Poetry began my love affair with literature. Discovering Donne, seeing the ways in which language could be shaped, torn, and exploded, these propelled me from a kid who didn’t read to a doctoral student in an English department. My family did not (and does not) care that much for books; I was no different. I wanted to be a child psychiatrist; I wanted to help people, to get inside their heads and figure out what made them tick. That was until high school when Mr. Binkowski showed me how poetry and fiction can be windows into the soul, how they can teach us as much about others and ourselves as any article in Psychology Today. Science was better understood as the Wissenschaft des Geistes than as a set of empirical data used to weigh and evaluate drug trials.
And so, I read Donne and Jonson and Hardy, Achebe and Melville and even Paglia. Inspired with a fiery humanism, I went off to college and did much the same, immersing myself in a mixture of history, philosophy, and literature, always with the human person as my sole aim. I could (and probably did) echo Qoheleth and Hopkins:
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
(“No worst, there is none. Pitched past grief”)
Graduate school changed things. My goal now was to situate texts, to understand them in the overarching beauty of their determining factors. Lines of poetry became infinite hives of honeycombed reference—locatable, overlapping, and brilliant. I more deeply entrenched myself in the world of theory and philosophy, reading Marx, Sartre, Lacan, Fanon, Freud, Federici, Hegel, Kant, and even Kantorowicz. I came to understand people, yes, but as discreet bundles of signification, whose life and work could be summed up by looking at their times and experiences filtered through the empty box of subjectivity. As Freud put it, “wo es war, soll ich werden.” [where it (the id) was, I (the ego) shall become”]. Drives, language, environmental factors—these determine; they shape and form whatever one is. Subjectivity is the detritus, the thinking that thinks itself free, but is, in reality, subject to forces beyond its control.
I do not mean to speak of these ideas too negatively. Coming to understand these things was enlivening and enriching. I cherish learning to read this way. Too often people assume some libertarian conception of free will, in which each of us decides from an infinite field of possibilities—a sort of voluntas ex nihilo, which is really just a voluntas ad nihilum. Understanding context and sub- and un-conscious desire allowed me to make sense of much in my life: how can rich CEOs both claim to help the world and despoil it all at once? Why do people go looking for love on Tinder, while denying that’s why they’re there? Why do I do what I do not want to so often? Reducing freedom to some nebulous absolute does not get us very far in those discussions; reading poetry in a vacuum can make it merely a bunch of sounds strung together, devoid of rich layers of meaning.
There were, however, other effects. These are, I think, far too little spoken about. At what point does explaining motivation in terms of childhood, linguistic formation, culture, and the like void the word “freedom” of its meaning? When does reading texts this way suck the beauty out of them, rigorously historicizing terms like “beauty” even as it does so? I do not have an answer, but the best statement of the question came from a friend of mine, who blithely mused: “If you were a Lacanian—like a real Lacanian—couldn’t you just not have friends?” What he meant by this (and I do believe I’ve given this example on this blog before) is that, if one truly believes we are merely bundles of signifiers, legible on the surface, at least mostly and on points of general importance, then how can we actually treasure each other? Would not intimacy be alienating if all it meant was that some arbitrary set of factors had aligned properly with another arbitrary set of factors—ultimately passionless, ultimately coincidental?