November 17, 2008


Relevance without Meaning (Robert Penn Warren, Spring 1971, First Principles)

This is the moment of crisis, we are constantly being told—the crack-up of the Western World, of the Judeo-Christian tradition, of the American success story. In such a moment, what are we doing here on this—or any other—literary occasion? Are we—to use the sacred word—relevant?

When I first entered the Library of Congress in 1944, I didn’t come in feeling relevant. A couple of years earlier, in that time of crisis, I had offered my services to the United States Navy, and they had politely declined the offer. Defective vision, they said. So as time passed I got irrelevanter and irrelevanter until I reached the nadir of relevance—which was being the Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress.

But one morning my phone rang and a Captain X introduced himself and asked if I was the Consultant in Poetry. Yes, I said. Well, he said, General Y was writing the lyric for a song to inspirit our boys—that was the word he used, “inspirit”—and the General wanted to consult the Consultant in Poetry on a matter of meter. So at one end of the line the General read his lyric and tapped out the meter, and at my end, while he read, I tapped it out with my finger. We did this several times, and I told him it was fine meter. Meanwhile I had memorized most of his lyric, but now all I can remember is two lines:

We are the boys who don’t like to brag,
But we sure are proud of our grand old flag.

The episode was a great comfort to me. If, in the middle of World War II, a general could be writing a poem, then maybe I was not so irrelevant after all. Maybe the general was doing more for victory by writing a poem than he would be by commanding an army. At least, he might be doing less harm. By applying the same logic to my own condition, I decided that I might be relevant in what I called a negative way. I have clung to this concept ever since—negative relevance. In moments of vainglory I even entertain the possibility that if my concept were more widely accepted, the world might be a better place to live in. There are a lot of people who would make better citizens if they were content to be just negatively relevant.

But, in general, this brand of comfort isn’t quite comforting enough. The awareness of crisis has penetrated to the furthest reaches of society. The most illiterate and pot-ridden of drop-outs mumble about their identity crises, along with the poets. Stickup men on heroin plead alienation. Time was when the bad news of Spengler’s Decline of the West was restricted to the more romantic alumni of the University of Heidelberg, the heavy-thinkers of Greenwich Village, and disillusioned graduate students, but now an erstwhile humor magazine spreads the glad tidings of great gloom according to Charles Reich and Lewis Mumford among suburban housewives on the cocktail circuit and investment bankers grieving because their children are apathetic toward hard money and the Republican (or Democratic) Party.

I am not implying that Reich and Mumford are overestimating the gravity of our crisis—pollution, war, race, the cities, bad schools, irresponsible leadership, and all the rest. In fact, I am inclined to think they are underestimating the gravity, in that their diagnosis is not radical enough and their proposed solutions overlook some important aspects of our relation to technology, and at times are not far from old-time revivalism and snake-oil remedies. In brief, they seem to neglect the nature of the human animal— what we used to refer to as Original Sin. In other words, the need for “relevance” is greater than even the prophets of doom, the Black Panthers, Billy Graham, Martha Mitchell, and the Students for a Democratic Society, imagine. But what is relevance?

The most obvious question concerning literature is: What subject matter is appropriate for our time? Almost a hundred and fifty years ago, the young Nathaniel Hawthorne sat in an upper room, totally withdrawn from the real world, and wrote stories. No doubt writing stories was bad enough, but his stories were about the distant past. Later on, still brooding over the past, Hawthorne moved to Concord. But there he had a neighbor who was really relevant. The neighbor certainly didn’t write stories, he told people how to live, and he took a very dim view of the past. He was a prophet with a crystal ball and his crystal ball did, as a matter of fact, show some important things about the future. It seems only natural that Hawthorne did not think very highly of his prophet neighbor, any more than the neighbor did of him. Hawthorne and Emerson met on the wood paths of Concord, and passed on, Emerson with his head full of bright futurities and relevances, Hawthorne with his head full of the irrelevant past. As Henry James was to say of them: “Emerson, as a sort of spiritual sun-worshipper, could have attached but a moderate value to Hawthorne’s catlike faculty of seeing in the dark.”

We revere Emerson, the prophet whose prophecies came true. But having once come true, those prophecies began to come untrue. More and more Emerson recedes grandly into history, as the future he predicted becomes a past. And what the cat’s eye of Hawthorne saw gave him the future—and relevance. He died more than a century ago, but we find in his work a complex, tangled, and revolutionary vision of the soul, which we recognize as our own. Emerson spoke nobly about relevance but Hawthorne was relevant.

The moral is that it is hard to tell at any given moment what is relevant.

Really? Isn't the moral that Hawthorne is relevant precisely because he never deviated from that attention to Original Sin while Emerson is irrelevant because those trends that require looking away always descend into irrelevance?

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 17, 2008 6:25 AM
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