Socrates in hell: Anthony Hecht, humanism, and the holocaust.
Adorno's posthumous Aesthetic Theory (1969) does not, therefore, denounce art after Auschwitz, but elaborates how it works in its new life that is, as it were, an afterlife. The literary models he references for this "afterlife" are James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and, above all, Paul Celan: those great modernist writers who set before us the disfigured body of art after its own demise. Celan's poems in particular exemplify at once poetry and the death of poetry. They represent the barbarism of artifice interwoven with the final wall of suffering beyond which there can be no further speech; as Celan phrases this condition, "we grew interlaces, there was / no longer a name for / that which drove us" ("In Prague," qtd. in McClatchy 216). Adorno's diagnosis, then, is that poetry, that activity of naming things, had been driven, after such mass murder, beyond the naming of things to the naming of silence and suffering. Far from being an outworn activity, it is an essential one because the barbarism of poetry at least is interwoven with voiceless suffering. The workaday world of modern ideology, he found in despairing contrast, had not merely silenced the cry of history's victims; it had all but erased them.
Adorno and Celan demarcate a limit-case: a possibility beyond which one cannot go and which, in the absence of other hope, seems a purgatory between outrage and resignation. Art and poetry must continue, but only to remind us of what modern "ideology" would have us forget. And yet, in their shared efforts to give voice and dignity to suffering, they seem to lose sight of that suffering's location as being always in the human. How quickly the voice of a Celan poem annihilates its speaker, at once protesting and replicating the event of the Holocaust; how much more ready Adorno was, as that most sophisticated of Marxist critics of bourgeois subjectivism and relativism, to forget the human subject for objective suffering itself.
Compared with these radical visions, the early poetry of Anthony Hecht stands as a meditative and humane corrective--one all the more important because it addresses the unbearable violence out of which human history is stitched with no less horror at its momentousness than Adorno and Celan portray. (3) Refining historical trauma into memory, Hecht's work explores the same atrocities as theirs does, but without succumbing absolutely to their sense of impotence before the forces of history. Always locating the human person within the history of suffering, Hecht's poems take what, at present, may seem an even greater risk; they affirm the spirit of humanism, of human reason, creativity, and culture in an age that frequently intimates (without being sure of what it means) that it has become "post-human." Where those who misunderstand and agree with Adorno might see in Hecht the quaint persistence of poetry in an age of atrocity, one should rather see a clear-sighted if incomplete act of redemption and an attempt by a post-War Jew to come to terms with the Christian culture of the West to which he is an ambivalent heir.
Hecht's biography offers a means to define the humanism of his poetry. Secular and semi-secular Jews moving in New York intellectual circles in the years after the Second World War sought to define a particular humanistic vision deeply attracted to the intellectual, cultural, and political achievements of the West. (4) Taking for models the "secular" philosophical characters of Plato, Aristotle, Marx, and--perhaps above all--Matthew Arnold, such intellectuals as Lionel Trilling and Irving Kristol sought to redefine humanistic inquiry in a way that muted, without erasing, the profound Christian traditions of the West. They did so in order to make the elder Western tradition available not only to Jews but also as a salient answer to the most piercing questions of modern political and cultural life. Their species of humanism was self-described Judeo-Christian and erected as a bulwark for a pluralistic western society whose chief opponent was Soviet communism. Hecht, having served in the War as, among other things, an interpreter for French Holocaust survivors at the Flossenburg Concentration Camp, would become intimate with this New York mode of "secular humanism" soon afterward, and would become one of its most accomplished representatives in modern poetry. His early "More Light! More Light!" stands out as one of his two most horrifying and despairing poems (the other being a significantly later poem, "The Deodand"), depicting in its second half the sadistic "collaborative" execution of two Jews and a Pole at the hands of the Nazis. In a game calculated to extinguish the last hope of human mercy and goodness in the hearts of their victims, the Nazis try to force the Pole to bury the Jews alive. When he refuses, they have the Jews bury him. When "only the head [of the Pole] was exposed the order came / To dig him out again and [for the Jews] to get back in." After the Pole at last accomplishes the Jews' live burial, the Nazis shoot him in the stomach and leave him to bleed to death. The poem ends,
No prayers or incense rose up in those hours Which grew to be years, and every day came mute Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air, And settled upon his eyes in a black soot. (Collected Earlier Poems 64)
An obvious and valid interpretation of the poem informs us that this scene of radical moral evil sheds an ironic light upon Goethe's Romantic, hopeful dying plea for "More light!" But such an interpretation is not exhaustive, as if the ghosts are still wandering from the ovens of the death camps. While one should linger over the unrelieved cruelty in the poem's two tableaux (the first, an execution set, presumably, in Elizabethan England), one must also look beneath the title to its dedication and discern if some still greater comment than that of bitter irony at the failings of Enlightenment might be advanced. Hecht dedicated the poem to Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blucher--husband and wife, one a Jew, both left-leaning philosophers, and both permanent residents in the United States after their exile from Nazi Germany. Arendt in particular remains the most influential German political theorist to come out of this period, with the possible exceptions of Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, and the most successful "popularizer" of post-War humanism. Her work draws its peculiar, brilliant character from an elegant synthesis of Martin Heidegger's phenomenology, Aristotle's ethics and politics, and Friedrich Nietzsche's individualism. The dedication to Arendt hints that the poem's irony elicits something other than the silence of sorrow. Or rather, after such silence, it implies the question, "How might the humanistic tradition of which Goethe was once the sublime (Romantic) representative be revived after such evil?" The poem asks of the two former exiles--near-victims themselves of history's unrelieved brutality--a tenable answer.
Arendt, in such works as The Human Condition (1958) and The Life of the Mind (1978), sought with a comprehensive and subtle vision to answer this question for the post-War and Cold War West. No philosopher of the last century has so forthrightly challenged human beings to realize their telos (their nature and destiny) as political animals, or has recognized the great and necessary good that is politics properly understood, as did Arendt. Her first book published after settling in the United States, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), explored in detail the travesty of modern politics even as it held out hope for the promise of the political life. It showed with full and un-deluded knowledge that modern mass movements had engaged in radical, almost unforgivable, evils and tried to account for why. Hecht's poem by no means rebukes Arendt's efforts to redeem man, the political animal; rather, it holds forth for our painful inspection the spectacle of just how grave the evils are from which civilization must recover.
IN its first lines, "More Light!" sets before us a burning at the stake, where the victim's pain is multiplied by the inefficiency of his executioners: "His legs were blistered sticks on which the black sap / Bubbled and burst as he howled for the Kindly Light" (Collected Earlier Poems 64). Goethe's cry for Enlightenment fizzles in smoldering flesh. And yet, to despair before the nauseating acts of cruelty depicted in the poem would be to despair of politics simply because the freedom intrinsic to the life of human civilization bears with it equally intrinsic risks of what Arendt would follow Immanuel Kant in calling "radical evil" (Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism 459). (5) In The Human Condition, Arendt convicts Plato and Aristotle for just such a sin. She argues that the interpersonal action of persons appearing in the public realm--doing great deeds and speaking great words--alone constitutes politics, and the vita activa, the life of action, is the highest achievement of the human person. She observes that human beings may labor, work, act, and contemplate; but, following Aristotle, she views contemplation as super-human, and labor and work as slavish or even sub-human, and so holds up the life of action as the only truly human life by means of which the individual stands forth as a person: "Speech and action reveal [the person's] unique distinctness. Through them, men distinguish themselves instead of being merely distinct; they are the modes in which human beings appear to each other, not indeed as physical objects, but qua men" (The Human Condition 176). To appear in this sense is the purpose of human life, according to Arendt; consequently, the fragile public space of the political realm, understood as the creation of "men ... together in the manner of speech and action," is the condition of possibility for a complete human life (The Human Condition 199). And yet, from Plato and Aristotle onward, the West has often succumbed to the temptation to reduce this realm of action to the level of making and work, which the asocial individual, as homo faber, could accomplish in private. True politics entails a life of free and public action, but the West's oldest temptation is to rid itself of this freedom in favor of predictable techniques and thus to render the political realm a static, made object. Arendt observes that
Plato's solution of the philosopher-king, whose "wisdom" solves the perplexities of action as though they were solvable problems of cognition, is only one--and by no means the least tyrannical--variety of one-man rule... Escape from the frailty of human affairs into the solidity of quiet and order has in fact so much to recommend it that the greater part of political philosophy since Plato could easily be interpreted as various attempts to find theoretical foundations and practical ways for an escape from politics altogether. (The Human Condition 221-222)
Plato's political philosophy is not really political at all; it transforms the fragile, unpredictable polis of equal citizens into a problem of method and technique, and even reduces it to the sort of managerial arts appropriate to the private household. (6) The possibility of action is sacrificed for the predictability of brute labor and technology; citizens are, in a sense, reduced to slaves. True humanism, according to Arendt, entails not the solving of political "problems," as if some decisive executive of political power might prescribe the consequences of human freedom--or human freedom per se--out of existence; rather, it entails recognition that politics is man's nature and therefore the political is the condition in which man permanently dwells and where he can most fully become himself.
We would not be overreaching to hear in Hecht's ironic quotation of Goethe a mockery of those forms of humanism that fail to appreciate man's fragile but necessary political nature. Goethe, as the arch-romantic poet, may be thought a representative of those who would eclipse politics by redefining human nature in terms of the infinite imaginative vision of the individual (Enlightenment, with its negative politics of protecting individual rights, seeks just this); the Nazis, conversely, sought to eradicate politics by annihilating the human, absorbing it within the state (Arendt clearly saw, as did Hecht, how close a resemblance Hitler bore to a "philosopher-king"). By holding up for inspection exhibits of radical evil of older and more recent vintage, Hecht acknowledges how hard-won, but won nonetheless, the humanism Arendt offers us truly must be. Plato and Goethe remain in the "pantheon" of the humanist tradition, but they lack a full vision of human nature as fragile-because-political that a post-War humanism could not afford to overlook.
Another early poem, "It Out-Herods Herod. Pray You, Avoid It.," invites us to apply this re-reading of Hecht's only-apparently-despairing irony to his use of poetic form. A temptation that critics of modern verse routinely indulge is to suggest that any poet who writes in formal verse about ghastly or otherwise disturbing realities must be engaged in playing form ironically against content. The beauty and elegance of meter and rhyme compress grim realities by means of suave artifice, even as those realities, in their searing authenticity, testify against beauty and elegance, exploding, as it were, the form. (7) In "Herod," such an interpretation appears all the more likely because of Hecht's use of short meter, which in the opening lines seems to equate such a tight and musical form--almost that of a nursery rhyme--with the innocent and hopeful moral vision of small children and television melodramas:
Tonight my children hunch Toward their Western, and are glad As, with a Sunday punch, The Good cast out the Bad. And in their fairy tales The warty giant and witch Get sealed in doorless jails And the match-girl strikes it rich. (Collected Earlier Poems 67)
Hecht seems to equate poetic and dramatic forms here, and when the father in the poem calls into question the veracity of the moral forms fairytales and cowboy dramas present--"For the wicked have grown strong, / Their numbers mock at death"--the poem's form seems to hold itself together only through irony (Collected Earlier Poems 67). The great number of earthly evils mock at death, and poetic numbers mock at the naive hope for a world where even match-girls strike it rich. As the poem careens from innocence to a vision of evil, it moves also toward that historical moment which has more than any other come to represent radical evil and human despair, the Holocaust. (8) "Herod," set in a post-War American suburb, seems to erase the naivete of the children's present vision of good and evil by means of the recent past, where an absolute and all-conquering evil remains indelible in the memory:
And that their sleep be sound I say this childermas Who could not, at one time, Have saved them from the gas. (Collected Earlier Poems 68)
Only in this final stanza does the cross-rhyming break down, leaving "sound" and "time" without the auditory balance that would seem to complement the moral dyad of good and evil. Again, one is tempted to believe that this marks the moment when form finally succumbs to despair under the load of its content. Hecht would then have stopped just shy of that final breaking of form, where poetry after Auschwitz becomes the death of poetry precisely because the poem must bear not the memory but the ongoing traumatic experience of genocide. One step farther and the poem would join the chilling fragments of Celan's "Alchemical":
Silence, cooked like gold, in charred, charred hands. Fingers, insubstantial as smoke. Like crests, crests of air around-- Great, grey one. Wakeless. Regal one. (McClatchy 215)
For Celan, wake-less-ness stutters the broken sleep that is death, and the re-gal one is the broken crown and body of the human per se. Such words, I repeat, demarcate a poetry (of death) that is also the death of poetry. Were Hecht's poem pursuing the same course of meaning and merely stopping shy of expressing its conclusion, then it might be as despairing as Celan's but would, from an ethical standpoint or from that of truth, be far inferior. One cannot continue to write poems merely because one elects to conclude the poem at the margins of a vision of great evil and thus spare oneself from accountability before it. Such an evasion is what Adorno's maxim about "poetry after Auschwitz" sought to condemn. (9)
READING Hecht thus, as a poet of ironic elegance--where irony exposes the darkness and moral void upon which the forms blithely dance, reduces him to a Celan who has somehow stopped short of moral honesty. This is an error: one which precipitates from the reader's own stopping short of a complete reading of the poem. Hecht expressly rejected such readings in a 2003 interview with William Baer. For Hecht, the "fairytale" morality of good always triumphing over evil is a necessary feature of childhood and adulthood alike. Morality tales take their place alongside those more sophisticated grapplings with moral evil found in the Old Testament prophets, whom Hecht echoes ("Their [the wicked ones'] cow brings forth its young / Their bull engendereth"), and the narrative theodicy of Job, to whom Hecht refers (Satan "bestrides the globe" and "finds out even Job") (Hecht, "Personal Interview"). All these conceptualizations of good and evil are compared and synthesized in the mind, to wit, in the memory. Celan's poems, with their broken repetitions, haunt us. The ghosts of the Holocaust remain present to us in the lines, so that the poems do not represent but rather present the trauma of murder on an inconceivable scale. Celan breaks language down as if it might thereby cease to mediate between the reader and the cries of the murdered until the poems even become those cries. Hecht's poem shows us, to the contrary, that even the death of six million Jews and several millions of others is not, finally, "inconceivable." If we can transform the trauma of experience into the mourning of memory, we can come, although not perhaps to a comprehension, to at least an apprehension of these acts, these murders. Although it may seem irreverent to say so, the cries of its victims are not the last words on the Holocaust. The attempt of Celan to give them such finality would seem to freeze historical experience in a state of trauma: we hear the cries of the dead over and over without ever being able to reflect on their significance. In contrast, to mourn such deaths entails acknowledging the passage of time, and leads to an understanding of the meaning of their deaths in relation to the life and history that inexorably follows. Job, along with the "poorman, beggerman, thief," and along also with an ancient mass murder--the slaughter of the Holy Innocents by Herod's army when he learned of the birth of Christ (Matthew 2:16-18)--make it possible for us to remember past evil rather than to be re-traumatized by it. Thus, remembrance of things past enables us to escape the endless present tense of trauma in order to look with hope to the future.
Hecht's poem does just this. He prays for his own children as a "childermas," i.e., "children's mass," the feast day on which the slaughter of the Holy Innocents is memorialized (Hecht, "Interview" 67-68). (10) Knowing full well how helpless he would have been during the Holocaust to save his own children, he responds to the horror of what has happened with a prayer that such ineluctable death might be "avoided" in the future. Celan and Adorno, with good reason, were skeptical that the Holocaust could be reduced to a historical event contained in the memory. Hecht repeatedly confessed his own experience of trauma resulting from his time serving as a translator in the death camps following their liberation, noting that, for many years afterward, he would wake up screaming in the middle of the night. The tense conclusion to which "Herod" leads us is that, for his children (and for the sake of his children), the Holocaust must at last take its place in the memory. Indeed, precisely because we have memories, human beings can occupy at once the past, the present, and the future. Narrative forms from Job to fairytales make it possible for us to navigate consciously among these temporal states. We come to an understanding of the past so that we may be poised to greet the future with wisdom and hope--as well, of course, as fear. I suggested above that, according to Arendt, humanism means understanding mankind as a political animal. "Herod" proposes, in a corollary for which Arendt also argued, that humanism also entails affirming mankind as a remembering being. Because we can weave memory into story (into narrative), human beings are not reducible to mere victims of historical events. We are also capable, within limits, of responding to history in the ongoing effort to make it anew. (11)
THIS vital human function of memory, particularly in relation to the Holocaust, recurs in much of Hecht s poetry. To cite just three later instances from The Venetian Vespers (1979), the poem "Still Life" concludes with the "undetermined" photographic image of the poet during his wartime service in Germany (Hecht, Collected Earlier Poems 211). The image itself seems one of peace, which prompts the poet to wonder: what is the true narrative of which that image offers a mere timeless slice? A partial answer comes in the following poem, "Persistences," where Hecht suggests his role as a poet specifically is to remember, to memorialize, the victims of the Holocaust because their continuing presence as trauma cannot speak (they cannot speak because they are dead, but they cannot speak also because, presumably, as trauma, as forever-now-suffering persons, they could only issue a scream from their contorted mouths). Hecht acknowledges,
Mine is the task to find out words For their memorial sakes Who press in dense approaches, Blue numeral tattoos Writ crosswise on their arteries, The burning, voiceless Jews. (Collected Earlier Poems 212)
As "Still Life" exemplifies, Hecht's usual procedure in such memorializing is to insert images of poignancy or atrocity amid erstwhile beauty. So, in "House Sparrows," amid description of these birds in a sometimes elegant, sometimes light series of tropes, a far darker vision suddenly intrudes:
Those little shin-bones, hollow at the core, Emaciate finger-joints, those fleshless wrists, Wrapped in wrinkled, loose, rice-paper skin, As though the harvests of earth had never been, Where have we seen such frailty before? In pictures of Biafra and Auschwitz. (Collected Earlier Poems 215)
One can understand the temptation of conventional "ironic" criticism to presume that such imagery undermines the precedent images of beauty in the poems, and that it ironically negates the exquisite periods and formal stanzas of which Hecht is a modern master. But one must finally concede that Hecht focuses on the reality and consequences of the Holocaust not to ironize the humanistic vision that much of his poetry presents but to ensure that it is properly qualified. The affirmation of mankind as a political animal and of human life as grounded in narrative, memory, and hope, can only proceed if it is made along with the honest confession of human history as rife with the most repellent of outrageous, massive, and brutal acts.
The Holocaust as a foundational event for Hecht's writing inevitably penetrates even those poems primarily concerned with the nature of art, beauty, and humanity rather than with historical calamity. This dark insinuation is perhaps most evident in Hecht's early "Upon the Death of George Santayana," which locates an earlier humanistic tradition--of which Santayana is representative--in relation to both the Catholic theological tradition from which humanism directly derives and the post-War disillusionment with human history that the Holocaust precipitated. (12) The poem begins in the Italian nursing home, administered by nuns, where Santayana died in 1952. Its first two stanzas depict Santayana as the consummate modern humanist who recognizes his debt to Christianity as providing much of the imagery, literature, and intellectual form of Western thought, but who prefers the pagan Greeks. Christian art and thought may provide the categories of one's thinking, but the fathers of the West, the Greek humanists, provide a means of liberating oneself from the moral imperative Christianity imposes on the person as a servant of God. Santayana can therefore occupy what is literally and conceptually Christian space, while doing so as a pagan, as a secular humanist: materialist, uncommitted, cultured, and above all, appreciative of beauty as an immanent good indifferent to the Christian quest for redemption. The first stanza observes,
Down every passage of the cloister hung A dark wood cross on a white plaster wall; But in the court were roses, not as tongue Might have them, something of Christ's blood grown small, But just as roses, and at three o'clock Their essences, inseparably bouqueted, Seemed more than Christ's last breath, and rose to mock An elderly man for whom the Sisters prayed. (Collected Earlier Poems 56)
The "cloister," the combined convent and nursing home, saturates the senses with austere beauty, from the contrast of the cross on the wall to the redolence of roses. As Santayana knew, his secular humanist ethos was "inseparably" bound up with the august traditions of Christianity. What separated the two was humanism's refusal to accept those traditions as more than immanent interpretations projected onto experience. And so the tongue's interpretation of the roses--the desire of the homilist or devotional writer to see the roses in the garden as signs of things divine--is refused, and the roses remain just what they are. Their material form, identifiable with bodies (including the human body), is all to which Santayana need intellectually commit even though his cultivated sensibility may lightly choose to acknowledge the traditional or theological interpretations of those bodies. (13) The beautiful, as the aesthetic, remains indifferent to the compulsion of the Good as the cause of ethics. (14) However, the scent of the flowers, which becomes their "essence," their spirit or soul, refuses to remain inert. Hence the scent mocks Santayana much as do, by implication, the prayers of the Sisters for his soul. Refusing belief but indulging the beauties Christian faith made possible, Santayana is perpetually mocked, in his infirmity, with the refusal of belief to fade away. The body is a certitude given, but the soul is a haunting persistence.
The next stanza begins, "What heart can know itself?" which draws to the foreground the agnosticism at the heart of Santayana's highly aesthetic humanism, and also the uncertainty whether somewhere within the humanistic heart lies half-concealed a belief in what Santayana would have called the "supernatural," the divine. Indeed these two uncertainties underpin his humanism. He wishes for the beauty and satisfactions that the Christian faith has produced without having to assent to the faith itself. The pagan Greeks, as I have noted, serve as a compromise of sorts in this largely complacent vision:
Loving the Greeks, He whispered to a nun who strove to woo His spirit unto God by prayer and fast, "Pray that I go to Limbo, if it please Heaven to let my soul regard at last Democrites, Plato and Socrates." (Collected Earlier Poems 56)
Santayana does not wish to be condemned, a mere atheist, in the eyes of the nun, but he will not accept her soteriology either. The humanist bargains for Limbo, where he might not worship God the First and Final Cause, but might enjoy a graceful stasis in the company of those tolerant wranglers, the classical Greeks. In the prime of Santayana's life--the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries--he intended such a pagan, rationalistic, and aesthetic sensibility to shock the austere devotions of believing Catholics and the Puritanical utilitarianism of New England society. (15) By the time Hecht wrote this poem, however, another world had come to violent birth through the Holocaust--one that made the humanism and aestheticism of Santayana and Goethe seem naive or even frivolous. In the third stanza, Hecht depicts Santayana's wish coming true; he crosses over to the Limbo that, crucially, Dante had represented with such admiration and sympathy in the Inferno. The late philosopher
had not dreamed that so many had died. "But where is Alcibiades," he asked, "The golden roisterer, the animal pride?" (Collected Earlier Poems 56)
The storied figures of his reading and casual devotion are present, and he is ready to join their company. This one absence, however, is troubling.
IN Plato's Symposium, Alcibiades is the superlatively beautiful young man who desires Socrates because he alone can teach the youth wisdom. When he appears, drunk, near the end of the dialogue, Alcibiades relates his attempts to seduce Socrates, all of which fail because of Socrates' indifference to earthly beauty in consequence of his pursuit of the contemplation of Beauty Itself. (16) Even so, Socrates displays a high regard and disinterested affection for Alcibiades; this he expressed, as Alcibiades describes, in battle once, when Alcibiades had fallen, wounded. Socrates stood over him and fought off all would-be assailants (Plato, Symposium 220e). In Thucydides and Plutarch, Alcibiades' physical beauty is coupled with an irresistible but ambitious and erratic personality; he is an indomitable warrior and cunning general. He seduces, if only briefly, the public opinion of every polis through which he strays; but, because of his tendency to excite jealousy and to scandalize public morals with his behavior (he was indicted in Athens for sacrilege against the Eleusinian mysteries), he finds himself forced to play Athens, Sparta, and other city-states against each other to save his skin. (17) Plutarch observes that Alcibiades met his death either at the hands of political enemies or of brothers whose sister he had seduced and disgraced. Either way, they set his house on fire then filled him with arrows as he tried to make his escape, so afraid were they of confronting him in hand-to-hand combat (Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans 233-262). In response to Santayana's query after this ruined hero, Socrates steps forward and speaks
with a solemn mien, And all his wonderful ugliness was lit, "He whom I loved for what he might have been Freezes with traitors in the ultimate pit." (Hecht, Collected Earlier Poems 56)
Santayana considered Dante the greatest of the philosophical poets (as he makes clear in his Three Philosophical Poets, where he celebrates Dante above Goethe and Lucretius); and so, even if Hecht's own work were not otherwise smattered with appreciative allusions to, and conceptual borrowings from, the Tuscan, it would be unsurprising to see this depiction of Santayana's "afterlife" mapped on a Dantesque geography. (18) Socrates' final lines, however, are surprising at least insofar as they disenchant Santayana's desired Limbo in two ways. First, Alcibiades' absence indicates that even pagan humanism transcends a cultured aestheticism and has an ethical component. As the Symposium instructs, the end of love is the contemplation of Beauty, but as such it is also the Good. The beauty of the flesh--indeed, any immanent beauty--cannot be the proper end of human life. Socrates, with his legendary ugliness and his indifference to everything but the love of wisdom, suggests that the sacred beauty of the cloisters may be decisively higher than the merely secular beauty Santayana sought.
But, second, and much more devastating, the Alcibiades of the Symposium (whom Socrates loved) has been condemned because of the actions of the Alcibiades depicted in Thucydides and Plutarch. That is, the joyous and drunken dramatics of the Platonic dialogue are, finally, overwhelmed and cancelled by the erratic, bellicose arrogance of the historical Athenian general. Behind the comparatively innocent and inconsequential world of Athenians philosophizing and drinking the night away lies the constant war and devastation that the blind ambition of Alcibiades wrought against Athenians, Spartans, Sicilians, and Persians alike. He of course did, at times, betray Athens for his own survival, but his deeper betrayal is in demonstrating that power and violence have much greater influence on the shaping of history than do the pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Alcibiades "might" have manifested that singularly noble form of beauty where strength of body and wisdom of soul unite. Instead, he squandered his life in concupiscent and power-hungry pursuits that had bleak consequences for those left in the wake of his desire (among them, the destruction of Athens in the Peloponnesian War).
In this reminder of the violence of Alcibiades, we should discern Hecht's vision of a humanism far more sober than Santayana's. This is not to say that Santayana's was romantic or irrational; his was, on the contrary, a complex vision that sought to found the moral life upon concepts of culture and beauty, and to found both of those on the Catholic traditions in which Santayana could not himself believe. But whereas Santayana's humanism is based on materialism, building a beautiful culture on the void, the humanism that emerges from this poem concedes that it must be built upon, and in the shadow of, aboriginal violence, treason, and blood. (19)
Santayana's humanistic vision shared a great deal with that of his Harvard colleague, Irving Babbitt, the founder of the New Humanism movement; both of them affirmed life devoted to the self-disciplined contemplation of the Beautiful and the Good, but with the doctrinaire assumption that such contemplation has no real or final end. Hecht's darker incarnation of the humanistic spirit, though certainly distinct, resembles in many ways Babbitt's, as their shared interest in Voltaire suggests. Babbitt edited a selection of Voltaire's stories in English translation. (20) Hecht translated the philosophe's most sardonic expression of humanistic reason, "Poem Upon the Lisbon Disaster: Or, An Inquiry Into The Adage, 'All Is For The Best."' Santayana, Babbitt, and Voltaire in different ways modeled a humbled, agnostic form of humanism that did not assert the infinite potential or perfectibility of the human spirit, but rather sought to establish the value of human life and the limitations of human powers. (21) Hecht captures and shares in this spirit in his translation:
The past is but a memory of despair, The present ghastly if it points nowhere, If the grave enfolds our spirit with our dust. "Some day things will be well," there lies our trust. "All's well today," is but the Seconal Of the deluded; God alone knows all. With humble sighs, resigned to pain, I raise No shout or arrogant challenge to God's ways. (Collected Earlier Poems 176)
Voltaire intended to shock the Christian Deists of his day, with their brash attempts to carry into the realm of reason the perception of a perfectly just and ordered universe (existing in the present) that earlier Christians had always accepted as a mystery proper to the realm of faith, hope, and Providence (a perfection that is not but will be). So Santayana's atheist Catholicism scandalized the late-Victorian "Deists" of Boston Unitarianism along with, perhaps, the nuns who nursed him on his deathbed. Babbitt's humanism rejected Christian belief, even as it sought an ally in Catholicism; it mimicked the forms of Christian contemplation while making, as T. S. Eliot once observed, a dogma of emptying them of their particular doctrines (Eliot, Selected Essays 394).
HECHT'S humanism, by degree a radically chastened form of theirs, has quite another target and perhaps more circumscribed ambitions. The intellectual culture prevalent during the last decades of his life (those of his greatest poetic productivity) were marked not by an overweening confidence in human potential that needed only correction with reminders of human evil. Rather, during this time arose branches of thought that wholly accepted the death of poetry and reason before the absolute claims of suffering outlined in Adorno and Celan. The events of the Holocaust made possible, in other words, not simply outrage at moral evil, but also a calling into question of the very notions of human nature, reason, and dignity. Such thinkers, most famous among them perhaps Michel Foucault, introduced the possibility of a post-humanist age. In the long shadow of the Nazis' monomaniacal exercise of power, they rejected the foundational beliefs on which humanism (Christian or secular) was based, and sought to replace it with an archeology of the human, of "man," as a linguistic and cultural construct founded on nothing more permanent than individual historical exercises of power. On such a view, neither the words "human nature" nor indeed "man" can signify ontologically, but only as expressions within constructed systems of knowledge, and the redemption of the human from the evils of the Holocaust becomes simply the freeing of the self from all assumptions and pretensions of being grounded in any permanent ontological or ethical reality--a liberation that is also a silencing even more final than that to which Celan gave voice in his poems. Foucault concludes his anatomy of "man" in The Order of Things by saying to all those who would persist in "talk about man ... [that] we can answer only with a philosophical laugh--which means, to a certain extent, a silent one" (Foucault 342-343). (22)
As Hecht's "More Light!" and "Herod" suggest, even the most skeptical humanist accepts that the person has free will to act responsibly in society and history, in the political and in the story of his life; he plays, that is, a role in the drama of place and time, and the obvious historical contingency of his life is founded on a permanent, perhaps even necessary, set of dramatic and conceptual forms. But, as Arendt would emphasize, if the freedom of that role makes possible the dignity of man as a political, acting animal on a meaningful "stage," it also enables the human to indulge a propensity for radical evil. If human beings can act with freedom and responsibility, they seldom do. But for the post-humanist, the person appears as a mere node in which an array of highly contingent cultural forces happen to intersect. Human beings do not act, they are acted upon. Their wills are not free simply because the "will" is just one ideological construct among others to emerge from the nexus of forces. They cannot act for good or for evil, but only be avatars of power and suffering. Such a philosophy was, historically, founded on despair vaguely akin to that expressed in Celan's poems (which is not to say Celan was a post-humanist). But, for the post-humanist, because the human person is itself one "ideology" among others, even despair is no longer possible. One must rather redefine life as the liberation from all those acts of determination that make a particular person a particular person. This is not, for the post-humanist, a cause for joy, but it is a cause for jouissance: that nervous empirical fit of pleasure that need not have a unified intellect to experience it or an end in either Goodness, or Beauty, or Truth. From such a perspective, Hecht's poetic humanism may be dismissed with a smile as quaint, along with the Enlightenment variety whose "ideology of the subject" post-humanists take such joy in debunking. Humanism, in its elegant simplicity, could only appear thus to a mode of thought committed largely to the courting of paradox and sophistication in an endless critique of cultural powers that it presumes can never be defeated.
Hecht was aware of how his insistent moral humanism might appear, and was willing to hazard sounding like a brilliant humanistic curmudgeon in order to expose the naive egoism and merely self-indulgent anarchy that lies within the lucubrations of the post-humanists. In "A Lot of Night Music," he observes
Those laugh and rejoice At liberation from the bonds of gender, Race, morals and mind, As well as meter, rhyme and the human voice. Still others strive to render The cross-word world in perfectly declined Pronouns, starting with ME. (Collected Earlier Poems 124)
When one sees evil for what it is--i.e., evil--one shudders at the spectacle of those who say all ethics are ideology, all identity is self-deception, all law (including the "hidden" Law of Nature, the reality of justice, and even the idea of "Nature") a species of oppression and a trick of language. Moreover, as Hecht's poem indicates, post-humanists are disingenuous insofar as they proclaim the superannuation of the human being, human nature, and even the author or poet, while the identity of the post-humanist philosopher continues to appear like a little god above his work ("ME"), always outside and beyond the conditions he critiques and in which he believes everyone else to be trapped. Against such cultured mendacity, Hecht raises his well-wrought indignation:
Yet there are honest voices to be heard: The crickets keep their vigil Among the grass; in some invisible tree Anonymously a bird Whistles a fioritura, a light, vestigial Reminder of a time, An Aesopic Age when all the beasts were moral And taught their ways to men; Some herbal dream, some chlorophyll sublime In which Apollo's laurel Blooms in a world made innocent again. (Collected Earlier Poems 124)
The honest humanist knows that poetry and life alike depend upon the worth and intellect of the human person. And he senses, in large part of course because of humanism's lineal connection with Christianity, that the foundation of human worth and the meaning found in the intellect both rely upon a greater foundation--the sacred meaning and value of all things that exist, which derives from their being created. The humanist understands the human being to inhabit an intelligible world, where he is part of an economy of meaning that does not depend upon or derive from himself; indeed, it is the mark of intelligibility that the person learns to be human from the world outside him and of which he is a part. Hecht stopped well short of such a robustly theist position; or rather, his work would consistently stand in anguished interrogation of it, at once marveling and despairing before the achievements of Jewish and Christian belief and Western culture more generally.
IN the poems of Hecht's earlier period that we have examined, we witness his effort to construct a tenable humanism in the wake of the Holocaust. In his later work, especially in his prose, he embarks upon what can only be described as painful expeditions into the life and legacy of Christianity in the West, and he does so always from a clear Jewish and humanist perspective, and always with the specter of anti-semitism and systemic violence lingering nearby. His book-length study of W. H. Auden, The Hidden Law (1993), is marked by appreciative and generous readings of Auden's work, especially in its Christian "existentialist" and humanist dimensions. Only a decade later, however, he would qualify his docility before Auden's achievement insofar as it seemed to promote an arrogance about Christian "disinterested" prayer and love relative to other religions (Hecht, Melodies Unheard 140). In a sympathetic essay on Gerard Manley Hopkins' The Wreck of the Deutschland, Hecht would seem almost to identify with the Catholic convert and Jesuit who grappled, Job-like, with the mystery of unmerited suffering and the still deeper mystery that the "bliss that might be expected of conversion--the embracing of a newfound clarity, certainty, sanctity, and hope--cannot but be tainted to some degree if it must come at the price of the suffering of others" (Melodies Unheard 108). Hopkins' quest of piety at the cost of estrangement from his devout Anglican family exemplifies for Hecht the most profound and admirable mystery of the Cross of Christ, a mystery Hecht almost identifies with the mystery of poetry: the "impossible mixture of gladness and misery, horror and grace" (Melodies Unheard 111). Despite his admiration of Auden and Hopkins (and, elsewhere, T. S. Eliot) as explicitly Christian poets, Hecht's essay on "St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians" testifies strongly to his own Jewish identity, if not belief, and to his conviction that the gospel of love (as opposed to the Law) Paul preached is the central tenet of Christianity and is irremediably anti-Semitic. Drawing directly on Friedrich Nietzsche and other historical attacks on Paul's authority and honesty, Hecht indicates that, if Christianity must be understood as the mixture of love and suffering, as a Jew, he stands--estranged--with those who have been made to suffer in the name of that love (Melodies Unheard 244-245). (23)
As Hecht himself appreciated, if he was not to indulge a revilement of Christianity as a whole as severe as his evident loathing of St. Paul, the only position left to him was that of a humanist devoted to the mysteries of poetry and conscious of the troubling legacy apart from which those mysteries remain unintelligible (Melodies Unheard 250). Such an intellectual position is hardly reducible to the "afterlife" that Adorno and Celan illustrate regarding poetry, but it does share in their ambivalence as Jews toward modern Western civilization whose march of "progress" had often been used to justify mass slaughter. As a Jewish humanist, however, Hecht could at least give voice to dedicatory challenges ("More Light!"), impotent prayers ("It Out-Herods Herod"), sardonic denunciations of post-humanism, and, crucially, poetic evocations of a more innocent age. The ordered cadences of such verses point back insistently to that aboriginal moment when, un-obscured by the obscenity of human history, one might see the meaning that inheres in the loved world, the world that means because it was created by an intelligence on which the human intellect is itself modeled. In taking up the middle position of the post-War humanist, Hecht stands precariously between the post-humanist and the Christian, looking on each with apprehension. His poetry testifies to a knowledge of despair in the face of human evil, to a religious solidarity with its victims, and to a determined rising up from the sack cloth and ashes of memory and mourning in order to find not a still-darker hell or a still-emptier self, but a place where the mysteries of bliss and beauty might even now summon one to prayer.
Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P. 1997.
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Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. 5 vols. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Allen, TX: Christian Classics, 1981.
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998.
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Bloom, Alexander. Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals and Their World. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.
Brooks, Cleanth. The Well Wrought Urn. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.
Eliot, T. S. Selected Essays 1917-1932. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1932.
Finley, M. I., ed. The Portable Greek Historians. New York: Penguin, 1977.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage, 1994.
Hecht, Anthony. Collected Earlier Poems. New York: Knopf, 2001.
--. The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W. H. Auden. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.
--. Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry: Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2003.
--. "Personal Interview." The Formalist 15.1 (2004): 57-68.
Kirk, Russell. The Conservative Mind; From Burke to Eliot. 2nd rev. ed. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2001.
Maritain, Jacques. Art and Scholasticism and the Frontiers of Poetry. Trans. Joseph W. Evans. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962.
McClatchy, J.D., ed. The Vintage Book of Contemporary, World Poetry. New York: Vintage, 1996.
McGowan, John. Hannah Arendt: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1998.
McPhillips, Robert. The New Formalism: A Critical Introduction. Charlotte, NC: Volcanic Ash Books, 2003.
Plato. Complete Works. Ed. John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997.
Plutarch. The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Trans. John Dryden. New York: The Modern Library, n.d.
Santayana, George. Character and Opinion in the United States. New York: Norton, 1962.
--. The Essential Santayana. Ed. The Santayana Edition. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009.
--. Three Philosophical Poets. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1938. Tate, Allen. "Gentleman in a Dustcoat." The Sewanee Review 76.3 (July-September 1968): 375-381.
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(1) Hecht would interpret Adorno in this way when discussing W. H. Auden's observation, "Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry, but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot" (qtd. in Hecht, Melodies Unheard 135). Hecht disagrees with Auden, insisting that the suffering of the Cross is the source of profound poetry. Hecht also, therefore, disagrees with Adorno, though I suggest that he has misread him to some extent.
(2) Adorno writes, "For only what does not fit into this world is true" (Aesthetic Theory 59).
(3) This essay confines its attention to Hecht's earlier poetry with brief attention to his prose; his later poems will be the subject of a separate essay.
(4) Accounts of the New York Intellectuals are numerous, but an appropriate touchstone for understanding them in relation to the theme of this essay is Lionel Trilling's Matthew Arnold (1939). Cf. Alexander Bloom's Prodigal Sons: Tile New York Intellectuals and Their World (1986).
(5) Cf. John McGowan, Hannah Arendt: An Introduction 30-31.
(6) Arendt writes regarding the ancient Athenian understanding of the private and public realms:
In Greek self-understanding, to force people by violence, to command rather than persuade, were prepolitical ways to deal with people characteristic of life outside the polis, of home and family life, where the household head ruled with uncontested, despotic powers, or of life in the barbarian empires of Asia, whose despotism was frequently likened to the organization of the household. (The Human Condition 26-27)
(7) This ironical or paradoxical theory of poetic form emerged in the American modernist poetry that led to the rise of the New Criticism, such as that of T. S. Eliot and John Crowe Ransom (see Tate, "Gentleman in a Dustcoat" 377), and found most famous expression in Cleanth Brooks' investigations of poetic language in The Well Wrought Urn (see 3-21). It soon hardened into a convention among what are often called the 1950s or Academic Formalists of mid-century American poetry, among whom Anthony Hecht stands alongside Richard Wilbur, James Merrill, Donald Justice, and John Hollander as particularly distinguished representatives (see McPhillips, The New Formalism: A Critical Introduction 7-8). My argument acknowledges the centrality of irony to Hecht's highly formal verse, but refuses this as an exhaustive attribute of his work's meaning.
(8) In form and thematic movement, Hecht's poem closely follows W. H. Auden's "As I Walked Out One Evening." Hecht makes this debt plain in an essay he wrote reflecting on his study of Auden's poetry, "Paralipomena to The Hidden Law," where he traces the literary and folkloric sources of Auden's "pseudo-ballad or folksong" (Melodies Unheard 144). As is the case in "Herod," in Auden's poem, the conventions of fairytale villainy leap from fiction to the reality of historical evil:
The Nightmare becomes a surrealist parody of what we had hoped for, counted upon, above all been led, as children to expect. Beggars are in control of the banks; Jack [the Giant Killer], the boy's champion against paternal tyranny, now entertains a questionable sexual interest in one he was supposed heroically to slay; Jill turns prostitute, and the "Lily-white boy" is also borrowed from the realm of children's literature ... [and] becomes this nightmare's "Roarer" ... (Melodies Unheard 151)
As we shall see, the Audenesque transformation of popular art and children's literature into the materials for the representation of evil is a technique Hecht learned well from his master.
(9) Arendt explicitly condemns such a holding-back. The phenomenon of"radical evil" is that which "confronts us with its overpowering reality and breaks down all standards we know" (Origins 459).
(10) Here we find yet another striking analogue to Auden's "As I Walked Out One Evening," which Hecht contends concludes with a prayer even though Auden was not, at the time of writing the poem in 1937, a Christian: "even in these years of secular preoccupations, he had written poems that were unambiguously prayers, though it was not always clear to whom they were addressed" (Melodies Unheard 152). The same holds for Hecht's poem, given his Jewish upbringing but explicitly Christian terminology for his prayer; we shall turn to his religious ambivalence below.
(11) Arendt discusses at length this anthropology of mankind as a political animal who is also fundamentally a story-telling animal (The Human Condition 97, 181-188). The sole resource this story-telling animal has for flourishing is the capacity to promise and to forgive; that is, to reconcile present to past and to orient oneself in the present to a particular kind of future over which one has no control but into which one is inexorably directed (The Human Condition 236-247).
(12) It is worth noting that Santayana was also an exegete of Goethe, subjecting his romanticism to a critique that closely resembles Hecht's more elliptical and darker criticism in "More Light!" See George Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets 127-178.
(13) Santayana frequently gave sympathetic voice to the traditions of Christian Platonism in his literary criticism and philosophical writings. But while the reality of the materialist universe was undeniable and accepted by an "animal faith" (Santayana, The Essential Santayana xxxiv, 96), any ideals we choose to build upon the flux of matter remain precisely a choice, an option akin to that of aesthetic sensibility rather than of obedience to moral law (Santayana, The Essential Santayana 555).
(14) We can grapple with the notion of the Good and the Beautiful as transcendental properties of Being that Santayana refuses to identify in the terms Aristotle provides in Metaphysics 1078a and Nichomachean Ethics 1094a. For Aristotle, the Good compels conduct; it is the cause of action aimed at it. The Beautiful would appear to be a kind of good, but it evidently is not associated with conduct or action. Thomas Aquinas would press this analysis and treat beauty as a kind of good; see Summa Theologica I-II, 27, 1 (Cf. Jacques Maritain Art and Scholasticism and the Frontiers of Poetry 26, 167-171). Santayana would also identify beauty and goodness, but as subjective ideals rather than as realities; reality, he believed, was restricted to the natural or to matter.
(15) This critical theme runs through much of Santayana's writing, most obviously in Character and Opinion in the United States and The Genteel Tradition at Bay.
(16) Plato, Symposium 212e-222c in John M. Cooper, ed., Plato: Complete Works (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997).
(17) For Alcibiades' supposed desecration of the Mysteries, see Thucydides VI.28-29 in Finley 313-314.
(18) It is possible that Hecht refers not only to Dante's Divine Comedy, but also to Plato's "divine comedy" in Book X of the Republic. Socrates concludes that dialogue with the "tale of Er" which describes a pagan netherworld that Santayana knew well (his Life of Reason [1906-1907] is a modern materialist's defense of Platonic and Aristotelian thought). As Socrates relates, Er learns that the souls of the deceased suffer for each offense against justice they committed in life:
For each in turn of the unjust things they had done and for each in turn of the people they had wronged, they paid the penalty ten times over, once in every century of their journey... If, for example, some of them had caused many deaths by betraying cities or armies and reducing them to slavery or by participating in other wrongdoing, they had to suffer ten times the pain they had caused to each individual. (Plato, Republic 615b in Complete Works).
Er lacks the topographic specificity of Dante's account of Hell, however; thus, Hecht's phrase "ultimate pit" would suggest he has Dante rather than Socrates in mind, as would the more obvious resemblance of the scene as a whole to that which Dante encounters in the circle of the "virtuous pagans" in Inferno IV.
(19) Russell Kirk gives a vivid and penetrating account of Santayana's conservative, anti-romantic materialism:
Spirit lives only through matter; divine purpose, which we delineate in our myths, is real, but manifested only in natural ways; nothing is immortal, not even the forms of beauty to which Santayana's books are devoted ... Christianity, productive of so much virtue and beauty, has no enemy in him. But he cannot subscribe with his reason to these venerable orthodoxies. All things perish, the most ancient opinions among them, and the philosopher will smile tolerantly at progress and decay, content with the immense variety of character and phenomena. (444)
(20) See Babbitt's edition of Voltaire, Zadig, and Other Stories (1905).
(21) How far we may associate these three depends in part on which aspects of Voltaire's writings we choose to attend.
(22) It is clear that Foucault, or at least his many readers, seems to view the superannuation of the historical concept of man as a liberation, an opening up of pure possibility, much as an earlier century saw the thought of Martin Luther or Descartes as the opening up of a new freedom, whether of faith or of mind. Foucault concludes Order by noting "the archeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end" (387). He does not speak of violent annihilation, but rather of a new freedom, a "sense of the possibility ... that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea" (387). The mutability of this silent, inscribed face of "man" is not forecast as a death but as, again, a moment when new orders of power and ideology may give to what was mankind a new birth.
(23) I witnessed Hecht's Nietzschean resentment of Christianity in person at the 2004 West Chester University Poetry Conference. Hecht participated in a panel on Religion and Poetry, during which he recited some of the more gruesome punishments found in Dante's Hell and asked rhetorically whether these were instances of Christian mercy. It is consistent with my findings here that we could hold up Dante, a poet he evidently admires and draws upon in his work, as also an instance of the sort of hatred he attributes to St. Paul. In such moments we see where his thought most closely resembles that of Adorno, but also the way in which he most distinguishes himself: in brief. Hecht's capacity to render this radical ambivalence fruitful owes much to his conception of humanism as a project to be begun again in hope.
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|Author:||Wilson, James Matthew|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
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