uncertainplume (bobbydrake666) wrote,

Poetry & The Philosophy Of Love- an edited epistle

Yesterday, in spite of myself, I engaged in a violent skirmish with my father. The subject of debate was the status of love letters and love poetry.

My father's position is one that I have wrestled with throughout the course of my creative life. In short, he dissociates love (as primordial feeling, ineffable sensation) from its expression in words and signs. Whence this cleavage between life and art, if not in the separation between wordless content (feeling) and symbolic form (words that always fall short of the mark?)

Life is, therefore, mute, and poetry is the vainglorious, Promethean attempt to ventriloquize it. This ventriloquism is always aritificial- life has no voice of its own, it must be animated from without, vocalization is always a violation of its sacred silence.

I must admit that I have always been tempted by this hypothesis. It is the mystical temptation, that part of me that falls in and out of love with God, He-Who-Is-Forever-Nameless, YHWH. As you know I am very given to this sort of holy hyperbole. It is a bit silly.

You know, one of the crucial passages of Plato's 'Republic', a move that has had profound repercussions for the history of Western thought, involves his banishment of the poets. Why does he do this? I think there are two reasons, one that is necessary from the perspective of Plato's foundational doctrine, the second being critical for the practice of philosophy at large. Without the banishmentof poetry, without the consummate divorce of philosophy from poetry, philosophy is simply inconceivable. Thus, poetry is dangerous, contaminative, an infectious virus that must be isolated and quarantined so that philosophy can come into its own. The fact that this banishment happens in the Republic is significant- Plato is attempting to think of the ideal social order, a configuration that would guarantee the legitimacy of society. If we think of power as that which NAMES (you are Chinese, you are middle-class, you hold these rights as a consequence) and ASSIGNS places through classification (the frontier between citizen, immigrant, illegal alien, who belongs to the 'people' of the Republic, who the enemy is), then it is easy to see why poetry is so fatal or the social bond. Is poetry not the dissolution of every place, does it not happen in the collapse of every name, the revocation of every consitutive nomination, ,so that it may name/baptize things anew, as though for the very first time? If philosophy and power function through the operation of invariant logic (assimilation of singularities to categories and concepts), then poetry is ultimately a-logical: it exploits the tears in the fabric of meaning, it makes small incisions in the tissue of totality. Every poem is withdrawal, subtraction, seizing its object from every sort of generality, shielding it in the hermetic shelter of its utterance. Poetry manages to think singularity, it makes no reference to rule or law, it prescribes nothing.

So much for that. The other side of this banishment concerns Plato's metaphysics. The cornerstone of Plato's theory, as we know, is that appearance is contingent, chaotic, a totally senseless flux of change and decay. What preserves some kind of sameness/consistency in this inane process of continuous metamorphosis? For every empirical object, there is an immaterial, divine Idea that guarantees its Identity. So we can set fire to every existent tree in a grand conflagration, but the eternal Idea of the Tree subsists in some cosmic realm of the Intelligence.

If every empirical tree is, in actuality, a mere fascimile of the original Idea, then every artistic/poetic representation of this copy is really a copy of a copy, doubly estranged from reality. The procedure of Platonic philosophy is always analogous, symmetrical to this banishment. In the Symposium, where Plato talks about love, he attempts to subtract love from every empirical object, in order to uncover the essential Idea of love. You can guess what the process is. I say that I love YOU as an irreplaceable, singular woman, that I love idiosyncratic traits that only YOU possess, but that isn't really (philosophically) true. In order to extract philosophical truth from this love, which is a pre-philosophical, blind sort of desire, I must remove love from every contingent, material object and realize that LOVE is really a desire for immortality. Where can immortality be found? In the intellectual Idea, in philosophical wisdom. Hence the concept of 'Platonic love', where one subdues the lusts of the flesh and devotes oneself to a mutual pursuit of truth thorugh friendship (Socrates and Alcibiades). By subtracting love from its material support (the Other person as cause, origin and impetus for love), Plato dematerializes it and transforms it into some sort of metaphysical drive inherent in the human creature (notice the Freudian twist to this- the object cause of my love's 'desire' is that imperceptible thing in the woman that reminds me of my mother and my unfulfillable yearning for wholeness with the Mother...distinct from the desire are the inhuman, immortal drives of eros and thanatos...), a longing for one's spiritual home. Loving is not a departure from the known, an embarkation into the night, but a homecoming.

I think this is really at the heart of every denunciation of poetry as the perversion of 'truth'. There is the assumptin that Love is an invariant thing, that there is a concept of 'Love' that persists in its sameness through all of its contingent manifestations. This is the pitfall of language- it attempts to bind all of the multifarious oscillations of the heart in one word, 'Love', a word that is supposed to encapsulate them all. What is the danger in this? One supposes that 'Love' is something we do not need to speak about, because we intuitively know what it is. If Love is a property common to humankind as such, if all of us have access to it, then it seems proper to say that it should be accorded the same dignity as any other primal function, say eating, sleeping, drinking. We can learn nothing from love poetry, which merely supplements and embellishes something we have always known. Hence the moment of recognition whenever one encounters a great poet- one feels as though one were destined for this encounter, as though the poet were a cipher for our secret thoughts. This is the Platonic figure of anamnesis.

Yet isn't this all rather vulgar? I think we're all familiar with the logic behind this sort of sophistry, which manifests itself throughout the art of the modern era (the painting of Gauguin, Delacroix, Dubuffet...)- Western Civilization has always been captivated by the image of the noble savage living in the heart of reality, attuned to the vibrations of the invisible. This hypothetical tribe is granted access to untrammelled spontaneity, immediacy of feeling without the intercession of language. The curse of civilization, we are told,. is to have been branded by language, which institutes an insurpassable gap between itself and a lost innocence, a savage and unlimited enjoyment. Language is like an opaque screen that coats the eyes, refracting and distorting every act of perception. This is the Kantian gap between phenomena and 'things-in-themselves'....

I don't know about you, but I write in opposition ot this. I am resolutely against this concepton of language as a necessary evil, an obstacle to some 'pre-linguistic', primitive 'life'. I believe that language is co-extensive, not separate from, life, that there is a certain use of language that enhances and augments life, that allows it to proliferate. I don't believe that life 'precedes' poetry, which is a mere attempt to approximate and describe the fullness of a feeling. Poetry is not imitative description, the miming of something external to it (the verisimilitude or accuracy of which would be its criterion of success or failure). It is not a recreation of something that is lost, the trace of a tragic absence. Love poetry proceeds only from an overflowing fullness, an illimitable abundance.

It is precisely this abundance that prevents 'love' from ever coinciding with itself. The word 'love' designates nothing other than a perpetual disequilibrium, one's exposure to an unsettling imbalance. How could we possibly conflate it with the placidity of a divine Concept? Love could never be One, whole. If we can say that love is meaningless, it is not because, in its absurd excess, we can say nothing about it, but because, in its very SURPLUS of meaning, we can never say ENOUGH about it. This is why poetry is the abolition of the place, the destitution of the bond, the dissolution of the name- it revokes every form of fixity and MULTIPLIES MEANING TO THE MAXIMUM. Poetry is not the negation of meaning, but its infinite affirmation, its infinite dissemination. It engenders a series of equivalent meanings, none of which excludes the other, none of which desires to institute itself as the supreme, transcendent instance, the 'truth' of the others. One could say that it poetry works laterally, stringing a plurality of meanings together in a non-hierarchical, endlessly-expansive chain. In this way, poetry is always iconoclastic.

So, when we write a love poem, we are performing a very precise operation, the sobriety of which is masked by its lexical delirium. This is the point at which philosophy and poetry bifurcate. If the Socratic (Platonic) question is "WHAT is love?" the accent being placed on 'What' as an identifiable, singular essence (THIS *is* love in its precise sense, THIS *is* how we avoid confusing love with every other essence), then the poet's response to Socrates is totally anti-philosophical, inimical to the very grammar and rubric of philosophical procedure. The poet manages to say, with earnest seriousness: "Very well, I shall tell you exactly what love is. It is a pack of ravenous hyenas, it is a draught of ambrosia, it is a hurricane, it is a skybound harpoon, and...and...and..." (the marvel of this is that the poet is being AS PRECISE as the philosopher, it's just that their conceptions of precision DIFFER....)

The philosopher, naturally, is infuriated by this interminable litany, he plugs his ears and begs his interlocutor to stop. Lost in a bout of effusion, the poet sings until the evening....
PHILOSOPHER: Yes, yes, but WHICH is IT?! Which ONE is LOVE?!

This problem of the One is really what underlies the condemnation of poetry, the conflation of poetry with untruth. Truth is One, pure, unblemished, separate from the multiple confusions and obfuscations of language. But since we are obliged to make use of language in community with one another, language approaches truth only if it purges itself of all of its mystifications and ruses. Language cannot aim straight at the truth, it is always askew, tangential, but i should nevertheless maintain straightness as an impossible ideal. To shoot straight, that is the dream of language. hence the proliferation of abbreviations and acronyms today, the equation of language with the transparency of information. If truth is One and language is the One vehicle by which we travel (asymptotically, tangentially) towards it, then poetry is the renunciation of every forward movement. It spins around like a whirling top, circumambulating endlessly about its own axis. Poetry, in the eye of the pragmatist, is the celebration of language's intrinsic impotency, freeing language from the relentless impulsions of truth. Of course, this is a totally impoverished conception of truth. It fails to see that the truth of poetry is not one of accuracy or correctness (which is why any attempt to chastise its failure to 'simulate', in a sufficiently credible fashion, the feeling of love or passion, is necessarily bankrupt, relying as it does on a conception of literature as scientific realism or naturalism). The truth of poetry is not separate from its act of enunciation, it is not 'outside' speech, it is WITHIN the saying itself. And this truth is always singular, unrepeatable, EVEN when it is a repetition.

What do I mean? Take, for example, the articulation of 'I love you'. These words have been repeated an infinite number of times by an infinite series of lovers, but it retains all of its poetic, performative force regardless of its banality, it is because it CREATES A TRUTH, a new situation each time it is repeated. "I love you" is not a mere citation, it does not operate on the same plane as mundane speech. Is it not amazing that these three words, which we have heard from the lips of innumerable films stars and musicians, continue to exert their dangerous fascination on the popular imagination? To say that you love someone is to thrust them into a catastrophe, to expose them to something incomprehensible. They are words without meaning, but words that, in an act of force, forges a singular relationship between two people, binding them to an incalculable power.

So much hinges on the decision to pronounce one's love. Herein lies the power of the poetic gesture, an act that forces the windows of reality open and implores (tremblingly) the lover to leap through them. This act of opening REQUIRES the poem. Contrary to what many think, we are not open all the time. Poetry does not reside in a pre-existing open, it CREATES AN OPENING through its utterance, its performance. This struggle to escape closure, maybe this is what the life of the artist, the poet, the free man is.
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