“You must change your life” (Characters III)

1. The hand moves with the slightest and even unconscious impetus but the will refuses to budge, even with our best intentions. To explain how the mind moves the body is one of the easy problems; how, instead, is it possible for the mind to move itself? We resolve and yet we return again; we realize our true intentions and yet we persist; we notice that we have failed to satisfy our commitments even as we thought we had. “Whence this [monstrosity]*”, Augustine asked, that “the mind commands the mind to will, the mind is itself, but it does not do it”. The riddle and the solution are presented in a simple reductio: to move itself, the mind must be divided against itself and yet also, to be itself, unified as one mind. The conclusion – the “binding problem” – is inescapable: either we are called to act from beyond our will (perhaps even and especially in its desolation) or we must accept that the mind is not itself.

*Monstrum, which means both “monstrous” but also “wonder” in the sense of oddity.

Perhaps outside Freud, no one struggled with the reality of the divided mind more than Schopenhauer, for whom the human tragedy – which is not to say miracle – is the fact that consciousness arose from nature at all. There is perhaps no greater cruelty than the fact that whether by nature or freedom – it makes no difference which – we are never what we (think we) are, which is no mere hypocrisy but a necessary condition of our consciousness. This realization occurs in those rare moments when the spell is broken and we learn that every comfort has its price in complacency. These disappointments are often, however, not akratic but inertial: hours and weeks have passed blindly. Yet shame is a poor motivator and transforms the impulse to negate into the compulsion to repeat: we find that we are looking into the same eyes, after all, that we have returned to the same place, or that we are making the same confession yet again because we are incomplete:

for if the will were so in its fullness [plena], it would not command itself to will, for it would already will. It is therefore no monstrousness, partly to will, partly not to will, but a sickness of the soul to be so weighted down by [habit]** that it cannot wholly rise even with the support of truth. (Augustine)

Even when our reserves and our excuses are depleted, habit binds us inexorably to the existence in which we wallow, sunken into the past by persistent, unconscious recollection in every distraction and enjoyment. We “repeat backward”, in Kierkegaard’s formulation, seeking redemption for the past in the past as if what is missing can be brought to light as long as we persist.

**Consuetudo, which also can mean sexual intercourse.

There are moments, however, when we must stop, not because the next step is perilous but because it is not. “We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking”, Camus observed. The nihilist and the misologist agree that thought is an arrest of life but for the wrong reason. It is not the ground itself that we must fear but we invite peril when we turn our gaze upward toward the sun. Life already tends toward death, particularly when we walk timidly with our eyes lowered. Thought endangers life by rejecting it, yes, but Camus’ famous remark that suicide is the only “truly serious” philosophical problem has often been misunderstood: the real danger is not that of a future devoid of meaning but, rather, that we may not be worthy of a future at all.

“The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.” (Adorno)

2. But is not the secret of redemption that we are never ready for it? “No one knows the hour” because the future – a true future beyond the sempiternal event of Christ – explodes ex nihilo not from the present but which is immediately captured by memory. We anticipate this future by what Kierkegaard called repetition: “when one says that life is a repetition, one says: actuality, which has been, now comes into existence”. Repetition inverts the causal order by transforming what was actual in the past into what was only possible until now – now, as we become who we were. Despair is simply recollection without repetition; death is life without redemption.

We can will (toward) death, certainly, but we must be called to redemption. But what calls for redemption? Our vocation is neither to preserve nor to care but, rather, to change.

Rodin torso

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not gleam like a wild beast’s fur;
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
[Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, tr. Stephen Mitchell]

The stone commands us, Rilke says, when we no longer regard it as a thing but when the divine idea “bursts like a star” as the objectification of the beauty of which we are capable, imago dei. The gods speak to us by speaking through us; but against the desire for unification (from Hegel to Feuerbach), the blessing of divine inspiration compels this alienation of the divine as sacrifice.

Yet Hegel was surely right to see that this alienation is an impossible separation, for it at once demands perfection while denying its achievement (as all erotic demands do). But we are not called not toward perfection (which would be unity and harmony) and the desire to be God is narcissistic and solipsistic at best. The force of the command consists in the fact that we do not know for what we must change because, after all, if we knew that much we would already be what we are trying to become.

We must change because we are not living rightly. But what demands this change is often not an experience of beauty but one of suffering. In both cases it is not my own life that calls for change but the face of another or the silence of the dispossessed: it is not they but I who am not living rightly. “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly”, Adorno observed, because we have no claim to happiness at the cost of responsibility. Yes, I must change my life, not to be happy with it but to be worthy of it.

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?