Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Poetic Composition

Thomas Presskorn reminds me that I've been promising to write Composure for some time. If it were a straight prose work, I would chide myself for not just getting down to it. But I did actually once try to just "get the thing done" and it simply didn't work. I write scholarly prose quite easily (surprisingly easily) these days. What I'm having trouble with is the sort of writing that I want Composure to be.

"Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten," said Wittgenstein. Peter Winch renders it, "Philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition." I sometimes think it would suffice (though it doesn't, of course, really) to say "One ought really only compose philosophy," adding, perhaps, a parenthetical "in the manner of poetry", to capture the everyday sense of "dichten".

But what kind of poetry? My answer is that philosophy ought to be written on the model of Rosmarie Waldrop, Lisa Robertson, Ben Lerner, and Tony Tost. Their work is resolutely "emotional", however, in a way that I do not intend Composure to be, and for this reason they work much more freely within their form than I hope to. But the words are composed on the page in a, to me, exemplary way.

Wittgenstein said that his demand that we compose philosophy as we compose poems only showed that he wasn't very good at what he wanted to do. I feel the same way. I simply don't know how to "work" at it. I know that "This is my body" is the central claim of the book. The book is to be a "complete" elaboration of that sentence. I also know that this elaboration will consist of about 50 "moments" (roughly speaking, discrete poems) with titles like "Knowledge" and "Power", "Intuition" and "Institution", "Seeing" and "Doing" ... perhaps even "Eye", "Hand" and "Lens", "Lever". The "poems" will be paired like that, with no moment lasting more than a page (probably about 300 words). But that's what I know. I don't really know how to compose a poem. I can't do it the way I write prose.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Descartes' Feint

I am still working on a book called Composure. It is an attempt to overcome, both poetically and philosophically, what Damasio calls "Descartes' error", which, I believe, was not so much a mistake as a deft piece of misdirection. Here is the key passage in part IV of the Discourse on Method.

I attentively examined what I was, and as I observed that I could suppose [feindre] that I had no body, and that there was no world nor any place in which I might be; but that I could not therefore suppose that I was not; and that, on the contrary, from the very circumstance that I thought to doubt of the truth of other things, it most clearly and certainly followed that I was; while, on the other hand, if I had only ceased to think, although all the other objects which I had ever imagined had been in reality existent, I would have had no reason to believe that I existed; I thence concluded that I was a substance whose whole essence or nature consists only in thinking, and which, that it may exist, has need of no place, nor is dependent on any material thing; so that “I,” that is to say, the mind by which I am what I am, is wholly distinct from the body, and is even more easily known that the latter, and is such, that although the latter were not, it would still continue to be all that it is.

I do not believe this is an error based on an (understandable) lack of neurological knowledge. Rather, I simply do not believe Descartes when he says he could "suppose" or, as some translations put it, "pretend" (arguably a more literal translation of feindre) that he "had no body".

I cannot myself suppose, imagine or pretend any such thing. If I had no body, I would not be. If there were no world around me, there would be no place for me, no "there" (Da) for my being (Sein). Composure is coming to terms with the experience of being wholly indistinguishable from my body, my world, my history.

I am not "a substance whose whole essence or nature consists only in thinking, and which, that it may exist, has need of no place, nor is dependent on any material thing". On the contrary. This experience is my body.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Concentration Which Will Persist Uncomfortably until It Is Removed

I have said that the purpose of a poem is to make us "feel better", that is, better able to feel. A poem does this, I have argued, by "noting emotions", that is, by writing them down. Poetry is emotional notation to foster precision in feeling. Precision in thought is clarity. Precision in feeling is intensity. It all still sounds right to me. But I recently read Robert Graves's "November 5th Address", given sometime in 1928 and published in X, volume 1, number 3, June 1960.

It is a rejection of literature that is written to please, whether the public or the critics. And while this is never what I have consciously meant, I can see that positing a "purpose of poetry" that is centered on the reader (what a poem should "make us" do) is more in line with with this "literary" approach than what Graves is after (Graves rejects all "literature").

Not only is poetry not a science, says Graves, it is not an art. This is really where he challenges my views, and he does it most effectively in this passage:

Poetry is not an art. It does not even begin as words. What happens is that there is a sudden meeting in the poet's mind of certain incognizable, unrelated and unpersonified forces; of which meeting comes a new creature—the still formless poem. The poet feels this happening at the back of his mind mind as an expectance, a concentration which will persist until it is removed. First, he objectifies it by writing it in in such a way that it has a general, not merely personal, context; then removes it as far as possible by putting it into circulation. (174, my emphasis)

Graves says that poetry is a "serious activity" for "serious people", people whose first goal "is to be themselves and please themselves" (172).

So to apply this to my own formula: A poem must, first of all, make the poet feel better (please the poet, if you will). And it is only in the pursuit of this aim that poem must be published ("put into circulation") so as to "remove it as far as possible". Poetry responds to a need, first of all in the poet, for greater emotional precision. This need no doubt exists in the so-called "public"; the "incognizable, unrelated and unpersonified forces" do not impose themselves on the poet in a vacuum. But the poet does not (should not) respond to a presumed (projected?) need for pleasure in the public. Rather, public life, which does much to determine the parameters of what Graves calls "the huge impossibility of language", is, in part, the source of the imprecision. The notes of the poet does all it can to move it. That is emotional notation.

I think I have, perhaps inadvertently, let myself get distracted by my hope that poetry could serve a civic function. It has been "hugely impossible" for me to write poems that, however unconsciously, were ultimately "literary" in the sense Graves disparages. At some level, my protestations notwithstanding, I did not want to circulate a poem that I did not see the civic utility of. I have, in an important sense, tried too hard to please other people. I take as evidence the presence, "at the back of my mind", of a concentration that persists uncomfortably. It needs to be removed.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Moral Equivalence: A Presidential Memo

I just read the following sentence in a pretty good editorial in the New York Times: "Iran’s leaders, ruthless as they clearly are, are not crazed men looking for a 10-megaton exploding belt." It reminded me of a passage in Norman Mailer's Presidential Papers:

It could be argued that the impetus to America's cold war with communism has come from a collective psychosis, from a monster which has borne almost no relation to the objective cold war going on in these years, a particular real cold war which has been concrete, limited, ugly, detailed, and shrewd in its encounters. The Russians have shown a tough tenacious sly somewhat dishonorable and never-tiring regard for local victory in each of their episodes with us. We have dealt with this international opposition in terms which were schizophrenic. On the working diplomatic level any adjectives applied to the Russians could have applied to us. We also have been tough tenacious sly somewhat dishonorable and have hardly ever slackened in our regard for local victory; but at the level of domestic political consumption we have presented the Russians to the American public as implacable, insane, and corrupting. We could have talking equally of of the plague or some exotic variety of sex. (161)

That may have been a long detour for the simple point I want to make. I long for the day when the New York Times writes, simply, "Iran’s leaders, though clearly as ruthless as ours are, are not crazed men looking for a 10-megaton exploding belt." That is, I wish we could bring what we say at "the level of domestic political consumption" into line with what we say and do "on the working diplomatic level". It would make our culture more sane.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Obedience (again)

"Just as a decision may obey or disobey desire," I once said, "so a discovery may confirm or disconfirm a belief." That's not exactly right, and I'd like to take a moment to correct it. Decisions are indeed to discoveries as desires are to beliefs. But obedience is to understanding, not confirmation, as desire is to belief. What does this difference imply about decision and discovery?

Well, a discovery can't really understand a belief and, likewise, a decision can't actually obey a desire. An action, or more accurately an actor, can obey and disobey somethign.

But there may be tensions between decision and desire, just as there may be tensions between discovery and belief. Perhaps we can say that if a discovery can, indeed, confirm a belief (I believe that there is a woman outside my door and, opening it, I discover that this is indeed the case, i.e., I confirm it) then a decision can ratify a desire (I desire to share the woman's company and, inviting her in, I decide to let this happen, i.e., I ratify it).

I can express the content of a belief as a statement, and the content of a desire as a command. These expressions may then be understood or misunderstood, obeyed or disobeyed. I cannot decide an action any more than I can discover a perception. Do or do not. See or don't see. There is no try.