Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Listening to the learned astronomer

Here’s a pretty unconvincing piece of anti-philosophy from Walt Whitman:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Don’t you think the narrator’s response says more about the limitations of his own imagination than the limits of the astronomical “charts and diagrams” he ridicules? At the high school where I work, I don’t know any kids who both read well and think that reading is gay.

Besides, those charts and diagrams sound pretty appealing—especially in a poem so lacking in imagery. Scientific props like star charts offer an enticing picture of clarity, of perspicuity, as a globe offers a picture of freedom and possibility.

We like images that communicate more or less immediately to the imagination, whereas the mind naturally hates the artificial restrictions of poetic language. Not that the aesthetic appeal of science lies solely in its imagery. In scientific thinking, too, the mind gets to do things that feel good. I’m not talking about the “elegance” and “symmetry” that physics guys speak of to humanize their discipline. I mean scientific thinking on the least academic, most broken-hammer level, like trying to fix your bong when you’re already high, or wondering what variable of cooking you should change to make the cookies come out more crunchy. We like framing hypotheses, running experiments, isolating variables, quantifying results. Science is only boring when you’re not thinking along with it, for, like the mind itself, it exists only in its activity.

Wallace Stevens, on the other hand, is the philosopher’s anti-philosopher poet. When he speaks against metaphysics, he speaks—like Wittgenstein—as one who knows and must continually fend off the metaphysical impulse.

Let us consider Stevens on one metaphysical question that has repeatedly perplexed Fort Kant: what is the nature of the faculty of representation? That is, how can we represent to ourselves the thing that sees similarities, in particular, “nonsensuous similarities,” as Benjamin puts it? What is the nature of the part that makes metaphor, the mimetic part, the perpetual synthesizer that tells us that this texture belongs with this visual surface and that sound?

I’m now looking for in Biographia Literaria for Coleridge’s name for the roving plastic power of the imagination, and I’ve found my note on the flyleaf—“APRIL 22, 2005, PORTLAND. CAN FORT KANT BE RESCUED? REMEMBER ITS MISSION: TO FIND EVERYWHERE THE MIND REPRESENTING ITSELF, TO SEE IN EACH FORM OF IMAGINATION A FIGURE FOR THE IMAGINATION ITSELF, TO LIST FIGURES OF THE UNITY OF REPRESENTATION.” Here it is: the esemplastic imagination, the imagination that shapes into one.

In The Necessary Angel, Stevens lays waste to the Kantian-Coleridgean distinction between productive and reproductive imagination, between spontaneity and association.. The very phrase “creation of resemblance” destroys this distinction. Finding and forging similarity can’t be cleanly distinguished—doesn’t Kant’s secret reliance on the imagination as an unexplained explainer throughout the Transcendental Analytic show this?—and this faculty of finding-forging is the highest function of imagination.

One of the poems in The Necessary Angel, “Of Ideal Time and Choice”—which I mostly don’t understand—makes an approach toward this function, and considers whether we might discover its essence:
And what heroic nature of what text
Shall be the celebration in the words
Of that oration, the happiest sense in which

A world agrees, thought’s compromise, resolved
At last, the center of resemblance, found
Under the bones of time’s philosophers?

The orator will say that we ourselves stand at the center of ideal time,
The inhuman making choice of a human self.
What is the happiest sense in which a world agrees, hangs together, coheres, forms one thing? What is the center of resemblance? It is we ourselves, period. This is both a deflation and an amplification, a rejection of the question and a rich answer to it, like when Wittgenstein says the human body is the best picture of the human soul. Let’s set aside the “inhuman making choice of a human self” bit—an existential/liberal/nihilistic tic that though probably literally true seems a little crass—and focus on the insight: human imagination and intelligibility are irreducible. “We ourselves” is the smallest unit they resolve into. We won’t find anything more knowable or original than the body—which is a cognizing, scientizing body—the identical subject and object of experience.


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