Silence and the Bogey of the Ideal

There were two points of discussion today (neither drawing directly from the poems we discussed, unfortunately) that I’d like to ruminate for a bit. We ate together—I hope you’ll pardon me this bit of public digestion. The first was Alan’s suggestion that some people believe poetry to be handicapped as a form of expression because its aim lies chiefly in avoiding a plain and clear articulation of the ideas it is used to express. I was for some time an adherent of a similar position, and I think it may still be at the root of my resistance to modern non-representational art (if an artist is trying to convey something to me, why can’t he articulate it in a way that I might more clearly understand?). The second is the idea that only the permanent is valuable; that the prospect of death might indict our attempts to achieve happiness as ultimately futile. I’m having difficulty with both of these ideas (and the difficulty will be apparent in what I write, I’m sure), so I’m going to “think aloud” a bit to see if I can begin to make sense of some vague notions that have been clouding my brain since this afternoon.

“Is something the matter, dear,” she said,
That you sit at your work so silently?”
“No, mother, no, ’twas a knot in my thread.
There goes the kettle, I’ll make the tea.”

—Edna St. Vincent Millay, excerpted from “Departure”

During the winter break in my junior year in college, I was wandering through the college bookstore, as I was often wont to do, looking through all the books I wouldn’t be using in the classes for which I had registered. I had signed up for a course on Wittgenstein, and the Tractatus was not on the reading list (we were to contrast “later” Wittgenstein with Russell’s atomism), so I bought a copy and read it straightaway. It was, at the time, the strangest and most beautiful work I had ever encountered, and I immediately found myself caught up in an ardent positivism that took months to begin to shake off (and still lingers!). In the spring, a good friend and I began to argue whether there are definite ideas that must be circumlocuted, or spoken of only indirectly, because a direct and plain articulation would be impossible or contradict the idea being expressed. I was sure Wittgenstein was correct in asserting:

When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question be put into words.
The riddle does not exist.
If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it.

I insisted that in a world that is a totality of facts, there is no room for the inexpressible. My friend countered with reference to the art of poetry, of poetic beauty that cannot be conveyed more plainly, of the things that may only be expressed poetically. In a fit of rhetoric, I demanded an example of an idea that could not be expressed plainly. Naturally, he stammered… We declared a stalemate, and the discussion drifted away from what we could not resolve.

It was some time in my senior year before I remembered a poem we had read in my freshman theater class—“Silence” by Edgar Lee Masters. I was broken. My friend, wrong about so many things, had evidently been correct. I believe that there are ideas that require not a journalist but an artist for their expression, if one may express them at all; indeed, these may be far more abundant, if less common, than the plain truths that admit of a more straightforward presentation. Wittgenstein, it seems, had even tempered his earlier claims: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” In a world of facts, what is it of which we are unable to speak? He called it the “mystical” and said it makes itself manifest. I am tempted to call it the poetic.

No one says in the morning: ‘The day is soon over, let us await the night.’ On the contrary, we think in the evening of what we shall do the next day. We should be very sorry to spend a single day at the mercy of bad weather or tiresome people. We do not leave to chance the employment of even a few hours; and we are right. For who can undertake to spend a single hour without ennui, if he is not at pains to fill that short period to his taste? But what we dare not undertake for a single hour, we sometimes undertake for the whole of our lives. And we say: ‘If death ends all, why be at so much trouble? We are very silly to be so anxious about the future;’ or, in other words, ‘We are very silly not to trust our destinies to chance, and to take so much thought for that space which lies between us and death.’

—Vauvenargues, Reflections and Maxims 147, tr. F.G. Stevens

I have never been clear on why one might think that life is “pointless” or our endeavors are “futile” just because we will not live forever. The basic argument, I imagine, must go something like this: “The longer I am able to enjoy something, the more enjoyment I get out of it. Therefore, that which is more durable is more valuable. Therefore, that which is most durable, the Permanent, is most valuable. Therefore, the impermanent loses its value in comparison. Therefore the impermanent, like life, is of no value.” Of course I simplify, and I’m sure a more nuanced (and therefore compromised) argument could be made, but this presentation should suffice to illuminate two errors on which I think the requisition of permanence for value might be based.

Both errors may be traced to the formidable mendacity and lasting influence of Plato, who equivocated that which is seen (ειδος) with that which cannot be seen (Ειδος). From him we learned that the ideal is desirable precisely because it is the standard by which value is to be judged. He (*ahem*) formalized the notion that all particulars are valuable insofar as they implement the ideal, and what is essentially individual is a failure of the ideal.

The first problem is purely practical. Permanence, like any ideal, by definition cannot be observed, but must be inferred or induced from comparative measures of durability. An abstraction, and hence the ideal, lacks the particulars of experience; in a word, it is a misrepresentation of the particular. We will never experience the truly permanent, and therefore we can never experience anything of the highest value, if the argument is granted. Without experience of the most valuable, how can we determine to what extent the merely durable measures up? Assessment of value involves an act of measurement, that is to say, of comparison. It is unreasonable here to insist on comparison to the incomparable, to require that we evaluate individual instances against that which has nothing individual in it, to transform the real and essentially comparative to a purely imagined superlative.

No handiwork of Callimachus,
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

—from “Lapis Lazuli” by Yeats

The second problem, of course, is that it is usually the fleeting and essentially particular that we value most highly. The argument is contradicted (and not merely unsubstantiated) by our experience. What is common (and here, equivocation is unavoidable) is individually expendable. It is, perhaps, only in the artist’s pigments that value and permanence are so closely correlated. As Vauvenargues says (reflexion 698), “Nothing that lasts is very pleasant, not even life; yet we like it.” What endures eventually becomes customary, and then habitual, and then tedious unless it fades and disappears entirely into the background.

This, of course, is not to say that the valuable cannot endure as such. Our relationships, our loyalties, our dreams and yearnings can continue to be meaningful for long stretches; sometimes, even as long as our bodies will carry us. But I suspect that often, if not always, this is due not to the durability of what we value but the continual adjustment of how we value. We may love someone or something for a very long time, but it is usually the inconstancy in what we hold most dear, rather than any constancy of character in the object of our affection, that holds us accidentally bound to the other. Passion may evolve to a more comforable familiarity, and love may grow into respect. The specter of death need not devalue our desires and aspirations, or our affections or yearnings or efforts, if they make no claim to permanence.

Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science:

The Greeks, to be sure, prayed: “Everything beautiful twice and even three times!” They implored the gods with good reason, for ungodly reality gives us the beautiful either not at all or once only. I mean to say that the world is overfull of beautiful things but nevertheless poor, very poor when it comes to beautiful moments and unveilings of these things. But perhaps this is the most powerful magic of life: it is covered by a veil interwoven with gold, a veil of beautiful possibilities, sparkling with promise, resistance, bashfulness, mockery, pity and seduction.

I wonder if perhaps stating an idea plainly, without veil or playfulness, might sometimes grant it too much durability, relegate it too quickly to the background of our consideration, rob it of its allure? Perhaps the attraction of the poetic lies in what it refuses to say, in its resistance, in its bashfulness, in its silence?

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