As Numinous as Words

Today, roughly a month before I will depart for the first of two graduate schools at which I will study philosophy for a minimum of the next 6 years, I got a tattoo of a line from my favorite poem, “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass. The line, “blackberry blackberry blackberry,” is supposed to remind me, powerfully and viscerally, that literature can accomplish a great deal that philosophy cannot.

I work, at least for the moment,  in epistemology, a field that often serves to dismantle the fragile edifices of human certainty. I love philosophy in large part for the courage and ruthlessness it displays in upending its own comforts, a sensibility that echoes the injunction to “kill your darlings,” which is typically (and usefully) employed by writers revising their work. But the withering doubt that calls so much of the world into such radical question has a limited scope, and the role of literature, at least in my most personal and least scholarly view, is to combat the creeping tendrils of skepticism that seep into all human relations.

It’s possible, of course, that the people who purport to love you are lying about everything; that they’re Russian spies bent on uncovering your least attractive characteristics or broadcasting your most tremulous vulnerabilities on rush-hour NPR; that they’re androids without any capacity for sentient thought at all; that they secretly hate you; that they have hoards of secret girlfriends they’re concealing from you; or, maybe worse and far more plausibly, that you’ve just totally misunderstood them. (See another one of my favorites, by Phillip Lopate.) Maybe any time anyone says anything, you’ve misunderstood it. Maybe you speak a totally private language that’s impenetrable to outsiders, but it sounds so much like English that no one will ever know that what you mean by “please pass the salt” is something else entirely. Probably not. But maybe. And wouldn’t it hurt if so, if you lived alone in your language and nobody could find you there. And isn’t it awful that if if you did and if they couldn’t, things would seem just the same as they do now.

Unfortunately, if we succumbed to this logic, unfalsifiable as it is, we’d live pretty impoverished lives. And this is why I think that writing or reading, like loving, is an act of immense faith. In order to do it, we have to believe, somewhat implausibly, despite all the good evidence to the contrary, that it’s possible for one person to come into direct and fruitful contact with another, and that words are the appropriate vehicles for traversing interpersonal interstices, and that when we speak to the people we love we’re succeeding in traversing those distances even though we can never confirm that we’re doing so.

And believe it or not we can believe these things, because sometimes a passage or phrase or a person is, irrationally, inexplicably, indubitable: its beauty, its communicability, serves as an antidote to the whole apparatus of uncertainty. Last week I read Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner’s beautiful meditation on this very topic. The work is fraught with anxiety because so much is at stake. If we cannot escape ourselves via poetics, via these frantic linguistic contortions, via improbable but powerful “profound experiences of art,” how can we ever escape ourselves? And if we cannot escape ourselves, how can we reach other? Perhaps stupidly, I’ve always equated what I take to be the central challenge of literature–communicability, initiating a reader fully into a foreign experience –with the central challenge of life–believing that sometimes other people understand you when you speak, and speaking although you will be frequently misunderstood in the hopes that someday you won’t be. Here’s a very long and very beautiful passage by Coetzee from Youth that gets at what I mean (one of the passages too lovely to doubt):

“Of course in his heart he knows destiny will not visit him unless he makes her do so. He has to sit down and write, that is the only way. But he cannot begin writing until the moment is right, and no matter how scrupulously he prepares himself, wiping the table clean, positioning the lamp, ruling a margin down the side of the blank page, sitting with his eyes shut, emptying his mind in readiness – in spite of all this, the words will not come to him. Or rather, many words will come, but not the right words, the sentence he will recognize at once, from its weight, from its poise and balance, as the destined one.

He hates these confrontations with the blank page, hates them to the extent of beginning to avoid them. He cannot bear the weight of despair that descends at the end of each fruitless session, the realization that again he has failed. Better not to wound oneself in this way, over and over. One might cease to be able to respond to the call when it comes, might become too weak, too abject.

He is well aware that his failure as a writer and his failure as a lover are so closely parallel that they might as well be the same thing. He is the man, the poet, the maker, the active principle, and the man is not supposed to wait for the woman’s approach. On the contrary, it is the woman who is supposed to wait for the man. The woman is the one who sleeps until aroused by the prince’s kiss; the woman is the bud that unfolds under the caress of the sun’s rays. Unless he wills himself to act, nothing will happen, in love or in art. But he does not trust the will. Just as he cannot will himself to write but must wait for the aid of some force from outside, a force that used to be called the Muse, so he cannot simply will himself to approach a woman without some intimation (from where? – from her? from within him? from above?) that she is his destiny. If he approaches a woman in any other spirit, the result is an entanglement like the wretched one with Astrid, an entanglement he was trying to escape from almost before it began.

There is another and more brutal way of saying the same thing. In fact there are hundreds of ways: he could spend the rest of his life listing them. But the most brutal way is to say that he is afraid: afraid of writing, afraid of women. He may pull faces at the poems he reads in Ambit and Agenda, but at least they are there, in print, in the world. How is he to know that the men who wrote them did not spend years squirming as fastidiously as he in front of the blank page? They squirmed, but then finally they pulled themselves together and wrote as best they could what had to be written, and mailed it out, and suffered the humiliation of rejection or the equal humiliation of seeing their effusions in cold print, in all their poverty. In the same way these men would have found an excuse, however lame, for speaking to some or other beautiful girl in the Underground, and if she turned her head away or passed a scornful remark in Italian to a friend, well, they would have found a way of suffering the rebuff in silence and the next day would have tried again with another girl. That is how it is done, that is how the world works. And one day they, these men, these poets, these lovers, would be lucky: the girl, no matter how exaltedly beautiful, would speak back, and one thing would lead to another and their lives would be transformed, both their lives, and that would be that. What more is required than a kind of stupid, insensitive doggedness, as lover, as writer, together with a readiness to fail and fail again?”

So why the Hass? For one, because I cannot doubt it. Here it is:

“All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.”
But also because I think it affirms literature’s, thus love’s, ability to overcome skepticism, not just aesthetically but also intellectually. First, Hass raises the possibility that to speak is to endanger or obscure the objects of our description. He acknowledges that words run the risking of memorializing what they denote by stifling or misrepresenting it, by imposing onto it shapes that can’t quite fit its particular contours. There is a possibility that our loves are private loves, personal loves, more bound up with our own mythologizing of our friends or beloveds than with our friends or lovers themselves (“it hardly had to do with her”). Certainly, Hass acknowledges, the subjective quality of experience is undeniable, sometimes so undeniable that it seems to negate all of our overtures of love or tenderness. “Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances,” and between self and other is an insurmountable privacy so absolute that often it seems to nullify an attempts at its mitigation.
But note that “a word is an elegy to what it signifies” is not a statement but a supposition. Were we to accept it, to “talk this way,” everything would dissolve: all possibility of interpersonal connection, all attempts at self-exposure. And so stupidly and irrationally we believe in the symbols too affecting to doubt–the “way her hand dismantled bread,” “the thing her father said that hurt her,” these human details that touch us and mark us beyond our ability to question them. When a “body is as numinous as words,” the self coincides with its articulation: the living and the speaking of it correspond to one another, the gap between description and described collapses. These intersections of experience and expression are few and far between, but when they occur we can at least momentarily grasp each other. We can collide, find ourselves disarmed, struck by a “violent wonder” at each other’s presence.
The repetition of the word “blackberry” at the end, which both re-inscribes the its meaning and negates it, which distances sound from meaning but also renders the word strange and thick and juicy in our mouths, just like a rich blackberry,  emphasizes the paradoxical quality of language in general and literary language in particular: that words are the mechanisms of our separation but also the mechanisms of our unions, that they are all we have and that they are often not enough, and that sometimes they are not only sufficient but even, impossibly, holy. And so we keep trying and failing in the hopes that maybe someday we’ll succeed. 

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