In “How Has the Social Role of Poetry Changed Since Shelley?” in The New York Times, Adam Kirsch explains a key difference between Romantic poets such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and poets of today. It is the “the imaginative confidence of poets themselves”:
“Shelley was wrong to think that writing poems like ‘Queen Mab’ or ‘Prometheus Unbound’ would bring revolutionary change to England, but his conviction that they would is what allowed him to write the poems in the first place. Today, poets with a grasp of reality must start from the premise that nothing they write will be much read or have much influence on public discourse. A poetry written under such circumstances may have its own virtues, but they will not be the virtues of the Romantics — conceptual boldness, metaphysical reach, the drive to bring religion and politics themselves under the empire of art. As if in recognition of this fact, poets in our time prefer to imagine themselves not as legislators, but as witnesses — those who look on, powerless to chayou thinge the world, but sworn at least to tell the truth about it.”
One thing which hasn’t changed since the Romantics’ day is the lack of much acknowledgement of poetry among the majority of the population, including the folks in power. He writes:
It would be a mistake, then, to think that the social role of poetry has actually changed very much in the last 200 years. Poets were unacknowledged then, by a vast majority of the population, and they are only slightly less acknowledged now. No one in power in 1814 was asking for Shelley’s views on the Congress of Vienna, just as no one in power in 2014 is asking for John Ashbery’s views on climate change.
If you think about it, the social stature of Integral thought is aligned with poets in certain ways. And I would suggest that we can learn a thing of two from the Romantic poets’ boldness of vision.
In a day when poets have ceded the role of “legislators of the world”, any sort of grand epic vision of reality, one might turn to philosophy. But there too the mainstream philosophers of our time seldom make bold grand syntheses which put themselves as arbiters of truth, even people with something to say of Truth itself (by the way, who writes with capital letters these days? where have the neo-Platonists gone?)
No, for grand, bold thinkers who are in a sense similar to the Romantic poets setting themselves forth as “legislators of the world”, you have to turn to Integral thinkers and artists. I am one of them. And I would venture to say that my role within the pantheon of Integral folks mine is that of a more Romantic type than the Rationalistic type.
I suppose it is no coincidence that I find myself more drawn to the boldness of the Romantic poets and Transcendental poets than much of the poets of the twentieth or twenty-first century. They were poets with imaginative confidence and a willingness to speak on behalf of the Universe, stepping into a voice of consciousness transcendent of the personal self into a divine Eye of Spirit. As a wise observer has said, today’s poets just create selfies.
Ken Wilber’s middle Integral philosophy was in part a reaction against certain Romantic tendencies in spirituality. He disdained the tendency of his contemporary metaphysical thinkers and transpersonal psychologists to see a Golden Age of untainted, pure spiritual realization in the Stone Age peoples or the newborn infant. The spiritual path was not one of going back to the beginnings, but moving forward towards the end-point of evolution. I think there has always been a strain of Wilber’s thought which sees the Alpha and Omega united, a certainty to non-dualism, but I digress. Wilber is not a Romantic, nor is the Integral thought that he has inspired strictly speaking Romanticism.
But the Integral vision is nevertheless generally optimistic, with a hopeful view of the future and confidence in the ability of evolution to generate a transformation in human conscioiusness that can lead to a better tomorrow for all. It is in many versions aligned with the American ethos in this sense. Arguably it does not have a realistic enough interpretation of human sin and evil, nor is its optimism sufficiently tempered by a skepticism towards the ability of human groups and societies to approximate the ideals imagined by our visionary thinkers. The days just 5 or 10 years ago in which Integral thinkers imagined an immanent “Integral revolution” have been met with disappointments.
Romantics evaded the darker aspects of human nature by placing an emphasis on the individual and his/her intense emotions; they elevated folk and popular expressions to the status of art; they deified spontaneity. From an Integral perspective, all of these moves are fine but inadequate (or true but partial, to use a common phrase). The Integralist makes room for the Romantic and Rationalist, and many more besides, because there is a bias towards wholeness and a vision which aspires to be all-encompassing and, yes, even all-knowing. Romantic spiritualists revel in the mysterious; Integralists are more gnostic.
Yet it is today’s Integralist, not the poets of today, who have a legitimate claim on the status, please try to hold back your gagging reflexes now, of philosopher-kings. Integral thought combines art and philosophy, spirituality and science, politics and social criticism; the Integral worldview imagines a future international government and spiritual convergence (though perhaps not a singularity of thought) perhaps in our lifetimes; and Integral philosophy wants the attention of presidents and superstars, corporate executives and popes, the philanthropist and the addict. Our reach exceeds our grasp, but we have not given up the reaching.
Integralists like poets are underacknowledged visionaries with a tendency to be disappointed if not disillusioned in the potency of their work in the world. Given this status, there is a desire for us to want to recoil into our Rationalist tendencies as opposed to our Romantic ones. There are those Integralists who would have us retreat into interdisciplinary studies departments and enclaves of armchair philosophers and independent scholars, dismissing those of us with grander aspirations as embarrassing to their much more serious endeavors.
So who is right? The Integralists who would seek acceptance of genuinely integrative thought by the intelligensia, or those who would seek to rally celebrities and inspire stadium-size audiences enthrall to the power of the Spirit of the Universe or the Unique Self? Clearly there is only one truly Integral answer to this question: neither separately, only both.
The world demands that we take our work with the seriousness of scholars, storytellers, and sovereigns. I for one am not going to give up either my idealism nor my effort to influence public discourse. And neither should you.
Photo Credit: Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818 (Wikipedia)