Thursday, December 05, 2013

`Reverence for the Archetype'

In at least three of his books, the poet Peter Viereck (1916-2006) cites the epigram “Greek Architecture” (Timoleon, 1891) by Herman Melville: 

“Not magnitude, not lavishness,
 But Form—the site;
 Not innovating willfulness,
 But reverence for the Archetype.” 

Timoleon was Melville’s final book, published in an edition of twenty-five copies four months before his death.  The poem above is part of its “Fruit of Travel Long Ago” section, eighteen poems inspired by the poet's visit to Greece, Italy and the Holy Land in 1856-57. In “Greek Architecture,” Melville suggests the importance of preserving what is most precious in our cultural inheritance. Odd that he should decry “magnitude,” surely the most obvious quality possessed by Moby-Dick, not to mention the “lavishness” of its prose, but the novel is steeped in Shakespeare, Milton, Burton and much else drawn from the Western literary tradition. A Greek temple, without “innovating willfulness” (hardly a virtue to the Greeks), is built in a location appropriate to its form – “the site” -- just as Moby-Dick mirrors the vastness of the whale and of America. In Chapter CIV, Ishmael says, “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” In “`Reverence for the Archetype’: The Pragmatic Conservatism of Peter Viereck” (Part I, Part II), Robert J. Lacey quotes “Greek Architecture” and observes: 

“Informed by a tragic sense of the human condition, conservatives demand a reverence for the law and established forms and remain forever suspicious of creative and outlandish invention. Whenever uncertainty reigns, conservatives err on the side of caution, preferring the old to the new, the known to the unknown, the tried to the untried, facts to theories, the concrete to the imagined. The law of unintended consequences never escapes the conservative mind.” 

The poem’s first citation by Viereck I’ve been able to find is in Conservatism Revisited (1949). In the 1962 revised edition, Viereck asks, before quoting Melville’s poem: 

“How can thoughtful new conservatives, avoiding the political pitfalls that so many have failed to avoid, apply fruitfully to American life today what we have called non-political `cultural conservatism’ – the tradition of Melville, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Henry Adams, Irving Babbitt, William Faulkner? Let them apply our classical humanist values against what Melville called `the impieties of progress [sic].’ Hence the even greater relevance for the 1960s of the Melville poem with which Conservatism Revisited ended in 1949; thereby Melville was rejecting both bourgeois and Marxist materialist from a classic humanist viewpoint…” 

The phrase “impieties of `Progress’” is drawn from Canto XXI of Melville's Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876): “`Against pretenses void or weak / The impieties of 'Progress' speak.’” In the Autumn 1952 issue of the Antioch Review, in “Will America Prove Marx Right?” (incorporated into Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals, 1953), Viereck uses the poem as an epigraph and adds four lines from another poem on a related theme in Timoleon, “The Ravaged Villa”:

“The Spider in the laurel spins,
The weed exiles the flower;
And, flung to kiln, Apollo’s bust
Makes lime for Mammon’s tower.” 

Viereck identifies the author as Melville, who was, he says, the “great American conservative, on traditional values versus the nihilistic materialism of Economic Man.” Finally, in Conservative Thinkers: From John Adams to Winston Churchill (1956) he quotes the poem again, prefaced like this: “The ideal inspiring America’s cultural conservatives has been best expressed by a little-known quatrain of Melville…” 

In another volume, Strict Wildness: Discoveries in Poetry and History (2011), Viereck identifies two conflicting American literary traditions, one “romantic and progressive,” the other “classical and conservative.” Sounding much like Yvor Winters, Viereck says the former, represented by the “Whitman-Emerson literary tradition,” “cracked up.” The latter (“literary pessimists”), in which he places Melville, is “just as authentically American as the first one but has never received the same popular recognition, being less comforting.”


George said...

It seems to me that it would have astonished Thoreau to hear himself considered a cultural conservative, and that it takes a pretty narrow focus to call Henry Adams one. How distinguish Emerson and Thoreau, and leave Thoreau on the conservative side of the divide?

The opposition of "romantic and progressive" and "classical and conservative" seems to me found more than reasoned. A good number of the early Romantics were conservative, reacting to the innovating ways of the classically-minded rationalists, weren't they? Was Chateaubriand (on the whole) a progressive, or Novalis?

Buce said...

Have heard it argued by a mathematician that the front of the Parthenon (as originally constructed) embodied the so-called "golden ratio," where (base)/(height)=[(1+sqrt(5))/2)]=1.618. I raised the point with a classicist who said he had never heard of it, and that it sounded like fantasy to him.