Poetics as a Bridge between Man and World
The Ethical Aspect of the Poetic Gesture and its Possible Application in the Psychoanalytical thinking and Practice
(walking in the footsteps of J. M. Coetzee and Stanley Cavell)
By Orly Shoshani
There is first of all the problem of the opening, namely, how to get us from where we are, which is, as yet nowhere, to the far bank. It is a simple bridging problem, a problem of knocking together a bridge. (J. M. Coetzee)
In the collection of stories written by John Maxwell Coetzee, the South African writer and Nobel Prize laureate in Literature (2003) titled “Elizabeth Costello”, Coetzee states that “People solve such problems every day. They solve them, and having solved them push on” .
But what about the times when the horizon is hidden in a heavy mist and the far bank is covered by darkness? What if we are trapped in between, in a place that is in fact, nowhere?
While sitting inert in his seat, his arms hugging the upper part of his body as though he would otherwise be tossed to the ground like a rag doll, Dan who came to me for therapy following a long period of deep and continuous depression, would asked me this question: “What is the point of talking at all?” As much as his silence terrified him, words were even worse. They are strident to his ears. They had become dead, disconnected signs. No word was the right one. No word sounded different to the previous one.
This unbearable experience of a person’s disassociation from his world, indefinite detachment from time and space, is expressed by Fernando Pessoa in these lines from his poem Magnificent:
When will this drama without theatre
– Or this theatre without drama – end
So that I can go home?
Where? How? When?
Poetic sensitivity serves Pessoa and other artists as a bridge across the abyss of despair, reinstating themselves, and us along with them, in the centre, in the heart of the world. This is the responsibility imposed upon the artist, as it is upon us the therapists.
In this paper I will try to ask what that poetic sensitivity is, that enables the artist to see what we often find it hard to see, and how we can learn to empathize if we walk in their footsteps. I will be using the work of Coetzee, focusing on the fabulous collection of stories Elizabeth Costello, particularly the chapters of “What is Realism” and the two section of “The Lives of Animals: “The Philosophers and the Animals”, and “The Poets and the Animals”.
Back to Dan: Slowly over the years, sensation relate to events, breathing and looks converge; we breathe life into the fallen letters that hang between us that symbolize Dan’s exclusion, the hushed sound of a mental breakdown. In situations so tragic that possible horizons of existence are blurred, foggy to the point of despair, we as selfobject are required to be poets. “So the poet at work is an expectation” wrote Paul Valéry, “he is transition within a man… His ear speaks to him… We wait for the unexpected word – which cannot be foreseen but must be a waited”.
This state of openness toward the yet unheard, this transition that occurs in a person which we, the therapists, also long for in order to openly listen to the distant echoes that were laid out beneath the despair of the adult within the child, which absorb any possible imagined future, is described in a great sensitivity by Coetzee who gives it a name, calling it “Poetic Invention”: the opportunity found rooted in the heart of one’s humanity, to always be towards open possibilities. Coetzee also presents the implications of disengagement from these opportunities as a result of traumatic events imposed on us, or a worldview, a perception which impedes us.
In Elizabeth Costello, and in the philosopher Stanley Cavell’s essay in which he responds to Coetzee stories in the collection that relate to “The Lives of Animals”, I find some challenging and enlightening ideas regarding questions that relate to the connection between poetics and ethics, which both Coetzee and Cavell address, as well as to the possible applications that emerge from their writing to psychoanalysis and clinical practices.
Coetzee presents us with ethical challenges that stem from our entrenchment within the constraints of the epistemic approach that characterizes all fields of research and modern thinking, showing how these constraints might endanger us through our denial of the suffering of others, and the loss of the potential inherent in our existence as human beings. It also delineates a possible way of extraction from these contingent constrictions that are expressed in language, and sometimes it is language that perpetuates them. Perhaps, Coetzee suggests, intellectual tradition is nothing but a “language game” amongst other possibilities, and that it is not necessarily the language that awards us accessibility to the secrets of existence. The poetic invention is suggested here, following Coetzee, as an ethical practice which we, too, can adopt. The creative work, and it’s prominence of shape and unique aesthetics, allow us to delve in. It is a product of the artist’s poetic sensitivity which translates into a tendency to deviate from herself and move much more flexibly than we do in between the different language games.
The artist’s flexibility is testimony to his openness, to his being more exposed than we are and ready to be touched.
The liberty of the poet allows him an overview, extracting it for us from the one dimensional reality of the vernacular. Due to the aesthetic uniqueness of the poetic gesture, it can reflect the most personal aspects of our being while raising questions relating to the existential condition of man in the world, exposing us to what Cavell calls “Inordinate Knowledge”‘ which he defines as “knowledge that can seem excessive in its expression, in contrast to… archived knowledge” and without which we might live detached from aspects of our world.
Coetzee certainly recognizes the quality of writing and the power of fiction. and through the fictional figure of Costello, a brave Australian writer, he shows how it is precisely fiction that helps us see things as they are. Coetzee himself told the story of Costello for the first time, when he was invited to lecture before University of Princeton Academy members. He evidently needed her, a fictional character, in order to ensure that they listen to that which infuriates and perturbs the banal and the habitual. It could be that his outcry, which he surely feared would not be heard, he voiced by means of Costello, through her he dared to disturb the ordinary. Through Costello’s voice, Coetzee demonstrates to his reader the unbearable and disturbing analogy between the tragedy of animals, and the mechanisms of the Third Reich. In these stories, Coetzee raises difficult questions about our ability to be humane when we refuse to suffer the pain of others. We try to protect ourselves at the cost of losing the connection with other persons, and with animals, that he sees as our allies in life on earth we all are rooted and embodied with. Coetzee, and following him Cavell, do not stop at the discussion of animals but ask: what is the responsibility of those who have language?
These are the opening words of Costello to the members of the academy:
In the lecture I then gave. (Referring to a lecture given some years before) I had reason to refer to the great fabulist Franz Kafka, and in particular to his story ‘Report to an Academy’, about an educated ape, Red Peter, who stands before the members of a learned society telling the story of his life – of his ascent from beast to something approaching man. On that occasion I felt a little like Red Peter myself, and said so. Today that feeling is even stronger .
And in response to the frivolous comments heard in the audience, Costello proceeds:
the remark that I feel like Red Peter – was intended. I did not intend it ironically. It means what it says. I say – what I mean. I am an old woman, I do not have the time any longer to say things I do not Mean.
Costello is a renowned writer who embarks on journeys around the world, lecturing about the tragedy of animals led to slaughter, prepared for chopping and packaging on production lines in the slaughter houses behind the suburbs, about which we may know but mostly are not aware of.
Costello presents us with the challenge, but also outlines the way, by inviting us to see her not just as an old woman, but as another facet of her humanity: to see her as Red Peter, as a wounded animal. The poetic space Coetzee creates enables us to experience the most personal and the most collective anguished that are possible at the same time. And indeed, Elizabeth Costello cries out the cry of the individual who is struggling for humanity in a world devoid of compassion, that of Coetzee, of Kafka, of Red Peter and the animals led to slaughter, exposing herself to criticism and rejection in the reality of the fiction. Her outcry is accompanied by a growing sense of unease. Costello’s brave intent, her meaning of every word she says, allows us to bridge the gap that exists among people, and between man and world. Cavell, following Wittgenstein, claims that when words are brought with their full meaning, something else happens than when they are presented merely in literal terms. “When we mean something, it’s like going up to someone”. Avoiding this intention means forgoing the opportunity to be open towards horizons of existed and it decrees a state of confinement as a form of defense that protects us from the horror. Hanging onto ourselves, we lose something of our humanity.
The authors, says Coetzee, know how to bring themselves to become the living body by the process of “poetic invention that mingles breath and sense”. Coetzee views authors and poets in the realm of those who are awake to these gaps in which we fall asleep. Costello explains to the Academy members that by glorifying the intellectual concepts, preferring them over humane gesture, we forget the embodiment of the imprisoned ape used for research, Peter the Red. We are not shocked by the information. we cannot experience intellectual concepts.
Costello suggests us to learn from the poets who can achieve the empathic experience we are looking for. This ability of the artists paves the way for us too. Costello recommends that we follow them so that we can sense the living vibrations, the ripples, which poetic sensitivity can restore to the experience. We too, can offer ourselves to the being of the embodied soul, we can “bring the living body into being within our self”. One of the names for this experience of full being says Coetzee, is joy.
When Dan came to see me for the first time, he said in a feeble voice, “I have nothing to say”. To my response “You are here”, he replied, “This is the last chance”. Dan placed in my hands the full weight of the grief that enveloped the primordial joy: a soul embodied in flash emerges – Birth. I felt the weight of responsibility placed on my shoulders, to pave new ways, to build bridges, to follow the poets.
Costello describes the poet Ted Hughes’ well known poem “The Jaguar” as an example of experience-near poetic work, where the poet devotes himself to the being of the jaguar in the cage. We can’t experience concepts, but through immersing ourselves in the singular experience of the particular being of the Jaguar we can enrich the platonic ideal of Jaguarism.
By his poetic sensitivity, Hughes gives life to the jaguar as Kafka gives life to Red Peter, and Coetzee to Costello. This capability, which stems from the heart of our humanity, may be the result of us being rooted in life as we are rooted in each other, sharing “the substrate of life”, as Coetzee claims.
Orly Shoshani is a Ph.D candidate in Psychoanalysis and Philosophy in the Psychoanalysis and Hermeneutics track at the Bar-Ilan University. She is a member of the Israel Association for Self Psychology and a member of the curriculum committee of the Post Graduate Self Psychology Psychotherapy Track at the Tel Aviv university.