Saturday, 17 July 2021

A follower of Spengler

A follower of Spengler

I chanced to look at an old text of mine, and this is something like a correction to what I wrote 30 years ago. The text is on my first website,, and one section of it is about a poem by Alan Jackson, in his 1989 Collected. Part of it runs:

“Alan Jackson writes, in "West Man":

between iron and gold still hammered,
each living one of us,
keen to jingle and cleave,
in the west, that is, that I know of,
where the wind is red.

Jackson is taking on nothing less than the West, via a string of crimes: science, thinking, rockets, pollution, etc., and especially: "The word's still: 'On',/ which means to The End", which is the effort to excel. This poem has two good things about it. First, its sheer scale: a terrific release from domestic realism. Second, its forcing together of two incommensurables. [...] You can't have insight into that many people; unless you believe that they all have the same mind, and that this central reality is visible to the Poet. Getting from "character" to "history" is not as easy as Jackson thinks. [...] The poem is totally indebted to prose statements about ecological disaster, something so familiar to the reader that it needs little explaining; also, it's implicitly normative, dividing the world into Good People and Bad People, and this supports a claim by the author to authority and knowledge. It's not a very good poem.[..]
Jackson's certainty comes from his sources: whether it was the ecologist Barry Commoner or some TV documentary, he takes "the West-logic- imperialism- disaster" as fixed concepts, and there is no trace in his poem of how this knowledge was reached. Most of the poets published in the anthology have a childike worldview, in which knowledge is guaranteed by an authority figure[...] This lack of interrogation process petrifies the poems they write. One wonders if anybody in this whole network has the faintest idea what Western art has actually been doing in the past 50 years. Maybe the "inquiring" style came to be the Establishment (in visual art, at least), and ebbed away, without most of the arts public knowing what it was.”

So far so good. But, what I didn't get at the time (1992?) is that the source is actually Oswald Spengler. Where Jackson says "The word's still: 'On',/ which means to The End", the idea is clearly Spengler’s myth of Faustian Man. In fact, the idea that there was a cultural unit called The West, and that it was embodied in a “psychological type”, comes from Spengler. This poem is much better than Jackson’s other poetry, and this just shows the whole continuing mythic power of Spengler. I am tempted to use the phrase “pulp philosopher”, because his core ideas are so vivid and so remote from historical research. The idea of “defining the West” is so compelling that many poets have wanted to do it, irrespective of deep ignorance about other cultures (say, Far Eastern, Islamic, communist).
Jackson isn’t a very good poet (and when he was in Penguin Modern Poets, number 12, they put three bad poets in one volume, the others being William Wantling and Jeff Nuttall). It has a drop-dead beautiful cover photo by Alan Spain, quite similar to a lot of other volumes in the series. I remember these covers from 1971 or so... they were just great. It seems to be a wooden wheel in a tree, seen from beneath and silhouetted against the sky. Possibly two wheels. It's quite hard to locate which direction is up, but I feel sure the blue is the sky and not the surface of water. The credits page to that PMP records "he is working on a book about the interaction of myth, dream and imagery in his own life and in our time". I wonder if that ever came out. My essay was looking at that belief that "my unconscious is the deep tier of our society" and some of the consequences of that. It is possible that dreams are just "narrative white noise" and not a source of knowledge. The essay is not very good.
For me this shows how little I knew in 1990. Actually reading contemporary poetry was probably a good idea, but reading the history of ideas (including bad ideas) would also have been helpful. A poet who recycled Spengler motifs in the 1970s was Peter Abbs, and those poems are actually rather good.
If you work in the education industry, the question “how will Moslem parents react to this policy” is quite important. Good government also means good government as it affects British Moslems. Spengler’s version of Magian Culture has nothing to offer here, it’s more like a joke than real cultural sociology. The whole post-Spengler thing was a solipsistic way of thinking about the West, not a way of gaining understanding of people from (say) Turkey or Pakistan. A false start. Spengler’s book was more like a trashy but exciting work of science fiction than a work of sociology. It should have been made into a silent film. "The Twelve Dreams of Dr Spengler".

No comments:

Post a Comment