The collected works and thought of Thomas Ernest Hulme form both a minor and a major role in modernist philosophy, and in particular aesthetics. As is rarely left unmentioned, Hulme was no academic, and his entire collected works were put together from several published essays and an array of notebooks, scribblings, and a small handful of poems.
Hulme is one of the first figures to attempt to explain why a revolution in art was due in the modern age, what the character of this art might be, and why this shift in aesthetic may be indicative of a larger shift in ideology.
I want in this short article to piece together the key ideas of Hulme insofar as they address philosophy, art, and aesthetics, and I want to meet the subjects in a similar manner to how Hulme addresses his thought in general. Separating and juxtaposing his ideas – and those of philosophy – into two parallel lines; the first being the actual thesis at hand, and the second being a consideration of that thesis ‘from the outside’.
In his essay ‘Modern Art and its Philosophy’, Hulme begins by explaining the linguistic difficulty of accurately discussing art and aesthetics, which applies equally to philosophy. He explains that the critic, when considering a new art, moving in a new direction, is necessarily often stuck using old language, drawn from an old position, thus falsifying their critique. The problem with all of this, Hulme explains, is that what he saw as the development of a new art “differs not in degree, but in kind, from the art we are accustomed to”, making it difficult to discuss and comprehend.
He asserts three primary and connected theses of his essay, firstly, to demonstrate that there are two distinct kinds of art, geometric Art, and vital Art. That these are not variations of one thing but are created for two different “necessities of mind”. The second thesis proposes that each of these arts arise from and correspond to a particular worldview or attitude toward the world. Finally, the third and ultimate point he wishes to make is that the re-emergence of geometrical art may be a precursor to a corresponding worldview which both has similarities with previous geometric art-related worldviews and yet is significantly original.
He includes as geometric Arts those found in the Indian tradition, Byzantine art, Egyptian art, and classical pre-renaissance works. He also champions the style of Pablo Picasso, Jacob Epstein, and Wyndham Lewis in articles for the New Critic, as modern revivals. As opposed to geometric art, he describes all art which uses curves and focuses on lively subjects, such as in naturalism and realism, as vital art. He explains that all manifestations of each kind of art will have distinctive qualities related to the worldview of the culture producing it, but also that some characteristics will remain common.
As examples of the kind of transitory qualities that he relates to previous forms of geometric art, Hulme explains a distance from and fear of the world. That in cultures where the world seemed incomprehensible and full of dangers, fixed geometric forms offer stability, certainty, and definite knowledge. This also touches on one of the more permanent qualities relating to Geometric art, that it is created for a particular necessity of mind attaining toward the absolute, and not the relativistic concerns of man.
Vitalist art, on the other hand, he sees as anchored by a worldview that sees man and the world as essentially united. This kind of art takes as its interest the specificities of life, living things, and movement, rather than their general rules.
Concerning his second thesis, he proposes that all vital art from the European tradition corresponds to an attitude rooted in all philosophy since the Renaissance, namely Humanism, which he claims forms a unity insofar as it considers man and his relation to the world. In other words, that certain fixed beliefs regarding man in the world have formed to become a priori aspects of our intellect and worldview. That to conceive beyond this viewpoint appears as nonsensical within our current system of beliefs and even our language.
On his third and final thesis, Hulme discusses that it is reasonable for art to lead ideology insofar as our intellect is so rooted in the ideas of our own period, that necessarily we will have some vague searching and probing before the corresponding understanding arrives.
In his essay Humanism and the Religious Attitude, also found in Speculations, Hulme goes further in arguing that all philosophy since the Renaissance are “various species of the same genus”, all resting on the same underlying assumptions about man. His argument follows that we will forever be unable to understand the religious attitude all the while our ideas are steeped in humanism, and which he states has confused and intermingled the human with the divine. He sees Humanism as having replaced God with Man, and his argument is to show the incongruence of attaining to the absolute while stuck in the relative realm of humanism.
Just as he argues that there are two distinct, alternating aesthetics of visual art (Geometric and Vital) corresponding with two distinctive outlooks (Humanism and the Religious Attitude), he argues a similar line of thought aimed at literature in his essay Romanticism and Classicism. He relates the “religious attitude” with Classicism, and a humanist outlook with Romanticism. He quotes the source of the problem of Romanticism as Goethe’s response to the claim that human activity is like a circle forever repeating itself, with the retort that it is, in fact, more like a spiral, thus evoking the romantic mindset of human progress.
Hulme explains the heart of a classicist view of man as like a bucket of water, limited, fixed, unchanging, whereas the romantic view sees man as more like a well. In the romantic view, man is in progress, evolving, developing toward perfection, only hampered by the strictures of society. In the classicist view, man is essentially more brute, only trained, disciplined, and bettered by the institutions of history and tradition.
Distinctly opposed to all things romantic, he accuses romantic poetry of always needing to be “moaning or whining about something or other”, of always resorting to flight, evoking the infinite every other line, endorsing escapism, and so on; arguing instead for the classical aesthetic. Hulme famously remarked that beauty could be found in “dry, hard things”, and strove toward definite description of concrete things in poetry, a view which would go on to inspire T.S.Eliot, Ezra Pound, and the Imagist movement in general.
So how does Hulme’s distinctive vision enter into the scheme of his own poetry? His very limited collection of poetry is modest in scope, though remains memorable in style as the very first Imagist poem, and perhaps the first modern poem in the English language. His first published poem, Autumn, is below.
A touch of cold in the Autumn night—
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.
Hulme wrote this at a time when traditional forms such as the sonnet were still at the centre of English poetry, and he breaks not only from the conventions of form, but also with the rhyme scheme, metre, and rhythm. But what is it that makes this an imagist work?
The use of imagery in his work goes beyond plain metaphor and simile. His word choice suggests, evokes, and creates associations, going further than plain metaphor by bringing our perception and intuition into the operation of creating the image. The simile of the “ruddy moon” “Like a red-faced farmer” is quaint on the surface, but following the chain of connection, we find that ruddy carries rather wholesome connotations, that a red-faced moon is also called a harvest moon, and that a farmer is responsible for the harvest. We, therefore, find a chain of association that not only offers a profundity far greater than the original simile but which also holds the image in tension to produce a visual effect and likeness with the quality of haiku.
The thought of Hulme is fascinating for the way he makes grandiose claims while remaining coldly logical and committed to both scientific and religious thought. After a long history of romantic sentiment overwhelming a classical spirit in the arts and philosophy, Hulme strangely manages to stand out as an innovator while endorsing Conservative politics, a religious mindset, a classicist view on art, and a fixed view on humanity.
Finally, regardless of the actual conclusions he draws, Hulme makes clear that we can step outside, so to speak, to think of our thought from the exterior. He shows this by demonstrating how having even the most basic beliefs about the world, makes us naturally predisposed to certain possibilities in our thought, and that these might even go some way in explaining what we find beautiful.