Poetry and the thawing wind

This post will be much more rewarding if you first read and reflect upon Robert Frost’s poem “To the Thawing Wind”. (It will also be more rewarding if you’ve read either of James Joyce’s last two novels, but I won’t insist on that one.)

In a variety of posts, I’ve tried to push the notion of art as a serious form of inquiry into the possibilities of being alive and human in various times and conditions, following up on a rich suggestion by David Foster Wallace. I urge this in opposition to the positions of those such as Alexander Rosenberg, who argues that fiction is merely fun, but makes no contribution to knowledge. While Rosenberg might not see it as such, I think this amounts to a denigration of art, amounts to seeing it as dispensable, alongside attempts to make sense of what art offers to us. He mitigates this conclusion by suggesting that, while science and naturalistic philosophy can do without art, that does not mean human beings can do without it. I think this is exactly backwards. While science may be able to do without art (Catharine Z. Elgin has argue to the contrary, though I found her position rather lukewarm), insofar as a naturalistic philosophy wants to address the Kantian question “what should I do” (or its Nietzschean/Deleuzean variants, phrased in terms of modes of existence), it must take art seriously. On the flip side, human beings may be able to do without art—and this we learn from art itself. Indeed, part of what it means for a naturalistic philosophy to take art seriously is to recognize the very real possibility that we could entirely do without art.

This post is my exploration of this possibility, through the explicit lens of Frost and the implicit lens of Joyce. The Frost poem linked at the start of this post explores the idea explicitly. The poet invokes the thawing wind of spring, which will bring the birds & the flowers and will free the brown earth from white snow. These tasks of the wind at first seem like orders—do this, do that, do the other—but they are soon revealed to be more like acknowledgments of the wind’s busy schedule. Why acknowledge these impersonal tasks of the wind? Because the poet has a personal request, a favor the wind can do for him, a favor that he needs the wind to do for him. “But whate’er you do tonight, / bathe my window, make it flow, / Melt it as the ice will go”.

What happens when the wind melts the window? It will “Run the rattling pages o’er; / Scatter poems on the floor; / Turn the poet out of door.” What the poet is invoking the wind to do is precisely to disrupt his poetry, to turn him outside so that he might experience nature directly. This happens when nature bursts into his surroundings, his shelter. We can imagine the wind not granting his request, with the result that he stays inside. He is inviting nature to confront him, to give him no choice in the matter, for if he can choose he will stay in, working on his poems. I cannot help but see here a pun in Robert Frost writing a poem about the thawing wind turning the poet out of door: what is the object of the wind’s thawing but the frost? With this pun in mind, the real request is that the wind thaw not only the ground but also the poet.

Why should the poet imagine nature disrupting poetry? If one function of art is exploring modes of existence, possibilities for being alive, then a fundamental problem that art must face is the distinction between recognizing a possibility and fulfilling it. To know that such and such possibility for being human exists is not to manifest that possibility in your own life. Seen in this way, then, art is an intermediary, and we can imagine skipping over it, moving directly into the mode of existence it envisions. “Books are for the scholar’s idle time,” Emerson wrote (“The American Scholar”). Experiencing a poem about the richness of nature is not experiencing the richness of nature. Nor, to impale Emerson on his own sword, is reading an essay about “Nature”. I imagine Emerson walking willingly and with great dignity onto this sword he has prepared.

Reflection on the content of works of art may make this more plausible. The modes of existence explored by art are rarely modes of existence in which one is wrapped up in art. Here I want to take Joyce as an example. I have long considered writing a post, half serious and half in jest, titled “Joyce’s (elitist) undermining of elitism.” Literature has always been for the elite (in social status, which of course I do not confuse with real worth) in that (written) literature is by default accessible primarily to the literate. Even with the increase in literacy (part of) the world now enjoys, there is still literature that confines itself to the elite. Joyce falls into this camp: his work, at least his later work, is accessible only to those willing not just to read it but to study it, to struggle through it.

While this is indisputably the case, we must nonetheless consider the nature of Joyce’s characters, particularly his heroes. Leopold Bloom is an intelligent and educated man, to be sure, but to call him “erudite” would be going too far. He is not the type of person who would read Ulysses, though he might use its pages for toilet paper. (Not out of disrespect, mind!) Yet he is, more clearly than anyone else in Joyce’s oeuvre, healthy. Stephen Dedalus certainly is not; he is much more likely to read Ulysses than Bloom. Nor is Gabriel Conroy—indeed, all of the characters of Dubliners are paralyzed in one way or another. I confess, my forays into Finnegans Wake are insufficient to say whether HCE or ALP can be called healthy. Probably they can. What matters, in any event, is that Leopold Bloom is cast again and again in heroic terms in a book that he would almost surely never read.

If we want to give the book its due, then I think we have to take this fact into account. Ulysses is an exploration of a mode of existence—Bloom’s—that does not have time for or interest in books like Ulysses. What does that say about the readers of Ulysses? That they are not Leopold Bloom, for one. And what does that mean? It means that, in recognizing the heroism of Bloom, we have to recognize as the flip side of that the possibility that Ulysses is dispensable. When we consider the juxtaposition in the book of Bloom and Stephen—Stephen who would read Ulysses and develop crazy theories about it, as he did for Hamlet—this thought should only strengthen.

Of course, I do not believe that art should stop existing. Nor did Joyce see no need for Ulysses, nor did Frost disavow his own poetry. The very fact of their art’s existence speaks against that belief. What these two examples (and, though I discussed it less, the example also of Emerson’s corpus) reveal is that art exists in a strange tension with the thought of its disappearance—indeed it may be the secret task of art to make us, as readers, viewers, listeners, etc., mindful of the possibility of its disappearance. Mindful of this possibility, moreover, not as a loss, but as a gain.

[I must acknowledge the influence of Richard Poirier on this post—his book The Renewal of Literature first got me to take seriously the idea of the disappearance of literature. The discovery of this idea in the poetry of Frost and of its implicit presence in Joyce, as well as its relation to Rosenberg, however, are my own.]

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