Sunday, 26 September 2010

Josipovici and Lucy

I've been reading about Gabriel Josipovici’s new book, Whatever Happened to Modernism?, including an article by him in the New Statesman, and now I've got the book. I've been trying to formulate what I think about it all but am still too muddled to manage a general comment.

In general, though, for Josipovici, Modernism and its predecessors (back to Cervantes and Rabelais) was a response to the ‘disenchantment of the world’ that came with the loss of the certainties of the medieval world. Moderns works were attempts to retrieve whatever was retrievable or at least to give voice to the sense of loss. (That’s a very crude provisional formulation: the argument is far more complex and subtle than that.)

Wordsworth was one who, if I understand Josipovici aright, managed such a retrieval. Josipovici first speaks of Wordsworth’s Boy of Winander who ‘“was taken from his mates, and died/ In childhood, ere he was full twelve years old.”’ He says (p.57)

To arrive at that point he must also have understood that dying in childhood, far from being a mere accident, was the boy's destiny; or, to put it more neutrally, that death and life form part of the same warp and weft and must be grasped as one. That this is what the poem, at its deepest, is saying is confirmed by another group of poems written in those miraculous years, the so-called 'Lucy' poems, especially the greatest and most compressed of them:

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

Lucy, we learn from the other poems in the cycle, died, like the Boy of Winander, while still a child. What this poem asserts and the others merely hint at is that by dying she fulfilled herself and that now in death she really is what the poet always sensed her to be, as mortal and immortal as the earth itself. Wonderfully, he conveys that this is a dynamic, not a static state: she is not beneath the earth but, like the rocks and stones and trees, 'rolled round in earth's diurnal course’... (57)

On the issue of interpretation, I'm not sure he’s right: the poet might rather be despairing that Lucy is now nothing more than the rocks and stones, in contrast with the shining star that she had been in ‘She dwelt among th’untrodden ways’ (‘Fair as a star, when only one/ Is shining in the sky’). In that preceding poem, after all, he ends ‘But she is in her Grave, and Oh!/ The difference to me.’

But if the speaker believes (rather than is trying to convince himself) that Lucy is ‘as mortal and immortal as the earth itself’ and that ‘death and life form part of the same warp and weft and must be grasped as one’, he doesn’t comfort me in my own secure conviction that an individual human life is a flash in the pan and isn’t part of anything larger, except as a component of ‘Gaia’ or as minutely affecting the earth’s ecology. Nor do I understand what such a belief would be like.

I'm touched, rather, by the fine vision of the unity of life and death -- all rolled round together on the planet; it affects me though I don’t buy it intellectually; so that whether or not the speaker, or Wordsworth, really believes it it is irrelevant to me as a reader of poetry.

I recognise that, in the crudity of my 21st century sensibility, I don’t feel with any great force a sense of loss and deprivation at not living in an ‘enchanted’ world of spiritual certainties, though, if Modernism springs from that sense, as experienced by artists, musicians, poets and writers who feel more deeply than me, then its works touch me nevertheless.

But when Josipovici says (p.55) that ‘art, in the hands of the greatest masters [such as Wordsworth], will always find a way out of the impasses philosophy and cultural history reveal’, I need more convincing -- at least in relation to philosophy. Whatever it is that art does, I doubt if it’s that, I'm afraid, attractive though the idea is.

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