POETRY AND REALITY, by Ricardo Nirenberg.
(Yes-but to a lecture by Adam Zagajewski)
1. According to the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey, reality is resistance, or rather the power, the capacity of resisting: Realität ist Widerständigkeit. The inertia of matter, its reluctance to be set in motion, the pain it inflicts on the foot which connects with it—no one in his senses denies that kickable stuff is real. Even the peasants know as much.
The reality of space becomes clear to anyone who wants to reach for something, or to avert a blow by the skin of his teeth. Time is painfully real to the one who wants his youth or his delight to go on without stop. Or who, bored to death, feels that time is flowing too slowly.
But it takes a modicum of philosophic light to notice that ideas, concepts and representations are real too, because they too are able to oppose a fierce resistance to interconnection. The ancient Pythagoreans seem to have been the first to suffer from the reality of concepts, since they first realized, to their cosmic dismay, that the side and the diagonal of a square are incommensurable.
2. Aere perennius, pyramidum altius. When it comes to height and durability, bronze and the pyramids are no match for Eudoxus’ exhaustion method or Horace’s Odes. And yet, especially among American academics, we hear and read, casually tossed about, the phrase, “In the real world…,” meaning that one thing is the realm of symbols, and quite another thing—much, much more real—the realm of buying and selling. As if money was not a symbol. What those people mean, of course, is that they personally find money and the market more solid, more resistant to their efforts than the muddled thoughts in their head, where anything goes.
3. Witold Gombrowicz, the Polish writer, was visiting the quiet Argentine provincial town of Santiago del Estero in the 1950s when he noted down this paradox. “What could possibly happen to you in a place where nothing opposes you and nothing is capable of becoming your limits?” Indeed, what could happen to you in such a place, a place offering no kind of resistance? Well, nothing. Can you say, “This or that happened to me in my dreams”? Only by stretching the meaning of the word “happen.”
Yet not even in your dreams are you allowed to do whatever you please without resistance. Dreams have their own logic, where neither the non-contradiction rule, nor the axiom of the third-excluded, nor even the identity principle holds true, but it is a logic of some kind nevertheless. It does resist. That is why in the German language one says, “es träumt mir”—literally, it dreamt for me, and the “es” is the same as in “es regnet”—it rains, whether we like it or not.
4. A few weeks ago I read a lecture the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski gave at the University of Chicago. He started out: “Inspiration and impediment; here is the beginning of poetry, in the clash and struggle between a strange force coming from within, a force that cannot be willed nor commanded and the circumstances of our life that cannot be resisted nor rejected, can only be answered; the only thing we can do is to give to these mute, stubborn occurrences some music of our own.”
It is a beautiful opening, and the word answer—“can only be answered”—rings right. But I wonder how many in the audience felt the flat assertion preceding that, “circumstances of our life that cannot be resisted nor rejected,” as a blow or even as an excuse for moral outrage. How many young American students would feel at ease accepting the existence of circumstances which cannot be resisted nor rejected? Shouldn’t we (they’d surely ask) at least try our best to improve reality, to assuage suffering, even going as far as to conquer death and squash injustice? And if we do, poetry, at least in the sense described by the Polish poet, would have to be abandoned or postponed, contemplation moved aside; poetry would have to give way to ethical action, to the war against evil.
Zagajewski, however, seemed to be worried about the other element, inspiration, how it would be received by a modern audience. Our Age of Irony, he said, will dismiss the very notion of inspiration or enthusiasm as superstition. As for me, I don’t have a problem in admitting the existence of something like inspiration—we know so little about the universe and our central nervous system!—and I am willing to bet, the rest of the audience didn’t have a problem with that either. The gulf appears to be quite large between Eastern Europe and the United States when it comes to what is plausible, admissible, and what merits to be dismissed, inspiration or ineluctability.
5. The opening phrase of the lecture ends, “some music of our own.” Our strange, inner force, not willed or commanded, should answer the unavoidable circumstances of our lives by giving those stuggles a music of our own. But why? Why should music, our own or anyone else’s, be given to those struggles, why should music be mentioned here at all? This I ask not because I dislike music; on the contrary. But the most immediate response to ineluctable grief is the raw, unmodulated and inarticulate scream, not music or poetry. Poetry, as Wordsworth wrote, arises from emotion recollected in tranquility. It is a re-creation at some remove. Some souls, however, refuse tranquility and reject remove. Souls whose life turns around one enormous grief, to them heavier than the sun. Spirits like Pascal: “Jésus sera en agonie jusqu’à la fin du monde : il ne faut pas dormir pendant ce temps-là.”
Another poet coming from Eastern Europe, Benjamin Fondane, born in Jassy, Romania, in 1899, took Pascal’s prohibition to heart. From the late 20s on he wrote all his poetry in French, but rejected toute musique savante because he felt music didn’t go with what he wanted to say. What he wanted to say were questions like this: “Toute la douleur du monde est venue s’asseoir à ma table, et pouvais-je lui dire : Non?” Around that time, in the horrendous 30s, when grief closed its grip on Europe’s horizon, Fondane defined his poetics as “le cri comme méthode”. The cry we share with the other animals, ironically juxtaposed here to the Cartesian word, method.
Zagajewski is right to remark that in the wake of WWI all rhetoric became suspect, but it wasn’t just rhetoric. The old illusion that there was something in our human essence distinguishing us from other animals—our “angelic” part—became sinister, and poets in the 20s and 30s (Osbert Sitwell, for instance) denounced that angel as evil, and anounced that beasts are better than humans. Pleasurable music, too, became suspect.
The ancient story of the brazen bull of Phalaris, commented on by his master, the Dostoyevskian philosopher Lev Shestov, was always in Fondane’s mind. Phalaris (sixth century BC) was one of many historic Sicilian tyrants, an especially cruel one, who had his enemies locked inside a brazen bull made in such a way that when a fire was lit underneath the prisoner was roasted to death. According to one version of the story—the weaker one—, the prisoner’s screams were rendered as the bull bellowing; according to the crueler version, the screams were transformed into pleasant music by pipes in the bull’s nostrils. Shestov and Fondane felt this latter version was particularly outrageous. We cry when ineluctable grief sits upon us—but by God, let us at least keep a right to our pain and to our cry. The music from Phalaris’ bull strikes us like the exquisite pleasures of a sadistic torturer.
Fondane, whose family name was Wechsler, was gassed in Auschwitz in October 1944.
6. Metaphor became endangered, said Zagajewski in his lecture, as part of the Weberian Entzauberung or disenchantment of the human world: “Metaphor always follows the premise that there is something invisible behind the physical objects.” Zagajewski may be right about metaphor being in danger, though when we look for reasons we do not have to appeal to Weber’s Entzauberung (I feel that, for those paying a bit of attention, the world was never more enchanted and magical than now), nor to magic, nor to the ontological backyard of metaphorical expression. For metaphor too is a kind of music, made from concepts instead of tones, and so logically participates in the wholesale rejection of music, most notably after the horrors of the Nazi and the Soviet camps became known. Abstention from music is proper in deep mourning. Deep after WWI, still deeper after 1945.
But is deep mourning the only reason for the reaction of poets against music and metaphor and their preference for a minimalist language, all the way down to the scream? If you notice that in public spaces you are constantly surrounded by music everywhere, that whenever you stop at a red light you are shaken to the bones by the boom-boom from the subwoofers in a nearby car, that when you’re sitting in a bus the treble tail of nearby earphones inevitably assault you, if you are lucky enough not to be forced to take on the whole gamut and the whole blast; if you stop to consider that metaphors, textual and visual, immediately stale and promptly stinking, rain on you day and night, a blessing from the advertisement industry, propaganda ministries and professional talk; if you take a rough measure of the steady increase in noise over the last century or so—you must wonder what may be left for poetry to do.
“Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu”, Mallarmé replied. That was a tall order already at a time when newspapers were the main and almost only sources of pollution. Today it has become an impossible mission: the power of debased music and language is such that no force, and certainly not poetry, can withstand it. No way of resisting or rejecting the noise that is our reality now. The poet Zagajewski would say, it can only be answered. Yes. But how? We are mourning, and to make things worse we are forced to mourn deprived of any silence, caught in this frenzied deafness.
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