Future, Present, & Past:



Speculative
~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The shoreline


At one point in The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard (or rather Anti-Climacus, his pseudonym) makes the striking claim that "to be ignorant of being in despair is the specific feature of despair." If one likes, one can congratulate oneself on perceiving the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose structure of this claim, but like most such arguments in philosophy, the "fallacy" here is a feature not a bug. (Strictly speaking there is nothing fallacious about the notion of a condition that structurally works against ones realization that one is in that condition -- and in fact such an idea figures in a good deal of contemporary ideology critique; arguably, this is part of the prevalent critique of "privilege," for instance.)

One of the consequences of Kierkegaard's identification of despair with sin, and vice-versa, is his conclusion that "the opposite of sin is not virtue, but faith." The above-mentioned account of despair not knowing that it is despair means that there can be forms of despair that look like anything but: that look "positive," life-affirming, or indeed "virtuous;" that look, in short, "healthy." Kierkegaard spends a lot of time underscoring that the spirit is as it were in crisis continually -- in a state of perpetual decision "before God" -- and that absent the notion of spirit (i.e., self -- "the relation which relates itself to itself"), ones philosophical anthropology will have no place to put the idea of sin; one will have only "health" or "illness." One could unpack the entirety of the critique of "the triumph of the therapeutic" (in Philip Rieff's phrase) from this passage in Kierkegaard.

Despair is perfectly compatible, S.K. warns, with feeling (in modern therapy-speak) "positive" and "life-affirming." One can have
an intense, energetic life, the secret of which is still despair. In the latter case, the individual in despair is like the consumptive: when the illness is most critical, he feels well, considers himself to be in excellent health, and perhaps seems to others to radiate health.
But for S.K., the condition in question is spiritual, and
the condition of man, regarded as spirit...is always critical. [And] we speak of a crisis in relation to a sickness, not in relation to health.
SK goes on: if a human being is regarded only "as a psychical-physical synthesis, health is an immediate qualification" -- that is, it is the assumed baseline, from which one can deviate. But "spiritually, or when man is regarded as spirit, both health and sickness are critical; there is no immediate health of the spirit." "Critical," in the sense of "crisis" -- a decision, which is continuous and onging, a decision to relate oneself to oneself by grounding oneself in God -- or not.

I remember a conversation about fifteen years ago about theodicy. I was talking with two fellow-Christians; we were discussing the question of suffering. The question arose out of a common and indisputable experience – the encounter with absurd and unrelieved hurt. Natural disaster, freak accidents, human malevolence, the relentless grind of ordinary nature chewing itself up – it doesn’t matter. The “problem of pain” is a real problem. Did I even need to justify saying so? I quoted with approval a passage from a book of semi-popular theology a statement of shaken faith: "I have no trouble believing that God is good. My question is more, What good is He?"

My appreciation of the stark pull-no-punches approach is not always shared. The friends to whom I was speaking were more than scandalized; they winced. One looked as if I had struck her. It was as if asking the question had broken a crucial decorum and occasioned real, even physical, discomfort. The idea of God being good had been conflated -- so it seemed to me -- with being good for -- good for something, some specific end, or and after end, as each occasion arises. God who “delivers”, not from the logical spiritual conclusion of our narcissistic self-sabotage, but from – terrorist attacks, viruses, sub-prime mortgages. Human vulnerability.

All such vulnerability ultimately points to the one great vulnerability of our lives -- that we die. And the turning of Christianity into one more ineffective salve on this vulnerability has been aided and abetted by the enormous success of all the technological and social maneuvers of the technologico-capitalist West, which has made it more and more easy to put off the remembrance of death until the last possible minute. (Say what one likes about Medieval Christianity, one thing it did not do was deny the reality of death.)

Alexander Schmemann, one of the indispensable theologians of the twentieth century, has critiqued this modern aberration as secularism. That such secularism can sit comfortably with religion – or rather, vice-versa -- is part of Schmemann's point; indeed, secularism has forced other religions to compete with it on its own terms, but as Schmemann argues, secularism is itself a religion. Nevertheless, Schmemann’s account is different from that of those who point to the “religious” character of (for instance) scientism or Marxism. Secularism is a religion, Schmemann says, not because it too is somehow “based on faith,” but because like all religions it is
an explanation of death and a reconciliation with it. It is the religion of those who are tired of having the world explained in terms of an "other world" of which no one knows anything, and life explained in terms of a "survival" about which no one has the slightest idea; tired of having, in other words, life given "value" in terms of death. Secularism is an "explanation" of death in terms of life. (For the Life of the World p 98)
Like Schmemann, I think of secularism as a Christian heresy, not only genetically derived from Christianity but (though this is a more challenging point to argue) unthinkable without it. Wiser heads than mine have seen the same thing -- I think, for instance, of Ivan Illich, or Rene Girard, or Jacques Ellul -- but as was often the case, Kierkegaard was there ahead of most:
There is and remains a difference, and it is a qualitiative difference, between paganism in the stricter sense and paganism in Christianity...namely that paganism does indeed lack spirit, but that is still is qualified in the direction of spirit, whereas paganism in Christendom lacks spirit in a departure from spirit or in a falling away and therefore is spiritlessness in the strictest sense.
Schmemann thought that if it were a question of being reconciled with death, secularism was decidedly an improvement over Christianity or indeed over any religion, and that Christianity had already ceded too much when it tried to compete, casting itself as a religious "service", advertising
in subways and busses as a valubale addition to "your friendly bank" and all other "friendly dealers": try it, it helps!...but here we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity, help is not the criterion. Truth is.
But does the believer not turn to God for help? Indeed, "a very present help in time of trouble." Wittgenstein's worry at one point is precisely that in the absence of the ressurection, Christ is simply dead "and can no longer help."
If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like any other man. He is dead and decomposed. In that case he is a teacher like any other and can no longer help; and once more we are orphaned and alone. So we have to content ourselves with wisdom and speculation. We are in a sort of hell where we can do nothing but dream, roofed in, as it were, and cut off from heaven. But if I am to be REALLY saved, -- what I need is certainty -- not wisdom, dreams or speculation -- and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind. (Culture and Value p 33)
But the "help" LW is asking for here is not the help in any particular instance, but a help beyond them all -- the help that saves, not the help that finds my car keys or delays me on my way to work so that I "miraculously" do not arrive in time to be killed by the rampaging disgruntled former colleague with a gun. Do such minor, trivial "miracles" occur? Maybe. But they are not and cannot be the object of faith -- of "ultimate concern," as Tillich called said.

When I met that wince, I of course did not know just what it meant, and I still don't – nor is it really my business. But it felt to me at the time like a rebuke simultaneously fierce and pitying. Nor was it an isolated incident; I've routinely encountered people who (meaning well enough, I suppose) try to encourage me to just "be faithful" in some way that would have meant to them more emphasis on something they would have called "Good News!" and less real acknowledgment of sorrow or pain -- or indeed, of sin. "Sometimes we resist being Easter people," one guy said to me. I had to hide my inner cringe. No doubt there is a scriptural warrant for claiming that Christians even or especially in tribulation are "more than conquerors" in Jesus Christ, that "nothing shall separate us from the love of God;" but there is plenty of scriptural warrant also for asking why the wicked prosper, how long God will hide His face, and why he has forsaken us.

All of this occurs to me because in the wake of my brother's suicide a little more than a year ago, I have been reflecting upon and owning my own deep melancholia. This has been a slow unfolding of an awareness of something that has always been the case. As awareness, it is also a shift: what is new is the realization that this was here all along.

There's a passage attributed (questionably) to Aristotle that asks "Why all notable men of genius" (or some such) have suffered from melancholy. I doubt if I am anything like a man of genius, but I suppose I do "suffer" from melancholia, and in a way that I also would distinguish from the modern sense of a word like "depression." Not that I believe there is no lexical overlap between the words, nor any psycho-somatic overlap between the conditions they name. But Melancholy is obviously a less modern, and less (modernly) medicalized, notion, and I don't think it's merely quaint antiquarianism on my part to identify more with the ancient term than the modern. There are connotations of both boredom and sadness bound up in melancholy and especially in the associated term acedia, which is identified as a sin (it gets translated as "sloth", which has far more connotations of laziness or disinclination to effort than either "depression" or "melancholia." There is a spectrum of these states which includes lassitude, boredom of the what's-the-point kind, despair, deep and paralyzing sadness, anxiety, and a kind of recoil at existence -- Sartrean nausea, maybe. All of these seem to me to fall under the rubric of the "Noonday Demon," which the old Christian desert fathers call acedia but which is also called Panic -- as in, terror of Pan, the "All."

That might seem like quite a spread, and the term Panic might seem hyperbolic. Certainly my own experience is what I would usually describe as "mere" melancholy -- a sort of wistfulness, a great sensitivity to what is called the "poignant," a keen appreciation of what the Japanese language calls mono no aware -- an untranslatable phrase for (approximately) the passingness of things, or maybe the "Ahh!" of things. I am certainly not usually "bored," and I am not paralyzed -- usually. But there are times when I am very much aware of how my usual mood could slip incrementally and yet decisively towards these more crippling states. (This is in my own case bound up with a sense of procrastination – of a struggle against and sickly acquiescence to time -- ) Moreover, sometimes these can burst upon me, almost without warning. I don't mean that I am volatile or that I wildly oscillate -- such moments are (thank God) rare, and also probably not as unpredictable as I make them sound. But I can "lose my balance." In fact, my "owning up" (as it were) to my lifelong melancholy is part of what feels like an effort to maintain my balance -- to claim honestly what has always more or less been the case but not always named.

I do not have an answer to the questions about the prospering of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous, nor to the questions about Nature Red in Tooth and Claw. I do hold that writing these off as non-questions is an abdication of thinking, and not just by Christian theology. If you haven’t really stood aghast at the problem of evil, you do really need to brace yourself. But the huge examples of suffering -- the famines and tsunamis, torture chambers and abattoirs -- are only the garish face of something much broader. The falling cherry blossoms that are given iconic pride of place in accounts of mono no aware are not instances of meaningless absurd cruelty; but there is still here a deep and poignant suffering in the passing-away of things. (In Sanskrit this is called viparinama dukkha, the suffering that arises because of impermanence -- even in the midst of pleasant experience.)

Kierkegaard's claim that one can actually look completely "healthy" and positive and still be in despair -- perhaps not even know it -- can be inverted. There would then also be a spiritual state which is keenly aware of the struggle of things, deeply tuned in to dukkha, but which would remain, by S.K.'s lights, faith -- a orienting of the self to the power that grounds it. Indeed, I admit that I cannot see how a stance that was unaware -- well, let us say, willfully unaware --of dukkha could even qualify as faith.

But if there is such a faith, what would distinguish it?

In 1982, Alexander Schmemann was hospitalized with the cancer from which he would die the following year. From his hospital bed he wrote a note of thanks to seminarians at St. Vladimir’s (where he was dean). The single scriptural citation in this note is three short verses from 1 Thessalonians 5:
Rejoice evermore.
Pray without ceasing.
In every thing give thanks.
This names the very center of Christian devotional life; for "give thanks" here is (of course) ευχαριστειτε.

It is dangerous to so much as whisper the names of ones own attempted virtues, but over this past year as I have been thinking of my acedia, I've also had borne in upon me another perennial aspect of my own experience which I had not consciously connected with melancholy until now. It is gratitude. For a while I started to think of these somewhat like compensating traits: Yes, I can be (unduly?) aware of how hard things are, but I am also (often unexpectedly) overtaken by deep gratitude for things, even the most trivial. This is another aspect of mono no aware. More recently, I've come to recognize this thanksgiving and this sadness not as a mutual "balance," but as (de facto) inseparable: each of them is an apprehension of the way things arise and pass away in time. They are more like the sand and the waves on the shore. One can surely have waves alone, and one can have sand alone; but one cannot have a shoreline without both.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sartor re-re-resartus


A philosophy costume party. The challenge was to dress as something philosophy-related. One person dressed as Mary, the colorblind color scientist. Another dressed as a strange loop -- she had a full-body leotard suit imprinted with with a photo of her wearing a leotard suit with a photo of her....

With a trip to the thrift store, a pair of scissors, and some quick amateur sewing, I had improvised a costume as the Analytic / Continental divide:



The costume obviously employs some clichés about Oxford dons in tweed, versus hip postmodern theorists in leather jackets. Its an interesting question why these clichés obtain, but all I needed to make my costume was to acknowledge them.

Admittedly my own effort is a shotgun wedding, not an elegant aufhebung of leather and tweed like these I found browsing online:



If we grant the necessity, or at least the acceptability, of trading in clichés for the purposes of these comparisons, then, accepting the correlations:
Analytic = tame tweed conservativism
Continental = dangerous leather-clad fashionable elegance,
what we find is that when we really try to depict the split in terms of costume, in terms of the grammar of fashion, the Continentals win -- a depiction in terms of the grammar of fashion of the division will be loaded in favor of the Continentals because the Continentals "are" fashionable. In dialectical terms: only the Continentals care about weird Hegelian things like "synthesis," so a dialectical account of Continental-vs.-Analytical will be a Continental account. An Analytical philosopher is (in this obviously unfair and stacked-deck story) perfectly happy with a stark juxtaposition like my costume, and may indeed be deeply suspicious of any blurring of boundaries as these swank and expensive new designs try to pull off. So it seems as though maybe my splitting-the-difference costume is really a costume of the Analytical costume of the Analytic / Continental split, while the high-fashion, high-pricetag syntheses I found online would be the Continental costume of the same split.

Of course, you could make higher-level juxtapositions or syntheses out of these, but they'd be a lot more expensive than my costume was.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Notes on Wallace Shawn's The Fever


[...] Still, it is the personal,
Interior life that gives us something to think about.
The rest is only drama.

-- John Ashbery, "But What is the Reader to Make of This?"


The subject is not psychological. It's quite the opposite. He doesn't learn things about his psychological problems. He learns ... how he's viewed by a poor or oppressed person indifferent to his psychological problem.
-- Wallace Shawn on The Fever, in the Los Angeles Times, May 12 1991


Belief in the existence of other human beings as such is love.
-- Simone Weil, paraphrased in W.H. Auden, A Certain World

For the last several months I’ve been rehearsing for a production of Wallace Shawn’s one-person show The Fever. For those who don’t know it, it’s the depiction of a person with a comfortable life, coming to realize the human cost of that comfort elsewhere in the world. A man (in my production, but not always -- Vanessa Redgrave stars in the 2004 film) wakes up sick in his hotel room, and through the night his illness and the assaults of a guilty conscience build to a breakdown. You overhear his nocturnal dialogue with himself, as one by one the excuses of privilege fall away. His aestheticism comes into ever more naked conflict with his growing awareness of the radical disparity between those who have comfort and security, and those who have next to nothing. Where is there to hide, when the truth is in plain sight and your accuser is yourself?

As I’ve mentioned my work on this play to people, whenever I’ve given that one-sentence summary -- “a person with a comfortable life, coming to realize…,” -- the reaction I’ve heard the most has been something like, “Ah. Timely.” I think it’s good that people say this -- it means they care about what is happening in our own political moment -- but I can’t agree. The Fever is not especially timely, in at least two senses. The first is fairly obvious: the show is clearly marked by the era in which it was first created and performed, in the late 80s and very early 90s. Except for a brief mention of “Communism [having] finally died,” no specific political circumstances are invoked -- not the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Iran-Contra scandal, the transition to democracy in Chile, the Gulf War -- but the spectre of Communism, and especially Latin American Communism, haunts The Fever, in a way that might feel almost quaint today when the word “Soviet” seems like ancient history and the War on Terror, now well into its second decade, has long ago replaced the Cold War. Even for domestic critics in the US, theoretical basis for political resistance is provided far less by Marxism than by a melange of pluralism and more or less New Deal economics, or -- among radicals and Utopians -- by Anarchism. (This is true despite David Graeber’s lament that Marxism is over-represented in academe and anarchism is under-represented, for the effective center of leftist critique in the US has long ago left the academy.) In short, The Fever’s continual reference to “the followers of Marx” makes its account of global inequality far less timely than it might otherwise seem. The foreign threat haunting the American psyche is no longer a Communist soldier in combat fatigues, but someone in a cartoon robe and “turban,” or a suicide vest; and the feared document is not a nineteenth-century manifesto but a seventh-century holy book.

Marx got a some things wrong, but he saw one thing clearly that I've never known compelling reason to disavow: class, more than race, more than gender, is what lies at the root of social dynamics good and bad. This is not to deny the continued relevance of other lines of division. I sometimes think twice about whether gender doesn't play as crucial a role in certain ways; and I’ve learned a lot from scholars who have theorized intersectionality as a way of understanding the experience of people who are marginalized by power and privilege, or who may share such privilege in some ways but not in others. But still, when it comes to thinking about power and difference, class is where I usually start. (I do not believe that class "explains everything," but I do hold that class distinctions, while perhaps not inherently pernicious, aggravate and likely foment other social evils, especially those pertaining to race. you want to convince me otherwise, I’m up for the discussion.) In light of these positions, perhaps I’d argue that The Fever ought to seem a lot more timely than it in fact does, when you pay attention to the actual words. But still, to me, the play is not timely at all, if by “timely” one means "especially pertinent to right now," more than any other time. A different -- and only apparently paradoxical -- way of putting this might be that the questions The Fever raises are always “timely;” has there ever been an era in which the distinction between rich and poor didn’t exist? This play will be pertinent as long as this difference is built into our way of life, as long as our way of life is premised upon the notion of some having more and some less, of a handful living in opulence, many living a hairsbreadth from starvation, and most struggling for “upward mobility” and more or less keeping at arm’s length the panicking thought of slipping closer to ruin. Which means, it’s not especially pertinent, because it’s always pertinent -- the issues never go away; what changes, and is still changing, are the accounts we give of this, and the options they open or close. Are the poor resigned, fearful, miserable without recourse? Do they aspire to "join the middle class," or does it never occur to them to ask why some are lucky and some not? Or are they ready to try to dismantle the system? And the rich -- are they entitled and satisfied, or do they torture themselves with regret, or -- most perniciously -- do they want to have it both ways?

But I have a more idiosyncratic reason for considering the play perennially relevant, which has little to do with history. There’s a tension in The Fever, that is not resolved by the time the play ends. One reading of the play would make it a sort of transformation of a person, like Ebenezer Scrooge, or Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, though perhaps more ambiguous. This reading would say that the play shows how a comfortable bon vivant, psychologically sensitive and more or less reflexively assuming that his own sensitivities correspond to the most important things about human experience, is disabused of this illusion -- how he comes to realize that the most important thing is not, after all, “the inner life,” one’s autobiographical bildungsroman. Rather, the real evidence, what reveals who you really are, is the “outward circumstance,” one’s actual behavior and its material conditions: what hours you keep, the color of your skin, your tone of voice to people you know or don't know, where you go to eat lunch, if you water your lawn, if you go to sports games or indie shows or the ballet or political rallies or union meetings or scientific symposia or elementary school parent-teacher conferences or online antifa organization somewhere on the dark web. On this interpretation, The Fever would be claiming that one’s subjective love of music, of the arts, one’s private story with its disappointments and minor triumphs, the thrill of your first home run or the crushing disappointment of not getting the date you wanted, of learning to forgive your parents or yourself, all of that is left on one side as so much ephemera. What matters is, Whose side are you on -- the status quo, or the wretched of the Earth? -- and this is shown not by your out-loud declarations but simply by how you live, especially when you aren't thinking about it at all.

But this argument -- if it is an argument -- is obviously being put forward in a work of art. A work that took money to produce, that you are likely charged money to attend -- a work that took hours and hours of creative effort to write and practice and stage. And of course, it’s the story of an episode in the inner life of a person. Moreover, those poor with whom one is asked -- challenged -- to align oneself, are not an undifferentiated social mass. Their suffering matters, not because it is some abstract sum of woe, but because every instance is particular -- a particular woman desperate to get medicine for her child, a particular little girl feeling an unnamed shame at her shabby clothes in school, a particular man stuffing down his impotent and inarticulate frustration as he goes off to yet another exhausting night shift while his family sleeps. The hollow vacuum behind the junky's eyes, the scary voices in the head of the woman sitting by her overstuffed stolen shopping cart, the 15-year-old with the gun, eager to impress his gang leader and who assumes he won't make it to 18 in any case. In other words, a huge tangle of inner lives.

The Fever does not present intellectually watertight refutations of any protest from the rich; it shows how protest and refutation alike begin to wear more than a little thin in the face of real human wretchedness. It does not lay out a political programme, but presents a problem: what are the relationships between between aesthetic delight and ethical obligation, between inner and outer, between refined culture (whose?) and bodily suffering (whose?) What kinds of costs are 'acceptable,' or not, by which standards? What could exiting a corrupt system really look like? The questions are suggested -- and sometimes expressly posed -- in utterly stark terms (some may say, too stark), but they are posed in the course of a story, not an editorial or a treatise or a manifesto. The starkness is meant not to make the questions simple, but inescapable. Just because they aren’t simple, does not mean we are given excuses for not doing (more of) what we can. I’ve wanted to perform this piece for a long time. I relate very much to both sides of this character -- the aesthete who loves Beethoven and Rilke and Monet, and the demand that says, Who cares about your precious "inner life?" (or yes, "Who cares about your precious inner life, white straight cis bourgeois "legal" first-world man?") -- and I believe that the existential experience of the struggle is worth more than coming up with a neat conclusion. But it's a precipitous and unwarranted leap from “no neat conclusion” to “Oh well.” The personal interior life does matter, but what matters about it is that it's here where one asks, How must I live? -- and asks it in the light of knowing that those "interior lives" surround you everywhere. Do they matter?

When The Fever first was performed, Wallace Shawn received a number of negative reviews from critics who rolled their eyes at “liberal guilt.” I think this is a travesty -- but it’s clear that some self-excoriation does happen in the play and that it’s a preoccupation for the author. Shawn’s most recent book, Night Thoughts, begins with a meditation on a crime:
Night. A hotel. A dark room on a high floor. … I turn on a dim lamp and stare at a newspaper, and my eye goes as always to the stories about crime, the murders. … They’re writing about me. Well, no, not me, not quite, not yet. But I know, as I read, that I’m not reading as the victim, I’m reading as the murderer.
Almost three decades after The Fever, Shawn is still turning over the same question, even the same scene. It is, then, not an easy question. What is still most compelling to me in this play – what I feel sharply and personally, and why I wanted to stage it – is the tension it shows between the aesthetic and the ethical. It’s a work of art that says that the love of art can be part of the problem; a depiction, possibly even an enactment, of a desperate inner struggle against the overweening claims of the inner life. To me this is a conundrum, not a gotcha. I’m willing to argue that none of us do all we could. But how to face that truth, and how to respond? The Fever gives us a story – not a manifesto. Will we write the story off as a spasm of ineffectual guilt? Will we try to invent a litmus test for how this response should look? Will we let the difficulty of the question serve as an alibi for doing nothing?

Monday, September 4, 2017

R.I.P. John Ashbery, 1927-2017


John Ashbery has died. For some he was, at least for a while, the clown prince of the democracy of American poetry. For others he was always an irritating pretender, or became one after a brief good run. I never regarded him as the culmination of the spirit of Whitman but I am unrepentant in loving his book of prose-poetry Three Poems. Below is a modified mini-appreciation of this which I initially posted online in 2006.

A definitive work of late 20th-century American poetry, Three Poems is John Ashbery's masterpiece. (Some will try to tell you that this status belongs to Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which is probably true if you are asking about importance and influence in the ranks of American poetry. But I'm talking about depth.)

You may love what Ashbery does with language, washing it and wringing it out; you may find him too clever by three quarters; or you may think his work over-rated and his influence disastrous; but you can't ignore him if you care about poetry in English. For myself, Three Poems is up there with the Upanishads, the Tao te Ching, the Cloud of Unknowing, Spinoza's Ethics, Fear & Trembling, the great poetic sequences of Rimbaud and of Rilke, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, I & Thou, and Green Eggs and Ham. It is one of the great genre-transcending manuals of spiritual discipline. Charles Williams distinguished between two ways in the spiritual life: the Way of Affirmation, and the Way of Rejection, of Images. What Ashbery does here is walk the latter by way of the former, mixing the right-hand and left-hand paths.
I thought if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.
"The poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth," Sidney assured us. Three Poems is Ashbery at his most "affirming," but he's showing the absence that is stirred in everywhere, and if this seems a postmodern bankruptcy, at other times it reads like a sort of suburban sunyata.

If you find it just baffling and weird, try reading it without the obligation to "get it." You can even go through it fast the first time, just letting the sound of words and the rhythm of the prose work on you. You may find that the meaning comes into focus about halfway through,like one of those 3-D pictures you have to stare at for a while. What Ashbery has done is to evoke the extreme nuance and imprecision of ordinary life, the way things happen in practice and not, ever, in theory, the way every instant is constantly shading off into the next moment and no experience stays put: you can be falling in love, or hearing terrible news one day; then, after some finite duration, you'll be learning to juggle or changing a diaper or realizing you never liked sushi. These things just happen, in all their bewildering thicket. And yet, an order emerges. Was it always there? Is "seeing it" just a function of our editing what has happened as we talk to ourselves? Or do we live in a broader story, only part of which we are overhearing? Ashbery makes these questions not a theoretical diversion but a lived mode of being, a prayer in the pulse. After this book "living inquiry" means something new. It isn't for everybody, but for some, Three Poems can become almost a breviary.

Ashbery's late-later works got cuter and more non-sequitury by the year, and I never learned to love them, but in Three Poems he either tapped into something so raw and real that it scared him away thereafter, or he mastered the art of seeming like he had tapped the raw and real so well that he never needed to try that again. I'm happily agnostic about this question most days, and then some nights it keeps me up, staring at the pages again. In any case, while he was often funny or even (maybe too often, as his career wore on) jokey, Three Poems is genuinely comic, culminating in a marriage of sorts between the "old" and the "new", and yes, raising suspicions about which section might have mapped onto which, if we care to force the analogy with that other great three-part Commedia. (It's neither a straightforward parallel nor a straightforward reversal, like Seidel's Cosmos Trilogy, but if I had to guess, I'd say Ashbery's three should be read roughly as Purgatory, Hell, Paradise.)

He's gone now, slipping out of this dark wood, and he's taken his secret with him. Or left it in plain sight. Or both.

Memory Eternal.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Thing and nothing, apatheia and apathy


Parmenides insists -- and, with a vehemence rarely encountered anymore, Emmanuele Severino uncompromisingly reiterates -- that the very thought "there is nothing" is literally unthinkable -- that there is no content that can be associated with the words. It may as well be a squawk or a blah-blah of gibberish -- the thought meaningless, is no thought at all. In which case -- can one even understand Parmenides' denial?

Perhaps one could respond: Well, we undersatand "No," do we not? And we understand "Thing," surely? We can then put them together. And all Parmenides is asserting is that this addition does not add up. But does this really accomplish anything? Mightn't it be it like saying that we understand "4" and we understand "%", so we must therefore also understand the conjunction "4 + % = x" ?

There is a further difficulty as well, for "thing" itself, despite appearances, is also a kind of privative expression. This becomes clear when we ask, like Heidegger, "What is a Thing?" I've done this with my elementary students and it has often proven to be a quick-and-dirty way to give someone a sudden, not always welcome, familiarity with a Socratic gadfly. Students often begin with a from-the-hip attempt like: "Well, a thing is something like -- " at which I say, Wait, if I look up a word in a dictionary, it doesn't use the word I'm looking up in the definition of the very same word. They try again -- usually substituting in words like "object," at first-- "A thing is... is... an object that..." -- and then, as we give it more thought together, they begin adding other terms into a sort of cloud: idea, creature, entity. (Incidentally, the dictionary itself does not always obey this rule -- the one I just checked gives as the third definition of "thing", "anything that is or may become an object of thought." I deny that ramming "any" (or "some" or "no") right next to "thing" significantly changes the matter.) Sometimes a proliferation of examples is offered: a piano, a piece of string, the playground out the window, a fish, a picture of a volcano, the water in a glass. And when I say, OK, but what makes all of these things?, I (sometimes) see the first glimmers of a stumped perplexity that is held suspended between plain old irritation ("Ugh! this makes my head hurt!") and genuinely fascinated puzzlement verging on wonder ("Huh! I never thought of that before!")

But really -- what is it by virtue of which all of these -- the water, the fish, the volcano and its picture, and so on -- are things? One possible answer is that a "thing" is simply, as the dictionary suggests, an ordinary object of thought under the condition of nonspecificity. "Thing" would thus turn out to be a sort of hidden negation, a negation which is not explicit but which covertly subtracts all positive content: not cup, not table, not dog, not horse, not mountain, not river, not molecule, not microscope, not any specific thing, just (just!) "a" thing.

This is, for instance, what Tristan Garcia seems to mean when he refers to something "no-matter-what." Such nonspecificity is surely very strange -- has anyone ever encountered this? It seems to mean, under conditions where further specificity is "of no consequence" -- but this would seem to return the question from ontology to that of praxis: "It doesn't matter which thing, for our purposes." But then, what are our purposes when we say that no specificity whatsoever could bear upon them? Is it actually true that no adjectives, no qualities, no characteristics at all, would impact our project? Or might it not be (shades of correlationism!) only those we have thought of so far? Have we not, perhaps, simply abstracted from other contexts in which we say that certain specifics do not matter and imagined a nth case? We say, "bring me a measuring cup from the drawer." "How large?" "It doesn't matter, any one will do --" Any one, that is, of the limited set I know, for the purposes I have in mind. But to say any one of any set -- for what purposes can I imagine saying this? Is it even possible, in fact, to think this "not mattering"?

Here ontology and ethics turn out, once again, to inform one another. For this "no matter" is a kind of indifference, and indifference is a state both commended and warned against, depending on nuances which are sometimes separated by the merest inflection. To regard the whole universe and all things in it as something that "doesn't matter" -- this has been called both the height of wisdom, and the depths of melancholia. Is this indifference a kind of acedia, a depression -- an apathy? Or is it a Stoic equanimity, dispassion: apatheia?

(A parenthetical intuition, based on a guess about nihilism and quite possibly wrong -- in any case, needing to be fleshed out: could it be that Thing is to apatheia as Nothing is to apathy?)

Thus it turns out that the answer to this question "What is a thing?", and indeed whether either it or "Nothing" can be understood, turns out to be entangled with the question of the character of the philosopher. A philosopher would seem to be one who finds such questions meaningful and indeed, in a certain way, urgent. This means not just having a taste for "pointless" questions that make others' heads hurt, but cultivating a disposition beyond all practical horizons -- or at least, asking whether this is possible. And yet, is this question of character not itself a practical matter?

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Tao up is the Tao down


(draft of a poem)

Note on Isaiah 52:7

Doubt,
don't doubt --
what about
it? What care you,
or know you,
ma soeur,
regarding this ascent,
this seven-storey mountain?
Lower your eyes: these feet --
"All you need to know" --
later you'll see:
Here you are
all this
time.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

"Mental yoga"


As a teacher of philosophy with elementary and middle-school students, I often encounter old tropes in surprisingly new garb. The Cartesian dream argument is inexhaustibly re-discoverable, it seems. Nor do I think this needs to be headed off at the pass. I doubt there is any pedagogical approach with which I disagree more than the smug and breezy yawn that "there is no point in reinventing the wheel." In my experience, no wheel is ever exactly like any other.

And then, sometimes a really striking new formulation is hit upon, something that, yes, may seem familiar, but also seems not to have been said in just this way before. Recently I had a conversation with two fifth graders, one of whom mentioned that he also did "a lot of yoga." This led to a compare-and-contrast exchange in which we thought about how yoga and philosophy (which after all are twin disciplines traditionally) are related.

This had never really occurred to me in just this way. Contemporary yoga, at least in the West -- I'm thinking here of modern asana practice, which has a complicated history traceable at least as much to late nineteenth century European exercise regimes as to ancient hatha poses* -- is different from all other sorts of physical effort in one crucial respect. When I am struggling to lift or carry a heavy load, I am aiming to move it from point A to point B. My work is directed beyond itself to an end: stack the hay bales, build the bridge across the river, or perhaps even just build up muscle tone and mass. But in yoga one experiences something different; one reach and stretch does not aim beyond the effort itself. Even "effort" is not quite the right word. One stands rooted on the solid earth; one reaches forward or arches one's back; one finds the very edge of what one can do with ease, then with effort; and then, one extends just a bit further, but one isn't reaching towards anything else, any object; the point is simply to experience this reaching itself, to feel it, inhabit it fully; one breathes through it, embodying it... and then one relaxes.

Similarly: in every other field of intellectual work, one is aiming to find an answer. What are the prime factors of this number? How might the genetics for this trait look? How could we structure society to balance these opposing liberties? But when we find ourselves doing philosophy, we discover something else. The aim is not to solve the problem. It is, rather, to inhabit one's ignorance. One stands rooted in the experience of knowing, and one stretches forward and finds the very limit of what knowing is. Not the place where, contingently, the facts we can innumerate some to an end; but the place where the idea of knowing reaches a limit that is inherent in it. One finds the edge of one's noetic reach -- and then one leans in, inhabiting this effort, breathing in and through it ...

This is counter-intuitive and could surely be critiqued; I'll try to spell out some nuance in a further post. But the fundamental parallel seems strikingly apt, and it has fruitful ramifications, some of which I'll also write about further. To be sure, as I've put it here, it's already quite a bit more elaborate and polished than the conversation as it unfolded. Really it was better (and more succinctly) expressed by the other student, a girl who listened to the parallel being elaborated and then summed it up in a single phrase. "Yoga is physical philosophy," she said; "and philosophy is mental yoga."


*This is documented in Mark Singleton's book Yoga Body: the origins of modern posture practice.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Uncanny Philosopher part 2


Last time I wrote about the uncanniness of the philosopher, I left things with a citation from St Paul: "I became all things to all men, that I might by all means save some." This "all things to all" posture is apt, but the implication that it involves a kind of salvific message is double-edged. It leaves the possible implication that the philosopher has a very specific agenda, with their eye on some far-ff moving target, and that it's this which leaves everyone else unsettled. This is true so far as it goes, for the philosopher would indeed willingly induct everyone else into philosophy; but philosophy is not a set of doctrines. That post discussed how the philosopher looks from the outside. But what is the philosopher actually doing?

Making mistakes, mostly; but mistakes in a certain style. The philosopher -- again, I will treat of an ideal philosopher, a fictional collage -- isn't pursuing some aim of her own that is well-defined; she isn't subtly trying to get you to sign on to a program that is kinda-sorta like a given political platform or a religious dogma, but tweaked in this way and that way. It isn't here that the uncanniness inheres. Rather, in a certain sense, the philosopher isn't trying to get you to sign on to anything at all. She's doing her own thinking, pursuing an insight that is elusive and possibly not in the offing at all. She is conducting her uncertainty in public. What the philosopher needs from you -- and is willing to give you in return -- is not a set of conclusions, but confidence in search of them, a confidence in radical insecurity -- or perhaps better, a way of deploying relative security in such a way as to move through radical insecurity to a (hypothetical) position that is neither secure nor insecure.

This uncertainty is initially bewildering -- the numbing sting of the sting-ray -- and while the philosopher may seem to have adjusted to it, this doesn't mean she doesn't feel it. If the philosopher had attained a kind of self-sufficient wisdom, she wouldn't need to blunder about like this, unsettling people -- irritating them, making them squirm -- and saying stupid things, culturally insensitive, politically incorrect, borderline-heretical, socially inept. But there she goes. Her friends have learned to give her plenty of room to improvise.

And why does the philosopher need friends?

There is a leeway that is given by friendship, a mysterious permission to exceed. Think about the very best conversations you have had. Everyone is being brilliant, somehow, as if spontaneously following a script by Woody Allen, Whit Stillman, and Sarah Ruhl. In these conversations you feel a freedom to improvise, to follow a thought through, to dare a risky approximation, to ask a forbidden question. No one is concerned about microaggressions -- not because they don't happen, but because if someone's feelings get hurt, that too can be handled with grace. You shuttle lightning-fast between humor and earnestness, you are aware of the slightest little cues between people, and one person may hold forth for a good long stretch, or interrupt with a joke or a demurral, without breaking decorum. The topics turn on a dime, from Should-we-order-another to Did-you-hear-about-what-happened-to to But-how-can-you-possibly-think-that? Above all, in these conversations, you can hear, feel, yourself thinking your way through a question, improvising the tools you need to think out of thin air, and getting somewhere you wouldn't have guessed -- by way of a series of questions you wouldn't' have anticipated ten minutes before. And sometimes you feel that amazing, almost-perfect gratification of the issue coming into focus, a perfectly-phrased question or a new set of concepts or a new way of balancing old ones, that you have collaborated upon almost without realizing it.

Not all conversations between friends attain to this, and not of the philosopher's volleys in such an exchange are actually brilliant. By far the majority of them sort of limp; but even here, there is a freedom, an un-selfconsciousness, that lets one try things out and see where they go. And this permission to make serious errors also allows her to reach much higher than ordinarily she could.

Emerson called the friend "one before whom I may think aloud," and the emphasis here should be on think.There are friends who call out of us some voice, some insight that we didn't know we had. After a while, we find we've internalized these voices to some extent -- we can imagine (how accurately is a secondary question) the objections that so-&-so would make, and this objection spurs us further. Or sometimes, we can almost imagine them, we're sure they'd have something to say -- something wrong, probably, maybe even something maddening, and yet, Damn, we wish we could talk to so-&-so about it.

It's this kind of rapport between thinkers who may agree on nothing except the importance of their disagreement, which is the real medium of philosophy.

Right here, we slam into a major trope of 20th-century philosophy though: Davidson's principle of charity. Disagreements only transpire, he points out, against a background of "massive agreement;" if we disagreed about very much, we wouldn't even be able to talk about disagreement. Now we can go in a number of directions from here; Ranciere for instance talks about politics itself as the way disagreements unfold, and more recently Sergey Dolgopolski put forward an intriguing and fruitful description of Talmudic reading and study as the art of disagreement, as in some wise meant to preserve disagreement rather than aim toward agreement. Or one could ask about Davidson's principle, broadly Wittgensteinian, with a comparison to Gadamer, who proposed what he called the "good will to understand," an readiness to encounter a matter afresh as a way of making a connection with one's interlocutor, as one of his requirements for the very possibility of dialogue. The point here is simply that the very nature of and import of disagreement is itself something that philosophers can disagree about. No wonder the outsiders rolls their eyes about pointless discussions in which everyone is out-meta'ing each other!

No doubt the ordinary back-and-forth among friends presupposes a great deal, a tremendous amount of consensus or assumption that goes unremarked. The point however is that the philosopher's weirdness, her unsettling questions,can turn even upon this very foundation, and yet it's precisely within the abyss that is suggested by this volte-face that the real, albeit meta-stable, groundedness and freedom of philosophy is shown. It is not for nothing that Derrida's longest and most moving meditation on politics turns on ringing the changes on Montaigne's citation of Aristotle: O my friends, there is no friend.

What are the limits of this? What is the circumference of such a radius? If you can have a real philosophical discussion about solipsism, or cannibalism, how real is that? Where does this suspension of security and insecurity resolve? What are the limits? Here is where the uncanniness lies. For as Aristotle also says, The friend is another self. And philosophy transpires here, in this radical closeness and distance.
Socrates: Have we not also said, Euthyphro, that there are quarrels and disagreements and hatreds [even] among the gods?
Euthyphro: We have.
Socrates: But what kind of disagreement, my friend, causes hatred and anger?
The limits? I don't know, but this is the very question of philosophy itself. And if you are preoccupied with some other question -- or, God help us, with what do do about those who disagree with you about the answers to some other question -- the philosopher is at best going to seem irritating, or distracting, or beside-the-point; and at worst, may creep you the fuck out, or make you angry enough to stone them. All without even trying.

That last bit is important. The philosopher may write a horror story (I don't see why not), or an unpopular screed, or sit in a tub on a street corner masturbating even, but this is incidental. If creeping you out, or pissing you off, becomes the main thing, we aren't doing philosophy anymore. But on the other hand, if avoiding pissing you off or creeping you out becomes the main thing, we aren't doing philosophy anymore either.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

"I try to make elegant and meaningful signs" : Interview with Robert Firmage, part 2


(This is Part 2 of my interview with Robert Firmage, poet and translator, now now retired from teaching philosophy at the University of Utah. Part 1 may be found here.)

---

S.: I’ve been thinking about the way some poets speak to one when one is young, and other poets very slowly dawn on one, and you only really come to them later in life. I don’t know when you first found Horace for instance, or first found Horace speaking to you, but this interests me, that poets speak to us at different eras of our lives.

R.F.: It’s very true. And there are poets who find their own stride much later in life as well. I like those poets who mature well, who age with us. Yeats. Huchel. Horace did not change so much, though even he did his satires first and only then accomplished the odes. And of course they lived shorter lives by then -- by the age of fifty, you were a mature poet in Augustus’ day, whereas Yeats was in his seventies when he wrote his most powerful work. I think the same is true of Huchel. But as to why it appeals -- isn’t this fairly obvious? When you are young, you are interested in poetry as expression. As you age, you become more interested in whole composition -- you become a classicist, almost naturally. It’s certainly happened to me. I was a definitely a romantic when I was younger.

S.: This is one reason why I wonder about the undertaking of translating Horace now. It seems a very classicist project.

R.F.: Well, I started it in the early '90s. I was still in my forties. He was under-translated then; the shelves were full of Vergil translations of course, and Ovid. And as I read him, I liked him more and more. This is always what happens; I read, and I find something there. What I liked, even then, was the quest for perfection.

S.: Artistic, formal, compositional perfection, I take it.

R.F.: Yes. The Ginsbergs of the world don’t interest me. Or even Rimbaud. I haven't translated him, though he did have a strong native talent.

S.: Clearly. But Rimbaud was also a poet who obviously did not mature as he went along -- at least not into further poetry. I’m not saying that one cannot read Rimbaud with pleasure as one ages, but the relationship between poetry and its abandonment has to loom ever larger as one does. One of the most interesting cases, I think, is Rilke, because Rilke seems to me to appeal very strongly to young readers, and yet to sustain attention as readers grow older. I think this must in some measure have to do wit hhis own slow maturation as a poet. The ten-year gap, for instance, between the beginning of the Duino Elegies and their completion, along with the Sonnets to Orpheus, with which, as you mentioned, you began your own efforts at translation.

R.F.: Rilke was in some ways my poetic father. I started with him very young -- twenty-three or so; I read the Sonnets to Orpheus when I took a German class. I love the sonnet form. I’ve gone through five different stages translating the Sonnets to Orpheus. The second version, for instance, I’ve thought about publishing separately, even though it’s unrhymed. Then I decided that clearly the rhymes do matter, and I went back and did them again. But there are other considerations as well; first, the sound has to be correspondent to Rilke’s sound -- it can’t be the same, English can’t possibly give the same dark sounds that German gives, but the melody has got to come close. Secondly, as a modernist, I insist on the diction being that of spoken language -- something you can or would actually say.

I was reading some translations of Horace, which sacrifice this to metrics -- and you can get the metrics approximately close if you substitute accent for quantity -- but they read like gibberish, like doggerel. So with Horace it’s the same problem -- and this is probably the main reason I was drawn to translating him: the challenge of somehow being true to the flow of the music of Latin. Latin is such a different language from English -- quantitative where English is accentual -- and Latin does without articles as well, which English requires. This gives Horace a tremendous advantage. I want to keep the same basic schemes, though I don’t insist upon absolute mimicry. One of the Sapphic Odes, for instance, I decided to use as a test, it has three eleven-syllable lines and the fourth line is five syllables, which repeat the last part of each of the others. Now when you do Sapphics, the fourth syllable is always long (or in English, accented) -- this is not my discovery, it’s noticed by scholars -- so I decided to use that as the poetic center. It’s quite difficult; you end up not with iambics but dactyls, DUM-da-da DUM-da-da; and trying to do that with articles is challenging. I’ve made many shifts and switches; but I do have eleven-syllable lines with a notable cadence to them, and in speakable English, though even I have run into doggerel sometimes, especially in the Sapphics. Nothing wrong with doggerel, of course, in some traditions -- Faust, for instance is written in knittelvers, which is really just a kind of doggerel basically, but it’s a convention; the ear gets used to it and comes to expect it.


S.: And if you have to sacrifice one of these criteria, which do you let go?

R.F.: Depends. I pay attention to my ear.

S.: I recently watched the film Arrival, a science fiction film that was in theaters lately; it’s based on a short story by Ted Chiang, called “Story of Your Life,” which I also read. In both the film and the story, alien ships arrive on Earth, to the alarm of governments; human beings attempt to establish communication with them. Of course their language is completely unfamiliar, completely other. The story is narrated by a linguist who begins to grasp that their language is essentially tenseless; and as she begins to be able to think in their language, she starts to experience strange flash-forwards, anticipations of future events. Slowly it emerges that the whole narrative structure of the story or the film, is very informed by this. Events you thought occurred in the narrative past turn out to be in the characters’ future. At one point in the film it even references the Sapir-Whorff thesis that the language one speaks and thinks in shapes the reality one inhabits.

R.F.: I believe that as well.

S.: This is my question -- do you think that, for instance, the lack of or presence of articles in a language, its tensedness or lack thereof -- how do these affect us? Do they change what we can think, or what kind of poetry we can write?

R.F.: I think this is why I became a translator. When I learned German, I began to think in a new way. It’s very subtle, though -- people who know you just notice how you start to pronounce Volkswagen differently. But you’re really learning a music that informs your life, your responses to things. And poetry is an attempt to shape responses in your reader. The only way you can even begin to make this “objective” is to note the responses, and then back up and extrapolate from the response to what might be behind it. Being married to a German, I discover this all the time. My wife and I still have these moments when our language goes sideways from one another. You might say, Oh that’s the culture, and of course it is, but you can’t separate culture from language.

S.: This is still the case, after how many years?

R.F.: We were married in 1982. Of course; if you think about things you cannot help but notice these little miscommunications. Things go awry, and you ask, what on earth happened there? And it’s very often -- for us -- that the root is in a mistranslation. I go over it again and realize, Ah, I said this, but she understood that.

S.: Kierkegaard writes -- admittedly, under cover of pseudonym and in a highly ironic key -- “If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or do not marry, you will regret both.” And you might rejoin: Marry or do not marry, you will misunderstand.

R.F.: Of course. But these things are subtle; if you don’t have your antennae out, you miss them. You get the same things within a single language naturally, but across languages they can sometimes be much more pronounced. I feel very sorry for anyone who marries someone from another culture without knowing the language of that culture.

S.: I have heard the anecdote, which I have no reason to doubt though I came by it second-hand, of a couple who met and despite having no common language at all at first, fell wordlessly but overwhelmingly in love. Alas, the love did not survive the eventual learning of a common language. As long as they didn’t know what the other was saying, they were besotted. It was as though this barrier allowed something to grow up that depended upon this very specific restriction.

R.F.: Love lost in translation.

S.: Yes.

R.F.: Everything gets lost in translation. This is why translation is not so much an imitation as it is a re-creation of the poem. That’s why I believe -- mystically -- in the poem within the poem. It’s that which I’m trying to render.

Let’s go back to the Sapir-Whorff hypothesis for a moment. What always interested me about it is its assertion that any language singles out specific aspects of reality. I see reality as a plenum, and language is, as I said before, a sort of grid, placed over this plenum, to notice different things. If you take the paradigm case of this, which I think was one of Sapir’s examples -- the numerous Eskimo words for “snow” --


S.: A case that I believe has been mildly debunked or deflated.

R.F.: But the “debunking” is itself a misconception of what is at play here. The counter-claim is, it doesn’t really change their conceptual relationship to the world, but this puts an undue emphasis upon the conceptual register, the rational. In that register, we have a particular model, and we learn to think according to it. And sure -- once you’ve got the formal model, you have input and output and so on, but what I’m interested in is in the perception of the world, one really does -- or can -- make one’s experience richer and with a new language, which singles out different things, which can say different things, or in different ways. There are some things my wife and I may want to say to each other which make it so much easier to go into German; and other things you can’t say in German at all. English is a more supple language, but German has a corresponding deeper register.

S.: Heidegger seems to have thought that for philosophy there were really only two languages, Greek -- ancient Greek -- and German; and he almost implies that without these, one cannot really think -- in the way he means when he speaks of the coming of “Thinking” after the end of philosophy (which of course I don’t believe in) -- if one can’t use one of those. To you I’d ask: as a self-avowed, if idiosyncratic, Taoist (and maybe all Taoists are idiosyncratic, maybe that’s part of the full description), do you feel at all at a disadvantage having no Chinese? Do you feel separated from that tradition?

R.F.: No. The Chinese may have discovered the Tao, but they didn’t invent it. The Dao is independent of language anyway. The Spoken Tao is not the true Tao. Words are signposts -- that’s good taoist doctrine. They point, or push maybe, towards certain kinds of experience which you otherwise can’t -- or can’t easily -- have. And apropos Heidegger -- he’s clearly “the last metaphysician,” in that he believes in Language. My critique of him is a sort of Derridadaism. But I must admit, when he talks about, say, the German word Grund, which means both “ground” and “reason,” that expanse of meaning is profound, and he’s right -- it’s impossible to think this fully in English; you have to keep jumping between languages. But it’s not ultimate reality we’re talking about here -- Grund too is a signpost.

S.: As is “Tao.” But you don’t think, in any case, that “metaphysics” is a dirty word.

R.F.: Not at all. You can’t avoid it.

S.: So being “the last” metaphysician….

R.F.: ...is a myth.

S.: We ain’t never got the last one.

R.F.: No. Now we have a lot of rather bad metaphysicians, who call themselves scientists. Metaphysics is a result of language, or trying to interface reality with a conception thereof. And they’ll never be the same -- that’s the essence of my Taoism. At the same time, as a poet, I try to make elegant and meaningful signs.

S.: Because after all, there can also be very bad signs.

R.F.: There are bad signs. You can have a sign that says, [pointing north] “Provo’s that way.” And of course it is. But it’s a long trip if you go that way.

S.: Yes! It’s not a false sign. But it’s not the most useful for many purposes. So maybe the question, “What time is it on the sun?” can have an answer in certain contexts --

R.F.: Of course, making certain assumptions, and with certain arbitrary starting points, you can come up with an answer. This is what we do anyway. But the question “What time is it now on the sun?” does present real problems. In this case, not only will you have to do a bit of relativistic mathematics, but the question is, is what you are doing with relativity relevant to the issue? Or is it just the case that there is no answer? I tend towards the latter position.

S.: You know, as must be evident, I like to bad-mouth scientism-ists as much as --

R.F.: -- as I do.

S.: -- I was going to say, as much as anybody -- and maybe we do risk being an in-crowd of two, looking down our noses. But isn’t there a pertinence to science we risk missing here? This might not be the most grave danger -- the graver risk might be the spiritual one of self-congratulation -- but while it’s easy to dismiss the over-reach of scientism, it also seems to me that we live in a political climate now in which it’s become all too common to brush science away with a shrug of “That’s your story.” You know -- you’ve got your set of “facts,” and we’ve got ours. And I don’t want to capitulate to that, or be co-opted as an accomplice. Nor do I want to capitulate to scientism, of course.

R.F.: So what do you do? Well, I would say: They’re both wrong. The common language they share is one of “fact,” and the world is not built out of facts.

S.: So you depart from the early Wittgenstein too, inasmuch as he said “the world is the totality of facts, not of things.” Though of course, as soon as I cite this, I realize that he didn't say the world was built out of facts.

R.F.:“Fact” is a post-hoc way we use to speak of something that’s already happened; it has a role in a complex way we have of extrapolating to predictions. Even with something like climate change -- is it natural, is it caused by human actions? -- the truth could obviously be in between; and we can still act responsibly and intelligently against pollution no matter what the scientific consensus is, or isn’t.

S.: But first of all, there’s a suspicion that the anti-science stance on the right is actually wholly unconcerned with science itself. It doesn’t give a damn about science; it’s merely deploying an array of rhetorical moves against its claims to validity, but this rhetoric stems from motives that have to do with something else entirely. It simply has an agenda and it doesn’t want science -- or the rhetoric of science -- getting in the way.

R.F.: It still has to deploy the idea of the “fact” to do this. But my main objection to science -- and I don’t use the word scientism, I use the phrase “church of science” -- is twofold: it’s teaching two things I think are not only wrong, but dangerous. First, the notion that everything is material, that the only aspects of reality that have any meaning are what you can quantify -- which is hopelessly parochial, if you think about it -- and, secondly, the notion of evolution, especially as it applies to morality and spirituality.

S.: Can you say more about what you object to here?

R.F.: This idea that is now in everyone’s head, that life is and reduces to a struggle for survival. And it isn’t -- it never was; but they’re turning it into one, and turning it into Hell as a result.

S.: And thus results precisely the very zero-sum struggle between science and its detractors.

R.F.: We have no moral ground to stand on, as a result -- and thus no justification in our own struggles against those who would do us harm.

S.: Except the Thrasymachan claim that we are -- for the moment -- stronger.

R.F.: Which is no moral ground at all. And this is the fault of the church of science, whether they know it or not. They might say, of course, that it’s just an unfortunate fact, but I don’t believe this. Morality is every bit as much a part, an aspect, of reality as anything else.

S.: Certainly. But it’s unclear to me that the idea of evolution, of natural selection, is the lynchpin of this problem. I want to say that there’s something amiss with the premise of naturalism. Or perhaps you could have naturalism without materialism -- that might be another way.

R.F.: I would say that the problem with both of them is that their apostles try to go too far with them. It’s simply human nature -- you find something that works, and you run with it. Uncritically, at times.

S.: And eventually you wind up like Wile E. Coyote, out spinning his feet in mid-air off the edge of the cliff without realizing there’s nothing under him anymore.

R.F.: And any thinker ought to see this as cautionary. We do that all the time.

S.: You are familiar with Pirsig’s novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?

R.F.: Of course.

S.: Do you admire it?

R.F.: Not uncritically. What can I say? He chose the wrong vehicle for one thing.

S.: Hinayana rather than Mahayana? So to suit you, it ought to have been a bicycle?

R.F.: [Laughs]. I find what he does to be a decent popularization of a number of things. But he’s not great on Plato.

S.: He’s not strong on the Greeks, nor indeed in my opinion on comparative philosophy generally. But he’s relevant here in a particular way. To my mind, the two great virtues of his novel, aside from the fact that as a novel it succeeds very well, are first, that he raises a number of philosophical issues in a way that provides an accessible gateway into them and the way in which they interconnect; and secondly, that he suggests what he saw -- justifiably, I think -- as a solution with a fair degree of novelty; a solution to a nested tangle of problems that he believed could be answered by seeing as primary something that is usually, today, regarded as derivative. His word for this something is “Quality”. Yours, I take it, is morality -- “as real as anything else,” you said, and Pirsig thinks that in some wise it’s almost more real. And maybe this “more” is another instance of taking a solution and running with it, pressing it too far; but Pirsig thinks that Quality is the beginning of everything; he winds up trying to assimilate it to the Tao.

R.F.: I think that’s what’s quite good about him. I was trying, as you spoke, to recall what struck me about the book, and I kept coming back to the assertion that you can’t repair a motorcycle while listening to rock and roll.

S.: Yes, there’s an episode in the book where that’s exactly the problem.

R.F.: It’s an important lesson: you have to learn how to focus. That’s where Quality comes in --

S.: Or maybe where you can open up to it. But I imagine there are probably mechanics who can use whatever the music as a means of focus --

R.F.: -- of course.

S.: -- but I think Pirsig’s critique is that very often you wind up with scatteredness instead. Of course, anything can be put together in order to in a way that has quality, but in that case, they’ve really become a new, whole, thing. Maybe not unlike a poem moving between two languages. And moving organically rather than a futile quest for one-to-one lexical equivalence.

R.F.: The quest for quality of life, rather than quantification, is certainly what I’m trying to do in my own poetry. To achieve a certain quality of language, for instance, as it relates to certain problems. This is hard to talk about, precisely because it’s not quantifiable -- and this is what our minds do, is quantify.

S.: Which implies that the scientific predilection for the quantifiable is something that at least the human mind comes by honestly. Pirisg of course says explicitly that Quality is precisely undefinable; if you try to define it “something goes haywire.” But you know that it’s real.

R.F.: So you try to show it, rather.

S.: As Wittgenstein would also say.

R.F.: That’s what one does as a poet, or as an artist, or even as a mechanic. “How does this bike run?” “It runs good, now. See?”

S.: And you’d show this by riding it.

R.F.: Exactly.

S.: We were speaking earlier of nonverbal “conversations,” and this is just such an example. The quality is shown in the interaction. Likewise too, you show the quality of the road in the same way. And even the quality of the destination.

R.F.: Or of the journey. It’s this perception of quality that is missed, however, by all these rationalistic models. So though I’m not exactly a fan of Pirsig, he clearly put his finger on a very real issue, and popularized it exceedingly. That was a very widely-selling book.

S.: Is that an asset or a liability?

R.F.: No doubt if something is widely popular, it cannot be all good; popular taste is too unreliable. But by the same token, it cannot be worthless either.

S.: “The wisdom of crowds.”

R.F.: The problem of course is looking for absolutes here.

S.: Well the way of the Tao might suggest that one looks here, too, for a balance. Popularity has something to be said for it. But then on the other hand, the Taoist sages were not a majority in China; they were -- at least according to the (popular?!) image -- very few, living far away from cities.

R.F.: And who tried to avoid the people and the bustle of court. To take this one step further, there is a mystery surrounding the story of the origin of the Tao Te Ching. Why would a good Taoist write such a book -- committing the unsayable to words? You can just imagine the Buddhist sages shuddering: “bad karma!” But no; part of one’s job is to educate. So you put out signposts.

S.: The philosopher returns to the cave. Of course the story is that Lao Tzu wrote things down only at the behest of the gatekeeper, as he was leaving forever.

R.F.: Apocryphal, naturally; but the point is there was always the mystery of why he did it, so someone felt compelled to come up with such a story.

S.: Which has its own pertinence. It serves as part of the frame for receiving the text, this parable of him doing his best in that moment, bowing to another sort of necessity.

R.F.: And it could have been that. But I tend to think it was the product of a school, which had preserves all these pieces of tradition as part of the training of people in The Way. Someone of course put them into this final form; we call him Lao Tzu, which means, the old dude.

Brecht, interestingly wrote a poem on Lao Tzu, the writing of the Tao Te Ching, and the transmission between teacher and student, which I’ve translated. We share this, Brecht and I -- both Horace and Taoism. I have the advantage, of course; I came later. So I could read all of Brecht as well.


S.: Brecht seems another figure whose life is deeply pertinent to our time. One wonders what he would say.

R.F.: He’d say: More of the same. Brecht was sardonic even from his youth; he began as a cabaret actor. Anti-expressionist -- he liked clarity. He grew up in a well-to-do middle class family, and hated their values. Became a communist early and was one all his life --

S.: -- in that sense, an idealist --

R.F.: -- but he’s amused by human behavior.

S.: And sometimes, in this respect, he strikes me as being cynical -- too cynical.

R.F.: Can you define that? After all, cynicism anciently was an attempt to imitate the life of Socrates.

S.: Yes. The word “cynicism” has mutated. When it comes to “keeping the crowd at bay”, what does one do? The thinker sometimes cannot help but regard hoi polloi as a herd of fools, and yet: if this evaluation becomes too strong, too defining, it winds up screening out something else that’s crucial, and one’s laughter at other human beings becomes disdainful and even at times cruel. I love Chekhov, because he has such a clear perception of human foibles -- no illusions about human beings’ capacity to self-deceive, to regard themselves far more highly than they merit, to edit out inconvenient facts -- but Chekhov is also full of compassion at the same time. I don’t always feel this about Brecht.

R.F.: Well, I think you are wrong about Brecht, but right about cynicism (so defined). What cynicism risks is, to put it simply, losing love. And I find Brecht is full of love. If I didn’t find that, I couldn’t translate him.

S.: Here’s what motivates my reticence. Brecht so strongly resists -- he almost inverts -- the Aristotelian account of tragedy, and almost of theater itself. He wanted to foreground the strangeness of it -- opposed to naturalism, so that you don’t as a viewer ever identify with what you see. This is what I find both very interesting and also extremely problematic. I am wary of the way this sort of identification and “empathy” can be co-opted, turned into a product, put at the service of the status quo. This is what Brecht objects to and probably more than anyone else taught us to suspect. Of course he wants to get us to question ideology -- as you know, for all his love of Horace, as a student he got into trouble for dismissing the line Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori as propaganda. (This was during the first World War.) Clearly he’s right about this. At the same time, I find it almost distressing to produce works of theater that seek to create further alienation. It isn’t that I want plays merely to offer solace in the face of a miserable existence that could be changed if, perhaps, we were not so easily satisfied with these theatrical diversions. But I almost view this aggravation of alienation -- whatever he thought he was accomplishing by it -- as a capitulation more than a resistance.

R.F.: Brecht is a rationalist; and if he’s guilty of anything, I think, it’s the sin of he making his divisions too strongly. As a student of Taoism, he ought not to do that -- and I think he comes to see this later, turning his own critical apparatus against himself. In a famous later poem, “Changing the Tire,” from the Buckow Elegies (as they’re called, though they’re really epigrams), he says:
I sit on the curb.
The driver is changing the tire.
I am not pleased with where I have come from,
I am not pleased with where I am going.
Why do I watch the changing of the tire
With impatience?
He’s beginning to break down the categories. He was director of the East Berlin Ensemble when he wrote this. But his love was always for the ordinary people; and his disdain was for the parasites. He embraced Marxism as a dogma too strongly, and it was only when he came to Berlin and saw, again, more of the same damn thing, that he began to dismantle that way of thinking. But this was towards the end of his life -- he died not long after.

As to his theater -- well, he created almost a new form. Beckett relies on it. There are no Cloves or Hamms in the world, but this schematisation, and these stick figures, bring out things that otherwise couldn’t be shown. Mutter Courage is not a real person, but a paradigm.


S.: Loving as you do the French Symbolists, as well as Brecht --

R.F.: you mean to ask, “how in the world…?”

S.: Well, I can imagine Brecht formulating a strong and vociferous critique of Symbolism. Now that’s fine -- we can have friends who aren’t friends with each other -- but speak if you would to what you find lovable in each, and how these loves go together. About this tension -- if in fact you see it as tension.

R.F.: Well, the binding thread here is language. From the very beginning I have been deeply taken with the question of what is possible (and not) in language, with “How to do things with words,” in J.L. Austin’s phrase. And we do all kinds of things with words.

S.: You may only like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, but, at least with this inflection on doing, on practice, you are still in the lineage of Wittgenstein, including what follows from the later work.

R.F.: The human spirit, whatever that is, is indefinable, because you have to use words to define -- but it manifests itself in words.

S.: “It shows itself.” And so yes, I see we’re back to early Wittgenstein after all.

R.F.: And if I find love in various guises, this is what appeals to me. What would it have been like to be Brecht? Am I Brecht? No? Could I possibly live the life of Brecht -- no. But I would have liked to have written some of the Hollywood Elegies! He has there such a wit -- a wit that is splendid. And I can love the wit without buying into the entire metaphysics. And the same thing goes with Mallarmé. I mean, talk about a dead end for poetry! But it’s a glorious dead-end. And you want to see how far it’s possible --

S.: -- to run with it, as we were saying. Even if this leads off the cliff.

R.F.: Having tried it, I think it really is a dead end. I think my Mallarmé translations are an uneven success -- they bring out things that are valuable; but this isn’t the way I myself want to write. Un Coup de Des -- this would be a wonderful thing to try to translate, but I’m not sure it can be done.

S.: It has been done, but it’s an open question as to how well.

R.F.: Maybe Pound could have done a kind of jazz improvisation on it in his own way, but that’s not me.

S.: Pound seems to come as close as anyone might in English.

R.F.: Yes. What are the great translations of our age? Well, the Fitzgerald Rubaiyat. And Pound’s Cathay. At least these two.

S.: Funny translations, Cathay. Robert Graves, who really thought very little of Pound as a translator, had to admit that he had no competence in Chinese to evaluate Cathay, but he was very suspicious.

R.F.: But what they do is to bring something into a living English context.

S.: Graves is the poet I know who believed most strongly in the muse -- as we were speaking of a bit ago.

R.F.: Yes. The White Goddess is one of the more influential books in my own education.

S.: Graves wasn’t the only one, of course. There’s a beautiful passage in Merwin’s poem about Berryman --
he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally --
R.F.: Berryman would indeed have meant it literally.

S.: Now I think Pound also believes in the Muse. But Graves loathes Pound, thinks his translations make nonsense of the language, says scurrilous and unkind things --

R.F.: Pissing contests.

S.: Ha! Or -- jealous rivals?

R.F.: I think highly of Graves as a thinker, and I regard King Jesus as a great novel; but his poetry doesn’t live, for me. That’s obviously very subjective; I don’t pretend I could justify this. But I’m a Poundophile.

S.: Do you just look past the fascism?

R.F.: No. I see the fascism as misguided but honest. I agree with his critiques of the New Deal -- and of the banks.

S.: Usury.

R.F.: I’m basically a very conservative guy. The only fascists I’ve admired are Eliot and Pound --

S.: and maybe Orff, who we were mentioning earlier…

R.F.: -- but they’ve got style. They understand -- the point of any government is to make bread that tastes good. And with usura,
is thy bread ever more of stale rags,
is thy bread dry as paper
,
as Pound says, in a beautiful poem. With Pound you have to pick and choose, though. The whole of the Cantos --


S.: -- very hard to read from beginning to end.

R.F.: But you have these moments that stand out, that shine out. “I have tried to write paradise. Let the wind blow.”

S.: “That is paradise.”

R.F.: Yes.

S.: I think it’s also true of Graves -- this need to pick and choose. Graves knew, any poet struggles their whole life to create a handful of poems that might last. And those that wind up reading the whole oeuvre read it because of those few things. I mentioned Dylan Thomas earlier. Few would read Thomas’ poems as a body were it not for “Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night.”

R.F.: Which is a great poem -- but bad advice.

S.: Well, the Taoist doesn’t tend to rage.

R.F.: And you don’t think A Child’s Christmas in Wales would have secured him lasting readership?

S.: It’s a story with a great deal of charm. It might have done so, in a different way. But the poem “Do Not Go Gently…,” it seems to me, stands out. Among other things, it’s a sestina that manages -- and I don’t think this is just due to over-familiarity -- to have avoided the pitfalls of contrivedness to which the form is almost always prone. But far more significantly, it’s a sestina from which both of the refrains have entered the language. To have given us proverbs is an accomplishment few poets can claim.

R.F.: Yes. Blake and Shakespeare come to mind.

S.: Rarefied company! Even if you consider them mistaken proverbs, or bad advice. I mean, proverbs are always contextual anyway. As Zizek likes to insist, “Look before you leap” runs smack into “He who hesitates is lost.”

R.F.: This question of wisdom brings up the issue of conduct. I mean, if asked the question, What don’t you like about Dylan Thomas, I could answer quite irrelevantly, he was a womanizer, and a drunkard, and he cheated his hosts, and so on. But this still underscores something that is relevant: the moral aspect of art. And Pound as a Fascist does not run afoul of this, for me. Pound’s fascism is a response to the age-old problem of government.

S.: You mean perhaps that Thomas’ flaws are flaws of lack of principle; Pound’s are flaws of principle.

R.F.: How do we get a good government, Pound asks. Democracy obviously doesn’t do this. This is clear in the wake of the last election, if it wasn’t clear before. But when you have an uninformed electorate, you get bad leaders. Monarchy also was no guarantee: you wind up with idiots and bleeders. So what does work? No one has come up with an answer, but some have held that the beneficent tyrant is the answer to that question.

S.: The Enlightened Despot. Or the Philosopher-King! Not that either of us think Plato was suggesting a real regime. But Mussolini was clearly neither.

R.F.: Pound can be faulted for his judgment of Mussolini, but there’s no doubt that he thought Mussolini was that sort of leader. What I think exonerates Pound is his intention. I don’t deny that this is only a partial excuse -- but it really possible to do the wrong thing for the right reason.

S.: Would Brecht buy this?

R.F.: Brecht is trying at all times to speak the truth. And so is Pound. Whereas Thomas is trying to impress his listeners.

S.: Perhaps this is why “Do Not Go Gently…” succeeds -- because it’s an occasional poem addressing the death of a particular individual, and you can’t help but feel the ineluctable urgency of this occasion -- and there’s not the hand-waving and sound-drunk magic, the enchanter’s art, that seems to characterize so much of Thomas’ other work.

R.F.: This brings us back to Horace, interestingly. “Horace the toady”. Horace was very interested, I think, in how to write a poem that would please the emperor, and yet would tell anyone who could actually read poetry what he actually thought. I think this is why his Odes, to Tiberius and to Drusus are so dreadful: he meant them to be. And his centennial ode, too -- actually it was 110 years -- is a choral hymn to an empire he doesn’t entirely believe in; there’s no real feeling in it, he’s just preserving the old forms, and it’s almost impossible for me to translate it. It’s awful. That’s the essence of his control. You know when some people nod, they nod -- they fall asleep; when Horace nods, there’s usually a reason for it.

S.: Do you suppose Heidegger nodded off?

R.F.: You mean with Naziism?

S.: Yes. Or is it different with poets?

R.F.: I think there’s a greater compulsion for poets to speak the truth, if I may say something so paradoxical.

S.: Indeed! I thought the poet “nothing affirmeth, and so never lieth.”

R.F.: I think philosophers tend to get over-programmatic. Even the best of us have our hobby-horses. The contrast between Heidegger and the poet Gottfried Benn, I think illustrates this. Benn was a Nazi for a while, and then, instead of emigrating like Brecht (who despised him), chose what he called “inner emigration,” withdrawing into himself. There’s a certain self-deception going on here, I think -- he was an acerbic man from the beginning, and I suspect he embraced Naziism for bad reasons --

S.: -- as a kind of encouraging the world to get worse since it was getting worse anyway. He was a proto-accelerationist.

R.F.: Of course I wouldn’t want to publish any such analysis, but it seems to me he didn’t really like people, and thought that getting rid of a number of them wasn’t such a poor idea. Heidegger on the other hand, somehow imagined that Naziism was going to give him the chance to bring out the program of Sein und Zeit. This work, by the way, is not what I admire about Heidegger -- it’s full of neologisms and jargon; I like his later work, the material collected in On the Way to Language especially -- he starts getting quite clear then; not trying to invent a new language, but rather poeticize reality. He re-conceives his own being as a philosopher --

S.: -- a “Thinker” --

R.F.: -- and in the course of this he says some very valuable things, to me as a thinker and poet. Had he died in 1933, I would probably think he was just a fascist -- who cares? But he grew beyond that.

S.: So you don’t believe he avoided the seriousness of the matter in later years.

R.F.: I am a Christian, I do believe in forgiveness. And you know -- if you write good poetry, you can be forgiven almost anything.

S.: On a cultural level. It must be said that, when it comes to poetry and the Shoah, that’s about as anti-Adorno as you can get. As Auden put it:
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,.
Pardons him for writing well.
But you know, there’s something interesting about that -- Merleau-Ponty, in Adventures of the Dialectic, ventures an apologia for Stalinism in which he says more or less: Although this won’t do the dead any good, if the dictatorship of the proletariat comes about thanks to these obviously bad events -- and their badness isn’t in question -- on some level it is possible that the deaths of the Ukrainians and the show-trials and the gulag will all somehow be justified. Some people were appalled by this end-justifies-the-means argument Voegelin for one); but Merleau-Ponty responded that his contemporaries could not face their own violence, the violence in which they were themselves already complicit. This does remind one of Heidegger saying that the Soviet Union and the United States were “metaphysically the same,” or comparing the Holocaust to the rise of technology. And while it seems a rather mixed success as an argument, there is a way in which one can feel -- particularly with art -- in which you can sometimes feel that some success has been won that eases the way for a kind of forgiveness. Bernard Williams speaks of this as “moral luck.” His example is Gaugin; and he asks about an imaginary (but realistic) colleague, a painter who like Gaugin also abandons family to poverty and neglect and runs off to Tahiti, and like Gaugin continues to paint, but never attains either financial or -- more crucially for Williams’ case -- artistic success, remaining a mediocre painter until death.

R.F.: One can also ask the question: is the success won in spite of, or because of, the moral lapse? I’d venture as one of the true dogmas of moral philosophy that the end never justifies the means. And this, because it confuses the journey for the destination. And the journey is the only reality.

S.: A Taoist defense of moral dogma! But then, a “dogma” of this sort is I guess what you’d call a good sign-post. But I’m not sure. I can forgive Thomas a lot for that one sestina, but what I’m forgiving is aesthetic, not ethical, lapse. I look at the other work, and I think, it’s fascinating, it’s drunk on syntax, and so on...

R.F.: How about, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”?

S.: Well, it’s a great line, but the whole poem ...

R.F.: It’s a convoluted line.

S.: But the point here is that the rest of the work is not as successful, as poetry, as “Do Not Go Gently…” And when I look at the rest, I think, it isn’t as successful. This is what I love. And I forgive the rest, or find moments that I admire and that seem to me to be indices of the greatness that is, in this one poem, in full view. But what occludes it in the other instances? James McAuley, the Australian poet, one of the perpetrators of the Ern Malley hoax and really an under-rated poet on the 20th century, thinks that Thomas was one of the main offenders in what he called the “Magian heresy,” the notion that one could, by force of language itself and language alone, conjure a kind of magic that would invoke trances and in some tangential way which he think sis under-theorized by the culprits actually “work.”

R.F.: Mallarmé would be guilty.

S.: McAuley thinks Mallarmé was perhaps the heresiarch of it all. Now I’m enough in love with poetry to think that sometimes this kind of heresy has given us something beautiful, and yet I can’t help but see McAuley’s point.

R.F.: Beautiful maybe, but meretricious. That’s what one feels with this sort of word-play. I’m attracted to it as well. I knew Poe’s “The Bells” by heart, and it seemed to me that the music that it made was of the essence of poetry. I was sixteen, I can be forgiven for that. But it’s always stayed with me. And you’ll hear some song, and the tintinnabulation, to use the Poe-ism, strikes you -- but it’s meretricious.

S.: A special effect.

R.F.: You can like “Do Not Go Gently,” and admire it for its epigrammatic qualities, but it never has struck me as a great poem -- I don’t go back to it; whereas, to take someone from an earlier generation, what Gerard Manley Hopkins manages to do with language often strikes me as truly wonderful, and unique -- no one else does this. I can imagine someone else writing the Thomas, but I cannot imagine anyone else writing Hopkins.

S.: I guess I want to say that when you go into that alchemist’s laboratory of language, like Mallarmé did, you can sometimes discover truly marvellous phenomena, but to make art of them, you must put them at the service of a vision. And if all you do is put on a light-show, it can be hypnotic, and produce a semblance of being aesthetically moved, but it still feels to me that something is amiss, askew, in this.

R.F.: Take Mallarmé's hair poem, where he imagines his lover -- with whom some people say he never had a sexual relationship, incidentally -- with her hair up -- it’s all verbal display, and while it’s quite wonderful how it does what it does, in the long run, yes, it falls flat. In the long run, this program went nowhere, it was all promise but very little substance. Some of his early sonnets, though, have such light in them.

S.: About promise -- there’s something almost poisonous about it, that can undermine one’s integrity as a poet, as a thinker; if this is all one has -- a program, so to speak -- and one never feels pressed to do anything but write manifestos about the idea of the poetry, this is clearly a problem. And yet I want to sketch a potential defense of at least one facet of this, which I think is legitimate and for which I want to lobby for a moment. Philosophy, too, I want to say, has a sort of promissory character. It gives you an assurance that it ultimately cannot deliver on, at least not in words, and it has to bring you to expect something different from words. The platonist and neo-Platonist vision is practically stipulated to be beyond what can be articulated, and so, as you’ve pointed out, is the Tao. The “poem within the poem…”

R.F.: To be sure. It was Plato who first got me thinking about all of this.

S.: The Blue Flower of Novalis, the “flower absent from all bouquets” we were speaking of before, this MacGuffin, to use the Hitchcock trope, is this notion of something always beyond our grasp, inherently so. It’s what Bonnefoy speaks of in The Arrière-pays -- the country beyond. And this promise, this gesture offstage, is of the essence if, as you insist, the Tao that is named is not the eternal Tao. It is true that you have to have some sort of content, beyond the special effects -- this is why I was underlining the classicist move of translating Horace, for there is a great deal of content in Horace, and you always feel his artistry at at the service of this content. Sometimes you may object to the content, in which case you feel like he’s prostituted his art. But in some sense -- at least in philosophy -- the content still can’t be the main thing. It’s an occasion.

R.F.: Well, even in Horace’s best poems, the content is often truisms. But the effect of the art is to bring these home, to compel one to take them seriously.

S.: Which would suggest that some occasions are better than others, better suited perhaps for these sorts of gestures. This is no doubt why the young Brecht objected to “Dulce et decorum est…” Because one ought not to take such a thing seriously, he thought.

R.F.: But where the truisms are true, Horace forces you to look again, to look deeply -- to see the adages as the fruit of people who knew what they were talking about, giving you the essence of a good life.

S.: So that in the end the “content” too -- these truisms -- turns out itself to “point beyond” themselves -- to be, like the adages we were mentioning earlier, not themselves perfect instances of wisdom, but signs of what wisdom is like -- good sign-posts, pointing “this way.”

R.F.: And read a little more closely, Horace could be giving one a primer -- how to live with a tyrant, and live well. Now you can say there’s something morally wrong with that, but this objection arises from imposing our Christianity on it. And we all do this -- we’re all Christians in this sense.

S.: We’ve inherited a worldview, a culture, which doesn’t easily, intuitively, relate to Horace’s.

R.F.: Now with Mallarmé, what I find most compelling is his ideas. His attempt -- albeit failed -- to clothe them, a la Lucretius (though not the same ideas), to realize them in poetry, in a poem which is pointing beyond itself to the pure Idea. Mallarmé is a Hegelian, and he’s trying to enact, or give us a poem in which is enacted, Spirit’s attempt to realize itself. Thesis: the flower that is in no bouquet. Antithesis: the flower that is in the poem. Did he succeed in the synthesis? Well, my translations are my attempt to find out. Perhaps it is only I who failed. But despite my temptation to be a Mallarméan, I found that in the end I couldn’t. Baudelaire lives for me more. And Verlaine maybe even more; his lyric quality is so fine, so wonderful -- you can’t find it anywhere else.

S.: I think though that of the three of them, Verlaine felt the most disillusioned in the end, about what poetry could do.

R.F.: Yes, though also maybe more at peace. It’s hard to know what Mallarmé felt, because he doesn’t tell you. Baudelaire, it seems clear, was haunted his entire life. Verlaine in the end seems to say, Well here I am, living with this ex-prostitute, who’s taking care of me -- what’s wrong with that?

S.: Some of us make our peace living under a tyrant, some with living after the failed commune.

R.F.: And there are more ways than one to do that. Some of us become gun-runners in Abyssinia.

S.: And here we are, living in what you’ve suggested is the demonstrable failure of democracy, where we too will have to make our peace one way or another. As a philosopher, I try to cultivate a long view, and not capitulate to -- here’s that word again -- cynicism. I feel an alienation from right and left, if those terms mean anything. I’m small-c conservative, never was enticed by the siren-song of progressivism, but also entirely disgusted, almost viscerally, by the mendacious self-serving narcissism of the so-called right. Once upon a time Eliot, and Pound, and also Yeats, could be enamoured of a kind of fascism, but also -- along with many other intellectuals -- could see that the strong-men were not really their kind of people; Mussolini was easy to dismiss as a buffoon even by admirers, but these same admirers never seem to have reflected that the devil might be a buffoon. Now, however, I think we are in a position where there is clearly no question.

R.F.: The banality of evil is there for all to see.

S.: Do you take your solace, then, as a philosopher, as a poet, as a Taoist -- from what vantage do you take your long view?

R.F.: I’m a Christian Taoist. I truly believe in love. I believe love is genuinely possible on earth. It may not be perfect, but as I translated Bonnefoy, “imperfection is the crown.” And the more I read the I Ching, the more I see that the Confucian jen is very close to the Buddhist karuna, and Christian agape. Confucius himself took a view very much like Plato’s -- the only way you can form a good society, is by starting at the bottom.

S.: Another thing you share with Pound: an admiration of Master Kung.

R.F.: Confucius though thought we already had the makings of such a system in emperor-worship; we just needed to train the emperor to really be the father of the country, and things could work out. Well, they never did, perfectly, but sometimes they actually did come close. That’s probably the closest thing to a system I can believe in: a strong ruler who really does take wisdom seriously. But even here you run into the problem of succession. There is always a problem. There is no political solution.

S.: Which perhaps is why politics can be such a good crucible for propelling one beyond system -- on a personal, individual, level -- perhaps this is why the classic philosophers, Plato above all, seem to concentrate upon it. . But on the level of actual policy, these failures can have many casualties.

R.F.: About lack of system -- as a codicil to what we said earlier about poet and philosopher vis-a-vis honesty -- the philosopher has to believe in language. The poet doesn’t have to -- the poet can just play with it.

S.: Believe in it how?

R.F.: In its capacity to represent truth. Insofar as the philosopher is a system-builder. You can be a non-systematic philosopher, like Lao-tzu.

S.: Or Plato?

R.F.: In the long run, yes, Plato too. In the long run.