October 2, 2009

Robinson Jeffers: “Apology For Bad Dreams”

Filed under: Marx, Nietzsche — Tags: — Russ @ 6:47 pm
In my post on Nietzsche and Science I mentioned Robinson Jeffers’ poem “Apology For Bad Dreams”. In this post I want to offer some thoughts and impressions from this poem.
Jeffers was intimately familiar with the concept of the Dionysian, though I don’t recall his using that term for it. The Dionysian, as formulated by Nietzsche, is an idea, a vista, and a moral vision. It’s a union of philosophy and poetry which captures the beauty and terror of history in one philosophical moment. It’s the idea of affirming all that is terrible in life rather than denying it, rather than cursing the world on account of it. Of maintaining good will, integrity, and even good cheer as we fight our way through the troubles which beset us, not by having “faith” in some divine plan or justice which will set it all right, but by affirming the necessity of the whole.
This doesn’t mean failing to take the action we must take, it means seeing our action as well as one beauteous part of the logical whole, even if other parts seem ugly from our point of view.
Perhaps we need this today more than ever. Today is the age where “Nihilism stands at the door” (N, The Will to Power, section 1). God is dead, and ideology’s attempts to replace it have only accelerated the horror. Between mass religion and totalitarian science (with mass politics always some smothering combination of these) the human soul is crushed. All now serve the corporation, and underlying that the vicious monetizing filth.
Mass democracy has utterly failed, has been drowned in the poison of corporate totalitarianism.
Will the collapse of the pseudo-civilization based on fossil fuel and exponential debt offer any way toward redemption?
At any rate, the one idea which can offer hope to lead us through the conflagrations and the darknesses of our midnights is the Dionysian resolve. The humanism this always offers us is our will to creativity. This is what Nietzsche called sublimation.
N recalled that his very first “philosophical trifle”, written when he was around 13, tackled the ancient question of theodicy. Even at that age he went right for the jugular and gave the only answer integrity can possibly give: if god is omnipotent, then all evil is his own evil. And why would god want evil in the world? N revisited the question in Zarathustra, “On the Afterworldly”:
The work of a suffering and tortured god, the world then seemed to me. A dream the world then seemed to me, and the fiction of a god: colored smoke before the eyes of a dissatisfied deity. Good and evil and joy and pain and I and you – colored smoke before creative eyes. The creator wanted to look away from himself; so he created the world.
It’s drunken joy for the sufferer to look away from his suffering and to lose himself. Drunken joy and loss of self the world once seemed to me. This world, eternally imperfect, the image of an eternal contradiction, an imperfect image – a drunken joy for its imperfect creator: thus the world once appeared to me.
Thus I too once cast my delusion beyond man, like all the afterworldly.
The essence of the Dionysian world view is to bring this artist’s affirmation and will back to the human, back to the worldly. We can still create, as thinkers, as artists, as activists, without denying this world in the process, whether it be as religious or as secular utopians, “drunken” either way. There’s a great German word, aufheben, beloved of German philosophers, which combines the meanings of do away with, carry along with you, and preserve. It means to acknowledge and remember even as you transcend and overcome.
So the Dionysian thinker and activist affirms this world even as he strives to change it. A similar concept is that of the renaissance, literally “rebirth”, which combines the best senses of restoration and revolution, while “revolution”, in its original 18th century political sense, meant a “revolving back” to restore the natural order of things. It did not mean to turn things upside down, but to set them back right side up. Marx’s philosophy was “revolutionary” in exactly this sense, seeking to turn the Hegelian philosophy, including its reactionary political end state, “right side up”.
Well, that was a short musing on some of the places we can go with this idea. But now to Robinson Jeffers. “Apology for Bad Dreams” is his most passionate statement of his artistic credo (his apologia, that is, explanation – “apology” here doesn’t mean saying “I’m sorry” for anything), his idea of art as a way to sublimate one’s own imperfections and deal with the horrors of the world. To try to combine one’s personal tragedy and the greater tragedies of existence into a contribution, however small, to the beauty of the universe.
(I couldn’t find this poem entire online; it’s not yet in the public domain, evidently. But any good pre-war anthology will have it. I’ll be reproducing much of it as I go along.)
In the purple light, heavy with redwood, the slopes drop seaward,
Headlong convexities of forest, drawn in together to the steep ravine. Below, on the sea-cliff,
A lonely clearing; a little field of corn by the streamside; a roof under spared trees. Then the ocean
Like a great stone someone has cut to a sharp edge and polished to shining. Beyond it, the fountain
And furnace of incredible light shining up from the sunk sun….
The beauty and immensity, which includes the little cornfield and house. The people should be beautiful as well.
In the little clearing a woman
Is punishing a horse; she had tied the halter to a sapling at the edge of the wood, but when the great whip
Clung to the flanks the creature kicked so hard she feared he would snap the halter; she called from the house
The young man her son; who fetched a chain tie-rope, they working together
Noosed the small rusty links round the horse’s tongue
And tied him by the swollen tongue to the tree.
Seen from this height they are shrunk to insect size.
Out of all human relation….
….You can see the whip fall on the flanks,
The gesture of the arm. You cannot see the face of the woman.
They are the petty, the mean, the ugly. What’s far worse than true, stark evil, is everyday, swarming meanness and ugliness.
The enormous light beats up out of the west across the cloudbars of the trade-wind. The ocean
Darkens, the high clouds brighten, the hills darken together. Unbridled and unbelievable beauty
Covers the evening world…not covers, grows apparent out of it, as Venus down there grows out
From the lit sky. What said the prophet? “I create good: and I create evil: I am the Lord.”
It’s an image of petty human cruelty amid the vastness of uncivilization, indifferent, unconscious nature, the broken rocks and sea,  the grandeur, beauty, and immensity, Earth’s expression of infinity. The most radical contrast.
This is life, reality, but as related in a poem, also an image, a phantom. It offers the metaphor of “the Lord”. This is perhaps the idea of unconscious nature but also, as it becomes conscious, the poet himself. This tableau is a creation of the artist god, creating victims. This becomes more explicit later on.
This coast crying out for tragedy like all beautiful places,
(The quiet ones ask for quieter suffering: but here the granite cliff the gaunt cypresses crown
Demands what victim? The dikes of red lava and black what Titan? The hills like pointed flames
Beyond Soberanes, the terrible peaks of the bare hills under the sun, what immolation?)
This coast crying out for tragedy like all beautiful places: and like the passionate spirit of humanity
Pain for its bread: God’s, many victims’, the painful deaths, the horrible transfigurements…
The cold, infinite beauty seems to imply the greatest pains, evils, tragedies. We sense historical infinity, what can metaphorically be called the demand for victims. With this anthropomorphic thought we confront ourselves amid nature. In this personified world beauty and tragedy go hand in hand, but is this an immutable condition of intelligent life? Of life in general? (Unless we’re mystics, we know there’s no such thing as “tragedy” except in our minds, so it’s a condition of intelligent life. But could we ever imagine a place, a universe, where life existed but this wasn’t so? Beauty without tragedy? Or, no beauty and therefore no tragedy? Some seem to want this.)
At any rate, this much is true of the human condition, it demands “pain for its bread”, it demands the tragedy itself. It’s redolent of Wagner’s Liebestod, love-through-death.
…I said in my heart,
“Better invent than suffer: imagine victims
Lest your own flesh be chosen the agonist, or you
Martyr some creature to the beauty of the place.” And I said,
“Burn sacrifices once a year to magic
Horror away from the house, this little house here
You have built over the ocean with your own hands
Beside the standing boulders: for what are we,
The beast that walks upright, with speaking lips
And little hair, to think that we should always be fed,
Sheltered, intact, and self-controlled? We sooner more liable
Than the other animals….”
But we can sublimate this demand, we can eat the bread of art. This is the sacrifice through sublimation. Most of all the creator of art sacrifices of himself in this way through creation rather than through destruction, of himself or others. (Too bad capitalistic “creative destruction” isn’t like this.)
That’s why humanity created art: not audience catharsis, but the sublimation of human greatness.
And Jeffers even wonder if perhaps (through what – some notion of karma?) this can help avoid victimization from without as well. At any rate, to help achieve freedom from fear, a psychological reality.
….Pain and terror, the insanities of desire; not accidents but essential,
And crowd up from the core:” I imagined victims for those wolves, I made them phantoms to follow,
They have hunted the phantoms and missed the house. It is not good to forget over what gulfs the spirit
Of the beauty of humanity, the petal of a lost flower blown seaward by the night-wind, floats to its quietness.
It’s no joke, although civilization tries to make it so, or reduce it to a nuisance. Man’s unrest, the evils and pain, are essential to him. We must create victims, or else be murderers and cannibals. We’re always close to the edge, “pain and terror are essential”. The creator’s mission is most critical, for this grapples with the core of the human tragedy. The Dionysian mission, the exuberant will to face even the most evil, fearful truths with courage and affirmation, to transform all the tremblings of fear to vibrations of life.
Verse three pictures primeval man amid the shoreline boulders, a creator of gods and art as he first generates the fire.
Here the granite flanks are scarred with ancient fire, the ghosts of the tribe
Crouch in the nights beside the ghost of a fire…..
….These have paid something for the future
Luck of the country, while we living keep old griefs in memory: though God’s
Envy is not a likely fountain of ruin, to forget evils calls down
Sudden reminders from the cloud: remembered deaths be our redeemers;
Imagined victims our salvation……
We must not “forget evils”, but rather “keep old griefs in memory” (but not necessarily as those griefs). The primeval tribesmen (we imagine them as ghosts, “by the ghost of a fire”) did their part, and we must remember in order to do our part.
Perhaps it’s all superstition. Perhaps, although our intellect and reason have grown, we’re still at our core immature and mystical, still on some level primeval, still the ghosts of the primal fire. The phantoms we create suspend the ghosts, are suspensions of the ghost, a living thread which connects us retrospectively with that primal night, circling the flame. 
This memory faculty and creative forgetting brings me back to Nietzsche and his second essay in Genealogy of Morals, and the posts I started writing about that essay. (A series I’ll be continuing soon.)
That’s the key to the kind of memory we need, the kind of debt we owe. Meanwhile Jeffers recalls his own tragic creation from an earlier poem, a small attempt of his to help redeem humanity, all we have suffered, through art.
….white as the half-moon at midnight
Someone flamelike passed me, saying, “I am Tamar Cauldwell, I have my desire,”
Then the voice of the sea returned, when she had gone by, the stars to their towers…..
Now we come to J’s theology and theodicy (meaning his Dionysian mythology).
He brays humanity in a mortar to bring the savor
From the bruised root: a man having bad dreams, who invents victims, is only the ape of that God.
He washes it out with tears and many waters, calcines it with fire in the red crucible,
Deforms it, makes it horrible to itself: the spirit flies out and stands naked, he sees the spirit,
He takes it in the naked ecstasy; it breaks in his hand, the atom is broken, the power that massed it
Cries to the power that moves the stars, “I have come home to myself, behold me.
I bruised myself in the flint mortar and burnt me
In the red shell, I tortured myself, I flew forth,
Stood naked of myself and broke me in fragments,
And here am I moving the stars that are me.”
Man’s creation of god, and through this god’s of man, and of the sublimation of the will to power, art, thought, invention, striving, dreaming, “bad dreaming”….
I have seen these ways of God: I know of no reason
For fire and change and torture and the old returnings.
He being sufficient might be still. I think they admit no reason; they are the ways of my love.
We can forget the Judeo-Christian moralizations. The idea of god is to give us an ideal to strive toward, and through whom to understand our ambitions and sufferings and tell them to ourselves. God as the reflection of man, god the ultimate artist, and god as man’s greatest work of art.
God as the artistic torturer of man: The most horrible and majestic thought of all, this be the key to theodicy. And man as the artist, and the creator of his own victims. This is the key to peace on earth.
Then we reach capitulation at the end, acknowledgement that humanity is a jumble of “power, passion, craft”. There’s nothing metaphysical inside, no god outside; our thoughts, our theology, our science, just “measures of phenomena” (description, not explanation), and our best measure of it all is simply aesthetic.
We only need sufficient understanding, just enough, and then the will to create a new world.
Unmeasured power, incredible passion, enormous craft: no thought apparent but burns darkly
Smothered with its own smoke in the human brain-vault: no thought outside: a certain measure in phenomena:
The fountains of the boiling stars, the flowers on the foreland, the ever-returning roses of dawn. 


  1. Nietzsche always advocated maintaining the power to exercise aesthetic judgment (in the most unforgiving sense). Many activists can be grating in the way they approach issues precisely because they have no taste. Everything is wonderful, our enemies are merely misunderstood–in fact there is no such thing as an “enemy”–and if we just sit down together everyone will be able to reach consensus and avoid any kind of unpleasantness. All that in the face of putatively “non-lethal” or, when it is put more scarily but at least in terms closer to the truth, “less-lethal” chemical weapons, the prisonification of public life through the technological development and increasing ubiquity of the computerized panopticon, and the glaring silence and/or contempt with which the major media treat any genuine protest.

    So no, Nietzsche didn’t see everything as beautiful, that is a coarse romanticism that would have been as unacceptable to him as any other lie. What he exalted was the ability to maintain a good attitude in the face of ugliness, to not wish for things to be different than they are (which is different from being able to take action on behalf of one’s values; throwing the dice and working with the result of the throw are two different things), the opposite of which, in all its forms, is delusional and full of ressentiment. On every side we see something to persuade us of the existence of a bad dynamic: here we observe the psychopath, manipulating and lying and stealing without shame; here the well-intentioned, but self-delusional progressive who doesn’t believe that there are people who don’t care about others; here every manner of basically decent but willfully disengaged automaton, just trying to get by, the cynic, the frivolous, etc.; finally the fundamentalist who unselfconsciously and stubbornly adheres to an Ideal.

    What we need are more people who find the ground within themselves, rather than in ideologies or in an unmovable, all-powerful object not of our own making. Seeing things that way means that Marx doesn’t come to us as an object that attacks us, inscrutable and unstoppable. Every ideology can be evaluated in such a way that we are asked to accept that the outcomes it predicts are bound to occur, that the world is strictly deterministic, rather than something we can enact. But the full worth of thinking becomes clear at the moment we are made aware of our decision, our judgment: this is what I like.

    Comment by James — October 3, 2009 @ 11:09 am

  2. Hi James,

    Yes, N saw everything, certainly not as beautiful, but as necessary, which was why his Zarathustra felt such nausea over the prospect that even the Last Man, everything petty and mean and creeping and skulking in its tyranny, like the stuff you mentioned, was “necessary” and fated eternally.

    You’re right that an ideology like Marxism is always more compelling in its diagnosis than its prognosis. While the self-destruction of finance capitalism is playing out as he described (if not in exactly the way he described, and with some side tracks and delays along the way), it doesn’t deterministically follow that a human community must succeed this.

    That can only be enacted, to use your word, by free human beings willing to fight as hard as they have to.

    (I also unhappily concur regarding the reluctance a lot of people have to recognize the enemy as the enemy. That’s part of why the corporatists keep winning – they alone have full class war consciousness and never lose sight of the prize, never for a second cease from thinking and waging war.)

    Comment by Russ — October 3, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

  3. […] Robinson Jeffers: “Apology For Bad Dreams” « Volatility The young man her son; who fetched a chain tie-rope, they working together. Noosed the small rusty links round the horse's tongue. And tied him by the swollen tongue to the tree. Seen from this height they are shrunk to insect size . This is the sacrifice through sublimation Most of all the creator of art sacrifices of himself in this way through creation rather than through destruction, of himself or others. (Too bad capitalistic “creative destruction” isn't like this . […]

    Pingback by Sublimation Peace Black Tie — August 26, 2010 @ 9:33 pm

  4. Funny…I was grappling with this poem and my teacher’s difficulty with capsulizing it–making it easier or more palatable, so that I might “get it”–wrap my head around it. Bravo, I think you’ve succeeded where she failed. Perhaps I should be in self-study vs. a university course.

    You also have other interesting topics I will take time to read through later.
    an unexpected new follower

    Comment by Kennedy — September 27, 2015 @ 6:19 pm

    • Hi Kennedy, glad you found the post edifying. Everything I’ve written about has been from self-study, though my university study was a good supplement in some ways.

      Comment by Russ — September 28, 2015 @ 4:24 am

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