Empire of Ideas: Genre and Geography in James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover
Walser, Andrew C.
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Despite its reputation as an insular and apolitical work, James Merrill’s epic The Changing Light at Sandover is actually a sustained engagement with the phenomenon of globalization and the fate of literary art in the longue durée. As an epic, the poem necessarily represents a totality – an entire world, as it is perceived from a particular place and time. A preliminary discussion of the epic and its periodization leads into an analysis of Sandover’s idiosyncratic geography. The poem’s split center sketches out the boundaries of Atlantic civilization and creates a cordon sanitaire between that structure and “Western culture” – between the political base of its world, in other words, and its intellectual and artistic superstructures. This separation is an instance of what Moretti calls the rhetoric of innocence, that verbal legerdemain by which the epic writer makes a picture of the whole that erases or redescribes the violence by which the system is maintained. A second chapter examines how Sandover uses its marginal locations to come to grips with the entanglement of art and politics. The poem alleviates its anxieties about the eventual eclipse of the West by using the margins to mitigate the responsibility of Atlantic civilization for the ills that have accompanied its ascent and by reinforcing the safety of the center with easily controllable displays of exoticism. Yet Sandover also sees globalization as a “period of terminal crisis” for the “entire capitalist world-system” (in Wallerstein’s phrase) and thus prophesies and welcomes a shift in the center of global power. A final chapter shows how the poem uses its imaginary locales to think about what will persist into the future regardless of who has political power. The poem constructs a model of cultural evolution that resembles the memetic theory that Dawkins sketched out in The Selfish Gene, grounded in the neo-Darwinian principles of variation, selection, and survival. This mechanism moves beyond the duality of center and margins and offers some consolation for the fall of the West: civilization after civilization may topple “OFF THE HIGH HISTORIC CLIFF,” but out of this wreckage arises an Empire of Ideas.
Changing Light at Sandover