The Language of Knowledge and the Language of Power

Thomas De Quincey published in 1848 an essay on the poetry of Pope with a long digression on “the literature of knowledge” and “the literature of power.” I want to treat these categories speculatively, in order pursue the question of what we may mean by “knowledge”: a word that in the eighteenth century was synonymous with science, and that in De Quincey’s day hadn’t yet drifted far from that sense. The function of the literature of knowledge, De Quincey wrote,

is to teach; the function of [the literature of power] is to move. . . .The first speaks to the mere discursive understanding; the second speaks ultimately, it may happen, to the higher understanding, or reason, but always through affections of pleasure and sympathy. Remotely it may travel towards an object seated in what Lord Bacon calls dry light; but proximately it does and must operate—else it ceases to be literature of power—on and through that humid light which clothes itself in the mists and glittering iris of human passions, desires, and genial emotions. Men have so little reflected on the higher functions of literature as to find it a paradox if one should describe it as a mean or subordinate purpose of books to give information. But this is a paradox only in the sense which makes it honorable to be paradoxical. Whenever we talk in ordinary language of seeking knowledge, we understand the words as connected with something of absolute novelty. But it is the grandeur of all truth which can occupy a very high place in human interests that it is never absolutely novel to the meanest of minds: it exists eternally, by way of germ or latent principle, in the lowest as in the highest, needing to be developed but never to be planted. To be capable of transplantation is the immediate criterion of a truth ranged on a lower scale. Besides which, there is a rarer thing than truth, namely, power, or deep sympathy with truth. What is the effect, for instance, upon society, of children? By the pity, by the tenderness, and by the peculiar modes of admiration, which connect themselves with the helplessness, with the innocence, and with the simplicity of children, not only are the primal affections strengthened and continually renewed, but the qualities which are dearest in the sight of heaven . . . are kept up in perpetual remembrance, and their ideals are continually refreshed. A purpose of the same nature is answered by the higher literature, viz., the literature of power. What do you learn from Paradise Lost? Nothing at all. What do you learn from a cookery-book? Something new, something that you did not know before, in every paragraph. But would you therefore put the wretched cookery-book on a higher level of estimation than the divine poem? What you owe to Milton is not any knowledge, of which a million separate items are still but a million of advancing steps on the same earthly level; what you owe is power, that is, exercise and expansion to your own latent capacity of sympathy with the infinite, where every pulse and each separate influx is a step upwards, a step ascending as upon a Jacob’s ladder from earth to mysterious altitudes above the earth. All the steps of knowledge, from first to last, carry you further on the same plane, but could never raise you one foot above your ancient level of earth; whereas the very first step in power is a flight, is an ascending movement into another element.

De Quincey is a little more favorable generally to the literature of knowledge than this quotation may have suggested. As an example of that literature, he cites Newton’s Principia; and if we set Newton’s achievement alongside Milton’s we can see that the division between knowledge and power anticipates the distinction between what we now call the humanities and the natural sciences. There is an obvious difference between the two sorts of writing that matters greatly: the published words that make up the literature of knowledge do not represent the main intellectual work that science is relied on to perform. That work happens in the laboratory; in science, publication is a secondary business, which comes after the fact; it isn’t identical with discovery. Yet by his choice of terms, De Quincey is contrasting two sorts of literature. A work like Newton’s, belonging to the literature of knowledge, gives access to hidden truths of nature that are solved or soluble. But the literature of power strengthens our consciousness of a mysterious residuum of human nature—a fact we can only know by intuition, whose meaning in our lives is great and at the same time unsolved and insoluble. De Quincey conveys in a necessarily inadequate phrase—“sympathy with the infinite”—the human faculty that is developed by the literature of power.

Sympathy of this sort may be a more active process than De Quincey’s description makes it sound. He might have added, too, that the discovery once made belongs to the reader as surely as it belongs to the writer; there is a distinction of agency, but not of content, between the author’s finding of a truth about the world and the recognition of that truth by the reader. In both cases, the words do the relevant work. The writer is the first to know the pleasure of discovering the rightness of the words, but he does so only as their first reader. There is thus a qualitative resemblance between writer and reader, very different from what obtains in the case of an author like Newton and those who read of his discoveries. For the natural scientist, to repeat, the discovery and the work of explanation are separable and separate experiences.

We shouldn’t confuse De Quincey’s sympathy, which unites writer and reader, with the doctrine of imaginative self-trust that made Emerson propose that “creative reading” was akin to “creative writing.” Emerson believed in the truth of an aboriginal perception, belonging alike to writer and reader; but the writer alone, on his view, has overcome the slavishness of habit that prevents this perception from entering consciousness: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” It is an idealist doctrine and plainly true in one sense: in order for us to understand a thing imaginatively, it must be in our power to understand it. Potentially, the understanding was always ours; the author in this light may seem only an incidental medium. But Emerson really has in mind the recognition of a truth available from the start of the world. De Quincey on the other hand, if I am reading him rightly, is referring to a discovery from common experience. The author reveals a thought or a feeling which the reader grasps as an addition to his imagination of the world. Why not then call the writing that achieves this another branch of the literature of knowledge?

Let me try putting it a different way. Literature sharpens your ability to know when something surprising has happened to you—something that wants to be thought and felt about more and further. It signals an opportunity for knowledge and self-knowledge which mustn’t be ignored. I say “thought and felt about”—both of these things together—because I don’t see that thoughts can reliably be discriminated from feelings. Wordsworth says in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads that thoughts “are the representatives of all of our past feelings” and that seems right; thoughts are the carved-into-shape and unforgettable shadows of feelings, the allegorical or abstract heightenings or reductions by which feelings are made available with a precision that seems native to the discovering mind.

One of Thomas Hardy’s great elegies of 1912-13, “I found her out there,” presents such a discovery and surprise:

I found her out there
On a slope few see,
That falls westwardly
To the sharp-edged air,
Where the ocean breaks
On the purple strand,
And the hurricane shakes
The solid land.

I brought her here,
And have laid her to rest
In a noiseless nest
No sea beats near.
She will never be stirred
In her loamy cell
By the waves long heard
And loved so well.

So she does not sleep
By those haunted heights
The Atlantic smites
And the blind gales sweep,
Whence she often would gaze
At Dundagel’s famed head,
While the dipping blaze
Dyed her face fire-red;

And would sigh at the tale
Of sunk Lyonnesse,
While a wind-tugged tress
Flapped her cheek like a flail;
Or listen at whiles
With a thought-bound brow
To the murmuring miles
She is far from now.

Yet her shade, maybe,
Will glide underground
Till it catch the sound
Of that western sea
As it swells and sobs
Where she once domiciled,
And joy in its throbs
With the heart of a child.

Hardy’s poem does not deal with everlasting things, as Paradise Lost does. Still it seems to bear the marks of original imagination by which De Quincey would have recognized the literature of power. But the poem also discloses a vivid truth, something new in fact, a feeling never before apparent to the author or his readers. It is not an illustration of “sympathy with the infinite,” whatever we may take that to mean. It is a finding, a capture of something definite and never to be forgotten. Hardy’s marriage to Emma Gifford began in love and, on his side, enchantment; it led through deep divisions to mutual alienation; but when he learned of her death, his earliest feelings about her seemed to return, in a blended emotion of gratitude, wonder, and self-reproach.

I found her out there” is one of several poems in the sequence of elegies that analyze this return of feeling—both its identity with and difference from the feeling of love as it first occurred. To borrow a comment by Ruth Yeazell on Henry James’s reasons for preferring Sargent to other portrait painters, one might say that Hardy is great because he paints a portrait of a feeling. He loved this woman as he could love a landscape. He associated her naturally with the Cornish coast, where he first saw her riding along the Western cliffs. And the poem forgives his earlier capture of her wildness by imagining her to have been eager and willing and childlike: the proof that he was not wrong comes out in the picture of her fascination with the tale of sunk Lyonnesse. What is it then that needs forgiving?

He stole her from her home by the sea to share his life far inland. It was a life quite alien to her and now she is in her grave, sealed-in forever. It is as if, in removing her from a native place, he took a step toward killing her. And yet, by a naturalizing myth of the free passage between the sea and her spirit underground, Hardy says—to himself and to us who overhear him—that his theft has been restored. So the poet re-enchants himself, accuses and forgives himself, and shows us how this work of myth-making and rationalization is native to him—as much perhaps as the stories he told which first drew her toward him. Theirs was a love made from stories and visions, and he remedies the loss (if he can) by another story and another vision. In the process, we gain a fresh view of something that wasn’t there before, something that exists only on the page: the enchantment of a love which can never altogether know itself.

That was a poem of memory with two characters. Pass now to a poem about the domineering imagination that can belong to a single mind in solitude. We sometimes know in dreaming a fantasy that disguises itself as an event; and we may think, about a landscape that is memorable and not altogether pleasant, “Did I see that or did I dream it?” Trumbull Stickney, with this perplexity in mind, chose to call his poem “In the Past”:

There lies a somnolent lake
Under a noiseless sky,
Where never the mornings break
Nor the evenings die.

Mad flakes of colour
Whirl on its even face
Iridescent and streaked with pallour;
And, warding the silent place,

The rocks rise sheer and gray
From the sedgeless brink to the sky
Dull-lit with the light of pale half-day
Thro’ a void space and dry.

And the hours lag dead in the air
With a sense of coming eternity
To the heart of the lonely boatman there:
That boatman am I,

I, in my lonely boat,
A waif on the somnolent lake,
Watching the colours creep and float
With the sinuous track of a snake.

Now I lean o’er the side
And lazy shades in the water see,
Lapped in the sweep of a sluggish tide
Crawled in from the living sea;

And next I fix mine eyes,
So long that the heart declines,
On the changeless face of the open skies
Where no star shines;

And now to the rocks I turn,
To the rocks, around
That lie like walls of a circling sun
Wherein lie bound

The waters that feel my powerless strength
And meet my homeless oar
Labouring over their ashen length
Never to find a shore.

But the gleam still skims
At times on the somnolent lake,
And a light there is that swims
With the whirl of a snake;

And tho’ dead be the hours i’ the air,
And dayless the sky,
The heart is alive of the boatman there:
That boatman am I.

This is a dream but also a discovery. I keep coming back to that word: discovery. Because here the dream is utterly real, for us, as we sense that it was for the poet. He is enclosed by a world that bears an uncanny affinity with his temper and desires; marooned, desolate, yet alive to himself; it is night, but delicate and strange colors are observable. He is a person apparently without will, in a world that exists by subtraction, but they are made for each other. The landscape is noiseless and dayless and the boatman powerless, but the sea itself is living, and though he says his heart declines, his heart is also alive. From these contradictions, there emerges a state of mind remote from any recorded or literal experience; and strangely, we find we can share in that state.

Poems often respond directly to other poems, and knowledge, of a peculiar kind, sometimes emerges from the resulting clash of temperaments. “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries” is a verse epigram by A.E. Housman, about the British troops that fought in the battles of Ypres in Belgium, during 1914 and 1915. It is a patriotic poem, at an ironic distance from patriotism; for it elects to praise soldiers whose choice to sell their murderous skill might easily render them objects of contempt. Housman instead thanks them as drily as possible:

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
….. The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
….. And took their wages, and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
….. They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
….. And saved the sum of things for pay.

The poem pays a well-earned respect to a class of persons the world agrees to use and then disclaim: mercenary soldiers. It is a powerful poem in some measure because no false feeling is evoked on their behalf. Housman tells a disagreeable truth and asks us to agree it is a truth anyway. Like all persuasive words, the “Epitaph” makes us forget the things it leaves out. What was the nature of the foundations these men are said to have held in place? Was the world better because of their sacrifice or was it worse? A larger and less extrinsic question springs from Housman’s use of “God”—even though he brings God into the poem only to deny his influence.

That profane usage may have given the impetus to a poem written by Hugh MacDiarmid in reply to Housman’s epitaph. “Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries,” as any reader will notice, is hardly fitted to rhyme and meter with the refinement Housman shows, but the bluntness of the attack perfectly suits the author’s intent:

It is a God-damned lie to say that these
Saved, or knew, anything worth any man’s pride.
They were professional murderers and they took
Their blood money and their impious risks and died.
In spite of all their kind some elements of worth
With difficulty persist here and there on earth.

The rightness of MacDiarmid’s reply, I think, comes from its being so frank and unadorned a profession of loyalties. And these are loyalties opposite to those of reflex patriotism. MacDiarmid appeals to a common understanding that the killing that soldiers perform in war is legal murder. We shouldn’t corrupt ourselves by giving it a high-sounding name. The act of killing is regrettable in itself—to make a profession of it, how much more so! The men who join that profession are guilty of an impiety that may relate to something as deep as, and for this poet truer than, any faith in a God or gods. His own principle of action comes from a feeling of solidarity with human beings of all nations and their welfare everywhere: that is the burden of his deliberately cumbersome and simple praise of the “elements of worth” that “with difficulty persist here and there on earth.”

Now for a specimen of the literature of power, just as De Quincey has defined it. But you will notice again that it yields also an undeniable form of knowledge:

There’s one did laugh in’s sleep, and one cried, “Murder!”
That they did wake each other: I stood and heard them:
But they did say their prayers, and address’d them
Again to sleep.

………… There are two lodged together.

One cried, “God bless us!” and “Amen” the other;
As they had seen me with these hangman’s hands.
List’ning their fear, I could not say, “Amen,”
When they did say, “God bless us!”

………… Consider it not so deeply.

But wherefore could not I pronounce “Amen”?
I had most need of blessing, and “Amen”
Stuck in my throat.

……………….. These deeds must not be thought
After these ways; so, it will make us mad.

Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep,” the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravel’d sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast,—

………………………………………. What do you mean?

Still it cried, “Sleep no more!” to all the house:
“Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more.”

Who was it that thus cried? Why, worthy thane,
You do unbend your noble strength, to think
So brainsickly of things. Go get some water,
And wash this filthy witness from your hand.

What strikes every reader on a first reading is the nightmare curse of “Sleep no more!” Macbeth’s eloquence proceeds to fashion a gorgeous image about sleep and its soothing work on the spirit; yet the gorgeousness is also a distraction, indeed a trick of avoidance, and in that respect altogether characteristic of Macbeth. Without quite seeing this, but somehow irritated at his poetic flight, Lady Macbeth turns suddenly literal-minded, as is her way. ”What do you mean?” There is no answer he could possibly give. And she keeps up that same practical demand throughout the dialogue. “There are two lodged together.” “Consider it not so deeply.” “These things must not be thought after these ways.” “What do you mean?” “Go get some water.” The failure of contact between this husband and this wife in the after-vacancy of their murder is one of those touches of mastery that permeate the play. It seems almost an accident—a snatch of conversation overheard, which makes us wonder at something unspeakable underneath.

“We do not produce new knowledge,” John Briggs observed in his remarks in 2016 as the departing president of the ALSCW. I agree, so far as the knowledge in question denotes new ways of acting on nature to make diseases curable, for example, or social interactions better regulated, or the methods of war faster and deadlier: in none of these beneficial or neutral or baneful ways do scholars of literature produce new knowledge. To the extent that cutting-edge research programs in our field pretend to explain the greatness or originality of works of art, we can say with reasonable certainty, about this year’s new knowledge, that a few years on it won’t be new and it won’t be knowledge. Discoveries in the natural sciences don’t fade as fast as that, and we are wrong to try to compete on that level. But let me here offer a partial retraction of De Quincey’s evident depreciation of knowledge in relation to literature. I will be drawing assistance from an essay by Rebecca West, “The Strange Necessity,” which defends literature as a resource of knowledge of a peculiar sort.

Writing in 1928, West devoted much of her argument to a powerful appreciation of the fiction of Joyce and Proust. She asked whether we could not recognize after all “a very close resemblance between art and science, a resemblance so close that we might say that art is science, only more scientific.” But she doesn’t go on to identify science with the domain of falsifiable propositions or refutable hypotheses. Rather, by science West means simply knowledge. She makes this plain through her admiration of Benjamin Constant’s great short novel Adolphe and her account of the unmistakable knowledge it conveys of the hero’s self-deception: the mental trick whereby he rationalizes the failure of his ambitions as the inevitable result of the hopeless love affair in which he has trapped himself in order to thwart himself. By the end of the book, says West, we can say about the hero: “This much we now know.” Similarly “This much we now know,” I suggest, is what we must say if we pause long enough at the household banalities of Lady Macbeth and the speechless revulsion of Macbeth at the atrocity the two together have coaxed his will to commit.

Notice that literature, on this view, gives us knowledge of something as good as real. Better in fact: because, by induction and implication, we can apply the knowledge, or aspects of it, to encounters in actual life which we are able to study with nothing approaching the same thoroughness. West illustrates with a final specimen the quality of the knowledge we pursue by a strange necessity in works of literature. She describes a portrait not of a single character but of a small society, in The Last Chronicle of Barset:

Anthony Trollope wrote a novel about a clergyman and a theft which has a theme. The mean anxiety of the countryside to believe that poor unattractive Mr. Crawley should have stolen the money sent to him as a gift, and their oddly enough equally sincere relief when it was proved that he did not, illustrate the curious tendency among human beings for the happy to hate the unhappy, as if they spread their unhappiness as an infection. . . . Anthony Trollope passed the whole of this material through his imagination (probably not knowing exactly what he was doing, or how he was doing it, or how important it was that it should be done, since the presentation of this knowledge to himself would have absorbed energy and he could do the job just as well without it), and having thus gained an accurate non-sentimental view of it he told the truth about it so helped him God. And at the end of it he has established just how certain kinds of people act in certain circumstances that uncover their attitudes to recurring and fundamental factors of life, just as Professor Pavlov has established how a certain kind of dog behaved when it was given meat powder under certain conditions. An experiment has been conducted, an observation has been made, bearing on a certain principle.

So Trollope in his unconscious way, as Rebecca West interprets him, gave a name to a local drama and thereby allowed his readers to glimpse a permanent truth about collective self-deception. In a writer of greater conscious intelligence, we may discover a knowledge of character and of group psychology that is just as rare. George Orwell in his essay “Reflections on Gandhi” criticized at length the severe asceticism of Gandhi. It took a toll it took on his relationships, as all asceticism must do:

To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others. The autobiography leaves it uncertain whether Gandhi behaved in an inconsiderate way to his wife and children, but at any rate it makes clear that on three occasions he was willing to let his wife or a child die rather than administer the animal food prescribed by the doctor. It is true that the threatened death never actually occurred, and also that Gandhi—with, one gathers, a good deal of moral pressure in the opposite direction—always gave the patient the choice of staying alive at the price of committing a sin: still, if the decision had been solely his own, he would have forbidden the animal food, whatever the risks might be. . . . This attitude is perhaps a noble one, but, in the sense which—I think—most people would give to the word, it is inhuman. The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid. . . . Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.

I spoke earlier of knowledge and self-knowledge; and though the passage I have just quoted is well known and rightly admired, I would care for it less if the essay in which it appears did not turn around finally and show how the work of reflecting on Gandhi’s life had surprised the author, and how it led to an unexpected discovery of self-knowledge. In the war years, Orwell had written unsympathetically of the political privilege and (as he saw it) the emotional luxury of pacifism. The pacifist, he thought, in the war against Hitler exercised with impunity a moralistic high-mindedness which was only possible because others were willing to fight to save a country that tolerated pacifism. The survival of pacifists depended on the exertion of soldiers, just as the defense of Belgium required the action of mercenaries who saved the sum of things for pay. Yet at the end of “Reflections on Gandhi,” Orwell honors the “inhuman” ascetic and pacifist for a virtue he rates as high as the physical courage required in battle.

It is Gandhi’s virtue that he would have been ready to give honest consideration to the kind of question that I have raised above; and, indeed, he probably did discuss most of these questions somewhere or other in his innumerable newspaper articles. One feels of him that there was much that he did not understand, but not that there was anything that he was frightened of saying or thinking. I have never been able to feel much liking for Gandhi, but I do not feel sure that as a political thinker he was wrong in the main, nor do I believe that his life was a failure. . . . His main political objective, the peaceful ending of British rule, had after all been attained.

When Orwell says he no longer feels sure that Gandhi was “wrong in the main,” he must mean that he is no longer sure that Gandhi’s pacifism was wrong. This essay was written after Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its portrayal of a North Atlantic world governed by a one-party state and driven by a foreign policy of perpetual war. Between 1945 and 1949, Orwell’s own politics had changed, to a degree that allowed him to discover a fresh truth, a kind of knowledge he could not have recognized before; and he found a name for the truth when he read Gandhi’s words about Gandhi’s life. If there is a common feature of the literature of knowledge I have been exploring, it may be that the discovery looks as if it had always been lying wait. It offers itself as a possible way of widening our intelligible relation to human life and human nature. Unless we choose to become like gods and to re-create ourselves in images devised by ourselves, this knowledge counts as proof that human nature has the sort of permanence that nature has. The history of such discoveries may therefore also be a history of the future—a prophecy and, to the extent that we think such discoveries are in danger of being lost, a warning.

David Bromwich

David Bromwich

David Bromwich is Sterling Professor of English at Yale University. His most recent book is The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence.
David Bromwich

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Author: David Bromwich

David Bromwich is Sterling Professor of English at Yale University. His most recent book is The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence.