Saturday, January 2, 2010

Heidegger, Gadamer and the discreet poet

Why have Heidegger, Gadamer and other modern philosophers concluded that Poetry is superior to Philosophy?   The above is an essay by Glenn Clifton entitled “What are Poets For?  Gadamer’s Answer to Heidegger’s Question.”  Heidegger took his essay title from a line of Holderlin which read, “. . . what are poets for in a destitute time?”  For Heidegger living in a nation that lost a major war and which was then dominated by Anglo-American Liberal Democracy, the times were indeed destitute. 

On page 10, Clifton writes, “Esenay Serequeberhan . . . argues that Gadamer’s theory suffers for the loss of Heidegger’s radicality.  Since Gadamer makes tradition, above all else, into the horizon of all thought, Gadamer loses Heidegger’s notion that a resolute thinker should confront tradition only by challenging it.  As such, he thinks Gadamer verges on medieval scholasticism . . .  I must note here that while the view that Gadamer makes tradition the horizon of all thought is actually frequent among scholars, I believe it is a mistake; Gadamer actually believes language is the horizon of thought, and tradition is primarily important as the collective name for those ways in which language, in its historical being, addresses us from the past.”

Richard Rorty is perhaps addressing the sense in which Heidegger expects the “resolute thinker” to “challenge tradition,” when he writes on page 13 of Essays On Heidegger and Others, “A metaphor is, so to speak, a voice from outside logical space, rather than an empirical filling-up of a portion of that space, or a logical-philosophical clarification of the structure of that space.  It is a call to change one’s language and one’s life, rather than a proposal about how to systematize either.” 

Clifton doesn’t strike me as embracing the radicality of a poet who pushes our horizons beyond our present reality.  He was probably comfortable with Wordsworth’s definition of the poet as expressing what “oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.”  Wordsworth wasn’t here pushing the envelope of reality.  He was decorating the space in which he lived.   And Clifton doesn’t criticize modern versions of this thinking.  On page 17 Clifton writes “Poets today are discreet, and many conclude that poets have fallen silent only because they are ‘no longer able to listen to the discreet” . . .’  Gadamer follows this with readings of two poems, one by Celan and one by Johannes Bobrowski.  These illustrate his point, as well as his own outstanding ability to interpret very ‘discreet’ writings.  Gadamer ends the essay by discussing how the poets have become quieter in our age, as though they did not want some ‘unintended person’ to overhear them . . .  Only sympathetic readers will hear their message.   In the age of the ‘electronically amplified voice, only the quietest word still affirms the commonality and therefore, the humanity, which you and I find in the word’. . .  So modern poets hope to somehow elude the radar of technology.  The softness of their voices proclaims humanity, because humanity is of course vulnerable.  Gadamer finishes the essay: ‘What is required for the quiet word, for the speaker as well as for the listener, we know.  It is similar to the slow passages in a symphony – in them the true mastery of the composer and conductor is best demonstrated.  And who will determine which experiences of skillfulness reach out from the life of our technical civilization into these word constructions and are captured in them , so that we are able to suddenly meet and welcome, in this our house, the powerful foreignness of the modern world as something familiar?’”

            COMMENT:  I fail to see poetic power in Clifton’s poet.  And shouldn’t we find it in an essay entitled “What are Poets For?  Gadamer’s answer to Heidegger’s Question”?  Heidegger could hide the nature of this power, for no one, according to him, can truly understand Holderlin.  But Gadamer and Clifton’s poet is a mousy little guy who likes to be discreet – a poetic quietist.   Would Heidegger have been as humble as he was, saying that the best philosopher might equal but not surpass the poet if these discreet poets exemplified poetry for him?   I don’t think so.

            Looking more fully at Rorty’s essay in this regard, he writes, “there are three ways in which a new belief can be added to our previous beliefs, thereby forcing us to reweave the fabric of our beliefs and desires – viz., perception, inference, and metaphor.”  For other philosophers, there were only the first two, “. . . common to Husserlian phenomenology and to analytic philosophy . . . philosophizing consists in clarification, in patiently making explicit what has remained implicit.”  But the third, Metaphor, is a “voice from outside” our “logical space.”   This is the source of poetic power. 

            Not all poems will provide this sort of metaphor.  They won’t all speak with a “voice from outside our logical space.”  Certainly Gadamer’s and Clifton’s poets don’t have that sort of “voice.”  And neither do the rest of us who write poetry as long as we are content to be “discreet.”  I believe it was in a recent review of the second volume of T. S. Eliot’s letters that I read that Eliot was so overwhelmed by his The Waste Land that it took him years to get past it.   I can accept this poem as providing the sort of metaphor(s) that Rorty alludes to.  And if Eliot also held such a view (which he may well have) then he would have had no desire to fill up his world with discreet descriptions of what other people often thought but couldn’t express as well as he could.   The Waste Land was the metaphorical measure against which he would judge all his other poetry.

            I don’t think there is anything wrong with discreet poetry, but shouldn’t some us be striving for the Heideggerian metaphor . . . at least once in awhile?

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