Reading Wordsworth and Spinoza in Difficult Times

The past week and a half have been, unsurprisingly, a roller-coaster of anxiety for me. I can’t imagine how my friends feel who are comparatively less privileged than me and more vulnerable. I woke up last night in a panic attack that wouldn’t subside until I deactivated my Facebook account (then reactivated it later). So much of what happened during the election feels so new. The threats are so overwhelming; and the solutions, if there are any, are too multifaceted for me to process or comprehend.

I happened upon a bunch of texts from William Wordsworth that I’m planning on teaching in the Spring for my “Nineteenth-Century Literature of the Americas and the British Empire.” Initially, I’d been planning on decolonizing the nineteenth-century syllabus, trying to introduce more PoC authors and combat the very specific ideological work that too much teaching in Nineteenth-Century British and Transatlantic Literature has been performing since their inception. Wordsworth was a central part of my plan, since he represents for me the very white, liberal, bourgeoisie subjectivity that I want to challenge within myself. He believed in revolution, at least up to a point. He championed common people, but all too often replaced their voices with his own. It’s fascinating to see him stumble through some of the most radical political changes in British history — always noting, but never quite enough, how much he is complicit in the very things he’s struggling against. When describing the spirit of democracy he felt during the French Revolution in The Prelude, Wordsworth famously says:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!–Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!

Reading those lines today, I can’t help but remember the pride I felt when Obama was inaugurated. How amazing was it to be young in 2008? Everything seemed possible. And yet, as I reflect upon my enthusiasm, I can’t help but see how it — and Wordsworth’s — are defined through the privilege and the ignorance that we both ambivalently carry with us.

How different things seem today.

Searching for an alternative to my increasingly dark Facebook feed, I looked through the course packet I created for my students. I happened upon Wordsworth and Coleridge’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” and I felt like I was reading something that spoke directly to me. In the “Preface,” Wordsworth speaks about how

our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and, as by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other, we discover what is really important to men, so, by the repetition of and continuance of this act, our feelings will be connected with important subjects, til at length, if we be originally possessed of much sensibility, such habits of mind will be produced, that, by blindly and mechanically the impulses of those habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature, and in such connexion with each other, that the understanding of the Reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections strengthened and purified.

It’s a long and meandering thought, and one that has long been featured in Wordsworth criticism. Wordsworth’s optimism for the French Revolution was quickly challenged by the horrors of Robspierre’s Reign of Terror and the outbreak of hostilities between Britain and France. The enthusiasm for revolution turned to depression and horror. Further, two of his children had died. His sister Dorothy was suffering from a mental breakdown. His brother John, a captain for the East India Company, had drowned when his ship capsized only a mile off of the coast of Weymouth. Wordsworth and his friend Coleridge were even investigated for espionage.

Ron Broglio has argued that “Wordsworth has his encounter with nature but moves next to retreat and regroup, using the encounter as a metaphor for constructing the interior subject.” And this encounter is often characterized by Wordsworth scholars as reinforcing the fundamental harmony of the self, a tendency in his poetry that Broglio wants to resist. What I felt as I reread the “Preface” and lines from The Prelude after Trump’s election, was not the desire for a harmonious self or a world that made complete sense. Instead, I kept thinking about the “retreat” Broglio speaks of: how contemplation pushes back emotions that feel all too real in the moment we’re experiencing them, giving us a little bit of space to react differently. Wordsworth’s description of this psychological process is also, unsurprisingly, remniscent of Benedict de Spinoza’s discussion of freedom in The Ethics.

“Most people seem to believe that they are free,” Spinoza argues in Book 3, “insofar as they may obey their lusts, and that they cede their rights, in so far as they are bound to live according to the commandments of divine law” (Prop. 39). We live in the middle of things, and instead of understanding the complexity of our situation, most people are content to live with a simplistic notion of morality to reinforce their sense of freedom and, in the process, condemn everyone else who thinks differently. As Gilles Deleuze argued, Spinoza’s philosophy is practical; it is focused on action instead of theorizing. Spinoza wasn’t interested in providing correct answers or cohesive subjectivities as much as he was interested in making lives better. When discussing, for instance, Spinoza’s argument against the ethics as a form of morality, Deleuze focuses on his reading of Adam.

‘”Thou shalt not eat of the fruit…’: the anxious, ignorant Adam understands these words as the expression of a prohibition. And yet, what do they refer to? To a fruit that, as such, will poison Adam if he eats it. […] But because Adam is ignorant of causes, he thinks that God morally forbids him something, whereas God only reveals the natural consequences of ingesting the fruit. Spinoza is categorical on this point: all the phenomena that we group under the heading of Evil, illness, and death, are of this type: bad encounters, poisoning, intoxication, relational decomposition” (22)

In a way, I’m not sure that Wordsworth’s own bourgeoisie self doesn’t resist this bodily reading Spinoza attributes to morality. To Spinoza, we’re just bodies ingesting nutrition or poison and calling it Good or Evil. But our understanding of Wordsworth’s investment in “tranquility” can be modified according to Spinoza’s analysis. Perhaps tranquility is something that acts to harmonize a self threatened by an overflow of emotion, but it may also give us room to recognize a much larger, more complex, and more varied world than we usually imagine.

We could all use that room in the chaos surrounding this election. What disturbs me the most about Trump supporters is their denial of complexity, and their violent need to be told that they are right. In a recent article for Salon, Heather Digby Parton talks about how many Trump supporters seem to be even more angry after the election. And she recounts a particularly frightening encounter between these supporters and anyone who disagrees with them.

Two women in a restaurant were bemoaning the election of Donald Trump when a man and his wife sat down next to them and became incensed about what the two women were saying. The manager moved the couple to a different table and gave a meal without charge to calm the two down. But after leaving the restaurant the man stormed back in and punched one of the women in the face. He told the manager he wanted to kill her. (Fortunately, the woman was not seriously injured.)

Parton compares the attitude exhibited by the man to that of slave owners in the years before the Civil War who, as Lincoln argued in 1860, wanted nothing less than for abolitionists to “cease calling slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right.” We’ve seen how Trump and Brexit voters seem to be voting on pure emotion, their political acts forms of nihilistic rage whose performance would be banal and pathetic if they weren’t so completely destructive. In fact, many Brexit voters famously wanted to change their votes in the days after the election. Trump and Brexit supporters don’t necessarily think their policies or ideas are better or their solutions are more effective. They simply want to be correct, and they want to press the rightness of their views on others until they completely relent.

We can learn from reading Wordsworth and Spinoza that healing (however partially) from trauma often means rejecting this obsession with correctness and embracing our inadequacies, our vulnerabilities, and our incomplete selves. That sense of giving room to those feelings, and to the complexities surrounding us, struck me when I read David Remnick’s interview with Obama after the Trump victory. Notably, Obama mentioned that he doesn’t watch election results “until, like ten o’clock” because he wants to skip the speculation and anxiety. For Obama and his family, not watching “is part of how you stay focussed on the task, as opposed to worrying about the noise.” Remnick’s piece is pretty ambivalent about this part of Obama’s personality, noting a comment from Michelle that President Obama is actually much less stoic in private and saying that Obama is attempting to engage the world “in a willing suspension of disbelief.” But I can’t help but see the practicality of Obama’s reaction. Yes, horrible things are already happening after the election (and I wouldn’t want to minimize these horrors for people who will feel them more acutely than I), but Obama’s detachment also provides a path forward. “[T]his notion somehow that these irreversible tides have been unleashed, I think, surrenders our agency” says Obama. “It’s easier than us saying, Huh, we missed that, we messed that up, we’ve got to do better in how we organize.” Obama’s discipline strangely parallels something Alain Baidou said in an interview in 2008 for Critical Inquiry. “The problem for emancipatory politics today,” Baidou argues, “is to invent a nonmilitary model of discipline. We need a popular discipline. I would even say, as I have many times, that ‘those who have nothing have only their discipline.’ The poor, those with no financial or military means, those with no power—all they have is their discipline, their capacity to act together.” I have little faith in the messianism Obama uses as his mantra, that the arc of history curves towards justice. More compelling for me, is that we simply have each other, and our willingness to give one another and everything else, room to exist and to breathe.

Leave a Reply