We spoke of much else besides [our business of the day]: of friends and mentors and the tumors of both—their fortunes and misfortunes, their origins and our own; of illustrative stories, many of them drawn from outside the narrow confines of the academy; of adversaries ancient and modern; of our delight in the progress of one another’s work, and reports of our personal lives; and most particularly in the rehearsal of common bonds antecedent to our professional identities, visible as much in the manner of our speaking as in its content—in idiom, in humor, in certain hyperbolic gestures, verging on swagger, panache, and familiarity…. [W]e cultivate the arts of memory, and thus hope to preserve to our posterity the bond which has heretofore (and I borrow from Burke) linked together among us ‘the dead, the living, and the yet unborn.’ —M. E. Bradford, “Not in Memoriam, But in Affirmation,” Why the South Will Survive (1980)
The traditionalist as rememberer, of whom M.E. Bradford (1934-1993) is one, is a rarity in our day, and most especially when as gifted as he. Such a one devotes his intellectual energies to sorting the good from experience, in the broadest sense of the term, in order to restore the good to a continuing viability in the community. Bradford chose to do so as rhetor, a term he used with piety towards that high calling. Through the disciplines of the rhetor, and towards the fruitful cultivation of memory, he dealt with social, political, cultural circumstances as he found them mired in the spectacle of Western history in our time. His gifts as rhetor were both formidable and effective: formidable, as his honorable adversaries, ancient or modern, must perforce admit; effective, because of a more lasting aspect than the mere arrest of words on a page. In an age when truth is reduced to number, such words are ordinarily counted and listed in a summary of a life, a “bibliography” accounted biography by an age too hurried to deal with more than print-bites.
Even by such measure, Bradford’s was a notable life, made the more so in the burst of words as he rapidly and more rapidly approached giving up words altogether. There is a spectacle of spiritual energy in his prolific last days. But to rest our attention on spectacle is to miss the significant ends towards which he spent that energy. It is those ends he would have us remember. As rhetor, he adapted distinctions proper to that art, and he was guided in doing so by an intellectual inheritance that is ours, with which we may face the always changing circumstances of time and place. By the discipline of distinction, intellectual order is restored. Its necessity now seems more pressing upon us than even upon him. For we find circumstance feeding chaos wherever we turn—crime in the streets, in the homes; betrayals in low and high places; the litany of grievance seems endless. A rhetor, such as Bradford, recalls to us how intimately related to order is the grammar of things, the fundamental distinctions about the world and man in that world.
Through our careless and sometimes studied abuses of distinction, spectacle itself is abused. We need only consider the corruption of our signs, our language. When signs are disoriented from reality, we become incapable of significant action—that is, action signifying through effect our recognitions about the truth of things independent of the signifying itself. It is a virtue in our deportment towards the world which Mel spoke of as piety. In that deportment, whereby we acknowledge the things of creation to be the very things they are, we respect spectacle itself, though we do not confuse it with the essence of things. This is a lesson Bradford understood, in part from Aristotle.* As he knew, significant action is necessarily accompanied by spectacle. It cannot be otherwise. What we know as intellectual creatures is always initiated by the spectacle of things, mediated through the senses. It is the price we pay for the gift of existing as rational intellectual creatures.
Spectacle carries over into the signs we use, into our words and gestures of recognition, our more or less mannerly deportment to other rational creatures. Bradford’s own significant action, his thought, continues as a vital effect through the spectacle of his words, by which we may remember him beyond personal grief at his death: effects through words rightly taken, and so beyond any arresting spectacle clinging to the words themselves, whether in memorable phrase or that larger numbering, bibliography. Given both a gifted and devoted rhetor, there lies within the spectacle—those books and essays bearing his name—principles that are more abiding than name itself. He subscribed to those principles, finding them certified by history and literature. What his words attempted, and what we would well emulate, was to recall fundamental truths that sustain us, each in his personal quest for the abiding. That is our obligation to truth as intellectual creatures, on our way as homo viator, as wayfarer in the world. One such truth, quite unpopular in our day, is most ancient to the human condition. Because of our given nature, now fallen as a “self” forlorn (ours is called the Age of Alienation), we can only begin with spectacle as our first response to existence in our quest for significant action. As rational souls, we can act only through spectacle, through the accidents attending existential things.
Bradford embraced this ancient truth about human nature. Indeed, he found it most memorably illustrated in his personal experiences from boyhood on. He saw it also as a truth held longer in the South than in other territories of our national identity. It is a principle exhibited in some Southerners’ dependence on rumor, anecdote, story. It is no accident that it was in South Carolina where there gathered the wayfarers about whom Bradford speaks in our epigraph, though in truth it might have been in any place and any time. That is a point recognized in Aeneas’s journey to Evander, the Arcadian, seeking help in his war against the Latins. The two delay their pressing business of the day to talk of family bonds antecedent to the grim business at hand, remembering who they are so that they understand what they may be to each other. It is no accident, also, that the Southerners, whom Bradford especially valued as men of letters, were students of Virgil. We might recall in particular Allen Tate’s “Aeneas at Washington.”
The conversationalist such as Aeneas or Tate or Bradford is much given to story accompanied by “certain hyperbolic gestures, verging on swagger, panache, and familiarity,” whereby one imitates the possible or probable responses of human nature according to its encounters with reality, a preparation for engaging whatever pressing business that lies before one. This deportment emerges from an active remembering. In part, it is both an act of acceptance of human limitations and a celebration of human potentialities, to be repeated tomorrow in a more public or more private quarter-potentialities for both good and evil. And we might add that this often ritualized remembering by a wayfarer reflects in degree the storyteller’s recognition of his own propensity to failure, even as he may hold with dogged passion to a desire for transcending human failure. One might well consider whether this is the locus of what is called “Southern humor.” This sense of humor, by recognizing the gesture as hyperbolic, as verging on a swagger at the edge of the tolerable in manners, may modify what might otherwise become an ironic action of mind towards the world, a retreat from it in which irony turns sardonic as the wayfarer descends towards despair.
Getting to the truth of things beneath spectacle is the abiding challenge to man as intellectual creature. It was the challenge Bradford embraced, whether he was talking about a story by William Faulkner, a political action by Abraham Lincoln, or social confusions shadowing our regional natures. As Traditionalist and Rememberer, he would recover principles through that challenge. He was concerned with what T.S. Eliot speaks of as the “permanent things.” He, too, viewed the permanent things in relation to his own circumstances, on behalf of his contemporaries and those to follow. Thus, his labor was made always in relation to where and when he appeared in creation as wayfarer. Bradford discovered himself wayfarer in the American South, and through the experience of his growing years there—his experience of the South’s geographical and historical and cultural history fusing with his own present moment—he was prepared to prosper when he went to Vanderbilt University as a graduate student in English. There, he found himself in a climate of critical concern for literature amenable to his dawning interest in the permanent things. Perhaps he was more fortunate than many of his contemporaries who also went away to college to major in “English” after World War II. He was prepared for, and could learn from, local mentors who were a special breed of the “New Critics,” that is, from people like his teacher Donald Davidson, who knew virtues deeper in the academic discipline of criticism than might be acknowledged by or welcomed by academics elsewhere who tended to a criticism purified of history and nature.
He learned not only Aristotle or Homer or the succeeding giants of Western literature borne into the present by the spectacle of their lingering words, but also from Davidson, Tate, Cleanth Brooks, and Andrew Lytle. These mentors were personal contemporaries, manifest presences in his life. That they were so adds an aura to his words about them and their work. Robert Browning, a poet who struggled with current adversities in a world antagonistic to remembering, dramatizes a recognition of the aura attending the cultivation of memory. The speaker of his “Memorabilia” addresses an unidentified wayfarer in a moment whose circumstances are not fully revealed. That stranger had actually seen “Shelley plain;” the speaker asks with excitement, “And did he stop and speak to you, And did you speak to him again?” Browning’s tone is exactly right. It echoes what many of Bradford’s students must have sometimes felt on hearing him talk about his talking with Davidson, or Tate, or Brooks, or Lytle. Browning’s speaker realizes, without being able to articulate the relation except by a story of his own which pops to mind, that such encounters touch us with a mystery of generation beyond the tyranny of time and place, through our gift as intellectual creatures. He sees in his chance meeting of one who had seen and spoken to Percy Bysshe in the flesh an analogy to his own encounter on an empty heath—a lesser encounter, but somehow a part of present experience. He had once found a molted eagle-feather which he carried away for remembrance—not the eagle itself, but palpable evidence that an eagle existed in the local, empty world. Of such encounters, to which past experience is brought, are metaphors made by the imagination and remembered by the telling. And by that telling, generation is bound to generation. And by memory imaginatively used, the bonds may be strengthened. That means that our signs—our words as literature—are crucial to intellectual life.
Through signs rightly taken and rightly used, through images and metaphors and analogies understood, we try to accommodate what we know to an increasing immediacy of knowledge, wherein experience in the here and now is enlarged by experiences witnessed by others through signs, though those others may be by now remote from us. Slowly, our “self” (as we call the soul in the 1990s) responds to other selves, and with a growing confidence that persons there and then are real persons to us here and now. They are more than molted feathers or name as artifacts empty of meaning. It is the recognition of an actual presence of the distant and the past, known through the mystery of our own intellect, that we pursue. We gain an immediacy which speaks of an encompassing life of generations. That is a movement of intellect beyond its arrest by wonder, so that ours is an active intellectual life in this world. Otherwise, we become pseudo-traditionalists. The pseudo-traditionalist, stalled by wonder, succumbs to a limited and limiting reduction of persons past. That act of response to the offering of the past is to clasp partial recognition to one’s bosom as did Browning’s young speaker his eagle feather. Great, complex—and therefore ambiguous—human minds become as feathers in the present moment. History becomes but the molt of human actions in that state of mind towards history we call nostalgia.
Alas, it is the pseudo-traditionalist who is presented as traditionalist by a modern intellect which would be liberated from history and the residual monuments of history, what Ezra Pound calls “two gross of broken statues…a few thousand battered books.” The modernist intellect, sworn enemy to tradition, survives only so long as freed of even these remnants, knowing its very survival as modernist, as autonomous mind, depends upon abolishing tradition altogether. Tate catches this mind in his essay “The New Provincialism” (1945). The “new provincial,” he says, would extend “his own immediate necessities in the world [by assuming] that the present moment is unique.” His is “that state of mind in which regional men lose their origins in the past and its continuity into the present, and begin every day as if there had been no yesterday.” Given an encounter between this provincial and the pseudo-traditionalist, distinctions become the first victims. Little wonder that it is difficult to call an orderly hearing for the Traditionalist as Rememberer.
The provincial mind is able to maintain its provincialism, at the expense of orderly community, by reducing the accidents encountered through circumstance to make them seem substance. The pseudo-traditionalist does the same. The difference is that the one concentrates upon present spectacle divorced from nature and history; the other, upon past spectacle insufficiently mediated by nature and history. Both take the appearance of things or ideas as reality. The Traditionalist as Rememberer would understand and practice a cultivation of memory in the present moment, bringing forward new growths out of the abiding truths in existence itself. It is with spectacle that we must begin our journey towards understanding, but spectacle mistaken for substance is the death of understanding. Discovering this error helps explain just why the intellectual community at this point of history is so largely comprised of creatures of the air. In the old Scholastic’s description, or in Allen Tate’s (see his “The Angelic Imagination”), we are victims of an “angelism,” suspended betwixt and between realities. We become lost and tethered, floating over a desert intensified by our error, the desert of appearances.
Another perspective upon reality be came increasingly available to Bradford as he set about his graduate work at Vanderbilt University. It opened more and more as he accepted the necessities of his wayfaring by rejecting the temptation to float randomly. He could see words in our day reduced to insignificant spectacles, words freed of any measure by reality, thus becoming the tenuous tether of mind by accidents of reality. Through the virtues of the “New Criticism,” as Bradford encountered it in practice at Vanderbilt, he discovered a possible address to our modernist confusions. By it, he intended to escape both the modernist entrapment in the present and the pseudo-traditionalist entrapment in the past. The young Fugitives had warned of both dangers as they set out. In the first issue of The Fugitive they announced that, in their intent as journeymen poets, they fled “from nothing faster than from the high-caste Brahmins of the Old South.”
To take signs as if themselves substantial by severing them from substantial reality, whether the reality of the present or that of the past, converts sign to prime matter for the making of a subjective little world sacred to the self alone. It is the danger in nostalgic romances, destructive of life in the made thing, the poem or novel. It is also the danger in the more general rejection of reality through arrogant subjectivism, the attempt remembered for instance as the Symbolist Movement in our literature that proved seductively destructive to a poet like Eliot, from whom Tate learned that valuable lesson. In this indulgent behavior, whether through nostalgic longing or subjective revolt, we become oriented not to or by our intellectual nature, but by and to our animal nature. That has been the dominant direction in art since the turn of this century, yielding sentimentality on the one hand or rebellion against being on the other. The one would cling to a vaguely remembered world; the other would throw out the world and make its own.
But how might our necessary encounter of spectacle be enlivening, be restorative of spectacle itself as ordinate to the truth of things? Not an easy undertaking in a world which sees spectacle as the end of intellectual desire—a world in which competing species of spectacle are advanced as the real, the true, the substantive. Intellectual engagement in such a world partakes of the surreal, not the real. I remember Bradford remarking once on this difficulty. He was invited to give a lecture at an Ivy League school (probably on Abraham Lincoln, a popular topic assigned, given his notoriety). He was expected to wear horns and perform his dance, he said, and he expected to oblige. “To them I’m the beast of the Apocalypse.” For many, Bradford was a comic caricature, writ large but safely reduced as a “provincial Southerner” by those who had not read or pondered Tate’s essay on themselves as provincials, nor read carefully enough the fiction of Flannery O’Connor.
And so he would not only wear his Texas Stetson in Ivy League halls—and in the large, imitative state institutions. He would also say apparently outrageous things about that Cromwellian, Abraham Lincoln, as expected. But with an added dimension: He was always studiously attentive to his texts, always careful to anchor what he had to say in the history of Lincoln, in Lincoln’s historical circumstances as affecting our own, involving history antecedent to Lincoln and history proceedent from him. As many of his antagonists, friendly and unfriendly, remember from question and answer periods following lectures, he was gifted with almost total recall, had read voluminously, and so brought the unexpected but factually precise rejoinder to the defense of his position.
The risk of approaching a serious concern through what appears a comic spectacle to the careless, at the podium “verging on swagger, panache,” was not without its danger to his position, just as it is a danger to use irony or whimsy with the literal-minded. But he took the risk. Not to do so might leave others of his diverse audience in an arrested deportment of mind towards his topic. The heart in him and his concern for neglected principles might otherwise be overlooked. He was a truly generous spirit, a disposition not always recognized by those who took his manners as simply an exaggeration of a residual “Southernism.” Thus mistaken, he was denied some preferments in both the academic and the political arenas, incidents recorded elsewhere. Meanwhile, he continued his concern for our possible loss in embracing unexamined shibboleths, a concern that affected his deportment before us. The paralysis of unmoving minds gives an illusion of order in the formalities of institutions of government, or of the academy. This is not to say that he could not himself be fiercely mannerly on occasion, nor that he was not tempted to conclude that some of us were held by invincible ignorance, which fear is the true rhetor’s temptation to despair.
How did Bradford come to his late harvest of books and essays? The number of books currently “in press” is arresting. His had been a long journey to such an issue. The Traditionalist as Rememberer labors to sort the good from experience in attempting its rescue as presently viable, but unless by grace he is given extraordinary vision, he may come to harvest only in due season. Not at each point of his experience does the sojourner through the seasons of his own becoming distinguish degree in the good, at least not clearly. From experience, we relate wisdom to age. And so we commit to the careful cultivation of history, valuing the seasoned husbandman.
What is required is a steady intention to the good, a good will, in the light of which the husbandman is justified as keeper of community. Also, the wisdom of the old is that we keep the good actions of intellect, sorted from the lesser. It is not for the reputation of that remembered one primarily, but for the contribution of the good he does that lives after him, saved by our sorting to the continuing good of community. One’s harvest, even one’s late harvest, may not be free of tares. Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas are not valued for their precise views of physics in relation to the existential world. But to discard all their harvest by faulting their science is not only silly but also consequentially destructive of reason itself. Reason tells us that Ptolemy in the light of Galileo, Galileo in the light of Einstein, perhaps even Einstein in the light that may dawn tomorrow are succeeding lights, though partial. We remember and honor each, not for their errors, seen from our own enlightened position, but in recognition that they contribute to cumulative light never perfect in its intensity, even in our enlightened age.
An intention to the truth of things is the initiating and continuing principle shared with our stumbling fathers, as they seem to us. An intention to truth, to a rightness about the good of literature in service to intellect, is an initiating principle for some of those New Critics whom Bradford emulated as literary critic. They considered that, when mind is reasonably awake and well-intended to things other than itself, it knows when it has encountered a poem that commands a closer and a more respectful attention. More is present than the spectacle of that poem as it engages mind in the ear or from the page. And so the critic focuses attention first upon the virtues apparent in the poem at the level of its spectacle. The best criticism of literature lies in coming to a clarity of mind whereby response to the poem is made in respect to that poem as a being, a very, a made thing existing in itself. Through its spectacle, then, we move towards a possibility of glimpsing substantive being. The precisions of structure in detail, or the apparent simplicity of the lyric cry of the whole poem, engage us in the riddle whereby spectacle holds a something within it. Or the intricacies of its ambiguities may eventually reveal the poem’s anchor in the complex reality of the world, especially in relation to the active, responding mind that holds the poem beyond or deeper than its accidents. Or one may engage the subtleties of irony growing out of the poem’s limited power to comprehend the mystery of substantial realities.
Such were the early considerations about the text itself, developed marvelously by those New Critics, among them the men whom Bradford chose as mentors. But the New Critics he chose tended to be as much interested in history and philosophy and theology as in textual explications of the received canon of Western literature. The critical movement as a whole had been allowed into the academy after World War II, sometimes reluctantly, by the presiding chieftains of academic departments. As a larger movement it was not so fully dedicated to the encompassing concerns Bradford moved towards, having in it as a limit an obedience to the text itself. With that limited, and eventually limiting, critical concern as largely defining its role, “literary criticism” was gradually accepted as a respectable academic discipline. Yet it brought with it, by its elected limitations, problems which we are still sorting out in trying to reckon literature’s claims upon us. The point is that that sorting got underway early at Vanderbilt, to Bradford’s benefit.
To use such a charged and disputed term as literature to name collectively those things we make with signs, those works which Yeats, in a memorable phrase, calls “monuments of unaging intellect,” requires here a pause for distinctions. This is especially necessary, given the state of the critical mind as we encounter it in current feather factories, the academies, where those monuments are either sorely abused or rejected. This intentional abuse or rejection of the term’s largess to the human spirit is, ironically, effected through an insistence on inclusiveness of all spectacle of words as equally valid, by a relativism which asserts categorically (in a logical inconsistency) that anything in words must be accepted as “literature.”
What is afoot is a new overrunning of literature by randomly surging ideological battles, battles increasingly localized to the personal survival of the critic as warrior maintained at public expense. The economic status of the “newest critic” of the 1990s seems increasingly his primary concern. With this difference noted, the critic’s primary concern for his own economic status (see the recent history of Professor Stanley Fish and his cohorts at Duke University), we nevertheless find the circumstances of current criticism in the academy strongly reminiscent of those facing the academy in the 1930s. In both instances, the conditions are largely created by political invasions of the academy. In the 1930s, a critical consensus about the nature of literature developed against those invasions, sufficiently unified as a movement to mount a counteroffensive, the movement now called the New Criticism. (The term is credited for its academic popularity to John Crowe Ransom, who in 1941 published his The New Criticism.)
Certain members of the movement in the 1930s, those we shall call Agrarian New Critics, were intent on the pursuit of words rightly taken and rightly used towards truths lodged in human experience, truths high and low in the orders of being, whereby the dimension of spectacle in a poem allowed an enlargement beyond the limited arrest of mind in the text itself. It is a point Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren remark in the introduction to that influential textbook, Understanding Poetry (1938). What distinguished these critics in particular from the ideological appropriations of literature to political uses was their continuing respect for the poem as a thing in itself, a reluctance to arrest it to secondary uses in the conflicting quests for power. But they were also reluctant to disjoin the poem from larger resonances it necessarily carries because of its dependencies in history and nature. They tended to exhibit a certain humility in recognition of the limited comprehension of human intellect itself, a deference to more cogently reasoned explications than their own.
There might well be larger ends at issue in the reading of a poem than exhaustive explication, but those ends must be pursued through and out of the integrity of the poem, not imposed upon it. That was a principle already articulated in the preface to I’ll Take My Stand (1930) in relation to the social, political, cultural, and economic circumstances of the nation: The essayists objected to attempts at a recovery of cultural community made by proponents of industrialism as directed to consumerism, whether those proponents were among the capitalists or the socialists. Those untoward attempts, they said, resulted from the expediencies of a forced “pouring of soft materials from the top” into the cultural matrix. The most promising mechanism to the attempt was through control of the academy’s applied and theoretical sciences, especially including the “soft” sciences such as sociology and political science. The attempt was to impose essence forcibly, to exercise what Eric Voegelin was subsequently to name a “New Gnosticism.” “Gnosis,” he says, “desires dominion over being” in its modernist manifestation. The Agrarian New Critic of the 1930s, as literary critic, resisted manipulations whereby language was made the instrument for pouring gnostic ideology in “from the top,” whether to justify a process advocated by a radical capitalism or by a radical socialism. Theirs was a strategy of control learned by Nominalism.
In retrospect, we see how some of the young Fugitive poets at Vanderbilt in the 1920s developed naturally into their Agrarian position and subsequently made reputations as New Critics. The continuity in their development is important, lest we confuse our Agrarian New Critic with the New Criticism in general, a mistake one finds in Gerald Graff’s work. Along the way the Agrarian-New Critics were joined by likeminded souls: Cleanth Brooks is a conspicuous member from an older generation, as Bradford is of our own. The Agrarian-New Critic held as a dominant principle, requiring of him an enlargement of mind, a position at sharp variance from the modernist ideologies of gnostic intent, ideologies in conflict politically from both the left and the right. These gnostic contenders moved from within the social body in sharp and ever sharper antagonisms which have reached a climax and collapse in the 1990s, whose spectacle revealing failure on both sides is the collapse of Soviet Russia and of Eastern Europe, the signal of that so-called “end of history.”
Bradford’s old teacher and friend, Donald Davidson, reminds us in a telling poem about Nashville’s attempt to commercialize a piece of Western culture, the building of a replica of the Greek Parthenon as a tourist attraction, that such manipulation is doomed. Such a monument erected for gnostic purposes, to promote consumerism, does not carry the Greek mind into a presence at Nashville. It is but “blind motion,” a “dim last/ Regret of men who slew their past,” leading them to raise “this bribe against their fate.” It is a “pouring in from the top” in a pretense of cultural piety, whether erected by the so-called “right” in relation to commerce or by the political might of the “left.” The point is relevant to the attempts to foster culture through governmental agencies, attempts increasingly controversial, in which controversy Bradford was himself involved. It is with a poignant irony, then, considering the history of his treatment by the political establishment as candidate for the directorship of the NEH, that we learned in the evening news at about the time of his death that the Nashville “Parthenon” is now in such decay that it is not only an eyesore but a growing hazard to public safety with the collapse of inner-city order. Davidson’s “shopgirls” no longer safely loiter “where willows crowd the pure/ Expanse of clouds,” to embrace “a plaster thought,/ And eye Poseidon’s loins ungirt,” though at last we hear with them more certainly “the brandished spear” of Athene and increasingly are moved by that “bright-eyed maiden’s rage” over violations.
A work of art reduced to commercial ends, as with the “Parthenon,” or used for bolder political purposes such as the Marxist uses of literature in the 1930s, has as effect the reduction of persons, shopgirls or critics, to integers. The dream of process as god develops machinery for the programming of reality by gnostic intent, whether a machine in service to a “free enterprise” manipulation of persons or a socialist manipulation of persons. Given the shallow reading usually accorded the Agrarian-New Critic, it needs reiterating that his address to consumerism as the enemy of the human spirit is equally directed at the political left and the political right. Despite assertions to the contrary, the Agrarian-New Critic in I’ll Take My Stand does not reject process, commercialism, or progress. Rather, he demands a relation of these concepts to the highest good of the human spirit.
* I have in mind Aristotle in general, but particularly the Poetics, in which he distinguishes the action in Oedipus the King as Oedipus’ recognition of the truth of his circumstances, mediated to us through the spectacle: the costumes, setting, above all the words spoken. In the Poetics, Aristotle distinguishes history from poetry, the one concerned with the actual, the other with the possible or probable. The limits imposed by the actual upon the imaginative uses of the actual is the poet’s principal challenge. He is, consequently, a maker and not a creator by limit.