Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Not a Pipe

Zoë and I just completed an exercise with the class that we co-teach in which we read and discussed "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" with a group of tenth graders. So Zoë came by today and gave me a book by Simon Critchley called Things Merely Are. Critchley is a Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, and this book is a look at the poetry of Wallace Stevens as a gateway to the consideration of various epistemological questions. I've only just begun reading it, but one passage in his introduction struck me as interesting and relevant in the light of the post I wrote the other day about David Ferry and the limitations of language. Here's the passage:

... although reality is given to us through an act of the mind, Stevens's late poems stubbornly show how the mind cannot seize hold of the ultimate nature of the reality that faces it. Reality retreats before the imagination that shapes and orders it. Poetry is therefore the experience of failure. As Stevens puts it in a famous late poem, the poet gives us ideas about the thing, not the thing itself.

Why do I seem to keep returning to this issue? Well, I think there's a commonsense notion that most students (and most adults, for that matter) have in their heads most of the time, an assumption that there is a pretty exact one-to-one match between what we see and what we say and what we write on the one hand and what is actually "out there," what is actually real, on the other. And that assumption simply does not hold up to even the most offhand scrutiny. There's lots of stuff that is out there, for example, that we are not, as human beings, capable of perceiving. We can't perceive certain electromagnetic waves that surround us, for example, without the aid of a radio, even though the radio demonstrates that they are in fact there. Dogs can hear higher pitched sounds than humans can register, as is demonstrated by the "silent whistles" used by some dog trainers.

Furthermore, even when there are things we can perceive, there is no guarantee that our perception of them is accurate. "I thought I saw you at the mall yesterday" often elicits something along the lines of "No, I wasn't there, it must have been someone else." Not to mention what goes on in our minds when we are dreaming.

Language and art are deceptive in that they seem to promise a means of precise communication, but are often most deceiving when they are apparently most accurate. Even the most self-assured artistic and linguistic renderings are just that, renderings, as Magritte was at pains to remind us:

What is it that we are looking at? Is it a pipe? Well, no. Is it a painting of a pipe? Well, no it's not that either. Is it a very small digital reproduction of a famous painting that shows us a pipe but includes a caption reminding us that what we are looking at is not a pipe? Well, maybe we're getting warmer. But even this fails to take into account the complicated neural processes that occur in the body and in the brain that occur as the photons from the screen reach our eyes and are "translated" into an image and brought to consciousness and turned somewhere else in our brain into an object of contemplation, from which arise by some process that we have no conscious awareness of "ideas" about what we are seeing and whether it is what it is, or even "exists" at all in any demonstrable sense.

I had no idea when I started writing this post half an hour ago that we were going to wind up over here. And while you might be tempted to read these words as a record or rendering of my thoughts during the time I was writing, the fact of the matter is that there were hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of other thoughts competing for my attention, being subliminally selected or discarded as my fingers moved on the keyboard  and I considered my words and went back at various places to revise or rephrase. No matter how good a typist I might be, no matter how fluent the correspondence between my thoughts and my words, no matter how diligent and determined I might be in my attempts to match the words to my thoughts, the fact remains that writing is a linear, one-dimensional process that is hopelessly inadequate to convey the multilinear, multidimensional, sensory/motor/muscular/emotive reality of what is going on in my mind and around me as I write.

Does that mean that it's hopeless and I shouldn't do it? Well, no. I'd argue, in fact, in the opposite direction: while it is wise and only right to bear in minds the limitations of language, and accept those limitations with some degree of intellectual humility,  the fact remains that language is still the most powerful vehicle we have for making at least some part of our experience hold still long enough to weigh it, assess it, re-think it, and come to some provisional approximation of what it all means and how to deal with it.

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