Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Propositioning Attitude

Modern, analytic philosophers, like David Kaplan for example, have what might be called, pun intended, a "propositional attitude". They assume that "propositions" play an important role in language, indeed, that they constitute the "content" of language. Let me, in a similar vein, suggest that modern lyrical poets, perhaps most famously a poet like Leonard Cohen, have cultivated a "propositioning attitude". His poems suggest that somewhere, perhaps in the context of every utterance, somewhere on the periphery of language, there is a proposition in the baser sense, a shall-we-say "indecent proposal".

This immediately raises a pangrammatical issue. Indecency is to power and poetry what dishonesty is to knowledge and philosophy. If poets ultimately sing of, if not outright propose, indecency, are philosophers, too, arguing in the direction of dishonesty? Well, let's keep in mind that propositions are, in and of themselves, neither true nor false, proposals neither just nor unjust. An indecency meanwhile is not already an injustice; it is merely the "proximate occasion" of injustice, just as one can be dishonest and yet speak the truth (without knowing) or speak the truth and yet be dishonest (knowing how one will be misunderstood). That is, the proposition is an essential component of dishonesty, since it is meaningful independent of its truth. That is the root of the analogy. A poem must say something that is meaningful even when it unjust.

A mind too concerned—pre-occupied, let's say—with honesty is not suited for philosophy. A heart too worried about decency will not enjoy a life in poetry. It lacks the attitude proper to the craft.

P.S.: Propositions can contradict each other. Proposals can seduce.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Model Studies (a story)

He is a poet, she, a sad and beautiful woman.
     "We're perfect for each other," he says.
     "How so?" she asks.
     "You are a sad, beautiful woman," he answers. "And I am poet."
     "It won't last," she says sadly.
     "It may take the better part of an afternoon. Or two."
     "You have mistaken me for another kind of girl, I'm afraid."
     "Your beauty is unmistakable."
     "And my sadness?"
     "It will take a poem to get it right."
     "I don't think I'm interested."
     "I think you have mistaken me for another kind of poet."
     She is unimpressed, but vaguely intrigued.
     "I have no designs on you," he explains. "Only your beauty, its sadness. I am suggesting you come home with me, to my 'studio', if you will, and sit for me. Sit for my poem. This is something painters and sculptors have been doing forever."
     "Always with pure intentions, I'm sure!"
     "Their motives were often mixed, I'll grant. But not entirely base. There was always the painting or the sculpture. Or at least the pretense of one. It kept the session taut."
     "It maintained a certain tension. It brought precision to the encounter. I think that tension would be good for poetry."
     "How have poems been made until now?"
     "They've been recollected in tranquility, after the encounter. The encounter has had to happen in real time, in real life. No time to observe. No time to think and feel. It's like asking a sculptor to go to the park and observe all the women there, walking, jogging, lying in the sun. Then he goes back to his studio and works from memory. It wouldn't surprise us if his work lacked precision."
     "So, instead, he invites a woman he finds attractive…"
     "And sad," she adds sarcastically.
     "Yes, and sad."
     "…back to his apartment…"
     "His 'studio'," he marks the air, and smiles.
     "…and gets her to undress for his art."
     "That's the basic idea."
     "Would we sleep together?"
     "That is a distinct possibility."
     "I won't lie. But it is truly only a possibility. A very distinct one. It is precisely that possibility that the poem is about."
     "And your wife would not mind?"
     "She would. She must."
     "How is that?"
     "It's part of the necessary tension. A good poem is always an act of infidelity. (Even a poem about my wife's sadness and beauty would betray our vows.) A poem writhes against the immediate rightness suggested by our institutions—our sense of decency. Your beauty, its sadness, for example, challenges even the happiest marriage. For me to insist on noticing it is a minor scandal. But my faithlessness may produce only a poem. A poem is the fulcrum of enormous leverage…"
     "I bet," she balks. "The lightest word may move to heavy deeds."
     "Of course. Or the minor scandal may merely occasion a great poem. And that, in the end, is all I hope for."
     "Well, I won't sleep with you."
     "My poem depends on getting you to recognize only the possibility."
     "So if I remain firm you will not get your poem."
     "Exactly. But I hope I will. We talk for an hour or two. I will get a chance to see your beauty, its sadness, in good light. I'll be able to register its moods and caprices under ideal conditions. If I am good and if I am lucky, I will see the moment when you consider 'the one obvious remedy'*. I don't even need to know that that is what I've seen. I will have enough for my poem. And you can go home, unsullied."

*He is, of course, quoting from Ezra Pound's essay "Troubadours—Their Sorts and Conditions": "After the compositions of Vidal, Rudel, Ventadour, of Bornelh and Bertrans de Born and Arnaut Daniel, there seemed little chance of doing distinctive work in the 'canzon de l'amour courtois'. There was no way, or at least there was no man in Provence capable of finding a new way of saying in six closely rhymed strophes that a certain girl, matron or widow was like a certain set of things, and that the troubadour's virtues were like another set, and that all this was very sorrowful or otherwise, and that there was but one obvious remedy." (LE, p. 102)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Feat and Fact

These words have the same root:

Old French fait (12c.) "action, deed, achievement," from Latin factum "thing done," a noun based on the past participle of facere "make, do"

Today, we can distinguish between perception and action, between the things seen (the fact) and the person doing (the feat). There is no fact without things to be seen as it, and there is no feat without a person to do it. Things are the possibility of particular facts, Wittgenstein taught us. Likewise, we can add that people are the possibility of particular feats.

Friday, April 18, 2014


What I make
I can keep
or sell
or give away.

But I own forever
what I do.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Discipline and Freedom

But to have liberty one must first be a man*, cultured by circumstance to maintain oneself under adverse weather conditions as still part of the whole. Discipline is implied. (William Carlos Williams, "Against the Weather", SE, p. 209)

Etymologies sometimes catalyze Pangrammatical discoveries. I don't like making too much of them, but sometimes it really can't be helped. This is one of those cases, and I must say it startled me.

free (adj.)
Old English freo "free, exempt from, not in bondage," also "noble; joyful," from Proto-Germanic *frijaz (cognates: Old Frisian fri, Old Saxon and Old High German vri, German frei, Dutch vrij, Gothic freis "free"), from PIE *prijos "dear, beloved," from root *pri- "to love" (cognates: Sanskrit priyah "own, dear, beloved," priyate "loves;" Old Church Slavonic prijati "to help," prijatelji "friend;" Welsh rhydd "free").

That's right, dear friends, "free love" is ultimately a pleonasm. Freedom is what love is all about; or, more precisely, love is the root of all freedom. [Freedom and love have one root.] This jibes so nicely with the Pangrammatical notion of love as "the master emotion", and that "desire seeks freedom", that it almost brings tears to my eyes.

What brought me here was reading Williams' "Against the Weather", the third part of which begins with a reflection on America as the symbol of freedom. He is trying to correct "the commonly accepted and much copied cliché, [that freedom implies] lack of discipline, dispersion" (SE, p. 209). This reminded me of a previous Pangrammatical discovery, that belief is always a belief in limits. We can now be more precise:

Freedom is to desire, what discipline is to belief.

But what is discipline? Again, let us check the etymology.

discipline (n.)
... directly from Latin disciplina "instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge," also "object of instruction, knowledge, science, military discipline," from discipulus (see disciple (n.)).

disciple (n.)
Old English discipul (fem. discipula), Biblical borrowing from Latin discipulus "pupil, student, follower," said to be from discere "to learn" [OED, Watkins], from a reduplicated form of PIE root *dek- "to take, accept".

The disciple is the student, the learner. Discipline is the form of learning. (Liberty is the structure of escape.) So we can adduce the following analogy:

All desire desires to be free; all belief believes in learning.

For Williams, the poet differs from the philosopher "in point of action … It is not the passive 'to be' but the active 'I am'" (SE, p. 197). He here forgets, however, that the philosopher, too, can be an artist. The obverse, in any case, is also true: the philosopher differs from the poet in point of fact. Not the "I am", perhaps, but the no less active "it is".

Let us put it this way. There is a love of action, often expressed in poetry, sometimes as the despair of being unable to act, the "melancholy fit". This love is always a love of freedom. And there is, on the other hand, the wisdom of the facts, which philosophy can register with great artfulness. And this wisdom is always the wisdom of learning. That is, we must of course find our freedom in experience, but there is an important limit. Whatever we do, whatever actions we take, must afford us opportunities to learn. (Injustice—evil—is action that affords no opportunity for learning. Think on it, friends.) And here, as Williams rightly says, "Discipline is implied."

*This was written in 1938. While probably not intended that way, I hope feminists, too, will be able to appreciate the joke. It is akin to Woolf's "To write, a woman needs money and a room of her own." So did men, of course. So do we all. It's all about specifying the problem (problem for whom?), which is particular to the Age, and constitutes the "form and pressure" of the times in which we live.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Pictures and Structures

"[T]he purpose of Playing […] was and is, to hold as 'twer the Mirrour vp to Nature; to shew Vertue her owne Feature, Scorne her owne Image, and the verie Age and Bodie of the Time, his forme and pressure." (William Shakespeare, Hamlet)

"How does this apply here, today?" (William Carlos Williams, "Against the Weather")

Pictures are to facts what structures are to acts. Structures transmit forces, pressures; pictures capture shapes, forms. "Think of a work of art—a poem—as a structure," says Williams. "A form is a structure consciously adopted for an effect" ("Weather", SE, p. 217). A work of art is a structure in the form of a picture, a picture impressed with a structure. (Long ago, I said the image is a concept backed liked an emotion.)

"The image in the flesh, reaching up to reality in the fact, reaching up to ideality in the act."

In "Danse Russe", Williams observes himself, naked in his room,

before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
"I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!"

In the mirror, he is able to see himself, alone. But he must be standing on the floor, he must be grounded. The work of art is a mirror, something "to look at" to see ourselves. But we must stand before it, there must be some ground, some "bottom", a floor. (Too much, perhaps, depends upon these etymologies.) Williams sees himself—dancing, lonely—himself. And,

If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,—

Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household.

In Heidegger, we have the Gestell—the apparatus, the frame—and, less famously, the Gebild—the structured image. They are outside us, beyond our skins, beyond the drawn shades, and constitute the "the verie Age and Bodie of the Time", as actual to us as the weather. As real.

Against this, says Williams, he puts his freedom and his discipline. He produces a work of art, an imagined structure, let us say, and an imagined picture. He "build[s] his living, complex day into the body of his poem" (SE, p. 217). The mirror is not simply a "true" picture of his "grotesque" body. His body stands before it and is shown his feature, his image. Even as he dances his poem is coming into being in the imagination of this "happy genius".

The imagination is the transmuter. It is the changer. Without imagination life cannot go on, for we are left staring at the empty casings where truth lived yesterday while the creature itself has escaped behind us. It is the power of mutation which the mind possesses to rediscover the truth. (SE, p. 213)

It is not that the work of art IS a "mirror of nature". It holds the mirror up. It shows you that you are happy when you are alone [, an emotion that is also beautifully noted down in Williams' "Waiting"]. The work of art teaches your body to absorb the pressure of the Time and (trans)forme it into a complex, daily act of living.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Picture of the F/acts

For my money the lynchpin of Wittgenstein's Tractatus is 2.1, "We make ourselves pictures of the facts." Some would translate "Wir machen uns Bilder der Tatsachen," as "we picture facts to ourselves", but I like that word "make" (machen) because it indicates poeisis, i.e., poetry.

Those "pictures" are of course what I normally call images, units of imagination. And this works out well in translation, too, since Bilder (pictures) is the the root of Einbildungskraft (imagination). We are talking about the power of making pictures. I'm borrowing that somewhat odd locution from Christopher Hitchens' appreciation of George Orwell's phrase "a power of facing unpleasant facts", which he thought was important to becoming a writer.

It would not be all wrong to think that your power of making pictures, defines your "voice" as a writer. Just as your power of facing unpleasant facts defines your style as a political writer, and your power of facing people quite generally, in social life, probably defines your ordinary speaking voice.

In another context, Thomas Presskorn recently impressed on me "the difficulty of distinguishing clearly (and in practice) between 'the sound of our speaking' and 'its mere sense'. Voice is often semantically, even assertoricly, relevant." In responding, I found myself speaking in the slightly mechanical voice of the Pangrammaticon:

Consider the "simple" case of the sentence as spoken [with all its tone and rhythm, sincerity and irony, competence and diffidence]* and the same sentence written down. The difference between these two utterances is "voice" in a literal sense. Perhaps this has provided a model for the idea that there is a difference between the sentence as written (with all its accidents of style and errors of typography) and its "propositional content", or sense, which again can be distinguished from its full "meaning", i.e., that which includes the fact that the sentence is about, its reference.

There is the question of whether it's style "all the way down" (and all the way up). This may include not just voice, but also gesture, and will cover every function of language between perception and action. It's the full ramification of the way the "picture reaches right up to reality". It's the image in the flesh.

And yet…

Aren't science and politics just the perfectly legitimate activities of softening and sharpening the voice enough to explicate some relatively unambiguous "content". I.e., to make a determination of sense and motive, i.e., what we "mean" by our seeing and doing.

The image in the flesh, reaching up to reality in the fact, reaching up to ideality in the act.

*added 12.04.2014