Thursday, August 19, 2010

`To Describe Reality'

The bravest words I’ve read of late ought to be a truism:

“I am convinced that poetry in all its ambitious attempts strives to touch reality. It does so by other paths than science and should not yield too much to the pressures of our all-too-rational age.”

Not a call for irrationality; rather, a caveat against the reductively rational, hard faith in scientism that blinkers imagination. Poetry – good poetry – teaches us something about the world. Was Heraclitus a positivist? Consider fragment 3 in Guy Davenport’s translation:

“Men who wish to know about the world must learn about it in particular details.”

The first passage is from “To Describe Reality,” a brief Zbigniew Herbert essay newly translated by Alissa Valles (The Collected Prose 1948-1998). Looking at a pebble is not the same as reading a poem about one. We may, if the poet is sufficiently gifted and we are sufficiently attentive, learn more about a pebble from the poem – “equal to itself / mindful of its limits” -- than from mutely staring at one. Both acts are essential; both, if engaged, help us “to touch reality.” Call it, as Yvor Winters might, a “pre-Socratic stratagem.” Herbert concludes his essay, written for a German radio program in 1966, with this paragraph:

“A sense of the fragility and transience of human life may be less oppressive if placed in a historical chain of events that are a transmission of faith in the purposefulness of efforts and strivings. Then even anxiety will be nothing but a call for hope.”

2 comments:

William A. Sigler said...
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William A. Sigler said...

That's a lot of stuff to mull over in five paragraphs! The contradiction of positivism is a very real one: we can only know what we sense, but our senses deceive us. Poetry, like all arts of the senses, revels in both realities - the precision and perfection of the physical world as well as the distortions that human perception turns it into. Science, being clueless to consciousness, is not aware of its own distortions, so it tends to lord over us with the technologies it provides, because people are afraid to question the subjectivity at the heart of the enterprise. Art has no such illusions - it makes itself vulnerable, unafraid to be wrong, taking on the largest metaphysical conundrums equally with small beer quotidiana. What art lacks that science has, as you suggest, is faith, in its own processes, and for that Herbert looks bravely not for some patron of the arts deity but to history, the evidence that roads have been traveled before and may actually lead somewhere.