Sunday, June 12, 2005

What's the Use of Emotion?

Kasey has contributed a reading of John Stuart Mill's "What is Poetry", that has me reminding myself, first, that my reading background in poetics is wanting (I had never heard of this essay before) and, second, that, despite being native there and and to the manner born, I find philosophical prose more honourable in its breaches than its observations. Kasey does an admirable job of isolating the working parts of Mill's essay that its 'sentiment' and 'hazy reasoning' obscure and which install in it, as he puts it, a 'set of obsessions that has most fueled the reigning poetic cliches of the Twentieth Century.'

I have long thought that prose is simply too imprecise a medium for the presentation of philosophical results. But after reading Kasey's post it is possible, at least, to discuss things with Mill. Here are some provisional observations that I'll probably be taking up and revising later on.

Kasey suggests that 'at some point we must agree [with Mill] that to call something "poetry" in the first place is to "confess" that ideally it appeals to a sensibility not containable within the narrow parameters of the purely rational'. While I realize that I'm here imposing a set of distinctions that are still mainly a part of my own private vocabulary for connecting philosophy with poetry, I want to correct this statement a little.

Something is poetry if it appeals, not to a particular sensibility that is defined in opposition to reason, but to motility in general. That is, I think Kant was right to suggest that sensibility is impossible without reason, and that to speak of a sensibility "not containable" by reason is to speak of something that is so diffuse as to be insensible. It is precisely the relative containment of sensation by reason that gives us our particular, finer or coarser, sensibilities.

Also, I think the relative breadth of passion and narrowness of reason is a nineteenth century cliche that we do well to question. If we look at the sort of poetry that is interesting today we find that it is highly specialized and quite narrow, and this goes also for our passions. "Broadly" passionate work is just not very useful to us. So I offer the following confession to set alongide the Mohammad-Mill thesis.

Poetry appeals to a motility containable within the narrow parameters of pure passion.

Here the specific ability to contain, i.e., the specific narrowness and purity of the poem, becomes the quality that is of critical interest. Each poem must serve as its own little vessel, no poem is expected to get it all in there.

The specifities of the poem are what we call its emotions (in the plural). Poetry is not about expressing or eliciting feelings but about presenting the background dispositions against which feelings are possible as precise, contained affairs or events. These may, at the risk of misunderstanding, be called "states of mind". Poetry is useful because it makes our efforts to transform our emotions more precise. It is not "having the emotion" (i.e. feeling something) that is poetry's gift to us but the intensity, the tension, of the presentation. On the basis of a good poem, our next confrontation with feelings that are strong enough to transform our ability to have new feelings (cf. Aristotle) will not simply leave us frazzled, but stronger.

I'll need to come back to this. I think Mill and Kasey actually say this as well, but it's important to emphasize that no poet ever sets out to describe a lion. The lion simply sometimes provides the imagery (the imaginary material) out of which to build the poem.


Laura Carter said...

What is an example of "broadly" passionate work?

Thomas Basbøll said...

"Today, a generation raised in the shadows of the Cold War assumes new responsibilities in a world warmed by the sunshine of freedom but threatened still by ancient hatreds and new plagues."

Laura Carter said...

Just checking myself, cuz I can spew sometimes. Thanks. I'll keep a shoulder clear for the sunshine of freedom to tan.