TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE MOVEMENT RECALLED: A MYSTERIOUS PHENOMENON
SELF OR NO SELF
THE SOCIAL ANIMAL: A SCRUTINY OF PHILIP LARKIN’S “WANTS”
CONCLUSION: THE PHILISTINE QUESTION
Philip Larkin, the genius in guise of a librarian has been debated, criticized, adored and worshipped for more than two decades, and still continues to occupy a daunting position in the British literary tradition without suffering any streak of exhaustion in his popularity. Larkin’s criticism ensued both before and after his death and has been showcased by eminent scholars, who have interpreted his literary style in myriad ways, with some calling him an imagist, a realist, a symbolist, a romantic while others focussing upon modernist and post-modernist aspects of his work. He has even suffered the wrath of a number of critics, who had limited tolerance for his flagrant opinions, with some calling him a racist, sexist, misogynist, misanthropist and the like. Despite such differences of opinion, Larkin continues to enjoy an indomitable space, solely based upon his literary merit and proficiency.
Over the years Larkin has been so voraciously and extensively researched that it leaves very little room for a novice researcher to decisively embark upon any new nuancy that may seem to surface his work. This research aims to rework upon certain established and fundamental aspects of Larkin’s poetry, which not only define but also determine his elusive philosophical stance. Larkin appears to have had a close affinity with the distinguished German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, the propounder of great systems of thought. Both Larkin and Schopenhauer seems to have been disillusioned by the frugal rewards of life and endeavoured to explore its subtleties.
Some of the fundamental aspects of Larkin’s poetry are also somehow characteristically interweaved with his personality and is identical to it. One cannot be assessed without considering the aspects of the other. Therefore, one has to be especially cautious while comparing and analyzing these features, without undermining or overreaching the interests of either. But on a close inspection of these features, one comes to realize that they are actually universal truths shared by the common brotherhood of artists and geniuses.
These so called features include sociability and unsociability, and selfishness and selflessness. Schopenhauer elucidates upon these arbitrary features with quite competence and critical acumen. Regarding society, Schopenhauer primarily begins by stating that it is just not worthwhile. Schopenhauer regards most society as nondescript and vulgar. He even considers it detrimental to superior minds. The growth, maturation and development appears to suffer a severe impairment, when sober mind comes into contact with unsober society. Schopenhauer warns his readers against it and explicates that a genius or an artist never makes the mistake of mingling with such a society, even though he may get tainted by the reputation of being unsocial. Philip Larkin had to face a similar situation, whenever he would be asked to come into contact with dull lowbrows and pompous fools. Unfortunately, Schopenhauer observes that this is the fate shared by all great minds and intellectuals, who come to the world for imparting endless wisdom to the common man and has to endure the tedious company of wretched fools. In spite of this humdrum and uneventful existence, he has to be sincerely dedicated to his art, regardless of what others might think and say. For the genius, Schopenhauer admits that the best society is his own individual society, for no one can fully appreciate his work and its greatness. A man of genius is a rare person whose tastes, habits and opinions varies largely from the common multitude. Larkin too vouches for this individual society, which can be lonely and sad, but one which gives him peace and solace.
Schopenhauer notes that many a times, geniuses have to work in unfavourable conditions and still be dedicated to their art. For this, he recalls the example of Goethe, when he had to go to war and under such adverse conditions, still find time and zeal to work on his manuscript. One remembers in this connection, that even Jane Austen would write the manuscripts of her novels in the common living room of her house, undeterred by all external interruptions. Even Larkin, the remarkable artist would find time to work on some of his poems, sitting at a peaceful corner in the library, as acknowledged by R.L. Brett. Schopenhauer observes that an artist is unflinched by outward influences, even though they form an essential part of his existence and experience, only as long as they do not disrupt the harmonious flow of his artistic motions, and let him do his work with all faithfulness and serendipity.
Schopenhauer asserts that an artist prefers to remain detached from the society and the lower order of minds, as well as their vulgar gossips and barbarity. But since these lowbrows and middlebrows are the ones, who conform and consolidate the genius, they (the artist) condescend to give them some indulgence in their lives. Many a times, when they do deign to converse with the lowbrows and the middlebrows, they do so without considering what they would think, since they are in no position to understand the genius at all. The situation would be very much like a small child talking to a dumb doll, as Schopenhauer observes.
Larkin due to his busy work as a librarian could not find enough time to dedicate to his art, though he tried his best to preserve it. Only now and then, would he rue the fact of his not having written his poems in the fresh hours of the morning, a time apparently robbed by his daily grind and toad work.
Schopenhauer emphasizes the fact that the difference between the genius and the ordinary man is more a qualitative than a quantitative one. He not only discerns, sees and aims for the higher, but also has a distinguished difference of opinion from the ordinary man. The genius is one, who does not submit to all likeness, commonness and sameness of opinion and thoughts. His thoughts and opinions are his own and are widely opposed to those of the common man. Schopenhauer affirms, that many a times, great thinkers are in open or covert opposition to general decisions. Larkin too, his whole life tried to bring his art to perfection and then raised the bar higher by catapulating it into different directions, thereby never restricting it to narrow convictions. He was a man, who aimed for the realization of the optimum results of his art and achieved it, though not without paying a hefty sum. Schopenhauer says that an artist or a genius is unsociable because he has to cultivate, nurture and increase the higher faculties of his learning, something, which the society is unsupportive of, since it works for the nourishment of the belly and not the superior mind.
One of the most potent features of Larkin’s poetry is his constant debate between selfishness and selflessness. Larkin characteristically sided with the selfish side, knowing what he “can stand”, but on a deeper analysis, Schopenhauer shows how this is the natural habit of the scholarly mind or the genius. Schopenhauer vehemently asserts that in order to enrich the higher faculties of the mind for the potential realization of the genius, one has to separate oneself from the rest of the world and its events. Only by staying aloof from the ordinary events and existence can the artist realize the extraordinary and can elevate himself from the commonplace into a higher world of experience and learning. Schopenhauer points out that self-possession is absolutely essential for any artist for the fruitition of his superior mental faculties into concrete products of art. He has to be duly faithful to his oeuvre for producing superior works of art. Schopenhauer affirms that there is sufferance at the bottom of human existence and that both the genius and the common man are equally subjected to it. But there is an essential difference. The genius or the artist can expect to gain some fruitful reward at the end of his toil, his work being secured for posterity immortalizes him with the passage of time, whereas the common man going with the grind of ordinary existence and finally paying his debt to mortality, whisks into mere oblivion. The price of such genius, Schopenhauer warns is highly taxing, for it means detaching oneself from all ordinary events and familial relationships of the rest of the world. The ordinary man works his mind in the service of his will only, he works, marries, has children and is content with the life that he leads. A genius, on the other hand, is petrified by such a prospect. He works the superior faculties of his mind to cultivate, increase and rectify his knowledge, i.e., he works not just for the will, but also for the higher service of his art, perfecting and securing it for the future. But there is consolation too for the artist at the end of the tunnel, suggests Schopenhauer. Since, he directs his superior faculties of the mind in realizing the extraordinary and the meaningful, he automatically transports himself from the boredom of common existence into a world of eternal delights. At once, all his ideas and thoughts come to be beaded into a string of aesthetic pleasure. Philip Larkin preferred to remain “less deceived” by love, considered marriage a fertility rite, and remained forever cautious never to be “lulled” into a dream of “self protecting ignorance”. He lived and worked for ‘the self”, which is true, but was committed to a highly noble task of propagating his wisdom and experience to the whole lot of humanity. By doing this, he placed himself above fate and also above all moral standards. Schopenhauer focuses upon this “noblesse” aspect of the genius.
A lot has been spoken about Larkin’s personal life- the self-imposed exile, seclusion, intimate relationships, commitment issues, and its immediate relevance with his works. Schopenhauer points out that this is a menacing weakness to be found in many people, i.e., to associate the author’s work with “the personal circumstances and events in his life”. Schopenhauer indicates the defectiveness and narrowness of such a thinking. He proves this with the help of an analogy by saying that, it is like a group of people at the theatre, who after admiring a remarkable scene, rush to view the scaffoldings. He cites the example of the great German poet Goethe, who too had to undergo a similar injustice in the hands of particular critics and reviewers. These so-called intelligent observers narrowly restricted their vision and critical faculties towards judging the personal life of Goethe, in terms of formulating ripe conjectures, surmises and hypothesis without coming any closer either to the artist or the novel ideas propagated through his work. A man who looks beyond the artist’s work, hoping to arrive at some sort of conclusive justification or moralistic bias runs the risk of depreciating the genius altogether. Schopenhauer believes, it is like paying obeisance to a saint without knowing anything about his principles and doctrines or without applying them into practise. Schopenhauer hints that a genius cannot give birth to the extraordinary on his own, just like a woman cannot give birth to her child on her own. Outward influences and factors have to come to father his progeny. These factors, however, should not be mistaken to form the heart of the matter, for they merely facilitate the progress but are not binding to it. Schopenhauer affirms that most critics mainly concentrate upon the subject matter or the theme, instead of looking into the form or the manner of treatment of the artist’s work. This apparently leads to confusion and error of judgement.
For quite sometime the name of Larkin has been adjunct with the spurious and infamous expression “philistine” to his artistic status, which is not only ridiculous in the first place, but also outrageous, i.e., to be applied for a noble artist and genius like Philip Larkin. Schopenhauer says that an artist seldom works for wealth and glory, since both are fickle and transitory. He works for the supreme delight of the realization of not just higher learning, but systematic knowledge and insight, one that is achieved by the complete detachment of oneself from the material world and remaining unaffected by its exaltations or censures. Schopenhauer asserts that a genius is never deterred or hindered by the views of his contemporaries (for he cares very little about them), rather he sets his eyes towards posterity for setting things aright, i.e., paying him the just rewards for his selfless sacrifice. An artist or a genius’s labour for his work is selfless, in the broader sense that he works to pull out the whole of the wretched humanity from the hollow bottom of darkness and dullness. It is for this prime reason that Schopenhauer worships the noble mind of the artist or the genius and calls him, “the lighthouse of humanity”. He is one, who serves as a guiding beacon to the ignorant and confused multitude, leading them from darkness to light.
Schopenhauer affirms that a genius is one, who has a double intellect- one for the service of his will and the other, for studying and examining the world, which appears to him, as an object appears in front of a mirror. The genius or the artist has this distinctive quality of seeing things objectively unlike the common man, who has only one intellect, which he characteristically uses in the service of his belly and other superficial pleasures, and indulges in a subjective perception of everything around him. Contrary to that, the genius is objective to the core of his thinking and reasoning faculties and explores the world from a detached position, regardless of gaining applause or sympathy. Schopenhauer observes that it is only when he distances himself from the rest of the world and its occurrences, that he comes into contact with the extraordinary, discovering new amidst the commonplace, the unfamiliar amidst the familiar. Therefore, an artist, according to Schpoenhauer, is one who is a rareity and a boon for the striving multitude, who look up to him for instructions and answers.
Philip Larkin appears to have quite a lot in common with the philosophical teachings of the great German master, Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer could clearly perceive and distinguish the genius out of the ordinary and would place him at a high position. He conspicuously knew that a genius had to wear a crown of thorns, before he could be wreathed in fine laurels. But all this would not matter to him, as long as he is faithful to his art. Schopenhauer is regarded by many as a pessimist. Philip Larkin too under the influence of Hardy came to be known by that term, although Larkin found great positivism belying Hardy’s revelations, which were downright realistic and, which Larkin believed was essential for the “spiritual development” of the individual. It would, however, be wrong to consider both Larkin and Schopenhauer as sharing the same mindset and ideals, for both were poles apart. Arthur Schopenhauer was a huge philosopher and intellectual, one who inspired and influenced future thinkers and masters such as, Nietzsche, Wagner, Wittgenstein, Albert Einstein, Freud and Thomas Mann among others. Schopenhauer’s main philosophy can be explained in the light of three fundamental truths, which are will- strife-misery. Besides Schopenhauer’s views are deeply steeped in eastern philosophy. Philip Larkin, the beloved poet, the bard of Coventry and the “Other Poet Laureate” for his readers, on the other hand, never touched such great highs. However, both Larkin and Schopenhauer seemed to agree on the plight of the artist and the meaninglessness of life.
Chapter 2 of the book gives a formal description of “The Movement”, which undoubtedly laid the foundation of a new wave in English poetry and also caricatured the Larkin legacy to its primal optimum. Chapter 3, deals with the argument between “selfishness” and “selflessness” often portrayed in Larkin’s poems. Chapter 4, questions the validity of the social adaptiveness of human beings within their own environment, as shown by Larkin. Chapter 5 concentrates upon a philosophical argument centring on Philip Larkin and his supposed inclination towards the “philistine”. The purpose of this chapter is to critically examine the applicability of such a term on Philip Larkin.
Overall, the book hopes to venture upon some new facts and findings that may entice the reader to a more sound and better comprehension of the celebrated poet.
THE MOVEMENT RECALLED: A MYSTERIOUS PHENOMENON
The current chapter brings into focus a literary grouping of the 1950s, which eventually precipitated into “The Movement”. The vague and eerie presence of the whole phenomenon makes it an interesting topic of research for every scholar. The chapter carefully undertakes a historical journey into the past to critically examine the modern and post-modern conditions that facilitated the propitious formation of this group, discuss the relevancy of its celebrated terminology (Movement), its stand-alone features, impact and extensiveness over other literary groups formed previously. While authorizing or validating such a phenomenon, one has also to be duly conscious of its handicaps and limitations. Turning a blind eye over them and not being able to surface the hidden quirks and inconsistencies would only lead to a complete dissolution and distortion of facts. Therefore, an earnest endeavour has been made to highlight these problems and to systematically elucidate upon them.
“The Movement” was a literary group that came into being without having any knowledge of its own existence. It was originally the concoction of some prying journalists, who fancied a radical literary makeover that could replenish public senses. “The Movement” was different from the rest of the literary groups formed previously like the Metaphysical or the Pre-Raphaelites in that they were neither exponents nor preachers of a particular cult, sect or order. In fact, it never occurred to them that they were a creating a literary trend or giving birth to a so-called movement. The publication of the two anthologies by Robert Conquest and D.J. Enright respectively further validated their position and the grouping. But the tagline “Movement” still irked its members on the ground of the fact that each of them believed to have had no literary semblance with the other. They were all unique in their own way and each of them were bent upon asserting their individuality rather than sharing a common platform. The age was also that of significant occurrences. The global atmosphere was that of chaos and disruption fuelled by the two World Wars. Understandably, it had an overwhelming impact upon the socio-political, economic and literary landscape. “The Movement” has had numerous advocates and detractors to debate upon its adequacy, but the fact remains that these writers unknowingly vetoed the way for a new wave of poetry and literary writing that refused to play by the rule-book or submit to any principles other than those that pleased the general public and the literary muse. In the process, they created a landmark in literary history. The preceding chapter deals with the origin and development of the “Movement”, its relevance, substantiation, extensiveness and ambiguity; all that make it more than just a “literary-historical footnote”.
I rose and raised, the others with me, too
I shared the ancient wisdom
And taught the ways to be
I sang the charms of stars
And sowed the land with strength
I set the abodes for men
And steered the rightful roads
Within my being sings the God on high
The glimmer of stars in my bloodstream
I am the abyss, I am the bridge
I am the sky, I am the land
I feel the communion
Of the largest and the least…” (The Soothsayer)
In and around 1950, a group of writers emerged and came to be identified under an umbrella name called “The Movement”, which they themselves consciously rejected. This group consisted of Thom Gunn, Donald Davie, D.J. Enright, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, John Wain, Elizabeth Jennings, John Halloway and Robert Conquest. An attitude to the presence and existence of “The Movement” is still debatable. Many writers expressed doubt over the term’s applicability. They dismissed it as a mere propaganda conjured up by some nosy journalists or a well-devised “publicity stunt” with the near objective of seeking fame. Anthony Thwaite says, “Was it a true literary beginning in the 1950s or an invocation by some journalists?” Even Morrison is of the view: “I don’t think there was a movement back to those days, or, if there was, I don’t know about it.” Philip Larkin, recognized as the representative poet of “The Movement” confirms the overall nonsensicality of such a term and is downright reluctant to view him sharing a common ideology with the so-called “group poets”. Moreover, he characteristically abhors the notion of narrowing down his individual ideas, thoughts and feelings to a common group identity. In his own words: “Then there was an article in The Spectator actually using the term ‘Movement’ and Bob Conquest’s New Lines in 1956 put us all between the same covers. But it certainly never occurred to me that I had anything in common with Thom Gunn, or Donald Davie, for instance, or they with each other and in fact I wasn’t mentioned at the beginning”. So, plainly Larkin dismisses the whole idea as a superficial, unceremonial intervention, one which aimed at reducing and confining their identities to a single catagoristic entity. But before one goes into the dynamics of “The Movement” or over the question of its controversialized existence, it is necessary to embark upon the political, socio-cultural, literary and economic history of the age.
It is very interesting to note that Larkin’s age swerved between the paradigms of modernism and post-modernism. It found concurrent expression in the literary works as well. Modernism was a rejection of the “Victorian Compromise” and an attempt at setting up new standards away from Victorian values. It eventually began as a many pronged attack on both moral and aesthetic tradition. One of the earliest modernist writers, George Bernard Shaw condemned the late 19th century theatrical practices and introduced realism on the stage. Some of the leading literary figures who emerged during this time were, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and T.E. Hulme. Eliot’s training under Irvin Babbit in America made him thoroughly anti-romantic and his close association with Ezra Pound and T.E. Hulme reinforced this attitude. This was the age of industrialization and scientific advancement. It was also an age of anxiety. Some saw great optimism and possibilities variably linked with the emerging progress and advancement. People were readily eager to merge “the real with the ideal” and greedily experimented with different ideologies, perceptions, conceptions and approbations. What produced as an indirect consequent to such robust optimism and quasi-utopian vision was an imminent loss of innocence (best described as “the ceremony of innocence” being drowned in “the blood-dimmed tide” or the image of the wounded king being assigned to the arduous task of containing an already tottering civilization), disillusionment, entrapment and disenchantment. The two world wars hastened this process. There were also people who looked upon the growing progress and achievement only as a foreshadowing of the destruction and erosion of old world values, culture and religion. The persistent failure to bridge the gap between “the real and the ideal” disillusioned and demystified people. It led to a state of anxiety and melancholy. Writers like W.H. Auden in ‘September 1, 1939’, Aldous Huxley in ‘Brave New World’ and Dylan Thomas in ‘A Refusal To Mourn The Death Of A Child By Fire In London’ were critical and perceptive of the new age dilemma and political calamities. Though this age saw some iconic visionaries such as Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, it also witnessed the withering away of values and simple joys that were once highly esteemed and cherished.
Post-Modernism emanated out of modernism; the Spanish Civil War followed by the Second World War added to the woes of the masses. The situation in England after the Second World War was the same as it had been after the First World War. During the periods of the late 40s to the late 70s, several governments alternated with the chief and unified purpose to see England as an “egalitarian society” (See Joseph Black, Leonard Conally, Kate Flint, Isobel Grundy, Don Le Pan, Roy Liuzza, Jerome J. McGann, Anne Lake Prescott, Barry V. Qualls, Claire Waters, 2010). But none of them, neither the Labour nor the Conservative qualified the distinction of lifting the country from its apparent state of decline and discontent. The Labour undertook many qualitative measures in the setting up of “the welfare state”, National Health Care Service and the National Insurance Act (1946). Even under the Conservatives, “the social activism of Labour was eschewed”. But all these added to little effect as the economy continued to scramble in putting up against the bare minimum. Doug Saunders recalled the situation in post-war, post-industrial Britain:
“Food rationing during the war was bad. After the war it was terrible. Posters were put up reading, “Eat Less Bread: Eat Potatoes Instead”. Then, in the spring of 1946, those posters went down: there was no bread at all…. Coal supplies were out back to almost nil, so that in the winter of 1947, the coldest in British history, people were ordered not to heat their homes…. If the economies and buildings and cities were fractured, even worse damage was done to families. About four million children had been slipped away from their parents to unknown locations and with almost no contact, for years. Children and parents alike returned from the war to find things utterly different…. Susan Goodman, who was ten years old at the end of the war, had lived in the countryside, with her mother in London and her father in the armed forces. She recalls the moment when “this man got off the train-he was very tall and very yellow. He came up and said, ‘Hello Sue, I’m Daddy’, and I put out my hand and said ‘How do you do’. It was not auspicious.” (Qtd in British Literature: A Historical Overview)
The Welfare State appeared less glittering as it had seemed in the past as a political and economic ideal. Insufficiency in grants, led to its incapability with rewarding either welfare or better healthcare for its citizens. After an affluent rule for a few years, the Labour underwent a severe grind as it was faced with “budget problems”. When inflation hit the economy in the late 60s and 70s, the administration screwed [See Fritz Wilhelm Neumann (Erfurt)]. Even in the 1950s, there were “food and fuel shortages”. While the economy in England crumbled, many other countries advanced to prosperity, especially North America prospered and raked “moollah”. British imperialism suffered a heavy blow due to constant reprisals and rebellions by the colonized under the British rule; the most notable one being “The Mau Mau Rebellion” in East Africa (1952-56). “The Suez Crisis” (1956), further weakened its position. England irrevocably fell as a world power. The trade union’s emergence as a massive power and their uncalled-for strikes facilitated industrial decline. However, the disruption continued and lasted only until 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became the Prime Minister of England. Modernism also seeded a “cultural revolution”, which affected the values of the puritan middle class and replaced them with “materialism” and ”consumerism”.
In the literary sphere, however, an interesting change was noticeable. A group of university writers who shared more or less same sensibilities came to be regarded as the “Movement” writers. The Movement first came to be originated in the university in the 40s, when the young writers associated with the “Movement” came into contact with each other and even influenced each other invariably. The most notable companionship and influence being that of Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. They were all undergraduate students, intrigued by the philosophies of contemporary writers and even their predecessors. They also got to perceive a clear picture of the wartime period first-hand, since many scholarship boys were summoned by the government, every now and then, to offer their services in the army, and many departmental buildings in the university campus were turned into food storage outlets. A lot of affinities came to be observed in these writers and their writings, howsoever, inadvertent. Joan Sheila Maynes contends that these affinities were only the result of an individual placed against the background of a society, how its social, political and economic conditions had an everlasting and binding impact on him. The change had as much sway on the common man as it had on the “artist”(Maynes, 3).
“The Movement” stood out for its striking features, which included provincialism, anti-modernism, anti-romanticism and a sharp sense of audience (See Swati S. Kapadia, 2010).
These writers discarded anything foreign, highly sophisticated or intellectual and deplored experimentalism. In the Preface to the “Poets of the 1950s”, Amis says, “Nobody wants anymore poems on the greater themes for a few years, but at the same time, nobody wants any more poems about philosophers or paintings or novelists or art galleries or mythology or foreign cities or other poems. At least, I hope nobody wants them”. (Qtd in S. K. Hassan, 1988)
- Quote paper
- Puja Chakraberty (Author), 2014, Philip Larkin. Philosophical Leanings, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/274547