The Gordian Not: Untangling the Motivorum (1)

Richard H. Thames, Duquesne University


This essay reconstructs Burke’s Symbolic and demonstrates its centrality to his system, arguing (1) nearly half of the Symbolic remains unpublished or uncollected, particularly two neglected essays on catharsis, the Symbolic’s own central term and the philosophical (rather than simply literary) problem at the heart of Burke’s system, as it addresses the relationship between mind and body; (2) logology (his epistemology) and the Ethics were a outgrowth of, rather than a break from, dramatism (his ontology) and the Motivorum; and (3) his Rhetoric, in contrast with his basically Aristotelian system (characterized in terms of naturalism, organicism, and pantheism), is Platonistic (consistent with his little noticed quietistic, mystical tendencies).

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The publication of William Rueckert’s Essays toward a Symbolic of Motives, 1950-1955 will no doubt occasion a new examination of the tangled history of Kenneth Burke’s never published Symbolic and Ethics and their place in his projected Motivorum.

Rueckert describes his book as the first version of the Symbolic. His title probably more accurately describes this compilation based on a footnote to Burke’s great 1955 essay, “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education,” listing articles already published on “poetics and the technique of ‘indexing’ literary works” (with two articles dropped and four added). The supposed second version, “Poetics, Dramatistically Considered” (hereafter PDC), was multi-lithographed and distributed by Burke in 1958 while he was teaching a six-week summer seminar at Indiana University. Another version with the running head “Symbolic” (hereafter SM) was discovered by Anthony Burke among his father’s papers following Burke’s death in 1993 and given to Rueckert. Rueckert in turn passed the manuscript on to Greig Henderson and David Cratis Williams who were editing a volume of essays from the 1996 triennial Kenneth Burke Society conference at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Excerpts from both the PDC and the SM were eventually published in their 2001 Unending Conversations with an accompanying essay by Rueckert and a definitive “Textual Introduction” by Williams (upon which the following draws extensively1), establishing the SM as a 1961-64 revision of the 1958 PDC.

The chronology of the manuscripts having been determined, Williams asked, “Why did Burke never finish the design for PDC? Why did he ‘start over’ with SM?” Did the Motivorum, having expanded into a tetralogy, revert to a trilogy? “Did Burke abandon plans for an Ethics of Motives entirely, or did it become subsumed back into the design for the unwritten portions of SM?” (Williams, UC 29)

At the end of his “Introduction” Rueckert too looks to the larger project, hoping other scholars will do for the SM what Williams did for the PDC, so that “all these dramatistic poetics [can be put] into their appropriate place in relation to Burke’s other books and dramatism as a whole” (Essays xxi).

This essay will take up these issues, arguing specifically that the Symbolic is central to Burke’s system, though its centrality has not been readily apparent.


A Summary of the Motivorum’s Evolution

(with thanks to David Cratis Williams)

Following publication of Counter-Statement in 1931, Burke began taking notes on “corporate devices whereby business enterprisers had contrived to build up empires by purely financial manipulations.” Unexpectedly finding answers to many of his questions in Congressional committee records, Burke said he moved on, widening “his speculations to include a concern with problems of motivation in general.” Permanence and Change in 1935 was “the first completed manuscript of this material.” Attitudes toward History followed in 1937 and Philosophy of Literary Form in 1941. Along the way Burke’s notes on corporate devices had resumed in a more general form which he finally sought to treat in a book “On Human Relations” that would “round out the concerns of P&C and ATH. ” But as he sought to write up his notes, he found “more preparatory ground-work” was needed, leading to A Grammar of Motives in 1945 (“Curriculum Criticum,” CS 216-18). According to the book jacket of the 1945 Prentice-Hall edition, the Grammar was the first volume of a trilogy on human relations to be followed by A Rhetoric of Motives in 1947 and A Symbolic of Motives in 1948.

But the Rhetoric did not proceed as planned, growing to two volumes, the second of which was to consist in part of the compendium of devices compiled since 1931, a compendium that would remain, as from the beginning, entangled in the Motivorum (Williams, UC 6).

In 1950 the one volume Rhetoric was published. Burke then turned to the Symbolic, churning out a commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics—“dramatistically considered”—in January and by mid-March a “monster chapter” on “The Thinking of the Body” plus a lengthy index of the Orestes trilogy (Williams, UC 8-9). “Form and Persecution in the Oresteia” would be published the following year, one of thirteen related articles produced from 1950 through '52, 2 seeming to indicate the Symbolic was proceeding apace unlike the Rhetoric.

But correspondence as well as textual references in and headnotes accompanying the published articles suggested otherwise. Given such, as well as Burke’s reluctance to name articles that would actually be in the Symbolic, Williams surmises Burke was beginning to suspect that, as with the Rhetoric, he might have not one book but two (Williams, UC 9-10) 3—perhaps one on “poetics” and a second on “the technique of ‘indexing’ literary works” (suggested in the 1955 essay, “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education”) or a second on the various analyses of particular works or authors (suggested in a 1958 letter to Cowley) (Williams, UC 14). Whatever he thought at the time, Burke clearly never settled the question of a one or two book Symbolic. The same question may have arisen later for the Ethics (with the compendium of devices still unpublished).

In April 1952 Burke began a chapter on “the Negative” (Williams, UC 11) which he considered integral to the Symbolic but which proved transforming of the Motivorum. Over winter 1952-53 “A Dramatistic View of the Origins of Language” was published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, immediately followed in the spring by “Postscripts on the Negative.” In March 1953 he had written “Goethe’s Faust, Part I” (Language as Symbolic Action ix), another essay involving the Negative. 4 Meanwhile in January Burke was reporting in his afterword to the second edition of Counter-Statement (“Curriculum Criticum”) that the trilogy dealing with “linguistic structures in their logical, rhetorical, and poetic dimensions” would require a fourth volume stressing the ethical, probably entitled “On Human Relations” (CS 218). On September 27, 1954, Burke wrote to Cowley:

Plans are to begin next week on the finishing of my Sin-Ballix. (Psst: I’m telling myself don’t finish up one book Burke but two. Wadda form! “Substance” for the Grammar. “Identification” for the Rhetoric. “Catharsis” for the Poetics. And for the Ethics—Character, Personality—the Great Lore of No-No, Huh-uh, Mustn’t, and the ways of life that congeal about it, or shatter around it. But alas, there are cracks in the symmetry, too. For “Identification” had to share with “Persuasion” in the Rhetoric. And “Catharsis” must share with “Identity” in the Poetics. And “Identity” also o’er-flows into the Ethics, which furthermore quoth the raven should contain our lore of Devices, Burke on de virtues and de vices.(Williams, UC 12)

Burke’s comments and the chronology suggest that many works scholars have associated with “poetics” or “logology” might be associated with “ethics” instead (see below), all having been entangled from the start.

Spring 1955 Burke was back to the Symbolic, drafting by June an essay on Emerson’s Nature, described to Cowley as a “big item in my godam Symbolic.” He despaired, however, the end in sight but getting no nearer.

With the new year 1956 he was busy “indexing” Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. The following fall he hoped to finish revising the Symbolic by Christmas, then head to Florida with “notes for the fourth book” (i.e., the Ethics). In November, writing Cowley while recuperating from hernia surgery, he was “happy” to announce his “definitive general chapter” on “Catharsis” was finally going well (probably the sections “Catharsis—Second View,” as well as “Beyond Catharsis” and “Platonic Transcendence,” the latter two perhaps developed out of the Emerson essay), though he continued wrestling with the “Catharsis problem” into spring 1957 (Williams, UC 13-14).5

Burke spent an extremely productive 1957-58 academic year at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. By June 1958 when he left, he had “completed” and multi-lithographed a manuscript entitled “Poetics, Dramatistically Considered” (PDC) which he distributed to his seminar students at Indiana as well as professional colleagues (including Rueckert a year later).

But during his stay at Stanford, he had also completed essays based on talks given at Drew University during the winter and spring of 1956-57 (eventually published in 1961’s Rhetoric of Religion).6 And in April 1958 he had written Cowley about plans for a new book that would involve “three theories of catharsis (and its problems)” (probably personal, civic, and ontological catharsis—see below) and three major analyses: Augustine’s Confessions (the April ‘56 talk at Drew), the Oresteia, and the first three chapters of Genesis (the May ‘57 talk) (Williams, UC 14-15), indicating the Symbolic and the Ethics were still intertwined, despite the appearance of the PDC five weeks later.7

Summer 1958 saw the publication of “The First Three Chapters of Genesis” finished at Stanford. Between that June and June 1960 Burke appears to have concentrated on the Rhetoric of Religion, finishing “On Words and The Word” (the December ‘56 talk at Drew) and “A Prologue in Heaven” (inspired perhaps by his work on Goethe’s Faust which contains its own “Prologue in Heaven” with Satan and the Lord).

The two essays from the PDC published in 1952 (“A ‘Dramatistic’ View of ‘Imitation’” and “Form and Persecution in the Oresteia ”) were joined by two more from the PDC published in 1958, indicating Burke’s confidence in the material—apparently one of the earliest, “On Catharsis, or Resolution, with a Postscript,” (though some material from the SM appears word for word); and one of the latest, “The Poetic Motive” (probably written sometime after 1954’s “The Language of Poetry, ‘Dramatistically Considered,” the former’s concerning the “four delights intrinsic to symbol-use” versus the latter’s “four offices of the orator”).

“The Poetic Motive,” the PDC’s last section, became the SM’s first. “The Language of Poetry” (the first section of the Faust essay) may have been intended as part of the Symbolic but ultimately may have proven a better (as well as parallel) opening for the Ethics, its original title by then a misnomer. (See “A Cluster Analysis” below).

Other sections of the manuscript, “The Logic of the Terms” (early) and “Beyond Catharsis” and “Platonic Transcendence” (late) were not published until 2001 in Unending Conversations. The other late section, “Catharsis—Second View,” was published in 1961 when Burke began revising the PDC. “The Unburned Bridges of Poetics, or, How to Keep Poetry Pure?” (which Williams thinks was written late or substantially revised for the final version of the PDC) was not published until 1964.

On August 4, 1959 Rueckert initiated 18 years of correspondence, explaining that he was completing a book on Burke’s literary theory and criticism and was anxious to know when his “perpetually ‘forthcoming’ A Symbolic of Motives” might be forthcoming (Rueckert, Letters 1).

Burke replied, explaining “the damned trilogy” had become a tetralogy. He hoped to complete the Poetics’ “final bits” in the fall—“a section on comic catharsis, for instance, though the general lines [were] already indicated” in his 1958 Kenyon Review article “On Catharsis.” He also hoped “to make clearer the relation btw. dramatic catharsis and Platonic (dialectic)/transcendence” (a significant comment to note—see below, the section “The Symbolic of Motives”), though he thought Rueckert would agree that he had “already indicated the main lines in that connection.” He indicated some of the published (and unpublished) material that would fit into the Symbolic and some that would fit into the Ethics. 8

One problem with the “Poetics” involved deciding whether he “should leave it in one sequence, or also insert various incidental pieces” which he would otherwise “collect in a separate volume.” The Ethics, he continued, was scheduled to contain “a batch of devices” never published—except for a few samples Burke had marked on an enclosed offprint of “Rhetoric—Old and New” from the April 1951 Journal of General Education.

Finally he told Rueckert he would be sending him a copy of the PDC (Rueckert, Letters 3-4).

The end of June 1960, his Rhetoric of Religion done, Burke appears to have finally plunged back into work on the Symbolic (Williams, UC 16) 9which Beacon Press probably also contracted, though at what date he signed and for what period he remained under contract is uncertain. 10 He published “Catharsis—Second View” in the spring 1961 and “The Principle of Composition” in the fall. 11

August 22, 1961 Burke reported to William Carlos Williams that he had revised 25 pages of his “godam Poetics” (James East, Humane Particulars ibid. 229). October 4, he informed Cowley that his attempt to abridge the PDC had not gone well. The 120 pages he now had written—up to “Catharsis (Civic View)”—had only brought him up to what had been 38 pages—the section previously entitled “Catharsis (First View)—in the PDC. 12 In December Libbie reported to the Williamses that Burke was finishing up his Symbolic and she was typing it (East, Humane Particulars 229). 13

But he wrote Cowley in April 1962—“the godam Poetics” was “NOT finished.” And in September 1963—he would “pitch into finishing the Poetics” when done with his new “book of verse.” And in May 1964—his “only sorrow” was not getting “the godam Poetics wholly disentangled” before he had to “goid up” his loins and “sally forth” to the University of California at Santa Barbara . . . and beyond. Then in February 1965—the University of California Press was desirous of a book based on his “yipings” from the “Academic Circuit.” At the end of August—he was almost done (with Language as Symbolic Action), then he would “wrestle” again full-time with his Poetics! (Williams, UC 18).

Meanwhile from fall 1963 through fall 1966, Burke published eighteen articles related to the Symbolic and Ethics —an outpouring to match the outpouring from 1950 to ‘52. 14 Burke appeared to be “goiding up his loins” for something. Had not the University of California pressed him for a book at a critical moment, a complete Motivorum might have appeared. But probably not—given the onset of Libbie’s progressive muscular atrophy 15and her death on May 25, 1969. 16 The most Burke might reasonably have been expected to turn out would have been the first book of the Symbolic; the real work having been done, a less problematic second book of essays might have followed in the early 1970s. The Ethics would have been too much (though an outline may exist). 17

In late July 1969, Burke mentioned to Rueckert his settling down to clear away the “Poetics biz” (Rueckert, Letters 153); in September he indicated to Cowley, that doing so would be largely a job of “editing and typing” (Williams, UC 19). In March 1973 he wrote to Cowley about putting together a Shakespeare book with unpublished work on “William Himself” 18 plus all his published essays as well as editing two manuscripts (presumably the “Devices” and the SM). In May he talked about the former two (Shakespeare and the devices) and a topical index for the new edition of Philosophy of Literary Form but not the SM (Williams, UC 20).

The last burst of activity according to the correspondence occurred in 1977-78, probably under the influence of Bob Zachery at the University of California Press. July 29, Burke told Rueckert he and Zachery were “weeding” the Sinballix (Letters 234); October 5, he was going to try “slapping” it out (ibid. 236). January 24, 1978, Burke sent Rueckert a list of items for his Sinballix (ibid. 243). 19 February 4, in apparent response to a question from Rueckert in an intervening letter, Burke answered, “Yes, much that is in LSA belongs in the Sinballix. But as I see it, the best I can do about that is to include a few pages in which I say so, and why” (ibid. 245). May 30 and June 27 he wrote Cowley that he should finish editing the third volume of the Motivorum, but he was vexed by “new twists” engrossing him in the “Last Phase.” July 20 Burke chastised himself for “tinkering” with another essay when he should have been finalizing the third volume “to incl. possibly the fourth” (Williams, UC 20-21), given long essays (e.g., on the Oresteia or the “Origins of Language”) published in Language as Symbolic Action that might have fit in the Symbolic or the Ethics. Finally, October 24 he wrote Rueckert, “I have decided that what I’d most like to do for book-publishing purposes would be, not the Sinballix, but a third general book (like PLF and LSA)” ( Letters 263)20.

January 28, 1982 Burke wrote Rueckert, “I think the Symbolic has all been published, and merely needs a few editorial connectives” (Letters 288).

A Supplement to the Summary

In spring 1974 while Burke was Visiting Mellon Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, he attended a weekly “Burke” seminar taught by Trevor Melia in the Speech Communication Department. As a graduate student in the seminar, I occasionally saw Burke home after class. We talked more about poetry and criticism than rhetoric. (I liked Eliot and Frye; he didn’t much.)

Sometime in March Burke allowed me to copy the SM manuscript that he had brought with other papers on which he was working. I also made copies of the SM for Ted Windt and Trevor Melia (who subsequently gave a copy to Barbara Biesecker, who in turn gave one to James McDaniel). Over the years I have been public about having a different version and have believed it was generally known. 21 Sometime in the mid-1990s I even traded Robert Wess a copy of my SM for one of his PDC.

The manuscript I got from Burke was entitled “Poetics, ‘Dramatistically’ Considered,” but for the first 18 pages there was a running head of “Poetic Motive” which thereafter (pages 19-222) became “Symbolic.” The table of contents was not included (the 1994 table being in an entirely different, probably computer generated font). The last 47 pages (which were clearly to address “The Thinking of the Body”) were not part of the manuscript; those pages(223-69) also have “Symbolic” as their running head in the 1993 manuscript. Finally the SM was typed in a larger font with smaller margins (so the manuscript pages only roughly correspond). 22 The magnificent passage ending, “this handsome planet and its plenitude” which Rueckert cited in Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations (162) as being on page 391 of Burke’s Poetics (i.e., the end of the PDC) was on page 17 of my manuscript (the end of the first section, “The Poetic Motive”). Before discovering this difference, I assumed I had copied what is now referred to as the PDC.

Impediments to Reconstructing the Symbolic

Why Burke never finished the Motivorum in general or the Symbolic specifically will be addressed later in the essay. The question now is why has no one to date attempted a reconstruction? There are three problems to be addressed:

1) The relationship between dramatism and logology. Is the supposed early Burke from Counter-Statement through the Rhetoric superseded by a later Burke from Rhetoric of Religion on? Did Burke abandon dramatism and move on to logology? Or are dramatism and logology different aspects of a single system?

2) The aestheticization (or idealization) of Burke. Do we tend to read Burke metaphorically when we should read him literally?

3) The role of catharsis in his system (if there is one). Burke may take positions many find problematic, embarrassing, or even absurd on bodily aspects of catharsis; but given his acknowledging such positions discomfort him too, the question is, why develop and articulate such positions unless he is drawn to do so by his system? If such might be the case, should we not be struggling to understand why Burke is drawn to such positions rather than dismissing them as strange?

Each of these questions requires answers of considerable length. Given the constraints of this essay, each will be briefly addressed to contextualize arguments concerning the unfinished Motivorum.

1) The relationship between dramatism and logology

What are human beings? First, in general they are animals, bodies that are born and die; and in between their beginnings and their ends, bodies that eat, excrete, and reproduce. Secondly, they are specifically animals with logos, distinguished from all other bodies by their ability to learn language. Thus—defining human beings by genus and species—Aristotle’s “animals with logos” or Burke’s related “bodies that [are genetically endowed with the ability to] learn language,” 23 the definitions being much the same.

Aristotle’s animal, like Burke’s, learns and uses language. But language is a capacity that must be developed, a potentiality that must be actualized. The potential exists within each of us but is actualized only among us. We speak because we have been spoken to. We are called into conversation and community. Bodies that learn language, therefore, do so only from bodies that already use language; linguistic communication is learned only within a linguistic community—i.e., for Aristotle, the polis. Thus Aristotle’s “political animal.” 24

With logos comes reason. Like language, reason is a capacity that must be developed, a potential that must be actualized. Animals with logos learn to be rational as they learn language. They are not compelled to be rational. But, when they are being most fully and completely that which they most distinctively are, they are being rational. Thus Aristotle’s “rational animal.”

Ontologically, Aristotle describes human beings as political animals; epistemologically, he describes them as rational. Aristotle is not divided into political and rational periods; he does not shift from an early position to a later.

Burke describes the relationship between dramatism and logology in the same way Aristotle would describe that between political and rational. Asked “why two terms for one theory,” Burke explains that dramatism and logology “are analogous respectively to the traditional distinction (in theology and metaphysics) between ontology and epistemology” (“Dramatism and Logology” 89-90). 25

The outgrowth of an ethical approach to language (featuring the Negative) from a symbolic approach was truly a growth, a development of his system. When he recognized the need for making the distinction, Burke must have also recognized the need for making a second distinction between dramatism and logology. The Negative is the essence of language and central to logology (because it makes distinction and therefore abstraction possible). The ethical dimension of language—the dimension dealing with ethos (character) and ethics (conduct)—involves social and personal thou-shalt-nots. Both “Negatives” are hortatory for Burke, but they should not be conflated.

Yet conflated they are. The appearance of the ethics and the appearance of logology are confused by scholars, but not by Burke who is merely tracking down the implications of his terminology. Confusion is compounded when the poetic dimension of language is thrown into the mix. Then Burke is bifurcated (or even “trifurcated”), when Burke—like Aristotle—is actually one.

2) The aestheticization of Burke

Dramatism (the study of bodies genetically endowed with the ability to learn language) and logology (the study of the Negative as essential to language) are, respectively, Burke’s ontology and epistemology.

There is no shift from dramatism to logology. It is out of an ontological dramatism that an epistemological logology grows. Burke’s Motivorum grows from a trilogy investigating the logical, poetic, and rhetorical dimensions of language into a tetralogy investigating the ethical as well. Dramatism and logology, the Grammar, the Rhetoric, the Symbolic, and the Ethics are all part of the same vast enterprise.

If there is no shift from ontological dramatism to epistemological logology, there is certainly no shift from an earlier epistemologically oriented dramatism to a later ontologically oriented one. Burke has always been ontologically oriented. He could have been epistemologically oriented only if he had been essentially metaphorical prior to his declaration that dramatism is literal (“Dramatism” 448).

But Burke is not Erving Goffman, and dramatism is not dramaturgy. For Burke drama imitates life, so his representative anecdote is drama and his central term action. For Goffman theatre imitates life, so his representative anecdote is the stage and his central term performance. For Burke drama is literal; for Goffman theatre is metaphorical.

Burke employs drama, not as a metaphor for the analysis of human motivations, but as a “fixed form that helps us discover what the implications of the terms ‘act’ [action/motion] and ‘person’ [mind/body] really are.” Drama (“the symbolizing or imitating of action”) serves as the representative anecdote for dramatism (an “analysis of language, and thence of human relations generally, by the use of terms derived from the contemplation of drama.”) “Since the real world of action is so confused and complicated as to seem almost formless, and too extended and unstable for orderly observation,” argues Burke, “we need a more limited material that might be representative of human ways while yet having fixity enough to allow for systematic examination.” Great dramas are reflective (holding “the mirror up to nature—Hamlet III.ii)— i.e.,sufficiently complex and mature enough to be representative of human motives yet sufficiently stable to be methodically observable. In this respect they function as “equivalents of the laboratory experimenter’s test cases” (“Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” 263-64; Rueckert, Essays 266).

Parallels between Burke’s representative anecdote and Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm; entelechial development and paradigm extension; Nature's recalcitrance and its resistance to paradigmatic explanation suggest Burke is scientifically oriented, adopting the (qualitative) naturalism of Aristotle and Spinoza (opposing the extremes of materialism and idealism), and seeking to develop empirically adequate ideas concerning “bodies genetically endowed with the ability to learn language” in order to free us from the consequences of linguistic confusion. Advancing drama (which imitates action and assumes motion) as his representative anecdote, he insists dramatism is literal, not metaphorical—and therefore classifiable as realism.

Not even the poetic metaphor advocated in Permanence and Change is metaphorical. There Burke advances a metabiology, the

view of man [sic] as “poet,” the approach to human motives in terms of action (with poetic or dramatic terminologies being prized as the paradigms of action, a term that leads happily into realms of both ethical and poetic piety, or into the scientific, too, by reason of the fact that “symbolic” acts are grounded in “necessitous” ones). . . . particularly stress[ing] the term “recalcitrance” as an essential corrective to the “poetic metaphor.” (PC 168)

Recalcitrance proves as intrinsic to the poetic metaphor as motion (the necessitous) is to action (the symbolic). In the last part of the book Burke synonymizes “metaphor” with “perspective” and “point of view”26 both of which are biologically grounded and thus ontologized—e.g., a point of view “must be considered as belonging to the universal texture, as actually existing. A grasshopper’s appetites, and the perspective or system of values that goes with them, are as real as any chemical” (PC 233; see also 256). In the Grammar he translates the Greek poiema, from which the English “poem” and “poetic” is derived, as “action” (41)—which presupposes motion. Between Permanence and Change and the Grammar basic terms have undergone only superficial change.

As with the first impediment, interpreters refuse to take Burke at his word, but a close examination of the text bears him out.

In “Psychology and Form” Burke defines form as the creation and satisfaction of an “appetite” (CS 31). The temptation is to aestheticize “appetite,” to interpret it metaphorically. For Burke the term is literal. If we cannot interpret “appetite” metaphorically, then we cannot we interpret “catharsis” in that way either. Nevertheless, we try.

3) The role of catharsis

In “Psychology and Form” Burke argues that eloquence is the result of an artist’s desire “to make a work perfect by adapting it in every minute detail to racial appetites” (CS 41, emphasis mine). Obviously Burke’s definition of “racial” is not ours. But, less obviously, his definitions of “desire” and “appetite” are not either. The tendency is to idealize or aestheticize these terms—form is metaphorically an appetite. But for Burke the terms have physicality—form is literally an appetite. Early in the essay Burke argues music is better suited to the psychology of form than the psychology of information. “Every dissonant chord cries for its solution,” he writes, “and whether the musician resolves or refuses to resolve this dissonance into the chord which the body cries out for, he is dealing in human appetites” (ibid. 34, emphasis mine).

For Burke form is creation and satisfaction of an appetite; there is hunger and relief, tension and release, desire and catharsis, excitation and purgation. Here in the 1920s are intimations of all that is most strange in Burke, eventual positions so foreign to aesthetic thought we refuse to consider them seriously.

The first Burke essay I read was on “Kubla Khan” in an Oscar Williams anthology. 27 I rushed to the library for more, checking out Language as Symbolic Action. I was impressed by how systematic Burke was, given constant reference to positions advanced in previous books. Then I read “Thinking of the Body.” I was embarrassed, even disgusted; Burke tells of his being embarrassed too. (e.g. LSA 330). I took the book back and read no more Burke for years. Even Rueckert, who more than anyone stresses the centrality of catharsis, rejects the essay as “some of the most tortured and absurd analysis” Burke ever wrote (Essays xiii).

In this regard Rueckert and I are no different from others. Most people avoid or set aside what is strange (most certainly if also disgusting). Most forget it, or if forced to acknowledge it, as scholars we dismiss it as the eccentricity of genius or psychologize it, assuming some formative Freudian episode from childhood. But what if the stone that interpreters reject is the system’s cornerstone?

We should instead struggle with the strange. Wresting with rather than dismissing the anomalous, we may discern logical bearings for a different view. Willingly suspending disbelief, we may find our way to a new interpretation. Believing, as Augustine asks, we may come to understand. To paraphrase cultural historian and ethnographer Richard Darnton, picking at documents where they are most opaque may “unravel an alien system of meaning,” the thread leading to “a strange and wonderful world view” (Great Cat Massacre 5). What is required is such an ethnographic reading of Burke.

To paraphrase what Burke says at the end of the section in the SM prior to his discussion of “The Thinking of the Body,” the reader may skip to the end of the following ethnographic reading designed to show as tediously as possible the textual evidence for and the coherence of an interpretation of Burke that treats “catharsis” as central to his entire system.

In “The Poetic Motive,”(the last chapter of the PDC and the first chapter of the SM), Burke identifies four motives intrinsic to language: naming, communicating, expressing, and consummating. The first three are unproblematic and unsurprising. The fourth involves thoroughly and systematically tracking down the implications of key terms. Such consummations are cathartic. Symbol-using animals are engrossed with “naturally” exercising symbols in such a way sheerly for the sake of doing so. “The most sustained gratification of symbol-systems,” says Burke, arises in contemplating “the inter-relationships that develop among the terms of the system.” Form unfolds, progressively revealing the potentialities of terminologies (“Poetic Motive” 59-60; “Dramatic Form–And: Tracking Down Implications” 55), an entelechial or perfectionist process working itself out in nomenclatures from fiction to philosophy to physics.

So why not in Burke, too? Why write an essay embarrassing yourself unless you are tracking down implications? Why take so strange a stance unless consummation has overwhelmed communication (“Poetry and Communication” 403), as Burke contends it can?

Speech itself according to Burke is cathartic. So maybe catharsis should be reconsidered, BUT as a philosophical rather than a literary problem, key to the mind-body, language-reality relationship at the heart of Burke.

Given the mind-body split inherited from Descartes, much of modern philosophy was concerned with the epistemological problem of knowledge. But simply placing “the body in the mind” to solve the epistemological problem-—how and what we can know of the world about us—was insufficient. (See Mark Johnson’s The Body in the Mind.) Placing “the mind in the body” to solve the ontological problem—who and what we are—(and as a bonus the epistemological one as well) was required to make us whole once more. Given his Christian Science background, Burke was drawn to psychogenic illnesses, hypnosis, placebos, etc.—and therefore catharsis.

If we give catharsis the philosophical attention it is due in Burke’s thought, much that seemed strange may come to make perfect sense. In this ethnographic reading Burke can be classified in terms of three thinkers—Aristotle, Spinoza, and Marx —and three “isms”—organicism, naturalism, and pantheism.

Aristotle and Spinoza were recognized as principal philosophers in the naturalist tradition at Columbia. In the Grammar rather than align Spinoza in terms of scene as some might expect, Burke realigns him in terms of action and passion, situating him within the naturalistic tradition (GM 146-52). Thereafter (again contra the expectations of some) he realigns Marx in terms of action too, dehistoricizing and reinterpreting him sub specie aeternitatis —i.e., in Spinozistic terms (GM 209-14).

Consistent with Burke’s realignment, it should be noted that Marx and Engels themselves were taken with Spinoza, believing him to have solved the fundamental ontological problem (the relationship of consciousness to being and thought to things). Lenin’s teacher Plekinov was a Spinozist. In early Soviet philosophy Spinoza was the second most read philosopher, honored as “Marx without a beard.” Problems arising in Spinoza were covered by observing 17th century biology’s sorry state or solved by turning to Aristotle.28 Philosopher Scott Meikle seeks to realign Marx, arguing that Marx assumes Aristotle’s metaphysics while his confused champions assume Hume’s (often turning to Althusser to solve problems created by their own misinterpretation).29 Historian R. A. Tawney aligns Marx with Aristotelian scholastics, arguing that medieval schoolmen anticipated his ethical and economic critiques.30

In aligning these philosophers, it is helpful to observe in terms of which positions they align themselves. Burke writes in the preface to Counter-Statement that “in so far as an age is bent, a writer establishes equilibrium by leaning,” either in the direction his age leans or in the opposite direction (vii). We too easily assume Burke leans from the materialism of modern science toward the idealism of language, in effect treating his distinction between motion and action as one between motion (studied by science) and action-minus-motion (studied by Burke). In fact Burke like Aristotle (or even Marx) before him leans from an atomistic, mechanistic orientation toward an holistic, organic one, in the process remaining open to science.

According to John Herman Randall and Marjorie Grene, Aristotle himself found the atomistic, mechanistic physics of his day deficient and the idealistic philosophy of Plato superfluous. Underlying particles and transcendental forms failed to explain the world he experienced. A practicing biologist, he found things sorted themselves out of the flux in defiance of philosophers, so he madeliving Nature the focal point of philosophical reflection (Grene 78-79, 227-28). The central fact to be grasped and understood was life, especially human life (Randall 5).31

According to Meikle, Marx in his own doctoral dissertation examined atomistic philosophies, concluding that “the metaphysical basis of atomism is weak in explanatory potential and problem-ridden where it is not incoherent” (Essentialism in the Thought of Karl Marx 15). His rejection of atomism was prior to his rejection of Hegel (his standing Hegel on his head, or, more properly—since Hegel was already upside down—standing him on his feet).

In the Grammar Burke observes that Marx’s reaction against Hegel’s idealism results not in materialism but “dialectical materialism” which Burke characterizes as “idealistic materialism”—i.e., naturalism or realism (200-01).

Likewise Burke’s reaction against the idealism of his Christian Science upbringing 32 results in his own naturalism or realism—though realism is the term Burke actually prefers, classifying all philosophical systems featuring act as realism—e.g., systems like Aristotle’s, Spinoza’s, Marx’s and his own (GM128, 227-74).

Opposition to the materialism of modern science might incline a person toward idealism, unless his opposition to idealism simultaneously inclined him toward materialism—exactly the fix in which Burke found himself along with Aristotle and Marx. In his characteristically “both/and” attitude (see Rueckert, Drama 8-34), Burke moved to the middle, taking up the position he had first encountered at Columbia—naturalism or realism, the dominant American philosophy for half the 20th century.

At Columbia Burke had been introduced to the naturalistic tradition of Aristotle, Spinoza, and Santayana. He had been encouraged to read Aristotle as a biologist,33 naturalism dovetailing nicely with organicism.

Organicism was being advanced in the 1920s by writers such as Henri Bergson and D. H. Lawrence. It was also being advocated by biologists seeking to establish biology as a science not reducible to physics.34 Burke found himself reading biologists and talking with physicians35 while writing a report on drug addiction for the League of Nations. Later in life his close friend William Carlos Williams was a doctor. The father of his childhood and life-long friend Malcom Cowley had been the family physician.36

It should come as no surprise then that Burke’s conception of the relationship between language, mind, body, and reality is informed by (1) naturalism (or realism), the mean between a reductive materialism and an anti-scientific idealism; and (2) organicism (biologism), the source for hierarchy (an organism’s organization) and entelechy (its development). Language is the entelechy of the human organism, generating mind, the highest (meta-biological) level of a body genetically endowed with the ability to learn language. Language itself mirrors biology (a terminology’s generating a hierarchy on the path to its entelechy) and possesses its own entelechy (an all-inclusive “Nature containing the principle of speech”—see RM 180).

If Burke’s naturalism dove-tailed nicely with his organicism, both dove-tailed nicely with his emerging pantheism. In 1928 Richard McKeon published his dissertation on Spinoza, a philosopher who became increasingly important to Burke as a latent pantheism emerged in his thought. Burke first mentions Spinoza seven years later in Permanence and Change, arguing that disputes between idealists and materialists would be dialectically dissolved by a biological point of view. Whether we call the fundamental substance idea or matter is insignificant, writes Burke, when mind-body is hyphenated. In this respect—he continues— idealism, materialism, and dialectical materialism merge into a kind of “dialectical biologism” that points toward a somewhat Spinozistic conception of the hyphenated mind-body as two integrally interlocking modes that are substantially one (PC 229).

Burke’s naturalistic, pantheisitc treatment of mind-body recalls Aristotle’s definition of human beings as “animals with logos” (see above) and pervades his system—from his early contention in “The Poetic Process” (CS 48) that inborn in our germ-plasm is the potential for speech (see Rueckert, Drama 11) to his much later (re?)definition of human beings in the 1970s as “bodies genetically endowed with the ability to learn language.”

The implications of Burke’s naturalistic, pantheistic mind-body are immense. If language is situated in the genes then language is ultimately situated in Nature, too. The “body genetically endowed with the ability to learn language” is grounded in and emerges from an all-inclusive “Nature containing the principle of speech” (hereafter NATURE)(RM 180), Burke’s equivalent to Aristotle’s “Prime Mover” and Spinoza’s “God-or-Nature.” Our nature or being constitutes an ontological metaphor for NATURE or Being. Our nature determines what we know of that all-inclusive NATURE.

What we do know is that the verbal and nonverbal attributes of human being must also be attributes of that Universal Being from which we spring else we could not spring from IT. If we deny those attributes of NATURE, we deny them of ourselves, for NATURE is (at least) our larger self. Burke asks us to revere this all-inclusive NATURE as a parent out of which the verbal and the nonverbal are undeniably born. Far from being barred by some impenetrable barrier, as its children we are bound to and can know NATURE as intimately as our very minds and bodies. Thus concern for deep ecology emerges from Burke's pantheism (as well as a need to re-evaluate the standard understanding of evolution in which the verbal evolves out of the merely nonverbal as less-than-verbal when it should be understood as emerging out of the more-than-verbal). 37

According to Burke, the essence of pantheism is found in a necessary relation between the integrally interlocking modes of mind and body. If mind and body are substantially one, that which is necessary for thought is necessary for extension, meaning that which is linguistically necessary is ontologically necessary too (see GM 72-74), especially given the synecdochic relationship between, and therefore the attributes shared by, human being and that Ultimate Being from which we spring.

If linguistic necessity coincides with reality, then investigating what Burke considers linguistically necessary enables us to discover what he considers real.

According to Burke, the two principles of merger and division are necessary to language along with a third principle of distinction that ambiguously shuttles between and partakes of the other two. Merger requires the absolute unity of the One, Burke’s god-term, an all-inclusive NATURE. Division requires some kind of “Fall.” Finally, distinction requires some intermediate “Eden.” Prior to the Fall we are organically “a part of” the larger whole, after the Fall “apart from” It. Prior to the Fall, we stand in apposition to NATURE, after in opposition.

On the human level, merger’s NATURE corresponds to the womb, distinction’s Eden to infancy, and division’s Fall to articulation (see UC75).

As human being is synecdochic of Being, so articulation is synecdochic of Creation. But human acts are partial; NATURE’s is total. Creation and articulation both constitute “Falls,” but Creation is a “proto-Fall” related to the Fall itself as potential to actual. Distinctions found in NATURE are potentially divisions; human articulation makes them actual (see RR 174).

Burke’s Absolute NATURE, like Spinoza’s, creates necessarily, expressing the modes implicit within ITSELF. Creation is "cathartic". Principles are expressed as processes; logically circular simultaneous essences are expressed as linear temporal existences (like a chord stretched into an arpeggio).

Articulation is necessary and cathartic too, human being's expressing itself by giving voice to the implications of language (see UC 75). 38 Articulation initiates a Fall into speech, but as we track down further implications, it inevitably leads us up stairs of abstraction that return us to NATURE. For Burke, to climb linguistically to that ultimate implication is to strive actually for mystic merger with the One.

Language leads to the Fall, but language leads also to a salvation of sorts. Though language causes the split between verbal and nonverbal (mind and body, human nature and NATURE), by means of language we can project blame onto the nonverbal and leave the thus burdened nonverbal behind in a verbal ascent to the One. We are saved by any purely linguistic act that is cathartic—such as dialectic or drama. Salvation lies in purging ourselves by purely linguistic means—weeping when Desdemona dies. By language, through language, beyond language.

But such salvation is fleeting. Language provides temporary solace by generating a mystic experience of wholeness through cathartic dialectic and drama. But that experience is shattered by further (linguistic) action of any kind. The experience can be maintained only by the ritual repetition of dialectic or drama. But repetition that at first provides solace eventually becomes a source of despair from which death is the only escape, a position characteristic of Zen Buddhism in which the Nirvana of nothingness and oblivion is sought39.

The pantheist’s ultimate problem is finitude, the source of his despair separation from the One. Final salvation comes only with the eschaton, the end of time and space, for their mere existence constitutes a kind of Fall since distinctions established by Creation are themselves potentially divisions. Ultimate salvation lies in the end of all distinction.

Death is the ultimate salvation for the whole of NATURE and for the human part as well. Only by dying is our distinctness, and inevitable divisiveness, from the Absolute overcome. Only by our dying is the distinction, and inevitable division, between verbal and nonverbal obliterated. By dying to time, we are born to eternity. By dying as parts, we are transformed into the whole. Our poor and partial lives enter into life far greater and more glorious. We merge into reality pure, unchanging, absolute. We become All when we become Nothing.

Is it merely coincidental that “Dramatism and Logology” (in which Burke declares dramatism his ontology and logology his epistemology) has never been collected? Nor “Dramatism” (in which Burke declares dramatism is literal, not metaphorical)? Nor either of Burke’s two “definitive” essays on catharsis—“On Catharsis, or Resolution, with a Postscript” and “Catharsis—Second View”? “Beyond Catharsis” and “Platonic Transcendence” were finally published in Unending Conversations in 2001. But do we really understand them apart from the conversation in which catharsis plays a leading role? If we never get to catharsis, how do we ever get “beyond” it to “transcendence”? Perhaps these texts are just a bit too inconvenient for standard interpretations, so interpreters find excuses to neglect them.

Hopefully such impediments in our path have been removed. Hopefully we have found that we cannot split Burke along dramatism versus logology lines; we cannot split Burke along early epistemological-metaphorical vs. late ontological-literal lines; we cannot make Burke an idealist opposed to a materialistic science, and we cannot make Burke a materialist standing his Christian Science idealism on its head; we cannot avoid the “catharsis problem” if we are to understand the Symbolic and its place in the Motivorum and dramatism as a whole.

A Cluster Analysis

That Burke has a “system” is not readily apparent because the systematic quality of his writing is more that associated with a poet than a philosopher. As is the case with literary artists, the system is highly personal and emerges for the reader only after study of the corpus. The later, more mature work often sheds the best light on the earlier in which patterns and concerns are first being articulated.

Midway through his career Burke began work on his trilogy starting with the Grammar in which he introduced the “pentad” (later referred to as possibly a “hexad”). But after publication of the Rhetoric, the Symbolic was not forthcoming. The third volume split into two, yielding a fourth on “Ethics.” If the Motivorum was to have been organized in four volumes, patterns of four might well prove to be the clues to how Burke's system is ultimately organized.

In the Grammar the discussion of the philosophical schools is organized into four, not five (or even six), chapters. “Purpose”(ends) and “agency”(means) are combined, with the latter sometimes being treated as a reduction of the former, much as “motion” is of “action.” “Attitude” is treated as a preparation for an act, making it “a kind of symbolic act, or incipient act” (i.e., “act”) or as a state of mind (i.e., “agent”). Thus we are left not with a pentad (or even a hexad) but a tetrad of “scene,” “act” (which can be a purpose in itself), “purpose” (which involves action for all purposes other than action for its own sake), and “agent.”

Still, it is not until we arrive at the Rhetoric of Religion that the pattern of four emerges most powerfully when Burke analogizes the Trinity with the form underlying all linguistic events, a form composed of a “thing” (Father), a “word” (Son), the “relation” between them (Spirit), and the event as a whole (Trinity). If we take this fundamental “linguistic trinity” seriously, a systematic structure appears:

the “tetrad”

  • scene corresponds to the thing
  • act corresponds to the word
  • agency-purpose corresponds to the relationship
  • agent corresponds to the whole

Burke’s tetralogy

  • the Grammar whose main term is substance (thing, i.e. the symbol using animal)
  • the Symbolic whose main term is catharsis (words, language)
  • the Rhetoric whose main term is identification (relationship)
  • the Ethics whose main term is the negative (the whole)

ways of using language

  • words about Nature (thing)
  • words about words (name, language)
  • words about the socio political (relationship, correspondence)
  • words about the supernatural drawing on the other three (the whole)

poetic motives

  • the indicative (the thing which we name)
  • the poetic (the language we develop or unfold)
  • the rhetorical (the relation we address)
  • the ethical (the whole we express)

offices of the orator related to universal desires (Rueckert, Drama 158)

  • teaching and the quest for knowledge (thing)
  • pleasing and the desire for beauty (name)
  • exhorting or persuading and the hunger for power and change (relationship)
  • expressing or portraying and the hope for self expression, moral excellence, and purification (the whole)

master tropes

  • metonymy (thing or scene)
  • synecdoche (name or act)
  • irony (relationship or purpose)
  • metaphor (the whole)

kinds of substance

  • familial (thing or scene)
  • directional (name or act)
  • geometric (relationship or purpose)
  • dialectic (the whole)

From these equations a table can be constructed, clustering what terms would be associated with what volume of the Motivorum:

A Cluster Analysis of the Motivorum

Grammar Symbolic Rhetoric Ethics
substance catharsis identification negative
scene act purpose-agency* agent
thing word relationship
words about things (Nature) words about words words about the socio-political words about the supernatural*
indicative: things we name poetic: terms we develop or unfold rhetorical: relationships we address ethical: the whole we express
teaching pleasing persuading expressing or portraying
knowledge beauty power & change self expression, moral excellence, purification
metonymy synecdoche irony metaphor
familial substance directional substance geometric substance dialectical substance

* see below for discussion

The table tells us a number of things. The Grammar and the Symbolic look more simple in their conception, the Rhetoric somewhat complicated, the Ethics more complicated still. To some extent there appears to be a part-whole relationship (synecdoche-metaphor) between the Symbolic and the Ethics that may make them difficult to separate at times. Burke, for example, notes personality can be viewed as a kind of “congealed conduct” (Rueckert, “Language of Poetry,” Essays 44).

The very complexity of the Ethics makes for difficulties in determining what may be associated with it without the table. What is often treated as a matter of logology (e.g., “Theology and Logology”), supposedly a step beyond an “abandoned” dramatism, can be associated with the Ethics. Words about the supernatural draw on words from the realms of the natural, the linguistic, and the socio-political; the supernatural has no words of its own. As Burke notes in the Rhetoric of Religion, “quite as language involves a principle of the negative in its very essence, so theology comes to an ultimate in ‘negative theology,’ since God, by being ‘supernatural,’ is not describable by the positives of Nature.” The supernatural would also be superpersonal (consistent with the cluster of terms including agent).

The Ethics is concerned with ethos (character, agent) from which the very word ethics (conduct) is derived. In his first letter to Rueckert, August 8, 1959, Burke writes, “I treat the negative under Ethics [sic] because of the close relation btw. character and the thou-shalt-not’s” (Letters 4). He goes on to say, “And inasmuch as the negative is a wholly linguistic invention, I take it that the keystone of the entire edifice is No” (ibid. 4-5), indicating in two sentences the difference between the logological (the essence of language) and the ethical (a dimension of language). The difficulty is the tendency to associate logology with the Ethics more than other parts of the Motivorum because of the negative, as we associate dramatism more with the Symbolic because of drama and catharsis. Many confusions may be cleared thanks to the inclusion of “The Language of Poetry, ‘Dramatistically’ Considered” in Rueckert’s Essays toward a Symbolic of Motives (though I would consider it more of a first chapter for the Ethics, because it involves the offices of the orator, i.e., an agent—see below).

The Rhetoric should be interpreted in terms of purpose and agency. Burke moves toward the end of the book to a discussion of mysticism (a mysticism of ends associated with purpose in the Grammar) and ersatzmystiken (or a false mysticism, a mysticism of means associated with agency) (RM 332). War, for example, our most cooperative activity, is actually diseased cooperation. True cooperation cannot be achieved by opposition, because there must always be an enemy to oppose; there must always be something that divides us, an enemy in opposition to which we stand united. What is “achieved” is false; the end of union can never be achieved by means of division.

Again, for example, the pursuit of money constitutes a false mysticism. A surplus of something in the spring cannot be easily exchanged for a desired surplus of something else in the fall; money facilitates such exchange. A desired commodity is the end of exchange; money is but a means. The pursuit of money has no end other than the pursuit of money, and therefore is the endless pursuit of a means.

“Pure persuasion” constitutes a mysticism of means. Persuasion is a means to an end. If persuasion is pure (i.e., persuasion for persuasion’s sake) persuasion would constitute a perpetual means to no end, because pure persuasion could never come to its end. Burke’s notion of pure persuasion may be indicative of an intellectual’s skepticism concerning political action. Historically, Burke remained politically forever on the edge40—neither out far nor in deep41 (see below, “Beyond Catharsis").

The Symbolic deals with a similar action for the sake of action. But in this case, using language purely for the sake of using language would constitute an exercise of our being as bodies genetically endowed with the ability to learn language. Such exercise would of course prove pleasing—the more pleasing the more thorough and more complete the exercise. Here the Symbolic touches on logology and the Ethics, though logology would investigate the intrinsic tendencies in language itself, remaining in a more epistemological realm.

The Symbolic investigates actual ontological operations involving the relationship between the dual aspects of our being—verbal activity giving nonverbal pleasure. The central term for the Symbolic would therefore be “catharsis,” an experience central to our being as bodies that learn language, the relief from first speaking to being thoroughly, completely, finally done.

The first catharsis is the Crocean catharsis of articulation, when we find relief expressing ourselves as what we are, releasing the sheer pressure of language’s implicational structures no matter the complications to be encountered as a consequence. And the final Aristotelian catharsis of drama or the related (Platonic?) catharsis of dialectic, both of which lift us to a speechless, transcendent realm beyond catharsis, a realm of oneness beyond division. By language, through language, beyond language.

These deeper, ontological levels of what Burke terms universal catharsis operate at the same time on an historical level—as form must have content. Such historically situated catharsis would have a socio-political dimension whose investigation would be rhetorical and a personal dimension whose investigation would be ethical. Socio-political catharsis (which Burke terms civic catharsis) purges tensions endemic to the body politic, effecting but a temporary cure so long as the causes of tension exist—therefore proving to be conservative of the status quo. Personal catharsis (for which Burke has no particular term) would purge tensions associated with personal problems, perhaps effecting a symbolic cure if the poet were able to transform himself in the process (as with Augustine in the Rhetoric of Religion) or more likely proving to be but a method of coping (as with Coleridge in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or “Kubla Khan” or Milton and Arnold in the Rhetoric’s opening chapter).

The cluster analysis also allows us to distinguish clearly what has often been conflated, even by Burke himself prior to 1953: (1) the poet himself (agent, his personal expression as it affects himself; the ethical dimension), (2) his poetry in itself (action, the symbol-using animal’s universal expression of itself through the thorough use of language, the development or unfolding of form; the poetic dimension), and (3) his rhetoric (purpose, the historically situated content addressed to an audience; the rhetorical dimension). These three perspectives parallel the approaches literature study cycles through—the stress on form in New Criticism (poetics) having been a reaction to the stress on the person of the artist (ethics), and the current rhetorical stress a reaction to the formalism of New Criticism.

Finally, terms clustered under the Grammar suggest a more empirical reading of Burke consistent with that suggested above (see “2) the aestheticizing of Burke”). In dramatism great dramas constitute representative anecdotes or paradigms for a qualitative Aristotelian scientist—“equivalents of the laboratory experimenter’s test cases” (“Linguistic Approach . . .” 263-64; Rueckert, Essays 266)—enabling him to develop adequate ideas about bodies that learn language so that we may be freed from the consequences of our linguistic confusion. In this light the Grammar differs little from the metabiology of Permanence and Change. Rather than abandoning the project, Burke can be seen to have moved on to what he probably considered a more adequate terminology.

These preliminaries complete, we can now turn to evaluating the supposed three versions of A Symbolic of Motives.

Essays toward a Symbolic of Motives

Two of my indispensable books on Burke are William Rueckert’s Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations and Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke. My copies from the 1970s are thoroughly marked up. I recommend them to my students and return to them often myself (quite often over the last month). Anyone who has read Rueckert can recognize my debt from the foregoing material—especially the stress on catharsis. As for On Human Nature, having a collection of “boik woiks” from 1967 to 1984 is invaluable. So I looked forward to the latest—Essays toward a Symbolic of Motives. But to be honest, the book is not what I expected, nor quite what Rueckert claims. I find myself quibbling—and quibbling it is—because the book, like On Human Nature, is invaluable as a collection of essential essays (early, in this case) well worth buying as a standard reference book alone. A first version of the Symbolic it is not. Rueckert’s title is a more accurate description, but even that proves problematic; Essays toward a Symbolic [as well as an Ethics] of Motives is surely less elegant but probably in the end more exact. My quibbling should not diminish the importance of his work, which he considered Burke’s last charge to him, accomplished despite chronic pain with great deference to other scholars and their own Symbolic projects.

According to Rueckert, the book is based on a footnote from the 1955 essay “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” that “consists of selected essays from among those Burke wrote and published between 1950 and 1955, which he clearly indicated were to be part of A Symbolic of Motives, as he originally conceived it” (xi).

My first quibble: Burke writes, “A work now in preparation, A Symbolic of Motives, will deal with poetics and the technique of ‘indexing’ literary works. Meanwhile, among articles by the present author already published on the subject are . . . ” (“Linguistic Approach”302; Rueckert, Essays xi). Burke is not saying the essays constitute a version of the Symbolic. He had already written over 70 percent of the PDC by 1952. Given similarities between the PDC and the SM, the essays he goes on to list resemble more of a collection of miscellaneous essays for a book-length appendix such as comes up in Burke’s letters over a couple of decades42—one for each of the last three volumes of the Motivorum to go with the shorter, but still considerable, appendix to the first. Williams suggests that Burke may have seen the third volume covering two books as early as 1951 (UC 10). If Burke “clearly indicated” these essays were to be part the Symbolic “as he originally conceived it,” he must have done so elsewhere; but if so, Rueckert doesn’t say.

Rueckert’s quotation of the footnote in Essays goes on to list eight essays: “The Vegetal Radicalism of Theodore Roethke,” “Three Definitions,” “Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method,” “Form and Persecution in the Oresteia,” “Imitation,” “Ethan Brand: A Preparatory Investigation,” “Mysticism as a Solution to the Poet’s Dilemma,” and “Fact, Inference, and Proof in the Analysis of Literary Criticism” (xi). But quoting the same footnote in Unending Conversations (120), he lists between “Imitation” and “Ethan Brand” a ninth essay, “Comments on Eighteen Poems by Howard Nemerov.”

Rueckert would appear to have forgotten the essay. Whatever his reason for excluding it, he does not explain. Nor does he explain his reason for excluding the “Mysticism” essay. Burke himself does not include the essay on Nemerov in his 1978 letter to Rueckert detailing what should be included in a book of essays in lieu of A Symbolic of Motives, but he does include the one on “Mysticism” (see Letters 234; Drama 291-92).

“Mysticism as a Solution to the Poet’s Dilemma” is an important essay, the first part “a reconstruction and exposition” of Burke’s material by Stanley Romaine Hopper (because Burke had lost his paper), the second and third parts subsequent additions by Burke. The essay might prove inconvenient for some, but it was important in developing the reading of Burke articulated throughout this essay. (See below, “4) Burke’s Anti-Rhetoricism” and “5) Burke’s Mysticism.”) Clearly Burke thought it important, listing it in the footnote and again in a letter 23 years later. Of the two excluded, the “Mysticism” essay, at least, should have been in the volume.

Rueckert drops the Nemerov essay but does include the Roethke one, consistent with the footnote and the 1978 letter as well as a long letter to William Carlos Williams from June 9, 1948—“As soon as I get through the Rhetoric, I shall then be free to concern myself wholly with the Poetic and Symbolic matters that delight me most—the stuff of Vol. III—and my thoughts on the Rutherford Cricket-eater [Williams] should go there, along with, among other things, my notes on Ted Roethke . . .” (East, Humane Particulars 137). Both essays are included in LSA, though the Williams essay was not published until 1963, shortly after his death. Given that Rueckert seeks to include the essays from the Symbolic as originally conceived, the Williams essay might have been included (or, given its inclusion in LSA, at least mentioned).

Of the nine footnoted essays, two are drawn from the PDC manuscript, “The Orestes Trilogy” and “Imitation.” The former is the complete, never before published text from the PDC, not the abridged version published in 1952 and republished in LSA in 1966—a welcome editorial decision. But the latter is the same as the article published in the autumn 1952 Accent rather than the PDC version. Williams has carefully compared the two (UC 25), noting small changes along with the excision of the final seven pages. Why not publish the full PDC text as was done with the Oresteia essay? Still, as is, the article has never been collected.

Along with seven of the nine essays, Rueckert includes four others: “The Language of Poetry, ‘Dramatistically’ Considered,” “Goethe’s Faust, Part I,” “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education,” and “Policy Made Personal: Whitman’s Verse and Prose-Salient Traits.” But on August 8, 1959, in his very first letter to Rueckert, Burke explains the delay in the perpetually forthcoming Symbolic as due to the trilogy becoming a tetralogy. He characterizes the first three volumes in a few words, then says that the Ethics is “built around the negative, as per my articles in Quarterly Journal of Speech, 52-53; my article on Faust, in Chicago Review, Spring 55 also indicates a bit of this, as does my piece on language in Modern Philosophies and Education, edited by Nelson B. Henry” (Letters 3). Evidently Burke associated the second and third essays above with the Ethics rather than the Symbolic. And given its content and its functional similarity to “The Poetic Motive” opening the SM, the first essay might be reasonably associated with the Ethics, perhaps also as an opening chapter. Finally, given our characterization of the Ethics, the fourth essay might be associated with it as well. Thus a more accurate title for Rueckert’s volume might be Essays toward a Symbolic as well as an Ethics of Motives.

Burke also tells Rueckert in that first letter that one problem with the “Poetics volume is to decide whether I should leave it in one sequence, or also insert various incidental pieces (which otherwise I’ll collect in a separate volume)” (Letters 3). Rueckert perhaps should have paid greater heed to Burke’s comment and accordingly scrutinized Burke’s opening sentences in the footnote more carefully, then made a lesser claim about the Essays than he did. I would not describe the book as a first version of the Symbolic given the coherence of the PDC and the SM.

Quibble with Rueckert or not, we remain indebted to him for his work, completed over the last years of his life while suffering considerable pain. All of the chosen items are important and good to have collected—especially “The Language of Poetry,” “The Orestes Trilogy,” and “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” (though I would have preferred the whole essay), no matter into what volume of the Motivorum they would have been assimilated. Essays toward a Symbolic of Motives may not be exactly by-the-book. My advice is, still, buy the book anyway.

Poetics, Dramatistically Considered (see Appendices 1 & 2)

There is not much to say about the PDC that David Cratis Williams has not already said. The chronology he established by means of unpublished Burke-Cowley correspondence from the Newberry Library in Chicago conclusively indicates that Burke worked on the Symbolic from 1950 to '52, at which point the trilogy began to split into a tetralogy because of work on the Negative.

The cluster analysis suggests that concern for thou-shalt-nots being exploited for dramatic purposes in order to effect catharsis in socio-political and personal realms necessitated Burke’s more carefully distinguishing between the thou-shalt-nots of ethics (a dimension of language) and the Negative of logology (the essence of language).

From 1952 to 1955 Burke concentrated on the Ethics. In 1955 he returned to the Symbolic, working on it and the Ethics until 1958, when he distributed the PDC. Comparisons between the PDC and SM reveal the relationship between the manuscripts, including what parts were written when and whether or not they were included in the first draft. Two essays are critical to the investigation—“The Poetic Motive” and the Emerson essay.

“The Poetic Motive” (published in 1958) is stylistically right for a concluding chapter (with its magnificent last paragraph) but logically all wrong; it is obviously more appropriate as what it became, the first chapter of the SM. The essay is functionally similar to “The Language of Poetry” essay discussed above (published in 1954). The “Language” essay is the earlier and may have been intended as the eventual first chapter of the Symbolic. The essay’s title (“poetry”) compared to its content (“oratory”) suggests the title is a misnomer. Burke does discuss the overlap between poetry and oratory, but the bulk of the essay is concerned with a new fourth office Burke added to Cicero’s scheme, an office that would be associated more with the ethical than the poetic. Having started perhaps with Cicero’s scheme to classify the language of poetry, Burke may have found his essay heading off in another direction, probably not an uncommon experience as the Ethics began splitting off from the Symbolic. Having written the first essay, Burke may have used it as a template for an additional essay examining delights intrinsic to language-use (consistent with the Symbolic’s emphasis on using language for no purpose other than using language) as opposed to purposeful language associated with the offices of an orator (i.e., an agent with ethos).

Burke wrote “The Poetic Motive” sometime between 1954 and '58, the exact date being uncertain. The essay was probably written closer to 1958 given its date of publication that year and its having been tacked on to the end of the PDC despite its being an inappropriate concluding chapter (perhaps because much of the typing had been done by then). Burke apparently included the essay because he viewed it as integral to the Symbolic.

This essay’s having been included in the PDC, but moved in the SM, may tell us something about the SM—the end of the PDC (and therefore the SM as well) was probably the section on “Platonic Transcendence,” given the similar outlines resulting for the two books.

Material written but left out of the PDC tells us something as well. Recall that Burke wrote Cowley in June 1955 about having written but not having revised a “big item in my godam Symbolic” concerning Emerson’s long essay on Nature (Williams, UC 13). Presumably Burke refers to the essay “I, Eye, Ay—Concerning Emerson’s Early Essay on ‘Nature’ and the Machinery of Transcendence” published in 1966 in the Sewanee Review, Language as Symbolic Action, and Transcendentalism and Its Legacy. Burke worked (or sat) on the essay for over ten years, but then he sat on much of “On Catharsis, Or Resolution” for eight (1951-59). He never published the sections “Beyond Catharsis” or “Platonic Transcendence.” He did publish “Catharsis—Second View” (dating to 1956) in 1961, but neither of the “definitive” catharsis essays was ever collected.

I believe there is something significant about this constellation of essays (see below). All may have been part of the “catharsis problem” in which Burke was forever reporting himself entangled.

According to Williams (UC 15), Burke also left Stanford in spring 1958 with a new essay on E. M. Forster’s Passage to India (itself not published until summer 1966). The essay on Forster is referenced in the essay on Emerson (LSA 189) and the essay on Barnes’ Nightwood (ibid. 244) (not published either until 1966 in LSA, though it was “the distillation of several years’ discussion in the classroom”) (Letters 80). The cross-references are all related to the theme of effecting catharsis in terms of Burke’s interpretation of “beyonding” catharsis. Williams also reports that Burke was indexing Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in 1956 (UC 13). Material related to Forster’s Passage and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway appears in the same section of the SM revised in the early 1960s.

The evidence suggests that the material and the eventual essays were probably being worked on at the same time—evidently the mid-1950s (though none of it was published then) when Burke was writing “Beyond Catharsis” for the PDC, but probably also in 1963 or 1964 when Burke turned to the material again (publishing most of it in 1966 in journals and LSA).

Though there is considerable continuity between the PDC and the SM, the evidence suggests there may have been even more than there appears to have been.

The Symbolic of Motives (see Appendices 3 & 4)

Between 1958 and 1960 Burke concentrated on the Ethics —i.e., the Rhetoric of Religion. But two sections from the PDC were also published as articles in 1958— “On Catharsis, or Resolution, with a Postscript,” one of the earliest (1951); and “The Poetic Motive,” probably the last. With the Rhetoric of Religion done in June, Burke returned to the Symbolic immediately.

Fifteen months later (October 4, 1961) Burke wrote Cowley that his attempt to abridge the PDC had resulted in 120 new pages instead—“Catharsis (First View)” formerly beginning on page 38 was now “Catharsis (Civic Aspect)” beginning on 134. Two months later (December 9) Burke wrote Rueckert from Andover, “I begin seriously to doubt whether I shall meet my self-imposed deadline for completing the revision of my Poetics material. (I had vowed to get it done by Dec. 31st, 11:59 P.M.) Just went to a doctor and found that my blood-pressure is up again. In some respects, final revision can do one more damage than first drafts. It’s a continual forcing oneself to go slow when one wants to race ahead. Hence the e’er-present invitation to blow one’s top” (Letters 22). But later that December (no exact date) Libbie reported to the Williamses more optimistically from Florida that Burke was finishing up his Symbolic and she was typing it (East, Humane Particulars 229).

Burke continued revising, adding 42 more pages of new material—expanding the section on “Catharsis (Civic Aspect)” by 27 pages; moving the next section on “Ostracism as ‘Cathartic’” from the PDC section “Beyond Catharsis” and adding 3 pages more; then expanding the following section on “Pity, Fear, Pride” by 12 pages and renaming it “Tragic Triad of Motives.” At the end of that section, in the subsection entitled “Catharsis and Transcendence” Burke writes of taking a “first look at transcendence” (SM ms.169), implying a further one—perhaps in a revised “Platonic Transcendence” near the end.

Thanks to Burke’s revisions, the first 74 pages in the PDC developed into 222 pages in the SM, ending with “A Break-Through,” a subsection advising the squeamish to skip over “Part Two” (obviously the revised “Thinking of the Body,” pages 223-269 of the SM) (SM ms. 220, 222) to “Part Three,” which would include discussion of “the allusiveness of tragedy” (i.e., “Beyond Catharsis”) and “consideration of tragedy in its grander aspects” (probably “The Orestes Trilogy”) (ibid.).

Meanwhile he was writing Cowley in April 1962—“the godam Poetics” was “NOT finished.” And seventeen months later in September ‘63—he would “pitch into finishing the Poetics” when done with his new “book of verse.” Then in May ‘64—his “only sorrow” was not getting “the godam Poetics wholly disentangled” before he had to head to the University of California at Santa Barbara. Finally in February ‘65—the University of California Press had come calling (Williams, UC 18).

But the period of 1962-65 was immensely productive—assuming articles from then would have appeared in the next years of 1963-66 when Burke published eighteen related to the larger Symbolic and Ethics volumes (with each volume perhaps having two books)43. The first essay of this period was “Thinking of the Body” and the last “I, Eye, Ay—Concerning Emerson’s Early Essay on ‘Nature’ and the Machinery of Transcendence.”

Williams infers from his analysis of the former that the 1958 PDC version was substantially the same as the “monster” chapter that “wrote itself” in spring 1951 (UC 24). Subsequently parts of “The Thinking of the Body” appeared in “On Catharsis, or Resolution” published in 1959. The 1963 Psychoanalytic Review version was substantially different from the PDC according to Williams (UC 27)—though for our purposes knowing that there are differences is more important than detailing what they are. The ’63 version was probably a revision on the way to the SM version which was plausibly completed before Language as Symbolic Action. Burke appears never to have been completely satisfied with the essay. Obviously he continued working on it. Burke may have published the 1963 second version in LSA with the thought of leaving himself the later third version to publish in the Symbolic.

The correspondence tells us that Burke was working on the Emerson essay in 1955 and considered it a “big item” in the Symbolic (Williams, UC 13). Thereafter it drops from sight except for Burke’s writing in reply to Rueckert’s first letter that he “hoped to make clearer the relation btw. dramatic catharsis and Platonic (dialectic)/transcendence”—a significant comment indicating one of the differences between the PDC and the SM. The essay can be linked thematically (via the “beyond” thematic) to essays on Barnes (LSA 244, 253), Forster (ibid. 227) and Coriolanus (ibid. 89)—all three of which were published in the spring, summer, and fall of 1966—and the sections “Beyond Catharsis” and “Platonic Transcendence.” Supposing that their 1966 publication means they were sent out for review approximately a year before they finally appeared—meaning spring, summer, and fall 1965—we should not be surprised to find Burke’s delivering a paper on “Rhetoric and Poetics” at a Symposium on the History and Significance of Rhetoric in May 1965 (ibid. x) echoing the same theme (ibid. 298-99). Similar themes (on transcendence) appear in “Thinking of the Body” (ibid. 342).

Burke had probably been working on the essays in 1964, since in 1965 he was editing LSA, but he wrote Rueckert on August 2, 1965, “The books of essays must now be finished for the press. (I don’t intend to revise them, but I do have a notion of adding comments designed to point up the continuity among them. If I can finish this job in the next few weeks, I could then settle on the Poetics. . . .)” (Letters 77).

In “Rhetoric and Poetics” Burke examines Aristotle’s classic formula (“through pity and fear effecting the catharsis of such emotions”); he notes that perainousa, the word translated as “effecting,” shares its etymological root with peran, meaning “opposite shore” (LSA 298). The same etymological theme is found in the section “Beyond Catharsis” from the PDC (see UC 58). There is a footnote to the same effect on the opening page of “Form and Persecution in the Oresteia” (LSA 125) pointing to the end of the Emerson essay (ibid. 200) in which he paints an image of longing for a farther shore from Virgil’s Aeneid that draws together the beyonding of catharsis peculiar to drama and the transcendence of a quashed catharsis (SM ms. 170) peculiar to dialectic.

We can surmise that prior to being tempted away to another book by the University of California Press (probably with a promise of publishing more given that an edition of Towards a Better Life soon followed) Burke had completed and Libbie had typed the SM manuscript through 269 pages. Internal evidence suggests that what remained of the SM would have looked much like the material following “Thinking of the Body” in the PDC (see Appendices 3 & 4); given Burke’s comment to Rueckert in his 1959 letter, it would probably have ended with something like the Emerson essay—a manuscript approaching 500 pages.

We know Burke believed there was enough material (either unpublished, uncollected, or published but revised) to constitute a Symbolic to which he could turn immediately following Language as Symbolic Action. Undoubtedly, he had preserved his publication options. Burke does write Rueckert on February 4, 1978 that “much that is in LSA belongs in the Sinballix” (Letters 245). But what part of the Symbolic? Burke may have only sacrificed the option of a book-length appendix.

Burke had in fact clearly held back five key essays when assembling LSA—“The Poetic Motive,” the two great essays on catharsis, “Beyond Catharsis,” and “Platonic Transcendence.” A completed manuscript might have included:

  • “The Poetic Motive” which had been published but not collected.
  • “Imitation” and “On Catharsis” which had been published but not collected both from the part of the PDC that was heavily revised and expanded in the SM.
  • “Thinking of the Body” whose second version had been published and collected, but whose third version remained unpublished.
  • “Form” which had been partially published and collected. “The Orestes Trilogy,” which had been both published and collected, for which further abridgement and/or revision may have been planned.
  • “Beyond Catharsis” which was unpublished.
  • “Catharsis (Universal Aspect)” which had been published but not collected for which some revision may have been planned.
  • “Platonic Transcendence” which was unpublished.
  • “I, Eye, Ay—Concerning Emerson’s Early Essay on ‘Nature’ and the Machinery of Transcendence” for which some revision may have been planned for the sake of continuity.

On September 25, 1969 Burke indicated to Cowley that finishing the Symbolic would be largely a job of “editing and typing” (Williams, UC 19). On January 28, 1982 Burke wrote Rueckert, “I think the Symbolic has all been published, and merely needs a few editorial connectives” (Letters 288). We should take him at his word.

Finally, based on internal evidence and external analogies, I believe the Symbolic was to end with Burke’s discussion of Emerson in which he sought to reconcile the “quashed catharsis” (or “catharsis by fiat” or “implicit transcendence”—SM ms. 170) peculiar to dialectic with the more traditional catharsis of drama by viewing both in terms of the priestly function of “pontificating”—i.e., interpreting a temporal or natural event in terms of an ultimate eternal or supernatural ground, building a bridge from the here and now to a realm Beyond (see “The Seven Offices” from 1958 in Attitudes Toward History 364-65).44

Both dialectic and drama “involve formal development,” says Burke, therefore both give us “kinds of transformation,” operating in terms of a “beyond” in dialectic and “victimage” in drama. But Burke goes on to observe that in dialectic there are traces of victimage, and in drama the cathartic “resolution ‘goes beyond’ the motivational tangle exploited for poetic enjoyment.” He even proposes translating Aristotle’s famous formula, “through pity and fear beyonding the catharsis of such emotions,” noting that the word normally translated “effecting” or “producing” (perainousa) is etymologically from the same root as peran meaning “opposite shore” (LSA 298-99, UC 58).

Burke imagistically merges dialectic and drama by reference to the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid where the shades are said to have “stretched forth their hands through love of the opposite shore.” He proceeds to a final passage that recalls the eloquent end of his Rhetoric:

Whether there is or is not an ultimate shore towards which we, the unburied, would cross, transcendence involves dialectical processes whereby something HERE is interpreted in terms of something THERE, something beyond itself. . . .
The machinery of language is so made that, either rightly or wrongly, either grandly or in fragments, we stretch forth our hands through love of the farther shore. . . . The machinery of language is so made that things are necessarily placed in terms of a range broader than the terms for those things themselves. And thereby, in even the toughest or tiniest of terminologies, terminologies that, on their face, are far from the starry-eyed Transcendentalism of Emerson's essay, we stretch forth our hands through love of a farther shore; that is to say, we consider things in terms of a broader scope than the terms for those particular things themselves. And I submit that, wherever there are traces of that process, there are the makings of Transcendence. (LSA 200)45

This great image of transcendence for Burke is of longing for death. If that farther shore so longed for is the world of the dead, the shore on which (we and) those wretched men stand is the world of the living. The image of that wailing throng is an image of man expelled from Eden. If the world after the Fall is like that shore where men stand pleading, life prior to the Fall would be like the life those men had known. They stand stranded between an old life and the new life that would be theirs if they could truly die. In choosing the image he does, Burke suggests that for us life is suffered, that death is longed for; that life is a prison, that death is our release. And what we long for is Life.

Continue to Part 2: Situating the Symbolic--Beyond Catharsis

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