Thursday, January 09, 2014

Emotional Notation

[A response to Andrew Shields' comment]

Poetry is the art of writing emotions down, just as philosophy is the art of writing concepts down. In 1879, Frege published his Begriffsschrift, normally translated as "conceptual notation", a formalism that was supposed to make the connection between thoughts perspicuous. It was not intended to describe how we actually think, it was not a delineation of some natural "language of thought", rather it was an artificial simulation of thought, intended to be more precise than our ordinary thought processes. Likewise poetry is an Ergriffsschrift, an "emotional notation", an attempt to make the connections between our feelings intense. It does not stimulate genuine feelings, but artificial ones, which foster greater precision in our emotional apparatus and, therefore, a finer range of genuine feeling in the long run.

In making a poem, I don't "express emotion", I write the emotion down. I don't communicate a feeling to the reader but offer the reader an occasion for greater precision in feeling, through the intensity of the emotion. So there is certainly something "emotional" about the process of writing a poem, just as there is something conceptual about philosophizing. But it is true that I do not, at the time of writing feel the emotion. In an important sense (and this is something T.S. Eliot emphasized) the poem is intended to free us from feelings (and personality). More precisely, as Heidegger said of philosophical questioning into concepts, poetry "prepares a free relationship" to the emotion.

This freedom can of course itself be felt. It is the exhilaration that is familiar to us as literary pleasure, what Nabokov called "aesthetic bliss". It is not, to be sure, the possible bliss that comes from feeling the emotion that is the ostensible theme of the poem. That feeling, after all, may be altogether painful.


Andrew Shields said...

I like that "Ergriffsschrift"! And your final paragraph nicely captures how "aesthetic bliss" can coincide with painful emotions. — Is this Aristotle's "catharsis"? "through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions". But you're not getting at "purgation" of the emotions (be they painful or not), are you?

Thomas said...

Exactly. I'm not talking about the "vigorous evacuation" of the heart (to use the somewhat graphic medical definition of "purgation"). We don't use poetry to divest ourselves of our emotions but to relate ourselves freely to them.

It is said that some drugs, MDMA (ecstasy) in particular, can be used in therapy to deal with the trauma of terminal illness, the loss of loved ones, rape and torture. It allows the sufferer to take a dispassionate "observing" stance toward the emotion, rather than letting the overwhelming feelings associated with the trauma dominate. This, in turn, allows the counseling to proceed through territory that would otherwise not be possible and speeds the recovery of the patient. The emotion is still there (and that's is essential to the therapy) but it is somehow "suspended" in the mind or heart for contemplation.

It's that sort of thing I'm after. There are much more "cathartic" therapies too, of course. These are more like life and less like poetry.

(I'm not a big fan of psychology and psychiatry as public functions. But I do recognize that these arts have largely replaced poetry in the management of emotion in our culture. They probably have a greater influence than the literary tradition on what we see on TV these days and what happens in our schools. One day, perhaps, there will be no need for poetry at all because everyone will simply have a ready supply of the perfect pill … call it Bliss. Another post just announced itself in my imagination!)

Andrew Shields said...

The MDMA comparison is striking. I definitely use poetry as a way to create a "dispassionate observing stance" toward emotion.

But for me, there's something else going on: when something overwhelms me emotionally, I know that a poem will be a way to address being overwhelmed. But I also know that the poem will suck if I write down how overwhelmed I am. So I begin looking for a perspective on the thing that will give me that disinterested stance that is necessary to write a good poem.

The "goal" of the process, if there is any, is both to deal with the emotion and to write a good poem, and it turns out that the same disinterested perspective serves both those goals well.

Thomas said...

I guess the difference between a pill and a poem is the poem's specificity. The pill "prepares a free relationship" to any emotion (which is why it is a good for a partying as it is for therapy) whereas a poem is the notation of a specific set of emotions. This, I would think, makes literary pleasure a "finer" thing than a drug-induced ecstasis. And this might perhaps be why there will always be a function for literature, no matter how good the drugs get. Unless we get entirely beyond the need for fine feeling—because, ahem, we're just always, you know, feelin' fine.

Your description of the poetic process reminds me of something Cyril Connolly writes in the introduction to the Unquiet Grave: "All grief, once made known to the mind, can be cured by the mind … ; the human brain, once it is fully functioning, as in the making of a poem, is outside time and place and immune from sorrow." (xvi)

But I'm not sure that sitting down to actually compose a poem is an appropriate response to an overwhelming emotion. It is the memory of the emotion in a situation where the opportunity to act was inadequate to the feeling that provides the materials for a poem. (In writing this paragraph all kinds of associations to Eliot's "objective correlative" are triggered for me, but also, of course, Wordsworth's "powerful emotion recollected in tranquility".)

Maybe it's may latent Hemingwesque machismo, but my view is that you should do whatever you actually can to act on (or just enjoy) in the emotion at the time and then convert only the remainder, the excess of joy or the frustration of pleasure, into poetry.

The purpose of the poem, now, is to make you better able to feel a similar situation fully next time the occasion arises. In making it public, we are trying to help others to a similar precision, a like intensity.