9. (Yvor Winters)

Pierre Bourdieu, in a passage from Distinction, gets a few things slightly wrong but one thing immensely right:

To be able to play the games of culture with the playful seriousness which Plato demanded, a seriousness without the “spirit of seriousness”, one has to belong to the ranks of those who have been able, not necessarily to make their whole existence a sort of children’s game, as artists do, but at least to maintain for a long time, sometimes a whole lifetime, a child’s relation tot he world….This is clearly seen when, by an accident of social genetics, into the well-policed world of intellectual games there comes one of those people (one thinks of Rousseau or Chernyshevsky) who bring inappropriate stakes and interests into the games of culture; who get so involved in the game that they abandon the margin of neutralizing distance that the illusion (belief in the game) demands; who treat intellectual struggles, the object of so many pathetic manifestos, as a simple question of right and wrong, life and death. This is why the logic of the game has already assigned them roles—eccentric or boor—which they will play despite themselves in the eyes of those who know how to stay within the bounds of the intellectual illusion and who cannot see them any other way.

This does an injustice to a great many poets by conflating them with their bourgeois admirers; the poets are more often aligned with the boors and eccentrics in finding the game to be a matter of right and wrong, life and death (hardly a “simple” question even for the most boorish), even when they would feel a tingle of embarrassment at joining the chorus of boors and eccentrics in proclaiming it.  But some feel no such embarrassment and instead take pride. Hear the voice of the radical conservative, Geoffrey Hill, in a youthful talk at Leeds: And it seems to me that the poets one trusts most are those who seem to suggest that art is the totality of our life and simultaneously to admit that art has no connection with life. I accept both halves of the paradox as being absolutely true. That is why it is a paradox.

The poets, eccentrics and boors would have to be mad not to know that it is a game; but they know also what many of their readers do not, could not, would not, which is that the game is a matter of right and wrong, life and death. Not all children play at games the same way; the most zealously imaginative are capable of stunning tantrums when their illusions of play are disrupted, mocked, or discarded as of no real significance.

Yvor Winters as a child: that strains the imagination. He might be the one insisting on joining in the imaginative ventures only to drag his feet through the foliage complaining that the fort of trees is insufficiently barricaded, that the squirrels are of the wrong size for the enemy, and that the entire scenario is shoddily derivative of a morning cartoon. And he would not limit his complaints to the endeavors of others. But once in a while too, he would thrill as none other could thrill; the game to him would be more real, the hope for it to succeed more urgent, and the demand that it succeed more eloquent than that of the other children.

Winters is a prince among the eccentrics and boors of twentieth-century criticism; recognizing it is the first step in appreciating what his criticism has to offer–the spirit of the critical undertaking itself. Only then can some principles of the undertaking be appreciated and taken up for current purposes.

He most consistently and articulately erected his criticism upon a edifice of rational principles, which, in its chilled aloofness, might seem to preclude spirit:

Poetry, as nearly as I can understand it, is a statement in words about a human experience, whether the experience be real or hypothetical, major or minor; but it is a statement of a particular kind. Words are symbols for concepts, and the philosopher or scientist endeavors as far as may be to use them with reference to nothing save their conceptual content. Most words, however, connote feelings and perceptions, and the poet, like the writer of imaginative prose, endeavors to use them with reference not only to their denotations but to their connotations as well. Such writers endeavor to communicate not only concepts, arranged, presumably, either in rational order or in an order apprehensible by the rational mind, but the feeling or emotion which the rational content ought properly to arouse.

This sketch is adequate not only to understanding Winters’ work as a critic, but to understanding that much greater critic, Empson. It helps us see also where Empson excelled Winters: in accepting, and zealously seeking after, the conflicts within acts of communication, held in calming order by literature, and in assuming complexity of feelings, experiences, and language. Empson, like Winters, believes staunchly in rational criticism and in rational literature; but his conception of the rational was more generous than Winters’.  And Empson, like Eliot, believed that literature could communicate before being understood; Winters would have held such a view to be folly.

But none of these principles goes to show that Winters is, at heart, a boor or eccentric.  The spirit of Winters’ criticism reveals itself elsewhere. “Terry Comito is surely right to say that there is no passage in modern criticism more moving (or more flagrantly in breach of academic convention) than the pages in which Winters contrasts Professor X, who toys with irrationalist theories of literature, to Crane, who took such notions seriously enough to live them out to their logical conclusion.” Donald Davie’s words; and I agree with Davie (and Comito). There are few things as moving in modern criticism as Winters’ “The Bridge of Hart Crane, or ‘What are we to think of Professor X?'” [Abolish Marvel from the mind] Winters had been in correspondence with Crane, had spent a few evenings in conversation with him, a couple of years before Crane’s suicide; I imagine he knew Crane was gay, and he might not have been comfortable with this (he probably wasn’t), but I don’t read the essay’s criticisms of Crane’s poetry as a veiled homophobic reaction (though I also don’t want to deny the erotic overtones and undertones of the essay)–Winters saw in Crane a manifestation of those Emersonian doctrines that he reviled. I will quote at some length from the pertinent pages of the essay:

The Emersonian doctrine, which is merely the romantic doctrine with a New England emotional coloration, should naturally result in madness if one really lived it; it should result in literary confusion if one really wrote it. Crane accepted it; he lived it; he wrote it; and we have seen what he was and wrote. 

Professor X says, or since he is a gentleman and scholar, he implies, that Crane was merely a fool, that he ought to have known better. But the fact of the matter is, that Crane was not a fool. I knew Crane, as I know Professor X, and I am reasonably certain that Crane was incomparably the more intelligent man…So far as I am concerned, I would gladly emulate Odysseus, if I could, and go down to the shadows for another hour’s conversation with Crane on the subject of poetry; whereas, politeness permitting, I seldom go out of my way to discuss poetry with Professor X.

Professor X, as a sentimentalist, is inclined to speak of the magic of poetry; he uses the term ‘magic’ in a figurative sense which he has probably never endeavored to define. There is something supernatural about poetry, however, in a simple, literal and theological sense, which Professor X in all likelihood has seldom considered. In poetry one mind acts directly upon another, without regard to “natural” law, the law of chemistry or of physics. Furthermore, the action is not only an action by way of idea, but by way of emotion and moral attitude; it is both complex and elusive. Poetry is a medium by means of which one mine may to a greater or less extent take possession of another, almost in the sense in which the term ‘possession’ is used in demonology…If we enter the mind of a Crane, a Whitman, or an Emerson with our emotional faculties activated and our reason in abeyance, these writers may possess us as surely as demons were once supposed to possess the unwary, as surely as Whitman possessed Crane, as surely as Whitman and Emerson were possessed by their predecessors. If we come to these writers with all our faculties intact, however; if we insist on understanding what they are but what they are not; we can profit by what they may have to offer and at the same time escape being bemused by their limitations…If we can isolate that which is good, these writers offer us something positive, however little in actual bulk; they offer us limited regions in which they may actually aid us to grow, to come to life.

Aquinas tells us that a demon may be said to be good in so far as he may be said to exist; that he is a demon in so far as his existence is incomplete. This statement is a necessary part of the doctrine of evil as deprivation. But a demon, or a genius, may be almost wholly deprived of being in large areas in which theoretically he ought to exist, and at the same time may have achieved an extraordinary degree of actuality in the regions in which he does exist; and when this happens, his persuasive power, his possessive power, is enormous, and if we fail to understand his limitations he is one of the most dangerous forces in the universe. Our only protection against him is the critical faculty, of which, I fear, we have far too little. The difference here, between Crane and Professor X, is not that Professor X possesses a wider intelligence, for we have seen that he does not, but that he possess a less intensely active intelligence. The difference, I believe, is this: that Crane was absolutely serious and Professor X is not serious. Professor X is not restrained by the cast-iron habits which held Emerson in position, but he does not need to be; he is a man who conforms easily. He conforms to established usages because he finds life pleasanter and easier for those who do so; and he is able to approve of Emerson because he never for a moment realized that literature could be more than a charming amenity. He believes that we should not be too critical of literature; that we should try to appreciate as much literature as possible; and that such appreciation will cultivate us. Professor X once reproved me for what he considered my contentiousness by telling me that he himself had yet to see the book that he would be willing to quarrel over…His position is that of the dilettante: the nearest thing he has to a positive philosophy is something to which he would never dare commit himself; that which keeps him in order is a set of social proprieties which he neither understands nor approves… [More Emerson discussed, in relation to Professor X]

Crane, however, had the absolute seriousness which goes with genius and with sanctity; one might describe him as a saint of the wrong religion. He had not the critical intelligence to see what was wrong with his doctrine, but he had the courage of his convictions, the virtue of integrity, and he deserves our respect. He has the value of a thoroughgoing demonstration. He embodies perfect the concepts which for nearly a century have been generating some of the most cherished principles of our literature, our education, our politics, and our personal morals. If Crane is too strong a dose for us, and we must yet retain the principles which he represents, we may still, of course, look to Professor X as a model. But we shall scarcely get anything better unless we change our principles.

Winters, in these passages, is pale-faced and trembling…but with what? With ache of sadness; with bitterness, even rage, against Crane; with horror at a whole line of thought and feeling of which Crane is a part; with unspoken sexual anxieties perhaps; with vitriolic hatred for the conforming dilettante consumer of poetry, for his colleagues, for the fraud they commit; with harrowed fear for the power that poetry has not only over men and women in general, but also, more terribly, over Winters himself. Winters rejects those who play “the game of culture”–and he rejects even more vehemently those who would say it is only a “game” or who would fail to see that, game though it might be, it is a game with stakes of life and (for Crane, especially, in Winters’ view) death. Appreciate this, and come to appreciate better that Winters’ wariness of so many poems so many of us cherish and relish was due to a susceptibility to their forces, to a faith that such poems are possessed of forces capable of possessing and directing lives; rational criticism, zealously applied, is the only defense–the defense of reason. If he was too strict in its application, too unforgiving in his judgments, it is because he feared the consequences of too much leniency, feared what he might let through to himself. His words turn and face him:

If we can isolate that which is good, these writers offer us something positive, however little in actual bulk; they offer us limited regions in which they may actually aid us to grow, to come to life.

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