A slowing 1: Intraacting with absence
Some works give more. Often by giving less.
Telling us what to think is not the same as moving the mind to think differently. Powerful art can slow and stun us. The sense of a shock is something to shake off, and yet to draw the reader into silent attention – this is the power that moves us. The mind slows.
I know when art makes me attend better to the world. How might we know the heart breaks – is it metaphor? – if the fissure was not made perceptible? How would we understand the pain of loss if we could not sense absence? There is the hollow, the what-is-not-there. This is the stuff of slowing.
We interact, react. In this both/and simultaneity of art the experience is “intraactive,” in the words of Karen Barad. The reader constitutes the work while encountering it. The work is altered as it alters, alive. Christina Davis’s book An Ethic begins with the title poem thus:
There is no this or that world.
One is not more or less
admitted. Into the entirety
one is invited
and to the entirety
This volume opens with death, the encountering of loss and meditation on grief. There is a quiet in this grief. It does not tell its secrets, but invites the reader into the world that shares in loss: “the entirety.”
What does it mean to experience loss if we do not recognize another world, but only this world, swollen with absence? The irony of this is its power. If the reader insists upon a telling of absence, it would be filled and thus diluted.
When we had reached the West
the sun delivered
its last instruction. Nearness,
it said, nearness
is the new frontier.
Absence can be filled by awareness of the density of its hollow. Such is grief. We must bring to bear on the poem our own pauses, our loss. Thus is the poetic work of intraaction, of art that demands, in order for its very existence, to be created by the reader. It is no accident that Davis evokes George Oppen, whose great monument to a sort of phenomenological ethics, Of Being Numerous, opens “There are things/We live among ‘and to see them/Is to know ourselves’” (147).
According to Iris Murdoch, “As moral agents we have to try to see justly, to overcome prejudice, to avoid temptation, to control and curb imagination, to direct reflection” (39). We have to try to see justly, and how that happens is related to how we try to direct reflection. Emphasizing this latter work is the task of art, and through art that effectively moves our attention to direct reflection toward this effort to see justly, we exercise our moral agency. However, telling us what to look at is not the same as guiding us to attend differently.
Oppen understands how attention to the world creates the world for us, and even the language of the poem, its lines in quotations, its echoing of itself, intraacts with itself as we intraact to create experience. As Barad helps us understand through quantum mechanics, “intra-action signifies the mutual constitution of entangled agencies. That is, in contrast to the usual ‘interaction,’ which assumes that there are separate individual agencies that precede their interaction, the notion of intra-action recognizes that distinct agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through, their intra-action” (33). It is a clarifying distinction in contemplating poetry that has both ontological resonance and ethical implications.
The hard work of grief does not come easily. We don’t want it and don’t want to do it wrong. We enter the poem to be in the poem and to attend to the work it gives us. To intraact, not just react.
But she was glad to be looking
And them not
always to arrive
The hard work of love is also not easily found. It slips away. Escapes, slippery. Yet there it is. Oppen observed:
the rain falls
that had not been falling
and it is the same world
To perceive justly is not only to see clearly, but also to recognize fallability – which the gaps convey – and to attempt to perceive “lovingly” (to borrow from Murdoch, 22). In seeking beauty, in leaving room for beauty, we are situated in an encounter that – if we will consider the morally live situation of art – allows us access to bring just. There are limitations to that view (we might insist on changes that enact just thinking in laws and civic engagement, we might wonder how others are unable to apprehend the beauty that so affects us), yet we can’t begin to more fully realize the good stuff if we have no capacity for attending to that which sensitizes us to the unsayable, our blurred losses, slurred griefs, our muddled and swelling compassions.
Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.
Davis, Christina. An Ethic. Callicoon: Nightboat Books, 2013.
Murdoch, Iris. The Sovereignty of Good. 1970. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Oppen, George. Collected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1975.
Image credit: John Carimando