WritingsArticles & SpeechesHulme: Vitalism and Geometry

Hulme: Vitalism and Geometry

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Jose Maria Sison

Philippine Collegian
July 28, 1960

Although T.R Hulme is extremely traditional, he perfectly suits at the same time the modern temper. His ironical position is stressed by the fact that he has influenced modern criticism more than he has been acknowledged, according to Walter J. Bates. Above all, he has in an amazing but indirect way been responsible for a new kind of literature that is represented by T. S Eliot and former members of the Imagist group. Led either by Ezra Pound or Amy Lowell during the first decades of the century. The principle of objective correlative is the echo if his talks on impersonality in the poetry club he organized in 1909 and at his salon on Frith Street. F. S. Flint’s “History of Imagism” in 1915 regards him as the prime source of Imagist theory and limits the merit of Pound to the mere advertisement of another man’s ideas. Incidentally, Eliot owes to Pound a germinal knowledge of Hulme’s theories as confirmed by F.O Matthiessen and William K. Wimsatt Jr.

Reacting to the excess and expansiveness of the preceding century which M. Rene Taupin characterizes curtly in the rhetoric of Victor Hugo, Hulme—like the French symbolists—swings to the other end of the pendulum and advocates classical objectivism as a philosophical prerequisite to poetry. He reacts to a period of wonder and romantic subjectivism. A return to orthodox doctrine is seen as a counter-force against the Goethean delusion of spiraling progress and infinite perfectibility which smacks of Spenser’s sense of continuity gone berserk in the popular conception of evolution. The wheel is offered as the clear and concrete analogy of man’s capabilities. It is the closing of all the roads, the tragic significance of life.

What is important is what nobody seems to realize—the dogmas like that of Original Sin, which are the closest expression of the categories of the religious attitude. The man is in sense perfect, but a wretched creature can yet apprehend perfection. It is not, then, that I put up with the dogma for the sake of the sentiment, but that I may possibly swallow the sentiment for the sake of the dogma (Speculations, p. 119.)

Hulme reassures himself with the religious attitude, but he has nothing to do with recapturing the sentiments of Fra. Angelico, and he has contempt for the didactics of the neo-classicist Pope. Furthermore, unlike Babbitt or Arnold, he simply asks for the hard and dry impersonality of poetry rather than for moralistic projection or for a God-man. The sentimental gloom of nineteenth-century poetry is to be averted only because man recognizes his imperfection and when perfection is not illegitimately pitched onto the human plane. The principal interest of Hulme is to debunk the humanistic bosh of the personality being an infinite reservoir of possibilities, which misconception has evolved from Rousseau’s notion that man is by nature good, that it is only bad laws and customs that have suppressed his primordial virtues. Hulme has no nostalgia for medievalism, though: he only wants to negate the romantic attempt to manumit oneself from the spatiotemporal glebe. Without being a defender of religion, he accepts the subordination of man to certain absolute values.

II. Method and Weltanschauung

An explication of T.E Hulme’s method, variably called his theory of discontinuity, is necessary in view of the fact that poetic composition has been understood to be restricted by him to the vital sphere of his total reality in such a way that ethical values appear to be in complete competition or in blind repulsion of present poetry. Besides doubly clarifying the religious attitude as it is necessary to define weltanschauung as a part of philosophy, the vital and geometrical varieties of art are at last to be hewed.

The elaboration and universal application of the principles of continuity is a conspicuous achievement of the nineteenth-century. The popularization of the conception of the evolution has brought such a principle to the status of category and such has come to be regarded as an inevitable constituent of reality itself instead of being a principle in the light of which certain regions of facts can be conveniently ordered. There is now the tendency, bloated by the Origin of the Species, to regard the discontinuities in the nature only apparent, and to assume that a closer inquiry leads to a more essential flux.

Hulme observes that this shrinking from a gap or jump in nature has developed to such an extent than any objective perception is hardly possible. An objective view of reality has to make use of both categories on continuity and discontinuity and it is easily seen why Hulme should be so much more concerned with the reinstatement of temper or disposition to look at a gap without developing acrophobia.

Certain regions of reality differ not relatively but absolutely. A real discontinuity exists between them and the the inability to observe them results in the whole mass of chaotic thinking in religion and ethics.

Reality is to be cut up into three absolutely separated spheres: (1) the inorganic world of mathematical and physical science, (2) the organic world dealt with by biology, psychology and history, and (3) the world of ethical and religious values. A diagram of this assumption may involve two concrete circles on a flat surface. The outer zone is the world of physics, the inner that of religion and ethics, the intermediate one that of life. The outer and inner regions have certain characteristics in common. Symmetrically, these extreme zones have both an absolute character and knowledge of them can be called absolute knowledge. The intermediate region of life, on the other hand is essentially relative; it is dealt with by the loose sciences such as biology, psychology and history. A muddy mixed zone lies between two absolutes. To make the model a more faithful representation, it is to be understood that the extreme zone partake of the perfection of geometrical figures while the middle zone is covered with some confused muddy substance.

In Hulme’s method, there is the recognition of the distinction between the physical and the vital as set forth previously by Nietzche, Dilthey and Bergson in every ways. It is, indeed, ridiculous to describe vital events in terms of the laws of physics and Spenserian view that life phenomena are mere complicated forms of mechanical change is rejected. Hulme goes inward beyond the first chasm and makes a statement of all ideal values. He segregates the non-material region of religion because, as he claims, the momentum of escape from mechanism has resulted in the restatement of religion in terms of vitalism, which is preposterous. He,therefore, makes it his obligation to explain that biology is not theology, that God cannot be defined in terms of “life” or of “progress”

The failure to observe this second discontinuity has been favored by the extremely prevalent notion, expressed by Arnold, that “our religion has materialized itself in the fact, in the supposed fact.” I.A. Richards, on a similar basis in his Science and Poetry, deals with religion as a point of view being effaced by science. Ethical values, in the typical European fashion, are regarded as a part of the temporal flux of appearances. Enlightened by oriental mysticism, Hulme positively insists on the absolute integrity of religious values.

Clearly now, there is an absolute, and not a relative, difference between humanism and the religious spirit. This former is to be taken as the highest expression of the vital and the latter is to be absolutely separated from the vital. The divine is not at all life at its intensest. It contains in a way an almost anti-vital element which differentiates it at the same from the non-vital character of the pure mathematical sphere. The questions of Original Sin, of chastity, of the motives behind Buddhism and the like, is part of the very essence of the religious spirits, have not been understood by the humanist consequently, because he has not made the proper differentiation between humanism and divinity. The Renaissance has so many pictures with religious subjects; but it is erroneous to say that here automatically there is religion art. Here, the emotions are definitely human from end to end. To believe that religious emotion is only the highest form of the emotions that fit into the humanist ideology is to be grossly incorrect. The intensity of the religious spirit as found in art springs not from delight in life but from a feeling for certain absolute values. It should be surprising why the Vatican has been so so much delayed in accepting Georges Roualt whose Christ-figures are economical and precise and whose prostitute figures are fat with round flesh. There is no better moral aptness. Going back to general grounds, a conclusion may be made to the effect that the vexation that is engendered by the trivial and accidental characteristics of vital shapes results in a hankering for economy, a pyramidal stability, a perfection and rigidity that is characteristic of Byzantine, Egyptian and early Greek art; and also, as a corollary, it may stated that full satisfaction with life as best exemplified by the art of a glorious Greece results in vitalistic shapes.

If physical science is represented by geometry, then instead of saying that the modern movement from materialism has been from physics through vitalism to the absolute values of religion, it might be simply stated that it is from geometry through life and back to geometry. Certainly, it is very apparent that the extreme zones has resemblances not shared by the riddle zone. While the middle is not absolute, the outer and inner are.

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