A Configuration of Themes

A Configuration of Themes

This essay–Edward W. Said’s first piece for The Nation from the magazine’s May 30, 1966, issue–is a special selection from The Nation Digital Archive. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published by Said, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive–an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.


POETS OF REALITY: Six Twentieth-Century Writers.
By J. Hillis Miller. Harvard University Press. 369 pp. $7.95.

The formidable subject of J. Hillis Miller’s Poets of Reality is “the recovery of immanence,” whose loss, in his The Disappearance of God (1963) he has so brilliantly and persuasively recorded. Together the two books form an inner history of the transition from romantic to modern literature. His practice in both books is to set forth the “configuration of themes” that constitutes a writer’s particular universe, and by keeping the number of writers to five or six (in the first book de Quincey, Emily Brontë, Arnold, Browning and Hopkins. In the second, Conrad, Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams) he achieves a good balance between particular description and a general thematic unity that binds his writers together.

Immanence is intelligible meaning that inheres in what we perceive, meaning that is available here and now rather than there and away in some distant realm.

Miller argues that the romantic heritage of the nineteenth century leads directly to the unendurable impasse, exemplified in the final tragedies of Arnold and Hopkins, of a solitary ego confronting a disintegrating world from which immanence and God have receded.

It is against this stark background that Miller sees the twentieth-century poets of reality doing their work, thanks in great measure to Conrad, whose sheer courage earns him a chapter and a poetic vocation. Conrad portrays the absurdities of the romantic ethos, and in doing this he is a nihilist who shows that romantic dualism is untenable because God, its original sustainer, has not only disappeared but for all practical purposes has also died. Miller argues that for Conrad the uninterrupted “stuff” of reality is darkness; what passes for the world’s ethics, civilization and truth is merely “the extermination of the [world’s] source”–darkness. Conrad achieves the seemingly impossible in being able to see the world as it is, as pure quality and without interpretation, but the expense of such a vision is the unpleasant realization that conventional ideas of space and time, matter and spirit, must be rendered as incompatible dimensions. Man, who lives in both dimensions, is the victim of an irreconcilable, even impossible, dualism. Miller’s choice for the personification of this insight is the Professor, that terrifyingly clear-headed ascetic, who in Thc Secret Agent can “neither make a secure place where men can create their own culture, nor can he bring the darkness of madness and despair into the world as the foundation of a viable city of man.”

The Professor’s is a mind that “caresses the images of ruin and destruction,” a mind that has plumbed nihilism so thoroughly as to make some new departure imperative for others. In the movement of modern literature built upon the example of Conrad’s bravery, as well as on his sense of the darkness in which objectivity and subjectivity are dissolved, Miller begins to discern what, in R.P. Blackmur’s incomparable phrase for Anna Karenina, is a dialectic of incarnation. Each of the authors Miller discusses is seen to begin at a “starting point” that is both a special awareness of actuality and a moment of radical self-consciousness. He then works his way through a series of relative solutions to the problem of reconciling the mind to the world, and finally ends where he began, with his sense of actuality enriched by his partnership in it, his poetry thus incarnates reality because reality is now seen as a dimension of “co-presence” where mind, the world, and an underlying being shine forth.

So Yeats’s early desire to transfigure the present world is achieved when he realizes that appeals to other-worldly values must fail because the supernatural inheres in every corner of life. Eliot’s “monistic metaphysics”–based on F.H. Bradley–which controls poems like “Prufrock,” turns out to be only the individual’s version of “the true pattern [of] God’s order of existence”: this discovery, accordmg to Miller, is the Christian version of the recovery of immanence. By the time he reaches Williams (after a short chapter on Dylan Thomas, and a stunning excursion through Wallace Stevens) Miller is able to demonstrate that Williams’s poetry is coterminous with reality; the meaning of poetry is reality, and the meaning of reality is contained in poetry, one catching up and delivering the other.

Because Miller’s province in each case is the writer’s entire oeuvre considered as a network of relations, in Stevens’s words “a skeleton of ether,” it is impossible to do justice here to the superb richness of Miller’s exposition except to say that he makes it possible to know how such a phrase as Eliot’s “objective correlative,” how such a notion as Yeats’s centric myth, Thomas’s definition of death as metaphors, Stevens’s embrace of “a giant of nothingness” and Williams’s “hidden flame of light” contributes to, and is, the figure in the writer’s carpet. How, in short, each particular aspect of a writer’s universe expresses the essence of that universe, which is an economics of reality of a very high order indeed.

It is entirely fitting that Miller’s mode of criticism is fully congruent with his view of the writers he discusses; this ought to come as no surprise, and that would be one way of praising the calm inevitability of Miller’s discourse, yet the fact that it does surprise makes of Poets of Reality an undeniably major new departure in American criticism. Part of Miller’s novelty is, first of all, that he dispenses with exhaustive analyses of individual poems (this is not to suggest that Miller’s grasp of his poets is at all inaccurate; on the contrary, he has a more exact and sensitive command of the poetry than most critics) and second of all, that he is unconcerned with the normal biographical, psychological and scholarly pieties.

In spite of this, one’s impression of the book is neither that it is hopelessly general, nor that it is the work of an intelligence fluttering in the void. Miller is not an untidy revolutionary. He seems engaged in a disciplined and salutary dialogue with his poets, using their insights to strengthen his, helping them to help themselves. Like the poets he discusses, his way is not to regard the individual poem as a simple object that exists at a comfortable distance from the reader, but to see it instead as a presence mediating the rest of the writer’s work and the critic’s mind. The poem no longer stands at attention in the middle of absolute space and time before the scrutinizing critic. This means, as Miller says of Williams, that “Einstein’s discoveries” are made use of: “there are only innumerable local centers, each as valid as any of the others, each inextricably involved in time, space, and matter, each radiating its own unique power to measure them.” Since the poetry of reality “puts the mind within the life of objects,” the critic’s mind moves freely among the corporate life, the universe, of a poet’s poems.

Miller seems to believe that absolute time (when, for example, Eliot wrote “The Wasteland,” or where in the sequence of Yeats’s career is “The Fisherman” to be found) ought to be transformed and then incorporated by the critic into a spatial dimension formed by the writer’s whole work: this permits a precise geography of the poetic universe as a field of action in which the poet’s dialectic of creation is an energizing “radiant gist.” In the second place, Miller’s criticism is essentially descriptive, rather than moralistic or hortatory, because like the poets he discusses he is concerned with poetry that lives in reality inhabited by the creating mind imagined as “a thinker without final thoughts” in a world for which classical ontology has no relevance. “All things exist simultaneously in one realm, and though they may interact they are not related causally. The idea of causal sequence is replaced by the notion of a poetry which ‘lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity.’ As in other areas of contemporary thought, linear determinism gives way to a system of reciprocal motions, intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.” Miller’s criticism is geared especially to deal with art that causes what Daniel Bell has called the eclipse of distance.

Miller’s intellectual leanings are toward the antipositivists in European philosophy, the phenomenologists in particular, as well as toward the more philosophic of American critics. I take this as a sign of his authentic catholicity of outlook and taste: however, I want to suggest neither that he is a facile borrower and a system maker nor that he is fuzzy and jargon ridden. He seems to me to have fully assimilated and unobtrusively used his influences. There are interesting parallels between the formulation of some of Miller’s ideas about his poets and, for instance, the thought of Husserl, Heidegger, and of Husserl’s literary disciple, Georges Poulet: I can indicate only a few examples here to show how like the phenomenologists Miller is in taking the realm of lived experience as his province.

In Husserl’s phenomenological reduction there is an implicit analogy with what Miller says of Stevens’s mode of putting the world in parentheses, seeing it freed from any sort of privileged interpretation, abstracting reality as pure quality or “idea” into the imagination; this is the act of mind and imagination that Stevens calls for when he says: “Let’s see the very thing and nothing else./Let’s see it with the hottest fire of sight.” Then again, there is Husserl’s notion of the transcendental ego, which Miller uses brilliantly and idiomatically to describe Eliot’s “Tradition,” an ideal order that “has its own life, a life independent of any private ego, though it is in its qualities much like a private ego enormously expanded.”

From Poulet, Miller derives the technique of conceiving of human time as a spatial entity best figured by the circle, with the author’s mind appropriating and filling out the circle (one recalls Keats’s memorable line, “the wreath’d trellis of a working brain”), establishing the circle’s perimeter, determining the texture of its content–thus a poem by Thomas is like an ark in which all things are “rescued and reaffirmed.” Also from Poulet, Miller takes over the extraordinarily suggestive theory of the starting point as a germ out of which all of a poet’s work can be seen not only to derive but also to return.

Finally, the way in which Miller describes Stevens’s understanding “of mere being” strongly resembles Heidegger’s Dasein: being “is a pervasive power, visible nowhere in itself and yet present and visible in all things,” and, as Stevens writes, “It is like a thing of ether that exists/Almost as predicate.” The central strand of Poets of Reality is an account of how Conrad’s darkness develops into Being, like a ground bass given chordal realization.

Miller seems to be the first person to give Eliot’s criticism total coherence, instead of breaking it down into a series of special tools. It is exactly this idea, that Eliot (like all the poets of reality) had a complete criticism based on genuine problems of actual experience rather than on weird prejudices, which Miller assumes in order to examine a writer’s world. At moments also one can see the influence of R.P. Blackmur’s remarkable apprehensions of gesture, the “language before language,” that informs language.

These parallels and similarities are an indication of Miller’s unique powers and the intelligence with which he applies them. Yet, a great deal more than this is implicit in his work, and I hope that he will some day make his approach and his reasons for it more explicit. One misses, for example, a discussion of how Miller’s work adheres to Gaston Bachelard’s theories, or to Henri Focillon’s ideas (quoted by Stevens in The Necessary Angel) that “human consciousness is in perpetual pursuit of a language and a style,” and that “the chief characteristic of the mind is to be constantly describing itself.” Or the relevance to Miller of Valéry and Rilke, one the poet of the most heightened consciousness, the other a very great realist.

In the fleshing out of his own critical theories Miller, in fine, might find himself more overtly involved in the specific historical and cultural circumstances that produce both the poetry and the criticism of reality. I am particularly anxious to discover how Miller puts his poets and theories of reality in touch with other varieties of modern realism, be it the Socialist realism of Georg Lukacs and Lucien Goldmann, the realistic nihilism of a writer like Genêt, Beckett’s hermetic realism, the realists discussed by Harry Levin in The Gales of Horn, or for that matter the linguistic realism of the later Wittgenstein.

Another way of putting my request to Miller is to say that his general introductory chapters (12 pages in Poets of Reality, 16 in the earlier book) are too allusive. From a critic who has already spoken with such ingenuity and skill we ought to expect a major and explicit confrontation with the central philosophic and critical issues with which he has been dealing. His phenomenological criticism has hitherto been intent upon the description of essences–and in this he has no equal–but it must at some point deal with “accidents,” which, in a poet like Yeats, play a larger role than Miller accords them. Yet Miller has opened American criticism to so much that is imaginatively new and philosophically exciting that it would be foolish to end without saying again that Poets of Reality is a splendid book.

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