Saturday, June 2, 2012

The unacknowledged legislators of the world

The only person I have ever heard of to have the name Bysshe is Percy Bysshe Shelley. His "A Defence of Poetry" (you have to scroll down) is something that I have now finally read, and is clearly important for the Romantic view that Rorty describes. What follows are some quotes and some of my initial reactions to them.
Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be 'the expression of the imagination': and poetry is connate with the origin of man.
In this sense poetry is certainly relevant to any understanding of the expressive arts. It might just be the same thing as them.
The savage (for the savage is to ages what the child is to years) expresses the emotions produced in him by surrounding objects in a similar manner; and language and gesture, together with plastic or pictorial imitation, become the image of the combined effect of those objects, and of his apprehension of them. Man in society, with all his passions and his pleasures, next becomes the object of the passions and pleasures of man; an additional class of emotions produces an augmented treasure of expressions; and language, gesture, and the imitative arts, become at once the representation and the medium, the pencil and the picture, the chisel and the statue, the chord and the harmony.
We feel, and we express our feelings, and then we react to these expressions in turn. Somehow what results is not just noise but a kind of harmony and mutual adjustment.
In the youth of the world, men dance and sing and imitate natural objects, observing in these actions, as in all others, a certain rhythm or order. And, although all men observe a similar, they observe not the same order, in the motions of the dance, in the melody of the song, in the combinations of language, in the series of their imitations of natural objects. For there is a certain order or rhythm belonging to each of these classes of mimetic representation, from which the hearer and the spectator receive an intenser and purer pleasure than from any other: the sense of an approximation to this order has been called taste by modern writers. Every man in the infancy of art observes an order which approximates more or less closely to that from which this highest delight results: but the diversity is not sufficiently marked, as that its gradations should be sensible, except in those instances where the predominance of this faculty of approximation to the beautiful (for so we may be permitted to name the relation between this highest pleasure and its cause) is very great. Those in whom it exists in excess are poets, in the most universal sense of the word; and the pleasure resulting from the manner in which they express the influence of society or nature upon their own minds, communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort or reduplication from that community. Their language is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which represent them become, through time, signs for portions or classes of thoughts instead of pictures of integral thoughts; and then if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse. [my emphasis]
This idea of metaphor and marking and perpetuating relations that had till then gone unapprehended is very important to me (although it hardly seems to apply to all the expressive arts, music most obviously).
Every original language near to its source is in itself the chaos of a cyclic poem: the copiousness of lexicography and the distinctions of grammar are the works of a later age, and are merely the catalogue and the form of the creations of poetry.
This sounds right, especially the bit about distinctions of grammar, etc. coming only after the 'poetic' creation of language.
Hence all original religions are allegorical, or susceptible of allegory, and, like Janus, have a double face of false and true.
I quote this just because it struck me, not because it directly bears on my project of trying to understand, or say something about, philosophy's relation to the expressive arts. It reminds me of Wittgenstein, around the time of the Lecture on Ethics, on religion, although Shelley isn't just saying the same thing as Wittgenstein.
[E]very great poet must inevitably innovate upon the example of his predecessors in the exact structure of his peculiar versification. The distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error. The distinction between philosophers and poets has been anticipated. Plato was essentially a poet—the truth and splendour of his imagery, and the melody of his language, are the most intense that it is possible to conceive.
I tend to read Plato this way, probably because I've been influenced by people influenced by Shelley (Nietzsche who got his Shelley from Emerson, perhaps). The line between poetry and prose is blurry, I suppose.
All the authors of revolutions in opinion are not only necessarily poets as they are inventors, nor even as their words unveil the permanent analogy of things by images which participate in the life of truth
Rorty echoes this view of intellectual innovators as strong poets.
[P]oetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted
I like this. It reminds me of all Schopenhauer's references to mirrors, and of Larkin's idea that one kind of poetry is beautiful but not quite true. Mirrors don't distort all that much, though. Or they only distort what is there to be distorted. Though perhaps that's enough.
But poetry acts in another and diviner manner. It awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought. Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar
This is reminiscent of Cora Diamond's idea of literature enlarging the moral imagination, and of Wittgenstein's idea that we need to wake up from the kind of sleep to which science puts us and see the world with wonder or astonishment.
[E]ven crime is disarmed of half its horror and all its contagion by being represented as the fatal consequence of the unfathomable agencies of nature
Also reminiscent of Wittgenstein. This time I'm thinking of (was it?) Rush Rhees's report that Wittgenstein said you could see German bombers as not evil but tragic if the right music were played when the newsreel was shown.
[Poetry] creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.
There probably isn't, but I wonder whether there's any link between impressions blunted by reiteration and the fact that words start to sound nonsensical when reiterated. Thoughtlessness is involved in both, and poetry (Shelley is claiming, at least) is a cure for this. Poetry might be called thinking then.
Poetry, as has been said, differs in this respect from logic, that it is not subject to the control of the active powers of the mind, and that its birth and recurrence have no necessary connexion with the consciousness or will.
Poetry would be involved in something like the creation of games or systems of meaning. Logic would apply within them. (Or am I straying too far from the text here? I've got thoughts of Frege and Heidegger dancing around together.)
Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
The last line of Shelley's essay, which reminds me of Derrida on law and, as I recall, rule-following. All good stuff.

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