The philosophy we want is one of fluxions and mobility. . . . We want a ship in those billows we inhabit. An angular, dogmatic house would be rent to chips and splinters in this storm of many elements. No, it must be tight, and fit to the form of man.
—Emerson, “Montaigne; or, the Skeptic”
In 1966 Celan visits Heidegger at the philosopher’s hut in the Black Forest. The visit is only a few hours, a summer afternoon. The possible commerce between the two is as obvious as the reason that commerce won’t be very possible.
They take a walk. The hut edges a wide meadow. Apparently Celan’s driver waits with the car. There’s no record of their conversation, unless the poem Celan writes about it is a record.
Let’s not too much milk the latent drama for our own projection—it’s possible the meeting was not of deep importance to either. But there’s a last thing, a small thing, a fastidious observance of bourgeois tact: Heidegger’s maintenance of a guestbook.
Celan writes his name in the book. This is what his poem is about, if by about we can recall an older sense of the word and mean what the poem is outside of, what it is around. The inscription speaks of the hope of a word to come.
The distinctive rhetorical move of Emerson’s essay “The Poet” comes when, midway through, we’re told that the vocation so far described (in rather opulent terms), that work to which so much is already owed, is work not yet found in history. Not yet in America, sure, but even Homer and Milton lose the scent (“Milton is too literary, and Homer too literal and historical”). Poetry is something ahead of us, to come: “I search in vain for the poet I describe.”
The move is distinctive except Heidegger does the same thing in the book of lectures translated as What is Called Thinking? What he says again and again, in some dozen slight variations, what he cannot stop saying, is that the surprising thing about thinking is that we don’t do it.
When Emerson talks about poetry then, the thing that hasn’t happened, what’s he talking about?
Heidegger never really does decide what thinking is, not in a way that satisfies clarity. But the question seeded in the title of the What is Called Thinking? lectures (the vagaries of translation are at play here) is also the question of what it is that calls for thinking. Heidegger’s answer is this: what calls for thinking is what withdraws from us. And to think is to go its way.
There’s a conceit at least as old as Whitman’s “Lilacs” elegy: that poetry limns the faint song of the vanishing bird, the call of hermit thrush sounding through fog and distance. Poetry is here like song we’ve hardly heard and for that reason follow.
In his remarkable article “Huts,” British scholar and poet J. H. Prynne charts the figure of improvised shelter through literary and cultural history. It’s a striking aggregation, often deep in the weeds.
Across the variance of culture and era, consistent traits gather. In the word hut there is likely an etymological connection to hide, the suggestion of concealment and protection. There’s the association with high weather and—unavoidably—with poverty. The hut is habitation with a spatial implication, too, at borders and edges, borders not only of land but often of language, such as with the huts that establish the high passes of the Alps and Himalayas.
The immediate pastoral connotation of the hut is undercut by the connection to military encampment and violence: “The dual aspect of benign and hostile shelter, human life simple and serene or under ominous threat.” The light in which we might tally the history of famous literary huts and writer’s shacks is here a few shades darker.
Echoing everywhere but ultimately left latent are philosophical and poetic figurations for thinking and writing as habitation. Loudest of these are Heidegger’s countless tropes of dwelling. In language we dwell. Language is the house or temple of being. We dwell there, in our highest capacity, poetically.
But a hut is rarely a permanent home, much less a temple, and the kind of thinking or writing it would figure for would be of a different order.
What I wish to isolate, and for still uncertain purposes, are apparently opposed tropes for thinking, for the way thought moves and the way it lands or finds ground.
States and religions build monument and temple, the holy is given house, philosophers may aspire to edifice or tome. But who wants a hut, and for what purpose?
A hut has an unsure relationship to familiar binaries: wilderness and civilization, temple and exodus.
If a hut is not a home, monumentality will not attach to it. It’s confederate with renunciation, often with vacancy, not with settling or settlement, and is therefore a poor figure for projects of religious or philosophical system, for finding or founding, for coming into possession or the making of property. The hut attends to the immediate scale of human need in actual weather.
Writes Kierkegaard: “In relation to their systems most systematizers are like a man who builds an enormous castle and lives in a shack close by.”
The year he writes “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud takes a walk with a young Rilke. It’s the onset of fall. Rilke is in some kind of panic over the dying foliage. Freud later refers to the walk in a short paper called “On Transience.” The thesis is that if you can’t mourn, you can’t enjoy.
Emerson writes the essay “Experience,” the prose work I’ve reread more than any other, in the year following the death of his young son, his namesake, Waldo. He states: “I take the evanescence and lubricity of objects as the most unhandsome part of our condition.” Of his son’s death his only direct remarks are to say that he can say no more, that he can’t get it nearer.
Melancholia isn’t the result of loss as much as of loss’s articulation, the displacement of loss onto unworkable objects, which is to say all or any objects.
For Freud, words are stations on the way to lost things. They are grief, a counting of losses (Cavell). As in Lacan, as for Freud’s young grandson Ernst in his fort/da game, we name what isn’t with us. And yet the lesson of the child’s game is also: words are easy. I say what’s here. I say what’s gone.
Little Ernst has language because he’s abandoned. But it’s language itself, through which his imagination gains agency—not his getting his way, not his recovering his lost object, not his mother returning—that represents his joy.
In his most known contribution to psychoanalytic literature, D. W. Winnicott describes the favorite toys of young children (classically a blanket or stuffed animal) as “transitional objects.” In the highly pitched, at times desperate relationship to these objects, the child finds a substitute for presence lost, a way to play at being-with and being whole.
The structure of this play is essentially that of metaphor itself. The absent mother or untenable external world is replaced with a near object. A key feature of these objects is almost always their suitability for being clutched and grasped.
I think of the French-Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, who by touching rocks was able to accept the reality of his religious formation. Or of Wallace Stevens, who said he wanted to be a thinking stone.
If metaphor is understood as the replacement of “proper terms” by new ones, if this thing (in hand) is “really” that thing (far off), our figuration injures us. Writes Emerson, “Gladly we would anchor but every anchorage is quicksand.”
Stevens said, “Poetry is a form of melancholy.” I take this to mean: deep investment in impossible dynamics.
Impossible in the way that melancholia is impossible mourning. It wants the world on its terms and as its terms. It is willing to suffer that want.
Whatever the poet wanted is eventually reconciled and reduced to finite object choices. Moving in language is the carrying-off of one term for another. It’s a mournful circumstance. Its consolations are substitute and transient, but they aren’t none.
Emerson begins “Experience” with the question: “Where do we find ourselves?” It’s ambiguous whether the question is asking after a self or a location.
Events and scenes, we say, “take place.” The wildest language in King Lear occurs in a scene taking place “before a hovel.” Kent leads the by-now-deranged king—aimlessly wandering on an unnamed heath in radical weather—to shelter in what we infer is a kind of shepherd’s hut. Of the hut, Kent tells the king:”some friendship will it lend you gainst the tempest.”
Is that what a happening has or takes—a place?
There’s a word for the kind of happening that’s the taking of a place: appropriation. It’s lately vogue to demonstrate that writing itself is essentially appropriation or citation.
Emerson states repeatedly that a sentence is a place. This logic echoes, for example, the etymological relationship between cite and site, or the dual senses of the words claim and tract: the possible consubstantiation, the co-occurring of land and speech.
Isn’t this what a poet wants? Proposition flush with sense experience in the world of objects? To “see it feelingly”? To be a stone that thinks? To have her feeling reflected in the weather? To make thinking matter? To intuit in the material world a mode of thinking? Speculation should mean to think so cleanly it’s like vision.
To cite is to “call forth a passage of writing.” Passage is both a parcel of language and a way among places. Writing, then, might be understood as a matter of retraction, of saying again and saying against, business done by travel or transfer among tracts, directed at the finding or making of claim. Writing as landing, as the making of steps in experience.
Though I’m daunted by the whole of the Heideggerian equipment, I’m interested in his late leaving-behind of philosophy for what he called “thinking.” I’m interested in his description of thinking “as letting lie before us.” Thinking understood as a relation of paths and passages in wild places is everywhere in his work. I cite for example Leland de la Durantaye’s wonderful essay “Being There,” whose occasion is a visit to the philosopher’s hut:
Heidegger’s final collection of essays bore the modest title Wegmarken. Wegmarken means “Path-Markers,” and was a simple enough title for a collection of essays. But when it came out, it reminded his readers of his most influential collection of essays . . . : Holzwege. Holzwege proved a disarmingly difficult title to translate, or even understand: Holz means “wood,” and wege means “paths.” Thus: “Paths in the Forest”—but Holzwege are not just any paths. They are paths made not for the forest but the trees; paths for finding and carrying wood (back to your hut), not for getting from point A to B. And when you are on one, you are, proverbially, on the wrong path . . . And they can be dangerous if you do not recognize them for what they are, as sooner or later it gets dark and the animals come out. The French translated Heidegger’s book as “Paths That Lead Nowhere”; in a sign of Anglo-Saxon sobriety and pragmatism, the English translation is Basic Writings.
“Kant had asked, What can I hope for?” In a way, these words from Stanley Cavell phrase philosophy’s question: What do we get to hope for? What can we hope to come to know? Where is hope found, and on what is it founded? Cavell: “Emerson in effect answers, for nothing. You do not know what there is to hope for. ‘Patience—patience [suffering, reception].’”
The Four Quartets echo: “Fare not well. But fare forward.” Our notion of “well” is still poor. That’s a cold logic; it’s also unwaveringly hopeful. The content of our hope embarrasses us.
If thinking is clutching, if it defends against the evanescence and lubricity of objects, can we leave it?
The poet is the one willing, within thinking, to leave. “Negative capability” is then to forgo intellectual need as one would a hunger, as a way to know it.
What Cavell called “aversive thinking”: thinking by fleeing, by avoiding easy rest.
The verbs think and thank share a root. How do you go that way?
Whatever the attractions of epistemic clarity or coherent philosophical system are, they aren’t the attractions of what I keep wanting to call “poetic thinking,” of thinking as “letting lie before us.” Whatever shortcuts and escape hatches it avails itself of, whatever the allowances of art are, poetry thinks; maybe it does something like “overcoming thinking as clutching.”
To think is to test analogy, but the poetic is immediately threatened by fixed reference. Literal meaning, as Bloom writes, is a form of death. Poetry means to move out again into the wilds of signification, however compromised by the conditions of that venture. This is where poetry as thinking has to leave philosophy. It has to risk being poorer for having left it. It must see in monumentality eventual ruin or ruin already. The costs of leaving are its costs. Wealth becomes dead cargo. “The way of life is wonderful; it is by abandonment.”
The verb proper to a world, says Heidegger, is world. What a world does is world. It doesn’t tell you what it’s for. But you can be there.
“Experience” is ceaseless in its proliferation of ocular figure: flashes, gleam, glow, halo, patina. It’s a rhetoric in which nothing settles, in which nothing is firm, or in which what’s firm or solid excludes us. Everything shimmers and lights, swims and skates: a rhetoric at once mournful and light-drunk.
The density of the prose weave—even free of any baroque or specialized diction—is incredible. Cavell notes that Emerson’s textuality is largely built of metaphors for its own work, from figures for its own thinking. These internal circuits run everywhere. They represent the reader’s freedom, and the incoherence of the essay—which is about what?
What, on the face of it, isn’t included in the category of experience? In a way, the essay is about the way in which we’re about things, that is, the way in which we’re around or outside of what we’d meant to penetrate, coincide with, to find near. Even in misfortune we hope for “rough rasping friction . . . [where] there at least is reality that will not dodge us.” But dodge us it does. It turns out that whatever isn’t surface isn’t there, that “the world has no inside.”
At stake in “Experience” is what one wants out of looking, thinking, grieving, and what one might do with the figures for these things, how one might travel by them. The limit is that while our objects (cognitive, optical, tactile) are encountered, encircled, substituted for, they’re not apprehended:
“We would look about us, but with grand politeness [God] draws down before us an impenetrable screen of purest sky, and another behind us of purest sky.”
“We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them.”
“All I know is reception; I am and I have: but I do not get, and when I have fancied I had gotten anything, I found that I did not.”
About his son Emerson gives us nothing, claims he never even grieved, and if he did, it taught him nothing. About this pain there’s nothing to say but that it leaves us, and not wiser. The loss won’t be brought nearer.
The essay is a scene of impossible mourning, failed grief—but it’s also a scene radiant and teeming.
I think again of Teilhard de Chardin, veteran of some of the worst fighting of the First World War, who later spent decades in exile in the deserts of China: “Throughout my whole life, during every minute of it, the world has been gradually lighting up and blazing before my eyes until it has come to surround me, entirely lit up from within.”
For the poet too the world of phenomena is lit up—it’s lit up and it resists us. Emerson writes, “It is an odd jealousy: but the poet finds himself not near enough to his object.”
There’s a parable in Hasidism, that when you walk through a field with a pure heart, the stones and branches glow for you.
On this, Emerson and Teilhard de Chardin are reconciled: matter is spirit. There’s no opposition, no binary. The world has no inside.
When Emerson writes that “the evanescence and lubricity of objects is the most unhandsome part of our condition,” or Heidegger likens thinking to handicraft, and both quest after thinking that isn’t clutching—what we have are tropes of manipulation. We are talking about the stakes of what is and isn’t in the hand.
Let’s say the essay is about that: looking and failing to touch or be touched, about surfaces glimmering and unbroken, about not getting or having, about thinking within poverty.
Let’s say its preference for flux and circularity, its extraordinary dialectic of “thrownness” and landing model an intellectual and creative comportment.
Let’s say its figures are figures for thinking as abandonment, for hope found in a vacuum of something like total loss. That one steps from hope to hope by way of abandonment, that this is what Emerson’s sentences aspire to build—steps in experience, places taken in the world.
“Experience” for me is an example of writing as setting up within exposure, writing as living willingly within the weather one finds. Or in Heidegger’s language: being as “being within clearing,” being as being there. And then somewhere else.
The consequences of talk about writing, this sustained juggling of tropes, aren’t only linguistic or literary; they aspire to be our own consequences. As Emerson once said, “The value of a trope is that the hearer is one . . . and it is the use of life to learn metonymy.”
Poetry is like real life in at least one way: it’s an impossible situation. But you cultivate resource there.
Some friendship may you be lent against the storm.
Brandon Kreitler is the author of Late Frontier, selected by Major Jackson for the Poetry Society of America’s National Chapbook Fellowship. He is also the recipient of a “Discovery”/Boston Review prize from the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center. He lives in New York City and edits the writing-advice newsletter Practice Catalogue. (updated 5/2017)