Resist oppression with justice, oppose tyranny with equity, and respond to bloodthirstiness with loving kindness.
As the previous posts have made clear, I hope, I am seeking to understand more deeply the nature of the relationship between the art and the artist who creates it, as well, if possible, as shedding some light on what kind of role contemporary reality has on that relationship. An important aspect of this exploration will be the positive impact of the arts on society, and not only by means of protest songs such as the one above and in previous posts.
I have decided at this point to do this by looking at the art in the light of the artist’s biography.
Almost by accident, and because I came at him initially with very few details about his life or art, I’m going to test out this approach with Shelley. An overview of key developments in his poetry and his thinking will take up the next four posts, before the fifth post moves onto the implications for my own tentative general model.
The Man & his Times
How his early experiences affected Shelley as an artist is a complex matter to grapple with.
Holmes, in his biography of Shelley, expresses the feeling that (page 64) he was both ‘fascinated and terrified by the workings of his own mind’ and that ‘the secret workings of his own personality and the half-hidden movements of his own mind at a subconscious level were for him an ever-deepening source of imagery, and poetic myth-making.’
Ann Wroe’s thoughtful study, Being Shelley, quotes Shelley’s poems and notebooks many times to illustrate this point. He writes of (page 183) ‘The caverns of the mind,’ which seem ”obscure & shadowy’ or ‘beautifully bright.’ She appropriates his words from the Preface to The Cenci, confident that words he used to explain one of the aspects of religion in Protestant countries could be applied to the poet himself (page 184):
A gloomy passion for penetrating the impenetrable mysteries of our being, which terrifies its possessor at the darkness of the abyss to the brink of which it has conduct of him.
Interestingly, on another important point, as I read the Preface myself, I discovered a passage that is quoted neither by Holmes in his entire book nor by Wroe completely.
The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind.
In this passage Shelley has given me a criterion of his own to help me judge the value of not only his dramatic works but of his poetry as a whole.
In spite of what his contemporaries, and perhaps even Shelley himself in his public persona, saw as his atheism, according to Holmes he seemed to believe (page 65) that ‘the mind and the soul were separate and different entities.’
Coleridge provides what is perhaps one of the most astute comments on the relationship between Shelley, the man, and Shelley, the poet (page 94):
Shelley with a man of great power as a poet… and could he only have had some notion of order, could [he] only have [had] some place to stand, and look down upon his mind, he would have succeeded.
This relates to the caveat that Myer’s had about the poetry of Blake (Irreducible Mind: page 445):
Myers. . . . . regards Blake as an example of strong imagination insufficiently controlled by supraliminal discipline: “throughout all the work of William Blake we see the subliminal self flashing for moments into unity, then smouldering again in a lurid and scattered glow” (Human Personality, vol 1, page 73).
I will need to keep an eye on this issue in relation to Shelley when I come to form my conclusions.
Of the damage that the early Eton experience did to him, repeating and reinforcing the Syon House pattern and reaction, there can be little doubt. Fear of society en masse, fear of enforced solitude, fear of the violence within himself and from others, fear of withdrawal of love and acceptance, all these were implanted in the centre of his personality so that it became fundamentally unstable and highly volatile. Here to seem to lie the sources of his compensatory qualities: his daring, his exhibitionism, his flamboyant generosity, his instinctive and demonstrative hatred of authority.
This instability may account for the uneven quality of his work, especially but not only the early poems.
The Influence of Recent Events on Shelley’s Political Beliefs
Shelley’s political views, in addition to being shaped by his personal background, were also formed against a backdrop of the aftermath of the French Revolution, its subsequent terrifying transformations into various forms of tyranny, and the English recoil from what they were observing from across the channel. William Godwin and his circle (page 122) felt that ‘revolutionary mobs do not in the end bring liberty, but civil war followed by some form of tyranny.’ In the wake of the indiscriminate bloodshed of the French Revolution, and in the face of the apparently irreversible tendency of humanity to spill even more blood since on an industrial scale, much ink has been spilt in countless attempts to explain it.
For present purposes it is perhaps enough to note the contention in Jonathan Haidt’s humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ which suggests that idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):
The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.
This powerful idea may have its roots in Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the French Revolution which, he feels, took on ‘that appearance of a religious revolution which so astonished contemporaries’ (quoted in Michael Burleigh’s Earthly Powers – page 3), and flowering in Dawson’s simpler version of Eric Vogelin (page 8) when he wrote, ‘this determination to build Jerusalem, at once and on the spot, is the very force which is responsible for the intolerance and violence of the new political order.’
This tendency of idealism to make the ends justify the most abhorrent of means, and humanity’s addiction to making a quasi-religion out of terror as a result, continues to this day, morphing through Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism to the horror of Isis/Daesh right at this moment.
I am fully aware that statisticians can reassure us that we have never had it so good (see link for the full exploration):
In the UK, Matt Ridley has been beating his Rational Optimist drum for years, while Harvard professor Steven Pinker argued persuasively in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that violence is on the decline. Presiding over the field is Hans Rosling, the Swedish professor who is the closest thing statistics has ever had to a rock star. His TED talk The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen has been viewed more than 10m times. Last month the BBC aired a lecture, timed to coincide with new UN development goals (and made with input from Roser), called How to End Poverty in 15 Years. Rosling lectures all over the world to rapturous audiences, making his points with humour, striking visuals and the occasional flash of temper with interviewers who don’t get it.
But we still have a long way to go when you consider the absolute numbers of the dying rather than the percentage they constitute of the world’s population, and that extremism may not be as easily containable in a world where fanaticism could suddenly gain access to technologies capable of killing thousands, and possibly millions in a matter of moments.
Given the escalating responses of the major powers to the slaughter in Paris, it seems to me we might be entering a dangerous zone where revenge can be rationalised as self-defence, and those who raise legitimate questions about this approach can be dismissed as weak, confused or wooly-minded. We may have stepped more deeply into the black and white world of the reptilian brain, and the consequences could be even blacker than we feared.
We should have no difficulty really putting ourselves into Shelley’s shoes as he gazed on a landscape where his own government, as we shall see, could gun down unarmed protestors, and the government overseas had morphed from freedom fighters through totalitarian mass murderers to a one-man dictatorship threatening the whole continent. It is tragically ironic that it is now this same country that has suffered so much so recently from dystopian terror from overseas.
After his return from Ireland and his first entry into the field of anti-establishment politics (page 131), what he had seen there left an indelible impact on his mind and art:
The confrontation with the physical facts of poverty, disease and brute ignorance was an experience which never left Shelley, and they were to fill his best writing with images of macabre force. The issue of violent change was brought forward as a central question in his political thinking.
He was beginning to develop a remarkably advanced view of where society, religion and politics should be heading, though he had further to travel yet. In an 1812 pamphlet to Lord Ellenborough, he wrote (page 155):
The time is rapidly approaching, I hope, that you, my Lord, may live to behold its arrival, when the Mahometan, the Jew, the Christian, the Deist, and the Atheist will live together in one community, equally sharing the benefits which arise from association, and united in the bonds of brotherhood love
At this stage of his life, though, his overall vision was less than impressive. Holmes summarises it (page 201):
What Shelley was preaching came to be understood by his friends, and by his enemies, as a vision of the good life based on atheism, free love, republicanism and vegetarianism: a combination of the enlightened, the millennial and a cranky.
I rather resent the implication there that vegetarianism is cranky and atheism enlightened, but I accept his basic point about Shelley.
His View of Personal Relationships
According to Holmes, Shelley’s emphasis on love is marred by two very major blemishes (page 207-08):
The first is his blindness to the intrinsic value of constancy in human relations… His second blindness was to the way in which children made a fundamental alteration to the direction and responsibilities of a love relationship
Relating to the first point, in Epipsychidion, the poem that examines his own development, he writes eloquently, though with a kind of superior self-congratulating tunnel vision:
I never was attached to that great sect,
Whose doctrine is, that each one should select
Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion, though it is in the code
Of modern morals, and the beaten road
Which those poor slaves with weary footsteps tread,
Who travel to their home among the dead
By the broad highway of the world, and so,
With one chained friend, and perhaps a jealous foe,
The dreariest and the longest journey go.
Sadly ‘he was to pay dearly – and make others pay dearly – for his personal blindness in both these respects.’ His first wife, Harriet, was not the only victim, though perhaps the one who suffered most. Her pain at his abandonment of her, and of their children, which was invisible to him much of the time, drove her eventually to suicide (page 238):
. . . . busy with the excitement of [the planned expedition with his new love and her sister], Harriet’s pain and misery was obviously quite unreal to him.
This was completely typical (page 255) of the ‘total lack of understanding’ or ‘sympathy towards his wife’s feelings’ that he consistently displayed throughout this whole period.
At this stage of his life (page 246) he was espousing ‘wholesale political terrorism and violence’ as the way of ‘liberating and freeing a “civilised” society.’ It would be sometime before he worked his way to a more temperate position.
Clearly at this stage he had neither learnt the lessons of the French Revolution about where the use of violence to achieve positive ends might lead, nor come to understand through pain what others close to him really suffered.
The next post begins to see an uplift in his poetry and in his understanding.