Stoics and Romantics: A Review of Two Books

Anyone who likes to write must spend time reading because there is no writing without reading. Of the many books that I have taken up recently on the search for ideas or entertainment, two rise above the rest as thought-provoking and engrossing. (Footnote to self regarding the rejects: do not bother reading anything else by Harold Bloom.  One book by him is enough; he reworks the same stuff in the same manner, and his identity looms large: from childhood he has been unbearably brilliant, he is unable to write without the word “daemon,” and thinks Shakespeare is the greatest.)  My two favorites center the frame of my interests in Stoicism and Romantic literature: Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm and Romantic Lives by Daisy Hay.

To the Stoics among us, Seneca must be of interest, and the outlandish and horrible antics of the Roman emperors wonderfully described by Romm, through whose reigns Seneca managed to survive for many years, should captivate a historically-minded reader of any philosophical persuasion. The author writes in an engaging and fast-paced style, anticipating and addressing the questions that come to mind about the motivations and inner most thoughts of Seneca, a Stoic who had to reconcile his philosophy with the actions he took to survive and possibly to maintain some check on the cruelty of his one-time pupil, Nero. For anyone who remembers the PBS series of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius or who read the book, the joys of learning fact (or most likely fact) from fiction abound in this book.

Romantic Lives hits the most interesting biographical points of the lives of a number of Romantics — Hunt, Shelly, Mary Shelly, a little bit of Keats, Byron — and the parts of their lives that intersect. In some cases, Hay gives an equally or even more vivid picture of the personalities of her various subjects than biographers manage in hundreds of more pages on a single individual. Keats plays a small role in this book, so he needs his own biography, but Hunt, Byron, Shelley, and Mary Shelly are fully developed. Hay zeros right in on the details that reveal the most and interest the most. What I found as the special treat is her attention to the “ordinary” people (ordinary only to distinguish them from the literary greats) who existed within the orbit of Shelley and Byron. I had developed a particular curiosity about the post-Shelley existence of Claire Claremont, which the final pages of this book fully satisfied.

With a focus on the intersecting lives during a certain period of time, the author is not obliged to treat at much length or at all the childhood or forbears of any individual, but only those parts relevant to a rather limited period of especial interest.  Having read the several biographies of the personalities involved, there was some repetition, but more often Hay used common material to clarify the events, motivations, and relationships of the parties and to depict the iintense drama, of which there is no short supply, as well as a canonical 19th century novelist. Again, beyond basic biographical endeavor, Hay digests the difficulties of a situation of complexity and long duration into a perfectly insightful and (seemingly) accurate pithy assessment. For example, she sums up the Shelleys’ marital problems: “The tragedy of Shelley and Mary’s marriage lay in her inability to convey to him the depths of her emotional attachment, and in his failure to understand how much pain his actions caused her.”  Likewise, her voice is an added value when she steps back to assess the impact for better and for worse these individuals had on each other.

It is always a wonderful side effect if a book does more for the reader than the author meant to achieve or the reader had reason to expect. That statement assumes that Hay did not mean for us to evaluate the importance of sociability in our own lives. Such was my experience in the following way. A major premise of the book is the importance of a “co-operative sociability” to creative influence.  She definitely makes that point stick in the case of Percy Bysshe Shelley, although at times she concedes that it is in solitude and only through thinking about or corresponding with friends that he derives his inspiration.  The notion of the importance of friends to creativity struck me as worthy of consideration because I had been a proponent of the opposite, believing that genius leads to solitude and in that state the great writer sounds his or her imagination.  I had embraced that paradigm from the example of Emily Bronte, who, in her amazing self- resourcefulness, seemed to find within herself the inspiration for her novel and poetry.  However, even in her case, one could point out that she did have the creative camaraderie of her sister Anne, who was her partner in Gondal. Closer to home, the idea that connecting with others is an essential source of inspiration reminded me of my own isolation. I have no like-minded coterie to share literary or philosophical ideas. My mother was a literary compatriot, but by the time I got around to developing my interests, I had scant years before she could not even recollect who Walter Pater was. The two professors from literature classes to whom I made overtures ran for the hills — or would have, but saved themselves the trouble by just ignoring my emails.

My isolation brings me back to the first book on a beleaguered Stoic, as Stoicism again proves useful. I have no “co-operative sociability,” but the dispassionate mind can accept that reality because sociability has its drawbacks as well as its benefits, there is no changing the situation so liking it is better than lamenting it, and I share that situation with many others, past and present. Last, there are books such as these to offer the eternal, virtual cooperative sociability of reading.


Katie January 22, 2013

Katie    January 22, 2013

She walked in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Met in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

Not many months but long enough to see
No foe can deal such misery
As the dear friend untimely called away
And still the more beloved, the greater still
Must be the acing void, the withering chill
Of each dark night and dim beclouded day.
Charlotte Bronte

Review of “Genius”–a literary mega-criticism

I have finished Harold Bloom’s Genius for the most part.  I skipped the Spanish writers (except for Cervantes), and a select few others whom I have little interest in.  It is not the kind of book that once “finished” I will put it away for good.  I have found myself already re-reading certain parts and will always find it useful as a resource. As for omitting the Spanish writers, I generally had little interest in non-Anglophone writers, except for the French.  That is my bias of course, since I read French; however I do see a linguistic and literary closeness between English and French that is unique.  As for including other languages, I think Bloom deviates from his core notion—that there exists an objectively valuable literary canon in which one writer influences not only his or her generation but creates a literary progeny–because I don’t see so much the impact of Spanish (Russian or other non-English) writers on the canonical English writers (again, with the exception of a very few, like Dante). Bloom even acknowledges the breakdown in shared influences between literatures in different languages when he points out that Wordsworth never made it big in France, but Poe was an author who achieved more success through translation into French than he otherwise would have known or deserved.

As for whom he included and did not, the largeness of the number calls into question whether many are great writers, really good writers, worthy of a lasting reputation, etc… instead of geniuses.  I felt at times that the term was devalued.  I think, for example, The Great Gatsby is a really good book, and it merits a place in the literary canon as it has withstood the test of time; but to me a great book does not make the writer a genius.  I don’t think Fitzgerald was a genius and I am certain that I would not put Hemingway in that category.  He bolstered his position on Hemingway to a degree by noting how the man himself achieved a certain mythic status.  If that is a factor, then Byron should have been included; even if that were not a criterion, I would have included Byron way before many others.  The Brontes simply would not have been who they were or written what they wrote without the influence of Byron; plus if anyone ever had a more engaging way with words, rhymes, meter and poignant ideas, I don’t know him or her. Bloom drops several hints that he dislikes Byron as a person (although personal animosity did not stop him from including T.S Eliot).

I liked the poetic organizing principle of a mosaic.  However, the whole Kabbalah thing was of no interest at all to me.  As I was reading along at some point I was annoyed that I was not getting any meaning from his Kabbalistic references so I went back to the opening passages to pay more attention to the explanation about his structure.  Without reproducing it all here, I offer from page xi the following passage beginning like this: “Kabbalah is a body of speculation, relying upon a highly figurative language.  Chief among its figuration or metaphors are Sefirot, attributes at once of God and of the Adam Kadmon of Divine Man God’s Image.” Good ol’ materialistic me has no truck with speculative bodies that can only be known through metaphor, thank you very much!  I also grew very weary of his use of the word “daemon”.  I did not find it expressive of the many or precise meanings that he attributes to that word and would have preferred another one from time to time.

To note a few high points, I knew nothing about Swinburne, although I had heard his name throughout my life and had seen his books around the house.  His poem about God was quite the surprise.  And for any authors whom I know well, I read his treatments of them with interest and enjoyment, admiring the particular insight that he chose and developed for each one.

As for Bloom, himself, his talent is impressive and he might stand alone; I wonder how many others could have produced such an exhaustive work.  I did feel at times that he was showing off, but he can’t help it if he’s brilliant.  He breaks his own code in a way though; he believes that geniuses need the approbation of a certain audience, in particular one that extends far into the future, yet he admits that some of his geniuses have fallen by the way side in our degraded day and age.  He blames the current sad state of affairs on universities that value a curriculum based on race, nationality, or gender rather than on “true greatness” (I am among the converted on that score).  Yet, if genius does fade, at some point the question creeps in how much is greatness objective or subjective.  Maybe that’s where the Kabbalah fits to explain how there are absolutes, albeit knowable only through cagey metaphors.

The Anti-Stoic

Byron is the great complainer.  Put in more poetic terms, he penned haunting laments for the past—his childhood, his lost loves, his wasted youth.  By the age of 39 he felt like one hundred and wrote a poem about seeking death.  “Look around and choose thy ground and take thy rest.”  Such thoughts that underlie these poems run counter to one of the most crucial precepts in Stoicism, at least for me: do not dwell on the past.  Reason tells us that the past is the great territory over which we will never have any control, so there is no need to think about it as if we could launch expeditions to conquer it and change its miasmas and bogs into tillable soil.  All thoughts about “the days that are no more” (to quote Tennyson) are rife with pointlessness and, more often than not, for one reason or another, are a fast chute into the most painful misery.  My quandary, as a struggling Stoic, is that I love Byron’s poetry—and elegiac poems by various others, Shelly and Tennyson come to mind—“ Mutability” and “Tears Idle Tears,” for examples.

Stoicism would vitiate literature if applied to it as to life: a story of moderate and reasonable individuals who meet with adversity but reason with it, are self-sufficient and thrifty would be the most terrible bore.  I have thought about a story, though, of a person who makes the acquaintance of a Stoic, a real good one– if not a sage, a paradigm.  My protagonist is a convert of the mind, but has a personality and background that make most of Stoicism a challenge.  A climactic scene would occur when he/she losses it and starts screaming how he/she wants to throw a fit and moan about the past and act out of bounds and whine and complain—yes complain loudly.  After the outburst, he/she would regain composure and keep trying.

Stoicism has made random cameo appearances, no doubt, in literature.  I have a rather lengthy paper under the static heading of this blog “John Keats,” discussing Stoicism in a few of his poems.  I think perhaps in Stendhal’s The Red and The Black Stoicism lurks.  I wish someone who is familiar with that novel could tell me if I am remembering it correctly to observe that any time Julian Sorrel fails to think rationally and gives into emotion, it is to his extreme detriment—there’s a good Stoic motif.  Aside from the rare Stoic theme, literature will always revel in pain, suffering, excess, and nostalgia and, in a word, emotion.  How can Stoicism and literature co-exist?  I have a use for all that emotion that aids reason.  It shows the world as a difficult place in which it is the human condition to confront adversity.  When beset with a harsh event, I can reason from experience (including the vicarious experience afforded by literature) that I am not alone, but live in a world of fellow sufferers. Knowing that makes the vicissitudes of life easier to bear.  As for literary characters, there is of course no need to take impassioned characters as role models.