Friday, June 25, 2010

Pirsig's Quest for Certainty

This was initially written from a prompt by Leela, who asked in a discussion at the MD, after suggesting that the quest for metaphysical certainty drove Pirsig to insanity, whether Pirsig achieved a comfortable equilibrium.


From what little appearances we know of Robert Pirsig's life since the time of ZMM, he's been able to control the demons that left him in the corner of a Chicago apartment with cigarettes burning into his knuckles. I think the most important thing to understand about Pirsig's philosophy is the personal nature Pirsig most of the time perceives to be at the heart of the philosophical enterprise. This is the point at which we might bring up the James picture of a hallway with different doors, or an art gallery with a myriad of paintings. This, of course, makes Pirsig sound like he only half-meant the Metaphysics of Quality. Emphasizing the fact that Pirsig thought philosophy was like playing chess, rather than having a perfect set of chess moves, suggests to some Pirsigians that the system Pirsig created is trying to be ignored. The question is: how do we balance Chapter 26 of Lila, the philosophology chapter wherein Pirsig tells us how to read philosophy, with Chapter 12, the levels chapter wherein Pirsig solves a few philosophical problems with his Metaphysics of Quality?

Pirsig attempted to develop a new metaphysics not just for himself, but for others, too--everybody gets that. The Metaphysics of Quality wasn't just for Pirsig. However, the way to balance the self-other equation might be like this: the Metaphysics of Quality is Pirsig's, but the insights of the Metaphysics of Quality are for everyone.

The "comfortable resolution" of a quest can only be decided by the life lived, because that's ultimately where philosophy dumps out. I think one of the greatest passages Pirsig wrote is the gumption chapter in ZMM. In that chapter, Pirsig brought together philosophical abstraction with practical living--he showed us how he thinks his explorations of the "high country of the mind" dump out into the valleys of life. What he shows is how a mind can get trapped in certain thought-loops, like the monkey and the rice. That's what happened to Phaedrus. That's the problem with the Quest for Certainty, as Dewey named it. What Pirsig picked up are techniques for quelling the inferential machine known as the mind--that's what the art of meditation specifically helps with. Pirsig perceived (rightly I think) the modern mind as quickly skipping down a road that will eventually prove to be self-destructive to both individual and society. So Pirsig wanted to expand a different set of roads, to show how we don't need to run into dilemmas like "where is the value, in the subject or object?"

But there are many ways of avoiding certain bad trains of thought--Pirsig's one occasional fault is that he sometimes creates the appearance of yelling out alone at night. But there are a lot of intellectuals who perceive similar evils and propose useful techniques and roads of travel. The one major problem caused by Pirsig's occasional flirtation with superlative uniqueness, which we could forgive in a friend, is that it leads to inflexibility of thought in fellow-travelers. It leads people to perceive themselves as not fellow-travelers, but rather disciples. It leads to the thought that edifices of thought generated by thinkers must be either rejected or accepted wholecloth, and that disagreement with the master is a rejection of everything holy.

Pirsig became comfortable with his quest for certainty because he eventually learned how to tone down the personal ramifications for failure. I think he learned that it isn't a Quest for Certainty that the philosophical tradition is in search of an answer to, but rather a personal quest for the kinds of everyday certainties that we act out of. Phaedrus' quest in ZMM may have begun as Plato's, but Pirsig's quest in writing it down was the quest to resolve doubts about the everyday certainties that are leading to bad things. Phaedrus began with Doubt about the possibility of Certainty, but Pirsig finished with specific doubts about particular certainties. Pirsig eventually became comfortable with the line of thought he'd written down, and the kinds of life-instincts it had given him.

That others may not be comfortable with his resolution only matters insofar as what is being pointed to are limitations in the tools and insights he afforded. Philosophy is autobiographical--we are commending things we've found useful. What philosophy is not is a search for an Answer to an antecedantly posed Question, like from Reality, or some other entity that's big and powerful enough to be able to pose a question antecedantly to spatialtemporal people. Only with the latter understanding of philosophy does it make sense to "reject the MoQ," or any system. Only if one assumes that there are universally perspicuous questions that every philosophy or person must have an answer to would one think that the MoQ's success rests on its ability to please everyone. Only if one thinks there's a big universal Quest humanity is on, rather than a lot of little quests individual people are on, will one take seriously the rhetoric of "demonstration" and "proving."

Philosophy is autobiography for Pirsig, and it is best served by taking it seriously, but not too seriously.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Order in Stevens

Poets who are better philosophers than philosophers are my favorite poets. It's a sad state of affairs, but everything I read gets fit into the stories of intellectual power that are constantly playing in my head. One of the curious effects of reading Bloom and Rorty, however, is that the aesthetic and the cognitive tend to dovetail, and so fitting everyone from Plato to Blake to Heidegger to Charles Brockden Brown into a sweeping story of how the West was won, or rather became itself (two ways of saying the same thing after Emerson), is a perfectly acceptable practice, if not any easier to do.

I probably like Stevens more than any other poet of the last 100 years because it always seems like he's wrestling with Plato. At least, that's all my ear picks up. That's pretty much the sum of the reading below, the final paper in a "Close Reading" seminar. There's not a lot to it, just a gerrymandered reading of three poems of Stevens I happen to like, barring "Of Mere Being," my favorite, because I'd already written on it.

You can find the three poems online here:
Anecdote of the Jar
The Idea of Order at Key West
The Poems of Our Climate (scroll down)


To motivate my close reading, I’d like to remark at the outset that Stevens seems obsessed with the poet’s capacity to create order with words. Every poem, by being a poem, would seem to create its own implicit order, but what this means for order to be created by words is a theme Stevens often takes up in the poem. In Anecdote of the Jar, the problematic is set in the ambiguity that ensues as the jar attempts to order the landscape. In The Idea of Order at Key West, the poet’s relationship to her power in ordering is focused and takes on a sad, lonely tinge. Finally, The Poems of Our Climate takes the other side of the relationship, and shows a perfect order to not even be desirable.

The landscape of Anecdote is dominated by a hill, a jar, the wilderness, and—in a more subtle way—the “I.” The spare set-up of the anecdote begins: “I placed a jar in Tennessee,/And round it was, upon a hill.” (1-2) The “I” almost appears to look out onto the poem, never really moving from its position before placing the jar and disappearing. Like the singer’s voice in Idea of Order, the placing of the jar has a similar power of causation. The “I” creates a proxy in the “jar,” transferring its power as a finger pushes over the first domino. The effect of the jar being placed on the hill is felt immediately: “It made the slovenly wilderness/Surround that hill.” (3-4) Specificity is drawn out in “a hill” and again in “that hill,” a repetition of the anecdotal thematic. The truly curious thing about that jar on that hill, of course, is that it made the wilderness surround the hill.

The difficulty in the jar’s relationship to the hill appears more boldly when we add the next two lines: “The wilderness rose up to it,/And sprawled around, no longer wild.” (5-6) This is the moment of ordering, but the ambiguities implied are twofold: 1) the verbs of “surround” and “rose” are ambiguous between a literal movement on the part of the wilderness, as if the jar caused the wilderness to march up to the hill, and a change in perspective caused by the jar being placed in the landscape, the juxtaposition of the newly placed jar making the wilderness appear differently than it did before. And 2) “slovenly” and “sprawled” give a very untidy appearance to the wilderness, but the effect of the jar on the wilderness is to make it “no longer wild.” To remove the “wild” from “wilderness” would be to disembowel, one would think, its very essence. Yet the “making” began in line 3, when it was first introduced as “slovenly” (let alone as “wilderness”), and even if we imagine its slovenly appearance to be in the midst of a makeover, the second action taken by it (“rising”) is accompanied by its sprawling and its no longer being wild. These two ambiguities create a sense of failed change, failed ordering. The actions of surrounding and rising are the appearance of action, simply a created effect—the jar suddenly appears on the hill and so the wilderness appears to surround and rise up to it. The wilderness is announced as no longer wild, yet it still sprawls. Just as the jar is taking “dominion everywhere” (9), the wilderness appears like a child who was ordered by its mother to clean up, but does so in name only.

The ambiguity of order is continued between lines 7 and 8: “The jar was round upon the ground/And tall and of a port in air.” Line 7 has a kind of ordering with the internal rhyming of “round” and “ground,” but the squatness of “round” when it is on the ground is juxtaposed in line 8 with its tallness when it is in the air. Further, the jar’s two different appearances are not vigorously separated by a “but,” but rather softly distinguished by the “and.” And whereas on the ground the jar is squat, in the air it has a certain “port,” or carriage. This shift in outward appearance, or carriage, is matched by a shift in diction, “port” being an archaic usage, age carrying with it a raised dignity. The movement we should notice is that while on the one hand, as the jar goes into the air, the diction rises and the jar appears more regal, on the other hand, all of the jar’s power occurs in its movement towards the ground. Just as the powers of order occur low to the ground, so does Stevens lower the poetic diction in shifting from the traditional “ode” (like to, say, a Grecian urn) to the “anecdote” (five appearing in Harmonium). Whereas the ode now gives the semblance of being over-composed, “anecdote” is from the Greek for “things unpublished.” If the ode gives us the sense of an embarrassedly raised diction, something too well-ordered, then Stevens’ anecdote gives us its proper opposite. In Anecdote of the Jar, we are treated to a jar that orders, but within the loose assemblage of the “anecdote.” In a similar way, Stevens achieves this contrast of dictions in the title of The Idea of Order at Key West. On the one hand there is “the idea of order,” with its high, Platonic-like diction, and on the other there is “Key West,” an American resort town.

The powers of ordering in Anecdote are transferred from the jar to the “she”-singer of Idea of Order:
The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard. (8-14)
We were introduced to the sea as a “body wholly body” (3) that makes “mimic motion” (4). Lines 8-14 further differentiate the sea from the singer’s song. As we are introduced to the song, like in Anecdote, the verse itself takes on “melodic” attributes to mimic the order being created. The above is in blank verse, in perfect pentameter with near perfect iambs. Most of the poem is in something near blank verse, with a random dispersion of 10 to 12 syllable lines, and indeed takes on the form of something like a Homeric hymn, with its long stanzas of description, and particularly with the split five feet between lines 33 and 34 (“Of sky and sea./It was her voice that made”). Somehow the single rhyming sound at the end of lines 10, 11, 12, and 14 don’t seem overbearing or repetitive, possibly upset by “word by word,” with the first “word” sonically disturbing the perfect rhyme and so setting up the next between 11 and 12. Further melodic ordering includes the mirroring of “grinding water” and “gasping wind” and the beautiful closing internal rhyme before the final “heard” in line 14.

The singer is a poet. “For she was the maker of the song she sang.” (15) Homeric poets were rhapsodes, and their poetry was actually sung, thus beginning poetry’s long romance with metaphors of song. “Poet” comes from the Greek poiētēs, which meant “maker.” But there seems to be a tension in “The maker’s rage to order words of the sea” (53). “Making” seems to imply an act of creation, whereas “ordering” seems to imply an arrangement of things already there. The poem seems to be granting that creatio ex nihilo is an impossibility, but goes further still in honing a tension between the singer’s attempt to create something new as opposed to simply arranging things that were already there. Most of the poem spends its time consolidating the singer’s power in contradistinction to the sea. The simply stated “The song and water were not medleyed sound” (9) creates the impression that the “fluttering” (3) of the sea’s “empty sleeves” (4) are a mere epiphenomena to the song, yet the “It may be that in all her phrases stirred/The grinding water and the gasping wind” (12-13) compromises this sense. Even as lines 8-14 begin the consolidation of the singer’s power, the lines seem sad. This sadness begins to set in with “yet its mimic motion/Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry” (4-5). In the odd epanorthosis which corrects the sea crying to simply causing a cry, it is difficult to tell which is the more disturbing, though in the end the correction merely appears as a repetition for emphasis as “we understood” (6) the cry to be “of the veritable ocean.” (7) After the singer begins her ordering of lines 8-14, the tone of melancholy reaches its denouement for the sea when we find that the “tragic-gestured sea/Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.” (16-17)

I sense a transference beginning, however, when the next line begins “Whose spirit is this? we said” (18). The audience, of which our hidden narrator is but one (never fully making an appearance until he begins talking to Ramon Fernandez), makes a distinction between the “spirit” and something else. At first we might simply take it to be the sea, that “body wholly body” (3). But as the auditor continues to listen, the answer seems to change. Lines 21 to 28 contain a long conditional that begins “If it was only the dark voice of the sea” (21) and finally ends “it would have been … sound alone” (25, 28). The sea is “sound alone”—no spirit. But then: “But it was more than that,/More even than her voice, and ours, among/The meaningless plunging of water and the wind” (28-30). This is an effusive “more,” more than sound alone, more than the singer’s voice, more than the audience’s voice (the implication that the audience makes sounds similar to the singer’s). Yet this effusive “more” seems to obscure the spirit-body distinction that we would’ve identified with the song-sea distinction. It is this same effusive “more” that is cut off by the split pentameter of lines 33 and 34. Almost asking to begin again, 34 restores the singer’s voice to power: “It was her voice that made/The sky acutest at its vanishing.” (34-35) But as the singer accumulates more and more power (“when she sang, the sea,/Whatever self it had, became the self/That was her song,” 38-40) she becomes more solitary: “Then we,/as we beheld her striding there alone,/Knew that there never was a world for her/Except the one she sang and, singing, made.” (40-43) This near solipsistic moment achieves the singer’s own melancholic denouement. We find that the sad cry of the sea is a mirror for the sad, solitary cry of the singer, obscured before, but now mimicked by the parity between her measuring of the sky’s “solitude” in line 36 and striding “alone” by the sea in line 41.

The narrative of Idea of Order is the auditor’s coming to terms with the song and the sea, between ordering and making. On the one hand, the “words of the sea” simply do what the singer tells them to do, the more power taken, the more alone she is. On the other hand, the audience espies a spirit behind both the sea and her voice, something more. As a mere ordering (as in lines 8-14) turns into a stronger making, the singer becomes solipsistic—and yet even then, something escapes. This something “more” arises again in The Poems of Our Climate. We are presented with “Clear water in a brilliant bowl,/Pink and white carnations.” (1-2) The syntax in which the carnations are pictured in the bowl gives a kind of simple, lyric quality to the lines. And yet:
Pink and white carnations—one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there. (6-10)
The “brilliant bowl” of “clear water” achieve some of the jar’s causal power as the day seems to be simplified by the bowl itself. Compare the bowl’s “complete simplicity” (11), how it is “low and round” (9), with the jar being “round upon the ground” (Anecdote, 7) and “gray and bare” (10).

Certainly with the jar one would want more, and as the jar neuters the wilderness, so does the bowl strip down the surrounding world:
Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white snowy scents. (Poems, 11-17)
The “complete simplicity” of the bowl is opposed to complexity, to the “evilly compounded, vital I,” yet as light and airy as the “newly-fallen snow” appears in the first stanza, the bowl itself seems the sinister element, the pink and white carnations a mere façade. The “evilly” in the second stanza seems imposed by the order of the bowl, not fitting with the I’s vitality. In fact, I take the “vital I” to be the same “I” that places the jar on the hill, the only real, unambiguous action in that poem. In Poems, the sense is that as nice as the carnations and clear water seem, there is something missing that one wants, and the “vital I” seems the key.

The “more” seems even more incessant than in Idea of Order, and whereas the “more” of Idea of Order was of something more that escaped the sea and the voice, the “more” of Poems turns into a desire to escape:
There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds. (18-24)
The ambiguity of order in Anecdote, where it isn’t clear if the jar succeeds in neutering the still sprawling, un-wild wilderness, compares well with the ambiguity of both success of an ordering-turn-making (with the spirit still escaping) and our desire for the resultant solipsism in Idea of Order. The latter’s “blessed rage for order” (Idea of Order, 52) should be compared to the juxtaposing of delight and bitterness and paradise and imperfection in Poems. Indeed, the “however clear” (25) that the sea was in Idea of Order finds its way into “clear water” of the bowl. And while our imperfection is “hot” (Poems, 23), the bowl is “Cold, a cold porcelain” (9). The tensions in Anecdote and Idea of Order become explicitly manifest in Poems, becoming the exact source of not only our sadness, as in Idea of Order, but also our happiness.

Stevens’ sense of order is an imperfect arranging. In Anecdote, the order that appears only does so by its contradistinction to the wilderness which surrounds it, that even as it takes “dominion everywhere,” the wilderness is only ambiguously tamed. In Idea of Order, the singer’s “rage to order words of the sea” masters the mimicking sea, but the spirit still escapes. In Poems, order takes its appearance as an unsatisfactory, “complete simplicity.” In each poem, something escapes the order, and Stevens seems to be suggesting that we should delight in this imperfection of our imposed order. The jar’s perfect ambiguity is expanded into the singer’s solipsistic rage and focused in the bowl as our imperfect paradise.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Cavell and Romanticism

Stanley Cavell is a unique figure in philosophy and literary criticism, not quite having a home in either but tending to demand attention nonetheless. I'm not sure how Cavell's fortunes are faring in Philosophy Departments, though I suspect he'll go the way of Santayana, but if you're working the streets of Romanticism these days, particularly Emerson or Thoreau, Cavell shows up on the litcrit radar. As well he should, for despite Rorty's strictures against taking philosophical skepticism seriously, if one were to, Cavell is one of the few to show how. The route through is to deflate its philosophical character, which following Rorty we should say is its "Philosophical" character. And by returning to what Cavell calls "the Ordinary," we can better see what live issues there are surrounding the hubbub Descartes created (or Pyrrho for that matter), though perhaps not why we should call it "the Ordinary" and make such a big deal "O" of it. On the other hand, the way I read Cavell is as I read Rorty's talk about metaphors as the engine of cultural change, which is an important point to make.

I stumbled into philosophy by accident, a random obsession with Pirsig which, stumbling into a book at a bookstore one fateful Christmas-break day, blossomed eventually into a random obsession with Rorty. There are perhaps two philosophers with which I wonder what I would think should I have become obsessed with their writing rather than Rorty's, two writers who hold a candle in my imagination. But I doubt Bernard Williams would have captivated by attention in just the same way. Cavell would have.

References are to Cavell's In Quest of the Ordinary.


One of the unique things about Cavell is the payment one receives by close reading him. I take the following passage, describing his relationship with Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, to encapsulate Cavell’s understanding of the Romantic project:
But I had never been able to stay with it for longer than a chapter, and maybe half of the next, before closing the book with fear and frustration—both at the hopelessness in its ambitions for reconstituting the history of thought, by means, for example, of its elated obscurities as it translates Schelling on the task of something called uniting subject and object; and at its oscillation of astounding intelligence and generosity together with its dull and withholding treatment of Wordsworth’s sense in claiming for poetry the language of the rustic and the low. (Cavell 41)
If we aren’t careful, I think it might be easy to read the “hopelessness” as driving his fear (ambitions too tall) and the “oscillation” as driving his frustration (“why can’t Coleridge give Wordsworth a break?”). I think, however, that Cavell feels both fear and frustration at both the “hopelessness” and “oscillation.” Romanticism has lofty goals and ambitions and this loft produces “elated obscurities.” The trouble, and where the conflict and oscillation comes, is that the overall ambition of Romanticism, as Cavell understands it, is the reconstitution of what he otherwise calls “the Ordinary.”

To restate Cavell’s thought: philosophy began as a flight from the everyday, and began building its floating thought-castles to replace, in some fashion, the bleakness of the ground it wished to flee. The Romantic perceives this flight as misguided and wishes to replace, in some fashion, Philosophy. However, doing so means fighting them on their own ground, which is to say, in the air. And there is a sense, no less, that the impetus to philosophy—skepticism at pieces of the everyday—wasn’t wrong, and should be reconstituted in the replacement Romanticism. This resketching of Cavell, I think, catches his point about “romanticism,” with its lowercase “r,” being not just an historical entity, but a current of thought that runs everclear. But while this is the case—which makes lowercase philosophy a deathless force—the historical entities known as Romanticism (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, etc.) and Philosophy (Plato, Descartes, Kant, Schelling, etc.) must still be contested on their own terms. The question of what the “terms” are is, again no less, what is in part at issue and causing of the loft of ambition needed to engage.

Cavell is frustrated at having not just to contend with these obscurities, but produce them himself in trying to reconstitute the history of thought. This frustration then also fuels his fear that these ambitions might be too great, that the philosophical acts required might be all for naught. Is there something special in this for romanticism, though? Why would this frustration and fear loop not just be the regular fears and frustrations of the ambitious? Why is Cavell, as I think he is, especially confronted with this double problem by Coleridge’s text? So far I’ve been concentrating most on the hopelessness-of-ambition part of Cavell’s two-part fear and frustration. In glossing the “history of thought” bit, I’ve attempted to hint at how the hopelessness of philosophical ambition (and the attendant annoyingness of philosophic diction) is entwined with Cavell’s problem with Coleridge’s oscillation. Attending to what Cavell confronts in Coleridge’s confrontation with Wordsworth, I think, will give us the problem that is specific to romanticism.

Cavell’s frustration with Coleridge’s “elated obscurities” is counterpointed by his frustration with Coleridge’s attitude towards Wordsworth’s “claiming for poetry the language of the rustic and the low.” The fact that poetry should have to lay claim to “the low” articulates poetry’s natural, tall position in the equation. The oscillation that Cavell feels is between Coleridge “getting” Wordsworth and then not, between “praising his power and promise” and then “cursing him” for “failing his power and breaking his promise” (41). “Getting the hang” of Wordsworth, I think, is an appropriate idiom to import, and Cavell’s word is “generosity”—Coleridge gives something to Wordsworth when he understands him properly, the sense in which he claims the low for poetry. Cavell unpacks this oscillation as Coleridge’s projection of “the achievements back into promises” (41). That is the key, hiding as it is in Wordsworth’s use of what Coleridge said to him in the 1815 supplementary essay to the Lyrical Ballads: the great poet creates “the taste by which he is to be enjoyed.” What Coleridge acts out unconsciously in his critical glance at Wordsworth and what Cavell senses in the promise and problem of romanticism is that the poetic, visionary, prophetic achievement opens the view in which the achievement can be seen at all, but it is always a partial failure for it cannot itself step through the opening. The achievement creates the terms by which it should be judged, and predictably enough the letter is found wanting by an evolved and retrospectively glancing spirit—an ungrateful spirit created by the letter. In other words, the oscillation is a necessary trait of romanticism, for the more Coleridge gives to Wordsworth’s achievement, the more he changes into his vision, and the more he sees is wanting because of the more he sees.

To help better understand this swing from praising the vista to damning the groundbreaking limitations, we might add Cavell’s brilliant summary of his The Claim of Reason: the “mark of the natural in natural language is its capacity to repudiate itself, to find arbitrary, or merely conventional, the lines laid down for its words by our agreement in criteria, our attunement with one another…” (48). If we go the other way at this suggestion, it brings to light philosophy’s relationship with poetry—the “artificial” in language is that which is stipulated, that which by definition does not need agreement for it asks for none, that which asks for no generosity. The process of agreeing to stipulations is the passing of poetry into “natural language”—the “getting the hang” of an idiom. A vision opens a future in which its taste can be enjoyed, but it only becomes the present as people generously pass through the opening. This is the hidden flipside to the Fall story that “seems a romantic’s birthright”—poetry passing into theology, in Blake’s terms, is the fate of any vision to be enjoyed, and yet its enjoyment is its fall from grace, from pure poetry into something understandable, agreed upon, attuned to. By claiming the language of the low for poetry, Wordsworth was internalizing the dialectic of life and death lived by the poet’s metaphors.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Of Mere Being

I am not a great reader of poetry, and really not a reader at all, but I've begun to find poets and poems that I can read, by which I mean I find nourishment, if not articulated understanding.

I can't tell whether it is just an effect of having read so much of Harold Bloom, but I find that my tastes are identical to his. At least, the early Bloom. I haven't found my way in Shakespeare or Homer yet, but the early Bloom was preoccupied with Romanticism and its offspring, and I hazard that the three poets who loomed largest were Blake, Emerson, and Wallace Stevens. And those are the three who've found me most. As Bloom aged, and he endeavored to take more and more history in his grasp, the only one of the three to continue on at the forefront of his writing was Emerson (probably an effect of wanting to become an American Sage) and in contrast to the others' fall was the J-writer, Homer, Milton and Shakespeare's rise. But that's merely an effect of perspective: if you asked him even now who he loves most, rather than who was most powerful over a 3,000 year span, I think he would say Stevens and Hart Crane.

I took a "Close Reading" seminar a little time ago, and after taking a class on English Romanticism, I'm finding the little readings I wrote for those classes beginning to make a useful collage. The pattern was, no doubt, predetermined by my preoccupations, which are in some ways taken from my heroes, like Rorty and Bloom, but their preoccupations come from the source material I now look at, so it isn't surprising I see and write about their themes in relation to it. And perhaps these might find useful exposition under my jagged saw, if only to send one to the nearest surgeon's knife.

Of Mere Being can be found here (corrected copy with "decor" and not "distance").


A lone palm frond rises up before us and it is difficult to tell where it came from. Such is the effect of the Godlike, yet human, stance taken in the poem—there’s hardly a “tone,” if tone be something emotional, at all. This dry, surveying of an interior space, of course, is the proper affect of an explorer, reporting to his fellows his discoveries. The Explorer stands inside of us, our minds, and is telling Us his findings—what makes us happy or unhappy. But since the Explorer is also us, there is a certain self-addressed quality—the introspective sojourner, telling us and himself about what he found inside of himself, which is also inside of us.

The figure repeated by this Cartesian Explorer, which seems to undergird his very existence as an Explorer, is the spatial metaphor for the mind—if the mind weren’t a space, it would be difficult to presume that we need an Explorer, “out” “un-covering” facts about the way things “are” (before they were covered). The tropes of factual existence and space are so tightly bound together, it is difficult to tell which one came first, or how to unbind them. The affect of a tonal blandness, what we call “matter-of-fact,” is a further trope difficult to untangle—even knowing they are all tropes, and so created, we can’t seem to get away from the “fact” that when you want to “emote” the way things “are,” you do it “matter-of-factly,” as if the way things are had a special sound or tone. And then, of course, you huddle your difficulties together in scare quotes to pretend like you don’t really mean those words, without realizing that “really meaning” anything would seem to itself imply the thing you’re scared of.

Our Explorer, however, is unafraid, and calmly pushes, like furniture out of the way, “Beyond the last thought” (2) to “The palm at the end of the mind,” (1) which “rises/in the bronze decor” (2-3). Such a silly image, our mind as a bronzed room in which the Explorer has discovered a palm frond rising out of at its edge—near the window, perhaps, just past the chaise-thought—is the oddity we began with: how matter-of-factly presented! Yet on we go, to find “A gold-feathered bird” (4) presented to us, which “Sings in the palm” (5). At this point, the Explorer begins withholding from us: the song is “without human meaning,/Without human feeling, a foreign song.” The sense of “without” as being a “withheld” is given by the sense in which the Explorer, having discovered this bird that sings, is telling us that its song is without meaning or feeling. And yet, the bird is within all of us, so the description is an assertion about the song's unavailability, despite what we may think should we care to explore the bronze room ourselves. And further, that the song is “foreign,” and not unintelligible though pretty noise, suggests that our Explorer, or someone, can understand the song—its translation is being withheld from us, either willfully or do to sheer inability on our part. And given the godlike, surveying powers of the Cartesian Explorer, it is difficult not to feel a little of both.

The Explorer now mounts an argument: “You know then that it is not the reason/That makes us happy or unhappy./The bird sings. Its feathers shine” (7-9). Like a scientist building a case for his theory, “You know” stands in for “given the evidence I just gave you.” The Explorer has discovered something, and given this, we know something else. But given our tilting apprehensions at information being withheld, the argument plays a little forced. The Explorer, seeing his hand bent a little too far forward, rushes the staccato evidential claims, “The bird sings. Its feathers shine.” The Explorer emotes a little uncertainty thereby, given his own listening to the song he’s singing.

The report of the last stanza gives the feeling of ebbing away. I think this should suggest to us that the tone of matter-of-factness becomes the trope I called it earlier. The juxtaposition of the matter-of-fact tone with the silly image heightens until it shakes the Explorer’s own faith in it. There is a shift in tone between the third and fourth stanzas, from dry arguing and listing of data to increasingly lyrical and “poetic” descriptions. We first get the palm frond again, but then we get an entirely new sentence which gives us a slow breeze blowing through the verse, an environmental quality to the mind that was missing in the staid, dry tone used earlier. And while it is a “wind,” and not specifically a breeze, there is a feeling that by the last line, it would have been a “willowy wafting breeze,” as the Explorer lets loose a pure, poetic outburst, with a sudden alliterative nightmare of complications to metaphors (the gold feathers are now “fire-fangled”; what is “fire-fangled”?; they dangle down despite the wind; why dangle?). This complete about-face in tone and style, his entire rhetorical edifice, suggests that the Explorer is spiraling away from himself, giving to himself not only hints of uncertainty in the third stanza with the rushed argument, but a full crisis of being.

I do not think the last line means anything—I think it is as close to an unintelligible outburst as Yeats’ “that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.” The Explorer mirrors his last line—which is still yet an image within the mind, within the compass of his exploration—on the boundary, “the end,” “the edge” of intelligibility created by the bird’s own “foreign song,” in order to create the effect of our minds actually reaching that edge, which is at the same time to pull down the curtain hiding the tropeness of discovery and the mind as an interior space. The Explorer begins as an Explorer, but ends as a Poet, giving the impression that if we could just disentangle this last “foreign” phrase, “fire-fangled feathers dangle down,” we might know what the song means. But what we know, in line seven, is that “it”—the song—“is not the reason/That makes us happy or unhappy.” It’s the feathers—the poetic act of near-unintelligibility, gently nudging the edges of our mind back.



I took the easy way out with the last line. Most litcrits these days seem to be quite enamored with this uncertainty, Keats’ negative capability, with the fact that the oddity of the metaphor, the distinct unclarity of the trope, should not be something washed away, and if you did, you might be thereby effacing the trope.

Well, with the last line—knowing well in advance that everything can be made into a trope and that this wasn’t the first time (we always want to be a poem’s first time, don’t we?)—the sheer unintelligibility of “The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down” became, for me, the trope. Instead of seeing the line, and going, “Damn—now what the hell does that mean!?,” I said, quite matter-of-factly, “The last line of the poem does not mean anything.”

Which of course, like the depth of surfaces, is just to say that the last line does mean something—specifically, nothing. The question of course is, “how do you know it means nothing?” And hence the several hundred words before, all about a “matter of fact” tone, held throughout the poem of “discovery” of the boundaries of meaning in the “inner space” of the mind. Once one realizes that the mind-as-a-space is a trope, that produces an “Explorer” in the first place, this allows you to “discover” that the far-reaches of the mind is the far-end of trope. The Explorer turns into a Poet at the end because he realizes that the edge of intelligibility teaches the tropeness of tone and rhetoric, and so drops the tone of the Explorer, picks up that of the Poet and lets loose with a piece of nonsense. The last line is the written version of the “foreign song” we were told doesn’t have any meaning—now we see it doesn’t have any meaning.

Which is all quite a pat argument, and somehow makes the poem less fun—except the last line, which always remains fun, for it means nothing. Until I say it specifically means nothing, thus enclosing it with a certain meaning: nothing. Then I read it again and go, “yeah, but what the hell does that mean?” And I have to remind myself, “nothing. It means nothing.” And so it ebbs away in my mind, having wrangled its meaning, the metaphor dying andthenIreaditagain “fire-fangled feathers dangle down” and go, “How could anybody attach any meaning to thatohyeah: it means nothing....But—no, nothing, right....right?yes, nothing....bu—okay: YOU HAVE TO STOP READING THE POEM.”