Skip to main content

From Why to How

ISSUE:  Winter 1982
The Brazen Face of History: Studies in the Literary Consciousness in America. By Lewis P. Simpson. Louisiana. $20.00.

Lewis Simpson’s The Brazen Face of History maps the American chapter of our modern fall from myth into history. Landmarks used in Simpson’s cartography are plentiful. They range from Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Freneau, Brackenridge, Channing, Emerson, Hawthorne, De Forest, Kate Chopin, Poe, and Henry Adams to a collection of moderns (dominated by Southern writers) that includes Faulkner, James, Percy, Tate, Welty, Warren, Sullivan, Cowley, Davidson, and others. If a map with 20 landmarks is more reliable than one with ten, then The Brazen Face of History gives its readers enough referents to insure that no one becomes lost.

According to Simpson, our fall from myth into history has resulted from “the modern increase of mind’s dominion.” In order to survey the change that has taken place, Simpson telescopes his focus over territory ranging from colonial etiologies and the New England ether to the brief pastoral fixity of the old South. (Virginia was Virgilian, while Massachusetts was messianic and millennialistic.) An important source for Simpson’s understanding of our fall from myth, Lionel Trilling, has observed that Plato used the “just society” as a model for the mind, but that we have reversed things in the modern world, using the mind as a model for society. In Trilling’s words, we locate “the paradigm of the just society in the right conduct of mind.”

Simpson uses Trilling’s observation to begin his second chapter, “The Symbolism of Literary Alienation in the Revolutionary Age.” Along the way he notes that “the reversal of mind and society as paradigms of order was first and fully defined in Thomas Jefferson’s respect for mind as the model of government.” One result of this was the “displacement of the traditional community centered in Church and State” as a model by “the creation of public mind or public opinion.” The order that the Christian myth provided was replaced by the vicissitudes of public debate. Having cited a passage from Tocqueville as a metaphor for what he is after, Simpson summarizes “the meaning of the Enlightenment in America” as follows:

From a philosophical and psychological, and not less poetic, perspective, the American phase of modern history fundamentally represents: the climactic stage of mind’s willful transference of nature, man, and society—and eventually of God, and finally of mind itself—into itself.

There is one interesting exception to the above rule, however, and it has to do with the state of mind in slaveholding Virginia. Referring to Jefferson’s tacit acceptance of slavery, Simpson says that Jefferson “attempted to avoid the dire underlying meaning of his position—to wit, that a slave society demanded the conformance of mind (and of consciousness and conscience) to its needs.” Put a little differently, “the commitment of a Virginia man of letters to freedom ironically demanded his support of slavery.” At this point in history, a double reversal occurred. The turn that Trilling has identified was given another one hundred and eighty degrees.

In his discussion Simpson often uses the word transference to describe what elsewhere he calls a reversal. In terms of the effect that our fall from myth into history has had on the self, transference frequently provides a more satisfactory description of what has happened because it allows for a certain amount of movement sideways. If at one point in its history Jefferson’s freethinking Virginia reversed the mind’s dominion and put thought to the service of the institution of chattel slavery, during the same period New England transferred the basis of an entire contract. Transcendentalism might be characterized as a struggle between materialism and idealism, but Simpson maintains it was something else, the transfer of the external world we inhabit into the internal world we think. Whether one chooses to call it a transfer or a reversal, this process amounted to a towering assertion of self, something that is actually quite different from idealism. The Transcendentalists knew, Simpson says, “that they belonged to a movement out of the dominion of idealism into a new realm where reality would be defined (as Emerson says in “Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England”) in the image of “the mind that had become aware of itself.”“

In Virginia an understanding similar to the one in New England came about, but it wore the more rational clothing of Jefferson’s acceptance of 18th-century materialistic psychology. Regarded in the light of today, Jefferson too “accentuates the internalization of history,” but in his understanding mind and body are of a “continuous” substance. This means one must accept not just mind but also the world’s body as his habitation. Rather than the intense individualism of Transcendentalism, which made each person discrete, Jefferson believed each generation was “historically discrete.” Rather than an individual a generation was “self-sufficient.”

There are many other instances of the shift that Simpson has identified. One of the most interesting of these concerns America’s “embodiment of a pastoral reversal of historical consciousness.” Taking root first in the South, “the pastoral mode originated in the self-conscious recognition of the poetic mind that it represented a differentiation from an integral, or cosmic, existence.” Simpson concludes his discussion of pastoralism with a look at The Hamlet, which he finds central to our ability to understand the “intricate contrast between the pastoral and historical modes of existence.” Myth is “displaced in history,” and this fact permeates “southern literary expression” in particular. In sum, Southern literature can be read as one story:

the story, not of a historical exile from a cosmic garden, but of an unwilling yet willed exodus out of Arcadia into history— out of a place created by the historical consciousness itself as a refuge against the psychic depredations of history.

Read this way, Southern literature is a working out of the sort of double reversal that took place in Jefferson’s freethinking yet slaveholding Virginia. Anyone interested in a striking discussion of pastoralism in America certainly should read Simpson’s The Dispossessed Garden: Pastoral and History in Southern Literature.

Simpson’s account of our fall from myth into history identifies a pattern that has been described variously by Whitehead, Trilling, Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Eric Voegelin, and others. That is, The Brazen Face of History worries a point that has been central to a wide range of modern discussions. What Simpson sees as “the progressive drama of the closure of history in the finitude of the human consciousness,” Whitehead sees as “a tragic mixture of vibrant disclosure and of deadening closure.” Eric Voegelin says we have undergone the “fateful shift in Western society from existence in openness toward the cosmos to existence in the mode of closure against, and denial of, reality.” At one point Heidegger says somewhat cryptically that we are no longer skyward-looking men.

In a way Simpson has prenamed the shift so many agree has taken place. He has done this by turning to the men of letters who actually raveled myth into historical consciousness. His naming consists of the figures who have inhabited our history, and by this method another reversal occurs. As with Jefferson’s need to return mind to the service of society because of slavery, Simpson too requires that because of our historical dislocation we turn our gaze outward. We must explain ourselves not on the basis of the mind’s contemplation of itself but on the basis of the mind’s contemplation of the whole process of history.

From one chapter to the next, examples of “the nature and meaning of the literary vocation in America” are raised for inspection as instances of the transfer or reversal that Simpson identifies. Regarded from another angle, the entire argument of The Brazen Face of History is devoted to what Simpson calls his “long interest in the symbolism of literary order.” Since the book focuses on symbolism, I will conclude with some remarks about symbols and about the way a culture trapped in history achieves meaning.

The Brazen Face of History has to do with the way those of us who live in an era rather than in a myth must work to create meaning. In Speculative Instruments 1. A. Richards says a symbol is some natural object that arouses a general feeling “independent of any specific interpretation.” In his first critique, Kant gives a more satisfactory account. Kant says that we recognize a symbol in part for its natural characteristics. The other element, however, that makes an object a symbol is the anthropomorphic, even arbitrary, significance (rather than feeling) we give that object. In Truth and Method Hans-George Gadamer discusses the way we create meaning, and his explanation is related to Kant’s idea of the symbol.

Gadamer says that “definiteness” in art “is by no means a fetter for our mind, but in fact opens up the area in which freedom operates in the play of our mental faculties.” The easiest way to grasp Gadamer’s notion is to use an analogy: in basketball the space on the court is arbitrarily limited; the type of ball, the time, the number of players, the number of referees, and so on—all of these are arbitrary limits, and they are completely anthropomorphic. But what happens as a result of this is that amid such limits meaningful free play can take place. A player can become a hero.

If to have meaning, we must delimit experience then perhaps the least arbitrary and most trustworthy of our nevertheless arbitrary, anthropomorphic limits is our own history. Lewis Simpson’s method is to take the delimiting examples of American literary figures and use these to bring our American experience into focus. In the absence of an external system such as the Christian myth to locate and offset the radical subjectivity of the mind’s attempt to explain not only the world but itself, the central problem for our knowing things turns out to be objectivity. By what mode of thought will we be able to overcome the subjective stance that for Richards reduces the significance of a symbol to feeling? I know of no more reliable method than the historical approach used in The Brazen Face of History.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading