WHAT REALLY IS THE QUESTION: Notes on the Dis-Realization of Culture by John Senior
Because there is a certain opacity in the title, let me begin with a counteracting core, at once an apology and excuse: A society of Humanists is, by definition, not an aggregation of specialists. A Humanist must think and talk in terms of his whole culture; but, alas, especially in our time, he must confess his inadequacy. If he talks of many things he must talk out of his depth on at least some of them. To talk otherwise is shallow; it is to talk unhumanistically; while to talk humanistically is to run dangers. Aware of the dangers, I should ask the following remarks to be taken speculatively.
Though not necessarily in the technical sense, we are Humanists; we are practitioners of the arts and sciences; and having dedicated our lives to them, have the right – as laymen have not – to be severely critical. If any other man treated my family the way I do, I should want him arrested, and so it may be with the arts and sciences. Please understand that without the slightest hypocrisy, but rather, a sense of fitness, I should deliver a very different paper elsewhere. In this context, if I say, for example, that Baudelaire’s poetry tends toward the irrational, it will be clear that I am not at all saying he was simply crazy; or that Picasso’s art represents the paranoia of contemporary Europe, that any paranoiac could represent it as well. Though to be clear, the following speculations may be expressed harshly or dogmatically, the intention is to be pungent, not pugnacious. Involved personally in these matters as I am, I should be the last to throw a stone; but should rather call to mind T. S. Elliot’s expert lines:
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part …
By way of Preface also, let me immediately avow an assumption, propose a definition, and request an uncommon courtesy. First, the assumption: “Modernism” – now about one hundred years old – is no longer merely the contemporary or the current. It is rather a definable period in cultural history. Although words like Neo-Classicism or Romanticism, are difficult to define, still, unless history is to be the nightmare Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus thought, we must work with categories. Romanticism and Neo-Classicism are necessary, though difficult, terms. I shall say the same of Modernism and make use of it.
Modernism is that period in our cultural history beginning in 1857 and ending, very shortly one would suspect, about the year 2000. The particular choice of year, is arbitrary, of course, and only made precise here for mnemonic reasons. 1857 saw the publication of Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal and Flaubert’s Mme Bovary.
This was the beginning, and beginnings contain ends. The consequences of these events reached their majority by the turn of the century, their maturity by World War I, the full expansion of middle-aged ripeness in the nineteen twenties; and we are moving now into old age where, in some instances, evidences of an early senility have appeared – the latest shocks from San Francisco and Greenwich Village being garrulous recollections of Modernism’s childhood in the work of Baudelaire or Isidore Dusasse, the bogus Comte de Lautreamont.
I shall not attempt to demonstrate the validity of this assumption – after all the function of assumptions is that they may be assumed. My purpose is not to prove that Modernism in fact exists, but proceeding at once on the assumption that it does exist, to state as clearly as I can two of its most essential characteristics – two essentials which are interlocked and reciprocally causative, being not mere aspects of Modernism but the very valves of its heart. These two are: artificiality and sensationalism. I hope that definitions of these terms will proceed along with their application.
The courtesy requested will be seen as integral with the argument proposed: I ask you not to think that because the author believes what he says, that what he says is therefore to be discounted as unobjective and even prejudiced. One of the consequences of the mark of artificiality is that scholarship has become a disinterested game. The boon I ask is that it not be thought work, at least for this short space.
So much for Preface, now for the business at hand. First the universal question of which Modernism is an extreme denial. What really is the question?
With all due respect to its darkness, the triumph of some three thousand years of Western Civilization is, from the point of view of ideas, the triumph of Realism, what some have called the Perennial Philosophy because it has survived so many seasons. It may be summed up in a sentence: The real is really real. It may be summed up in a word: IS. Since Latin is the language of meaningful slogans, here is the Scholastic formula: Demonstrationis, principium est “quod quid est.” The demonstration of a principle is its essence – that is, its is-ness, “quod quid est,” that which it is. Or, in another famous sentence, Veritas sequitur esse rerum – Truth follows upon the existence of things. In other words, according to this view, the beginning was – not the Word – but the Verb, and all verbs are reducible to the verb to be. “I am that I am,” said God.
Another way of putting it in less theological language, is Aristotle’s: I hope you will pardon a considerable quotation from an elemental text, but the chief burden of this paper will turn out to be that we have forgotten the most obvious, will be the solemn repronouncement of great cliche. Here is a rapid digest of the most important chapter in the history of metaphysics – Book IV in Aristotle’s work of that name.1
It is of Being qua Being that we… must grasp the first causes… Being qua Being has certain peculiar modifications, and it is about these that it is the philosopher’s function to discover the truth… He who understands the modes of Being qua Being should be able to state the most certain principles of all things. Now this person is the philosopher, and the most certain principle of all is that which one cannot be mistaken… and that which a man must know if he knows anything, he must bring with him to his task.
Clearly, then, it is a principle of this kind that is the most certain of all principles. Let us next state what this principle is. “It is impossible for the same attribute at once to belong and not to belong to the same thing and in the same relation…” This is the most certain of all principles… for it is impossible for anyone to suppose that a thing is and is not…
Hence all men who are demonstrating anything refer back to this as an ultimate belief; for it is by nature the starting point of all the other axioms as well.
There are some, however… who both state themselves that the same thing can be, and not be, and say that it is possible to hold this view. Many even of the physicists adopt this theory. [How modern that sounds – “the physicists adopt this theory.”] But we have just assumed that it is impossible at once to be and not to be and by this means we have proved that this is the most certain of all principles… We can demonstrate the impossibility [of their position] by refutation, if only our opponent makes some statement. If he makes none, it is absurd to seek for an argument against one who has no arguments of his own about anything… for such a person, in so far as he is such, is really no better than a vegetable… The starting point for all such discussions is not the claim that he should state that something is or is not so (because that might be supposed to be a begging of the question), but that he should say something significant both to himself and to another (this is essential is any argument is to follow; for otherwise such a person cannot reason either with himself or with another)… Thus in the first place it is obvious that this at any rate is true: the term “to be” or “not to be” has a definite meaning; so that not everything can be “so and not so…” For if it is equally possible to assert or deny anything of anything, one thing will not differ from another; for if anything differs, it will be true and unique… Moreover it follows that all statements would be true and all false; and that our opponent himself admits that what he says is false. Besides it is obvious that discussion with him is pointless, because he makes no real statement.
If we use the rather slippery term carefully, we might call this the philosophy of common sense. It is the normal mind’s first reaction to the world to know that it exists. Before he reflects, that is “bends back” his attention to his own mental and sensory apparatus, a man first simply looks and smells and tastes and touches and then affirms – the world. Not Cogito ergo sum; but Est, ergo sum, ergo cogito. The world exists, therefore I exist, and because I exist, therefore I think.
As Aristotle says so perfectly, any man who denies this, denies his own denial at the same time. Make any statement at all and you have affirmed the existence of what it is you have said, either possibly or really. The man who says a lie is true, does not himself believe the truth of that lie.
George Orwell, a Modernist at the late stage, wrote this curious criticism of the modern world in his novel 1984:2
[Winston Smith] wondered, as he had many times wondered before, whether he was a lunatic. Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one. At one time it had been a sign of madness to believe that the hearth goes round the sun; today, to believe that the past is unalterable. He might be alone in holding that belief, and if alone, then a lunatic…
It was as though some huge force were pressing down upon you – something that penetrated inside your skull, battering against your brain, frightening you out of your beliefs, persuading you almost to deny the evidence of your senses. [Italics mine.] In the end of the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. [Italics mine.] And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?
But no! His courage seemed suddenly to stiffen of its own accord… The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command… And yet he was right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, the true, had to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! Stone are hard, water is wet. Objects unsupported fall toward the earth’s center. With the feeling… that he was setting Fourth on important axiom, he wrote: Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. It that is granted, all else follows.
Winston Smith, the poor lost functionary in the wholly fabricated – that is, wholly artificial – machine-world of 1984, rediscovers the perennial philosophy. Orwell is one of the first popular writers to see this is the essential fact about Modernism: that it is an assault upon the verb to be, that is, it major principle is artificiality, the first of the two interlocking principles I shall assert of it.
Aristotle, usually so mathematically detached, almost loses his temper over this. He calls his opponents vegetables. If you don’t believe in reality, he says, you are not even an animal, let alone the rational animal, man. As a clincher to his argument, he offers to famous test:
It is quite evident [he says] that no one, either of those who profess this theory or of any other school, is really in this position. Otherwise, why does a man walk to Megara and not stay at home, when he thinks he ought to make the journey? Why does he not walk early one morning into a well or ravine, if he comes to it, instead of clearly guarding against doing so, thus showing that he does not think that it is equally good and not good to fall in?
But, ding dong, bell, Pussy in the well. Though you cannot refute Aristotle, you can deliberately choose to drown. For example, here is J. K. Heysmans, the paradigm of the Modernist mentality, from his book significantly titled A Rebours – “Against” – which is to say not IS, but IS NOT.
He is speaking of his ideal character, des Esseintes.3
[His] dining-room resembled a ship’s cabin, with its ceiling and arched beams, its bulkheads and floorboards of pitch-pine, and the little window-opening let into the wainscoting like a porthole… [behind which] was a large aquarium… Thus what daylight penetrated into the cabin had at first to pass through… the water… He could then imagine himself between decks in a brig, and gazed inquisitively at some ingenious mechanical fishes driven by clockwork, which moved backwards and forwards behind the port-hole window and got entangled in artificial seaweed. At other times, while he was inhaling the smell of tar which had been introduced into the room before he entered it, he would examine a series of colour-prints on the walls, such as you see in packet-boat offices and Lloyd’s agencies, representing steamers bound for Valpariso and the River Plate… By these means he was able to enjoy quickly, almost simultaneously, all the sensations of a long sea-voyage, without ever leaving home. … The imagination could provide a more than adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of actual experience.
We have just heard Aristotle’s famous challenge to his enemies: if you don’t believe the law of contradiction, why do you bother to walk to Megara when you want to go there? If you believe things are true and not true, why bother? And this is Huysmans’ answer: Don’t bother, just imagine. And now he proceeds one important step further. He describes the techniques of imagining:
The main thing [he goes on] is to know how to set about it, to be able to concentrate your attention on a single detail, to forget yourself sufficiently to bring about the desired hallucination and substitute the vision of a reality for the reality itself… There can be no shadow of doubt that with her never-ending platitudes the old Crone [Nature] has by now exhausted the good-humored admiration of all true artists, and the time has surely come for artifice to take her place wherever possible.
Aristotle, we remember, said art is the imitation of nature; now art surpasses her. Huysmans gives a fantastic example:
After all, to take what among her works is considered to be the most exquisite, what among all her creations is deemed to possess the most perfect and original beauty – to wit, woman – has not man, for his part, by his own efforts, produced an animate, yet artificial creature that is every bit as good from the point of view of plastic beauty?
I wonder if you can guess what it is? This homuncula of his? Huysmans always surprises us, I think.
Does there exist [he goes on] anywhere on this earth, a being…. born in the throes of motherhood, who is more dazzlingly, more outstandingly beautiful than the two locomotives recently put into service on the Northern Railway?
Huysmans, of course, has comic genius; but as a matter of fact, I actually knew a boy once who loved his motorcycle so much he kept it in his bedroom.
The whole of Modernism is contained in this passage. Huysmans has suggested that by a kind of artistic yoga, we concentrate on a single detail – what is often called the “symbol” – in order to annihilate reality. And then he goes one crucial step further: after the achievement of unconsciousness, he reconstructs his own false-consciousness, that is hallucination.
Orwell, in another passage in 1984, declared that to the Party, “Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” In saying that, he reached the penultimate stage. Huysmans went on to the last, beyond unconsciousness to hallucination. Huysmans saw that the opposite of Being is not just nothing – nothing, the mere absence of being, like empty space, has a kind of reality. Pure non-being, or rather anti-being, is the faking of reality.
We shall return to this idea again at the end; meanwhile, the metaphysical question having been posed, we may proceed to the Modern-ist answer in more detail. The modern age is an assault upon the verb: to be or not to be? The answer is not to be. According to the tradition of philosophical realism, evil has no being; it is the privation of being, and therefore can have no perfection. Yet, practically, situations do arise which would seem to be so had as to be perfectly awful. Well, let us give thanks for complete enemies because they sum up all that we do not believe. In this sense I must be thankful for Ortega y Gasset. He has perfectly articulated a position I think wholly wrong. All I have to do is hold up his book and say, no.
Here is the way Ortega formulates the modern crisis:4
The progressive dis-realization of the world, which began in the Philosophy of the Renaissance, reaches its extreme consequences in the radical sensationalism of Avenarius and Mach. How can this continue? What new philosophy is possible? A return to primitive realism is unthinkable; four centuries of criticism, of doubt, of suspicion, have made this attitude forever untenable. To remain in our subjectivism is equally impossible. Where shall we find the material to reconstruct the world?
Notice that in rejecting four hundred years of doubt and criticism he nonetheless accepts it – that he does not attempt to refute an error, but cedes its ground. And here is his solution:
The philosopher retracts his attention even more and, instead of directing it to the subjective as such, fixes on what up to now has been called “the content of consciousness,” that is, the intra-subjective. There may be no corresponding reality to what our ideas project and what our thoughts think; but this does not make them purely subjective. A world of hallucination would not be real, but neither would it fail to be a world, an objective universe, full of sense and perfection. Although the imaginary centaur does not really gallop, tail and mane in the wind, across real prairies, he has a peculiar independence with regard to the subject that imagines him. He is a virtual object, or, as the most recent philosophy expresses it, an ideal object. This is the type of phenomena which the thinker of our time considers most adequate as a basis for his universal system. Can we fail to be surprised at the coincidence between such a philosophy and its synchronous art, known as expressionism or cubism?
Ortega has been for fifty years now what a good journalist should be, a weather vane for squalls of doctrine, and in this particular passage he has pointed the direction of the prevailing winds. He has seen that culture is integral, that as an organic growth, all its parts – music, painting, literature, science, politics, philosophy – all move and work as one. Our purpose here is to get behind the wind to its source, or to use the metaphor of organism, to get to the nerves and brain. Knowledge, Aristotle says, is necessarily of causes, so we must look to the cause.
Beginnings contain ends as seeds. At the very start of the Modernistic movement in the work of Baudelaire is the doctrine of artificiality. It took the form of art for art’s sake. The poem, for Baudelaire, is neither the expression of ideas as the Classicist would have it, nor the expression of the emotions, as the Romanticist – the poem is the expression of nothing but the poem itself. This kind of art, first announced by Theophile Gautier, was first seriously practiced by Baudelaire and the Parnassians. Of course even the slightest examination of the contents of “pure poetry” as it is called, will show that the poem is not so much merely a thing in itself, as it is a vehicle for the doctrine that things ought to be taken as things in themselves – that is, to reverse the famous phrase, Modernistic poets really preach what they do not quite practice. Baudelaire’s poems – all modern poems – have a meaning: the meaning is that there is no meaning, either to poems or things, other than what the imagination wants them to mean.
The Neo-Classicist thought of poems as artificial constructions – as conventional systems of words and phrases. But he thought the function of this convention was to carry ideas: What was often thought but ne’er so well expressed. The Romantic rather thought of himself as an Aeolian harp, a sensitive instrument tuned to the feelings. The poem was to express intense emotion recollected in tranquility. The function of the Modernist poem is first of all to get rid of thought and next of emotion, so that we have achieved that orthodoxy Orwell spoke of – unconsciousness. And then, at the second stage, the poet, as the magician, creates upon this blankness of idea and emotion, the pure game, the pure artifice of the work of art as a thing in itself.
Some examples should make this clearer: Compare the typical Romantic poem of the Sea Voyage, with Baudelaire’s major work, “Le Voyage” The Romantic Alfred Vigny in “The Bottle on the Sea,” tells us of a young Cap-tain, ship-wrecked in the South Atlantic, who as a final gesture of triumph, flings on the waves a bottle containing his precious manuscript even as his ship and himself sink. The bottle, the meaning of his life, somehow, sometime, finds it way to port. Vigny’s young Captain smiles at his death.
Baudelaire’s old Captain, is Death himself. Victory, for Baudelaire, is the annihilation of success, because – and this is the really striking difference, between the Romanticist and Modernist – Baudelaire’s voyage never takes place. As Huysmans said, the best voyages are imaginary. At the very start of the Modernist art, we find their restlessness without purpose, as near the end it survives in the adolescent slang phrase “let’s go, man, go,” typical, as I believe, of motorcyclists. Not to go anywhere, but just to go- the true voyagers, Baudelaire says, are those who “part pour partir,” or as he said in another poem, quoting Poe, go “anywhere out of this world.” For Baudelaire the ship isn’t real, it is an imaginary projection of himself, as is later in Rimbaud’s voyage-poem, “Bateau Ivre,” or Mallarme’s “Coup de des,” or even much later Dylan Thomas’s “Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait.” Baudelaire expressly says so:
Our soul is a three-masted schooner searching its Icaria;
Each islet, signaled from the crow’s nest,
Is an Eldorado promised by destiny;
The imagination, pricked on by pride,
Finds only a reef at the light of dawn.
O poor lover of chimerical nations –
This drunken sailor, this inventor of Americas.
Buy why should he invent Americas? Why should he take imaginary voyages? Here is the famous last line of the poem as answer:
Au fond de l’inconnu pour trouver du nouveau!
In the depths of the unknown to find the new.
Le nouveau. The dynamism of the modern wold is the perpetual search for the new – not the real, not the true, not the ideal, not even the evil, not even the power and the glory or the lust, but the new, all these things for the sake of the new.
Cut off from reality by four hundred years of criticism, the Modernist, insisting on the new, very quickly exhausts experience and proceeds to make it up. The image – that is what the imagination produces, is taken for being. To the realist, an image must of necessity be of something; and the something can be understood in terms of ideas and feelings. The Modernist, cut off from the reality, has nothing but the image – that is nothing but the mental sensation. Huysmans never said he could have a real voyage, he said he could have all the sensations of a real voyage. The realist asks, what is the image of? Art holds the mirror up to nature. The Modernist, the worshipper of Baal in so many ways, replies – There is nothing but the image; he is a worshipper of images.
The dis-realization of the universe – the pursuit of artificiality – leads us inevitably to the second of the marks of Modernism, sensationalism. We might begin as far back as Galileo or Francis Bacon in describing its roots, because their rejection of metaphysics, their concentration on the idea of the truth as what is sensed, led them inevitably to the next step, the experiment; and the experiment has become very like an artifice. Empiricism began with an explicit rejection of realism, began with the wholly unexamined assumption that the real is the quantitative; that is, the real is that which can be measured by instruments. At first sight, it would seem as if science were affirming Aristotle, affirming the evidence of the senses. Nothing could be further from the truth. Empiricism represents a divorce of the senses from reality. In considering the truth to be only what is sensed, it lays itself inevitably open to the psychologizing of knowledge. If truth is only what is sensed, and sensations happen in the mind, then truth is in the mind – not in external reality. And as George Orwell’s Winston Smith added, you remember – “if the mind can be controlled – what then?” The consequence of empiricism is phenomenology, as the history of modern philosophy through Locke, Hume, and Kant to the Vienna School shows.
Even experiment, as I suggested, goes the second step further into hallucination. Though in the early stages of science, as with Galileo at the leaning tower, an experiment was set up to test a reality outside the test itself, in the latest stage, the test presupposes the truth, so that the result is not of anything, but a wholly artificial situation. I heard a psychologist in all sobriety say once, you cannot challenge the validity of intelligence tests as not testing intelligence, since intelligence is by definition what the tests test.
Science at this stage has become magic. Science at this stage is no longer the adequation of mind to reality, but the artificial construction of reality to suit the mind. Science for science’s sake.
The metaphysics of Modernistic science has gone far beyond Galileo. Ernst Mach, for example, the founder of the empirio-criticism and one of the great physicists of his day – the Mach unit of sound velocity is named for him – Ernst Mach goes so far as to deny the existence of the person experiencing the experiment.5
The primary fact is not the I, the ego, but the sensations. The elements that constitute the I. ‘I have the sensation green.’ signifies that the element green occurs in a given complex of other elements (sensations, memories.) When I cease to have the sensation green, when I die, then the elements no longer occur in their ordinary, familiar way of association. That is all. Only an ideal mental-economical unit, not a real unity, has ceased to exist.
The divorce from Realism gives us two possibilities to exploit: 1) the piling up of empirical evidence without regard to the mind at all. Seeing is believing – that is to say reality is appearance. Jean-Paul Sartre in our time prints this phrase plainly, without a quiver, in his book significantly titled Being and Nothingness. “Appearance is essence,” he says, to quote him directly. The word “existence” among such so-called “existentialists” is used precisely as George Orwell’s Big Brother uses words like love and peace – to mean their direct opposites. And 2) the second possibility after the great divorce from realism is Rationalism. Descartes, its progenitor, argues that we know nothing but what is in our minds, all sense-experience being merely an extension of mentality. His metaphysics begins opposite to Aristotle’s, not with Being, but with the cogito, that is thought. Sense-objects are reified ideas.
Although it is a simplification, I do not think it an oversimplification to say that the history of modern philosophy is the development of these two horns, both stemming from the one head of anti-realism. Whereas Aristolelian tradition maintained that truth is the adequation of mind to thing, modern philosophy has maintained from two different points of view, that truth is either mind or thing. What Whitehead calls the great bifurcation split the world into two quarreling but allied armies fighting on the same side against realism; the empiricist and the rationalist, or to give it Kant’s word “the Critical.” In the Modernistic age, the armies have at last been reunified as “empirio-criticism” or at the very latest as “phenomenalism.”
In a prophetic paragraph of that same Book IV of his Metaphysics, Aristotle fixes the necessary connection between sensationalism and non-being. Speaking again of those who argue that things can both be and not be, he says:
They say that the same thing seems sweet to some who taste it, and bitter to others; so that if all men were diseased or all insane, except two or three who were healthy or sane, the latter would seem to be diseased or insane, and not the others.
[Recall Orwell’s Winston Smith, wondering about his sanity.]
And further they say that many of the animals as well get from the same things impressions which are contrary to ours, and that the individual himself does not always think the same in matters of sense-perception. Thus it is uncertain which of these impressions are true or false; for one kind is no more true than another, but equally so. And hence Democritus says that either there is no truth or we cannot discover it.
And in general, it is because they suppose that thought is sense-perception…. The reason why these men hold this view is that…. they supposed that reality is confined to sensible things.
All these theories destroy the possibility of anything’s existing by necessity because they destroy the existence of its essence; for the necessary cannot be in one way and in another; and so if anything exists of necessity, it cannot be both so and not so.
Art for art’s sake, science for science’s sake – these are the worshipping of graven images, and therefore the worshipping of unreality. An image is the mental reproduction of something sensed; its reality derives from two necessarily existing things: the subject who does the sensing, and the object which is sensed. The purely mental world of the image-sensation has no more being than an image in a mirror. The idea of what Ortega called the intrasubjective, or the ideal object – is a fiction. If you cut off reality from the image and take the image in itself, you have not changed the nature of imagery, but transferring it from the garden to the parlor have killed it and put it to new use. An image is still a mental-sensation; you have become interested in the mental act rather than the purpose of the mental act. We become aware of sensation qua sensation only by reflection. Normally we go directly to the thing: we say ice is cold, not that we have a sensation of coldness, or to use Orwell’s examples, we say that stone are hard, water is wet. Once the divorce is made, however, we can suspend the mind, hold it back forcibly from its completion in the object consider the sensation in itself. Art for art’s sake is a sterilization of the mind so as to prevent “conception,” while enjoying discourse.
But the nature of imagery is not changed by the use to which it is put. Utility is not function. A kind of Larmarckian naivete pervades some schools of criticism as it has morality. If you use a thing long enough in a way contrary to its nature, they say, you will eventually change its nature, as if by sitting on tables you could make them chairs. This is a form of thinking makes it so; phenominalism is a resuscitated nominalism which asserts that an image is a reality, that is that the imagination can construct a real life of its own. Of course it simply cannot. Any sensation divorced from its object withers. Heysmans learned this to his bitter despair, and so did Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Ortega evidently did not, nor have most moderns, for they seek hallucination as a panacea. In real life, ideas have permanence, emotions durability, but sensations are instantaneous and must be renewed, and in the renewal itself is destruction because repetition dulls. Thus the sensationalist is doomed to chase le nouveau, which must always elude him.
“Et puis? Et puis encore?” “What next? What next?”, cries Baudelaire’s imaginary voyager. Ennui is the hell of Modernism. The aesthetic in the extreme in an-aesthetic, that is numb, having no sensation, unconsciousness.
“What shall we do?” What shall we ever do?” the people in Eliot’s Waste Land ask.
In what is perhaps the most famous of all Modernist poems, Mallarme’s “Afternoon of a Faun,” the Faun compares art to blowing up empty grape-skins which he holds to the light. Having sucked the pulp of reality out, he is left with the pure, detached image, not of anything. A logical extension of this idea is the enjoyment of the poem as typography, as the pure sensation of the skin of the printed page, as in Mallarme’s last and most ambitious work, “Coup de des.”
Less extreme, but with the same intention is “imagism,” the school of poetry devoted to surfaces in which neither thought nor emotion is supposed to intrude. When Archibald MacLeish says,
A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit…
A poem should not mean
he is reducing the poem to sensation, his globed fruit very like Pan’s empty grape-skin. He has de-prived the verb BE of its existential pulp; he doesn’t really mean BE, he means “sensed.”
Imagism is sensationalism. Baudelaire, its first important practitioner, is more interested in his mistress’ skin than in his mistress, and even further in her hair, her fingernails, finally in the polish on her fingernails, her jewels, her perfume. The scale at the publication of Les fleurs du mal was misplaced because Baudelaire is not a sensuous poet like Keats, for example. Baudelaire’s poems do not, by means of the senses, excite emotion or idea, especially concupiscence; quite the contrary, his poems detach the sensation from both cause and consequence, neither the pulp of the grape nor the wine; Baudelaire is, as the Modernist jazz musicians are supposed to say, “cool.” “All mastery is cold,” said Mallarme; and he speaks in his letters as having climbed “pure glaciers of aesthetic.” In a word he has climbed not Olympus or Etna, but Parnassus.
The most thorough experiment in sensationalism is Proust’s. A la recherche du temps perdu is seven volumes of re-captured – not remember, but re-cherched – sensations. Not intense emotion recollected in tranquility, but intense emotion tranquilized in recollection. The deja vu experience of the notorious macaroon at the start of Swann’s Way is the key to Proust’s whole work. The philosophy behind it is phenomenalism. Since reality is nothing but sensation, art can create reality by means of invoking sensations. Needless to say, the pitiful, debauched lives of his characters – they are caricatures, really, cartoons of sheer surface – these lives are exhausted bladders, emptied skins, at the end, having collapsed into the Baudelarian ennui.
The pathos of the dying Swann, left alone by his Duchess in search of a shoe, is the revelation that sensation cut off from reality is illusion. Swann is aptly named after that most widely used symbolist bird, whose meaning is “the artist,” the fabricator of illusions. Swann’s way is the via ludens, the way of the artificer, which is to say the magician who hallucinates sensations.
As far as we have gone, we have not yet reached the end: the extreme of artificiality and sensationalism is maya, the oriental doctrine of the world itself as illusion. If reality is sensation, it follows that since sensations can be evoked in the absence of objects, as in hallucination, we can as well act as if objects themselves are hallucinations evoked by other magicians or by demons. This is not Platonism. The magician does not believe in the permanent reality of his constructions. He does not believe in the independent, permanent, immutable, existence of Intellectual Forms. His universe is not only immaterial, it is insubstantial. He never leaves Plato’s Cave. Between the world of Platonic Forms and the world of sense-objects is the world of magic, the creation of the Hermetic artist, at once sealed-off and uniting – symbolized by the bird, the winged earth creature, hovering between extremities in the subtle realm of the psyche, between sense-object and conception. Magic is the manipulation of sensations detached from their objects. The original bifurcation of rationalism and empiricism has reached its end at last in the realm of phantasia – the magical conjunction which is called empirio-criticism, or symbolic-positivism, or phenominalism.
It is not necessary to document the extraordinary interest modern culture has had in oriental ideas. As a matter of fact, we can read our own future in the East. Yoga is the exact science of what is yet only a parlour game with us, that is, it is the science of hallucination. It is practiced by the technique Huysmans explained in the passage quoted above, by what Rimbaud in one of the most influencial documents in modern literature called, the deliberate derangement of the senses. Whether by shallow breathing, which cuts off oxygen to the brain, thus causing it to malfunction; or by constrictive postures, which affect the blood lymph systems; by fasting; by drugs; and above all by self-hypnosis induced by mantra – the repetition of sounds – or yantra – the gazing on intricate geometrical patterns – or by koan – the thinking about logical impossibilities – by any and all of these devices, the yogi is able to break through his own normal conception of the world. The meaning of the Hindu word Moksha is “break-through,” release. This break-through is at first an experience of the Bauderlarian hell of ennui, of non-sensation, of Orwell’s unconscious orthodoxy. But following this is again the second stage of the re-release, the Great Liberation of Mahayana Buddhism, the “awakening” after the unconsciousness. The word “Buddha” means “awake.” This is the state of hallucination in which the Buddha has the power to construct any “reality” he wants. The power is supposed to be such that the hallucination can be imposed on others. Walls can be “imagined” which not only the magician, but his audience can’t walk through. Palaces are supposed to be constructed in which we may wine and dine. Conversely, according to this doctrine, since the real world is only an hallucination imposed by other powers, either visible or invisible, then by our own counter-acting will we can walk through real walls, and real palaces can be destroyed.
As a matter of fact, the palace of the mind is destroyed. Buddhahood is the supreme insanity. It is not just the paltry wreckage of certain mental functions that appear in our mental hospitals, but the perfect destruction of the whole mind altogether. The Buddha doesn’t dwell under the delusion that he is Napoleon, or even that he is Buddha. He dwells under the supreme delusion that everything is a delusion, including Napoleon and including Buddha. His religion is the worshipping of images. There is no Buddhist or Hindu God, but Pantheons of idols; daemons and demons, all shapes and mis-shapes, maidens and monstrosities with eight arms and four heads, smiling, leering, erotically suggestive, bleeding, devouring, rotting. Beyond the hell – we should say Limbo, for it is a shallow place compared to this, – beyond the Limbo of ennui, is the true hell of hallucination.
The final point I wish to make is at once the most difficult and shocking – but it sums up all the rest.
According to the perennial philosophy invoked at the beginning, the universe begins with Being. I must now add further, that according to this tradition also, Being is good. Ens et bonum convertuntur. Being and good are convertible terms. Evil is therefore non-being. Evil is, as I said, the privation of good. It follows therefore that insofar as one is cut off from being, he is cut off from good. There is what we may call a law of the gravity of artificiality. The universe of hallucination cannot be good. It is inevitably hell that the artificer constructs. That is why in the Pantheon of idols, the hideous inevitably predominates.
The skin of Baudelaire’s venus noire is not so far from the skin stretched on the Witch of Buchenwald’s lampshade. The divorce from reality is a divorce also from morality, because good and bad are matters of intellectual judgment about things. As Aristotle explained in the passages just cited, the reduction of reality to sensation does away with differences in essence. If everything happens accidentally, there is no right and wrong. The scale at the publication of Les fleurs de mal was misplaced because too easily refuted. The genuine scale is in the total absence of humanity. From the point of view of the history of men, rather than ideas, dis-realization becomes de-humanization. Nietzsche, from this point of view, is the prince of philosophers. We might recall the passage in which Ernst Mach demonstrates that since reality is sensation, there is no such thing as a human being. The man disappears behind an accidental bundle of sensations, exactly as Baudelaire’s mistress disappears behind her jewels, or Picasso’s models into lines and blocks of color. Rimbaud, the follower of Baudelaire, tried to act out these theories in everyday life to the point of committing crimes. In a prophetic line he said, “Now is the time of the Assassins.”
Behind the shifting mask of Modernism – behind the reciprocal principles of artificiality and sensationalism is the Diabolic. The perfection of non-being is the lie. As I remarked before, just plain nothing has a reality. Absence in itself is not evil. It is the deliberate action invaded by the shadow of absence that is evil. Not merely doing nothing, but, if I may make my meaning clear by emphasis, – it is doing nothing. A lie is not the mere absence of truth, Satan, Prince of Lies, is called the Ape of God. The perfection of non-being is parody.
So, in closing, I return to my beginning, which contained this end: Truth follows upon the existence of things. And not only truth. This is not a quarrel of words. This is not hair-splitting. The universe is split, and what is more important, and worth all the universe besides – each man of us is split by that question and must answer it; for truth is sharper than any sword, even to dividing body and soul asunder. So, as I promised, I shall end with what I hope is the revivification of a great cliche: to be or not to be really is the question after all.
1 The translation is Hugh Tredennick’s in the Loeb Library, Harvard University Press, 1933.
2 George Orwell, 1984, N. Y., Harcourt Brace, 1949.
3 Robert Baldick’s translation, Penguin edition, Baltimore, Md., 1959.
4 The Dehumanization of Art, Doubleday Anchor Books, N. Y., 1956.
5 Contributions to the Analysis of the Sensations, Open Court, Chicago, 1893.
REPRINTED BY PERMISSION OF UNIVERSITY OF WYOMING PUBLICATIONS, CONTINUATION OF UNIVERSITY OF WYOMING PUBLICATIONS IN SCIENCE, Vol. XXV, No. 1,2,3,4 amd 5, July 15, 1961.