Saturday, March 14, 2009

Fanny Howe - Buddhists Like School and I Don’t

Poet Fanny Howe meditates on on the intersections of language, writing, and God in this excellent article from The Poetry Foundation. This is one of my favorite forms of non-fiction - the essay as art.

“Buddhists Like School and I Don’t.”

by Fanny Howe

God is unevolved and therefore cannot be apprehended by the senses, and as such exists as the witness of what is and also as light and energy, neither of which can be touched except by touching itself.

You put your hand to your cheek and touch your own light and your own energy.

You can call light and energy by the name of God if you want.

If you don’t want to say God, you must expect this choice to help make you lose your bearings until you understand how it moves around, shifting its position from being in you and of you, to being far from you.

Divinity—Trinity—What’s the difference?

No difference? No difference, no words. No word for difference, no identity. The genealogical and psychological search for an identity hitherto unnoticed, unknown, leads nowhere. The world is the unconscious but nature is not symbolic.

The quest for a condition that exists in two separate states is what confuses people. The person looking for “me” (a fixed identity) is also the same person looking for (a vapory word) “God.” This split search can only be folded into one in the process of working on something—whether it is writing, digging, planting, painting, teaching—with a wholeheartedness that qualifies as complete attention. In such a state, you find yourself depending on chance or grace to supply you with the focus to complete what you are doing. Your work is practical, but your relationship to it is illogical in the range of its possible errors and failures. You align yourself with something behind and ahead and above you that is geometric in nature; you lean on its assistance, realizing the inadequacy of your words.

Simone Weil said in “Human Personality”:
At the very best, a mind enclosed in language is in prison. It is limited to the number of relations which words can make simultaneously present to it; and remains in ignorance of thoughts which involve the combination of a greater number. . . . The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like a condemned man who is proud of his large cell.
Yes, the problem of vocabulary in these matters is obvious, because a solution to the problem is made of the words. Who doesn’t know that? If a bird has a problem with its whistle, it has to whistle to fix it.

All voices tend toward song, and the vibrations of music in the vocal cords deeply influence the way spoken words are heard.

Franz Rosenzweig noted:
In actual conversation, something happens. I do not know in advance what the other will say to me because I myself do not even know what I am going to say; perhaps not even whether I am going to say anything at all. . . . To need time means being able to anticipate nothing, having to wait for everything, being dependent on the other for one’s own.
I understand that what is heard is what is already in the past and the proof for that is measurable. Sound has to travel a little way; it has to overcome space in order to reach a pair of ears. In this space of time, a few distortions can occur. Anxiety, misunderstanding can intervene, even heartbreak. Indeed, words themselves can, if allowed, seem to lose their original intention on their way out of the mouth.

Socrates believed that the soul is eternal and contains knowledge of all things. In the trauma of birth, the soul loses its memory and has to start all over again. But in the experience of living and learning, it finds its way back to the truths that it lost.

* * *

Revision is the path taken by an autodidact like me. In revising you teach yourself. You find your own information buried in your body. It is still alive until you are not.

Right until he committed suicide in the end, Socrates had the high spirits of someone who knew (as in recognized) himself (his own condition).

One way to understand your own condition is to write something and spend a long time revising it. The errors, the hits and misses, the excess—erase them all.

Now read what you have rewritten out loud in front of some other people. They will hear something that you didn’t say aloud. They will hear what was there before you began revising and even before the words were written down. You won’t hear anything but the humming of your own vocal cords.

It’s the same as what Remy de Gourmont in his “Dust for Sparrows” wrote from the point of view of the listener:
Never have literary works seemed so beautiful to me as when at a theatre or in reading, because of lack of habit or lacking a complete knowledge of the language, I lost the meaning of many phrases. This threw about them a light veil of somewhat silvery shadow, making the poetry more purely musical, more ethereal.
Even while I have gone back over the words, I have never been sure of the need for it, the use of writing at all, the value of any completed poem, or the idea that writing might lead somewhere. I haven’t really known what I was doing, only that I would keep on doing it. It is a form of promiscuity and wanderlust. I could just as well have been a barmaid or a mailman. I could just as well throw all these papers in a river before sniffing some helium and letting go, because it was in the end only a part of the natural world.
Go read the rest of the article, which originally appeared in Poetry, March 2009.

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