Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Tragedy in the Technetronic Age: Robert Penn Warren's "New Dawn"

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Tragedy in the Technetronic Age: Robert Penn Warren's "New Dawn"

Article excerpt

The most obvious question concerning literature is: What subject matter is appropriate for our time?.... The question is not that of the topicality of a subject. It is that of the writer's own grounding in his time, the relation of his sensibility to his time, and paradoxically enough, of his resistance to his time. For there must be resistance, and the good work is always the drama of the writer's identity with, and struggle against, his time. (1)

I am become death, the shatterer of worlds; Waiting that hour that ripens to their doom.

--from the Bhagavad-Gita, words recalled by Robert J. Oppenheimer upon witnessing the first nuclear explosion July 16, 1945

MUCH OF AMERICAN POETRY, SAYS ROBERT Penn Warren in his 1975 book Democracy and Poetry, has celebrated the truly "miraculous feat" of "found[ing] a new kind of nation," and is "a manifestation of that untamable energy that seized and occupied the continent." (2) At the same time, however,

   our poets have explored the crisis of the American spirit grappling
   with its destiny. They have faced, sometimes, unconsciously, the
   tragic ambiguity of the fact that the spirit of the nation we had
   promised to create has often been the victim of our astounding
   objective success, and that, in out" success, we have put at pawn
   the very essence of the nation we had promised to create--that
   essence being the concept of the free man, the responsible self.
   (p. 31)

This is a philosophical conundrum unique to American democracy. In a country that has achieved and continues to value "objective success" through its unprecedented material and scientific gains, to what extent have the means and ends of success compromised "the concept of the free man, the responsible self'? In stating that "objective success ... puts at pawn" freedom and responsibility, Warren suggests that objective pursuits subvert one's ability to make value judgments.

Warren's last narrative poem, "New Dawn" (first published in Altitudes and Extensions: 1980-1984), like many of the works that come before it, shares a concern with the consequences of America's "astounding objective success." "New Dawn," however, expresses Warren's harshest criticism of America's success, for it seriously questions democracy's viability. In its exploration of nuclear technology, "New Dawn" charges America with a global, not simply a national, responsibility for the ends of its technological prowess.

A narrowly historical interpretation that "New Dawn" might simply respond to Truman's decision to drop the bomb, however, or any reading that forces nuclear weaponry to become, like a modern day Moby Dick, the ambiguous symbol of all evil that should therefore necessarily be destroyed, would be reductive. For Warren's criticism of twentieth-century technology in Democracy and Poetry, as well as in several lectures and interviews, advances a philosophical question more practical than either of these more sweeping scenarios: what effect has technology had on the individual?

As made explicit in interviews and in Democracy and Poetry, Warren does not reject technology in and of itself. He is no Luddite. Indeed, in a 1976 interview with Bill Moyers, Warren defends technology: "[W]e want our technology and we should have it, should want it. It's how we use it, that's important. It's the attitude towards it, it seems to me is important, not its presence." (3) Warren chooses instead to question a blind faith in technology as innately useful. To this end, Warren speaks of Coleridge's The Ancient Marineras "a criticism ... man as victim of technology":

   Now, when Coleridge has the Ancient Mariner shoot the albatross
   for no reason except he has a crossbow to shoot the albatross, he's
   dealing with that problem. The problem was already there you see. A
   machine defines the act. The man shoots the bird only because he
   has a crossbow. … 
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