Empathy and the Poetic Imagination (Sections 4 and 5)


Empathy and the Poetic Imagination (Sections 4 and 5)

(for the Introduction and Section 1 click here and for Sections 2 and 3 click here)

by Bruce Bond

The Unconscious Political

 It may seem counter-intuitive that a surreal aesthetics, such as that of Pablo Neruda, should lend itself to politics, particularly as conceived by the Communist Party that Neruda represented as a senator in 1945. Surrealism has had, since early in its development, a troubled relationship to the Communist Party and its competing notions about art’s political efficacy. When, in his first manifesto, André Breton framed his central notion of “psychic automatism,” he specified that it be “dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern” (p. 26). However, in both France and the Americas, surrealism as a movement and a practice carries with it a strong history of socialist aspirations, as evidenced in André Breton’s joining of the French Communist Party in 1927 and his expulsion in 1933. The expulsion did little to dim Breton’s enthusiasm as he went on to write The Political Position of Surrealism in 1935 and to visit Leon Trotsky, Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera in Mexico in the late 30s. Clearly the aesthetic of surrealism, with its enigmatic inwardness, is diametrically opposed to the desired pragmatics and lucidity of Stalinist social realism. As Breton states in his first manifesto of 1924, the greatest surreal image is:

the one that is arbitrary to the greatest degree, the one that takes the longest time to translate into practical language, either because it contains the greatest amount of seeming contradiction, or because one of its terms is strangely concealed. (p. 38)

By the 1930s, it has become clear to Breton that the enigmatic quality of surrealism obscures for many its political value, especially in Marxist terms that emphasize the external, material ground of dialectical process, as opposed to the inwardness so salient in dreams.

In his essay “Surrealism and the Situation of the Object,” Breton defends Hegel whom, he claims, his fellow socialists attack for the idealist bent of Hegelian dialectics, hostile in the minds of many to Marxist philosophical materialism. According to Breton, Hegel’s detractors would have dialectics “walk on its head.” In contrast, Breton believed that Hegel would have proved far more qualified than his critics to understand if surrealism is “ill-founded” or not, for Hegel understood more thoroughly and precisely the relation of consciousness to sensible forms in dialectical process (p. 259). Breton’s emphasis here is not on poetry but on painting, more obviously material, where the dream logic of surreality signifies not alienation but connection. Surreal painting thus invests material with the immaterial. In surreal poems too, we might add, matter is not the lifeless stuff of an objectification. Herein lies the less obvious connection of surrealism to Marxism in reimagining some alternative to withdrawal. In Breton’s words, the surreal aesthetic serves social process by “excluding (relatively) the external object as such and considering nature only in its relationship with the inner world of consciousness” (p. 260).

breton1-sizedBreton’s argument gives support to the notion that the heavy dose of subjectivity in a work of art models a breed of intimacy with one’s material world. However this argument does little to address the messiness of competing subjectivities. The possible presumption of Breton’s claim is that “the inner world of consciousness” is one world and therefore shared. He does not fully investigate the potential ironies of his statement. The example of the schizophrenic suggests that the mind’s ventriloquism speaking into the forms of nature could drown out the other subjectivities in the room. One might complicate Breton’s discussion by investigating the metaphor of “listening” when it comes to aesthetic process.   This is far trickier when it comes to social as opposed to material alterity. Clearly, there is no safe place in ideology that translates into the empathic consciousness of the ideologist. This is likely to be obvious, and if not, one need only look at the character at Breton with his imperial edicts and “expulsions” from the surreal movement. Moral pride is characteristically cruel. By grace of its complexity, experiential grounding, and inclusiveness of affect, poetry, including Breton’s, cannot be sensitively understood as mere ideology, however many ideological tensions it may embody. Breton’s notion of the poet as operating without “moral concern” might better be understood as a lack of the vanity and self-consciousness to be morally correct. Paradoxically, the lack of moral self-styling might itself be a moral gesture, more genuine in its empathy, but there is no guarantee that it would be.

Another possible irony suggests that poetry can figure as more persuasive, even in political or ethical terms, than overtly ideological discourse. The empathic ground of its perspective may appear more earned, of greater emotional summons, precisely because of the imaginative force of inwardness. With the influx of South American surrealism into the United States in the 1960s, many poets of the Viet Nam era turned to surreal techniques to produce some of the most successful poems of protestation, including “Counting Small-Boned Bodies” by Robert Bly and “The Asians Dying” by W.S. Merwin. The success of these poems lies in part in how the surreal impulse mitigates against the rigidity of conviction, so the poems do not fall victim to the didacticism that would paralyze their powers of evocation. Bly’s poem works particularly well in wedding political outrage to surreal wonder, both as the source of the poem’s authoritative tension and in parody the war bureaucrat’s euphemistic take on violence:

Let’s count the bodies over again.

If we could only make the bodies smaller

The size of skulls

We could make a whole plain white with skulls in the moonlight! (l. 1-4)

Such poems temper their instrumental ambition with a critical element of the dream, its quality of strangeness and surprise that, unlike political conviction, could not have preceded the expressive act. The poem relinquishes some measure of control modeled in the certitude of the political manifesto or, for that matter, the phone book, work predicated on our passivity as readers and the passivity of the medium in yielding to intention. The poet’s voice must give voice.

 The Grace of Accuracy

 Admittedly “subjectivity” is an immense and blurry category. As such, it gestures toward a certain metaphysical blurriness as embedded in ordinary language. As one pole of the subject-object continuum that makes consciousness possible, subjectivity suggests relief from the bias that imparts the lion’s share of reality to the objects of perception. “Empathy,” as no less difficult a category, would occupy a space at both ends of the continuum. This is in part because its “object” is a “subjectivity,” which like one’s own is messy, and that very subjectivity calls us to the humanity of our own. Empathy cannot be objective, nor can it shed a metaphysical sense of irresolution and hunger for that which is beyond representation. Empathy thus provides a model of what poetry longs to be, empathetic in the sense of listening as it speaks. In poetry, the surreal image potentially pays homage to something beyond the self, something transpersonal in both the outward and inward sense. “Empathy” conceived as listening speech is at the core of what gives the poetic imagination its expressive power, its attentive invention, its imagined reconciliation or conflation of facts and values. In order to see poetry in the light of its strengths, it helps to see all good poems, in the broadest sense, as love poems. This is to say that their power depends upon what is at stake in imaginative play. Love is the signature of commitment. It gives a poem its pressure of necessity. All poems animated by this necessity see in the world the care and investment of imaginative awakening, of eros as dialogical, born in the conversation between the given and the made.

One of the practical problems that an artist confronts is that eros requires a subjectivity that in excess threatens to overwhelm its object. We see this in romantic love, in the necessary tension between the archetypal and the individual bearing of the beloved that makes romantic love possible. The mythic dimensions of romantic love that characteristically subside with familiarity can inflate themselves at the expense of the beloved. Romantic love struggles to overcome the narcissistic element within it. In poetry too, it is less specifically an inwardness that tends to break the spell of eros than it is self-regard, or self-consciousness in its pejorative sense. Surrealism characteristically aligns itself with a more “naked” poetics, as articulated in the popular Vietnam-era anthology Naked Poetry, inclusive of Bly, Merwin, and others whose plain diction and figurate leaps would give to the marvelous the quality of the homemade. The surreal image as expressive of eros suggests a subordination of artifice to improvisatory candor, less hesitant, more freely associative, less plagued by issues of “correctness,” or, as Breton says, “aesthetic or moral concern,” but it takes a great deal of faith in the transformative power of disinhibition to believe the unpoliced sensibility moves toward empathy. One need only look at the frequent misogynist elements in early surreal visual art for an example of disinhibition giving license to sadism.

On the other hand, repression of the cruel appetites and paranoia of the psyche does even less to transform them. No manifesto can render unproblematic poetry’s (and the psyche’s) need for both passion and discipline, surrender and control. In bracketing off aesthetic and moral concerns, Breton leaves wonder and authenticity to fill the void. Somewhat ironically for some, surrealism, as a higher realism (a sur-realism), gains much of its authority from its psychic “truth.” Poetry is frivolous without some such revelatory possibility. Still Breton’s subordination of aesthetic and moral concerns conflicts rather sharply with the aesthetic and moral subtext throughout his manifestoes. The so-called lack of aesthetic or moral concern, as a trick one plays on oneself in surreal practice, does not account for Breton’s investment in the aesthetics of juxtaposition and the ethics of material dialectics. It appears the problematic tensions between the good, the beautiful, and the true simply cannot be resolved, but only, at best, ignored for the sake of opening up the spontaneous activity of the mind.

With personal immediacy, Robert Lowell’s poem “Epilogue” brings into focus the fundamental tension in poetry between the beautiful and the true, a tension that recalls both his early deployment of more obviously formal devices and his later relaxation of them:

Those blessed structures, plot and rhyme—

why are they no help to me now

I want to make

something imagined, not recalled? (l. 1-4)

The urge to make something imagined competes therefore with the urge expressed later to “say what happened.” With a note of personal crisis reminiscent of Yeats’s “The Circus Animal’s Desertion,” Lowell suspects the worst. He sees his work as devoid of both the vitality of the beautiful and the authenticity of true:

But sometimes everything I write

with the threadbare art of my eye

seems a snapshot,

lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,

heightened from life,

yet paralyzed by fact.  (l. 8-12)

Although the poem is less explicit about the ethical tension in poetry, the moral intelligence of the poet finds expression in Lowell’s attempt to reconcile the beautiful and the true through art as an embodiment of care. Vermeer’s art strikes its balance with regard to the beautiful and the true by virtue of its “caress,” its imaginative precision:

I hear the noise of my own voice:

The painter’s vision is not a lens, 

it trembles to caress the light.
 (l. 5-7)

In contrast to Vermeer’s art is not simply the photograph, but, in Lowell’s terms, the “snapshot”—decidedly less artful, less considered, “lurid, rapid, garish, grouped” (l. 11).

In Lowell’s dramatic imperative to “pray for the grace of accuracy/ Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination (16-17),” the word “grace” conflates the values that he would honor. It suggests both divine bestowal and artistic refinement at the service of some clarification of attention. Vermeer’s medium “gives” to the world its grace such that its artistry foregrounds neither subject nor object but their relational being as manifest in one another. Truth cannot be beauty, but the two may share the same space in art’s act of bestowal, its generosity, its attentive “caress.”

Lowell’s insight here notably comes to fruition as prayer. The gesture acknowledges a certain metaphysics in great art, where, by virtue of unseen grace, the real and the imagined both find expression in the ache of care that binds one to the world. The artist’s disciplined agency, if animated by the grace of accuracy, is always paradoxical, always open, always a surprise. This comes to matter because mortality puts self and world under pressure to seek one another, to affirm themselves in the face of death:

We are poor passing facts,

warned by that to give

each figure in the photograph

his living name. (l. 20-23)

Lowell’s poem ends less with certainty than with some registration of the pressure that is the gift of our passing.   Death has a voice. It is our voice, our projected fear and aspiration in light of the threat of non-being. What is more certain that the fact of one’s death? What is more uncertain than its nature?   What is more uncanny that the look of death on someone we loved, someone we continue to love, we might catch ourselves saying, not knowing exactly who or what it is we love? What is more immanently distant than the artistic rendering of the deceased who wear the look of life, mercifully odd in light of what we know and do not know. Poetry, in giving presence to our felt relations, cannot help but be haunted by absence, as we are, as our language must be. It cannot help but recognize the mystery of death and non-being as woven inextricably into that of being, such that thirst for the deeper resources of being belies an anxiety drawn from the wells of non-being.

It is the vocation of art therefore to make of hunger its own satisfaction. The presence that art conjures is thus always in part a product of hunger, a product of the imaginative encounter with non-being. Keats intuits as much when, in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” he states:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

The imperative to “play on” self-reflexively affirms not only the imagination’s power of collaboration, but also its power to manifest the real conceived, not merely as subjective or objective, but as that which makes tenuous their distinction. The sweetest melodies complicate our sense of aesthetics, since beauty has no true home. It can neither reside neatly in the relativity of human subjects nor, conversely, in the stability of external objects. It cannot locate itself exclusively in being or in non-being. Beauty therefore is restless. It breeds the very hunger it requires. In a paradox of relations, the imagined music of the urn sweetens the very desire that makes it sweet.

From non-being come the forces of imaginative affirmation that have no clear beginning, no end, though we are bound to happen upon them now and then with all the shock of the new. Somewhere in a museum in Vienna perhaps, we might look up to see a painting of a girl posed before a map. She is holding a book and an antique trombone, eyes closed, breath still. We do not feel what she felt. We cannot. We do not hear what she heard in the music of her horn. However, what we do feel is enormous and sustaining in light and in spite of that which is lost. We feel the hunger for being in the artist’s grace, his compositional regard for the real to articulate that hunger. As non-being and being find focus via the sense of the whole, we see the luminous shadow of death, of absence in the presence, of solitude in our shared desire for communion. We feel the nature of the summons that is specific to the imagination, the sense that, in going out to the girl in the painting, we pass through an inward space, a space that is both ours and not ours. This is the space of the poem. It has no other. And if we are met by grace, we feel not only some shadow of the way things were but how, imbued with our own vulnerable attentions, these shadows come to matter.


Works Cited

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Cambridge, MA:     MIT Press, 1967.

Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1950.

Lacan, Jacques, The Seminar, Book XX: Encore, On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge, NY: Norton, 1998.

Lowell, Robert. “Epilogue.” Day by Day. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1977.

Motherwell, Robert. “Reflections on Painting Now.” The Writings of Robert Motherwell. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007.

Neruda, Pablo. “A Few Things Explained.” Five Decades: A Selection (Poems: 1925- 1970). Ben Belitt, Translator and Editor. NY: Grove Press, 1974.

Nietzche, Friederich. “The Birth of Tragedy.” Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Walter Kaufmann, Editor and Translator. NY: The Modern Library, 1968.

Stevens, Wallace. “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words.” Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination. NY: Vintage Books, 1951.