Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Hier stehe ich

The famous stand by Luther at Worms epitomizes to many modern politically correct academics the vast sins of the era of the reformation: the monstrous Western ego, the manic strive for domination, the single track railroads to Auschwitz and what you have. Of course Protestantism is seen these days more as a concequence than cause of modernity (when it is thought about analytically at all), but nevertheless it is very popular to see the emergence of the post-medieval Europe as a costly moral failure. I don't share that perspective: in my eyes Protestantism very obviously opened the gates for enlightenment and emancipation. (This is not to deny the existence of the monstrous ego and the bloody strive for domination - but that is only one aspect of a complex whole.) The American Puritans started by hunting witches - mere two centuries later they were freeing slaves, fighting for gender equality, combatting imperialism and aggression, renouncing primitive theologies. Or the best of them were: there is a deep duality to the experience, a highminded, progressive and enlightened impulse resisted by know-nothing, panicky fundamentalism. And as much as I admire the majestic liberal turn of the Anglo-American non-conformism, there is a certain note of abstraction and distance in this admiration - which probably comes from my Lutheran Finnish pietist background - compared with icy Calvin, Luther certainly was a wretched sinner, a monstrous man, who somehow still managed to form in parts a universally meaningful message on human experience, the kind of height that Calvin never achieved: simul peccator et iustus. Which is the most anyone can really be in this imperfect, cruel human world. But that note of mysticism perhaps makes one less inclined to activism and concrete deeds...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The way of the world

I have repeatedly argued on these pages that we are fundamentally imprisoned by history and unable to liberate ourselves as a collective from our shortsighted, grasping human nature. What this means on the high political level is that reasonable, intelligent people hardly ever get to the real power and if they by some miracle do, they are utterly unable to rule with intelligence and reason. All political cultures, all political processes are fundamentally irrational. Even our liberal democratic solution that at least tries to approximate as reasonable course as possible. So, today we seem to have a person exceptionally intelligent, perhaps exceptionally reasonable being harshly bounded by one of the most dysfunctional Western political systems. What he, his administration can achieve remains to be seen - but in any case it will be radically less than what he is expected to accomplish. The system would need a more fundamental New Deal than what FDR accomplished but maybe at least some key reforms can be implemented and the present disastrous slide into moral decadence at least halted. Perhaps even this is to hope too much: so far Obama seems overly cautious, overly bound to the established, and corrupt, and irrational, folkways of the imperial Washington. Much, too much, is depending on a single person, however intelligent, however well-meaning. Interesting times, these.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Keats reconsidered

I suppose the Romantics are the least congenial group of writers for me when it comes to English literature. O, that artificial diction and saccharine sentiment... Etc. Those exclamations, loose, undisciplined language. But now at least with Keats (and why not then with others) it seems that my very early judgment was wrong again. I think it was based on Endymion and Hyperion where he certainly is not my cup of syrup. Should have gone for the better stuff, I guess. His letters certainly give a marvellous image of a frighteningly perceptive and still amazingly humane and likeable great artist (seems to be a very rare combination). In fact the tone reminds me of Charles Sorley and does then give an idea of his potential; even more cruelly early end for his career - Keats at least had time to show his mature scope. It seems that the Romantics were exceptionally uneven in their output - they seem to have been really good when they were good, but much of the time they didn't perform near their peak, and when they were bad... On the whole, there is in me a certain preference for more classical, more controlled and distanced emotional approach in art. I tend to distrust overt artistic emotion especially when it seems to control the form and twist it unshapely, unpolished.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sense and unsentimentality

I have lately been delighting in the New Pelican Guide to English Literature on my work trips. The series originates from the 1950's, my revised edition being from 1982. This probably explains why the marvelously quirky and individual writers treat literature if it were a universally important and serious moral concern. Postmodernity has certainly gotten rid of that attitude and the literature departments around the world are for the most part happily free of anything universally important and serious. Or of any love of literature. Anyway, I'm now in the middle of part 5, From Blake to Byron and two exceptionally challenging and perceptive essays, one by Lionel Trilling on Mansfield Park and the other by Malcolm Bradbury on Emma, made me think again my lukewarm attitude to Jane Austen.

I have never been too fond of that steely tory glitter behind the graceful prose. But it might be that the provinciality is on my side mostly after all: there perhaps is certain universality that can be glimpsed through that absolute integrity and serious moral concern however constricted they appear to an unsympathetic and hasty reader. I recently happened to reread Pride and Prejudice (I suppose after 25 years) and the experience was admittedly very remarkable: the text was so deceptively effortless and elegant that one might really mistake the story itself to be the fundamental concern, actually pretty much as modern Hollywood seems to "read" Austen. But afterwards, what was left was a feeling of something having been very severely and unsentimentally weighed. That serious severe weighing is the essence of Austen - and it should be our own attitude in this decadent and emotionally overindulgent era. Not to mention intellectually confused.