Poema morale: a moral ode, a sermon
by Joe Palmer
[ opinion - february 11 ]
Theaetetus: I am certain, Socrates, you have elicited from me a good deal more than ever was in me.
Socrates: And does not my art show that you have brought forth wind, and that the offspring of your brain are not worth bringing up.
A lot of current ideas are simply fruitless, not worth talking about, and certainly not worth cultivating to maturity.
For example, an "analytic" philosopher will define truth as a concept, and then she will categorize it further with the arguments of realism, idealism, rationalism, empiricism, and so forth, breaking the topic down into parts until the reader or listener wants to throw up, whereas a "discursive" philosopher will simply talk and talk, and then write for a while, running on like a chicken with its head cut off, pretending that the truth is made up to suit the circumstances. Attempts to find new truths make good stories, tales told by idiots, full of zounds [God's wounds], and furry [like the fox, knowing many little things], signifying nothing but cruelty and malice. That's where the literary potential of philosophical writing comes into the picture.
Richard Rorty (1931-2007), an American discursive philosopher, pretended the distinction between poetry and science is a false one, and so science writing is a genre of literature, just like cookbooks. [He also used "she" instead of "he" as the genderless pronoun, an annoying sop thrown to whining feminists, a sarcastic joke.]
In the 19thC the best thinkers, the poets and philosophers, had given up on science alone as the key to redemption and salvation. They feared Science would produce Frankenstein's monster and worse, Hell on earth. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus has the monster rejecting man's modern world. Dr Frankenstein creates life and defeats death, but his egotism and belief in the perfection of humanity lead to chaos, just as the enlightened ideals of the day were leading to war and ruin. How would you like to have walked from Moscow to Paris in December, like Napoleon's Army, with Russians shooting at you? Or, how would you have liked to abandon the White House, like Dolley Madison, while Admiral Cockburn of the Royal Navy was burning it?
Rorty and his champion Harold Bloom, the peerless critic, hold to the idea that we should make no real distinction between science writing and science fiction. From the fantasy of Gulliver's Travels to the science fiction of Frankenstein and today's graphic novels, the best of science fiction ends with ultimate questions unanswered, like 2001, a Space Odyssey, "the search for God," the movie's maker called it, in which the most human and vicious character is a monstrous computer, HAL, the cousin of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.
In spite of our concealed ignorance and malice, we carry on with guesswork and trial and error in order to find what's best for us in any given situation, "pragmatically." The received wisdom of our day, religion and philosophy, are our enemies. We are the new Columbus, but not the Christ-bearing dove of peace, Christo-phoro-colombo, but the Archipirata illustris of early modern fame, now the conqueror of the whole world.
Harold Bloom, says that "strong poetry" is poetry that is original in ways found nowhere else. It may take any linguistic form and be about any subject. Weak poetry that is imitative in form or subject matter doesn't matter to anyone but the poet, and so it has no force, no strength.
Today, with metaphysics and religion gone, exhausted, the new topics for poetry include anything imaginable, with all conventions of presentation violated, and all kinds of discourse possible in any situation. So poetry is found in any exemplary language texts worth preserving and repeating just as they are, because they are so well said and effective, the best words in the best order, meaningful to a number of people. To hell with style, propriety, correctness, and snobbery. Literary culture lies dead alongside philosophy and religion, bringing on the shrieks of crows and vultures, and the grunts of grizzly bears. Images, not words, are the new reality. Words are cheap.
It follows that there is no reason why a "scientific text" is not poetry. Furthermore, if the utterance cannot quite be said in any other way and has not been said before, it is strong poetry, which is individual fantasy that means something special to a group, to an audience, to a community. It is private obsession meeting public need. It is the psychopathology of gods and voices informing the believers that what they hear and see is true and important.
"Poetic creation is a desperate wrestling with forbears," Bloom claims, just like scientific research, but the bearers of the poetic traditions did not follow today's conventions. Compare Milton's Paradise Lost, in blank verse, to Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, in edited expository prose. They are about the same thing - making sense of God.
Today we have a free hand to make up our own rules as we go along. The strong poet takes not the road less traveled but the road untraveled, for truth comes from both science and poetry, which may consist of more than mere writing and recorded speech. Furthermore, the prose/poetry distinction is as arbitrary and false as the science/poetry distinction. Both poetry and science are individual fantasies that mean something to a group, a community, an audience, or a team - to professional followers of a discipline who can decode the arcane vocabulary of the sect. Either the gods, the muses of poetry, speak through the poet/scientist/philosopher, or he is nuts.
Even mathematics is a form of poetry, statements of symmetry: E=mc". Science writing is a category of literature.
Five hundred years ago, truth began replacing God as the object of our affections. Literacy was changing the world, not as a prelude to heaven or hell, but as the there and then, our here and now. The most informed people since then have tried to substitute science for God, and when that does not work, they try to substitute the love of themselves for scientific deliverance. We have become individual gods with deeply poetic and spiritual natures. Today we are also homo faber, the maker. We are making a new world order through economic discipline, controlling our virtues and vices technocratically, holding that the government is best that governs most with the imposition of order and regulation. We hope our world will turn out better in the long run when we manage it. We might as well turn the pigs out into the garden and let them eat everything.
What we say about enlightenment and progress only partly masks the condition people find themselves in - the undeniable, underlying squalor, humiliation, cruelty, complacency, emasculation, vacuity, and contingency of personal and public life, with a few as rich as Madoff and the rest striving or starving. It has always been so, but since Christianity came along we have had a hole in the sand for hiding our heads like the trembling ostrich.
Therapy without catharsis
We can pretend we do not need mercy, yet when we really need to look for assistance in coping with bad luck and the wages of sin, our sins and other's sins, redemption is no longer sought through Christ and the Church, but with the help of the TV personality, the minister, pastor, counselor, or therapist. Salvation is found through the achievement of good mental health. The healthy, happy person does not overindulge himself, in food, drink, drugs, tobacco, alcohol, sex, television, or social networking [now, there's an ugly phrase, invoking fear of spiders]. If overindulgence is your problem, you must see and listen to a sanative therapist who will prescribe the correct therapy as part of a therapeutic regimen full of curative, remedial healing, which will thereby make you a member of the therapized, rehabilitated, remediated, analyzed, restored, cured, healthful crowd, well-suited to perform therapy - rehab, rehabilitation, getting back the mojo, self-confidence, self-esteem, and sex appeal. Today there is nothing that is not therapeutic.