Metaphysicians in the Dark: Philosophy and Poetry’s Age Old Quarrel

This post is in transit and I’d like your input. I’m working on a series of posts for TheThePoetry. This is the first based on some EGS seminars in poetry and philosophy.

Where does Plato’s old quarrel between poetry and philosophy reside today? Such a question no doubt must respond to Plato directly. If such a thing is possible we might start by locating the place of the idea in the modern poem.

For Plato, the poem is dangerous for philosophy as it forbids access to the supreme truth, the truth that provides unity with the ultimate principle that allows the Republic to maintain its transparency. The problem of poetry for Plato is deeper than that of course. It rests on the fact that mimesis is always tied to discursive thought, and this blocks reason and teleology in grounding the truth. We might say than that for Plato that the poem is opposed to the ideal of a perfect means for the transmission of knowledge, and hence is dangerous for philosophy.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve attended seminars on philosophy and poetry given by two prominent French philosophers, Alain Badiou and Judith Balso. Both intellectual and romantic partners (a bit reminiscent of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre of the 20th century), Badiou and Balso have been working through a philosophy able to re-think the relationship between philosophy and poetry.

In Balso’s conception of poetry’s relation to philosophy, she has invented a working theory in a new text on Fernando Pessoa called “The Metaphysical Courier” where she develops her notion of the affirmation. The affirmation is a concept following a close reading of Heidegger’s work on philosophy and art, but its highly suspect of Heidegger. We won’t get into the academic differences between them, but her theory goes something like this: poetry consists in the creation of a new space for thought and imagination that does not simply seek to criticize what exists; but that invents an entirely new ontological capacity. In this sense, poems are more than merely artistic events for aesthetic contemplation; they are events for thought, for a new kind of thinking.

In a similar vein, Alain Badiou, perhaps France’s most influential anti-postmodernist philosopher claims that the legacy of Plato in modern poetry functions like a ‘persisting nostalgia for the idea’. Every poetic truth in the poem, he claims, is located in an unnamable core at the poems center that does not have the power to bring the idea into presence. He refers to this nostalgia for the idea as ‘presence’.
As Wallace Stevens pointed out, the modern poet is a ‘metaphysician in the dark.’

The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa gives us a sense of this nostalgia for the idea in his anti-metaphysical poems. In Pessoa, the idea of presence functions in the following sense, “when you see a thing in the poem, it is exactly the thing.” Like Pessoa, this tendency towards presence for the modern poet, refers to a relationship to the world. The world becomes that thing whose presence is more essential than objectivity. As Stephane Mallarme claims, the poem is centered on the dissolution of the object from its purity.

For Badiou, this play of presence in the poem gives poetry a privileged ground for the production of new truths precisely by enabling truth to develop within the poem itself. Thus the poem produces a singularity for which philosophy cannot account for. This singularity of poetic truth occurs in the immediacy of the poem itself not through an artistic expression of the world but as an operation.

Pessoa’s poems are diagonal, like a Cubist painting. They look directly into the light, in an anti-Platonic stance; they are opposed to any absolute idea. Badiou suggests that the operation of the poem for Pessoa is tied to a hidden mathematical code that philosophy can’t yet integrate or fully understand. As we see in this untitled piece by one of Pessoa’s over 80 heteronym’s Alberto Caeiro, the poem’s idea of presence contained within the poem alone becomes apparent.

To see the fields and the river
It isn’t enough to open the window.
To see the trees and the flowers
It isn’t enough not to be blind.
It is also necessary to have no philosophy.
With philosophy there are no trees, just ideas.
There is only each one of us, like a cave.
There is only a shut window, and the whole world outside,
And a dream of what could be seen if the window were opened,
Which is never what is seen when the window is opened.

This paradoxical play of Pessoa with what Badiou refers to as a “metaphysics subtracted from metaphysics” enables poetry to enter into a new ontology of truth, and ultimately, a new relation to the Platonic idea. Pessoa himself had a great depth of understanding of philosophy, and this may be in part why he continues to baffle our preconceptions and confuse any possibility of developing a coherent way to place Pessoa’s contribution to modernity.

What is at stake in the quarrel between poetry and philosophy is still a very Platonic question. The poetic perspective opened up through the idea of presence represents an opening of thought to the principle of the thinkable, where thought must be absorbed in the grasp of what establishes it as thought – i.e. in the poem itself. Yet the modern poet, as Celan tells us, must still wrestle with the recognition that the whole is actually nothing.

2 thoughts on “Metaphysicians in the Dark: Philosophy and Poetry’s Age Old Quarrel

  1. poetry is so much like a tree. philosophy is fill-loss-of-fee. there is a sense of nihilism and loss of faith in the world of parties, football, sunshine and sand in philosophy. most philosophers do a lot of armchair thinking and are the biggest most impractical fools on the face of the planet. while poets too have their suicidal and drunkard specimens they also have a much more lighter and ethereal sense and sensuality regarding the world. the poet may be a fool but he is a fool who will continue in his silly ways till he becomes wise or enlightened. but philosophy has definitely gotten stuck in a rut and needs the likes of richard dawkins who with his “the god delusion” breaks fresh ground from the dull background. we ought to be all the time exploring new worlds and new words. the dictionary after all is just a beginning and not the final book. rather the diction-ary contains every other book within it in seed like form.

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