Edward Mendelson on Anthony Hecht and the Palliations of Poetry

In writing on Anthony Hecht‘s poetry in  (‘Seeing is Not Believing‘, The New York Review of Books, 20 June 2013), Edward Mendelson remarks:

In a familiar paradox of art, Hecht’s poems got their structure and strength from his irrational judgments and defensive vulnerability. But Hecht did something deeper and more complex than finding compensations in the perfections of art for the faults of life. What is uniquely unsettling about his poetry is his insistence that its aristocratic poise is helpless against the inner terror that gave rise to it. As he suggests in ‘A Birthday Poem,’ he finds in art ‘a clarity that never was,’ a clarity outside of time that offers only an illusion of escape from the tangled misery of actual and specific moments, naming as an example ‘that mid-afternoon of our disgrace.’

These statements need some untangling.

First, I think Mendelson means to say that it is ‘a familiar irony of art.’ There is no contradiction here.

Second, it is not entirely clear what Mendelson has in mind when he talks about ‘finding compensations in the perfections of art’. Does he mean the compensations are found in the acts and processes of creation, or in the contemplation of the finished work of art? (It is also not clear what Mendelson means by the ‘perfections of art’ but I’ll let that slide for a moment.) To use the taxonomy of palliative measures that provide relief from life’s miseries that was suggested by Freud in Civilization and its Discontents, the former might be considered a deflection, the latter a substitutive satisfaction. The former is a re-channeling of our desires into domains where their satisfaction is more tractable, more easily attained. Freud included in this category scientific activity and other methods of professional achievement (the world of business and finance, for instance). By their grounding in the everyday and their engagement with other forms of human activity this method of escape from the trials and tribulations of life retains the most connection with reality. The latter is a form of compensation for lack of pleasure elsewhere. Freud included in this activity all forms of illusion or fantasy: religious fervor, day-dreaming, the enjoyment of artistic products such as music, sculpture and painting.

It should be clear why the former is a deflection; even in the act of creation, the artist may be confronted with the familiar frustrations of life and unblinking presence of the reality principle–the blank page or canvas, the long torturous path from conception to final product–but expressed in a form that he has the means and resources to combat. In the latter, we are merely consumers of art–we may not be artists ourselves–giving ourselves over to the enjoyment of the work before us.

Mendelson, of course, is suggesting that Hecht’s poetry makes the claim that these palliations do not work, that their relief is illusory. But this should not be ‘uniquely unsettling’; such a notion is present in the very idea of a palliative measure itself: it does not cure, it merely provides temporary relief.

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