About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, July 04, 2013
Word, Flesh & Faith
His firm stanzas hang like hives in hell
Or what hell was, since now both heaven and hell
Are one, and here, O terra infidel.
—Wallace Stevens, Esthétique du Mal
Within many a modern individual there is a periodic if not perpetual struggle between animal faith and human reason, a dissonance between orphaned assumptions and empirical repercussions. Many are caught between the devil of tradition and the deep blue sea of experimentation, holding fast and letting go, security and freedom.
Christian Wiman, poet and current editor of the iconic Poetry magazine, recently published a memoir entitled My Bright Abyss, chronicling his ongoing experience of dealing with an incurable blood cancer. The book is described as “a moving meditation on what a viable contemporary faith — responsive not only to modern thought and science but also to religious tradition — might look like.” It’s this promise of a reconciliation between faith and “modern thought and science” that caught my eye.
Any writer will have to admit that, while writing — or in any creative act — there is a dynamic interplay between inspiration and craft, subconscious content and conscious form, crude impulse and stylized élan. It’s this stark dichotomy that lends itself quite easily to the dualism of natural and supernatural. But without delving too far into Wiman’s apologia, I think a word about the word itself is in order.
What is a word? At its most basic, I suppose a word is a discrete utterance designed to describe some phenomenon or object of experience. It is a name. It’s a sign. And it’s the way information is shared: it enables us to communicate with each other. In relation to poetry in particular, Ralph Waldo Emerson asserted, in his essay The Poet:
The poets made all the words, and therefore language is the archives of history ... though the origin of most of our words is forgotten, each word was at first a stroke of genius, and obtained currency, because for the moment it symbolized the world to the first speaker and to the hearer. The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry.
Emerson may be somewhat at odds with some imperious analytic philosophers who came after him, but it’s sufficient to simply note that the word is an attempt to communicate thoughts, feelings and other mental phenomena, and that the poet has a special, or at least a consciously intimate, relationship to the word.
So what, then, is a poem? One definition might be that a poem is a discrete, syntactically meaningful arrangement of words with a characteristic rhythm. A “sound sculpture,” if you will. But most poets will tell you that a poem is much more than that, that there is a quality of mystery attendant, especially in how all the elements — sound, rhythm, meaning, image — coalesce into the final product, the work of art that is the poem. The late poet Denise Levertov, whose own life and work experience  parallels that of Wiman’s, described writing poetry as that which
… comes into being when thought and feeling remain unexpressed until they become Word, become Flesh … the poet … waits until thought and feeling crystallize in words which haven’t been hunted down but which arrive, magically summoned by the need for them.
It’s also interesting to note that the late Mexican poet Octavio Paz, among others, distinguishes between “poem” and “poetry,” and in his description we hear a faint echo of Emerson’s joie de vivre:
… not every poem — or to be exact: not every work constructed according to the laws of meter — contains poetry … There is also poetry without poems; landscapes, persons, and events are often poetic … The poem is not a literary form but the meeting place between poetry and man.
There’s that dualism again, with a whiff of the mystical. I confess that poetry can be puzzling to non-poets; but I think one can make sense of Paz’s assertion here without possessing a full-fledged poetics. One can certainly feel the “poetry” that seems to be inherent in our experience of the natural world.
Given the nature of the impetus that seems to have led Wiman back to religious faith, even though he downplays it by saying that “to admit that there may be some psychological need informing your return to faith does not preclude or diminish the spiritual imperative,” a word from famous French philosopher Pascal would not be out of place here. When confronted with the overwhelming immensity and power of the universe, Pascal said that
All our dignity then, consists in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves.
Though many secular philosophers have deemed that Pascal’s thinking ultimately led him to the wrong conclusion regarding religious faith, it’s difficult to argue with his conclusion expressed above. Still, I would amend his idea to say that it is the imagination, being a mode of thinking, that has the power to elevate our lives. And poets seem uniquely positioned to effect this ennoblement.
Contra Wiman and Levertov, et. al., the poetry and poetical theorizing of poet Wallace Stevens exhibits a more naturalistic humanism that rejects traditional religious faith. As he writes in his poem The Man with the Blue Guitar:
Exceeding music must take the place
Of empty heaven and its hymns,
Ourselves in poetry must take their place,
Even in the chattering of your guitar.
But the fragility of our existence, and the heart-wrenching suddenness with which it can terminate, seems to awaken the most ancient instincts in us, those very same instincts that led our forebears to create the original “supreme fiction,” that is to say, religion. The flesh is figuratively and, most distressingly, literally weak, and is vulnerable to even the feeblest assaults on its physiological integrity. Once we realize this, we can either put our faith (our trust) in something greater than ourselves that will insulate our mortal frame from the buffeting vicissitudes of life — or will provide a metaphysical safety net if that corporeal protection fails — or we cannot. Religious faith is the proper name for the former approach.
Historically, Eastern religions — from Hinduism to Buddhism to Taoism — have prescribed an ethic of detachment from one’s earthly existence as a remedy for this predicament. Western religions, particularly of the Abrahamic persuasion, have posited a double reality in which we have the opportunity to survive our physical death in some manner: death isn’t the end, they say, it’s merely a transition from one state of being to another, where one will go on “living” somehow.
For Wiman and Levertov, it was the practice of poetry specifically that led them back to faith. Though Wiman was raised “in a very religious household” with the “poisonous notion that you had to renounce love of the earth in order to receive the love of God,” Levertov grew up in a sort of pastiche of innocuous religious influence. In her “Autobiographical Sketch” from 1984, Levertov, who was home-schooled, says of her background:
My father’s Hasidic ancestry, his being steeped in Jewish and Christian scholarship and mysticism … Similarly, my mother’s Welsh intensity and lyric feeling for Nature were not just the air I breathed but, surely, were in the body I breathed with...
Whereas Wiman certainly had the motivation to reject the religion of his youth, Levertov viewed her heritage with gratitude, as an essential formative component of her vocation as a poet, and as a person in general. But besides the fact that it might have been easier, intellectually and emotionally, for Levertov to return to faith, she cites her experience as a poet as being decisive:
To believe, as an artist, in inspiration or the intuitive, to know that without Imagination … no amount of acquired craft or scholarship or of brilliant reasoning will suffice, is to live with a door of one’s life open to the transcendent, the numinous. Not every artist, clearly, acknowledges that fact — yet all, in the creative act, experience mystery. The concept of “inspiration” presupposes a power which enters the individual and is not a personal attribute...
Wiman himself says that:
I have at times experienced in the writing of a poem some access to a power that feels greater than I am, and it seems reductive, even somehow a deep betrayal, to attribute that power merely to the unconscious or to the dynamism of language itself.
It seems that for both Wiman and Levertov, though, it’s not just this element of mystery inherent in creative writing that’s decisive, but a sense of personal incredulity. Wiman doesn’t see why we need to reduce poetry to the emanations of subconscious mental activity based in the physical brain. Levertov was a bit more direct than that:
But personally I cannot bring myself to believe that the gods originate in the mind of man and are merely his way of coping with natural forces or abstract ideas by giving them semi-human personalities and stories.
Whatever ultimately leads a person back to faith is going to be tied to belief, and belief is inextricably bound up with knowledge. I said before that imagination is a mode of thinking. But what is the relationship between imagination and knowledge? Levertov boldly claims that:
… the imagination, which synergizes intellect, emotion and instinct, is the perceptive organ through which it is possible, though not inevitable, to experience God.
Wiman, similarly, believes that “human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us,” and that God lives “not outside of reality but in it, of it, though in ways it takes patience and imagination to perceive.”
Generally speaking, to qualify as knowledge, convictions need to be justified true beliefs. We can say that the poet knows that God exists if he believes it, if it’s true, and he’s justified in believing it. Here I like Ernest Sosa’s “AAA” analysis of knowledge where knowledge is “apt belief.” A belief is Accurate only if it’s true; it’s Adroit only if it’s arrived at competently; and it’s Apt only if the belief is true in a way that demonstrates the believer’s competence. Or, for our purposes, the poet knows that God exists if he’s arrived at this belief in a way that stands up to scrutiny. If a belief can’t be defended against challenges, then it doesn't have a right to be called knowledge.
So how does the poet fare on this count? Not very well, I’m afraid. To arrive at a conviction on the basis of feeling, however authentic, is not as adroit as to arrive at it by exercise of one’s reasoning. Poets, as we have seen, derive their conviction from the intensity of the felt experience, from the enigmatic effusions of the imagination. One’s reason, if invoked, is appropriated in order to bring one’s thinking in line with one’s feeling, and to lend an air of respectability and weight to one’s return to faith, to justify it to oneself as much as to others.
Wiman, Levertov, Paz and many other artists agree that poetry is something distinct from the poet, something that invades the consciousness of the poet, one might say. This is how it feels to them; and I agree that this is how it feels. But contemporary neuroscience has confirmed what naturalistic philosophers have long maintained: though some thoughts, ideas, impressions or images may feel like they are coming from a source that is not ourselves, this is an illusion — in the dictionary sense of being something that is incorrectly perceived or interpreted. If the mind is what the brain does, then poetry is the mind’s wordplay.
When Wiman writes that he’s “trying to learn how to inhabit time so completely that there might be no distinction between life and belief, attention and devotion,” I certainly can’t fault him for that. Surely that’s the intention of everyone in life, really. And perhaps the poetic imagination can’t provide the balm we delicate inhabitants of the earth seek. But I believe it’s far more ennobling for us to follow reason, supplemented by imagination, than to be seduced solely by the bewitching power of poetic inspiration. And to the extent that language enables us to know the world and shape our all-too-brief lives, and perhaps even to be conscious, we would do well to be as adroit as possible in both our language and our reasoning.
 Levertov returned to faith in late middle age, but her final faith was an admittedly unorthodox, thoroughly liberal one. And this return preceded her own diagnosis of lymphoma, which ultimately took her life in 1997.