Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467

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In his magnum opus, the six-volume Course of Positive Philosophy (1830-1842), Auguste Comte theorized that, because of the nature of the human mind, each science or field of knowledge passes through three major states of development: the theological or fictitious state, the metaphysical or abstract state, and the scientific or positive state. At the theological stage, all phenomena are naïvely explained by appealing to the will of some deity or deities. At the metaphysical stage, events are explained with reference to fixed, abstract philosophical categories. In the final, scientific stage of epistemological evolution, any attempt to arrive at absolute causes is relinquished in favor of empirical explanations as to how events interrelate, arrived at not inductively, by some a priori conceptual fiat, but deductively, through careful observation of real world events.

Comte further posits that each of these epistemological stages can be correlated to political stages of development in human history. The theological stage is manifest is such notions as the divine right of kings. The metaphysical stage is reflected in such Enlightenment concepts as democratic government, social equality, and the social contract. The positivist stage, which Comte hoped to inaugurate, would involve a rigorously scientific or “sociological” approach to political organization, conceived and managed by a scientific elite.

In theme and structure “Bookbuying in the Tenderloin” brilliantly parodies Comte’s tripartite epistemological-political schema. Surely, St. Boniface’s Church epitomizes Comte’s theological state of knowledge, a superstitious worldview massively superseded by modernity’s scientific and technological revolution. Longshoreman’s Hall represents the metaphysical stage, an Enlightenment-inspired attempt to order human affairs on abstract principles of justice and social equality, also doomed to failure. The secondhand bookstores symbolize Comte’s third or scientific state in the sense that they are repositories of knowledge apart from any unifying ideological agenda. One is free to read anything and draw one’s own conclusions. Hass slyly spoofs Comte’s Positivism by placing him and related utopian thinkers in history’s dustbin, emphatically reminding readers that empiricism has also failed to usher in a golden age.

What is left after Comte’s three states have been exhausted and found wanting? There is nothing except the sybaritic anarchy of the street. Hass’s speaker admits that, in the places he haunts, he has “no power/ to transform the universal squalor/ nor wisdom to withstand the thin wrists” of the prostitutes who ply their trade in the Tenderloin. Lust, greed, and the blind instinct to survive defeat all utopian aspirations. The poet can name modernity’s malaise with moving eloquence but is at a loss for solutions. In the end, he can only utter an exasperated sense of wonder at the historical predicament in which he is caught: “My God, it is a test,/ this riding out the dying of the West.”