Monday, April 29, 2013

A Cleaner, Lighter Place

"You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music."

I read Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-lighted Place" for the first time after running into it in William Barrett's Irrational Man, where it is described as "a vision of Nothing that is perhaps as powerful as any in modern art". Here's a sample of Papa's vision:

What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it was all nada y pues nada y pues nada. Our nada who are in nada, nada be thy name... [etc.]

Barrett rightly says that this "encounter with Nothingness" defines modern art, and perhaps modern life. I, too, feel the pull of this urge towards something clean, something orderly. With nothing, Nothing, at the center.

It's interesting to note the similarity between this waiter who "lives in it", i.e., nothingness, with self-awareness, and the gurus of the East. Sectarian disputes to the side, it is in the discovery that there is finally nothing and that I am finally no one that moksha is achieved.

But I am committed to a different path, that of "immanence", in which the experience of nothingness, by way of which transcendence (it is said) can be achieved, is forever denied. (Perhaps I'm just not meditating hard enough, of course!) In my "metaphysics", there is no question of why there is something rather than nothing, only why not something else. In my "anthropology" there is no question of why I am someone rather than no one, only why not someone else.

That is, I am pulled towards the "nothing", but always find some-one there. I am pulled toward the "no one", and some thing blocks my way. I can escape existence but only by way of inspiration; I can cease to be only by becoming.

I don't believe it is nobler to suffer in the mind than to take up arms.

I think modern art forgot this. I think it assumed that there was nothing to do, only so much to see, and this seeing without doing (think of Hemingway's gang in Paris), ultimately produced that "vision of nothingness" that Barrett identified. Some of course accepted it, almost like sages, and found themselves a clean, well-lighted place, an orderly space around their emptiness. Others sought adventure (think now of Hemingway in Africa), nothing became anything, and they themselves became anyone.

We're still modern in that sense I suppose.

What is the pangrammatical supplement of cleanliness and light? Well, intensity is to poetry what clarity is to philosophy. Light is to the mind what tension is to the heart. [Note: shine and pulse, flicker and flutter, illumination and palpitation.]* Since time is to history what space is to the world, we need, not a place (in space), but a moment (in time), a now, not a here.

You want music now. Certainly you want music.

When you tighten the lyre's string, giving it tension, it becomes sharp. Sharpness is to poetry what cleanliness is to philosophy, let us say. A sharp, tense moment? How about this: a sharp, well-tempered instant? The duration of the "moment" is simply "tuned" into a "temper", leaving only its "edge", if you will.

It's the modernist fantasy of perceptions always enjoyed in good light in a clean space, and actions always cutting (cleanly, I suppose) with a sharp edge. It's all about precision. But it's all for naught, of course, for nothing and for no one.

The possibility I'm exploring, which is at once philosophical and poetic, is that the alternative to somethingness is not nothingness but always, for all practical purposes, someoneness. And vice versa. The mystic, the guru, achieves enlightenment by first seeking isolation, encountering nothing only when there's no one else around.
*Update: I originally promised to write another post on Beckett's "mess", but never really got there. Also, I'm no longer sure about the light/tension analogy. Adding the other pairs, I'm thinking light/rhythm might be better. The would mean that light is to seeing as rhythm is to doing.

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