Difficulty/Overintellectuality

“INTERVIEWER

What comes up often in reviews of your work is the idea of an overly intellectual bent; in recent reviews of The Triumph of Love, often the word difficult comes up. People mention that it’s worth going through or it isn’t worth going through.

[GEOFFREY] HILL

Like a Victorian wedding night, yes. Let’s take difficulty first. We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. This thought does not originate with me, it’s been far better expressed by others. I think immediately of the German classicist and Kierkegaardian scholar Theodor Haecker, who went into what was called “inner exile” in the Nazi period, and kept a very fine notebook throughout that period, which miraculously survived, though his house was destroyed by Allied bombing. Haecker argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations . . . resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.

So much for difficulty. Now let’s take the other aspect—overintellectuality. I have said, almost to the point of boring myself and others, that I am as a poet simple, sensuous, and passionate. I’m quoting words of Milton, which were rediscovered and developed by Coleridge. Now, of course, in naming Milton and Coleridge, we were naming two interested parties, poets, thinkers, polemicists who are equally strong on sense and intellect. I would say confidently of Milton, slightly less confidently of Coleridge, that they recreate the sensuous intellect. The idea that the intellect is somehow alien to sensuousness, or vice versa, is one that I have never been able to connect with. I can accept that it is a prevalent belief, but it seems to me, nonetheless, a false notion. Ezra Pound defines logopaeia as “the dance of the intellect among words.” But elsewhere he changes intellect to intelligence. Logopaeia is the dance of the intelligence among words. I prefer intelligence to intellect here. I think we’re dealing with a phantom, or as Blake would say, a specter. The intellect—as the word is used generally—is a kind of specter, a false imagination, and it binds the majority with exactly the kind of mind-forged manacles that Blake so eloquently described. The intelligence is, I think, much more true, a true relation, a true accounting of what this elusive quality is. I think intelligence has a kind of range of sense and allows us to contemplate the coexistence of the conceptual aspect of thought and the emotional aspect of thought as ideally wedded, troth-plight, and the circumstances in which this troth-plight can be effected are to be found in the medium of language itself. I could speak about the thing more autobiographically; it’s the emphasis where one is most likely to be questioned, n’est-ce pas?”

—From Hill’s Paris Review interview.

“Shown at Oxford, the draft for Milton’s Lycidas, Charles Lamb felt terror at the thought that that poem could have been otherwise. At the other end, so to speak, the poem as we have it will induce an apprehension, more or less substantial, of what it could be if it was to achieve the full measure of its intentionality, which is the surpassing of its medium. We recall Liebniz again, when he alludes to the enigma of that which ‘will never be’ though it lies so near. The richer, the more enduring the text, the more vivid, the more palpably circumstantial, will be this sense of a potential self-surpassing into a sphere of absolute freedom. ‘Read me, look at me, listen to me’, says the significant work of literature, art and music, ‘and you will share in the joyous sadness, in the constantly renewed wonder, of my incompletion. You will derive from this incompletion in action what evidence is given to the human spirit of that which lies beyond, just beyond, my highest reach.’ (Once more, it is the Paradiso which most incisively articulates this proximity.)”

  • George Steiner, Grammars of Creation

The Schoolmaster’s Disease

I don’t know. Some people have gifts, like a friend of mine who can balance a glass on his finger and make it turn round by just looking at it. I have the gift of being occasionally able to put myself back in the past and see what’s happening. That’s how historical novels should be written. I also have a very good memory for anything I want to remember and none at all for what I don’t want to remember. Wife to Mr. Milton—my best novel—started when my wife and I were making a bed in 1943 and I suddenly said: “You know, Milton must have been a trichomaniac”—meaning a hair fetishist. The remark suddenly sprang out of my mouth. I realized how often his imagery had been trichomaniac. So I read all I could find about him and went into the history of his marriages. I’d always hated Milton, from earliest childhood; and I wanted to find out the reason. I found it. His jealousy. It’s present in all his poems . . . Marie Powell had long hair with which he could not compete.

INTERVIEWER

I think you describe that precisely in the novel, when they are riding on the heath . . .

GRAVES

He had the schoolmaster’s disease. Constipation.

INTERVIEWER

You mean that literally?

From a wonderful interview with Robert Graves.

Deep and Narrow

In defending Beckett from a bitchy put-down, Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence states:

Had Beckett read only Dante, Milton, Swift and Johnson (odd that Donoghue does not include Shakespeare and Joyce), and read them deeply and across a lifetime, he would qualify as “immensely learned.” Of course, Beckett didn’t stop there. Few writers have woven their learning so inextricably into the texture of their work.

I am struck by the romance of being “immensely learned” from reading narrowly but deeply. How many authors, I wonder, would fit into this ultra-narrow literary canon if one was restricted to four or five choices?

Are there a handful of living authors, four or five, that one could read deeply over a lifetime and be considered learned?