Sunday, February 25, 2007

Anstalt und Anschauung

In German the difference between a perspective and an intuition is gently blended (at least for me) in the word Anschauung, which can mean "view" (as in Weltanschauung) and intuition (as Kant uses it). Likewise, the German word Anstalt blends the difference between facilities (like asylums, prisons, homes and schools) and institutions (like madness, punishment, family and education).

A perspective is an order of visibility, while a facility is an order of manipulability. Intuitions and institutions are the immediate moment of perspectives and facilities respectively.
A perspective determines what things can be seen, while a facility determines what people can do (mainly in the sense of who can carry our particular tasks). But intuitions and institutions determine the immediate meanings of the available perceptions and actions, their use if you will.

I think they are interdependent. There is no home without a family; there is no asylum without a madman. There is no "what" without a "who" to find it shiny, fresh, salient, and profitable. There is nothing to see if there is nobody to do something with it. There is nobody without nothing comes of it.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Lyre and the Lamp

Working on a slightly different problem over a year ago, I said in passing that I would like to find a word that is for philosophy what "lyric" is for poetry. I think I have now found it.

Cuddon's Dictionary of Literary Terms tells us that "a lyric is usually fairly short ... and it usually expresses the feelings and thoughts of a single speaker in a personal and subjective fashion." The philosophical unit that resembles the lyric in size is the aphorism. Interestingly, it expresses the thoughts and feelings of any speaker in an impersonal and objective fashion. The lyric is an emotional specificity, I want to say, while the aphorism is a conceptual generality. They are staples of poetry and philosophy respectively. As Cuddon notes, while there are other kinds, "lyric poetry, which is to be found in most literatures, comprises the bulk of all poetry." I'm not sure that aphorisms comprise the "bulk" of philosophy in the Western tradition (though certainly its popular reception), but it is iconic of philosophy in an important sense.

Etymology offers an interesting insight here. Lyric can of course be traced back to the lyre that accompanied the lyric (a song) in ancient Greece. Aphorism, meanwhile, can be traced to the horos, meaning boundary. An aphorism is the use of words to mark off an area with boundaries. A lyric is the use of words to sing a tune accompanied by a lyre.

So the question of the correspondingly concrete "instrument" of philosophy became clear to me. A lamp. Philosophy consists in the construction of "elucidations", Wittgenstein said.

"I am looking for an honest man," said Diogenes, holding up his lamp in broad daylight.

The light that a lamp spreads marks a boundary. This also grants philosophy a suitably spatial orientation, while poetry, in its association with song, is oriented in time. All this is working out quite nicely. But there's more.

The lamp is to the eye what the lyre is to the hand. (Roughly. Bit more work to be done there.) Finally, expanses are the pangrammatical homologue of vibrations. A vibrating string in a circle of light. There is an ideogram of the relation of poetry to philosophy in that image.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Curiosity and Sincerity

At the end of the "Immediate Need of Confucius", Ezra Pound offers the following observation, which I think remains relevant.

We are bedevilled with false diagnoses. We are obfuscated with the noise of those who attribute all troubles to irrelevant symptoms of evil. We are oppressed by powerful persons who lie, who have no curiosity, who smear the world and their high offices with Ersatz sincerity. (SP, p. 94)

Now, real sincerity, Confucian sincerity, if you will, was for Pound the key to decent social order, and amounted to "precise verbal definition" (good grammar, I like to say). But I've always found Pound's disappointment with the curiosity of our leaders to be the most profound insight in this passage.

The two intersect in the expression "what's the word?", i.e., the sincere statement of the limit of one's knowledge, accompanied by the desire to overcome one's ignorance, or at least a "willingness to move away from one area of semi-ignorance" (cf. ABC, p. 35).

I want to propose that sincerity--the pursuit of the "right word"--is located at the intersection of hope and faith, courage and curiosity. I believe that the urge to create, the artistic motive, the urge toward innovation in form, arises because of a very, very subtle imbalance in the pull of these influences. It is not that artists are especially "unbalanced", however. On the contrary, non-artists (or artists in a creative slump) are precisely that because they are dominated by only one moment: they live on hope or faith or courage or curiosity, often serially. Artists, by contrast, will (at the crucial moment) not let faith extinguish their curiosity, nor let their hope render their courage irrelevant.

Their sincerity is therefore very complicated. That, I think, is what Pound was complaining about. Our leaders, as it were, "honestly don't care" what is going on. Mainly because it's all happening so fast. "An age-old intelligence is not lost in an age of speed," however (Pound, SP, p. 94). Poetry unwobbles the pivot, rectifies the heart.

One last thing about curiosity. Heidegger dealt with it as a dimension of "everydayness" and therefore saw it as a "deficient" mode of Being. But what he understood by curiosity (Neugier) was a desire for novelty, a longing, if you will, for news. Gossip. He did not mean a longing for news that stays news. But that is what we mean. We mean the result of tempering our curiosity with hope, faith and courage. And all the reciprocal effects of this: form.

See also "Li and/or Ethos" and/
or "Form and/or Grammar"

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Hope and Courage

for Tony Tost

What I am thinking of is the man of imagination and science, whose courage is infinite because his curiosity surpasses his courage.

Vladimir Nabokov

Hope and courage are, arguably, emotions. That is, they are conditions of the possibility of action or, where opportunities for action are lacking, they are conditions of the possibility of feeling. As such, however, they seem to be at least provisionally opposed in force. Given sufficient courage, an action may be possible without much hope. Likewise, given sufficient hope, the deed may require very little courage. Intellectuals will no doubt speak of "the courage to hope", but I think this is often a sophism, and, no doubt just as often, a well intentioned philosophical error.

We are interested in form. And form is an aspect of experience that comes to light in the juxtaposition of pangrammatical homologies, in the passage between the people that pertain to our power and the things that pertain to our knowledge, in the interstice between the emotion and the concept.

Faith and curiosity are, arguably, concepts. That is, they are conditions of the possibility of perception or, where opportunities for perception are lacking, they are conditions of the possibility of thought. As such, however, they seem to be at least provisionally opposed in force. Given sufficient curiosity, a perception may be possible without much faith. Likewise, given sufficient faith, the vision may require very little curiosity. Moralists will no doubt speak of "the curiosity of faith", but I think this is often a lyricism, and, no doubt just as often, a high spirited poetical mistake.

Wittgenstein said that genius is merely talent exercised with courage. Pound said that the measure of a man's civilization is his hope. It is under these conditions that we pursue the forms. (Our invisible brides? Tony's eternal pursuit of Agnes?) With curiosity and with faith.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Case Notes 2

In my now very tattered Basic Kafka, there is a chronology of events in Kafka's life. The entry for 1917 reads:

First half: Writes "The Hunter Gracchus." Learns Hebrew. Spring: Writes "The Great Wall of China." July: Second engagement to Felice Bauer. August: Begins coughing up blood. September 4: Diagnosis of tuberculosis. Moves in with sister Ottla in Z├╝rau. September 12: Leave of absence from office. November 10: Diary entries break off. End of December: Breaking of second engagement to Felice Bauer. Autumn and winter: Writes aphorisms (octavo notebooks).

There is an (Ambrose) Biercean chuckle in me that rears itself at the sequence "July: [gets engaged]. August: Begins coughing up blood." I always imagine that the graduate student who compiled the chronology arranged the facts intentionally to achieve this effect, and that Eric Heller either didn't notice it or allowed it. It may also have been perfectly unintentional, of course.

In any case, a lot of other things no doubt happened to Kafka in 1917. And other arrangements of the details already presented are obviously possible. Consider the following list:

Begins coughing up blood. Leave of absence from office. Moves in with sister. Diary entries break off. End of December. Writes aphorisms.

It is obviously this sort of sensibility that lies behind Kate Greenstreet's case sensitive. It produces wonderful passages like the following:

Several glass ashtrays, the panther lamp. The light
bent toward the map. I spent a long time under the table, learning
to recognize wires. How we could change her.

How the bullet is scraped as it moves through the barrel.

The subject is distant, and dark.

It's not who dunnit that matters here, but how rooms look in detective novels. Not what surveillance uncovers but what it feels like to watch. There is an aesthetics of private investigation that is here freed from the plot. Also here:

There might be a group of people who meet every year at a summer house.
All that nature. A single mouthful can kill a man.

The poems concentrate our attention on what makes a whole range of mediocre movies succesful (it isn't the suspense, nor the action, nor the sex). Toxicology and balistics and nobody really dies.

Case Notes 1

Sunday, February 11, 2007

New Formal Homologies


{ courage , power , hope }


{ curiosity , knowledge , faith }


Saturday, February 10, 2007

Form and/or Grammar

There is nothing more human (that is, less mineral, vegetal, animal, and even angelical) than grammar.

Jorge Luis Borges

I am a grammarian.
We will or we will not cry together.

Getrude Stein

What I'm desperate for, from myself and others, is a poetry & poetics that pushes its innovative & expressive powers, and new forms, towards the invention, or construction, or even the fabrication, of things like courage & hope.

Tony Tost

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Philosophical Image

Kasey's recent post made me think of this footnote to an old poem of mine.

We lift images from appearances and apply them to surfaces never the other way round. A surface is that to which an image may be effortlessly applied. An appearance is that from which it is lifted without strain. To imagine is sometimes to see and sometimes to do. The image may equally well be seen or done. The same image is equally compatible with surfaces and appearances. There are not some images that go better with surfaces than with appearances. But we must keep in mind that we cannot impose an image on an appearance; we must lift it from there. Nor can we lift an appearance from a surface, we must put it there. Thus, we lift an image off the appearance of the closed door and apply this same image in opening its surface. This whether in imagination or in experience. That is, the door appears closed as we run into it, and it surfaces in its openness as we pass through it. Note here that the door's openness is nothing to the door but belongs to you and me (the subject), i.e., that which is in motion. Its closedness, on the other hand, is the door’s imposition on our motion (and is objective).

The key passage in Kasey's post is this:

These poems do not "use" or "contain" images so much as they are images, images formed by language shaped into a "rested totality," as Zukofsky puts it. The attempt is to simulate the contours of a mental/perceptual experience through words, drawing on those words' referential function as well as the irrationally evocative sub-qualities of their morphemic and phonemic makeup (it is probably impossible not to do both at the same time in some proportion). The challenge facing the poet is then to translate a personal, subjective experience of language/reality into a textual message that will communicate itself, however incompletely, to another reader, by means other than simple reportage. This challenge is always doomed to at least partial failure...

This advances my understanding of poetry, philosophy and imagination. The step I want to take from here is to reject the challenge: why begin with "a personal, subjective experience" and then translate, convert or transform it into a "message" that can be "communicated" (though the phrase "that will communicate itself" indicates a bit of answer, an immediacy)?

To take two examples. Is there any (useful) sense in which "Message to the Department of the Interior" (Glenum) and "Social Life in Western North Carolina" (Mohammad) translate their authors' personal experiences of language/reality into messages that are then made more or less available to readers? It seems to me that these poems begin with the imagery already formed in an impersonal "outside". These poems will communicate as "imperfectly" with their creators as with any other reader, which is to say, they are perfectly, resolutely imaginary.

Obit Imitating Art?

When Albert Camus died, the literary journal X (I, 2, March 1960) ran an obituatry by Michel St. Denis. He writes:

The theatre was not for him a distraction: he used to say, in his warm and cheerful way (I knew him as a theatre man), that he loved sharing in group work, simply as a member of the team; his solitude as a writer, concerned with the plight of man, was fed and helped by his daily contact with the difficulties, failures and achievements, passions, generosity and pettiness of a company of actors. What to others is trouble and unbearable agitation was food and excitement to him. He wrote that the stadium and the auditorium of a theatre were the only places in the world where he did not feel guilty. (113)

In his 1956 novel The Fall, Camus did in fact write what St. Denis says he wrote. Here is the relevant paragraph:

To be sure, I occasionally pretended to take life seriously. But very soon the frivolity of seriousness struck me and I merely went on playing my role as well as I could. I played at being efficient, intelligent, virtuous, civic-minded, shocked, indulgent, fellow-spirited, edifying ... In short, there's no need of going on, you have already grasped that I was like my Dutchmen who are here without being here: I was absent at the moment when I took up the most space. I have never been really sincere and enthusiastic except when I used to indulge in sports, and in the army, when I used to act in plays we put on for our own amusement. In both cases there was a rule of the game, which was not serious but which we enjoyed taking as if it were. Even now, the Sunday matches in an overflowing stadium, and the theatre, which I loved with the greatest passion, are the only places in the world where I feel innocent. (87-8)

Now, those words may of course have been as true of Camus as they were of Clamence. But it seems to me that this is an unhappy coincidence in an obituary on the life of the author of The Myth of Sisyphus (an essay on the absurd). It would be a bit like using words originally (or even just also) "written" by Charles Kinbote or Humbert Humbert in an obituary for Nabokov. Wouldn't it?