Philosophical reflections

At the start of this year, I wrote up some delusions about what I might read in 2017. Now that the halfway point is past, I am in the mood to find out how I have done.

Here is what I have read from that list, with associated posts:

Homer – Odyssey (Lombardo, trans.) – post
Virgil – Aeneid (Lombardo, trans.) – posts (collected)
Robert Frost – A Boy’s Willpost
Fernando Pessoa ­– The Book of Disquietpost1, post2, post3, post4, post5
Wu Yubi – The Journal of Wu Yubi – [no posts]
Henri Cole – Nothing to Declare – [contemporary poetry] [no posts]

Not altogether terrible, though certainly less than half of what I predicted. As I knew would happen, my reading took me down other rabbit holes. I give the highlights below; the full list would be a bore.

Pessoa’s succulent nihilism brought me to read A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe (Zenith, trans.), the Penguin Classics collection of his poetry. Whereas The Book of Disquiet is all in one voice (that of Bernardo Soares), the poetry here is in four voices: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, and Fernando Pessoa himself. Of these, I felt the closest kinship with Reis, the melancholy Epicurean, whose compact odes find joy even in their resignation. Reis works in bulk: no single poem stands out, but together they form a powerful collection. In contrast, de Campos is a poet of the single poem, most especially the dazzling “Maritime Ode,” which defies description. At 31 pages, it is too long to leave here, so I leave instead the much more compact “Ah, a Sonnet…”—also by de Campos:

Ah, a Sonnet…

My heart is a mad admiral
Who quit his life at sea
And remembers it little by little
At home, pacing, pacing…

With this motion (the mere thought
Of which makes me shift in my seat)
The seas he once sailed still toss
In his muscles bored of inactivity.

Nostalgia’s in his legs and arms.
Nostalgia pours out of his brain.
His boredom turns into raving.

But if, for God’s sake, the heart
Was my theme, why is this poem dealing
With an admiral instead of with feeling?

I can never read enough translations of Virgil’s Aeneid, so, a couple months after finishing up Lombardo’s fine rendition, I began Sarah Ruden’s, which I think may be my favorite of the five I have read (Ruden, Lombardo, Fitzgerald, Mandelbaum, Fagles). It is a line-by-line, mostly blank verse translation—the sort of thing that will either succeed or fail on a large scale. It is hard to imagine such an attempt being middling. Ruden’s, happily, succeeds. Her lines are terse and forceful, and lack the somewhat stiff grandiosity that occasionally characterizes the blank verse translations of Fitzgerald and Mandelbaum. The compact lines serve Virgil better than the loose lines of Fagles, and she avoids Fagles’ tendency toward being too colloquial. Lombardo’s translation is the freest (though highly musical), and makes a nice pairing with Ruden.

The introduction to the Lombardo translation was written by W. R. Johnson. It was sufficiently insightful that it induced me to buy Johnson’s book Darkness Visible, a classic work of Virgil scholarship. Johnson’s book does exactly what I ask for from a book of criticism: it makes me a better reader. Johnson’s central concern in the work is to elucidate the way in which the world of the Aeneid constants hovers around darkness and chaos, always threatening to fall fully under their sway. He shows this by comparing passages in Virgil to passages in earlier authors, especially Homer. He convincingly demonstrates that where Homer’s passages are characterized by brilliant clarity, Virgil’s re-envisionings of these same passages make them deliberately, carefully murky. Thus Virgil captures a world beyond our comprehension and beyond our control. I had sensed this in my reading of Virgil—it is a major part of why I prefer Virgil to Homer—but I could not have articulated it without having read Johnson. I cannot recommend Darkness Visible highly enough.

Leaving behind poetry, I have been reading a number of the classics of Chinese Philosophy: Confucius’ Analects (Chin, trans.), the book of Mengzi (Lau, trans.), and the book of Zhuangzi (Palmer, trans.). Confucius and Mengzi make a nice contrast. Where Confucius is flexible, emphasizing situationally appropriate conduct (guided but not rigidly determined by the rites), Mengzi is rigid, the sort who might never talk to you again if you bow to him the wrong way. Even if I disagree with Confucius about the general shape of his program, I can feel the deeply humane impulse behind it. In Mengzi that impulse is more difficult to find. But I should be fair to Mengzi. Especially near the start of his work, Mengzi develops certain interesting philosophical themes. Concerning, for instance, the motivation to be ethical, he attempts to start from our natural sympathy for friends and families and to extend this as far as possible. This, I think, is a more plausible solution to the problem of moral motivation than that of the Mohists, who begin with universal love as an imperative. And, as Republicans in the Senate work to savage our healthcare system, Mengzi’s stern moral stance seems especially apt: “Is there any difference between killing a man with a knife and killing him with misrule? There is no difference.”

The real treasure, however, is Zhuangzi, whose laughter still resonates today. He is a relentless puncturer of pretensions, and as pretense is an eternal temptation of the human soul, Zhuangzi will never cease to be relevant. The book that accrued around his name is a hodge-podge, a collection of vignettes and perspectives that do not resolve into any single clearly articulable theme. One imagines Zhuangzi would not have it any differently. I leave, from this work, the following beautiful passage. I might have chosen any number of others.

Words are like the ebb and flow of the wind-blown seas: the purpose of them can become overwhelmed. The wind and seas are easily stirred, and what was attempted can be swamped and lost. (ch. 4)

Enough said about where I have been. Where am I going? I have no interest in predicting the remainder of this year in detail. I will only sketch a few paths that lay within my sight.

I have been reading, with great pleasure, The Poetics of the New American Poetry, a collection of commentaries on the aim and nature of poetry by American poets associated with the volume The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (which I have not read). The volume captures the ferment that surrounded the birth and development of vers libre, both their negative program of throwing off the shackles of forms that were imposed a priori and their positive programs, which were many and resist easy summation. I imagine that I will, upon concluding this volume, be drawn to further explore the poetry of this period, of which I have little firsthand experience. Already, H.D.’s Trilogy, The Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca, and Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems lie before me, and Bunting I have even begun. His “Villon” is a marvelous poem. Perhaps I will write about it here.

On a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, I returned home with a number of used books (I visited at least eight bookstores in my six-day trip). Among these was Jay Garfield’s translation of and commentary on Nāgārjuna’s The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. I find the Buddhist notion of emptiness intriguing and appealing, and what I have read of this volume already suggests that it may tally with conclusions I have independently reached in my professional work in the philosophy of science. Such concordance may prove to be nothing in the end, but I am sure I will enjoy finding out, one way or the other.

On this same trip I also acquired a copy of Susan Howe’s new book, Debths. It is a short book (though >100 pages, much of each page is white space), and I have already made a first pass through it. But it will require more time. I expect I will be writing about it, one way or another, so I will not say more here. Happily, this will get me closer to meeting my goal of reading four works of contemporary poetry.

And beyond that? My shelves overflow with unread books—perhaps I will make some dents in this. I will not speculate as to the precise locations of these dents.

An especially apt passage from Pessoa, in light of my recent post:

The highest honour for a superior man is to not know the name of his country’s chief of state, or whether he lives under a monarchy or a republic.

He should be careful to position his soul in such a way that passing things and events can’t disturb him. Otherwise he’ll have to take an interest in others, in order to look out for himself.

I was struck, today, by another concordance between Laozi and Pessoa and, nestled within this concordance, another disagreement. Laozi first this time, again in the wonderful Addiss and Lombardo translation (easily superior, at least as English poetry, to the Hinton and Ivanhoe translations that I also own):

Thirty spokes join one hub.
The wheel’s use comes from emptiness.

Clay is fired to make a pot.
The pot’s use comes from emptiness.

Windows and doors are cut to make a room.
The room’s use comes from emptiness.

….Having leads to profit,
….Not having leads to use. (11)

This poem strikes me as (in part) an elaboration of an earlier bit of advice, from the eighth poem: “Keep your mind deep.” The eighth poem advocates non-contention, and suggests that keeping the mind deep is one of the things one must do to avoid contention. I understand the advice to keep the mind deep as counseling a kind of non-possession of, non-attachment to one’s thoughts. Let the mind be deep enough to house them so long as they linger, but not detain them. I will return to the way that the eleventh poem elaborates on this, but first Pessoa (I give selections of a substantially longer passage in The Book of Disquiet):

Art frees us, illusorily, from the squalor of being. […]

Love, sleep, drugs and intoxicants are elementary forms of art, or rather, of producing the same effect as art. But love, sleep and drugs all have their dissolution. […] But in art there is no disillusion, since illusion is accepted from the start. […]

Since the pleasure we get from art is in a sense not our own, we don’t have to pay for it or regret it later.

By art I mean everything that delights us without being ours – the trail left by what has passed, a smile given to someone else, a sunset, a poem, the objective universe.

To possess is to lose. To feel without possessing is to preserve and keep, for it is to extract from things their essence. (§270)

Pessoa, like Laozi, appears to praise a kind of non-possession of one’s one feelings and sensations. Here, art is recommended as a way to have sensations that one knows are illusory from the start, that one never expects to possess and so never must relinquish. Pessoa, in his own way, advocates keeping the mind deep. (Many other passages in The Book of Disquiet bear this out; §270 simply happens to be the one I read today.)

The difference between Pessoa and Laozi lies in the relation they see between keeping the mind deep and activity. Pessoa is the patron saint of inactivity, which in prominence is perhaps second only to disquiet itself in The Book of Disquiet. He puts it succinctly: “To see clearly is to not act” (§275). (I cannot resist inserting a third voice into the mix, that of Emerson, from his essay “Experience”: “There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency, from the omnipresence of objection. The whole frame of things preaches indifferency.”)

Keeping the mind deep by turning to art, where art is understood as Pessoa understands it, is to avoid possessing one’s sensations by ensuring that those sensations are produced in response, not to the world itself, but to something at one remove from the world. Art does not call for action. To seek one’s sensations in art, knowing that art is illusory, is to keep those sensations sequestered from action, from interaction with the world.

This is where Laozi, as I read him, disagrees. I take the eleventh poem of the Daodejing as suggesting that non-possession of one’s thoughts, sensations, etc. is precisely the way in which to make the mind useful. And it’s easy for me to see why this should be, especially in these troubled times. The near-constant fretting over the state of my country that has of late beset renders me little better than worthless, a quivering mass. To achieve some kind of distance from these agitations, to let them pass through me without wholly owning them, I suspect will help me to act. It is too early to say: I have only just begun to make the effort.

At the same time, I know only too well, from past experience, that attempts to attain such non-possession can easily turn into an entirely inward focus on my own peace of mind, never bringing the promised usefulness. Relatedly, my wife (who is Chinese) made a very interesting comment today when I was discussing this with her. She said that Chinese people have looked more to Confucius in good times, more to Laozi in bad times. These turns to Confucius were connected to an eagerness to contribute. The turns to Laozi, conversely, were connected to a turning away from engagement. This, if true, corroborates on a large scale my private experience. As a certain friend of mine very often insists, the gap between abstruse philosophy and practical action is wide indeed.

The last time I put Laozi and Pessoa in conversation, I declared Pessoa the winner of the debate, though I cautioned against taking this too far. This time, again, past experience forces me to declare Pessoa the winner. But, again, this judgment comes with a caveat: time may yet prove Laozi right, at least in my own case.

I read this morning in Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet the following passage (§163):

Direct experience is an evasion, or hiding place, for those without any imagination. Reading about the risks incurred by a man who hunts tigers, I feel all the risks worth feeling, save the actual physical risk, which wasn’t really worth feeling, for it vanished without a trace.

Men of action are the involuntary slaves of the men of reason. The worth of things depends on their interpretation. Certain men make things which other men invest with meaning, bringing them to life. To narrate is to create, while to live is merely to be lived.

This captures a reality I have often felt: that the value in things lies in the way we describe them—and they admit so many contradictory descriptions. Why does Nietzsche’s life seem so remarkable? For no other reason than that he was able to describe its joys so vividly, and to describe them as triumphing over its sorrows. What good was it for Chōmei to build his little house and live in it? Nothing, but for the fact that he told the world about it in such a charming fashion.

But the knowledge that the single event admits of multiple descriptions that ascribe to it competing values raises a problem. How are we to know which description is the right one? What value should we actually ascribe to this, or that? Start asking these questions, and it soon appears as if these values are merely imposed on the event from without, by the sheer will to power of the narrator. And that is why Pessoa is right, at least in one sense, to say that the man of action is the slave of the man of reason, to the man who describes him.

At this point I think of the second poem in Laozi’s Daodejing, which I give in the translation by Addiss and Lombardo:

Recognize beauty and ugliness is born.
Recognize good and evil is born.

Is and Isn’t produce each other.

Hard depends on easy,
Long is tested by short,
High is determined by low,
Sound is harmonized by voice,
After is followed by before.

Therefore the Sage is devoted to non-action,
Moves without teaching,
Creates ten thousand things without instruction,
Lives but does not own,
Acts but does not presume,
Accomplishes without taking credit.

When no credit is taken,
Accomplishment endures.

One way to read the ideal of accomplishing without taking credit is to see it precisely as accomplishing silently, not insisting on this or that (generally self-glorifying, though of late self-deprecation has come in vogue) description of what one has accomplished.

Laozi makes the interesting claim that “When no credit is taken, / Accomplishment endures.” This seems to conflict rather directly with the passage from Pessoa. There, narration is defended precisely because it lends something of endurance to a feeling that otherwise would vanish “without a trace.” I am not so sure, however, that they actually conflict. The feeling as described does indeed endure in a way in which the physical feeling does not. So Pessoa is correct. At the same time, because description is fickle, because it will serve any master who calls on it, every particular description is unstable, liable to be displaced by some other. (If you don’t believe me, ask Columbus. He knows.) Only the event as it occurred, regarded silently, endures, and can never be undone. So Laozi, too, is correct. The only dispute between them is this: are we to prefer the permanence of having occurred, or the ever-renewing endurance of being described?

This attempt to show how Laozi and Pessoa take the same reality and ascribe it diametrically opposed values nicely illustrates Pessoa’s point, and we must take him to have won the dispute. But then we should not be surprised that the side that is permitted to speak will win a debate, and we should remember that to get the better of an argument and to be correct are not the same.

In an earlier post, I tried to summarize the core of Emerson’s philosophy in a few dogmatic statements. I managed it in eight. But I think I might have condensed it further, down to the following two:

  1. The individual is fundamentally alone in the world, cut off from others.
  2. The only hope for true, if partial, communion between two separate individuals requires that both burrow deeply into their own individuality, bringing what they find as a gift to the other.

Insofar as I consider myself an Emersonian, I do so because I feel the truth of both of these claims in my bones, and it was Emerson who taught me to recognize that.

I have only just begun Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, but I find myself immediately drawn in by it precisely because Pessoa (or rather Pessoa’s heteronym, Bernardo Soares) grasps both of these truths:

Sadly I write in my quiet room, alone as I have always been, alone as I will always be. And I wonder if my apparently negligible voice might not embody the essence of thousands of voices, the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives, the patience of millions of souls resigned like my own to their daily lot, their useless dreams, and their hopeless hopes. In these moments my heart beats faster because I’m conscious of it. (6)

In my first post on Pessoa, I spoke admiringly of the distance that stands between Soares and other people, a distance I know well. He sits at a location not altogether separate from them, but neither participating in their joy. He delights in it without participating. This is the right distance, I think, from which to approach these Emersonian theses, for it is the distance from which they are felt most distinctly. One is separate, and thus the aloneness is felt, but one hears the songs in the distance and understands the possibility of communion. I do not say this to suggest it is better to exist at this distance, to always evade participation, merely to highlight certain advantages of the time one spends there.

Now, I have a bit dishonestly cut off the passage in the middle. It continues on to criticize itself:

I live more because I live on high. I feel a religious force within me, a species of prayer, a kind of public outcry. But my mind quickly puts me in my place. . . I remember that I’m on the fourth floor of the Rua dos Douradores, and I take a drowsy look at myself. I glance up from this half-written page at life, futile and without beauty, and at the cheap cigarette I’m about to extinguish in the ashtray beyond the fraying blotter. Me in this fourth-floor room, interrogating life!, saying what souls feel!, writing prose like a genius or a famous author! Me, here, a genius!. . .

It is striking how exactly he hits on Emerson’s definition of genius: the expression by one individual of a thought or feeling that speaks to “the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives.” But this, his mind tells him, somewhat patronizingly, is a delusion. Pessoa certainly is more pessimistic here about the second claim than Emerson is, though such pessimism finds more voice in Emerson’s work than many of his readers think. I am not so gloomy about the prospects of communion as Pessoa—at least not most of the time. But I know the mood in which it seems an absurd vanity.

But it should not be thought that this mood is as desolate as it sounds. Though I spend less time there than Soares, it is a solitude to which I often, and happily, retreat.