Thursday, 2 May 2013

Poetry and Power

Kenneth Burke gives this interesting insight in his Rhetoric of Motives:
"Man is moved to action for the sake of either real or apparent good; but desire depends on perception; perception in turn depends on the senses (which require images). Hence . . . we must admit that our actions depend greatly on the nature of this power" (80).

Think about that for a minute. What Kenneth Burke (paraphrasing Pico Della Mirandola) says is that we are moved to action not purely by abstract concepts of what is "good" but rather by beauty, by what we have experienced with our senses to be beautiful. We may have a sense that some idea, philosophy, religion, or ideology is better than another, but unless we can see beauty in it we will not be willing to sacrifice for it.

This is where poetry and power are related. Power can be seen as the ability to cause action or prevent action. Kenneth Burke defines poetry or the aesthetic as "literature designed for the express purpose of arousing emotions” (123), it is an articulation that works on the senses in a way that we perceive as beautiful. As such, it works as a foundation for what we perceive as good, which is the motivation for our actions. This is not to say that poets alone have this power. A day spent together as a family can be an aesthetic experience, as can holding the hand of a loved one, or seeing the trust and gratitude in the eyes of another human being. But poets (defined widely to include all producers of culture) have a power beyond the ordinary because, as John Dewey writes, “What is evoked is a substance so formed that it can enter into the experiences of others and enable them to have more intense and more fully rounded out experiences of their own” (113).

Thus, behind every mass movement involving power there also has to be a certain beauty which can motivate people to action. Along with the rhetorical arguments there has to be an aesthetic argument which justifies the actions of the movement. Observe for example this clip from Triumph of the Will where the artistic talents of Leni Riefenstahl, Richard Wagner, and the former artisans and architects of Nuremberg unite to make an aesthetic argument for Nazism.

Having lived in Nuremberg myself I look with admiration and nostalgia at the beautiful city that was all but destroyed by the Allied bombing raids at the end of WWII. The dawn breaks, and we see the flags waiving from beautiful buildings, remnants of German greatness with Nuremberg as the city of the Emperor, highlighted by scenes of the castle fortress and the cathedral. The score from Wagner's "The Mastersingers from Nuremberg" (which is still one of his most famous and most performed pieces) beautifully underlines the vision of a city (and implicity a nation) waking up from the darkness into a new bright day. It is beautiful, and reminds me of what they show on Norwegian television on the 17th of May, which is our national holiday. Yet it then moves to outside the city where Party members and Hitler Youth are getting ready for the day's events. Gradually, the optimism and beauty of the morning is linked with growing power, unity, strength, and the will to subdue the world. Frank Capra said of the film that it "fired no gun, dropped no bombs. But as a psychological weapon aimed at destroying the will to resist, it was just as lethal." Hitler praised the film as being an "incomparable glorification of the power and beauty of our Movement."

Triumph of the Will was not a documentary, as the one scene I showed above illustrates. It was a work of art, an aesthetic argument and justification for the National Socialist movement. It was filmed in 1934, right after Hitler and his party came to power, and Hitler personally asked Leni Riefenstahl to make it. It was a box office success in Germany, and it earned awards and nominations at large film festivals and showings in Berlin, Venice, and Paris, to name some. Frank Capra's Why We Fight was made explicitly as an American answer and counterstatement to it. Hardly any movie or moviemaker more clearly shows the ethical implications of works of art.

Yet it is not just overtly political movies that have this effect, and it is not all sinister that art works this way. I recently watched the movie version of Les Miserables, and I was left both emotionally touched and intellectually stimulated. Here, I realized, was an aesthetic argument for many facets that make up my world view. In the movie, it was made beautiful. The Christian compassion, grace, mercy, and redemption, added with courage and desires to change the world for the better, and the triumph of romantic and parental love against all odds, combined to create a powerful drama and a compelling "interpretation of life" as Kenneth Burke would put it. In a world that too often asks you to choose between the tyrannical and robotic justice of Javert and the relativistic lasciviousness, greed, and immorality of the Thènardiers, it showed that it is possible to be loving without indulging, and to have morals without being judgmental and narrow-minded. It is also a position that breaks down the binaries in American politics that have been set up by the extreme Left and extreme Right where justice and mercy, tolerance and morals are incompatible and at constant war.

Poets, as Percy Shelley wrote, are the "unacknowledged legislators of the world." They have a lot of power in creating the foundations of sentiment and feeling which define what is worth fighting for. This power can be used for good or bad, but it is important to recognize that it is there. Although an artist may intend to create art for art's sake, there is no art for art's sake when we look at the consequences it has, the sentiments it instills, the identifications and exclusions it encourages and discourages. Les Miserables is beautiful, but it is important to realize that artistically there is not that great of a gap between it and Triumph of the Will, as I show in this video.

Be careful when a piece of art calls for sacrifice and the laying down of lives for a greater cause. Such an admonition should be very carefully considered before it is accepted, if it is accepted at all.

In conclusion then, poetry is always related to power. Making something good or beautiful at the same time gives an implicit directive to seek, value, or defend it. As Burke describes in Counter-Statement, “[The work of art] can, by its function as name and definition, give simplicity and order to an otherwise unclarified complexity. It provides a terminology of thoughts, actions, emotions, attitudes for codifying a pattern of experience” (154).