Thursday, June 16, 2005

Self-Knowledge and a Poetic Soliloquy

I just now wrote the following off the top of my head. The "Pangur Bán" reference is, of course, to the anonymous 8th/9th century Gaelic poem Messe agus Pangur Bán, which is best known in Robin Flower's translation, which starts out "I and Pangur Bán, my cat". It came to me shortly after reading Death's So this is New York at "Poetry in the Afternoon"; poetry usually comes to me after reading poetry. I find it interesting by the way, that (as she says on her main website) she rarely posts works in progress; I only post works in progress. I'm not sure what that says about me, although it's probably an excuse for almost never bothering to get a poem into final form. Whether that, in turn, is due to laziness or perfectionism I can never say. You'd think the two would be as far from each other as can be, but I honestly can never tell whether the problem is that I'm too demanding or too lax. Proof of Aquinas's view that self-knowledge, beyond knowledge-by-presence, is extremely difficult. Wittgenstein somewhere has a great image that makes this point. Suppose there were a man who, when asked if he knows how tall he is, says, "Of course I know how tall I am"; then, putting his hand on the top of his head, says, "I am this tall." That's knowledge by presence. That's really all there is to the absolutely certain self-knowledge that Descartes makes so much of; it's a way of (as it were) pointing to your soul and saying, "Of course I know what I am; I'm this." And Descartes (and Augustine) is right that it's very certain knowledge, this knowledge by presence. But being able to point to the way things are isn't quite knowing the way things are; it's just knowing that there is a 'way things are', and that it's in this general direction that you can find it. And when it comes to our minds we are most of us very much in the same class as the person who answers the question, "How tall are you?" by putting his hand on his head. When I ask myself whether I am too demanding or too lax on myself, I can't get much farther than pointing to myself and saying, "I am this, whatever this is." And it's much the same with the question raised by the poem.

Outside, It Is Night

Outside, it is night;
but I and the raccoons
are going over accounts,
picking out the morsels
from cast-off residues.

Would I were a Pangur Bán
hunting for his mouse,
searching out the meaning
of these everlasting words!
Then there'd be a point.

Instead, I stare at the page.
I muse on the words.
I make a few revisions.
And all this little work
leaves me feeling exhausted.

Somehow I find something good;
that's hearteningly true.
But it amazes even me
how absurdly difficult
I can make writing a paper.

Academic writing, like poetry,
is proof that there is a Muse,
a source of inspiration;
it's there or it isn't,
but either way, you have to try.

One always suspects that others
are able to do better.
Some work more consistently,
without this mental stutter,
but I'm not sure it's worth it.

After all, never to be inspired
is in no way a consolation
for lacking the laborpangs of genius.
That sounds quite good--
all this is labor before the birth.

Or perhaps it's mental aridity.
Those monks in the desert knew
that sometimes inspiration fails;
and what I have is just a version
of aridity. That's good, too.

But then I always wonder
if I'm really just kidding myself.
After all, it sounds pretentious
to talk of Muses, pains of labor,
and the aridity of the mind.

I'm pulled both ways.
I can't shake the feeling
that I should be grateful
for this gift of stop-and-start
rather than dull assiduity.

But I also can't shake the feeling
that it's all an excuse,
a self-indulgent pretense
to justify a lack of work,
and these empty nighttime efforts.

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