Monuments, Totems and the Veneratio Antiquitatis
The prologue of the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, a narrative about the martyrdom of two Christian women in Africa in 202 CE, begins with this statement about the nature of a text’s authority and its antiquity:
If the old exemplars of faith, which testify to the grace of God and labor to achieve the edification of man, were disseminated in the past in written works, such that through their being read and treated as the representation of things God is honored and man comforted; why are not the more recent writings equally passed around, if they too are appropriate for the same cause? Perhaps because from this time forward, these things, which are one day to be ancient, at some time will be necessary to our posterity, even if in our present time, they are thought to be of lesser authority, because of our presumed worship of antiquity (60).
Here the complicated relationship between antiquity and authority is expressed more directly than usual. The writer, to authenticate the first-person testimony of two women killed for their Christian faith, begins by answering the objections of a straw man, who would presumably adhere to a simple equation of ancient=authoritative. Since the unnamed author of Perpetua’s introduction is introducing his nova documenta, or more recent narrative, to an audience familiar with an established and time-honored genre, he must defend himself against the probable skepticism, on the part of his target readers, toward new voices claiming to be as legitimate as very old ones. If one posits one’s own words–be they a story, a philosophy or any representation–besides the greatness of hallowed literature passed down from a distant past, one risks being accused of hubris. One can imagine an average Roman reader, schooled in Greek classics, asking himself, “how dare they presume to speak with the authenticity of Demosthenes or of Hesiod?”
The dilemma faced by the writer of Perpetua’s introduction reveals in a general sense what almost any author faces when writing something new. The preference for things that originate over things that follow is literally imbued in all the languages that inherited the word root arché from the Greeks. The infinitive arcein, or archein, has many meanings, two of which are especially important: to begin and to govern. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle clearly marries the two implications of originality during his discussion of practicality versus wisdom, making the important side note that “the art which produces anything rules and issues commands about that thing” (1806). In this age-old logical system, the creator of anything is its unassailable ruler. Consequently whenever one reveals any traces of legacy from an earlier influence one must submit to and obey it. Hence in a patriarchy, the father rules over the family by virtue of founding it. He finds a wife outside his parents’ pool of relations, begins a new and unprecedented bloodline, and generates a crop of subordinate descendants with his phallic power. On the other hand, in a matriarchy, the mother becomes the ruling figure because the entire family line points back to her womb, the originary space which existed first and granted existence to those who followed. In either of these two systems, the ruling parent’s placement in time–at the origin point in a fixed and immutable historical progression–becomes impossible to extricate from his or her position of authority.
From this cultural link between beginnings (arché) and dominion (arché), a literary link evolves between antiquity and authority. The antique not only predates the author, but also appears to have had a cultural and ideological influence on the origins of all constructs familiar to him or her. It acts as patriarch and matriarch to the author’s entire repertoire of ideas, symbols, and styles; but unlike a real father or mother, the antique arché is inaccessible. Antiquity’s authors and characters are dead (perhaps hyper-dead). Its contexts are absent, its flaws uncorrectable. The dominion of ancient originary influence is perhaps the least democratic and most despotic form of artistic power. Under its constant governance, one cannot rebel against it. Though judged by it, one can never contest its standards, because it is stuck beyond the limits of direct historical relevance.
Antiquity goes far beyond a general concept of the past. A person in the United States in 2002 may view the figures of the American Revolution as historical, but they are not characters of antiquity. The same political interests that colored the checks and balances of the Constitution are still alive and well today. There are still races in America defined discreetly as black, white and other; there is still an America and an England that speak the language in which the Declaration of Independence was written; and there are still cosmopolitan merchants and rural populations with competing interests. If one goes back further, to the last days of Rome, then one finds a truly antique past: a misty world of defunct institutions, fallen empires, and unspoken languages. There is no arguing with Rome, no revolting against its historical legacies. Every possible symbol of Roman authority is already lifeless, remote, and ostensibly fixed into a form that cannot change.
For the contemporary reader, stuck in the present historical vantage point, there are specific classical civilizations that are associated with the historical phrase “antiquity”: Rome, Greece, ancient Israel, the early Christian church, etc. Yet antiquity is also a general concept, and derived from a Roman word, antiquitas, which to the Romans meant an earlier period that was equally inaccessible to them. When Perpetua speaks of the veneratio antiquitatis, or “veneration and reverence for things that are ancient,” she refers to a kind of respectability that is unattainable to her when she records her life story.
Aware of Perpetua’s immersion in the present, the Roman voice (probably a male) who introduces her Passion worries about his and Perpetua’s lack of convincing authority. His narration reveals an ambivalence toward the veneratio antiquitatis. While the audience’s elitist preference for very old sourcesfrustrates him, it is nonetheless the object of his authorial desire. He wants the martyrs Perpetua and Felicity to be venerated, canonized and passed through the shibboleths of the audience’s confidence. He does not want to overturn the problematic veneratio antiquitatis, but rather to find a way to capitalize on it; he seeks to acquire the hold on his audience that ancient ghosts claim. His story about Perpetua, he asserts, deserves to be admitted into the canon of the ancients because of the clarity of her prophetic visions and the sincerity of her connection with God. Therefore, what begins as a resentful complaint about the audience’s prejudice against things that are not ancient becomes a bold demand to be placed on par with things that are. And lest the readers not be receptive to his argument on its own merits, the writer ends his prologue by telling them trenchantly that the Passion will become an antiquity to a posterity yet to come, whether the readers of the present day accept it or not.
The radical writer, anxious to change his social conditions, deals with several complex layers of authority. In an immediate sense, he buts against the authorities themselves: the institutions and enfranchised individuals who exercise power over social relations and generally organize them to favor themselves. One of Marx’s most important legacies was his exposure of this relationship between power and ideology, and his attentiveness to the fact that those who have material supremacy organize people’s thoughts and perceptions to perpetuate their control over institutions. For Marx, the key enlightening facility had to be a thinker’s “ability to expound the real process of production, starting from the material production of life itself […] as the basis of all history; and to show it in its action as State, to explain all the different theoretical products and forms of consciousness, religion, philosophy, ethics, etc., and trace their origins and growth from that basis.” Marx sees that the struggle over resources is played out in struggles over ideological beliefs. Hence, for him, “not criticism but revolution is the driving force of history, also of religion, of philosophy and all other types of theory” (164). While the irreligious emphasis on materialism might have displeased a few writers used in this study, the basic point about power, ideas, and revolution, is still fundamental to understanding the situational perspective of a writer who contests the way that powerful groups want the world to see things. The radical’s fight against material problems and his production of new ideas are always interrelated. This interface can be characterized, if one likes, in purely military terms: a radical must fight to be heard. He must fight standards of publishing, the means of dissemination and the larger hold over public opinion that governments and entrenched institutions usually command.
In the example of Passio Perpetuae, the desire to edify a Christian canon is a form of radical resistance to institutional power. The Passio and Perpetua become coterminous agents, both facing down more powerful opponents: Rome, the soldiers, state religion, family traditions. In the passion narrative that follows, the reader is drawn through the first-person accounts of Perpetua as she is prodded into prison, disowned by her father, and eventually killed. “Could you ever call a vase by any name other than its own?” she asks her father before her deprivation and abuse drive her into rapturous visions of the stairway leading to heaven. When her wealthy father answers that he could never call a vase anything besides a vase, Perpetua answers, “in this way I can never call myself another name, besides what I am, Christian” (64). There are constant cues in the text that the newness of Perpetua’s visions is offset by their lucidity and sincerity, which prove that she is closer in spirit (if not in time) to the source of authority that antiquity is presumed by her attackers to embody.
The Christian viewpoint did not remain a purely radical position for very long. After Perpetua and her cohorts, the religion that was for her a courageous departure from powerful institutions gradually became a powerful institution in itself. The prologue’s prediction that her story would one day become an antiquitas rather than a novum documentum came true, as Christianity graduated from the ranks of upstart religions into the family of ancient faiths. Rome itself converted to it and St. Augustine’s City of God collapsed any remaining division between political supremacy and godliness, reading Christ’s endorsement into Rome’s imperialism by saying, “Divine Providence alone explains the establishment of kingdoms among men” (99). The Catholic and Orthodox Churches rose to become massive centers of political power; and Europe, still claiming the simplicity of Matthew’s Beatitudes, went on to colonize the entire world. Coinciding with this general progression of history was the slow transformation of Perpetua’s context from a present tense, rife with immediately pertinent symbols, to what I would call the “ancient tense,” full of symbols that could be manipulated in political struggles bearing no connection to her torture in a Roman prison in Africa.
The veneratio antiquitatis is full of contradictory impulses. In Marx’s model, antiquity is a conceptual tool used by powerful institutions to claim epistemic power over the social realms they dominate. By claiming to have greater access to knowledge about the ancient past, people in power often claim to have inherited its authority. This appropriation of the past’s power is heightened if there is a general belief in a Hesiodic golden age, an earlier time when everything in the world was better and, according to many religious traditions, men and gods (or God) spoke to one another face to face. If a Hesiodic model predominates, then the class that owns the artifacts from a distant past is presumed to possess a more substantive link to God. An ancient gold scepter passed down from antiquity may be less valuable for its precious metal, than for the powerful mystique it adds to one’s dominant position in society. Marx detested this conservative use of sacred origin narratives, especially in his native Germany. “This conception is truly religious,” Marx writes in the German Ideology, “it postulates religious man as the primitive man, the starting-point of history, […] ‘how really we pass from the realm of God to the realm of Man’–as if this realm of God had ever existed anywhere save in the imagination, and the learned gentlemen, without being aware of it, were not constantly living in the realm of Man” (166).
On the other hand, there are always possibilities of undermining powerful or oppressive institutions by comparing them to an ancient, original past, next to which the present instruments of power appear fallen, corrupted or morally bankrupt. The Machiavellian ricorso, which will appear in Chapter V, is a fundamentally revolutionary concept of returning to earlier principles. A Hesiodic golden age, if romanticized in the right way, can always make the people who hold power in the present look far inferior. Calls for returning to the mythical old way of things can motivate people to insurrection. On a more intellectual plane of discourse, an appeal to the classical is often designed to remoralize institutions that have become too obsessed with maintaining power and have lost sight of their true ethical mission. For instance, when Habermas in Theory and Practice draws out the crisis he perceives in contemporary social philosophy, he pinpoints “its descent from classical politics and its determined rejection of the latter’s principles” because “the social sciences have been separated completely from the normative elements that were the heritage of classical politics, a heritage now quite forgotten” (44). The ancient, classical ideal is never entirely under the control of those who are powerful. There is always the danger of it becoming a means of exposing the inconsistencies and contradictions in a hegemon’s claim to power. Also, radical authors can steal authority away from people in power by comparing themselves to the characters of antiquity and proving that in their sincerity they approximate the ideals of an uncorrupted ancient past more fully.
This literary study will hone in on the stormy period between 1773 and 1861, a time shaped by the world’s struggle to understand and assimilate the revolutions of 1776 and 1789. In a literary sense it corresponds to the murky transition from the Enlightenment to Romanticism, two concepts that are vague and difficult to summarize; and between which the overlap is even vaguer and more difficult to summarize. To reduce their relationship to a shift from reason to imagination underestimates the influence of Enlightenment reason on Romantic authors and overlooks the emphasis on creative imagination that was still thriving during the Enlightenment. To say that the transition to Romanticism marked a revolt against the past would be dangerously simplistic.
Nonetheless, we still inhabit the world that Foucault describes in Archaeology of Knowledge, a world prone to the generalized “unities” that cover up the “discontinuity, break, threshold, or limit” (31). If one rejects all theories that have generalized, one is left with almost nothing to discuss at all. Hence the question of how to demarcate the categories of American, British, Enlightenment, and Romantic, is often most interesting when asked and answered in admittedly imperfect terms. The question of how writers of this period viewed the past has a rich history in literary criticism largely because of the license critics took with their generalizations. RWB Lewis wrote in his classic critical work The American Adam that “the energetic hostility of the hopeful to the influence of the past, to the transmission of anything […] gathered against the doctrine of transmitted guilt–and overwhelmed it” (31). This repeated American belief that in the nineteenth century hopeful or optative thinkers were eager to tear apart narratives of history that predated them may reveal a twentieth century obsession among American critics, more than an actual phenomena of the time period. It would be safer to say that in the aftermath of the American and French Revolutions, Great Britain and the United States were deeply conflicted over their place in history. Having taken extreme actions, revolutionaries did not necessarily escape the burden of rationalizing what they had done, within the vocabulary, ideas, and value systems that they inherited from the political systems they had overthrown. Both revolutions were about material social conditions and abstract ideas at the same time. Depending on which emphasis prevailed, at any given moment the ancient past could become either a materially irrelevant anachronism to be disregarded or a pristine set of philosophical concepts to be readily marshaled in support of one political argument or another.
Though he is by no means unique in this regard, Thomas Jefferson exemplifies the duality of antiquity’s role in times of revolution. In an often-quoted letter to James Madison dated September 6, 1789, Thomas Jefferson made the trenchant statement that the world existed for the living, not the dead, saying “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living.” Jefferson scholar Daniel Scott Smith interprets this statement as “his vehement rejection of the claims of the past on the present,” a political tendency that was to influence significantly his input into the American Constitution (591). This would seem to repudiate the concept of arché, except that Jefferson simply could not follow through on this rejection of the past. Certainly it was fine to privilege the living over the dead, in the context of justifying the overthrow of English traditions; and even in the context of exonerating people in their prime from accountability for things done by people much older than them. “He even toyed,” Smith informs us, “with the moral legitimacy of repudiating the public debt” (590). But as another scholar, Robert MS McDonald, reminds us plainly, “[e]ven so, Jefferson refused to yield ownership of history […]. He also endeavored to memorialize himself as an enduring symbol of light, liberty and the timeless rights of mankind” (290). Jefferson was profoundly ambivalent about the proper authority the dead past should hold. While the more recent dead of England and early Americans is the object of his intentional disenfranchisement, he often assigns legitimacy in moral and scientific matters to the more honored literary sources of antiquity.
Furthermore, at moments when his ego was most inflated, he revealed a clear desire to stand beside ancient figures as their equal in intellectual authority. Most telling is the ambivalence apparent in Jefferson’s plans for his own tombstone. He left meticulous instructions about the obelisk that was to mark his grave, writing in his dying papers, “could the dead feel any interest in monuments or other remembrances of them?” For solace, Jefferson quotes an ancient Greek philosopher, Anacreon, and then draws the precise shape of the obelisk that is to commemorate him. McDonald points out that Jefferson only wanted to be remembered for authoring the declaration of independence, the statute for religious freedom, and the charter of the University of Virginia. “He wished his fame to rest on his reputation as a liberator of body, soul and mind. His life’s work, he wanted posterity to understand, focused on gaining recognition of individuals’ rights to govern themselves and their nation as free, moral and enlightened citizens.” So why the obelisk? McDonald points out that “Herodotus’ History, frequently recommended by Jefferson to others, associates obelisks with the sun. So does the elder Pliny’s Natural History, which he kept in his library” (300-302). There was something about the power of the ancients that Jefferson could not resist.
This splitting of Jefferson’s perspective on the past is quite evident in his prescriptions about a national language. Regarding the tongue that he had inherited from England, he shows a certain unimpressed practicality. “I do not pretend that language is science. It is only an instrument for the attainment of science,” he writes in Notes on the State of Virginia (197). For Jefferson, civil society had to view the English tongue as a practical tool, stripped of its historical debt to the country Americans had overthrown. England had no cultural claims over them for having given them language. In this regard, Jefferson adheres to his belief that the usage of the earth belonged to the living according to the needs of their present, without regard to the past. Yet in the same passage, Jefferson emphasizes vehemently the importance of teaching two dead languages, Latin and Greek. “The learning of Latin and Greek, I am told, is going into disuse in Europe,” Jefferson writes. “I know not what their manners and occupations may call for: but it would be very ill-judged in us to follow their example in this instance.” It is crucial in his mind for competent citizens to understand the past:
History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views [and] to render even them safe their minds must be improved to a certain degree (198).
What is interesting is Jefferson’s conviction that by knowing Latin and Greek, men will be better citizens, more on guard against corruption. “The government of Great Britain has been corrupted,” he says flatly (199), and perhaps because of this, the recent past is too dangerous an arsenal of ideas and thoughts. One must go far back, into languages that are neutral because of their lifelessness, in order to inculcate schoolchildren with the psychological elements of a good citizen. Jefferson was not as ready as someone like Benjamin Franklin to revert all ethics to a relentlessly present pragmatism. He was interested in retaining the wisdom of the past, so long as the past was so remote that it did not compromise his revolutionary agenda.
Despite his revolutionary nature, Jefferson’s vision of the usefulness of ancient languages mirrors the generally conservative applications of classical literature. The Bible and the classics were a vehicle of indoctrinating the young in the values that were appropriate for the society into which they would eventually mature. They were supposed to approximate a blueprint of virtue and vice, emblazoned with the authoritative stamp of antiquity. For people who find themselves in need of ensuring order within institutions or obedience among their inferiors, the ancients are often an irresistible means of enhancing their own authority and exerting ideological control. Jefferson liked the classics for their prestige, their capacity to indoctrinate and their handiness in stabilizing political control over those who became educated. It is therefore not perplexing that when he spoke about issues in which his position was actually counter-progressive, such as the natural rights of Africans, he overtly departed from his belief in the world being for the living, and justified his view of blacks as inferior by contrasting them against the representation of white slaves in the ancient Roman empire.
In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson advocates the emancipation of blacks and their concerted deportation to a place outside American borders, for the purpose of avoiding the eventual decay of society. “When freed,” Jefferson says of the Negro male, “he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture” (193). He made it clear that while keeping them slaves was a poor plan, it was even worse to “incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave.” Part of this was practical, since he felt that the extended interaction of blacks and whites would “produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” But beyond the narrow interest of racial survival, Jefferson adds other objections which are “physical and moral” (186). His reflections culminate in an infamous essay marked by unfounded generalizations, racism, and uncharacteristically rash conclusions. Blacks, he argues intransigently, are simply the disgusting inferiors of whites who are unfit to share in the same political benefits of democracy. But how, given his stated preference for scientific reasoning and natural law, does Jefferson arrive at this bizarre twist in his philosophy–a twist that would, more than anything else he wrote, undermine his lasting reputation as the champion of freedom and equality who penned the Declaration of Independence?
Central to this controversial section of the Notes on the State of Virginia is Jefferson’s mining of antique sources for insights into the correct formula of moral authority:
We know that among the Romans, about the Augustan age especially, the condition of their slaves was much more deplorable than that of the blacks on the continent of America […]. Yet notwithstanding these and other discouraging circumstances among the Romans, their slaves were often their rarest artists […]. Epictetus, Terence and Phaedrus were slaves. But they were of the race of whites. It is not their condition then, but nature, which has produced the distinction (190-191).
Repeatedly Jefferson excuses the abuses of American slavery by contrasting it against Roman and Greek standards. Repeatedly he impugns blacks for failing to attain the aesthetic achievements of the slaves of antiquity, despite their supposedly more generous conditions. He traps the black race in an inescapable circular argument. Antiquity will be the standard, but Jefferson owns antiquity since he owns the libraries, the monuments, and the languages that he may translate as he wishes. The ancient world will look exactly as Jefferson needs it to look, to bolster a political opinion that is otherwise perfectly out of character for a man so marked by thorough reasoning. As if to drive home his point by obsessive repetition, Jefferson reiterates, “the slaves of which Homer speaks were whites” (192). The Latin and Greek texts offer no such racialized categories that could easily mirror the phenotypic classifications that Jefferson references. Perpetua, whom I have already discussed, was one of a number of early Christian figures who accumulated a library of African church records, not only in Egypt but in other areas; and while the African church was not entirely black, it was certainly not entirely white. Terence and St. Augustine were from Africa, and as I will illustrate in Chapter II, Terence’s plays showcase characters who are described as indisputably black. The debate over the actual skin color of Perpetua, Terence, and Augustine is a discursive mine field best left untested–I would draw the safest conclusion possible, which is that, regardless of whether the writers were black, they were not nearly as removed from the dark-skinned peoples whose descendants labored on Jefferson’s plantation. His need to gloss over the weakest part of his political platform eventually exceeds his adherence to the actual texts. His own power as a political animal of the present ultimately decides the way that ancient authorities are to be interpreted.
When confronted in the form of Phillis Wheatley, an African woman who is not only equal to Jefferson in Latin, but his better, he lashes out at her in a tone that some view as disparaging but other might view as desperate. As Chapters II and IV will elaborate, Wheatley was a veritable celebrity of the time and was busy writing beautiful odes to George Washington, who eventually freed his slaves. Jefferson writes in Notes, “Religion has produced a Phillis Whately; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism” (189). These could be the words of a man threatened by her disproving his pseudo-scientific analysis. He might be frightened of having his bad faith hermeneutics exposed by someone like Wheatley (who died three years after the writing of the Notes, but three years before their publication.)
The tension among literary critics between the view of Jefferson as the democratic author of the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson as the hypocritical slave owner will probably persist indefinitely. It is a tension that points directly to the complex relation between antiquity and radicals. While disavowing the recent past, radicals can embrace the antique precisely because, as interlocutors, the ghosts of extinct empires are cleaner. Free of any of the affiliations that array the author’s own context, the characters of antiquity are more sympathetic to anyone’s peculiar concerns–more comforting, even. In Jefferson’s case, the comfort offered by nostalgia for Rome implanted inconsistencies in his philosophy that would eventually lead him to risk being branded a hypocrite by later writers. As Chapters VI and VII will point out, Jefferson was a particular target of African American authors’ attacks in the 1850s.
To enter the transition from the Enlightenment to Romanticism with Jefferson is to concede an important point to the powerful critiques often leveled against the time-based hierarchy that the veneratio antiquitatis shamelessly encourages. Whether it is called nostalgia, classicism, or some other variation on that theme, the general tendency to grant moral authority to an ancient beginning of civilization has rightfully been criticized for its tendency to produce elitism, arrogance and hostility to progressive change. Black slavery, as mentioned, was rationalized based on romanticized comparisons to Greek and Roman social relations; and as I will make clear in Chapter VII, in quarters where the pagans were disavowed proslavery forces were not shy about citing passages from Genesis, Exodus, and even the epistles of St. Paul to legitimize the slave trade. The Aeneid became the model for a Portuguese national classic that eulogized da Gama’s conquest of India; the Nazis adored Roman symbols; archconservative pundits blamed the fall of the World Trade Center on homosexuals by invoking collective memories of Sodom and Gomorrah… The list goes on forever. It is not hard to find examples of the classical or ancient being used to enforce rigid social restriction, or to crush the struggle of subjugated peoples against domination by oppressive hegemons. It would be irresponsible to embark on a comparative study of the radical uses of authority, without sending out a loud “yes, you’re right” to those who express uneasiness with discussions about antiquity, especially the heavily institutionalized Greek, Roman, Hebrew, and Christian antiquities that will play a central role in this analysis. The eighteenth and nineteenth century writers who will comprise this comparative study, however, are markedly different in their use of and connection to antiquity. Their radicalism exerts a central influence, even when they include tributes to an ancient past largely claimed by Europe. In the case of African Americans like Phillis Wheatley, Olaudah Equiano, William Wells Brown, and Martin Delany, the author has nothing to gain by strictly maintaining a status quo, especially a status quo claiming to have evolved inexorably from an unimpeachable ancient origin. In order to claim any sense of their own humanity, blacks in this time period must radicalize their own voices. They cannot speak unless things change, so in their very act of writing, they evince a radicalism quickly confirmed in the content of what they write. By contrast, the radicalism of white writers like William Blake, Henry David Thoreau, and Samuel Sewall can neither be taken for granted, nor so easily attributed to the position they occupy. They have their own reasons for critiquing conditions around them, which will be worth examining.
Although race inflects their views on antiquity, there are similar tendencies across the five main authors of this study. When Wheatley, Blake, Thoreau, Delany, and Wells Brown draw on ideas of antiquity, they do so not because the ancient past is remote enough to be a safe source of rhetorical examples, but because they don’t feel that the ancient past is remote at all. This is a crucial difference. Jefferson drew an absolute line of difference between the living and the dead. Then he drew a plastic line of difference between different kinds of “dead.” The dead that symbolized a weighty inheritance from Europe were acceptable signifiers to reject while the dead who symbolized a source of malleable proofs were possible to marshal for his immediate purposes. It is not so much Jefferson’s whiteness, but his powerful status and the particularities of his agenda that color his uses of antiquity. By the time Jefferson wrote Notes on the State of Virginia, he was already writing from a position that was not entirely revolutionary. The anti-monarchist tone of the Declaration of Independence was tempered by the types of compromises that come with the acquisition of real political power. The Notes stand in the ambiguous border between his revolutionary and conservative selves. Inside of this murk, Jefferson’s use of antiquity falls more strikingly on the side of his more conservative persona. When he speaks of the ancients, he does so as a man intertwined with structures of governance, even if those structures were at their time new and bold.
For the other authors of this study, antiquity is part of, not a departure from,their radicalism. The ancient past, while removed by time, is alive in spirit; the personalities of antiquity are not passive units of comparison but rather complicated, relevant interlocutors. The dead and the world are both important considerations for the living. At the same time, they often express their authority as a birthright of their individual human soul, avoiding or de-emphasizing the step of attributing their inspiration to a spiritual force outside of themselves, as in the classicism of canonized authors like Dante or Tasso. This ties in partly to the literary age that frames their historical milieu. As Northrop Frye sees it, “a Romantic poet [who] wishes to write of God [has] more difficulty in finding a place to put him than Dante or even Milton had, and on the whole he prefers to do without a place, or find ‘within’ metaphors more reassuring than ‘up there’ metaphors” (8). Spiritual and ghostly influences within this framework belonged squarely inside the Romantic’s own soul, rather than in some external milieu to be empirically observed or in some untouchable outer realm beyond human reach. Whether talking about God or Emerson’s over-soul, it is this particular location of inspiration that sets apart the time period to be examined here (fairly viewed as an elongation of the Romantic Era) from two other important literary approaches:
As generally used, “Romantic” is contrasted with two other terms, “classical” and “realistic.” Neither contrast seems satisfactory (Frye 2)¯.
Antiquity for my authors is neither classical nor real; it is a complicated entanglement of the two. Their finely crafted understandings of an ancient past, ultimately used as the distant origin for all social realities and as a graphic illustration of other social possibilities, become a part of the psychological apparatus with which they read, react, and actively recreate their materially present world.
All these authors had an ongoing conversation with the ancient voice of authority and it is often difficult to establish whether the ancient texts they read bring new insights, or simply reaffirm an insight that was rankling in the modern’s head already. Often, as I say in Chapter V regarding Thoreau, the arrival of the ancient authorial daemon is almost too timely to be coincidental–the classical influences are always arriving just in time, as if the modern author was already thinking what the ancient thought, before the ancient even had a chance to speak through the classic text. Without resorting necessarily to a Jungian conviction that a primordial human memory exists, antiquity is either the modern writer’s intuitive self, or else a perfectly natural outgrowth of it. The lessons that are demonstrated in antiquity become a beginning set of assumptions. Kant refers in his Prolegomena to individual “intuition, being an intuition a priori […] before all experience, viz. before any perception of particular objects, inseparably conjoined with its concept” (33). Antiquity here is not a physical artifact to be exhumed and fetishized; rather, it is part of Kant’s economy of the internalized construction of reality. The ancient condition does not need to be witnessed in a material sense, because somehow it is already a sensual memory to be accessed and indulged. This is both intuitive, and counterintuitive, since antiquity–no matter how natural it may feel–is learned through didactic experience. The authors in this study are somehow able to milk institutions for raw material (some substantive knowledge of who the ancients were) while still separating the antique from the didacticism that makes it commonly oppressive.
At the same time, with the possible exception of William Blake, the authors here are not passive mystics receiving a piercing ray of light like Teresa of Avila in the famous statue by Bernini. They are spiritual, but not to such an extent that they believe that the ancient ghost can appear unmediated, without any recourse to a definitive text. Part of the veneratio that is impossible to escape is the necessity of scripture, a codified and written text that the modern radical can trust. Sometimes this means second guessing the writings that institutions have passed down, and guessing where the ancient author’s intent has been distorted; for Sewall and the black narrators of Chapters VI and VII this will be a central tack. Sometimes fidelity to a primary scripture means mastering the ancient language and challenging the institutionalized exegetes: such was the method of Wheatley with Latin, Blake with Hebrew, and Thoreau with Greek. Either way, the people to whom I give center stage are not antinomians in the full sense. As intuitive as antique ideas may have felt to them, they were all willing and sometimes eager to submit to the ultimate authority of the words that antiquity left for later generations.
If they were not antinomians, nor were they strict bibliophiles. They were not in the business of espousing art for art’s sake. In fact most read the message of the ancients as a timeless call to be vigilant about social conditions around them. Wheatley did her share to condemn slavery (even if subtly), Blake made value judgments about the revolutions surrounding him, Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience, Delany fought for emigration, and Brown was an abolitionist. The antique prestige enters the author as a source of chosen inspiration, ultimately useful for the pressing concerns that inhere in a materially real social context. The engagement with the materiality of a real social context makes it impossible to categorize these radical authors as entirely Kantian. There is space within their oeuvres for admission of a real that cannot be entirely organized by pure sense and interpretation. Their intuition, which can incorporate antiquity into itself, might be more akin to Deleuze’s and Bergson’s models than to Kant’s. An antiquated intuition is a method, a rational system that can order the subject’s understandings of his or her surroundings, with the ultimate goal of changing it materially. In Bergsonism, Deleuze made it clear that “intuition does form a method with its three rules [of] problematizing, differentiating and temporalizing” (35). Hence it is not a matter of merely feeling differently about things, or trying to imagine one’s self out of unjust conditions. Sentiment, which will become a vexed issue in Chapter VII, is not as important as ethical integrity. And articulating an ethics is a major item on all these writer’ agendas.
The political value of this antiquated intuition is not always paid to the Left. Not all artists who are Romantic in the ways Frye characterized are necessarily radical in the ways I will describe. As Frye cautions the reader:
Whether the Romantic poet is revolutionary or conservative depends on whether he regards the original society as concealed by or as manifested in existing society. If the former, he will think of true society as a primitive structure of nature and reason, and will admire the popular, simple or even the barbaric more than the sophisticated. If the latter, he will find his true inner society manifested by a sacramental church or by the instinctive manners of an aristocracy (13).
The link between a view of an original society (one that I map onto antiquity) and an artist’s political persuasion is keen and appropriate. Frye’s dichotomy between poets who see original society in the primitive versus those who it in sacraments and prestige, will resurface later in my polarity of monumental versus totemic antiquity.
The presence of the ancients and the immanence of the artist’s independent will do not lessen or negate one another. One could say that the ancients, while exceedingly important for the writer, become a subtle object of rivalry to be bettered and conquered. The writer’s individuated will eventually consumes the authority of the ancient figure, even where it might seem at first glance that the modern is bowed in absolute submission. Submission, through all the chapters of this study, is a complex act that can sometimes be a sly form of surpassing the authority that is supposedly enshrined. It was William Blake who advocated that people replace corporeal warfare with intellectual battle; this concept can be observed in a pattern of development, where eventually the author commits an artistic violence against the antique forefather or foremother. Wheatley defrocks Horace. Blake undermines the Hebrew prophets. Thoreau reduces Homer’s grandiose battles to a cluster of ants in the forest. Delany declares his freedom from the Mosaic law. Overthrowing an ancient influence requires a tremendous level of caution, but as these authors prove, it can be done. This violence is not necessarily a repudiation, but a final fulfillment of antiquity–a sublime moment where some pressing desire of the ancient is at last satisfied in the modern’s art and ancientness is deprived of its exceptional status.
Bloom addressed the moment of battle with one’s inspirer using the term “anxiety of influence.” Still staying within a vaguely psychoanalytic framework, I might sidestep Bloom in favor of Rene Girard, so long as one can translate the latter’s theories of sacrifice into the kind of intellectual battle that Blake’s model implies. As Rene Girard points out in Violence and the Sacred, violent rivalry is closely linked to mimesis. When one is forced to worship a sacred ancient name, like Virgil, one learns to imitate the act of imposing one’s artistic will on others. The writer who has been forced by institutions to revere ancient authorities experiences this submission as a kind of violence. Having matured into adulthood, later the writer responds with his own violence. Girard was convinced that Freud had inverted the true nature of the Oedipus Complex. Rather than the son wanting to kill the father because of rivalry for a common object of desire, murderous impulses fuel a mimetic desire. “Rivalry does not arise because of the fortuitous convergence of two desires on a single object; rather, the subject desires the object because the rival desires it” (145). Imitation of others is one part of the subject’s competitive desire to establish control and become independent. Within Girard’s model, indifferentiation or the collapsing of identity boundaries is the true violence, not the “othering” that one might assume. The veneratio can never be free of this violent ambivalence. None who approaches the ancients can be free of the resentment that antiquity’s prestige has already engendered. Imitating the ancients is only partly to venerate them: It is also a competitive desire to take away their unique claims and to unseat them from their pedestals. One crushes them by becoming them.
On a non-corporeal level, therefore, the relationship with antiquity is never free of violence. Radicalism itself is intellectually violent. Radical writers here differentiate themselves from the authorities they fight in their contemporary climate but consciously indifferentiate themselves from respected figures from antiquity in order to arrogate the prestige of ancients to their own radical authority. Their incorporation of the ancient source is always laced with a hidden dose of hostility; the presentation of the new text is always somewhat aggressive. To use the phrase “radical authority” sounds somewhat contradictory at first glance, but it actually is not. Part of the value of examining radical connections to antiquity will be the critical awareness of just how important it is for radicals to establish their own legitimacy. Like the voice who introduces Perpetua’s Passio, theydo not seek to obliterate any kind of legitimizing hierarchy but rather to place themselves at the top of ones that they willfully create by adapting very old and respected symbols. Blake’s famous lines from Book I of Jerusalem are perhaps most fitting to keep in mind:
I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Mans
I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create (153).
As is clear from these lines, though the author connects with ghosts from a faraway past (as Blake will do in Chapter III) the author’s individual will is not ultimately regulated by the frozen texts of antiquity. The radical author amends, changes and even rewrites the ancient past. After establishing such a familiar, almost friendly relation with figures of antiquity, the author finally can trounce them with a cavalier confidence in himself. The radical obliterates his antique daemons by eclipsing or surpassing them. His individual will is to be an awesome edifice in itself, bolstered by the ancients but ultimately edified by the will’s own willingness to create and its refusal to be enslaved by externally imposed systems. To theorize this pattern of authorial relationships with antiquity, two contrasting phrases will recur, each representing different symbolic constructions of the ancient past. One phrase is monumental antiquity, which I will link theoretically to conservative, hegemonic uses. The other is totemic antiquity, which I will link to the radical uses of antiquity pinpointed in Wheatley, Blake, Thoreau, Delany, and Wells Brown.They are two sides of the veneratio that I see constantly at war with one another.
The term “monumental,” used more comfortably in art history, architecture and space theory, usually refers to edifices harking back to human ancestors; while the term “totemic,” more familiar to anthropology, ethnography and psychoanalysis, has usually referred to tribal mysteries that honored animal ancestors. These terms are not customarily placed in dialogue with each other. The crucial incompatibility of a world view that looks to a human origin and another that looks back to animal origins is the most understandable reason for them never being introduced. The discomfort with blurring the lines between humans and animals still prevails in the contemporary discourse. The present study will not actually blur this line (I leave that to another theorist to pursue even more fully). But I apply “totemism” outside the usual context of men worshipping animal progenitors. The difference between human and beast will be allegorized into other kinds of difference between humans, and animals will not be involved at all in the “totemic” patterns I trace.
While the monumental and the totemic differ, they do so in degree rather than in kind. One would err in representing their distinctiveness from one another as phenomenologically hermetic. I would even conjecture that their similarities outweigh their dissimilarities. Both monuments and totems negotiate between senses of the present and abstract conceptions of an invisible world preceding the present. In their material manifestations they take part equally in the human process of remembering a distant past. Conversely both monuments and totems obstruct the natural human tendency to forget events and ideas of that distant past. Moreover, they share a dubious status vis-à-vis contemporary theoretical discourses. Neither monuments nor totems are much in vogue among literary theorists. Nor have they been for quite some time. They share a mutual vulnerability to deconstruction by forms of criticism that abhor their pretenses of spiritual wholeness and continuity. Their intuitive spirituality, idealism, and proclivity toward total belief offend both rationalist modernism and value-neutral postmodernism. The urge to raise monuments and totems equally resemble a mental appetite that Foucault labels as outdated in the Archaeology of Knowledge, namely “the continuous chronology of reason, which was invariably traced back to some inaccessible origin.” This desire to trace consciousness backward in a continuous line toward a vague and intangible beginning point is precisely what Foucault views as obsolete, overshadowed by a new historicism that rejects totalized continuities in favor of “scales that are sometimes very brief, distinct from one another, irreducible to a single law” (8). As well, they are both parts of the large family of mental practices called “myth,” which is categorized by some as a conservative practice. Roland Barthes has asserted in Mythologies that “It is because [Revolution] generates speech which is fully, that is to say initially and finally, political, and not, like myth, speech which is initially political and finally natural, that Revolution excludes myth […]. Statistically, myth is on the right” (146-8). One could fairly characterize monuments and totems as symbolic elements of the “metalanguage” that Roland Barthes associated with mythos in general, the “second language in which one speaks about the first” (115).The fact that the audience of such mythic displays is unaware of the complex metalanguage that monuments and totems use only makes the influence of myth more powerful, because “driven either to unveil or liquidate [its] concept, it will naturalize it” (129). Myth works hardest when it feels most natural, and when we are utterly unaware of its power over us.
Foucault’s and Barthes’ subtle apprehension toward the mythic represent the Left’s common dislike for cultural tendencies that totems and monuments impart. One ought to discard any broad claims about polytheism being less totalizing than monotheism. Monuments and totems both totalize. They are slightly dangerous since neither is innocent of the absolutism that has become a cause of general intellectual concern with the rise of both Muslim and Christian fundamentalism in recent decades. Yet even if myth leads to fundamentalism, an astute observer of world politics might warn self-assured relativists: do not condescend to fundamentalists. If total belief in myth were so easy to eradicate with a strong dose of rational science and individual liberty, then how did the attachment to antiquity survive the American and French Revolutions at all (or Darwin, for that matter)? As Habermas says of the two revolutions in Theory and Practice, “Among the men of that time it had become a commonplace that the Revolution had transferred philosophy from books into reality,” adding that “Philosophy here meant the principles of rational Natural Law and these were the principles of the new constitutions” (82). The concept of “Natural Law,” so important to influential philosophers like Locke and Rousseau, had already proposed a system of social organization that could ostensibly make the cherished narratives of a society’s ancient origin irrelevant. While Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, were immensely interested in the original “state of nature” for the purposes of their philosophical exercises, the role of the Bible and Greco-Roman mythology in articulating this state of nature progressively diminishes and finally vanishes by the middle of the eighteenth century. In Hobbes’ Leviathan, a whole third of the chapters are devoted to exegesis of the Bible and carefully responding to those who would structure political life around ancient Scriptures (255-491). In Locke’s Treatises, the references to ancient Scripture are parsed out and diluted by his emphasis on Natural Law. In Rousseau’s Social Contract, the reverence to Scriptures has almost entirely vanished. Paine and Voltaire, as we shall see in Chapter IV, ridiculed sincere belief in ancient stories as barbaric and childish. Antiquity was simply not as important as Natural Law, as Habermas observes, and it was Natural Law, not the adherence to ancient prophecies, that generated these sweeping revolutions. Yet as this study will underscore, antiquity did not perish for important writers, and attachment to the sacredness of the ancients remained incredibly powerful. The ancients who represent humanity’s mysterious origin return again and again. Perhaps their purpose is indispensable.
Monumentalized and totemized visions of a shared antique origin have historically played important roles in articulating an originary history and a group identity. In forming collective identities, monuments and totems also draw spatial boundaries, expressing in cultural terms who belongs to a certain group and who does not belong. Both perpetuate peaceful order within the constituency that erects them, while accommodating if not encouraging war against groups that fall outside the boundaries that monuments and totems implicitly construct. This basic overlap in the functional impact of monumentalism and totemism must be acknowledged. While scholars have generally viewed the two as respective hallmarks of civilization and savagery, in reality there is a consistent human impulse to organize present social realities around a shared conception of the past that pervades both advanced and primitive cultures. Monuments and totems, as they bring the past into the present, are capable of fueling exclusionary instincts in people even as, on the surface, their gestures or motifs appear to be entirely inclusive. Two excellent examples are the Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the Statue of Liberty in New York City. As the Cristo Redentor looms over Rio de Janeiro, for instance, he does two things with his open arms. He welcomes anyone to Rio de Janeiro by emphasizing the all-embracing doctrine associated with the ancient figure of Jesus Christ. But at the same time, he places Christianity above any other possible religion, claiming the multi-racial space below it for the institutions that claim to be the largest inheritors of Christ’s influence; namely, established churches. The space under the shadow of Christ’s image is made more comfortable to all who accept Christ and more uncomfortable for anyone who doesn’t. Pagan African religions that came to Brazil through the slave trade, native religions that might have survived Portuguese colonialism, Eastern religions possibly practiced by the country’s Chinese and Japanese immigrants and even immigrant Jewish communities are excluded by the statue’s powerful act of inclusion. Totems, while associated primarily with non-Christian, so-called uncivilized cultures around the world, are no less capable of turning their inclusive symbolism into a pattern of exclusion. When one group claims a specific animal, such as a panther, as its totem, this marks the group’s members off from others who don’t claim the panther in the same way. Hence while this dissertation will make repeated links between the totemic and radicalism, one ought to remember that this connection is made purely in relative terms, when comparing certain invocations of the past with others. It would be a mistake to posit totemism as a perfectly innocent alternative to a rigid, purist and genocidal monumentalism.
The cautionary note about overly dichotomizing is particularly appropriate since theories about totemism have a troubled racial history. Fraser, Freud, Jung, and others of the psychoanalytic strain, who were keenly interested in totemism and its related practices, wrote about their exotic subjects of study with varying levels of overconfidence in their own objectivity and detachment. Because of the resulting pattern of white scientists distorting the beliefs of nonwhite subjects, a general discomfort with the anthropological gaze has at times made antiracist critics defensive about intellectual boundaries, rendering certain themes taboo (one of these taboos being totemism, which is ironic given Freud’s Totem and Taboo.) Within the field of race theory, there has been ample attention to the problems of positing cultural phenomena as discreet and separate. Homi Bhabha, drawing extensively from the works of Frantz Fanon and Edward Said, specifically warns antiracist critics against becoming too comfortable with a perfect polarity that posits Europeans as oppressors and others as victims. This warning can and should be applied equally to the forthcoming discussions of monumentalism and totemism:
Between what is represented as the ‘larceny’ and distortion of European ‘metatheorizing’ and the radical, engaged, activist experience of Third World creativity, one can see the mirror image (albeit reversed in content and intention) of that ahistorical nineteenth-century polarity of Orient and Occident which, in the name of progress, unleashed the exclusionary imperialist ideologies of self and other (19).
Bhabha falls short in this statement in that he attributes the ideology of self and other–an ideology central to his emphasis on difference as the location of culture–exclusively to one century and only to those who justified exclusionary practices based on philosophies of progress. Bhabha’s overall reticence is understandable, however. He is trying to be cautious after seeing how easily one attributes to political opponents the fallacies and biases that one refuses to acknowledge in one’s self. There has been plentiful exaggeration, by both conservatives and liberals, of the difference between the civilized (who are closer to monumentalism) and the savages (who are closer to totemism.) Usually, depending on which of the two better flatters the exaggerator’s ideal historiographic vision, the sophistication of one or the raw simplicity of the other is problematically emphasized and romanticized, in a process similar to the slippage between revolutionary and conservative Romantic writers as noticed by Northrop Frye. There have been various attempts to laud pagan African religions as if none of the xenophobic violence, observable in the West’s classicism, ever surfaces among peoples that worship totems or have multiple gods. On the other hand, this metatheorizing by overly polarized race theorists, while particularly repugnant to Bhabha, would have a hard time matching the long and violent history of dehumanization that grew out of European racism. The privileging of the totemic by primitivists mirrors but can probably never approximate, in terms of power and cultural impact, the racist arrogance that plagued the white academy’s treatment of totemism as a barbaric set of practices totally incomparable to a rationalist and ostensibly less violent Western civilization.
What saves this immense corpus of ethnographic studies from irreparable offensiveness is the fact that eventually theorists, writing about totemism, confessed their own racism and struggled to reform. In his landmark work Totemism, Claude Lévi-Strauss compares the fascination with totemism of the early 1900s to the obsession with hysteria in the late 1800s. The vogue of studying these two phenomena
[was] contemporary, arising from the same cultural conditions and their parallel misadventures may be initially explained by a tendency […] to mark off certain human phenomena [as] a natural entity […] alien to their own moral universe, thus protecting the attachment which they felt toward the latter (1).
For Levi-Strauss, a great misadventure of Freud’s generation was to construe totemism as a primitive spiritual practice unrelated to the religions like Christianity and Judaism that formed the scholars’ moral universe. Levi-Strauss was attuned to anthropology’s excessive desire to distance the psychological patterns of their subjects from their own behavioral patterns. The heightened focus on humans who worshipped animals had enabled this distancing. Rather than adducing broader human approaches to recollecting their past, and even interrogating what stakes they invested in their own views of an ancient origin, they read the totems as incomparable to themselves in their normal state. Since they could not imagine identifying with wolves, koala bears, or jaguars, they found it easy to see those who did as alien to their moral universe. In a nutshell, one must avoid overstating the difference between monuments and totems, since they are similar in some ways, and since many people who have overstated their differences did so out of racism. My choice of writers, I hope, closes up most of the possible pitfalls.
Even when understated, however, monumentalism and totemism are markedly different, and ultimately the dissimilarities between a monumental view of antiquity and a totemic view form the crux of this literary study. Monuments emphasize materiality; to be built they require capital, structure and organization. As such their meaning is always circumscribed by groups in power, because to raise a monument requires ownership of space and command of workers.
While one often associates totems with the totem pole, in the more comprehensive meaning totems are not material edifices at all. The totem is the living animal symbol of a spirit that is at once the ancestor, the guide, the companion, and the sacrificial object of the one who invokes him. Everywhere the animal is, the totem lives. The totem is neither fixed, nor organized by human power, nor dependent on capital, space, or command of others.
Both have a material component, but while the monument is lifelessly fixed into an impassable grandeur, the totem is alive and interactive. To raise monuments one must be powerful. They are instant markers of supreme agency, so they become a self-fulfilling prophecy that entrenches the status quo: to edify one’s power and make it more visible, one raises monuments. Hence Nathan Hale presides over the flagstone on Yale’s Old Campus. To connect with a totem, however, requires not power but spiritual openness, the channeling of psychological energy, and an impetus related to need. Their different relationships to the production and maintenance of power render the monumental and totemic unlike each other in effect. The former is on the side of those who have power already and wish to cement their power into authority; it is a fundamentally conservative construct with tendencies toward repression, hierarchy and a status quo. The latter, more dynamic and unpredictable, is on the side of those who grapple with the unexpected and therefore do not have any illusions of holding true control; it is not always a radical construct, but for groups that are resisting repression or struggling to displace the status quo, it can be radical.
To make the application of the idea of monuments to the field of literature more comfortable, Foucault’s disquisition on the relationship between documents and monuments in Archaeology of Knowledge might be useful:
[H]istory, in its traditional form, undertook to ‘memorize’ the monuments of the past, transform them into documents, and lend speech to those traces which, in themselves, are often not verbal, or which say in silence something other than what they actually say; in our time, history is that which transforms documents into monuments […]. [I]n our time history aspires to the condition of archaeology, to the intrinsic description of the monument (7).
In Foucault’s paradigm, monuments and documents are distinct relics, with differing levels of scrutability, morphing into one another through the catalyst of history. Which of the two is the beginning evidentiary state, and which the telos of historicist intervention, depends according to Foucault on whether the interpretive model is conventionally historiographic or archaeological. Yet what would it mean, if one stole Foucault’s terms (after all, Barthes did say that “myth is always a language-robbery” (131) and this dissertation is myth-friendly) and used them a different way? Foucault’s model is extremely useful because it offers a means of translation; it allows us to apply the observations made about monuments to the discourse surrounding documents–most notably, ancient documents.
Why not wed Foucault’s aptitude with archaeology and Lefebvre’s aptitude with architecture? In The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre makes astute observations about the significance of monuments. For Lefebvre, the monumental is largely defined by its negation of the “brutal condensation of social relationships” that characterize mere buildings, which are to him “the prose of the world as opposed, or apposed, to the poetry of monuments” (227). Within the monument the obscene is banished and the normal rhythm of every day life, including “pleasure and suffering, use and labour” is interrupted, halted (226-227). He writes that “Buildings are to monuments as everyday life is to festival, products to works, lived experience to the merely perceived, concrete to stone” (223).
Within the monumental space, even death is negated. The monument is experienced by its visitor as a withdrawal from space and time, a brief escape from the inevitable corporeal restrictions of every day life. It is not necessarily large, but powerful in its effect, for he tells us that “[a]ny object–a vase, a chair, a garment–may be extracted from everyday practice and suffer a displacement which will transform it by transferring it into monumental space: the vase will become holy, the garment ceremonial, the chair the seat of authority” (225). But in Lefebvre’s rendition, one sees that the ability to organize space with such a dramatic effect is not innocent of politics; nor is it a spiritual liberation from the mortal human condition that is so often defined by the struggle for material power that concerned Marx. Rather, it is brutally involved in the imposition of social order, the naturalization of social roles and the distribution of power. “Monumental imperishability bears the stamp of the will to power. Only Will, in its more elaborated forms–the wish for mastery, the will to will–can overcome, or believe it can overcome, death” (221). But whose power? Not everybody’s. Not even most people’s. In fact the kind of power that monuments embody depends on the submission of others; it depends on their being readers of the monument who will be awed into obedience, cowed by the grandeur, frightened into silence:
[E]ach monumental space becomes the metaphorical and quasi-metaphysical underpinning of a society, this by virtue of a play of substitutions in which the religious and political realms symbolically (and ceremonially) exchange attributes–the attributes of power; in this way the authority of the sacred and the sacred aspect of authority are transferred back and forth, mutually reinforcing one another in the process (225).
Monumental space makes those who hold authority sacred, as Lefebvre indicates. And this, to use Barthes’ term, naturalizes their entitlement to power over others, whether it be a priesthood, a political camp or an oligarchy. “The element of repression in it and the element of exaltation could scarcely be disentangled,” Lefebvre says of the space’s political ramifications (220). Elsewhere he says, “to the degree that there are traces of violence and death, negativity and aggressiveness in social practice, the monumental work erases them and replaces them with a tranquil power and certitude that can encompass violence and terror” (222). Here is where I would depart from Lefebvre, because I see the violence that the monument represses as only one small part of the violence that occurs in a society. It suppresses irreverent, angry, insurrectionary violence only, while endorsing sacrificial, disciplinary and exploitative violence. The aggressiveness that the monumental work erases, I would suggest, is only the revolutionary kind.
Maybe Lefebvre would agree with me on that count, since he said, “[s]mall wonder that from time immemorial conquerors and revolutionaries eager to destroy a society should so often have sought to do so by burning or razing that society’s monuments” (221). But in this statement he has already grouped together the violence of conquest and the violence of revolt, almost making them allies against some vague transcendental value that he sees in monumental space. The monuments are working too well on him. This is precisely what monuments so often conflate, representing any transgression against social hierarchies as cruelty and sacrilege. It allows the one who holds an excess of power to feel and appear vulnerable, even victimized, when his inferiors refuse to accede to his domination. No passage in American literature has perhaps struck at this idea more roundly than Nathaniel Hawthorne in House of the Seven Gables when he describes the Pyncheon mansion:
There is something so massive, stable and almost irresistibly imposing, in the exterior presentment of established rank and great possessions, that their very existence seems to give them a right to exist; at least, so excellent a counterfeit of right, that few poor and humble men have moral force enough to question it, even in their secret minds (25).
The aspect of grandeur that Hawthorne senses is authority itself. And the grandeur that he describes, like the enormity that Lefebvre depicts, is akin to the psychological impact of the monumental veneratio. It is the repressive antiquity, always a spokesperson for the ones who hold power. The monument stares down at the person who passes it, and says, “You are nothing before me. Admit that you know nothing me. Admit that you are not what I am. I am the holy, the sacred, the untouchable past. Bow before me, and get back to work.”
The monumental view of antiquity, in a literary sense, replaces Lefebvre’s space with time. It is the breathtaking vastness of time that looms large over the reader, making him or her interrupt the daily rhythm of mortality. And the one who comes bearing an authentic vision of antiquity invokes the ancient past precisely to cement power, to naturalize authority, to render his powerful position too sacred to question or resist. Ultimately it sanctions war, authorizes state violence, and erases the violence of revolution, which suddenly appears through the monumentalized lens to be deicide or sacrilege. Returning to Thomas Jefferson, his puzzling uses of antiquity all seem to connect: his insistence on erecting an obelisk to himself, his pleas for Latin and Greek to be taught in schools, his bizarre renunciation of the rights of American blacks, his vicious attacks against Phyllis Wheatley. For Jefferson, antiquity was monumental–a massive spatial metaphor that could be summoned in order to naturalize a claim to power that was not yet entirely guaranteed, because of the recentness of the Revolution that he had spearheaded. He had an appetite for order and the submission of groups that he feared might undermine him; antiquity appeased that appetite.
Totemism also brings to its reader the grandness of time and the mysteries of origins, but it does so in a different way. The very name “totem” comes from the Algonquin word ototeman, which means “he is a relative of mine” (Levi-Strauss 18). Celebrating the totem is a way of expressing relational ties to other living beings–both fellow humans who share the same totemic ancestor, and the spirit of the mysterious totem itself. Levi-Strauss is strict about not defining this practice as a belief in guardian spirits, but other anthropologists have disagreed with him on this point, and in any case, many groups that worship totems also believe in “the acquisition of a guardian spirit […] as the consummation of a strictly individual enterprise which girls and boys were encouraged to undertake when they approached puberty” (23). Individuals experience moments when they are sure the totem speaks to them; the totem is not only a distant ancestor but also a living presence, able to help mediate through immediate difficulties in the present.
Because of this interesting interaction between the idea of a sacred, ancient ancestor and the idea of a present, involved guardian spirit, some researchers like Malinowski interpreted the totem system as naturalistic, utilitarian and affective (Levi-Strauss 56). It was not a retreat from the pressures of every day life, as Lefebvre saw monumental space, but a concerted engagement with it, a learned method of coping with the difficulties of every day life. While monuments might be called spiritual, they are not magical in the way totems are. By looking to animal ancestors, there is a material impossibility of authenticating the truth of the descent story. This requires a certain suspension of rationalization in totemic belief. One must avoid applying empirical standards to one’s belief in an ancient origin. There is a large lacuna between the human totemist and the animal totem, a lacuna of difference that the human overcomes by spiritually connecting with the affects of that ancient source. None of the authors that I will analyze in the forthcoming chapters worshipped animals. But their sensibility toward an ancient origin showed many totemic tendencies. They felt a deep spiritual connection with the authors of antiquity whom they regarded as their source of primary influence. This connection felt natural to them, so natural that the field of difference between their identity and the identity of an ancient context did not deter them from adopting those antique authors as guardian spirits, interlocutors and intellectual forebears. Whereas Jefferson was insistent on imposing his lines of difference onto antiquity, writers like Wheatley and Thoreau felt no hesitation on playing with lines of difference, deterritorializing them in the sense that Deleuze discussed in 1000 Plateaus.
The playfulness that Deleuze evinces when he discusses the difference between a rhizomatic and an arborescent book is close to the totemic spirit I will trace in these authors’ engagement with antiquity. “The rhizome,” Deleuze says, “is an anti-genealogy” (11). The writer is allowed to connect with antiquity with the sincerity of a Perpetua, not because such a connection is sanctioned or authenticated by a rigid material presence like a monument, but rather, because the writer feels so comfortable in the voice of the antique author. Whatever dilemma the ancient voice voiced–whether it be the problem of bondage (for Wheatley) prophetic authority (for Blake), social obligations (Thoreau) or the desire for liberation (Delany)–it feels real to the author. The writer lives in an ancient tense, deterritorialized from the structured senses he or she is supposed to feel according to the official version of history. This does not mean that the author spits on authority, authenticity, or all concepts of the real. This does not mean that the author rejects any possibilities of being inside a system. On the contrary, the rhizome can develop its own system, but it is always transgressive toward the arborescent ones that follow the standard interpretations of time and being:
Every rhizome contains lines of segmentarity according to which it is stratified, territorialized, organized, signified, attributed, etc., as well as lines of deterritorialization down which it constantly flees (9).
The radical authors who will now take center stage are constantly in this rhizomatic relationship to antiquity–at times mirroring it, at times shattering it, at times subordinating it to their own intuition. None of them actually submit to the authority of antiquity, as will become clear. They are rather in a complicated process of assuming its legitimacy, absorbing its authority and applying its relevant power to a world that is, to them, still very real and needing attention.
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— and Felix Guattari. Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
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Levi-Strauss, Claude. Totemism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1962.
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McDonald, Robert M.S. “Thomas Jefferson and Historical Self-Construction: The Earth Belongs to the Living?” Historian 61:2 (Winter 1999): 289-.
Perpetua, St. Passio Perpetuae Felicitatisque. Trans. & Ed. J. Armitrage Robinson.Lessing-Druckerei: Cambridge at the University Press, 1891.
Smith, Daniel Scott. “Population and Political Ethics: Thomas Jefferson’s Demography of Generations.” William and Mary Quarterly 56:3 (July 1999): 591-612.
 Translated by author.