Sunday, May 26, 2013

The New Age, May 26 1913

Oh, New Age, bottomless well.  As usual, there's so much in this issue that I can hardly begin to catalog it all. I'll just be looking at a pair of columns from this one, "Present Day Criticism" and "Views and Reviews," back to back and by the same author [update: "PDC" was by Hastings all along. RTB 5/20/15].  Check it out:

“The recent judgment given against the woefully fallen Theosophical Society will in all probability paralyse the tentacles of this particular octopus, though its dying spasms may be even more malignantly directed than those of the suffragettes. But in our opinion the influence over the feeble-minded of quacks like Messrs. Yeats, Carpenter, and Tagore, is scarcely less pernicious than the more audacious and despotic humbug of Mrs. Besant and Mr. Leadbeater” (88).

This selection, from the column “Present-Day Criticism,” is a microcosm of the larger article.  The first half is a scathing attack on occult mysticism, particularly what we might now refer to as “New Age” mysticism, and in fact The New Age started more as that sort of New Age than the guild socialist New Age of 1913 (or so I recall from my research last quarter, I don’t have the books on hand but would be happy to find specifics for any interested party).  Orage used to be a young light of the theosophical movement, which he does not mention here (he writes under a pseudonym, “R. H. C.”).  His thesis is simple: all the books being published on Eastern mysticism miss the point of the actual texts.  We readers are advised to “go to the source” where there will be “nothing… mysterious,” simple messages like “Know Thyself.” 

Paired across the page, as if to prove the point, is one of Hastings’ translations of the Mahabharata.  The title is, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”  Point proven?  Naturally I think that the quick abstraction from poem to paraphrase is too violent, and also misses “the point.”  The Mahabharata passage is relevant in 2013, for one: it is a meditation on capital punishment. 

Some of the people he attacks are old friends, old enemies—but the anger directed at Yeats and Tagore pricks my 21st century ears. 

Tagore and Yeats are both being touted over in Poetry, as reported earlier.  I wonder if Orage is aware of that part of their publicity: he doesn’t name Poetry, and probably didn’t need it (part of the story is about receiving an invitation to a Tagore reading), but I am still curious. 

On that reading Orage declined to attend:  I was thinking about this article last night at a poetry reading here in Seattle, a reading that left me mostly cold (with significant exceptions).  Here’s why Orage didn’t go to the Tagore reading:

“I myself received an invitation, but my ears, among other things, would not permit me to accept it. They told me, truly enough, that they were not yet to be trusted to judge in matters of literature. Without a good deal more training than mere education provides, our ears are much less reliable as critics of style than our eyes. Abracadabra may be made to sound well… I have heard Mr. Yeats chant a “poem” in the voice of an oracle delivering the Sibylline … and when I came afterwards to read the lines myself, the imposition on my ears was exposed. Until, then,

I can read with my ears as well as with my eyes they shall mew their inexperience in private practice.”

Well folks, there you have it.  I am curious whether readings were in fact as much a new phenomenon as R.H.C. seems to consider them.  Still, it’s fascinating how Yeats and Tagore, poets who rank among the most eminent of the 20th century, are so cursorily deflated as performance pieces, even linked to advertising techniques.  My teacher, the late Herb Blau, told us that Yeats was the finest poet of the century.  Orage says Yeats is a charlatan.

Which, as an H.D. scholar, is something I have to constantly confront.  What is the value of personal lyrical mysticism in a modern age?  I’ll let that question shade my future posts.

Also of note in the issue: Pound continues his suggestions for improving graduate education with a two-pronged approach.  Grad students should be sure to be making positive contributions to knowledge, and their expertise should be collected in databases that the media can access whenever experts on particular poets are needed.  That’s the problem!  We need the media to do its part… ha.

Plenty of other good stuff, but I should stop. Will someone please pay me to recreate Richard Aldington’s “Letters from Italy” column?

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