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1.

So what are some other major facets of Ashbery’s relationship to American pragmatism? How would we characterize pragmatism, and in what ways does Ashbery’s work suggest our characterization? Does Ashbery ever explicitly mention James, Dewey, or Rorty? (I know of only one place currently where Rorty mentions Ashbery; it is in his introduction to Essays on Heidegger and Others, where he writes, “I have given up on the attempt to find something common to Michal Graves’s buildings, Pynchon and Rushdie’s novels, Ashbery’s poems, various sorts of popular music, and the writings of Heidegger and Derrida.” (Rorty, 1)

Ashbery does explicitly mention James, in a poem called, appropriately, “My Philosophy of Life.” The passage in question reads,

But then you remember something William James
wrote in some book of his you never read–it was fine, it had the fineness,
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet still looking
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and his alone. (www.poets.org)

It is difficult to read this passage in the context of pragmatism without wondering if the “Someone” in the second-to-last line in the excerpt is Ashbery. Notice the exquisite intimacy with which this “Someone” shares in the “something William James / wrote”: this “Someone” has felt, innately, what James has said, even before James formulated it. Furthermore, the “you” in the first line of the excerpt remembers something James wrote, even though he or she never read it. We can be forgiven, then, if we go one to suggest a relationship between James and the “Someone” in the passage that borders on telepathic, it is so close and “intuitive.”

2.

In “Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism,” Rorty offers three characterizations of what he calls the “central doctrine” of pragmatism:

My first characterization of pragmatism is that it is simply anti-essentialism applied to notions like “truth,” “knowledge,” “language,” “morality,” and similar objects of philosophical theorizing.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 112)

So a second characterization of pragmatism might go like this: there is no epistemological difference between truth about what ought to be and truth about what is, nor any metaphysical difference between facts and values, nor any methodological difference between morality and science. (Voparil and Bernstein, 113)

“Let me sum up by offering a third and final characterization of pragmatism: it is the doctrine that there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones […] To accept the contingency of starting-points is to accept our inheritance from, and our conversation with, our fellow-humans as our only source of guidance. “ (Voparil and Bernstein, 115)

3.

The first characterization is essentially pointing towards a vigilant awareness regarding the pitfalls (and pratfalls) of holding too tightly onto abstract concepts. “Anti-essentialism” means that there is no central essence to ideas like “truth,” “knowledge,” and “morality” – that these are contingent notions that depend entirely on our position within history, (as opposed to a neutral, extra-historical position). It is a pluralistic notion that echoes Ashbery’s opening question in “The One Thing That Can Save America,” “Is anything central?” And it also is a rallying call for embracing what Keats called “negative capability,” or the ability to embrace ambiguity, the messiness of life, as opposed to running from it and trying to escape through, among other things, empty abstractions like “truth” and “language.”

4.

A short poem by Ashbery, chosen at random, might help illustrate our point. Here is the entire “Rain Moving In,” from A Wave:

The blackboard is erased in the attic
And the wind turns up the light of the stars,
Sinewy now. Someone will find out, someone will know.
And if somewhere on this great planet
The truth is discovered, a patch of it, dried, glazed by the sun,
It will just hang on, in its own infamy, humility. No one
Will be better for it, but things can’t get any worse.
Just keep playing, mastering as you do the step
Into disorder this one meant. Don’t you see
It’s all we can do? Meanwhile, great fires
Arise, as of haystacks aflame. The dial has been set
And that’s ominous, but all your graciousness in living
Conspires with it, now that this is our home:
A place to be from, and have people ask about. (Ashbery, 733)

For starters, we must call attention to the fantastically innovative images that begin the poem.

A blackboard being erased in an attic might sound silly to some – it is somewhat silly, because so odd – and yet its silliness, its oddness, is subsumed, or somehow augmented sublimely, by its strange connotative power, suggestive of new starts, or past thoughts “erased” to allow the new in. This confluence of the image of a blackboard with the notion of thoughts changing, or being “erased,” is made more vivid by the location of the blackboard in an attic, a space which is itself a pungent, full and rich metaphor, like a basement, for the unconscious, where we keep everything we’d forgotten. The power of these combined suggestions is, I believe, what Rorty means by imaginative vision – he is speaking of an ability to question outworn suppositions we have formed over time about what a poem, say, should be like – what kinds of images it should contain, how it should develop, what it should be about, what it should do. These presuppositions are questioned by the very fact of the Ashberian poem’s existence. In reading it, we find ourselves not only reading this poem, but, in a Bloomian manner, reading every poem and every image we’ve ever encountered, along with the expectations this history of reading has constructed over time – and, because of the radical strangeness of the Ashbery poem, revising that entire history of expectations.

5.

(Perhaps this is why Ashbery is so often described as a difficult, puzzling, or just plain odd poet: like a powerfully successful Dadaist, or a good artist, he is constantly pushing, poking, nudging, or exploding the boundary line we contain in our minds between what separates our expectations for comfortable, possibly complacent normalcy and our desire and hope for grand and original innovation. This is why, once we read Ashbery, we can never read or think about poetry in the same way again. For in questioning our presuppositions about literature,

Ashbery questions our presuppositions about why we read and write in the first place.

He helps us to imagine, through the expansiveness and expressiveness of his thought, outside our worn imaginations; in doing so, he galvanizes or kick-starts our tired imaginations, our complacency, our unwillingness to budge or change. Ashbery’s poems force us to reflect upon the difference between invoking the abstraction “morality,” versus thinking about what this word means, individually and idiosyncratically, for us, within our own behavior, thoughts, feelings and actions. It’s the difference between such an invocation and an encounter with an actual person – which is to say, completely unprecedented, with very few rules or signposts to follow aside from our own idiosyncratic imaginative makeup.)

6.

Second characterization: What does it mean to say that there is no difference between facts and values, should and is, morality and science? How does Ashbery’s poetry allude to or bring this notion into articulation through its own flexible and fluid network of vocabularies?

Perhaps we can take my Corliss Williamson jersey as an example. Was it a fact or a value that the jersey, being red and white, and with the word “Arkansas” written on its front, represented to me the college team on which Williamson played – and therefore ignited within me the desire to buy and wear the jersey, because I was so fond of that player on that team? I suppose you could get away with saying that the letters and colors are chunks of objective “facts” about the jersey, and my desire for those “facts” signifies my subjective valuing of those facts, but this just sounds hopelessly entangled, too complicated, obvious, redundant, maddeningly rigid, and uninteresting, and furthermore suggests a central core of my person on one hand (my values), and reality on the other hand (the red and white of the jersey) that somehow meet and lock and cohere together.

But isn’t this what Lauterbach is saying that Ashbery doesn’t do? And is this actually experientally what happens?

7.

Here’s Rorty again, from Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:

On the view of philosophy which I am offering, philosophers should not be asked for arguments against, for example, the correspondence theory of truth or the idea of the “intrinsic nature of reality.” [...] Interesting philosophy is rarely an examination of the pros and cons of a thesis. Usually it is, implicitly or explicitly, a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a half-formed new vocabulary which vaguely promises great things. [...] The latter “method” of philosophy is the same as the “method” of utopian politics or revolutionary science (as opposed to parliamentary politics, or normal science). The method is to redescribe lots and lots of things in new ways, until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate new forms of nonlinguistic behavior, for example, the adoption of new scientific equipment or new social institutions. This sort of philosophy does not work piece by piece, analyzing concept after concept, or testing thesis after thesis. Rather, it works holistically and pragmatically. (Rorty, 8 – 9)

Rorty is saying that to discuss my experience desiring the Williamson jersey through the notion of facts versus values is to use a vocabulary that does not help me explain what I am trying to explain. It is an inadequate tool for what I want to do. As he might say, no one really cares if my values met my facts at the moment I saw that jersey – that somehow some truth about me met some truth in the world. This sounds hopelessly weird and non-useful. What people do care is how my desire for that jersey matches up with who I was as a kid – my self-image then. If I would have bought the jersey and worn it in the mall – and if the jersey would have then incited curiosity in another person, this person would not have thought about my wearing the jersey in terms of facts versus values, chunks of reality versus other chunks. They would have possibly wondered, “who is that white, overweight kid?” They would not have wondered, “what is the relationship between that kid’s values and the facts of him wearing that jersey?”

8.

How does Ashbery achieve his GREAT THEME, the changing of one’s self-image? Through redescribing “lots and lots of things in new ways.” (A change in clothes, a redescription, leads to a change in self-image.)

9.

Now imagine that, that day, my parents did decide to buy me the jersey. Not only that, but I wore it that day in the mall, and my father took a picture of me wearing it. Now imagine that, after twenty years pass, I find that picture and wish to say something interesting and helpful, philosophically, about it. Would it be more helpful to

  1. read a description in which I attempted to cover the photograph inch by inch and describe every single thing I see across the gridwork of the picture, aiming for a kind of miniature totality?
  2. read a description in which I redescribe the picture, noticing new things about it, and in noticing new things about, recreating (as opposed to attempting to copy) the picture?
  3. look at both descriptions, and view them as alternative descriptions, two out of many, as opposed to searching for one way that is more right, because it corresponds more with reality?

10.

Our third option, the pluralistic and pragmatist notion of alternative ways of looking at a situation, as opposed to one way over another, is as endemic to Ashbery’s poetry as it is to Wallace Stevens’ poetry-philosophy and William James’s philosophy-poetry. It explains why there is no difference between morality and science. Because as soon as we posit a difference, we are splitting reality up into chunks again, and pretending that we are the kinds of beings that can know whether or not our scientific descriptions of the world more correspond with “the way things are” than our poetic descriptions. We can’t know that, which explains the value of pragmatist and pluralistic thought.

11.

For another useful illustration of this pragmatist notion of the precedence of self-image, or temperament, over the rightness or wrongness of theses, here is another entire Ashbery poem, called “Drunken Americans,” from Houseboat Days.

I saw the reflection in the mirror
And it doesn’t count, or not enough
To make a difference, fabricating itself
Out of the old, average light of a college town,

And afterwards, when the bus trip
Has depleted my pocket of its few pennies
He was seen arguing behind steamed glass,
With an invisible proprietor. What if you can’t own

This one either? For it seems that all
Moments are like this: thin, unsatisfactory
As gruel, worn away more each time you return to them.
Until one day you rip the canvas from its frame

And take it home with you. You think the god-given
Assertiveness in you has triumphed
Over the stingy scenario: these objects as real as meat,
As tears. We are all soiled with this desire, at the last moment, the last.

What if we were to read this poem as a chronicling of the way in which the poet tries on various self-images, various jerseys? And during that process, attempts to figure out which jersey is “really him,” only to abandon that project? The poem begins with the poet seeing a reflection in the mirror (there’s that pregnant Ashberian vagueness), but we can assume here that the reflection is his own. Ashbery questions this reflection, for he knows a more accurate record of his various self-images would be a hall of mirrors, as opposed to one mirror. We are then given a second description, perhaps of the poet, perhaps of the poet somehow seen by someone else, perhaps of someone else, and here the image bears a strange resemblance to the earlier image of a face in the mirror, only here we have a man “seen arguing behind steamed glass, / With an invisible proprietor.” The static notion of a mirror reflecting has been replaced with a more suggestively vague image of a man behind a window, arguing “with an invisible proprietor.” This seems to be a re-description of the earlier image, where Ashbery also argued “with an invisible proprietor,” though there the proprietor is a metaphor for Ashbery’s reflection of himself in the mirror. Finally we have a third image of the poet ripping canvas from the frame. In a way, each successive image in our sequence of characterizations of thoughts about self-image has become richer, more pregnant with suggestion – we move from a mirror reflection, to someone arguing behind a window, to a painting, but the argument is always the same – “that’s not me, that couldn’t be me! I contain multitudes! I am voluminous, prodigious, prolific! One image of me could never work as a replacement for the polysemous me!”

And yet, characteristic of Ashbery, he leaves the nature of that desire in the final line utterly ambiguous. Is it the desire for personalities less like Heraclitus’s river, and with more of the stability of objects like “meat” and “tears”? If so, it’s an understandable desire, (it goes with us until “the last moment,” our deaths), but an impossible (“soiled”) one.

12.

We might think of Rorty’s third characterization of American pragmatism – “there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones […]” – as the humanist cloak that covers, or the humanist air that permeates, his two earlier characterizations. For to say that there are no constraints on inquiry is to appeal to a finite humanity whose possibilities are still undreamed of. In a sense, it is also an appeal to and for solidarity, as there is no escaping, according to this maxim, the human community, which is the final arbiter, as opposed to God or any neutral starting-point. All our talk about redescription and self-image are contingent upon this notion, for there is no redescription or self-image without the human community to provide us with walls for bouncing off our redescriptions and self-images. Perhaps this is why Ashbery’s poetics provide us with such a polysemous chorus of voices – such poems indirectly suggest the richness of human attitudes, stances, temperaments, while refusing to gesture towards something outside these attitudes. All of which is to say, that although we seem to often want to apotheosize Ashbery, Ashbery has apotheosized nothing.

13.

I took the first part of the title of this piece from Ashbery’s “Fragment,” and I’d like to end with another excerpt from that poem. The excerpt is yet another intimate reading of how we read the world and ourselves; it is also, in its final lines, an appeal to a kind of idiosyncratic solidarity, in a mode of poetics that is utterly Ashberian.

The part in which you read about yourself
Grew out of this. Your interpretation is
Extremely bitter and can serve no profitable end
Except continual development. Best to break off
All further choice. In
This way new symptoms of interest having a
Common source could produce their own ingenious
Way of watering into the past with its religious
Messages and burials. Out of this cold collapse
A warm and near unpolished entity could begin. (Ashbery, 230 – 231)

That “warm and near unpolished entity” is the “new being” we are aided to become through the “power of imagination.” Through the collapse of old ways of imagining, old vocabularies, old metaphors, old self-images – “the past with its religious / Messages and burials” – we find ourselves continuously facing “the first day / of the new experience,” helped by Ashbery’s astonishing redescriptions.

Books Used for this Essay
Ashbery, John, Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987, New York, Library of America, 2008.

James, William, The Principles of Psychology, Volume One, New York, Dover Publications, 1950.

James, William, A Pluralistic Universe, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

Rorty, Richard, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Rorty, Richard, Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers Volume 2, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Chrisotpher Voparil and Richard Bernstein (ed.), The Rorty Reader, Malden, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2010.

Introduction: Why the Lyric Essay?

1.


I want to start with a problem: an overwhelming, close to paralyzing sense that an essay about John Ashbery’s poetry is like a representational critique of a cubist painting. The two (essay and poetry) just feel ill-fitting, strange bedfellows, as though a parent (the essayist), out of the desire to understand her son (the poet), gave him a lesson in thermodynamics. Ashbery can be theromodynamically complex, yet such a lesson would seem to miss the point, not to mention the fun. New forms of interpretation are needed to come close to an approximation to what Ashbery is doing.

2.

So how do we approach him?

One day I made a list of various things that go into an Ashbery poem. I’d just read Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion,” and, inspired, I decided to use his form, namely the “out of” incantatory rhythm, and apply it to what an Ashbery poem, in my mind, might be made out of. Here is a sampling:

  1. ambivalence
  2. wonder
  3. ideas stretched like mattresses
  4. language
  5. feelings too simple and complex at once
  6. narrative
  7. sight
  8. unsystematic thinking
  9. the bowels of the straining imagination
  10. the window where the morning does something just grand enough for a verb
  11. thoughts that ricochet around the laundry room
  12. sweeping symphony-like waves
  13. mud
  14. tissue boxes
  15. cardboard tents
  16. old political buttons
  17. aunt’s recipes scrawled in chicken-scratch on yellowing note cards
  18. domestic arrangements
  19. picture-frames
  20. pictures of loved ones doing random silly things
  21. pillowcases
  22. soap
  23. the noise the cat makes when it covers its litter
  24. cats and their following eyes
  25. fake plants
  26. trees
  27. ocean
  28. sea-rocks
  29. the distant realm of the voice that swoops down out of sheer necessity to splatter the page with its urgings

But this seemed to defeat my purpose. I should begin at the beginning: Why was the lyric essay my answer to the problem of writing an essay about Ashbery?

3.

A heightened attention to form and content seems to echo, among other poems, in some regards Ashbery’s longer work – I’m thinking of Flow Chart, or Three Poems, the sense of an unspooling thought following its own unwindings, but arguing for something, implicit or explicit, perhaps a way of being, perhaps a style, or maybe a space in the world for such a way-of-being/style to exist. A lyric essay does something similar: poetic and rhetorical, it gives the writer a freedom than the more conventional essay does not, a freedom that hopefully comes close to the Ashberian exuberance exhibited in poem like “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” or, better yet, “The Skaters.” The lyric essay, though argumentative, is more therapeutic, meaning it is more interested in providing helpful frameworks for thought than sending home an immaculate argument. Its intention is to “redescribe,” a la Richard Rorty – to speak differently, believing that “large-scale change of belief is indistinguishable from large-scale change of the meaning of one’s words.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 215) Indeed, this lyric essay has an ambitious goal: it posits that words placed in a lyric essay mean differently, work differently, and that this change in meaning is inextricably linked to changes in belief: the belief, say, that poems are best explicated by more formal essays, as opposed to other poems, or lyric essays; the belief that more conventional essays are mirrors reflecting the reality of the poem, as opposed to Lego-blocks, creating, blue block by red block, word by word, new interpretations, new angles, new ways of looking, which cannot happen separately from the form of the assay. The goal of the lyric essay, then, is to change writer and reader’s self-image, however slightly, “to insure that the moral consciousness of each generation is slightly different from that of the previous generation.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 304)

Part 1: Ashbery and the Rortian Self-Image

1.

It has long been my contention, or suspicion, or just unverified hunch, that John Ashbery (like Gertrude Stein) has had some relation to William James and American pragmatism. Ashbery’s reluctance to make any statement or declaration that does not appear to arrive and disappear on the heels of his miraculous syntax seems to me evidence of the kind of conceptual relativity that James first enunciated in the early years of the twentieth century. Ashbery’s joyous investment in a present reality as being inimical to what James called “copying” is further evidence: Ashberian poetics insists on the multidimensionality of time-space duration, as opposed to either pictorial mimesis or the cause-and-effect order of conventional, developmental narration: reality, for Ashbery, has neither linearity nor replica. Connections among thinking and feeling, knowing and doing are always in flux. – Ann Lauterbach, Conjunctions: 49

Lauterbach is making a wonderfully interesting claim: that Ashbery is doing something similar to what philosophers do – and, more specifically, what pragmatist philosophers such as William James do. (What do they do?) Notice that Lauterbach is very careful in her phrasing: Ashbery “has had some relation to William James and American pragmatism”; his reticence, his self-deconstructing poetics, are each “evidence of the kind of conceptual relativity that James first enunciated in the twentieth century.” These are powerfully intriguing statements, and they are intriguing because they are vague. James himself would approve of this vagueness, who wrote in the first chapter of his monumental Principles of Psychology that,

It is better not to be pedantic, but to let the science be as vague as its subject […] we gain much more by a broad than by a narrow conception of our subject […] At a certain stage in the development of every science a degree of vagueness is what best consists with fertility. (James, 6)

Owing to the fact that our science here is literary criticism, which seems at best highly chimerical and dependent in some regard upon academic fads; and owing to the fact that our subject is John Ashbery’s poetry, an art form so florabundantly fertile as to deliberately court the benefits of suggestiveness, (if not the dangers of nebulousness), it seems best, following James and Lauterbach’s example, to proceed cautiously (but boldly) in our discussion of the affinities between Ashbery as poet and Ashbery as pragmatist philosopher. A pregnant vagueness is what we are after, as opposed to an insipid one.

2.

Pregnant vagueness defined in Ashbery’s “Clepsydra”:

A moment that gave not only itself, but
Also the means of keeping it, of not turning to dust
Or gestures somewhere up ahead
But of becoming complicated like the torrent
In new dark passages, tears and laughter which
Are a sign of life (Ashbery, 143)

3.

So what do pragmatist philosophers do?

Rorty, pragmatist par excellence, defines “philosophizing” as “[raising] questions about questions,” especially questions about “unexpressed assumptions” and “presuppositions.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 15) Voparil, quoting Rorty, points out that this activity of philosophizing “implies the primacy of ‘imaginative vision’”. (Voparil and Bernstein, 15) So, a-ha (we want to say)! Philosophizing, or the raising of questions about questions – what we normally associate with philosophy – entails the importance of imaginative vision – what we normally associate with the driving force behind poetry! Here we might imagine William James and John Ashbery clasping hands. But what is the relationship, more specifically, between raising questions about questions and imaginative vision?

4.

Suffice it to say here…that imaginative vision might be described as a way of thinking outside the box, and therefore as its own idiosyncratic form of metaphilosophy…? Meaning that to reflect upon the old way of thinking, we have to first move out and away from that old way of thinking. Here’s a metaphilosophy as defined by Ashbery in “Clepsydra”:

Each moment
Of utterance is the true one; likewise none are true,
Only is the bounding from air to air, a serpentine
Gesture which hides the truth behind a congruent
Message, the way air hides the sky, is, in fact,
Tearing it limb from limb this very moment: (Ashbery, 140)

5.

And what is the goal of philosophizing, as defined by Rorty? Voparil goes on to write, again quoting Rorty,

The aims of edifying philosophy involve helping not only readers of philosophy but ‘society as a whole,’ to ‘break free from outworn vocabularies and attitudes, rather than to provide ‘grounding’ for the intuitions and customs of the present’”. (Voparil and Bernstein, 21-22)

Such a “[breaking] free from outworn vocabularies and attitudes” is valuable, because such edifying discourse will “take us out of our old selves by the power of strangeness, to aid us in becoming new beings”. (Voparil and Bernstein, 22) A very compelling sentence; but what does it mean, and how is it related to Ashberian poetics?

6.

Analogy. Do you remember as a teen wanting an article of clothing so badly, that you begged your parents for it – and for whatever reason, they decided not to buy it for you? I remember, as a pre-teen, desiring desperately a Corliss Williamson basketball jersey – red and white, with the word “Arkansas” at its center. The question is, why was I so obsessed with wearing that jersey? What is it that clothes represent that gets our desire-juices flowing? And what does this mundane example have to do with the seemingly extra-mundane notion of “[taking] us out of our old selves by the power of imagination, to aid us in becoming new beings”?

Another way to ask the question: Have you ever, after knowing a person for a good while, seen them in a different context, and the context changed the way you thought about them? Maybe you see your father interacting with an old friend you’d never met. Or you see a girlfriend interacting with her grandparents. Perhaps you see an old friend wearing a shirt you’d never imagine her wearing. And suddenly you’re feeling like you don’t know this person,

and you think to yourself, half-delighted, half-bewildered, “Oh my god, I never realized they had this side to them!”

This is what Voparil and Rorty are referring to, in regard to the goal of philosophizing, and what Ashbery enacts in his poeticizing: it’s the process by which we “change our clothes,” literally and metaphorically, to try on something new, for in so doing we are in effect trying on new identities, new self-images, imagining in the process the people we wish to become. We do this every time we start a new job, or try something new at our old job; every time we don a different haircut, or read a different poem, or wear a different style of t-shirt.

This – the changing of one’s self-image – is the GREAT THEME of Ashbery’s poetry.

7.

Rorty describes this theme in terms of Freud and Hegel, although we might as well substitute “Ashbery”:

Freud, in particular, has no contribution to make to social theory. His domain is the portion of morality that cannot be identified with “culture”: it is the private life, the search for a character, the attempt of individuals to be reconciled with themselves (and, in the case of some exceptional individuals, to make their lives works of art).

Such an attempt can take one of two antithetical forms: a search for purity or a search for self-enlargement. The ascetic life commended by Plato and criticized by Nietzsche is the paradigm of the former. The “aesthetic” life criticized by Kierkegaard is the paradigm of the latter. The desire to purify oneself is the desire to slim down, to peel away everything that is accidental, to will one thing, to intensify, to become a simpler and more transparent being. The desire to enlarge oneself is the desire to embrace more and more possibilities, to be constantly learning, to give oneself over entirely to curiosity, to end by having envisaged all the possibilities of the past and of the future. It was the goal shared by, for example, de Sade, Byron, and Hegel. On the view I am presenting, Freud is an apostle of this aesthetic life, the life of unending curiosity, the life that seeks to extend its own bounds rather than to find its center.

For those who decline the options offered by de Sade and Byron (sexual experimentation, political engagement), the principle technique of self-enlargement will be Hegel’s: the enrichment of language. One will see the history of both the race and oneself as the development of richer, fuller ways of formulating one’s desires and hopes, and thus making those desires and hopes themselves – and thereby oneself – richer and fuller.

8.

Here’s Ashbery writing at the close of “Clepsydra.” I’m choosing this passage, because 1. it is itself about self-image – (passages about self-image in Ashbery, as I’m suggesting, are legion); and 2. when I read the passage, I myself feel changed, feel as if Ashbery is articulating something I’d always felt but never heard articulated, something so innate as to be almost unconscious and habitual: the workings of the imagination (read: self-image) itself, talking about itself:

What is meant is that this distant
Image of you, the way you really are, is the test
Of how you see yourself, and regardless of whether or not
You hesitate, it may be assumed that you have won, that this
Wooden and external representation
Returns the full echo of what you meant
With nothing left over, from that circumference now alight
With ex-possibilities become present fact, and you
Must wear them like clothing, moving in the shadow of
Your single and twin existence, waking in intact
Appreciation of it, while morning is still and before the body
Is changed by the faces of evening. (Ashbery, 146)

This absolutely remarkable passage is not only about the imaginative process by which we imagine ourselves into the people we wish to become – it seems itself to somehow enact or re-enact that process in its own formulation. It’s as if Ashbery, in discussing his own experience of growth and becoming, helps us to experience it within ourselves as well. It is a powerfully poetic way of telling us to trust our hopes, by calling attention to the way in which those feathered things are inextricable from our desired self-image. We have a “single and twin existence” because we are constantly setting out (“twin existence”) from where we just recently started from (single existence) – (The Mooring of Starting Out is what Ashbery titled the collection of his first five books of poetry). We are constantly twinning ourselves, imagining ourselves into the people we hope to “really be.”

This is why William James wrote in A Pluralistic Universe that “a man’s vision is the great fact about him.” (James, 20) “Vision” can be thought of synonymously here with personal imagination. James, like Ashbery and Rorty, is saying, modestly but confidently, that who we presently are is a quiet achievement, that growth is just as much an active process as it is a passive one. And Ashbery is one of our greatest chroniclers of this process by which we alter, gradually or suddenly, our self-image.

Books Used for this Essay
Ashbery, John, Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987, New York, Library of America, 2008.

James, William, The Principles of Psychology, Volume One, New York, Dover Publications, 1950.

James, William, A Pluralistic Universe, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

Rorty, Richard, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Rorty, Richard, Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers Volume 2, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Chrisotpher Voparil and Richard Bernstein (ed.), The Rorty Reader, Malden, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2010.

What should we make of Plato’s old quarrel between philosophy and poetry? Does poetry think with philosophy? Or might we re-pose the question: does poetry rely on philosophy to think?

For Plato, the poem is dangerous for philosophy as it forbids access to the supreme truth, the truth that provides unity with the ultimate principle that allows the Republic to maintain its transparency.  The problem of poetry for Plato is deeper than that though.  It rests on the fact that mimesis is always tied to discursive thought, and this blocks reason and teleology in grounding the truth.  For Plato, the poem is opposed to the ideal of a perfect means for the transmission of knowledge, and hence is dangerous for philosophy.

Wallace Stevens declared the modern poet a “metaphysician in the dark, who must give sounds passing through sudden rightness, wholly / containing the mind, below which it cannot descend, beyond which it has no will to rise.”   The battleground of the poem becomes the poets mind.  But Stevens doesn’t give us clear sense of the relation between philosophy and poetry, he suggests that the poet is isolated to a performance of thinking in the poem.  In this post, I want to introduce the ideas of two prominent French philosophers working on the intersection of philosophy and poetry.  Judith Balso and Alain Badiou’s present two concepts of philosophy and poetry’s separation from poetry, the idea of presence, and the affirmation, that reveals that poetry indeed does not rely on philosophy for grounding its own truth.

Judith Balso has created a conception of poetry’s relationship to philosophy that helps us understand both Plato’s fear of poetry, and Stevens’ relegation of the modern poet to the dark recesses of the mind.  For Balso, modern poetry consists in the creation of a new space for thought and imagination that does not simply seek to criticize what exists; but that invents an entirely new ontological capacity for thinking.  In this sense, poems are more than merely artistic events for aesthetic contemplation; they are events for thought, for a new kind of thinking.  This theory of poetry, Balso refers to as the affirmation, and its based on a close reading of Heidegger’s work on philosophy and art, particularly his Elucidations of Holderlin’s Poetry, but she is suspect of Heidegger, and opts to put Holderlin into dialogue with other poets instead of locking Holderlin inside the discourse of philosophy alone as Heidegger does.

Balso’s intellectual and romantic partner, Alain Badiou, (in a way they are reminiscent of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre of the 20th century), poetry presents a truth that is outside of philosophy’s capacity to integrate it.  Alain Badiou is probably France’s most influential anti-postmodernist philosopher.  In his book on philosophy, poetry, and art, Handbook of Inaesthetics, he claims that the legacy of Plato in modern poetry is alive and well, but that it functions like a ‘persisting nostalgia for the idea’. Every poetic truth in the poem, Badiou claims, is located in an unnamable core at the poems center that does not have the power to bring the idea into presence. He refers to this nostalgia for the idea as ‘presence’.

Pessoa offers an interesting example of this nostalgia for the idea in his poetic project, which he characterizes as ‘anti-metaphysical poems’.  For Pessoa, the idea of presence functions in the relation between the world and its representation in the poem.  He says, “when you see a thing in the poem, it is exactly the thing.”  The world becomes that thing whose presence is more essential than objectivity. As Stephane Mallarmé claims, the modern poem is centered on the dissolution of the object from its purity.

For Badiou, this play of presence in poetry gives poetry a privileged ground for the production of new truths by enabling truth to develop within the poem itself.  The poem produces a singularity for which philosophy cannot account for.  Each poem offers a singular type of truth, occurring as a sort of event.  Similar to Balso’s notion of the affirmation, the poem is like a decision of presenting oneself to the present.  The poem offers the possibility for the creation of a new space for thought and imagination that does not simply seek to criticize what exists; but that invents an entirely new ontological capacity.  In this sense, poems are more than merely artistic events for aesthetic contemplation; they are events for thought, for a new kind of thinking.

Presence, the affirmation, or the nostalgia for the Platonic idea occurs in the immediacy of the poem itself, not through an artistic expression of the world, but as an operation. The poem’s operation is the vehicle for thinking, a thinking that is internal to the practice, a thinking of thinking itself.

If we visit Pessoa’s poetic project briefly, we see both this idea of the affirmation and presence in action.  Pessoa’s poems are diagonal, like a Cubist painting. They look directly into the light, in an anti-Platonic stance; they are opposed to any absolute idea.  Badiou suggests that the operation of the poem for Pessoa is tied to a hidden mathematical code that philosophy can’t yet integrate or fully understand.  As we see in this untitled piece by one of Pessoa’s over 80 heteronym’s Alberto Caeiro, the poem’s idea of presence contained within the poem alone becomes apparent.

To see the fields and the river
It isn’t enough to open the window.
To see the trees and the flowers
It isn’t enough not to be blind.
It is also necessary to have no philosophy.
With philosophy there are no trees, just ideas.
There is only each one of us, like a cave.
There is only a shut window, and the whole world outside,
And a dream of what could be seen if the window were opened,
Which is never what is seen when the window is opened.

This paradoxical play of a “metaphysics subtracted from metaphysics” in Pessoa enables poetry to enter into a new ontology of truth, and ultimately, a new relation to the Platonic idea.  Pessoa himself had a great depth of understanding of philosophy, and this may be in part why he continues to baffle our preconceptions and confuse any possibility of developing a coherent way to place Pessoa’s contribution to modernity.

What is at stake in the quarrel between poetry and philosophy is still a very Platonic question.  The poetic perspective opened up through the idea of presence represents an opening of thought to the principle of the thinkable, where thought must be absorbed in the grasp of what establishes it as thought – i.e. in the poem itself.  Yet the modern poet, as Celan tells us, must still wrestle with the recognition that the whole is actually nothing.

Carl Jung’s work on introverted and extroverted personality types based on four functions of thinking/feeling (the rational) and intuition/sensation (the irrational) has been modified by various experts in relational dynamics, most especially Meyers Briggs and its various off shoots. Some sort of personality test is now administered by businesses interested in relational dynamics and team productivity” Active listeners, North thinkers, Explorers, negotiators…all these terms used by education and corporate movements are meant to gauge the mechanisms of personality by which we see, move through, and relate to the world. It is nothing new. Shakespeare and other dramatists used the four humors in their construction of characters. Astrology links the personality types to stars, dates, location and time of birth. All these systems of gauging personality types are inexact, what we might call, if we used a machinist’s term, an “eye ball estimate.”  But, as such, they can be useful for entering constructs. Eye ball estimates are dangerous if you are doing close work, but, if you are first entering a structure (and relational dynamics are a structure) it might be a foolish waste of time not to do a quick eye ball estimate of the work at hand. Our mistakes are most egregious when we confuse a useful inaccuracy (an eye ball estimate) for a true measure, but it may be equally dangerous not to use our gut  instincts (sensations) or intuitions when approaching or apprehending a structure.  We must not think of personality types then as a determinate, but as a good eye ball estimate of how a certain type might relate to the world. To use a designation from Meyers Briggs, no two ENFP’s (Intuitive extrovert feeling Perceivers) are alike, though they share many tendencies toward, and certain affinities for how they view and relate to the world.. To wax Machinist again, they are all “specialty molds” under a certain type of mold set–modifications of a type.

For the purpose of studying a poem through the four function, we are going to add to these types, the Bentham’s dislogistic, neutral, and laudatory register of terms. We are also going to look at contemporary literature as favoring those types most often associated with intuition, or introverted sensing (which, as a function seems very much like intuition). If we considered postmodernism as a personality type, we might see its basic personality as intuitive introvert thinking perceiver (INTP) with INTJ ( Intuitive introvert thinking/judge) being a close second. INTP,  types dominate–both in science as well as post modernist literature (this makes sense given the process and system driven dynamics of both) Post structuralism might further be seen as a movement away from the intuitive introverted feeling Perceiver (the idealist introverted feeling type) and the INFJ (feeling judge) which dominated the early aesthetic periods of modernism. INFJ’s, supposedly the rarest personality type in our population, are common in my writing classes, as are INFP’s and ENFP’s. My university still values the lyrical narrative, which relies on the feeling faculty, which allows for the feeling and is not prone to postmodernist detachment, but, of the two students I had accepted into Columbia and the New School (both favoring a sort of New York school/post modernist/experimental aesthetic) both students were thinking types, INTP, and INTJ. Feeling as a rational function has been greatly reduced in post structuralist poetics, while thinking, as the filter for intuition (both extroverted and introverted) has been raised to the chief mechanism through which irrational  functions of sensation and intuition are expressed. Let’s run the registers of post modernity in relation to the feeling function:

Dislogistic:  tending towards sociopathy, dadaism, insanity, nihilism, alienation.
Neutral: tending towards the Non-conformist, free spirited, ironic, agnostic, and favoring uncertainty, unsentimental feeling toward  engagement with form and experiment.
Laudatory: Liberated, self realized, spiritual rather than religious, emotionally complex, but not dependent on the feeling faculty, and oriented toward formal innovation.

This movement towards the domination of the irrational functions existed in romanticism and the decadent/aesthetic movements, but their chief filter as to the irrational functions of intuition and sensing moved from feeling (sensibility) to thinking (realism). First feeling in an ever more complex ambiguity dominated as the chief subsidiary function. Now, thinking as system/process dynamic dominates (Post-modernity). If I had to tie this schema of relational dynamics into one broad look at literary history, I would do so as follows:

Before Modernism: Either the feeling or thinking (rational functions) dominate with sensing and intuition (the irrational functions) acting as the chief filtering mechanisms in terms through which image and metaphorical invention play out the agreed upon tropes of thought/feeling. This made for a literature in which feeling is more or less uniform, and thinking also uniform in terms of the audience and auditor: fellow feeling, fellow thinking. The co-ordinates of thought and feeling were largely “understood.” Sensation and intuition moved through images and rhetorical schemas that  expressed known tropes of feeling/thinking. Their diversity increased as the commonly agreed upon feelings and thoughts become less stable. By the time of the Romantics, the interest in the Gothic (a genre of literature in which sensation and intuition begin to dominate thought and feeling) and the break down of the agrarian life under the terms of urbanization and industrialization lead to a reversal of functions: Sensing and intuition begin to dominate (Poe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud) and thoughts and feelings turn towards becoming supporting mechanisms, filtering the discoveries and creations of the irrational sensing or intuitive functions into the forms of symbolist, imagist, surrealist, cubist, dadaist, objectivist, and, most recently, language poetry. In any of these schools, either feeling or thought could be the prime secondary function, but with language poetry and its objectivist forebearers, all feeling becomes suspect as a reliable filter, and thought becomes the prime secondary function for intuition and the sensation of process. In terms of intuition, the rise of the subjective, the unconscious, and the surreal. In terms of sensation, the null position of science which claims to have no eye ball estimates, no preconceived thoughts and feelings toward the sensual world, but only the scientific method by which it tests all things under the rule of deductive process. In terms of poetry Oppen called it “A rigorous test of sincerity.”

The opposition of intuition/sensation to thought/feeling

Scientists have little trouble admitting much discovery is made through intuition, but they are loathe to admit that feeling or thinking (in terms of preconceived assumptions and notions) has anything to do with the discoveries of science. Nothing that cannot be proven through scientific and controlled experiment is considered to be valid. The position on thought and feeling is a null position.All must be testable under the laws of method. This may seem the opposite of intuition, and, to a degree, it is, but its antipathy is more towards preconceived thoughts and feelings than toward the irrational function of intuition. We tend to think of science as “rational” but this is an over identification of the word rational with objective thinking which is the populist view of science (which, by the way, is not at all scientific). Intuition also shows more antipathy towards feeling/thought as prime functions than toward sensation. We might describe modernism then as a slow movement away from the dominance of thought/feeling with an agreed upon set of contexts toward the dominance of intuition/sensation, with no agreed upon context.

During the transition period of this shift, fear, neurosis, a sense of doom and emptiness begin to dominate. There is no set context for one’s thoughts, feelings, or actions, and where there is a context, it usually appears in the form of parodying, deconstructing, or dismantling older, once stable beliefs, images, and metaphors. Oddly, God gets jettisoned from the world around the time intuition and sensation begin to dominate. God after all is best understood in societal terms as contextual authority, the context of all authority. The chief expression of God is through the dominating and rational functions of thought/feeling. God in this sense is antithetical both to sensation and intuition. It is not the authority, or power, or even arbitrary power that an intuition/sensation based literature protests in traditional beliefs in God, but, rather the grounding in a context of authority, power, and arbitrary power known as God that can not allow either for verifiable science, or the undogmatic mysteries of intuition. Mystics, to an extent, were always dangerous to God in this contextual sense. The operative word is agreed upon “context.” In a sense we could see modernism as an attempt to wrestle arbitrary power away from the overly contextualized scene, from agreed upon contexts, or ground of “God”, and not only God, but all previously agreed upon contexts–especially as God is expressed through preordained contexts of thought/feeling. Rather than seeing the old literature as believing in God, or proceeding from a context of belief, we could re-phrase it this way: Pre-modernist literature: God equals the context of the given. Modernist: God equals an “away from” or a “toward” the context of the uncertain.  All must be grounded in having no ground. God is either too late or too early, missing over here or there, but never of this moment or of this place. To paraphrase Kafka: the messiah will arrive the day after he is no longer necessary. God is either arriving or receding, and so God cannot be the context of either intuition or sensation. God exists then only in the subsidiary functions of thought/feeling. Yet God’s attributes: power, arbitrary power, not only continue through modernism and post-modernism, but grow in proportion to the fact that there is no longer an agreed upon context or locality. Thus God’s absence in the form of a non-contextual and all pervading power is everywhere (see Kafka, see Panopticon). In a sense, while God disappears, the power, especially the irrational and arbitrary power of God through intuition and sensation is distilled into all places and situations.While thought and feeling may no longer proceed on the given contexts of a dogma, the arbitrary power grows in direct proportion to losing its chief name/context.  In this sense, the atrophy of God’s name and context leads to a hypertrophy of those powers usually associated with God:

Dislogistic: totalitarian forms of regime and the literary movements drawn to them (Futurists, Pound and Eliot, Communist writers).
Neutral: belief in social reforms and systems of redistribution that replace God’s providence, mercy towards the poor, and sense of equality within organized and supposedly non-arbitrary forms of governmental “providence” (social programs, the dole, unemployment, welfare, health care, etc)
Laudatory: Self actualized and evolved human beings (the hipsters and life style leftists) who need no power in heaven to live with compassion and wisdom upon the earth.

Let us look at this in terms of the irrational functions as independent from a rationalized deity/ contextual schema of agreed upon thoughts/feelings:

In Terms of the Intuitive:

1. Spirituality, belief in the supernatural, powers beyond the  so called natural laws but with little or no dogma (though often elaborate methodology) opposed to rational religion. Mechanisms of discovery independent both of dogma and scientific method. To a certain degree,part of the rigor of magic, but without the agreed upon communal contexts of magic. Private and subjective ceremonies rather than social ones.
2. Re-location of the context for such power in the “Self” or in the self’s “communion” with forces in the terms of a visions quest, and self-created self (lifestyle) and expressed through myth (the primal) and futuristic speculations, as well as a sense of the present anchored in certain mechanisms of “mindfulness and “attention”. Many of these mechanisms are borrowed from Eastern forms of Yoga, meditation, and the practice of manipulating energy (most often one’s own energy, or the energy of nature rather than other human beings).
3. Improvisation as a way of trusting seeming chaos as a more complex form or of order.

In terms of sensation:

Positivism in all its variations as progress, as “learning experience” as self-experimenting, as mind/body balance. Nutrition, aerobic perfection, and the belief in sensation for its own sake or as a mind altering experience. The manipulation of matter as a mechanism for well being: drugs, altered states, body-engineering, the mind as neural re-mapping. Any physical sensation made optimal or toward the optimal, and, when in context with a non-physical or metaphysical concept, the transformation of such a concept to the realm of the meta-biological.

We might see recent developments in post structuralism as the extension of “against a contextualized and localized deity” to all power structures–a destabilizing and deconstructing of the language of discourse itself. Feeling and thinking are functions of discourse. They imply rational choice. Sensation and intuition lose their power when they enter too deeply into discourse (having to be filtered through feeling/thought as subsidiary functions) and can best maintain power through mystification, non-cognitive abstraction, or hypertrophic resorts to process (ceremonies, rituals, routines); the medium as message, paint as paint, poem as thing made out of words. This is the question: is this extension against contextualized structures of power, an attack on power itself, or merely a more elaborate terministic screen of order (fractal and chaotic order) with the unconscious purpose of hiding the arbitrary power under the terms of sheer process? In effect, a movement from “I” and “We”  to “it says so.” In the shift of filtering mechanisms from the nuanced feeling states of catharsis, and epiphany (the chief subjective states) to a realm where sincerity and rigor of methodology become disassociated from coherent feeling/thinking states, intuition and sensation become the highest “virtues.” Self consciousness is often, under this dominance of the irrational functions, a playing with tropes of self as mechanism (meta-fictions). The self becomes a fabrication, the other a fabrication, and the relationship between them is seen at a remove from emotion towards the filtering  mechanism of thought. In effect, introverted or extroverted intuition/sensation as dominating functions with thinking as the secondary function and feeling in a tertiary or inferior position. If the intuition is introverted, the thought will be extroverted, seeking, in however difficult a way to make the intuitions of the subconscious articulate through some sense of system, usually a complex system that is fractal in its particulars. This system will not be applied as with an ENTP, but will be more along the lines of an interpretive schema of process and ceremony, “pure system”–more the tendency of the INTP.

I think it important to remind the reader here that this is an eye ball assessment of tendencies, and that giving any literary era a personality is not much different than saying the wind whispers. It’s a personification, an attributing of human motives to inhuman things, but this does not rule out its usefulness. I want to look at what I consider a poem in a transitional phase between late romanticism/realism, and modernism, a poem that emphasizes intuition and sensation, and places thought/feeling in subsidiary positions: “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.” Before I do, I want to make a distinction between emotion and feeling, as well as thought and idea. Emotions and ideas may belong as much to the realm of the irrational and the sensational as intuition and sensation. An emotion  turns up, unbidden, and we may not know we are “feeling it” until we say: “I feel sad (the judging, interpretive, rational function). The judgment may be wrong as when a person attracted to another feels they are terrified (the hormonal relationship between fear and certain forms of attraction are well documented). Feeling and thought then are judgment functions. They rationalize to affirm or refute an emotion or idea, and to express sensations and intuitions.. We decide. We will. Perhaps it would be better then to call intuition/sensation undetermined functions, and feeling/thought acts of will. Knowing this might serve us in entering this great poem.

The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock

Eliot first wrote Prufrock in 1909 (though I do not trust Eliot in this respect anymore than I trust Coleridge, and it would suit his purpose to say he wrote the poem in 1909 in order to escape the charge of being in the midst of the modernist revolution. Eliot would much prefer not to be in any midst). As the case may be, it was published in 1917, and is part of the modernist movement that precedes and presages the dadaist/nihilist slant modernism took after world war one. It is a frightening and grotesque poem, but no more so than “The Walrus and The Carpenter” or the opening of Dickens’ Bleak House (I think Elliot’s famous fog owes something to Dickens’ Fog in  Bleak House). Much has been made of his innovations in rhyme and meter, but they are not innovations. The off-meters of Prufrock are taken from many precedents of the time, one being the off-meters of light verse, and nonsense verse, as well as a poet who does not get enough credit for being a goad to Eliot: Vachel Lindsey. Lindsey was also from St. Louis and far more famous at the time than Eliot could ever hope to be. Like Eliot, he believed in the primal, and atavistic rhythms that might be found in metrical experiment. His poem “The Congo” was a performance piece that now seems rather naive and dated (as well as unintentionally racist), Lindsey became famous for performing it. His tendency to perform put him in the camp with Sandburg, and it was the Sandburg’s and Lindsey’s of American poetry that Pound, Eliot, and the modernists replaced. We might see this as two possible roads that diverged in a wood. American poets chose the road less taken called modernism, and it made all the difference. Had they taken the road of Lindsey and Sandburg, American poetry may have ended up linked to music and spken word much sooner. More on that at another time. Like Eliot, Lindsey screwed around with sonic and metrical effects obsessively. Some teachers might stress the irony of this poem, its implied attack on the enervated posturings of the vapid and superfluous modern day “Hamlet.” I am more interested in the absence of feeling and thought in the poem. Sensation seems to be the order of the day here, yet sensation denuded of will, and based partially on paralysis.  terms that might prove useful here: Phatic language (In Eliot’s case, Phatic allusion), neurasthenia (Made popular, and at a fever pitch in the early 20 th century, with sanotariums all over Scotland and England for its treatment. Elliot’s wife was diagnosed as having it). The symptoms fit the tenor of Prufrock’s twitchiness), Bovarysme (neurasthenia and Bovarysme are favorite terms of Eliot–not me) and what I call pathetic troth (The attempt to woo by appealing to another’s sense of pity, either by saying self denigrating things about one’s person, or saying that the world is sad, so let’s get it on. “Carpe diem” is a more vigorous form of pathetic troth).

So let’s put these terms together: Phatic Language (allusion), neurasthenia, bovarysme and pathetic troth.

Phatic language (From the Penguin dictionary of literary terms and Literary theory):

Phatic derives from the Greek phasis, ‘utterance.’ A term in linguistics which derives from the phrase ‘phatic communion invented by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. It was applied to language used for establishing an atmosphere and the communication of feelings rather than of ideas, and of logical and rational thoughts. Phatic words and phrases have been called ‘idiot salutations” and, when, they generate to a form of dialogue, ‘two-stroke conversations.’  It seems that the term may also be applied to the kind of noises that a mother makes to her baby, a lover to his mistress, and a master to his dog.

By phatic allusion, Elliot sets an atmosphere in contrast to Prufrock’s paralysis of action. If this is a love poem, it is a love poem that constantly deconstructs itself and never gets to the point, which makes it a species of “pure courtship” (pure in the sense that it serves no utiliatrian end other than its utterance), Eliot alludes to several poems of courtship, namely Andrew Marvel’s “To A Coy Mistress.”

“To squeeze the universe into a ball, and roll it towards some overwhelming question.”

Marvell’s poem gets to the point by pussy footing all around the point and then zeroing in for the kill: listen, we are going to die, we don’t have much time, let’s get it on (“Carpe Diem”–cease the day). Prufrock says: Indeed, there will be time.” This both deconstructs the “Carpe Diem” idea of time being of the essence, and is a form of phatic appeal: “we can wait, do we really need to draw the moment to its crisis? Come on. We have time. Indeed, we have time for indicisions and revisions until the taking of toast and tea…. Prufrock is, in part, a travesty and deconstruction of the idea of carpe diem, but it uses and misuses the devices of carpe diem in order to show that such pathetic appeal to action has become phatic–an idiot’s game of fellow feeling. This device of phatic allusion is a major part of Elliot’s schtick. His allusions are meant as much to deflate the force of literary history as to bring it to bear. “there will be time” is also an allusion to the Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow speech in Macbeth:

There would have been time for words such as these:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
creeps in its petty pace from day to day…

The communion Eliot would engender here is to contrast his indecisive hero to the “Coy Mistress” of Marvell. Where once the love object was coy, the so called lover is coy, hemming and hawing. His other phatic repetitions:

In the room the women come and go,
Talking of Michelangelo.

Do I dare? (eat a peach, disturb the universe).

The section in the poem where Prufrock imagines others noting his bald spot, his thinning hair, his thinning legs–all a species of phatic chit chat, and the fellow feeling of casual remark. Something on the order of this sort of conversation:

“Meg! Meg Darling! How wonderful to see you! OH look what you’ve done with your hair!”
“Do you like it?”
“Like it? I love it! It’s, it’s amazing how good you look. How is John?”
“John got the promotion.”
“Oh my God! That’s wonderful! I can’t think of any one who deserves it more… and you… are you happy?”
“I can’t complain… I saw Marcy Wentworth yesterday… poor girl… the divorce seems to have sent her into a tailspin.”
“I know… Oh my God, did you see how much weight she’s gained?”
“Anti-depressants… you really need a hundred yoga classes for every pill… I bet that’s it… she looks terrible… poor Marcy, and her hair looks like it’s falling out.”
“It does seem a bit thin… My daughter Lisa lost all the weight she gained during her pregnancy. My God, what I wouldn’t give to be 22 and able to lose weight like that.”
“Isn’t that the truth… listen I have to run… is your number still the same?
“Yes…”
“I’ll give you a call. We have to catch up.”
“Let’s do that.”
“We will I promise… well, good seeing you.”
”You, too.” (air kiss).

Eliot, by juxtaposing his chit chatting, nervous, twittery Prufrock against the allusions to Marvel, to Shakespeare, to the idea of “Carpe Diem,” implies that all of history has been made phatic and, largely beside the point. The social observances and pleasantries that once held society together have become forms of insanity, the inability to say what one really means, the inability to act (do I dare) have denuded feeling and thought of all substance. Michelangelo is a subject of idle chit chat for women in a room. We might do well to see how Elliot juxtaposes allusion against the Phatic and frantic questions Prufrock poses. There is a great deal of frantic questioning, and refelction, but nothing, absolutely nothing happens, as with the Rabbit in Lewis Carol’s work: “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date. No time to waste, hello, goodbye, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late:”

I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?”

As Molinowski said, this is not language come forth out of logic, or a rational schema of thought, but language meant to create an atmosphere of fellow feeling (or to mock fellow feeling), also of fear, and disassembling, of timidity, and nervous enervation. The train of thought is inward, and in some sense, Prufrock’s conjectures are as stream of consciousness as Molly Bloom’s meanderings. There are repetitions galore, verbal ticks that come and go as randomly as the women in the room talking of Michelangelo. Sensation (there is much made of the fog, of the tea and marmalade, of the city streets)and intuition (in the form of somewhat hysterical conjectures) prevails and the thoughts and feelings  serve the enervated sensation and the intuitions. This is a poem written in transition between agreed upon feelings and thoughts, and their collapse. It is pastiche, but pastiche that laments– that pines for a significance both the narrator and his creator are convinced has been lost. No one can say what they mean, because meaning itself is lost: “that is not what I meant at all.”

As I said, Postmodernist question the validity of all discourse, and here, in Elliot, the deconstruction of relationship and discourse is already prevailing. Instead of making a bridge between the present and the past, Elliot lets them sit side by side, each oddly ridiculous in the light of the other, a cohabitation which shows as much about their disparity as their connection. Eliot is a master of non-sequitor. The use of parataxis (one thing after another, without conjunctions, without priority or relation to order), the use of  something akin to non-sequitor (a phrase or an allusion just thrown in), the deconstruction of formerly poetic images (Evening is a patient etherized upon a table), all of these tricks will become standard fair for modernist and post modernist poets. And we may know the dissenters from this school by their hatred of allusion, and disconnection. Thought in this poem becomes, in the sense of Flaubert, an inventory of received ideas. Feeling becomes “oh dear me what shall become of me?” and enervation as to any decisive action. The most animate forces in the poem, the forces that act at all are inhuman. The fog is far more lively and humanly active than Prufrock: it licks, rubs, lingers, slips and sleeps, as does the smoke. Streets follow. The afternoon sleeps, stretches on the floor, malingers. Personification swells to the size of a supernova while human action is all conjectural. As with introverted sensation the world of the senses is alive and threatening to swamp consciousness. The unconscious life of the natural world is projected on to the subconscious sensations of the introverted. The fog that is so active at the beginning of Prufrock echoes another equally famous, lively and surreal fog in Dickens’ Bleak House, a novel about a generations long law suit that goes nowhere–a suit, a courtship, a troth that sinks into the bureaucracy of its own process and leaves nothing in its wake. So much for both the phatic allusions, and the use of phatic utterance. Let’s move to neurasthenia.

This was one of Elliot’s favorite words to describe his age, and a very popular buzzword at the time. First coined in 1869, it had become as pervasive a diagnosis by the turn of the century as ADHD, OCD, or depression is now. One of the pet names for it was “Americanitus”:

Americans were supposed to be particularly prone to neurasthenia, which resulted in the nickname “Americanitis” (popularized by William James). Today, the condition is still commonly diagnosed in Asia. (Wikepedia)

The symptoms of neurasthenia were exhaustion of the central nervous system’s energy reserves brought on, Beard believed, by modern civilization–particularly the urban industrial experience. It was associated with upper or upper middle class people, especially professionals with sedentary employment. Listlessness, fatigue, nervous exhaustion (a lot of fretting but no action), a lack of will. Freud (I love this guy) thought that it might be attributed to excessive masturbation. It’s chief symptom was fatigue, listlessness. Elliot used it in a more broad metaphorical sense for the lack of significant action or will power in his age. French languor and enui were fairly common literary conceits by the time, and Prufrock owes a debt to this sort of tired, and flatulent sense of superfluous and weary via the Symbolists. All sensation becomes introverted. One receives sensations, dwells in them, but is powerless to act upon them. Neurasthenia would give way to an almost violent despair by the time Elliot wrote The Wasteland.

Bovarysme

Madame Bovary dreams of perfect romantic feeling states, and more so, dwells in an inner realm of hyper sensations which are more and more fantastic and hysterical as she heads towards her ruin. She is close to sociopathic in her quest for higher transports, and, in all situations where real love is called for (her child, her husband) she is cruelly indifferent and even hostile. Bovary wants what is promised in romance novels. Her name becomes associated with people who saw life as a series of scenarios. Here, in Prufrock’s conjectures about the immediate and less immediate future, we find the hero of the poem imagining himself a pair of claws scuttling alone the sea bottom. He projects himself into old age where he will wear his trousers rolled. He imagines what people are thinking of him. He puts himself into several imaginary situations, and then retreats from any real action. Unlike Madame Bovary, he does not act on his fantasies, attempting to make them come true. He is content to let them pass before his mind’s eye:

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen

In modern terms, we have all become voyeurs of the real. We do not participate. We live in our imaginations and fantasies. Real life is too overwhelming. The mermaids cannot drown us, but “human voices wake us, and we drown.”

Pathetic troth

In all courtship, the lover is beneath the beloved in terms of worthiness, in terms of desirability, and, when this is not literally true, it is true in a tongue and cheek way, or the poet feigns subservience. So all courtship poems are, to a certain degree, a pathetic troth, a plighting and a promising of bliss if so and so will just agree to be with the one who loves.. In Prufrock, the ratio of pathetic to troth is totally out of proportion. Supposedly, he is addressing a “you.” At one point she lays beside him on a pillow, or he imagines her doing so. Her’s is the only voice in the poem to be directly quoted and it says: He offers her a sky that is like a patient etherized upon a table. He offers her street that follow like an argument of insidious intent. He offers her loneliness, and urban squalor, and he offers a self he calls balding, and aging, and not at all a Hamlet. The Adynaton (hyperbolic appeal to doing the impossible) is reverse adynaton. Not only is the impossible impossible; but the possible and even the typical is, also, out of the question. Only in his fantasies has he heard mermaids singing each to each. He says he does not think that they will sing for him. He offers the supposed “beloved” a man who claims he should have been a pair of claws. This love song seems anything but, and yet it is a love song in so far as it is a lament, a courting to action, and the lost meanings of courtship.. His “beloved” is that action he is incapable of. I said before that sensation and intuition do not fare well when they enter discourse for they are not determined or willed functions. They may exhibit their wears, or passively watch the introverted movie of the subconscious played out through the magic lantern, but they hold discourse only through the subsidiary functions of feeling and thought, and, here in this poem feeling has become a series of vapid tropes plus nervous exhaustion, and thought has become a series of phatic allusions and received ideas. “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” might be seen in the light of another famous poem, Dover Beach. Anthony Hecht did a wonderful job of pointing out the delay and hemming and hawing of the speaker in this earlier poem by writing a sort of update on it called “A Dover Bitch.” In that poem, the girl says it is lousy to be addressed as “some last cosmic resort.” She is thinking: “fuck me already, and get it over with.” Sensation turned introverted is “pure” sensation. Intuition filtered through nervous exhaustion and received ideas is merely the fear of death, an inconsequence so vast that it leaves the very sky inert like a patient etherized upon a table.

In Mathew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” the narrator can still make a plea for fidelity in a world where belief has retreated. By the time of Prufrock, such a plea is impossible. Yet, one can still lament the loss of will, of “I” or “we” said so. By the time of the mid century there is no grief at all among the most experimental writers for the loss of will, or the impotence of will. Process becomes its own will–a bureaucracy of sensation and intuition in which the discourse of feeling and thought is a series of tropes. that do not always adhere. Feeling is muted to the point of being almost absent. Of all the poets who master this reversal of dominant functions, there is none greater than Wallace Stevens, though, being a vital and creative admirer of George Santyanna, Stevens redeems thought and feeling as a species of sensation and intuition–what he calls the poem of earth. He claims poetry must resist the intelligence–almost. Reality is a necessary angel. In a sense, Stevens treats thoughts and feelings as decors, as scenic events. As scenery they may still hold beauty, but one’s actions must be those of sensation and intuition. That arbitrary power that lies in “because” is handed over to an it–the process of the poem, the poem as an utterance made out of words,  an “order” making machine in which a great disorder is still an order, in which the “rage to order” is detached from all stable thought, all stable feeling, and given over to a dominant sensation and intuition. So this is my eye ball estimate. I find it useful as a gadget to enter a poem, but it is not accurate at close work. At close work, one will find a thousand exceptions to this rule, but this does nothing to negate the rule. As Kafka said: “The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy the heavens; doubtless this is so, but it proves nothing against the heavens, for the heavens signify simply: the impossibility of crows.”