Lincoln – Poetics, Character, Precipice of War and Human Design.
Upon reading Edmund Wilson’s profile of Lincoln in “Patriotic Gore – Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War,” I am taken by the literary and poetic drama of the account.
Lincoln is shown to be chiefly literary in character — it is what energizes his political and civic consciousness. Wilson shows Lincoln’s passion for words, rhetoric and the poetics of language. Lincoln understands that his primary tool and strength to change events is his use of words. Lincoln’s native sense of confidence and equality of being are combined with his literary strength to enable him to engage in deeds to realize his conception.
Wilson is poetic with the steely intelligence of Lincoln’s character and his massive contradictions of actions and words as President in an age of historic challenge and carnage.
Wilson shows the grace of an artist in revealing the multifaceted planes of Lincoln’s life such that we arrive at our judgements independent of what Wilson may judge to be the case.
Lincoln’s deeds are such that a man may take aim at his actions and find much to castigate, but Wilson finds balance, awe and forgiveness. He gives several examples of Lincoln’s use of Shakespeare, his own dreams, his relations with his family; all in a word drawing; we feel each stroke as it stands for itself and also as it refracts those actions and thoughts that are related in time and emotion. The stokes are bold and strong as a calligraphy treatment of mountains and sea.
Wilson shows the job of being a critic in its loftiest form — devoid of personal agendas. He is a realistic photographer in actions showing slices of life with images that are created uniquely for the job.
I now want to go past the literary to the existential, past Wilson’s treatment for I seek an answer about this decision — to save a Union with the lives of 600,000 people — lives extinguished. It is about the Civil War, but will we not meet this again, in a future day perhaps, not too far in the future?
One wonders how a man develops the ability to commit to actions that result in such carnage as the Civil War produced? It is understandable to an extent that prior to the onset of war, men deal with abstraction of carnage. But once the decision to enter combat, it is another to execute the carnage on a daily basis. As the body counts grow, I suppose the numbers are themselves an abstraction unless one stands in war’s midst and breathes in the blood and evil that pour through the streets of a Kentucky or Tennessee town: to see a man’s breathe halted, his limbs torn apart, his consciousness lost to the air, his eyes close to the realm of seeing.
How, as a people, do we manage to bring the horror of war to the fore prior to its onset? Will this make a difference?
There are those humans who see each singular action and the totality of war as an abstraction, as a romance, and this is a dimension of humanness too, along with our ability to be compassionate. As one opens history’s horizons, war is a practice that is sought and valued. We are capable of abstracting life away, of removing ourselves from the moment of being and to wander in the realms of not-being, removed from the moment, from flesh, from scent, from the curve of skin, the fragrance of a Western Red Cedar.
Our human design allows for all moral values and an ability to both be in the moment as it is and to be in a moment that we conceive in our inner space that cannot be seen by others, yet we know these spaces through stories and the history of all of our peoples and cultures.
It appears to me that the world as it is in the moment is the most humane — compassionate — accepting — life giving — life allowing — respectful — space to occupy. In this space actions are paramount and seeing is vivid.