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A Testament to Hope and Courage

ISSUE:  Autumn 1978
The Mysteries of Identity: A Theme in Modern Literature. By RobertLangbaum. Oxford. $14.95.

MUCH literary criticism rests unsteadily on large but unarticulated humanistic claims. Robert Langbaum is one of only a handful of critics capable of making these claims explicit in a way so powerful as to give enormous support to an entire enterprise. In The Mysteries of Identity he continues on a much broader scale the work begun in The Poetry of Experience (1957) and continued in The Modem Spirit (1970). That work involves an investigation of the strategies Romantic and post-Romantic poets have employed to deal with the split between self and experience, between subject and object, created by the Enlightenment. The Poetry of Experience, an extraordinarily influential book, dealt with a genre, the dramatic monologue, formulated to recapture and revivify experience in a world where objectively verifiable meaning was problematic or nonexistent. In The Mysteries of Identity Langbaum turns to the even larger problem of being and to the ways artists have struggled to define and reinstitute valid identity. Such a struggle, Langbaum maintains, has an importance far exceeding that of a theme or a literary tradition:

In modern times the question of identity involves nothing less than the question of our humanity. Literature since the romanticists has been concerned to salvage our humanity against the modern conditions that would turn us into machines.

(p. 15)

In a sophisticated and lucid survey, Langbaum traces the complex post-Romantic means of confronting both the basic epistemological problem and the difficulties with the Wordsworthian solution to that problem. With Wordsworth, the gap between subject and object could be bridged by projecting the self onto nature, simultaneously finding nature within, and thus giving strength and vitality to the self. Like Harold Bloom, Langbaum sees Wordsworth as the chief source of strength and also the chief obstacle for later poets. With a declining confidence in the possibility of organic connection, of connection of any kind, there is a corresponding “declining vitality” in this projection of self. Without sustenance, the self diminishes in a line Langbaum traces through Arnold and Eliot to Beckett. It is characteristic of Langbaum’s interest and of his strong humanistic intent that he spends far less time on the decline than on the heroic efforts made by Yeats and Lawrence to heal the wound and rescue the self by creating, respectively, a religion of art and a religion of love, Langbaum does admit, sadly, that since Beckett represents a portrayal of zero-self not only subsequent to but more common than the reconstructed selves of Yeats and Lawrence, it is “doubtful whether the latter are prophets of a new reconstructed ego open to connection or simply, as Yeats put it, “the last romantics” “(p, 8). Such pessimistic reflections are uncommon, however, and the tradition is formulated so as to appear, in the end, progressive and to present to us a genuinely poetic argument, a means through imagination of rebuilding our own beings.

These are large aims, and it cannot be imagined that they would be fulfilled in entirety with every reader. Still the combined force of Langbaum’s learning, his compact and subtle reading of texts, and his daring clarity make the thesis very hard to resist, even if for some reason one were prone to do so. In some ways, the lucidity is most compelling; for in a book on such a subject one would surely expect to be fired at by a good many of the weapons of obscurity: jargon, circumulocution, and mystifying hedges. Instead, we find characteristic assertions like this one:

Early in his life Yeats was struck by two main ideas, which possessed and obsessed him and which account for the rest of his career as poet and thinker. Both ideas—the first about history, the second about identity—reversed what Yeats considered, rightly I think, to be the two leading beliefs of the nineteenth century—belief in progress and sincerity.

(p. 147)

There is nothing either unsubtle or unsystematic about the way Langbaum develops his explanation of these “two ideas,” but it does take an uncommon amount of bold integrity to run such risks with plain English and with root analyses.

Langbaum’s argument is very difficult to summarize, but I might give some indication of its main elements. The important chapter on Wordsworth expands on M, H. Abrams’s work on the subject, particularly by relating the Romantic solution to the problem of identity directly to David Hume. Hume, Langbaum says, provided the key terms for the Wordsworthian constitution of self. Wordsworth formulates an answer not only to Hume but to the computer by giving a positive sense to Hume’s “imagination” and “association,” by developing his discussion of the possibility of a continuous self realized in experience, by adding the notion of a dynamic rather than a static continuity, and by moving through “memory” toward a concept of the unconscious. It may be that Langbaum makes Wordsworth too consistent and perhaps too optimistic—not all readers will agree that in the “Immortality Ode” “nothing is lost”—but on the whole the discussion is admirably solid and persuasive.

Arnold, then, is used to mark a state in the “running down of the Wordsworthian self through loss of joy—loss of the sense of vitality in nature and self, loss of confidence in the connection between nature and self” (p.47). Langbaum treats Arnold as “the first Victorian poet to deal with the modern problem of the loss of self” (p, 52), a controversial statement, surely, but not one crucial to the argument. In any case, he is right to identify much of the power of Arnold’s poetry in the “poignant awareness of what a properly constituted personality ought to be” (p.60). Even more impressive is Langbaum’s perception that Arnold’s dilemma comes from the fact that while he recognizes the loss and ostensibly laments it he “covertly admires depleted energy as a mark of sensibility” (p.57). Arnold, he says, posits culture as a synthesizing idea that will provide connections with a Unity of Being. The difficulty is that, in Arnold, culture is too directly identified with consciousness and thus can hardly solve the problem which self-consciousness has created.

Eliot, in the early poems, presents a further decline in energy and joy. Langbaum’s analyses, however, here and elsewhere, often tend to project rather positive readings of the poems meant to illustrate the decline, thus presenting a minor distraction to the reader and causing a small bump in his scheme. Even The Waste Land is read as a partial triumph for the protagonist in his search for a communal identity through associative memory. This emphasis on the “positive force” in Eliot makes somewhat surprising the conclusion to this section: “Whatever his religious convictions, Eliot’s imagination . . . remains engaged with the loss of self” (pp. 118—19). Beckett presents a simpler case, and in an unimpeachable if less energetic discussion Langbaum demonstrates that Beckett’s battle with Descartes ended in a rejection of an enduring underlife, a portrayal of “zero identity.”

The energy returns when Langbaum, in the major section of the book, discusses the reconstruction of the self in Yeats and Lawrence. Both writers, though with different means, manage this reconstruction by revalidating underlying connections: they “return to archetypal identity not, as many people think, to destroy but rather to renew and enlarge our withering individuality by bringing it to birth again from the shapes out of which it originally evolved” (p.267). Both writers detest the destruction wrought by self-consciousness and seek to rebuild through regression, a regression that is, however, a means, not an end. Langbaum treats with sympathy and with great intelligence the shocking power of both writers’ “ideas,” showing how they were necessary both as literary tools and as intellectual constructs to their scheme to restore identity:

No major work can, in my experience of literature, be founded on shoddy ideas. The ideas may seem obsolete or eccentric, but the great writer will be using them to shock himself and us into new insights.

(p. 155)

Langbaum is particularly persuasive in showing the coherence of Yeats’s various forays into unfamiliar thought. The antithetical beings or Daimons, the notion of masks, the use of reincarnation, and the phasal structures, all are attempts to locate the unconscious outside us, to posit “an area of psyche beyond what the ego can lay claim to” (p.173). Unable to find a unifying system in his culture, Yeats was forced to invent a system whereby one could escape self-consciousness and establish contact with the archetype, The images of art, then, can provide a model and a force that will allow a new selfhood: “Yeats uses the model of art to restructure the modern European self after the decline in vitality of the organically natural, evolving self Wordsworth projected to replace the Christian belief in a God-centered identity or soul” (p.247).

Lawrence, the other major figure working to reconstitute the self, locates the archetypal joining in sex rather than art. Lawrence, Langbaum says, “combines Wordsworth and Yeats, He is Wordsworthian in regarding the self as external because continuous with nature. He is Yeatsian in understanding that the self has been undone through humanist culture” (p.254). As Langbaum’s analysis demonstrates, however, there is a good deal more of Wordsworth than of Yeats in Lawrence. The major difference between Lawrence and Wordsworth is that “Lawrence studiously avoids transcendence “(p.260); sexual force replaces spiritual force. Langbaum demonstrates convincingly that Lawrence is neither an apostle of sex nor a primitivist, that regression in Lawrence is not a final stage. If successful, the regression into archetypal nature is then integrated into a new consciousness.

Langbaum views The Rainbow as a “profoundly optimistic” portrayal of the successful rebirth of self. In a detailed analysis he argues that here “Lawrence takes his stand on the main issue of the identity question. He reconstitutes the romantic assertion that the self remains continuous in all its phases, by adding the idea that the self develops dialectically through sexual relations where the continuity of the self can be traced through the continuity of the dialectic” (p.316). Women in Love, Langbaum quite reluctantly admits, is a pessimistic counterpart, and he quotes Lawrence on the novel’s “purely destructive” quality. Still, Langbaum tends to concentrate even here on the success found by Ursula and Birkin. Admitting that their “solution is offered as sheer miracle and no social cure” (p.350), he still manages to draw a positive “moral” from the novel and from Lawrence as a whole: “We can . . .forestall disintegration by living it through imaginatively, by absorbing it into consciousness and curing it through understanding” (p.351).

Langbaum’s bold extraction of “morals” from novels and the notion that Lawrence or any other artist may be read as a consistent whole represent overt theoretical positions all may not agree to, The thematic approach has its detractors, of course, and Langbaum makes little effort to assuage them. Even those sympathetic to the approach may find Langbaum making things rather too consistent within a work, a writer’s canon, or the broad tradition he is tracing. Some might resist his definition of literary criticism as “the application of concepts to literature” (p.20). There may also be a slight distortion caused by the tendency to read works positively,

For me, however, these are minor flaws, if indeed they are flaws at all. Langbaum is clearly both a major critic and a major cultural historian, and The Mysteries of Identity seems to me both a profound meditation on the modern self and a directive for regaining contact with an underlying force that may reenergize and reestablish identity. The didacticism is less moralistic than poetic, in this case, and it nourishes the marvellous effect produced by Langbaum’s shrewdness and intelligence. As well as being an important work of literary criticism, The Mysteries of Identity stands as a testament to the hope and courage still possible in this culture.


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