Friday, April 01, 2005

Perpetual retreat and reference

In the moment it seems impulse; in the year, in the lifetime, it turns out to be a certain uniform tune which the revolving barrel of the music-box must play.
The apparent spontaneity of thought resolves into regular patterns if we follow its movements long enough. Successive passes define the object but liquidate its content. Corners are smoothed, edges dulled. Performance becomes playback as musical memory lengthens to hold the whole sequence of tensions and resolutions before it at once. Each approach is steadier and more confident. Each hermeneutical retread further destroys the desire to know and reveals understanding as a kind of boredom. What seemed a living principle shows itself as a rule; productivity shows itself as reproduction. Exploration traces so many paths to a home that is increasingly everywhere, senselessly.

As Emerson notes, one of the things experience teaches is the shape of one’s own mind in its inevitable circlings. The lords of life, once unknowable and obscure, fetch up wearing our own face, and we vaguely regret the loss of the difference that had once opened us to wonder and charged us with desire.

What is alarming in self-discovery, however, can make for fascinating reading. In rereading Leibniz, I find that I enjoy immensely the consistency of his writings. A scholar would doubtless note important variations, but this reader is impressed chiefly by the uniformity of Leibniz’s texts over his lifetime, both in their philosophical content and in their expression. It’s a nice biographical analogue of the idea of the elegant philosophical system, and stylistic evidence for the coherence of Leibniz’s views. One feels that there must be real thoughts behind his phrases, compelling and colorful enough to sustain decades of repetition. (Consider by contrast the case of Wilfred Sellars, whose increasing reliance on arcane diagrams in the unfortunate last years of his life is prima facie evidence that his philosophy was retreating into realms private and unknowable.)

I will share one passage from the Monadology. (Among other things, I think it shows that philosophy doesn’t have to be unclear in order to incite us to dream.)
[E]ach organized body of a living being is a kind of divine machine or natural automaton, which infinitely surpasses all artificial automata. For a machine constructed by man’s art is not a machine in each of its parts. For example, the tooth of a brass wheel has parts or fragments which, for us, are no longer artificial things, and no longer have any marks to indicate the machine for whose use the wheel was intended. But natural machines, that is, living bodies, are still machines in their least parts, to infinity. That is the difference between nature and art, that is, between divine art and our art.
Maybe this is the difference between divine art and our art. If so, literary art is divine, and not ours alone. A finite act creates an object infinite in its implications and resonances, where no constituent part has a definite, static shape, and where life is infinitely analyzable into life.

If this is so, then maybe we can begin a response to Emerson. Experience teaches idealism; it reveals in increasing clarity our own impress on each patch of the world that comes into view; it reveals a world that gets a little smaller each time. But when we set free the product of our experience and give over to the world a text composed of words owned by no one and uncontrollable in their total effect, then we open again what our inbent self-tracings would enclose.

2 Comments:

Anonymous R.Eason said...

Fort Kant,

This is beautiful. Emerson meets Richard Powers. Thank You.

4/05/2005 7:38 PM  
Blogger Carl said...

Thanks, Robb.

You'll have to tell me more about Richard Powers. I found your top 10 list at Amazon, but I was disappointed not to find any reviews. :(

Carl

4/09/2005 11:42 AM  

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