Understanding the World
One of the passions of the modern world was understanding the world. One of the passions of the post-modern world is forgetting it. To return to a previous posting The Poetry of Vertigo:
One feels the vertigo of dizzy technologic height, of “civilization,” of accelerated change and profoundly transmuted circumstances. We have learned, says Oppen’s speaker, to endure a great deal of speech that means little or nothing. We learn to screen out certain facts of the environment.
“But,” you may say “This is only poetry!” Indeed, you have put your finger in it. The poet’s job is understanding and expressing his world – and for this reason, poetry has been abandoned. Because what it is saying is too uncomfortable.
Contemporary Americans have no idea how important poetry once was. The latest issue of American Scientist has an article about scientific poetry:
The popularization of science is done most often now through nonfiction. But in the century following the scientific revolution, it was poetry that carried the day. Book-length treatises in verse elaborated discoveries in botany, astronomy and medicine. This may seem counterintuitive to us now; and indeed, some of these works can seem far removed from scientific fact. In 1791, in his verses about plants, Erasmus Darwin imputed emotions and desires to them. It’s perhaps an understatement to say that, however charming, something like this would not fly today.
But in the early 1800s, such fancy was not so far-fetched. According to Hugues Marchal, a professor of literature at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, scientific poetry was seen as a way of promoting the science it described. Its writers wanted most of all “to lead people to be interested in what was going on in contemporary sciences.” He points to the remarks of poet-naturalist René-Richard Castel (1758–1832): “A poet must not aim to teach and advance a science as much as to show its advantages and make it loved.” This was not a bad deal for those scientists whose work was enshrined in verse. They often repaid the favor by endorsing writers’ work or providing prose commentaries on it. Poets, in turn, who had been relying on classical literature for their subject matter and sources, received an infusion of new ideas and material—and they went with it.
This mutually beneficial relationship could not last. By 1900, such works had all but disappeared from the literature. Poets still played a part in furthering public understanding of scientific concepts. But the long poem designed to inspire interest in science—to seduce readers, as Marchal says—was gone.
What happened? The modern world was busy destroying itself – the most horrible happening in human history. This took over one hundred years – and true to our post-modern consciousness, we have ignored this happening – and pretended it never happened.
The first thing this process destroyed was its people – upon which everything else depended. This took about one hundred years – from the middle of the 19th Century to the middle of the 20th Century. This was a long process, and as far as I know has never been analyzed. It included the destruction of the small businessmen, including the family farmers – who were too independent – exactly the virtue that Thomas Jefferson extolled.
I saw this happening in the Fifties, and I was horrified. No one else noticed. The world was simply becoming more perfect, in their eyes – and they gladly jumped on the bandwagon.
From then on, everyone had to work for some large organization – which made it their job to destroy what was left of America.