Walt Whitman and Crossing the Boundaries of Consciousness


My dear reader, forgive me for what is most likely a projection. I am loath to admit it but often when poetry begins some prose piece that I am to read, I do little more than skim it. I have never even read through all of the poems that begin Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. Please do not gasp too loudly—I know I’m a terrible human being. So, please do not be like me. Please read these selections (and ideally the whole thing sometime) from Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” carefully, tasting the words in your mouth, experiencing the poem in your heart. The effects of poetry are subtle—as Gary Snyder notes to Wendell Berry, “… The place we do our real work is in the unconscious, or myth-consciousness of the culture; a place where people decide (without knowing it) to change their values” (Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder)—and I fear that the philosophical points that I want to make are less likely to robustly come across if you do not linger a while with Whitman’s words.

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Not So Single-Pointed Philosophical Activity

Meditation, particularly in the tradition of Dōgen, is the paradigm for single-pointed activity. Whether you follow your breath or “just sit,” openly aware of the present moment in its entirety, Dōgen makes clear that you are not to judge whatever arises as good or bad. And when thoughts, images, desires, etc., arise, you let them go and return to the “object” of meditation. In so doing you are contributing to the re-habituation of your mind, getting “better” at letting go of everything that tries to pull you out of awareness of the present moment, letting go of judgments of good/bad, and thereby establish a foundationless foundation of calm in the ever fluxing and flowing waters of experience.

I want to leave aside issues here having to do with the sitting just-to-sit and not sitting so-as-to-achieve-a-future-enlightenment-experience. Rather, I’d like to continue with the theme of my earlier piece on single-pointed activity. That is, leaving aside the problematic nature of speaking of progress in the context of Dōgen’s Zen, the assumption behind continued, regular meditation practice seems to me to be that the more you do it, the better you will become at being present and letting go of what arises, letting go of habitual patterns of judging everything moment to moment in terms of its pleasantness, etc. In other words, the longer you do it, the calmer your mind will become, the less often thoughts will come up unbidden, until there is just the moment in all of its transitory, interdependent oneness.

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When Death Comes

The first poem I ever learned by heart was Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes.”

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

The poem is, I think, powerful and beautiful. Nevertheless, I am unable to muster the prerequisite attitude that would allow for me to “step through the door full of curiosity…” for I have been unable to shake the belief that bodily death means the end of my conscious existence.

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Philosophy, Poetry, and Truth

My friend Jennie and I used to argue often about the different ways that poetry and philosophy go about examining the world and attempting to speak truly about it.  She always claimed that there were certain truths, usually of a spiritual nature, or if not spiritual, then about particular deep aspects of life and nature, that poetry was better at investigating and expressing than philosophy.  I’m not in a position to give her reasons for these claims.  And I don’t think she was right in the way that she thought she was.  However, I do think that there is perhaps an important difference between poetry and philosophy concerning access to truth (a general difference, and not one that is meant to admit of no exceptions); I will try to articulate it below.

First, I do not have much patience for the idea of ineffable truths, simply because I take it that truth is a property of sentences used in particular contexts, and therefore if something is ineffable, then it cannot be formulated into sentences, and it therefore cannot admit of truth or falsity.  So I don’t think that it is the business of philosophy or poetry to try to show or gesture at ineffable truths.

I do not think that philosophy and poetry are necessarily separated by reason or argument; that is, I do not think that reason and argument belong to philosophy but not to poetry.  That is not to say, of course, that every poem presents an argument.  And it seems likely to me that the argument of a poem does not consist of the same kind of moves found in a philosophical argument.  Some poetry (I certainly won’t speak for all poetry) seems to me to work because of the way it directs one’s thoughts, attitudes, and emotions, often directing them toward ordinary “objects” in subtly new ways and in such a way that one arrives at new thoughts, attitudes, and emotions.  Through a serious of such movements, each of which draws on the reader’s background of ideas, emotions, dispositions, desires, experiences, etc., in order to draw the reader forward and in, a poem might present a kind of argument for seeing something in a particular way; that new insight, or whatever it should be called, is a kind of conclusion.

Insofar as philosophy operates on a more singular plain of categorical, propositional, predicate logic, philosophical arguments can typically be reconstructed explicitly from their texts.  Importantly, this reconstruction can be done without injury to the argument.  I don’t mean to deny the power of persuasion that might come with a style of writing.  But I think that many philosophers would recognize a distinction between a well reasoned argument and a persuasive one.  I can imagine a philosopher saying, “I see that the argument is valid and the premises appear to all be true, but I’m still not inclined to accept the conclusion.”

An important result that comes out of the above differences between philosophy and poetry is that poetry might allow one to arrive at a certain conclusion that could not be arrived at in the same way through philosophical reasoning.  That is, while we might be able to explicitly restate the point of a poem in paraphrase, we will not—or perhaps the weaker “may not”—be moved to accept the point as true if all we have access to is the paraphrase.  The “logic” or “reasoning” of the poem itself is required if one is to have access to the truth in such a way that one is moved to accept it.  I’m not ruling out the possibility that some of the “conclusions” of poems could be argued for in an explicitly philosophical manner.  But even then, such reasoning may not provide the right kind of epistemic access to the truth.

All of that is in the abstract.  I will try to look for an example to illustrate my point.