Art and the Distinction Between Essence and Experience, with Some Lines by Edwin Muir

There’s a metaphysical ‘tradition’ that maintains the difference between essence and existence, or between God and finite beings. Neither is reducible to the other. Naturally we spend most of our time exploring finite beings like ourselves. But what would it mean to ‘explore’ essence? Usually we resort to a convenient skepticism—-except in art. Art somehow is given allowance to explore essence in light of what seems appropriate, the aesthetic aspects of the beautiful— color, shape, and so on.

But even in the analysis of art we come up against the distinction, a kind of line between what reflects existence in the modes of appearance and the sense of essence conveyed by the work of art. Art is irreducibly double. But we can think about art in the between. This doubleness that makes thinking about art possible also accounts for the wonder that is irreducible from the experience of art.

The experience of art may be said to involve a ‘breakthrough’ between the categories of existence and essence. In an essay on Edwin Muir Heaney quote an early poem ‘October at Hellbrunn’:

The silent afternoon draws in, and dark
The trees rise now, grown heavier is the ground,
And breaking through the silence of the park
Farther a hidden fountain flings its sound.

Metaxy and Form, with a poem by Charles Wright


Charles Wright Littlefoot (2007)

This looks like your basic lyric: the opening of a ripe moment, the equivocations of desire, the dialectics of the erotic ladder, all ending in the equivocity of the self.

But it fulfills an ‘other’ promise: the erotics of the ‘same’ or rather the flip side of the dialectic. He cites the ‘unloved.’ His list concludes with the least of these. Whence Eros?

If the erotic dialectic collapses under the paradoxical question, where does the energy come from? Instead of dialectical climax, we have the ‘other’ value system, the ‘with’ or other side of metaxy. Meta, as Desmond points out repeatedly, means both with and beyond, thus splitting the dialectical atom. ‘This chirper lost in the loose leaves’ of the mix of the between (metaxu).

As dialectic ends with the no-end of frustrated Eros, the metaxy ends in the original energy of community—-not erotic fulfillment but agapeic communication. ‘It’ -— the nameless chirper—- reminds us of … us.

See God and the Between, p 291


‘Composing a poem is a way of leaving the self behind and getting involved in something larger.’ Robert Bringhurst, The Tree of Meaning, 145.

Bringhurst uses the word ‘self’ to mean an impulse to erotic sovereignty (Desmond): this has to be left behind. The lyric narrative as I show in my readings first engages with the world outside the self on which it has designs. The given univocal world—-say a landscape. As the lyric proceeds the self becomes entangled in this ‘world’ it is destined to leave. In the end, from the point of view of the self, every poem is posthumous.

Flitting Across the Face

‘The inner image of the verse is inseparable from the numberless changes of expression which flit across the face of the teller as he talks excitedly.’ From ‘Conversations about Dante’ in ‘The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam,’ trans Brown and Merwin.

This dynamic helps us understand how the luminous individual’ emerges in/from the text. The analytical kit includes discourses on the face and Desmond on ‘the intimate universal’ with its recognition of tacit dimensions of meaning stored and nourished in the flesh.

Sappho, Fragments, and Melancholy

NB: Sorry: this reads like notes for a much longer essay. TK.

Hamlet wrestled with the meaning of his life, often speaking in mad phrases. He’s mimicking madness—-or ‘letting it out.’

Melancholy and fragments interlock in the reception of Sappho. Fragment 4: ‘I do not expect my fingers/to graze the sky.’
(Stanley Lombardo trans.). We reconstruct an erotic setting for this fragment and find it expressive of infinite melancholy—yearning against all chance of love’s return. The juxtaposition of fingers and sky create the impossible image expected after ‘I do not expect…’

The fragment fulfills the role of the text as we’ve come to know it. The text has integrity of a sign by witnessing the self. The self is itself a ‘problem.’ Scholars used to argue about whether the concept has any relevance to Ancient Greek interpretation; the self being invented in the modern period. We know more about the self now.

So that Sappho signature ‘mood’ connects with a larger issue. It’s fragmentary nature ‘makes sense’ anthropologically. We don’t need the rest of the poem for it to ‘make sense.’ Erotic love tethers us to the beyond. And in addition with the double of Eros (how could we yearn infinitely for love without having already tasted it?), there is pre-reflexive communication. We live in a between —- the mortal/immortal between—- where a range of conscious awareness is present before we intentionally see things and make statements about them. Conscious acknowledgement of this strata of deep being has grown brighter with new phenomenological approaches to being like William Desmond’s.

About being’s archaeology the philosopher Desmond writes: ‘The idiotic is an elemental field of communication, shimmering with the endowed promise of the good of the “to be.” ‘ (The Intimate Universal, 206: the ‘to be’ is the grammar that allows us to talk about particular finite beings.)

‘Idiotic’ because irreducible to determinate cause: this field of communication makes possible every single voice in the community of being. Fragments benefit from the idiotics of being. If we try to strong arm a fragment of Sappho (or a bird song) we miss the boat. Poets are nightingales… or bullfrogs. Or, reconfiguring the idiotic, men speaking to men not to say women.

Melancholy seems too narrow a name for what’s behind— what presupposes—communication. With ‘idiotics’ as a precondition of poetic selving, the sign of communication we call lyric expresses PRIMARILY not frustrated human consciousness but a primordial ecstatic voicing of finite being: the human hand reaching beyond itself. Sappho’s second degree inflection of that image —- ‘I do not expect…’—- is something else, and we always hope to have more Sappho.