The uneasy relationship between poetry and philosophy in the global age
The relationship between poetry and philosophy can never be that of a child to a father. It can also not be compared to a man-woman relationship. The times have become too uneasy for that, and one does not need to mention divorce rates or those who never get married. Naturally this provokes in turn the question but what is marriage if not an institution unable to answer some of the most basic needs in a global age. This includes the woman who leaves a scholar because he loves in her eyes more the books than the time they could do something together.
There is something distinct about poetry when referring to this global world. It has as much maturity of its own as it is often limited by use of language which encloses the vision of the world as a mere lament of the 'self'. Bless my soul, was always the typical religious answer to that in a secular age.
Still, the tension between poetry and philosophy provokes many questions as it evokes controversies once there is made an attempt to bring the two in a conscious relationship to each other. Given the mainly academic nature of the dominant philosophy, it means as much ignorance of poetry as if reference to poets of Ancient Times would suffice to satisfy a real acknowledge as to where poetry does make a difference.
At the same time, a poet may claim to be writing down something out of intuition, yet he risks to overlook something. Intuition is not merely spontaneity or following own inclinations although this might be the true poetic gesture when following a mere hunch just like the person deciding to go down a particular street to find the house where she lives. After all, intuition avoids the traps of becoming too concrete when no real conclusion is in sight.
Interestingly enough, there exists in philosophy of mathematics the intuitive school of mathematics in Holland. According to Carlo Penco, intuition means here becoming free from any logic of coercion. Things have not to be out of necessity, but can be the outcome of a free creation. That real differences leaves much breathing space, something schools of thoughts following the logic of necessity miss out on.
It is clear from a poetic standpoint, philosophers find themselves to be by comparison on much weaker grounds. They have lost in the eyes of the wider public the social and practical relevance philosophy used to have when wise words being spoken by someone meant something, especially if that philosopher had given a lot of thought to something. There are still philosophers capable of doing that, but most of them go unheard in the modern media age. At the same time, the media can elevate some like Glucksman in France or Sloterdijk in Germany. Jürgen Habermas does find a voice all the time as he is widely respected, but many do not seem to understand him or if they do rarely follow his argumentation developed in favour of going beyond the European Union in the direction of world governance.
One practical reason for the relative weakness is rather than expressing themselves like poets do in short nuances of a five lines poem, philosophers over extend themselves, text wise, and thereby risk to be guilt of over explaining something. More so is that the case when they do what philosophers love to do the most according to Habermas, namely concept analysis. For outsiders it sounds like trying to define the undefinable or else in trying to explain something which is really unexplainable. By contrast, John Berger comes close to distinguish between what has language and what has not or else its own terminology like the objects which we see but cannot name in our own terms.
The poet has as well the advantage of being able to stay open ended. A poem can end with a question. There has not to be given an answer when life itself is a huge puzzle. Often poetry extends this riddle and emerges itself in the profound knowledge of the unknown. That is like Vincent Van Gogh looking into himself and finding in the abyss of his deeper self only 'nothingness'.
However, that kind of nothingness is not to be mistaken with Nihilism, a typical brand of philosophy identified with Nietzsche and often used to break with religious codes based on belief systems rather than on rational thoughts. European thinkers have gone through this contrived reasoning until Michel Foucault brought to bear upon the nineteenth century his analysis of the 'History of Insanity'. Insanity developed according to Foucault out of the polarised world of here reason and anything else which did not correspond to that, was labelled as insane. There was created the fantastic symmetry expressed best by Foucault when he cited the father who does not speak with his son after they got into a quarrel, but delegates him instead to the representative of reason, namely the psychiatrist. Many sons suffered that and Freud developed accordingly the theory of the Oedipus complex as he himself could never overcome throughout his entire life these inner conflicts with his father. Hence he never gave up smoking.
The reason for such inner conflicts leaving so many scarred persons is that the father is not only a figure of authority which should not be questioned supposedly, but also a figure of love. That creates a twisted logic in the mind of any sensible person. It can also lead to a complete disillusionment and negation of empathy for the other once that relationship turns out to be a complete failure in terms of being unable to take care of the father. Interestingly enough emancipation follows often only the path of violence. One day comes in the life of the son or daughter growing up that they no longer to be hit by the father but suddenly threaten to hit back if he tries that again. It breaks the father quite often as it shatters the illusion of an unquestioned authority. Derrida can be cited for stating in his relationship to Foucault that one day shall come when the son revolts against the father figure and finds from then on his own way.
Another interesting example in this regard is Freud's analysis of Leonardo da Vinci. Freud is convinced that Leonardo was intimidated by his potent father who had many children while Leonardo himself had none. Out of lack of recognition for what he managed to give such a father who appears not to need any of the son's gifts, Leonardo ends up keeping a precise book of accounting in which he notes what he gave his father. This includes money but not only. Freud interprets the destructive drive of creativity by Leonardo as a clear symptom of someone examining constantly the sexual drive without coming to terms with that either in terms of self consciousness nor in terms of a real love relationship to a woman.
So to come back to that special man woman relationship and the erotic tension between the genders (Klaus Heinrich) to keep institutions alive, Foucault did try to write a phenomenology of sexuality by following the model of Hegel. He did not succeed in completing that endeavour. One can wonder why but most pronounced in Foucault's theory of erotics is what has been a constant thread throughout man's history and that is the desire for the young man. It is already evident when Plato describes the Symposia as a gathering of men frolicking about as if they were drunk angels and does not end with Thomas Mann's narrative called 'Death in Venice'. That outreach of sexual desire from an elderly man to a younger one, and which ends in reality in abuse of a child and thereby in a ruin for life of the sexual life of that child to grow up with a permanent internal fear to have abandoned the self, has always played a destructive role.
Abuse and destroyed sexual desire explain many other things from coercion within army like organisations to such critical facts like sex for work when it comes to even an institution like the European Parliament in which many privileged positions come with a high price. It may not be the same as Goethe's Faust who gives his soul to the devil for the sake of gaining that knowledge always desired but never within reach, so it seems, under normal terms, but it comes close to it. Hence the break up between poetry and philosophy is like a bad omen already signalled by the albatross appearing on the horizon and frightening the sailors into fearing the fate of the ship they are on.
But to come back to the claim that the poet has a definite advantage when he can swing through the poem right into the open and leave standing an open question. It is a special kind of question for it does not 'beg' for an answer. That is the prime thrust of poetry: to be in favour of a nuance of understanding. It is like Dileep Jhaveri, both doctor and poet, who speaks about democracy being only free if there is no strive for immortality and all human beings accept that they are basically mortal. For that is what makes them human. Thus the condition humane is to live openly with that unknown. At the same time, it means that this does not silence the wonder about life itself.
Such a silence is a reoccurring theme in poetry, whereas in philosophy Michel Foucault has again pin pointed a crucial difference when he writes, that "we have to discover the places of silence before the lyrical protest covers them up." That holds a lot of meaning. It states first of all, once poetry becomes a lyrical and more so a political protest, it no longer speaks to what silences our 'selfs'. Rich Feldman in Detroit departs precisely after the election of Trump from this premise:
The state of mind in the USA after the election can be compared to what are 'circles of silence' (in association with Solzhenitsyn's 'circle of hell' when describing the Gulags). Yet to seek an understanding of silence, it would be wiser not to try to break it as if ice covering a frozen lake, but to recognize that this is not his silence, as stated by Dileep Jhaveri in The poem "Silence".
There is also another meaning with regards to the man-woman relationship, or what happens if the game of love no longer holds the ritual which was invented to mislead the other into believing love is at stake, when in fact something else was being played for. In such a case emancipation begins when the own silence no longer needs the silence of the other to find a way out. In the Paros poems, that becomes explicit in the daily marriage between silence and the wind with silence becoming unfaithful the moment the wind dies down. These poems by Hatto Fischer are called in Dialog mit dem Schweigen - Paros Gedichte I
However, the strength of a poem does not lie always in the brevity of beauty. There are the epic poems with quite another narrative as the case of Brendan Kennelly's Judas.
Of course, the claim of Habermas as to what philosophers can do best, namely as mentioned already above, to analyse concepts such as 'mind, identity, solidarity, human dignity', that cannot be easily refuted. Philosophical analysis extends to the realms of epistemology, in order to show how a concept like health has evolved over time (see, for example, K.J. Boudouris (ed.) Philosophy and Medicine, Vol. 1, Athens, 1998) and, therefore, reflects the changes in knowledge (Thomas Kuhn, in "Structure of Scientific Revolution", calls them paradigm changes) as mankind makes new discoveries. As a consequence life expectation has been altered. Today many more people reach the high age of eighty and even more thanks to progress made alone in medicine but not only. The way of life has altered as well. Rather than living under extreme conditions, life in comfort has replaced many hardships.
Even though women's poetry has been denied for a long time, with always an exception like Sappho affirming the rule, far worse was the fate of male poets since they were considered by society as being feminine and often out rightly castigated as such. Both women and men experience that denial of poetry when they try to read an own poem if only in a circle made up of family members and close friends. There is an unease for it is never easy to know what is a good poem or something in the making. It takes greatness to recognize the greatness in the other, so Vincent Van Gogh. Katzanzakis recognized the talent to be a great poetess when he heard Katerina Angehlaki Rooke's The first poem as a seventeen year old
Something else is described when Freud speaks about a young poet growing up amongst only women as long as the matriarch exists because the men fight for power and therefore none of them can assume rulership over all. The boy develops a special kind of poetry which can be considered something like myth making of the kind Virgil did for the state of Rome, so that people could remember what needs to be done during what time of the season. Freud states that once a man seizes upon a poem written by this boy, he can transform this myth into an ideology force by which he is able to assume power over the others. As this leads to a transformation of the Matriarch into a Patriarch, women could conclude that they should beware of letting a poet grow up in their midst. Naturally this would not eradicate the question but where would that put Shakespeare who wrote not only plays about power plays like Hamlet but also Sonnets with a stringent logic all to its own? Interestingly enough, Shakespeare would pose not only the question in Hamlet "to be or not to be", for often unnoticed was the other question: "should the word suit the thought or the thought the word?" That question rebounds over and again in the deeper implications of the language we end up using when relating to others and to our selves. Hölderlin was in the denial of the coarse language ordinary men used as he preferred much more a dialogue with the Gods to satisfy his Pantheism but his lyrical language had little influence, and besides Hitler could use his poem 'Fatherland' in which Hölderlin claims that he does not wish to die an ordinary death, but he would not mind dying when fighting for the freedom of the 'fatherland', in order to entice the youth to join not only the Hitler Youth but also the already failing war efforts. That underlines also the fact that there are many poets who still glorify acts which are in really an affirmation of violence, war being only one case, a revolution or emancipation of the Ottoman rule in the case of Lord Byron with regards to Greece another example.
There other and still deeper reasons for not only a troublesome relationship between poetry and philosophy, but even more so to poetry itself. The historian Carmel Cassar in Malta recalls one day a nun caught him at the Roman Catholic School which he was attending as he was writing a poem. She took away from the paper he had been writing on and forbade him never again to write poetry. She admonished him for doing something completely irrelevant, if not outright bad. Behind the nun's reaction stand centuries of denials of the Catholic church of anything that was sensuous. Since the picture dispute in the 5th century, it was a decree no such pictures should be painted which appeal to the senses. God was an abstract only concept. No picture should be made of him. In practical terms, it meant that the church did not wish for people to be addressed in a language which would affirm the certainty of the senses. It is a theme to which the philosopher Kolokowski would return to in the 20th century. As the senses were linked to aesthetical and therefore sexual desires, it was treated like a forbidden fruit. That left poetry to be equated at times with something not really acknowledged as a true expression of mankind. At the same time, and despite Alexander Pope's 'Paradise Lost', it meant in really cutting off poetry from philosophy, so as to ensure the prime voice had theology and not philosophy. Interestingly enough Ernst Bloch remarked that in the Arabic world philosophers were scientists until the 9th century, and only with the arrival of the Fundamentalists who demanded a strict text interpretation, this link between philosophy and science disappeared and instead a belief-system based on a strict hierarchical order of obedience and subversive was established.
Definitely poetry and philosophy differ in their concept of truth. Therefore, it is important when considering this uneasy relationship between the two, what turns out to be a lie or a mask of real motives? This theme of the mask is pertinent to understand Ernst Bloch's concept of slave language for then people speak only masked and therefore never reveal their inner feelings and thoughts when speaking to someone up higher in the hierarchy. As a consequence, a curse becomes praise and vice versa a praise a curse. This language of opposites makes the people easy victims of a practice of 'mendacity' as explained by Martin Jay. As an intellectual historian closely affiliated to the history of the Frankfurt School of Adorno and Horkheimer, he believes philosophers have taught the Americans to love the lie. They include Adorno, Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss. The latter was behind the spin doctor practice of the Bush jr. presidency. A lie begins by not telling everything in need to be known to the general public. Withholding vital information, even the lack of knowing who was behind the attack of 9/11, is justified by the claim that people are not interested in hearing the full truth. Max Schurr, the doctor of Sigmund Freud and initiator of psycho-somatic medicine, stated that all people demand to hear the truth i.e. prognosis and diagnosis pertaining to their sickness, but only very few can really stand up to hear the full truth. This is especially the case of patients with cancer.
The practice with the lie is also a part of common wisdom since often perverted into a strategy on how to avert conflict in the family or at work. At least in Greece many parents teach from day one their children never to tell the full truth, since then they would only over expose themselves and be vulnerable, so that it is all to easy to be hurt and to be taken advantage of.
Consequently reality is for many people a woven net of little and big lies. It leads on to accepting more conspiracy theories then working through a maze of facts, in order to come up with some truth. But to end up not knowing the extent to which everything is subject to pure speculation and manipulation, something the press or media can generally be blamed for, implies public truth can hardly be heard any more in public spaces (see Public Truth and Public Space by Bart Verschaffel). This leaves a society without a dialectic of the imagination to mediate according to Cornelius Castoriadis between people's real needs and what parties can realize with their respective programmes within the institutions set up to make possible governance.
Poets can step in by telling something truthful. They become powerful agents of truth if they go beyond self-interest. They may have to risk even their lives when they do not merely ask the audience "to lend them their ears", as Shakespeare loves to say as an opening, but give their voice to those who are the most in need of not merely material goods, but personal and social attention. Only that recognition can lift them out of their plight. Usually society tends to push the ones trying to get out of the sifting sand or deep mud back in again. A vicious cycle. To uplift someone in such a situation has to be an amazing feat of poets best done by uplifting the human spirit. That going forward is like a self propelling source of energy. It makes climbing a steep hill even at advanced age that much easier. By connecting people to their emotional selves, this sudden flow of human warmth can alter immediately the situation. Naturally speaking up means also people are willing to listen to the poetic voice, something Peter Brooks doubts if still possible in this modern age having succumbed to many other forms of communication and distractions. Yet if they cannot hear the voice of the poet, they will not be able to recognize their own voices in time to make a difference.
Shakespeare can also be cited for encouraging everyone to speak up and to say the truth. "Pluck up your courage, or else remain a fool!" That advise is linked to his other famous saying that a coward dies many a death, while a fool dies only once.
In the Greek tragedy play the chorus is an expression of collective wisdom. The playwright sets through them moral measures for things to come or about to happen. The dilemma is clearly marked out as in the case of Antigone when she wishes to give her dead brother a decent burial but if she does so, she would act in defiance of the King's order which equals the law of the land. Klaus Heinrich sees in his lecture about Antigone the dilemma being resolved in the dialectic between dust and thought. Other then ignoring collective wisdom as expressed by the chorus and which would lead to hubris, if not fate, the dilemma of Antigone remains unresolved till the very end which is without end. For she is walled in and must exist in such a cave without access to the outside world as someone who is neither dead or alive. This in-between makes up for a slippery ground which Adorno has identified as the permanent ambivalence in life itself. Most poets tear themselves apart when they confront that dilemma, for it proves to be utmost difficult to uphold the truth under all circumstances. Consequently the poets and with them mankind are driven ever deeper into a labyrinth of lies, or what Paul Celan would describe as living and writing behind a language as a screen which prevents others to understand his poems.
A poem is well set apart from a philosophical text even though this does not have to mean that there are no philosophical poems. A poem can be anything from a "Moment Aufnahme" i.e. snap shot of the moment like the poem called "Railway children" by Seamus Heaney to an epic poem as the one mentioned already by Brendan Kennelly called 'Judas'. It can be a free verse, or a Haiku, sonnet, or something else. Always a poem puts to test the form as if there is no adequate one to the spoken text making audible the human voice. Other poems demonstrate that they are structured well while others convince because of their rhythms. Famous for that are poems which resonate with the Chicago Blues. Today there have been added the Rappers, and performance artists citing poems during Slam Poetry contests. Already Goethe demonstrated that a poem can be a 'Schüttle'-rhyme: a verse literally shaking the words to make sure they do not gather any dust. Still another view of poem is communicated by Michael D. Higgins who says a poem can be recognized immediately when it is 'made' i.e. such a complete form that it does not need any further improvement. There has come something to the surface that is unshakeable true.
In philosophy texts vary as their intentions reflects different intentions: noting down some thoughts, holding on to a definition, thought sketches, essays, research reflections, worked through logical expositions, phenomenological introductions etc. Adorno's 'Minima Moralia' is a collection of short parable like paragraphs under specific headings, whereas Kant separated his Critique of Philosophy into three parts: Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason and Critique of Practical Judgement. As if he was modelling it like the Constitution of the United States organising governance into three branches: executive, legislative and judicial.
Aside from these texts, Kant wrote others such as 'The Dispute between the Faculties' to show how philosophy would deduce knowledge out of theology, law and medicine, in order to give to the government advise to pass such laws which are good for business. Important in all philosophical texts is to what conclusions they come while seeking to draw conclusions out of life itself. That represents a dilemma and makes often the reading of these texts so difficult. Especially Kant laid bare the inner nature of the psyche and found at first such wonderful lawfulness, but then he had not the trust in the human being since in his opinion "crooked wood cannot be bent straight!" He then went on to introduce or rather intervene in the psyche with the categorical imperative.
At the same time, Kant referred constantly to the concept of the 'self' without ever defining this concept, so the criticism of Adorno. But both philosophers were of the same opinion that practical judgement and wisdom cannot be taught. Still they would have to admit that poetry does reflect human wisdom. However, Adorno put an end to that since he claimed after Auschwitz no more poetry was possible.
When World Poetry Movement representatives, including Fernando Rendon from Medellin, Colombia, Bas Kwakman from Rotterdam's Poetry Festival, Philip Meersman from Poetry Slam Festivals, and Hatto Fischer from Poiein kai Prattein in Athens visited EU Commissioner for Culture and Education, Multilingualism and Youth, Ms. Androulla Vassiliou to put poetry on the EU agenda, she asked the delegation whether or not poetry could be taught. The immediate answer was 'yes. The delegates had just witnessed in Antwerp creative writing workshops were well known poets taught those just starting to write poetry, and often the established poets were unsure as they felt their hold on the privilege of being poets being questioned increasingly so. For everyone can write poetry even if they may still differ in quality and above all maturity.
Poetry does and can inspire philosophy. It is said that the poem by Parmenides let Aristotle discover when contemplating "lessons of categories" that regular speech contains a "grammar of life": a logical way of speaking from asking a question to drawing a conclusion. Still, poetry refuses to fit into any categories. It is an expression of something outside any order, including that what Michel Foucault has called as representative of things "the order to things". The latter brings words and objects in relation to one another, out of which emerges the subject-object structure. It leaves open what case it shall be: nominative, dative, genitive or accusative. Still, poetry in which the poem becomes an object onto itself can be called ontological accusative as if an object of inquiry, but even here the poem evades the final categorisation. For poets have dreams but not the one about an order to things so that everything fits into the one or other category to designate it as an object with a name.
Still of interest is one observation by Levy-Strauss that Indians have many more categories when speaking about nature than the culture of the "white man". He interprets this to mean Indians had an interest in nature far greater than what is merely of practical use. This aspect has never been considered as far as can be known by ecologist or those who wish to reconcile man's relationship to nature. Often the latter has been considered to be violent and therefore it justifies in turn man's attempt to dominate or else exploit nature (Hegel).
Consequently while it is unsure what self referential poetry attempts to achieve, it is clear that philosophy has adopted a negative relationship to nature. It is similar to that of conquest. This shows itself that man fears nature as if it is only hostile while on the other hand man seeks everywhere to tame nature, even though that proves in the long run to be just in vain. In Japan they constructed a ten meter high wall to protect the inner land against any potential Tsunami, but then came the earthquake which shattered the nuclear power station in Fukushima 2011, and with it the huge Tsunami wave swept easily over the wall. Much wiser were those people who like many indigenous never live so close to the sea as tourists do in all kinds of hotels wishing to exploit the proximity to the sea, but they live instead on higher up mounts or even hills considered to be safe grounds in all eventuality. Perhaps a poem can be something like this practised wisdom. Not much needs to be said. It is done quietly, in a subtle manner. Poetry achieves in that way proximity to the true self.
While philosophy has gone to ontology, poetry contemplate myths which can inspire people to view the world in a certain way. Most of the time poetry seems to be inspired religiously, even though that can mean what happens to man once paradise has been lost, and only later regained (Alexander Pope)? It matters how to go through darkness while still seeing light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak! The futility of life culminated by Albert Camus in the Myth of Sisyphus. It makes modern man not being any more a mere victim of a myth, but rather he lives it and suffers under it while trying to get out of it. Albert Camus advises not to give in to hope for that would mean resignation, and to live is not to resign. Rather he advocates in 'L'homme revolte' something like an unrighteous honesty conveyed not by a radical vision. Here he opposes not only the advocacy of violence as the only means as did Jean Paul Sartre, but also reconciliation and redemption even before entering a conflict. The latter he makes evident through his letter to his German friends before entering resistance during Second World War and German occupation of France, in order to explain to his friends why he has to do this. The explanation itself allows him to resurface after the war is over. It means not all bridges are burned and dialogue is possible. Nevertheless Ron Anderson in his biography about the failed friendship between Camus and Sartre asks why Camus fell silent when the violent colonial war in Algiers was approaching, and only Sartre believing France as colonial power would never allow for a peaceful mediation? Altogether the turn towards ontology leaves both poetry and philosophy speechless or rather silent vis a vis violence in society. Poems about war are already of a different nature while those seeking to address war can be described as best as searches for peace even though they seem not to have much light to let them find the way.
Naturally there are famous cases of philosophers turning to poets to interpret their poems. Heidegger did this with Hölderlin. It is believed he failed since Heidegger was so vain as to believe he could become a poet and speak about Hölderlin not as a philosopher but as a poet himself. That misleading interpretation evokes a curiosity about the vanity of certain philosophers who seem never to see their own limitations. Another case is Derrida's interpretation of the poetry by Paul Celan. The interpretation illuminates subtle aspects of Jewish thinking linked to place and time. It should also not be forgotten that Hegel denied both poetry and the senses that they could be viewed as sources of truth, even though Hegel wrote a poem about Eleusis and dedicated it to his poet friend Hölderlin. Also Hegel made not architecture, but poetry to be the unifying force of the arts and sciences.
It is fair to say that it is more than merely appropriate to speak about the uneasy relationship which existed over time between poetry and philosophy. Rather than sticking, however, to an outright denial of poetry through philosophy, ongoing developments shall set the tone and make a difference. Uncertainties will continue to exist in terms of quality of poems and substance of philosophy. A difference is brought about by the extent to which utmost honesty can be claimed by either the poet or the philosopher or both together. It would be welcome if they could reinforce honesty in each other, and still allow the differences be expressed. Nothing can be said against the wish to live in uncertainty provided there exists a certainty of love to make possible an almost unknown happiness. The latter is often unknown as Freud would explain for one never hears anything from two people as long as the two are deeply in love; you begin to hear only once they develop problems affecting the relationship to one another. As to the entanglement of poets and philosophers with war and outright political streams of thoughts which deny democracy out of preference of a dictator - one needs only to think of Erza Pound and his admiration of Mussolini, or else Heidegger giving philosophical legitimacy to the "Führer" or supreme leader - that is still another topic in need to be discussed and reflected upon. Certain is nevertheless that poetry and philosophy need each other if they are to avoid some of the biggest mistakes.
June 2016, revised December 2016 in Athens, Greece
Note: This essay was written as part of preparations for the participation of the26th FESTIVAL INTERNACIONAL DE POESÍA DE MEDELLÍN http://festivaldepoesiademedellin.org/en/Intro/index.htm
with further documentation to found here: http://poieinkaiprattein.org/poetry/festival-2016/