Offcourse Literary Journal

The Blue Bubble, a Story of the Romantic Soul, by Ricardo Nirenberg.

A neighbor of mine, long retired from teaching Social Studies at the local high school, asked me after my recent trip to Europe, "What do they think of us Americans over there?" When I told him that most people over there hate our guts, especially after the Irak invasion, he had a ready explanation. "They envy and resent our success," he said, with the happy assurance of one who has never been abroad. My neighbor would say as much, I suppose, of the many European poets and thinkers usually bunched together under the rubric "Romantics," who, ever since the 18th century, have disparaged Mechanics. He would say that it was envy and resentment at the countless, amazing successes scientists have scored, over the last three hundred years or so, by exploring systems consisting of a number of particles, undifferentiated in every respect except for their position in space and their momentum.

The rudiments of that view of the world called Mechanical go further back than Newton or Descartes, to the ancient Atomists. Minimizing the momentousness of our death seems to go with it, as in Lucretius' poem "On Nature": viewing death as a mere rearrangement of molecules or atoms seems to remove at least part of its sting. Another world-view, probably more ancient still, one which we may consider the opposite of the atomistic or mechanical, and which may be called the daimonic, holds that the world is full of daimons (a Greek word for "spirits"). For those disembodied entities, position and momentum are not aplicable, or irrelevant; what matters here is the particular function of each, and their personality, which is emphatically unique. Daimons, unlike atoms, are not interchangeable: if the master mechanicist must be skilled in mathematics and statistics, a magus like Faust must be able to invoke daimons individually and by their proper names. Those two views, atomic and daimonic, are most often found together, mixed or combined, in human minds. Such was the case, famously, in Plato; even the atomistic, Epicurean Lucretius begins his poem with an invocation to Venus, that archdemoness; and such is the case today, for all of us thoroughly depend on sundry machinery, but apparently a large majority of Americans believe that the world is populated with angels (a Christian term for daimons). Only a very few people (in whose number I could not claim to be myself), manage to purge from their minds one of those two visions, and hold on loyally to the other, unalloyed.

Romantics were inclined to hold to the daimonic view, and to abhor the mechanical: where Pope and Voltaire thought of Newton as a beneficient god, William Blake depicted him as Satan (and in 1997 the British Library installed Eduardo Paolozzi's sculpture of Newton after Blake in its forecourt). Closer to our times, Jules Romains, writing in 1910, in his Manuel de déification: "Don't let yourself be awed by the mechanics' devices. Make use of their machines, but despise them and their machines without qualms… The only thing that counts is soul."

The political doctrines of the Enlightenment considered human beings as citizens, equal in all respects except in "position," i.e. in how much money they were worth, and the new economic theory assumed that all of us are endowed with the same desires and the same principles (chief among them, an imperative to optimize, that is, to maximize the satisfaction of our desires); the Romantic reaction emphasized that which in each of us was supposed to be irreplaceable, unique. Typical individuals in bourgeois society are like atoms, a kind of individuality for which the philosophic sociologist Georg Simmel used the German word "Einzelheit;" the Romantic individual, on the other hand, aspires to an individuality that defines him or her as essentially, substantially different from all others, and for this Simmel used the word "Einzigkeit." The English words "singular," "singularity," and the French "singulier", "singularité", tend, except for some special technical usages, to signify the second kind of individuality, and emphasize uniqueness.

One may point out that, given a large enough number of elementary particles, the number of combinations of those is so huge that for all practical purposes any of the combinations is unique, i.e. extremely unlikely to be repeated in aeons. But, unlike the physicist or the chemist, the Romantic individual is not interested in different combinations of the same elements: what he seeks, what he aspires to, is absolute difference, substantial uniqueness. It is the absolute uniqueness which Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica attributed to God, and which Max Stirner maintained, in Der Einzige und sein Eigentum of 1845, is the exclusive property of each of us as soon as we say "I." It is, for Stirner, a uniqueness which, somehow, is prior to all relations.

Emphasizing substantial uniqueness goes, by logical entailment and general consensus, together with other metaphysical preferences. Generalization as a mental function is devalued —a mark of idiocy, said William Blake. Concepts, being the holding together in one's mind of an indefinite number of things-more than a single one in any case-, are suspected of consistently missing the essential point, and so "conceptual thought" is considered a poor substitute for more spiritual activities. These often go by the name of "intuition," a faculty widely varying in meaning according to who refers to it —Thomas Aquinas, Fichte, Bergson, a hundred others— but which, generally speaking, affords a look directly "into" things, inside them as it were; and that not by means of X-rays—which wouldn't be good anyhow, for we don't mean "into" in a merely spatial way—, but by some uni-directed, comparison-free "in-tueri" (Latin for "looking-into"). Form and number, structure and style —all of which by definition require relation and correspondence, that is to say, the consideration of that which is common to several things—, are considered "superficial," and they are opposed to "inner essence or content," "thisness," "presence," "soul;" in other words, that which is supposed to be substantially unique. Since concepts and conceptual thought are the necessary instruments of reason, it follows that the Romantic individualist, as a rule, does not have that particular human faculty in high regard, but prefers imagination and, of course, intuition.

At the beginning of E.T.A. Hoffmann's 1820 book Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr, the eponymous cat gives us his opinion of human Vernunft (reason): it is, he says, nothing more than the ability of not mistaking him, a cat, for a human being. Murr's was not far from the definition which, more than a century later, Alan Turing was to give of artificial intelligence, as a machine's ability to decide, by questions and answers, whether an interlocutor is a human being or a machine.

But less than half a century later, Hoffmann's playful, humoristic and, if you wish, prophetic attitude toward reason, changes, like Romanticism itself, into something embattled, desperate and dour. Take The Man from the Underground, Dostoevsky's long story of 1864: the Underground Man, let us recall, is the bilious office clerk who thumbs his nose and sticks out his tongue at all that reason and common sense take for certain, including elementary arithmetic; he does so in the name of a higher authority: his own caprice. Here, in this hardly attractive fictional character whose very first words are to tell us how much he suffers, the emphasis on substantial uniqueness by establishing differences with everybody else is carried to an extreme which should be properly called not irrational but anti-rational. For reason is, if we believe the Greek philosophers, what we humans have in common, and what distinguishes us from the other animals. You might wonder, then, why not go farther still, and thumb one's nose at the activity of feeding, something not only humans but all living creatures have in common. There might have been a time, indeed, when man was still uncertain about his differences with the other animal —the time of the cave paintings, perhaps—, but by the 19th century those uncertainties had long vanished, and they presented no major problem: the major problem now was how to mark the differences between oneself and the abominable, teeming human mass. The Man from the Underground is not the only place where Dostoevsky deals with the Romantic drive to substantial uniqueness; actually it is a constant theme of all his work.

I have called the Underground Man's monologue anti-rational. Given the fact that so many fine minds have endeavored to come up with an essential difference between poetry and prose, it may be well worth noting that an essential difference is to be found right here: poetry can be irrational, of course, and can also be rational (as is the case in Lucretius' poem), but only prose can be anti-rational. A manifesto against reason in poetic form —whether rhymed or not, metric or free, with line breaks or just running along— is something as unlikely as your garbage collector guessing (without a statement from you) that you want him or her to haul away your garbage container along with your garbage.

When we move from prose writers such as Hoffmann and Dostoevsky to the Romantic poets, we will not expect, therefore, anything like an explicit statement against reason as such. We do encounter, more indirectly, an attitude of relishing toward defeat and the suffering that goes with defeat. Needless to say, such an attitude is a deliberate affront to reason, since reason, at least in its modern, philistine, progressivist guise, pretends to be the master key to our success.

In Keats' oft-quoted letter of 1819 we have a justification of suffering even though it is not yet associated with defeat: "Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways." In Baudelaire, however, suffering is already both a spiritual necessity and the pale twin of defeat. Is there a special study on the word "singulier" in Baudelaire? There ought to be. I will point out only a few instances. In the poem "Les Petites vieilles" (ninety-first in Les Fleurs du Mal) the deformed, miserable old women are "Des êtres singuliers, décrépits et charmants". In "Les Aveugles" (ninety-second), the blind are "Terribles, singuliers comme les somnanbules". Toward the end of 1859 Baudelaire announces, in a letter to his mother, that he has composed "des vers, nouveaux et passablement singuliers": it is the poem "Le Cygne", eighty-ninth in Les Fleurs du Mal. With the vanishing of Old Paris, swept away by "progress" during the Second Empire, a menagerie has been torn down and a swan, having escaped from its cage, finds itself stranded in the dust and dryness of the street. The white bird, an exile from his "beau lac natal", in vain implores for rain and thunder: all around him lies a spiritless wasteland, exactly as it was with the old Gnostics and as it will be, six decades later, in T.S. Eliot's "Wasteland."

The stranded swan is the singular being caught in the hell of multiplicity, the Gehena of the "fourmillante cité". It also stands, the poet tells us, for the suffering souls crowding his memory: Andromache to begin with: "Veuve d'Hector, hélas ! et femme d'Hélénus !" (Hector's widow, alas! Now Helenus' wife!) —Baudelaire delights in that tragic caesura worthy of Racine—, then, too, the phthisic African woman lost in the Parisian fog. But not only them:

"À quiconque a perdu ce qui ne se retrouve
Jamais, jamais !"

(To anyone who has lost that which will not be retrieved ever again!)

"Je pense aux matelots oubliés dans une île,
Aux captifs, aux vaincus !... à bien d'autres encor !"

(I think of sailors abandoned on some island, of captives, of those who've been defeated!... and of many others still!)

Remarkably "Le Cygne" (and "Les Sept vieillards", and "Les Petites vieilles") are dedicated to Victor Hugo, whose sense of his own singularity is wholly, unabashedly triumphant: "Et s'il n'en reste qu'un, je serai celui-là !" (And if there's only one left, I'll be that one!) he famously proclaimed, with cannon tones, from his exile in Guernsey against the Third Napoleon. But with Baudelaire, singularity must be paid with defeat and suffering. This is not primarily for theological reasons— because of some divinity's error, as was the case with the Gnostics—, but because of demographic and political realities: the masses enthroned, they mercilessly enforce uniformity and conformity; to succeed, one must become like them, one must hide —or still better, forget— one's singularity and accept to be one more atom in the all-powerful societal mechanics. The singular artist in particular, that is to say, the true Romantic artist, is ipso facto condemned by the market, stoned with rejection, and buried under stinking commonplaces. We have come a long way from Hegel, for whom lordship is the result of fearlessness in the face of death and victory in war: now defeat and slavery are the true letters-patent of nobility. Baudelaire will take only half, the dire half, of Goethe's gifts:

"Alles geben die Götter, die unendlichen,
Ihren Lieblingen ganz,
Alle Freuden, die unendlichen,
Alle Schmerzen, die unendlichen, ganz".

(The infinite gods give it all to those they favor, entirely: all joys, the infinite ones, all sorrows, the infinite ones, entirely.)

Joy has become ignoble entertainment for the mob; singularity, having been singled out by the gods, has turned into damnation.

Whatever you think of the Romantic (or if you wish, the late Romantic) soul —substantially, emphatically unique, rebellious to relation and form, bent on suffering and defeat, subject to the passion of being crushed by the mob—, whether it attracts you or repels you or just leaves you cold, do not fall into the vulgar error of considering it as a mere literary topos, and a hopelessly dated one at that. It may well exist, for I may well have seen it.

I may have seen it in the most unlikely place, or perhaps, given the wayward nature of the Romantic soul, it had to be there rather than elsewhere: at Princeton, in Fine Hall, the university building which houses the Mathematics Department. I have forgotten the speaker's name; he was a young man, not yet forty; he didn't strike me as too arrogant, nor particularly self-satisfied as men in his profession go (being adept in the science of pure form, and form deemed the sole object of knowledge, mathematicians often conclude that they stand at the navel of truth). Actually his deportment was modest, even humble, as if he was about to kneel down in order to receive the crown of glory from the hands of the Angel or Goddess of Form. Even if I couldn't follow what he was proving and hadn't even heard of some of the concepts he was using, it was clear enough that the results in question were momentuous, that he had worked on them long and hard, and that they elicited the keen interest of the top players in the field. One man in particular who was sitting there (let us call him A) has been hailed as the most brilliant mathematician of his generation, together with John Nash; only, since he kept his sanity throughout, A's name has never become a household word.

It was A, in fact, who interrupted the speaker with a question. To that question followed a reply, which in turn motivated another question, back and forth, but for no more than a couple of minutes, until the speaker stood silently facing the board, inspecting the intricate formulas he had written. As I was sitting at the left end of the first row, I could see the left side of his struggling face, and heard distinctly his agonized "Oh God." The speaker then turned toward the audience, walked away from his formulas and stood at one side of the board, directly in front of me, as if thunderstruck. Meanwhile A was arguing with other people in the audience —B, C, et al. —, confirming that the error in the proof was logically irreparable, and no one was paying the least attention to its author any more.

My own attention, however, was concentrated on him, the silent speaker who was standing there, opened-eyed yet looking at nothing spatial: indeed his eyes seemed rather to negate than to perceive the reality facing them. No doubt Baudelaire had a similar image in mind when he wrote that line, "Terribles, singuliers comme les somnanbules". It was then that I saw what I am certain no one else did, not even the defeated speaker: a bubble started to form between the half-opened lips of the man; it grew to the size of a tennis ball until it detached itself and floated for the briefest moment between him and me, before bursting and vanishing. It was blue and iridescent, of exquisite delicacy and completely translucent, yet, paradoxically, there was something inside it, something turbid which bespoke humiliation.

I am aware that there is no way to prove that what I saw was the speaker's soul, his singularity, the moment it detached itself from his body. For no matter what meaning we attach to the word "prove," it will not be applicable to that which is singular, unrepeatable, ineffable and beyond form. The notion of "psychology," a logic or logos of the soul, if fundamentally understood and referred to the Romantic soul, is quite impossible and absurd, much more flagrantly so than that of "oxymoron." I am aware, too, of a probable objection of an opposite sort: that the soul as a bubble issuing from the mouth at the moment of death is an old conceit, one which can be found in any good treatise on symbolism in art. But what does that show? Once, when I had finished giving a paper on Baudelaire's "Ô Mort, vieux capitaine", someone in the audience, a soi-disant "literary theorist," objected to my naiveté in taking the poet at his word: death, my theorist smugly affirmed, is a literary topos. Well, yes. Yet we all die, alas, even if some of us still go on mechanically through the motions after our death, seemingly alive, once we have lost that which will never, never be retrieved. And our souls, whether limpid or murky, whether perfectly spherical or deformed, do burst and vanish in the air for good.

Most of the time, however, I don't believe it. I mean, I don't really believe that I will ever die. Nor do I believe that what I saw at Fine Hall, that blue bubble, was the departing soul of the defeated speaker. Most of the time I am inclined to think that it was the speaker's saliva filled with air, a mere flatus oris as indeed his whole talk had proved to be. In such situations, when a man is facing defeat and death, his mouth tends to open and relax quite involuntarily, just like the orifice at the other end.


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