Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Blow the Bugles over the Metaphysicians: Louis Mac Neice and an Aesthetics of Error

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Blow the Bugles over the Metaphysicians: Louis Mac Neice and an Aesthetics of Error

Article excerpt

This essay explores the Lacanian concept of "constitutive error" as analogous to a MacNeician "poetics of error." Contrary to critical consensus, I examine the extent to which the philosophy of Louis MacNeice's poetry might be considered radically cogent, as well as the extent to which it might spur a rereading of Lacanian aesthetics.

This essay aims to explore two perhaps unrelated but equally intriguing conceptualizations of "constitutive error": first as a recurring concern in the poetry of Louis MacNeice and, second, as it appears in the thought of Jacques Lacan and post-Lacanian thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek. Although my aim is not to offer a Lacanian reading of MacNeice's poetry, nor to proffer a certain anachronistic intellectual alliance between Lacan and MacNeice, it is to suggest that Lacan's psychoanalytical and philosophical work might offer a new way to understand a profound intellectual cogency present in MacNeice's philosophical and poetic project, a cogency that has historically been denied by critics writing on MacNeice. Beyond such critical re-evaluations, a dialogic reading of MacNeice with Lacan will also offer a new perspective on the potential for Lacan's theoretical corpus to maintain a certain relevance to aesthetic discourse. Rooted in those seminars that remain unpublished, and thus undervalued, such a perspective may serve as a rejoinder to the many valid and invaluable critiques of the limitations of Lacan's structuralism in the face of the aesthetic, or affective, event. Thus, if MacNeice's philosophical and poetic embrace of "error" as constitutive of the human subject and as a necessary condition of both aesthetic and sensory pleasure also draws attention to a subtlety and potential in Lacan's thinking that seems to have been lost in both its contemporary reincarnations and the selective posthumous publication of Lacan's seminars, then that too will be an achievement.

Writing in 1973, nine years after MacNeice's death, Samuel Hynes concluded that "MacNeice 'lacked, in the last analysis, the moral fibre, the capacity for intellectual achievement, or the single-mindedness, to attain belief, even in disbelief.' This is tough but just, and [...] goes a good way toward explaining why MacNeice is a good minor poet, and Auden is a daunting major one" (383). Such a position is typical of the history of MacNeice's critical reception, which Alan J. Peacock characterizes as consisting of an "unevenness of recognition deriv[ing] from the fact that, even in the 1960s, MacNeice's reputation was still patchily suffering from the hangover of a run of conceptually (and ideologically) blinkered criticism dating from the 1940s, where he is treated as a 'thirties also-ran, operating in the shadow of Auden'" (viii). Indeed, in both Hynes's and Francis Scarfe's accounts of what has come to be known as the "Auden Generation," MacNeice's position can be fairly summarized by citing Scarfe: "Louis MacNeice is a stylist, in the best sense, and one who, by his attempt at grasping the rougher realities of modern life, has on occasion deliberately written in a loose and carefree manner [...] he is not single-minded and for that reason will provide a successor neither to Eliot or Dryden" (55).

Yet, since the late 1980s a plethora of books, conferences, and symposia have contributed effectively not only to the revival of MacNeice's reputation, but also to its stabilization. Writing in 1991, Peter McDonald was justified in prefacing his monograph on MacNeice with an overview of the variety of factors that, at the time, contributed to the weakness of MacNeice's critical reputation, writing that "in one case, he seems to threaten the critical elevation of Auden as a poet representative of both a generation and a time; in the other, he appears to undermine the stability of an orthodox notion of national 'identity'" (1).

In a contemporary context, however, one might now recognize that those critics such as Edna Longley and McDonald who reacted against the likes of Hynes, D. …

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