Bleak doctrine

Terry Eagleton, writing in the London Review of Books recently:

[T]he Romantic poet's richly particularised voice is largely a way of giving tongue to the transcendent. From Wordsworth to D.H. Lawrence, one speaks most persuasively when one articulates what is not oneself, whether one calls this Nature or the creative imagination, the primary processes or the dark gods. The self runs down to unfathomably anonymous roots. Men and women emerge as unique beings through a medium (call it Geist, History, Language, Culture or the Unconscious) that is implacably impersonal. What makes us what we are has no regard for us at all. At the very core of the personality, so the modern age holds, vast, anonymous processes are at work. Only through a salutary repression or oblivion of these forces can we achieve the illusion of autonomy. Anonymity is the condition of identity.

It is this bleak doctrine that Modernism will inherit, as a cult of impersonality takes over from the clapped-out Romantic ego. For Romanticism, the self and the infinite merge in the act of imaginative creation. To surrender oneself to dark, unknowable powers is to become all the more uniquely oneself. One must lose one's life in order to find it. For one strain of Modernism, by contrast, the self is displaced by the very forces which constitute it—unhoused, scooped out, decentred and dispossessed. We are no more than the anonymous bearers of myth, tradition, language or literary history. The only way the self can leave its distinctive thumb-print, from Flaubert to Joyce, is in the fastidiously distancing style by which it masks itself. Language itself may be authorless; but style, as Roland Barthes claims in Writing Degree Zero, plunges straight to the visceral depths of the self.

Yes. My sentiments exactly.


13 thoughts on “Bleak doctrine

  1. I wasn't quite sure how valid this review was until I saw the word 'geist'. You have to hand it to the man....it must have been difficult writing all that with his head up his own arse....

  2. "Giving tongue to the transcendent." Wow. For some reason I am reminded of cards in phoneboxes.

  3. It was a bet. I'll bet it was.

    "Bet you can't use the hundred most pretentious words in one review" said someone, and so he did.

    One of my friends had "washing machine" in an A-level chemistry answer on the same basis.

  4. Yoghurt,

    At school, we used to have competitions to see who could slip the word 'carrot' unnoticed into their homework. It was generally admitted that I won hands-down by getting the word into my maths homework... I left my exercise book at school, so had to do my homework on paper. To show whose homework it was, I wrote my name as 'R.L. Carrot' at the top of the page.

    Actually, I tell a lie: I went to a posh school - we didn't do homework; we did prep.

  5. Does that mean, in strange cryptic style, that three letters out of seven are right, making it "Leo"? Or am I just imagining that you would attempt to pull a "telling you but not telling" type of trick?

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