e.e. cummings and the problem of community
e.e. cummings is one of my favorite poets. His creative and touching love poems are among the only believable ones of the 20th century. However, upon reading cummings' famous six nonlectures the other day, I was disturbed (though not shocked) by an insistence on the rights of the individual above all else. First published in 1953 and never out of print, the book is essentially a transcript of cummings' talks in the Sanders Theatre at Harvard during 1952-1953. But more than that, these speeches are unmistakably a codification of the poet's philosophy of the absolute importance of the individual. This philosophy appeals to me as a firm believer that the "i" that cummings speaks of is sadly losing importance in the modern world. However, it seems to me that in these famous lectures (or rather non-lectures) cummings misunderstands the problem of "the individual versus the group." Any group, he says, is evil, and any true individual is good, and the horrors visited upon the world are the results of mob mentality. "Let us pray always for individuals; never for worlds." This was once an argument that appealed to me as a writer, but now it somehow rankled and I set out to discover why.
Artists seem to be born to conflict with the larger society. I have often been caught in a rant against the conformity of society, its sheep-like herd instincts, and the deadening influence of the representative whole. Of course, groups can do great things, with architecture, with medicine, with science. And who is not to say that the "group" does not include the authors that cummings revered? Are those he learned from not part of a group that includes him? From the parents who prepare us to the friends who inspire us, we live our entirety in a community whether we like it or not. But I decided that this was not finally the point. cummings' poetic art is an individual enterprise and a certain anti-community attitude is indispensable. Without a rejection of the representative voice, an individual voice cannot be fashioned and developed. As he states in his famous "A Poet's Advice," "To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else," is what is necessary to be a poet. Anyone who has attempted to be an authentic artist will testify to the truth of that. No, the problem lay with the application of that viewpoint in six nonlectures to the whole spectrum of human activity.
The first flaw in this global application is that cummings fails to mention the possibility of oppression of an individual or group from the solitary person outside the group. What of the individual's inherent selfishness and greed? What of the serial killer, the dictator, the corporate plunderer, the mad bomber? cummings would say that such people are not "true" individuals. The logical flaw in this argument is easy to see; such distinctions can be applied as needed to anyone deemed unacceptable. Much as I hate to admit it, we are (perhaps unfortunately) not solitary animals, and the solitary individual can affect the rest of the animals in both positive (cummings) and negative (mad bomber) ways. If one wants to live in a group, benefit from all its pleasures, and not hermit oneself away in the forest (nearly impossible these days), then certain concessions must be made.
Secondly, cummings states "No free spirit ever dreamed of 'security' - or, if he did, he laughed; and lived to shame his dream." This is the statement of someone who has been privileged not to be oppressed in any real and physical way. I'm quite sure that this poet enjoyed the security that the nation/group gave him during two world wars, or even during peacetime. The idea that "every and any slave" is the person who dreams of security, is one that continues to appeal to me as an artist, as I keep searching to free my thought from the hundreds of daily mediocrities. I also agree that complete security may indeed be an illusion that small people crave, as cummings opines, but anyone who has experienced actual slavery would probably be the first to challenge this (very common) artistic assumption about freedom. I didn't grow up with servants like cummings did, but nevertheless have been privileged enough never to have suffered through actual chaos, war, or oppression. He and I have the opportunity to be "true individuals" through the protection of a larger society, as anyone who has truly suffered will attest.
As an example of the "group" oppressing an individual, cummings defends Ezra Pound's privileges when he was tried for treason by the U.S. government, calling it an infringement on free speech. "Every artist's country strictly illimitable country is himself," cummings says, referring to Pound's rights in the situation. This seems a bit na´ve, if not downright partial. What "this self-styled world's greatest and most generous literary figure" did was not quite the same as an anti-war protestor demonstrating his defiance of and disagreement with the U.S. government. The artist in this case was not operating in a theoretical vacuum. Pound gave very real assistance to the dictator Mussolini in a very real war where many people lost their lives. It is a bad example to use when defending the rights of an individual, especially since Pound himself did not think too highly of others' individual rights, or rather was concerned only with the rights of "the elect." It is those others' multiple yet individual rights that are the assumptive linchpin missing from Pound's elitist values and from six nonlectures (but perhaps not from cummings' wonderful poetry).
Next, the group dynamic that cummings considers "evil" becomes evil only when it has power. The idea of union, of coming together to fight tyranny and greed (of either individuals or other groups) in a community, is one that e.e. (hopefully not due to his privileged upbringing) fails to mention. When a single farm-worker tries to protest ill-treatment by a corporate overlord or hierarchy, he can do little. But when ten thousand protest, their voices can at least be heard. Of course, when such groups attain power, such as in his most persistent example of Soviet Russia, they become the bane of the individual (and other groups) and indeed of all good things, like art and beauty and love. But it is the power over others, whether held by individuals or groups, which leads to the problem, not the group itself.
Therefore, the real dialectic that should be spoken of is not between the individual and the community, but between responsibility and power. Ezra Pound made the individual choice to work with a group of fascists and must also take individual responsibility in a world filled with other individuals whose "rights" he impeded. When the group (whether it be a mob, a government, a family unit, a church, or a corporation) exercises power to quash a smaller group or an individual's freedom, it has also forgotten its responsibility. This need for exercising power over others (or its opposite, the submission to power) is what prevents a "true individual" from developing, not the group itself, which as cummings himself states can be positive, in the case of his family. "As it was my miraculous fortune to have a true father and a true mother, and a home which the truth of their love made joyous, so - in reaching outward from this love and this joy - I was marvelously lucky to touch and seize a rising and striving world." cummings tries to get around his own paradox here by calling his parents both "true," but would be hard-pressed to reconcile the fact that this is an example of a positive group dynamic.
In some ways, privileged writers like myself and cummings make very bad social philosophers. We must burn against the "furious Mob" or we lose the spark that makes us unique and special, able to cut through the pie of culture. cummings himself has given us beautiful, original (and individual) poetry that continues to enrich the lives of the many, and there is the heart of the paradox. The idea of absolute individualism sounds just as tempting as Karl Marx's theory of communism when put on paper, and has a similar problem when applied to a larger reality. The individual and the group have responsibilities to each other that are often ignored for the "good of the unit" - whether it be one person or a million. We do not operate in a void, and the negotiation of the individual's freedom with the freedoms of other individuals is the human project.