Murdering to Dissect

Hi everyone. First post LOL.

 First, reread “I wandered lonely as a cloud”. Once you’re done cringing at how trite and sappy it is, check out this bit by Patton Oswalt. (trigger warning: homophobic language)

 I don’t defend the homophobic language in this bit, but I think Oswalt includes it to make a point, namely to underscore the casual dismissiveness and contempt for the humanities that he perceives within the “hard sciences”. And, really, who can blame them when they’re confronted with poems that are unironically about rainbows and daffodils? Conversely, however, one layer of the humor in this bit – even if the casual listener might not explicitly identify it – is the way Oswalt’s own implicit dismissal of the scientific paradigm is encoded in the way he talks about the situation. He’s an English major, after all, and while the joke might be self-effacing, there’s a certain wink and nod in it; if those of us in the humanities really thought of our pursuits as being as frivolous as they are portrayed here, we wouldn’t be laughing at that stuffy professor and cheering Patton for forcing him to confront a genuine example of our own value paradigm when what the professor really meant was to slap a poetic veneer over a fundamentally materialist framework.

 Well, I guess I’ve murdered that joke sufficiently to dissect it.

 Where the first unit located the origin of the split between poetry and science in the splits between dualism and monism and between idealist monism and materialist monism, this unit focuses more on the growing hostilities between the two camps.

What we’re really interested in is the source of the friction between worldviews that is the source of the humor in the Oswalt bit: the distinction between “poetry” and “science” (to use Wordsworth’s taxonomy). We’re probably safe in considering what Wordsworth calls “poetry” analogous to what we’d call “literature” more generally. Wordsworth makes this distinction utterly explicit in the preface to “Lyrical Ballads”: “much confusion has been introduced into criticism by [the] contradistinction of Poetry and Prose, instead of the more philosophical one of Poetry and Science. The only strict antithesis to Prose is Metre” (p.10 footnote).

 So we have here the beginnings of a taxonomy of language. He further develops his taxonomy on pages 758-9 during a discussion of good vs. bad poetry. He observes of a bit of bad poetry:

“[It] is not to say … this is not poetry; but, this wants sense; it is neither interesting in itself nor can lead to anything interesting; the images neither originate in that sane state of feeling which arises out of thought, nor can excite thought or feeling in the Reader. … Why trouble yourself about the species till you have previously decided upon the genus? Why take pains to prove that an ape is not a Newton, when it is self-evident that he is not a man?” At first glance, it seems Wordsworth has given us a clear picture of the hierarchy of ideas:

  • Sense

    • Poetry

      • Metre

      • Prose

    • Science

  • Nonsense

    • Not interesting

    • Does not excite thought or feeling

 But there’s some inconsistency here. “Nonsense” is defined in opposition to the values that Wordsworth attributes to poetry, but his taxonomy implies that science has those values as well. His rhetorical strategies likewise tend to undercut his own argument. Though he broadly defines poetry as being “truth … carried alive into the heart by passion” (Preface, p.11), he attempts to support his claim with arguments structured so scientifically as to be almost dry. On page 754, he suggests that “it might be proved that it is impossible” (emphasis his) that the poet’s “language differ … from that of all other men who feel vividly,” as though there were some mathematical operation one could carry out on the idea. As we discussed in class, he steps back from advocating “passive” experience of beauty as valuable in itself in “Expostulation and Reply” to characterize the endeavor as a kind of productive work in “The Tables Turned”. He even engages in a long quasi-scientific psychological explanation of metrical language’s unique ability to impart pleasure on page 755 of the preface.

 So even as Wordsworth attempts to defend the poetic mission of “truth carried alive into the heart by passion”, he does so not by abandoning the materialist ethic and substituting a boldly idealist ethic in its place, but rather by trying to shoehorn poetical values into a scientific value structure, thus validating the ideals of a scientific system that he elsewhere calls poetry’s “strict antithesis”. Thus, Wordsworth’s legacy is tragically contradictory. On the one hand, he succeeded in convincing us that the experience of nature is valuable a priori. But on the other hand, by first defining poetry in opposition to science but then seeking the latter’s approval of the former, he agreed to play by the rules of a value system that intrinsically privileges science over art, laying the groundwork for the pervasive inferiority complex that underpins the second aspect of Patton Oswalt’s joke.

 Yeah, that professor was stuffy, but I guess Star Trek doesn’t really matter.

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2 Responses to Murdering to Dissect

  1. Ebbwilliams says:

    Thanks for the great post! Way to set the tone.

  2. Thanks for pointing out that Wordsworth had to use a sort of scientific approach in order to defend poetry. It helped me see that, even though he’s saying it’s bad to “murder to dissect,” that’s really what he’s doing too. It’s one of those situations where he basically has to become what he swore to destroy. I think this speaks to the tension of his day (which could certainly still exist today) between science and art. Why can’t we just accept each for what each is? It’s unfortunate that, as you’ve pointed out, Wordsworth seems to be compelled to describe poetry in scientific terms.

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