Misty and translucent presence

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What is this gap between live experience, heart’s blood, and the written word? Or between experience of the world and our postmortem, delayed, and limping descriptions?

This sparkling (but in its way, dark) Bradley quote came my way from Kelly Jolley. I read it in the midst of  responding to a friend about his photos and his adoption of walking as an immersion in the world unmediated by sentences.

The view that our primary encounters with the world are pre-linguistic should be a heresy for  most linguistic philosophers. But what if the world (or the portion we become immersed in while walking meditatively, or listening immersively), is more like a musical address than a courtroom conversational address?

If a musical address is paradigmatic of meaningful address from the world, then we can be deluged by meaning quite apart from our ability to produce a linguistic  report of what that deluge of meaning amounts to. There’s no need to lament this linguistic insufficiency. There’s every reason to be grateful that meaning has been delivered full and clear — meaning enough to let life’s increase carry on.

Immersion in the presence of “things” (say, the presence of a musical address) finds us without a gap between the “Immersed-Me” and the “World-Immersing-Me.” World overflowing without words is just about the last word.

When we’re immersed in nature’s address, or immersed in a photo of a country path, or immersed in the address of music, separation from the world dissolves. I may be captive to a presence, a photo of a country path.  After a pause, still captivated, still partially immersed, I tentatively ask what makes the view jump out that way to carry me away. The tilt of this branch? The light bouncing off the water?

I stumble for articulation of the parts that make a large, connected and as yet inarticulated whole. But there is no despair as I stumble for words. The immersive wonder keeps feeding me, keeps immersing me, even as I break the spell in my sideways looking articulation attempts.

I think poetry must be an ambiguous figure in a halfway house between direct sentences that can be easily paraphrased and musical address, for which there is no paraphrase. When we read poetry we often get the sense of deep immersion in a reality that we can only half-translate into straight discourse. We could say the untranslatable level is the musical level.

In viewing a photo or hearing a melody we may resort to poetry as halfway successful in  conveying the sense of what we were immersed in and what hasn’t completely disappeared: the happily lingering deep residue of the untranslatable.

If this is right, then poetry is partially pre-linguistic on first encounter, paradoxical as that sounds. The gap between the Immersed-I and the World-Immersing is closed. Word-sounds and looks flow by, carrying off our eyes and ears. Those word-sounds are not merely verbal declarations, imperatives, or assertions. In that sense they are pre-linguistic and like music.


6 comments on “Misty and translucent presence

  1. Steve Webb says:

    It would appear that the muse of aphorisms failed Bradley in this instance, in a way that she rarely failed, say, La Rochefoucauld, Lichtenberg, Emerson, or Nietzsche. Or should we understand these consummate short-form artists as having ink in their veins? Bradley could write better: “Metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct; but to find these reasons is no less an instinct.” But wait—an instinct to find bad reasons? That’s something to ponder. Here’s another, still better aphorism by him: “One said of suicide, As long as one has brains one should not blow them out. And another answered, But when one has ceased to have them, too often one cannot.” What vital experience, I wonder, does that tightly coiled thought mortify? Bradley’s complaint against words—if indeed words are his complaint—might just as well be leveled against poetry and would entail a similar misunderstanding. Aphorisms, like poems, like any good writing, give us experiences as immediate and affecting as any of the more mute variety. Or am I wrong to think that a sudden smile of word-borne comprehension is also a firsthand experience and not a dim reflection of one?

    By the way, I was unsure what the difference is between an aphorism and its colder cousin, an epigram. Looking up the roots of the words, I discovered that an aphorism is more like an abstract truth or definition (Art is long, life is short) whereas an epigram is more like an inscription on a tomb, such as a brief statement of fact about or from the deceased (Et in Arcadia Ego). Something like this difference must be what Bradley had in mind; otherwise, if the two words are merely synonymous, his aphorism would be oddly redundant. He’d be saying that the writing of aphorisms stiffen into cold aphorisms. Is he giving us a lesson in word definitions, teaching us more precise diction perhaps, or was the difference obvious to every literate reader of his day? Or, disturbing thought, is it also obvious to every literate reader of my day? I begin to worry about my own grasp of words!

    • efmooney says:

      Encore! I’m sure you’re right on nearly all fronts, Steve. You’re only wrong to worry about your own grasp of words. You’re running circles around Bradley.

      • Steve Webb says:

        Thanks, Ed. But there’s always room for improvement! Look how I mangled the last three sentences of the first paragraph. Somehow, not paying attention, I switched subjects at sentence nine, from aphorisms in particular to words or language in general. Instead of defending aphorisms against Bradley’s apparent disparagement of them I started defending language as such, its resources for conveying intense experience and whatnot. To keep the paragraph properly aligned with its subject, sentence nine should have read: “Bradley’s complaint against aphorisms—if indeed aphorisms are his complaint—might just as well be leveled against poetry and would entail a similar misunderstanding.” Then, of course, the last two sentences would have to be revised as well.

        How did that switch-over happen? I think I’ll blame it on you, if you don’t mind. You also take Bradley’s complaint about a specific form of writing to be a complaint about words as such, their extreme poverty or dryness vis-a-vis the wordless “world” in all its moist and joyous plenitude. This, at any rate, is how I understand your own very nice aphorism: “World overflowing without words is just about the last word.”

      • Steve Webb says:

        Obviously “blaming” you was only a weak joke. I don’t blame you at all. I know that Bradley’s aphorism was merely the prompt or occasion for you to share your insights about the world of concrete things versus the parallel world of words (if I may bifurcate). The latter world is pale and etiolated, a mere simulacrum, compared to the former. That world—the real world in a sense—is wonderfully elusive to being worded. There it is all around us, a primal circumambient revelation that somehow or other we all-too-often fail to see or allow to touch us. Yet we’re in it up to our necks, so to speak; only our heads and talking mouths are sticking out. You know, Ed, I think you’d really like Fernando Pessoa, the great 20th-century Portugese poet, especially the lyrics of his “heteronym” Alberto Caeiro. Here, as a peace offering, is number XXXI from “The Keeper of Sheep”:

        If sometimes I say that flowers smile
        And if I should say that rivers sing,
        It’s not because I think there are smiles in flowers
        And songs in the rivers’ flowing…
        It’s so I can help misguided men
        Feel the truly real existence of flowers and rivers.

        Since I write for them to read me, I sometimes stoop
        To the stupidity of their senses…
        It isn’t right, but I excuse myself,
        Because I’ve only taken on this odious role, an interpreter of Nature,
        Because there are men who don’t grasp its language,
        Which is no language at all.

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