May 3, 2006

1. E. E. Cummings

I recently stumbled across a charming poem by the American poet E. E. Cummings. It’s called “Maggie and Milly and Molly and May.”

Maggie and Milly and Molly and May
Went down to the beach (to play one day)

And Maggie discovered a shell that sang
So sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles, and

Milly befriended a stranded star
Whose rays five languid fingers were;

And Molly was chased by a horrible thing
Which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and

May came home with a smooth round stone
As small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
It’s always ourselves we find in the sea.

Students of Jung will notice the stone, the roundness of the stone, and the idea of finding oneself; in Jung’s work, the stone and the circle are symbols of the self. Click here for a reading of this poem, here for Cummings’ own reading of his poem “I Carry You in My Heart.”

Cummings grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the early 1900s. His father was a Harvard professor. “Cummings decided to become a poet when he was still a child. Between the ages of eight and twenty-two, he wrote a poem a day, exploring many traditional poetic forms.”1B Cummings was influenced by avant-garde poets like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, and his own poetry is known for its quirky, unconventional style. Cummings was a painter as well as a poet; he admired avant-garde painters like Picasso.

His first book, published in 1922, was The Enormous Room, which dealt with his experience in prison during World War I. Critics were enthusiastic about The Enormous Room; John Dos Passos wrote,

in a style infinitely swift and crisply flexible, an individual not ashamed of his loves and hates, great or trivial, has expressed a bit of the underside of History with indelible vividness.

2. Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits: Sonnet 18

The first 17 sonnets urge Southampton to marry (to marry the granddaughter of Lord Burghley, the queen’s powerful minister1). In these first 17 sonnets, a common theme is that time destroys all, and Southampton’s youth and beauty won’t last, so he should renew himself by marrying and begetting a child; in the last two issues of Phlit, we discussed two sonnets on this theme.

Eventually, however, the poet abandons his attempt at match-making; Southampton is determined not to marry Burghley’s granddaughter. In Sonnet 18, the poet takes a new tack. Instead of saying that time destroys all, he says that Southampton’s beauty is immortal because it is preserved in immortal poetry:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,2
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.3
   So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

3. I Am That I Am: Sonnet 121

Sonnet 121 is remarkable as evidence of the Oxford Theory, and as the poet’s own justification of his life. Responding to critics of his behavior, the poet says that what others condemn, his “feeling” approves. Conceding that he has “frailties” and “sportive blood”, the poet insists that what others “count bad... I think good.” The poet says that his critics are in no position to criticize because they themselves are faulty; they are “frailer” than he, and have “false adulterate eyes.” He concludes, however, by saying that his critics are right if they maintain that evil is universal, and that “all men are bad”:

  I am that I am; and they that level
At my abuses reckon up their own.
I may be straight though they themselves be bevel;
By their rank thoughts my deeds must not be shown,
   Unless this general evil they maintain:
   All men are bad and in their badness reign.

Note the phrase, “I am that I am”; these words are spoken by God in the Bible.4 Oxford uses the phrase “I am that I am” in a letter to his father-in-law, Lord Burghley. I challenge Stratfordians to name another passage in English literature, from Shakespeare’s time or earlier, that uses this phrase in this way (as self-justification). Use of this phrase in both Sonnet 121 and Oxford’s letter is evidence for the Oxford Theory, evidence that the poet was Oxford.5

To quote God in this way is a sign of supreme self-confidence — the sort of self-confidence that Shakespeare displays elsewhere in his works (as when he says, in Sonnet 18, that his work will be read “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see”).

The poet’s view that evil is universal is consistent with the view of evil that we’ve taken in Phlit, and consistent with Jung’s view of evil. The poet doesn’t aim at moral perfection; rather, he accepts himself as he is. This ethical standpoint is consistent with the ethical standpoint of Hermetic thinkers like Bruno. In an earlier issue, we described Bruno’s ethics as “non-ascetic and partially Epicurean”; the same phrase could be applied to the ethics of Sonnet 121, and perhaps to Shakespeare’s ethics in general.

4. Thomas Wolfe

A. The Last Romantic

In an earlier issue, I began discussing Thomas Wolfe, and his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel. Now I’d like to complete that discussion of Look Homeward, and also discuss an essay by Reaver and Strozier that I regard as an important work of Wolfe criticism.6

Wolfe was a person of extraordinary passion, and a writer with an extraordinary passion for literature. When he was just 22, he wrote to his mother:

I know this now: I am inevitable. I sincerely believe the only thing that can stop me now is insanity, disease, or death.... I want to know life and understand it and interpret it without fear or favor. This, I feel, is a man’s work and worthy of a man’s dignity.... God is not always in His heaven, all is not always right with the world. It is not all bad, but it is not all good. It is not all ugly, but it is not all beautiful. It is life, life, life — the only thing that matters. It is savage, cruel, kind, noble, passionate, selfish, generous, stupid... painful, joyous — it is all these and more.... I know there is nothing so commonplace, so dull, that it is not touched with nobility and dignity. And I intend to wreak out my soul on paper and express it all. This is what my life means to me: I am at the mercy of this thing, and I will do it or die.... I never forget; I have never forgotten.... This is why I think I’m going to be an artist.... I will know this country when I am through as I know the palm of my hand, and I will put it on paper and make it true and beautiful.... I will go everywhere and see everything. I will meet all the people I can. I will think all the thoughts, feel all the emotions I am able, and I will write, write, write.7

What hunger of soul! Is it surprising that Wolfe burned out at an early age? (He died at 37.) Was his hunger a result of his feeling that time was short, that he didn’t have long to live? A Wolfe website had this to say about Wolfe’s early death: “Wolfe’s frantic rush to do all, see all, and write it all down had proved tragically correct.”

Wolfe’s hunger is so ravenous that it seems destined to be unsatisfied; reality can never quite satisfy him. One critic places Wolfe in the Romantic tradition, a tradition in which life never quite satisfies one’s longings and hungers:

Musset, frustrated in his various attempts to realize a completely satisfactory love, generalizes his predicament into an essential aspect of man’s fate. This mood is Wolfe’s, leaving out love or substituting for it the whole complex of man’s emotions. It puts him in the tradition of Proust... and of Dos Passos, a very central and important tradition since it reflects in literature the great discovery of the relativity of all things which is our inheritance from the nineteenth century. But the tradition itself does not need to be eternal, and the feeling we have that after Proust and Dos Passos and Wolfe there was left, circa 1930, very little to be said about it, is probably the best indication we have that by that date the nineteenth century was over.8

Was Wolfe the last romantic? The last writer who was preoccupied with the romantic Ego — the hungry Ego, the unsatisfied Ego? Wolfe was fond of the English Romantics, and his works often allude to Romantic poetry.

It is often said that Wolfe was too hungry, too passionate, too romantic: “There remains abundant proof he did not rewrite enough. Words obsess him, and rhetoric sweeps him away.”9 But Wolfe is more than a naive Romantic; he’s the most learned, the most literary, of the American writers of his generation, and his short works are often well-crafted.10 No less an authority than Faulkner said that Wolfe was the best American writer of his time.

Wolfe was capable of philosophical reflections as well as poetic flights. He was

aware that the existence of a leisure class was essential to higher culture and that the Puritan conscience of America looked suspiciously upon leisure. For instance, he jotted this note in Vienna: “The Loafer is respected in Europe — he is not respected in America. All culture has at its bottom an art of loafing — often of loafing outwardly while undergoing the most terrible labor of the mind within. Work that is not visible and profitable is not recognized in America. Even a man with much money who desires to do nothing must develop a certain callousness — the atmosphere is not right.... But, despite this, over an equal period in recent time — viz. since 1910, I believe America has easily held its own creatively with Europe.”11

The best Wolfe biography is probably Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe, by David Herbert Donald, best known for his biography of Lincoln. Also of interest are Wolfe’s own autobiographical writings, such as “God’s Lonely Man” and The Story of a Novel.

B. “Thomas Wolfe and Death”

Wolfe was preoccupied with the central fact of human existence — namely, death. As one critic put it, “Wolfe is the writer of our century who has written most eloquently about death — the death of Grover, the death of Ben, of old Gant; and of the overwhelming imminence of death everywhere.... Time and death were his obsessions.”12 Now I’d like to discuss the essay by Reaver and Strozier, “Thomas Wolfe and Death”, which argues that Wolfe’s attitude toward death is the key to understanding his growth as a man and an artist.

This essay traces Wolfe’s progress to maturity, from his first novel to his later novels. More specifically, it looks at how Wolfe’s protagonists deal with death, how their increasing maturity is apparent in their attitude toward death. This essay argues that Wolfe’s career displays growth — psychological, spiritual, creative. It’s an important essay, perhaps the best attempt to understand and justify Wolfe’s work.

One of the central episodes in Look Homeward, Angel is when Eugene, the protagonist, witnesses the illness and death of his older brother, Ben. Ben’s death shows how Eugene has matured, and it also helps him to mature further. Instead of feeling anger and rage at Ben’s death, Eugene “can finally think of death as a tender, lovely, power to be cherished13 ....Through the death of his brother [Eugene] came to know a deeper and darker wisdom than he had ever known before.”14

After Ben’s death, Eugene leaves his hometown and his family, and goes to Harvard; “he dies to one life hoping to be born again.”15 This journey was encouraged by Ben’s ghost, who speaks to Eugene at the end of Look Homeward, Angel, and “advises Eugene to make the voyage to a new life.... Grasping this hopeful vision, Eugene answers... ‘I have died the hundred deaths that lead to life.’”16 In his letters, Wolfe described the experience of leaving home, and his description has a Proustian flavor:

It is like death. I know that people do not die once, but many times, and that life of which they were once a part, and which they thought they could never lose, dies too, becomes a ghost, is lost forever.... If, then, I am dead to people who once knew me and cared for me, there is nothing more to say or do — I must go on into a new world and a new life.17

Wolfe’s words also remind one of Nietzsche, who said, “One has to pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while one is still alive.”

Eugene’s experiences closely match Wolfe’s own experiences. During World War I, the Virginia docks were busy with war-related shipping, and Wolfe was lured to the docks by the promise of high pay. His experiences there strengthened him for the challenges that lay ahead:

In the summer before Ben’s death Eugene has had experiences that helped him mature even more than his loves and college life have. Alone in Norfolk and Richmond, he has lived through a self-imposed isolation and survived. He has thoughts of his own death during this survival and it has toughened him.18

Reaver and Strozier reject the common view that Wolfe’s later novels are a pale imitation of Look Homeward, Angel: “The same themes persist through his last three books: the concern with death or isolation, the struggle for maturity, and the search for self-awareness and creativity. Wolfe’s later writing expands with thoroughness and depth the problems dealt with on a smaller scale in his first novel.”19

Friendships are important to Wolfe’s hero, but they don’t last forever. One by one, the protagonist’s relationships collapse, and his focus gradually shifts from individuals to mankind as a whole.

In the later novels the highpoints of the hero’s growth as indicated by his reactions to death, physical or psychological, occur in the deaths of his father and Aunt Maw and in the breaking up of friendships that mark his continual emergence into a life of creative independence, whose source finally becomes mankind, not man.

One is reminded of a Jungian idea that we’ve often discussed — namely, the idea that personal growth means detachment, independence, the withdrawing of projections.20

In his last three novels, three relationships are of particular importance to Wolfe’s protagonist:

  1. his friendship with Francis Starwick, whom he meets at Harvard; the original for this character was a man named Kenneth Raisbeck; this relationship is described in Wolfe’s second novel, Of Time and the River
  2. his friendship with Foxhall Edwards; the original for this character was Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe’s editor and friend; this relationship is described in Wolfe’s fourth and last novel, You Can’t Go Home Again
  3. his love affair with Esther Jack, which is described in Wolfe’s third novel, The Web and the Rock, and also in You Can’t Go Home Again; Esther is based on a woman named Aline Bernstein

Before going to Harvard, Eugene visits his father, who is dying in a Baltimore hospital. Eugene tries to suppress the pity that he feels for his father; Wolfe takes a dim view of pity, and regards it as a weakness to be overcome: “The pity he feels at the moment is but the garbage of emotion. It offends him. No good can come from it. Eugene wants to escape the memory of Death and Pity, which follow him like two swift horsemen.”21 Starwick, Eugene’s Harvard friend, helps Eugene to escape Death and Pity, and to become creative. Wolfe’s negative view of pity reminds one of Nietzsche, as does his positive view of life, and his avoidance of death.

Eugene’s friendship with Starwick helps him to mature and grow. Eventually, however, Eugene turns against Starwick, and decides that “Starwick is not really creative. He is a dilettante, a hyper-aesthete who talks about creativity.”22 The rise and fall of Eugene’s friendship with Starwick is a pattern that recurs in Eugene’s later relationships: “The pattern of eager acceptance, admiration amounting to worship, and disillusioned rejection established in the relationship with Starwick becomes the model for the later major friendships of Wolfe’s hero.”23

Twenty-two years ago, when I began my book of aphorisms, I wrote an aphorism that Wolfe would have understood:

When meeting a person for the first time, one often overrates him. One substitutes for the actual person parts of oneself and parts of one’s ideal. One of the characters in War and Peace, Prince Andrey, reveres a new acquaintance, Speransky, until he gets to know him, and then he becomes disillusioned with him.

Eugene calmly accepts the death of his friendship with Starwick: “Eugene is developing a stoicism in the face of death. He indulges in no lyrical outbursts or literary refrains.”24 Eugene’s break with Starwick spurs his creativity: “he leaves Paris and goes south to Tours, where he writes driven by a burning fury of mind and heart. Starwick ironically has released him from weariness and apathy. Death, as always in Wolfe’s novels, has brought life again.”25

In Wolfe’s third novel, the protagonist (now called “George Webber” instead of “Eugene Gant”) is in love with the artist/designer Esther Jack:

The world of Esther Jack is a completely new world for George Webber. It offers him both artistic creativity and mature love. But as usual the young man does not distinguish between the promise of his imagination and the reality of his experience. Only later can he admit the difference between the imagined worth of Esther’s world and its actual value.26

Wolfe describes George’s love in a more mature, objective way than he had used in his earlier novels: “Wolfe frequently presents Esther in her own right without giving George’s responses to her.” The authors speak of “abandoning poetic rhapsody for dramatic objectivity.”27

George takes a dim view of Esther’s friends in the art world: “Esther’s friends... show themselves as the death of the creative spirit.”28 George begins to break away from Esther herself: “Her world is too peopled with uncreative frauds for him to dare linger in it.... His need for creative isolation kills their love.”29

Even when a relationship is in bloom, the protagonist often has a premonition of its end:

Eugene sensed his father’s death, and early in the Starwick relationship he had a flash of intuition suggesting something wrong between them. Yet characteristically Wolfe’s young hero is too anxious to explore every new experience to listen to any warning. Early in his affair with Esther, George senses danger ahead: “And yet, with all his love for her, he had felt for one brief moment the cold and chilling shadow of that ring around his heart.”30

Wolfe’s first novel was translated into German, and he had fans in Germany; he often visited Germany. On one such visit, he went to the Oktoberfest, got into a fight, and was severely injured. This experience was a turning point for Wolfe’s protagonist: “When George wakes up in a hospital with his face and head battered, the shock of physical violence jars him into the deeper discovery of self that he had been seeking.”31 Did George himself bring about this defeat, this beating, in order to achieve this “deeper discovery of self”? According to Jungians, we often unconsciously bring defeat upon ourself, in order to achieve personal growth, in order to become whole. As Shakespeare says, “To willful men, the injuries that they themselves procure must be their schoolmasters.”32 Wolfe was certainly a willful man.

In the worldview of the later Wolfe, two elements stand out:

  1. a democratic, Whitman-esque respect for the common man and for America
  2. a Nietzschean feeling that we should embrace life, love life, and reject “death-in-life”

These two elements are combined in the notion that the common man loves life:

It seems to [George] that most men have known the wisdom of loving life and their fellow men and have hated the death-in-life33 ....Although man can be base, obscene, cruel, and treacherous, he remains noble through his love of life. This power binds men together.... Man’s spirit wills to live in spite of everything. Seldom do men deliberately ally themselves with death.34

Perhaps today’s terrorists and suicide bombers are people who “deliberately ally themselves with death.” In a recent issue of Phlit, I argued that “evil is akin to death, evil is a kind of death-instinct: ‘Evil exhibits itself everywhere as something negative, barren, weakening, destructive, a principle of death’ ....Perhaps we can turn this argument around, and say that if evil is akin to death, then good is akin to life, good embraces life.”

In the end, Wolfe’s protagonist is disappointed with individuals, but has faith in mankind as a whole:

Only after the failure of his friendship with Fox is he ready to let himself accept mankind as the source of creative power and realization. From his disappointment with individuals, he gradually develops this intuitive insight similar to the resolution of Goethe’s philosophy. It is just the reverse of Jonathan Swift’s philosophy: the rationalist hates mankind but loves the individual. The intuitive poet decries the individual and admires mankind.35

Perhaps we should think of Wolfe as an “intuitive poet”, a mystic, a non-rational thinker. Like other mystics, Wolfe affirms not only life, but death as well:

[Wolfe’s] concept of death places his fiction outside the stream of contemporary naturalistic fiction, which often, as in Hemingway, cannot rise above the idea of death as nothing but an unreasonable wound, the culmination of an irrational existence. Wolfe has faith even in death since his experience has taught him that it offers a release from an outworn phase of life to a new height of spiritual promise.36

While the mystic affirms both life and death, the rationalist-pessimist rejects both life and death, and regards both of them as meaningless, absurd.

One reason for the collapse of George’s friendship with Foxhall Edwards is that Fox (like most intellectuals) is scornful of the common man, and of America:

George’s faith in America cannot long abide Fox’s cynicism37 ....Although Fox’s attitude is never likely to manifest itself in premeditated destruction of mankind, it contains the seeds of destruction and death. From Fox’s rejection of humanity can come no revival of spirit. George must reject this sort of death for it allows no fuller expression of spirit, no resurrection of creative impulse.38

In the end, Wolfe’s protagonist achieves creative isolation, and also the detachment that Jung regards as the highest stage of individuation:

His release of Fox is the final dramatic freedom from the strong bonds individuals have held for him, and he replaces individuals with a practical faith that will not let him down39 ....The only spirit that George can now identify himself with in any full sense is the creative future of America.40

Reaver and Strozier argue that there is growth and development in Wolfe’s fiction:

The struggle of Wolfe’s protagonists against death ends in victory. The unreasonable world becomes reasonable, hope replaces despair, direction replaces drifting, drama replaces lyricism, psychological objectivity replaces hyper-emotional subjectivity; egoism is supplanted by social consciousness.... Wolfe’s responses to his experiences show an achievement of maturity that rejects disillusionment and despair.41

Nietzsche, too, rejected “disillusionment and despair”. Although Wolfe’s work may show growth and development, one wishes that he had lived long enough to complete his last two novels, which had to be cobbled together by an editor, Edward Aswell.

Wolfe’s acceptance of death reminds one of a famous passage in the Bible: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”42 Perhaps Wolfe’s prose was never more poetic than in this passage: “To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.”43

Wolfe anticipated his early death: “Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night, and told me I must die.... A wind is rising, and the rivers flow.”44

© L. James Hammond 2006
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1B. Poetry Foundation back
1. For more on this proposed match, click here. back
2. Nor will you lose possession of that beauty you own back
3. To time thou grow’st = you become grafted to time and thus will last as long as time lasts (Folger Library edition) back
4. Exodus 3:14 back
5. I learned of Oxford’s letter from Hank Whittemore’s Monument (Prologue, p. 49) back
6. “Thomas Wolfe and Death,” by J. Russell Reaver and Robert I. Strozier in Thomas Wolfe: Three Decades of Criticism, edited by Leslie A. Field back
7. See Thomas Wolfe: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., “You Can’t Go Home Again,” p. 128 and “The Rhetoric and the Agony,” p. 47. Also quoted here. back
8. Thomas Wolfe: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., “Thomas Wolfe: Of Time and Neurosis,” by W. M. Frohock, p. 46 back
9. ibid, p. 45 back
10. Some critics consider his novels, especially his later novels, to be inferior to his shorter works: “By almost any standard, ‘The Lost Boy,’ ‘The Web of Earth,’ ‘I Have a Thing to Tell You,’ ‘A Portrait of Bascom Hawke,’ and Look Homeward, Angel are works to admire without apology.”(Thomas Wolfe, by Elizabeth Evans, ch. 1) back
11. Thomas Wolfe: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., “Thomas Wolfe and the American Experience,” p. 151 back
12. Thomas Wolfe: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., “Thomas Wolfe: Of Time and Neurosis,” by W. M. Frohock, pp. 42, 45 back
13. Thomas Wolfe: Three Decades of Criticism, edited by Leslie A. Field, “Thomas Wolfe and Death,” by J. Russell Reaver and Robert I. Strozier, p. 39 back
14. ibid, p. 40 back
15. ibid back
16. ibid back
17. ibid, p. 38 back
18. ibid, p. 44 back
19. ibid, p. 45 back
20. In an earlier issue, I quoted Jung: “emotional ties are very important to human beings. But they still contain projections, and it is essential to withdraw these projections in order to attain to oneself and to objectivity.” back
21. “Thomas Wolfe and Death,” by J. Russell Reaver and Robert I. Strozier, p. 46 back
22. ibid, p. 48 back
23. ibid back
24. ibid back
25. ibid back
26. ibid back
27. ibid, p. 49 back
28. ibid back
29. ibid. George’s friendship with Foxhall Edwards follows the same rise-and-fall pattern: “The last crucial friendship for George is with Foxhall Edwards.... The pattern of quick acceptance, exaggeration of value, and ultimate rejection is repeated.”(Reaver & Strozier, p. 52) back
30. ibid back
31. “Thomas Wolfe and Death,” by J. Russell Reaver and Robert I. Strozier, p. 51 back
32. King Lear, II, iv back
33. “Thomas Wolfe and Death,” by J. Russell Reaver and Robert I. Strozier, p. 51 back
34. ibid, p. 52 back
35. ibid back
36. ibid, p. 57 back
37. ibid, p. 54 back
38. ibid, p. 56 back
39. ibid, p. 55 back
40. ibid, p. 56 back
41. ibid, p. 57 back
42. John, 12:24 back
43. “Thomas Wolfe and Death,” by J. Russell Reaver and Robert I. Strozier, p. 56 back
44. ibid back