Archive for April, 2014

Self and circumstance

2014/04/26 5 comments

My jumping off point today is a passage from D.H. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers. Mrs Morel, early in the novel (ch. 3), is tending to her sick husband (Morel), a man she once, but not longer, loved. Because of the completion of the “ebbing” of her love, she is tolerant of him—more tolerant than if she had still loved him. Why should this be? Lawrence’s narrator offers the following explanation:

Now, with the birth of this third baby, her self no longer set towards him, helplessly, but was like a tide that scarcely rose, standing off from him. After this she scarcely desired him. And, standing more aloof from him, not feeling him so much part of herself, but merely part of her circumstances, she did not mind so much what he did, could leave him alone.

Love is here characterized as the assimilation of another to oneself. There is a fundamental division between self and circumstance: in love, the lover moves the loved from the side of circumstance to the side of self. This provides, perhaps, a way of understanding the Christian conception of husband and wife as “one flesh”—a conception that likely serves as the backdrop for the passage.

What is more interesting to me, however, is the quasi-Stoic psychology the passage invokes. Again, the passage offers an explanation of Mrs Morel’s tolerance for her husband in terms of her loss of love for him. There is a more distant relationship between a self and its circumstance than between a self and itself. Circumstances matter to us only insofar as they impinge upon our selves in some way, whereas we feel directly what happens to our selves. There is thus made possible our taking an indifferent, tolerant attitude toward our circumstances: it becomes easier to take them as they are. Applied to the case of Mrs Morel: with the loss of her love, her husband becomes part of the circumstance, hence more distant, hence more tolerable.

I called this psychology quasi-Stoic: Stoic because it mirrors the Stoics’ sharp distinction between the ruling center (the seat of reason, one’s self) and everything else, but only quasi-Stoic because, unlike the Stoics, Lawrence’s narrator accepts that the boundary is malleable, that it may change over the course of our lives.

Natura non facit saltus, as Linnaeus would say, but my artifice allows me to start anew, from a distant point, and weave my way back to the themes of the forgoing discussion. Since taking a seminar on the human/animal boundary last year, I have found my mind constantly returning to the theme, though never settling on a particular way of drawing (or refusing to draw) the divide—as, perhaps, it should be. This passage from Sons and Lovers returned me again to those winding paths. The scenario in the novel is intriguing precisely because, in love, something (someone) that is in some sense external to Mrs Morel becomes a part of herself, only to lose this status later. But “external” is a notoriously nebulous term, as is its opposite. Its sense must be fixed clearly before it becomes sensible. In this case, I see two relevant senses in which Morel is external to Mrs Morel. Biologically, they are two separate individuals, two distinct members of Homo sapiens. So also psychologically, Morel is another mind: Mrs Morel cannot share his consciousness, nor he hers. Yet they become, for a time, one.

This suggests to me a way of drawing the human/animal boundary, if perhaps in a merely transient, locally useful way: humans are the animals that can draw boundaries around themselves that do not coincide with their biological and psychological boundaries—or, better, since Mrs Morel did not so much draw a boundary around herself as find that it had changed without her efforts: humans are the animals the boundaries of whose selves need not coincide with their biological and psychological boundaries. I shall call this sense of self the “drawn self”. I do not like the phrase, but have none better.

Lawrence explores one way these selves may fail to coincide: the boundaries around one’s drawn self may include something biologically or psychologically external. I am here interested, however, in the opposite case, the case in which part of one’s biological and psychological self is left out of one’s drawn self. I am interested in self-mistrust, in skepticism of the body.

I must be clear what is not my concern. Our psychological and biological selves are not identical, and many traditions (including both the Stoic and the Christian traditions) have promoted a form of self-mistrust: they allied themselves with the mind (psychological) against the body (biological). Indeed, this was supposed to give us the human/animal boundary: the struggle of the mind/reason against the body/passions was the struggle of our humanity against our animality. This is not what interests me. That sharp split between the mind (the Stoic ruling center, the Christian seat of free will) is no longer believable. The mind is just a “region” of the body, just as evolved and animal as every other part, and it is not a special domain of “control” over the other parts, mysteriously exempt from ineluctable causality. So my interest is not in that asceticism in which the mind attempts to dominate the body—this is just one way in which the body may struggle against itself, and a way that seems to me based on mistaken premises.

My interest is rather in a self-mistrust that reflects the unity of mind and body, that sees aspects even of one’s own mind as not oneself, but as part of one’s circumstance. I see Nietzsche as a precursor of this thought, exemplified by his injunction against trusting one’s feelings: feelings are simply the residue of our ancestor’s judgments, inherited without our inheriting also the judgments. To trust one’s feelings would then be a form of conformity to circumstance.

So we are to reject parts of our biological selves, on the grounds that they are not part of our drawn selves. What attitude does this entail? If they are not part of our drawn self, they are part of our circumstance—often a harmful part. I suspect, for this reason, that we cannot maintain Stoic indifference toward these parts of our circumstance. They compete for control of our action and thought and so must be struggled against, perpetually—they cannot be accepted as the will of divine reason.

What am I to do with this, I who find myself so drawn to philosophies of self-reliance (including Nietzsche’s own)? What does self-reliance amount to, when the boundaries of my self are so shifting, when much of what is internal to my biological or psychological selves is not truly mine, when self-reliance entails a constant struggle against myself? How am I to identify what is my own, and what not?—but this question is poorly phrased: who is this “I” who is choosing? What can be trusted? Who trusts?

I have done all this work just to reach this point. Again and again I run up against it, but I cannot see my way past it, never before, and not now. I have done this work to reach the point of having more work to do. I suppose that is well.

The peaks coughing bouldered / laugher shook to pieces (Ammons)

[In this post, I shall talk about the following poems: “So I said I am Ezra” (“Ezra”); “Coming to Sumer” (“Sumer”); “In the wind my rescue is” (“Rescue”); “I came upon a plateau” (“Plateau”). Some may be found online, but sadly not all. All are contained in this collection.]

Ammons, I am noticing, is pulled by the wind and the sea, and sinks into sand. He cannot long avoid them. Even when his attention turns to stones, as in “Coming to Sumer” and “In the wind my rescue is”, the stones are “water modeled sand molded stones” (“Rescue”)—products of the sand and the sea. These forces are not necessarily distinct. Wind, sea, and sand intertwine in the final four lines of “So I said I am Ezra”, and Ammons everywhere finds what is fluid in dust, sand, and wind: “in whorls of it” (it = wind, “Rescue”), “dark whirls of dust” (“Plateau”), “lake of sand” (“Plateau”). His poetic narrators exist in an uneasy tension with these elements and forces.

What is this tension? I hesitate to consign Ammons’ poems (of which I have read but few) to depicting a single relationship. There is nonetheless a pattern emerging, which I may point out. The wind and sea, dust and sand, have a humbling effect. They show up human pretensions for what they are. Foremost among these pretensions is that of identity: declarations of oneself are swept away, ripped away, and individuality vanishes.

Thus, in “So I said I am Ezra”, the narrator’s repeated self-declarations are “whipped” by the wind and “swallowed up” by the ocean, until it reaches the point where Ezra himself “falls out of being”—and does so by becoming “like a drift of sand / and splashed among the windy oats / that clutch the dunes / of unremembered seas”—i.e., by becoming like just those parts of nature that took from him his voice. (The phrase “dust to dust” comes to mind—it seems to be an undercurrent of these poems.) Dissolution follows his unheeded, vain insistences upon himself.

So, too, in “I came upon a plateau”. The narrator, here unnamed—though it is tempting to see him as Ezra, returned, or in a different aspect—makes his declaration on a plateau surrounded by “a circle of peaks”. These are his observers. To them, or at least before them, he cries, “spare me man’s redundancy”—then, “putting on bright clothes / sat down in the bright orthodoxy.” Already he is somewhat ridiculous—as if bright colors were any solution to the inexorable problem that there is nothing new under the sun, that all of humanity is redundant. The narrator is brought to this realization by a white snake, upon seeing which he, “succumbing in the still ecstasy”, says, “this use is colorless”. In what follows in the poem, color is never invoked, only “dark whirls of dust”. This colorlessness of nature is simpler but more powerful and more lasting than the narrator’s “bright colors”, which come to seem more and more a tastelessly gaudy display. (How strange that nature, in which values and “taste” are unknown, should be the profoundest revealer of poor taste!)

Whereas, in “So I said I am Ezra”, Ezra went unheeded, the narrator of this poem receives a response. “The peaks coughing bouldered / laughter shook to pieces”. His observers mock him. Meanwhile, the snake sloughs off, as if it were nothing, the skin that so overpowered the narrator. I am not so sure this response really differs from the lack of response in the earlier poem—mockery and indifference are cousins, if not twins.

What emerges is a picture of nature next to which our insistences on our own identity come to seem absurd, comic in their futility. Is this picture bleak? I cannot decide. At one moment it devastates me, by bringing home what I already suspect: that life, held out next to nature, is a comedic error, a foolish enterprise. But, at the next, I may agree with the narrator of yet another poem, that “in the wind my rescue is / in whorls of it”.

So I said I am Ezra (A.R. Ammons)

2014/04/19 2 comments

Thus I wrote about A.R. Ammons, whose voice whipped past me yesterday, a cry, car­ried by the wind: “I am Ezra.” By some chance the wind had not destroyed this message, but lofted it past with its integrity preserved. What I heard, I heard clearly, only I fear some of the signal was lost, strangled, for it began at a strange place. “So I said I am Ezra”, it began—with “so”.

But “so” is not a word for the start of a sentence. It indicates that what follows, follows—that something foregoing offers an explanation. I heard no such explanans. There is only the insistence: “I am Ezra.” Nor is the poem circular. What comes later does not qualify the “so,” but leaves the blanks, blank. Ezra, the man who announces himself as Ezra, remains caught between the dunes and the sea, each in turn carrying his protestations into nothingness. That is all there is.

I cannot, then, resolve the “so,” cannot say what it is that makes Ezra declare himself. He is simply there, declaring, until he is no longer. I cannot even say that he has a history, unknown to me—I cannot rule out the possibility that none of his message was lost in its voyage to me. Perhaps I heard it from the beginning. And why should Ezra have a history, after all? The ocean and the dunes might as well have none, for all the difference it makes to their current behavior—why then should I insist that Ezra have a history?

While I am confessing my impotencies, allow me to add this: I cannot say that Ezra’s “so” indicates—as I have been taking it to indicate—a “for this reason.” “So” may also suggest “in this way.” Ezra may only mean to say that he states himself just so. What follows, then, shows me the state of this stating. This is not implausible, for “so” recurs, later in the poem, in this guise: “As a word too much repeated / falls out of being / so I Ezra went out into the night …”

What is to decide between these two readings of that initial “so”? Say I resolved upon this second reading—I would not by this resolution squelch the question of why Ezra announces himself, just so, to the wind and the waves.

But I am beginning to feel odd. I should not have heard this message, should not be hearing it still, nor should I be writing about it. Do I not, in so doing, arrest Ezra’s fall out of being? Do I not deny him the dissolution that followed from his going unheard? It is a perverse happenstance that his voice should have reached me here, so far from either dune or sea. By what wind was it carried? By what river did it sail?

As the puppet acts it knows not why, overpowered by external compulsion, thus I find myself replacing my pen, and withdrawing.

Three reflections on Emerson

In the blur that has been these past three days—since I am writing this after midnight, perhaps I had better call it four—I have come to the close of Emerson’s second series of essays. Fittingly, perhaps, while reading “New England Reformers”, I had no unified idea for a post, so here are three scattered reactions upon its ideas.

[I] Another attempt to justify misreading Emerson

There is power over and behind us, and we are the channels of its communications. We seek to say thus and so, and over our head some spirit sits, which contradicts what we say. (607)

There is something more to what we say, than what we intend. It is not Emerson’s purpose here, I think, to condemn what has come to be called the intentional fallacy, the use of authorial intent in interpretation. The claim is milder, yet more invigorating nonetheless: intent is excellent, so far as it goes, but always something escapes it. We do not quite know what we say, and thus are imperfect guides to our own thought.

My readings or misreadings of Emerson take this thought as their license. A too slavish devotion to Emerson would not even leave me with Emerson. Why not, then, seek what is behind his thought? But keep in mind, here, what is likely to be found behind his thought. It can only be biography. What I am seeking behind Emerson is, inevitably, myself. I am the worst sort of reader: I put myself into the text, then pull myself back out, as if I had made some grand discovery.

Or so it stands when my readings succeed. Of course I will not deny that often, perhaps usually, they fail, and the sad result is a passable interpretation of Emerson. I shall try always to keep these to a minimum.

[II] The apparent impossibility of friendship

There can be no concert in two, when there is no concert in one. When the individual is not individual, but is dual; when his thoughts look one way, and his actions another; when his faith is traversed by his habits; when his will, enlightened by reason, is warped by his sense; when with one hand he rows, and with the other backs water, what concert can be? (599)

Here, then, is a recipe for friendship, or any other alliance between two individuals. Each is to be unified with herself—only then may she work with another. But is such unity within oneself possible? Let us look at what happens when Emerson, two pages later, tries to defend the possibility, even the inevitability of a union between two:

I do not believe that the differences of opinion and character in men are organic. I do not recognize, beside the class of the good and the wise, a permanent class of skeptics, or a class of conservatives, or of malignants, or of materialists. I do not believe in two classes. (601)

A bold statement of the unity between two, a unity on which Emerson unconditionally insists. But the price of this unity between two is disunity within the individual.

I do not believe in two classes of men, but in man in two moods, in Philip drunk and Philip sober. (601)

We know, already, that Emersonian moods do not believe in one another. Moreover, in “Nominalist and Realist”, we learn that this disunity of moods makes sincerity a sort of impossibility: “I am always insincere, as always knowing there are other moods.” (587) What, then comes of Emerson’s “concert”? Insofar as concert is possible, insofar as the two classes melt into one, there is disunity lurking below—disunity that seems to preclude the very possibility of concert. Friendship, for Emerson, may very well be impossible.

[III] Experimental lessons of science

The lessons of science should be experimental also. The sight of the planet through a telescope, is worth all the course on astronomy: the shock of the electric spark in the elbow, out-values all the theories; the taste of the nitrous oxide, the firing of an artificial volcano, are better than the volumes of chemistry. (594)

I have a hunch that the point of this passage may be expressed in terms of property, of ownership. There is a sense in which human knowledge—that which is produced by contemporary laboratories at ever-increasing rates—belongs to no one, or only to very few. Those at work in the lab may finish a successful experiment with knowledge, but perhaps no one else will. This I tried to capture, with some of its ramifications, in my recent essay on skepticism. It is not enough to read a book to come to possess knowledge, so most of today’s knowledge remains predominantly unpossessed.

For this reason, I prefer the act of discovery that brings some piece of knowledge into someone’s possession, even if that act contributes nothing to human knowledge. In Emersonian terms: every mind must go over the whole ground for itself. What a mind does not go over itself, it cannot obtain by any other means. It is the activity of science that is experimental, whereas the uptake of science is ever so much conformity and disappointment.

Conversation and mood

2014/04/17 2 comments

When I converse with Emerson, as I have been doing for two or so years now, are we talking past one another? I do not deny the charge. And if I wish to suggest, with Emer­son, or with my Emerson, at least, that there is something fundamental about mood that shapes all we do and are, then I must turn a wary eye on my own interactions with Emer­son.

My companion assumes to know my mood and habit of thought, and we go on from explanation to explanation, until all is said which words can, and we leave matters just as they were at first, because of that vicious assumption. (587)

I agree with my friend here, only I am in a mood, just now, in which I do not find the assumption quite so vicious as he. I know that, in a post such as my Fools of Nature, I have, for all my attempted faithfulness to my Emerson’s thought, impressed my own mood upon the subject matter, and so been left instead with my own thought. But this seems to me as it should be. I do not read Emerson out of love of Emerson, and I do not write about Emerson to flatter him.

I take it our friendship can survive this narcissism of mine. But, if not, if I must choose between the two, I shall take the narcissism.