Philosophers and Poets

Wittgenstein said that “the civil status of a contradiction” is the philosophical problem (PI§125). The philosopher’s problem is to sort out how we got into a contradiction and how we might proceed — how we “can go on,” as he put it. Following Ezra Pound, I have long argued that the poet’s problem can be expressed analogously as “the civil status of seduction”. In his writings on the Troubadours, Pound argued that they struggled to find fit words to express the sufferings of lovers otherwise embroiled in a variety of ambient intrigue, including their, let us say, official or “civil” unions, their formal marriages. “Courtly love” was the sort of passion you could pursue in a royal court, while observing your official duties. “Official wisdom”, we might say, is the logic of mainstream science. Poets and philosophers, in any case, use language to make the complexities of civil, public life explicit. They make them subjects and objects of discourse.

So, just as you can think of yourself as a “boxer” or a “dancer” when writing, perhaps you can think of yourself as a philosopher or a poet. In fact, there may be some natural overlap between these categories. Boxers, let’s say, “contradict” each other, while a dance is always at some level a “seduction”. A philosopher is trying to “win” the argument by arriving at some truth at the end of a deduction or chain of reasoning. I will leave it to Ezra Pound to explain the problems of the thirteenth-century troubadours:

After the compositions of Vidal, Rudel, Ventadour, of Bornelh and Bertrans de Born and Arnaut Daniel, there seemed little chance of doing distinctive work in the ‘canzon de l’amour courtois’. There was no way, or at least there was no man in Provence capable of finding a new way of saying in six closely rhymed strophes that a certain girl, matron or widow was like a certain set of things, and that the troubadour’s virtues were like another set, and that all this was very sorrowful or otherwise, and that there was but one obvious remedy. (Literary Essays, p. 102)

My students no doubt struggle to find a new and distinctive way to conceptualize, analyze and discuss a topic in five coherent paragraphs. But formal requirements, I try to tell them, can be your friend. In all cases, we are trying move the other. As writers, we try to move our reader; but we are not just trying to move them anywhere, we’re not flailing endlessly in an open space, in chaos, hoping we’ll get somewhere. Thinking of yourself as a boxer or a dancer (or a bit of both) lets you take up a “stance”, in the “ring” or on the “floor” of the page, where your problem is better defined. Thinking of yourself as a philosopher or a poet within a literary order might help you find your style.

I mentioned in passing that Vonnegut thought his distinction between “swoopers” and “bashers” might be gendered. He thought women were generally swoopers and men were more likely to be bashers. Today, there’s something a least a little quaint about that observation; some would even find the suggestion offensive. But it’s important to begin with the fact that neither boxing nor dancing are for everyone. Being a man certainly does not immediately qualify you to box, nor does being a woman make you a dancer. In both cases, you have to develop your talent and learn the craft. Though it has become controversial to say so, it shouldn’t surprise us that more men than women end up taking up boxing, or more women than men end up taking ballet. An interest in poetry and philosophy may likewise skew in gendered directions.

All that Vonnegut may have been saying, then, is that your writing posture is something you are born with, a natural temperament, and you have to find out how to develop it naturally. Norman Mailer once said that “biology is not destiny; but it is half of it,” and, while he was, in fact, talking about gender in that case, he would easily grant that he’s talking about the entire physiological apparatus you inherit from your parents. As Spinoza taught Deleuze, a life is spent figuring out “what the body can do”, which includes punching and leaping and thinking and feeling, and contradicting and, yes, seducing each other. “What a strange machine man is!” Zorba the Greek exclaims. “You fill him with bread, wine, fish, and radishes, and out comes sighs, laughter, and dreams.” And words. And writing.

And poems. And whole philosophies. Of course, there are many different kinds of writers, many different temperaments. And, no matter how scientific you may consider your research, your writing style will have some “poetry” in it. Even the most hard-nosed pragmatist has a “philosophy”. It’s a question of degree and it’s a question of mood. One day you may feel poetic, while on another you’ll feel more pensive. It is true that you should aim to develop a consistent and reliable style that you can use on most occasions. But it will have a range and there is nothing wrong with giving in to your moods sometimes, indulging your whims. In fact, it’s a good way to find your voice; try it out in different registers. On some days, put on your dancing shoes, on others, your boxing gloves. On some days, try to contradict your reader, on others, try to seduce them. Get them to feel something or make them think. You won’t always write in the same way, just as you won’t always be in the same mood, and a little variety is usually a good thing. Just make up your mind. Look in your heart. And write.

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