The Prose of the World (2)*

Paul Cézanne, detail from Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (Soure:

In his Lectures on Fine Art, Hegel ties the “world of prose” to the “deficiency of natural beauty” and contrasts it to the pursuit of ideal beauty. This is also what Merleau-Ponty seems to have been after when he confronted “the prose of the world” with “a poetry of human relations”. As Aubrey Beardsley said to Ezra Pound, “beauty is difficult,” and, in a sense, then, prose articulates that difficulty.

In writing, prose emerges from the unavoidable partiality of our experience. A poem is arguably an expression of our own universality, and when we write prose we are, by contrast, implicitly admitting that we’re only getting some of the experience down on the page. As academic writers, however, we are also trying to be objective and universal—in a word, impartial. Again, “prose” comes to stand for a particular kind of difficulty, namely, our struggle with “the entire finitude of appearance …. the totality which is not actual within [us]” (147). We are, first and foremost, implicated in the ordinary, in the hustle and bustle of everyday living.

Even in our pursuit of “spiritual interests”—like knowledge, I presume—we do not get beyond prose. The life of the spirit, Hegel points out, depends upon satisfying also our “physical vital aims”. Even the most sincere and diligent (and even the most distracted) scholar will not completely extricate herself from practical contingencies. “[T]he individual as he appears in this world of prose and everyday is not active out of the entirety of his ownself and his resources, and he is intelligible not from himself, but from something else” (149). Maybe this is where Don DeLillo got his views on “the quotidian” — that “gorgeous Latinate word” which “suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace” (Underworld, p. 542). Hegel says: “Here is revealed the whole breadth of prose in human existence” (148).

Scholarship in general, and academic writing in particular, is deeply implicated in ordinary pursuits. When we express ourselves in prose we are implicitly engaging with these day-to-day contingencies. We are struggling, Hegel tells us, to keep our footing in a world of everyday “actions and events.” It is precisely because scholars express their views in a world of ordinary concerns that research must be approached as a conversation where other interests and concerns must be respected. In prose you write about things that you might be wrong about and you write prepared to listen to what others think of what you think. You are not “active out of the entirety of [your] own self”. What your words mean depends on what others make of them. The totality of that dependence, then, is what Hegel is talking about.

“This is the prose of the world … —a world of finitude and mutability, of entanglement in the relative, of the pressure of necessity from which the individual is in no position to withdraw” (150). But a community, I want to suggest, allows for a partial withdrawal, a smaller place within “the entire finitude of appearance”. A finite finitude, if you will. (I’m always harping about how academic writers must appreciate their finitude.) It is a way of simplifying (for a particular set of themes) your “entanglement in the relative”, a way of relieving “the pressure of necessity”. This is the community of scholarship that constitutes your field. A community of prose. It helps you to engage with the ordinary totality in ever more precise ways.


*This is a reworking of a post from my old blog.

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