Tag Archives: poetry

Jargon of Authenticity, Day 6

Adorno was just listing terms that belong to “the jargon” — and also remarking that many of them are ordinary German words, not immediately recognizable as jargon if cited out of context. He goes on:

The point, then, is not to compile an Index Verborum Prohibitorum of fast-selling noble nouns, but to ponder the linguistic function of such terms in the jargon.

A reader might be wondering here about the phrase “noble nouns.” That’s a single, compound word in the original, which Adorno has formed by attaching the prefix Edel- to the word for “noun.” It is, as best I can tell, Adorno’s coinage, though it follows an established pattern in German. English, like German, refers to helium and neon and the like as “noble gases,” but Germans extend that formulation to many other things, in a way that English speakers don’t, often marking out the high-grade or special members of some class by attaching to it the prefix Edel-. A German gem is a “noble-stone.” Stainless steel is “noble-steel.” That said, we won’t want to overlook the soft oxymoron that Adorno has generated around his coinage: The terms in question are noble, sure, but they are also good business — “fast-selling.” Their very nobility has been diluted or indeed hucksterized, hawked by journalists and pundits, on the lips of every pretender.

     The Latin phrase, meanwhile, is Adorno’s riff on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books, for which he has substituted “Index of Forbidden Words,” the idea being, of course, that he is repudiating the role of censor. He wants us to keep track of the jargon, but he’s not going to tell anyone to delete its terms from their vocabulary.

      He continues:

Its lexicon consists of rather more than noble nouns anyway. At times it even seizes upon [otherwise] banal words, holds them aloft and then bronzes them in the fascist manner, which wisely commingles the plebeian with the elite.

The first thing to notice about these two sentences is that they give one good reason to forgo censorship. The jargon, Adorno says for a second time, features many ordinary German words — one is tempted to say “common nouns,” in juxtaposition to those nobles one — and it would be downright silly to interdict basic and everyday terms from the German vocabulary. A contemporary American professor could just about instruct his students to stop using (and mostly misusing) the word “ontology,” but he’s hardly going to tell them to stop using the word “body.”

But this passage is, of course, more alarming than that, since Adorno is beginning to elaborate now on his big point — that something about how educated Germans spoke, as late as the 1960s, still sounded kind of fascist. And this particular observation about fascism’s verbal style — that it employed a mixed idiom that oscillated promiscuously between the demotic and the high-flown — could easily remind the reader of a second book, one that preceded Adorno’s by some sixteen years: This would be Viktor Klemperer’s LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii, or “Language of the Third Reich,” a set of reflections on the idiosyncrasies of Nazi German, compiled in notebook-form during the ’30s and ’40s by a Jewish-at-birth literature professor and published to great acclaim in 1947. Adorno, in other words, had a model.

        But the writers he is about to name are neither of them Klemperer. Once you know who he’s talking about, in fact, the next sentence is downright alarming:

The neo-romantic poets who drank their fill of the choicest vintages, like [Stefan] George and [Hugo von] Hofmannsthal, by no means wrote their prose in the jargon; many of their intermediaries, however, did — [Friedrich] Gundolf, for instance.

To remark now that Stefan George is usually regarded as the most important German modernist poet — and that Hofmannsthal was his Austrian twin, his sometime collaborator and lifelong frenemy, is not yet to say nearly enough. The most important thing to know about George is that he started his career as a junior member of the Mallarmé circle in Paris, slurring his name to Shorsh in place of the crisply Germanic Gay-yor-guh, and that he ended his career as the official poet of Germany’s hard Right and indeed of the Nazis. He thus enters cultural history as the intermediate step between the queer aestheticism of the 1890s and National Socialism; he was the guy who, while writing poems that typically remind English speakers of Eliot or Pound or Yeats, also helped publish numerous volumes of literary history with swastikas in their front matter and titles like The Poet as Führer. This is explainable: George and his followers — he was famous for having followers — united around a stalwart program to dismantle the institutions of the modern world. They wanted to roll back a whole range of depersonalized social forms: capitalism, large cities, rule-based organizations of any kind, industrialism and its technologies, mass media, mass politics. We should be careful here, since this was at one point a fairly common program and came in lots of different versions, not all of which landed on the political Right. The Rousseauvian Left could still sign onto that platform. So could the Jeffersonian republicans, on the understanding that to be a true American is not to be European, is not to be civilized; to be American is to remake yourself for the better in conditions of relative hardship (away from big cities and settled institutions &c). What made the George Circle distinctive, then, was twofold: First, it championed poetry as the alternative to (over)civilization — poetry and not, say, the frontier. The poet-prophet would play the role that Americans more typically assign to the cowboy or the Nebraska pioneer. Poetry would keep open the possibility of a life lived beyond the industrialized anonymity of mass society. That’s the first distinctive point. The second distinctive point is that the George Circle thought that fascism would make the world safe for aesthetes and queer people — if not the Nazis, then at least some hypothetical other fascism that at least some of them, for a time, mistook for really existing National Socialism.

     What I can add now is that Gundolf was for many years George’s favorite disciple — and the one tasked with translating the Circle’s program into accessible prose. It’s that divvying up of duties that seems to interest Adorno here. We can give the right-wing poets a degree of credit — credit, that is, for not having resorted to a standardized idiom even when writing prose. But it was the literary historian’s job to re-state the tenets of their fascist aestheticism in terms that lent themselves to codification and repetition — to take the rarefied discourse of George’s “Secret Germany” and make it not-so-secret. And what Adorno thinks he has noticed is that the postwar existentialists are still talking in the accents of the fascist-bohemian middlebrow.

      Adorno continues:

Particular words only become jargon through the constellation they deny, through each word’s posing as unique. What the singular word has lost in magic is acquired for it in a dirigiste manner, as though measures had been implemented. 

“What the singular word has lost in magic…” The place to start here is with the observation that words used to have magic but now mostly don’t — that’s clearly a linguistic variant of Weber’s disenchantment thesis. Adorno has omitted an important explanation here that serves as the backdrop to his more targeted comments — namely, that a great many modern intellectuals have regarded poetry as a way to combat disenchantment. Let’s start with one familiar understanding of magic: The sorcerer is the person who can speak something into being, via spell or incantation. Any anti-mimetic theory of literature, then, will ask us to think of poetry as a species of lesser magic. Poets do not merely write down what they see in front of them; they are the inventors of worlds. The fictioner gives ongoing evidence of the mind’s creative powers. But that’s not the end of it. Anyone who subscribes to speech act theory or social constructivism or the doctrine of mind-dependent social kinds is claiming to find this sublunary magic at every turn, IRL, and not just in the library. It turns out that we routinely speak things into being. The word “spell” means both “abracadabra” and “to list in their proper order the letters that make up a word.” At root, the word “incantation” just means “song.” “Grammar” is “grimoire.” A disenchanted language, then, would be one that is unwilling to unleash the powers of alphabet, song, and grammar, content only ever to describe and transcribe and record — a language that makes nothing, backed by a theory of language that sees all words as secondary, as following on from the things they merely designate, a theory that grants language no creative force. To this we need merely add that many modern poets really have tasked poetry with keeping alive the creative force of language — word-magic — in periods when that rival view of language (as so many tokens) has come to prevail; with charming the reader beyond the constraints of analytic understanding; and perhaps even with safeguarding the ancient and esoteric wisdom that mere science has tended to overwrite. For a period, Stefan George belonged to an esoteric circle in Munich that called themselves the Cosmics. W. B. Yeats was a wizard in the Order of the Golden Dawn.

        If you go back now and look at Adorno’s last two sentences, what will jump out is that Adorno is talking still about the jargon and not about poetry. On the basis of this passage alone, we can’t say what Adorno thinks about those properly poetic attempts to restore the magic of language, though in other essays, he does express a guarded admiration for George, and especially for the intransigent, homophile nonconformity of the poète maudit. The point here, however, is that the jargon has its own way of trying to re-enchant language, and that this way is ham-fisted, bullying, and hopeless. The jargon inherits from the poetry to which it is adjacent the project of re-enchanting language, but is really bad at it. I’d go so far as to say that this short passage offers a theory in passing of what makes jargon jargon; it teaches you how to recognize when a word has been annexed to some jargon. The problem with jargon is that it claims to produce the thing that it names — that’s the magic bit — without the speaker having to make any additional effort. Someone speaks the word “identity” and concludes that they have thereby fashioned a stable persona, without having to understand how selves get assembled or pausing to worry about how our ego constructs tend to come unstuck over time. I speak the word “intersectionality” and believe that I have thereby already done the hard work of solidarity. Having been told that networks of oppression typically overlap, I spare myself the labor of figuring out just how they are articulated — here, now — and I find myself with nothing to say about how the matted skein of domination might yet be unraveled. Each term pretends singly to some such power, even though they are all interlinked, tending, in fact, to be defined in terms of one another: “intersectionality” gets defined with reference to “identity”; anyone explaining “identity” asks first if you understand “positionality” and so on. And the terms themselves are rhetorically quite flat. Repetition alone will tend to routinize them and so strip them of their verbal mojo. The jargon will never achieve the insinuating and uncanny character of the well-turned poetic line, that weird cadence that can make verse sound like an improvised hex: “And I will show you something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; / I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” Words like “identity” and “intersectionality” have been assigned their bogus magic by professorial explanation and glossaries compiled on college websites. They are magic only by decree, pedantically enchanted.


William Cowper, The Georgic, and the Unwritten Literature of the 1780s



This essay original appeared in boundary 2 (August 2017).


Here are some titles that literary historians will not find in their databases and library catalogues: They will not find British Literature and the American Revolution Crisis. There is no monograph on The English Anti-Federalist Novel. John Adams and English Romanticism has yet to be written.[i] These missing volumes point, in turn, to some novels and poems that never appeared: works like Charlotte Smith’s Ellery; or The Rebel (1786), a novel about an English republican who leaves for Pennsylvania in 1773. Over the course of a decade, he sends letters home defending the conduct of the Americans against their British governors; he has a lot to say about the management of farms in the mid-Atlantic, though he also, in the novel’s mooniest pages, describes cascades on the outskirts of Philadelphia; in Delaware once he stares down a panther; the entire time he is trying to woo a young English woman away from her monarchist family, former Dissenters who have returned to the Church of England and grown rich by selling sauerkraut to the Royal Navy. In the final volume, he is captured by Clinton’s soldiers and delivered over to a prison ship anchored off of Long Island, from which he nonetheless continues to send letters; these finally dislodge Fanny-best-of-women from her crooked family; she makes the hard passage across the Atlantic, secures Ellery’s release from British custody, and nurses him back from starvation. With the war winding down, the two marry and move to a Washington County homestead.

That novel was never written, though it probably should have been. Its nonoccurrence, like the stubborn nihility of all the other long works on American themes, presents a real puzzle to the scholar. Where is the missing literature of the 1780s? Anyone studying the fall of the French monarchy doesn’t have this problem. To say that “English Romanticism was about the French Revolution” is as good a way as any to start thinking about it. It’s what a teacher might tell the students on the first day of a seminar: that innovative English poetry in the 1790s was a response to 1789, a cross-Channel heralding of the Great Event, maybe even an attempt to re-do it in verse.[ii] But then where are all the titles to flatter an American? If Southey and Coleridge eventually decided not to establish a communist utopia on the Susquehanna, couldn’t they have at least gotten a few major poems out of the idea? Couldn’t Wordsworth have fathered a bastard in Virginia? Literary historians have discovered the French Revolution all over British letters in the 1790s, right down to the children’s books. Partisans of the American war, meanwhile, hoping to discover their revolution in print, are stuck scouring the minor works of Samuel Johnson, or reverting back to reliably forthright political pamphlets, or discussing novels so forgotten you need a travel grant to Yale to so much as read them (Giles 2009). Eliga Gould has recently confirmed an old point about the American Revolution, which is that it had remarkably little effect on British politics; it didn’t much change the way that Britain’s political class thought about its empire; a basically depoliticized British populace did eventually register a certain war weariness, but defeat did not harden them against their own institutions; and crown and Parliament dusted themselves off by simply consolidating their power over Britain’s remaining holdings (in India and Canada and the Caribbean) (Gould 2000; see also Dickinson 1998). Wanting to read what the British poets had to say about the American Revolution, and finding ourselves in front of an all but empty desk, we might venture a properly literary version of Gould’s point: It was always going to be hard to find a rhyme for “Saratoga”; apparently no-one thought it important enough to try.

If you’re part of the transatlantic or globalizing turn in eighteenth-century studies, you might find such observations petty, smacking as they do of nationalist jealousies, the resentment of one writing from Vermont and wanting something more to read than Blake’s belated America (1793). But the cosmopolitans have it even worse than the literary patriots, since hard though it is to find long poems and fictions from the eighteenth century that take the American Revolution as their object or even their backdrop, it is harder still to find ones that describe the Revolution as a global event. This, in turn, opens up to a more general point: There are lots of compelling reasons one can give to study eighteenth-century literature from a transnational vantage. Early American writers obviously didn’t start from scratch, devising entirely new literary genres and forms to consecrate the nation. They mostly adopted British models. We know that Brockden Brown was William Godwin’s biggest fan and that the Connecticut Wits had studied their Pope, which suggests that we can study the circumatlantic pathways of poetic forms as we would those of Quakerism or salt cod. Similarly, we can find a certain Americanism, in Britain, among republican writers in the generation after 1776, hitching a ride on their French enthusiasms and perhaps half-hidden by them; this is best thought of as a geopolitical mutation in older traditions of radical English dissent—Milton by way of Massachusetts. Alternately, literary internationalists can lay out the ways that godly writers in early New England began puzzling out their relation to Atlantic capitalism. Or they can point out that the local situations that American fictions describe themselves had transnational or global determinants (Giles 2009, Shapiro 2008, Burnham 2007).

But what the Atlanticists will almost never find are fictions that actively and obstrusively de-localize their own narratives, following concurrent events in (or on) multiple colonies, states, and continents. It is a hallmark of the new Atlantic history that it crosses old borders in unexpected ways—that it excitedly discovers Scots living in seventeenth-century Panama and Basques on the coast of Newfoundland. But the period’s own novels and romances almost never cross such borders. Historians, it turns out, are much better than fiction writers at reconstructing spider-web diasporas. Even the most obvious candidates for the title of Atlantic novel resist that description: Robinson Crusoe, for instance, is precisely not a novel about the globe. Its hero is first offered various forms of provincial success—he could set up as small merchant or farmer in northern England; he could become a tobacco planter in Brazil—and in each case he rejects such landedness in favor of the new forms of global aspiration: he wants to make his fortune by adventuring at sea and around the colonies. And yet the novel ends up punishing this maritime Crusoe, which is to say that it ends up rejecting his planetary adventurism, both ideologically and narratively, and it does this by as it were grounding him, confining the would-be epic wanderer to some pinprick of Caribbean earth. A novel that on the face of it looks like a global story turns out to be resolutely anti-global, especially in the long middle section for which it is most famous: artisanal—Crusoe learns how to make pottery, Crusoe learns how to bake bread; minutely territorial; among the most geographically circumscribed novels in the English canon. The historians of empire argue that the American colonies were commonly seen as simple extensions of Britain in the eighteenth century, a Fringe more-than-Celtic, the Outermost Hebrides.[iii] They have a lot of evidence for this, but then we are still obliged to point out that there were in the period almost no fictions that depicted a fused Atlantic, an interlocking but multi-territorial British nation. Our erudition allows us to spot the transatlantic borrowings in eighteenth-century American letters, but the works in question do not flag those borrowings qua borrowings or encourage us to see them as oceanic. They silently transplant whatever conventions they have imported: Godwin masquerades as Pennsylvania-born. Twickenham rebuilds itself in the Litchfield Hills. An Atlantic history of literature imposes its frame on a body of writing that is itself almost never transatlantic.

The point is especially true of novels. Indeed, one of the many surprises of eighteenth-century writing is how much easier a time poetry has talking about global affairs, mostly, I think, because poetry remained comfortable with forms of linguistic compression or abstraction that prose fiction had already, for the most part, given up on: “With what an awful world-revolving power / Were first the unwieldy planets launched along / The illimitable void” (Kaul 2000; Thomson 1727: 32-4). This is perhaps reason enough to be interested in a long poem published in 1785: a poem that lots of people once loved, by William Cowper, called The Task, which basically records a set of meditations entertained by the poet while hiking around Buckinghamshire. The poem was published less than two years after peace was announced between Britain and the United States; it addresses the war directly; it was, in fact, one of the first long poems to do so. Among British poets, Cowper is pretty much what we’ve got by way of literary first-responders. More curious, The Task is an oddball instance of what’s usually called the georgic, which is species of countryside poetry, designed for describing local landscapes, which means it seems singularly ill-suited for reckoning with global events. A quick comparison will underscore the problem: When American authors began drafting long poems after the revolution, they took to writing epics, not georgics: Joel Barlow published the Vision of Columbus in 1787; Timothy Dwight published The Conquest of Canaan in 1785, the same year as The Task.[iv] And epics, of course, can seem ready-made for recounting war and the founding of nations; if you’re going to write a poem about a revolution, the epic is the go-to genre, which makes a person wonder what Cowper thought he was doing writing landscape verse.

More: Cowper was a fervent evangelical; he saw himself as trying to revive the seventeenth-century modes of piety that we used to call Puritan; and he came from a prominent Whig family and himself spoke in the accents of a radicalized Whiggery, the kind of idiom that was central to revolutionary politics in North America. A neo-Puritan and Commonwealth man: to speak crudely, Cowper can easily seem like an American figure, fully part of the Atlantic constellation in a way that not all Britons were. Indeed, Cowper was, by the standards of Warburton-era evangelism, unusually republican, unwilling to follow eighteenth-century Puritanism’s royalist and authoritarian turn. The point is: If you want to figure out what is distinctive about Cowper’s poem, it’s not much use looking at his biography or his stated convictions, because a man of his cast could easily write in other poetic modes. Cowper and his American allies held similar beliefs, but they had different ways of telling a story, which means different ways of making sense of history or of making the recent past intelligible. They came to the American war with different temporal schemes. The Americans made the easy choice; they each wrote an American Aeneid, a kind of Carolina Liberata, which means we can put them to one side so as to ask the harder question: Do poems others than epics have ways of making sense of planetary events? How exactly did the globe enter into British poetry in the years of imperial crisis? And how can you even talk about a distant revolution in a poem that seems to be mostly about gardening?



[i] Here are some titles a scholar will find: America in English Fiction, 1760-1800: The Influences of the American Revolution (Heilman 1937); Atlantic Republic: The American Tradition in English Literature (Giles 2009);  Americans in British Literature, 1770-1832: A Breed Apart (Flynn 2008); and perhaps most saliently, Entertaining Crisis in the Atlantic Imperium, 1770-1790 (Quinn 2011), which is a kind of The War for America and the London Stage.

[ii] For a comprehensive bibliography on this subject, see Grenby 2006.

[iii] For one important account of this British America, as seen from its western shores, see Greene 1988.

[iv] Modern editions of all three poems are available: The Task in Cowper 1968, but in many other places besides; The Conquest of Canaan in Dwight 1969; and The Columbiad in Barlow 1970. I discuss Barlow at length in Thorne 2006.