"Certain Axioms Rivaling Scriptures": Marianne Moore, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Ethics of Engagement

By Leader, Jennifer | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

"Certain Axioms Rivaling Scriptures": Marianne Moore, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Ethics of Engagement


Leader, Jennifer, Twentieth Century Literature


Marianne Moore's poetry explores the strangely harmonious joys of interconnectedness and individual idiosyncrasy. The brilliant visual idioms that splash the surfaces of her poems--the contrasting camellia flower and Bordeaux plum, the juxtaposition of the nine "puce-American-Beauty pink" nectarines glowing "fuzzless through slender crescent leaves / of green or blue or / both" (Poems 29) on a plate by an anonymous Chinese artist, the "glaze on a / katydid-wing / subdivided by the sun / till the nettings are legion" (134)--enact a dynamic and living matrix in which existence itself is chiefly experienced in terms of contrasting relation to the other. By the same token, Moore insists in her poetry and prose on the interconnection between subjectivity, aesthetic treatment, and moral and ethical import. Rather than dramatizing the objectification and alienation of a modern self from itself, or from the human, natural, spiritual, or aesthetic worlds, her work implies a wholeness that might be best understood as a dialectic between individual freedom and a responsibility to the distinctly other with whom the artist or individual is inseparably intertwined. This dialectic in Moore's work is a constantly self-corrective one as it seeks to confront the fragmenting horrors of fascist and nazi Europe, forces that dehumanized portions of humanity by reducing their value solely to measurements of sex, race, class, or religion.

Moore's refusal to delineate between aesthetics and ethical-relation-to-the-other is illuminated by her philosophical affinity and friendship with contemporaneous Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It is not surprising that Moore would find in Niebuhr a kindred spirit, for the questions she was tackling aesthetically during a poetic career that spanned two world wars were also being tackled by Niebuhr in terms of philosophy, pragmatic politics, and national justice movements: namely, how to strike a balance between the legitimate claims of a free self and the responsibility to the community or nation at large; how to assert a just and loving truth while at the same time avoiding extremes of determinism, totalitarianism, repression, and fanaticism; and how to construct a meaningful interpretation of individual and human history while acknowledging the limitations of all human metanarratives.

Although Moore did not meet Niebuhr until the 1950s, a parallel reading of the poet and the theologian reveals that early on, both of them addressed these issues through a construction of selfhood as necessarily open-ended and process-oriented. Working apart from each other, Moore and Niebuhr came to similar conclusions during the buildup to the Second World War concerning the imperative need for individual and national resistance to tyranny, despite their uneasiness with an ensuing necessity for violence and their recognition of how easily corrupted are even the most enlightened individuals and governments. To guard against these dangers, Moore and Niebuhr both fashion a model of selfhood in which one is at all times vitally engaged with the other while simultaneously balanced by a Judeo-Christian ethic of self-emendation and restraint.

Further, whereas Niebuhr explores his notion of ethical ontology--the "vast web of relationships," as he terms it (Christian Realism 175)--primarily in the terminology of politics and theology, Moore creates a poetics of ontology in which language itself best enacts the conditions of existence. In her poetry, Moore refuses to construct an essentialist, egoistic subject position that may be epistemologically separated from a web of linguistic relations, a dynamic nexus that is foregrounded in Moore's work as the ongoing operations of signifying discourse. Her complex surface features and juxtapositions suggest a world of associative relation rather than namable essences, of displacement and deferment rather than symbolic stability. For Moore, being, like the semiotic sign, is signification; essence is inferred by its chameleon-like qualities that, in gesturing away from self, paradoxically create identity. …

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