Sunday, July 22, 2007
some versions of pastoral
his appearances on each take on a different character
William Empson's Some Versions of Pastoral manages to be a book about organised mendacity that avoids reproducing the overwrought tone that distinguishes, almost without exception, the successors of Friedrich Nietzsche. It worked this way, at least acording to Empson:
"The essential trick of the old pastoral, which was felt to imply a beautiful relation between rich and poor, was to make simple people express strong feelings (felt as the most universal subject, something fundamentally true about everybody) in learned and fashionable language (so that you wrote about the best subject in the best way). From seeing the two sorts of people combined lime this you thought better of both; the best parts of both were used. The effect was in some degree to combine in the reader or author the merits of the two sorts; he was made to mirror in himself more completely the effective elements of the society he lived in. This was not a process that you could explain in the course of writing pastoral; it was already shown by the clash between style and theme, and to make the clash work in the right way (not become funny) the writer must keep up a firm pretence that he was unconscious of it."
Pastoral was always for the rich. So another way of describing its effect is that it refuses to present a particular figure, that of the poor man deformed by the politics of the rich; and it's to this end that the poor are imagined how the rich ought to be. Empson is, effectively, reproducing the logic of psychoanalysis without its presuppositions, to the effect that pastoral can be said to be built around the repression of this idea of the poor being cramped or injured by these politics.
(applied psychoanalysis was then in vogue: "Ernest Jones' essay on Hamlet, which may perhaps have caused Mr Eliot to jettison the play in his later essay, brought out a very far-reaching use of double-plot methods and introduced at least one valuable technical term; in "decomposition" "one person of complex character is dissolved and replaced by several, each of whom possesses a different aspect of the character which in the simpler form of the myth is combined in one being".)
Consequently, where the statement of class distinctions is inevitable, it's normal to show the poor as an idealised version of the rich, so that for either group the personality appears to be formed according to a logic that's indifferent to politics. It could be done another way; if class distinctions weren't stressed, a similar feeling could be produced by showing an extravagant degree of difference.
Empson describes a genre that gives pleasure, or more properly happiness, since pastoral is aligned with stoicism, or represents a more decorative version of it. It's also close to the effect of modern media in that (what we could call) its "first movement" is to invite condescension.
In any case, this is Empson's discussion of the emergance of the "independant individual" of bourgeois society, in relation to the sonnet "I am a little world..." of John Donne that:
"though without indifference to a universal right and wrong, takes the soul as isolated and independent; it is viewed as the world in the new astronomy, a small sphere, complete in itself, safe from interference, in the middle distance. The idea that you can get right away to Americs, that human affairs are not organized round one certainly right authority (e.g. the Pope) is directly compared to the new idea that there are other worlds like this one, so that the inhabitants of each can live in their own way. These notions carried a considerable weight of implication, because they lead at once to a doubt either of the justice or uniqueness of Christ. It was bad enough when all the Chinese were certain of hell because they had not been told of the appearance of the Messiah, but to damn all inhabitants of other planets on this count was intolerable. On the other hand, if Christ went to all the planets his appearances on each take on a different character; it is a more symbolical matter, and you can apply the ideas about Christ to anyone who seems worthy of it. This was in fact done, though with an air of metaphor. Beyond that heaven which was most high adds that heaven, if it is there at all, is now safely far off; it is difficult to reach across from either side."