Richard H. Thames, Duquesne University
A continuation of Part 1: Seeking the Symbolic.
PART TWO: SITUATING THE SYMBOLIC
Underlying Burke’s system is an ahistorical, mystical ontology that ultimately leads to a depreciation of historical, political acts.46 Ultimately bodies that learn language are never truly exhorted to act. Burke’s representative anecdote is drama, involving symbolic action for itself alone; having no purpose outside itself, it would therefore be non-rhetorical and purposeless. But having no purpose outside itself does not mean having no effect on the world where disinclinations to action may have as much consequence as inclinations.
1) Burke’s Quietism
At the conclusion of the Grammar Burke advocates adopting an attitude of Neo-Stoic resignation (442-43). Like many intellectuals, he was skeptical of action, though his tendencies may have been liberal. He was understandably coy, then, about his bastard son “attitude.” Attitude may never have become a full-fledged term, because Burke suspected he would ultimately be analyzed more under its aspect rather than that of action. Action, for example, hardly characterizes his literary output (see Stanley Romaine Hopper’s comments below)—his novel is epistolary, his drama Platonic dialogue, his poetry predominately lyric (A Book of Moments).
If Burke does not end with attitude, he ends with contemplation, which, in medieval terminologies of motivation, was viewed as an act (GM 142)—as in the final lines of the Rhetoric where rhetoric is transcended (in a vision of “the beloved cynosure and sinecure, the end of all desire”) or the presumed final lines of the Symbolic where he would “stretch forth his hands through love of the farther shore.”47
Augustine tells us in the opening lines of his Confessions, “God has made us for Himself and our hearts remain restless until they rest in Him.” Theologian Paul Tillich48 translates for the modern world: God is the end of all our striving, that with which we are ultimately concerned. Our actions may be misdirected toward other ends (wealth, power, glory—other “gods”), but no substitute can fully satisfy (a position reminiscent of Burke’s pure persuasion—see previous discussion and discussion below). For Augustine and Tillich the theistic motive (though it may not be recognized as such) inspirits all aspects of our lives, so no account of human motivation is complete without it.
In Burke the theistic motive is secularized as hierarchic. The end of all striving becomes not God but a principle (such as money) that infuses all levels of a particular hierarchy and functions as God. Sheerly worldly powers take on the attributes of secular divinity and demand our worship. But for Burke, the hierarchic motive is itself ultimately linguistic, and the linguistic motive ultimately natural—meaning the natural world would encompass more than the merely material (i.e., Nature “as itself containing the principle of speech,” or NATURE—RM 180). The end of all linguistic striving then would be that NATURE which gives birth not simply to our bodies but also to language and our minds. Thus the theism of Augustine and Tillich is transformed into the naturalism of Burke. NATURE makes us symbol-using animals and our hearts remain restless until our symbols (through dialectic or drama) bring us to rest in IT. By language, through language, beyond language. We stretch forth our hands. . . .
Obviously, the larger claim here is that Burke is a mystic (see below). But there are many types of mysticism. The mystic need not dwell in attitude and inaction. The Quaker mystic, Rufus Jones, led a life of extensive political involvement. Many mystics have led similarly active lives, deeply committed to the addressing the world’s problems. Their mysticism energized them. But the type of mysticism advanced by Burke is different. His mysticism is intellectual and quietistic. Ultimately Burke would dwell with Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Spinoza, Santayana, and many more in active contemplation, though the modern as opposed to the medieval world would more likely consider it inactive instead. Burke’s true inaction, however, must be seen in relationship to his “Marxoid” trust in passion.
2) Burke’s Marxoidism
Burke was not particularly drawn to political action. As noted before, his tendencies may have been liberal, even radical (like many of his friends’), but he had no faith that political action would solve the world’s problems, for most of the world’s problems were endemic to language. There could be no rhetorical solution (socio-political action) to an ontological problem (our division from one another and from Nature due to language).49 Rhetoric might compensate for division (RM 22), but it could never cure. The cure is the homeopathic medicine of catharsis or transcendence prescribed in the Symbolic.
If there were something to turn to in lieu of such medicine, Burke would turn to passion, not action—the recalcitrance of Nature and the body as corrective to the waywardness of language’s entelechial generation of socio-political, economic systems. Such passion would constitute a Marxoid materialistic corrective to the idealistic world. Note Marxoid, not Marxist.
In the Grammar Burke argues that, so far as dramatistic terminology is concerned, Marxist philosophy begins by grounding agent(idealism) in scene (materialism) but requires a systematic featuring of act given its poignant concern for ethics; in other words, Marx, an “idealistic materialist,” should be grammatically classified with Aristotle and Spinoza as a “realist” (or “naturalist”)—like Burke. Consequently, Burke offers “a tentative restatement of Marxist doctrine formed about the act of class struggle”—what he calls a “somewhat Spinozist” characterization consistent with Soviet philosophical thought during the ‘20s and ‘30s but also with Burke’s own philosophical stance (GM 200-01, 209-13).
There may be significant similarities between dramatism and Marxism, but Burke is heterodox. He accepts the idealistic-materialistic dialectic as descriptive of the dynamic underlying social change, but not the Marxist eschatology. Sub specie aeternitatis all revolutions are for Burke essentially the same, ultimately leading to but another revolution, one system of inequality being replaced by another that perhaps may be for a moment more adequate to the demands of a particular time and place, but only for a moment until the entelechia of the system’s genius is pursued.
Burke features action but never revolution. As revolution nears, rhetoric becomes increasingly apocalyptic, evincing an attitude that Burke abhors. Where the revolutionary fervently seeks victimage (“off with his head”), Burke calmly seeks transformation. If he would be moved to act, he would act with reluctance, with the sad sense that action was a necessity—but such an attitude would change the act’s quality. Where others would want blood, Burke would be bloodless, but resigned.
Burke would balance action and inaction in a manner consistent with Richard Whately, but even more so (surprisingly enough) with Thomas Kuhn given the significance of recalcitrance. In Whately the impulse for change is checked by privilege accorded the status quo (given the Platonic suspicion that change leads to turmoil and chaos). Argument for action must overcome presumption for inaction. Advocates of change bear the burden of proof.
In science, the same rules of presumption apply. Kuhn contends the reigning paradigm is privileged. But the recalcitrance of Nature produces anomalies that resist paradigmatic explanation, eventually leading to crisis, revolution, and the reign of a new paradigm. Ideally, change would be brought about by rhetoric, not violence—not such as physicists bombing cyclotrons.
Burke’s interpretation of such change is also Marxoid; like Kuhn, he assumes no direction toward an ultimate end, rather an endless repetition of cycles. Kuhn (and perhaps Burke) would measure progress as distance from rather than movement toward. But Burke, given his critique of modern science and technology, was reluctant to characterize any changes in the modern world as progressive. In fact he would have seen increasing concern for ecology as an instance of Nature’s recalcitrance, a materialistic resistance to the idealistic waywardness of modern science and technology. 50
Burke replaced the idea of progress (“and its bitter corollary, decadence”) with that of an ahistoric norm—the notion that the aims and genius of bodies that learn language have remained fundamentally the same; that language may tempt us to stray far from our biological sources, but our bodies repeatedly struggle “to restore, under new particularities, the same basic patterns of the good life”; that historic orientations change, but “the essentials of purpose and gratification” do not, for they are grounded in neurological structures that remain the same (PC 159, 162-63, 271).
Recalcitrance gives rise to more adequate ideas—“the suffered is the learned”—helping us to free ourselves from the consequence of linguistic confusion (DD 31-32; GM 38-41). Recalcitrance then should give rise not to trivial but necessitous change.
3) Burke’s Conservatism
Burke’s ahistoric, even apolitical attitudes—his quietistic resignation, his trust in recalcitrance—cannot themselves evade the historically situated world. Action may remain suspect, but both action and inaction have socio-political consequence.
Drama may involve linguistic action for itself alone. So on the one hand, universal catharsis effected by drama would be ontological, healing for a moment the breach between verbal and nonverbal—by language, through language, beyond language. But on the other, civic catharsis would be partisan and political—i.e., conservative.
Drama in and of itself might be homeopathic and medicinal, exploiting tensions in the body politic for dramatic purposes, heightening the emotion, then effecting purgation as a “cure.” Outside the drama, the world re-entered remains the same. Drama helps us cope with things as they are; it constitutes a ceremonial rhetoric that aids in managing and maintaining the status quo. Drama’s “purposes” are purely internal to itself (linguistic action for itself alone), but it does have external—conservative —consequence. 51
Rueckert reminds us (Drama 128) that Burke’s representative anecdote is not merely drama but ritual drama—i.e., purgative-redemptive. Playwright Bertolt Brecht argues not all drama is such. He advocates a non-Aristotelian, anti-cathartic drama whose central term is not identification (by means of which the audience enters empathetically into the drama), but alienation (by means of which empathy is held in check for the sake of intellectual deliberation rather than emotional purgation).
As a Marxist, Brecht would consider his drama didactic; the less ideologically inclined would consider it rhetorical. In Ciceronian terms, Brecht would teach us (because knowing the truth leads to acting upon it); others would move us to action. Didactic or rhetorical, the socio-political intent of anti-cathartic drama would be to stimulate thought and action; whereas cathartic drama would stir emotion, then rest in resignation (emotions that are the impetus for action, emotions that further change having undergone purgation). 52
Anti-cathartic Brechtian drama would be activist; cathartic Burkeian drama would not. If the representative anecdote for a system of thought were conservative, the system would be too. Had Burke chosen Brechtian rather than Aristotelian drama as his representative anecdote, the resulting system would not be recognizably Burkeian.
Ironically Burke himself has advocated the adoption of Brechtian technique—specifically, the method of perspective by incongruity as a means for encouraging re-orientation. Like alienation, incongruity at first disorients, then puzzles and intrigues, then hopefully stimulates thought which may eventually lead to change. Re-orientation might seem to be no more than change in attitude, but attitudes after all are incipient acts.
If there is any early Burke that late Burke left behind, it would be a true appreciation for the immense rhetorical power of this device. Permanence and Change is one long perspective by incongruity; and meta-biology a perspective by incongruity that forces a re-orientation of thought about meta-physics along more Aristotelian (and Burkeian) lines.
Had Burke pursued this device further, we might have come to know a different Burke, one more open to rhetoric. But the direction had already been chosen with the mystic inclinations in Permanence and Change itself, if not the cathartic form in Counter-Statement. 53
4) Burke’s Anti-Rhetoricism
The virtues of rhetoric are two, according to Thomas Conley in Rhetoric in the European Tradition: rhetoric is 1) a system for managing uncertainty and 2) a method for avoiding violence. For Conley, the need for rhetoric arises out of uncertainty. For Burke, however, the need for rhetoric arises out of mystic and linguistic absolutes—division and a desire for merger (see GM402-04). Rhetoric is the exploitation of uncertainty, and its very essence is war.
Burke would consider the phrase the “virtues of rhetoric” oxymoronic rather than descriptive of his position. Burke’s characterization of rhetoric is less recognizably Isocratic, Aristotelian, or Ciceronian than Platonic especially when his medicine for the rhetoric that ails us is drama or Platonic dialectic. Rhetoric for him “is par excellence the region of the Scramble, of insult and injury, bickering, squabbling, malice and the lie, cloaked malice and the subsidized lie” (RM 19). His study of rhetoric leads us through “the state of Babel after the Fall,” through “the Wrangle of the Market Place, the flurries and the flare-ups of the Human Barnyard, the Give and Take, the wavering line of pressure and counterpressure, the Logomachy, the onus of ownership, the War of Nerves, the War" (RM 23).
Burke concedes that rhetoric may have “its peaceful moments: at times its endless competition can add up to the transcending of itself. In ways of its own, it can move from the factional to the universal.” But, but, but, but, but, he continues (like a rational egoist conceding altruism does exist—as disguised egoism ), “its ideal culminations are more often beset by strife as the condition of their organized expression, or material embodiment. Their very universality becomes transformed into a partisan weapon. For one need not scrutinize the concept of ‘identification’ very sharply to see, implied in it at every turn, its ironic counterpart: division” (ibid.)
The cluster analysis associated the terms act with the Symbolic and purpose with the Rhetoric. Understanding why Burke would characterize rhetoric the way he does requires going roundabout through a discussion of pure action before returning to a strangely purposeful purposelessness of pure persuasion—i.e., the essence of rhetoric.
In dramatism the central term is act, the other four terms being derived from it. For Burke, “a fully-rounded vocabulary of motives will locate motives under all five aspects” of the pentad. But in doing so there would be a tendency “to slight the term, act, in the very featuring of it.” What then would be an act whose motive was the act itself? What would be pure action?
Burke turns to a long and complex analysis of the Act of Creation. His analysis indicates pure action would be magical, arbitrary, new. If the scene is there already, and the nature of the agent given, along with the instrumental conditions and the purposes, then novelty could be found only “if there were likewise a locus of motivation within the act itself,” a newness not already present in the other elements (GM 65). In brief, says Burke, there must be “some respect in which the act is causa sui, a motive of itself” (ibid. 66).
Considering a protracted act, such as writing a long book (poetic action for Coleridge being the “dim analogue of Creation”), the act of writing would bring up “problems and discoveries intrinsic to the act, leading to developments that derive not from the scene, or agent, or agency, or extrinsic purposes, but purely from the foregoing aspects of the act itself.” That is, he continues, there would be “nothing present in the agent or his situation that could have led to the final stages of this act, except the prior stages of the act itself, and the logic which gradually takes form as the result of the enactment” (GM 67).
Burke characterizes as “poetic” the use of language for its own sake. Bodies that use language take an intrinsic delight in the “architectonic” or “developmental” exercise of language, the
engrossment in tracking down the implications of a symbol-system (as when a geometry, for instance, is reduced to a set of definitions, axioms, and postulates, and then various propositions are demonstrated to be deducible from these principles—or when looking closely at one term, we discover a whole cluster of ideas implicit in it and disclosable by methodical analysis of it). The most sustained gratification of symbol-systems is in such contemplation of the inter-relationships prevailing among the terms of the system. (“Poetic Motive” 60)
Bodies that use language take delight in the sheer exercise of their being, in doing that which distinguishes them from all other animals, in using language purely for the sake of using language, of acting purely for the sake of acting alone (Rueckert,“Language of Poetry” Essays 38).
It is by language that we are tempted into articulation and Fall into division out of a desire to give full expression to all the possibilities of language; and it is through giving full expression to language, in following it thoroughly and completely through all its possibilities, that we are carried beyond language and division to a transcendent realm of merger. There is Crocean catharsis in getting it going and Aristotelian catharsis in getting it done.
The catharsis effected through dialectic or drama (an act) has a universal aspect through which ontological divisions are cured; and a partisan aspect through which historical divisions are but momentarily overcome, in that the drama or dialectic must be situated in a particular time and place (scene) with personal and socio-political consequence (i.e., outside the short run nothing really changes). Burke was to have investigated the personal dimension in the Ethics (associated with agent) and the socio-political in the Symbolic—though it would more properly belong to the Rhetoric (associated with purpose and agency). The author and the audience by means of their identification with dramatic or dialectical terms are purged of divisive tensions and thus enabled to cope for a moment with their personal and their public lives within an ongoing status quo.
Identification is more normally associated with writers and readers (or spectators) of a literary text (or performance). Burke appropriates this poetic or dramatic term for rhetoric through the analysis of literary texts—Milton’s Samson Agonistes and Arnold’s “Empedocles on Etna” and “Sohrab and Rustum” (though ironically, such identifications would come to be more properly investigated in the Ethics once it had split from the Symbolic). It is through identification that a person enters the text or performance and is carried to catharsis.
To the extent that ontological divisions are overcome by means of catharsis in its universal aspect, the poetic identifications (actually the consubstantiality—see below) that make(s) it possible to enter the text or performance would be considered benign. But to the extent that historical divisions (be they personal or socio-political in nature) are never truly overcome by means of catharsis in its more partisan aspect, those rhetorical identifications that make it possible to enter the text or performance would ultimately be considered malign.
In brief, the Symbolic would investigate identifications (consubstantiality) that make(s) for the end of division in transcendent merger; whereas the Rhetoric would investigate problematic identifications or misidentifications that make for perpetual division (see Trevor Melia’s 1970 review of the Rhetoric in Philosophy and Rhetoric).
The key term in the Grammar was substance. “The nearest equivalent in the areas of persuasion and dissuasion,” Burke tells us, would be identification. Clearly the two terms are not synonymous. A’s being identified with B is not the same as A’s being consubstantial with B, but A's being “consubstantial” instead—i.e., Burke has set the term off in quotation marks, implying identification is merely like consubstantiality (RM 21). Operations described in the Symbolic succeed because they are based on consubstantiality—all bodies that learn language are substantially the same; whereas operations described in the Rhetoric are problematic because they are based merely on identification—bodies that share interests merely identify. Rhetoric thrives on the confusion.
Burke tells us that “identification is affirmed with earnestness precisely because there is division” (RM 24). There would be no strife in pure identification and none in absolute division. “But put identification and division ambiguously together, so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other begins, and you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric” (ibid. 25). Of course, putting them together is easier when rhetoric operates in the covert, unconscious, half-intentional realm of Burkeian identification rather than the overt, conscious, fully intentional realm of Aristotelian persuasion.
In that realm of the confused and not fully articulate, Burke invites us “to collaborate in spying [emphasis mine] upon ourselves with pious yet sportive fearfulness, and thus helping to free one another from the false ambitions that symbolism so readily encourages” (“Poetic Motive” 63).
Poetic action for itself alone brings Peace; rhetorical action brings War. War is “the ultimate disease of cooperation” (RM 22), 54 the ultimate instance of “putting identification and division ambiguously together.” War is the ultimate disease of malign (or malignant) identification; the ultimate instance of “ideal culminations” beset by “strife as the condition of their organized expression or material embodiment,” of ideal culminations whose “very universality becomes transformed into a partisan weapon” (ibid. 19). War for Burke is a special case of peace—“not as a primary motive in itself, not as essentially real, but purely as a derivative condition, a perversion” (ibid. 20)—much like evil for Augustine.
War is the ultimate instance of pure persuasion in contrast with pure action. If persuasion were a means to an end, then pure persuasion (i.e., persuasion for persuasion’s sake) would constitute a perpetual means to no end, because pure persuasion could never come to its end. So, if what we ultimately seek is the end of all division (i.e., merger or union), then in war the unity we seek could never be attained except as diseased union and never maintained except by means of perpetual division. True unity could never be achieved by opposition, because there would always be a need for an enemy to oppose, an enemy in opposition to which we would stand united. Merger or union would be due to division. What we would achieve then would be false. Pure persuasion would be perverse in that it would be seeking never to achieve that which it would be ever seeking to achieve. 55
In the Grammar Burke claims the philosophical stance corresponding with the featuring of purpose (or end) would be mysticism (128). Insofar as agency (or means) may be treated as a reduction of purpose (much as motion is treated as a reduction of action) (310), the stance corresponding with such featuring of agency would be a reduction of mysticism, a false mysticism, an ersatzmytiken which would goad men as if by demons.
For when means become ends, and are sought to the exclusion of all else, then the man [sic] for whom they are thus transformed does indeed identify himself with a universal purpose, an over-all unitary design, quite as with mystic communion. He has a god, and he can lose himself in its godhead. He is engrossed, enrapt, entranced. And the test of such substitute mysticisms, we have said, is the transforming of means into ends.56
There are mysticisms of sex, money, drugs, crime, and “other such goadings that transform some instrumentality of living into a demonic purpose. Thus, too, there is the mysticism of war” (RM 331-32).
The ersatzmystiken of war is the ultimate instance of pure persuasion and therefore the essence of rhetoric.
There may be objections that there are forms of pure persuasion less ominous than those demonically goading us. (After all, Augustine only took a couple of apples.) There would be coquettery. But all forms of pure persuasion are essentially the same—the means to an end becomes an end in itself (flirting just to flirt). Supposedly innocent coquettishness could lead to misunderstanding and more trouble than enough. Such would be the tendency of all pure persuasions.
Flirtations do have their purposes, leading perhaps to love; and when love by flirtation is attained, flirtation does transcend itself. Rhetoric in its ideal culminations would be love. The end of rhetoric would be peace, rest, love—and at the same time the end or cessation of rhetoric, when rhetoric would transcend itself. And we stretch forth our hands through love. . . . 57
There is love in Aristotle, whose God is “the motionless prime mover that moves all else not by being itself moved, but by being loved” (GM 254); love in Augustine, whose “God has made us for Himself" so "our hearts remain restless until they rest in Him”; and love in the variation in Burke, whose NATURE has made us language-using animals, so that our hearts remain restless until language brings us to rest in IT. There is love in Plato in the Phaedrus and love in Spinoza, whose crowning motive was “the intellectual love of God” (ibid. 151). And so, in a vision of “the beloved cynosure and sinecure, the end of all desire” the Rhetoric (333) and rhetoric ends transcendently.
5) Burke’s Mysticism
Over the decades critical response to Burke has varied from appreciative to adverse. Hostile critics have chastised him for being radical or revolutionary on the one hand and conservative or anti-revolutionary on the other. Rueckert explains these hostile charges from a chronological, developmental perspective—the perspective that forms the basis for both his own study of Burke and his edition of others’ critical evaluations. Burke, he says, was “always essentially radical, revolutionary, open: he was the great acceptor and synthesizer . . . who was committed to change (change or perish, he once said) without the loss of what was permanent and valuable.” Around the mid-1950’s, however, the dramatistic vision finally set and “the radical drive that produced it began turning conservative to defend its own. . . . The truth had been revealed; the energies were now expended on applications and defense” (Critical Responses 244).58
But this chronological explanation for the contradictory antagonisms Burke provokes in his critics is not wholly adequate, not even for Rueckert. He suggests another reason that goes more to the heart of the matter. Burke’s “language-centered view of reality” prompts two kinds of opposition. The extraordinary emphasis “on purely verbal analysis and on the study of verbal system building as an end in itself” that goes with a language-centered view of reality “tends to encourage a curious kind of stoical withdrawal into an ironic contemplation of human affairs” (Critical Responses 255). Thus, Burke is opposed as a conservative whose thought encourages maintenance of the status quo.
At the same time “this language-centered view of reality always tends toward the mixing, the pluralism, the breaking down of the old categories” to which many critics of Burke object (Critical Responses 255). “Verbal action becomes the prime human act and the difference, in kind and value, between verbal acts tends to be forgotten in the emphasis on verbalization as such” (ibid. 122). Thus, Burke is opposed as a radical whose thinking threatens traditional systems of thought and action.
But the language-centered explanation is not adequate either given Burke’s position on the relationship between body and mind in bodies that learn language; it’s too idealistic.
If we approach Burke as a mystic, more sense can be made of his system and the harsh and contradictory reactions critics have had toward it. Howard Nemerov describes Burke as “radical,” “explosive,” a “lyric and rhapsodic philosopher whose entire effort is to make every poor part contain the glorious, impossible whole” (“Everything, Preferably All at Once,” Critical Responses 197-98). What are the Many when ever before Burke shines a vision of the One? How exasperating for those who do not share that vision, who insistently point to the need for clear distinctions, who turn pale and puffy at the slightest inclination toward ambiguity. But, besides Burke the radical, there is also Burke the conservative, the mystic. What is time when ever before Burke eternity shines? How infuriating for those who insist we can act meaningfully within history’s arena, who call us to forsake the heights of mystic attitude and inaction, who exhort us to come down and engage in righting wrongs.
Within the discipline of rhetoric, though the first critique (that Burke is radical) has been articulated more than once, the second (that Burke is conservative) has to my knowledge seldom been advanced. Those who attack Burke for failing to maintain proper distinctions between rhetoric and poetic attack with arguments amounting to the assumption that failure to maintain hard and fast distinctions is criminal in itself. But those who hail Burke as champion of a “new” rhetoric embrace his thought without themselves considering the consequence. Admonishers and admirers both seem blind to the ahistorical character of his work and its apolitical implications. They wax indignant, they wax indulgent, seldom noticing that in Burke’s system incentive to historical action is everywhere on the wane.
Rhetoric traditionally has been concerned with the public realm—i.e., with man’s place in the polis; so too with Burke. Of the “offices of the orator” borrowed from Cicero, Burke writes that the first (to teach, the scientific or indicative function) and the third (to move, the rhetorical or persuasive function) are externally oriented; but the second (to please, the poetic function) is internally oriented. Burke:
Man [sic] being the typically language-using species, there is for him an intrinsic delight in the sheer exercising of his distinctive characteristic (language, or symbol-using in general). This delight in itself is not addressed either to “reality” or to “the auditor.” It is a delight in the internal consistency of a symbolic structure as such. (Rueckert, “Language of Poetry” Essays 38)
But what if the products of an internally oriented act were externally directed, without critical unawareness of its difference from “reality” or “the auditor”?
Artists may be fully aware of writing a poem or play or novel, but they are not always fully aware of everything they are producing. They often incorporate elements in a work that are organically related to the whole but are not "consciously intended." To the extent that we are all artists (bodies that learn language engrossed in the sheer exercise of our distinctive trait), we would do the same, but not always with the awareness of "writing"—i.e., giving form to our desires or experiences. We would be ignorant or unaware in two and ultimately three regards—(1) our linguistically motivated act of giving form (writing a drama); (2) our linguistically motivated act of tracking down implications of our original action; and (3) our unconscious projection of such linguistic acts (dramas) onto human relations where real rather than stage blood is spilt upon the ground.
In his (rather strident) review of the Rhetoric in 1950, Richard Chase criticizes Burke for characterizing our interactions with the world in just such a fashion, writing that for Burke every aggressive act begins in
man’s incorrigible delight in creating symbols and becomes reflexive, in the sense that as an aggressor you are really only using your victim as a device for purging or transforming a principle or “trait” within yourself. Thus, on Mr. Burke’s own implicit assumption that the extensions of linguistic method are reality, are human events translated into a ghostly dumb show.
For Burke, he continues, the play’s the thing. “Nobody has ever taken so literally the idea that all the world’s a stage. Behind every human event there lurks man’s natural desire to perform symbolic acts” (“The Rhetoric of Rhetoric,” Critical Responses 253).
Chase attacks Burke’s Rhetoric as less a “Rhetoric” than a “metapolitics.”
One will be disappointed if one expects from Mr. Burke as rhetorician a firm and adequate idea of politics—and such an idea surely must be implied by (though not confused with) any responsible investigation of rhetoric. The book carries a very heavy charge of political implications, but the author, like so many of his admirers and so much of the modern world, is beyond politics. He has no idea of man as a social animal, no idea of the state, no idea of democratic, socialist, or even aristocratic institutions, and no idea, in any concrete form, of either the philosophy or the rhetoric of politics. He has “purified” politics and political man out of existence. (Critical Responses 252)
Chase is being a bit hard on Burke, but even Rueckert admits his essential attack holds. Commenting on Chase’s review, he writes that Chase objects to Burke’s tendency toward “purely verbal manipulation and problem solving,” because it is “essentially conservative and anti-revolutionary, because it substitutes verbal for real solutions and hence encourages the maintenance of the status quo. . . . There can be no question that this tendency does exist, powerfully, in Burke and that it supports the motto—toward the purification of war—of A Grammar of Motives” (Critical Responses 255).
I agree and at the same time disagree with Rueckert, pointing not to Burke’s language-centered view of reality but his mysticism as the culprit. His ahistorical, mystical ontology leads to his depreciation of historical, political action. His inclinations to inaction (being in fact disinclinations to possibly disruptive change) are consequentially conservative. But Burke’s Platonic suspicion of change on the one hand is balanced on the other by his Marxoid faith in the recalcitrance of Nature and the human body. Continuing action of the same kind grows increasingly problematic, encountering obstacles that eventually create pressure for change.
Burke analyzes this dialectic in Permanence and Change where he argues that historic institutions result from the externalization of non-historic, biologic patterns. These externalized patterns bring forth recalcitrances that eventually frustrate the same biologic needs satisfied at an earlier stage or other equally important biologic needs (PC 228-29, 257). Increasing recalcitrance leads to new patterns being externalized and embodied in new institutions, in turn bringing forth new by-products, new orders of recalcitrance, new patterns, and so on.
No matter Burke’s Platonic distaste, rhetoric would seem of necessity to be involved in such a process of change. And, given Burke’s critique of the modern world’s orientation, his writings would seem of necessity to be rhetorical—unless he believes that in his analysis he has arrived at Truth. In which case, his Platonic rejection of rhetoric is matched by his Platonic embrace of a dialectic that transcends rhetoric.
In the Grammar Burke describes the process by which we come to greater understanding (actually the dialectic of tragedy) in terms of poiema (a deed, doing, action, act; anything done; a poem), pathema (the opposite—a suffering, misfortune, passive condition, situation, state of mind; of the same root as our word “passive”), and mathema (the learned). An act (action) performed entails a sufferance (passion), which entails new insights (more adequate ideas), a moment of transcendence arising when the sufferer (who had originally seen things in unenlightened terms) is enabled to see in more comprehensive terms, modified by his suffering (GM 39, 41, 67, 241, 264-65).
Burke himself must have had such a moment—not just one among many in a continuing cycle of change, but a transcendent mystical moment when truth was manifest; and not the 1950s as Rueckert would have it (Critical Responses 244), but in the 1930s. He writes that during the early days of the Great Depression, there existed “a general feeling that our traditional ways were headed for a tremendous change, maybe even a permanent collapse.” At such times when “traditional ways of seeing and doing (with their accompanying verbalizations)” begin to lose their authority,” when the certainties by which we live are easily, inevitably brought into question, mysticism flourishes. The mystic seeks certainties sounder than those provided by the flux of history; he seeks “the ultimate motive behind human acts”—i.e., “an ultimate situation common to all men”—by “seeing around the corner of our accepted verbalizations” ( PC 221-23). Burke responded to those difficult times by writing a book—Permanence and Change—in search of the ultimate motive behind our acts, the ultimate situation common to all men.
Ultimately what all bodies genetically endowed with the ability to learn language have in common is the capacity for “action” (which assumes motion); ultimately the motive they have in common is action for the sake of action, the desire to give complete and thorough expression to the implications of language, no matter the consequence, following language itself to its ultimate ends—a motive Burke calls “poetic” or “linguistic” and a process he calls “dialectic.” Thereafter, all his endeavors are shaped by a desire to be one with that universal motive. The end of every action is contemplation of and conformity with the absolute, transcendent ground toward which language stretches. Burke sets out to write the vast piece of poetry, to unravel the vast dialectic that becomes his system. His project, in conforming to the linguistic motive, exemplifies the only kind of action that can be valid—not action as we normally conceive of it, but action for its own sake—symbolic action, dialectic.
Burke is led to develop dramatism—a qualitative science (consistent with Aristotelian naturalism) that would enable us to develop more adequate ideas concerning the extent to which we tend “to misjudge reality as inspirited by the troublous genius of symbolism” (“Poetic Motive” 63), and thereby to free ourselves from linguistic confusion (consistent with Spinoza’s conviction that to know the causes moving us is to fall victim to them no longer).
Burke’s adequate ideas would replace rhetoric as modern science’s facts would have replaced opinion—his system having been characterized by himself as a type of realism after all. In Dramatism and Development Burke tells of an ailing Eskimo tribe diagnosed as suffering from mercury poisoning. The diagnosis, he says, “was like an ‘adequate idea’ that freed them from this particular biological bondage” (DD 31). But where the semanticist’s notion of adequacy is empirical (a naming adequate to the named), Burke’s (like Spinoza’s) would be ethical (GM 148). Dramatism, says Burke, locates the ground of freedom not in the realm of physics and biology but in the realm of symbolic action (according to Spinoza, the realm of “adequate ideas” about the nature of necessity) (DD 30-32).
Having come to an adequate understanding of language and the unacknowledged extent to which linguistic motives complicate our lives, Burke would have dramatism train us “for generation after generation, from our first emergence out of infancy, and in ways ranging from the simplest to the most complex, depending upon our stage of development, to collaborate in spying upon ourselves with pious yet sportive fearfulness,” and thereby “free one another from the false ambitions that symbolism so readily encourages” (“Poetic Motive” 63).
Spinoza, says Burke, tells us that “our desires are beset by confused and inadequate ideas” because “the human essence is limited,” our being “necessarily but parts of the total divine Substance.” To that extent “the desires that characterize our nature fall on the side of the passions. But insofar as we do acquire adequate ideas, our endeavor can lead to action, power, virtue, perfection, the rational way of life” (GM 148-49).
Burke’s adequate ideas would replace rhetoric as Plato’s truths would have. 59 If Chase would criticize Burke for translating them into a “ghostly dumb show,” he would no doubt criticize Plato for translating human events into a “shadow play.” Like Plato, Burke would have us “see the light” and thereby escape our bondage, ceasing our ignorant participation in projected drama. But unlike Plato, he would seem to have envisioned no polity. Burke would be more Philosopher Teacher than Philosopher King. He would dedicate his life, not to persuasion, but to explication of his philosophy which, like Spinoza’s, was to be considered “an enterprise for so changing our attitude towards the world that we can be in the direction of peace rather than the direction of war” (i.e., the realm of rhetoric)—not a “mere change of heart” but a change prepared by “vigorous intellectual means” (GM 141-42). Chase again would seem more perceptive than he knows when he says, Burke is beyond politics, that he has “purified” politics and political man out of existence (Critical Responses 252).
Though the question of polity might be suspended, the question of how such an ethic would be sustained cannot. Community of necessity would be involved if Burke were to be other than a hermit—perhaps some semi-monastic arrangement such as Coleridge planned, peopled by poets and philosophers (vowing poverty, but not chastity) who would work the fields, whose meals would be symposia; a place suited to an Agro-Bohemian, where Burke could write while dwelling in the midst of music and ritual. But if community, then seemingly the inevitability of rhetoric. Failing such arrangements, perhaps a purposefully anachronistic retreat such as Andover where some daily discipline could be maintained while Burke corresponded with like-minded people and communicated his vision of truth to the world beyond. Perhaps a college where he could teach with no further institutional commitment.
In some such circumstance Burke could dedicate himself to his life-long task. Archaic man would have found sustenance immersing himself in ritual, symbolically slaying time so that all could be transformed, reinvigorated, reborn again and again and again and again, in eternal repetition (see Eliade); Burke would instead collapse ritual action into a state of mind where he could stand in eternity’s light and view the world in terms of a Beyond.
Drama’s medicine is catharsis and whether the catharsis effected is historical (civic or personal) or ontological, the cure would be problematic as well as temporary, necessitating an eternal repetition unto death; dialectic’s medicine is transcendence, in which catharsis is quashed or exists by fiat (SM ms. 170). The principle of transformation operates in catharsis through victimage, in transcendence in terms of a beyond, building a bridge between disparate realms, and thereby infusing or inspiriting things here and now with a new or further dimension (LSA 189-90)—i.e., the world as sacramental with every poor part containing the glorious, impossible whole (Nemerov, Critical Responses 197-98).
Stretching forth his hands each day—engrossed in tracking down and contemplating the inter-relationships prevailing among the terms of a system (“Poetic Motive” 60), whether the system were his own or one he was examining; constantly reminded of linguistic operations, how they unfold, what they ultimately imply; aware that wherever there are traces of the process of considering things “in terms of a broader scope than the terms of those particular things themselves, there are the makings of Transcendence” (LSA 200)—stretching forth his hands each day from the land of life and language to the silent realm beyond (dialectically designated the broad estates of death)60 in “a benign contemplation of death,” a thanatopsis, Burke is led (as was Santayana, as was the pious Christian) to live “a dying life” (GM 222-23).61
For all his insight, Burke would leave drama (and the agon of the world) behind and take up dialectic (and its rest and resolution). He would have drama teach us tolerance; but drama may also tempt us into problematic actions as we project internal drama onto the external world and spill real blood upon the ground. Burke would seem anxious to resolve the differences between drama and dialectic, so that he can move on to the one, the primus inter pares, the foremost among equals (see GM 140, 149). The Grammar starts with drama but ends with dialectic (the upward way of Platonic transcendence and the downward way of its translation back into time with the story of Pier Gent; then the “Dissolution of Drama” by dramatism, the dramatic act by the lyric state; and the end in Neo-Stoic resignation); the Rhetoric ends with the transcendence of rhetoric (and its problematic drama and identifications) in a mystical vision of God; and the Symbolic would seem to end with dialectical transcendence and a vision of Beyond.
It may be that Burke was as suspicious of catharsis as was Brecht; that both forsook rhetoric, believing they spoke Truth but finding difference ways to spread the Word. Brecht’s way was artistic through didactic drama, Burke’s philosophical through dialectic. Brecht took to the stage and the craft of writing plays; Burke took to the pulpit and the priestly task of “pontificating”—i.e., interpreting a temporal or natural event in terms of an ultimate eternal or supernatural ground. Brecht was a Marxist, Burke a Marxoid mystic.
In 1952 Burke gave a talk on “Mysticism as a Solution to the Poet’s Dilemma.” The modern poet, he claimed, is faced with the difficulty of creating “an ordered and (in some sense) unified work of art within a context whose chief characteristics are disorder, lack of order, or partial orders—that is, ambiguities or strife.” Mysticism provides the means for overcoming that dilemma. Just as the oxymoron combines contradictory elements in a single expression, so mysticism combines contradictory elements by referring them to some common ground lying beyond all contradiction (“Mysticism as a Solution” 95-98).
In commenting on Burke’s talk, Stanley Romaine Hopper writes that “while this appropriation of mysticism as a means is fruitful beyond a doubt,” mysticism as an end “results always in a contemplative mode.” If an art is founded on mysticism as an end, he asks,
will its strategies not be limited to such evocative uses as will fall within the mode—to poetry of ideation rather than of action [drama], to adapt a distinction used elsewhere by Burke? But this may be a serious limitation. It may suggest that a poetry of mysticism, for all its contemplative uses, may, from the religious or the existentialist points of view, be the subtlest of all romanticisms. It may be, that is, the fundamental escape from reality as “engagement,” as meeting, as reconciliation in the dynamic context of personal relations. (Mysticism as a Solution" 104-5).
Burke certainly appears to have followed the advice he himself gives the poet. And true to Hopper’s suspicion, the resulting poetry is poetry of ideation rather than action—his novel epistolary, his drama dialectical, his poetry lyric.
Burke may have turned to mysticism as a means of making sense of a century of strife. More likely he was already mystically inclined. Mysticism, he writes, “may offer solutions of structure and strategy to the artist of a purely esthetic kind,” but “their power to sustain the artist in his interpretation of life, experience and reality, is insufficient if they are appropriated in a purely esthetic way.” The strain is evident in Yeats, says Burke, and also “though in more intricate ways, in a poet so devout as Hopkins” (“Mysticism as a Solution” 103).
Burke’s appropriation was more than purely esthetic. Still, like Santayana he draws back at times from the full implications of his doctrine. Now and then the strain appears; here and there are hints of mystic accidie: “As a person we want another person, not just a symbol for that person” (LSA 342). Then death is Death, and life is dear.
6) Burke’s Criticism
When we say rhetoric, we can mean either of two things—the practice or the study (rhetorica utens or rhetorica docens, respectively, according to Burke). Up to this point the practice of rhetoric has been our subject. The question has been, What rhetorical practices does Burke’s system encourage? The answer has been, None. Burke has discouraged action and encouraged contemplation (symbolic action) instead. As far as is possible within this life, then, we are to stop being rhetors and start being poets (or dialecticians), stop using rhetoric and start contemplating it. Indeed, we are to transcend the practice by means of the study. 62 Much as before Burke would be more Philosopher Critic rather than Philosopher King.
But contemplation as advocated by Burke raises serious hermeneutic questions. Presuppositions will surely shape any observation he makes, interpretation sans presupposition being impossible. So the question becomes, how appropriate are his presuppositions to the material under study when, before word one is written, rhetoric is eschewed and poetry embraced.
Let us take, as an example, any of the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. There can be no doubt that King was engaging in rhetoric, that he meant to induce action (and form attitude as incipient action). He urged men and women to act within history, within the polis, and he believed their actions within the here-and-now meaningful.
Burke would immediately discount the rhetorical aspect as “factional” (even though he himself might agree with King!) For him King’s rhetoric would be meaningful only insofar as it transcended (ceased to be) rhetoric. Burke would emphasize the poetic aspect as “universal.” Poetry transcends history and politics, transcends the here-and-now. The rhetorical content of King’s speeches would be of but passing importance, the poetic form of lasting consequence. Without Burke most of us would fail to appreciate King’s true significance, or fail at least to appreciate it immediately. But as their factional content faded into the past, the speeches would become transparent to their universal form. What was once rhetoric would be appreciated as poetry instead. We will see then as Burke sees now.
Surely King would have resisted any such interpretation. In fact, any person holding a philosophy proclaiming that meaningful action can be taken within the arena of history would resist an interpretation denying the meaningfulness of such action. Any Christian (such as King) would accuse Burke of totally misconstruing his basic motivations, as would a Muslim or a Jew; and for all of Marx’s profound influence on Burke, any orthodox Marxist would say the same. Muslims, Christians and Jews along with Marxists believe action within the here-and-now is valid. Does not God act in history for Muslims, Christians and Jews? Did not God send Mohammed, Moses, and the prophets? Did not God himself come down from heaven and enter into history in the person of Jesus? Did not Marx himself criticize the idea of all being made right in some transcendent realm and call instead for revolution? No true Muslim, Christian, or Jew, no true Marxist could stand idly by as Burke cut the very heart from the body of his thought.63
7) Our Familiarism
The Symbolic is central to Burke’s system. Its centrality has not been readily apparent because the two great essays on catharsis have never been collected; the collected works on catharsis have been easily dismissed as eccentricities; “Beyond Catharsis” and “Platonic Transcendence” were not published until recently; and the significance of the Emerson essay has never been established (and is hardly ever cited). The PDC has not been widely distributed; the SM hardly at all and it is but a fragment. To have the whole argument, to have before us now the PDC and the reconstructed SM, is to know catharsis is central to the system—not aesthetic catharsis, but physical catharsis, established early in “Psychology and Form,” as the fundamental philosophical problem at the heart of the system, the relationship between the dual aspects of our being as bodies genetically endowed with the ability to learn language. An idealistic reading of Burke can be no more sustained than a Platonistic reading of Aristotle.
The extent to which this emerging portrait of Burke seems strange, however, is not simply the extent to which we have been denied the Symbolic’s argument, but also the extent to which we have endeavored to make him familiar. “Beyond Catharsis” and “Platonic Transcendence” were not published until recently, but their ideas were not unknown. Beyond those two, everything else was out there, though perhaps in such a way as to make neglecting the inconvenient easy. Perhaps the extent to which we did not really know him is the extent to which we did not really try.
We suppose Burke is one of us, when he should be less familiar and more strange. He was born in the 19th century. He left for college before World War I and never finished. His mind was fully formed before the Great Depression and World War II. He was seventy, having published most of his corpus, when Baby Boomers left for college and protested Vietnam. But, because he hung on into the ‘90s and became an intellectual grandfather for so many, we thought we knew him. We did not. A re-issued edition of Rueckert’s Critical Responses would be a good start on correcting false impressions. Jack Selzer and Ann George remind us of context we have forgotten or never known.
Burke was never an academic nor any of the things most academics are today. His mysticism, his quietism, his stoicism, his conservatism, his anti-rhetoricism in no way resemble our activism, our politicism, our liberalism or even radicalism, our rampant rhetoricism. His naturalism contrasts with our idealisms (loudly denied). His great self-suspicions in no way resemble our brazen self-assurances. His mind was classic and medieval. Ours is modern and post. He was steeped in history. We typically are not. We celebrate fragmentalism. He most assuredly did not. His way was systematic and synthetic, ours more piece-meal. Despite his urban upbringing in Pittsburgh, he chose to live as a rural poverty statistic without electricity until 1951 and without indoor plumbing until the 1960s when Libbie’s illness forced him to move on from his well-water and outhouse (Rueckert, Encounters 51, 90 fn 2 and 3). We live in a thoroughly digital age.
We suppose we compliment Burke most when we recognize his true genius in his anticipation of the philosophical fashions that currently fascinate us.
When we are not assuming Burke is like us, we are assuming he is not like us in stereotypical ways, that his values run contrary to our politically correct ones—e.g., he is supposedly phallo- and Euro-centric (“a dead white male”).
Some feminists have opposed Burke because of his stance on hierarchy. Consistent with his organicism, he does consider hierarchy natural, but he develops his ideas with a sophistication his critics have never matched.64 The critique of Burke is generic—behind the revolutionaries’ demand for equality (no hierarchy) is the demand for but a different system of inequality (hierarchy), as George Orwell reminds us in Animal Farm (“All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.”). There would be an old system based on competition and a new based on cooperation—but both would constitute hierarchies.
Once at a convention, I was asked along with other participants on a panel, “What movements within the discipline would discourage greater acceptance of Burke?” I answered “feminism.” All nodded in agreement. The next time round we were asked, “What movements within the discipline would encourage greater acceptance of Burke?” I answered “feminism.” The panel erupted. But Burke’s organicism is consistent with many feminist (as opposed to merely revolutionary) and ecological concerns. (See Thames, “Nature’s Physician,” fn. 20.)
On the same panel Burke’s supposed Euro-centrism came up. There is no doubt of the great appreciation Burke has for Western thought (though his opposition to many of its modern manifestations should never be forgotten). Burke’s mysticism has deep roots in Western tradition. But mysticism has deep roots in Eastern tradition too. For example M. Sivaramkrishna finds great use for Burke in general and his Emerson essay in particular in “Epiphany and History: The Dialectic of Transcendence in A Passage to India,” one of the essays collected in Approaches to E. M. Forster: A Centenary Volume, edited by Vasant Anant Shahane and published in New Delhi in 1981.
If there was cookie-cutter Aristotle, there is cookie-cutter Burke beyond the endless pentadic analyses (which the cluster analysis indicates would not be specifically rhetorical anyway). We too easily assume Burke is one of us, appreciating and protesting what we would. But, as The Lord says in Prologue in Heaven, Burke “is more complicated than that.”
Burke worked on the Symbolic intensively for two years (1950-52), whereupon the trilogy began to split with work on the Negative necessitating a tetralogy. From 1952-55 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 (in which he failed to include items later included in the SM), whereupon he concentrated on the Ethics again. Finishing work on the Rhetoric of Religion in 1960, Burke returned to the Symbolic immediately, revising and expanding the PDC. He worked intensively on the emerging SM until 1964, when he was approached by the University of California Press. In 1965 Burke finished work on Language as Symbolic Action (containing essays from both the Symbolic and the Ethics) and returned to the Symbolic once again (having withheld key essays from LSA). Even after Libbie’s death, Burke sought to finish editing his third volume of the Motivorum, finally giving up in 1978, declaring it had all been published, needing only editorial connections. Neither Burke nor anyone else collected the two definitive essays on catharsis; he never published “Beyond Catharsis” and “Platonic Transcendence” (though they were published in Unending Conversations in 2001)—the four essays he probably considered his Symbolic’s heart. If we were to reconstruct a completed SM, it would include the unfinished SM (269 pages); the remaining PDC (approximately another 200 pages) somewhat revised, minus “The Poetic Motive” (now the opening section of the SM), an essay neither Burke nor anyone else collected; and the Emerson essay, somewhat revised for continuity—close to 500 pages.
Had Burke ever published the complete tetralogy, systematically working out dramatism (his ontology) and logology (his epistemology), ultimately there would have in all probability been a Rhetoric, a Symbolic, and an Ethics (to go with the Grammar), each volume consisting of two books following a theory-criticism format given the mass of material he had generated. Rueckert’s Essays toward a Symbolic [and an Ethics] of Motives and Burke’s Rhetoric of Religion (missing the devices) seem more like the critical second book-length appendices of the Symbolic and the Ethics, respectively. Language as Symbolic Action seems like a combination of the theoretical first and the critical second of the Symbolic, plus the theoretical first and perhaps an item or two from the critical second of the Ethics, along with miscellaneous essays.
Why did Burke never complete the Motivorum?
I believe untangling the two volume (four book) Symbolic and Ethics was difficult in itself. Lines between a rhetorical and a poetic approach were not always clear. What might start as a poetic approach could metamorphose into an ethical one. Every approach was in some fundamental way logical as well, with dramatistic (ontological) issues overlapping logological (epistemological) ones.
I believe, as Rueckert did, that Burke became “a victim of his own genius” (Essays xv). One thing always led to another and then another whose implications he had to track down. There was always a new twist in the last phase that led him on to a new endeavor. If all of the Symbolic had been published and merely needed “a few editorial connectives” (Letters 288), why linger with time short over work that others could finish when there were more pressing items he had to address. What he did address makes perfect sense—an aging man, he wrote about his body (and bodies like his that learn language) and his God. And since both were significant aspects of his system, he wrote about them systematically.
Most of all, I believe there was Libbie and mortality. Libbie was a great champion of the Symbolic (Rueckert, Letters xiv) on which he was working from 1960-64, just before her illness manifested itself late in 1966. Burke was approaching his own three score and ten. Perhaps Language as Symbolic Action was a way of gathering it all together—just in case, for either or both of them, though he did preserve his publishing options for the Symbolic. Given the psychosomatic symptoms unique to each past project (Williams, UC 7), Libbie’s being identified with the Symbolic 65 and then her dying in 1969 may have led Burke to associate the work with his own mortality. Such morbid associations are hardly unknown among artists. 66 They figure into Burke’s own work on Keats. Burke harbored no comforting thought of going gentle into that good night nor of being with Libbie in eternity. He “out-lived them both” by twenty-four years, a quarter of his life, still writing, still talking (as well as he could)—vital to the end. When he died, he died without spilling the drink in his hand. Perhaps he felt to finish the Symbolic of all his books was to be finished after all—if he were ever truly to be done summing up, he would have done himself in. So he left without bothering to tidy his papers; he left us conversing instead, haggling about the Symbolic and Ethics and Motivorum and more.
Let us give thanks then, as Auden said, for Burke’s “personal song and language,” indeed, for the tangle he has left us, “Thanks to which it’s possible for the breathing still to break bread with the dead.”67
Thanks to David Blakesley of Purdue University and Parlor Press; Scott Vine, Reference Services Librarian at Franklin & Marshall College; Janie Harden Fritz, Ron Arnett, and Calvin Troup (and my other colleagues at Duquesne University who helped and encouraged me in this marathon endeavor) as well as my research assistant Celeste Grayson and my Burke seminar.
Thanks to Bill Rueckert whose words drew me into the endless conversation and clued me in to the goings on in the parlor.
Thanks to Clarke Rountree for his patience with this essay.
And finally, special thanks to my wife for her even greater patience with me.
1. The backbone of chronologies for the manuscripts that Williams developed depended upon his study of the only partially published Burke-Cowley correspondence at the Newberry Library in Chicago. None of the critical letters are contained in Paul Jay’s Selected Correspondence. The Burke community (and I, in particular) are indebted to him for his meticulous work.
2. “The Vegetal Radicalism of Theodore Roethke” (Winter ‘50-51), “Three Definitions” (Spring ‘51), “ Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method” (Summer ‘51), “Comments on Eighteen Poems by Howard Nemerov” (Winter ‘51-52), “Freedom and Authority in the Realm of the Poetic Imagination” (‘51 conference), “Form and Persecution in the Oresteia” (Summer ‘52), “A ‘Dramatistic’ View of Imitation” (Autumn ‘52), “ Ethan Brand: A Preparatory Investigation” (Winter ‘52), “Thanatopsis for Critics: A Brief Thesaurus of Deaths and Dyings” (October ’52), “Mysticism As a Solution to the Poet’s Dilemma” (‘52), “Fact, Inference, and Proof in the Analysis of Literary Criticism” (‘52 conference), “A Dramatistic View of the Origins of Language” (October & December ’52, February ‘53), and “Postscripts on the Negative” (April ’53). See James H. East, The Humane Particulars.
3. See Williams’ discussion ( UC 9-10). Also see below discussion of Rueckert’s Essays.
4. Burke indicates in his very first letter to Rueckert (August 8, 1959) that the QJS articles, the Faust essay the first section of which was “The Language of Poetry, ‘Dramatistically Considered”), and “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education” (from editor Nelson B. Henry’s Modern Philosophies and Education) are part of the Ethics (Letters 3). The “enclosed offprint” was probably “Rhetoric—Old and New,” Journal of General Education, V (April 1951), 202-09. Education plays an important role in Aristotle’s Ethics (character involving customs or manners and upbringing).
5. Burke writes tongue in cheek to William Carlos Williams on Christmas Eve that he is “in the thick of speculation on Catharsis. It’s a gruesomely easy subject to gas about, so I’m having one devil of a job trying to condense it into solidities . . .” (East, Humane Particulars 202).
6. See Rueckert, Letters 12 (July 20, 1960): “On Words and the Word,” December 1956; the Confessions, April 30, and Genesis, May 9, 1957.
7. In June 1958, having included the Oresteia essay in the PDC, Burke indicated to Cowley that he could not decide on “the advisability of retaining the long blow-by-blow description” (Williams, UC 15), suggesting he was contemplating its inclusion in another book (as above) or its abridgement which he had already undertaken.
8. See footnote 4 above. In response to Rueckert’s question about promised but still unpublished material on Coleridge, Freud [“Thinking of the Body” essay?], and Hemingway, Burke affirms it will be included in the Symbolic. The question, of course, is where—if there are to be two books in the third volume of the tetralogy, probably the second.
9. Upon finishing the Rhetoric of Religion Burke wrote Cowley in June 1960, “Well, ennihow, it’s done—so I can plague myself in other ways, such as reverting to my Poetics, into which this Logology stuff intruded, or out of which it protruded, though in such a way that required separate treatment” (Williams, UC 14).
10. Burke wrote Cowley (Williams 17) concerning the contract on January 7, 1961. According to Williams, “at the time [Burke] signed a contract with Beacon Press for the publication of The Rhetoric of Religion, he declined their offer ‘to sign for the Poetics on the same terms,’ concerned that ‘the manuscript is not in the same degree of readiness’” (emphasis mine). But Burke had already written otherwise to Rueckert (Letters 6) on January 7, 1960: “If all goes as planned, I’ll sign another document soon for the Poetics material (though I’m being a bit coy, since other notions keep cropping up, so that I can’t be sure of getting the damned thing finished by any specified date.)” So, Burke may or may not have signed a contract. But Burke wrote to Rueckert (Letters 6) on May 24, 1963: “I got so disgruntled with Beacon for their treatment of Rhetoric of Religion, I cancelled my contract with them for the Poetics Ms.” Assuming he could not cancel a contract he had not signed, Burke appears to have had a contract, though he doesn’t report when he signed or when he terminated it.
11. Burke indicates to Rueckert that he intends to include the Poe essay (“The Principle of Composition”) in his Symbolic (Letters 32, June 18, 1962). The question, again, is where; the answer, probably the same as before—in a second book.
12. Approximately 77 ms. pages of new material plus 35 more of material originally in PDC (2 having been dropped from “Imitation (Mimesis)”), plus 5 ms. pages (gained from additional titles as well as double-spaced footnotes and block quotes) yields 117 ms. pages—close to Burke’s reported 120. Move “Poetic Motive” to the beginning of the manuscript and the total comes to approximately 133 pages. “Catharsis (Civic View)” begins on 134.
13. East misidentifies the manuscript, confusing the Symbolic with Language as Symbolic Action. See fn. 326 on p. 270.
14. 1963—“The Thinking of the Body”; “Commentary on Timon of Athen”; “Definition of Man.” 1964— “On Form”; “Shakesperean Persuasion— Antony and Cleopatra”; “Art—and the First Rough Draft of Living”; “The Unburned Bridges of Poetics, or, How Keep Poetry Pure?” 1965— “Somnia ad Urinandum, More Thoughts on Action and Motion”; “ Faust II —The Ideas Behind the Imagery”; “Terministic Screens”; “Rhetoric and Poetics” (paper presented in May 1965 & published in LSA). 1966—“Version, Con-, Per-, and In (Thoughts on Djuna Barnes’ novel, Nightwood”; “Formalist Criticism: Its Principles and Limits”; “Kubla Khan: Or, A Vision in a Dream by Samuel Taylor Coleridge”; “Dramatic Form—and: Tracking Down Implications”; “Social and Cosmic Mystery: A Passage to India”; “Coriolanus—and the Delights of Faction”; “I, Eye, Ay—Emerson's Early Essay on ‘Nature’ Thoughts on the Machinery of Transcendence.”
15. Burke wrote Rueckert on November 15, 1967 (Letters 119), “the biggest reason of all for me to hate the very word ‘Pr*gr*ss.’”
16. Burke’s May 26 letter to Rueckert and his wife reads (Letters 151):
Dear B&B— Libbie is no longer with us. She got free sometime 5/25 A.M. She was so greatly pleased about the dedication of the book—and her last afternoon here, she was surrounded by the family, all of us in a good mood. I kissed her goodnight (and we said goodnight with total love, as we didn’t every night). And she went to sleep, and never woke up. And she is still so necessary to me, I’ll quasi-commune with her. There were few oldsters who were so close. K.B.
17. See above. In September 17, 1956 Burke wrote Cowley of his hopes for heading to Florida in the new year with “notes for the fourth book” (Williams, UC 13).
18. Now realized by Scott L. Newstok (ed) in Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare with Parlor Press (2007).
19. Burke mentioned the “Sinballix wolume” in a January 13, 1978 letter (Letters 241). Rueckert’s response (not included in the correspondence) provokes the list which is as it appears in Burke’s letter with items included in Rueckert’s Essays in bold and items in his On Human Nature in bold italics.
I agree with your notion that my tentative twist anent the various Sinballix items was wrong. Here’s the list, roughly to date:
Kinds of Criticism; Three Definitions; Othello; King Lear; Burke and Hopper on “Mysticism”; Thanatopsis for Critics; A ‘Dramatic’ View of Imitation; Ethan Brand; Symbol and Association; The Poetic Motive; The Carrot and the Stick (?); On Catharsis, or Resolution; Catharsis - Second View; Dramatic Form - Tracking Down Implications; Comments (?Western Speech, 68); Kermode Revisited; Poetics [sic] and Communication; On Creativity - A Partial Retraction; Towards Helhaven; Doing and Saying; Dramatism and Development (probably just the second); As I was Saying; Why Satire; Dancing With Tears in my Eyes; Towards a Total Conformity (?); Invective Against the Father (possibly Words Anent Logology?); possibly comments on my review of Steiner’s After Babel, binnuz I think that my pernt [sic] about the necessarily analogical aspect of language is basic, otherwise no expression could be applied to two situations, since no two situations are identical in detail. Hence, my theory of “entitlement” must be reaffirmed. I forget whether I ever showed you the stuffo on “(Nonsymbolic) Motion/ (Symbolic) Action” (which Critical Inquiry is to publish, and of which I believe I should publish at least portions. And I incline to feel that some of the Theo-Logo stuff should be referred to, in a kind of Summing-up. . . .
Incidentally, the items I listed are not in the order of their appearance. But I’d be most grateful for any suggestions pro or con, incl. possibility that you may have quite different emphases in mind. (Incidentally, over and under and before and behind it all, keep reminded that ultimately this job is replacing archetype with entelechy, as per the second of the two Clark U. essays on Dramatism and Development.)
See also Rueckert’s Drama 291-92.
20. Perhaps what became On Human Nature
21. In 1982 at the Eastern Communication Association (ECA) Conference in Hartford, Connecticut (on a panel sponsored by then First Vice-President James Chesbro!), Jane Blankenship, Rueckert, and I presented papers to which Trevor Melia responded. The next day at the main event organized by Chesbro, Bernard Brock and Parke Burgess presented papers to which Burke responded.
I had always thought (though I may well be mistaken) that in conversation over the course of the conference the possibility of different manuscripts had been mentioned—if not there then surely in Philadelphia at 1984’s Burke Conference or the ECA Conference that immediately followed. One late night conversation at the Hartford hotel bar between Herb Simons, Melia, and me did lead to our planning the ‘84 Conference where the Kenneth Burke Society was founded.
People may not have much cared what I had to say given Rueckert’s position that the SM (the 1993 manuscript that was a near duplicate of my 1974 manuscript) was a first draft of the PDC—though why Burke would be carrying around the first draft of a 1958 manuscript in 1974 was never addressed. Most likely, they simply forgot.
22. A significant portion of my dissertation—Mystical Ontology in Kenneth Burke: Consequences for His Theory of Rhetoric—was dedicated to the Symbolic and the Ethics, Burke’s mystical ontology being central to ritual catharsis involving verbal-nonverbal relations. References were to the published articles rather than the manuscript whenever possible. The cluster analysis of Burke’s Motivorum (see below) was part of the dissertation, though the presentation was more (actually overly) systematic.
23. Burke used this phrase in a dinner conversation with me and Barbara Biesecker among others on November 5, 1987 at the SCA Convention in Boston. See Burke’s essay “In Haste” (330): “. . . our bodies being physiologically in the realm of nonsymbolic motion, but genetically endowed with the ability to learn a kind of verbal behavior I call symbolic action.” Also “(Nonsymbolic) Motion/(Symbolic) Action” (811-12): “ . . . our anthropoid ancestors underwent a momentous mutation. In their bodies (as physiological organisms in the realm of motion) there developed the ability to learn the kind of tribal idiom that is here meant by symbolic action.” And “. . . the mutation that makes speech possible is itself inherited in our nature as physical bodies.” See also Burke’s 1981 essay, “Variations on ‘Providence’” (Letters 274).
24. See John Herman Randall, Jr., Aristotle 253-55. Randall is another of the great Aristotelians to emerge from Columbia University early in the 20th century along with Richard McKeon and Burke. The temporal versus the logical relationship between the language-user and the language-using community is a problem Burke works through in “A Dramatistic View of the Origins of Language”—evolution being a problem that Aristotle never had.
25. The interviewers at All Area in 1980-81 get this matter right—they describe “Bodies That Learn Language” as a work in progress, “the final reduction of his epistemology Logology, which he distinguishes from his ontology Dramatism” (On Human Nature 341).
26. Burke also synonymizes “metaphor” and “perspective” in his “Four Master Tropes” essay (GM 503-17).
27.Master Poems of the English Language. See Rueckert, Letters 69, 73, and 80. At the time I was taking an independent study in “Poetry and Theology” from homiletics professor David Buttrick, then of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, later of Vanderbilt Divinity School.
Buttrick was a great fan of Burke. His lectures introduced me to rhetoric and the problems of catharsis in preaching. His analysis of the parables influenced the subsection below on “Burke’s Conservatism.” Buttrick contended that the parables constituted a sophisticated blend of identification (e.g., hiring more workers as the day went on with the harvest still not done) and alienation (paying all of the workers the same amount no matter how many hours they worked). A Burkeian analysis would have to be built around perspective by incongruity. See Buttrick, Speaking Parables.
28. See Frederick M. Barnard’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries on “Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch)” and “Spinozism”. See also G. L. Kline (ed.), Spinoza in Soviet Philosophy. Bernard observes that Spinoza’s conatus (the drive toward self-preservation) has been interpreted as one ancestor of Freud’s libido. He notes, “Spinoza also anticipated Freud in the view that to become aware of causes which move us is no longer to fall victim to them.” See also David Bidney, The Psychology and Ethics of Spinoza. Spinoza may seem an odd choice as a major influence on Burke. Marx and Freud are cited more often. But an interest in them could lead quite naturally to an interest in Spinoza. Finally, see Richard McKeon’s doctoral dissertation, The Philosophy of Spinoza: The Unity of His Thought.
29. See Meikle’s “History of Philosophy: The Metaphysics of Substance in Marx” in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Marx (304). See also Meikle’s Essentialism in the Thought of Karl Marx and Aristotle’s Economic Thought.
30. See Religion and the Rise of Capitalism 36.
31. Aristotle’s own father was physician to Phillip in the court of Macedonia—the contact that led to Aristotle’s tutoring Alexander.
32. See On Human Nature 367. Asked in the All Area interview if he were “rebounding against a kind of naïve Marxism” in Permanence and Change, Burke confessed to rebounding against Christian Science instead, saying, “There’s an awful lot about that book that was really secularizing what I learned as a Christian Scientist. All this psychogenic stuff . . . there’s no other secular book in the world where you find so much of that published at the time. I got that from Mary Baker G. Eddy, and secularized it!” See Michael Feehan, “Kenneth Burke and Mary Baker Eddy,” UC 206-24.
33. See Sterling Lamprect’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Woodbridge, Frederick J. E.” Woodbridge taught philosophy (1902-37) and served as dean of the faculty (1912-29) at Columbia. He founded and edited the Journal of Philosophy which he used to lure John Dewey to Columbia. His was the guiding spirit of contemporary naturalism (Joseph Blau, Men and Movements in American Philosophy 300). Herbert Schneider (Blau’s contemporary at Columbia) numbers him among the founders of American realism—the terms naturalism and realism tended to be use synonymously at the time—along with Dewey, Morris Cohen, C. S. Peirce, George Herbert Mead, C. I. Lewis, and Alfred North Whitehead (History of American Philosophy 517; see also Sources of Contemporary Philosophical Realism in America). According to Lamprecht his influence as a teacher “went deep and is clearly responsible for the revival in the United States of Aristotelian trends of thought.” He taught Burke (a course in Bergson—Seltzer, Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village 186), McKeon (who dedicated his Philosophy of Spinoza to him), Randall (who became the Woodbridge Professor of philosophy), Blau, and Herbert Hantz (Biological Motivation of Aristotle). William Shea, a student of Randall and Blau, reports that debate over Woodbridge’s ideas occurred even in the early 1970s among senior faculty at Columbia–“men who had studied under him or considered his work so much a part of the school’s traditions that they studied it carefully” (Naturalists and the Supernatural 167).
34. See J. H. Woodger, Biological Principles, cited twice by Burke—though incorrectly (as J. M. Woodger, p. 93; as M. H. Woodger, p. 232). Woodger was a leading biological theorist and the father of organismic biology. See T. A. Gouge’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Woodger, Joseph Henry,” and Morton O. Beckner’s entry on “Organismic Biology” as well as his Biological Way of Thought. Marjorie Grene’s Portrait of Aristotle also discusses the movement (which drew on Aristotle).
35. See On Human Nature 347: “Endocrinologists, they’d tell me anything.” From the All Area interview.
36. Inclined toward homeopathy and a Swedenborg to boot.
37. See Richard H. Thames, “Nature’s Physician: The Metabiology of Kenneth Burke,” Kenneth Burke and the 21st Century.
38. A Crocean rather than Aristotelian catharsis (LSA 188).
39. Death is a solace “when the ravages of time make men ready to leave life,” says Burke (RR 306). “It’s a solace to know that one is not condemned to have to live forever. In the implications of the irreversible flow of time there is also a promise of freedom.”
40. A tendency much discussed with Kathleen Farrell (Literary Integrity and Political Action: The Public Argument of James T. Farrell).
41. See Robert Frost, “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep,” The Poetry of Robert Frost, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1969, p. 301.
42. In an April 22, 1958 letter to Cowley, Burke writes, “As for the various analyses of particular works or authors I have published in gazettes (pieces of a few thousand words each): I may not use them at all, but simply offer them as a separate volume” (Williams, UC 14). In a June 13, 1958 postcard to Cowley after multi-lithing the PDC Burke writes that he will, as he did with the Grammar, “probably add an appendix containing some of [his] essays already published in magazines” (Williams, UC 15).
43. See footnote 14 for the list of articles.
44. Though they share Cicero’s offices as a starting point, this essay and the “Language of Poetry” essay are quite different.
45. Note how this passage recalls the discussion of substance in the Grammar.
46. The thesis of my dissertation (endnote 20 above) and a theme of my paper at the ’82 ECA convention. Prior to the convention Melia had reminded Burke of my dissertation and told him about my paper. After responding to Brock and Burgess (and much to my surprise and surely the surprise of much of the audience who had no idea who in the world he was talking about), Burke launched into “this guy Thames” who said he was ahistorical.
47. Burke’s discussion of Santayana (along with Aristotle and Spinoza, one of the major philosophers studied at Columbia in Woodbridge’s time) is illuminating: Biological action being equated with utility in Santayana, says Burke, spiritual action would transcend it. Spiritual action, itself being a fulfillment, would “love to dwell upon fulfillments”; so, its ultimate delight would be in the contemplation of essence,
which in the last analysis is a benign contemplation of death. The realm of essence is thus ultimately a thanatopsis. And though Santayana draws back at times from the full implications of his doctrine, reminding himself and us that he belongs to the world of rational Greek materialism, it is his serene doctrine of essence that seems most distinctive of him. . . Reading him, we do feel that it might be enough to cultivate the contemplation of essences, simply through love of dwelling in the vicinity of terms at rest and at peace, terms that would serve as much as terms can to guide us through a long life of euthanasia. (GM 222-23)
Pious Christians, Burke continues, are urged to “live a dying life” (ibid. 223).
48. Coincidentally, Tillich taught at Columbia University’s Union Theological Seminary and is buried in New Harmony, Indiana, the location for the first conference of the new, legally formed nonprofit corporation, the Kenneth Burke Society.
49. “NO HOPE!” Burke exploded one evening in the 1974 seminar when provoked by Robert Ezzell, a homiletics professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He meant no hope of heaven, but clearly meant “no hope” in other ways as well, because the issue was the impossibility of a rhetorical solution to an ontological problem.
50. See Richard Thames, “Nature’s Physician: The Metabiology of Kenneth Burke,” Kenneth Burke and the 21st Century.
51. Burke writes in Dramatism & Development (14-15) that George Thomson (Aeschylus and Athens) “puts us on the track of symbolic devices whereby tragedy (in its role as a civic ceremony) can symbolically transcend modes of civic conflict that, in the practical realm of social relations, are never actually resolved within the conditions of the given social order (and the conflicts ‘natural’ to it),” thereby necessitating repetition—“Hence tragic purges, twice a year.”
52. An excellent example is the recent Off-Broadway (later on Broadway) hit musical Urinetown. The story is set in a near-future in which disastrous water shortage has led to political and corporate control of all water, including (being delicate) the water each of us makes. There is a ban on all private toilets; people have to pay to pee and are prosecuted if they don’t comply. (Burke would have been intrigued!) The theme is corporate and political corruption and greed. The music and dance are entertaining, but their treatment is integral to the message, consistent with their perfection by Kurt Weill and Brecht as alienation effects. Recent musicals that rely on the same effects are Cabaret and Chicago by Kander and Ebb. See John Willett’s translation of Brecht on Theatre and John J. White’s Bertolt Brecht’s Dramatic Theory.
53. The distinction between poetic and rhetorical is probably born out of the distinction between the psychologies of form and of information. The distinction is itself a recasting of the form-content dichotomy. Form is ahistorical, its appeal being generic—i.e., it appeals to bodies that learn language as bodies that learn language in general; while content is historically situated, its appeal being more specific—i.e., it appeals to bodies that learn language in a particular time and place. The appeal of form lasts; it bears repetition. The appeal of information becomes dated or historically irrelevant; it requires something new—often the imaginative resurrection of historical context so that the information is seen in a new light.
Burke’s observations are pertinent to the academy. Courses in the sciences could be built on the psychology of form, but more often they are built on the psychology of information given the body of new information being continuously developed. Unfortunately, many courses in the humanities are taught the same way, when there is no corresponding body of new information and when form could be found by tracing historical development. Rather than develop form, teachers introduce new perspectives as new developments, eulogistically redefining avoiding boredom as keeping up with new ideas—i.e., staying in fashion. Courses in the social sciences are taught like those in the sciences though the challenges are more like those found in the humanities. Rather than develop form, teachers introduce new vocabulary as new information, eulogistically redefining staying in fashion as keeping up to date with progress in the field—i.e., calling fashion science.
54. Burke’s terminology here is suggestive of Plato who spoke of philosophy in terms of health as medicine (or nutrition) and gymnastic (or exercise) with rhetoric respectful of philosophy or truth being respectively cookery or cosmetic; and rhetoric separate from philosophy or truth being respectively like junk food or liposuction both of which may seem good but are actually harmful.
55. Pure persuasion would be “a single need, forever courted, as on Keats's Grecian Urn” (Rhetoric 275), where the lover eternally leans to kiss his love: “Forever wilt thou love and she be fair.” The lovers dwell in a state of suspended animation, divided, forever denied the consummation they seek.
In a way, the image of the unburied throng stretching forth their hands for love of the farther shore would also be an image of pure persuasion, to the extent that they can never cross until there remains are properly interred. Creon’s decision to inter but one of Antigone’s brothers would have condemned him to eternal wailing from the wrong side.
56. For Aristotle, money is a means to commodity exchange; wealth is a means to the good life. The pursuit of a means such as money or wealth is end-less and therefore irrational. For Augustine and Tillich, the pursuit of money or wealth or power is endless and ultimately unfulfilling because they do not constitute true ends; the ultimate end of all our striving is God whether we realize it or not.
57. Burke develops a decidedly naturalistic account of the mystical experience which, he claims, would have its bodily counterpart even if attributed to supernatural sources. Following the work of neurologists like Charles Sherrington (cited throughout the corpus), Burke explains that movement is made possible by the coordinated flexing and relaxing of opposed muscles. If conflicting impulses expressed themselves simultaneously, if nerves controlling opposed muscles all fired at once, movement would be impossible. The pronounced sense of unity to which mystics habitually testify could involve just such a neurological condition, and terms of pure action and/or total passivity would accurately describe such a state (PC 248; GM 294; RM 330-31).
If a taste of new “fruit” is knowledge—or, given Burke’s sly allusion to “forbidden fruit,” if sexual intercourse is considered carnal knowledge—then the experience of a rare and felicitous physical state would be so too. The mystic, reasons Burke, would be convinced his experience was “noetic,” conveying a “truth” beyond the realm of logical contradiction, constituting a report of something from outside the mind, a “communication with an ultimate, unitary ground” (RM 330-31). The sense of attainment accompanying it would be “both complete and non-combative,” suggesting a oneness with the universal texture as thorough as that experienced in the womb (PC 248)—or, dare one suggest, sexual orgasm. Burke might be coyly suggesting just such an interpretation—and such an interpretation would explain a mystic’s recourse to erotic imagery.
Of interest is philosopher/theologian Jacques Maritain’s letter to Burke (6 March 1949) reacting to this naturalist explanation (perhaps a passage shared from the forthcoming 1950 Prentice-Hall edition of the Rhetoric?): “I read your page on mystical experience with great interest and great dissent. I do not deny, of course, the bodily counterpart, but I think that (when mystic experience is genuine) it is only tuning–or weakness and deficiency–of the instrument. The content of this experience cannot be explained by any nervous state of ‘inner contradiction’ and any unusual sensory condition. The process that you describe, and which makes the noetic value of the experience obviously illusory, seems to me to apply to quietist, spurious mystical states. When the mystic state is to be ascribed to supernatural sources, it must have a supernatural content, both knowledge and love. Did you read Bergson’s pages on mystical experience and nervous disturbance in Les Deux Sources [de la morale et de la religion] ? They seem very wise to me.” (Kenneth Burke Collection, Pattee Library, the Pennsylvania State University)
Continuing along the same lines, we should note Burke’s comments regarding “the tearful outbursts of an audience at a tragedy as a surrogate for sexual orgasm,” with 18,000 Athenians weeping in unison as an analogue of “what was once a primitive promiscuous sexual orgy” (Dramatism & Development 14; GM 186). The analogy is particularly apt given Mircea Eliade’s analysis of the centrality of sex and victimage in his study of the archaic ontology implicit in myth and ritual (Myth of the Eternal Return). See Thames, Mystical Ontology in Kenneth Burke (dss.)
58 .Rueckert’s stance is similar to the standard account of generational change in the sciences that Kuhn undercuts—a young man’s discoveries become an old man’s dogmas. Paradigm change comes from scientists that are young (James Watson) or new to the field (Francis Crick) because they are more likely to lack the degree of commitment to the paradigm typical of other scientists.
59. Obviously the empirical “facts” of modern science are not equivalent to Plato’s rational “truths.” Though Plato was an idealist and Aristotle and Burke naturalists, Plato’s influence on both would still be possible.
60. See Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Your face is like a chamber where a king,” Collected Sonnets 37.
61. See above, endnote 47. See also “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), an important expression of the culture of death in 19th century America. Gary Wills reminds us of that culture’s significance in his chapter on the rural cemetery movement in Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (60-89).
See also “Thanatopsis for Critics: A Brief Thesaurus of Deaths and Dyings,” mentioned in Burke’s January 13, 1978 letter to Rueckert (Letters 241) as an essay to be included in the Symbolic. Another of the essays never collected.
62. In the Grammar (442) Burke says the practice of rhetoric (rhetorica utens) “would cause us great unhappiness could we not transcend it by appreciation”—i.e., the study of rhetoric (rhetorica docens). As we shall see, even the study of rhetoric has its problems. Also, though Burke may have thought himself able to transcend the practice by the study, most are not, instead getting angry and perpetuating it. But then we lack Burke’s great self-suspicion and so storm on in self-assurance, convinced our outrage is warranted.
63. Rueckert writes, Burke put the “third version” of the Symbolic together around 1963. He gave copies to Trevor Melia and others [see “A Supplement to the Summary” above] when he was in Pittsburgh in 1974, but “nobody did anything with it” until he [Rueckert] sent a copy to Williams and Henderson (Letters xii). Much of the above two sections were copyrighted in 1979. The author now believes he should have been less reticent about venturing outside his discipline of rhetoric to deal with the Symbolic.
64. Hierarchy exists in every concrete circumstance, since those who find themselves in a particular circumstance are more or less capable of understanding and/or acting within it (insofar as people are individual). At the same time hierarchy is also fluid and dynamic, given shifting circumstance, and complex, given overlapping circumstances (an employer asking an employee to do something the employer is incapable of doing). Since different hierarchies value different abilities, no hierarchy is fair to all—though people may consider hierarchies that value their own abilities more than fair. The values on which hierarchy is based are matters of consensus (or coercion); they are chosen, making all who choose them or acquiesce in their choice ethically responsible for the consequences.
Hierarchies emerge out of seminal choices, developing and elaborating themselves on the path to their entelechy (like the zygote to the adult). As hierarchies approach their entelechies they encounter recalcitrances, for they seek to impose themselves as hegemonic systems, final and total answers to what are in their origins but partial responses to one set of frustrations rather than others. Recalcitrances call forth new responses which in turn develop hierarchically as the seminal choices on which they are based gained acceptance.
See “2) Burke’s Marxoidism” above.
65. Burke did take a copy of Libbie’s typed manuscript with him on his literary rounds. One evening in the 1974 seminar he was moved by the discussion to pull the manuscript out of the briefcase he always carried, open it to the appropriate page, and discuss Mrs. Dalloway. I remember his pointing out the similarity between her name, Clarissa, and one of her prime qualities, being “querulous.”
It is interesting to note in this regard that Burke often referred to the former Miss Elizabeth Batterham as his “better half.” Of course Burke had onomatopoetic nicknames for all his friends and correspondents. Bill Rueckert was “Billions” and “Billiards,” Trevor Melia “the Meliorist.” Readers are therefore advised to take note of observations such as, “Intimacy with a woman must always argue special intimacy with some word or words like or nearly like the sound of her name. So they [the names of Augustine’s mistresses, “toys” or “trifles”] are there, shining out like unseen stars, ambiguously split perhaps between terms in the constellation of the divine and terms for the problematic body.” Burke notes that the term “toy” or nuga would be one possibility to explore (RR 83).
As in all things Burke, the intriguing borders on the bizarre—in this case “joycing.” Because his methods of joycing are built on Grimm’s laws of language change which in turn are built on the means by which consonants are physically produced, Burke suggests there is a deep physical significance to rhyme and puns, etc., because the physical production of words may speak more to how they are organized in the brain than their meaning. In word associations children are more likely to associate given words with similar sounds (homonyms) than similar meanings (synonyms). Burke’s observations along these lines are often ignored or dismissed, perhaps because they obligate idealistic wordsmiths to acknowledge a degree of physicality that makes them uncomfortable—that calls to mind mortality.
66. There was a 19th century superstition that no great composer would live to write a tenth symphony (Beethoven’s having completed only nine). Gustav Mahler initially avoided writing a ninth, calling the symphonic song-cycle following his eighth symphony Das Lied von der Erde instead. So his ninth was really his tenth and the tenth that he thoroughly sketched out was his eleventh. And thus he cheated death.
67. The first stanza of Auden’s poem (“The Garrison”) appropriately reads:
Martini-time: time to draw the curtains and choose a composer we should like to hear from, before coming to table for one of your savoury messes.
I remember making “Burkas” (vodka favored with scotch or bourbon) at his apartment in Pittsburgh. I don’t remember much after making them. Burke alternated drinking and taking pills for his insomnia so that he would not get hooked on either.
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- Appendix 1: PDC (Poetics, Dramatistically Considered) Summary
- Appendix 2: PDC Material Published to Date
- Appendix 3: SM (Symbolic of Motives) Summary
- Appendix 4: SM Material Published to Date
- Appendix 5: Essays towards an Ethics of Motives
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