man’s best friends II

― for P.N.  

I have held off this response as long as I could. I do not and cannot expect it to serve as a peace missive. But I make every effort to soften the blows that I must dispense. I am hoping to factor out emotions like jealousy or anger. Not that I lack such responses to your bid to inflate your literary stature at my expense. The canonical riposte to this attempt would be to promise and ensure that you would only go down in history as a footnote to me. But I refuse to play our game in the service of vanity. Every time we tangle up in our egos, I stray from my course. It is a vice that I shall no longer tolerate in myself. To risk unsolicited if timely advice, it is also a luxury that you can no longer afford in your life.
    It remains that I owe you an answer. I further believe that you owe me contrition. Whether or not you acknowledge and discharge this debt is beyond my control.
    You are a poet. I try to be a philosopher. As a poet, you objected to what you took for my summary of Plato’s philosophical quarrel with poetry. You cited your scholarly credentials and your poetic vocation to trump my learning and my character. Let us test these resources on one example. I had observed that you cruise for a bruising and sulk after a slap. In response, you asked me to “drop this butch cant” when talking to you. But this butch cant belongs to none other than Plato:

ταῦτα δή, ἔφην, ἀπολελογήσθω ἡμῖν ἀναμνησθεῖσιν περὶ ποιήσεως, ὅτι εἰκότως ἄρα τότε αὐτὴν ἐκ τῆς πόλεως ἀπεστέλλομεν τοιαύτην οὖσαν: ὁ γὰρ λόγος ἡμᾶς ᾕρει. προσείπωμεν δὲ αὐτῇ, μὴ καί τινα σκληρότητα ἡμῶν καὶ ἀγροικίαν καταγνῷ, ὅτι παλαιὰ μέν τις διαφορὰ φιλοσοφίᾳ τε καὶ ποιητικῇ: καὶ γὰρ ἡ “λακέρυζα πρὸς δεσπόταν κύων ἐκείνη κραυγάζουσα υνκνοων” καὶ “μέγας ἐν ἀφρόνων κενεαγορίαισι” καὶ ὁ “τῶν διασόφων ὄχλος κρατῶν” καὶ οἱ “λεπτῶς μεριμνῶντες,” ὅτι ἄρα “πένονται,” καὶ ἄλλα μυρία σημεῖα παλαιᾶς ἐναντιώσεως τούτων.
Republic X, 607bc
Let us, then, conclude our return to the topic of poetry and our apology, and affirm that we really had good grounds then for dismissing her from our city, since such was her character. For reason constrained us. And let us further say to her, lest she condemn us for harshness and rusticity, that there is from of old a quarrel between philosophy and poetry. For such expressions as ‘the yelping hound barking at her master and mighty in the idle babble of fools,’ and ‘the mob that masters those who are too wise for their own good,’ and the subtle thinkers who reason that after all they are poor, and countless others are tokens of this ancient enmity.
― translated by Paul Shorey

Further, this butch cant, reduced to the fundamental order of pitching and catching, belongs to none other than your former self:

Get lost in peace, or I’ll blow your own ghostly self-righteous blithering presence here out of proportion too ― so badly that you’ll become permanently incapable of fucking, but only of being fucked. As a good reader-response cunt, you get the idea.
P.N., 22 Mar 93 09:05:16 GMT

In the event, you were objecting to a guileless fuckwit standing up for a non-general truth propounded by a third party to the effect that there’s nothing inherently wrong with fucking a three-year-old. Back in the days, you also prided yourself in being “a tactless and habitually rude intellectual miscreant always insisting irrationally on a culture of strong attitudes” and expressed a hope that your interlocutor and you can “weed out this ‘personal element’ before it sprouts too profusely, and talk like rational men.” Even six years later you still agreed that truth is your ultimate ideal. That was also the time when you maintained that poetry is philosophic. But that was then. Here we are in the now.
    That now comes in the wake of my observing that you seek to elude rhetoric in constraining your audience to yourself, and concluding that, as a result, instead of distilling rhetoric through humble submission to truth, you succeed only in choosing an onanistic variety of pandering. Instead of formulating a relevant response, you express your increasingly frequent suspicion that it matters to me not at all what I argue, so long as in the end I have the pleasure of disparaging something or other as “onanistic” or otherwise sexually problematic. You then memorably inform me that reason has no watering spot in the draughts of my dismissal. According to you, my self-image as an alpha male obscures from me the simple truth that literature is not sex and not like sex. I gladly confess my long-standing adversity to simple truths. The truths that interest me display none of the simplicity that seems so near and dear to your creed. Whether or not literature is sex, and to what extent it is like or unlike sex, is not a subject that inspires my certainty. On the other hand, I am certain that the standards of manners maintained by you in public fora and private exchanges, let alone the cruder logoi of Plato and Aristophanes, are equally appropriate in my response. Try not to be bothered by my failure to surpass your refinement.
    As I just pointed out, you make no effort to distinguish the rhetorical aspects of pandering directed at oneself, from those of that directed at others. Instead, you remind me of having said elsewhere that your readers are your friends and you care for them and indeed sometimes write specifically for them and have some degree of natural curiosity about what they think of your poetry. But they are neither the cause of your writing nor the yardstick with which to measure its success, because you are yourself harder to impress with verse than almost any imaginary audience. You can count on the fingers of one hand all the living readers whose opinion of your work truly matters to you in a big way. You then recall a conversation we had on your last visit to L.A., when I remarked that in my opinion it was much harder to impress others with one’s worth than oneself. For you, the opposite is true.
    All well and good, but I wish that you had omitted me in whatever digital accounting inspired you to elicit my living opinion of your work in the crudest fashion imaginable, by picking an unprovoked quarrel in the manifesto that you composed and published in your journal. Please take this part on my authority as the injured party, until I can explain the particulars of your transgression. Meanwhile, as we established in an affair wherein you volunteered to serve as my second, my late teacher Alonzo Church set the standard of discourse in the journal that he edited, by articulating his belief that “the eighteenth-century custom of dueling should be reinstated for this one thing, ― that a man who has been insulted in print should have the right to challenge to a duel; [for] that would make the writers a little more careful about trying to blow up their own ego by being sarcastic.” Thus you have no excuse for overlooking, let alone undermining, the foundation of personal values that underlay our persiflage and your willing collusion therein.
    You make general disclaimers. You have no “pure aesthetics.” As a matter of fact, you think you have no “aesthetics.” You don’t believe in the value of aesthetic theory, do not seek theoretical robustness. It typically interests philosophers more than writers to theorize. Given this disparity of interests, you might have been better off not holding yourself out as an authority in charge of Fulcrum: an annual of poetry and aesthetics. In that august capacity, you admit having basic beliefs and gut feelings, and you allow that it might even be appropriate sometimes to call them principles. For instance, you disagree that rhetoric is the most desirable container for truth. Not having staked out any positions in this regard, I find nothing to engage in your disagreement. You allow that Plato argues that the true rhetoric is philosophy. But then you claim that this is of peripheral interest because poetry is neither rhetoric nor philosophy. Let us note a partial reversal of your erstwhile identity. “Memory is a daffy whore, easy prey to the wrong charms”, as you succinctly pointed out elsewhere. And yet it remains that your newfound dissociation of poetry from rhetoric is unfounded either in definition or in argument. All you profess is a bald assertion of contrast, upon which I already commented elsewhere:

Philosophy hopes to be like life, to fit itself accurately to the world. Poetry is just so much larger than life (or so it seems, except at moments when life steps on it). In poetry one’s fundamental impulse, primary purpose, unchallenged first principle, is to amaze oneself with one’s own words.
Fulcrum: an annual of poetry and aesthetics, Number Two, 2003, Editorial: Poetic Anarchy, p. 9.

Rhetoric aims at verbal persuasion, whereas poetry aims at verbal amazement. It is hard to find fault with this distinction. Indeed, poetry standing to prose as dancing stands to walking or running is a veritable symbolist commonplace. (See Paul Valéry, Poésie et pensée abstraite (1939), Œuvres II, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 1960, pp. 1329-1330.) However, this proportion fails to sustain thoroughgoing application in any creative domain. Resisting the imperative to come to the point, to arrive at his destination, does not and cannot consign the poet to The Ministry of Silly Walks.

    Thus 185 years ago, in February and March of 1821, barely more than a year before his death by drowning on July 8, 1822, exercised by Thomas Love Peacock’s arguments about its redundancy in The Four Ages of Poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley undertook his Romantic defence of poetry. Counting Plato as “essentially a poet”, and Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton, as “philosophers of the very loftiest powers”, he sought to bridge the gap between their arts. To this end he argued that pleasure in its highest sense, residing in the superior portions of our being, was frequently connected with the pain of our inferior parts. In this special connection, sorrow, terror, anguish, despair itself were often the chosen expressions of an approximation to the highest good. He linked the production and assurance of pleasure in this highest sense to true utility, and identified those who produce and preserve this pleasure as poets or poetical philosophers. Shelley envisioned philosophy in its natural and moral aspects as subsumed into poetry as “that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred”. And in turning upside down the conception of the Philosopher King (Republic VI, 484a487a), he announced the political function of poets:

Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present, the words which express what they understand not, the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire: the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.
―Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry

Shelley spoke of the distinction between philosophers and poets, whereas the Philosopher’s designation of the ancient quarrel (παλαιὰ … διαφορὰ) between philosophy and poetry rested on the term that in the hands of his ablest disciple and interpreter was purged of adversarial connotations. This development was already implicit in Plato’s own account of their connection, when Socrates asks Phaedrus to go and tell Lysias (Λυσίας) that the two of them came down to the fountain and sacred place of the nymphs, and heard words that they told them to repeat to Lysias and anyone else who composed speeches, and to Homer (Ὅμηρος) or any other who has composed poetry with or without musical accompaniment, and third to Solon (Σόλων) and whoever has written political compositions, which he calls laws: If he has composed his writings with knowledge of the truth, and is able to support them by discussion of that, which he has written, and has the power to show by his own speech that the written words are of little worth, such a man ought not to derive his title from such writings, but from the serious pursuit that underlies them. (Phaedrus, 278b8d1.)
    As Tom Chance has taught us, Plato envisions philosophy subsuming three different types of written logoi, namely the writing of speeches, poetry, and laws. He gives three concrete embodiments of these types in the figures of the forensic orator, the epic poet, and the constitutional legislator. (Phaedrus, 278e1-2.) In contrast to words used in writing, philosophical discourse enters his analysis in the use of words that are heard (ἠκούσαμεν λόγων). (Phaedrus, 278b9.) Plato then establishes the conditions (εἰ μὲν … ἀποδεῖξαι) on the basis of which an epic poet, a speech writer, or a writer of laws can be converted into a philosopher, and so renamed. He must know “how truth holds” (ᾗ τὸ ἀληθὲς ἔχει). He must have composed his writings with this knowledge. He must be able to support them by discussion of that which he has written (καὶ … ἀποδεῖξαι). The poet, the orator, and the legislator may then join forces with the philosopher in his search of a true verbal expression of the innermost reality of things.


    This is the analysis that you seek to undermine. It is most important for you to distinguish the truths of poetry from the truths of rationalist philosophy. You say that poetry’s truths are local and personal rather than general. According to you, it is only in this local and personal capacity that the truths of poetry make sense and have value. You then cite Lev Shestov, whom you profess to love, as having things to say about non-general truths (невсеобщие истины). You point out that he finds his examples precisely in poetry, e.g. Pushkin’s “ты сам свой высший суд.” You claim that fervent proclamation of self-sufficiency as the kind of personal truth that doesn’t fit everybody and is, understandably, of no use to rationalist philosophy.
    On some level of this discourse you must realize that you are engaged in producing philosophy. Indeed, it is the kind of philosophy that Shestov sought to accommodate in his most passionately argued writings:

    Философы ужасно любят называть свои суждения “истинами”, ибо в таком чине они становятся общеобязательными. Но каждый философ сам выдумывает свои истины. Это значит: он хочет, чтобы его ученики обманывались по выдуманному им способу, право же обманываться на свой манер он оставляет за одним собой. Почему? Почему не предоставить каждому человеку права обманываться, как ему вздумается?
    ― Лев Шестов, Апофеоз беспочвенности (опыт адогматического мышления), I. 56
    Philosophers profess a terrible fondness for calling their judgments “truths”, since in this station they become universally binding. But each philosopher invents his truths by himself. This means that he wishes his students to be deceived according to the method invented by him, whereas the right to be deceived in his own manner he reserves only for himself. Why? Why not grant to each man the rights to be deceived according to his wishes?
    ― Lev Shestov, Apotheosis of Groundlessness (An attempt of adogmatic thinking), translated by MZ

Why not indeed? If that right were the only gravamen of your attack on philosophy, and against your obedient servant as its putative, minor acolyte, no ill will would dwell between us. Help yourself to Baron Munchhausen’s proud motto, MENDACE VERITAS, and never look back. But something seems to be holding you back. Could it be that your erstwhile mockery of postmodern idols, your stern insistence on the really interesting thing, “that people can discover truth, and that does not require a conversation of two people”, your avowed feeling that the truths of logic and arithmetic are fundamental truths and not merely “working truths”, have imbued you with lasting principles that resist your poetic profession of personal, particular, and provisional verities? What are we to make today of your proposal of thirteen years ago?

If you agree that you exist, that logic is a feature of the universe, that humans are a race of rational beings sharing a common fundamental nature, and that the survival of the human race is desirable, then the possibility of universal standards is mere commentary. God or any other personified authority has nothing to do with this.
― P.N., 13 Mar 93 06:09:05 GMT

Of course, now you tell me that “the practice of poetry is a religion in its own right and abhors the possibility of any notional authority being placed above it.” But ruling out any notional authority strikes me as a wishy-washy way to avoid dealing with your relation to the real authority of such universal standards as truth and reason. If you still acknowledge this impersonal and absolute authority, whence comes your insistence on relentlessly reducing my opposition to your newfound veneration of negligible and evanescent subjectivity, to my irrepressible impulse to domineer, which you allege to be central and primary to almost everything I say or do?
    Please recall that I never sought this conversation. Please recall that, far from soliciting your “seven (or more) years of following [my] postings”, pointing out your “great luck of knowing [me] personally”, or seeking your obsequious testimonial to my “extremely brilliant (and nearly 600-page long) undergraduate thesis, Representation and Modernity”, I made every effort to keep my graphomaniacal screed away from the ardor of your enthusiasm. I did so for a variety of reasons that ranged from my greater appreciation of, and agreement with, Torkel Franzen peremptorily and precisely judging it “a remarkable piece of windbaggery”, to my currently realized anticipation of your unwonted discipleship turning into unwelcome aggression.
    You therefore lie at least once in writing: “I have no use for the agon that you perpetually crave.” While I would be the first to disclaim great insight into my own cravings, your solicitation of struggle is a matter of public record. I have documented your abuse of the Great Unwashed on the Usenet. And you have confirmed your intent to refer to me, or “some version” of me, every time you say “the philosopher” in your manifesto. In this matter, your finely attuned linguistic sensibilities are failing you alike in antagonism and appeasement. As I explained to you in conversation, you bestow the best compliment that I could hope for by calling me a minor philosopher. The quality of loving wisdom does not diminish from want of heroic stature, whereof your painstaking denial to me complements my life-long failure to arrogate its like. In this domain, as in so many others, we cannot correlate our human worth with our virile endowment. Your fear of submission is therefore once again beside the point. Yet when you deny having sneered in print at another man’s ― at my ― modus vivendi, your denial rings hollow. In claiming to appreciate, for what it’s worth, “the insufficiency of philosophy”, you do not and cannot avoid gainsaying all that the lover of wisdom holds dear. For if love of wisdom is good for anything, it is good for everything. Seeking to limit the application of philosophy to those purposes that philosophy primarily serves, whatever you might take them to be, is as preposterous as seeking to limit your love for your wife and your daughter to some predetermined domain of primary utility. Love is either pervasive or bogus. How would you react if I published an essay on love that implicitly addressed a distinct class of individuals, yourself expressly included and unequivocally identified, in passages that sounded personal notes on top of (rather than underneath) their publicly available meaning? It is with love of ideas, just as it is with love of people.
    To the contrary, you baldly proclaim that “philosophy is of limited use to other arts, which are autonomous and owe it no duty, even if they fall in love with it on occasion.” I have seen and heard this claim of autonomy before, but it never impressed me as intelligible, let alone incontrovertible. An example might help. I thank you for pointing me to Ben Mazer’s review of your latest book, which reproduces this poem:


Your narrator identifies himself to me as a friend of the Forms (εἴδη). Based on the account of the Eleatic Stranger (Sophist, 248a), I understand him to have taken the side of gods in the battle (γιγαντομαχία) between gods and giants (Sophist, 246a) by ascribing existence only to the intelligible and incorporeal Forms. He is thereby pitted against the native (αὐτόχθων) earthborn giants (Sophist, 247c) who ascribe existence only to sensible bodies. His identification connects with the argument that his party is involved in a conflict between dividing existence into two disparate realms of Being (οὐσία) and Becoming (γένεσις), and postulating that the soul knows through having intercourse with real Being. Your friend of Forms is thus pressured to admit (Sophist, 248e249a) that motion and life and soul and mind are really not present to absolute Being, that it neither lives nor thinks (μηδὲ ζῆν αὐτὸ μηδὲ φρονεῖν), but awful (σεμνός) and holy (ἅγιος), devoid of mind (νοῦν οὐκ ἔχον), is fixed and immovable (ἀκίνητον ἑστὸς εἶναι). Since he also professes to be hurt by whatever he takes Plato to have so influentially taught concerning poetry, it is nary a stretch to conclude that he regards himself as a poet. He acknowledges his place in the Socratic allegory of poets as cicadas (Phaedrus, 259bd.) Thereupon the reader is reassured that what he calls the power of assertion is sheer manipulation of emotion. Meanwhile, out in the independently rhymed and metered framework, we are informed that DNA can be extracted from insects ensnared in the resin of ancient trees. Mazer elucidates:

The sonnet grapples with Plato’s original damage to the confidence of poets, ‘logos’ here meaning the Socratic philosophical argument against poetry, and is ‘anxious to concede its truth’ — that poets are not an authority on truth. Yet ‘logos’ might also refer to ‘the word,’ to poetry. The sonnet then might be anxious to concede the truth that poetic language is insufficient to express truth, or it might be anxious to concede that poetic language can attain to the authority of truth. All of these meanings are there on the fence in the sonnet’s anxiety. But the painful loss of innocence is the acceptance of Plato’s truth.
    Poetry is not assertion — it is manipulation of emotion. The liquid luminescence of the sonnet draws us into the poet’s ‘feigned insomnia.’ But beneath all this pyrotechnic manipulation of emotion there are truths — or ideas about truth — which if not asserted (why need they be, if they are good ideas?) are quite certainly suggested, invoked, insinuated. But Nikolayev wants or allows us to view these without the innocence of unquestioning face-value acceptance: he presents them rather in all their contradictory and unsettling, unsettled relations to each other. Yet in the process he has asserted something about the language of poetry — about its method of addressing truth. It is oblique, suggestive, effecting reference by demonstrations of attitude, of pitch. It is a kind of charade, a prescribed mimicry which appeals to the emotions. It is ironic, and throws into a questioning light the very modalities of our belief.
    The ‘prose’ component of the poem begins as a discourse about how amber is formed, but becomes a kind of commentary on the nature of poetry. The right recipe for poetry will come by ‘trial and error.’ Genuine poetry, ‘the only recipe,’ is a kind of glue in which the poet’s poetic DNA will be preserved forever.

It is a very nice poem, supported by a very learned commentary, and propounding a very hopeful message. Yet a nagging concern remains. In the acceptance of Plato’s censorious truth, presumably that of the Republic, there is no attempt to follow Plato’s therapeutic prescription of the Phaedrus. On the contrary, in a move that fails to accord both internally with its own logic, and externally with your programmatic repudiation of rhetoric, the narrator arrogates assertoric force to his disclaimer of poetic capacity for assertion, even as he owns up to the canonical aim of the rhetor to manipulate the feelings of his audience. (Phaedrus, 267cd.)
    Once upon a time, you claimed that humility is hubris. In the same vein, albeit to the utmost saturation of verbal filigree, you now inform us that blunt assertion is anxious concession. Belaboring the existentialist connection with postmodern aesthetics, we get back to Shestov:

Последняя, подлинно достоверная истина, на которой рано или поздно согласятся люди, заключается в том, что в метафизической области нет достоверных истин.
― Лев Шестов, Potestas Clavium, III, Memento mori (По поводу теории познания Эдмунда Гуссерля) I
The final, authentically certain truth, upon which people will sooner or later agree, consists in the fact that in the metaphysical realm there are no certain truths.
― Lev Shestov, Potestas Clavium, III, Memento mori (concerning the theory of knowledge of Edmund Husserl), translated by MZ

Munchhausen’s logos is hard at work in each instance. Admittedly, your poetic aims seem comparatively modest. You merely strive to carve out a space that preserves your invertebrate DNA against the depredations of time. Again, it is all exceedingly traditional. Again, your traditional affiliation is liable to displease you. The aesthetic that appears to supplant the Augustan monument of Horace with the bourgeois bibelot of Mallarmé is bound to a school that you claim to abhor. Perhaps your loathing is as much of a pose as Philip Larkin’s disclaimer of reading foreign poetry. I am not inclined to spend a lot of time on pondering the likelihood of such dissimulation. My point is independent of your sincerity. In keeping with a familiar rule of life, you have twisted the premisses of my argument. Far from claiming title to any “turf” in regards to the problems of truth, I deny that your discourse on anything related to philosophy is grounded in anything solid. In your terms, your efforts have no effect for want of a fulcrum.
    This is not about your writing. What concerns me is the stuff behind it. You are mistaken in supposing that offense requires a personal attack on the offended party. When you attack “the schools of thought, not of [my] invention but blessed with [my] membership, that want to see poetry as a helpmate to this or that”, you strike against what I have identified earlier as my modus vivendi. You have helped us by drawing a parallel between poetry and religion. Try bringing 5,000 of your closest personal friends into your friendly neighborhood House o’God™ to chant Ave Satani. Make sure to single out your pious next door neighbor with coyly coded allusions to his bizarre articles of faith. Then ward off strife with heartfelt reassurances that you meant to provide food for their thought rather than kindling for your stake.
    Again, I do not mean to disparage your writing. For as long as we have known each other, I have respected your literary talents. Likewise, I have no interest in challenging your poetic goals. It is perfectly clear that your poetry is written de profundis rather than ex cathedra. In that, it evinces many admirable qualities. It is simply beyond my concern as a confessional genre. Just as you have no use for philosophy that claims universal purview, so I have no use for poetry that withholds all universal implications. Not every artist can benefit from genetic self-preservation within costume jewelry or decorative knickknacks. Some people are better served by turning their gaze towards constellations. As your friend, I have always been available for your confidences. As a reader, I find that your confessional poetry involves me in a conflict of interests. As far as I can tell, it is not a matter of claiming certainty in matters of right and wrong. While I have every intention of demolishing affectations of aesthetic autonomy, I make of it nothing personal. I am sorry that you have an insulted sense of friendship. That is an inevitable consequence of your instant insistence that it’s a privilege for me to know you and a greater privilege to be your friend, which in turn follows as an inevitable consequence from your having once reveled in the great luck of knowing me personally. This dependency works only to the extent that it remains honored and acknowledged tacitly or discreetly. Reciprocity of gifts becomes fatally undermined the moment it has been openly articulated.
    Much remains to be said. But I am wrapping up today in honor of your birthday. May every day that follows make a precious contribution to the unfolding of your life and the thriving of your loved ones.

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