Wednesday, March 29, 2017

`It Will Be Hard to Live With Us'

Knowing my affinity for the eighteenth century, especially in England, a reader has reminded me of something Randall Jarrell wrote, though I’m unable to pinpoint the original source. The excerpt is quoted in No Other Book: Selected Essays (ed. Brad Leithauser, 1999):

“Most of us know, now, that Rousseau was wrong: that man, when you knock his chains off, sets up the death camps. Soon we shall know everything the 18th century didn't know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us.”

For “hard” I would substitute “impossible,” and the phrase I won’t use is “The Enlightenment.” Swift, Pope, Gibbon and Johnson were no more enlightened than Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas; merely geniuses of a different sort. There is no moral or artistic progress, as there is in science and medicine. From the twentieth century we learned the hard way that the quest for utopia leads inevitably to mass murder. That’s the nature of our species. Gibbon understood: “History is indeed little more than the register of crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”

Rousseau is a particularly unsavory character, and his name is now happily linked in my mind to a passage in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939). I think of the events described by O’Brien as an act of applied literary criticism.  The novel’s narrator and some of his friends are leaving a Dublin pub when:

“. . . a small man in black fell in with us and tapping me often about the chest, talked to me earnestly on the subject of Rousseau, a member of the French nation. He was animated, his pale features striking in the starlight and his voice going up and falling in the lilt of his argumentum.

“I did not understand his talk and was personally unacquainted with him. But Kelly was taking in all he said, for he stood near him, his taller head inclined in an attitude of close attention. Kelly then made a low noise and opened his mouth and covered the small man from shoulder to knee with a coating of unpleasant buff-coloured puke. Many other things happened on that night now imperfectly recorded in my memory but that incident is still very clear to me in my mind. Afterwards the small man was some distance from us in the lane, shaking his divested coat and rubbing it along the wall. He is a little man that the name of Rousseau will always recall to me.”


Tim Brewer said...

The Jarrell quotation, rightly dismissed as "fashionable cant" by a writer of equally fashionable cant of a different hue (Irving Howe), is to be found in a review of Robert Penn Warren's 'On the Underside of the Stone; Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices’ in the NYT, 23 August, 1953.

Denkof Zwemmen said...

"There is no moral or artistic progress, as there is in science and medicine." Absolutely. This became clear to me -- in a positive sense -- when I visited the Lascaux caves in 1967. Not only inhumane cruelty, but transcendent artistic creation -- we have been exactly the same creatures for at least 20,000 years.