Sunday, October 25, 2009

Francis Bacon: Abstract Necessities and the Four Idols

Francis Bacon observed that human beings have a tendency to draw the separate facts, particulars, and events of experience into abstract necessities, general laws, and "natural" mechanisms. According to Bacon in Aphorism 45 from Book I of the New Organum:

The human understanding is of its own nature prone to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds. And though there be many things in nature which are singular and unmatched, yet it devises for them parallels and conjugates and relatives which do not exist. Hence the fiction that all celestial bodies move in perfect circles, spirals and dragons being (except in name) utterly rejected.Hence too the element of fire with its orb is brought in, to make up the square with the other three which the sense perceives.Hence also the ratio of density of the so-called elements is arbitrarily fixed at ten to one.And so on of other dreams.And these fancies affect not dogmas only, but simple notions also. (50)

In Aphorisms 39 through 44 of The New Organon, Bacon defines four classes of "idols" which he says "beset men's minds."These four distinctions Bacon calls, first, Idols of the Tribe; second, Idols of the Cave; third, Idols of the Marketplace; fourth, Idols of the Theater.

The Idols of the Tribe, says Bacon, "have their foundation in human nature itself . . . [H]uman understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it." Our understanding is distorted by our own animal nature.

The Idols of the Cave "are the idols of the individual man . . . [M]en look for sciences in their own lesser worlds [--according to their personal nature, the books they read, their education, the friendship and authority of those whom they esteem and admire--] and not in the greater or common world." Our understanding is distorted by our upbringing, through the association of our families and close friends.

The Idols of the Market are "formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other."Because of this association, language is often distorted "according to the apprehension of the vulgar.And therefore the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding."Learned men are often in error in their definitions and explanations because "words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies." Our understanding is distorted by where we work and who we work with.

The Idols of the Theatre are "various dogmas of philosophies, and also the wrong laws of demonstration."These various dogmas are "entire systems . . . principles and axioms in science, which by tradition, credulity, and negligence have come to be received."The demonstrations and proofs for these systems are like "so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion." 
Our understanding is distorted by the language and orientations of various schools, academies, the sciences and the professions.

Bacon, Francis. Novum Organum. New York: Liberal Arts Press. 1960. (47-50).

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Uses of Influence

Is "influence" of a direct kind from the work of an admired writer a good or bad thing? Something to embrace or avoid?

With all the usual qualifications, it is a good thing, to be sure. Michael Moorcock has suggested that as an exercise writers should compose an entire novel based on the style of another author; I think Moorcock had Joseph Conrad in mind when he made this suggestion. While I wouldn't go so far as to copy a style in this way--I am happy enough playing with my own voice--the suggestion can lead to some interesting places.

Tally-Ho, Cornelius! might fit in this category of exercise, although the major "influence" I am working with in this novel isn't actually Moorcock, whose Jerry Cornelius and Second Ether provided much inspiration, as well as patterns that I could "invert" (itself a technique to be found in the JC material).

Considering the feel, the sensibility and the politics of Tally-Ho, Cornelius!, I trace the most significant influence to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who I would assert is our greatest American author, for the depth and breadth of his perspective, the sureness of his scholarship, and also for the way, amongst all of my country's authors, he brings together aspirations, theology and a political understanding that can be uniquely styled "American." He is the American Homer, Aeschylus and Aristophanes rolled into one.

Harold Bloom has written a book on the subject of influence. Although I often disagree with Bloom in the details, on the large scale his ideas are always interesting and serve as good points of departure for rewarding speculation.

Here's the Wiki article on his thesis:

The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (ISBN 0-19-511221-0) is a book by Harold Bloom, published in 1973. It was the first in a series of books that advanced a new "revisionary" or antithetical[1] approach to literary criticism.

Bloom's central thesis is that poets are hindered in their creative process by the ambiguous relationship they necessarily maintained with precursor poets. While admitting the influence of extraliterary experience on every poet, he argues that "the poet in a poet" is inspired to write by reading another poet's poetry and will tend to produce work that is derivative of existing poetry, and, therefore, weak. Because a poet must forge an original poetic vision in order to guarantee his survival into posterity (i.e., to guarantee that future readers will not allow him to be forgotten), the influence of precursor poets inspires a sense of anxiety in living poets.

Thus Bloom attempts to work out the process by which the small minority of 'strong' poets manage to create original work in spite of the pressure of influence. Such an agon, he asserts, depends on six revisionary ratios[2], which reflect Freudian defense mechanisms and the tropes of classical rhetoric. Later books, especially Kabbalah and Criticism and A Map of Misreading connect each ratio to the Kabbalah.

Prior to writing this book, Bloom spent a decade studying the Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century. This is reflected in the emphasis given to those poets and their struggle with the influence of John Milton. Other poets analyzed range from Lucretius and Dante to Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and John Ashbery.

In The Anxiety of Influence and other early books, Bloom claimed that influence was particularly important for post-enlightenment poets. Conversely, he suggested that influence was not as much of a problem for such poets as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. He since has changed his mind, and the most recent editions of The Anxiety of Influence include a preface claiming that Shakespeare was troubled early in his career by the influence of Christopher Marlowe.

The book itself is divided into six major categories, called "six revisionary ratios" by Bloom. They are: clinamen, tessera, kenosis, daemonization, askesis, and apophrades.