Why I am not a poet (after Frank O’Hara)

Michael Goldberg. Sardines. 1955.
Michael Goldberg. Sardines. 1955.

Frank O’Hara: Why I am not a painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

Frank O’Hara

What makes us what we are?

Why am I a poet and not a painter? — asks Frank O’Hara in this poem. I’d rather be a painter… 

But what kind of answer is possible here? It’s obviously not about some deliberate, conscious decision — free will or not, one doesn’t really get to choose what they are. The only marginally answerable re-wording of this question would be something like “What is it in my inner make-up, in the way my perception and cognition work, that makes me a poet, and not a painter?”

And that’s the question O’Hara seems to have had in mind. At least his answer — if it is an answer — comes in the form of two short stories, one about the process of painting, the other about the process of writing a poem. And there seems to be a clear difference in underlying cognitive processes:

  • The painting starts with a thing (“It needed something there”— says the painter; something = some thing) and transforms into an abstraction, because the thing was “too much”.
  • The poem starts with an abstraction — a thought about colour — and transforms into pages of words (in prose), much more descriptive than the painting. Here is the beginning of these poems, “Oranges”:

Black crows in the burnt mauve grass, as intimate as rotting rice, snot on a white linen field.”

Quite a lot of things — which are, in some mysterious ways, generated by the thought of “orange”. Perhaps as mysterious a transformation as the transformation of sardines into a flurry of colours in Goldberg’s painting:

The painter starts with the image of a thing and transforms it into colour because the thing “was too much”; the poet starts with the idea of colour and transforms into words, because “there should be so much more, not of orange, of words, of how terrible orange is and life”. Orange is never enough for a poet, sardines are too much for a painter.

Is this the answer to the initial question? In a sense, yes, but not quite. The poem is more complex than that, and the complexity resides in how these two little stories fit together.

Both stories — the one about the painter, and the one about the poet — are written (mostly) in the characteristic, and overly simplistic, “I do this, I do that” style, in a mixture of simple present and continuous present tenses. This makes it seem as though the second story followed the first in the real-life unfolding of the events.  

But this is not really the case: the poem, “Oranges”, was written in 1949, and the painting, “Sardines”, was painted in 1955. But there is a connection —  beyond the mere contrast of cognitive processes; it might be invisible in the poem, but it’s obvious once you see the painting. This painting’s colour harmony is orange-y: mix all its colours together, and you’ll end up with orange. It is this colour that connects the first story to the second, as though it’s Goldberg’s painting that inspired O’Hara’s thinking about orange. Not in the realm of real time-space (where it might well have been the other way round), but in the internal logic of the poem itself: after all, O’Hara could have chosen any of his poems to compare the processes. I believe it’s the colour: orange that led him to recall this particular one (or rather a series of twelve, as it happens).

And this creates a kind of semantic circle, which belies the overt simplicity of this poem’s structure: the painting follows the poem in “real life”, but invokes it within the logic of this poem.

And there is another circular movement which replaces the logical, narrative one. This is not mentioned in the poem, but the second story, the story of “Oranges” has a real-life painting-related sequel: in 1952, another painter friend of O’Hara’s, Grace Hartigan, painted a corresponding series, also entitled “Oranges”, incorporating O’Hara’s words into the paintings. So there was a painting process directly inspired by the poem.

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But the poem ends quite differently, with O’Hara seeing Goldberg’s painting in a gallery. It is entitled “Sardines”, even though there are no more sardines in it, just like the poem is called “Oranges”, in spite of having no oranges in it. Both the poet and the painter retained the original “source” of the work in the title, even though it had as well as disappeared in the process. The poem circles back to where it started — to disappearing sardines, and concludes itself with a similarity between two processes, not with the contrast which might explain why the poet is not a painter. Instead, the two processes emerge almost as two sides of the same one, two different views of the same phenomenon.

Lena Levin. Why I am not a poet (after Frank O'Hara). 2016
Lena Levin. Why I am not a poet (after Frank O’Hara). 2016

Since my fun in this life is (mostly) in painting poems, how could I resist the temptation of responding to this poem “in kind” — by a painting entitled “Why I am not a poet?”. I honestly believe the answer given by this painting is about as clear as the answer given by the poem. At least to me it is…

    

Painting Joseph Massey’s “Polar Low”

Lena Levin. Half-sheathed in ice, after Joseph Massey’s “Polar low”. 12″x12″. 2016.

Half-sheathed in ice
a yellow double-wide trailer

mirrors the inarticulate morning.
The amnesiac sun.

And nothing else
to contrast these variations of white

and thicket
choked by thicket

in thin piles that dim the perimeter.

Every other noun
frozen over.

Joseph Massey, “Polar Low”

The poem starts as a landscape — a vast expanse of ice, or snow in morning light, with a single concrete, human-made object, the yellow double-wide trailer. It is described with some precision, but it is half-sheathed in ice.

This half-sheathed is, I believe, the first key to the poem, the first glimpse of it being not only an image, not just a landscape. There is an inner tension in sheathed — a sheath covers a weapon (thus protecting its owner and others from it), but sheathed in the modern usage also invokes the idea of protective covering. It’s also the thing itself that requires protection, rather than others needing protection from it.

Primed by the idea of sheathing, double-wide invokes double-edged (sword). But the trailer is not a sword, is it: it is not only sheathed, but it is also inherently unpowered; it needs another one to move it. Alone, it is truly stuck there in ice, truly forgotten (preparing us for the amnesia of the sun).

But it does something — it mirrors the inarticulate morning, a morning that cannot express itself. By the way, it is the only agency in the poem, filled as it is with passive verbs. And it is the dubious agency of a mirror, which can only reflect — not act.

Why is the morning inarticulate? Perhaps because everything is so white, there is not enough contrast to create a clear picture? This inability of the morning to express itself prepares us for the coming: And nothing else // to contrast these variations of white. Nothing but yellow.

But the question arises: are mornings even supposed to be articulate? The first hint of anthropomorphism in the poem, immediately followed by the amnesiac sun — we don’t usually think of the sun as something having memory. And if you cannot have memory, how can you be amnesiac? Here is the rub, isn’t it — mornings aren’t supposed to be articulate, and this one is not; the sun isn’t supposed to have memory, and it doesn’t. But by stating these truisms in these anthropomorphic and negative terms, the poem implies that they should (or might) have these abilities: to express themselves, to remember.

How does the trailer mirror the morning? Is it because there are reflections in its surface, or in the ice sheathing it? Or is it because its yellow on the surface of the earth is the counterpart of the amnesiac sun in the sky? The trailer is forgotten, the sun is amnesiac.

And there is nothing else.

Wait, but there is: thicket chocked by thicket — the image of bare branches struggling with one another, obstructing one another’s breathing and (possibly) movement. Another meaning of choke: “overwhelm and make someone speechless with a strong and typically negative feeling or emotion”. Are thickets inarticulate too, unable to express themselves because of one another?

But if there are thickets, then it isn’t just (variations of) white and yellow — there is also the black of the branches. Perhaps the branches are also covered with ice and snow, but they are visible, they dim the perimeter — so there are some dark lines in the landscape. But the perimeter of what? Of the trailer? Of the field of the poet’s vision? Of the morning itself? Of the poem? Dim: Do they make the morning and ice less bright? Or less distinct? Less intense?

And the thickets are piled? Are the branches cut, or are they also just frozen? Thickets in thin piles — there is both thickness and thinness in the same thing.

And with this linguistic conundrum between thickness and thinness, the poem finally reveals itself as not-a-landscape: every other noun frozen over.

Are nouns frozen because it’s so cold, so it’s difficult even to utter them — and when they are uttered, they get frozen in the air? Or is it about “freezing” of words, their becoming less warm, less alive, less connected to their relatives and their underlying metaphors.  Thicket might signify anything thick, but now it is frozen in one specific meaning.

So in the end, it seems as though it is language itself — rather than the double-wide trailer with which the poem started — that emerges as being half-sheathed in ice, half-frozen. But it still mirrors things that are, in themselves, inarticulate and amnesiac.

Isn’t this what poetry is for?

The Brain is just the weight of God

Painting Emily Dickinson

Lena Levin. The Brain is just the weight of God. After Emily Dickinson. 2016.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

Emily Dickinson


A dramatic shift in pace and in age — I’ve been painting an Emily Dickinson poem these days. On the one hand, it is a part of this grander quest for a space of unity between poetry and painting. On the other, I am following ModPo 2016 at Coursera.org, and this week’s assignment was close reading of a poem by Emily Dickinson. The painting is — possibly — still in-progress, and below are my close-reading notes informed by this attempt at painting translation.


1. Brain

Dickinson uses this word in such a way as to override the mind-matter duality: brain “stands for” both the material tissue inside one’s head and the mind. In my dictionary, these are two different meanings for brain (1. Tissue; 2. Mind). In lexicography, this structure implies that these meanings cannot be present simultaneously: in each individual usage, the word means either one or the other (otherwise, they would be listed under the same number, in a comma-separated list). I believe my dictionary is correct as far as everyday usage of this word is concerned.

But in this case (as probably in many others), the English language is smarter than its users and lexicographers. Ask a scientist, and the mind and the brain turn out to be the same thing — or rather, two alternative ways to describe the same thing. But the language knew that already, and that’s what Dickinson sees and brings out here. She “wipes away” the duality and falsifies the artificial boundary between the two meanings. In the poem, brain has both meanings simultaneously: the “matter” meaning is evoked by talking about dimensions and weight, the “mind” meaning — by its ability to contain the sky (and the sea, and God). Had she used the word mind here, the poem would have become both trivial (we all know that one’s mind contains the sky, and the sea, and God, too) and false (mind has neither spatial dimensions nor weight).

2. Contain // With ease — and You — beside

An interesting — pseudo-rational — argument of why the brain is wider than the sea. It’s simply because once we put the sea in it, there is still place for You. It can be my (the speaker’s) brain containing the person I talk to (you), or it can be your (the listener’s) brain containing yourself (apart from the sea). Here, too, I believe both interpretations are invoked at the same time.

3. Blue to Blue

This quatrain begins as though it is going to be structurally and semantically parallel to the first one: wider than the sky, deeper than the sea. This expectation is interrupted by the puzzlingly surprising idea that Brain is Blue. Why is it?

On the one hand, it invokes the meaning of blue as “sad, melancholic, depressed”. On the other, I am reminded of Kandinsky’s insight into what he calls “spiritual meanings” of colours. For him, Blue stands for spiritual (as opposed to material), divine, heavenly. This is related to the fact that blue recedes: if something is bluer, it’s generally perceived as being more distant, or even moving away (this effect is often called “atmospheric perspective”). I am not sure, of course, whether it was Dickinson’s intention to invoke this quality.

4. Absorb As Sponges—Buckets—do—.

Because of the non-conventional punctuation, and because the first meaning of bucket is “container”, I first interpreted Buckets as an alternative to Sponges (a kind of “correction”, where the brain is compared to a bucket, rather than a sponge). But then, buckets don’t really absorb, do they?

So the intended meaning is probably buckets as in “large quantities of liquid”. But I think it’s important that the language’s pervasive tendency to conflate “containers” and their contents as meanings of one single word is invoked here, in the reader’s momentary confusion over which meaning to choose. I think it’s important, because its reminiscent of the core motive of the poem: the brain as both a container and its “contents”.   

5. just the weight of God.

The poem suddenly moves from truisms (“the sky is wide, the sea is deep”) to an (almost) blasphemy: God is heavy? You can heft him (or her, or it, or them) Pound for Pound? The idea of God being heavy is smuggled in almost imperceptibly at first, through the lullaby quality of the sky-is-wide-sea-is-deep comforting parallelism.

It’s really this Pound for Pound that brings it home, strikingly, especially after the much more lyrical Blue to Blue of the second quatrain. It invokes a rather disturbing, Dali-worthy, picture of a person carefully hefting a pound of God in one hand and a pound of (their own?) brain in the other. In its turn, this picture brings with it the Merchant of Venice, and his pound of flesh just about to be cut off.

How did it happen, that God becomes as heavy as the sky is wide and the sea is deep? One image that comes to mind is an ocean shore, where all one sees is the sky, and the sea, and the rocks breaking the waves. Now here is something as prototypically heavy as the sea is deep. It is as though God replaces rocks in a familiar seascape.

Interestingly, there is another expectation broken by this quatrain. The width in the first quatrain, and the depth in the second, prime the reader for the third spacial dimension, height. And indeed, God is high would be much “easier” than God is heavy.

6. As Syllable from Sound

Which is of these is compared to God, and which to Brain? Dickinson leaves the question open. But even if she didn’t, it won’t help us decide which might turn out to be a little heavier, because how do we compare Sound to Syllable?

On the one hand, Syllable is a kind of Sound. It is a linguistic sound, a component of speech, and there are certain structural constraints (there ought to be one vowel, and — possibly — one or more consonants on either side of it). So Syllable is something much more defined than Sound, and much more human: it is a part of human language, whereas sounds can be non-human. It is also the stuff of poetry: syllabic structure is much more salient in a poem than in the language in general.

With the most general sense of sound in mind, one can say that Syllable is something much smaller (lighter?) than Sound. But Sound can also refer to a single phoneme (or phone) of language (as in “the sounds of the English language”): if we focus on this meaning, then a syllable consists of one or more sounds — so it is potentially larger than a sound, but not necessarily (/a/ is both a sound (in this sense) and a syllable).

So, in the end, which is which? Which of this strange pair is Brain, and which is God in Dickinson’s comparison?

I am inclined to think God might be to Brain what Sound is to Syllable (that is, that this is the insight of this poem), because Syllable is more human, and more structurally constrained, and more unambiguous than Sound. But the puzzling quality of the comparison might be even more important than any answer after all.   

Still, I cannot help thinking that Colour is to Painting what Sound is to Syllable.

Painting Sonnet 84: On the impossibility of objectivity in Art (Studio notes April 19-April 29, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 84: You are you. 20″×20″. 2016.

Who is it that says most, which can say more,
Than this rich praise, that you alone, are you,
In whose confine immured is the store
Which should example where your equal grew?

Lean penury within that pen doth dwell
That to his subject lends not some small glory;
But he that writes of you, if he can tell
That you are you, so dignifies his story.

Let him but copy what in you is writ,
Not making worse what nature made so clear,
And such a counterpart shall fame his wit,
Making his style admired every where.

   You to your beauteous blessings add a curse,
Being fond on praise, which makes your praises worse.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 84

April 19

There is a straightforward thematic unity between this poem and the previous one: the eighty third is about the “subject matter” needing no painting, this one is about impossibility of “objectivity” in art: its  inability of simply tell that you are you. This shared angle is slightly different from the “Poet and Muse” one: its about “Poet and Matter” (a modern writer might call it “Content”; in Shakespeare the theme of “matter” will return in the eighty sixth sonnet).

Just like I had to expand the “matter” in painting the previous sonnet — from the addressee of the sonnet to the whole of life, so it is with this one. The sonnet is written as though the ultimately impossible task of telling that you are you uniquely applies to the young man, but it’s just the surface of things. The problem is not that the addressee is fond of praise — this isn’t what precludes “objectivity”: one just literally cannot copy in poetry what is writ in life. Or if one can, this is an astounding achievement — and that’s what the poem is about. This applies to painting no less than to poetry, in spite of their seeming difference and the illusion of “realism” in painting.

Isn’t it the inner goal of any true work of art — just telling that you are you, that mountain is (a) mountain, and apple is (an) apple. Expressing the objective reality of life?

There is a fundamental problem in translating poetry into painting, which this poem brings to clear light — because it highlights — and thus relinquishes — its (poetry’s) advantage. Words aren’t things themselves, they are symbols (invoking “concepts”) and pointers (indicating “things”). And, among other things, they can point back to themselves, and even to the absence of themselves. So it is easier to write a poem about not writing poems than to paint a painting about not painting. Or like in this case, to write about inability to say something is easier than to paint the inability to paint something.

This poem says what it claims to be impossible to tell, just by straightforwardly using these words, you are you. Here, the words are spoken — and this is obviously not what is meant by being able to tell that you are you, to copy what in you is writ. And in so doing, it doesn’t just talk about inability to express, but expresses this inability to express.

April 20

My painting has to be not just about the impotency of painting, it has to express this impotency, to enact it — in painting. How can one do that? The solution I began exploring in the first study is the device of “displaced contour” — a conspicuous discord between colour and contours expressing their inability to “copy” life.

Lena Levin. Study for Sonnet 84. April 2016. 20″×10″.

The study was an interesting one to paint, but I didn’t really feel that I was closer to knowing how to paint the sonnet. I felt encouraged about this approach to composing this painting in general, but completely unsure about its subject matter. I feel a certain leeway of randomness in this, because whatever the subject, one cannot “copy” what in it is “writ”.

April 21

Another “study” painting session: still experimenting with the discord between contours and colour, for the eighty fourth sonnet, and adding the idea of reflection(s).

Lena Levin. Still life on a glass table (study for sonnet 84). April 2016.
Lena Levin. Still life on a glass table (study for sonnet 84). April 2016.
April 24
Sonnet 84 (the beginning)
Sonnet 84 (the beginning)

The missing piece of this painting’s puzzle, the missing visual idea came from a strange interplay of light, shadows and reflections of leaves (there is a tree just outside) on my bathroom floor in the morning: their utterly failed, and yet charming, attempt to “represent” the leaves. This was the beginning of this sonnet painting today, even though there was less clarity in mind than I had imagined in advance: some things had to clarify themselves in the process.

The subject matter of this painting — a bunch of flowers — repeats itself three times: the flowers themselves — with some discord between contour and colour; their shadows below, and their vague reflection in the space on the left. Three representations, neither of which captures reality.

April 28
Sonnet 84 (in progress)
Sonnet 84 (in progress)

Today’s painting session: further work on the eighty fourth sonnet, and some adjustments to the eight third one.

Somewhat surprisingly to myself, the theme of these two sonnets — the questioning of art itself, and its relationship to reality — shifted the colour harmony of both paintings: red seeped out of them, which is unusual both for this series, and for my colour harmony in general. What remains is the tension between yellows and blues.    

April 29

A short painting session, but it seems to have brought the eighty forth painting (84) to some stage of completion. The interplay of space and light is beginning to play out, although I am not quite sure it quite expresses the impossibility of objective expression. But I have to leave it at that, and see how it works in the context of the overall “Poet and Muse” composition.

Was it the proud full sail of his great verse?

Lena Levin. "Window". 30"x20". In progress.
Lena Levin. “Window”. 30″x20″. In progress.

This week, I started the preliminary study of Sonnet 86 (“Was it the proud full sail of his great verse…”). “Study” is probably not the right word for this process of letting the sonnet sink fully into my mind-body system and create the seed of a future painting. This description makes the process seem awfully like sexual intercourse, and maybe it is, indeed, a more appropriate simile than “study”.

I am trying to get (back) into biweekly rhythm for this series — a week of preliminary deep engagement with the sonnet, and then a week of painting the sonnet. Like slow (very slow) breathing in and out. This gives me every other week to paint other things — just to keep me alive through the “breathing in” week. This week, I returned to the view from my studio window, which I started two weeks earlier, while studying Sonnet 85.   

Unexpectedly, I realised on Monday that 86 is the last sonnet of the composition I am working on, which I call, for now, “Poem and Muse”.

There is a certain randomness in how the sequence gets broken into these nine-sonnets and sixteen-sonnets sequences; the only mathematical “given” in this is that there will be ten nine-sonnets composition and four sixteen-sonnets composition — this “solution” is determined uniquely by the total number of sonnets. For some reason, I imagined this one will contain sixteen sonnets, but there is a very logical thematic break between eight six and eighty seven – I have no idea how I missed it before. It means that a lot of compositional adjustments I did to individual paintings to create the sense of overall unity were misguided, but somewhat miraculously, the unexpected shift to the nine-sonnets idea works, even though it changes the relative positioning of the individual paintings radically.

On the other hand, the shift gives me an opening into this sonnet, the last sonnet of the composition. It contains, in a sense, a summary, a collage of the whole subsequence, and ends in a complete breakdown of “matter” (“then lacked I matter“). In the future painting, I imagine, it will be a cubist-like breakdown of form. And the colour harmony is also largely determined by the painting’s role in the composition: it ought to lean towards reds, for the sake of the overall harmony. This is a very abstract vision so far, but it’s a beginning.

I love how this sonnet suggests familiarity with ghosts/spirits/muses that visit the “rival” poet, as though they are the same ghosts. This rhymes with my thoughts over these last days, about our basic (in)ability to share experiences. Even if we think we recognise an experience from someone else’s description, it may still be a delusion.

On many levels, it’s a continuation of the previous sonnet’s themes; the challenge is not the very existence of someone else’s great verse (or great paintings, as it happens), but the suspicion that the experience you need to share is already expressed, so there is nothing to be added. It’s only the gap between inner experience and its outer expression, their incomplete alignment, that opens the path for the next artist, the hope to add something new, even if it’s only saying the same old thing in a new way.   

Painting sonnet 42: On metaphors of love and the pain of betrayal

Lena Levin. Sonnet 42: A loss in love. 20"x20". 2013-2014.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 42: A loss in love. 20″x20″. 2013-2014. Click the image to see the painting in its context.

Have you ever wondered, what is language and where it is? It’s in your brain, but it is also in other people’s brains — the same “thing” residing in millions of brains, and easily occupying newly born ones. And you don’t even have conscious access to it: there may be some varying level of conscious control about what one wants to say, but the how of it — both in speaking and in understanding what others say — is supplied from outside the realm of consciousness. The science of linguistics has spent decades in trying to formalise our hidden “knowledge” of language, to make it accessible to conscious rational minds at least potentially — but so far, it has proved to be impossible. And the most troubling aspect of it is that language is not just a means of communication, it is also an essential instrument of thinking, a covert shaper of our understanding of the world.

Poetry is a very special kind of relationship between the human mind and its language, and poets have, for all I know, a very different type of access to language from the rest of us (or maybe language has a different type of access to them). But in this sonnet, I believe, something still more special is happening: the speaker tries to free his thoughts and emotions from the constraints of language. Shakespeare is wrestling with his Language — just like in the story of Jacob wrestling with his God in Genesis 32:21-33. And in doing so, he shows the reader the power language has over her own mind.    

[line]

[accordion_item title=”Read Shakespeare’s sonnet 42“]That thou hast her, it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I loved her dearly;
That she hath thee, is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly.

Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye:
Thou dost love her, because thou knowst I love her;
And for my sake even so doth she abuse me,
Suffering my friend for my sake to approve her.

If I lose thee, my loss is my love’s gain,
And losing her, my friend hath found that loss;
Both find each other, and I lose both twain,
And both for my sake lay on me this cross:

But here’s the joy; my friend and I are one;
Sweet flattery! then she loves but me alone.

[/accordion_item]

[line]

On the surface, this sonnet sounds like a feeble attempt to talk oneself out of a painful situation: My lover and my friend are having an affair, and this hurts badly — so I try to find an explanation for this ultimate betrayal, an explanation which would safeguard my belief in their love for me and thus ease the pain.

Modern psychology tells us that we all make up such “narrative painkillers” for ourselves all the time, creating self-serving stories of our lives in which the story-teller, our conscious self, is the major protagonist. Here, the reader may suspect that the affair has nothing to do with the speaker — in this love triangle, he is the forgotten apex. But his self-story transforms the triangle into a cross, putting himself into the centre of the whole situation:

Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye:
Thou dost love her, because thou knowst I love her;
And for my sake even so doth she abuse me,
Suffering my friend for my sake to approve her.

But consciousness is a liar, and its stories are incomplete at best, and often amount to self-deceit. One is usually unaware of it (otherwise, the self-deceit wouldn’t have worked), but not here. The sonnet is spoken as though by two “selves”: the one who is trying to deceive himself, and the one who is witnessing the deception. The speaker is aware of self-serving nature and weakness of his own story: it’s all empty words, sweet yet ineffectual flattery against this cross of two betrayals, a vaguely blasphemous image of unbearable pain. In this visually deserted sonnet, the cross is falling on me, like the naked truth breaking through the veil of empty lies.

The sonnet suggests, and not very subtly, this “self-deceit” interpretation: the first quatrain reads as a forthright statement of facts, and what follows is framed as excuses and sweet flattery. Frankly, the idea that two people who are betraying you with one another do so out of love and for your own good is as a preposterous example of self-deceit as any, and the reader might enjoy a fleeting delusion of “seeing through” Shakespeare’s feeble defences: surely, none of us would ever console ourselves with something that absurd.

But why is it that the first quatrain reads as an “objective truth”? One can think of many reasons, but there is one that, I believe, is harder to notice than others: it is written completely within the “love-as-ownership” metaphor, and ownership is all about “hard, objective facts”. This metaphor is pervasive in the English language, and it makes it appearance elsewhere in the sonnet, too (in the use of words like loss and gain, and even in the pronoun my), but nowhere as blatantly as in the first quatrain. And metaphors shape our thoughts and, through them, our emotions, whether we want it or not. With this in mind, this sonnet reads as the poet’s battle against the “love-as-ownership” metaphor governing his view of the situation and his feelings.

What I first viewed as making up a self-soothing story is now revealed as an attempt to replace the “love-as-ownership” with understanding love as co-feeling. But it doesn’t quite work: by the end of the third quatrain, the pain is still there, more vicious, it seems, than ever. It’s exactly when the speaker invokes compassion (If I lose thee, my loss is my love’s gain), that the cross, this striking image of his pain (and the sole image of the sonnet) pierces the veil of words. It’s as though his pain tells him: whatever words you try, I am still here within, ready to destroy you. If love is compassion, the pain would seem to be unjustified: it is not validated by love anymore. This is, I believe, why the pain strikes back at the speaker at this point: its inner truth would not be denied.

The thing is, metaphors have the power to shape our minds even if one doesn’t consciously believe in their content. I, for one, loathe the idea of love as ownership, but my mind accepted the first quatrain of this sonnet as an objective description of reality without a moment’s hesitation, simply because this metaphor is more deeply embedded in the language than its alternatives. And so it is with the speaker of the sonnet: he knows that this metaphor is the source of his pain, but consciously replacing it with compassion doesn’t quite help, because it sits deeper, in the very core of the language. And the language strikes back at its poet with the pain-as-cross metaphor invoked by his attempt to move away from love-as-ownership, towards higher, self-sacrificing understanding of love.

So, is Shakespeare defeated by his language? Not quite. He turns the tables in the couplet, with the love-as-unity metaphor (my friend and I are one). For a brief moment, the unity metaphor dissolves not only the nightmare of love-as-ownership, but also another, more fundamental linguistic constraint on his feelings, the strict “I – Thou – Other” structure it imposes on our interactions with the world.

The speaker has to choose his thou from the onset, in the first quatrain: he could have addressed his lover (rather than his friend) as “thou”, but what he absolutely cannot do is have two “thou”s at the same time. Not that he doesn’t try: the second quatrain is an attempt to do exactly that: Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye, pulls both of them into the domain of “second person”, the addressees of the sonnet. Together, they can be ye, and yet they cannot both be thou. The language completely blocks us from maintaining several distinct thou-relationships at the same time, and the speaker’s futile attempt to have two of them promptly leads him to lose his thou altogether. From now on, both the friend and the lover are “third persons” (the plot of the sonnet in a nutshell), until the unity metaphor is introduced in the couplet and pulls the friend into the domain of “I”.

But the unity metaphor cannot really replace the love-as-ownership metaphor in the fabric of language, because language is all about drawing distinctions, not about recognising unity. Nor can the human mind dwell in this high place for too long: the distinction between “I” and “other” inevitably reappears, and turns love-as-unity into sweet flattery: then she loves but me alone… This me alone is the final paradox, the unresolved battle between poetry and language: syntactically, it’s a part of the “sweet flattery” (she loves only me), but it’s also the last chord of the sonnet, resonating in the reader’s mind long after the sonnet is over: remaining alone.

Even though I’ve known about the power of metaphors for a long time, I’ve never realised it so fully and viscerally as in painting of this sonnet. This clash between my belief about how I experience love, and the ease with which my mind swallows the love-as-ownership metaphor as a “fact” revealed rather painfully how little I know myself, and what a powerless slave of language I am.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 42: the 2013 version
Lena Levin. Sonnet 42: the 2013 version

At another level, the sonnet added something essential to my understanding of my own relationship with colour, something I am not ready to put into words yet (if ever). The painting of it turned into a battle with colour; the first version, of 2013, was nearly black-and-white, but I had to return to the painting more than a year later. Or maybe it’s the colour that had to return to it, and I just did what Rilke thought is the right thing for a painter to do, and let the colours settle the matter between themselves.

It is incredibly tempting to see this battle with colour as the painting counterpart of Shakespeare’s battle with language, but, I feel, it would be too superficial, too easy (let alone being, obviously, way too self-flattering) to give in to this temptation—in short, it would be a falsehood. I don’t (yet) have a complete understanding of what has happened here, so I will have, in Rilke’s words, to live the question.

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Julian Jaynes on how metaphors generate consciousness (Part II)

In her essay for “This Idea Must Die” (2015), Susan Blackmore writes:

“Consciousness is not some weird and wonderful product of some brain processes but not others. Rather, it’s an illusion constructed by a clever brain and body in a complex social world. We can speak, think, refer to ourselves as agents, and so build up the false idea of a persisting self that has consciousness and free will.”

(I am very grateful to Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, who wrote about this book — which I bought immediately — in her Monday post).

Illusion or not, consciousness is not something we just “believe in”: it is our immediate experience, and the social world as we know it wouldn’t be possible without this idea of Self endowed with consciousness and free will (just consider for a moment all the legal and political implications of abandoning this idea). This conflict between experience and knowledge is thus not just a matter of abstract scientific discussions; it touches our very existence on an urgently personal level.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The Rage of Achilles
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The Rage of Achilles. 1757

This is why Juilian Jaynes’s book on the origin of consciousness is so important — because it offers one of the most compelling (even if controversial) theory on how this illusion is constructed, and when and why it originated. One of his core ideas is that the cornerstone of consciousness is metaphor. A mind boggling implication is that consciousness is, historically speaking, a very recent phenomenon (somewhere between two and three millennia old) — a cultural (rather than biological) development, a stage in the evolution of language. According to Jaynes, the heroes of Iliad and the early prophets of the Old Testament didn’t have this particular illusion (they had an entirely different one instead). This means, among other things, that we must be right in the midst of a relatively fast evolution of consciousness, and — as far as I am concerned — this radically changes the concept of history and our place in it.

So what is metaphor, and how can it generate consciousness? Perhaps most familiar — and certainly most conspicuous — are fresh, striking metaphors we encounter in literature, like “Juliet is the sun” or “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, but that’s not what Jaynes means. He uses the word in a much more general sense:

“The most fascinating property of language is its capacity to make metaphors. But what an understatement! For metaphor is not a mere extra trick of language, as it is so often slighted in the old schoolbooks on composition; it is the very constitutive ground of language. I am using metaphor here in its most general sense: the use of a term for one thing to describe another because of some kind of similarity between them or between their relations to other things. There are thus always two terms in a metaphor, the thing to be described, which I shall call the metaphrand, and the thing or relation used to elucidate it, which I shall call the metaphier. A metaphor is always a known metaphier operating on a less known metaphrand. I have coined these hybrid terms simply to echo multiplication where a multiplier operates on a multiplicand.”

Nowadays, more common terms for what he calls metaphier and metaphrand are source and target; these, of course, are metaphors themselves, and you can perhaps feel how useful this way of extending language is. I feel quite certain it will be easier for you to remember that the more familiar thing in metaphor is called “source”, and the thing to be described, “target” — rather than to remember which of them is “metaphier” and which “metaphrand”.    

Leonardo da Vinchi. Vitruvian man.
Leonardo da Vinchi. Vitruvian man. 1492

Whatever terms we choose, Jaynes is right: metaphors are indeed ubiquitous in language; in fact, there is hardly a meaningful sentence without a metaphor. The following list is just scratching the surface:

“The human body is a particularly generative metaphier, creating previously unspeakable distinctions in a throng of areas. The head of an army, table, page, bed, ship, household, or nail, or of steam or water; the face of a clock, cliff, card, or crystal; the eyes of needles, winds, storms, targets, flowers, or potatoes; the brow of a hill; the cheeks of a vise; the teeth of cogs or combs; the lips of pitchers, craters, augers; the tongues of shoes, board joints, or railway switches; the arm of a chair or the sea; the leg of a table, compass, sailor’s voyage, or cricket field; and so on and on.”

If we look at a language synchronically, as it is now, some metaphors are “live” and some are “dead”. A dead metaphor is one whose source is lost and forgotten: unless you know the word’s etymology, you would never recognise it as a metaphor. Jaynes writes:

“In early times, language and its referents climbed up from the concrete to the abstract on the steps of metaphors, even, we may say, created the abstract on the bases of metaphors.

It is not always obvious that metaphor has played this all-important function. But this is because the concrete metaphiers become hidden in phonemic change, leaving the words to exist on their own. Even such an unmetaphorical-sounding word as the verb ‘to be’ was generated from a metaphor. It comes from the Sanskrit bhu, “to grow, or make grow,” while the English forms ‘am’ and ‘is’ have evolved from the same root as the Sanskrit asmi, “to breathe.” It is something of a lovely surprise that the irregular conjugation of our most nondescript verb is thus a record of a time when man had no independent word for ‘existence’ and could only say that something ‘grows’ or that it ‘breathes’.”

Michelangelo. Creation of Adam
Michelangelo. Creation of Adam (Sistine Chapel).

Our languages are filled with such dead metaphors with forgotten source meanings, which — at the present time — can play no part in generating consciousness. But there are also lots of “live” metaphors, where the source meaning still “works” as a component of the target meaning.

Consider any word which has meanings both from the physical-behavioural world and from the inner domain of cognition. For example, grasp: one can grasp a stone or one can grasp an idea.

You don’t need to know the etymology of this verb to have a clear intuition about what is the target here and what the source, which meaning is primary and which metaphorical: the direction is always from the “outer” world to “inner”, from “objective” to “subjective”, from physical to cognitive. This phenomenon is not even directly related to the actual history of a word: it’s a feature of one’s own internalised language, the language’s particular manifestation living within the individual brain. The mind refers to the outer, objective world to “model” its inner world of ideas: grasping an idea is like grasping a stone, not vice versa.   

Have you ever wondered what actually happens in the brain when you understand a word? For example, if you listen to someone saying something as simple as that they jumped, what’s actually happening in your brain to create the understanding of what you’ve heard? There is an increasing body of evidence that such understanding involves partial simulation of the very action of jumping. The pattern of neural codes engaged in understanding the word jump and the pattern of neural codes engaged in actual jumping have a portion in common (but obviously not enough to make you jump whenever you say or hear the word). And if we hear the same word used metaphorically — for example, something about someone jumping to conclusions — it would still involve processing of the word jump, and hence the corresponding neural simulation of actual jumping. The sensory properties of the source are thus brought in to contribute to the target meaning.

I hope it is gradually getting clear how metaphors can generate the illusion of special inner mind-space where consciousness “takes place”. Every time the brain processes a sentence about grasping an idea or jumping to conclusion, it simulates a space where these actions might take place, a space where ideas, conclusions, thoughts are modelled as “things” in the outer world — something one can see, approach, jump to, or get hold of.

Consciousness itself emerges as a special kind of “metaphorical” operation in which the world around us is the source and what’s happening inside us, the target. And, of course, this internal model of the outside world contains a little “I” who acts there — indeed, if I approach a problem both “I” and the “problem” must be located within the same space. This thinking and willing “I” turns out to be a tiny little actor on the stage within my own mind-space. Jaynes writes about these illusionary mind-spaces:

“They are a part of what it is to be conscious and what it is to assume consciousness in others. Moreover, things that in the physical-behavioral world do not have a spatial quality are made to have such in consciousness. Otherwise we cannot be conscious of them. This we shall call spatialization.

Time is an obvious example. If I ask you to think of the last hundred years, you may have a tendency to excerpt the matter in such a way that the succession of years is spread out, probably from left to right. But of course there is no left or right in time. There is only before and after, and these do not have any spatial properties whatever—except by analog. You cannot, absolutely cannot think of time except by spatializing it. Consciousness is always a spatialization in which the diachronic is turned into the synchronic, in which what has happened in time is excerpted and seen in side-by-sideness.”

This spatialisation of time is what allows our little metaphorical “I”s — the actors within our mind-spaces — to travel in time: reminiscence about the past, imagine different futures (the latter feature is particularly important, because of its potential role in willing and decision-making).

But the spatialisation of time is also a metaphor: we understand time by modelling it as a kind of space, and this, too, happens in language. The time-as-space metaphor tends to be embedded not only into the vocabulary, but in the grammar as well — for example, when we use spatial prepositions for time periods (something may happen in America and in winter, within a building or within a month). Just as we learn to understand thoughts and ideas as objects in space when we acquire language in childhood, so do we learn to think of time as a space.

This is how, according to Jaynes (or at least to my understanding of his theory), consciousness is generated in each of us now, by modern languages and their live metaphors. But languages were not always like this: their inherent models of our inner worlds weren’t always there, they have evolved over time. And before that happened, there could have been no consciousness as we know it. I will return to this — historical — dimension of Jaynes’s theory next week. Stay tuned…    

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Julian Jaynes on consciousness and language: Part 1

Every once in a while, a genuine breakthrough in science remains unnoticed (or almost unnoticed) and unabsorbed in the relevant domain of knowledge for a long time. The history of science knows many such episodes — but, of course, only those that were “found” and appreciated later on, when the domain was ready, or the intellectual climate has changed. There might have been more — either still waiting to be found, or forgotten forever, or otherwise rediscovered afresh by someone else.

August Rodin. The thinker
August Rodin. The thinker

I’ve come to believe Julian Jaynes’s “The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind” (1976) may be such a breakthrough — if not exactly unnoticed, but certainly underappreciated and unabsorbed by the domains of knowledge which his theory might potentially change. There are many of them — from psychiatry to archeology; the book is refreshingly cross-disciplinary in our age of increasingly stifling specialisation. There might not be a single scholar active in the world today who would be competent enough to evaluate the theory in all its details. As for me, I can only speak for linguistics — the only domain I used to work in — and I truly wish I knew about this book when I did; in fact, I wish it were (formally or informally) part of required reading for all linguists.

Not because Jaynes was necessarily right in all details and nuances of his theory (he probably wasn’t), but because the book questions some very fundamental, core assumptions of the domain — and when they are challenged, it turns out that they aren’t really justified by much more than “common beliefs” and overall intellectual climate of the age. Personally, one of the most life-consuming projects of my years in linguistics both originated and, ultimately, failed, because of my own unquestioned belief in these received assumptions (this research project is way too technical to discuss in the context of this site — and, as I said, it was a failure anyway — but, come to think of it, this work had probably prepared my mind for Jaynes’s book. It may also be, of course, that this is just how my consciousness prefers to build my personal narrative, my own story of my life — just because it would be too hard to accept all those years as total waste).   

Luckily for us all, Jaynes was also an excellent writer, and his book is written as though for an intellectually curious layman (rather than just for peers, as scholarly books usually are). Given the cross-disciplinary scope of the book, he probably had no other choice: a peer in one domain is inevitably a layman in another. I may be better versed in general linguistics than he was, but I am certainly nothing but a curious layman in all other domains he touches upon; but even in linguistics, although I do find some details of the theory doubtful (and certainly often speculative), yet it is still an enlightening, even eye-opening read overall.

Marc Chagall. I and The Village. 1911
Marc Chagall. I and The Village. 1911

More importantly still, it was a mind-opener on a more personal level. It has changed the way I see other people, and the world, and my own place in it. In particular, it changed — for me — the historical and intellectual context of this project, Sonnets in Colour, so I will certainly write about it more here in the future. But the book should certainly be read in its mind-boggling entirety — it is really a brilliant book: I am not at all surprised that it is still in print, after nearly forty years since it was first published.        

One of the key points of Jaynes’s theory is that consciousness, the subjective human mind as we experience it, could emerge only at a certain, and relatively recent, stage of language evolution. To put it even more strongly, consciousness is generated by language, and lots of things must have happened in the evolution of language from its humble beginnings as rudimentary communication system before such a thing as modern consciousness could become possible.  

But what is consciousness? It is simultaneously most self-evident and most elusive thing in the world. Most self-evident because it is our immediate experience of the world (as we know it, or, more precisely — as we know that we know it). Most elusive because we tend to understand things by way of comparing them with something more familiar, more evident, more directly accessible to our outward-directed senses — in short, by finding an appropriate metaphor from the “real world”. But, as Jaynes writes:    

“If understanding a thing is arriving at a familiarizing metaphor for it, then we can see that there always will be a difficulty in understanding consciousness. For it should be immediately apparent that there is not and cannot be anything in our immediate experience that is like immediate experience itself. There is therefore a sense in which we shall never be able to understand consciousness in the same way that we can understand things that we are conscious of.”

Incidentally, as far as I could gather, much of the controversy around Jaynes’s theory when it was first published was generated by huge differences in how the very word, “consciousness”, was understood (and a range of derivative words, corresponding to — supposedly — different types of consciousnesses, have been introduced since then, which didn’t make things much clearer). It was not, I believe, because of Jaynes’s failure to define what he is talking about, nor of his readers’ failure to understand his definition. It might just be in the nature of consciousness to hide from itself, to resist observation and analysis: turning consciousness upon itself makes one quite giddy and all but makes the concept itself dissolve into thin air.

And it’s also in consciousness’s nature to present itself as a much deeper, larger, essential part of our mental life than it really is. However it is defined, it is clear that a lot happens in our minds without us being conscious of it at all. Jaynes himself uses the metaphor of flashlight:

“Consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of. How simple that is to say; how difficult to appreciate! It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.”

I’ve used the word “metaphor” twice in this post so far, but there are hundreds of metaphors in it already. Just for instance, I called consciousness a thing a couple of paragraphs above, just because it easier to talk about things; that’s how nouns of our languages work, even though we routinely use them to point to things which aren’t things at all (like consciousness, for example). And just now, I said that nouns “work”, implicitly drawing in the metaphor of language as some sort of machine. That’s the way we talk, mostly without noticing it and, as a matter of habit, using metaphors that are already deeply embedded in our languages. But the way we talk is, more or less, the way we think, at least consciously — and this understanding is at the core of Jaynes’s argument.

And there is an important historical dimension to it, because metaphors that are now so deeply embedded in languages that we don’t even recognise them as such were once quite fresh and new — like, for example, Jaynes’s metaphor of consciousness as flashlight above. And before they were new, they didn’t exist at all — it took a long, long time to extend language’s capacity to its current familiar state, and for all this time consciousness as we know it couldn’t exist.

Pavel Filonov. Heads. 1924
Pavel Filonov. Heads. 1924

I will return to the topic of metaphors and Jaynes’s idea of their consciousness-generating potential next week. For now, let me introduce one essential example of metaphor: the mind-space, that inner space into which one can go to think, to ask oneself questions, to recall one’s memories or to imagine the future, where one can see solutions and grasp complex ideas — in other words, the space where consciousness “takes place”. Jaynes writes:

“<…>when we introspect, we seem to look inward on an inner space somewhere behind our eyes. But what on earth do we mean by ‘look’? We even close our eyes sometimes to introspect even more clearly. Upon what? Its spatial character seems unquestionable. Moreover we seem to move or at least ‘look’ in different directions. And if we press ourselves too strongly to further characterise this space (apart from its imagined contents), we feel a vague irritation, as if there were something that did not want to be known, some quality which to question was somehow ungrateful, like rudeness in a friendly place.”

Not only do we “have” this space within our heads, but we also assume it in others, even though

“we know perfectly well that there is no such space in anyone’s head at all! There is nothing inside my head or yours except physiological tissue of one sort or another. <…> It means that we are continually inventing these spaces in our own and other people’s heads, knowing perfectly well that they don’t exist anatomically; and the location of these ‘spaces’ is indeed quite arbitrary. The Aristotelian writings, for example, located consciousness or the abode of thought in and just above the heart, believing the brain to be a mere cooling organ since it was insensitive to touch or injury.”

Wherever it is located, this illusionary inner space seems absolutely essential to the very existence of conscious thought, and it is implied in a whole range of everyday words and expressions. But where does it come from, and when did it originate?

I’ll be back with Jaynes’s answer to this question next week — please stay tuned!

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On compassion as co-feeling

[feature_headline type=”left, center, right” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=””]We cannot foresee how our words will be heard, but we are given compassion, like we are given grace. — Fyodor Tyutchev [/feature_headline]

In 1978 my father, Sergey Maslov, started a small underground (samizdat) magazine in St.Petersburg (then Leningrad), called ‘Summa’ (‘The Sum’). It was a really small affair: only eight copies ‘printed’ (meaning ‘typewritten’), four for Leningrad and four for Moscow.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 13: Against the stormy gusts of winter day and barren rage of death's eternal cold
Lena Levin. Sonnet 13: Against the stormy gusts of winter day and barren rage of death’s eternal cold. 20″x20″. Oil on canvas

Typewritten copies, sometimes barely readable: that’s the form our most interesting reading took in those days. That’s how I first read Orwell’s “1984”, and Huxley’s “Brave New World”, and even something as seemingly apolitical and innocent as Nabokov’s “The Gift”. Since the copies were so scarce, one often had to read really fast (it wasn’t unusual to get a book for one night only). Both production and distribution of these uncensored texts were punishable offences, because they were deemed, by virtue of being uncensored, “anti-Soviet” (the reading of them, remarkably, wasn’t illegal).

My father started “The Sum” because he painfully felt the chasm between two schools of free (uncensored) political thought: atheist, Europe-oriented liberals and orthodox, conservative, anti-Western “Slavophils”. This chasm began when Peter the Great first tried to “westernise” his empire in the beginning of the eighteenth century, and then kept reemerging whenever a brief period of even limited political freedom occurred in the Russian history. As crippled as the freedom was in the seventies, it was still a freedom compared with Stalin’s times — and the chasm was there again. “The Sum” was an attempt to heal it, to inspire mutual understanding, and my father used the Russian word for compassion to describe the only path to it he saw.

Although I translated the Russian word he used (сочувствие) correctly just now, it has a broader semantic range than the English ‘compassion’. At one point in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, Milan Kundera halts the story to make a similar linguistic point. Here is what he says:

“All languages that derive from Latin form the word ‘compassion’ by combining the prefix meaning ‘with’ (com-) and the root meaning ‘suffering’ (Late Latin, passio). In other languages, Czech, Polish, German, and Swedish, for instance — this word is translated by a noun formed of an equivalent prefix combined with the word that means ‘feeling’ (Czech sou-cit, Polish współ-czucie, German Mit-gefühl, Swedish med-känsla). In languages that derive from Latin, ‘compassion’ means: we cannot look on coolly as others suffer; or, we sympathise with those who suffer. Another word with approximately the same meaning, ‘pity’, connotes a certain condescension towards the sufferer (French, pitié; Italian, pieta; etc.). ‘To take pity on a woman’ means that we are better off than she, that we stoop to her level, lower ourselves.

That is why the word ‘compassion’ generally inspires suspicion; it designates what is considered an inferior, second-rate sentiment that has little to do with love. To love someone out of compassion means not really to love.

In languages that form the word ‘compassion’ not from the root ‘suffering’ but from the root for ‘feeling’, the word is used in approximately the same way, but to contend that it designates a bad or inferior sentiment is difficult. The secret strength of its etymology floods the word with another light and gives a broader meaning: to have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other’s misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion — joy, anxiety, happiness, pain. This kind of compassion (in the sense of soucit, Polish współczucie, German Mitgefühl, Swedish medkänsla) therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme.”

Marc Chagall. The birthday. Oil on canvas. 1915.
Marc Chagall. The birthday. Oil on canvas. 1915. 80.5×99.5 cm.

English, of course, doesn’t (strictly speaking) derive from Latin, but it has a long-standing habit of borrowing words without translating them part-by-part, and that’s how Middle English borrowed the word ‘compassion’ from Old French. Its inner structure has had no power over its meaning, since the word ‘suffer’, albeit also originally from Latin, had been borrowed even earlier, via the Anglo-Norman route. I suppose ‘compassion’ could have linked itself to the word ‘passion’ in the course of language evolution, but it didn’t — so for the sake of Kundera’s sweeping comparison, English belongs with French and Italian.

I am not completely sure Kundera is right about all languages that created this word by translating its components (as with-feeling, or co-feeling); the secret power of word’s inner structure doesn’t necessarily work in the same way even in similar circumstances. But, obviously, he is right about Czech — except he also felt the need to make this point within his novel, which, after all, was written in Czech. Come to think about it, one doesn’t go into lengthy linguistic asides for every word one uses in a novel, unless there is a certain semantic fluidity, maybe a not fully realised potential, some intrinsic variability in the word’s meaning (I wrote about this potential for instability in words describing inner experiences in an earlier post).

Or maybe this thought crossed my mind just because I feel this instability in Russian. Its word for ‘compassion’ has the same inner structure as in Czech or German, translated part-by-part from Greek, as co-feeling, so the structure exerts a similar pressure on its meaning. Since the structure is quite transparent, the word would connect itself — quite literally, on the neural level — to feeling with in each new brain where it is ‘replicated’ in childhood. My own version of this word is certainly inherited from my father, but I am not sure this particular ‘mutation’ of its meaning has ever been common among the speakers of Russian. I remember he used to separate the prefix from the root by a hyphen in writing, со-чувствие, as though he wanted to re-awaken this inner structure and its semantic potential in his readers’ minds.

Rembrandt. Two old men disputing. 1628.
Rembrandt. Two old men disputing. 1628. Oil on oak panel. 72×55 cm.

The meaning he had in mind was, I believe, close to Kundera’s ‘emotional telepathy’, but more intellectual than romantic: it was co-feeling as a path to understanding another’s thoughts, truly understanding them; a path that lies through feeling another’s feelings: the feelings that fuel thoughts, and the feelings invoked by thoughts. A synthesis between co-feeling and co-thinking. At least that’s how I understood him.

This variation on the theme of compassion can be traced back to a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev, a nineteenth century Russian poet. He wrote: We cannot foresee how our words will be heard, but we are given compassion, like we are given grace. Like the word ‘grace’ points to the experience of unity with the divine, so ‘compassion’, in this sense of co-feeling, points to the experience of unity with other human beings.

Both Kundera’s experience of the supreme form of romantic love, and my father’s experience of the supreme form of intellectual communion — both these experiences certainly exist, which is to say, they are possible. But I am afraid they don’t really have names, not even in Czech and Russian, respectively, because these meanings are hidden – drowned, as it were, in the semantic pond of compassion. In his linguistic aside, Kundera tells us that the words for co-feeling are used “in approximately the same way” as their French (and English) counterparts (and if they are used in approximately the same way, then, mutatis mutandis, they have approximately the same meaning).   

I am afraid these experiences belong to what Hannah Arendt calls, following René Char, “inheritance with no will-and-testament”, a treasure occasionally found by some, but lost again and again — because there is no name, no “tradition which selects and names, which hands down and preserves, which indicates where the treasures are and what their worth is” (Hannah Arendt “Between Past and Future”). And that’s a pity, because these are glorious treasures, aren’t they?

But what can one do? No one can create a tradition by themselves (it requires a multitude by definition), but anyone can contribute. It’s always like this with languages: no single speaker can change a language, but everyone can add to a language change — just by talking in a certain way, and thereby influencing others. It’s a peculiar process, language change: with few exceptions, it’s impossible to pinpoint its beginning, because a novel usage would pop up here and there, sometimes for a long time, without any apparent long-term effect. And then, out of the blue, it takes off and spreads — and the change is complete in what seems like no time, as though it has always been that way.      

Isn’t that what Milan Kundera was doing with his aside about a particular meaning of soucit — willing the experience into the future? And my father with his consistent use of сo-чувствие — both in “The Sum”, and in other writings, and in talking? It certainly feels like an inheritance, willed to me in the most primal sense — I’ve always known where this treasure is, and its worth (even if it took me some time to realise it). Finding it, though — ay, there is the rub.

 

On the miracle of mutual understanding

[feature_headline type=”left, center, right” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h5″ icon=””]…one can never be sure that the variant of a word that lives in one’s own brain matches the one that lives in the brain of another. [/feature_headline]

Edouard Manet. The Railway. 1873. Oil on canvas. 93.3 × 111.5 cm.
Edouard Manet. The Railway. 1873. Oil on canvas. 93.3 × 111.5 cm.

Have you ever wondered what a miracle it is that we are able to understand one another at all, even if imperfectly, when we talk about inner, invisible things, about the contents of consciousness?
I used the word thing in the previous sentence, even though these inner states and events are not really things at all, and herein lies one aspect of this mystery. The words of our languages are well-adapted to point to something in the outer world (and, come to think about it, we ourselves are well-adapted to orient ourselves in this world). But when the mind turns upon itself, it all quickly grows increasingly confusing.

Consider how a child learns a word like table or tree. In understanding the meanings of these words, she is helped along by all the tables and trees she sees around her; she only has to understand that that is what the adults are “pointing to” with these particular words (and children are really good at it, that is how we are able to acquire our native languages so easily). And so these words are able to re-create themselves in newly arriving brains with a high degree of what geneticists call fidelity of replication: you can be fairly sure that the word table in your child’s brain is a good, faithful copy of the same word in your own brain.

But what about love, or shame, or courage? The faculty of language acquisition we are born with ensures that a child would guess that there is an inner state such a word must point to, and try to identify this hypothetical state with something she feels in herself. Nowadays, parents are often advised to try and understand what their child is feeling and name these feelings for them. I am not sure how many parents actually try to do that, and how accurately they are able to identify their child’s feeling even if they do. But it certainly wasn’t a common parenting practice over the course of our languages’ evolution; most children are, and have always been, on their own in this daunting task.

It doesn’t help that some states of mind are supposed to be experienced much later in life, when the normal age of language acquisition is long since over, and we have lost the childhood’s natural ability to acquire language as though by osmosis. How many times was a youngster’s question about love answered with something like “You’ll know it when it happens”? (And then, when she finally believes that she knows, she is quite likely to be told that what she feels cannot be “real love”…)

And languages differ wildly in what a child is supposed to be able to understand and experience. In Russian, for instance, the word for conscience was borrowed very long ago from Greek by translating its components, as co-knowledge (Russian, со-весть) and belongs by now to a very basic vocabulary: generally, a Russian child is supposed to infer, at a very early age, that she is expected to have something within that is able to tell right from wrong (and in exactly the same way, I might add, that it does within her parents, because, obviously, the word is most often mentioned when a child misbehaves in one way or another). And if she doesn’t feel that she has it? Well, it’s just too bad to even think about.

But there is more: the faculty of language acquisition works in such a way that a child must believe that different words must point to different things; it really helps in learning words like apple and pear; in the domain of mental states, this leads one to the unconscious assumption that there are as many distinct feelings, states of mind, mental faculties, etc. as there are words in one’s native language for them. Can this be true, in view of how widely languages vary even in size (let alone the details) of their mental and emotional vocabularies? Frankly, I am not sure.

It’s no wonder, perhaps, that there is now a new word, alexithymia, for inability to name one’s own emotions — a personality trait supposed to characterise about ten percent of the general population (it would be interesting to learn whether this percentage depends on the native language). All in all, it seems stranger that most of us somehow succeed in this seemingly hopeless endeavour of establishing a correspondence between the words of our languages and our own states of mind, at least enough to go through life believing that we actually do have shared meanings for these words (in spite of constant misunderstandings and failures of communication).

But even if we do succeed, it seems clear that the fidelity of replication must be much, much lower for mental and emotional vocabulary: one can never be sure that the variant of a word that lives in one’s own brain matches the one that lives in the brain of another. I ran into this problem the other day, when I was trying to write about Titian’s “Man with a glove” (it was the original plan for this day’s post). I knew that the word compassion is a key to my relationship with this painting, but suddenly realised that I might have a completely idiosyncratic variant of this word living in my head.

It’s partly a matter of language interference (two languages coexisting in one brain make things even more complicated than they normally are), but not quite: at least as much, I believe, this particular mutation of meaning is part of my life’s story, and it may be more essential for the whole “Sonnets in colour” project than I understood before. And so I’ve decided to spend some time exploring the very concept of compassion, and my own mutated version of it.

I would so much like to know whether this means I also have a mutated experience of compassion, but that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? We have very limited ability of comparing our experiences directly, without the mediation of words. Or art…