Monday, March 31, 2014

The Mirror of Nature

Williams: "I suppose Shakespeare's familiar aphorism about holding the mirror up to nature has done more harm in stabilizing the copyist tendency of the arts among us than —" (S&A, p. 50-51)

Wittgenstein: "Propositions cannot represent logical form: it is mirrored in them. What finds reflection in language, language cannot represent. What expresses itself in language, we cannot express by means of language. Propositions show the logical form of reality. They display it." (T4.121)

Williams: "the mistake in it (though we forget that it is not S[hakespeare] speaking but an imaginative character of his) is to have believed that the reflection of nature is nature. It is not. It is only a sham nature, a 'lie'." (S&A, p. 51)

Wittgenstein: "How can logic—all-embracing logic, which mirrors the world—use such peculiar crotches and contrivances? Only because they are all connected with one another in an infinitely fine network, the great mirror." (T5.511)

Williams: "Of course S. is the most conspicuous example desirable of the the falseness of this very thing. He holds no mirror up to nature but with his imagination rivals nature's composition with his own." (S&A, p. 51)

Wittgenstein: "If a fact is to be a picture, it must have something in common with what it depicts." (T2.16)

Williams: "He himself become 'nature' — continuing 'its' marvels — if you will" (S&A, p. 51)

Wittgenstein: "Logic is not a body of doctrine, but a mirror-image of the world." (T6.13)

It has always seemed to me that Shakespeare's aphorism has been grossly misunderstood by those who would question the very possibility of representation. Here, Williams, too, makes the mistake of suggesting that Shakespeare can be used to justify the "copyist tendency", or what in philosophy is called the "picture theory of meaning", which Wittgenstein's Tractatus of course is taken to represent.

Just as erroneously, I would argue. The picture is not the meaning of the proposition; rather, the picturing is. The fact that one fact is a picture of a another fact is the meaning; the picture is not simply the meaning. Rather: "The pictorial relationship consist of the correlations of the picture's elements with things." (T2.1514) The picture does not represent the meaning; the pictorial relationship, with all its "crotches and contrivances", is the meaning. This is why "logic is transcendental" (T6.13).

And this is in fact what Shakespeare says of the so-called "mirror of nature". It is not the function of art to provide a "copy" of nature (in, presumably, the mirror). Rather, we stand in the same practical relationship to a work of art as we do to a mirror. The surface of the mirror (which is a distortion of natural perspective even when perfectly smooth and flat) determines, not a representation, but a relationship: an infinite possible number of images depending on how we pose in front of it. The work of art "hold[s] as 'twere a mirror up to [our] nature", i.e., the audience must see itself in the play (which is of course exactly what Hamlet hopes to achieve with Claudius), "to show virtue her feature" (if we have virtue, we should be shown this), "to scorn his own image" (if that's what's needed), "and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure" (III, ii., 22-24.)

That last line gives me my point of departure for the next post in this series. It means precisely that the mirror must rival nature's composition, "continue its marvels", not merely copy it. The mirror is always also a lens: it focuses our attention. On ourselves.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

What So Much Depends Upon

If you can actually imagine a red wheel barrow,1 we'll grant you all the rest.
     When one says that a great deal depends on such and such an image, of course that does not mean that other images wouldn't be adequate too; the natural object is always the adequate symbol. But each may be as dull as any other. (On this a curious remark by E. Pound.)

To get into the correspondences between the Tractatus and Spring and All, published in 1922 (in English) and 1923 respectively, let's start with Chapter XXII of the latter, which (after the famous red wheel barrow) begins with the following remark:

The fixed categories into which life is divided must always hold. These things are normal — essential to every activity. But they exist — but not as dead dissections.

The opening gestures of the Tractatus of course spring immediately to mind:

1. The world is everything that is the case.
1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.
1.2 The world divides into facts.

The crucial difference in outlook of the two books, which we can label simply "poetic" and "philosophical", is here captured by Williams's focus on "activity" and Wittgenstein's focus on "facts". Facts are to philosophy what acts are to poetry. Both, however, are emphatic about how "essential" all this is: Williams already in the quoted paragraph and, of course, in that iconic opening stanza "so much depends/ upon", Wittgenstein at 2.011, saying, "It is essential to things that they should be possible constituents of states of affairs."

This is a good beginning.

1The cleverness of this bit will be lost on anyone not familiar with the opening remark of Wittgenstein's On Certainty, Chapter XXII of Williams's Spring and All, and Ezra Pound's "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste". Even this footnote is thus clever.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


A friend reminds me that today is the first day of spring.

…life again begins to assume its normal appearance as of "today". Only the imagination is undeceived. The volcanos are extinct. Coal is beginning to be dug again where the fern forests stood last night. (If an error is noted here, pay no attention to it.) (WCW, Spring and All, p. 10)

Like last year, I'll devote a series of posts now to the delightful correspondences between Williams' Spring and All and Wittgenstein's Tractatus.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Existential, Inspirational

The words "existential philosopher" are not yet* as ridiculous as the words "inspirational poet". But they should be. First of all, both are pleonasms. All philosophers are existential, all poets inspirational. That's their business. It's silly for a poet to insist on the role of inspiration in their work. The same goes for the role of existence in the work of the philosopher.

*The Pangrammaticon has not yet been influential enough.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

"Money turns value into information."

It's one of those sentences that once you think of it, you imagine must already have been written, but which Google then comes up empty on. All this happens in a flash, before you know whether the sentence even expresses an opinion you hold. Like the way a poem begins.

It expresses an idea that is related to Lisa Robertson's views on money. There is a general trend in culture—it's been going on for thousands of years—to turn experience into information. It's unfair to inventors and craftsmen to call this process the rise of "technology". It's the actual fact that the things I value, even the things I love, are increasingly experienced, by me, as information, and this information is increasingly coded in terms of money. Cities "dissolve in the fluid called money".

Update: it is possible that art is the opposite of money. Art turns information back into experience. This is why really great art is so expensive. It's money trying to overcome art. There would not need to be any art if all value was experienced directly. (I'm talking about "high" or "pure" art, of course, not craft. Art for art's sake is the craft of combatting the deleterious effects of money on experience.)

None of this should be considered a kind of "anti-money" position. Someone who complains about the flooding of his basement is not "anti-water". It's about proportions. Some value is best administered with information. Just not all.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Poetry and Culture, Philosophy and Nature

Poetry is the most precise means we have at our disposal to engage with culture. Philosophy offers comparable precision in dealing with nature.

I'm tempted to say your culture, your nature. That is, a poem will never occasion a confrontation with culture "as such", and there is of course no such thing. There's only ever whatever culture you carry within you. Likewise, philosophy can show you nature as it inheres in you, not as "it is" separate from your experience of it.

The locus of our philosophical encounter with nature is the concept, which is simply the attunement of our perceptual apparatus to particular things, thus rendered immediately knowable in experience as objects. The temper of our poetic encounter with culture, meanwhile, is the emotion, i.e., the direction of our actual dispositions among particular people, thus immediately empowering us as subjects.

It is by putting these encounters into words, clearly in the case of philosophy, intensely in the case of poetry, that we attain the highest available precision in our engagements with nature and culture.

Language strives towards precision. It articulates us.

Saturday, March 01, 2014


All my joys to this are folly,
Naught so sweet as melancholy. (Robert Burton)

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes. (John Keats)

If folly is the domination of reason by the passions, let us say that melancholy is the domination of passion by reason. The danger is that folly degenerates into mere stupidity, melancholy into cruelty. But if Erasmus was able to sing the praises of folly, Dowland was able to compose his melancholy into music. That is, Erasmus was able to argue that folly made love possible despite reason, Dowland was able to show that wisdom was possible in the face of great passion.

Something like that.

It is important to recognize folly as a kind of intelligent stupidity—unwise, to be sure, but not a denial of wisdom. Likewise, there is something loveless about melancholy but not a denial of love as such. There is always a kindness in its cruelty.

Finally, consider that folly thrives in seduction, and melancholy dwells in our contradictions. Folly leads us astray, melancholy speaks against us. Always for our own damned good.