticism had profound justification when with much strength it liberated the poetic imagination from the "straightjacket" of artificiality and convention that neo-classicism (and the "dogmatic and arrogant" rationalism), lacking inspiration for something better, had forcefully set as a literary standard, thus failing with regards to the elaboration of a healthy notion of imagination in its relation with "common sense."
One of Babbitt's central ideas was that only a literature that comprises a moral and historical consciousness can convey the sense of permanence which is necessary in order for its experience to have meaning. Among his early disciples are T. S. Eliot and George Santayana, who subsequently criticized him, Eliot stating--in an essay published in Forum, entitled The humanism of Irving Babbitt--that Babbitt's notion of humanism was inadequate as an alternative to religion and represented "a product--a by-product--of Protestant theology in its last agonies" (Eliot 1928: 40). Babbitt's greatest opponent was, however, H. L. Mencken, who directed his attack against More and Babbitt, but also against their disciple, Norman Foerster. Babbitt always took sides, leading genuine battles throughout his life in defence of: 1) moderation in everything; 2) well-centered balance between the powers of intellect and emotion, of reason and imagination (the latter being "the universal key to human nature"--cf. Babbitt 1919: 397); 3) self-restraint as a universally civilizing ethical force. In the article entitled The critic and American life, published in The Forum in February 1928, Babbitt launched an attack against Mencken and his project of anti-traditionalism (Panichas 1999: 204).
Characteristic for his style was the clarity with which he succeeded in defining the poles of an argumentation, his position being invariably medial, occupying a complex center. For this reason, Babbitt's thought can be said to be dominated by center-oriented vectors, lines of force always gravitating towards a center--what we can call centromorphism. Thus, a centromorphism in Babbitt's sense is a bipolar structure, with two (extreme) nuclei that fuse together--by centripetal fields--towards the dynamic equilibrium of a complex center which tends to "fill" the fields of lines of force between the two nuclei (the extremes) forming the bipolar structure. The result is a kind of bi-concentric structure of fields within fields: the initial extreme nuclei are preserved inside the field of the exo-circle (the outside circle), but their excesses are always eliminated by the centripetal force of the endo-circle (the inside circle) which forms the complex nucleus of the integral centromorphous structure--i.e. the central point of maximum density which "fills" the plane both of the endo-circle and of the exo-circle.
In the neoclassicism-romanticism equation Babbitt will always prefer the medial central field between the two--in which the extremes are reconciled, i.e. mutually "regulated"--and which fills the entire space between these two extremes. This mechanism in thinking reminds us of the organic processes with feedback explored in autopoiesis theory: life builds on its own its coherence by selfregulation. In other words, Babbitt proposed a mechanism of selfregulation of thinking by which the extremes were to always be eliminated as in a genuinely healthy metabolism. In Bohme's logic according to which the two universal vectors in the universe, the force of "yes" and the force of "no," by being always engaged in conflict give rise to rotation (decoded as life) (see infra), Babbitt's centromorphism translates as the "marriage" of a "yes" and a "no" that equally co-cover the space between each other by, as it were, an infinite rotation. The road to this impossible, intangible marriage may be said to resemble that to Xanadu in Lowes' acceptation as a journey through chaos towards order and (ever intangible) "pure beauty":
[T]he Road to Xanadu, as we have traced it, is the road of the human spirit, and the imagination voyaging through chaos and reducing it to clarity and order is the symbol of all the quests which lend glory to our dust. And the goal of the shaping spirit [of the imagination] which hovers in the poet's brain is the clarity and order of pure beauty. Nothing is alien to its transforming touch. (Lowes 1978: 396)
Indeed, Coleridge's imagination and its "shaping spirit" was the power of fusion, of unification, of bringing together into a new synthesis what was already present inside the chaos of experience. The element of difference in the comparison hereby suggested lies in the fact that Babbitt's beauty (harmonic balance) will incorporate both chaos and order into a dynamic centromorphic synthesis, in which the extremes do not disappear, but cover the space from each other to each other, by, as it were, infinitely rotating around each other as in a binary star system in which the two stars rotate individually around each other, and their aggregate also rotates so that the trajectories of each should cover the whole space described by each individually. This analogy is not far from that suggested by Lowes (1978: 395), whereby he hopes to make intelligible precisely the creative process: its operation is like that of a nebula which, from the "empire of chaos," is "compacted into a star," i.e. a "new tract of cosmos."
But these are just two possible ways to visualize the kind of dynamics that Babbitt's centromorphisms and Coleridge's creative imagination imply. What is, however, clear is that their underlying bases are the ideal of the purification of chaos (disorder which is generated continually) and its transformation into living clarity, living order, living beauty: Lowes's single "star" as a new creation, Babbitt's double "star" or binary star system (in our interpretation). [We will resume this discussion in more detail with reference to the classic versus the romantic imagination in the next issue: In quest for the romantic imagination (II): all roads lead to Xanadu].
In his writings, Babbitt surpassed the frontiers of literary criticism. In Literature and the American college: essays in defense of the humanities (1908)--a work which made a great stir at the time of its publication, and in which he expounded the doctrine of neohumanism --Babbitt defined humanism and opposed "vocationalism" in education (i.e. the "professional" schools, generated from Rousseau's doctrines), opting for a return to the humanistic study, of classical literatures; in The new Laokoon: an essay on the confusion of the arts (1910), Babbitt deplored the confusion in the arts which is believed to have been created by the excesses of romanticism, but also by those of neo-classicism; in Rousseau and romanticism (1919), Babbitt criticized the effects of Rousseau's thought in the 20th century and evidenced the excesses made both by the romantics and the neoclassics; in Democracy and leadership (1924), Babbitt analyzed the social and political problems of the age, presenting a philosophy of modern civilization; and in On being creative, and other essays (1932), Babbitt analyzed the romantic concept of spontaneity as compared with the classical theories of imitation, in the context of a larger discussion of creativity, Wordsworth's primitivism, American life and romantic orientalism. The volume entitled Spanish character (1940; his seventh posthumous book) is a collection of essays; it contains a bibliography and an index of his books.
Claes G. Ryn considers that Babbitt's works is one of the most beautiful perennial monuments of American intellectual culture, by the topics approached he being able to develop an encompassing view on life, his entire thought being characterized by "cosmopolitan" amplitude and vast literary, historical and philosophical knowledge; Babbitt's true contribution is in the direction of a deeper understanding of the epistemology of humanistic studies--philosophy and social sciences being included here.
Although Babbitt had numerous opponents (among whom one should mention at least Edmund Wilson, Joel Spingarn, R. P. Blackmur, Oscar Cargill, H. L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway), he nevertheless also influenced cultural personalities like T. S. Eliot, Arthur Lovejoy, Jacques Barzun, Walter Lippmann, Gordon Keith Chalmers, Louis Mercier, Austin Warren and--from the younger generation--Russell Kirk, Nathan Pusey and Peter Viereck. In 1960, in his honour Harvard University created the "Irving Babbitt" Department of Comparative Literature.
With Paul Elmer More (who came to be nicknamed "the hermit of Princeton"), Babbitt, starting from 1892, had laid the foundations of the current in literary criticism known as "new humanism" or "new selective humanism"--because it was grounded in the notion of selection and sympathy--, which unfolded as critical philosophical movement between 1910 and 1930, attacking the excesses of romanticism, neoclassicism and realism (but especially those of Rousseau's romantic naturalism and his influence on modern thought and art), and underlining in literature the value both of the centric equilibrium between reason and imagination (intellect and emotion), as well as of tradition and of a canon of classical authors (see Paul Elmer More's The Greek tradition, 5 volumes, 1924-1931).
One of Babbitt's fundamental ideas was that both romanticism and neoclassicism failed to an equal degree in their aspiration to become "humane," Babbitt (1910: 22) harshly calling the neoclassics "Jesuitical casuists"--among other things because they denied the rights of imagination.
Similarly, Babbitt (1910: 189-190, 211) argued against the neoclassicists, who aspired to encompass or believed they encompassed the "Truth" in a set of formulas: they were only deluding themselves, because the "Truth" is necessarily infinite, and we at any moment can only know only "infinitesimal fragments]" of it, having access only to "a mere glimpse" of infinity. In literature and politics, Babbitt emphasized the value of self-discipline and constraint. The source of inspiration for the neo-humanists was the works of the English poet and critic Matthew Arnold, who by his literary and social theories had tried to recover the moral dimension of civilizations from the past which was more and more lost to oblivion in the modern age--the latter being decisively characterized by the Second Scientific Revolution (which started around 1800), the Industrial Revolution in an increasingly more advanced phase of development, and the more and more ferocious materialism.
The neo-humanists led by Babbitt reacted vigorously, pushing ahead the momentum initiated by Arnold against the philosophies having a scientific tendency that formed the basis of doctrines like literary realism or literary naturalism, the latter represented by novelists such as Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, whose novels treated social issues.
In the present discussion, we shall focus in turn on Irving Babbitt's fundamental "trilogy," consisting of Literature and the American college (1908), The new Laokoon (1910) and Rousseau and romanticism (1919). In the next issue [In quest for the romantic imagination (II): all roads lead to Xanadu], we will pass on to a larger discussion of what we call, with John Livingstone Lowes's book in mind, the "road to Xanadu," i.e. the way to the Paradise City of the creative imagination understood as the romantic imaginative city of "infinite abundance in infinite unity."
II. Literature in America
In Literature and the American college (1908) Babbitt starts his ample debate by justifying the approach chosen as an attempt to define tendencies and types, and not to satirize or label individuals.
What is humanism? What is humanitarianism?
By first attacking the tendencies of Americans to be more preoccupied with gaining "practical efficiency" and less with what Sir Joshua Reynolds had called "the real labor of thinking," Babbitt (1908: 1-2) touches a major fundament of American mentality: pragmatism as the preferred mode of behaviour, adopted to the detriment of a deeper kind of contemplative life, which, had it been adopted by Americans, might have brought more harmony in human relations. As Babbitt (1908: 2) puts it, in the modern age we have come to "live so fast [...] that we have no time to think." The American critic militates for a little less action and more thought in the Socratic acceptation of the word, invoking the Latin writer Aulus Gellius as authority for defining the word humanitas (Babbitt 1908: 5-6): this does not mean a "promiscuous benevolence" (what the Greeks called "philanthropy"), instead it implies discipline and doctrine, covering in its meaning not man in general, but only a chosen few, its implication being aristocratic, not democratic. Babbitt (1908: 7) defines the "humanist" as different from the "humanitarian": the first is "more selective in his caresses," or affections for the masses of people. The humanist, unlike the humanitarian, is preoccupied with perfecting the individual, and not with finding "schemes" to "elevate" mankind as a whole. The humanist, too, is driven, like the humanitarian, by "sympathy," but this must be disciplined and tempered by judgment. Owing to this idea of selection that Babbitt attributed to the notion of humanism as opposed to humanitarianism, he was accused of elitism, as already mentioned. By contrast, the "humanitarian" is preoccupied, according to Babbitt (1908: 9), with discovering "schemes for reforming almost everything--except himself." This principle applied to literature may be used in order to justify the idea that people must read anything from Plato to an extra. In other words, Babbitt believes that the cosmopolitan vastness of knowledge and sympathy are not sufficient in themselves, they having to be "humanized" by "discipline and selection." The Latin litterae humaniores lays stress, by its comparative linguistic form, on the necessity of selection. The true humanist maintains a just equilibrium between sympathy and selection. The moderns had the tendency to put more emphasis on sympathy, unlike the Greco-Roman ancients, who tended more to sacrifice sympathy in favour of selection. Babbitt (1908: 17) gives Castiglione as an example: in his treatise on the courtier he stated that in the makeup of a "gentleman" an element of "aloofness" and of disdain (sprezzatura) were necessary, all of which Babbitt considers may comprise a "profound truth."
However, the "aristocratic distance" conjoined with capricious selection lacking vast and sympathetic knowledge led directly to the attitude of a Voltaire--reflected in the Venetian noble Pococurante (who in Candide cultivated sprezzatura/aloofness with a vengeance, rejecting almost everything except for a few verses by Virgil and Horace: he is the one about whom Candide states that "nothing can please him"), as well as in the attitude of a scholar who wishes to be appreciated on the number of things he rejected, and not--like modern man--on the inclusiveness of his sympathies. We have to "be like the leaders of the great romantic revolt," who, in their wish to escape conventions, discovered "humane aspiration" (Babbitt 1908: 20-21). The American critic (1908: 21) shows that the neo-classicist, even in his worst artificiality, still was in a relation with the old humanist via his horror against unilateralism, against everything that tended towards atrophying various faculties and hypertrophying others, against everything excessive or over-emphasized, against enthusiasm. The neo-classicist cultivated "detachment and freedom from affectation (sprezzatura)"; he "wonder[ed] at nothing (nil admirari)," while the "romanticist" had the tendency "to wonder at everything especially at himself and his own genius."
Albert Einstein was to state precisely the contrary with regard to the function of wonder in man's life (regardless of whether he/she is a scientist or an artist), thereby declaring himself a genuine romantic of the sciences:
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery--even if mixed with fear--that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds--it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. (Einstein 1954: 11)
In other words, when Babbitt attacks emotion and enthusiasm indeed important emblems of romanticism--praising their lack, he in fact promotes, in Einstein's acceptation, intellectual opacity and even death. Babbitt, however, will refine his position, by attacking subsequently especially the excesses of emotion, not emotion per se. Detachment and the lack of wonderment in front the deeply mysterious universe constitutes moreover an anti-cosmographical attitude (as mentioned, Alexander von Humboldt's cosmography promoted the deep interest for the uniqueness of each and every phenomenon in space and time, which had to be studied precisely because it existed), which in modern terms can be translated as a new alienation from the Nature and the Cosmos in whose midst man was born and lives. Still, as we shall see in detail, Babbitt makes many concessions to romanticism and attacks many aspects of neoclassicism (in The new Laokoon he will admit that in essence the Cartesian neo-classicists subjected the function of illusion and the sense of wonder to undue reductionism). Babbitt (1908: 22) adopts one of Pascal's crucial ideas, defining the excellence of the "great man" in the "power to harmonize in himself opposite virtues and to occupy all the space between them." Here is Pascal's argument in more detail:
I do not admire the excess of a virtue, like courage, unless I see at the same time an excess of the opposite virtue, as in Epaminondas, who possessed extreme courage and extreme kindness (Montaigne, The essays, iii. I). Otherwise it is not to rise up but to sink. We do not show greatness by being at one extreme, but rather by touching both at once and filling all the space in between. (Thought 560; Pascall 1999: 129)
This idea will become the most important fundament in Babbitt's thought, who sees in this force of man to fuse in himself opposite qualities the emblem of humanity, of the human "superiority of essence" when compared with the other animals.
Babbitt (1908: 22-23) offers the following examples: 1) Saint Francois de Sales (named by Pope Pius XI in 1923 the patron saint of writers), who united in himself the qualities of "the eagle and the dove": he was an "eagle of gentleness"; and 2) Socrates, who reached in himself a "perfect harmony" "between thought and feeling"--i.e. (which Babbitt does not mention) precisely the unreachable ideal after which aspire romanticists like William Blake or Novalis, with one significant difference, namely the fact that the romantics wished to attain an asymmetry, an infinitesimal plus in favour of emotion/ feeling, given the concept that emotion belonged to the art of infinity, of the living, while reason belonged to the art of limitation, or rigid ordering. Babbitt (1908: 23) does not miss the occasion to attack Rousseau here: if we compare Socrates with Rousseau--who stated that "his heart and his head did not seem to belong to the same individual"--Babbitt believes we will perceive the difference between a sage and a sophist. He sketches in this context a definition of man:
Man is a creature who is foredoomed to one-sidedness, yet who becomes humane only in proportion as he triumphs over this fatality of his nature, only as he arrives at that measure which comes from tempering his virtues, each by its opposite. (Babbitt 1908: 23)
Babbitt's programme is clearly directed against unilateralism, by logical deduction he opting for a type of dynamic balance between unilateralism and encyclopedism (both nuclei without their extremes). The romanticists adopted the encyclopedic vector as heritage from the Renaissance of a Leonardo da Vinci, transforming it into a fundament of their theory of knowledge. Matthew Arnold had stated that man's purpose was "to see life steadily and see it whole." (cf. (Babbitt 1908: 23) Arnold's programme was thus holistic (like that of the romantics) and archetypal (invariability, repetition, the immutable, the permanent searched by poets like Fr. Holderlin). Babbitt deplores here the fact that nobody ever succeeded in fully reaching this purpose, not even Sophocles, who is invoked as an example by Arnold. Paradoxically, this state of affairs was predicted precisely by the romanticists: the impossibility for the ideal to ever be fully reached, which in logical-symbolical terms was asserted also by Kurt Godel in the 20th century (the incompleteness theorem). Babbitt (1908: 23) stated that the "law of measure" is the "supreme law of life," because "it bounds and includes all other laws." In this aspect Babbitt (1908: 24) sees an explanation for the fact that Gotama Buddha proclaimed that "extremes are barbarous" in the very first sentence of his first sermon. However, the American critic deplores the fact that India as a whole did not come to learn this lesson, while Greece is maybe the most "humane" of countries, because it not only quite clearly formulated the "law of measure" ("nothing too much"), but it also perceived the reality of vengeful Nemesis, who in her operations caught up with and punished any form of "insolent excess" (hybris), any violation of the law of measure. By these ideas Babbitt follows a classical humanistic line of thought.
But Babbitt believes that Greece failed in its attempt to mediate between unity and diversity, or--as philosophers put it between the absolute and the relative. The wisest Greek thinkers observed the problem and tried to find a solution. The fact that Socrates was murdered, Babbitt explains, demonstrated that the Greeks could not make distinction between sages and sophists. Otherwise, Plato indeed stated as follows:
Show me the man who can combine the One with the Many and I will follow in his footsteps, even as in those of a God. (Phaedrus, 266 B; apud Babbitt 1908: 25)
The irony is exactly that the romanticists did try this indeed (see the notion of "finite infinity" or interfinitude), which Babbitt does not seem to have recognized.
The American critic, however, concludes that harmonizing the One with the Many is a difficult matter, perhaps the most difficult of all, and so exceedingly important, that entire nations perished precisely because they did not succeed in reaching this harmonization. Babbitt (1908: 26) draws our attention to the fact that ancient India was devoured by "a too overpowering sense of the One," while Greece's failure to gain a "restraining sense of unity" led eventually to the very insidious malleability of the "hungry Greekling," whose image was rendered by Juvenal. Babbitt sees in the period in which he lived, already characterized by the loss of traditional standards (we remember Sinclair Lewis's attack on Babbitt precisely on that account: his support of classical "standards"), an analogy to the Athens of Pericles' age. He shows that in this context it is not surprising that the old sophisms now emerge again with full power.
In 1908 Babbitt seems to anticipate what was going to take place in the 1970s, when the postmodernist deconstructivists launched a series of attacks against cultural values of any kind (their maximum negation being the generalization according to which "there is no truth"), thus committing performative errors (how can the sentence /there is no truth/be true, if what it says--namely that there is not truth--is true?). Babbitt (1908: 27) then comes to state the following:
The human mind, if it is to keep its sanity, must maintain the nicest balance between unity and plurality.
There are moments when the mind must have a sense of communion with the absolute being and of obligation to adopt higher standard when this deep understanding takes place. By this idea, Babbitt follows archetypal thinking which shall characterize the works of a Mircea Eliade or C. G. Jung. Still, Babbitt (1908: 28) continues his idea, showing that there are also other moments when the mind must regard itself as a simple and passing phase of nature's eternal flux and relativity; moments when, as Emerson emphasized, it should feel "alone with the gods alone"; moments when, as Saint-Beuve intimated, it should regard itself as only the "most fugitive of illusions in the bosom of the infinite illusion." Babbitt justifies this idea: if man's nobleness lies in his kinship with the One, he is nonetheless simultaneously a phenomenon among other phenomena; his phenomenal self must not be neglected, because such neglect is dangerous and risky. Human balance is immediately impaired when either an excess of naturalism or one of supernaturalism appears.
By this concept, Babbitt practically asserts his affinity for the balance between materialism and idealism in the equation of the pendulum of history in Heisenberg's and Koestler's acceptation of the term. Babbitt justifies his choice offering the example of the Renaissance, who reacted against the Middle Ages' excess of supernaturalism. This type of unilateralism only deepens the gap between nature and human nature. From the Renaissance onwards, however, Babbitt suggests that the world tended towards the opposite extreme: being discontented with reaching a harmony between nature and man, the tendency was now to entirely bridge the gap between nature and man. In this sense, Spinoza--who was among the first to show (in the "infamous" Theological-political treatise of 1670) that the Bible was not literally the word of God, but more likely a literary text (see at least Spinoza 2015; Nadler 2013; Hobbes and Le Peyrere, among others, had stated before Spinoza that Moses was not the author of the Pentateuch)--stated the following:
Man [...] is not in nature as one empire in another empire, but as a part in a whole. (apud Babbitt 1908: 29)
In this notion we notice germs of 20th century mereological thinking, by which human thought shows itself increasingly abler to approach reality holistically. Babbitt observes that the faculties remaining uncultivated by the supernaturalist (which thus decay, degenerating) were cultivated by the naturalist, and vice-versa, the faculties especially related to contemplative life were cultivated by the supernaturalist, but not also by the naturalist, in whom these atrophy by the long absence of use. Similarly, Babbitt (1908: 29) argues that man acquired immense riches in understanding facts, but meanwhile he became so absorbed in their multiplicity, that he lost the vision of the One by whose agency the "lower self" long ago had been "overawed" and kept under control ("restrained").
There are, according to Emerson, two "laws discrete" which are impossible to reconcile, the "Law for man" and the "Law for thing." Emerson suggested that we should keep a separate sense for each, forming a kind of "double consciousness": a "public" and a "private" nature (we are here dealing with the centromorphism described previously). According to Emerson, man had to ride simultaneously--with one leg each--the horses of the two natures, as in a circus. Babbitt reproaches tersely: "too much of this spiritual circus-riding in Emerson." What he means is that unity and plurality appear too frequently in Emerson's work not as reconciled contraries (as Babbitt wishes the interior of the centromorphism to be, in which the binary nuclei--the double star system--should be reconciled, i.e. fused differentially, without losing their polar nature), but as antinomies bound to take a collision path on each other. Babbitt (1908: 30) reproaches Emerson that one half of his works is busy stating that "everything is like everything else," and the other half stating that "everything is different from everything else." Hence Emerson's "disquieting vagueness" and impotence when he is supposed to deal with particular things. Nevertheless, Babbitt (1908: 30) admits the following:
Emerson remains an important witness to certain truths of the spirit in an age of scientific materialism.
Babbitt (1908: 30) suggests that Emerson may have offered the definitive judgment regarding the nature of the times he lived in:
Things are in the saddle And ride mankind.
In other words, Babbitt decodes these verses as meaning the fact that man and the products of his spirit, language and literature, are treated not as having a law proper, but as things, entirely subject to the same methods that have gained for science the amazing triumphs over the phenomenal nature. Babbitt (1908: 31) concludes that humanistic studies must be defended today against the intrusions of physical science, just as long ago it had been necessary for them to be defended against the usurpations of theology.
Bacon and Rousseau, the humanitarians
Babbitt (1908: 34) observes that humanism and naturalism have coexisted in the people of classical antiquity, as well as in those of the Renaissance, often passing one into another by almost imperceptible gradations. Francis Bacon and J. J. Rousseau are the representatives of two types of "humanitarianism": Bacon--the humanitarian scientific naturalism; Rousseau--the humanitarian sentimental naturalism. The influence of Rousseau (as "the great father of radicalism"--Babbitt 1908: 37) is so vast and powerful, that he can be considered as being almost of the same rank as the founders of religions, while Bacon is "the prophet of the kingdom of man" (Babbitt 1908: 38): over him hovered almost visibly the "prophetic soul of the wide world dreaming on things to come." A third such prophet of the future is identified by Babbitt (1908: 38) in Petrarch, "whose influence radiates along innumerable lines into the Renaissance." Petrarch, Bacon and Rousseau thus anticipated "the modern spirit," as regards both its power and its weaknesses. For instance, one of Bacon's shortcomings was his neglect of "human law" generated by his too servile quest for "natural law": being absorbed in his search for control over things, Bacon lost control over his own person. Bacon was blinded by power and success, the goddess Nemesis punishing him for this excess: the unilateral "anxiety to get results." Still, Babbitt (1908: 40) draws our attention to the fact that in the Preface to Novum Organum Bacon prayed solemnly thus:
[That] from the opening up of the pathways of the senses and a fuller kindling of the natural light, there may not result in men's souls a weakening of faith and a blindness to the divine mysteries.
Babbitt (1908: 40-41) interprets this passage as a sign that Bacon at that time predicted the modern man of today, who paid the price of his triumphs over nature and of his "splendid efficiency": his "loss of vision," his being "spiritually [sic] unkinged" in the very moment in which he is "crowned with the fullness of material power." On the other hand, Babbitt (1908: 42) thinks that Denis Diderot was a cruel and cynical naturalist, driven by "a truly Gargantuan hunger for knowledge," which from the perspective of the humanist is decoded as a degenerative "mere lust" (libido sciendi), lacking measure and limit. In Diderot, the principle of selection was "obscured" both by "an unbounded exaltation of enthusiasm and sympathy" and by the dominance of quantitative and dynamic standards, to the detriment of the human. This wish concerning the fulness of knowledge and of sympathy became in this moment--as never before--associated definitively with the Baconian humanitarianism. Instead of a whimsical selection, man had to cultivate a universal and encyclopedic curiosity, which he had to dedicate to human progress. Babbitt (1908: 42) shows that the ambition of such a scholar was to "absorb an encyclopaedia," and then to bring a contribution to knowledge which deserved its place in another future encyclopaedia. In a sense, Lowes (1978: 3-34) presents Coleridge precisely in this light: we are dealing with a poet of genius, no doubt, but one who, with unmitigated encyclopedic appetite, used to devour book after book without end (usually checking even the references in books, and so leaping from book to book as we today are jumping via hyper-links on the internet from source to source), in order to take from them a chaos of such information as he sensed--with a "falcon's eye"--had poetic potential which could be ordered into a cosmos by the "shaping spirit" of his imagination. This is how Lowes is able to show, in awesome minuteness, how various words, expressions and ideas were channeled from various books (especially books of travel, but not only) through Coleridge's esemplastic (unifying) mind into his poetry.
Still, the two parts of this ideal--the vastness ("breadth") of knowledge and its depth ("thoroughness")--have been found to be incompatible for the human mind if taken together in simultaneity: here, too, the centromorphism seems to be the solution suggested by Babbitt. Moreover, any viewpoint can be made to demonstrate (ironically) the contrary of the things stated by the principle of that very same viewpoint, if this viewpoint is not "humanized" "through being tempered by its opposite." In other words, the equation of humanization is regarded by Babbitt in a "bi-polar" context, wherein the poles attenuate each other in order to avoid contact with any of the poles of the extremely-polar state (this is a law of centromorphism).
For Babbitt's humanist the extremes were to be avoided at any cost. Yet Babbitt seems to forget that sometimes excess can be creative, which is what Ilya Prigogine was to demonstrate around the middle of the 20th century in thermodynamics: far from equilibrium systems (dissipative in nature) tend to make alone a qualitative leap (by a systemic symmetry break) towards a superior order (symmetry) in which what is created is a new dynamic and superior equilibrium (a new superior symmetry). Blake seems to have intuited this process when he defyingly, in The marriage of Heaven and Hell, proclaimed three of his most controversial Proverbs of Hell (the 3rd, 18th and 26th):
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise. Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps. (Blake 1976: 150-151)
Blake's praise of excess can also be noticed in another proverb that declares the crucial importance of enthusiasm (the manic psychological pole) in the act of esthetic creation: "Exuberance is Beauty."
On the other hand, Babbitt identifies the reason for Bacon's moral failure precisely in his idea of progress. As far as Rousseau is concerned, Babbitt is of the opinion that his entire thought system is meant exactly to justify his own horror against any form of discipline and constraint. Rousseau has great affinities with what Berlioz was to say about himself, namely that he liked to "make all barriers crack" which meant a wish to eliminate the chains of tradition (cf. Babbitt 1919: 79; see also Franz Boas's system of thought which clearly evinces romantic tendencies).
Both for Rousseau and for Coleridge everything became impossible when it was presented as "duty or obligation." For Rousseau no norm of behaviour could exist which was higher than "individual feeling." Babbitt (1908: 50) derives from this Rousseau's refusal to accept his duty as a father (a reason for which Rousseau sent, in turn, five of his wife's children to the public nursery school, where death was certain owing to the awful conditions that back then existed in this type of orphanage).
The American critic (1908: 55-56) concludes that the Baconian thinker totally neglects the "law for man," while the Rousseauistic thinker mistakes it for his own temperament. On the contrary, in the eyes of a humanist what is important in man is not his power to take action upon the world, but his power "to act upon himself": this is the highest and most difficult mission, if it is carried out with reference to a human principle of selection/a true principle of keeping under control ("restraint"). By a just selection man proves his essential superiority, even more than if he were to do it in full knowledge and full sympathy: he proves that he is more than just a "mere force of nature."
Man is put to the test both by what he does, but perhaps equally much also by what he refrains from doing. Similarly, a writer is great not just by what he commits to paper, but also by what he leaves unsaid. Babbitt emphasizes that the humanist insists on the distinction between energy and will, although in the present age such differentiation is practically forgotten. A man can be full of energy, but "spiritually indolent." Napoleon is the kind of man who by his energy conquered Europe; and yet, he did not manage to control his own lust for power (libido dominandi). At this point, Babbitt (1908: 56-57) offers a definition of the highest degree of humanism: he first quotes an eloquent Buddhistic proverb:
If one man conquer in battle ten thousand times ten thousand men, and another man conquer his own self, he is the greatest of conquerors.
Babbitt translates: that man is the most human who can control his faculty, even his "master-faculty," and his passions, even his greatest passion, in the midst of their unfolding, tempering them by the contrary faculty and passions.
The humanist must keep a just balance between sympathy and selection. On the other hand, Babbitt observes that both the scientific naturalists, as well as the sentimental ones have tried to dehumanize Shakespeare (whom Arnold called "the most humane of men") refusing him a principle of selection and of keeping under control. Babbitt (1908: 57) gives as an example Victor Hugo, who, as a Rousseauist, tried to demonstrate that Shakespeare's genius was "titanic," "elemental," "the volcanic upheaval of a temperament." Here are Hugo's words:
Shakespeare is one of those geniuses badly bridled on purpose by God, so that they may go soaring with free sweep of the wing through the infinite. (apud Babbitt 1908: 57-58)
Taine, as a scientific naturalist, saw in Shakespeare "a pure product of the Renaissance," which he considered to be "a vast explosion of uninhibited energy," insisting, almost like Hugo, on the violence and lack of moderation in Shakespeare and his characters. Babbitt (1908: 59), however, admits that Shakespeare's world--compared with that of great poets like Homer, Sophocles or Dante--is remarkable not so much as a cosmos, but especially as a "romantic chaos." The force with which the Renaissance reacted against the Middle Ages can be "measured" precisely by evaluating the degree to which humanity predominates over divinity in Shakespeare's works. Moreover, as far as Shakespeare does not succeed in creating enough space for religion and the sense of "central unity" which religion conveys to life, he does not manage to be "completely humane." In this issue Babbitt (1908: 59-60) identifies the root of the conflict between Shakespeare and Tolstoy: Tolstoy--an acknowledged disciple of Rousseau--resumed the old accusation regarding the lack of religion in Shakespeare's works, but the quarrel between the two is in the final analysis that between a "humanist" (Shakespeare) and a "humanitarian fanatic" (Tolstoy), who totally suppressed the principle of selection, exalting the principle of sympathy, i.e. the "religion of human brotherhood." Tolstoy could never forgive Shakespeare for the fact that his wisdom was only for the few, that his vision on life was in its entirety selective and aristocratic. The humanist avoids precisely the excesses of sympathy and selection (the selective-sympathetic centromorphism), as well as the excesses of freedom and control/restriction (the liberating-limiting centromorphism). The ideals of the humanist are a "restrained liberty" and a "sympathetic selection": these are the two central centromorphisms in Babbitt's thought, forming a fundament quaternary of vectors--selection-sympathy-liberty-control, which are decoded vectorially: exclusion-inclusion-liberty-limit.
Among other things, Babbitt (1908: 60-61) reproaches Rousseau the following facts:
1) That for him there was "no intermediary term between everything and nothing."
2) That he did not accept any kind of control over rebellious passions (the "unruly desires of the heart" ruled supreme: libido sentiendi).
3) That he came to transform the sympathy for fellow creatures into a substitute for religious obligation.
4) That he combined this sympathy with a ferocious affirmation of the rights and liberties of man, encouraging people to place the sense of rights above the sense of obligation, and assuming that the result will be "unbounded self-assertion" (see Emerson's "self-reliance"), to be allegedly matched by the emergence of "unbounded brotherhood," as an equal and opposite compensatory effect.
Moreover, Babbitt (1908: 61) discusses the following aspect: Rousseau wanted to "unchain" the elemental forces of "self-interest," but did not know whether the principle of sympathy was going to predominate--unhelped--against these elemental forces. Certainly, the political economist might have said that the principle of sympathy could prevail if the self-interest was "properly enlightened," taking the place of "religious constraint." Babbitt (1908: 62), however, argues as follows:
In the absence of religious restraint, not only individuals but society as a whole will oscillate violently between opposite extremes, moving, as we see it doing at present, from an anarchical individualism to a utopian collectivism.
The American critic observes that, although there are positive feelings regarding human brotherhood, still one notices at present an inevitable drifting away towards imperialist centralization. Here Babbitt (1908: 62) invokes the French moralist who had stated that man must be either "the slaves of duty or the slaves of force." He mentions in this context Aeschylus's tragedy in which Prometheus is arrested by Violence and Power, the emissaries of Zeus, to be compelled to "desist from his philanthropic ways" (cf. Prometheus bound, scene 1). Babbitt (1908: 62-63) hereby prophesies that a similar fate might come upon the "modern Promethean individualists," who eventually will have to face the "brutal naturalism" that is already with us. The ideal that Babbitt (1908: 71) invokes as a solution against "brutal naturalism" is Socrates: the Greek philosopher is said to have had as a purpose of his teaching not to make his pupils efficient, but to inspire in them "reverence and restraint," because if they came to be efficient without having respect and self-restraint, then they were the more endowed with even vaster tools for destruction.
The road to democracy
Thus, Babbitt (1908: 80) shows that the educational system needs to accept an alliance between pure democracy and pure aristocracy, in order to form an "aristocratic and selective democracy." Here too we are dealing with a centromorphism (a dynamic complex equilibrium between extremes). In particular, the university must support "enciclopaedic fullness"--a fact that is stated by its very name. In this context, Babbitt (1908: 81) expresses his fear that the entire world is threatened by a "universal impressionism" of Rousseauistic nature. The American critic reminds us of Herbert Spencer's prophecy concerning the supreme triumph of science in the near future over literature and art. Babbitt deplores the fact that humanistic studies lost their human character owing to the invasion of the scientific sphere (studying man from the perspective of chemistry and physics). The issue raised by Babbitt (1908: 90) is the following: now science wants to be "all in all," just as theology had desired to be during the Middle Ages. The universities now tend to be "great scientific workshops," in which humanists feel alone and isolated; this state of affairs has its origin, according to Babbitt (1908: 91), in the naturalism brought to supreme dominance in the 19th century.
In this context, Babbitt (1908: 123) emphasizes the idea that the historical method is priceless only when it is consolidated by a "sense of absolute values," literature and literary history being distinct fields that must not be confused. The danger pointed out by Babbitt (1908: 126), which threatens literary criticism, is the contemporary tendency "to philologize everything," which means the following: the danger of transforming literature, history and religion into a mere "circle of tales," i.e. of making endless accumulations of facts only to then fail in the mission of extracting from these accumulated stories "their permanent human values." We notice in these crucial elements in Babbitt's system a vein of archetypal humanistic thought (the belief in "absolute values" and "permanent values"), which reminds us paradoxically of a romanticist like Holderlin, who always searched for the "permanent" in the fluxes of being's becoming. Additionally, Babbitt draws our attention to the fact that by the scientific method one can come to abuses whereby history itself may be dehumanized, as in "brutal naturalism."
Reason in studying the classics
Babbitt reproaches German science the fact that it shows signs of decadence similar to the decadence undergone by Greek science in the schools at Alexandria. The German failure, Babbitt (1908: 153) believes, is due to the excessive faith in the "intellectual machinery" and the "intellectual appliances." Babbitt interprets the "intellectual machinery" as being constituted by "that immense mass of partial results which has grown out of the tendency of modern science to an ever minuter subdivision and analysis." Furthermore, Babbitt underlines that, for instance, at the library of Cornell University there already are only for the study of Dante a number of seven thousand volumes (among these three quarters being worthless). The student who might try to control the information contained in these sources would risk losing his "intellectual symmetry" and "sense of proportion"--i.e. precisely the qualities he needs in order to be able to reach a superior interpretation of Dante. Still, Babbitt (1908: 155) admits that, as the "field of ancient literature" is increasingly better mastered, the vision of the researcher must become more and more "microscopic"--which is precisely what the proponents of New Criticism in the 1930s put into practice, starting with I. A. Richards (the founder of New Criticism), who particularly laid stress on "close reading"--a kind of "microscopic" technique of in-depth reading a text. Babbitt (1908: 155) notes that the generation contemporary to him of classical philologists reminded him of a Japanese sect of Buddhists who believed that salvation could be attained by reaching a knowledge of "the infinitely small" (about which Pascal had spoken). The risk at present was to have "our minds buried" under a "deadweight of information" which we no longer have the inner energy to assimilate in order to turn into "vital nutriment" (Babbitt 1908: 162). Between the one who only gathers information and the one who attempts to maintain a balance between knowledge and reflection (the cognitive-reflective centromorphism) we have to support the latter.
Babbitt is against a merely mechanical use of the human mind, additionally stating that the purpose of the true scholar is to find the middle course between synthesis and analysis (the synthetic-analytical centromorphism), i.e. exactly what the Greeks were concerned with, about whom Emerson said (in his essay on Plato) that they deserve high praise for having discovered and adopted as theirs precisely this path between synthesis and analysis. At this point we need to add the fact that the romanticists are those who embraced and carried further this notion, grounding their characteristically paradoxical dialectic thought--two examples will suffice for now: 1) Fr. Schlegel's "antithetical synthesis," which became one of the acknowledged ideals of romanticism; 2) Schelling's attempt to define poetry: as a representation of the infinite in the finite (the lyrical type), or of the finite in the infinite (the epic type), or as a synthesis between these two types (the dramatic type) (see infra for details).
Moreover, Babbitt (1908: 165) shows that one can reproach English humanism especially the fact that it treats classical writers too much as "isolated phenomena," thus being unable to correlate them more amply and vitally with modern life. The new life that must be "infused" into the classics will be impossible to arrive at by the restoration of "old humanism"; much rather this will be possible only by an ampler application to their case of the comparative and historical methods, which have to contain "a sense of absolute values."
Babbitt's programme has thereby a "Boasian" component in an anthropological sense, a fact that is evident in the statement Babbitt (1908: 173) makes with reference to "the distortion of the objective reality of life by its passage through the personal medium"; this is a phenomenon to be found more frequently in modern literature than in ancient literature. Franz Boas spoke in this sense of man's need to get out of his own cultural matrix in order to understand another culture, and the more man was able to assimilate genuine knowledge from more numerous foreign cultures, the more opportunities he would have of getting closer to an understanding of the absolute truths contained in his very own culture. Boas attacked, like Babbitt, precisely the process of distortion of cultural ("objective") truth by it being "filtered" through the "personal medium," which led to the effect of the "glasses of culture" (Karl von den Steinen's notion: the Kulturbrille).
It is significant that both Babbitt and Boas anticipated, for the field of cultural knowledge, what Werner Heisenberg was to discover a little later in quantum mechanics, namely the uncertainty principle, which implied precisely processes of distortion of objective reality by the intercession--in the cognitive act--of the medium that transfers the information--light: this not only transfers the information, but in this act it also transforms it, the observer, the observed and the act of observation forming a complex indivisible unity.
In this context, Babbitt (1908: 173) reproaches modern literature that it encourages "sentimental and romantic revery," instead of supporting the "resolute and manly grappling with the plain facts of existence." He reproaches the fact that romantic literature, as compared with the classical, lacks certain qualities like sobriety and discipline, which inevitably leads to doubt as regards its value as formative influence on the mind of the young. He also attributes classical literature the following: it addresses "higher reason and imagination" by whose agency we are offered an "avenue of escape from ourselves," in order for us to be able to "become participants in the universal life." Paradoxically, the same purpose was identified by the romantics for their "escapist" literature, which aimed at liberating the individual from physical reality and helping him reach spiritual transcendence.
There is, however, a major difference, here mentioned by Babbitt (1908: 174): the classical spirit, in its purest form, was dedicated to serving a "high, impersonal reason," hence its sense of discipline, limitation, proportion and "pervading law." At this crucial point, Babbitt associates literature to religion (as T. S. Eliot was to do subsequently): proceeding so as to make our acts be in line the more with this "high, impersonal reason," Babbitt believes that the "classical spirit" leads us--on a different path--to the same purpose as religion: "a union ever more intimate" with "'our own only true, deep-buried selves, /Being one with which we are one with the whole world.'" (cf. Empedocles on Etna, II, 371-372; Arnold 1995: 124)
Paradoxically, this type of union (being at one with one's deep inner self considered as equivalent with being at one with all of reality) is fundamentally characteristic for the romantic spirit, the difference being that the agent of this unifying transformation for the romantics was not reason, but imagination. Babbitt (1908: 174) concludes (using the same powerful scene in Arnold's dramatic poem Empedocles on Etna) that by a complete and harmonious development of all our faculties under the guidance and control of this "right reason," we would succeed in being lifted "above the possibility of ever again falling away 'Into some bondage of the flesh or mind.'" (cf. Empedocles on Etna, II, 374; Arnold 1995: 124) This is the high message of classical literature, about which Matthew Arnold referring to the Greek classicists in the age in which they flourished (the "Hellenic spirit")--stated that they achieved a fusion of reason and the imagination (rational-imaginative centromorphism) more perfect than is to be found in any other literature. The assimilation of this "Hellenic spirit" might help us "escape from contemporary illusions." Here Babbitt (1908: 180) alludes probably to the fact that by deeply understanding the roots of Western thought (which are no doubt Greco-Roman) we could liberate ourselves of many conceptual errors concerning the nature of cultural, historical and scientific truth. In other words, at this point Babbitt goes in a direction opposite to that chosen by Boas: in order to eliminate distorsions of reality generated by the passage of information through the personal medium, Babbitt proposes a project whereby the "personal medium" should be made transparent. This translates as follows: we should understand the fundamentals of the medium, in our case the Western thought with which Westerners are "born," thus more or less taking it for granted, which has as a consequence the fact that Westerners understand their cultural matrix (based on Western thought) least. This cognitive state of affairs could be called the "I-can't-see-the-forest-for-the-trees" syndrome.
The hypothesis of this programme of cultural derelativization therefore implies the following: the better the cultural matrix with which we are born is understood (the more it is made "transparent" from its very roots), the less will it modify-distort the objective reality. Babbitt (1908: 180) concludes: the one who grasps the deeper teachings of Greek literature will be "released from a multitude of opinions."
The old quarrel: Ancients versus Moderns
The "quarrel" between the ancients and the moderns is closely related to the beginnings of the idea of progress. Rousseau is the one who managed to "dislodge the ancient languages from their exclusive position as standards of form and good taste"; thus, according to Babbitt (1908: 184), "[i]n the name of feeling, Rousseau headed the most powerful insurrection the world has ever seen against every kind of authority." Inevitably, Rousseau attacked the claims of classicism to control emotion in the name of fixed standards, the authority it claimed over individual sensibility. Rousseau felt an immense aversion against the (pseudo-)classical notion of "decorum" (manners, etiquette, decency), because it forbade spontaneity, it "silenced the voice of the heart in the name of a wearisome dignity" (Babbitt 1908: 185).
Still, it was only Rousseau's German disciple, Herder, who took the decisive step in bringing Rousseauism into the "field of literature and history." Herder promoted more than any one else in his period an imaginative interpretation of the past, preparing the way for the victory of the historical method, which Babbitt believes to have shown itself as being an extremely powerful "solvent" both for the Christian, as well as for the classical dogma. Herder conveyed to the nation the idea of organic growth and evolution which Rousseau used in Emile in order to revolutionize the education of the individual child. Herder put special emphasis on the origin of nationality, idealizing the first age of spontaneity and of instinct, just as Rousseau had idealized childhood as the "Golden Age" of the individual. Folk songs and spontaneous poetry were forms of expression preferable to the conscious creations of academic art; similarly, Herder believed that every nation must first of all cultivate to a maximum degree its own "national genius," and then, as a natural consequence of this self-assertion, it must have a "comprehensive sympathy" for other national originalities. In other words, nationalism must be tempered by internationalism (nationalist-internationalist centromorphism). Babbitt (1908: 186) shows that these ideas of Herder's emerge as a generalization of Rousseau's theory regarding sympathy. Rousseau was of the opinion that any man had first of all to cultivate his own originality to a maximum degree, and then he had to sympathize with other people who proceeded in the same way.
The notions of nationalism and internationalism thus defined became for the first time efficient as world forces only with the French Revolution, but they already exist in theoretical form in Herder and in Rousseau, who initiated a current which implied an "intense individualism and nationalism," as well as a cult of the primitive, spontaneous, and instinctive--in a poetic and imaginative form, but also in an erudite form. Babbitt (1908: 190) gives the Grimm brothers as example of a combination of exact scholarship and romantic enthusiasm, Rousseau himself being a model for exalting the blessings brought by instinct and the lack of interest and of trust in conventional life. The romantics were to cultivate the revelation of the remote times and realms, which already contained in itself a powerful suggestion of the new doctrine of relativity stating that there was not just a single standard for taste, as the classics claimed, but a whole multitude of standards, each justified by the special circumstances of the age and context. According to Babbitt (1908: 191), Madame de Stael, a direct disciple of Rousseau and of the Germans (especially A. W. Schlegel, who tutored her children), did more than anyone else to popularize the new nationalism and cosmopolitanism. Madame de Stael's book on Germany represents a turning point in the long "Quarrel of Ancients and Moderns," being "more packed with thought" than any other text penned by a woman. Reading this book suggests, in Babbitt's acceptation, that the ancients suffered just as much from the influence of women who wish for a literature of feeling and romance, as from the influence of the radicals of science who wish for no literature at all. Similarly, de Stael's book suggests just how much one's "defective sense of form" can enable one to become "modern."
Goethe's position in the Quarrel of Ancients and Moderns is interesting, because he was both a great scientist, as well as a great man of letters (and one of the earliest advocates of the new cosmopolitanism)--being an example with regard to the way in which humanism can be reconciled with the new cosmopolitanism (human cosmopolitan centromorphism). Babbitt (1908: 193) comments memorably:
We shall have paid a heavy price for our historical method if as a result of attaining it we lose our sense of values and are set afloat on a boundless sea of relativity.
By these ideas the American critic was launching an undissimulated attack against cultural relativists, implicitly supporting a nonrelativistic viewpoint.
Goethe went, in this dilemma, in Sainte-Beuve's direction, reaching the conclusion that "[t]he time of universal literature has come"--the consequence thereof is the fact that we must cultivate in our attitude towards foreign literatures a "world-wide sympathy." Yet, Goethe added that the place in which we can find the masterpieces is ancient Greece, because here we discover "the model of man in his true beauty": Goethe wished for the study of Greco-Roman literature to remain for ever the fundament of "higher culture." Both the works of the classics, as well as those of the moderns are an integral part of the universal flux (the integral classical-modern centromorphism). Babbitt (1908: 194-195) finds in Goethe's solution a practical value: the fixed stars of the universal celestial sphere are not really fixed, but they can be considered to be so for plain practical reasons; similarly, some of the ancients and only a very few of the greatest moderns could be considered as "the fixed stars of literature"--they are points of reference having the value of guiding forces (a kind of concrete idea hominis) in the processes by which we reach decisions concerning "what is essence and what is accident in human nature."
But Babbitt insists that Goethe, as a humanist, had succeeded in combining the opposite extremes with each other, and simultaneously occupying also the space between them (complete Pascalian centromorphism)--precisely showing how man could acquire the most extended knowledge and sympathy, while at the same time keeping a powerful emphasis on judgment and selection. At this point, Babbitt clarifies his attitude towards Rousseauism: if anyone has already assimilated the great masterpieces of mankind and thus gained a firm understanding of human tradition, then they can complement their humanism by an assimilation also of the new cosmopolitan virtues and of the historical method. Contrariwise, Rousseauism left alone tends to generate an individual and national temperament, at the same time replacing the firm principles of judgment with various sympathies or antipathies. Babbitt laid stress on the "negative" side of human nature as repository of whimsical, unpredictable, instinctual, romantic energies, underlined precisely by the dominant "vector" of Rousseauism. The solution, therefore, was for Babbitt the integrative centromorphism, by which Rousseauism was reconciled with classicism into a humanism that tended to be absolute.
Originality under scrutiny
All neo-classical critics from the very beginning repressed any free initiative in the name of "rules," invoking against any innovative attempt the authority of Aristotle and the ancients. In Babbitt's view, one of Aristotle's profound doctrines had been that according to which the ultimate test of art is not its originality, but its truth concerning the universal. For Babbitt (1908: 219) this is very important because the present age can be compared with the Renaissance, given the fact that it unfolds at the end of a "great era of expansion" (the romantic age). During the Renaissance there was "a riot of so-called originality," like today: in its name, art had become increasingly more "centrifugal" and more "eccentric," precisely as at present. From the perspective of a classicist, the immediate consequence of the fact that we lost our standards is that we now cultivate personal and national aspects, getting further and further away from "what is universally human" (Babbitt 1908: 220). This is translated as modern art's main ambition to be original, which reminds us of the similar ambitions of late Renaissance art. Contrariwise, the attempts of the neo-classicists to tyrannize originality and to limit the creative impulse in the name of the "type" (Aristotle showed that it was not enough to render a thing as it was in any particular case, one had to render it as it was "in general") inevitably brought about eventually a violent reaction. For the difficult mission to break with convention what would have been necessary is a "more than Socratic wisdom"; and yet, this mission was carried out by a "'self-torturing sophist, wild Rousseau.'" (Babbitt 1908: 221-222)
Crucial for the foundation of Rousseau's programme was his idea according to which "[i]f I am not better than other men, at least I am different." By this sense of identity as something quite distant from a "type," the French thinker became "the father of eccentric individualists" (Babbitt 1908: 222). Furthermore, by his insistence of the right and legitimacy of "unrestrained emotion," Rousseau inaugurated the age of "Storm and Stress" (Sturm und Drang), not only in Germany, but also in all of Europe. Babbitt (1908: 222) thus concluded that the modern impressionists are none other than the "late-born disciples" of Rousseau, who wish to turn their own sensibility into "the measure of all things." (Similarly, in the postmodernist theoreticism every author proposes his/her own theory, which "must" replace the old paradigm only because the author likes it, but without any attempt to verify whether the theory is experimentally valid). Authority and tradition were thus eliminated precisely in order for them not to interfere between man and his spontaneity, between man and his direct contact with "Nature." Man had to let go of all books and start to live in such a way as if "none had lived before him"--admiring as "the world bathed in the fresh wonder of the dawn" (Babbitt 1908: 223).
[A few quintessential romantics strongly rejected this idea of abandoning all books indiscriminately--among them the following being most important in English literature: 1) Blake, who saw in a book by Paracelsus the source for numberless other books; 2) Coleridge, who devoured books in quest for poetic moods and essences, even if he enhanced his poetic energy by ingesting opium (opium intensified especially the perception of lights, colours and sounds); 3) Keats, who steeped himself in reading in order to gain abundance of words, expressions, images and ideas, because only from overabundance, as from a soil rich in precious ore, could poetry rise (even if, as in Coleridge's case, opium may have been used by him as a helping agent); 4) Mary Shelley, who read in order to get historical information as documentation for her novels].
In other words, Babbitt lays stress on the fact that in Rousseau's doctrine any man was to eventually be/become an "original genius," this idea being adopted by his German disciples who named their time the "Age of Genius" (Geniezeit). Germany attempted to emancipate itself from convention by the agency of the concepts of genius and originality, and not by the discipline of reason (as Lessing would have wished). Genius and originality in practice meant "the opening of the floodgates of sentiment," but lacking criticism they ran the risk of exhausting man, because in such a case they could prove themselves to be in essence only "an outpouring of undisciplined emotion." (Babbitt 1908: 223-224) P. B. Shelley's main problem was precisely his lack of what Lessing had called criticism, i.e. "the application of standards of judgment." This acceptation of Lessing's criticism was distorted in the present age, it having come to mean the mere quality of "appreciating" a work (aesthetic appreciativeness, cf. Babbitt 1908: 133, 149, 224).
Furthermore, the entire school of American transcendentalism is, according to Babbitt (1908: 224), nothing but "a belated echo of German romanticism," the latter itself only extending the age of original genius. Babbitt's idea of "belated echo" certainly reminds us of the subsequent theories of Harold Bloom concerning the successive echoes radiating from the center of the romantic revolution--the literature of the 20th century being constituted of these echoes-waves which emerged in slow succession from the central nucleus of the immense unfolding of creative energies of romanticism. In fact, a crucial point in Bloom's thought is precisely the idea that literature evolves by successive misreadings, by misprisions (imprisoning misreadings), this process being marked off by belatedness, i.e. a phase difference in the manifestation of fundamental images, ideas, concepts, symbols, etc., in the evolution of literature in general. According to Babbitt (1908: 232), romanticism tended from the very beginning to become "eccentric" by its "over-anxiety" to be original (for Rousseau, genius and originality were directly proportional with eccentricity). On the other side of the literary scene, neo-classicism strove so much to be "representative" that it often came to entirely lose the "personal flavor," thus failing by setting as their standard "colorless abstraction."
An important conclusion at this point is that both extremes fail equally much in their aspiration to be "humane": the humanist must "combine opposite extremes and occupy all the space between them" (Babbitt 1908: 233)--this is what we called Babbitt's absolute centromorphism.
This concept reminds us of fractal dimensions (the Hausdorff-Bezicovici dimensions of metrical spaces/vector spaces): Peano's curve is in this sense known to possess the fractal dimension 2 (bidimensionality), although it is just a line (normally defined by unidimensionality) (Mandelbrot 1995: 30, 36, 38, 40, 41, 46, 120, 122, 123, 165, 204; 1998: 41). The explanation is simple: curves of the Peano type tend, at infinity, to fill in the plane, although they are just lines--at infinity they become what we could call "hyperlines," because they surpass the normal condition of uni-dimensional lines, becoming (quasi-) surfaces. Peano published his brilliant idea in 1890, in an article entitled On a curve which completely fills a planar region. Babbitt may have known about this spectacular discovery in mathematics and may have there found supplementary inspiration for his fundamental principle mentioned above, besides Pascal's concept of human greatness as an equal simultaneous embrace of the extremes, which are thus made to fill all the space lying between them associated with Nicholas of Cusa's idea of God as an infinite sphere with a center located everywhere, and a circumference located nowhere. Of course, the notion may be generalized: a special kind of points might fill in a line if iterated ad infinitum; a special kind of surface might fill in volume if extended at infinity (see the structure of the lungs which operates on this principle of filling in a volume by complex surfaces extended ad infinitum), a special kind of volume might fill in hypervolume, etc. As a consequence, Babbitt's dream of filling in the space between extremes might not be so idealistic after all, at least from a mathematical theoretical viewpoint.
According to Babbitt (1908: 233), authentic originality is "immensely difficult" because it implies the mission to accomplish the "work that is of general human truth," but which is simultaneously also "intensely individual." What is stated thereby is that the humanist must simultaneously discover the universal and the particular--we would say in a Boethian sense--as a path to originality. Boethius had postulated (already at the beginning of the 6th century) the idea of a thing which is simultaneously singular and universal, and this paradoxical solution led to the famous quarrel of universals: on the one hand, nominalism negated the existence of universals (universalia sunt nomina: universals are nothing else but names, and are not real), while realism affirmed it (universalia sunt realia: universals are real, more real in fact than physical reality, because they are the underlying structure making possible the physical world). Boethius's idea of the singular-universal thing is practically equivalent with the idea of holon--an entity which is simultaneously part and whole. This concept has affinities with Philolaos's hypothesis: things have simultaneously an infinite and a finite nature, a paradox that is a fundament of romantic thought. For Babbitt, originality therefore appears at the common borderline between the general and the individual truth.
This notion has in turn affinities with Friedrich Cramer's ideas expressed in his important volume entitled Chaos and order: the complex structure of living systems:
Beauty appears to be most captivating and transparent wherever it verges on the border of chaos, where its order is put in peril. Beauty is a narrow path between two precipices; on the one side, dissolution of all order in chaos, on the other, a frozen world of symmetry and order. Only along this perilous path does beauty take on form. (Cramer 1993: 152; 2001: 196)
We are dealing here with the abrupt crest between the extremes of romanticism and (neo-)classicism. Only on that sharp, steep crest does deep beauty come to life. Similarly, Babbitt's humanist reaches originality only by "combining] opposite extremes" and by "occupying] all the space between them" (in Pascal's terms of large versus small infinities as extremes): centromorphism. This space between extremes which Babbitt so often firmly invokes is the field that covers the narrow mountain crest described by Cramer in the quotation above. Moreover, Babbitt was of the opinion that the modernist hoped to become original not by assimilating tradition (as the Greek had hoped), but by ignoring it, or (if he was a scholar) by attempting to demonstrate that the tradition was wrong. On the other hand, the educational system should in general "represent the conservative and unifying element in our national life." (Babbitt 1908: 240) It is this conservatism and penchant for standards in Irving Babbitt's system of thought that Sinclair Lewis criticized in Babbitt (1922), as shown above.
As far as the purpose of the college is concerned, Babbitt adopted Cardinal Newman's ideas. The college had to do the following:
1) To provide the principles of taste and judgment.
2) To educate in the spirit of health and of the centrality of
3) To offer a background and a perspective.
4) To inspire, if not the spirit of conformism, then at least a proper respect for the previous experience of the world.
5) To enable students to make the distinction between what is original and what is only strange and eccentric (as Lowell observed, such distinction Wordsworth was never able to make; cf. Babbitt 1908: 241): according to Spinoza this was possible if man permanently held in front of himself "a sort of exemplar of human nature," a "humane standard"--which in Latin was expressed thus: idea hominis, tamquam naturae humanae exemplar (Babbitt 1908: 243).
6) To not necessarily primarily encourage originality and independence of thought in the common sense of these terms (Babbitt 1908: 241).
7) To avoid an unduly strong accent on "self-expression" and an insufficient one on "humane assimilation" (expressive-assimilative centromorphism).
According to Babbitt (1908: 244), the "humane standard" can be acquired by few through "philosophic insight," but by most people through "a knowledge of good literature," "a familiarity with that golden chain of masterpieces which links together into a single tradition the more permanent experience of the race." We are dealing with books that in essence are so similar that they seem to be, as Emerson observed, the work of "one all-seeing, all-hearing gentleman." The most practical way to promote humanism is thus the rebirth of the "art of reading," now almost lost. The humanist will be the one who has a memory in which he must abundantly find "what is best in literature"--this idea being a fundament adopted from Arnold. The decline of humanism, doubled by the ascent of Rousseauism, was marked off by the continuous decline in the superior use of memory. To support this statement Babbitt invoked the Greeks, for whom the Muses were indeed the daughters of Memory, and not the "daughters of Inspiration" (as they were later for Blake) or of Genius (as they were subsequently for the moderns).
Energy or revery
According to Aristotle--who praised leisure (unlike Bacon, who praised activity)--the greatest good was not the joy of labour/work, but the joy of contemplation. Babbitt (1908: 250) comments that this idea did not imply an extolment of quietism or of the mystical dimension; instead, it referred to what is "ripest" in Greek and even in world culture. Bosanquet in this sense showed the following:
Leisure--the word from which our word "school" is derived--was for the Greek the expression of the highest moments of the mind. It was not labor; far less was it recreation. It was that employment of the mind in which by great thoughts, by art and poetry which lift us above ourselves, by the highest exertion of the intelligence, as we should add, by religion, we obtain occasionally a sense of something that cannot be taken from us, a real oneness and centre in the universe; and which makes us feel that whatever happens to the present form of our little ephemeral personality, life is yet worth living because it has a real and sensible contact with something of eternal value. (apud Babbitt 1908: 250-251)
A part of this tradition concerning "scholarly leisure" still survives together with the old humanism in English universities. However, both at Oxford and at Cambridge, but even more so in the American universities, the humanist and the "man of leisure" is being "elbowed aside" by the scientific specialist and by the "bustling humanitarian" (Babbitt 1908: 251). The view of life that now tends to dominate eliminates the idea of leisure/rest, man in this view not having a purpose inside himself anymore; he is instead just "an instrument for the attainment of certain outer ends." Thus, the fact is neglected that there is a huge difference between man (the nature of his activities, the ways in which he tends to reach perfection) and the machine. Modern man as a consequence comes to neglect the Greeks' idea of leisure/rest, in its stead favouring the "worship of energy and mechanical efficiency" (Babbitt 1908: 251). Up until Bacon there existed a rather well-outlined tradition, in accordance with which the highest good was to be reached not by action (Bacon's idea), but by meditation--in this sense the Orient and the Occident converged, as did the great religious cultures (the Greeks, the Christians, the Mohammedans, the Buddhists, the Hindus). In this sense, medieval theology assimilated Aristotle's teaching about leisure, using it to strengthen the more the Christian doctrine whereby the wisdom of the Virgin Mary was exalted above Martha's wisdom: in this sense, reaching "beatific vision" was the culmination of religious life. Bacon's attack on Aristotle, namely on the latter's concept of leisure and contemplative life, implicitly constituted simultaneously also an assault against one of the central principles of traditional belief. (Babbitt 1908: 253)
There is here an important paradox: over the advocation of contemplative life, which was considered the highest good, something else was often superimposed, namely the advocation of indolence, i.e. the worst evil (corruptio optimi pessima)--see Keats's later embracing indolence as an essential poetic mode that definitely reminds us of Rousseau's esthetic vagabondage. The example provided by Babbitt (1908: 254) is predictable: theoretically, the monastery was always the place in which the sage and the saint had to lead a life of "austere meditation"; nonetheless, in reality too often the monastery sheltered the "lazy friar," who--in Voltaire's words--"had made a vow to God to live at our expense."
Similarly, Oxford came to be a "home of prejudice," and Cambridge a place where one could learn the "art of lounging" (Babbitt 1908: 254). Furthermore, at the entrance to the reading room of the new Sorbonne, Paris, there are mural paintings that represent two women: 1) the first, named Science, has a severe, energetic and frowning look: she symbolizes the scientific analyst; 2) the second, named Revery (Reve), covered in "floating draperies," has a "far-away eye": she symbolizes the "romantic dreamer" (Babbitt 1908: 255).
The two, the scientific analyst and the romantic dreamer, shared with each other the 19th century and, although opposite, they have both been equally hostile to the idea of leisure. Babbitt (1908: 255) decodes this paradox in the following way:
1) The Baconian denies leisure entirely, considering it as being different from rest or relaxation.
2) The Rousseauist turns leisure into revery, tending to wipe off any boundary between thinking (equivalent to French reflechir) and dreaming (French rever).
In this sense, Babbitt lays stress on Sainte-Beuve's idea that revery was Rousseau's great discovery, his "America" (son Amerique a lui). In his practice of revery ("le reve"), Rousseau reached a kind of "transcendental loafing" (perhaps akin to Keats's indolent dreaming away) which is to be understood as an invitation to be lazy: "he invited his soul to loaf." (Babbitt 1908: 256) Rousseau thus became the first in a long series of "aesthetic vagabonds," who found soothing balms in vast "world[s] of luxurious dreams." The latter often became for these "aesthetic vagabonds" a refuge, a space into which they sought to escape the "reality disenchanted by scientific analysis."
At this point, invoking Max Weber's idea of "disenchanted world," Babbitt (1908: 257) seems to feel some compassion as regards the "excess" of the romantics, observing that, by confusing the state of contemplation with revery, they (like Wordsworth for instance) in fact did nothing else than practise a "delicious epicureanism," i.e. a "rapturous mingling of soul and sense." [One should note, see next issue--In quest for the romantic imagination (II): all roads lead to Xanadu, Blake's definition of the imagination as "spiritual sensation," which points in this direction, although it was not by any means meant by Blake to be associated to any spiritual "loafing," the romantic spirit in this sense being in a mission of "mental fight," which was no indolent affair; yet the soul-sense mixture is there in this definition, and could well have been interpreted in the direction pointed by Babbitt]. Making this observation, Babbitt explains he does not wish to launch an "indiscriminate attack" on "romantic revery": his justification is solid, namely the fact that the humanist will never deny the usefulness of "wise passiveness," but he will deny indeed that such could be a sufficient substitute for leisure and, moreover, will regret that the good, healthy and worthy parts of Rousseau's system are mixed so thoroughly with the morbid and pathological ones (these forming an "integral corruption of the higher parts of human nature," cf. P. Lasserre, Le romantisme francais, 1907: 70; Babbitt 1908: 258).
The humanist in general will reject neither the sentimental, nor the scientific naturalism, his purpose being to "not deny his age, but to complete it" (Babbitt 1908: 259) (this is Harold Bloom's "tesseric" vector), thus choosing the middle way between the praise of energy and action and the atmosphere of leisure and reflection, the path of balance between the joy of labour/work and the joy of leisure, in order to give life a chance even in the industrial democracy in which the main tendency is that of sinking deeper and deeper into the feverish quest for "mechanical efficiency" (Babbitt 1908: 261), i.e. precisely one of the goals of Sinclair Lewis's Zenith as the city of the future.
Babbitt's centromorphisms have thus a clear and serious mission: to find the path of the golden middle whereby life should get its chance. By this ideal, Babbitt proves to be one of the prominent humanists of the 20th century, being close to the ideals of an Albert Einstein, who never forgot that life must comprise labour, but also play, ease, but also seriousness--all these subsumed to the notion of cosmic religion, i.e. that kind of religion by which we, as human beings, keep undiminished our sense of mystery, of wonder in front of the mystery of the world, thus always perpetuating also a moral-religious sense. Babbitt (1908: 262), however, notices that keeping ourselves always only in the joy of labour would mean living always in a "devil's sabbath of whirling machinery" functioning in a circle ad infinitum, and calling all this scientific "progress." A progress thus defined would defeat itself by becoming its opposite, "retrogression," which eventually would only lead us back to barbarism. Babbitt's justification is moral in nature: it is good that we attain the "secret of power," but not if thus we come to sacrifice the "secret of peace." The solution proposed is quite clear: man must choose neither Oriental quietism, nor the Occidental "inhuman strenuousness"; neither "pure repose," nor "pure action," but a fusion of the two (a blending), whereby the whole space between the two extremes is occupied (Babbitt's absolute centromorphism). Probably without even realizing it, Babbitt announces here one of Holderlin's ideals: the idea of "living quietness/silence" (lebendige Ruhe), in which rest/repose and action coexist in a harmonic manner in the dynamics of life. Keats's "Miltonic stationing" is a similar concept applied to aesthetics: awesome energy held in calm and dignified, but dynamic repose. Similarly, the fusion of the two mutually exclusive elements here has affinities with the more dramatic fusion in romanticism between the finite and the infinite, which leads to the birth of interfinitude, the space of liminal convergence between finiteness and infinity, which indeed could be called the "romantic dream."
Paradoxically, Babbitt, an adversary of romanticism, calls the humanistic ideal precisely "activity in repose": yet this is exactly an idea that is characteristic for the "deep" romanticism of the kind to be met in a Holderlin, a Novalis or a Blake. Babbitt (1908: 262), however, notices, as did Franz Boas, that the crucial advantage provided by the modern machinery is that it "lightens the drudgery of the world," offering a good opportunity for leisure to more people than was ever possible in the past. Finally, Babbitt (1908: 263) addresses the American people with Demosthenes' exhortation that had been addressed to the people of Athens:
In God's name, I beg of you to think.
This calling reminds us of the very function of the canon in Harold Bloom's acceptation:
Without the Canon, we cease to think. (Bloom 1995: 39)
Thereby Bloom's programme is defined as being a new humanism in Babbitt's line of thought, although lacking the implicit rigidities extant in Babbitt's system which promotes "humane reflection" as the only way to escape the punishments which surely will follow on those who will try to eliminate the "principle of leisure" from man's everyday life.
III. The mighty concert of the arts: from illusion to essence
In The new Laokoon (1910) Babbitt justifies his approach as an attempt to study Lessing's Laokoon (1766) as a work of comparative literature that was published towards the end of the neo-classical age. The American critic restates many ideas, especially concerning the definition of humanism, that had been expounded in his previous book, Literature and the American college (1908). The conclusions presented hereby had been expounded in the last ten years (between 1900 and 1910) to his students at Harvard University. The ideas on romanticism, here still more or less in germinal form, were to be further studied in a book to be titled Rousseau and romanticism (1919).
Poetry and painting: it is all confusion
The confusion that Lessing attacked in his work (namely the "confusion of poetry and painting," i.e. the identity between the two artistic forms) Babbitt (1910: x) believes is actually a "pseudoclassical" one, and, in order to understand it, we must go back to the beginnings of the entire movement, viz. to the critics of the Renaissance. We thus come to understand that the poetry-painting identity has a deeper substratum: the theory of imitation. In authors like Rousseau and Diderot, there are the germs of a totally different confusion, namely a "romantic confusion," not to be found in Lessing's Laokoon. Babbitt (1910: x) proposes an analysis of the attempts made during the 19th century to "get with words the effects of music and painting," simultaneously trying to establish the principles that can be opposed to this "modern confusion." The one hundred and fifty years after the publication of this work were nothing else but the period of "the rise of the great romantic and naturalistic movement" (Babbitt 1910: xii), which occupied the entire 19th century, beginning to decline in the 20th century. According to Babbitt (1910: viii, ix), the 19th century experienced the "greatest debauch" of descriptive texts history has ever known, and this was supplemented by a confusion of the arts and their genres--D. G. Rossetti thus wanted to "paint his sonnets" and to "write his pictures," while Mallarme wished to "compose symphonies with words." Such "confusions" already existed a few years after Lessing's death in the writings of Novalis, Tieck and Fr. Schlegel. While Lessing made clear distinction between the true classic and the pseudo-classic, Babbitt (1910: x) is of the opinion that now whoever wanted to protest in a similar way had to distinguish between the "truly classic" and "the romantic." The American critic (1910: x, xi) justifies his interest for this theme by pointing out that: 1) the terms classic, pseudo-classic and romantic are in sore need of serious conceptual clarifications; 2) neo-classicism and romanticism are "world-movements." The problems rising from the attempts at defining the word "romantic" Babbitt (1910: xi) believes are due to the fact that they have been largely "partisan" and "provincial," whoever searched for the definitions being themselves "too much a part of what they were trying to define." In the terms of Boasian anthropology, the seekers identified themselves too much with the cultural matrix that they sought to understand.
By comparative literature, Babbitt (1910: xii) hopes to accomplish what few succeeded in the 19th century, namely to look at the romantic and naturalistic movement from the outside (precisely what Kurt Godel postulated as a condition to gain access to the truth of a system: location outside the system). France, "the most intellectually sensitive of modern nations," was, by Rousseau's writings, the cradle of certain romantic and naturalistic ideas, which here found their first strong expression. Also in France at the beginning of the 20th century appeared the first reactions against the essential postulates of Rousseauism.
These being the coordinates of his research, Babbitt begins by giving a closer look at the theory of imitation.
Starting around 1550 and up to around 1750, treatises of literary or art criticism approvingly discussed Horace's comparison ut pictura poesis ("as is painting, so is poetry"), or Simonides' statement that "painting is mute poetry, and poetry a speaking picture" (cf. Babbitt 1910: 3). Significantly, Babbitt detects the roots of the utpictura-poesis doctrine also in the Italian Renaissance. In this regard, two crucial documents were back then acknowledged as the supreme authorities in criticism: 1) Horace's Ars poetica: here the formula "operum colores" is already used for "words" and "elegant expressions" (cf. Lewis 2002: 371; cf. also Dryden; Babbitt 1910: 23, n. 2); and 2) Aristotle's Poetics. Given its outstanding importance for aesthetic theory, here is the context (not offered in Babbitt) in which the "operum colores" formula occurs in Horace's famous text:
Descriptas servare vices, operumque colores, Cur ego, si nequeo ignoroque, poeta salutor? (v. 86-87)
Christopher Smart (1722-1771)--who through his religious poetry anticipated voices of the romantic revolution like William Blake's and John Clare's--translated Horace's formula "operum colores" as "Complexions of Works":
If I am incapable and unskilful to observe the Distinctions now marked out, and the various Complexions of poetic Works, why am I honoured with the name of Poet? (Horace 1753: 374-375)
This aesthetic notion appears also in verse 236 of Horace's Ars poetica (here rendered with the context):
Nec sic enitar tragico difiere colori, Ut nihil intersit Davusne loquatur, et audax Pythias, emuncto lucrata Simone talentum, An custos famulusque Dei Silenus alumni. (Horace 1846: 492)
Christopher Smart's translation:
[N]or would I be industrious to differ so widely from the very Complexion and Air of Tragedy, as to make no Distinction whether the Speaker be Davus a mean Slave, and Pythias a bold Courtezan, who has cheated her foolish Gallant of his Money; or one of a grave Character, as Silenus, the Guardian and Attendant of the pupil God Bacchus. (Horace 1753: 389-391)
Here the Latin "colori" again is rendered as "complexion," this time referring to the words, expressions, tones, stylistic nuances, etc., used in poetry that should not necessarily be that different from those used in tragedy.
On the other hand, Aristotle's crucial idea was that of imitation: poetry imitates human actions, not at random, but in accordance with a plan or a purpose; the poet had to abandon his emotions and his own personality, so that he could work like a painter --with his eyes on the object. The poet for Aristotle was objective, without thereby being fixed in tradition or convention. Although Aristotle had not wished the latter, still neo-classicism and pseudoclassicism tended to go in this direction of traditionalism and convention, becoming pseudo-Aristotelian currents. In this sense, the best expression in English of the classic perspective is Sir Joshua Reynolds' Discourses on art (Babbitt 1910: 11).
The neo-classicists in this context are considered by Babbitt (1910: 22) as having been rather "Jesuitical casuists" (sophists) who, in their attempt to deny the rights of imagination, came to convert the "divine illusion of poetry" into "agreeable falsity." For the neoclassicists all those who were too "unexpected" were declared "monstrous"; the poets were not supposed to rely on their own resources at all, on the contrary, they had to depend on the second important form of imitation, that of models: copying fictions already created by the ancient poets. In other words, in the neo-classic acceptation, the poet was unspontaneous and traditional. According to Johnson, the man who introduced "poetical diction" into English is Dryden, and the most flagrant example of poetic diction is The botanic garden by Erasmus Darwin, where the poet has his eyes riveted on the object. Thus, for Erasmus Darwin poetry was "a process of painting to the eye," this theory being the supreme result of the confusion between poetry and painting which has its roots in the time of the Renaissance. Indeed, this confusion led to the creation of poetic diction in English literature in the first place, becoming fundamental in neo-classicism, just as the reaction against poetic diction became fundamental in romanticism (Babbitt 1910: 24, 25, 26).
Romanticism had a legitimate mission to liberate the poetic imagination from the "straitjacket of artificiality and convention." The "wave of emotion" which eventually succeeded in erasing poetic diction from England in fact came from France. Wordsworth--whom Babbitt considers as being the parent of 19th century English poetry wrote Guilt and sorrow, the first poem in which he touches a direct vitality and sincerity of expression, especially under the emotional influence of the French Revolution, and less under the influence of Milton's or Spenser's ballads (the rebirth of interest for the poetry of the latter two led to the emergence of new forms of poetic diction).
As far as pseudo-classicism is concerned, Babbitt (1910: 31) gives an example of a work belonging to this current, namely The seasons by James Thomson (1700-1748). This poem led to the emergence of a school of "descriptive" and "pictorial" poetry, which, in a pseudo-classic sense, advocated the use of words and expressions as "pigments" that were to be "laid on from without."
During the late 17th and the early 18th century in England there had been quite some debate over the so-called virtuosi, i.e. people who collected anything, from coins to butterflies--thus readily becoming topics of public ridicule and being considered absurd curiosities. However, in this interest of collectors, Babbitt (1910: 32) sees a piece of evidence concerning the tendency towards exact observation and classification, directly connected with the foundation of the Royal Society in 1662 and with the Baconian tradition. Some of these collectors (virtuosi) became antiquarians--some of them could be owners of (old) curiosity shops or cabinets of antiquities: these prepared the way for modern archeology and for critics like Winckelmann. In these cabinets, it was natural to compare the ways in which an ancient legend was handled in art versus in poetry: it was inevitable for the ut pictura poesis principle to appear--being consolidated by the idea of the neo-classicists that "no one could do anything without copying from someone else" (among the first to have gone in this direction is Addison, cf. Dialogues on medals, 1702). This is how, according to Babbitt (1910: 32), the new kind of erudition and the cult of antiquities from the 18th century were born, and how they fused with art and literature.
On the other hand, just as Luther had made distinction between Christianity and pseudo-Christianity--coming to consider the text of the Bible as a kind of "visible absolute"--likewise did Lessing, distinguishing between the genuine classic and the pseudo-classic, come to see in Aristotle's Poetics a sort of "visible absolute," "a complete criterion in everything relating to literature, especially drama," comparing in this sense Aristotle's Poetics with Euclid's Elements, both "infallible" (Babbitt 1910: 37, 38).
Just as Luther liberated Germany from the spiritual servitude to Rome, so did Lessing free Germany of the intellectual-literary servitude to France. Lessing, who replaced an old code (as being false) with a new one, eyed with disgust the young antinomians of the Storm and Stress movement (Sturm und Drang), who wanted to eliminate all codes together, in whose stead they aspired to place an "uncharted emotionalism." Lessing's essential contribution was his distinction between the classic (i.e. Aristotelian) and the pseudoclassic (i.e. the pseudo-Aristotelian), between poetry and painting, while Diderot--forcing all limits of thought and feeling--prepared the way for the Titanism (the titanic lack of limitation/constraints) of all kinds, which defined the process of modern emancipation (Babbitt 1910: 40). The "great central generalization" from Laokoon is thus the following:
1) Poetry works with "temporal relations," with "the successive."
2) Painting works with "spatial relations," with "the coexistent" (Babbitt 1910: 52).
The romantic chaos: the gate of spontaneity
The equivalent of the idea of ut pictura poesis is for the modern period Fr. Schlegel's notion that "architecture is frozen music," that is "congealed emotion" (Babbitt 1910: 61, 62). Moreover, just as the neo-classic confusion between painting and poetry has a deeper substratum in the theory of imitation, so the "exaltation of music" in the romantics has a deeper substratum in the theory of spontaneity (Babbitt 1910: 62). When the neo-classicist states that the arts are imitative, he reduces practically to nil the role of the spontaneous, of the unexpected, of the original, as well as the sense of mystery (the one so vividly invoked by Einstein), of wonder, of awe. The neoclassicist wishes that everything should be logical, conventionally correct, flatly didactic, clear, refusing the contribution of the unconscious and unpremeditated factor, and conceiving of art as being something artificial, while the "divine illusion" of poetry he associates with "elegant falsehood" (Babbitt 1910: 62, 63).
On the other hand, the roots of the Storm and Stress movement in Germany, according to H. Hettner, are "Rousseau's gospel of Nature," which emphasizes the original, the spontaneous and the emotional. A. W. Schlegel and Madame de Stael practically repeat Rousseau in their attacks against imitation and convention (Babbitt 1910: 65).
Similarly, Schelling systematically attacked in its entirety the theory of imitation--his ultimate purpose being to "romanticize the whole universe" (Babbitt 1910: 65-66). But Rousseau had already romanticized the universe before Schelling, by turning upside down Descartes' ideas (cogito ergo sum) when he stated that man must not analyze or reason, but must feel (sentio ergo sum). (Babbitt 1910: 67)
The activity of the intellect was for Rousseau a source of degeneration: the intellect divided man against his own person, it ruined the unity of instinct, the freshness and spontaneity of primitive man and of the child. For Rousseau, the cause of man's "fall from Nature" was the fact that he ate of the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, while for theologists this event had led to the fall of man from Eden, the fall from Spirit, from God.
With Rousseau, we witness the beginning of the age of attacks against reason and analytical understanding. According to Rousseau, if we want to return to the "Arcadia of fresh and spontaneous feeling," we have to first "cease to think," we must escape into a world of dreams: for, says Rousseau, "[t]he man who thinks is a depraved animal." (cf. Babbitt 1910: 67-68) This notion was in the same line of thought as Saint Gregory's maxim: "Ignorance is the mother of devotion." (cf. Babbitt 1910: 68)
Rousseau thus often used the word "delirium" in order to describe his imaginative activity, which led to the nickname of his literary followers: the "amateurs of delirium" ("les amateurs du delire"; cf. Babbitt 1910: 71). While the Cartesians wanted to not have imagination at all and to set in a straitjacket the poetic faculties, the Rousseauists wished to be flooded by the "frenzy of the imagination." In this way, the Cartesians, by admitting only "what is probable to the understanding," unduly reduced the role of illusion and of the sense of wonder.
On the other hand, the romantics reactivated the sense of wonder too often by losing "common sense." The equation of reasonversus-imagination is, according to Babbitt (1910: 72), equivalent with the "wonderful-versus-probable" equation, to be encountered also in the dichotomies: romantic versus classic, adventure versus rationality, surprise versus causality. Indeed, it is easy to be prosaic and sensible and unimaginative, like many of the neo-classics; it is also equally easy to slip into a world of "pure imaginative illusion," like so many of the modern romantics. It is, however, a miracle, reached only by the great poets, to be a true humanist, i.e. to mediate between these extremes and to occupy the entire space between them (the essential Pascalian centromorphism), to be "probable or convincing to both the imagination and the understanding [reason]; to satisfy the standards of poetry without offending the standards of prose" (the poetry-prose centromorphism) (Babbitt 1910: 74). In this connection, Babbitt drew attention to the fact that even the "most hardened" neo-classic critics admitted (at least in theory) the need of an "element of wonder" in artistic creativity. An important conclusion is thus that literary movements often remind us of one of the fundamental laws of physics--"action and reaction are equal and in opposite directions" (cf. Babbitt 1910: 77). (Newton's third law of motion is also known as the principle of action and reaction).
In this physical law we identify the fundamental actionreaction centromorphism as a universal vector in Babbitt's system. It is interesting to notice that there is another possible formulation of this law with practical application in the field of literary movements: D'Alembert's principle, postulated in 1743, according to which in a closed system of bodies in motion (equivalent with the literary movements as vectors of forces), actions and reactions are in a state of equilibrium: we are dealing here with a phenomenon that has affinities with the centromorphic balance that Babbitt permanently searched for. (D'Alembert's principle is equivalent with the second law of motion postulated by Newton, also known as the principle of force, which is just as fundamental as the first law of motion, of the principle of inertia). While neo-classicism ceased to enforce the standards of prose in poetry, Rousseau and the romantics transferred the standards of poetry to prose. Neo-classicism wished for a logic and reality devoid of illusion; the romantics wanted illusion devoid of reality (Babbitt 1910: 78). Obviously, the American critic's last assertion is not at all supported, if we take into consideration the (neo-)Platonic dimension of romanticism: Blake or Holderlin were searching for divine-spiritual permanence that lurked behind the illusive flux of physical reality. As Bloom suggested, most romantics were looking for transcendence of physical reality by, paradoxically, union with physical nature. Of course, Babbitt is right in his statement above if we take into consideration strictly that strand in romanticism which pursued a transcendental or an esthetic "vagabondage."
Babbitt (1910: 78), on the other hand, believes that Rousseau wanted to banish the "rule and pale forethought" not only from literature, but even from life itself. At this point, however, an observation is due: the idea of anticipative thought ("forethought") is a foundation of romanticism, being quite different from the idea of "precaution" and of "prudence," which are indeed neo-classical notions. The reason for this is simple: the romantics advocated "Promethean" thought, in contradistinction with the "Epimethean," i.e. they promoted "prophetic"/"projective"/imaginative/visionary thought (gr. prometheia = Engl. "fore-thought," "foresight," "foreseeing")--represented by Prometheus, the rebellious Titan. The romantics did not promote post-factum (after-the-fact) thinking (afterthought) --which is represented by Epimetheus, the squanderer of the gifts of the gods.
In this horizon of ideas, Babbitt identifies in romantic primitivism the source of the modern confusion of the arts. Novalis, for instance, established the fairy-tale as canon of art.
The romantic chaos: Plato versus Rousseau
One difficult question remains: were the romantics truly Platonists and the neo-classicists truly Aristotelians? Babbitt (1910: 87) in this connection notes that Plato himself was not merely Platonic in the sense of "sublime enthusiast" and nothing else, just as Aristotle himself was not merely Aristotelian either in the sense of "dry analyst" (content with his "dry analysis") and nothing else. Both Plato and Aristotle tried to maintain in their thought a balance between the analytical and the synthetic components (the analytic-synthetic centromorphism). Reductively, however, one may say that Plato and Aristotle are supreme examples of synthetic and, respectively, analytic thought. Babbitt (1910: 89) in this regard compared Plato with Rousseau: the latter attacked the philosophes rather as Plato had attacked the sophists.
Still, while Rousseau's perspective on life was emotional, Plato's was "supremely disciplinary." Likewise, in Rousseau unity was associated with the "expansion of the feelings," while in Plato it was related to the "concentration of the will." Babbitt (1910: 90, 91) thus aims at a possible differentiation between: 1) the true
Rousseauists: interested in the things "below the reason"; and 2) the true Platonists: interested in the things above reason. Many of the romantics were thus Rousseauists and thereby pseudo-Platonists. An important criterion is therefore derived by which to evaluate a pseudomystic: the latter will be able to reach his vision only by negating rationality (Babbitt 1910: 93).
On the other hand, Wagner's theory on music and poetry describes the two as symbiotic: in their pure state, they have no efficiency at all--only when fusing into a "mystical erotic embrace" do they become powerful, creative, surpassing themselves. From the marriage of Poetry (as "word-speech") and Music (as "tone-speech") is born the "verse-melody," which is nothing else but a return to the primitive kinship of the two arts, a recovery of the "primitive melody" (Urmelodie) (Babbitt 1910: 106, 107). This theory of Wagner's work is Rousseauistic in nature to the extreme: according to Rousseau language and music were one in the beginning, the primordial "speech-song" being simultaneously also poetry. However, Babbitt (1910: 107, n. 2) does not claim that in Wagner there is a direct influence from Rousseau, because there is an intermediary between the two: E.T.A. Hoffmann. Still, Wagner, like Rousseau and Wordsworth, was profoundly influenced by the idea that the intellect interfering in the creative act will inevitably destroy spontaneity.
The common fundament of all romantics was the interest for the marvelous, adventure, and surprise, and this is quite unlike the interest for cause and effect, which was characteristic for the neoclassicist. Medieval man was thus oftentimes romantic: obsessed with the idea of adventure, of rare, unexpected and unusual events. The quest for adventure led, in the extreme, to heroes like Don Quixote, in whom the "logic of dreamland" and the logic of daily facts are in sheer collision (Babbitt 1910: 110).
In this connection, the "romantic palace of dreams" (i.e. the dreamworlds created in their works) needs to be explored by the researcher who wants to find the master keys granting access to the "magic secrets" of romantic "suggestiveness."
The crucial point in the criticism of romanticism reached here by Babbitt (1910: 132) is the following: the "romantic error" consisted in the fact that:
1) revery became for the romantics the "serious substance of life," instead of it being "its occasional solace";
2) the things below the reason became to the romantics a substitute for those above reason, the cult of nature becoming a religion.
The cult of nature led, in its more advanced forms, to a new symbolism, under the sheer force of imagination (for instance in Coleridge) man being united with physical nature, external objects no longer seeming strange to man, but related with something inside his own mind. In this sense, the Amerindians had a similar conception, for instance the bow and arrows being considered by the hunter as natural extensions of the body. In this context, Babbitt (1910: 132) invokes Novalis, for whom "[t]he world is a universal trope of the spirit," therefore a kind of projection or extension thereof.
The romantics noticed correspondences between man and external nature, but also between the various senses inside the human being. Man reaches that "tenebrous and profound unity" ("tenebreuse et profonde unite")--about which Baudelaire speaks in the sonnet Correspondances--in which "perfumes and colors and sounds correspond to one another" ("Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se repondent") (cf. Babbitt 1910: 133).
It is known that Baudelaire dreamed of a "mystical metamorphosis of all his senses fused into one," which Babbitt (1910: 177) thinks almost succeeded. As suggested by Walter Jackson Bate, Keats was to become one of the greatest specialists of this phenomenon of synesthesia--the coalescence of senses in the total artistic act. Wagner was in this sense the one who theorized the total/holistic synesthetic art (Gesamtkunst) as "art work of the future" in which all art forms "melt together voluptuously," being inspired by the spirit of liberty (Babbitt 1910: 173).
The conclusion to be derived hence is that the most striking thing concerning the romantic symbol is its subjective character: a man can discover as many correspondences as he wishes between himself and external nature, without thus developing correspondences between himself and other people. Babbitt (1910: 140) shows in this direction of analysis that in romanticism man "melts into nature," and "his vocabulary melts into nature with him," thus taking on all its nuances. Thoreau had underlined a similar phenomenon observed by him in the language of primitive Amerindians: the native tongue seemed to be the emanation of nature (just as the Indians themselves were also "emanations" of nature). In this connection, Sainte-Beuve pointed out that French language had become too abstract and intellectual, Rousseau putting some "green" into it (Babbitt 1910: 140) --just as John Clare was to do in the case of English language.
Consequently, according to Babbitt (1910: 146), "at the bottom" of the entire romantic movement was the "quest of sensation," even if this sometimes could take the "disguised" form of "heavenly idealism." By analyzing romantic music in terms of its suggestiveness, Babbitt (1910: 169) concluded that what for some might represent meaningless sounds, for others could constitute "the magic key that unlocks the palace of dreams." Thus, Gerard de Nerval (cf. Fantaisie) declared at a certain moment that he would renounce all of Mozart, Rossini and Weber, if he could only recover an old melody that generated in front of his inner eye the image of a 17th century castle together with the woman whom he had probably seen there in a former existence. The romantics have "developed infinitely" the art of musical suggestiveness (although they themselves did not invent it), using it especially in order to correlate man with outside nature (Babbitt 1910: 170).
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|Title Annotation:||p. 20-61|
|Author:||Stroe, Mihai A.|
|Publication:||Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2016|
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