Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Chasm

Thomas Mann said, “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” The truth of this is rooted in a keen awareness that it isn’t easy to simply say what one means. In fact, it is arguably impossible because there isn’t a one to one relationship between words and reality. There is a frightening chasm between what we say or write and what is. Nietzsche said it simply, “all language is metaphor.” But what is so frightening is that the chasm dividing reality from language can be the cause of everything from simple misunderstandings to declarations of war. Yet it also sizzles with a vitality that gives birth to every poet, is the pregnant potential of all meaning, for it contains all that in the human imagination, in the human psyche, is real but hasn’t been reduced to a single word or phrase. It is every reality we can only hint at.

"Wanderer Above the Sea Fog"
by Caspar David Friedrich
Because of that chasm and its vitality, even the best writing doesn’t say what we mean so much as conjure in another mind an approximation of the reality that is in the writer’s head. Writing, in this way, resembles a kind of magic, a casting of a spell. In spite of its ambiguity, or rather because of it, poetry is the most honest kind of writing; it uses language as it is rather than as we want it to be. Poets take advantage of the inherently ambiguous quality of language to suggest, to conjure, to hint at things rather than simply state them. Emotional honesty requires a subtlety that simple statement often loses under the blade of Occam’s razor. This is also why poets are hesitant to explain their poems. What can be articulated in simple language, can be pinned with a simple meaning, is only what is already known, already explicable in previous terms. Explanation is, in a sense, a turning back from the chasm, while a poem is a stepping forward into it. The poet is building outward into the chasm between language and reality in the hope that he will extend our given landscape a few inches farther into it; shorten the distance between reality and language even if only by a single word or phrase, an image or tone. To then explain a poem is, in a sense, to chart that new extension according to the topography of the ground we have already mapped. It would be like drawing the terrain of the Rocky Mountains and then imposing a map of the Himalayas over it as a way of explaining it.

This is not to say we can’t convey truth in language. Though we may never be able to bridge that chasm, we can, by our choice of words and syntax, move closer to or farther away from reality. William Faulkner said, “Facts and truth really don't have much to do with each other.” This too has something to do with that chasm. In many ways, what we say and write has less to do with what is objectively real and more to do with what that reality means to us. It is the nature of perception, for perception is judgment. This is why poetry and art remain as relevant as Schrodinger’s cat. Though we can’t bridge the chasm permanently, all poetry is about bridging the chasm. It is about fostering sympathy by teaching us to make imaginative leaps beyond our daily routines, our mundane expectations, or common perceptions or judgments. In the same creative flash that leads the poet to break through his own clich├ęs, the reader may follow and in a eureka moment be united with the mind of the poet and for that instant, we know what it is like to be together across space, time, and that terrible chasm, we know what it is like to take yesterday’s glasses off and see today as it is now. In the words of Wallace Stevens

We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.