Friday, August 30, 2013

Automatic ciphers

First something obvious, and then a meta-comment.

One thing I sometimes post are duh-moments: instances of the obvious that weren't obvious to me. Here's one from the other day. In Paradise Lost Adam describes to Raphael his first experience of experience, his finding himself in the world. There he was:
But who I was, or where, or from what cause,
My tongue obeyed, and readily could name
Whate’er I saw. ‘Thou Sun,’ said I, ‘fair light,
And thou enlightened Earth, so fresh and gay,
Ye hills and dales, ye rivers, woods, and plains,
And ye that live and move, fair creatures, tell,
Tell, if ye saw, how came I thus, how here! (8.270-77)
I'd long realized that Wordsworth ("And, O ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves, / Forbode not any severing of our loves!" and Shelley ("Show whence I came, and where I am, and why") must both be remembering this moment (and other resonating moments in Paradise Lost).

But what struck me the other day was the idea that this is perfectly autobiographical, that what Milton is describing here is poetic vocation, the combination of ease (of style) and wonder (about existence itself, including the fact of ease) that make a poet a poet. He can describe the world as he found it, including his own being in the world, and the fact that he can describe the world. Unlike Wittgenstein's self, his blank, Sartrean opacity is part of his world too: part of the world a poet thinks about (even when living a skeleton's life).

As I say, completely obvious, and yet I'd never realized this before, being too absorbed in the plot, and also perhaps in my own memories of my 1.75-lingual childhood: I remember one day noticing that I could understand Yugoslav, noticing, then, that it was a different language from English, and noticing therefore that I could understand English as well.


So my meta-comment is this: there's a way in which everything you see in a poem should be obvious when you see it, should be a duh!-moment. Even if you can't or didn't readily name it in your first or fifth or hundredth reading, that would have been a failure of attention, not of intelligence.

That's what Stanley Cavell means by "the ordinary," the things that escape notice because you just don't pay attention to them, because it's an essential, ordinary part of what they are that you don't pay attention to them.

One place that I think you can see this at work is in canonical titles, the way they become "automatic ciphers." Why, for example, Reservoir Dogs? Well that's easy: it's the name of Quentin Tarentino's movie. It's called Reservior Dogs. Before you see the movie, you assume you'll understand the title when you see it, so that's fine; and after you see the movie, you know what the title designates: that great, violent, grueling picture you've watched. But at no time does the meaning of the title explain itself. The title is always ordinary, in Cavell's sense: always just the perfect, obvious, transparent designation of the movie. Similarly, who's Hoon in Stevens's "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon"? His answer to Norman Holmes Pearson (I wonder if he knew that Pearson had been a leader in the O.S.S.):
You are right in saying that Hoon is Hoon although it could be that he is the son of old man Hoon. He sounds like a Dutchman. I think the word is probably an automatic cipher for "the loneliest air", that is to say the expanse of sky and space.
For Cavell, the late Wittgenstein (and J.L. Austin) is like the Kant of the Third Critique in paying attention to the ordinary. One of Cavell's great insights is that aesthetic judgment shares with Wittgenstein's grammatical remarks (Bemerkungen, as he always calls them) the fact that you can't prove something beautiful or sublime (or whatever). There's no philosophical argument for beauty. It's something you have to see. In the same way, ordinary language, ordinary things, aren't amenable to an analysis that moves beyond the visible or apparent. The visible or apparent is all that counts, all that can count.

So all you can do is pay attention, and the idea is that if you do pay attention it might be obvious to you too. That's how reading should work, and how I think it does work in the great critics: they draw your attention to the automatic ciphers, which (as Kant says of the "pure reflective judgment" that is aesthetic experience, experience which isn't the application but the observation of a judgment) will then just decode themselves to you, and make you happy.