Tuesday, June 10, 2003


I woke this morning with a head which felt as if someone was sticking knives into it. So much for grand ambition: humbled by the body once again. Today I was going to sketch what I meant by "feeling", starting with Nietzsche's dig at poets in Thus Spake Zarathustra and heading towards Antonio Damasio, but such grand ambitions are utterly beyond me today. Not to mention writing The Novel: my deadline is beginning to look a little parlous, since writing at all has been impossible the past few days. I should have gone to an osteopath on Friday; now I'm paying for ignoring my body. So apologies up front if none of this makes sense: bad headaches are I suppose almost mystical experiences, because by driving you into your body they drive you out of your mind.

Harriet Zinnes and Anny Ballardini asked me some questions about the extract from On Lyric I posted yesterday, so I'll address those and see what happens. If, as is often the case with me, the answers sound certain, it doesn't mean that I actually am certain.

Anny asked:

-lyric is the same question as "I am"-
(to which I am commenting, who am I?)

By which I mean, it seems to me that to assert "I am" is the same as asking "who am I?" Or even that to say "I am" is to ask if I am another.

-the felt world of that person is secret-
(I don't know if I would have written something similar, we know that empathy if processed - the fact that someone knows how to is another chapter - opens the doors to all perception)

Yes...and no. I was thinking about Elaine Scarry's book The Body in Pain this morning (for obvious reasons); it opens with a discussion of the difficulty, even impossibility, of communicating physical pain, which is sometimes a question of crucial importance in, say, medical diagnosis. We are forced to use various systems of rules of thumb: it is like a needle, it is a dull ache, on the scale of one to ten - but here where subjectivity rules supreme, language hits its real limits. Empathy (love) is the imaginative attempt to bridge that gap, the only recourse we have being that of language (of all kinds: here I include the language of sobs, cries, screams, gestures). But, no matter how much we try to imagine, we cannot actually know what the other person is feeling: any more than we can know whether the colour "red" that we perceive is the same colour that anyone else does. We simply agree that this shade which we both see is red. Which is not in the least to devalue empathy or love; maybe the reverse. I don't see what else is going to save us. I probably value it higher than any other human quality: but it does have to be untangled from simple projection, which is the enfolding of the other into ourselves. Love is also greatly a matter of tact: which sounds a whole lot more prim than what I actually mean.

-the I is what a person makes when translated into feeling which is released from the constraints of exterior gaze-
(will there ever be a freedom from the constraints of exterior gazes?)

Even in our most private selves, we are witnessing our selves. But I think it possible to think of the possibility, even if it is impossible. And there are degrees of freedom from the constraints of gaze, from the total imprisonment that leads to narcissism (for narcissism seems to me an emptying of the self into the gaze rather than engorgement, a self-poverty) to the freedom of unselfconscious solitude. Which may be, when I think about it, when we are all gaze, all eye/I.

Harriet wrote: Why, for example, do you suggest that "each lyric has negations which are particular to itself." Isn't it strange that you see negations in a lyric, and you yourself explain a lyric quite affirmatively. And I suppose you were getting a bit ahead of yourself or becoming drunk with words when you write: "Lyric is not reality. It is real." I do get the symbolism involved in the statements. Still ...

I do see lyric (perhaps I see all poetry) as an art of affirmative negations, or negative affirmatives: poetry always operates in contradictions. And it does seem to me more generally that to affirm is to call up a negation, and vice versa. Which perhaps makes things unnecessarily uncomplicated for myself. Is silence a negation of language? Or language a negation of silence? And does a negation erase what it is negating, or paradoxically invoke it, making it more rather than less present? Perhaps I am talking a kind of theology here, wondering what is absent in presence and present in absence. I find reading Beckett calls up all these sorts of questions within me, and I find Beckett among the most lyric of writers. Still...

And it's quite possible I was getting drunk with words. There is a ghostly "but" in those two sentences. I was defining "reality" (perhaps earlier in the piece) as the temporal, corporeal realities of the reader or writer, and making a fairly banal distinction between those realities and the reality of lyric, which, for all its not being the actual physical reality of the reader or writer, is nevertheless "real". (Sometimes I use "real" to mean "emotionally real", and I mean that sense here as well). The only truth I think possible in poems is an emotional truth; the truer a work seems to me, the more real it becomes in my reality.

But now I suspect I'm getting my realities in a knot.

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