Art as a Via Negativa: A Note on Larkin’s High Windows

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If human beings can be described as living between the apeirontic depth of the fundamental grounding reality “prior” to both inorganic and organic life, and the noetic height of the transcendent Divine Nous or God; and these two “poles” constitute the fullness of Reality, then existence can justly be called, following Plato, Voegelin, and Desmond, as metaxic, that is, “in-between.” And clearly, I suggest, life generally, and including humanity, is lived “in-between” in many, if not all, aspects. Birth and death name the most obvious examples of “betweenness.” Yet, in addition to these physical, as it were, polarities, there are also what we must name the metaphysical polarities: the polarities of apperception – the span of human mental life experience; and these polarities, too, will demand representation and symbolization.

Philip Larkin, I want to suggest in this brief note, is an artist who is acutely aware of this “in-between” quality of existence, and his art can be seen as an attempt to symbolize what it means to be human, a being that is, or should be, consciously aware of his or her beginnings in the procreative act, yet is also equally sensible of yearning to move “beyond” mere physicality and the slings and arrows of its sometimes outrageous fortune to, at the least, experience and communicate a moment of sunousia (being with) before the final inevitable dissolution of the organic, which is, nevertheless, toward that which is beyond time, space, and the physical – beyond our conditioned  existence in the metaxy/metaxu and beyond the subjectivity- annihilating merely objective status of entities, and thus beyond death itself.

I hope to demonstrate that Larkin does indeed successfully attempt to capture and convey this “movement” in his short poem High Windows where he gives us an especially clear account of this human capacity or tendency to look toward the “beyond.” Yet, it is a poem in which the physical is very much with us, and it is not necessarily seen as negative, as when, for example, the poet contemplates “everyone young going down the long slide/To happiness, endlessly.” But this is obviously a question of perspective and if the clue is in the “downward slide,” its ambiguous suggestion of heedlessness prompts the poet to look back and “wonder if/Anyone looked at me forty years ago, /And thought, That’ll be the life.” A life in which there is “No god anymore” and no “sweating in the dark” about hell or “having to hide/What you think of the priest,” when “his lot,” too, “will all go down the long slide/Like free bloody birds” (all italics in original). But this is nothing more than “Everyone has dreamed of all their lives,” and here Larkin seems to mean that we are all always “old” – all our lives – in the sense that we all live at the “wrong” time, we are so to speak out of “sync” with ourselves: the ideal life is always being lived by someone else somewhere else. This is the old truth, or feeling, that life is somehow deficient, somehow unfulfillable (and Larkin’s curious fusion of tenses here seems to subvert time, and therewith difference, but in this instance it is a negative subversion). Our tragedy, as Larkin sees it, is that knowing, or coming to know, pleasure only in this oddly deferred way must render pleasure as finally understood as illusion and that there is perhaps no one and nowhere else where life is being lived “fully.” Our tragedy, as human beings, is that knowing this does not in any way mean that we can escape our belief, in the form of our desire, that the full life, however unspecifiable, can somehow become a reality. The only advantage the young seem to have is their own ignorance of their own future failure.

What does it mean to be ignorantly young? Certainly we are not to assume that Larkin is being either pejorative or judgemental about age qua youth; age is no certain escape from the kind of ignorance that Larkin means. Here ignorance is something like a curtailment of reflection, a more thoroughgoing living in the present (perhaps paradoxically, for the old, they too remain “young” in this sense, even when that youthful present is literally the past). A consciousness of youthfulness where the poet can “guess he’s fucking her and she’s/Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm” and he can “know this is paradise.” Or it may seem so to some of them some of the time but only in so far as they remain ignorant of that “going down the long slide,” a phrase that Larkin uses twice (italicised the second time) which is not, finally, to “happiness” but, the poet knows, to death. A dissolution in which everyone is eventually “pushed to one side/Like an outdated combine harvester” with its reminder that the fate of all harvests is to be harvested in a cycle of replacement rather like the succeeding generations of human beings in which the old are replaced by the young.

So is there any way out of this cycle of decay and regeneration in which the individual seems an incidental irrelevance? What, we may ask, is the point of freedom, at any age, if it is just the pyrrhic freedom to live out this inevitable course? Larkin, startlingly, states, “And immediately/Rather than words comes the thought of high windows.” What is this thought? Thought through this transparent barrier, this membrane, itself an image of a “between-space,” of the porosity that both separates and yet permits the influx to the poet from that which is beyond, which he can see, at least in this apperceptive sense, even if he cannot possess it (this beyond) as an object, for it is no object. Through “The sun-comprehending glass/And beyond it” the poet sees “the deep blue air that shows/Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.” Yet this is a “Nothing” that is beyond space and time, beyond the cycles of generation/regeneration: it is a vision of “Nothing” that is curiously substantial, a void, yes, but a fecund void that is more like a promise, and that promise is that it is “endless” and to the human mind contemplating that endlessness (and this is precisely where Larkin is able to present the antithesis of his previous negative subversion of time) from the quotidian physical world of “Bonds and gestures pushed to one side.” It seems to offer a kind of genuinely authentic paradise, a more authentic freedom, a paradise of a different quality to the merely physical paradise of “fucking,” perhaps even especially when that is no more than the mockery of “pills” and “diaphragms,” themselves a finally futile attempt to “transcend” the cycle of generation.

In this poem Larkin has surveyed the world from his middle, or metaxic, position, looking both back towards his own youth (presumably) and forward, apperceptively, through the glass of the imagined “high windows,” looking up and toward the infinite endlessness (of the) beyond. It is an experience of a moment of conscious sunousia: The poet’s deeply idiotic sense of the ultimate that, as it were, floods (with light) his senses, a sudden revealing of the universal, overdetermined source or origin that transcends this moment even as it permeates this moment in the (individual’s) experience itself. That the high windows are imagined, just thoughts in themselves, further suggests the imagination’s apperceptive freedom of restriction from actual physical circumstance. The poem is the poet’s attempt to communicate this experience.

Larkin’s via negativa thus has led to that which is beyond itself/himself, beyond the impossible infinite regression/progression of cycles, while being of himself/itself, expressed here in words, via. the art of poetry, which is the attempt in itself to transcend the oxymoron seemingly contained, to use the phrase in William Desmond’s sense, in the “intimate universal” (Desmond, 2016, Sic passim). It is thus that the experience/experiencing of sunousia can reconcile and overcome difference, even as it will be moved to attempt to find the wording to describe it. 

Characteristically, Larkin offers us no further representation of, or any further “solution” to the mystery of the beyond further than the sense of that mystery made apparent to the reader by the sudden and completely unexpected intrusion of it both before and surpassing mere language: “Rather than words comes the thought of high windows.” No “solution” is possible in language, of course, for any answer is a part of the “Nothing” that we can perhaps, as does Larkin here, symbolize through the medium of art, but never, while we are physical beings living in space and time, be precisely one with. Larkin’s artistic modus operandi, what we might deem his artistic credo, is something like a form of apophatic faith, a via negativa, “an attempt” to, as David Bentley Hart describes this type of approach, “to give imperfect verbal expression to a knowledge that both precedes and surpasses all words: a passage through language from a pre-conceptual wonder at existence to a post-conceptual theoria of unconditioned reality” (Hart, 2017, 199).

Larkin’s poem[1], like perhaps all via negativae should, recognizes that it can only, paradoxically, apprehend, as it is “apprehended” by its object, the intimate universal which, we recall, is not to be regarded as any kind of entity, by a kind of symbolism that nevertheless can hope to convey a sense, ultimately, of that original passio essendi, the wonder of existence, a “(re)capturing” of and through our sunousia, prior to its eclipse by the conatus essendi ( very broadly, our responses to life’s “slings and arrows”).[2] In the poem I suggest that we have indeed seen, as Desmond puts it, that “The agapeics of the intimate universal communicates a surplus generosity that was secretly enabling in the idiotic, aesthetics and erotics”. . . that “moves us into a space of communication” (Desmond, 2016, 16) here between the poet and his reader(s), this is the substance, in the concrete here and now, of “the thought of high windows” (italics added), “Rather than words” a communication that, even in its wording, moves beyond words:  a kind of passage through life’s transitory becomings to what is through what is not.

 

References

Desmond, William (2016): The Intimate Universal. The hidden porosity among religion, art, philosophy and politics, New York, Columbia University Press.

Hart, David Bentley (2017): Luminous Wisdom collected in The Dream-Child’s Progress and Other Essays, Kettering, OH, Angelico Press.

 

Notes

[1] 1. I suggest that virtually all of Larkin’s poems function in this way. The reader may divert themselves by trying to “spot” the “metaphysical moment” as it were – sometimes this will prove to be more, and sometimes less, straightforward!

[2] William Desmond uses the terms passio essendi and conatus essendi to describe this sense of an original “agapeic”* “communion” with the world which becomes increasingly occluded by our life experiences, a scotosis which can take a considerable effort to overcome – rather like polishing a window begrimed by time so that it is rendered transparent once again. I have dealt with Desmond’s ideas more fully in article entitled “Can A Natural Disaster Be A Symbol Of The Truth?”

* Very briefly, to extract from his gloss on his concept, Desmond describes the agapeic: “There is an incognito generosity or surplus of affirmative “to be” as good that is always at work in the between, the metaxu” (Desmond, 2016, Glossary).

** Equally briefly. “Idiotics: the etymological meaning of “idiot” refers us to the intimate: a reserve of being that is prior to determinacy, and that yet is not entirely incommunicable” (Ibid.).

Stephen H. Conlin

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Steve Conlin is an independent scholar whose Master's thesis was on Hans-Georg Gadamer's "Truth and Method" from the University of Southhampton in England.