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F R E D E R I C I. C A R P E N T E R Walnut Creek, California The Inhumanism of Robinson Jeffers Inhumanism: the word sounds forbidding. The dictionary defines “inhuman” as “lacking in natural human feeling; brutal.” But when Jeffers coined the “ism,” he obviously did not intend this meaning. And when he described Inhumanism in the Preface to The Double Axe, he emphasized only a “philosophical shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man,” asserting that the idea “has objective truth and human value. It offers a reasonable detachment as a rule of conduct.” Nevertheless, many critics have pointed to the ambiguities of the word, and many readers continue to be troubled by it. The inner contradictions of Inhumanism have not been resolved by time — rather the opposite. A recent book on Jeffers1 asserted (on its dust jacket) that “his thesis is very direct and simple. . . . His idea is that man is basically inhuman.” But the assertion that the idea is simple is contradicted by the phrase that “man is basically inhuman.” If man is basically the opposite of what he is defined as being (that is, “hu­ man”), then words have lost their meaning. And if man is basically “inhuman,” in the dictionary sense, then why did Jeffers idealize this inhumanity? Confusion becomes doubly compounded. !James Shebl, In This Wild Water, Pasadena, Cai., 1976. 20 Western American Literature No single statement can resolve these contradictions nor simplify this complexity, but we may agree on certain guidelines. First, Inhuman­ ism is an abstract word which Jeffers coined to describe a “philosophical attitude,” and as such it refers to other historical “isms” of the past, such as “humanism” and “naturalism.” Second, it is a poetic idea, which The Double Axe, like “other previous work of mine,” sought to realize in poetic language. Inhumanism, therefore, included two different ideas, or words. The first described an “in-” or “anti-” humanism, in opposi­ tion to the humanisms of the past. But the second celebrated a personal “inhuman-ism” which implied a new and more positive meaning of “inhuman,” defined as “non-human,” or “natural.” If we examine Jeffers’ idea in contrast to the historic “humanisms” of the past, and if we define “human” in the senses in which these humanisms defined it, we may begin to understand the complexities of the idea. Five hundred years ago the Renaissance flowered when scholars rediscovered the literature and art of ancient Greece and Rome, and drew new inspiration from the old classics. Not only did Renaissance humanism celebrate the “humanities” of the classical past in contrast to the medieval theology of the time, but it created new masterpieces which glorified man and his works. So Michelangelo’s “David” portrayed the beauty of man, and his “Moses” the power. Fifty years later Shake­ speare’s Hamlet described the humanistic ideal in eloquent words. “What a piece of work is man! . . . in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!” But by 1600 the Renaissance ideal of humanism had already become “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” Not only did Shakespeare question the angelic beauty of man, but his tragedies focused on man’s diabolic inhumanity. Moreover, the very powers of rational thought which humanism had celebrated now proved dubious; the rules of Aristotle’s Poetics became as restrictive as the propositions of Aquinas, and the scholastic humanism of the classics grew to resemble the scho­ lastic theology which it had discredited. A century later when the French “moderns” attacked the classical “ancients” for their inflexible traditionalism, Renaissance humanism had also become outworn. The shift in emphasis from the classical humanism of the Renais­ sance to the neo-classical imitation of the classics was accompanied by a progressive degradation of all the meanings of “human,” in general. Frederic I. Carpenter 21 Not only was man very un-like a god, but his very imperfection defined his humanity. So Alexander Pope declaimed: “To err is human, to for­ give divine.” And the negative meanings of humanism continued to multiply, giving force to the famous exclamation of Nietzsche: “Human — all too human!” “Beginning about...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 19-25
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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