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.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
Metalepsis: from world to world
I want to register a peculiar feeling I had when first bracing myself to write about poetry online. The feeling was one of defensiveness, or rather protectiveness. I am willing to let my judgments about “philosophers” as traditionally understood stand in the public square, and I can discuss them with passion but also with equanimity. Poetry is not like this for me. I want to say I have “learned more” from poets than from philosophers, but this is inexact; what I have learned, however, is of a deeper register, and I treasure it more, because it feels more constitutive of who I am.
In this poetry is akin to religion, and indeed one of Badiou’s grave criticisms of Heidegger’s “suturing” of philosophy to poetry is that it enables, or at least imagines, a return to a para-theological mode of thinking. Kierkegaard held that the “religious stage,” which he put after the ethical, could easily be taken for a regression to the aesthetic. Indeed, as far back as Plato the poetic and the religious are entwined for philosophy, and as is well known, the earliest art is religious art.
As most readers here will know, Socrates speaks of a “quarrel” between poetry and philosophy, a quarrel already ancient by the time he refers of it, almost two and a half millennia ago. I tend to read this not as creative license on Plato’s part, but as simple report. As long as there has been philosophy, it has striven with—and against—poetry. I have always felt—and I am not claiming any originality here—that this is one of the clues to the meaning of Plato, and via Plato, to that of philosophy per se. I say this in full cognizance of how, um, dated? naïve? silly? too-big notions of “the meaning of…” can seem. And maybe they should seem naïve or silly. But I think Plato meant quite intentionally to cultivate the sense of awe that such phrases give, and not for the cheap reasons of building up his reputation for having some kind of secret wisdom. Rather, the expectation of some payoff, some Beatific Vision, is part of philosophical pedagogy.
“Why did Plato banish the poets?” The cliché answer has always been: poets lie. The gods they speak of—Zeus, Hera, Hephaestus, Artemis—do not exist. Or if they do, if there are indeed gods, they cannot bear any resemblance to the cast of warmongering, capricious lechers and cuckolds in the myths; not if they really merit our worship, not if they are gods. One may note that this critique is alive and well in the all-too-current harangues of and against fundamentalists of all stripes, at least those who stake part of their will-to-power in the literal truth of some sacred text. The God who rains down fire on Sodom, who “tests” Abraham with the request for a human sacrifice, who bets that Satan cannot win Job no matter how many of his family are crushed by falling houses—do we need a Cambridge-educated biologist to make us admit that such a god strains both our credulity and fealty? The poets—whether of Greece, India, Egypt, or Israel—may tell us pleasing stories, or at any rate moving stories, but the objects of those stories are unreal, nonexistent. So goes the stock explanation of why Plato showed the poets the door.
I am going to argue in a way that will seem naïve, conflating the poetry of many ages. For the record, I do not think that there are no differences between how ancient listeners of Homer and modern readers of Frost apprehend(ed) poetry. Indeed, I have given a good deal of thinking to how ancient, medieval, and modern modes of reception diverge, and to how the ancient-medieval mode gave way. But for all that, poets themselves have always tended to view their history as more continuous than broken. Here I am concerned with poetry as experienced by poets, not by sociologically-minded historians or historically-minded sociologists.
With that caveat, I will explore a bit something that I said in my first post: that philosophy “takes the secret paths that go from world to world.” I want now to suggest a little more of what these worlds might mean, via two poems from the early 20th century.
There’s a well-known poem by Auden that sometimes goes by the name “Funeral Blues.” You may have seen it in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead.
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Note the slow outward spiral from domestic considerations (put the phone off the hook, keep the dog quiet) to public ones (the aeroplanes are summoned, the policemen and the “public doves” are recruited) to the sudden eruption of personal grief that takes in the whole world: “My north, my south, my east, my west,” a grief that overflows the house and the public square to flatly aver that the cosmos as a whole is now irrevocably without purpose. And yet, the language for this cosmic despair is once more domestic: “Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;” the apocalypse reduced to meaningless household chores. The despondent voice is almost frightening in its inconsolability.
What I am interested in (now) with this poem is this absolute character, its refusal and even incomprehension of the very idea of ever "feeling better." When you read this poem and enter into it, it brooks no disagreement. Within the world of the poem, it is simply true: Nothing now can ever come to any good. There is no disputing these lines; no chink for any “chin up, old man—time heals all wounds!” rejoinder to slip through—not while you are reading the poem. This is not because the poem only says its same sixteen lines over and over again; the question concerns not the poem as textual artifact but as lived experience. Nor is not simply because taste or decorum forbids it—after all, there is no actual speaker whose real emotions we need to consider. No, it is because this is a world of grief, and the rejoinder is not tactless but meaningless.
I sometimes find it frankly miraculous that I am capable of looking up from reading this evocation of the laying waste of a life and go about my business. How is this possible?
I don’t offer an explanation, but only a way of speaking, about this question. This is possible for us, I suggest, because we inhabit a different world from that of the speaker; we are able to enter that world, and also to leave it. Upon departure, the house lights come up, we hear the sound of the traffic or the clink of dishes in the café or the ring of the phone; but until then, we are effectively within that story, and obey its laws.
It is quite possible to remain “within” a poem, or any other work of art, well after reading it. Cinema, that pseudo-liturgy of our age, has the most noticeable such effect, but books still can hold sway over us. The claim of a work of scripture is not that it is a story of people two or three millennia ago, but that it is the story we are in now. This is precisely why Kierkegaard could say that the Religious stage was like a recapitulation of the Aesthetic. And it is why philosophy requires us to struggle with both poetry and with religion. For philosophy wants to free us to navigate between such worlds at will—to be really there when we are there, and to always know there are others.
The passing from world to world I will call, after a long line of rhetoreticians, metalepsis. If I claim not to coin this expression it’s because I think I am being faithful to a fundamental continuity of meaning. This isn’t to say I ignore the evolution of the term; but I assert that there’s a coherent development in its use. For Gerard Genette, metalepsis has to do with the passage between narrative levels (say, the nested narratives of the Thousand and One Nights), or even the way a narrative can refer to extra-narrative reality; for instance, the intrusion of the authorial “I” in Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, acknowledging the purely literary status of his characters. A work of literature can even fictively appropriate the “real world;” consider, for example, the moment in Barrie’s play Peter Pan when the audience is suddenly acknowledged and entreated to demonstrate its belief in fairies by clapping, in order to save Tinkerbell’s life.
For Quintillian, metalepsis (transumptio in Latin) is a kind of slipping from trope to trope; medieval and renaissance rhetoreticians used it to denote an extreme metaphor; George Puttenham mentions it in his Arte of English Poesie (1589) and calls it the “farfet,” as in far-fetched, and mentions that it is always impressive to women.
But go back far enough and you get to Aristotle, for whom metalepsis means “participation.” This is a very charged word. The other term for participation is methexis, and between the two of them these words inform the whole history of western thinking from Plato till Suarez at least. When I use the term participation, I have Aristotle and Plato in mind, but also the scholastics, and Levy-Bruhl. This is a matter for a post of its own. But for now I want to say simply that if participation is both a metaphysical and a literary trope, this is because “literature” is more than a matter of texts; it is a matter of thought.
It will be noted that I’m arguing for a kind of perspectivism, and I don’t want to wrap myself too tightly in Nietzsche’s mantle. But with due reference to him, I would say that we have here a case such as I spoke of before: when you read Auden’s poem, it also reads you. I will end with a different poem, at least as well known, to illustrate the point.
Archaic Torso of Apollo
Rainer Maria Rilke (tr. Stephen Mitchell)
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
It doesn’t matter how many times I have read this, I feel the final lines like a physical shock:
…denn da ist keine Stelle, die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.
The first few times, I almost jumped.
The poem makes tremendous claims for the power of art, as though there were an animistic force held by the broken piece of sculpture, a force that can compel you to admit the necessity of some radical alteration. The language, steeped in eros, is surprisingly even and balanced for all that. Note the subtlety with which its strange indirect para-syllogisms establish what it assumes, without ever asserting it. Thus: “his torso/is… suffused with brilliance… //[because] …Otherwise/the curved breast could not dazzle you so.” How indirectly it has gained our acquiescence—we are dazzled, before we even knew ourselves to be so. “Otherwise this stone would seem defaced,” meaning, it does not seem defaced. It is in fact unthinkable that it should seem defaced; the wholeness of the work of art suffuses it, holds it, overflows it; it “bursts like a star.” And here again, precisely as with Nietzsche’s abyss, it is not a passive object of our attention, but gazes back.
From its opening declaration of incapacity, “We cannot know,” to it’s final imperative, there is in the world of this poem no demurral possible. A quarrel with the poem can only happen from without it. It is not that one cannot argue with it, cannot set about to reconstruct the legendary head, or cheekily respond “Oh, must I indeed?” to its last five words. But to do this is in a decisive sense not to read the poem. Within its world, it is simply true: you must change your life. What this means is of course different depending on what “your life” is. It is silly to think that reading these lines by Rilke magically brings about long nights of introspection; I am not contending that this poem has a this-worldy effect of this sort, but that within the poem one recognizes the experience of encountering this imperative; and that, within this world, the experience is irrefutable, and gainsaying it, meaningless.
A great deal more could be said about both these poems, and I probably will say a bit of it in the future, but over-commentary, while it cannot kill the poem, discredits the critic.