Monday, June 20, 2011

Midnight in Paris

A few nights ago I saw Woody Allen's latest movie, which is lightweight but fun, and features lots of very appealing views of Paris. While I was watching it some thoughts I've been having lately seemed to come together, so let's see if I can connect the dots now, in the light of day.

Larkin said once that there are two types of poetry: the kind that tries to say something new, and the kind that tries to say something old in a new way. (He aimed for the latter.) It seems to me that all speech/writing/thought is like this. If you aren't saying something (that at least seems to you to be) new or putting an old idea in a new way then you aren't really saying anything at all. You are parroting others, being a mouthpiece for them.

Larkin's preference for new ways of putting old ideas is somewhat like Wittgenstein's ideas that more facts won't solve the big questions of life and that living longer (even forever) won't help make life meaningful either. What you need (if anything) is a new way to think of the facts or to talk about life, a new way to see or conceive of things. I think he takes it as given that it must be possible to live a meaningful life at all times, so, while culture or civilization might make a big difference to how you live, when you live is irrelevant to whether it's possible for you to live a good life. It always is possible. (And it's always possible to fail, too: nothing, like something, happens anywhere, as Larkin says.) But it takes imagination or a special kind of gift to express yourself in the right way. Which I think connects with this:
I think I summed up my attitude to philosophy when I said: Philosophy ought really to be written only as poetic composition. It must, as it seems to me, be possible to gather from this how far my thinking belongs to the present, future or past. For I was thereby revealing myself as someone who cannot do what he would like to be able to do.
(Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright (in collaboration with Heikki Nyman), trans. Peter Winch, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1980, p. 24e.)
Midnight in Paris is about a man who cannot do what he would like to able to do, because he feels that he belongs to a different time and place (Paris in the 1920s). But then he finds a way to do it, so all ends well. It's not very deep (with possibly one exception, every character is two-dimensional), but it's optimistic and it looks nice.


  1. This makes me think of the lines in the Preface to PI: "I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own." (And that makes me think of Socrates.) And that connects well with the idea of philosophy as poetic composition. This all seems rather at odds with the kind of philosophy that one can publish nowadays in a journal. (I wonder sometimes whether an aphoristic philosopher (a good one), like Nietzsche or, at times, W, is even possible in our time.) I do, however, like the idea of philosophy as reminders (which seems to be a kind of saying something old in a new way). Trying to say something new seems hard, and I wonder whether trying to do it is even possible, or whether this is only something that happens through something like inspiration or grace (or luck, if you want).

  2. 'It seems to me that all speech/writing/thought is like this. If you aren't saying something (that at least seems to you to be) new or putting an old idea in a new way then you aren't really saying anything at all. You are parroting others, being a mouthpiece for them.'

    this is just false unless you stretch your understanding of 'new' a bit to account for the relativity of most communicative acts to some (technically never-before-met) purpose on some occasion. people don't always say things that are 'new' but they couldn't live their lives if they didn't say them, and likewise if no one accepted what was said because it wasn't new.

  3. Matt--thanks, I hadn't thought of that connection with the preface to PI, but I agree. An aphoristic philosopher today would probably have to blog and hope for a book contract to get a collection of aphorisms published. They might just be left hoping.

    j--thanks. I thought of that, but I'm still not sure what to say about it. A lot of normal conversation consists of questions, formalities (I mean 'thanks,' 'hello,' etc.), and news. So the only statements there are new, at least to the audience. But have I made a careful study of what people say in the course of everyday life? No. Do I know what counterexamples you have in mind? No. So I could be wrong.

  4. we're on the same page. but what is there to fault (re novelty etc.) in someone's saying hello to you?

  5. There's no novelty, but it's also not a statement, so I don't see it as counting as "saying something" in the sense I meant. I should have been clearer about that.

  6. oh, so we're doing THAT now.

    but not all speech/writing/thought consists in statements! and it's far from clear that poetry does, at all.

  7. Yes, I'm afraid we are. Certainly not all speech, etc. consists in statements, but I meant to talk only about the kind that aims to make a statement or communicate some kind of content. Larkin seems to have thought that his poetry, and a lot of other poetry too, fell into this category. There are problems here, of course, about what it means to communicate content, and about poems that unutterably contain the unutterable, and so on, but I think there's a relatively straightforward truth here even so.

  8. drat.

    well, now i really want to hear some examples of failure. old ideas put in old ways, or new ideas put in old ways.

  9. Sorry. Old ideas put in old ways are just any thoughtlessly repeated cliches. See many well known examples of bullshit, humbug, etc. For new ideas put in old ways see (supposedly) bad poetry, but also most new ideas.