Poetry and poiesis

0. In a key text (Symp 205c), we learn that poiesis refers to any “creating from nothing”, although we tend to reserve the word for a certain kind of creating. It is not easy to know how to read this passage, especially given its context as an analogy with eros and the text that follows (are we really to consider romantic lovers the “proper” form of love?). But neither should we empty the word of all content into a general ontology of “poetic creation” such that poetry becomes simply identified with nature.

1. Paz: the poet of words. Another mistake is to identify the poet with the craftsman whose “material” is words, as if the poet simply found words ready-made and whose task was simply to juxtapose and combine them in experimental and unusual ways. Neither (as suggested above) should we consider the poet the demiurgic creator of forms (again, whose material is words), since this begs the question of how it is that the poet is able to communicate.

While I speak, / things imperceptibly / shake loose from themselves, / escaping toward other forms, / other names. / They leave me these words: / with them I talk to you. // Words are bridges. / And they are traps, jails, wells. / I talk to you: you do not hear me. / I don’t talk with you: I talk with a word. / That word is you …

These lines from A Tree Within—which contains, among other things, a masterful reading of the Symposium—contain what all modernists at least since Mallarmé have wanted to achieve, i.e., poetry that, while reflecting on itself, remains for all that still poetry.

The world a bundle of your images. [from Blanco]

We always already live in images; we are ourselves, of course, images. The poet does not merely need to create images but, more than simply “defamiliarizing” them, creates words themselves. This is not a claim about language “as such” (e.g., that language is “originally” poetic, metaphoric, etc); rather, we will never be able to think the relation between poetry and discourse as long as we continue to suffer the illusion that there is a Form of words. We do not make this mistake concerning the objects of our everyday experience—that the morphological identity of two bookshelves from Ikea means that there is really only one bookshelf from Ikea. That the words expressed by the poet resemble the words we use in speech and discourse should not lead us to assume that they are the same words.

The poet does not “reveal” anything—we know that a poem does not reveal the poet’s “intentions”, but neither does a poem reveal a “worldview” or an “ideology” or, worse, a “philosophy”. Neither does the poet “communicate” to us; it is we, not the poet, who fall under a task, i.e., the construction of sense from the poet’s words. The great poet is the one who offers us words that we have never before heard and, strictly speaking, will never hear again, for the task of “understanding” a poem is not discursive but, dare we say, “poetic”. We are not merely shown the world “anew” but the great poem is the one that constructs a new world—this constitutes a task precisely insofar as we are to understand this world not as the interiority of a vague feeling or even a “moment of shock” but as the very materiality of the poem (which does not, of course, refer to ink, paper, or the health and biography of the poet). In short: how does the poem (re)distribute our affects? What effects does it have? (Perhaps, however, this is too reductive…)

2. Zagajewski: the poet of melancholy. For us, at the end of a negative century, what Zagajewski calls to mind is the awareness that we live under the sign of a massive temporal suspension such that we are unable either to anticipate the future:

Music heard with you / was more than music / and the blood that flowed through our arteries was more than blood / and the joy we felt / was genuine / and if there is anyone to thank, / I thank him now, / before it grows too late / and too quiet. [“Music Heard”]

nor our origin:

And what was your childhood like? a weary / reporter asks near the end. / There was no childhood, only black crows / and tramcars starved for electricity. [from “No Childhood”]

Both past and future are in danger of slipping away. The future, we fear, will be lost to the excesses of our own ambitions—to the persistent degradation of culture, to the destruction of the biosphere, and so on. But even if, as Baudelaire had said, modernity is an endless series of losses, it is not a “break” from the past or the name of an irrecoverable trauma (the “second Fall”, etc). What has been lost is not an innocence that “should have been” but what we—here, now—have never known. We begin already in the midst of what has been lost; we are not to blame yet we are, of course, the ones responsible:

I’ll never know them, / those outmoded figures / —the same as we are, / yet completely different. / My imagination works to unlock / the mystery of their being, / it can’t wait for the release / of memory’s secret archives. // … // And I think that when I too / do my teaching / they gaze in turn at me, // revising my mutterings, / correcting my mistakes // with the calm assurance of the dead. [from “Genealogy”]

It is not only the world but we ourselves who are thus constructed by melancholy. The question that remains, then, is quite simply: who shall we have been?

Three (more) questions

1. Has any age ever known how to be timely? Have we ever been fit for our age or does our history always flee from its own consciousness? A “false historical consciousness” can take many forms; many of these result from either the confusion or conflation of natural and calendrical time—that the calendar is more or less a representation of natural time (the turning of the seasons, the revolution of the Earth, the phases of the moon, etc). Millennial thinking, as various historians have shown, is not the result of calendrical time but the reverse: the very notion of the calendar is grounded in millennialism.

Millennialism presupposes that we are never modern—we are never fit for our time because “the time is near”. But is not what has gone under the sign of modernity (which is often confused with post-modernity) in contemporary discourse, i.e., that claims that “our time has come” (the third age, the end of history, etc), not simply another (bad faith) iteration of this same schema? A secular redemption is still teleological. Or, alternatively, we are still not timely because there is no longer any time—we see this in the chronology of museum pieces, in the homogeneity of sense presupposed in scholarly citation and commentary, in the ideology of federal holidays, in globalization (where, incidentally, we can witness the extraordinary reduction of time to space), in the paroxysm of the avant-garde, in both the vulgar forms of relativism that masquerade as post-modernism as well as the post-modernism of pastiche (Jameson) and enjoyment (Zizek).

Nevertheless, to be timely does not mean a self-congratulatory imprisonment within certain “conceptual schemes” or necessarily any other variety of horizonal hermeneutics. To be timely, as Nietzsche understood better, perhaps, than any of his successors, means not to have a historical consciousness but a historical unconsciousness (Cioran demonstrates the malady of a historical consciousness unable to forget: the name he gives to his malady is “despair”). The task of a historical unconsciousness is not the constitution of sense but, rather, in the division of sense. In short, what Zupancic has called the figure of the Two in Nietzsche with respect to the psyche must be extended to history.

2. What is the task of criticism? At the risk of positing an “essence” of philosophy—which would give philosophy the unity of a discipline—at least since the time of Plato the task of philosophy has been critical.*

*This is not the best word, particularly since we cannot ignore its Kantian and Hegelian meaning; but neither can we say “political” since that word too is contaminated either by the Straussians (who claim that philosophy is inherently political) or by naïve conceptions of that in which “politics” consists.

We need not aver to the usual ethical readings of Platonic criticism to make the claim that philosophy is intrinsically critical (in Plato’s language, anything else is sophistry). Neither need we pay disingenuous homage to the usual banalities about Socratic irony or ignorance (Socrates is wisest on account of knowledge of his ignorance; the philosopher is the lover and not the possessor of wisdom, etc), which usually miss the point of the prefix phil- entirely (usually by confusing philia with eros and, additionally, confusing eros with lack). Neither, finally, need we appeal to the counter-ethical claim (for example, of Adorno or Mannheim) that the critical imperative is historical.

There are several ways we might express the critical imperative of (double genitive) philosophy. In metaphysics it is the non-identity of thought and being (what I have suggested might instead be called the ‘chiasm’ of thought and being); alternatively we might look to the material conditions of thought, the historical conditions of experience, or the topology of subjectification. (These are, incidentally, more perspicuous ways of talking about what in contemporary continental philosophy goes under the name of “difference”, which has the unfortunate tendency to succumb to questions about the “priority” of difference over identity and so on.) The task of philosophy is not to identify itself as criticism (under the name of “critical theory”, etc) but, rather, to perform this criticism. Critical philosophy cannot, without reneging its imperative, proclaim its intention to be critical (hence the question is no longer one of “praxis”) if for no other reason than that in doing so, i.e., in providing logoi of criticism, we presuppose the unity (correspondence, correlation) of thought and being.

Criticism is an imperative precisely because it cannot ground itself in an account of itself, i.e., a logos (which is not, however, to oppose language to a “feeling”). The critical imperative is not discursive nor, strictly speaking, practical (in the Kantian senses); the critical imperative is what might be called “affective”, which criticism has always been at the least. Even in common usage, what motivates the critic is a certain experience that by definition cannot merely be interior—judgment is always public (aesthetics has always recognized this since Baumgarten and Kant). For Hegel and Kierkegaard, criticism was thus not merely aesthetic but ethical. For the Marxists, criticism has, by extension, always been economic and/or political. These are, of course, external divisions of affectivity—i.e., the non-coincidence of self and other or of self to self, in short, the splitting of sense and non-sense. The fundamental question of criticism is how to handle this split—either to deny it tout court (first-order logic), to subordinate non-sense to sense, or to tarry at the limit of sense (what goes under the name of “experimentation”, the event, undecidability, etc).

3. What remains for phenomenology? From phenomenology to ontology: Phenomenology has never been what its Anglo- and psychological readers have thought it is—i.e., a first-person discourse. We should not be surprised, then, that the problem of appearances could not be settled without an account of the divisions within appearances not merely in their modes but in their logic (Husserl the mathematician was well aware of this problem from the 1920s on, quite independent of the encounter with Heidegger and well before the usual identification of the “turn” in the 1930s).

From ontology to …: To what? to history, to life, to science, to the unconscious, to givenness, and so on, whether through mathematics, structuralism, etc. In any case, the question remains: what is left for phenomenology as such, particularly insofar as it gets recalled amidst these other discourses as an appeal to “conscious experience” (has there been anything else that phenomenology has not been)? Of what value is phenomenology to us as a method if its concerns have thrown us outside of consciousness (and not just phenomenology but insofar as the technical world continues to encroach on the interiority of consciousness—even a discourse on consciousness can no longer rely on the reduction)? Without method, do we still have the right to use the name “phenomenology”? Is phenomenology the only available discourse on consciousness (even presupposing that such a discourse still carries purchase), or is phenomenology still guilty of wedding consciousness to a certain (viz., transcendental) conception of subjectivity?

Cioran: the burden of existence

Is it the knowledge of good and evil or the expulsion from the garden that constitutes man’s original sin? Whatever the case, it is at least plausible that “we are still not thinking”. Modernity, then, is still an “unfinished project” inasmuch as we have yet to think. And yet the original moment of “disenchantment” that dispelled the old gods continues to go under the name of an “idolatrous” science. We fail to think and yet it is because we are so successful at being dialectical that we have returned to the need for the old mythologies of earth, spirit, and the Absolute. In other words, true to form, it is our failure to be dialectical (we have not yet, it seems, reached the end of history) that indicates our great success at being dialectical.

This is why, because our philosophy has called us from slumber, insomnia and boredom are the trademarks of modernity: of minds that have been awakened but can never again fall asleep. “What recourse to China or India will heal us”, Cioran asks, if as Hegel says, these are the “dream of the infinite Spirit”? Nothing is easier than resisting happiness, Cioran observes; yet even our suffering suffers the intensity of desire. The negativity of desire never attains the stillness or the non-presence of the Tao because even that negativity is the affirmation of a world [of sense]; there is no conceptual equivalent of the Taoist wu-wei in our language.

Lao Tzu’s favorite metaphor is that of “stillness”. We, on the other hand, “breathe too fast to be able to grasp things in themselves or to expose their fragility. Our panting postulates and distorts them, creates and disfigures them, and binds us to them. I bestir myself, therefore I emit a world as suspect as my speculation which justifies it …” [Cioran] What is called the “burden of time/history” is, rather, the burden of materiality. No wonder, then, that even the great mythologist Joseph Campbell would call the religions of the east religions of death. But what even he failed to observe is that gnosticism is a peculiarly western notion. Cioran again: “as long as we lived amid elegant terrors, we accommodated ourselves quite well to God. When others—more sordid because more profound—took us in charge, we required another system of references, another boss. The Devil was the ideal figure. Everything in him agrees with the nature of the events of which he is the agent, the regulating principle: his attributes coincide with those of time”. We are thus caught in the double bind of an original sin: “to divine the timeless and to know nonetheless that we are time, that we produce time, to conceive of the notion of eternity … [is] an absurdity responsible for both our rebellions and the doubts we entertain about them”. Hence no western eschatology is able to provide a real escape, for all of them rivet the individual to his being. Thus “the fact still remains that our first ancestor left us, for our entire legacy, only the horror of paradise. … Meanwhile, down to our nerve cells, everything in us resists paradise. To suffer: sole modality of acquiring the sensation [better: sense] of existence; to exist: unique means of safeguarding our destruction”.

It is because we live in history that we cannot but exist. Even the most insignificant and unknown person whose death goes unnoticed has a sense in a world, i.e., the melancholic sense of being the one whose life was insignificant. This inner contradiction of individualism is the reason why no individual as such can be a Taoist. This is where Freud is in agreement: the individual is nothing other than this desire to be, which is also the desire not to be (neither Freud nor Cioran are obviously committed to making this an ontological claim but, rather, a claim of sense). Cioran: “loath to admit a universal identity, we posit individuation, heterogeneity as a primordial phenomenon. Now, to revolt is to postulate this heterogeneity, to conceive it as somehow anterior to the advent of beings and objects. If I oppose the sole truth of Unity by a necessarily deceptive Multiplicity … my rebellion is meaningless, since to exist it must start from the irreducibility of individuals, from their condition as monads, circumscribed essences. Every act institutes and rehabilitates plurality, and, conferring reality and autonomy upon the person, implicitly recognizes the degradation, the parceling-out of the absolute”. Yet “the very rhythm of our life is based on the good standing of rebellion”. Thus, Cioran says, “let us surrender to all rebellions: they will end by turning against themselves, against us …” In but one short, cogent paragraph, Cioran proceeds from this sentence to establish himself as our greatest philosopher of history, for only he more than Hegel or Nietzsche, has been able to explain our dialectical success\failure. Cioran understood that the burden of thought—that is otherwise cashed in the cliché of “Enlightenment rationalism”—is the burden of time, and that it is the lived time of finitude that constitutes the consciousness of history. For Hegel it is the other way around; for Heidegger, the case is more complicated, but in the end for Heidegger history reveals itself as a destiny whereas for Cioran it takes a people who live exiled from history to revel in the sense of a destiny. Here, then, is where Cioran is able to speak to the philosophers of the event: the fundamental question of rebellion is whether rebellion has sense in history. Rebellion can neither have such sense—a rebellion with historical sense is no longer a rebellion—nor naively turn its back on a historical consciousness that burdens it with more than the strength of a call but less than that of necessity. This is why rebellions end by “turning against us”: for after any rebellion, “we” will cease to be, not by any martyrdom or suicide, but, perhaps, by the courage to exist.


Among the various writers who have challenged the ideologies of “objective history” (e.g., Heidegger, MacIntyre, Ricoeur, White, and, most recently, Megill’s Historical Knowledge, Historical Error), it was Deleuze who has most insistently pressed the issue despite rarely explicitly thematizing the problem as being “historical”. We cannot, Deleuze says, speak of “the” history of philosophy but, rather, only of histories of philosophy. (Is this not also a direct consequence of the famous relevant sections of Being and Time?)

When Deleuze’s monographs explicate a history of philosophy, each author is presented as a complex or a composite: it is well-known that Deleuze’s Bergson, Spinoza, and Nietzsche are inseparable, for example; Deleuze is explicit about the “monstrous children” of philosophy in this regard.

We can escalate this procedure in the case of Bergson and Merleau-Ponty by literally intertwining two texts on philosophy and history:

the relation of philosophy to earlier and contemporary philosophies is not … what a certain conception of the history of systems would lead us to assume. [Bergson] Between an “objective history of philosophy” … and a meditation disguised as a dialogue … there must be a middle-ground on which the philosopher we are speaking about and the philosopher who is speaking are present together, although it is not possible even in principle to decide at any given moment just what belongs to each. [Merleau-Ponty] The philosopher does not take pre-existing ideas in order to recast them … The truth is that above the word and above the sentence there is something much more simple … [i.e.,] the meaning [sens], which is less a thing thought than a movement of thought, less a movement than a direction. [Bergson]

In a letter, Bergson would say that an “ism” is not merely the name of the set of principles held by a particular doctrine but rather a “tendency, a direction of thought followed by a philosopher”. Is this not precisely what Deleuze means by presenting a “Bergsonism” under the guise of a “return to Bergson”? This is obviously not a reactionary move; Bergson performatively made the same point when he instructed his executors and wife to destroy many of his writings on his death.

The “history of philosophy”, above all, must resist the temptation to become a museum or a marketplace. The task of history is to attest (this word is important) to the “life” of ideas. History is not this life; nor can history—lest it devolve into the ideologies of “objective history”—orient itself toward the ideas themselves (nor to concepts—Deleuze, again). The only proper history of philosophy is neither philosophical nor historical but, rather, metaphilosophical and, perhaps, metaxiological.