Monday, May 16, 2005

Emotional Notation and the Formulae of Desire

Mussolini: "Why do you want to get your ideas in order?"
Pound: "For my poem."

Eliot: "What do you believe?"
Pound: "I believe that a light from Eleusis persisted throughout the middle ages and set beauty in the song of Provence and Italy."

My aim in keeping this blog is to try to articulate, in as many ways as possible, a project that has occupied me since I hit on the slogan, "Philosophy is the art of writing concepts down." It occured to me almost immediately that this art, which may be called "conceptual notation" (reviving Frege's idea of a Begriffsschrift), parallels a particular approach to poetry, which can be called "emotional notation", i.e., the art of writing emotions down, and which seems to be what Ezra Pound understood the troubadours to be doing.

In German, this might be referred to as Ergriffsschrift (though this is probably a neologism), evoking shades of Leo Frobenius. In his Kulturgeshichte Afrikas: prolegomena zu einer historischen gestaltlehre ("towards a historical doctrine of form"?) he tied emotion (Ergriffenheit) very closely to the formative processes of the "paideuma" (p. 26), which Pound defined in the Guide to Kulchur as "the gristly root of ideas that are in action" and distinguished sharply from the Zeitgeist, viz., "the notions that a great mass of people still hold or half hold from habit, from waning custom" (p. 58).

I find it useful to collect these fragments in one place. Absolute Astronomy has a helpful entry on the Begriffsschrift, which links to entries also on "thought", "formula", "language", "logic" and "notation". It is, of course, terse, technical and scientific, but it indicates something of what I am after, even if it does not provide us with the tools we need.

In the next few posts I want to go on to look at intuitions and institutions and to try to characterize poetry and philosophy as forms of writing, or more technically, systems of notation, whose aim it is to arrange imagery to present our intuitions and institutions to us in a useful (meaningful) way, allowing us to get a "grip" (Griff) on them.

I continue only to trace around the outline of my problem, rehearsing its form, its formal properties, its formulae. But T. S. Eliot did suggest that the work of art should arrange "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of a particular emotion" (he famously called this the "objective correlative" in "Hamlet and his Problems", The Sacred Wood, p. 100).

Pound tried to evaluate a writer "in proportion as his work is exact, i.e., true to human consciousness and to the nature of man, as it is exact in formulation of desire." ("How to Read", LE, p. 22)

Betrand Russell said that "a good notation has a subtlety and suggestiveness which at times makes it almost like a live teacher. Notational irregularities are often the first sign of philosophical errors, and a perfect notation would be a substitute for thought." (Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, p. xviii). He is talking about a kind of conceptual notation, here, and the poetic homologue would invoke a "substitute for feeling". No notation (no form) is perfect.

Each poem aspires to its own perfection, however. That is the quality of its affection.


Laura Carter said...

If a perfect notation cd function as a substitute for feeling, then...I'm personally frightened! That continuum is one that I'm not sure I can function on, I'm not sure that I can hone my words, & hence myself, to that extent.

I'm trying to work with this now, make some sense of my aversion to certain writers who have been recommended as archetypes, masters (the big (modernist) guns, so to speak). I may be back to Allen Ginsberg & other well-loved Beat-inspired folk before long, but I'm pressing myself to see what happens.

Laura Carter said...

Not to belittle Ginsberg, etc. I think the Beats are often "not taken seriously enough" because of the cultural stuff. But there was a natural connection for me, it felt like a "way in."

Thomas Basbøll said...

As always, your comments touch the live nerve and spiky part of the doctrine.

There's a major qualification in any formula that runs "If a perfect X could function as a Y. . ." Nothing, like I say, is perfect. So one is talking here only about a certain intrinsic aspiration.

Science at some point got so complicated that individual scientists were no longer able "to get their minds around" it, they could not conceive of it as a whole. They were having trouble thinking.

So along comes logical notation to lift a part of the burden for them. (Whether you start things with Aristotle, Leibniz or Boole only indicates the sense of "complicated".)

Well, I think the politics of the various courts in the 13th century had complicated things enough to warrant a notation of passion in the same sense.

For what its worth, I think Ginsberg was "exact in formulation of desire"--given the emergence of a very specific set of desires after WWII, which are still largely relevant today. Poems like Paterson, America and Howl are notationally quite perfect--and they do spare me the trouble of feeling a range of things.

I don't mean that the way it sounds. We might say, rather, that these poems bring us into the very precise vicinity of those feelings which are their theme, cutting through a lot of imprecise "cultural", as you say, rubbish in order to make the experience effectively available.

Naturally, you have to be interested in that experience in order for it to have value. But today we have an almost objective interest in these experiences. We are having trouble feeling (and largely on the same grounds that troubled Ginsberg). We can't get our hearts around it. Or (since the core is to the heart what the perimeter is to the mind) we need to find a "way in", yes.

We probably have to make a pact with Ginsberg, no? Let there be commerce between us. . .$500 down on your old strophes.

Laura Carter said...

That's helpful.

When I start working "with" language, at its core, which is something quite different from my heart's core,

I begin to feel so troubled by the precision aspect (if that makes sense at all)

that I'm

pretty far removed both from thought, & from feeling (and the desired 'magic moment' when they both function together as best as possible).

It's strange. Perhaps I'm pressing the parts too far, hoping for a whole. But I suppose one has to be able to work this way, at least for limited stretches.

I refer to Ginsberg only because he presents a 'way in,' so to speak, for me, that always resulted in enjoyment & not necessarily a strong desire to be a writer, just the enjoyment of reading someone whose words make sense to me, as you describe.

But a continued course of study needs a little more, a few prescriptions perhaps. (I love Ginsberg's prescriptions but take them in the wrong sense sometimes)---

so I'm stuck with spending a bit of time on Ezra.

All of this is just to say

that the nuts & bolts aspects of this game are the least appealing to me,

but feel necessary right now.

Do you agree? Am I unable to get on the perimeter of your basic points here? ;)

Laura Carter said...

Add: para. 7: "that has always resulted": it continues.

Thomas Basbøll said...

The Unquiet Grave continues to prove its worth in its archives. Recall Tony's discussion of songs like Leonard Cohen's "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong", which he called "maybe the most devastating song I've ever heard."

"These sort of songs on repeat are my guilty pleasure. The sort of stuff that a Wes Anderson character would listen to on a bus. Except for hours on end ... Even now I like to take a night to drink Wild Turkey, sit in the bathtub and listen to Nebraska about a dozen times. This is healthy artistically, makes sure I don't get this adolescent emo stuff into the poems. I'm a hugely sentimental person . . ."

I use (popular) music in a similar way. It frames the problem for me. Take David Gray's "My oh my". Now, this is by no means brilliant poetry (and is devastating, if at all, only in the actual performance). But poetry is supposed to provide us with some of the means to deal with the problem that this song glosses, in a sense, glosses over.

The heart beats at the core of language, the mind patrols the frontier.

We work the interstices, disremembering (?).

It may be a matter of becoming capable of the interstice, the joint, the articulation. But this does not mean being able to bear the feeling and the thought involved in the conjunction.

That's the importance of Tony's bathtub. You need other containers in real life.

Laura Carter said...

Here I am late at night needing the "sleep container"!

But yes, that song is devastating. Perhaps not the most so, to me, but riveting, beautiful, & devastating.

I like your notion of interstices, of disremembering.

I think in many ways "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" is much worse. Notions of need, perhaps containers are the poems we make & I am (as always) wanting too much of the rest of me there.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Late morning, here in Copenhagen. Plugging away at work.

Try listening to Elvis Costello's "(I don't want to go to) Chelsea" immediately followed by Lloyd Cole's version of "Chelsea Hotel".

Then imagine the chorus repeated after that somewhat cute ending "that's all I don't think of you that often."




might work

megan gilliam said...

Do you find that these needed containers are where this conjunction takes place? Is it possible to reach the articulation neccesary for the intersection of frontier landscapes without?

Thomas Basbøll said...

Hi Megan,

Thanks for the question. I'm not sure I understand the last part, but I think that the ordinary (or "real life") containers, i.e., the bathtubs of sentimentality, allow us to get by, on a day-to-day basis, without being precisely articulated.

So I guess I'm saying that containers (tubs) are alternatives to articulations (joints). They are where the articulation don't take place, because they don't have to.

There are two ways of maintaining a form--one is by joining things up in a self-supporting, lattice-like structure. The other is to pour it, in a liquid state, into a container.

My suggestion is that a poem is "articulate" (jointed), i.e., a lattice structure, and that a pop song depends on the bathtub of popular culture (public sentimentality) to hold its form.

I'm not sure that it is possible to get whole landscapes to intersect.

Hope that's of use to you.


megan gilliam said...

Hi Thomas,

Thank you for your answer.
I have been thinking alot about this liquid form and how it is contained.

The Containing over time creating frozen reified states no longer pourable.

As for the landscapes, it seems that some form of thawing is needed in order to even anticipate a meaningful crossing of borders.

Unless there is constant agitation of the held liquids.