Monday, January 04, 2010

Neruda's Earth, Heidegger's Earth

It is good, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest. Wheels that have crossed long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coal bins, barrels, and baskets, handles and hafts for the carpenter’s tool chest. From them flow the contacts of man with the earth, like a text for all troubled lyricists. The used surfaces of things, the wear that the hands give to things, the air, tragic at times, pathetic at others, of such things – all lend a curious attractiveness to the reality of the world that should not be underprized.

That's a quote from "Sobre una Poesía sin Pureza” ("Towards an Impure Poetry"), the editorial Pablo Neruda wrote for the first issue of the short-lived and fabulously-named Spanish journal Caballo Verde para la Poesía ("Green Horse for Poetry") in 1935. The editorial was really an act of poetic self-defense: ever since the Chilean poet had arrived in Spain, Neruda had been under withering attack from the poet Juan Ramón Jiménez, who considered Neruda's work vulgar. Calling Neruda's imagination a sewer and a scrap heap, Jiménez objected to the world Neruda depicted. Stoked by the Mallarméan notion of poesie pur, with its ideal of a language as music, Jiménez wished Neruda would purge his poetry of all of the chunks of coal and shoe soles that, in his opinion, cluttered the verse with ugliness.

Neruda had been reading and translating Whitman, so he'd invested pretty heavily in a very different poetic enterprise than had Jiménez, but he was young and provincial and felt persecuted by the older, more established Jiménez, who seemed, said Neruda, to be “publishing tortuous commentaries against me every week." "Sobre una Poesía sin Pureza" is certainly intended as a riposte to Jiménez. But I think its important goes further than its immediate occasion in the debate between the two poets. I think the passage offers a key to understanding one of the things Neruda's up to in Alturas de Macchu Picchu (The Heights of Macchu Picchu) one of the most acclaimed sections of his great, sprawling Canto General, and a book-length poem cycle in its own right.

Alturas de Macchu Picchu was published a decade after the essay on impure poetry, and is often seen as somewhat discontinuous with his work of a decade earlier. After all, the intervening years saw the Spanish Civil War, which politicized Neruda's poetry, and his time in Mexico, when he took inspiration from Diego Rivera and the Mexican muralist tradition and turned toward broad depictions of history and society. John Felstiner, for example, claims in Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu that Alturas de Macchu Picchu is simply “inconceivable” without the events of civil war. This is certainly true. But it's also true that there's a continuity with the project outlined in "Sobre una Poesía sin Pureza." To understand the nature of the continuity, we need to understand a little more about "Sobre una Poesía sin Pureza," which has much more to it than a simple defense of the Whitmanic depiction of ordinary objects in poetry.

The most powerful idea in "Sobre una Poesía sin Pureza" — an idea Neruda acts on in the composition of Alturas de Macchu Picchu, is the idea of the earth. It's something very much akin to what Heidegger was articulating in his lectures on art in Zurich and Frankfurt right around the time Neruda composed his essay. These lectures would later see publication as "Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes" ("The Origin of the Work of Art"), but not until 1950. I'm not sure that Neruda knew about the lectures. It seems possible but unlikely — the main conduit bringing German philosophical ideas into Spanish intellectual life was Miguel de Unamuno, who was near the end of his life in 1935, and I'm not at all sure he had any contact with Neruda (someone surely knows, but not the present humble blogger). The similarity between Neruda's idea, and Heidegger's more deeply-thought-through idea, were probably coincidental, a matter of intellectual zeitgeist rather than direct influence. But the similarities of both idea and terminology are certainly very real.

When Neruda writes about the important of looking at objects at rest, he's talking about an interestingly non-utilitarian, disinterested kind of perception, in which we become aware of the reality of things we'd been taking for granted. "Wheels that have crossed long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coal bins, barrels, and baskets, handles and hafts for the carpenter’s tool chest" — these are all things that, generally, we instrumentalize, that we treat as equipment, and that we take for granted. When we're driving a vehicle, we don't think of the wheels. We depend on them, but (unless they're malfunctioning as equipment) we take them for granted, and they go unnoticed, even though our activities could only go on with their presence. The same goes for the handles of carpenter's tools. They're essential to our tasks, and we're very intimate with them. Often, the handles are even discolored by, or worn to the shape of, our hands. But when we're building something, we tend not to be thinking about the handle of our hammer. We're concentrating on a utilitarian action, concentrating on not hitting our thumbs while we go about our business. So whole swathes of the world go unnoticed by us, even though we depend on them.

For Neruda, looking at these objects the right way, when they and we are at rest, reconnects us to the world we take for granted during all our utilitarian to-and-fro-ing. From the perception of these things, says Neruda, "flow the contacts of man with the earth." When we notice them, we realize we aren't isolated, Cartesian intelligences: we're rooted in the world, surrounded at all times by things that make our lives possible. Indeed, we come to realized our interconnectedness with these, and, ultimately, with all things. It's a big idea Neruda has in his little essay. It's also an idea uncannily similar to Heidegger's.

In "Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes" Heidegger makes an important distinction between "the earth" and "the world." [If, for some bizarre reason, you've actually read my big post about Adam Kirsch's misreading of Heidegger, you'll find this and the next paragraph eerily familiar — they're just compressed versions of things I said in that post]. When Heidegger writes about earth he isn't referring to physical stuff — not rocks, or trees, or door-latches. Instead, he's referring to the tendency of things to resist our ability to understand, or even to notice, them. There's a whole realm of the unknown and not-understood out there, and it surrounds and contains us, even makes up a great deal of our physical self and our psyche, and this is what Heidegger has in mind when he writes about the earth. There's a famous passage, in "On the Origin of the Work of Art," in which Heidegger talks about a Van Gogh painting depicting some old, worn-looking peasant shoes. He says that shoes like this are generally things we don't notice — we wear them and use them as equipment, for their instrumental value, and we tend not to notice them when we do. Shoes like this, when they're actually worn, "belon[g] to the earth" says Heidegger — and they belong their not so much because they are material objects, but because they go unnoticed and un-thought-of. But we notice them in Van Gogh's painting, where they become part of something more. Here, in the painting, they get noticed or, in the standard translation of Heidegger, become "unconcealed." It's the concealedness of the shoes before they get into the painting, when they're just something around us that we don't notice, that makes them belong to the earth. The earth and the things that belong to it are self-concealing, and withdrawn from our attention and understanding. But what about the world, in Heidegger's sense? The world, for Heidegger, is the context in which and through which we apprehend, understand, or notice things — it's where things become (to use the Heideggerian term) "unconcealed." History, myths, and the like give us a way of noticing things, talking about them and feeling their presence. Heidegger's "world" is sort of like what a later generation would call "discourse" — the systems of thought and representation that let us notice things.

The work of art gives us a special kind of relation of earth and world — a dialectic. That is, in the work of art, earth and world are always involved in a kind of struggle. If a work of art were pure world, it wouldn't be art, it'd be propaganda, or ideology: a closed system of mental coordinates that never come into contact with anything that resists it. But the art work doesn't allow anything so easy to happen. Even as it starts to open up a whole world (or discourse, or paradigm, or way of understanding) for us, it gives us elements that resist appropriation into that world. If the work of art in question is, say, a poem, we might say that it resists paraphrase, or closure; or that parts of it remain indeterminate; or that it shoots off so many connotations that we're uneasy reducing it to a denotative meaning. Any attempt to make the art work into mere world runs up against all kinds of elements that escape that world. So the work of art has the power not only to bring elements of the earth into the world — it has an kind of inexhaustibility, in that even as it brings the earth into the world, it also conceals other elements of the world.

Neruda doesn't go into the dialectic of the earth and the world, of unconcealing and concealing, the way Heidegger does, but he certainly gives us a part of the idea: that the necessary but unnoticed things of the earth can, and should, enter into our consciousness, under the right conditions of perception. This is the idea that, I'm convinced, informs the writing of Alturas de Macchu Picchu.

Some of the early sections of Alturas de Macchu Picchu depict a kind the kind of modern death-in-life we're familiar with from, say, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Here are some lines from section three, in Nathaniel Tarn's translation:

Being like maize grains fell
in the inexhaustible store of lost deeds, shoddy
occurrences, from nine to five, to six,
and not one death but many came to each,
each day a little death: dust, maggot, lamp,
drenched in the mire of subsurbs, a little death with fat wings
entered into each man like a short blade
and siege was laid to him by bread or knife:
the drover, the son of harbors, the dark captain of plows,
the rodent wanderer through dense streets:

all of them weakened waiting for their death, their brief
and daily death...

This is the nightmare of the life that goes by without our noticing it. Our very being falls away from us like so many grains, and our lives consist of "lost deeds" — things we don't notice doing, and don't remember having done. This sad condition is, in the poem, the curse of modern, regimented life, the world of "nine to five," in which our instrumental, utilitarian activities, our quest for our daily bread, is a mere matter of going through the motions, a "brief and daily death." We use things and keep ourselves alive among them, but we don't notice them. The earth (to use Heidegger's term, which is also Neruda's) retreats from us into the unnoticed, the concealed.

Eliot's remedy for this sad, afflicted state involved an attempt to reconstruct the myths and religious traditions that had become discredited or obscure. But Neruda's remedy is less mythic, and more a matter of existential perception, or restoring our connection to the concealed wonder of the world in all its dasein, its here-and-nowness. He wants to bring the unnoticed earth back into our perceptual world.

There seem to be three main techniques by which Neruda tries to accomplish this retrieval of the earth in Alturas de Macchu Picchu. First, there's an invocation of the unnoticed earth, such as we find in some lines from the poem's opening section:

Someone waiting for me among the violins
met with a world like a buried tower
sinking its spiral below the layered leaves
color of raucus sulfur:
and lower yet, in a vein of gold,
like a sword in a scabbard of meteors,
I plunged a turbulent and tender hand
into the most secret organs of the earth.

This eroticizing of a landscape is familiar stuff in Neruda's poetry (it's the whole charm of "Cuerpo de Mujer," the most famous poem of his best-loved book, Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Canción Desesperada). Here, though, the technique is at the service of reminding us of the very nature of the ground we stand on, showing us the gold-veined rock beneath the Andes. Such gold is literally concealed, and literally of the earth, but it is also concealed from our consciousness, and therefore a part of the Heideggerian earth, the unnoticed. We walk on brilliant wonders, but we're so disconnetded from them in our daily grind we need the poem to reveal them to us, to bring them into our world. Whole sections of Alturas de Macchu Picchu aim at reminding us of the forgotten wonders of the earth, often in sweeping, incantatory fashion (check out section nine sometime, for a good example of this kind of incantation).

A second way Neruda tries to bring the forgotten earth to our attention is through an insistence on how, despite our inattention, we are always already connected to it. Consider these lines from section ten:

Stone within stone, and man, where was he?
Air within air, and man, where was he?
Time within time, and man, where was he?
Were you also the shattered fragment
of indecision, of hollow eagle
which, through the streets of today, in the old tracks
through the leaves of accumulated autumns,
goes pounding at the soul into the tomb?
Poor hand, poor foot, and poor, dear life...
The days of unravelled light
in you, familiar rain
falling on feast-day banderillas,
did they grant, petal by petal, their dark nourishment
to such an empty mouth?

Those first three questions are hard to answer. Things exist within themselves, independently of us. And where are we? Are we in any kind of relationship with stone, air, and time? On the one hand, the benighted nine-to-fivers Neruda described earlier don't have any kind of conscious relationship to these things. They don't stop to think of themselves in relation to air, stone, and time. On the other hand, we always have an intimate relation to these things: we stand on stone, breath air, make our way through time. Normally, though, they're like the wheels or carpenter's tools of Sobre una Poesía sin Pureza” — we depend on them, but don't notice them. Our perceptual world, in which we think only of getting by, has shrunk away from the things of the earth. But by the end of the passage, we're reminded that things like time and light are in us, and when we're asked if the "familiar" (that is, unnoticed) rain nourishes us, the only answer is "yes." We are reminded that we aren't just the "poor life" of forlorn little isolated subjectivities, but really we are manifestations of the larger earth, connected to it in our very bodies when they take it in. We are of the earth, and the poem tries to make us notice this.

Finally, Neruda invokes the idea of ancestry to connect the reader (especially the Latin American reader with native ancestry) with ranges of time that usually lie outside of our perceptual world. "Arise to birth with me, my brother," begins section twelve. The brother here is one of the pre-Incan inhabitants of Macchu Picchu, a member of the civilization that built the city. "Look at me from the depths of the earth," says Neruda to this figure, before telling him to "Come quickly to my veins and to my mouth / Speak through my speech, and through my blood." Neruda insists on how present-day Chileans are deeply, and intrinsically, bound to a past that they have let slip from consciousness. Their blood is, after all, the blood of the ancestors who build Macchu Picchu. They are connected to the past, even when they don't know it. Again, it is through the poem that these unthought-of things enter the world of our thought, and help save us from the forlorn death-in-life of the modern daily nine-to-five.

Of course, this think-of-your-blood business is a bit unnerving to we bourgeois liberals. And the importance the poem puts on blood ancestry raises a question about whether the coincidence between Heidegger's thinking and Neruda's goes beyond the mutual interest in bringing the unnoticed earth to our perceptual worlds in the work of art. Both Heidegger and Neruda were undeniably brilliant writers, but both were also drawn to brutal dictators (Heidegger to Hitler, Neruda to Stalin). One wonders whether there’s an intrinsic connection between concerns with existential depth and attraction to ambitious, destructive absolutist rulers. Put another way, one might ask if ordinary bourgeois decency, with its aversion to the concentration of power and it’s general you-do-your-thing, I’ll-do-mine indifference to others comes at the price of such depth. It’s worth considering – the English political tradition is certainly the European tradition most powerfully immune to dictatorships, and England is also the home to the European philosophical tradition most averse to existentialism and all the related traditions it dismisses as “continental philosophy” — something they do over there, across the channel, where they get up to God-knows-what kinds of politics. But here we begin to swim in waters too deep for me.