Sunday, September 05, 2010

`A Plentitude Adjusted to the Eye'

“I believe about the universal cosmos, or for that matter about every weed and pebble in the cosmos, that men will never rightly realize that it is beautiful, until they realize that it is strange….Poetry is the separation of the soul from some object, whereby we can regard it with wonder.”

Hugh Kenner in his first book, Paradox in Chesterton (1947), quotes this passage from a Chesterton title I have never read, Christendom in Dublin (1932). The sentence before the ellipsis restates familiar Chestertonian themes – the strangeness of the world, anything existing rather than nothing, that all is beautiful when perceived with sufficient wonder. It’s the second sentence that caused me to trip, fall, turn around and look again. I’m denied the full context but I understand Chesterton to be referring primarily to the poet’s soul, not the reader’s. The poet requires distance from his subject, not immersion, if he is to imbue it with sufficient wonder for us, the readers, to share the experience. Here is Kenner’s next sentence:

“With the sense of strangeness came the sense of gratitude; not only because, amid so many potentialities, the object at hand might not have been, but also because in its limited being it participated in all Being: in God. He was thankful for a lamp-post because it was not a limpet, but he would have been equally thankful for a limpet.”

This sounds like a recipe for mental health and what Kenner elsewhere calls "philosophical realism," and reminds me of recurrent themes in Helen Pinkerton’s Taken in Faith: Poems (2002), a volume I lived with for several weeks in August. By “lived with” I mean read and reread daily, and wrote about on occasion. “The Return” dramatizes a soul's argument with itself. Pinkerton writes of the poem’s premise:

“The narrator returns to Montana [Pinkerton’s birthplace]. While there she finds herself able to dramatize her long internal conflict in terms of two voices in a dialogue. It is truly an `inner dialogue of self with self.’ `He’ is a dramatization of the Christian Catholic Thomistic interpretation of reality. `She’ dramatizes the Romantic, self-oriented, atheistic rejection of that interpretation. Each has been an `old voice’ in the narrator’s consciousness and now she wants, by fleshing out the two sides, to reach some kind of conclusion about which voice to listen to and agree with.”

It’s as though Pinkerton were taking literally Chesterton’s assertion that “Poetry is the separation of the soul from some object” – in this case, from itself. Near the poem’s conclusion, “He” echoes Chesterton, Aquinas and Pinkerton’s own frequent use of light as metaphor:

“Being as given to every living thing
Is like the light of middle morning sun,
A plenitude adjusted to the eye,
Not darkness nor the radiance of noon,
Too strong for sight. Being is always here;
Nothingness is not, though your mind and will
Conspire to conjure fictions of the void.”

In his footnote to the passage from Christendom in Dublin, Kenner adds a sentence from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy: “Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.”

[After I wrote about Taken in Faith last month Elberry ordered a copy and said in a note: “Helen Pinkerton’s poems arrived - a real find, this, I had no idea a poet of this stature was out there, previously unknown to me. What people call the `voice’ hits you right away - at times it reminds me of the mature Eliot but really it´s fully itself.”]


William A. Sigler said...

This post comes off like a Sunday service.

Not sure if Chesterton or Kenner were aware, but this idea of things only being knowable through separation is a basic premise of Hindu cosmology. In the beginning (big bang?), the indivisible whole was seemingly separated out into a multitude of components, each one at a distance or vibrational frequency away from the other. This way, the whole (aka God) can appreciate itself, and expand in that knowledge.

The West tends not to dwell on the purpose of it all, as much as on the pangs of separation. I don’t think, though, that I’ve ever heard precisely what Pinkerton states here: “Being is always here, / Nothingness is not, though your mind and will / Conspire to conjure fictions of the void.” If idle hands are the devil’s workshop, fear of annihilation is the ego’s.

Cynthia Haven said...

More from Chesterton on "being," from his biography on Thos. Aquinas (and yes, Patrick, I'm still trying to get the hang of esse):

For what St. Thomas means is not a medieval picture of an old king; but this second step in the great argument about Ens or Being; the second point which is so desperately difficult to put correctly in popular language. That is why I have introduced it here in the particular form of the argument that there must be a Creator even if there is no Day of Creation. Looking at Being as it is now, as the baby looks at the grass, we see a second thing about it; in quite popular language, it looks secondary and dependent. Existence exists; but it is not sufficiently self-existent; and would never become so merely by going on existing. The same primary sense which tells us it is Being, tells us that it is not perfect Being; not merely imperfect in the popular controversial sense of containing sin or sorrow; but imperfect as Being; less actual than the actuality it implies. For instance, its Being is often only Becoming; beginning to Be or ceasing to Be; it implies a more constant or complete thing of which it gives in itself no example. That is the meaning of that basic medieval phrase, "Everything that is moving is moved by another;" which, in the clear subtlety of St. Thomas, means inexpressibly more than the mere Deistic "somebody wound up the clock" with which it is probably often confounded. Anyone who thinks deeply will see that motion has about it an essential incompleteness, which approximates to something more complete. (Cont.)

Cynthia Haven said...


The actual argument is rather technical; and concerns the fact that potentiality does not explain itself; moreover, in any case, unfolding must be of something folded. Suffice it to say that the mere modern evolutionists, who would ignore the argument do not do so because they have discovered any flaw in the argument; for they have never discovered the argument itself. They do so because they are too shallow to see the flaw in their own argument for the weakness of their thesis is covered by fashionable phraseology, as the strength of the old thesis is covered by old-fashioned phraseology. But for those who really think, there is always something really unthinkable about the whole evolutionary cosmos, as they conceive it; because it is something coming out of nothing; an ever-increasing flood of water pouring out of an empty jug. Those who can simply accept that, without even seeing the difficulty, are not likely to go so deep as Aquinas and see the solution of his difficulty. In a word, the world does not explain itself, and cannot do so merely by continuing to expand itself. But anyhow it is absurd for the Evolutionist to complain that it is unthinkable for an admittedly unthinkable God to make everything out of nothing and then pretend that it is more thinkable that nothing should turn itself into everything.