Sherry Brennan

On Light

Preface

Does poetry survive in the world. How and how long. How does it exist among the things of the world? Where it is often bracketed or lost. Or simply comes to be thought of as only the name for the things, the real things, and thus, itself, unreal, poetic. Merely lyric or passion. How often we oppose poetry to the world, and thus ourselves and our speaking and writing out into that world. We oppose ourselves to our own world, the world we are a part of.

And the poetic traditions we inherit, those too we often oppose -- in their very seeming immateriality. They disintegrate. They shred. Or are burned. By us. Yet they sing themselves into the world and do not disappear -- even surviving as single words or half words, as do Sappho and many early poets. Shreds of poems painted on pot shards. Stuffed into the cases of mummified remains. And this is our poetic heritage. Bodies wrapped in the shredded bodies of the poem. And the poem survives bodily.

What would a worldly poetry be? A thingly poetry. Not a poetry about things, but a poetry that exists bodily in the world. A poetry that is, in its very composition, a part of the daily circling of the world, its mass, its plant-life, its upheavals, its rhythms. So that the text of the poem is the world, the singing world, -- the disintegrating, changing aggregate we call matter. The stuff of things we call life.

If Darwin, for example, were not about a dog-eat-dog survival of the fittest, but about the ever changing plenitude of the circling world, its consistency with us, and its inseparability from us.

If science were not a way of objectifying the world, distinguishing us from the elements, but a way of knowing the names of the world and our composition in it.

If language were nothing but our created relation to the world -- the one thing we bring into existence in the world out of nothing and that is not nothing, but world.

August 10, 1999
Washington, DC


On Light

December 28, 1999
Centre Hall, Pa.

In Dante's Purgatorio, the souls of the dead perceive the lively body of Dante by bodily signs: by his breath, by his shadow, and by the bearing of his body. Often, these signs of his living body cause confusion among the dead, as in Canto 2: "The souls, who had perceived from my breathing that I was yet alive, marveling grew pale" (2.67-9). Most often, the sign that Dante carries a material body is the fact that it "breaks the light," casting a shadow,

When those in front saw the light broken on the ground at my right side, so that my shadow was from me to the cliff, they halted and drew back somewhat. (3.88-91)

Again, in Canto 5, Dante notices the dead "gazing in astonishment at me alone, at me alone, and the light that was broken" (5.8-9).

This astonishment and wonder continually focus the reader's attention on Dante's bodily presence in the afterlife. Throughout the Commedia, this weightedness or bodiliness of Dante as narrator in hell, purgatory and in paradise serves as a sign of his temporality. He is just passing through. As many another first person narrator -- Ishmael in Moby-Dick, or the ancient mariner, for instance -- Dante cannot relate what he sees unless he returns to tell his tale. So from the moment he passes through the portal of the Inferno, the condition of the poem coming to be sung at all is the safe conduct of Dante's living body through the worlds of the afterlife.

Yet, the further Dante ascends through Purgatory and Paradise, the more his bodily limitations have to be overcome. In Purgatory, while his shadow serves as the visible sign by which others recognize him as living, Dante himself experiences the liveliness of his flesh in other ways. His body is weighted, heavy, and as Purgatory is a mountain, his weight impedes upward progress, as Virgil highlights at one point, asking for directions:

If there is more than one passage, show us that which is least steep, for he who comes with me here, for the burden of Adam's flesh wherewith he is clothed, against his will is slow in climbing up. (11.41-5)

Repeatedly, Dante goes through cleansing rites to allow his body to pass to higher levels and to open his perceptive powers, which are clouded by his mortality and flesh. When he and Virgil enter Purgatory proper, the angel who is doorkeeper traces seven Ps on his forehead. As he ascends through the seven levels of Purgatory, the P's are erased one by one. As they become erased, his body becomes lighter, as he reports in Canto 12 upon ascending into the second level, "it seemed to me I was far lighter [lieve] than before." He turns to Virgil, who explains:

When the Ps that are still left on your brow all but effaced shall be, as one is, quite erased, your feet shall be so conquered by goodwill that not only will they not feel fatigue, but it will be a delight to them to be urged upwards. (12.121-6)

Thus, the Dante body, while necessary to the existence of the poem, is a hindrance in his ascent towards the higher regions of the heavenly world. Dante cannot overcome these bodily limitations of his own will or desire; instead, he must go through various types of cleansing by angels and by his otherworldly guides, as when he is washed by Virgil before entering Purgatory, or brought through the river Lethe and made to drink of it by Matilda, before entering Paradise.

To me, the most striking bodily limitation Dante suffers is his inability to bear the light of Beatrice's eyes. For his suffering of and desiring for the pain of the light of her eyes gives him the endurance and strength to see the light of Paradise. If his chief hindrance in Purgatory is the weight of his body, in Paradise it is the weakness or inability of his eyes to endure the brilliant light of divine love and knowledge in which the shining creatures of Paradise live and move. It is only as he comes to endure the brilliance of Beatrice's eyes that his own eyesight is purified enough to enable him to see clearly and, finally, to see the light of the Supreme Pleasure.

Initially, when Beatrice first appears at the end of the Purgatorio, Dante cannot bear even to look on her face. Dante has been conducted through the Lethe and is drawn into a dance with the four handmaidens of Beatrice, who command him to look at Beatrice, though she has not yet looked at him: "See that you spare not your gaze," they say to him. "We have placed before you the emeralds from which love once shot his darts at you" (31.115-17). (The metaphoric reference to the eyes as the place from which Cupid shoots his arrows of love is a medieval commonplace.) After Dante manages to look at Beatrice and then at her eyes, which are gazing elsewhere, only then do the three higher Virtues, also Beatrice's handmaidens, direct Beatrice to look at Dante: "Turn, Beatrice, turn your holy eyes upon your faithful one" (31.133-4). As Beatrice looks him in the eyes, he continues to gaze at her so fixedly that he loses his eyesight, as in the world, he says, one temporarily is blinded by gazing directly at the sun. Again, at the beginning of Canto 33, when Beatrice looks at him, he describes her eyes as "smiting" his.

These weaknesses of his eyes -- that he has to be directed to look her in the eyes, that he feels Beatrice's gaze as a blow, or that he loses his vision when she looks him in the eyes -- become tropes in the Paradiso for Dante's mortal bodily, spiritual and intellectual limitations.

In the Paradiso, Dante is borne up from sphere to higher sphere by the power of the light of Beatrice's eyes, and within each sphere of heaven she is his reference point as he continually turns to her eyes and follows her gaze to learn and to know how to see. Throughout Paradiso, Beatrice's eyes are the focal point of his vision, a reflection of the Eternal Joy, the "limit both of my beatitude and of my paradise" (15.35-6), a mirror of the truth. She is "the sun of my eyes," he writes (30.75).

At two points, Beatrice explains why her eyes have powers beyond his. In the first cantos of the Paradiso, Dante has been questioning Beatrice about the nature of matter and light in heaven. In Canto 4, he asks her about the justice and judgement of the souls that inhabit the first circle of Paradise. As this conversation closes, he turns to her and asks whether he can ever make amends for having deserted her memory and the path of virtue in his earlier life. Her initial answer is a look:

Beatrice looked on me with eyes so full of the sparkling of love and so divine that my power, vanquished, took flight and I almost lost myself with eyes downcast. (4:139-42)

As Canto 5 opens, Beatrice explains this power,

If I flame on you in the warmth of love beyond the measure that is seen on earth and so vanquish the power of your eyes, do not marvel, for it comes from perfect vision. (5:1-5)

Thus her power over him is precisely the power of the immortal soul's "perfect vision" over his still mortal and not yet purified eyesight. Throughout, the brilliance, radiance and power of her gaze is attributed to the fact that this love and light is "divine," "beyond the measure that is seen on earth."

At the opening of Canto 21, Beatrice and Dante have just ascended to the seventh circle. Dante looks at her and she does not smile. Instead she speaks, saying that if she were to smile it would destroy him,

for my beauty which, along the steps of the eternal palace, is kindled the more, as you have seen, the higher the ascent, were it not tempered, is so resplendent that your mortal powers at its flash would be like the bough shattered by the thunderbolt. (21:7-12)

Here again, the light of Beatrice's being has the power to "shatter" Dante's powers, because of the mortal body he bears with him. The descriptors here of Beatrice's power are light-related: "kindled" [s'accende], "resplendent" [splende], and "flash" [fulgore]. This passage also makes it more clear that her whole being, not simply her eyes, is aflame with divine light and love.

This light, which Dante comes to bear more and more fully throughout the ascent, purifies his vision, making it possible for him to open his intellect to see the truths of the realm of Paradise. With this extended trope of light as perfect knowledge, Dante depends on traditional ancient and medieval philosophical notions of the relation between light, vision and intellect. Of the three books of the Commedia, the Paradiso is by far the most overtly philosophical. During its course, Beatrice and others, including Thomas Aquinas, expound on standard philosophical questions of the day, addressing such issues as the motion of heavenly bodies, whether matter exists in heaven, how light and dark are produced, how soul inheres in human corporeality, the relation between the intellect and love, the temporality of language, and the place where time and space originate. Dante comes to see and understand these truths only by the light of Beatrice's eyes, a light that is immortal and divine, as he exclaims at her first look at him: "O splendour of living light eternal" (Purg.31:139).

From the time of Augustine forward, among many medieval thinkers, divine illumination was thought to be necessary for the discovery of certain, secure knowledge -- truth. According to such philosophers, eternal truths cannot be known through human experience alone. Instead, access to truth is gained through divine illumination. Indeed, later medieval thinkers such as Grosseteste and Henry of Ghent argued that divine illumination was necessary for any kind of true knowledge, even the objective knowledge of the world, science.1 Thus, by figuring Beatrice in the poem as the locus of divine, eternal light, and as the source of his purified vision and intellect, Dante secures for himself an authoritative truth. Beatrice's truth, and thus Dante's truth, is divine truth because it is a divine, incorporeal illumination.

Yet, even in acquiring this eternal truth, Dante does not abandon his own embodied state. It is precisely because he is embodied that he needs an immortal, incorporeal guide. His insistence on his own mortal flesh, it seems to me, is necessary not only to the structure and existence of the poem, but also to his poetics. In his prose treatises, De vulgari eloquentia and Monarchia, and in Paradiso itself, Dante makes it clear that he is committed to the idea that language is a temporal, social, communicative, embodied act. Thus, he writes in Italian -- the vulgar tongue. Thus, it seems to me, he bears his own body in the body and structure of the poem. Nevertheless, he still must appeal to a higher truth for his poem to be authoritative, and this truth, for the medievals, was thought to be of necessity dis-embodied.

Considering his insistence on the purity and clarity of the realm of divine love and truth, it would have been simpler in many ways if Dante had chosen to make all his characters allegorical, as in Piers Plowman or Pilgrim's Progress, or on the other hand, if he had limited himself to a cast of spiritual beings, as did Milton, or mythic and divine creatures of a national past, as Homer or Virgil. That he did not, highlights Dante's choice to place himself as a living body in the afterlife. There is no question, then, that the mortality and temporality of both his body and tongue are absolutely necessary to the philosophical and aesthetic ground of the poem. Equally necessary, though, as I have pointed out, is the ascension of his mortal body and tongue through all the purifying levels of the Commedia, to the knowledge of perfect light and love.


February and March, 2000

Dante figures himself in the poem as the juncture of these two, traditionally diametrically opposed faculties: the faculty of mattered, embodied sensation, and the faculty of incorporeal knowledge or illumination. His poetry and poetics seems to me to be most relevant to contemporary poetry here, where he figures his body as this juncture. For in the aftermath of romantic, modernist and post-modernist aesthetics, which we inherit and are tied to, the poetry of today seems -- still -- to be by and large incapable of enunciating or performing a poetry that matters in the world. The aesthetic, the intellect, are still too often posed or practiced as separable and separated from the body and thus alienated from the social, cultural and political and from the mattered world.

Ultimately, Dante's understanding of the relations between soul, knowledge and the material world is derived from Aristotle, who deals most directly with these issues in De anima, his study of the animal soul. Initially, in Book 2.1, Aristotle defines soul negatively, remarking that "soul cannot be a body; for the body is the subject or matter" (2.1;412a15-20). Instead, he says, "the soul is the actuality [entelechia] of a body" -- that which renders the body a living being. As he states more clearly further on: "The soul is the cause or source of the living body" (2.4;415b8).

The soul and body are thus distinct but intrinsically related -- a living complex -- so that, he concludes, asking whether the soul and body are one or two entities "is as though we were to ask whether the wax and its shape are one" (2.1;412b5-10). He remarks further in Book 2.2, "the soul cannot be without a body, while it cannot be a body; it is not a body but something relative [hyparchei] to a body" (2.2;414a20). Therefore, initially Aristotle defines soul as something that may not itself be matter, but is nevertheless intrinsically imbricated with the matter of the body.

However, in Book 3.4, when he takes up the question of that part of the soul which is called thought -- in other words, the aspect of the soul with which humans know -- Aristotle is quite emphatic that this part of the soul is absolutely unmixed with and pure from matter:

That in the soul which is called thought [ho ara kaloumenos tes psyches nous] (by thought I mean that whereby the soul thinks and judges) is, before it thinks, not actually any real thing. For this reason, it cannot reasonably be regarded as blended with the body. (3.4;429a22-25)

Thus thought is that one part of the soul which has absolutely no admixture with the body, which "must be," he says, citing Anaxagoras, "pure from all admixture [amige]" in order "to dominate [krate], that is, to know [gnorixe]" (3.4;429a18-20).

Thus, on the one hand, Aristotle takes the position that the soul and body can only exist in relation to one another: "the affections [pathe] of soul are enmattered accounts" (1.1;403a25). Yet, on the other, he determines that that part of the soul which is called thought must be absolutely free of matter, "separable, impassible [apathes], unmixed" (3.5;430a17-18), in order to know.

This is the crux of the issue; for if thought must be entirely free of matter, absolutely pure and unmixed with the body, then that part of language which is symbolic or referential must also be immaterial, incorporeal. Yet it seems to me, reading back through Dante and Robert Duncan, among others, that it is precisely this insistence on an incorporeal meaning underlying the tangible material aspects of language that has made it possible for our modern western cultures and states to disregard the embodied, material world in which we live. Our understanding of thought, knowledge and language as a necessarily incorporeal domination over all that is mattered authorizes our position of dominance over the material world. By our very dominance, we divorce ourselves and our thinking and arts from our environment, from mattering.

For Aristotle, this privilege of knowledge as dominance is necessarily tied to the claim that thought is entirely free from the body. Yet, he must at the same time admit -- and, in fact, he insists -- that the movements or affects or "affections" [pathe] of the soul are enmattered. Here we find the precise juncture that structures Dante's body in the Paradiso: thought or perfect knowledge is pure, unmixed divine illumination, while that which makes us living beings -- that which will enable Dante to return to the physical world -- is an enmattered soul and body complex. Both Dante and Aristotle face the same difficulty, though: How to resolve or find a relation between the soul/body complex and pure thought or truth, if these are by their very nature separable and in fact absolutely unmixed. It seems to me that Dante resolves this issue somewhat differently from Aristotle, by insisting on figuring his own body in the eternal afterlife with full bodily access to pure vision, thought and truth. This insight, this insistence of Dante's on the embodiment of the disembodied, provides us with a lever or fulcrum to pry open the closed-off, "impassible" aspect of thought in Aristotle. If we travel with Dante's body back through Aristotle, it becomes possible to see how thought might be enmattered, even in Aristotle's own writing.

* * *

Aristotle relies on Anaxagoras, a Greek philosopher of the fifth century BC, to claim that thought must be absolutely free of the body. He uses the word impassible [apatheia] to describe this purity in the context of his citations of Anaxagoras, although it is unclear whether his usage is derived from Anaxagoras.2 At this point, in Book 3.4, Aristotle is exploring the question of how thought is differentiated from those aspects of the soul which are enmattered, and, if it is separate, how thinking takes place. He argues, as we saw above, that thought cannot be blended with the body. This absolute separability, though, produces a problem: How can thought think anything if it has no access to the world?

If thought is simple and impassible [apathes] and has nothing in common with anything else, as Anaxagoras says, how can it come to think at all? For interaction between two factors is held to require a precedent community of nature between the factors. (3.4;429b20-25).

Aristotle solves this problem by developing the concept of the thinkable. Essentially, he argues that while thought is necessarily unmixed with any material object, it is thinkable to itself ("able to think of itself"), and if thought is thinkable to itself, then everything is thinkable: "if thought is thinkable per se and what is thinkable is in kind one and the same, then ... [thought] will contain some element common to it with all other realities which makes them all thinkable" (3.4;429b5-10,25-30). Thus, Aristotle asserts that thinking can take place despite the impassibility of the soul.

Yet, in describing the way in which thought comes to be thinkable, Aristotle comes to define the thinkable by analogy to the sensible, and thus, I would argue, brings matter into the very definition of the soul's impassibility. To untie this knot, we will have to circle back through his discussion of the bodily senses and the way in which the soul perceives that which is sensible in the world.

* * *

For Aristotle, the sensitive aspect of the soul is necessarily blended with the body. At the outset of De anima, he shows that while bodily affects or excitements -- "affections" -- are created by immediate bodily sensation, they can also be created by the soul in the absence of any bodily sensation, as fight-or-flight reactions can be created by dreams, for example. In other words, the affective relationship is reciprocal; either body or soul can create affects and excitements in the other. Thus, he argues, "the affections of soul are enmattered accounts [logoi enyloi]."

In Book 2, then, Aristotle will return to this word "account" when he defines soul. He begins his definition of soul by defining substance according to three senses: matter, form, or a composite of matter and form. Matter is a kind of substratum underlying the composition of things, but it is not in and of itself ever a determinate thing. As he writes, matter is "that which in itself is not a this." The body -- here, the animal body -- is a composite of matter and form. By form, Aristotle means "that precisely in virtue of which a thing is called a this," or, in other words, that by which we know to call a stone, "stone." Thus form is the essence or what-isness of a thing -- its account (2.1;412a5-10).

The distinction between matter and form set up here is less an opposition than a relation, and leads Aristotle to define soul as "substance in the sense which corresponds to the account of the thing," or, as he clarifies, "it is what it is to be for a body" (2.1;412b10-15). Thus, for Aristotle, soul "cannot be a body": it does not itself have matter. It is, rather, "what it is to be for a body" -- the account of a body.

Therefore, when Aristotle writes that "the affections of soul are enmattered accounts," he is attempting to accommodate a complex relation between the soul as form -- the "account," and the soul as affect -- "enmattered." The sensitive faculties of the soul are embodied but not matter, thus, "enmattered accounts."

Again and again, Aristotle insists that the soul is housed in the body and that the soul/body complex cannot live without the body.3 This is especially apparent in his discussion of the sense of touch in Book 3.10 and 12. For Aristotle, touch is the primary sense, because without it the animal will die:

An animal is a body with soul in it: every body is tangible, i.e., perceptible by touch; hence necessarily, if an animal is to survive, its body must have tactual sensation. ... without touch it is impossible for an animal to be. (3.12;434b10-20)

Touch is necessary because an animal moves by touch, and the animal moves in order to feed itself. Without touch, the animal cannot move or feed itself, and it will die. Thus we can see that, for Aristotle, that aspect of the soul which has sense is of necessity embodied despite the fact that soul itself is not matter. It is precisely the embodied nature of the sensitive soul that allows the soul/body complex to continue being. In other words, the material body is the instrument of our being in the world. We are, like the world itself, mattered.

* * *

Now, to return to our analysis of the central discussion of thought in Book 3.4, where Aristotle is arguing for the purity of thought, we see how singular this point is. In general, for Aristotle, the world and our existence in it, our sensations of it, our affects and desires, are all remarkably mattered. It is only here, at the point of thought, that he conceives a thing that is not just not matter, not just separable from matter, but absolutely impassible. The absolute disjunction, then, necessitates this concept of the thinkable, as that which allows thought some sort of access to the sensitive soul and its perceptions of the sensible world.

Yet, just as remarkably, in developing a notion of the thinkable, Aristotle proceeds by analogy. The thinkable, he argues, must be some sort of faculty like the sensitive faculty:

If thinking is like perceiving, it must be either a process in which the soul is acted upon by what is capable of being thought, or a process different from but analogous to that. The thinking part of the soul must therefore be, while impassible, capable of receiving the form of an object; that is, must be potentially identical in character with its object without being the object. Thought must be related to what is thinkable, as sense is to what is sensible. (3.4;429a13-18)

Here, the thinkable appears to have two definitions, much as the sensible does. It is both the object of thought and the process that produces thinking, so that the thinkable is "what is capable of being thought," i.e., that which is the object of thought; and is also the ability or process of thinking. This seems to be because the thinkable, in its thinkability, "acts upon" the soul to produce thinking. Aristotle comes to this definition of the thinkable by referring it to the process of sensation in which the sensible acts upon the soul to produce sensation, or, he qualifies himself, thinking is a process something like that. Thus, he first poses the question of the access of impassible thought to the world by saying that what is thinkable must be available to thought in the way that what is sensible is available to the sensitive faculty.

Ultimately, Aristotle is drawing an analogy between two types of knowledge in the soul, both of which proceed by abstraction: the senses abstract the sensible in a process of sensation; and thought abstracts the thinkable in a process of thinking. The entire structure of soul elaborated in De anima depends on the soul's ability for an abstractive relation to the world. The possibility of an abstractive relation depends, in turn, on a separable relation between matter and form, which allows the soul access to the world by the abstraction of the forms from mattered objects.

As the sensitive faculty receives into itself "the sensitive forms of things without the matter" (2.12;424a15-20), so thought receives the thinkable forms of things. "It is not the stone which is present in the soul," he says further on, "but its form" (3.8;431b25-30). In fact, he seems to describe thinking as a kind of double abstraction: sensation is the soul's ability to derive the sensible form from mattered objects; thought further derives the thinkable form from the sensible form. As he states, "the objects of thought are in the sensible forms." Thus, "thought is the form of forms" (3.8;432a1-5).

This particular formulation of thought as "the form of forms" preserves the impassible nature of thought. To state it most clearly, we might say that the sensitive faculty senses the stone by abstracting the sensible form of the stone from its matter and thus receiving only the sensible form into itself, now separated from the matter, though still enmattered. This is, then, what Aristotle calls the enmattered account. Thought proceeds to perform a double abstraction, receiving only the form of the form of the stone, which is now entirely free of both mattering and enmattering. Thus thought can be impassible and yet think the thinkable objects of the world.

The formulation is neat, and if all machinic structures operated as cleanly as our formulations of them, the mind might indeed be pure. Yet in fact, even in Aristotle's thinking, mattering creeps back into thought through what is thinkable, in its analogous relation to the sensible.

* * *

When Aristotle sets out to show how thought is separated from matter, in the pivotal Book 3.4, he concludes that thought is in fact absolutely unmixed. In the course of making the argument, though, he actually describes a process of relation by which the thinkable object is drawn into thought. He ties the thinkable to the world by analogy to sensible operations, and in so doing, he binds thought to the world. That this is so is most clear in the analogies by which he develops the argument in Book 3.4.

Aristotle begins by distinguishing the way in which the sensitive soul is dependant upon the body from the way in which thought can operate independently of the body. He illustrates this difference by describing how the senses fail, as we have seen multiple times in Dante: "after strong stimulation of a sense we are less able to exercise it than before." "But in the case of thought," he says, "thinking about an object that is highly thinkable renders it more and not less able afterwards to think of objects that are less thinkable" (3.4;429a-429b). So, he argues, thought must be separated from the body, in that strong thought does not cause failure in our ability to think in the way that strong sensation overpowers the bodily senses.

Aristotle uses a second analogy in his attempt to determine whether and how a process of thought might exist in relation to the process of sensation. First, he attempts to understand the difference between the sensitive faculty, by which we have sensible perception of a thing, and whatever the faculty is by which we know the what-isness of a thing. If we can, he says, "distinguish between a magnitude and what it is to be a magnitude, and between water and what it is to be water," then whatever it is that allows us to make that distinction must be different from or a different state of the faculty by which we sense a magnitude (3.4;429b10-15). The sensitive faculty allows us to perceive particular things, such as water or magnitude. The other faculty, which he wants to call thought, allows us to perceive that we know what-isness. In the process of perceiving that we know what-isness, though, we also must be able to distinguish between the particular object, water, and our knowledge of its what-isness. It is this ability to distinguish the process of knowing from the process of sensing, that seems, for Aristotle, to necessitate a notion of impassible thought. For, he concludes here, the faculty of thought must be "something different either wholly separate from the sensitive faculty or related to it as a bent line to the same line when it has been straightened out" (3.4;429b15-20).

Thought's separability from and relation to the sensitive faculty, then, is described as perhaps being like the relation between a bent line and the same line straightened out. Aristotle is not simply pointing here to the fact that the relationship between the two is due to their being the same line. In fact, the key here is our ability to distinguish between the being-bent and the being-straight and to still know that, whether bent or straight, it is the same line. Our capacity to distinguish between and thus think relation itself is what characterizes the relation between thought and the sensitive faculty. Thus, relationality itself is what separates thought from sense.4

Thought is that relation to the world. This is why, it seems to me, Aristotle concludes that thought must be able to think of itself. In the final analysis, thought is nothing more than the soul's capacity to relate to the world, and thought is itself in the world and thus it is thinkable. Yet, Aristotle would not go that far. Instead, he concludes that thought is separable from the sensitive soul, which brings him to the problem of thought's access to the world. How, he asks, does the thinkable come to be in thought, if thought is wholly separable from the world?

To answer his own question, he turns to an extended analogy:

What it [thought] thinks must be in it just as characters may be said to be on a writing-table on which as yet nothing actually stands written: this is exactly what happens with thought. Thought is itself thinkable in exactly the same way as its objects are. (3.4;429b-430a)

Now, there are several ways in which characters could be said to be on a writing table where nothing is written. They could be said to be there in that the table has been built or set so as to be used for writing. In this way, the thinkable would be in thought in that thought is intended to be used for thinking. Or, the characters could be said to be on the writing table in the past or potentially in the future, so that the characters were there or are to be there, though they are not there.

Still, perhaps more in keeping with the spirit of Aristotle's own thought, the characters could be said to be on the table because they do exist in general in the world and thus are potentially available to be written on the table, at any moment, although they have no physical, mattered presence. In this way, the essence or what-isness of the alphabetical letter is indeed present on a writing table even though nothing has been written. This would precisely be the way in which the thinkable object and the thinkability of thought are in thought despite the fact that the thinkable is not matter.

This, however, is not the description of an im-passibility, an absolutely closed system, apatheia. It is, instead, the description of an in- or thru-passibility -- a permeable membrane, perhaps, that serves to contain the part of the soul which is called thought, but which cannot serve as such a boundary without also marking the circling tangible contact of thought with the thinkable world at all points. Aristotle is insistent on this point: the thinkable is in thought, and "thought is itself thinkable exactly as its objects are." The apatheia, the impassibility, is a-pathe5: extra-affect -- not that which holds itself free from all affect, impassible, but that which holds itself in relation to affect, an affect that is an in-passing and that in the very in-passing is thought, and thus is changed, transformed into the movement and process of relationality to the world.

To say this would be to change the definition of both affect and impassibility, pathe and apatheia. It would be to say that the affections or pathe of the soul can overcome the body temporarily, when it is blinded by strong light, but that the a-pathe, the in-passibility of the soul, simply becomes stronger in strong light. In its very enmattering, an a-pathe of soul would act precisely as does Dante's body in the Paradiso -- its bodily failures would only strengthen its in-passing of light, and this in-passing would mark its being thought as a mattering relation to world.


March 17, 2000; dictated
Philadelphia to State College

The Aristotle essay on light is a thinking device. It operates as a vice holding a pivot, suspended from the point on which it pivots and attached to it by a magnetic force. The Dante and the Duncan on either hand are the two ends of the vice. The Aristotle discussion in between is a point or a globe. The globe is hollow like a Civil War cannonball, and designed in such a fashion that the pieces of it on impact would fragment. However, the vice structure holds them together and keeps them from fragmenting. Thus, the entire device acts as a pivot so that the globe acting as a point provides a pivot point on which the entire thinking of language can rotate and take a new direction.

Now, the traditional models of language depend on a dualism between meaning and non-meaning, and between body and concept, and so the device allows me to pull up the two sides of the dualism to a globular surface, and so the machine pulls those things into a global type of system, again, a mattered or a material surface. And not a flat surface. It pulls the dualism up into a plane, but in the shape of a hollow globe or the consistency of a hollow globe, so that the dualism is not collapsed, it instead is rounded and pulled up into a surface -- not a plane, a globe.

So then this thinking machine allows our thinking a pivot so that it pivots or turns, and yet a pivot does not move in any one direction or along a line or plane. It merely is a turning or a revolution, and not a revolution in an orbit, merely a turning on a point -- a pivot. And so this essay provides for that turning.


April 1, 2000
Centre Hall, Pa.

To conclude this essay, I want to turn to Robert Duncan and his remarks on Dante, in order to begin to think about the relation between matter and language. In many ways, this is simply a provisional opening of the topic, turning to questions that Duncan, Dante and Aristotle will perhaps allow me to ask about a mattering language in the world.

To me, language, both in its semantic and a-semantic aspects, is like light, in the way in which light is an energy or movement form of matter. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "When light energy ceases to move, because it has been absorbed by matter, it is no longer light." My assertion, though, that language is like light, will have to wait to be fully developed in another essay. Here, I turn first to Duncan and the essays on Dante and on language collected in Fictive Certainties, in order to begin by speaking of the particular way in which language is a physical production of the body -- as sound.

Duncan's essay "The Sweetness and Greatness of Dante's Divine Comedy," presented in 1965 on the 700th anniversary of Dante's birth year, is remarkable for the affection and love Duncan shows for Dante as a poet. I think more than anything else, it is Duncan's expression of love for Dante that brought me to read Dante.

In his expression of this love, Duncan chooses to attend to two specific attributes of the poet and poetry. Duncan calls these greatness and sweetness. It seems to me that what Duncan describes are the counterweights of the ordered demand of the ethical and the disorderly seduction of lyricism.6 I oppose order to disorder and the ethical to the lyric here not only because the opposition seems to describe Duncan's essay, but also because it describes an opposition inherent in our oldest understandings of the difference between thought and poetry or language.

For Duncan, Dante's greatness consists of a two-fold courage; first, the courage to take on the task of the Commedia:

Dante's courage in the Divine Comedy is his ever-present consciousness of the greatness demanded. His courage appears in the person of the poet Virgil. It is the amazing courage of Dante to be the follower of Virgil. (148)

Second, there is courage in the ordered quality of the poem itself:

It is this courage, this consciousness of greatness demanded that is the source of the ordered severity of the Inferno. ... [The divine] powers that appear in the poem as referring to God's eternal will in Creation are also the powers of Dante's poetic will, the eternal will of the Commedia. Behind the poet's evocation of God's orders, we are aware that the Inferno presents also the orderly requirements of the poem itself, and that Dante's poetic will is moved by definitions of justice, power, wisdom and love, that are, within the poem, divine, supreme and primal. (149-50, italics Duncan's)

Thus, for Duncan, both poet and poem are subject to the demands of an eternal orderliness that structure the poem, and for which Dante requires a great deal of moral and ethical certitude, will or courage, to reproduce in the poem.

Indeed, for Duncan, the matchless beauty of Dante's language and poetry -- what he calls its sweetness -- is due precisely to his ability to infuse the ordered, ethical intent of the poem with the sweetness and lyricism of sound:

This beauty of sound is, for Dante, first and last, the essence of his art. We are to have our beginning in understanding there. Falling in love with the sound we revere the literal, and search out the excellence of the word as we would search out a beloved. (152)

For Duncan, the sound of language is a bodily experience that precedes meaning-making. In "Poetry before Language," Duncan creates a mythic narrative of the historical coming to being of language. According to this story, prior even to the sounds or measures of language is a kind of immediate sense perception:

Long before mind or before any words. When all was dumb. There were dumb perceptions. A mountain came into view. (62)

A body dwelling in this immediacy senses its own bodily motions and noises as at one with the motions and noises it perceives about it. Into this "dancing" of perception, Duncan writes, a "light" dawns:

This "light" that dawnd was born of that dance we were speaking of. The mouth and the ear made motions and heard sounds and this was the "light" and hence the phonemes became attendant spirits in the light. ... Now, as the Zohar tells us, the Holy One ... played with the letters of the alphabet for centuries before arranging the alphabet. This refers to the gathering of the phones and the communications of the other organs to the magnet until a rose of brain-order or musical disorder was formed. Into this rose of brain-order-disorder all perceptions that passed at all thru the brain, the sounds which the idle ear delighted in, were arranged, sorted in light of the intellect. It was in the final enclosures of the circuits of the light that sense and sounds were enclosed and the sounds along the active circuits became alphabet since groups of sounds made words -- that is, cohered in sense. (63)

Now, Duncan is perhaps not so much interested in creating a credible history of language formation here, as he is in enunciating a view of language that would explain the beauty and dangers of sound.    "Even today," he writes further, "Poetry takes over what we had thought was language and we find ourselves confronted by such a mountain in view. ... There is in Poetry a ground in which communication, creation or making, and perception are all quite extra-spiritual concerns" (62). Thus, for Duncan, poetry taps into a source or undercurrent in language of pre-verbal consciousness, shall we say, or, as he writes, of disorder prior to order -- a disorder of such sweetness and beauty that its force both lures and moves the poet to write.

Yet the poet must attend to the demands of sense-making and order for the poem to have social effect, as he states most clearly in "Man's Fulfillment in Order and Strife." After a long discussion of "flow, " and of the intense embodiment of language in the experience of poetry-making, where "language, world, and order become identical" (125) for the poet, Duncan pulls back from an immersive characterization of poetry-making to speak of the way that the poem comes to be social, saying, "Yet the poem belongs, in the scope of the larger poem-series it appears in, not [even simply] to the history of the United States, but to a larger structure of ideas" (130).

Time and again, Duncan refers to the poem as placing a demand on the poet. When he speaks of Dante's greatness and sweetness, then, he places his reverence for Dante's achievements at this juncture between the bodily experience of language in the writing and the social or ethical imperative of the poem. Dante, for Duncan, is the example par excellence of the necessity that the poet hear and attend to the sweetness and beauty of poetic language, prior to sense-making, while yet attending rigorously to the demands placed on the poet by the fact of the poem's social and cultural significance-making.

Thus, for Duncan, three bodies are necessary for poetry making: the body of the poet, the body of language, and the social body. Each of these bodies, for Duncan, carries elements of a disorderly non-meaningful matter; each as well carries traces of the ethical demand to order -- whether psychic order, linguistic or poetic order, or social, civic order.

But for Duncan, as for Dante, order is not possible without disorder. The ethical imperative to truth or order cannot be fulfilled in some space beyond or pure from the messiness of the mattered body in the world. In fact, as I am arguing, for both Duncan and Dante, a poetry that matters in the world is absolutely dependent on an enmattered language. There is no intellect or thought, no aspect of the living soul, that is absolutely unmixed with matter. And if there is not, we are not quite so free to claim a dominant ability to think, know or speak about the world as our tradition may have lead us to believe.

Instead, we are irretrievably bodied, as is our language and thought. There is a danger and a beauty in this enmattering, the danger and beauty that we can, in fact, only be of this world. Dante's continual bodily failures, his frights and terrors at the light of Beatrice's eyes and at the light of truth, which he experiences in the body illustrate the overwhelming terror that can accompany this sense of embodied being in the world. Yet, as Duncan himself writes, "the poet is at home with what is most perilous" (18). A home which is no home.


1  This point is indirectly derived from Richard A. Lee's analysis of medieval philosophies of knowledge in Ungrounding the Middle Ages: Scientia, Rational Ground and the Existing Singular in Late Medieval Thought, especially the discussions of Grosseteste and Aquinas.  I could not have written this essay without Rick's thoughtful conversation and generosity in sharing his knowledge of ancient and medieval philosophy.

2  Though, see also Physics 8.5;256b25, where Aristotle again uses this term in a citation of Anaxagoras. The word apatheia does not appear in any extant fragments, although taken all together, we have less than four pages of Anaxagoras' writing. It might be important to note that this question of the incorporeality or corporeality of mind [nous] in Anaxagoras has been vigorously debated. Sven-Tage Teodorsson reviews the commentaries in his Anaxagoras' Theory of Matter, and concludes that "there is an oscillation between corporeality and incorporeality in Anaxagoras' theory," perhaps because the distinction did not yet exist (90-91).

3  Throughout my essay, any notion of life or a living body is complicated by Richard Doyle's On Beyond Living, an extended critique of the notion of biological "life" in modern scientific rhetorics. This is not to say that there is no life, or that we cannot distinguish living from non-living bodies. Rather, Doyle's critique allows us to explore the specific ways that "life," and especially the living human body, has been constituted as an account or narrative in modernity. Thus, when I use the term living body in this essay, I use it provisionally, in that living bodies, like language, are also composed of social and organizational affects and machinic aspects that our current understanding of "life" excludes.

4  For the notion of relationality, my understanding of the ethical character of relation, and the concept of relation as difference(s), I am indebted, of course, to Jeffrey Nealon, to our many conversations, and to his analyses of Levinas and Derrida, as developed most clearly in Alterity Politics: Ethics and Performative Subjectivity.

5  The prefix a-, according to Liddell-Scott, can act as a negative, expressing want or absence in the formation of adverbs and adjectives. It can also operate as an intensifier, strengthening the force of compounds.

6  I will make one final note of indebtedness. There is not space here to elaborate extensively on the relation of order and disorder. My analysis, though, springs partially from Charles Scott's The Time of Memory, and especially Chapters 4 and 5, where he analyzes the Apollinian-Dionysian opposition as a relation between order and disorder, so that disorder is necessarily inherent in any ordering, and especially in the ordering disorder of poetry.

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