Notebook, 1993-



The introduction/Culture, from Ellmann, Richard and Charles Feidelson, Jr, eds. The Modern Tradition, Backgrounds of Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965.

Cultural History

The Introduction to this section is presented below [notes have not yet been transcribed]. The following is a list of the articles presented in this section of The Modern Tradtion on Cultural History:


Patterns of Repetition

History and Imagination

Religion and History

Primitive Survivals

Cultural History - Introduction
The traditional assumption that permanence is better than change, Being superior to Becoming, eternity more real than time, is often set aside, questioned, or even reversed in modern thought. In the indeterminate world pictured by James and Dewey, as well as Whitehead's world of events and Heisenberg's world of physical experiment, time is of central importance and in effect nature is historicized. These writers deal with processes of becoming rather than states of being, and with processes in which developing human action or feeling is intimately involved.^ Historicism in a more usual sense of the term is evident in the protest of literary realists against the symbolist worship of inclusive and definitive form. The realist holds that if anything is "real" it is neither the state order created by an individual artist nor the hypothetical total order of the cosmos but the cumulative temporal experience of mankind. Here a specifically human truth, a historical reality, is affirmed.^

Hegel, the greatest modern historicist, postulates a universal Spirit that is manifest in both space and time, nature and history, but most significantly unfolds itself on the world-historical stage. The essence of this Spirit is "freedom"; its goal is the complete realization of freedom; its field is the temporal sequence of concrete events, actions, and historical epochs. Freedom is equivalent to "self-consciousness" --the capacity, peculiar to Spirit, of at once knowing and being what it knows.^ In every human culture the substance of Spirit comes to partial knowledge of itself; and every culture is destined to be superseded as the Spirit moves onward, reflexively knowing what it has been and approaching its goal of total self-possession. There is no room for accident here, no element of chance; the ruins of time record the progress of historical reality. On the other hand, Hegel's system has no place for individual human creativity, since every innovator, even the greatest, works at the behest of historical necessity.^ [p. 453]

History is freedom for Croce also, but his conception is much less transcendental: Crocean history is not the work of universal Spirit but the creative activity of the human spirit and of individual human minds. Croce maintains that in seeking to know things we are always trying to grasp situations in which we must act. Any given situation is kind of "past," which we need to comprehend as the premise for our future. Therefore all knowledge, even that of natural science, is historical knowledge. In one sense, history enables us to escape from the past, in which we would otherwise be enclosed and trapped. In another sense, it is our way of claiming the past, which would be incomprehensible to us if we ourselves, as human beings, did not virtually contain the human heritage. Considered as the process and product of solving human problems, history has no a priori logic, no necessary sequence of causes and effects, and no predictability. It is truly "history as the story of liberty," essentially indeterminate.^

In contrast to Hegel, for whom history moves toward the completion of Spirit, and Croce, for whom history is freely constructed by men, Vico, Nietzsche, and Spengler concentrate on rhythmic repetitions in human experience. They stabilize time [especially Vico and Nietzsche] by asserting that there are no real novelties in it, and Vico and Spengler discover a meaningful pattern by marking off the phases in which everything recurs.^

Vico's world, like Croce's, is knowable because it is made by men, but for Vico the human possibilities latent in any single human mind are continuously being acted out in historical cycles. These constitute an ideal, eternal history ordained by Providence, which men re-create in the actual history of all nations.^ A cycle is a sequence of three ages: religious, heroic, and human. Though details may vary from one cycle to another, the essential characteristics of each age are repeated in every cycle, and every cycle ends only to begin, as James Joyce [an ardent Viconian] writes in Finnegans Wake, "The same anew."^

Nietzsche's "eternal return" is not periodic like Vico's but perennial. The whole range of human existence at any moment, from the most squalid depths to the heights of self-mastery, has recurred and will recur endlessly through infinite time. The moment is "eternal," but not as a point of contact between history and some super-historical source of meaning: it is wholly immanent, the supreme expression of a man-centered world. The highest achievement of the heroic personality is to affirm the entire content of the [p. 454] eternal moment--not merely to submit to it as an external fate but to "will" it in "joy."^

Spengler's system is cyclical, much in the manner of Vico, yet he, like Nietzsche, has no faith in the transcendent Providence. He offers a philosophy of history to account for the historical phase in the midst of which he writes--an era of decline in every aspect of human endeavor. This is the one great opportunity of the modern epoch--to understand the pattern that underlies the inevitable decay of all great cultures. We alone are in a position to see what a culture is--a dense complex of inner "analogies" --and to perceive that cultures are born, flourish, a d die like biological organisms.^ Each is unique, but the life-phases through which it must pass are morphologically the same as those of other cultures widely dispersed in space and time. In every case, the culture moves toward "civilization," when vitality diminishes, artificiality sets in, and rationalism is substituted for creativity. The classical world moved from culture to civilization in the fourth century, the modern world in the nineteenth.^ By study of the morphology of culture we may predict our own future, and for Spengler this power in itself is apparently sufficient compensation for the somber prospect that opens before him.

Yeats incorporated many different attitudes toward history into the historical section of A Vision, his schematic world-picture. He is especially close to Spengler, but Yeats gives a new emphasis to Spengler's notion of cultural "symbology." He conceives of human existence--past, present, and future--as totally symbolic, a visionary yet substantial pageant. Events and works of art, persons and mythical types, passions and ideas and their embodiments are all made of the same imaginative stuff, like words in a living poem that has been constantly rewritten through time. The whole is governed by Yeat's scheme of interpenetrating cones or "gyres." In contrast to Spengler's biological categories, Yeats propounds a geometrical scheme to represent his view of life as a scheduled interplay of opposites [the subjective and the objective, the personal and the abstract, the spiritual and the secular]. If history for him is a poem, it is an ironic poem, a structure of complex counterpoint.^

Malraux is more concerned with distinguishing the creative history of art from the deterministic history that surrounds it. As Yeats himself says elsewhere, "works of art beget works of art": an original imagination remakes the artistic world that has been constituted by previous artists. What is [p. 455] characteristic of our time, however, is an awareness that the entire history of art is our heritage. In our "museum without walls," all styles become wholly present and simultaneous. Therefore we rejoice not so much in a new style as in the triumph of the man-made world of style, the whole of art, over the world of "fate." Our imaginary museum, existing in a timeless moment, in an emblem of man's conquest of the human situation--of the gods, nature, time, and death. It signifies a human self-redemption.^

In strong reaction against all forms of modern historicism, Berdyaev reasserts the dependence of human history on a meaning that enters it from above. Only because of Christ's redemption of man from bondage to subhuman nature is there such a thing as human freedom, and without a sense of freedom there is no such thing as a sense of history. All human efforts are doomed to failure: history is the record of human imperfection. But historical failure still has meaning in terms of a super-historical purpose, while it can only lead to despair if we aim at an end within history itself.^

Another critique of historicism, though in a very different vein, is suggested by Darwin and Frazer. They point out that the subhuman and the prehistoric persist in the body, social institutions, and mental habits of the most advanced historical man. In the perspective of zoology and anthropology, recorded history is suddenly diminished to a tiny portion of earthly time. Yet both Darwin and Frazer are complacently confident of the superiority of modern man, whatever volcanoes may lie beneath his surface.^ It is a more profound shock to discover, as did Henry Miller at Mycenae, that on occasion men may have risen out of the primeval darkness only to live in love and terror of it and finally to lapse back into it. Mycenae is a mystery that defies all notions of historical order and development--inexplicable on idealist or cyclical or Christian or evolutionary grounds. [p. 456]

[The introduction/Culture, from Ellmann, Richard and Charles Feidelson, Jr, eds. The Modern Tradition, Backgrounds of Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965.]



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