From Materialism to Meaning
Glen Arbery has compiled the key writings of the Southern Critics, a loosely affiliated group of writers, poets, and teachers in the early decades of the last century. He includes those of the main Southern Agrarians—John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, Donald Davidson, and Robert Penn Warren and their protégées Cleanth Brooks, Caroline Gordon, and Flannery O’Connor. It is a book that is both timely and useful. It is timely because these ideas are more needed than ever to combat the excesses of a materialistic society. It is useful precisely because these ideas are timeless—they are not just about the American South, but about human existence, hence relevant to all ages.
Arbery’s introduction reiterates the main ideas the Critics espoused. They were not reactionaries defending a lost way of life, but rather modern thinkers who believed science—and its handmaiden industrialization—was destroying a holistic life centered on land and community. It was a life in which limits to human will and behavior were clearly delineated. In contrast industrial life is limitless, hence the idea of “progress.” What is most significant is that the Critics were among the first to recognize that capitalism and communism are not antithetical forces, but rather rivals for the same goal—to govern a society according to abstract scientific principles.
Against this vision, the Critics launched their counterattack. First they articulated an ontological position that defined reality not by abstract concepts, but rather images. Only images can capture what is concrete; what is real. And only images reflect human feeling.
This is why the Critics believed literature, especially poetry, was so important as it evoked the most powerful images—word pictures—to capture human experience. They recognized that these images, and their proliferation, could create a bulwark against the onslaught of reductionist science. Poetry was central to the development of the New Criticism, which held poets and poetic images in esteem and taught a generation of Americans a new way of understanding literature and life.
The Critics also developed a political defense of a society in which such a life could endure, hence the classic 1930 work I’ll Take My Stand. However, Arbery focuses on the literary aspects of the Southern Critics oeuvre. He divides the book into three sections accordingly: 1) In Dixieland, 2) The Case of Poetry, and 3) The Sacramental South.
Section One focuses on Southern agrarian life and begins with familiar pieces from I’ll Take My Stand—John Crowe Ransom’s “A Statement of Principles” and Andrew Lytle’s “The Hind Tit.” These fundamental defenses of agrarian society are followed by Allen Tate’s “In Defense of Tradition,” in which he argues more broadly for the importance of myths in preserving traditional society. Tate believes civilizational decline is marked by a digression from religious myth to historical myth to positivism—science—in which life is reduced to pure technique. Since technique cannot give meaning, life is filled with despair and nostalgia. This was (and remains) the condition of the West.
Donald Davidson develops a similar theme in “Why the South has a Great Literature” and asks why the South, despite poverty and “backwardness,” creates better literature than the “progressive” North. Again the answer is agrarian culture, which allows for richer experiences and more leisure, hence greater creativity. The South was also the only region in America that experienced sin—slavery, defeat in war, and segregation. This recognition of human limitations has been the greatest catalyst to Southern art.
These selections raise important questions, especially for modern conservatives. How does society regain myth? How can tradition be sustained or reemerge? All these pieces, while given to a mood of melancholy and loss, still present the possibility of a better future. All contains the seeds of rebirth. And, as Tate points out, only the West really has true rebirths and renaissances.
There are signs of renewal, at least economic, in modern America—the growth of urban farming, the local food movement, homesteading, new urbanism, and others. A larger shift may be driven by crisis—financial, ecological, or energy related. Of these, energy may be most important. The agrarians never emphasized the role cheap energy played in the spread of industrial society. But as energy becomes scarcer—or more expensive—a return to localism and a more agrarian based economy may be inevitable. It may not be the agrarian world the Critics championed, but traditional life has a better a chance of rooting in these conditions.
Section Two is most significant as these pieces articulate the Critics’ ontology. In “Forms and Citizens” Ransom contrasts economic and aesthetic forms. The former are for efficiency, the latter restrain human will. He uses the case of manners, a form that channels sexual desire into romance, thus giving the relationship between men and women greater nuance and meaning. The result is civilized behavior.
Ransom also criticizes abstract reason. Unchecked appetite moves towards abstraction—universality. Only aesthetic forms can ground it and make it particular. Imagination is the filter through which reality is perceived and transformed into aesthetic forms. When they are removed, economic forms (i.e. money and technology) dominate. Again this is the condition of the West. Finally, Ransom argues that religion is the basis of all aesthetic forms and why a religious society, especially Christianity, creates the most civilized of all societies. It also creates the highest art.
Tate’s “Three Types of Poetry” reiterates Ransom’s ideas. The first type of poetry is animated by the will it uses abstract language and moves towards action—the political. A second type is the romantic. Here Tate lambastes romantics because they actually accept the inevitability of scientific domination. Their only rebuttal is rhetorical—ironic. This irony is self-focused and often despair ridden. He uses Byron as the classic example. Like the first poetry, romantic poetry concerns the will, so it cannot counter science. The only poetry that counters the will and abstraction is that of the creative spirit. It goes beyond the will to open the human imagination to reflection. Tate sees Shakespeare as the model of this higher type.
Ransom provides a similar argument in “Poetry: a Note on Ontology.” He also describes three types of poetry: physical, Platonic, and metaphysical. The first focuses on the thing itself and the second on abstract ideas. But the third is pure creation. Again, it moves beyond the will to the imagination. Ransom emphasizes language, especially the trope. It is inexact language, which, when used well, is highly evocative and counters the exactness of scientific language. Scientific language is sophisticated and powerful, but cannot reveal meaning. Only art can, especially poetry.
Metaphysical poetry is the highest poetry because it moves beyond will and even suggests the existence of miracles—phenomena that completely contradict scientific observation. Ransom emphasizes that miracles also supply religion with the substantive content to elevate human experience, and all mundane things, to a higher state—a state that the skilled poet can capture and convey.
Subsequent essays by Brooks and Warren focus on technical aspects of poetry and reading poetry from a New Critical standpoint. In the section’s last essay, “Poetry as Tradition,” Davidson argues that poetry is critical to a healthy culture, in which it is read or spoken by all. In contrast, modern poetry, like science, is governed by professionals who write for the elite. As such, poetic vision and experience is lost for the masses. Even the New Criticism (which Davidson always rejected) promoted “experimental” poetry because it wanted respect from science. Davidson argues poetry must be restored by becoming free of books. It must be spoken and sung in order to be alive and in order for tradition to be alive.
Davidson’s critique remains salient today as the state of poetry has declined further yet—even educated people no longer read it. But poetry has survived, albeit in a different form. Poetry now exists mainly in the lyrics of popular music. Although creative, and replete with tropes and other impressionistic language, it is completely market driven. Markets fragment these poetic forms so no single lyric speaks to all, nor do any endure to become traditions. What is most telling about modern pop music (and musicians) is the way it completely succumbs to Tate’s criticism of romanticism. Modern lyrics are self-focused, celebrating sex, violence, and despair. While overtly shocking, none challenges the commercial-industrial system. In fact, “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll” may be the most important industries in the history of capitalism.
This comes back to one of the Critics’ original arguments. Communism and other forms of radical thought are not alternatives to capitalism, as they share with capitalism the same understanding of the nature of man. The only alternative to that understanding is the type of society, and the understanding of human nature beneath it, that the Critics advocated. These ideas come together in the last section. As scholar Louise Cowan noted back in the 1950s, the Critics were defending a sacramental vision of life in which the world exists as part of a spiritual order. It exists “in its own right and as a sign” of a greater spiritual reality. In such a world, exploitation of nature and people is inconceivable.
Pieces by Caroline Gordon and Flannery O’Connor examine the novel from this Christian perspective. Gordon writes that the novel is a distinctively Christian work. It captures the essence of the human moral struggle in narrative form and invariably involves Christian ideas like charity, forgiveness, redemption and the existence of a natural order. These elements are central to all great novels, even those written by non-Christians. O’Connor argues that Southerners, although Protestant, embody more of the sacramental view of life than northern Catholics who have been swayed by the dominant secular values of the region. This is why the South is still the best setting for the Catholic novel.
Allen Tate’s piece The Symbolic Imagination clarifies the idea of sacramentality further. He uses Jacque Maritain’s idea that only angels can grasp the essence of things directly. Humans must first understand images before underlying essences can be revealed. Yet, modern man tries to grasp essences directly. He has lost the feeling for common things, which are reduced to pure abstraction. The result is the mechanization and quantification of life. In trying to be an angel, man instead becomes devil.
Tate again uses poetry to convey this point. He analyzes Dante, who is a great poet because he examines common objects, and through skilled use of metaphor—symbolic metaphor—reveals their essences. Dante captures objects as images, thus evoking feeling. Feeling leads to greater reflection, which enhances meaning. The glory of existence can only be revealed in this way (a way alien to science, which is without feeling). Dante’s poetry is really an act of revelation pointing to the Beatific Vision in which the glory of God can be apprehended directly through the observation of common things. In this vision, the natural world is a replica, in reverse, of the supernatural.
The sacramental vision is central to Christianity. And in the end, what the Critics, as artists and political thinkers, were really defending was Christendom. This aspect of their thought is far more significant than their better-known methods of reading and analyzing poetry. Their radical theological perspective is also why they, as a group, are no longer read or studied. It is only natural that the secular liberal elite would reject them. What is worse is that most modern “conservatives” have also done so. One reason is that many modern conservatives are market enthusiasts who naturally accept scientific ontology. The more important reason is that most conservatives have never been exposed to the Southern Critics. For these individuals, Glen Arbery’s book is a good place to start.
The Critics knew that cultural defense and renewal could not be instigated by the marketplace or government. It will not be led by Rush Limbaugh or the Tea Party. Ultimately, they believed, it must begin with a sacramental understanding of reality that Dante made so clear for us many centuries ago.
Tobias J. Lanz, Ph.D. teaches in the Political Science Department at the University of South Carolina
Posted: June 5, 2011
The Great Historian of Culture
Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 1993)