A response to Martin Heidegger‘s “The Thing” (Poetry, Language, Thought)
As someone recently pointed out, no one has yet satisfactorily explained Zenoâ€™s Paradox â€“ that of the arrow, because of the distance it has to travel being infinitely divisible, never hitting the target. It has taken science two millenia to arrive at theories of relativity and quantum physics that really do no more than propose further contradictions. On the one hand, the ability to look at things in greater and greater detail has revealed the intuitive wisdom of the paradox â€“ those infinite divisions, the breaking down into atoms and neutrons and electrons and so on and whatâ€™s between them. But still you canâ€™t explain what it is that the arrow pierces and passes through, what the something consists of, as a fact having occurred.
Heidegger gets further into this, it seems to me, by writing into the thingness of things, in this case a jug, and there is a further analogy here in the paradox of what is near also bringing its distance, that is, what is close at hand demands that I break it down in all its minuteness, in order to begin to understand it. Then there is what he gets to, after many words and arguments, of a thing having this four-foldedness, earth/sky/gods/mortal, melded into the one-foldedness of its thing. Which is perhaps a way of saying that a thing cannot exist at a single point in time but must be apprehended in the flow of all its uses, bundled together â€“ jug is the earth of the jug itself, the void it contains (air), its â€œgiving forthâ€ of water to drink (mortal), and its â€œgushing forthâ€ of libation for the gods. But I realize that in using the word â€œuses,â€ I am presuming too much. The point is there is an error in logic that we make, every day, in order to merely use the jug and not stop and contemplate it for six hours in all its thingness, that it exists in the form of its outward appearance, and this is enough for us.
The wonderful and exasperating thing about poetry is that it never stops at the outward appearance, but it also does not linger for six hours in contemplation working through various arguments, but cuts right to the heart of the matter. That is, it expresses or contains the paradox as its primary material. Wonderful, then, because it recognizes the inability of words-as-explanation to express the truth behind the paradox. Exasperating, because it must still use words to express it. Demands a different kind of thinking that is perhaps not a thinking at all, but a knowing, no, a dreaming, not quite that either, an apprehending, that is, a containing and then giving forth in the same sense of the jug, a constant motion that both does and doesnâ€™t reach the target. All these are a clue to what a poet is and what a poem does, it can only point to, the leap and piercing the target must belong to someone or something else.
I could go into signifier and signified, and how the poem siezes the territory of the former to try to contain both in that, rather than constantly (futilely) pointing at the latter, as even Heidegger must finally do because heâ€™s thinking and writing in prose. But Iâ€™m not well-versed in theory, I can only surmise this aim of poetry. And perhaps even that is over-shooting, but let me give an example. In Rilkeâ€™s â€œPanther,â€ as Jim Gavin spoke about with regards to the cup in a poem being a real cup, you get the sense there is a real panther stalking around in there. This is achieved through the tremendous skill of the poet in recreating the sense of an animal stalking in a cage and the barely contained danger of that and frustration, all through rhythm and sound and image. You see and feel the panther, and you sense that it is real. Yet it is not description or an advertisement, it is not sentimental, doesnâ€™t propose to speak for or interpret the panther or tell us what it says or means. Just leaves it circling there, as disturbing and memorable as the sight of a real animal in a cage, leaves one with as undigestible a question as that. And the proof of it is that itâ€™s just as susceptible to change over time, it is not frozen there like a snapshot, it moves as you move, shifts, like any living thing, it has angles, it continues to work and squirm inside you.
Another way. In Creeleyâ€™s poem â€œDo you thinkâ€¦â€, it seems to me there is a supposition or expression of this paradox, the paradox of being and not being, of moving towards but not hitting, of containing several realities at once. â€œDo you think that if / thereâ€™s an apple on the table / and somebody eats it, it / wonâ€™t be there anymore.â€ Next stanza, an elaboration: â€œDo you think that if / two people are in love with one another, / one or the other has got to be / less in love than than the other at / some point in the otherwise happy relationship.â€ This then foregrounds the problem of language in expressing reality as it exists in the dimensions of time and space. Eats what? On what? In whom? At when? Which one? Each stanza in the poem is a question with no question mark. So: a rhetorical question, â€œa question to which no answer is expected, or to which only one answer may be madeâ€ (or both?), also a question having to do with rhetoric, its inability to express ultimate truth in its however-many foldedness. The last stanza of the poem breaks it down even further. Language breaks down. â€œDo you think that if / I said, I love you, or anyone / said it, or you did.â€ And so on. No answer. Or: the answer must be worked out alone. In silence.
To look at a clock and see an hour is to see all hours. To imagine what one will be doing an hour from now, or at this same time tomorrow, or remember what one has done, to recognize that one has existed at all previous hours and will continue to do so until one ceases to do so, but this is unimaginable. To look at a clock and see the time is to recognize all the myriad infinite others who also exist at this time, the children on the schoolbus, the moths on the screen, the buds on the tree, water, air, faces, coins, grass, wheels, pens, so on and so on and so on. Also unimaginable. And yet, there it is. Was. Will be. Language is sort of the same thing. A tool that we necessarily use to deal with these competing, contradictory, into-each-other-flowing realities that stand above and behind it.