Thursday, August 30, 2007

Words That Mean Only Themselves: Docile

It is my experience that the word ‘docile’ is one belonging primarily to animals. Its most common usage is the phrase ‘a docile creature,’ and when I, at least, use the word of people instead of animals, it operates by analogy of this sense, not independently, and applies animal characteristics to a human being. To me the word ‘docile’ suggests tameness and moreover a gentleness bordering almost on indifference. It is not so moral as 'lazy' nor so cold as 'inactive:' it is an animal word. That this meaning I have inherited is at odds with etymology does not surprise me; that I found it absent from every dictionary I have consulted does.

‘Docile’ is a direct borrowing of the Latin docilis, which means, quite literally, ‘teachable;’ it is an adjective formed from the verb docere, 'teach,' the same Latin root which gives us doctor, doctrine, and docent, among other words. If you look up ‘docile’ in an English dictionary, you will not find a definition far removed from this origin: the standard definition, which I have found in roughly the same form in several sources, contains two meanings, first, "willing to be taught or teachable," and second, "yielding to instruction, obedient, or tractable." I was surprised to encounter the first meaning, with which I am not at all familiar, because it was so exactly close to the Latin; the second gave me pause for being so slightly derived, and for maintaining a similar distance from what I would have made the current meaning. And in neither did I find even the slightest "esp. of animals" to vindicate me.

Yet it is not hard to see the shift from the Latin meaning of ‘docile’ to the one that is now colloquial. An animal which could be described as docile would probably also be described as tame or gentle, and if one were exposed only to phrases combining 'docile' with such words, it would make sense to take it for their synonym—and how else is meaning diluted but through the ingrained formulas of this process?. Were I pressed, I would guess it began as something of a technical veterinarian or taxonomist’s term, perhaps even in its Latin original, and gained only later a new generality out of that specific use. What I find the last irony is that a word which had so humane a meaning, a word about learning and education, has become a word passing almost for an inborn quality in beasts. I leave you, then, with this dictum of Quintilian, from the second book of his Institutio Oratoria (“Oratorical Education”), a memory of the old docile: Nam ut illorum officium est docere, sic horum praebere se dociles, “For as it is the duty of instructors to teach, so it is the duty of students to prove themselves easily taught.”

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Milton, Dryden, and The Devil

I do not know if I should take it as a blemish upon his art, or, as would be the vulgar opinion, as a commendation to his originality, that the greatest and most common misunderstanding of Milton’s epic was taken to by even his own contemporaries. For John Dryden writes, in an essay on Vergil’s Aeneid, as he takes stock of the whole body of epic literature, having named Homer and Vergil, and after them Tasso, as the only great epic poets, this brief appraisal of the flaws of Paradise Lost:

“And Milton [would have been a great poet], if the Devil had not been his hero, instead of Adam; if the giant had not foiled the knight, and driven him out of his stronghold, to wander through the world with his lady errant; and if there had not been more machining persons than human in his poem.”

Mr. Dryden’s last observation is an interesting one that I shall have to think on further. His second cuts to the very core of the poem, and I will suffice to answer that it was not on a whim that Milton began “Of man’s first disobedience…” and not “Of arms and a man,” although this objection is due a rather lengthier refutation. It is his third, however, that I shall answer here at length, for it is a view commonly held by careless readers of Milton, and is as erroneous as it is seductive.

Indeed, if it were not so common, I would dismiss Mr. Dryden’s criticism as quickly and confidently as any man of passable taste dismisses his equally absurd opinion (expressed in the Preface to his Fables) that the “Knight’s Tale” of Chaucer is “not much inferior” to the Iliad and the Aeneid. Unfortunately, it is an opinion which has hounded Milton’s poem in various forms. Among the Romantics, some embraced a brand of this foolishness (Shelley wrote that “Milton’s Devil as a moral being is…far superior to his God”), and others apologized for the poet (Blake wrote that Milton’s poem found its better parts among the devils than among the angels because he “was a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”). The chief assumption in this error is that the most eloquent parts of a poem must represent the author’s own views, or at least the truth. Satan is surely a charismatic character, a passionate and eventually torn rebel, true to himself and loyal, as he says, to his comrades; his demand of freedom makes Patrick Henry a monarchist and his speeches, especially at the very beginning of the poem, stand alone as the most powerful pieces of poetical rhetoric in English. All of this is almost enough (as we see, wholly enough for some) to make us forget that this is Satan. Indeed the voice of the narrator and his angelic and divine characters are constantly reminding us of this fact: the first simile of the entire book gives us Satan as Leviathan, the seeming island that is in truth a monster (1.203-208). That simile is completed with these words:

“So stretched out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chained on the burning lake, nor ever thence
Had ris’n or heaved his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs…” (1.209-213)

Some 30 lines later, Beelzebub and Satan are free of their chains,

“Both glorying to have ‘scaped the Stygian flood
As gods, and by their own recovered strength,
Not by the sufferance of supernal pow’r.” (1.239-241)

Surely the lies under which Satan and his minions operate are clear from this comparison; and there are many other instances throughout the poem of his manipulative and deceptive nature. Yet many still choose to listen to his voice, as Eve did, when she found his words “impregned / With reason, to her seeming, and with truth.” (9.737-738).

I have gone astray, however, in dealing with the more recently common manifestation of Dryden’s malady rather than the disease he bore himself. For, although he is also caught up in an inability to realize that the devil is the devil, he does not go so far as to call him good, but rather calls him the hero of the poem. Coming as this does in a discussion of the Aeneid, we cannot be surprised that Dryden finds it hard to judge Milton’s poem under extra-Homeric criteria, and to make sense of the world of post-Vergilian epic except by the lens of his Mantuan master. Yet Milton serves a master higher than Vergil, higher even than the whole inheritance of antiquity, which he Satanizes throughout the poem, from the “Dorian mood” the Devils’ “perfect phalanx” moves to (1.550), to the games of the their hellish leisure (2.528-532), to Satan convincing Eve as “some Orator renowned / In Athens or free Rome” (9.670-671). Dryden has missed the point as much as Shelley or Blake; a different point, but a point no less central to the poem (did Dryden even make it to the opening of Book IX?), although more historical, cultural, and literary than ethical. When Dryden saw Satan giving inspiring speeches to his dispirited men on the shores of hell, he found him a hero because he followed the example of Aeneas, and must not have thought for a moment that Milton’s obvious parallel was meant rather to cast a dubious light upon the Trojan than endow the Devil with heroism.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Unequaled Dr. Johnson

I have found it the surest tonic, whenever I begin to embrace the prose style of any author as excellent beyond all others, to take a little time with Samuel Johnson. I have greeted the seductions of William Tyndale, Francis Bacon, Jane Austen, even our own American Cicero Daniel Webster; yet it requires but a few drops of the antidote to dispel even these most staying poisons. If there are those among you who are unfamiliar with Dr. Johnson, I advise you in all earnestness and confidence to get hold of some of him: he is the most eloquent man the English language has produced. Shakespeare may be the Homer, Milton the Pindar of our tongue, yet as the firmer perfections of Hellenic speech were reserved to Demosthenes their later peer, so stands Johnson among the English authors. No author's diction is more pure, nor their balance more artless, and where some might approach or even attain, for a breath, the loftiest peak of elegance, there are none that can so long and so consistently persevere in that reverie as Dr. Johnson does.

I give you here an example from the preface to his dictionary, chosen because it was near at hand, although it testifies adequately enough to the excellence of his style in some of the nobler of his sentiments.

"To have attempted much is always laudable, even when the enterprise is above the strength that undertakes it: to rest below his own aim is incident to every one whose fancy is active, and whose views are comprehensive; nor is any man satisfied with himself because he has done much, but because he can conceive little. When first I engaged in this work, I resolved to leave neither words nor things unexamined, and pleased myself with a prospect of the hours which I should revel away in feasts of literature, with the obscure recesses of northern learning, which I should enter and ransack, the treasures with which I expected every search into those neglected mines to reward my labor, and the triumph with which I should display my acquisitions to mankind. When I had thus inquired into the original of words, I resolved to show likewise my attention to things; to pierce deep into every science, to inquire the nature of every substance of which I inserted the name, to limit every idea by definition strictly logical, and exhibit every production of art or nature in an accurate description, that my book might be in place of all other dictionaries whether appellative or technical. But these were the dreams of a poet doomed at last to wake a lexicographer. I soon found that it is too late to look for instruments, when the work calls for execution, and that whatever abilities I brought to my task, with those I must finally perform it. To deliberate whenever I doubted, to inquire whenever I was ignorant, would have protracted the undertaking without end, and, perhaps, without much improvement; for I did not find by my first experiments, that what I had not of my own was easily to be obtained: I saw that one inquiry only gave occasion to another, that book referred to book, that to search was not always to find, and to find was not always to be informed; and that thus to pursue perfection was, like the first inhabitants of Arcadia, to chase the sun, which, when they had reached the hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld at the same distance from them."

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Unity, Genre, and the Last Movement of Beethoven's Ninth

I have been known, from time to time, to mount a most energetic defense of Beethoven’s symphonies against those who would dare to detract from them, and to praise them most vocally among those who admire them. Yet as I recently listened to the last movement of his ninth symphony played on the radio, I heard something quite different than my cherished image of the piece: I heard a succession and not a unity. What I mean by this is that, in a way they never had before, the sections of the piece appeared distant from one another, contained within themselves, and joined together in that they proceeded after one another, and not out of one another. In itself each section retained the individual force of that sublimity I remembered, but I found the whole diminished; where I remembered an unceasing motion forward, I heard only so many pauses.

I do not mean to appear to say I fell sick to the music. The reformulation and recombination of themes that I have long admired was still there, and there are few passages as at once forceful and elegant as when the four soloists combine. I even discovered something new to admire, and to consider: I heard, as I never had before, the alternation with which Beethoven employs his voices (by which I mean soloist, soloists, chorus, orchestra) while retaining the same tone. These elements were varied so as to alternate between the broad strength of orchestral or choral primacy and the precision of the soloist or quartet’s. This sort of alternation is curious here, for it is primarily a narrative virtue, and not a musical one, and music, in itself, hardly ever succeeds when it narrates.

Yet the last movement of Beethoven’s ninth is hardly music in itself. It is, and I do not think I had ever realized the significance of this, a poem set to music, with all the considerations that entails. All poetry is, of course, narrative, and if one is to combine poetry with music it would hardly do to leave off narrative virtues, lest the words become but another sound. And if that were the case the whole enterprise would be undertaken in futility; for the sound of men’s words cannot compare with their music. For this reason it is more often than not the needs of music that are conformed to the needs of words in such pieces. Yet Beethoven was not setting this poem to music on its own, but including it in a much larger, much more strictly musical work. His music could not support the words as it would have in a set piece: it had other obligations to fulfill. When Handel composed his Messiah he had access to all the tools of narrative variety and pacing, because his words had the primacy, yet Beethoven’s generic concerns gave that to his music. He could not compose a piece of music without wasting his words, and could not freely set his poem to music without weakening the bonds that bound his symphony together.

This may well be the central tension of the symphony (or at least its last movement). For all art stands and falls according the success with which it solves its formal problems; once you have found a way to say something, you have said it. Matter follows upon manner, and one cannot say something important without saying it well. The successive nature which I detected in Beethoven’s music was his accommodation of the aesthetic necessities of poetry; the interwoven reformulation and recombination of themes in his execution of this succession was his accommodation of those of music. One can see, as it were, the plan. But was it properly carried out? I have always assumed Beethoven’s Ninth was a successful work of art, but, then again, I had never heard the words. In point of strict fact, I still haven’t: I know no German. And, as I hope I have made clear, it is impossible to judge this work—or any work—without giving full justice to all those parts which contribute to its crisis of form (the proposition may also be worth considering that if a crisis of form is present, the work cannot be successful, but that is another argument for another day). For now I must recuse myself from this criticism on grounds of lingual deficiency, and shall have recourse only to enjoyment until such time as I have gained the German tongue.