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.

The Figure a Poem Makes, with something by Denise Riley

Once you start thinking in terms of the between, you can begin to see a poem’s archaeology or layers of being. It amounts to seeing the flow of the poem as a metaxological narrative.

First think it through without poetry as theme. People become who they are by a sequence of betweens. First there is the initial between, the aesthetic dimension of being in the flesh. A wordless infant. This is universal and intimate, it is mutely given to be.

Then the I appears to itself in the process of selving. Desire to be is articulated in the given flesh of being, a sort of redundancy or if you will mimetic gesture of Eros. The aesthetics of becoming are self-conscious, mimetic, and creative too. This is ongoing.

Being an artist adds a third between, that between your selved self with its cosmetic aspects (the Greeks saw the universe as Kosmos) and the other you, the presence of the work as it develops, finding its voice. This process can hit snags and brick walls in what Desmond calls the porosity, or fluid opening between self and radical other.

In my work as tutor I have seen this third between implode and block the creation of the artist’s voice. That’s a negative proof of the porosity. The old idea of mimesis helped artists reach their independent voice. O to write like Dante! Now that mimesis has no currency in our narcissistic art discourse, the emergence of the voice is without one of its most useful aids. Smart desperate artists do it anyway. Maybe nobody will notice you’ve been poring over Neruda.

Still, poets pull it off, all three betweens connected and flowing towards the open whole of the poem’s community. Denise Riley’s ‘Lines Starting with La Rochefoucauld’ very neatly narrates the betweens by glancing off a maxim that itself assumes an ‘intimate universal’ in friendship which makes its betrayal so unthinkable. Poems like friendships grow from a unity of spontaneous unconscious likeness and liking. Riley’s words about things reframes that connection. And how it nourishes hope is perhaps how a poem allows an interpretation to blossom rather than die. 2CF5C98C-C386-47C3-9F29-0108945E51D5

From ‘Say Something Back’ (Picador 2016)