Greatness and Aristocracy

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David Orr discusses in this week's NY Times Book Review the crisis of "greatness" in the current American poetry scene.  "Poetry needs greatness," he explains, because poetry remains "the highest of High Art."  And while Orr recognizes that the concept of "greatness" can be "strategy for concealing predictable prejudices," he also argues that without it, "we stop making demands on the few artists capable of practicing the art at its highest levels."

His argument reminded me of a passage in "The Deluge at Norderney," the first tale in Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales.  In it, a Cardinal and an eccentric older woman, Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag, are stranded during a flood and, to pass the time, they discuss theology.  Miss Malin asks the Cardinal if he believes in the fall of man, and he replies:

I am convinced . . . that there has been a fall, but I do not hold that it is man who has fallen.  I believe that there has been a fall of the divinity.  We are now serving an inferior dynasty of heaven. . . . [N]o human being with a feeling for greatness can possibly believe that the God who created the stars, the sea, and the desert, the poet Homer and the giraffe, is the same God who is now making, and upholding, the King of Belgium, the Poetical School of Schwaben, and the moral ideas of our day.
at pp. 55-56 (emphasis added).  Just as the Cardinal intuits an inferior dynasty of heaven, today's poets perceive an inferior muse: how can Billy Collins and Kay Ryan answer the same Apollonian call as Lord Byron?

But from my perspective, the Cardinal (and perhaps, by extension, Isak Dinesen) got it wrong: it's not the God who has changed, but the worshipful.  "Greatness," in the sense that Orr uses the term, relates not so much to achievement in an absolute sense, but to achievement within a certain context, specifically a society in which an aristocracy (in the sense of a superior class) exists. 

Just as Aristole limited tragedy to a fall by an aristocrat from the pinnacle to the depths, "greatness" is similarly confined to a feat of glory by nobility.  In Aristotle's day (and for centuries thereafter), society widely accepted those categorizations.  But we no longer do so.  In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller claimed tragedy for those who don't have far to fall.  And in Elizabeth Bishop (to take an example that Orr discusses), poetry finds glory without aristocratic pedigree.

The Isak Dinesen who scripted the Cardinal's "inferior dynasty of heaven" was, beneath her nom de plume, a woman mourning the waning of the artistocracy.  She'd married into nobility and clung to her title (Baroness) long after her husband, the Baron, divorced her.  She associated aristocracy with a set of values, like honor, that she seems to have felt wouldn't exist after the aristocrats expire.

But aristocracy was the bastion of unearned privilege, exploitation and cruelty, as much as it was the crucible of beauty, and art at its "highest levels" is as possible without an aristocracy as tragedy is. 

Perhaps what's lacking in American poetry is not greatness, but confidence.  We are not inferior humans to our ancestors, simply because the god we serve is more humane, meritocratic and accessible than in years past.  We are not less because we reject the fall of man altogether.  Our belief in progress, a gradual rise as opposed to a precipitous fall, is an attribute.  When American poetry has the moxy to stop apologizing for society and get on with the harshly difficult job of writing poems, then we will witness a democratic greatness.

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on February 22, 2009 9:08 PM.

Reflections prompted by the death of Tayeb Salih was the previous entry in this blog.

Of fear, femininity and fiction is the next entry in this blog.

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