Thursday, September 06, 2012

Darkness over the Surface of the Deep

"Poems should not produce enthusiasm," I said recently. "Likewise, philosophy should eschew profundity." But this conflicts with something I said seven years ago:

Truth is the first virtue of belief; justice is the first virtue of desire; perspicuity is the first virtue of thought; intensity is the first virtue of feeling. The precision of objects fosters (but does not guarantee) truth; the precision of subjects fosters justice; the precision of concepts fosters clarity in suffering (perspicuity); the precision of emotions foster enthusiasm in suffering (intensity).

Most of that still holds. It doesn't matter here, but I'd rather talk about the precision of concepts and emotions today than the precision of objects and subjects. In any case, I had pretended there is a substantive distinction to be made between clarity and perspicuity, one that parallels the difference between enthusiasm and intensity. My recent discovery suggests a different likeness: profundity is to perspicuity as enthusiasm is to intensity. (Clarity finds its complement in something like tension, tightness, like the string of a lyre or bow.)

This allows us, perhaps, to recover some of the "depth" of philosophy, along with some of the "raptures" of poetry. Consider: we can see the bottom of a lake if the water is clear and the surface is still. The depth of philosophy does not depend on having "gotten to the bottom of it" but of "seeing through" it, all the way down. That can certainly seem like a kind of profundity.

How would that work in poetry. Well, the surface is to poetry as the appearance is to philosophy. Notice that the mind appears ("seems") deep precisely when it is still and clear, like water (sages everywhere agree). So, too, might the heart surface enthusiastically when it is stirred and tight. (In Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises people "get tight", i.e., drunk.) Philosophy stills the mind. Poetry moves the heart.

When you arrive, by way of a sophisticated pangrammatical computation, at a juxtaposition of platitudes, you know you've done it right.

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