On the value of poetic philosophy
A philosophical friend of mine and I have been engaged in a long, slow conversation about the value of philosophy written in the poetic style. He, skeptical, attempts to characterize the reasons for this skepticism. I, sympathetic, grope equally for reasons in its defense. This conversation began anew today, and upon reading Emerson’s “The Over-Soul”, I found he wished to chime in. At the risk of ignoring Emerson’s own advice, which says that conversation can only be between two, I shall allow him here his voice. This leniency has proven ill-guided, for my intended three quickly became a crowd: Friedrich Nietzsche and D. H. Lawrence too, I discovered, lurked, awaiting their chance to speak.
Emerson, as so often, faces doubt about what he is saying. “Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual” (385), he tells us: those holy moments of inspiration are, by the measure of arithmetic, only a small portion of our life, and when they have passed, we cannot do them justice in words. “Yet I desire, even by profane words, if I may not use sacred, to indicate the heaven of this deity, and to report what hints I have collected of the transcendent simplicity and energy of the Highest Law.” (386) So Emerson talks to us, puts words before us, and they are more sacred than he thinks. They glow with that poetry that characterizes his best essays.
What Emerson is trying to do is to capture in writing something of these moments of inspiration, of the expansion of the soul out to the impersonal. What characterizes these moments? Life poses riddles, questions, problems—chief among them, the question of how to live. It is just this question, in all its forms, that is answered in these moments, and Emerson insists that there is something ineffable about the answers. “An answer in words is delusive; it is really no answer to the questions you ask.” (393)
Why should that be? In defending unpoetic philosophy, my friend stressed its emphasis on clarity and especially unambiguity, on being as little open to interpretation as possible. That allows the more direct transfer of knowledge. Language becomes thin, inessential except as a vehicle for a truth lurking behind it. In poetry, by contrast, there is an open-endedness of interpretation—or, as I prefer, experimentation. I would go so far as to say that poetry is only half accomplished when unread—only when a reader makes some use of it does it fully take form, for a moment. But that is my ontological commitment, not his. This open-endedness is, as he puts it, an anathema to philosophical unambiguity.
So it is. But my suggestion, which I find in Emerson as well, is that this clarity is good only for certain sorts of questions, and not for these riddles of life, as Carnap called them, somewhere. The solution to these riddles does not come via an intellectual exercise, but by living. As D. H. Lawrence puts it, “As for the words and thoughts and sighs and aspirations that fly from him, they are so many tremulations in the ether, and not alive at all.” What is wanted here is not philosophical clarity. It is, of course, possible that we are wrong here, that life’s questions may be sorted into two sorts: those answerable in words, and, the remainder, those answerable by the idiosyncrasies of personal taste. I do not think so, but I have no argument.
But what can Emerson say in defense of his essay, which seems to attempt to answer such a question, and in words? “The nature of these revelations is the same; they are perceptions of the absolute law. They are solutions of the soul’s own questions. They do not answer the questions which the understanding asks. The soul answers never by words, but by the thing itself that is inquired after.” (393) Emerson’s essay does not give us this thing itself, and he is under no illusions about this. “The only mode of obtaining an answer to these questions of the senses is to forego all low curiosity, and, accepting the tide of being which floats us into the secret of nature, work and live, work and live, and all unawares the advancing soul has built and forged for itself a new condition, and the question and the answer are one.” (394)
What value there is in his essay must come from elsewhere than from its being a vehicle for some truth that we can acquire by reading it. And it is the open-endedness of his poetic style that makes this possible. I want to revive here in modified form the old philosophical distinction between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. I derive it from D. H. Lawrence: “If you are a philosopher, you talk about infinity, and the pure spirit which knows all things. But if you pick up a novel, you realize immediately that infinity is just a handle to this self-same jug of a body of mine; while as for knowing, if I find my finger in the fire, I know that fire burns, with a knowledge so emphatic and vital, it leaves Nirvana merely a conjecture. Oh, yes, my body, me alive, knows, and knows intensely. And as for the sum of all knowledge, it can’t be anything more than an accumulation of all the things I know in the body, and you, dear reader, know in the body.”
There is, on the one hand, a knowledge that is impersonal, built up from the patient labors of philosophers and scientists and innumerable others, an edifice that can be constructed so patiently precisely because it can be conveyed in words, the less ambiguous, the better. On the other hand, there is “the accumulation of all the things I know in my body.” In the old distinction, this latter served as the building blocks for the former, the incorrigible foundation on which the latter was based. In the new, they are distinct: what is accumulated in the body cannot be transmitted.
Emerson distinguishes two sorts of writers, those who write from within, as actors, as those with experience, “as parties and possessors of the fact” (395), and those who write “from without, as spectators merely, or perhaps as acquainted with the fact on the evidence of third persons.” He is tracking the same distinction. But again the problem arises: what is the value of his writing, even if it comes from experience. For those who read it, it seems, will be left only with the evidence of third persons, and will be spectators.
If the writing is to have value, then, it must be because it in some fashion provokes the one who reads it to some new experience, some new knowledge by acquaintance, and not new knowledge by description. Here, unambiguity is not the ultimate virtue, because there is nothing to be transmitted. The thickness of the language, which makes it open-ended, is necessary precisely so that a thousand readers may take it in a thousand directions, on the basis of their own experience, their own accumulations in the body. Lawrence puts it thus: “Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble.”
Lawrence is being polemical: he thinks philosophy, poetry, and science all lack this power—it is solely the province of the novel. Disagreed. But more interesting is the explicit awareness he has of the novel as something secondary. “Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether.” What is primary is life; books are just in the service of this. This I take to be a characteristic trope of poetic philosophy: that it finds itself and must find itself something secondary.
Emerson, for instance: “The great poet makes us feel our own wealth, and then we think less of his compositions. His best communication to our mind is to teach us to despise all he has done.” (396) The great poet, and the great philosopher-poet, urges us to forget him, that we might seek ourselves. The use of books is to turn us toward life, but once so turned, we do not need them, and even find them oppressive. “Though in our lonely hours we draw a new strength out of their memory, yet, pressed on our attention, as they are by the thoughtless and customary, they fatigue and invade.” (400)
Nietzsche has been patient, but now he insists on having his turn. At the end of part one of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in the section titled “On the Bestowing Virtue”, Zarathustra takes leave of his disciples, and offers the following advice: “Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have denied me will I return to you.” Zarathustra is first a teacher, but “One repays a teacher badly if one always remains a pupil only”—so Zarathustra is second a friend, but only after the pupils have left, have rejected him in favor of their own lives.
Now other voices, claiming the principle of fairness, say I ought to let them speak as well. Whitman and Plato I hear, and others I do not recognize. But my fingers are weary, and my thread in danger of being lost. The experience that originated this post is fading, and it risks falling further into description than it has. So I end it here.