Empathy and the Poetic Imagination (Sections 2 and 3)

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Empathy and the Poetic Imagination (Sections 2 and 3)
(for the introduction and Section 1 click here)

by Bruce Bond

The Poet as Barbaric

Suffering is power. It is also suffering. Pain has a defiantly private dimension and as such asserts itself in one sense as a boundary between selves. Suffering makes plain the impossibility of empathy as an absolute. Nowhere is the ambiguous subject of “appropriation” more heated as when it involves the appropriation of one’s power in the form of self-inflating assumptions about and identifications with another’s suffering. Thus the sense of violation implied by the notion of appropriation extends beyond the ethical realm into a fundamental epistemological one. Stated another way, ethics and epistemology inform each other’s resistance to the act of appropriation, particularly in difficult times when a public sensitivity to the problem of appropriation and imaginative eclipse rises. With suffering, particularly on a collective scale, the pressure of the real increases, along with the expectations that imaginative forms honor the alterity of that pressure. In extreme cases, art goes silent.

In his book Shock of the New, Robert Hughes points to the silencing effect that holocaust photographs had on the world of painting. Painters felt paralyzed, unable to compete with the greater transparency of the documentary medium. This is not to say that photographic journalism lacks an aesthetic, only that the aesthetic elements appear subordinated more emphatically to their subject. The greater the suffering rendered, the greater the perceived need for such subordination. Take Nick Ut’s Pulitzer-winning, Vietnam-era photograph of a naked girl running from napalm. Indeed it has a striking composition to it. We see there at the center of our attention the girl framed by other children, one of whom looks back to soldiers bringing up the rear, and behind them in the distance, the great, black, devouring cloud.  Given that drama and our likely empathic response, it may disturb our ethical sensibilities to admit to the aesthetic elements of satisfaction, of pleasure even, that contribute to our response. That said, it is unlikely that the photograph would have garnered such attention if it had been out of focus or badly composed. Journalistic aesthetics must above all appear to intensify rather than mitigate the pressure of the real. It is not the role of the news photo to draw attention to the dissonance between compositional satisfaction and documentary pressure.

In his “An Essay on Cultural Criticism and Society,” Theodore Adorno’s famous claim, “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric” (p. 34), benefits from the greater context of his argument:

To anyone in the habit of thinking with his ears, the words ‘cultural criticism’ (Kulturkritik) must have an offensive ring, not merely because, like automobile, they are pieced together from Latin and Greek. The words recall a flagrant contradiction. The cultural critic is not happy with civilization, to which alone he owes his discontent. He speaks as if he represents unadulterated nature or a higher historical stage. Yet he is necessarily of the same essence as that to which he fancies himself superior. (p. 19)

Here he admits a certain humility and culpability, enmeshed, indebted, and shaped as he is by the objects of his critique. Although in a similarly self-effacing spirit, he will admit later that he overstated his case about the barbarism of poetry after the holocaust, his famous claim is nonetheless useful in articulating something of the humility and shame that haunts the effort to turn extreme horror into the stuff of poetic wonder and compositional satisfaction.

Beyond this, his statement implies that some historical shifts are so enormous that they must dominate the conversation. To change the topic belies complacency, and complacency is ruthless. If the world were not saturated in blood and guilt that would totalize experience with its themes, Adorno’s would not have garnered such attention. Anger simplifies, as does bitterness. The complicating irony in Adorno’s tone, in spite of his admission, is its dictatorial sweep, the fact that his rhetorical power depends upon a culture of shame and outrage to take to heart its totalizing conceptual overthrow. What Auschwitz did was put poems under pressure to reconcile the pleasure of form with the sobriety and immensity of collective suffering. The refining of horror into artifice might better be described as decadence rather than barbarism, but this is precisely why “barbarism” is the more forceful metaphor. Decadence characterizes an artful excess relative to its content or occasion. Barbarism implies brutality. Moreover it has a social register with its roots in the perceived violence of the crude outsider. Thus the tone of “barbarism” runs counter to that of “decadence” which can imply the social license, often made possible by greater means. Somewhat ironically, Adorno’s rhetorical strategies (conceptual opposition, theatricality, metaphor, hyperbole) are that of a poem, rendering not simply the cold subject matter of the world but our felt relation to it. Adorno’s claim pleases, on some level, with its compositional speed and force.

The pleasure of such form figures as a subcategory of the more pervasive and less obvious pleasure of representation. Though it is clear the barbaric element of the poetic is in the intensification of this pleasure, there is some larger category of representation at play, and it is through representation at large that one expresses the hunger for empowerment that drives language and its proliferation. With such empowerment, the mind performs the magic of making the absent present, of conflating absence and presence in imaginary ways that help us cope with the anxiety of non-being. Moreover, as Nietzsche explores at length in “The Birth of Tragedy,” there is a satisfaction in rendering suffering as “mere appearance,” and by virtue of aesthetic form, the sense of imaginary mastery intensifies. We can through artful referentiality, however transfigured and abstract, encounter suffering while nevertheless stepping back from it, enjoying some freedom, however illusory, of movement in relation to it.

Such is the troubling position of empowerment that we have relative to Nick Ut’s photograph, with its compositional order muted beneath our empathetic response. We are not looking at the world, after all. We are looking at a photograph, and as horrifying as it is, we might well prefer to look at the representation versus the real presence. If an urgency of suffering did not cry through the surface of the work, we might ease more comfortably into the pleasure of representation. The contemplation of a painting of a mountain, for instance, might well be preferable to the real mountain because the painting is imbued eros, relational by nature. We see not only a mountain but ourselves in mountain and the mountain in us.  In contrast to the documentary aesthetic, art as it moves increasingly toward the poetic would imitate not simply the mountain as object but our relation to it and thus the very act of attention, of imitation. Poetry, as something other than mere escape, is self-reflexive in this way, though it need not be self-conscious about that fact. Poetry, if it aspires toward the visionary in ways specific to poems, is self-reflexive since its chosen “reality” is always to some extent the imagination itself. The imaginative element thus is not an escape from reality, but rather a restoring of it, an actual embodiment of the fundamentally relational nature of experience.

The aesthetics of Ut’s photograph derives its power in part by subordinating the pleasure of representation to the horror of the real as inhering in the material and social other. The naked girl pierces us more deeply because she is naked, as is news photography in a relative sense. We see ourselves in her, and yet we are acutely aware of the vast difference between us and the unspeakable anguish that she feels. The transparency of representation is a kind of soundproof glass. Our empathy feeds on its impossibility, the feeling that her pain is hers alone, and we can at best be present in some imaginary space. We go out to meet her, or rather the representation of her, who occupies a silence, a place beyond representation. Part of the connection to the real then is in the imagined experience of difference, of powerlessness, of bearing forward the memory as our imperfect summons to the world.

The Other in the Dream

Paul Celan’s poetry on the holocaust represents another extreme in terms of moving away from journalistic transparency toward a medium more consCelan_picuous in its beauty and imaginative structure, more surreal in its figurative defamiliarization and internalization of the real. His poetic imagination is less intent on bearing the news in readily recognizable terms than in inventing a strange, new, and sometimes incantatory dialect for the unspeakable. His most famous poem on the subject, “Death Fugue,” resonates with the dark beauty, wonder, and horror of a nightmare, such that the distinctive feature of its authority lies less in horrible information and more in the damaged inner life that bears the legacy of horror. Grief clashes with wonder in a way characteristic of the most inward spaces of the wounded psyche:

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown

we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night

we drink it and drink it

we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined

A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes

he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete

he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are flashing he whistles his pack out

he whistles his Jews out in earth has them dig for a grave

he commands us strike up for the dance (l. 1-9)

The lush music and figuration of the poem, scriptural in its recursivity, is potentially both disturbing and satisfying. The way it infuses the brutal facts with the deep, formal fluency of lyric lamentation, we may feel haunted by the exposed inner life as a form of intimacy, and the lyricism as a form of distance. The simultaneous sense of intimacy and distance bears the characteristics of a dream. Lyricism somewhat ironically becomes mimetic of horror via the mechanism of repression. Part of the horror here is the horror of denial, however merciful, where the psyche protects itself against itself. Tonal opposition has within its illogic a strong logic nevertheless and so lends both dynamism and structure.

Adorno’s claim about poetry, however metonymical for art in general, registers an awareness of poetry’s particular threat or character, though he does not explain what that is. He does not note that poetry, as the art which is most about language, is the one most prone to the uneasy combination of external referentiality and self-reflexivity, nor does he make distinctions with regard to styles of self-reflexivity that might indeed wed themselves more strongly in emotional and conceptual fashion to scenes of horror and the human dilemma of spiritual survival in light of them. The mind in shock might well lend itself to a poetics of far greater tension and psychological realism than the so-called “correct” poem of social realism, appropriately pressured by shame or pragmatism to be more literal, clear, and directive.

Written during the Spanish Civil War, Pablo Neruda’s poem “A Few Things Explained” gives rationale to the writer’s act of turning away from a more introverted, opiated poetics of wonder in order to make room for a new phase of empathic and political engagement:

You will ask: And where are the lilacs?

And the metaphysics muffled in poppies?

And the rain which so often has battered

its words till they spouted up

gullies and birds? (l. 1-4)

One of the framing ironies of the poem is that the cry to look depends upon the averted gaze. The numbing poppies, after all, are in the poem, as is the house that “exploded/with geraniums” later on (l. 14-15). The elements of wonder are essential not only for their tonal opposition but as loving testament to what has been lost. The “beautiful/ house” contains within it the memories of the victims, including Federico Lorca, whose fellow poetic sensibility finds expression in Neruda’s line, “June drowned the dazzle of flowers in your teeth” (l. 23).

Such stubborn surrealism with its saturation in the associative logic complicates the tone of anger at the end of the poem:

Come see the blood in the streets,

come see

the blood in the streets,

come see the blood

in the streets! (l. 75-80)

The call to witness is a call for immediacy, both of seeing and feeling, but the demands of factual confrontation and empathic response rely upon competing strategies in the poem.

The poem is soaked in both beauty and horror and as such moves in and out of a dream space toward a closure that, in its urgency, registers the struggle. The raised pitch would wake not simply us, but the speaker’s projected and imaginary sense of “us” as the embodiment of his own former aesthetic. Given the competing sensibilities in the poem, the final summons cannot help but have an inward cast as well. Even the final lines do not quite flatten into journalistic transparency. After all, enjambment structures our attention to regard a shifting emphasis. The small matters, politically and aesthetically. Form embodies care by way of attention to the small. It mediates the longing to overcome the limits of mediation, aesthetic or otherwise, to confront facts so difficult that they breed insistent incantations and so articulate and dismantle a lingering disbelief.