Essay VI: Against Formalism (A Pep Talk)
As a reader-writer you dwell in the midst of the universal impermanence. You are pulled hither and on by energies and are tempted, being possessed of writerly capacities, to stop the whirling words, to freeze the drift by more words. You may set up idols of the mind; you may cultivate cosmic consciousness. You can find other writers to support your fictions. Ultimately these efforts to fight words with words will reduce to several varieties of nihilism. Ultimately they are all types of formalism.
Reality will gently and persistently resist your nihilisms, your formalism, regardless how high you hoist your flag and how urgently you gather the troops. Literary schools are legion. The effort to live only in your mind, to construct images of reality in private, will eventually give way to what you share in common with the world.
In China, five hundred years before Lu Chi, Chuang Tzu noted that the basis of order was simply the fact of the human being’s involvement with the things of the world and vice-versa—- the transformation of things. The intermediation. His realism was labeled relativism by outraged logicians and the keepers of the public order.
Our betweens are structured by an irreducible dialogue. Between the human mind (language) and the other threshold of the Between is the other, the other than can be thought. Betweens are double—-horizontal and vertical (that’s why we call betweens asymmetrical). As humans we interact with human others all the time, and we are more dimly aware of divine others that give ultimate meaning to life. As reader-writers we try to understand these divine others —- and ultimately the mysterious One—- in terms of myths and philosophical concepts that are other to the flux—-concepts like eternity, spirit, wholeness, transcendence. So our Between is full to overflowing with dynamic energies that render our nihilisms absurd.
Reader-writers are full of questions.
Our works reflect this structured flux, this asymmetrical order that we pass through and that passes through us and our works. In futile exasperation, we try to close off our works by formalism: prioritizing elements of the mix—-narrative types, rhyme and metrical schemes and so on. These games may be innocent and constructive or they may be weaponized in the war against reality. Formalism is recognized by its unsuccessful resistance to its other: the energies streaming through the Between from beyond it, the mystery of being.
Reader-writers come to sense this mysterious order in the works of others. These works become lifelong companions in the Between.
Seamus Heaney writes:
Where does spirit live? Inside or outside
Things remembered, made things, things unmade?
What came first, the seabird’s cry or the soul….
What’s the use of a held note or held line
That cannot be assailed for reassurance?
(Set questions for the ghost of W. B.)
Reader-writers are resilient participants in the universal impermanence.
Essay VII: Discovery
As reader-writers, life is punctuated by discoveries. The “things” we encounter are perplexing. The ancient idea that the beginning of thinking is wonder has implications at every turn. This implication grounds our sense of identity in something we share with every being. It is the mystery that there is anything at all.
In our time among reader-writers Seamus Heaney has been particularly clear about this mysterious ground. His sense of light-heartedness has grown over time. Saturated in the tragic circumstances of the Troubles he did not allow the mindset of “tragedy” to harden his heart against implications of the equivocity of the universal impermanence. Here’s “The Errand.”
“On you go now! Run, son, like the devil
And tell your mother to try
To find me a bubble for the spirit level
And a new knot for this tie.”
But still he was glad, I know, when I stood my ground,
Putting it up to him
With a smile that trumped his smile and his fool’s errand,
Waiting for the next move in the game.
This little poem is full of discoveries and a faithful representation of how we get on in the world. We stand our ground, aware of the plurivocity of things, unresentful and even eager to play our part.
This forward motion may involve us in many projects that formalists —- specialists —- can help us with. Lu Chi: “A body of writing may take any / of a thousand forms, / and there is no one right way to measure.” When my life left the academic path onto the highway, I was asked to write many things. I was not asked to perform within my specialty. I had become an editor at a national daily. I gradually learned the ropes.
There was continuity in the multiplicity. Each piece had to deal with several aspects of every conversation without losing sight of my reader’s personal, spontaneous commitment to the truth. I had to remain faithful to that while moving through several stages of belief: the objective, given sense of the problem at hand, its inseparability from the language that comes with our awareness of its singularity, the complications for us (we do not know everything) of the drift of the conversation, and finally our recognition that every issue, including this one, belongs to a greater, ever-changing whole. To give up is not in the cards. Like the boy in “The Errand,” we are mindful that our next assignment may take us deeper into the mystery of our being here.
Most reader-writers, regardless of how low they begin, suffer the dream of someday writing a novel. Stendahl’s definition of the genre—-a mirror that strolls along the highway—-has all the excitement of the open road. The genius of the metaphor is to combine purposeful movement and reflexive awareness. That irreducible combination sums up the lure of being fully alive. No job description should make you take your eye off the prize.
Essay VIII: On Being in Control
The Chinese critic Lu Chi had a memorable style. He knew his situation was no different from that of other reader-writers: the universal impermanence. Many voices cry out to be heard in the abyss. “While it is true emotions are / often capricious, / indulgence is self-destructive. // Recognizing order / is like opening / a dam in a river.”
His sentences turn like waves recoiling on themselves, modifying their movement to suit the energy unleashed by the words. The meanings of the phrases modify the sense in surprising ways. “Recognizing order / is like opening / a dam in a river.”
Critics often try to create a little order with the idea of universals: some ideas are always true and relevant. Honesty is always appropriate. Courage trumps timidity. The task of the writer is to celebrate universal values. The task is to find examples and present them to the public. “Ideas seek harmonious existence, / one among others, through language / that is both beautiful and true.”
This story —- ideas seek expression in fine language —- does not always end well. It can end with torrents of energy bursting the bounds of sense. Lu Chi’s way of writing kept him honest.
That neat formula —- universals and particulars —- cannot hide the struggle between them. We live in environments, in niches, that define the limits of what we can say. Call it reality.
To jump ahead: The connection between reading and writing is reflexive and moral clarity requires subtlety, finesse. Ham-fisted repetition of home truths adds only to the darkness of the abyss.
Sheamus Heaney’s poem “Mint” opens with a scene presenting itself before the writing even gets going.
It looked like a clump of small dusty nettles
Growing wild at the gable of the house
Beyond where we dumped our refuse and old bottles:
Unverdant ever, almost beneath notice.
His first objective is to summon up the situation from the roiling sea of words lapping our hopes of communication in the universal impermanence that is our lot. To pick only those words that make sense, come together, make a picture: clump, wild, beyond where, unverdant, overlooked.
But not now, no longer overlooked.
This vital paradox of noticing the unnoticed jumpstarts many a fine tale.
And you are off. The dam has burst. The particulars shine and flow. You are on to something. And you are not in control. Something is coming at you and you just hope you are able to see it clearly. Otherwise, take out the garbage, clean the bathroom, flush your pens. Do something useful.
Bringhurst, Robert. 2008. The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind, and Ecology. Counterpoint.
Desmond, William. 2016. The Intimate Universal: The Hidden Porosity Among Religion, Art, Philosophy, and Politics. Columbia University Press.
Lu Chi. 2000. The Art of Writing. Translated by Sam Hamill. Milkweed Editions.
Tu Fu. 2020. The Selected Poems. Translated by David Hinton. New Directions