Notebook, 1993-


The introduction/Symbolism, from Ellmann, Richard and Charles Feidelson, Jr, eds. The Modern Tradition, Backgrounds of Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965. Notes


The Introduction to this section is presented below. The following is a list of the articles presented in this section of The Modern Tradtion on Realism:

Imagination and Nature

The Revolt Against Nature

The Interaction of Imagination and Nature

Symbolic Nature

Imagination and Thought

The State of Doubt

The Role of Thought in Poetry

The State of Affirmation

The Autonomy of Art

The Doctrine of Purity

The Purification of Fiction

The Objective Artifact

Alogical Structure

The Artist-Hero

The Morality of the Artist

The Art of Life

The Artist and Society

Symbolism - Introduction
Though not all romantics are symbolists, the symbolist is a kind of romantic, one who singles out and develops the romantic doctrine of creative imagination. Whatever else he may affirm, the symbolist holds that human imagination actively constructs the world we perceive or at least meets it more than halfway, and does not merely reflect the given forms of external objects. Not only like the romantics but also like Kant, on whose idealism he often leans for philosophic support, he is a deliberate innovator, experimenting with a new human perspective. He is exploring the possibility of a basic shift in emphasis--from physical to mental reality, from the multiplicity of sense experience to unifying ideas, from the objects of knowledge to the processes of knowing. But he is not systematically idealistic. As an exponent of imagination, the symbolist tends to be defiantly aesthetic in his view of the mind, of "ideas," and of knowledge itself; he is likely to be impatient with abstract Reason, the god of philosophic idealism, and to disparage all mental powers except the concrete imagination. At his most extreme, he would say that logic is mere police work and memory is mere bookkeeping [though there may be a more profound mythic memory, which is nothing less than the cumulative imagination of mankind]. He would contend that the artistic image or symbol--and especially the verbal symbol, the language of a poem--is the key to the relation of mind and nature; that it is the salvation of thought; that it possesses an absolute autonomy; and that its maker, the artist, is the truly heroic man. The relation between the imaginative mind and nature obviously depends somewhat upon whether "nature" is taken to mean the physical landscape of woods and trees, the force animating that landscape, the external world in general, or unconscious life as opposed to conscious fabrication.[1] But many symbolists look at nature askance in all these senses, as a kind of brutal, massive, and crude encroachment of the non-human and sub-human. Their rebellion against it leads to Wilde's paradox that art holds no mirror up to nature, but is rather man's protest against nature's ineptitudes, his substitution [p. 7] of perfect imaginative forms for rudimentary natural ones. Nature, always outdone, can at best provide enfeebled copies of what artists have conceived more perfectly. When we fancy we are admiring nature, we are actually admiring [with eyes that have been taught by imaginative artists what to look for] nature's approximation to these prior forms. Wilde reverses Taine's contention that art is shaped by its age;[2] instead, art creates the age.

Rilke also maintains that art is contrary to nature, not so much by forging perfect patterns, however, as by uncovering a hidden reality that nature, especially our own human nature, urges us to ignore. Outward events and circumstances are so engrossing that most people gladly dwell among them; but the artist turns away into the "abyss" of his own being to learn what is there and to become reconciled with his own latent powers. In this way he is able to surpass his ordinary self, to achieve a preternatural level of being and perception.[3] This sense of a secret reality leads Picasso, in a rare statement about his art, to say that the artist expresses "what nature is not." He does so by granting forms a life of their own, independent of their function or appearance in external nature. Judged in terms of nature, these forms are lies; but they are valid imaginative expressions, manifesting the distinctive world of the artist. When people objected to his portrait of Gertrude Stein on the grounds that it did not resemble her, Picasso replied, "It will." Malraux agrees that the ruling passion of modern art has been to dominate appearances, to create--by rejection and distortion--another. With a touch of regret that Picasso does not share, Malraux finds that individual artists have severed their own consciousness from all public expectations. They have substituted the value of art itself for the accepted values--the presumed "nature of things" --to which in other ages art has usually been subordinated. Art thereby becomes the modern absolute, but at the same time, rejecting so much of "the estate of man," it is anxious and perplexed, uneasily assertive, and even moves toward a kind of modern barbarism.[4]

To distinguish between nature and imagination is often only a step toward reconciling the two. This rapprochement is apparent in Kantian idealism. Kant postulates a "transcendental faculty of imagination," an a priori unifying or "synthetic" power of the mind without which we could never reproduce the image of an object [its "representation"], just as we should never have possessed any image at all without an earlier "synthesis of apprehension." In effect, Kant regards aesthetic creation [or "genius"] as a special case of the generic imagination. Unlike mere "taste," which is an awareness of the beautiful things that are present in our initial apprehension of nature, genius is active and constructive. It is the "beautiful representation of a thing." The world of aesthetic ideas, the products of genius, is like a second nature built out of the first, the "actual nature" that we grasp through the synthesis of apprehension, and recall through the synthesis of reproduction. The aesthetic world also differs from the nature that is known through concepts. Though both are constructs, aesthetic nature has a richness of content that no abstract rational scheme can ever encompass. Yet the aesthetic world is truly a world of thought. It has the ideal quality of intellectual forms and the intuitive, untranslatable immediacy of sensory perception.

In a development typical of the post-Kantian era, Coleridge focuses upon this mid-point of the ideal and actual, the intellectual and empirical. He pictures art as an interaction or "coalescence" of mind and nature, a process in which the original terms are altered. Imagination is not a mere duplication of nature, nor is it a propounding of human thought; it is an activity or function that lies between, a union and reconcilement of nature with what is distinctively human. By means of this vital force, which "dissolves, diffuses, dissipates in order to re-create," man joins his mind [itself responsive to laws of nature] to the spirit of nature, and both are symbolically articulated in the form of the highest art. Since it is genuinely creative, imagination is quite distinct from "fancy," which does no more than shuffle the "fixities and definites" of practical experience. In the same way, Coleridge sharply distinguishes between allegorical art, which constructs a parallel between imagination and nature, and symbolical art, which makes one tune out of two.[5]

Rilke's term for "coalescence" is less philosophical; he calls it "penetration into the confidence of things." Those things that are outside us in daily life are absorbed into the artist's mind, where, without surrendering their material reality, they acquire a spiritual one as well. They now can take on a life of their own, and become tutelary to man like angels. To undergo this experience is to attain, in "a single violent grasp of feeling," what Coleridge more abstractly described. For Hans Arp, the relation of imagination to nature is a kind of sexual congress, an impregnation of objects. Unlike Picasso, Mondrian, and others who sponsor art against nature, Arp wants man to recognize his own naturalness. He calls for a "concrete art" in which imagination, the engendering power, is part of the natural world that it quickens.

A third symbolist attitude toward nature hinges on belief in an eternal language which the symbolic imagination can read within or behind natural objects. To William Blake, nature is a deception and a delusion when seen only by the corporeal eye and its confederate, memory, for which the vanities of space and time are all in all. But when properly apprehended by the visionary eye, nature is imagination; that is, it embodies realities. The whole world, including the perceiver, is understood by Blake to be a primal and eternal unity, which he depicts under the figure of a single radiant man, a Christ. To separate, as allegory does, the human from the natural, or the temporal from the eternal, is to dismember. Symbolism presents the unity behind these misleading divisions, and what the symbolic artist knows now, [p. 9] all will perceive at the Last Judgment.[6] In The Prelude Wordsworth recounts a vision comparable to Blake's, which he experienced on crossing the Alps. Woods, streams, cliffs, and clouds alike presented themselves in their permanent aspect, as symbols of eternity.[7]

For Baudelaire nature at times becomes a "temple" in which one can perceive the mysterious correspondence of natural forms to each other and to qualities of one's own mind. Such correspondences suggest permanent essences, which Yeats considers to be "disembodied powers." By the use of emotional and intellectual symbols, the poet frees the essences of things from the "crude circumstances" in which they are hidden. These circumstances are themselves confused remnants of the buried reality which imaginative men have summoned into existence in the past.[8] Paul Klee regards nature as only one possible product of the "heart of creation," a kind of primal imagination which is the eternal generating force. The artist struggles to participate in that force by depicting it rather than its secondary manifestations in natural objects.[9]

The symbolist state of mind, at its creative pitch, has become a main preoccupation of symbolist writers. They seek to define the difference between their artistic processes and ordinary habit-ridden and opinion-ridden consciousness. "Ideas," which play so prominent a part in daily life, will probably be of no use here, for, as Goethe says, the poet deals with impressions. Art is not aimed at the reader's understanding, according to Goethe, and later poets as diverse as Coleridge and Eliot have agreed that art is perhaps most effective when imperfectly understood. Whatever claims religion and philosophy have outside art, within art they have no claim except as artistic materials.

From a similar vantage point, John Keats defines the mood of artistic creation by his term "negative capability," meaning the acceptance of uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, without any compulsion to resolve them in rational terms or to weigh them by factual probability. The "cold philosophy" of abstract ideas can only destroy the surmises and intuitions from which creative art is born. Flaubert also lays stress on the negative aspect of imagination. According to him, not to conclude is a characteristic of the creative mind which is reflected in the work itself; just as the artist renounces clear-cut opinions, so the absence of them is one of the marks of great works of literature.[10]

These theories do not imply that art is the purely emotional creature of inspiration. Rather, as Paul Valéry is at pains to show in his critical essays, poetical feeling is one thing, and a poem, or the artificial synthesis of this [p. 10] state in some work, is quite another. Valéry asserts that a poem is a "machine" for producing poetic feeling in a reader, and to construct the machine an immense amount of abstract thought is required. There must be efforts of will and analysis, choices and delimitations of material. The language must be freed from irrelevancies, and the artist's inner speech, his "drama of mental images," is bound to take account even of "ideas." While these cannot appear in discursive form, their influence may be felt as a pressure upon the poet's manner of performing the act of thought. For granted that poetry exceeds prose, as dancing exceeds walking, the same limbs are exercised.

To differentiate between propositions as they occur in poetry and prose, I. A. Richards offers the term pseudo-statements. Poetic propositions, though they look like statements, are not to be judged by truth or falsity, but only by their effect in releasing or organizing many impulses and attitudes. What Coleridge called the "willing suspension of disbelief" induced by a poem is simply our recognition that different mode of assertion is involved. While T. S. Eliot has not always taken the same position on this question, especially as applied to religious verse, his essay on the metaphysical poets agrees that, when philosophy enters poetry, its truth or falsity as philosophy does not matter. He particularly admires the "mechanism of sensibility" which enabled seventeenth-century writers to encompass thought and emotion alike and turn them into poetry. Modern poetry must try to recover this lost capacity.[11]

Another face of poetic inconclusiveness and non-assertion is poetic affirmation, which is equally indifferent to objective tests of truth. Nietzsche finds that "untruth" is a condition of life; opinions, ideas, and beliefs are unavoidably false, yet they are necessary to gauge reality against imagined standards without which life would be arid. Affirmations, however fictional, are life-furthering because they extend man's sway over things and also provide necessary food for the passions, which crave attachments. Consequently skeptics, including Zarathustra himself, employ convictions as expressive material.[12] Yeats, in espousing what might be called affirmative capability, emphasizes the usefulness of affirmations in giving free play to the mind. Every affirmation which can engage us thoroughly, even though briefly, has some validity. In his essay, Symbolism in Poetry , Yeats argues against Goethe's view that the poet should know all philosophy, but keep it out of his work. According to Yeats, philosophy may enter poetry in the form of fragments which are a kind of intellectual reflection of emotions. Nietzsche regards affirmations as life-furthering but illusory; Yeats sees them instead as inevitably partial. Their imaginative reach toward Truth is more important than their factual truth or error.[13] [p. 11]

The main bent of symbolist theory, whether in relation to nature or to abstract thought, is to preserve the autonomy of art. So as to make sure that art is its own master, symbolists discard "impure" elements, such as didacticism, which have sometimes appeared in the works of earlier artists. Baudelaire proclaims that art demands the suppression of outside motives; moral teaching violates the aesthetic effect. Art may indeed, if it wishes, disdain vice, though because of disharmony rather than evil, and art may result in the uplifting of men's minds. But these are not its purpose, which is to create beauty, or more largely, to satisfy the longing for heaven on earth in the only way available. Oscar Wilde enlarges the list of proscribed elements to include persuasion, autobiography, and practical utility. With reckless single-mindedness, art expresses nothing but itself.

As the model for artistic form, Wilde names music, and this analogy is part of the symbolist effort to establish the autonomy of poetry. Pater's declaration, "All the arts aspire to the condition of music," concurs with Richard Wagner's view that literature must become like music by immediately presenting, rather than describing or analyzing, its subject, and by finding analogical language that will dissolve ideas into feelings. Wagner thought these aims had been perfectly attained in music-drama.[14] Mallarmé bows courteously to Wagner and praises music for its incantatory qualities, but he thinks that music has its source in relationships that words have established, and that poetry can become a higher music. By invoking, alluding, suggesting, never speaking with prose directness, its language moving always toward a life of its own, the poem will begin to express what is beyond speech. The poet's task is not to change from one art to another, but by denuding language of prose tatters, to restore it to its original purity in "the mindÍs native land."

In cubism, Apollinaire thought painting had achieved a comparable purification by disengaging beauty from all that was conventionally human. Paintings were no longer to be given objects for titles; they were simply to be called "paintings." Marcel Duchamp finds even this kind of title an impurity. He therefore proposes to name one of his works a "delay," so that it will no longer be thought of as a picture. Painters vie with each other, as Yeats said symbolist poets did, in finding things to exclude.


[The introduction/Symbolism, from Ellmann, Richard and Charles Feidelson, Jr, eds. The Modern Tradition, Backgrounds of Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965.]



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