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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Malleus Mischieficarum

(Warning: this is a long post).


It is necessary to understand
That a poet may not exist, that his writings
Are the incomplete circle and straight drop
Of a question mark
And yet I know I shall be raised up
On the vertical banners of praise.

Ern Malley, “Sibylline,” The Darkening Ecliptic


The philosopher Alexius Meinong is probably most famous (at least among people who know who he was at all) for having held that there are such things as non-existent objects; for instance, the Easter Bunny, the exiled king of Zembla, a Euclidean method for trisecting the angle. Meinong’s teacher Brentano had taught that mental acts—believing, intending, thinking, imagining—are all by their nature directed towards something. One does not promise “in general;” one promises to—. This is the famous "intentionality" of which phenomenology made so much. Well, philosophers always want to go one better. Heraclitus says you can’t step in to the same river twice, Cratylus says you can’t step in even once. Meinong went one better, in good consistent fashion, arguing that since a perpetual motion machine or a ten-sided triangle are all things we can think about, they must have some sort of being, or such thoughts would be meaningless and nonsensical. A thought of a perpetual motion machine or a ten-sided triangle must each be thoughts of something—namely, nonexistent objects; thus the perpetual motion machine is an object, the functioning of which provides its own energy, but which does not exist; while the ten-sided triangle is an object that has ten sides, is triangular, and which could not exist.

All these objects are often said to exist in various possible worlds, or for short (since not all these worlds are compatible with each other, so their proliferation is endless), in “Meinong’s jungle.” It should not take a great leap of imagination to see how my earlier exposition of the “worlds” of a poem might be amenable to being mapped onto this jungle. Poets might thus be justly expected to rejoice in this ontology, at least once they got over the initial annoyance of having logicians diagramming their poems formally.

But not everyone shared the excitement for this profusion, least of all among philosophers. The desire to prune this jungle—not to say clear-cut it—gave rise to the development of analytic philosophy, especially as informed by the Fregean distinction between sense and reference, and by Russell’s contrasting theory of description. That is, the reaction against the fecundity of Meinong’s jungle led directly to the flourishing of the linguistic philosophy which Speculative Realism now derides as so much nail-filing and mere epistemology.

It is true that Meinong’s enthusiasm for objects of all sorts brings with it certain liabilities. When we countenance ten-sided triangles or weights so heavy that omnipotent beings cannot lift them, or this naked man who is wearing a tuxedo, or a pipe that is not a pipe, we find ourselves, as Russell drily remarked, “apt to infringe the law of contradiction,” and to flaunt that of the Excluded Middle. Since it is a commonplace in logic that from a contradiction, anything and everything can follow, these objections need answers if we are not to be expelled from this paradise which Meinong has created.

One way is to decide that contradictions, or at least some contradictions, aren’t so bad—an option I’ve mentioned as a version of the two truth theory. But there are other ways that attempt, by formulating relevant distinctions, to preserve the intuition Meinong had. One of Meinong’s students outlined such an attempt with a distinction between being determined by a property (or as he called it, an “objective,” because it characterizes an object), and satisfying it:

Every object satisfies a complete complex of objectives and is thus “complete” with respect to its actual determinations. But there are objects that are mere form-determinates of certain (defining) objectives (without satisfying these objectives): such an object is only incompletely determined by its defining objective (which is an incomplete complex of objectives), and thus it has to be called “incomplete” with respect to its formal determination. Nevertheless, according to the first statement, it is complete with respect to the objectives it satisfies: since it satisfies the objective to be the form-determinate of its definition, and it also satisfies everything implied by this objective.

“Form-determiniates” are conceptual objects, determined by properties (“objectives”) but not necessarily instantiating or satisfying the properties that determine them.

This distinction can be expressed more simply as exemplifying and encoding, respectively. (This updated terminology is owed to Edward Zalta). To exemplify a property is simply to fulfill the normal relation with it we express in predicative logic: “The cat is on the mat” and “The cat has eaten the canary” mean, respectively, that the cat exemplifies the property of being on the mat or having dined upon the canary. But for the fictitious cat, say the Cheshire Cat in Through the Looking Glass, one needs a different sense of the words is or has. The sense in question is encoding; the Cheshire Cat encodes the property of being a cat, of grinning, of being able to vanish, and so on, but does not exemplify them. In like manner, John Keats exemplifies the property of being a poet, whereas, in the fragment cited at the top of this post, the “poet [who] may not exist” encodes this same property.

So, if you’ve been long-suffering enough to make it this far, we’ve come back to poetry. I want to offer this modified version of Meinong's ontology of nonexistent objects as a way of talking about the impact poetry has on us.

The attempt to “whistle,” as Ramsey called the early Wittgenstein’s efforts—to suggest more than can be said; to evoke experience rather than (impossibly) describe God in words; to “eff in ineffable,” as Rorty said (if anyone knows where Rorty got this I’d be glad to hear)—leads potentially to all sorts of problems in poetry, among them especially a burgeoning of connotation and vagueness or of imagery and sound to the expense of a coherent statement. Every time you hear a poem denounced as obscure, this concern is in play. Suggestion and association abound; straightforward descriptions of actual events, it is complained, are few.

These denunciations have something to do with the unease I referred to earlier about discussing poetry, an unease which bears comparison with discussing religion. In a discussion about religion one soon discovers that one is not dealing with assent to propositions but with entrenched positions that orient one’s whole life, strenuously propounded and grounded in intense emotional investment. This is not infrequently the case whether one speaks of belief or unbelief. One opens oneself up in such talk to being met with incomprehension, condescension, derision, and revulsion.

I mentioned this in regard to the so-called “science wars;” religious believers are frequently in the uncomfortable position of being regarded as quaint or crazy or stupid. (N.b. this happens just as frequently between believers, as between believers and nonbelievers). But there is an analogous regard when it comes to art. It is easier to tell your friend, perhaps, that you don’t share their taste in music or film than that you think their religion is kooky; perhaps also easier than to tell them you think they threw their vote away on a demagogue or a tool of special interests. But for those for whom art is a religion of its own, or who understand that the two as closely related, an artistic squabble is every bit as worthy of going to the wall as a political fight.

Poets have been faulted for “difficulty” long before MacLeish tried to ward off the charge of obscurity by claiming famously that “a poem should not mean but be,” and the charge has frequently come not from the philistine public but from other poets. Coleridge called the poetry of John Donne “meaning’s press and screw;” Robert Graves once offered a monetary reward to anyone who could satisfactorily explain to him a particular set of lyrics of Dylan Thomas’; the Language poets were (and still are) routinely denounced as getting away with something and calling it poetry. Exactly what, such critics want to know, are lines like this poem, from Leslie Scalapino’s , “Chameleon Series” supposed to mean?

There’s
order in
the goat’s

life
—occurring
later on

after that
life

Or these lines, the first verse of “Rich in Vitamin C” by J.H. Prynne:

Under her brow the snowy wing-case
delivers truly the surprise
of days which slide under sunlight
past loose glass in the door
into the reflection of honour spread
through the incomplete, the trusted. So
darkly the stain skips as a livery
of your pause like an apple pip,
the baltic loved one who sleeps.

One could multiply examples ad infinitum. The one I’ll use (it’ll become clear why) happened in Australia, during World War II. The avant-garde was late in arriving down under, and in the ’40s, Australian literary culture was split between those who wanted, and believed in, a poetry that held to the norms of English verse from Chaucer through Dryden to Yeats, and on the other hand, partisans of modern trends in poetry like the Surrealism that had swept through Europe two decades earlier. In the first group were poets like A.D. Hope, James McAuley, and Harold Stewart, poets whose work was careful in its craft and attentive to traditional themes. Against these, the quarterly Angry Penguins championed the work of experimental poets willing to try free-association and free verse, in particular Max Harris (who edited the journal), D.B. Kerr, Paul Pfeiffer, Geoffrey Dutton, and above all, Ernest Lalor Malley.

Ern Malley was the author of a single work, The Darkening Ecliptic, a sequence of sixteen poems that exploded on the Australian literary scene in 1943. (The poem I cite at the beginning of this post is from it). Malley himself, a figure tailor-made from the mythology of the Romantic poet, a kind of cross between Chatterton and Rimbaud, had died some months previously, of Graves’ disease, unpublished and unheard-of; his sister Ethel had forwarded the poems to Max Harris at Angry Penguins when she had discovered them upon going through his belongings. The poems show the unevenness of young work, but even now one can recapture something of what must have moved Harris, when first reading them, to feel he was discovering an unsung genius:

_________________________________

Perspective Lovesong

It was a night when the planets
Were wreathed in dying garlands.
It seemed we had substituted
The abattoirs for the guillotine.
I shall not forget how you invented
Then, the conventions of faithfulness.

It seemed that we were submerged
Under a reef of coral to tantalize
The wise-grinning shark. The waters flashed
With Blue Angels and Moorish Idols.
And if I mistook your dark hair for weed
Was it not floating upon my tides?

I have remembered the chiaroscuro
Of your naked breasts and loins.
For you were wholly an admonition
That said: “From bright to dark
Is a brief longing. To hasten is now
To delay.” But I could not obey.

Princess, you lived in Princess St.,
Where the urchins pick their nose in the sun
With the left hand. You thought
That paying the price would give you admission
To the sad autumn of my Valhalla.
But I, too, invented faithfulness.

_________________________________

When Harris, who edited Angry Penguins, published the poems, they created a scandal, the sort of thing that supposedly happened back in the heady days when Stravinsky’s and Nijinksy’s Rite of Spring debut caused riots in Paris. It is hard to imagine.

Part of the scandal, though not the most interesting part, had to do with content: the poems were deemed lewd, indecent, immoral, and very nearly blasphemous. Official obscenity charges were filed. The police confiscated the entire edition of Angry Penguins that had not sold out. At issue were lines like “the chiaroscuro / Of your naked breasts and loins,” above, but also “Part of me remains, wench, Boult-upright / The rest of me drops off into the night,” or “The body’s a hillside, darling, moist / With bitter dews of regret. / The genitals (o lures of starveling faiths!) / Make an immense index to my cold remorse;” or finally, “There is a moment when the pelvis / Explodes like a grenade.”

Some of these lines are good, and some don’t quite work; and indeed, as Michael Heyward notes in his history of the episode, The Ern Malley Affair, “Though it was never stated with such clarity, the Crown case seemed to be that where the poetry was not obscene it was unintelligible, and that was almost as bad.”

But, adapting the modified Meinongian ontology of nonexistent objects, we can perhaps say that a poem—and not only a poem—evokes a world in which the discourse of the poem is a meaningful utterance. In which, for instance, the line that opens Malley’s “Egyptian register”—

The hand burns resinous in the evening sky

—rather than being just gorgeous or jarring nonsense, is a full bearer of meaning. It does not matter, for our purposes, just how this meaning is construed—a metaphorical hand of plumed clouds at sunset, or a victim’s severed limb falling from a wrecked airplane, or some dreamy yet-unthought-of sense—what matters is that the poem unfolds as an invitation to believe in a possible world in which the even most nonsensical-sounding phrases are legitimate moves in the language. ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe. “So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three gods, but one God.”

What I call metalepsis is the passing through the semi-permeable borders between worlds, including the “real world” and its images in discourse. From the world of Dante to that of Darwin; from that of the Abhidharma to that of the Athanasian Creed.

Often such a move is made by our own initiative. It is, after all, we who write poems. But sometimes reality teases us (we feel) with a trope of its own.

Part of the scandal of Malley’s poetry, I mentioned, was its content. The other part, the more interesting part, was its form, or indeed, its very existence. Malley’s line concerning the poet who “may not exist,” with which I illustrated Mally’s account of nonexistent objects, refers of course to himself. For both Ern Malley and his sister Ethel were fictions, invented by the anti-modernist poets James McAuley and Harold Stewart one afternoon in 1943, a slow Saturday in their office at the land headquarters of the Australian army, where they were uniformed noncombatants. They had done it in order to send up the conceits of modernist poetry and have a laugh at the expense of Max Harris. It was, in short, the poetic equivalent of the Sokal Social Text hoax. As soon as Angry Penguins hit the newsstands, rumors leaked out. Eventually Stewart and McAuley issued a press statement claiming responsibility for all the poems, which, they said, were entirely without either meaning or merit. Neither Stewart nor McAuley were named in the obscenity charged—writing smut was not a crime, but publishing it was—and neither of them commented upon the trial until afterwards (Harris had been found guilty and fined £5), in part to say that the legal coda had been no part of their intention. That intention, they maintained for the rest of their lives, was part jest and part serious: to demonstrate that literary fads could blind intelligent readers to questions of quality.

They may have succeeded too well. Many readers, not only Harris but Sir Herbert read at the time, and later poets like John Ashbery, have held that, whatever McAuley and Stewart’s aims, Ern Malley had succeeded in writing genuine poetry of real quality. From England, Read cabled Harris in support: “I too would have been deceived by Ern Malley but hoaxers hoisted by their own petard as touched off unconscious sources of inspiration too sophisticated but has elements of genuine poetry.” This explanation Harris maintained to the end of his days.

Neither Stewart nor McAuley would ever achieve the acclaim or notoriety of Ern Malley for any subsequent work. Neither of them ever tried to repeat the experiment; neither recanted their artistic creed that modernism was bunk. They remained traditionalists: McAuley converted to Roman Catholicism and eventually wrote texts for a number of hymns; Stewart became an authority on his adopted nation, Japan, and on Buddhism. I have read a good chunk of their later work, especially McAuley’s essays and Stewart’s long poem By the Old Walls of Kyoto, and am fairly sure that the relative neglect it suffers is not on artistic grounds but simply a function of the way the hoax acts as a strange attractor for our attention. Still, there is no denying the fascination Ern Malley exercises, both as a character and as a poet. And indeed, Stewart had read a good deal by Jung, and his 1950s volume Orpheus and other poems shows the influence. Maybe Read’s theory that the hoaxers had “touched off unconscious sources of inspiration” bears some weight.

Many questions are raised by the Ern Malley hoax: what is the nature of poetic quality? How do we know? What exactly is the role of authorial intention in it? Can a poem be meaningless and still excellent? These questions have been with us a long time. But for me the strangest aspect of the affair is not the meaning that Harris got out of the words that Stewart and McAuley threw onto the page as they chanced to cross their minds; it’s simply Ern Malley’s name.

Many suggested etymologies have been offered for “Ernest Malley.” Ernest, because the hoaxers were not, because of Oscar Wilde’s Importance, because of the pun on “earn” and the fact that they felt Harris had earned this comeuppance. “Malley” from the French mal, bad, with a whiff of Baudelaire, or from malleefowl, an distant Australian cousin of the chicken, or from melee for their polemical intention. What I am almost certain of is that they were not referring to Ernst Mally.

Who? Ernst Mally. The student of Meinong who proposed the distinction we saw above, which we used to say that Keats exemplifies the property of being a poet, whereas Ern Malley encodes it. Ernst Mally, who more than any other student of Meinong worked to elaborate a grammar by which we could speak about nonexistent objects, like the nonexistent poet, with (almost) the same name, of whom he never heard.

It’s a different Jungian concept that comes to mind now: synchronicity, the name Jung had for “meaningful coincidences:” the precognitive dreams, the phone call from your old schoolmate on the first day you think of him for in years; the wedding invitation that goes astray only to turn up the day of the funeral; the twins who die in separate accidents in different towns at the same hour. Or the non-existent poet who shares a name with the philosopher of non-existent things

Now I know all about confirmation bias and Littlewood’s law the the Law of Truly Large Numbers. I understand that there are skeptical rebuttals to any assertion of “meaningful” coincidence. But everyone has instances of synchronicity that for whatever private reasons strike them before they can marshal their skepticism—probably because these incidences have to do with their personal interests. Mall(e)y is one of mine.

In 1943, while Stewart and McAuley were writing the Malley poems in their barracks office, Mally was a retired professor in Germany. By the time the obscenity trial got underway in late 1944, Mally had died. His later work has been deeply criticized for incorporating and attempting to justify Nazi ideology concerning the German Volk and its metaphysical opposition to degenerate values, and very little of his philosophical work has been translated into English. If either of Ern Malley’s creators ever heard of him, I have not been able to find out. Well before Mally fell under the Nazi spell, Meinong’s jungle had retreated in significance before the Vienna Circle’s slash-and-burn, and only since the ’80s has Mally’s thought really begun to receive serious attention in the English-speaking world. (The one exception I know to this is the philosopher John Findlay).

Synchronicity is sometimes read in terms of the Trickster, the wily figure from many mythologies who always turns the tables, an ambiguous character who is not on anyone’s side but sometimes functions as a deus ex machina, even for the gods.

Malley was a trick, a joke on the joke his makers thought modern poetry was. Too good a trick, Harris thought—better than Malley’s inventors knew. I have to admit that when I consider Mally and Malley, I have to wonder if it isn’t a lot better trick than Harris knew too. I haven’t a clue what it “means,” and most of the time I assume it means nothing; that it’s “just one of those things that happen from time to time.” Which is shorthand for, “What the hell am I supposed to do with that? Don’t bother me.”

But sometimes, reading ontology back-to-back with the surrealist poetry, I feel the hairs on my neck stand up. (You try it!) Then I’m bothered anyway. I can’t help but wonder, if only for an instant, whether Coyote or Loki or Anansi, some mischief-making Trickster of myth, hasn’t slipped into the sacred precincts of metaphysics. For a moment I think I’ve glimpsed some fleeting way of whistling “Mall(e)y,” as one might whistle “The hand burns resinous...” or “ ’Twas brillig…” It feels, to me, like the real world were metaleptically sneaking through into the invented jape. Or, vice-versa: as though reality itself were having a joke and writing a poem.

Not necessarily in that order.

[Addendum: Back when I first made the mental Mally/Malley association, some twelve or thirteen years ago, though I did not assume I was the only person to notice it, I could find no published mention anywhere. However, since writing this, I chanced on this article by the late David Lewis, formerly a professor of philosophy at Princeton. Lewis speculated that McAuley might have read Findlay's book Meinong's Theory of Objects, which does treat Mally at some length. Doubtless it is a more parsimonious explanation than is the notion of Loki or Hermes briefly taking up residence in Harold Stewart's typewriter. In any case, Lewis agrees that the notion that pure chance accounts for the coincidence "strains credulity." he acknowledges, however, that his reconstruction is speculative. While hoaxers do generally seed their work with clues, and Stewart/McAuley are known to have done so, I am still unaware of any evidence that either of the "real authors" of The Darkening Ecliptic were aware of Ern Malley's namesake. And besides, Meinong's Jungle abhors parsimony.]

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