Imaging Figures #6

Montauk Point at Night

[A]t any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we–I mean all human beings–are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock.
Virginia Woolf: (72).

A great deal will revolve around how we, her readers, think out the principle of “connected[ness]” so preponderant in Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past” (1939-1940). To determine that we live “all the time in relation” to constitutional “rods,” “conceptions,” to “a pattern” lurking “behind the cotton wool” of the given is not to decide that the substratum triumphs over what stands upon it (73). Encoding the former and the latter in visual vocabulary, Woolf allows for our inference that perhaps both emerge from interdependent derivations. But when she asserts that “one” is “not confined to one’s body,” to “what one says and does,” Woolf fails to produce the consequence that the individual’s approach to that which fortifies the visible may be described as straightforward, effortless, tranquil (73). Since “shock” beckons the seeing of “connected[ness],” to see well is to abide by the pricking pain that enhances what the eye can take. To register that twinge, that enhancement, necessitates a body whose commitment to unstinting vision will affect its conduct inside the “cotton wool” bequeathed to it from birth and within the “pattern” “behind” that bequest, a correlation accentuated by how Woolf’s representative language pleaches together the two nominal phrases as visualizing systems. With linguistic precision, Woolf settles that, for all of us, a wakened access to any spatiality is never direct, never unmitigated, never of limitless duration; and her prepositions throughout the above excerpt, in concert with the nouns they govern, with the verbs whose “relation[al]” qualities they nuance, steer us towards the variety of connection she judges to be at once meritorious and real. Whether or not we struggle to perceive with adequate limpidity, so much intervenes between ourselves and the nucleus of our attention: the past as it bridges the present; how we orient ourselves in the direction of the moment; the personhoods evolved across both time-divisions–these collect in interposition while we entrust ourselves to the perceptual act. If a “pattern” conceals itself “behind” the “cotton wool” of daily “non-being,” to arrive at one, we must pass through the other, and we will carry with us the content of that passing as we embark on our journey, though to stay in the state of arrival demands a brunt of time to which our attentive skills can only be unequal (70). Yet in what way does Woolf’s vaunted “we” express the “connected[ness]” she surrenders to us?

Out of laboring to modify an abounding first person plural, Woolf applies divided significations to the verb “to be,” whose foremost sense–predicative, hinged on the prepositional phrase–she preserves until her penultimate clausal chain, when manifesting a condition metamorphoses into “being,” into the fullness of coinciding-in-identity-with. After fixing on our angularity, “connected with,” “parts of” something more extensive than ourselves, we achieve agreement with the implemental character which defines us. But, because we begin in indirection, at a tangent to an entity more voluminous than ourselves, our names will not unfold us: there can be “no Shakespeare,” “no Beethoven,” “no God,” no crowning maker, since the “whole world” overshadows the conceit of discreteness summoned by a lexical fiction to which the thing so named cannot quite conform. Our coincidence must be with the mission of “the words,” of “the music,” “the thing itself” an instrumentality developed at divergent speeds through numberless millennia, a linchpin by whose service the wheel of the human “world” goes on spinning, seeing that any self, for Woolf, is backed by “ancestresses” and the specific circumstances they knew so long ago, ones supporting, sometimes breaking into, this present life (69). Of the “thing[s]” Woolf gives us here, one is beyond reference to, or undefined by, its use–the “whole” of “a work of art,” in absolute congruence with itself. Yet the vision of such congruence, issuing from “shock[‘s]” concentrated “force” (72), will, by definition, fade. Its perceiver returns to the “cotton” blur, invoked by a name, unsure of her utility in a “world” she cannot fully see, its curves revolving with and without her, all composing the background into which sudden sightedness breaks. However dim or broken, remembered “shock” nicks hollows in the uniformity of that blur, revives the experience of a “whole” superinduced by the near-artisanal tools that we are.

But what drives the telling of “the truth about this vast mass that we call the world”? How can we identify the teller?

Pillar of LightOnce detailing the “intuition” of her “philosophy,” Woolf herself, the woman who studied Greek with Dr. George Warr, Clara Pater, and Janet Case–as Hermione Lee reminds us in the biography (1997)–alleges how “it is so instinctive that it seems given” to her, “not made” by her, and we can mine the Platonic dialogue for a paradigm of such “given[ness]” (72). As early as the Ion, for example, Plato supplies us with a Socrates who quarries from his interlocutor whether the “art of poetry” (532c), the “art” of making, is rightfully a “skill” or the motion of a “divine power” (532d, 533d). Like all “rhapsodes” (530b), like all Homerian declaimers, Ion may be grouped with the “interpreters of interpreters” (535a), yet in what does poetic and declamatory “expertise” consist (531a)? If we intend to say, along with Plato’s Socrates, that a “poet . . . cannot compose before he gets inspiration and loses control of his senses,” so that “his reason has deserted him” (534b); that “it is the god himself who speaks,” addressing us “through” the mediate category of poets (534d), themselves “nothing but the gods’ interpreters, each possessed by his own possessing god” (534e), the skein of our logic will depend on our understanding of what interpretation imposes upon its practitioners, among whom Ion must be counted as he listens to the exigencies in Homer’s words while declaiming them.

In a note to his translation (1987), Trevor John Saunders aids us in considering the reeling incumbent on the divine “mouthpiece”: “only in Plato is the poet as passive” as such a representation avows; “on the ordinary Greek view,” neither “the god” nor the poet is a “ventriloquist”–the former “consigns” his “message” or “information” to the poet “for casting” by him “into words, rhythms” (56). Regardless of how the poet achieves that “casting,” regardless of his “knowing or being able to describe how” he does it, “it is he himself who is the composer of his poetry, not the god” (56). I want to twist all this together with the tonnage in Woolf’s employment of “given,” since the latter and what is done with it, made out of it, need not be accounted exclusionary acts. While “possessed by” the “god,” by the “whole” of the Woolfian “world,” the “possessed” and her possessor stand yoked to each other by the explaining, “in common” (83), which interpretation enjoins on them. And, minding the “given” message, Woolf must dower it with the form through which the communicated becomes the communicable, an undertaking not unsuited to “reason.” But in what ways might our conception of knowledge contribute to that dowering?

In the Meno, as he attempts to ascertain if “virtue” is “something that can be taught” (70), Socrates argues that he cannot “know a property of something” when he does not “even know what” that something “is” (71b). Consequently, the difficulty of knowledge inaugurates the dialogue’s toils: “how on earth” are we “going to set up something” we do not know “as the object” of our “search” (80d)? Plato’s actors and their readers seem enclosed in a question whose globularity disowns any conceptual action outside it; and, precisely due to that imprisonment, Socrates deems the question’s undeclared “argument” a poor one (81). Explaining “how it fails,” he moves to an outside epitomized by “the truths of religion” (81), of which many “divinely inspired” poets speak (81b). Those “truths” begin by presuming that the human “soul” is “immortal,” locked in a cyclical pattern of apparent terminations and begettings, coming “to an end” merely to be “born again,” without “extermination” (81b). “Born many times,” never ending, “the soul” has “seen all things both here and in the other world, has learned everything that is” (81c). So, “when a man” recalls “a single piece of knowledge”–or when he learns it, bemused by how “ordinary language” mistakes recollection for learning–“there is no reason why he should not” discover “all the rest, if he keeps a stout heart and does not grow weary of the search,” for “seeking and learning are in fact nothing but recollection” (81d). Yet, since religiosity postulates a “whole” in which each “part” inheres out of reverent obligation, must we find that the Platonic Socrates has substituted one circularity for another (79c)?

I include Woolf within the umbra cast by this question, as she and Plato appear to describe replacements at once familial and relentless: that of knowledge with “recollection,” of experience with encountering “instincts already acquired by” repetitive “ancestresses” doomed to imparting identical lessons (69). We will be empowered to espy repetition in both cases only if we expunge all notion of the procedural necessary to “recollection” and to wrestling with the always “instinctive.” For surely these actions, being actions, occur in time and under conditions that diverge from their sequentially foregoing and primordial origins; surely, we, Woolf, and Plato resemble the “boy” (82b) “seeking” geometrical “truths” “in company with” this particular Socrates whom he cannot have known before the moment of interrogative “teaching” (84d). How we bring ourselves to that time, to those conditions, to that “company,” shapes what we make of recollected knowledge and articulates our experiential liberty, an instance of which is “A Sketch of the Past” itself, written on the cusp of world battle, among patterned “shocks” which Plato assists us in thinking out.

So far, the Platonic precedents for Woolf’s “philosophy” advise us that poet and potential knower proceed in conjunction with a power, with a “soul,” consecrated to disabusing us of the myth that any self writes, knows, or stands marooned in isolation. To appeal to “virtue,” to stand upright in its provident goodness, is thus to dedicate ourselves to remembering the associates among whom we live, presences which religious “truths” and Woolf’s populous “we” both presuppose, even when we cannot verify their palpability. But, in the Philebus, we learn that “virtue” begins as a problem, apart from its receptivity to being taught. Plato’s Protarchus, “poised to take over” a “thesis” from “Philebus” that “the good is enjoyment, pleasure, delight and whatever is compatible with them” (11-b), must contend with a Socrates who challenges that these “are not the good, but that reason, intellect, memory–not to mention their cognates, correct belief and true calculation–are far better than pleasure for all creatures capable of attaining them” (11b-c). The character of the highest excellence, unsettled at the dialogue’s inception, is rendered more indeterminate by the “diversity within” the “good[s]” that wrangle for right definition (14b), by the wobble between “unity and plurality” in “every single utterance,” which “speech” appears to steady when it “identifies” the two “in the process” of our treating with words (15d). It may be part of Plato’s project to show us how his foremost player disturbs the equipoise of Protarchus and his readers by divulging the “feature of human speech” which equates an identity-constructing “is” with the predication coincident with “far better than” (15d); it may be that our stir towards the locality of “the good,” whatever its determination, entangles us in the condensed difficulty which poise demands of those who profess to demonstrate its achievement. Yet, if qualities enlist their qualifiers, it is in the discussion of the “nature of memory,” of “physical feeling” (33c-d), that we find Woolf’s prototype for the “shock” which heralds any accession to “being” (33d).

And that discussion, as in the Meno, fails to question the existence of the “soul” already hypothecated–pledged to, adopted as self-evident–before the interplay by which dialectic is defined (34a). But the dereliction of inquiry here belongs to how Plato’s interlocutors foresee the body itself: if “the life of pleasure . . . is the good, it must lack nothing at all” (20e), so that if we “had pleasure,” we would “have all” we “needed,” a totality nevertheless obstructing our admission to the “reason, intellect, memory” without which we could not “recognize” our “feeling” of possessing the unimpeachable (21b), an “all” condemning us “not” to “the life of a human being, but of a jellyfish or some sea creature,” merely “a body endowed with life, a companion of oysters” shut up in a commotion of the sensorial, pseudonymous because barred from the cognition that harbingers what “soul” dispenses to its enfleshed instantiation (21c-d). These ideas mean that a body is falsely named when seen denuded of the psyche whose radiation authorizes its alliance with the “human.” So bared, the body can never be enough; it becomes a “lack,” a negation, incapable of judging the “management” of the “life” ceded to it (64b). Yet, if Socratic teaching shows Protarchus the possibility of differentiating between equivalence and predication, discloses that “two terms” anticipate “two things . . . not one,” that “the good is not the same as the pleasant,” this teaching must also combat the “human” desire to confound them (60b).

Against confounding, the Platonic Socrates assembles “an immaterial system for the management of animate matter,” since, with “soul” as the arbiter of body, the latter’s conduct can be assessed, retrained by the adjudicator of incarnate comportment (64b), a re-education revealing that the unseen both motorizes the body’s visibility and administers its gestural repertory. Such “two-ness” confers on Protarchus, on his readers, a vocabulary for critiquing the specious sorcery of “human” pining–the enchantment that the world must requite us with what we ask of it, the two nouns, self and world, forever in antiphony–and leads to a “shock” intimate with the “nature of sensation,” together with what can be realized from it (33c).

Hypothesizing “about any physical feeling,” speculating that “some are extinguished in the body before they penetrate to the soul,” while “others penetrate both and create a sort of shock . . . peculiar to each part” yet “common to both,” Socrates extends his bifurcating vision (33d). “[B]ody” differs from “soul” as the perturbation of one must deviate from that of the other, the “soul[‘s]” altitude over “body” in terms of value preparing the differential nature of the “shock” which psyche and soma “share,” traceable to the selfsame source (34a). We may “call” this being “moved together,” this “single experience” which pierces doubly, “sensation,” with “memory” the name for its “preservation” (34a), though the concept of rank returns when Plato gives us a Socrates who considers “recollection” as “what the soul does internally, without the body, when it resuscitates, as thoroughly as possible, the experiences it once shared” with the corporeal (34b).

But these words underscore how the body drops away, already vaporous, always lost, under the principle that it should be animated by an energy other than itself. To lose the body is to empty the corporeal of all desire, to deny “that desire is physical” (35c). While the aptitude for “memory” depends on the simultaneous piercing of skin and “soul,” provides “the impulse” towards “objects of desire,” the “argument” here “is declaring that all drive, desire,” and “authority, in every living creature, belong to the soul”–a proprietary license whose totalizing vigor ought to be matched by our avidity for disputing it (35d).

Understood as “lack” (35b), “desire” is founded on the longing for “replenishment,” which only the faculty of “memory” can “comprehend” (35c). But if “every living creature” strives “for the opposite to his present state”; if a “tendency towards the opposite . . . demonstrates that there is memory of the various opposites” to “various current states,” jogs the “recollection” of an internal “soul,” such internality is conditioned by the severance of outside from in, of flesh from psyche, and should cue our wonder at its nullifying industry (35c). So negated with respect to praise, to any possible commendation, the “body” must be dangerous, its “management” a hazard. Before the spectre of that danger, uncoupled from the concept of worth due to the “soul[‘s]” radiating nimbus, all bodies become penurious things, strangely akin to those chunks of matter, inanimate, dead to valuation, which cannot contest an “authority” disposed by necessity to manipulate them. The penury at the heart of these ideas, with regard to material things, forms much of what Woolf’s world and our own have taken from antiquity, notwithstanding the apparent glory of materiality sold to us so busily, for instance, by our contemporary advertising and fitness cultures. Yet the abounding poverty at work in the Philebus needs to be read in more than one way; we must look at whom the “denial” of desiring corporeality seeks to aim (35c).

When Protarchus and Philebus declare that “pleasure” is equal to “the good,” they attribute “goodness” to all “pleasures,” classifying “pleasure” as the “most similar thing of all to pleasure, as being itself in relation to itself” (12e). Assimilating “relation” to identity, plurality to oneness, they reveal the “body” as a magnified “thing,” an “itself,” an organ for the reception of “pleasures” pleonastic because one can always be substituted for any other. The “thesis” of equivalence, since it entails the interchangeability of all desires conducing to “the good,” thus holds to a disinterest in, an incapacity for, judgment, discrimination, complexity, terms which pinpoint that one idea cannot be made to fit the world. Such are the characters of his colleagues that Socrates must dissolve the thickening redundancies they keep to, such the exertions that Plato tests our capability of seeing. Even so, if we assent to Wittgenstein’s disclosure, in The Blue Book (1933-1934), that “philosophy, as we use the word, is a fight against the fascination which forms of expression exert upon us,” we should hesitate in order to ask: has Socrates subdued one “fascination” by deputizing another in its place; does his maker propose that we concur with this supplanting of the “body” by what the “body” is not (27)?

But to answer the second question in the affirmative is to believe that the maker must be the compeer of what he makes, to barter one name for another, a belief which nearly every Platonic dialogue controverts. Its method of argumentation neither apodeictic–concerned with demonstrating proof–nor self-explanatory, the dialogue, because it seldom shows us outright the intent goading on its progress, incites in readers the very inferentiality by which it has come to be there, on the page. And, since it represents the conditions from which the groundwork of any human conversation can be derived, that page originates from a hand whose activities must be accounted for, not from the ex nihilo subsequent to the conflation of “two things” into one. Obliged to inspect those conditions, to bring them in under the circumspection of our eyes, we may begin to approach their founder, though his creations impart to us that he is always elsewhere.

We venture to see in the depth afforded by the twofold distances between eye and page, between eye and the designer of that page, a Socrates who diminishes the density of the “body” so as to carry his colleagues to the “threshold” of “the good” from which they can survey “desire,” once blind because it could have no truck with analysis, misconstruing satiety as the sole criterion of evaluation (64c). Facing his associates’ closed-circuit of “body,” “desire,” “good,” Socrates must admit that circuit as his conversational starting-place and undo it, if he is to advocate for an outside in which this wiring together submits to critical estimation. He disperses the heft of the “body,” fictionalizing it, etherealizing it, neutralizing its efficacy, the strain to dematerialize the “body” decreeing the devastations waiting to be wrought by those who, imagining “the good” as “the most perfect thing of all,” might “track it down and aim for it, with no concern for anything” not “ultimately accompanied by goodness” (20d). So thinned of purport, the “body” is stripped of its capacity to engender the inventory of actions by which it would consume the world, dissolving “goodness” in “itself.”

Of course, such dispersal saves both that world’s constituents and our Socratic comrades, their apparent weightlessness readying them “to love the truth and to go to any lengths for its sake” (58d). Unmade with respect to what they thought they knew, they find all the substantiality of the “body”–the “belief” in its power to grasp, to control, to guide (38e)–transferred to the “soul,” which “resembles a book”; since, “when memory coincides with perception,” psychic “faculties” seem “to write words . . . in the soul,” their “truth” resulting from that coincidence (38e-39a). Yet when “memory” and “perception,” no longer coinciding, are “mistaken in their object” (37e), “an artist” in “the soul’s work-force” forms “internal images” of a concordance whose falseness can be settled by the “soul[‘s]” facility for adjudication (39b). “True” or “false” in its “contact” with the world (39a-b), the “soul” becomes a “picture” of the following paradox (40a): an immateriality capable of “making . . . correct assessment” (41d), according to “law and order” always administered by a “truth” (26b), by a “cause,” completely “different” from what depends on it “for generation” (27a). Such diction describes a rightness forever beyond what we proclaim of it, its religiosity a universalizing force distinguishing between “itself” and the inclination of all bodies regarding it, concepts which Protarchus and Philebus could not have reached, had they tarried at believing in the unthinking “body,” recognizable only through the measureless character of its longings.

But I remember, in the Parmenides, for instance, that Plato supplies us with a Socrates who cannot remove himself from the quandary intrinsic to “abstract ideas” and “the things which partake of them (130b). Questioned “if there is an idea” of “hair, mud, dirt”–or “anything else particularly vile and worthless”–distinct “from the things with which we have to do, or not” (130c-d), Socrates can simply intone a “no”; they “are such as they appear to us,” for “it would be quite absurd to believe that there is an idea of them; and yet I am sometimes disturbed by the thought that perhaps what is true of one thing is true of all” (130d). Even for the Socrates who teaches others that entities differ from the “forms of expression” we level at them, the problem, the intervallic space, stretched between “desire” and its “objects” remains. And that remaining parades how the problem is ours. We are born to it, inheritors of the distances in which all things coexist and whose extent, despite our being “disturbed” by it, promises our propensity to think, to see, to move, to make something out of how we participate in action. They become, those disturbances, those “shock[s],” the distance we live by, the range of sight allowing for the “connected[ness]” that we can, or cannot, conceive of valuing.

Lightning over the Ocean

Bruce Bromley has performed his poetry and music throughout Europe and the US. He is the author of Making Figures: Reimagining Body, Sound, and Image in a World That Is Not for Us, published by the Dalkey Achive Press in 2014, from which this essay has been excerpted and altered. At New York University, he is senior lecturer in expository writing, where he won the 2006 Golden Dozen Award for teaching excellence.