To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
.......................................again
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Reconfiguring Romanticism (29): Octavio Paz on Modernity and Romanticism

Translated by Eliot Weinberger

[From “Poetry and Modernity,” the Tanner Lecture on Human Values, University of Utah, October 18-20, 1989. The complete lecture is available at http://www.tannerlectures.utah.edu/lectures/Paz98.pdf]

The subject I would like to explore — poetry and modernity — is composed of two terms whose relationship to each other is far from clear. The poetry of this fin de siècle is simultaneously a beneficiary of the poetic movements of modernity, from romanticism to the avant-garde, and a repudiation of them. Nor is it obvious what we mean by the word modernity. Its meanings are elusive and changing: the modern is, by its nature, transitory; “contemporary” is a quality that vanishes as soon as we name it.

There are as many modernities and antiquities as there are epochs and societies: the Aztecs were moderns compared to the Olmecs, as Alexander was to Amenophis IV. The “modernist” poetry of Rubén Darío was an antique for the ultraists, and futurism now strikes us more as a relic than an aesthetic. The modern age cannot help but be tomorrow’s antiquity, But for the moment we have to resign ourselves and accept that we live in the modern age, conscious of the fact that the label is both ambivalent and provisional. What does this word modernity mean? When did it begin?

Some believe that it began with the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the discovery of the Americas; others claim that it began with the birth of the nation-states and the institution of banking, the rise of mercantile capitalism, and the creation of the bourgeoisie; others emphasize the scientific and philosophical revolutions of the seventeenth century, without which we would have neither our technology nor our industries. Each of these opinions is partially correct; taken together they form a coherent explanation. For that reason, perhaps, most cultural historians tend to favor the eighteenth century: not only did it inherit these changes and innovations, it also consciously recognized many of those characteristics that we now claim as ours. Was that age a prefiguration of the one we live in today? Yes and no. It would be more precise to say that ours has been the era of the mutilation of the ideas and projects of that great century.

Modernity began as a critique of religion, philosophy, morality, law, history, economics, and politics. Criticism was its most distinctive feature, its birthmark. All that has been the modern age has been the work of criticism, which I take to mean a method of investigation, creation, and action. The principal concepts and ideas of the modern age — progress, evolution, revolution, freedom, democracy, science, technology — were born from that criticism.

In the eighteenth century reason shaped the criticism of the world and of itself, thereby radically transforming classical rationalism and its timeless geometries. A criticism of itself: reason renounced those grandiose constructions called being, good, and truth; it ceased to be the mansion of ideas and became instead a road, a means of exploration. A criticism of metaphysics and of its truths that were impermeable to change: Hume and Kant. A criticism of the world, of the past and present; a criticism of certainties and traditional values; a criticism of institutions and beliefs, the throne and the altar; a criticism of mores, a reflection on passion, sensibility, and sexuality: Jean- Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot, Pierre Laclos, the Marquis de Sade; the historical criticism of Edward Gibbon and Montesquieu; the discovery of the other: Chinese, Persians, American Indians; the changes of perspective in astronomy, geography, physics, biology. In the end, a criticism that was incarnated in history: the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the independence movements of the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. (For reasons I have discussed in other writings, the revolutions for independence in Spanish and Portuguese America failed both politically and socially. Our modernity is incomplete or, more exactly, is a historical hybrid.)

It is no accident that these great revolutions, the roots of modern history, were inspired by eighteenth-century thought. It was an age rich with utopias and projects for social reform. It has been said that those utopias are the most disastrous aspect of that legacy. Yet we can neither ignore nor condemn them: although many horrors have been committed in their name, we owe them nearly all the humanitarian acts and dreams of the modern age. The utopias of the eighteenth century were the great ferment that set in motion the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Utopia is the other face of criticism, and only a critical age could be the inventor of utopias. The empty spaces created by the demolitions of the critical spirit are almost always filled by utopian constructions. Utopias are the dreams of reason. Active dreams that turn into revolutions and reforms. The preeminence of utopias is another characteristic feature of the modern age. Each era may be identified by its vision of time, and in ours the continual presence of revolutionary utopias testifies to the exaggerated regard we have for the future. The past was no better than the present: perfection is not behind us but ahead; it is not an abandoned paradise but a territory we will someday colonize, a city that remains to be built.

Christianity replaced the cyclical vision of time of Greco-Roman antiquity with a time that was linear, successive, and irreversible; one with a beginning and an end, from the Fall of Adam and Eve to the Final Judgment. Alongside this mortal and historical time there was another, supernatural time, invulnerable to death and change: eternity. Thus the only truly decisive moment of terrestrial history was the Redemption: the descent and sacrifice of Christ represents the intersection of eternity and temporality, the successive and moral time of man and the time of the beyond, which neither changes nor moves in succession, forever identical to itself. The modern age began with the criticism of Christian eternity and the appearance of yet another time. On the one hand, the finite time of Christianity, with its beginning and end, became the nearly infinite time of nature’s evolution and of history that remained open to the future. On the other, modernity devalued eternity: perfection was transported to a future that was not in the other world but in this one. In the famous image of G. W. F. Hegel, the rose of reason was crucified in the present. History, he said, is a calvary: the transformation of the Christian mystery into historical action. The road to the absolute passes through time; it is time. Perfection resides in the future and is forever ahead of us. Changes and revolutions are incarnations of the human drive toward the future and its paradises.

The relation between romanticism and modernity is both filial and contentious. Romanticism was the child of the age of criticism, and change prompted its conception and birth and was its distinguishing feature. It was the great change not only in the arts and letters, but also in imagination, sensibility, taste, and ideas. It was a morality, an eroticism, a politics, a way of dressing and a way of loving, a way of living and of dying. A rebellious child, romanticism was a criticism of rational criticism; it replaced successive historical time with a time of origin, before history, and the utopian future with the instantaneous present of the passions, love and the flesh. Romanticism was the great negation of modernity as it had been conceived in the eighteenth century by critical, utopian, and revolutionary reason. But it was a negation that remained within modernity. Only an age of criticism could have produced such a total negation.

Romanticism coexisted with modernity, time after time merging with it only in order to transgress it. These transgressions assumed many forms but only two modes: analogy and irony. I take the first to mean “the vision of the universe as a system of correspondences and the vision of language as a double of the universe." It is a very ancient tradition, reelaborated and transmitted by Renaissance Neoplatonism through various hermetic traditions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Having nourished the philosophical and libertine sects of the eighteenth century, it was recognized by the romantics and their followers through to our own era. It is the central, albeit underground, tradition of modern poetry, from the first romantics to William Butler Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, and the surrealists. Simultaneous to this vision of universal correspondence, its enemy-twin appeared: irony. It was the rip in the fabric of analogies, the exception that ruptured the correspondences. If analogy may be conceived as a fan which, unfolded, displays the resemblances between this and that, microcosm and macrocosm, stars, men, and worms, then irony tears the fan to pieces. Irony is the dissonance that disrupts the concert of the correspondences, turning it into cacophony. Irony has many names: it is the anomaly, the deviation, the bizarre, as Baudelaire called it. In a word, it is that great accident: death.

Analogy steeps itself in myth; its essence is rhythm, the cyclical time of appearances and disappearances, deaths and resurrections. Irony is the coming of criticism to the kingdom of imagination and sensibility; its essence is linear time which leads to death — the death of both man and the gods. Twin transgressions: analogy replaces the linear time of history and the canonization of the utopian future with the cyclical time of myth; irony, in turn, sheds mythic time in order to affirm the lapses in contingency, the plurality of gods and myths, the death of God and his creatures. The twin ambiguities of romantic poetry: it was revolutionary, but it occurred alongside, not as part of, the revolutions of the century; at the same time, its spirituality was a transgression of the Christian denominations. The history of modern poetry, from romanticism to symbolism, is the history of various manifestations of the two principles by which it has been composed since its birth: analogy and irony.