Thursday, June 12, 2003

Erotics 2

"I have grown weary of the poets, the old and the new: they are all seem to me superficial and shallow seas.
They have not thought deeply enough: therefore their feeling - has not plumbed the depths...

The poet's spirit wants spectators, even if they are only buffaloes!
But I have grown weary of this spirit: and I see the day when it will grow weary of itself.
Already I have seen the poets transformed; I have seen them direct their glance upon themselves."
- Thus Spake Zarathustra Friedrich Nietzsche

"Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, whose are not."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

"We do not have too much intellect and too little soul, but too little intellect in matters of the soul."
- Robert Musil

"...in the end, consciousness begins as a feeling, a special kind of feeling, to be sure, but a feeling nonetheless."
- The Feeling of What Happens, Antonio Damasio

"...poetry is the language art. Readers continue to come to poetry because...it contains language charged with meaning."

- Dialogue on Evaluation in Poetry, Marjorie Perloff

I've collected this ragbag of quotes to map out an area to begin thinking. I have always thought that poetry is most deeply about feeling. And yet to talk about feeling leads into such dangers, such vaguenesses of expression, such ever-present perils of cliche and sentiment, that intelligent discussion of poems often elides this factor: it is treated like a shameful secret, which is permitted to peep through a door and then banished to a back room, where its anarchies and disruptions cannot derail proper adult conversation. I would like to argue that the meaning of poetry collects precisely in the area of feeling; that, in agreement rather than argument with Perloff's quote above, readers come to poetry because it is language charged with feeling, which is its meaning; but I am very conscious, even before I begin, of my lack of abilities to do so. My speculations are just that: speculations. And there is another, in this case salient point, that to speak generally is to lose the whole point, for feeling is always, and without exception, particular. But I am not trying to write an essay here. Fortunately. And all I can hope to do today is lay out some very schematic and brief beginnings, which might lead elsewhere.

The problem with talking about feeling is precisely its vagueness. What is it? I am quite aware that in the context of an aesthetic object, like a poem, to speak of such an unstable and vague concept as feeling being the basis, or indeed the crux, of its existence is full of pitfalls. So I will narrow my terms. I am not speaking of sentimentality, which is the cliched representation of feeling, and which is so often its opposite. To represent feeling in the broad and general terms of, say, nationalistic sentimentality, or the sentimentality which attends the notion of motherhood, is in fact to erase the representation and consciousness of feeling. Wallace Stevens said that sentiment was a "failure of feeling"; but Milan Kundera claims that it is in fact an absence of feeling. And I incline to Kundera's claim. Which is why, for example, it is totally possible to bomb civilians with great sentimentality, but not with great feeling: in fact, sentimentality might well be necessary, to get rid of the feeling which might otherwise empathise with the civilians. To complicate matters, I am also quite aware that sentiment can be expressive of real feeling: the poems that are published in the death notices of newspapers, for instance, are no less felt for being clumsy. I don't wish to denigrate those sorts of expressions of feeling, which must be respected; but at the moment I do not wish to discuss them. I will also note in passing that often artists who make works of great feeling - say, James Joyce, Igor Stravinsky, Henry James - are accused of being unfeeling: their expressions of feeling do not fit the mold of sentiment, or seriously challenge it, and so are not recognised as being feeling at all.

I am also speaking of feeling as distinct from emotion, emotion being the raw experience of an emotional state, and feeling being the awareness, the consciousness, of experiencing it: a useful distinction of the neurologist Antonio Damasio's, which I will distort to my own ends. "Feeling an emotion is a simple matter," he says in his book The Feeling of What Happens. "It consists of having mental images arising from the neural patterns which represent the changes in body and brain that make up an emotion. But knowing we have that feeling, "feeling" that feeling, occurs only after we build the second order representations necessary for core consciousness [which are] representations of the relationship between the organism and the object (which in this case is an emotion) and of the causal effect of that object on the organism."

Feeling, then, depends on the presence of a self to feel, however primitive that self might be (the "core consciousness" which Damasio speaks of is barely above a basic physical awareness). In the making of an artwork, that self is a complex entity, and the concept of feeling becomes concomitantly complex. And in an artwork, a poem say, feeling is what is, firstly, expressed, and secondly, communicated - to another self, with its own complexities, its own biographical and historical particularity. It is a process at once totally mysterious and totally obvious. And this is where generalising becomes very difficult, because feeling, in a general sense, is almost meaningless: it occurs in time, in specific circumstances, in particular bodies, and is, in a real sense, beyond language. It is also something which cannot be separated from corporeality. This is where, to me, the idea of an erotics of poetry as a way of imagining these complexities through the mediation of poems begins to be quite attractive.

To speak of poetry being about "feeling" is instantly to raise the objection, in one form or another, that poetry is supremely an intellectual art, a shaping of language. And of course it is: language and the shaping of language represent one of the great expressions of human intelligence, and poetry one of its most focussed expressions. But the immediate assumption that to speak of feeling is to banish the intellect, as if the presence of one pushes the other out of the mind, or permits the mind to be swamped by primitive and barbarous instincts or a wash of sentiment, appears to me to me no more than a prejudice. Feeling has always seemed to me a matter of intense intelligence. When Eliot says on the one hand, for example, that in order to write poetry one has to be "very intelligent" and on the other, that "only those with personality know what it is to want to escape it", I assume that he is speaking about an experience of feeling so strong, complex and painful that it can only be approached and expressed with intelligence. But intelligence does not erase feeling. It may, rather, be essential to its existing at all.

Well, I have done little more here than to say why it is impossible to talk about feeling. But also, I hope, why I think it necessary to try.

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