I received an invitation a couple of months ago to be on a panel at the American Philosophical Association Meetings. The topic was both daunting and exciting: Real Presences: Philosophy, Literature, and Poetry. Real presences rule out disposable ghosts in the dark. But what did the conveners really have in mind?
The invitation, which I accepted, brought to mind a passage from the neglected philosopher-poet Henry Bugbee. It goes like this:
I weighed everything by the measure of the silent presence of things, clarified in the racing clouds, clarified by the cry of hawks, solidified in the presence of rocks, spelled syllable by syllable by waters of manifold voice, and consolidated in the act of tacking steps, each step a meditation steeped in reality. What this all meant, I could not say, kept trying to say, kept trying to harmonize with the suggestions arising from the things I read. But I do remember that this walking in the presence of things came to a definitive stage.
He continues in this lyrical mode:
It was in the fall of ’41, October and November, while late autumn prevailed throughout the northern Canadian Rockies, restoring everything in that vast region to a native wildness. Some part of each day or night, for forty days, flurries of snow were flying. The aspens and larches took on a yellow so vivid, so pure, so trembling in the air, as to fairly cry out that they were as they were, limitlessly. And it was there in attending to this wilderness, with unremitting alertness and attentiveness, yes, even as I slept, that I knew myself to have been instructed for life, though I was at a loss to say what instruction I had received.
Surely this is both philosophy and poetry. It is both evoking presence and celebrating the power of presence to transform a life – instruct it for life, even while the instruction defies palpable articulation.
Here is another poetic evocation of presence from William Stafford.:
Spirit of Place: Great Blue Heron
Out of their loneliness for each other
two reeds, or maybe two shadows, lurch
forward and become suddenly a life
lifted from dawn or the rain. It is
the wilderness come back again, a lagoon
with our city reflected in its eye.
We live by faith in such presences.
Fact/value, subjective/objective, are supervened by presence.
Teaching literature or absorbing its power and delicacy depends of evoking presence – not just facts about a piece of music or literature ready to cough up in a test. Pulling dead facts about this novel or poem or sonata toward presence means finding a place for dialogue with this companionable figure, this striking line, this image or chord sequence.
Sticking to facts about (this or that) refuses to leave space for sites for imagining futures that might blow in as dark or lifting winds, for imagining souls taking their next tremulous step into unknowns where questions are so much more than answers and even silence has a place. There is no space for this Van Gogh crow, this line from Rilke or the Psalms, this Socratic exchange; no room for Emersonian invocation or Hepburn moment; no space for the felt texture of King Lear’s rage, Bonhoeffer’s courage, or Kierkegaard’s plea for knowledge that will “come alive in me.”
Whatever comes alive through the humanities arrives through intimacy and openness to texts, dance, and cities as these carry the arts of conversation, gesture, or praise, the habits of attentiveness, gratitude, or compassion, the contours of grieving or outrage; and as these carry the arts of seeing and coping with affliction, injustice, and estrangement (religious, existential, or otherwise).
As these arts of coping and conversation and habits of attention gradually disappear from the University they do not take up residence elsewhere (at least not in a healthy elsewhere). The lives and imaginations and hearts of its students are less for their disappearance. If departments in the humanities husband these varied sensibilities, proto-religious or not, sensibilities at least in search of a heart (and mourning its absence),
T. S. Eliot knew it was presence, not knowledge, that gives us poetry and the deepest communions with our worlds:
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise.
Or Ross Gay, “A Wedding”
Friends I am here to modestly report
seeing in an orchard
in my town
a goldfinch kissing
again and again
dangling upside down
by its tiny claw
steadying itself by snapping open
like an old-timey fan
again and again,
until, swooning, it tumbled off
and swooped back to the very same perch,
where the sunflower curled its giant
swirling of seeds
around the bird and leaned back
to admire the soft wind
nudging the bird’s plumage,
and friends I could see
the points on the flower’s stately crown
soften and curl inward
as it almost indiscernibly lifted
the food of its body
to the bird’s nuzzling mouth
I could hear from
oh, 20 or 30 feet away
and see from the tiny hulls
that sailed from their
which good racket, I have to say,
was making me blush,
and rock up on my tippy-toes,
and just barely purse my lips
with what I realize now
was being, simply, glad,
which such love,
if we let it,
makes us feel.
Presence is the deepest communion.