Saturday, May 07, 2011

Contradiction & Seduction

"The civil status [bürgerliche Stellung] of a contradiction," writes Wittgenstein (PI§125), "or its status in civil life: there is the philosophical problem." It would be nice to have as clear a sense of the problem of poetry. To that end, note first that the philosopher does not deal in contradictions as such. The philosopher's problem is not to actually contradict people, but to clarify the "civil status" of the contradictions their lives lead them to. Moreover, it is the contradictions that stem from our entanglement in our rules of reasoning (logic) that constitute the problem. "This entanglement in our own rules is what we want to understand (i.e., get a clear view of)", and this will "throw light on our concept of meaning something".

Well, there are rules of passion as there are rules of reason, and our passions, just like our reasons, lead us into trouble. The poet's problem concerns just that trouble. Now, to contradict is to "speak against", and in this case we are interested in the way logic leads us to speak against ourselves. The poet, by contrast, is interested in the rules that lead us astray, away from ourselves and towards another. These are, of course, the rules of love.

The troubadour, specifically, is interested in the rules that might lead his lady to imbibe "the one obvious remedy" (E.P.). As a lover, he is interested in that remedy, of course. But as an artist he is interested, first and foremost, in the rules that keep them apart, which are also, he suspects, part of a larger set of rules, a system of, precisely, poetic justice, that, if it were fully and intensely obeyed, would also bring them together. ("What a wonderful world it would be.") Just as the philosopher ultimately believes that the contradiction indicates a "pseudo-problem", not be solved or resolved but dissolved in complete clarity of the concept, so the poet qua poet seeks that "first intensity" of emotion, the complete intensification of the "rules of the game", i.e., the grammar of the language of love. Here, to be led astray is also to be led back to oneself.

To "lead astray", to seduce.

The civil status of seduction, or its status in civil life: there is the problem of poetry. The poet's task is not to seduce. It is his entanglement in his own rules (his passions) that he has to obey (i.e., get firm grip onbe firmly seized by*). It is not the love itself that is his problem, but the conditions of its possibility.

*I was too eager to construct something like Wittgenstein's "get a clear view of". It is important to distinguish between conceptual and emotional precision. When our concepts are precise they ensure that things are given to us clearly. When our emotions are precise, however, they ensure we are taken with people intensely. A poem presents us with the "chaotic volcanism of first seizingness".

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

I've been using Elvis Costello lyrics in English classes this term, and one of the things that keeps coming up for me is that he is fascinated with what to do when "the moment ends":

It was a fine idea at the time,
Now it's a brilliant mistake.

That song has become more or less my touchstone for understanding his lyrics, as he explores how fine ideas may or may not turn out to have been brilliant mistakes.

So he's not about seduction; he's about how to think about past seductions. (This is also related to a broader sense of seduction having to do with sin; not for nothing was EC raised Catholic.)

(And by the way, this week in class I had occasion to sing "Wonderful World" to the students. It was interesting to note that they all knew the song, even though most of the students I currently have were born around 1990.)