Back Again

I have been on extended blog hiatus.  Various reasons for that, lately the conference on Thomas Merton I organized as part of the term’s Philosophy and Religion Workshop activities.  I gave a talk on Merton’s late long poem, Cables to the Ace.  I will likely share a bit of it in the next few days or weeks.

I am about to get back to work on Wittgenstein–I have a new paper I need to get back to, and a number of old ones that need a bit of dressing up before they go out.  I also have to write a new short paper on him (and poetry) for a talk later this Spring.  So, I am guessing that I will be back to posting about him here this term, as I work on these projects.

I have also finished the manuscript of my new book of poems, Brown Studies.  More about that soon.


Directive (Robert Frost)

I have had Whitman much on my mind for the past few weeks.  Attempting to clarify for myself the strange mixture of love and indifference that Whitman poems provoke in me, I turned back to a longtime favorite, Frost.  Looking at him has been helpful.  His poetry succeeds in ways that make my (sometimes rapidly) hardening and unhardening heart toward Whitman make better sense to me:  it has helped me to clarify and to define my own perceptions and judgments, and my own aims as a poet.  I will not get into those issues now, however.

I will share one of my favorite of Frost’s poems, maybe my favorite–“Directive”.  It is a poem that shares thematic elements with Whitman’s late poems, but is a poem compelled forward by a syntactic compression and complexity that is foreign to Whitman.

Drink and be whole again beyond confusion!


Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry –
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there’s a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods’ excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.
First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

On a Certain Use of ‘Democratic’ in Whitman

I have come to Whitman slowly, zigzag, reluctant.  I do not know why.  I do not know fully why.  I do know that my youthful exposure to him left me in flinty indifference.  (I must have pulled Leaves off the shelves in, say, 10th grade.  I worked in a library and stood and read what I shelved or read what caught my eye near what I shelved.  I was not–and was–an ideal library employee.)  I reckon that part of my (lack of) reaction was tied up to the ceaseless singing of ‘democracy’.  I have always had a hard time with art that slummed with politics.  My thought must have been somesuch:  “Yeah, right, democracry.  It’s great and all.  But come on.  Canting for democracy?  Not just any democracy, but an earlier version of the one I inhabit?  No, no, not for me.  Go your own way, Walt.  I will go mine.”

I am not here to apologize for my 10th grade self.  He was my 10th grade self–sophomoric by definition.  I have not, at any rate, put that child away entirely.  He is still along for my ride.  I still shrink from the appearance of politics in poetry.  That’s a reaction of mine not yet completely owned.  I hope one day to own it completely or to shrug it off.

Whitman with butterfly

But a couple of days ago, caught up now in a much different general reaction to Whitman, I came across this, from the “Preface Note to Second Annex”:

I have probably not been enough afraid of careless touches, from the first–and am not now–nor of parrot-like repetitions–nor platitudes and the commonplace.  Perhaps I am too democratic for such avoidances.

That use of ‘democratic’ stopped me.  (It is, I admit, in the half-hug of ‘perhaps’.  But I rate that staginess and not an expression of actual half-heartedness.)  I had made a very similar use of it myself earlier in the day.  But my use of it was not meant to be political, but rather ur-political, a recognition of a fact about human relations that underwrites any political use of ‘democratic’ I could vote for.  So too,  realized, was Whitman’s.

Each of us inevitable,
Each of us limitless–each of us with his or her rights upon the earth,
Each of us allow’d the eternal purports of the earth,
Each of us here as divinely as any is here. (Salut Au Monde!)

His, my, our use of ‘democratic’ is a use as a greeting-word, as a profound acknowledgement of others, not en masse, not as a political body, but as an each-in-all, as individuals too distinguished to be the same and too similar to be entirely distinguished.  Such an acknowledgement makes demands, demands even on art, on poetry.  (And on philosophy.) It demands writing poetry to such individuals and for such individuals.  It demands an unclamping, letting the poetic machinery run free, acquiring a careless, carefree touch.  It demands liberation from an over-active poetic conscience, from concern about repetition, about platitude, about commonplaces, about saying something too trivial and obvious, something insincere, something unworthy of reader or occasion.  The poet must overcome scruples and take the breaks off his heart, and let his tongue wag unleashed, garrulous to the very last.

This feature of Transcendentalism-of Emerson and Thoreau, and, yes, I now admit, Whitman–is one that makes it honorable, and that ties it to writers and philosophers I care about, each of them a Transcendentalist in his or her way:  Socrates, Plato, Kierkegaard, James, Wittgenstein, Lawrence, Frost, Murdoch, Anscombe, Robinson.  It demands that we lift up our ordinary lives into our philosophical imagination, making them receptive to intense reflection, without making them fodder for scholarship or museum preservation, never forgetting that the point is to know those lives better so as to live them better.

(I am not claiming to have made a discovery for anyone else here, only for myself.  I now suppose that this use of ‘democratic’ is all over Whitman, and that everyone but me has known it.)



To Get the Final Lilt of Songs (Whitman)

To get the final lilt of songs,
To penetrate the inmost lore of poets–to know the mighty ones,
Job, Homer, Eschylus, Dante, Shakspere, Tennyson, Emerson;
To diagnose the shifting-delicate tints of love and pride and doubt–to truly understand,
To encompass these, the last keen faculty and entrance-price,
Old age, and what it brings from all its past experiences.

Heidegger on Philosophy, Art and Religion

Here’s a thing about Heidegger.  For all that is forbidding and foreboding in his writing, he can produce passages of a peculiar beauty.  Often, the passages seem to come from next-to-nothing, like a mouse spontaneously generated from grey rags and dust. Or they suddenly loom up, unforeseeably jutting out of an apparently flat landscape.

Consider the abrupt apotheosizing of the inner form of philosophy in this passage:

Only if we go along with this work [Hegel’s Phenomenology] with patience–understood in the sense of really working with it–will it show its actuality and its inner form.  However, the form of this work–here as everywhere else in genuine philosophy–is not an addition which is meant for the literary connoisseur.  Nor is the question that of literary decoration or of stylistic talent.  Rather, its inner form is the inner necessity of the issue itself.  For philosophy is, like art and religion, a human-superhuman affair of primary and ultimate significance.  Clearly separated from both art and religion and yet equally primary with both of them, philosophy necessarily stands in the radiance of what is beautiful and in the throes of what is holy.

(It is fascinating how this passage resonates with the Preface of PI.  Wittgenstein there relates how he pictured the essence of the book he wanted to write, and how he then came to repent of the picture.  He realized that the actual inner form of his book was the inner necessity of the book’s issue itself–and that the book’s inner form was not one that proceeded from one remark to another naturally and without breaks.  So when he ends the Preface by conceding that he has not written a good book–or not as good a book as he would have liked to write–he is not measuring his lack of success against the pictured essence of the book.  And he is not measuring the book’s literary decoration or his stylistic talent, where each of those is understood as ‘additive’.  No.  He is measuring the book, measuring himself as its writer, against a full realization of the book’s own actual inner form, a full realization of its own inner necessity. Every force evolves a form, yes; but not every force fully evolves its form.)

Accidents Will Happen: Elvis Costello as Philosopher


Accidents will happen; yes, they will.  I wrote this little essay more than 25 years ago.  I think it was my first–certainly it was one of my first–attempts to say much of anything about ordinary language philosophy or about Elvis Costello.  It fell out of my file cabinet today as I was hunting something else.  I had thought it gone for good.  Perhaps it would have been better if I had not found it; perhaps I should not post it.  Perhaps.  Anyway, here it is.  Apologies in advance.

Link to essay


John Herman Randall, Jr. on Bradley’s Book of Life

I compare reading JHR’s peculiar paper, “F. H. Bradley and the Working-Out of Absolute Idealism” (JHP Vol 5, No 3 July 1967) to trying to find a penny on the floor of a room in which the only light is a strobe light.  Just when you start to see, everything goes black; and just when you give up on seeing, light flashes.  Anyway, here is a memorable paragraph from the paper, one in which Randall is describing Bradley’s Appearance and Reality.

To use a metaphor, Bradley was trying to get the whole of life expressed in a book, to express all aspects of everything in words.  A book about life never succeeds in doing that, it always falls short, it remains one-sided and incomplete.  So Bradley was driven toward the perfect book–an Encyclopedia Britannica more glorious.  But he tried to write it as James Joyce would have written it:  He follows the method of Hegel’s Phenomenology.  The book ought really to be a play, like Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, where the characters express all their private feelings, in their contradictions, all at once.  The perfect play would include and express everything.  This effort would end in more than a book or even a play:  It would be life itself.  Bradley is trying to write the drama of life as it is, with all the stage directions, to express, not only what the actors do, say, think, and feel, but also what they are expressing.  If one could succeed, the result would be life itself, completely known.  We would see why, we would understand–and also we would feel the very tang of life itself!


Remarkable.  The metaphor and its deployment are inspired. There’s the happy linking of Joyce and Hegel, of Ulysses and the Phenomenology.  There’s the reference to the O’Neill play; but also the charm of thinking of Bradley’s book as itself a Strange Interlude.  There’s the joyous detail of taking Bradley to want to include even the stage directions.  And there’s the tangy conclusion.

Here Randall sees deep into Appearance and Reality. The paragraph not only characterizes Bradley’s aim as a philosopher, but it suggests why poets of the caliber of Eliot and of Geoffrey Hill could take Bradley as (a) master:  two poets who want us to see why, to understand, but also to feel the very tang of life itself.  (It also suggests why it is that passages in Bradley seem often to echo Browning, to share in Browning’s gift for ventriloquy,:  Bradley employs that gift masterfully in giving voice to the views caught up in his dialectic.)

Bradley’s Critique















That logic has already, from the earliest times, proceeded upon this sure path is evidenced by the fact that since Aristotle it has not required to retrace a single step, unless, indeed, we care to count as improvements the removal of certain needless subtleties or the clearer exposition of its recognized teaching, features which concern the elegance rather than the certainty of the science. It is remarkable also that to the present day this logic has not been able to advance a single step, and is thus to all appearance a closed and completed body of doctrine. If some of the moderns have thought to enlarge it by introducing psychological chapters on the different faculties of knowledge (imagination, wit, etc.), metaphysical chapters on the origin of knowledge or on the different kinds of certainty according to difference in the objects (idealism, skepticism, etc.), or anthropological chapters on prejudices, their causes and remedies, this could only arise from their ignorance of the peculiar nature of logical science. We do not enlarge but disfigure sciences, if we allow them to trespass upon one another’s territory.  [emphasis mine]  The sphere of logic is quite precisely delimited; its sole concern is to give an exhaustive exposition and a strict proof of the formal rules of all thought, whether it be a priori or empirical, whatever be its origin or its object, and whatever hindrances, accidental or natural, it may encounter in our minds.

I have been reading and teaching F. H. Bradley.  I have also been reading about him–reading T. S. Eliot, Geoffrey Hill, Alan Donagan and others.  Bradley wrote wonderfully (and I have remarked on his prose previously on the blog).  But Bradley was a genuinely gifted thinker as well as stylist.  At the heart of his work is stationed the acknowledgment that Kant expresses above (“We do not enlarge but disfigure…”) and Bradley observes it dutifully throughout all his work.

Consider one important, wholly characteristic passage:

The supposed gulf between sheer errors and utter truths is, again, created by the same vice of abstractionism.  A truth so true that it has no other side, and an error so false that it contains no truth, I have condemned as idols.  They are to me no better than the truths which are never at all born in time, or again the truths whose life does not pass beyond that which is made and unmade by chance and change…

On the one hand it is the entire Reality alone which matters.  On the other hand, every single thing, so far as it matters, is so far real, real in its own place and degree, and according as more or less it contains and carries out the in-dwelling character of the concrete Whole.  But there is nothing anywhere in the world which, taken barely in its own right and unconditionally, has importance and is real.  And one main work of philosophy is to show that, where there is isolation and abstraction, there is everywhere, so far as this abstraction forgets itself, unreality and error.

This:  Bradley’s peculiar anti-reductionism.  Bradley’s (Absolute) idealism largely resolves into this anti-reductionism.  It is easy to miss it, in part because Bradley’s talk of abstractionism makes you think up not down as reductionism usually does.  The anti-reductionism yeilds an ideal-ized version of Butler:  Everything is what it is and not another thing, and in the place that it is and not another place, and to the degree that it is and not to another.

Everything is justified as being real in its own sphere and degree, but not so as to entitle it to invade other spheres, and, whether positively or negatively, to usurp other powers…And it is the true Absolute alone that gives its due to every interest just because it refuses to everything more than its own due.  Justice in the name of the Whole to each aspect of the world according to its special place and proper rank–Reality everywhere through self-restriction and in denial…

For Bradley, philosophy enforces justice in the name of the Whole.  Isolation discounts the Whole for the sake of a part; abstraction discounts the part for the sake of the Whole. We may, if we need, knowingly isolate or knowingly abstract–knowingly discount Whole or part for the sake of the other.  But we must not allow ourselves to forget what we are doing, and so lose either the Whole or the part.  Bradley knew that to take thought is almost always to isolate or to abstract, and so he knew that taking thought renders the thinker liable to unreality or error.  The only way to resist the unreality or error is to remain constantly aware not only of the product of isolation or abstraction, but also of the process of isolation or abstraction that produced it, and so not lose sight of the product’s limited value and reality.  Philosophy itself matters, remains real, only through self-restriction and in denial.  Bradley would have appreciated J. L. Austin’s metaphilosophical reminder–neither a be-all nor and end-all be.

Bradley’s work is a remarkable conceptual successor of Kant’s; it is thoroughly Critical, and so thoroughly critical.  It builds nothing but character.



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