by Kenneth WHITE
« Disintegrating the image, turning meaning into movement. »
The wind’s howling round my study :
« Hebrides, Minches, Baillie. South-west backing south-east 6 to gale 8 decreasing 4 for a time. Rain showers. Good becoming poor for a time. Fair Isle, Faroes. Westerly severe gale 9 decreasing 4 backing south-east 6 to gale 8 later… »
If there’s anything I listen to with pleasure on the radio, it’s the marine weather report. With very few exceptions, the rest of the news is just the story of never-ending human imbecility. Joyce wanted to waken up from the nightmare. Hegel thought he saw a logic in it and he wrote the Phenomenology of the Mind in order to demonstrate the fact. In my more philosophical moments, I’m tempted to compose a Meteorology of the Mind, but I’ve come to want to leave the -logies alone and work closer in to the landscape, in an intellectual context still to be defined. I’ve been calling it for some time now geopoetics, and consider it as aiming at a new mental geography and a new language of communication (a wave-length our culture hasn’t yet tuned into.)
That’s what I’ve come to work at here in Brittany.
Paul Valéry evokes somewhere those monks of the Western rim of Europe who, at one point in our history, « isolated themselves, in order to write huge poems — for nobody ». In his history of books and book-production, Fernand Cuvelier describes them in some more detail : « Along with that anxiety-ridden period of emptiness between two civilizations came a renewal of human expression in the form of written texts […]. There was an early burst of activity about the third and fourth centuries […]. A second burst came between the seventh and ninth centuries […]. Strange characters, travelling monks, started moving all over Europe. The historians tell us their heads were partially shaven, that their eyelids were painted with vermilion, and that they spoke a rough, guttural language […]. After a nomadic period, those monks chose a place to stay and settled down. […] The monasteries saved all that could be saved […]. The Scots influence was to be predominant for centuries. »
My head isn’t shaven and my eyelids aren’t daubed with vermilion, but there’s more than one analogy between the situation of those monks and mine, between what they did and what I try to do.
It’s probable that we also are going through, more or less consciously, a passage between two cultures. Just as those monks and others of their age were leaving paganism for christianity, we today are leaving humanism (self-centred man as the measure of things in the world) for another field. But if I refer to those monks, if I do a little cultural archaeology in this way, what is certain is that it’s not to situate myself in a tradition, it’s not to adopt any historicist standpoint, it’s simply to sharpen my sense of intellectual and cultural movement, and, perhaps, to draw up my historical accounts in order to feel free to enter… a geography.
These last few weeks, I’ve been re-reading Hölderlin, who talks of the free usage of what is native and national (this « free usage » implying a move through other cultures) and who, in a beautiful letter of 1802 to his friend Böhlendorff, evokes a sense of nature and a notion of poetic activity which is germane to what I’m trying to get at :
« The more I study nature’s manifestations here in my native country, the more deeply I am moved by them. Storm, seen […] as power and figure among the other forms in the sky ; light, by its effects, giving national shape, light as a principle, almost as a destiny, something sacred for us, the intensity of its coming and going ; the particular shape of the woods here ; the coming together in one region of different aspects of nature, so that all the sacred places of the earth can foregather at one place ; and the philosophical light at my window — all that gives me great joy in living at this moment. I hope I’ll be able to stay on the path that brought me here ! […] Dear friend, I think we shall spend no more time commenting on the poetry of the past. The art of poetry is about to change radically. And if we are not quite up to it yet, it’s because, since the Greeks, we’re the first to make a new beginning. »
There’s no need nowadays to share Hölderlin’s idealism, or his romantic pathos, or his poetic nationalism, and the word « sacred » can quietly drop from our vocabulary, like so many other over-connoted terms of the same order. But what can inspire us in Hölderlin is this deep sensation of circumambient context, allied to the notion of « philosophical light ».
Before trying to get farther into the space of the work in progress, let’s take a look at the landscape out there, the landscape, for me at this moment, of the north coast of Brittany. I’ll do this by means of three quotations, which will be like so many prologues.
Here first of all is Eugenio d’Ors, in his book on the baroque :
« Land’s ends. Ireland, Brittany, Spanish Galicia, Portugal, the first islands of the Ocean… At the pit of their soul, panic. Panic, a heritage from the times when those lands lay at the edge of a sea whose bounds were unknown. You cannot occupy a box in the theatre of mystery and come away unscathed. »
Here’s Eugen Fink, in the seminar he directed, along with Heidegger, on Heraclitus, whose cosmopoetic thought can make the mind reel :
« The sea turns partly into earth and partly into fiery breath. Then it is said that the earth is spread out like a sea. Whether the fiery breath turns into something else, and how it does it, that the fragment does not say. With the fiery breath, the process is over. There is only mention of the process by which fire turns into sea and from sea partly into earth and partly into fiery breath and from earth finally turns into sea. Fire turns into sea, the sea deposits itself as earth and transforms itself into fiery breath, and the earth comes back partly into the sea. […] The contrary terms of a known difference turn about in such a way that one passes over into the other. The differences between sea, earth and fiery breath are related to a common origin, to a genesis, but we still know nothing about the nature of the genesis. » (My emphasis.)
The third quotation (those voices, those phrases and others like them are part of the rumour that surrounds me on this coast) is from Élie Faure :
« Seismic upheavals that change the shapes of the mountains, with tidal waves, sudden mists that modify the appearance of the valleys, concealing with their mobile veil or revealing through its rents unexpected sites, fleeting shadows moving over a soil where crops, forests, fruit-trees cover with black and with green, with red and pink and white, an earth humped and twisted by ancient throes of the earth’s crust… »
That last quotation in fact concerns Japan, but who doesn’t recognize also Brittany ? All places in one place…
When, to conclude this series of preludes, I read this, in Heidegger’s On the Way to Living Language : « A West such as this is more ancient, closer to the dawn and therefore of greater promise than the Platonic or Christian West », I think of my situation here, out on the Armorican promontory. I think of the approaches to a possible « primal space » where what would be relevant and prevalent would be, not the platonic world of ideas, nor the Christian salvation of the soul, nor Conquest and Progress, but simply enlightened earthly situation.
What is moving on the horizon is a poetics of the earth.
What an extravagant claim for poetry, it may be said. Is it not more or less established that it’s science and politics that have the serious things to say about reality and the life-of-man-on-the-earth, while the gentle or wretched (or witty or goofy or wet) poet will content himself with his artistic personality, his linguistic legerdemain, his interesting fantasias, etc., etc., for the delectation of the Friends of Poetry ?
I’ve already said, here and there, how nauseating I find such a situation and such a reduced conception of poetic activity, and no doubt I’ll have to say it again, here, there and elsewhere, but for the time being let’s talk a little about politics and science.
Politics isn’t concerned with « the life of man on earth », it’s concerned with polis, that is, with human agglomerations animated by more or less obvious, more or less vicious power-motives (sometimes they have a little ecological sub-department on the side). So, while recognizing its massive importance on the scene and realizing that we’ll have to come back to it, we can discount it for the moment as having little relevance to our fundamental question.
As to science, its aim, up to very recently at least, has never been to inhabit, as fully as possible, the planet, its aim has been to systematize the earth, to iron it out, so as to become its master and possessor. Maybe today, in its further reaches at least (elsewhere, the scientists keep cutting and measuring, more concerned with their measures than with the world), we’re witnessing a change. Here’s Ilya Prigogine in The New Alliance :
« From now on, the sciences of nature will be describing a fragmented universe, rich in qualitative diversity and in potential surprises. What we’re discovering is that the rational dialogue with nature no longer means the disenchanted survey of a lunar world, but the exploration, always local and elective, of nature seen as complex and multiple […]. We no longer have the right to say that the only aim worthy of science is the discovery of the world from that exterior point of view to which access was possible only for those demonic minds that fill the classical treatises. Henceforth, the most fundamental of our theories will be defined as the work of beings implicated in the world they explore. In this theory, science has abandoned all theoretical extraterritoriality […]. As an inhabitant of the world, man participates in a natural process of becoming […]. Nature has a thousand voices, and we’re only beginning to listen to them. » (My emphasis.)
Prigogine speaks of « a poetic listening-in to nature ». We can see there the effort (but no doubt there shouldn’t be too much effort — perhaps a mixture of attention and nonchalance) to get on to the wave-length I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. But there are other aspects of the work in question, more precise, more thought out than most scientists can conceive of.
In a little text, Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens (« On the experience of thought »), published in 1954, Martin Heidegger spoke almost secretively of a new type of work-field :
« That thought be poetry is something that still lies concealed.
Wherever it shows itself, this thinking evokes the utopia of a nascent poetic understanding, and it will remain utopian for a very long time.
But the poem of thought is the topology of being. »
Maybe rather than utopia (which tends to suggest hasty idealistic projections) I’d say atopia. But with these few indicative phrases we’re entering the territory, the place of the subtlest topology.
Something, then, is beginning : a practice, an activity which is neither « philosophical », « scientific » nor « poetic » in the banal senses of these words, but which consists in moving about in a place (space and time) and trying to say what one is aware of around oneself.
But what is this « place », and what is that « self » ?
Already Aristotle was saying : « It’s an important thing, place, topos, and it’s hard to grasp. »
As for the « self », since we’re concerned here with a topology of being, a way of thinking that takes place in an area situated at the exit of all metaphysics, this self can’t be a metaphysical self, like the Christian soul or the ego of the Cartesian cogito. Nor can it merely be a lyrical subjectivity, which is only social sub-product. Thinking in terms of physics rather than of metaphysics, let’s say we’re concerned with a body : a body in movement through space. But how to speak of a body, how to let it speak ? In his Douze questions à propos de Martin Heidegger (« Twelve questions concerning Martin Heidegger »), Jean Beauffret has the following commentary on Heidegger’s thought :
« The relationship we have to the body is, according to Heidegger, difficult to bring to expression. “Husserl tried”, he told me one day, “but almost from the start he was launched into kinesthesia”. To speak of the body in a language other than that of psycho-physiology is something that remains to be invented. »
So, for this place and this body, a language has to be invented. Heidegger’s dissatisfaction at hearing Husserl speak of kinesthesia reminds me of Niels Bohr’s exasperation on hearing one of his colleagues expatiating on mathematical theories of space : « Space is blue », retorted Bohr, « and birds fly through it. » That doesn’t mean a return to good old simple folk-talk or half-baked poetry as some naive, tired or hasty minds would no doubt like to think. What it does mean is the need, in this emergent context, for this body in this place, of a language that is more direct, more immediate, more expressive.
Which implies work, poetic work.
In his Aesthetics, Hegel, the last mind to have a global view of things, had said that in the modern age poetry would have a hard time of it, would, in fact, find it almost impossible to make headway. When I speak of « poetic work », I’m thinking of those who were ready to take the time and the trouble to try and make headway, in spite of everything. Which is to say that I’m putting aside all the daily and journalistic uses of the word « poetry », as well as most of the more sophisticated ones. So diminished and confused has the poetic field become that for a mind that’s in any way demanding the words « poet » and « poetry » will seem hardly adequate as definitions of what interests him.
« For me », writes Valéry in his Cahiers (« Notebooks »), « to be a poet, to be a writer was never an absorbing desire. But to be, purely and simply. […] Nothing seemed to me more crude and less worthy of attention than the poet reduced to being a poet. […] It’s hardly worth writing if it isn’t to reach the heights of being, and not just produce more art — but of course the heights of being are also the heights of art. » And Georges Bataille (Haine de la poésie, « In hatred of poetry ») : « Poetry which isn’t engaged in an experience going beyond poetry (distinct from it) isn’t real movement, it’s just the residue of agitation. »
To get out of and beyond the residues and the agitations, the confusions and the complacencies, we need not only a new philosophy of poetry, but a new anthropology.
Plato distinguished four types of man : appetitive man (the one who tries to gather everything into himself, like an infant) ; spirited man (the man of heart and of courage, the man of action) ; rational man (aiming at mastery of life and the world) and demonic man (the man who follows his daimon, a super-personal power linking him obscurely to what surrounds him). To this list I’d like to add one more type, close to the demonic, but nevertheless distinct from him (less inclined to frenzy and characterized more by clear energy than by obscure impulse) which I’ll call : the mondomaniac, the man who has a mania for mondo, mundus, world. The poet, in the sense I accept to use the word, is a mondomaniac, who follows out his mondomania, that is, his desire for world. I’m thinking of Hölderlin’s Hyperion : « What you are looking for is a world. » I’m thinking also of Diderot, that extravagant and encyclopedic mind, who said : « Poetry is out for something enormous. » That doesn’t mean necessarily something huge and grandiose. It just means something outside the norms.
For Valéry, in his Propos sur la poésie (« Remarks on poetry »), the difference between the action of a poem and that of ordinary narrative is physiological : « The poem deploys itself in a more complex field of movement. » (My emphasis.)
Heidegger describes himself (or the figure he projects) as unterwegs im Wegfeld (literally : « on his way in the road-field »), having in mind a « beginning thought » (anfängliches Denken) that will try to « grasp » (anfangen) a « beginning that begins differently » (ein andersanfänglicher Anfang), this thought being inseparable from a meditation which, he says, is « a listening in to the original source in its upsurge » (ein hörendes Wissen um den ursprunglichen Ursprung in seinem Entspringen). Heidegger is one of the few philosophers who have worked resolutely and profoundly towards a new (poetic) thought, a thinking which would, he said, be simpler than philosophy, but precisely because of its simplicity harder to achieve. One can share his impatience with a more « professorial » colleague (professorial in the sense of heavy and pedantic) who was expatiating one day in his presence on Heideggerian problematics. If people didn’t actually come to see his thought, said Heidegger, it was a waste of time, they’d still be bogged down in philosophizing discourse.
It may be that the evidence of thought is poetry : the poetry of those who have made headway in the field of new poetic thought.
« To think ! — cries Henri Michaux in Passages — rather work on my thinking-and-being machine in order to find myself in a position where I can think differently, know the possibility of really new thought. »
And « thought » may not be the final word.
« In our day », said Mandelstam, « there is no really salubrious poetry ». But, there in Russia, he saw signs of it at least in Pasternak :
« With eyes wide open, with nerves taut and ready to perceive the most subtle details, with mind astonished, Pasternak gropes his way forward in this world […]. In his pages we have a sense of the first day of Creation […]. This primordial freshness is particularly obvious in his landscapes. […] The horizons are wet and smell of rain. Storms, cloud and showers rush and roar over the land, mist and foam and spray unexpectedly flood his verses and the words gleam like grass under white frost. […] To read the poetry of Pasternak is to clear one’s throat, strengthen one’s breathing, renew one’s lungs. »
All of this (that landscape, that breathing space) brings me back to this north coast of Brittany where I now live, work and have my being.
To conclude, provisionally, this poetic and philosophical divagation, I’d like to speak of one particular spot on this coast that I often visit. It’s what the geologists call a « centred complex », that was formed roughly as follows : first of all, there were granitic magmas that moved in a whirling or laminated way till they crystallized ; then there was a cataclysm that fractured the central and southern zones of the rough-grained granite, putting in place a second group of fine-grained granite, diversely coloured (pink, ocre, violet-grey), that cemented the blocks of rough red stone ; finally, there was a further collapse at the centre of the complex, liberating a volume of matter in which the third and last group of granite, fine-grained and white, came to crystallize.
That geological phenomenon is a pretty good image of the work I’ve been doing over the past few years.
But there’s always a further step.
Walking on the stretch of white sand around this « centred complex », I often think of the end of the No play Suma Genji where Genji, dressed in grey-blue, walks along the shore till he becomes the shore.