I take this evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of our condition. Nature does not like to be observed, and likes that we should be her fools and playmates. We may have the sphere for our cricket-ball, but not a berry for our philosophy. Direct strokes she never gave us power to make; all our blows glance, all our hits are accidents. Our relations to each other are oblique and casual.
So Ralph Waldo Emerson saw it, in “Experience.” In reading John Ashbery, I get the sense that he agrees entirely with Waldo, except on one key point. This lubricity of all objects, Waldo says, is “the most unhandsome part of our condition.” Ashbery disagrees. He is quite happy to be the fool and playmate of nature, to let objects slide from his grasp, and to move on to the next without regret. He is at home in the world’s transformations.
Lubricity is a constant fact in the poems in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Time, especially offers no firm hold. The future is impossible, the past non-existent, the present empty, as we learn in “As You Came from the Holy Land”:
knowing as the brain does it can never come about
not here not yesterday in the past
only in the gap of today filling itself
as emptiness is distributed
in the idea of what time it is
when that time is already past.
The emphasis on change also helps make sense of the frequent use of cloud imagery, as for instance here (“As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat”):
[…] The children
Still at their games, clouds that arise with a swift
Impatience in the afternoon sky, then dissipate
As limpid, dense twilight comes.
And here (“Poem in Three Parts”):
Mostly I think of feelings, they fill up my life
Like the wind, like tumbling clouds
In a sky full of clouds, clouds upon clouds.
Ephemerality, lubricity—these are the only constants in these poems. But what evidence is there that Ashbery is at home in this world of incessant change? The much-remarked on feature of his style, the way thoughts and images succeed one another without readily apparent connection, is one indication. If the world is never stable, then neither will his poems be stable. (More on this in a bit.) But there is also more direct evidence. In “Scheherazade,” one of the most striking poems in the volume, the slipperiness of time is explicitly given a positive valence:
In all this springing up was no hint
Of a tide, only a pleasant wavering of the air
In which all things seemed present, whether
Just past or soon to come. It was all invitation.
An invitation to what? To motion, for one, to change. But it is also an invitation to description. And this brings us back to the question of the extent to which Ashbery’s poems are stable, the extent to which they fully embrace the transitory nature of the world. The line between reality and descriptions of reality is an obsession in these poems—or, rather, the blurring of this line is an obsession.
This is seen in Ashbery’s consistent use of terms associated with writing to describe the natural world. For instance (“Scheherazade” again), leaves “are scrawled on the light” and, later in that same poem, we are told about the “story” of flowers and about stones “That read as patches of sunlight.” The world is not separate from our descriptions of it:
[…] It is we who make this
Jungle and call it space, naming each root,
Each serpent, of the sound of the name
As it clinks dully against our pleasure,
Indifference that is pleasure.
Description is an ordering of the world, and these poems are thus attempts to find (or impose; with Ashbery the distinction is not important) order in the whirling world. Are they not then at odds with change, and the ephemerality of all structure that is the result of change? To an extent, yes, but Ashbery takes this in stride. His poems are small, ephemeral joys, impermanent monuments, and they know it. They do not aim for perfection, for a separation of the good from the bad, preserving only the former. As Ashbery puts it in “Mixed Feelings”:
They look as astonishingly young and fresh as when this picture was made
But full of contradictory ideas, stupid ones as well as
Worthwhile ones, but all flooding the surface of our minds
As we babble about the sky and the weather and the forests of change.
The impression these poems give of being off-hand babbling is a carefully constructed illusion—what else could it be? But that’s the joy of it.
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,
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.