Sunday, January 15, 2012

Reality, Imagination, Love, and Language: Spinoza and Anne Carson

A page from a Dutch manual on Lens-making
Now, the question of what is real or merely perceived, especially insofar as it pertains to the nature of the emotions (even more especially, perhaps, insofar as the emotion is love), and the role played by language in the description or construction of this ambivalent reality,may be asked with any number of guiding minds, in dialog with any number of voices. I have already brought the classical scholar and poet, Anne Carson, into my discussion of metaphor in Musil, exploring his practice of almost infinite deferral via the endless possibilities of analogical descriptions and the way in which this infinite discourse is a sort of suspension before consummation. And I will excerpt this here, below. But now I am going to attempt an even riskier legerdemain and also bring Spinoza into the discussion. This is risky because I am certain that I barely even understand him, but understand him enough to understand that he warned against trying to comprehend things as wholes which can only be understood partially or inadequately. Still, this warning in itself is reminiscent of Musil, and my description of metaphoric transparency, i.e., an awareness of the necessarily imprecise nature of creating concepts out of language. Spinoza, a lens grinder by profession,  seems to define error as the belief that one has, through mere sense perception, understood something completely which can, by its nature (or rather by the nature of the human intellect and emotions) only be comprehended partially, and thus incorrectly.  As a craftsman of vision he was well-suited to look skeptically on the perspectival nature of human understanding. He notes that the human mind, which cannot contain all the myriad details of reality, is wont to categorize and see all dog-like creatures under the name dog ( Musil comments on this problem as well, that we call a beagle and a greyhound by the same name, when reason knows they are different), or even more damagingly, that we catalog abstract ideas under universal concepts like being, something, nothing, thereby reducing them to reifications. The mind, Spinoza remarks, likes to divide (but obviously also likes to combine, albeit irresponsibly!),  we see quantity abstractly and it appears finite and divisible, composed of parts,"but if we look at it as it is in the intellect and conceive it insofar as it is a [one] substance, then it will be found to be infinite, without like, indivisible" (Ethics, 14). Somehow, this fundamental function of the intellect, to divide, discriminate, name, delineate (here we see how dividing leads to irresponsible combining, since our ability to recombine what we have cut up is insufficiently broad) is an error, according to Spinoza, since in reality, everything is one.  Musil, of course, as self-proclaimed Monsieur le vivisecteur, was naturally dividing and separating everything into parts, but as metaphorist he was always bringing everything back together. Even though for him, such verbal union was an error, albeit one that brings beauty and meaning into the world. But perhaps this isn't really a contradiction if we back up and widen the view to a cosmic dimension. Because language for both thinkers was a necessary but imprecise means to ordering the world, always with the proviso that one be aware of this as a pragmatic but inaccurate and inadequate process. And Musil would agree with Spinoza that no two substances are like; for the fact that all things are one to Spinoza, as far as I understand it, does not mean that all things are same. Thus wisdom would be an awareness of a certain incapacity to understand certain things and to reserve judgment on them, or, as Carson writes, of love, the practice of "keeping the difference [between real and actual] visible" (Eros, 69). This need to keep the difference visible, the awareness of edge, of the space between one thing and the other, between a word and its meanings, between the lover and beloved, between an ideal and reality is the crux of Carson's book on the Greek idea of eros, and she even goes so far as to argue that the Greek alphabet itself, as an innovative language that was aware of its consonants (as edges, stops and starts) coincided significantly with the poetic idea of eros present in the first written poetry as an entity requiring an edge. This seems to suggest that intellect is a force of division which rendered love as longing, space, separateness and that answered the question what does the lover want from love with the answer, "to know both [actual and imagined], keeping the difference visible," and to become somehow a new and better person through this reaching across an impossibly unbridgeable space between self and other, desire and attainment, time and timelessness.  In Spinoza (and in Musil) one cannot know individual things adequately because of time and space, because each thing is infinitely moved and altered by other things; there is a sort of prefiguring of relativity here and, perhaps, of Musil's concept of the utopia of the next step whereby any individual action or thing can not be assessed without taking into consideration what comes into being as a result of it, ad infinitum. In any case, human perception necessarily confuses and mistakes what is through the obstruction of its own narrow vision (bound by time, space, nature, subjectivity, confusion). Spinoza gives the example of the word "man" which, he notes, could be defined as, alternately, homo erectus, laughing animal, biped without feathers, reasoning animal, depending upon what affects the definer most about man (68, Ethics). The lover, too, according to Carson, is hopelessly misled about the love object, projecting his or her own desire to become a new person, or even a god, onto whomever happens to be in the right place at the right time. But, she remarks, throwing cold water on the burning lover, one cannot become a god and one cannot become one with another. Not entirely, in any case; but this doesn't mean one should not try. (Well, Spinoza might counterargue that every thing or body is by necessity what and who it is, and should not try to be something or somebody else, yet this would not, I imagine, preclude being one's best or highest necessary self.) Carson notes that the analysand in Freudian theory could learn a good lesson about love by the way he or she transfers desire and longing onto the analyst as a natural process of transference (or one might look at Shakespeare's tale of the fairy queen who falls in love with an ass). This is reminiscent of Spinoza's skepticism about the relationship between the intellect and the emotions when it comes to desire, for the mind, according to him, is not the activator of desires. The body, without intercession of the mind, wants, hungers, desires; the mind may,at best, restrain and temper these urges. All of this may seem very sober and may seem to lead to a cynical idea about love or human emotions, but neither Carson nor Spinoza are sober. Spinoza, according to Novalis, was a God-drunken man; and Carson is a poet of love and longing, despite this exegesis or vivesection of eros. She does not cut it up in order to dispose of it, but rather to revel in its infinite nature. There is a sense of infinite holographic movement, an endless dance of lovers and poets chasing after ideas, descriptions, ideals, words, edges and mergers and trembling on the edge of the highest branch, risking all for an impossibly beautiful space between two words.  Likewise, Musil's awareness of the space between reality and ideality, everyday life and utopia, language and things, a sister and his brother is not a space of nihilism, not a void, but rather a suggestion of infinite proliferation and infinite reaching. Carson's description of love becomes a description of language, and of poetry, and a celebration of the endless and unfulfillable human desire to know. Her description of Sappho's wonderful poem fragment about the apple that is so sweet and just out of reach delights in the way the language of the poem mimics the "reaching action of desire" which is "attempted again and again in different ways in different lines...(28).  "The reach of desire, " she concludes, "is defined in action: beautiful (in its object), foiled (in its attempt), endless (in time)" (29). And Spinoza is an ecstatic of infinity. The fact of the mind's inability to understand individual things and its tendency to fall into error through the necessarily false action of imagination is not a contradiction of wonder: The necessity, according to Spinoza, of the "eternal nature of God" as non-contingent and without concern for human gain or purpose is a cause for delight, and "must be conceived without relation of time, but under a constant species of eternity" (Ethics, 72).  Now here is a small excerpt from my book's discussion of Carson's book Eros the Bittersweet and Musil's erotics of experimental metaphor:

What Carson calls the “fundamental erotic dilemma i.e., to “sustain the present indicative of pleasure” without killing it or deforming it," is very much the same problem posed by Ulrich and Agathe when they ask, “But however does one hold a feeling fast?.” And for both it is a question of the nature of metaphor and its resistance to the direct statement of the indicative and its presumption of duration. Damage is done by lovers in the name of desiring, just as damage is done by writing and reading in the name of communication, or by a too-literal metaphor-making. Writing and the attempt of the lover to stop the love and the beloved from changing, like any metaphor-making that is not conscious of its provisional, transitory nature, “violate reality by the same kind of misapprehension".

Carson writes, “We love such suspended time for the sake of its difference from ordinary time and real life,” or real thinking. “In any act of thinking,” she continues,
the mind must reach across this space between known and unknown, linking one to another but also keeping visible their difference. It is an erotic space...this ‘erotic ruse’ in novels and poems now appears to constitute the very structure of human thinking. When the mind reaches out to know, the space of desire opens and a necessary fiction transpires.
(Carson 171)

All knowing, as Nicholas of Cusa would concur, is metaphor-making; all knowing happens in the space between one thing and another, a space that is incommensurable, ultimately unbridgeable; it must remain open: “We think by projecting sameness upon difference, by drawing things together in a relation or idea while at the same time maintaining the distinctions between them" (171).
Socrates was, according to Carson, a “lover of these divisions and collections”. Musil, likewise, was simultaneously Monsieur le Vivisecteur and combiner, collector, metaphorist par excellence. Socrates’ wisdom was, as Carson points out, to be found precisely in the space between what he knew and did not know, i.e., the unbridgeable space of metaphor which is created, not only in art, but every time we think or see; but only if we succeed in maintaining the distinctions.

P.S. None of which, in retrospect, answers the question of the reality of love. But if, indeed, love is not real, or if it is destroyed in the moment of its consummation, we can counter that it is actually impossible to ever really know or fully possess the other and we have, to console ourselves, the beautiful human folly of reaching after a sweet unreachable apple, the ripe apple of knowledge, for ever and ever, or, rather, outside of time and space. The whole paradox may be a quickening toward a kind of living love, parallel to the living logos discussed below, one that does not try to keep the other from growing or changing (even if that growth means the lover may leave one), a kind of living love that, like the lines in Sappho's poem, or the versions of Musil's novel drafts, or the infinity of Spinoza's description of the world, constantly re-creates itself, re-describing boundaries and edges, merging and melting, marking edges and outgrowing the circumferences (as Emerson suggests in his "Circles") and inscribing newer and vaster ones, ad infinitum.
P.P.S. Carson seems to have written a poem or play called "The Life of Spinoza". If anyone knows where it is to be found, it might or might not help us to connect, irresponsible as connections of this sort may be.

1 comment:

  1. here is another human being

    and I would like to find this supposed play.