The Word is Psyche

If it were possible to graph the trajectory of the emergence of new poetry - which is, actually, an impossible abstraction, but if it were possible - it would look less like a straight line or rising curve, and more like a sort of back-&-forth : an alternating current, a dance. A give-&-take between younger generations - Stevens' "ephebes" - & the classics, the achieved works of older generations, the past.

This is not just a matter of nostalgia or conservatism. The older poetry of past times & foreign places has gone through a certain cycle, which for the new, is ahead - still inchoate, still not yet. This cycle actually reveals itself only after the present has become the past : it's an effect of history, you might say. What I'm thinking of is a kind of "naturalization", of acculturation : the process by which a work of art, of poetry - produced by the artist in a state of great stress & anticipation - is finally received, absorbed, accepted, responded-to, and to some extent comprehended by the culture which called it forth in the first place & for which it was made. Until such a work is taken in this way, becomes a part of its surrounding culture, it remains somehow incomplete - it's an orphan, like a plaintive cricket calling out for its cricket family.

& what I'm thinking of (when I say poetic emergence is a kind of alternating back-&-forth, a dialectical dance) is the visceral, quickening (Eliot's term) impact that these "classics" - these fully-absorbed works from past & foreign places - have upon adolescent readers & young poets. The blissful shock these ephebes are registering is the full effect, the double impact, both of the work itself and of its naturalization - the way it shines through the adorable paper & binding & sweet-scented glue of the cherished paperback - which the young reader, much like a chipmunk, immediately runs off with - retreating to some private hideout, worthy of the poems' warm & secret inner glow.

Again, I would argue that this whole process can't be reduced to some sort of sentimental regression, nostalgia, or "classicism" for its own sake. As Mandelstam puts it, "the Word is Psyche." We might say the process of poetic reception is actually tripartite : there is (1) the poem itself; there are (2) the delicate reverberations of its cultural naturalization, as we have described; & finally there is (3) the psychological dimension, the readers' own ground of feeling. The harmony, the music, we respond to in "ancient" (say, 19th-cent., for just one example) poetry, is, ultimately, not an anachronistic property belonging to those old writers of another, better time. Rather, the poets themselves caught some elusive "affluence" (Stevens' term) - penetrating, permeating & transcending their own time & place - of natural harmony, beauty in general. Pushkin's glory for Russians, for example, has to do with the fact that he drew something out of the harmony that exists as a kind of promise everywhere, giving it a "local habitation and a name." So that poetry feeds on, & actually stems from, this future-oriented promise of joy & harmony - the potential of goodness - which we tend to think only visits us in childhood, briefly, not to return. On the contrary, what we experienced in childhood was a stronger "feeling-perception" or intuition of that same promise of a yet-unknown but overwhelming happiness. Childhood & adolescence are absorbed in this sense - this longing for the future. & the indirections of poetry - its "resistance to the intelligence" (Stevens), its elusive basis in feeling & emotion - its "telling it slant" (Dickinson) - are all involved with evoking this irrational life of feeling, flowing gradually beneath the turbid commotions we experience "on the surface" of clock-time & the day-to-day.


Beauty will save the world

There's a dialogue between Ange Mlinko & author Iain McGilchrist in the October 2010 issue of Poetry. McGilchrist, a sort of cross-disciplinary brain-scientist/literary scholar, published The Master and his Emissary, a new meditation on right/left brain differences (shorthand : right brain = holism/synthesis/emotion; left brain = definition/analysis/abstraction). Mlinko & McGilchrist explore some of the implications for poetry of McGilchrist's work.

This dialogue appears around the same time as Elif Batuman's lengthy review of Mark McGurl's book The Program Era, on the impact of creative writing programs on British & American fiction-writing (which I haven't read). Both Batuman and McGurl address the academic divide between MFA programs and the other intellectual disciplines (humanities & sciences) - the split, generally, between "knowledge" and "creativity."

All of which makes me consider the possible connection between the two. Is the MFA/humanities divide a symptom of a deeper distinction between two dimensions or functions of the mind?

I wonder if this old conflict between knowledge & creativity, or what used to be called science & art, has something to do with an absence in our civilization of a philosophical ground in aesthetics - of a viable ontology of Beauty. The ancient Greeks (Plato, Aristotle) had a notion of beauty as musical harmony, rooted in natural proportions, which they were able to synthesize with ethics and metaphysics - natural beauty had its analogue in moral rectitude. The Middle Ages, in turn, synthesized the knowledge of nature with the metaphysics of divine creation, so that all intellectual investigation & knowledge was believed to have its origin in God, and its end in wonder & mystical contemplation. But the disenchanted naturalism of the Modern era was rooted in a scepticism about the metaphysical grounds of knowledge. Scientific truth was opposed to the superficial ("accidental") illusions of beauty. Thus the ground for aesthetics no longer existed.

Postmodernism & deconstruction, stemming from Nietzsche & Heidegger, attempted to dismantle the hegemony of scientific positivism by means of a sort of language-oriented but anti-rational vitalism, centered in a notion of poetry & art as displacing scientific reason. Hence postmodern literary Theory pushed a sort of intellectual wedge between American MFA programs, on the one hand, with their "naive" devotion to self-expressive creativity, and traditional academic disciplines, with their "naive" roots in "logocentric" rationalism. Yet postmodern Theory's anti-rational propositions were destined to fall by the weight of their own self-contradictions - and thus the contemporary scene seems to have returned to a strange state of intellectual dispossession, with echoes of 19th-century naturalism & scientific positivism emerging in the contemporary devotion to brain science and reductive biological determinisms.

"Beauty will save the world," famously reported Dostoevsky. Perhaps a new metaphysics, able to discern purpose & meaning in the mysterious phenomena of art and beauty, will tend somehow toward the fulfillment of that prophecy. & I suppose at the center of the chessboard will have to be a new challenge to the deeply-rooted modern-positivist doctrine - that beauty is a surface illusion, floating over a structure of what are simply forces : of non-human, abstract, cosmic physics, and of amoral, remorseless biological nature. Keats's taciturn (but stubborn) urn long ago set all the pieces into play :

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

- Grace Ravlin (Venice, 1908)


Orpheus & Stephen Hawking

Physicist Stephen Hawking, in his new book, argues that God (or a god) is not necessary for physics theory, with regard to the origin of the universe (or multiple universes). Curious image of the wheelchair-bound savant, surrounded by near-infinite invisible strings of M-theory, declaring his un-belief in theology (& God). Here is one of the most highly-respected exponents of contemporary scientific rationalism, stepping from experimental science into the realm of philosophy & religion (as Einstein & other physicists have done before him).

If this represents an authoritative viewpoint (though certainly not the only one) of Science on a crucial & controversial matter, what about Art? Is there an approach to God and theology from this direction?

Clearly Art (just as with Science) does not allow for a single authoritative opinion on this question. It's not the proper work of the artist (nor of the scientist) to manufacture opinions on what is, finally, a mystery, unavailable to proof. On the other hand, opinions and personal predilections are unavoidable regarding God's existence or lack thereof. It seems to me that Hawking's statements fall into this category. They are opinions. His statement, quoted in news articles, to the effect that God is unnecessary in the light of "M-theory" - in which universes emerge naturally out of "nothing," as a simple consequence of the laws of physics - this is certainly no proof; it's not even an argument. It skirts the question : where did these laws of physics come from? Whence comes the "logos" (word, order, ratio - law)? According to another authoritative (& theological) opinionator (the Gospel of John), "In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was God, and the Logos was in God. He was in the beginning with God, and all things were made through him." Another free-standing opinion.

What, then - beyond a reasonable detachment (or division of intellectual labor) - might be Art's relation to theology or belief in God? It seems there are two ways to think about Art : as a means or an end. As a means, the application of art gives elegance, practicality, usefulness and appeal to all sorts of made things. That is, it makes them beautiful. As an end (in what's called the "fine arts"), art involves the production of objects which are beautiful-in-themselves : whose main purpose is to reflect and express beauty.

We have been musing, in this incipient blog, on relations between the figure of Orpheus, poetry, music, harmony, beauty. I'd like to oppose (facetiously) the image of Hawking, surrounded by the hypothetical string-threads of M-theory, to the image of Orpheus, strumming the taut strings of his harmonic lyre. Scientific rationalism as opposed to artistic imagination. Disenchantment vs. enchantment. (I say facetiously, because, put so baldly, it sounds like a washed-out version of old binaries from the Romantic period... but I guess I'm not quite ready to forego this contrast.)

The end of a good scientific theory is useful elegance, which is beautiful in its own (scientific) way. The end of a work of art is a sense of harmony & rightness (whether happy or sad, comic/tragic, or some Shakespearean gumbo-combination) - the beautiful in itself. Art achieves this end by way of both imitation (mimesis) and expression - in which identifiable things or events or ideas are harmonized and synthesized into one beautiful whole. Just as the scientist harmonizes disparate facts within an elegant theory, so the artist harmonizes disparate elements into a beautiful representation. These are two distinct acts of synthesis.

But I would say that at the root of the distinction between "Hawking" and "Orpheus" lies the issue of consciousness. Science proceeds by way of the abstraction and measurement of universal forces and material. In the realm of such analysis, even "consciousness" or "mind" becomes an abstraction : reduced to one factor among others involved in the theoretical harmonization of phenomena. Art, on the other hand, represents the workings of consciousness suffusing every dimension of human experience. Reality here is inseparable - inalienable - from conscious action & reception. Philosophical idealist George Berkeley is the unacknowledged patron saint of every artist. And with art, there is no consciousness without personhood. Consciousness is not an abstraction or a force; it is the personal presence of "mind" (which is, in a cosmic perspective, of course, a mystery). Thus art is inescapably personal and dramatic. Even the abstract designs of, say, Islamic art are produced within a context of dramatic personal affect, in that the prohibition of imagery in Islam is considered a part of the submission to the will of Allah. (Strict iconoclasm is nothing if not dramatic.)

Russian poet Osip Mandelstam had a word for consciousness, by way of art & poetry, synthesizing and suffusing our comprehension of reality in general : he called it "hellenism" (or "domestic hellenism"). In his essay On the Nature of the Word, he wrote :

"Hellenism is the conscious surrounding of man with domestic utensils instead of impersonal objects; the transformation of impersonal objects into domestic utensils; and the humanizing and warming of the surrounding world with the most delicate teleological warmth."

(Henceforth to be known as Acmeist Osip M-Theory.) The notion of some kind of "cosmic humanism" - wherein consciousness is recognized as the (mysterious) origin, end and foundation of the cosmos - is obviously not a "proof." It is not even a theory. To assert its existence is no more or less valid than for a physicist to assert the contrary. Yet whenever the scientist (Hawking) dares to reduce consciousness to an abstract law, then the artist (Orpheus) is bound to emerge again, in defense of consciousness.


Happy Birthday, Edwin Honig

Edwin Honig, who turns 91 today, took an interest in the figure of Orpheus. One of his books is titled Affinities of Orpheus. I am speculating that his interest may have originated in the death (from cancer) of his young first wife in the early 1960s, which he took very hard. (I'm sure there are others who have more definite information on this.) This dimension of mourning, loss & shock in Honig's poetry is fairly pervasive - he was also obsessed with the death of his brother, a young child hit by a truck on a Brooklyn street. The experiential/biographical shades, with Honig, into the symbolic & the allegorical (he wrote a massive critical-historical study on allegory, with the excellent title Dark Conceit). Orpheus (as we have been exploring here) is the symbolic or allegorical figure for the poet and for poetry : a figure through whom poetic myth mythologizes itself.

Honig may have identified - emotionally, experientially - with the figure of Orpheus. For me, on the other hand, Honig in a sense represents the figure of Hermes. Hermes, the messenger, the guide, the communicator, who leads Orpheus to Eurydice. For me, the figure of Honig is rather "hermetic" in this sense : he helps me knit together various disparate threads of my own knowledge & experience. A poet-teacher & mentor, he was a guide & source of encouragement as I entered that (shady) world. & now as I look back so much later I note several "affinities" which are still at play in my thinking about poetry.

For example, there was Honig's connection with John Berryman (the title of the first edition of Affinities of Orpheus was Shake a Spear with Me, John Berryman). Berryman was only a few years older than Honig; both of them shared a scholarly passion for the Renaissance dramatists (Berryman's focus was Shakespeare; Honig's, Ben Jonson & Calderon). & Honig brought Berryman to Brown University as a visiting professor in the late 60s (Berryman lived briefly at his home in Cranston). After Berryman's death, Edwin asked me to organize a memorial reading at Brown.

Then, there is Honig's introduction to the important anthology he co-edited with Oscar Williams, the Mentor Book of Major American Poets. Here Honig describes what is distinctive about American poetry in terms of that tradition's down-to-earth this-worldliness, its celebration of the particulars of things in nature and of ordinary life for its own sake. This emphasis, as I have pointed out elsewhere, rhymes with the program of the Russian Acmeists : anti-Symbolist, aiming for the clarity of things-as-they-are (Gumilev's "chaste" vision). (See, by the way, the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert, for a Polish take on this "way of seeing").

But how would one reconcile the "mythic" Orpheus - the visionary/Romantic/lyric poet, the shaman, the antagonist of disenchanted rationalism - with this down-to-earth, practical, transparent, "realist" aspect of American writing & culture? I suppose this may be somewhere near the perennial crux of the "problem of the poet" in America...

But if we look at both the Russian Acmeist phenomenon (again, Gumilev's concept of "chasteness", the integrity, the dignity, the quiddity of things on earth), and at the characteristics of the original Orpheus - who was connected with Apollo - maybe we can recognize something like an answer... let me sketch it something like this : Orpheus (ie., the poet, and poetry) is the manifestation of the integral harmony pre-existing in life, in things. Orpheus sings (expresses, shapes, imitates, celebrates) this order. And celebration as such changes our perception of the nature of that order. Like M.H. Abrams' Romantic "lamp," the human eye of poetic vision humanizes reality as a whole (see, in this regard, Mandelstam's concept of "domestic hellenism"). Even a poet as "disenchanted" as Zbigniew Herbert still proposes a moral order of humanizing wonder : an eye for the poetry of the ordinary (& of the marginal, the powerless, the weak) as opposed to the rhetoric of power, and the power of rhetoric. (Herbert famously said he believed, contrary to everyone else, that poetry should "make men sober.") In Herbert, in Gumilev - and in Honig's introduction to perhaps the classic anthology of classic American poetry : here perhaps we are beginning to make out the lineaments of a poetics which is both cosmopolitan and deeply, truly American; which is both Orphic-visionary and normative, of the everyday.

For her heart was a mediterranean cradling the earth
- E. Honig,, "For an Immigrant Grandmother"

Happy Birthday, Edwin.


The uncanny quietude of Orpheus Mediator

A few follow-up thoughts on previous post, before I conk out (it is Saturday night, after all).

We sketched out an idea of beauty as something we undergo, something we "suffer" in the old sense of the term : an effect, not a cause : an end in itself. A phenomenon whose source is (in some fairly inexplicable sense) spiritual, not material. And we suggest this "spiritual" origin is the root of all those aspects of art which we designate roughly as wholeness, fulfillment, "complete-in-itself", finish, the "sense of an ending", etc.... the pleasure we take in what Aristotle called a "whole action" (beginning, middle, end). Organic. Integral. Independent... & so on. Unwilled, uncontrollable, ungraspable...

& we argued that Orpheus exhibits a sort of passivity, a "quietude" if you will, a willingness-to-suffer (in contrast to Dionysius) which parallels the sensible stasis or static wholeness exhibited by works of art. & that Orpheus behaves in this way because he is at the crossroads of spirit & matter, spirit & flesh : he represents the union of the two, in the harmony of the art which he performs (music, poetry).

Let's extrapolate some of the consequences of all this. If we accept the foregoing, then the concept of an inherent dualism is inescapable : ie., spiritual and material, spirit and flesh. And at some level we insist on this duality, because without it there is no possibility of eternal life. And we sorely desire eternal life, in some form or another ("Eternity, O Eternity - that is our business!" Roger Williams exclaimed).

(This does not necessarily entail the relegation of matter to a secondary position. Far from it. We noted earlier that all beauty is necessarily embodied beauty. This state of affairs has its theological underpinnings in the notion that spirit fuses with matter for the sake of the "glory of God" : ie. the universe is being "restored" through the "providence" of God. Belief in a "resurrection of the body" expresses theological confidence that both spirit & flesh will be restored, somehow, to life.)

Let's make one further extrapolation. All these previous assertions depend on a single overriding metaphysical concept : the idea that the source of the physical universe resides, somehow, in consciousness, in "the spirit." How can we relate this to what we have been saying about Orpheus, and poetry? In the light of such a notion of "logos" - a cosmic order, in which spirit or consciousness pervades and orders matter & "flesh" - the myth of Orpheus taming nature with his song, and entering the underworld to restore the dead Eurydice to life, begins to reverberate as a symbol, an analogy... a myth representing the existential (human) condition in general. For if humanity is trapped in mortal flesh, subject to time and death, then a poetic word which signals a rescue from these existential limitations (ie., eternal life) is like unto Orpheus, calling Eurydice back from the grave.

Orpheus & the beautiful

Let's follow this thread a little further. Orpheus with his lyre can be viewed as the ur-mask, the archaic arch-persona of the poet; Orpheus can also be seen as the representative figure for the mythical, the poetic word in its own right, per se. The poet is the person devoted to the muse - bonded in a formal relationship with whatever or whoever it is that instigates music & song. The poetic word is language under the sign of that muse - "music" - harmony; it is language fused in a formal bond with art, with beauty.

This is an unfashionable way of thinking; we hardly know what these terms mean anymore. What is the beautiful to us? What is beauty? Think of how we experience it in ordinary things. The encounter with beauty is an end in itself. It is non-utilitarian; it is an experience, an effect not a cause - it is something we undergo, not something we create from nothing. Even in our works of art, where we aim to produce something beautiful, all we can do is aim toward it, labor toward it - and perhaps it will coalesce & appear. We can't will it into being.

There is something a little frightening about our inability to control this dimension (perhaps the "sublime" is actually a sort of psychological projection of this terrifying, unmanageable aspect of beauty). Let us suggest that beauty is fundamentally a "spiritual" phenomenon, where by spiritual we mean precisely that dimension of experience which we can only undergo, which is always a little bit beyond our ken and out of our grasp. (I realize this doesn't really "explain" what I'm trying to get at : but this thread we're following is headed toward that very border of the ineffable, the inexplicable.)

I would like to suggest further that all beauty is embodied beauty. Even abstract mathematical proportions only "make sense" in terms of their extension into dimensions, their applications. It follows then, from our sketch of a definition, that the encounter with beauty happens at the conjunction point of the spiritual and the material - the ineffable and the knowable. Beauty in its very substance is a conjunction of opposites, then - a coniunctio oppositorum.

This brings me back to the duality or agon outlined earlier here, between the Apollonian & the Dionysian. The Apollonian calm, the beautiful order, the harmony represented by Orpheus is rooted in a "passion of undergoing" : the experience of beauty itself, of its paradoxical union of dual worlds. Here we approach the peculiar "stasis" inherent in beauty and in art - Eliot's chinese vase, "still moving" in its stillness. All this reaches back to our own basic and ordinary undergoing of beauty (as a "spiritual" dimension of everyday life). The challenge of the Dionysian, then - the orgiastic glee/rage of the Maenads - can be understood as part of the process (dialectical, conflictual) of the senses' submission to the uncontrollable spiritual power (of beauty). It is natural force submitting to spiritual order.


The (late) Plumbline School (before it got derailed by a Dionysian) was seeking that temperate Apollonian chord.