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Thinking Out Loud

Certainly this was in place before him, but Wordsworth is the chief example of this. Wordsworth effectively reinvented what it meant to be a “poet” in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, arguing that language should be plain and transparent, allowing the reader unfettered access to the mind of the poet–as opposed to the highly sylized couplets of writers like Pope or Dryden that had dominated 18th-century poetry. Augusta Webster, in an essay called “Lay Figures,” has a bit of fun with this idea:

But more especially still is the poet believed to be his own lay figure. He is taken as offering his readers the presentment of himself, his hopes, his loves, his sorrows, his guilts and remorses, his history and psychology generally. Some people so thoroughly believe this to be the proper view of the poet’s position towards the public that they will despise a man as a hypocrite because, after having written and printed, “I am the bridegroom of Despair,” or “No wine but the wine of death for me,” or some such unsociable sentiment, he goes out to dinners and behaves like anybody else. One even hears it adduced as a fault in the moral character of poets generally that they do not feel all they write–meaning that they do not feel it in their own persons, part of their own experience. It is heartily to be hoped of most of them that they do not. Turn over the pages of any dozen poets now living, men and women, and take all their utterances for their own in their own persons, suppose the first personal pronoun not artistically vicarious but standing for the writer’s substantive self; what an appalling dozen of persons! Not to speak of those legions of love-affairs simultaneously carried on in which they indulge–although some of them, being married and moving in respectable society, ought long ago to have “renounced all others”–not to speak of these, what sort of existences can they be that allow of all the miscellaneous tragedies and idylls which appear to diversity the days of these multifarious beings? and how do they preserve their reason through such a conflicting variety of emotions, sonnet by sonnet and stanza by stanza? We have only to try to imagine what, if I meant I, must be the mental state of these writers of many emotions, to see, in the fact of their being able to correct their proofs and get their books through press, consoling evidence that, as a rule, I does not mean I.

I go round and round with my some of my poet friends about this, arguing that the notion we have today that poets are tortured, misunderstood, and self-destructive–as many of my poet friends are–comes from a a combination of Wordsworth’s revision of the poet in the 1790s, Byron’s “poet” figure (who, Webster argues, he first invented and then imitated) and a series of misreadings of Walter Pater’s conclusion to The Renaissance, which argues that the poet ought to know his own sensibilities as best he can. I tell them, “Pope didn’t think of himself as a poet the same way you do. Neither did Milton.” The implication, of course, is that the modern notion of the poet is completely affected.

This question of what we mean when we write the word “I” is by no means a new one, reaching back to Greek anxieties about writing as a new technology. There’s been a long-standing interrogation of the notion of the author (by Foucault and others) as well as an even longer-standing interrogation of the question of “authorial intention” (by Wimsatt and Beardsley). Similarly, post-colonial studies are busy discussing colonial mimesis and the ways that the ability of a colonized individual to “ape” the behavior of the colonizer implies that there is nothing inherent about nation identity–it’s all artifice.

I’m frankly not all that interested in these issues surrounding the written word “I,” since trying to locate any kind of usable definition is troubled by the larger question what “I” means in the first place. What do we mean when we say “I”? What does it mean to be an individual? How do we understand ourselves as individuals?

Locke and Hume struggled with these questions, eventually deciding that memory is the key to understanding all of this. We are, Locke argued, the result of our experiences–and these experiences are comprehended as narrative. You can see popular culture these days grappling with these questions in films like Memento, which explores the implications of the idea that we are the narratives we construct about ourselves. The self, Memento argues, is always already being made and remade, altered and revised, over and over again. Modern prisons are based on this idea (see John Bender’s excellent book, Imagining the Penitentiary: Fiction and the Architecture of Mind in Eighteenth-Century England), as is psychology since Freud. All of these examples see the self as a kind of narrative. Thinking of ourselves in any other way is impossible.

The problem with this is that the notion we have of what constitutes a “narrative” is ultimately arbitrary (as is anything based on a concept of “order”). And if that’s the case, the way we understand the “self” must be as well.


Written by srogers

July 2, 2011 at 2:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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