Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Impossibility of Representation

It's been pointed out to me that on the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog Major Jackson lists this blog as being both "In" and "Out." I suppose this shouldn't be surprising, as people have often responded ambivalently to me. On the other hand, I rarely have the opportunity to be "In" under any circumstances, so I suppose I should be pleased. As Oscar Wilde didn't quite say, it's better to be talked about ambivalently than not at all.

I am still not up to writing new blog entries, especially after having had to go the emergency room again with complications from my cancer surgery, but I did want to post something, so I am putting up this older piece which I was pleased still seems to hold up to scrutiny. I hope that you agree.


Gerard Manley Hopkins is, in critic Denis Donoghue’s terms, and despite his spiritual preoccupations, an erotic rather than a sacramental poet. The sacramental poet lets the object be, celebrating it in its own terms, whereas the erotic poet can never let the object be: for him, it is an occasion for the definition of his own powers, "and he is tender toward it for that reason" (Donoghue, William Butler Yeats). This has something to do with the nature of Hopkins's language in particular, and something more generally to do with the possibilities of carrying the thing-in-itself into language without transforming it into something else: something rich and strange, perhaps even something more wonderful than the object it was before it was taken up into language, but nonetheless, something always no longer itself.

This is the nature of the aesthetic act. Critical theorist Herbert Marcuse defines art as that which effects a transformation upon the natural and the phenomenal. But this can present a grave conundrum or even contradiction for the poet who claims a primary allegiance to “the thing itself.” Such an avowed allegiance or desire is the basis of much of twentieth century American poetics.

The aesthetic transubstantiation of the object is particularly clear in an 1871 passage in Hopkins’s journals describing the processes of steam-rising and evaporation over a cup of hot chocolate. I will quote only the first portion of the rather lengthy entry here:

“I have been watching clouds this spring and evaporation, for instance over our Lenten chocolate. It seems as if the heat by aestus, throes/one after another threw films of vapour off as boiling water throws off steam under films of water, that is bubbles. One query then is whether these films contain gas or no. The film seems to be set with tiny bubbles which gives it a grey and grained look. By throes perhaps which represent the moments at which the evener stress of the heat has overcome the resistance of the surface or of the whole liquid. It would be reasonable then to consider the films as the shell of gas-bubbles and the grain on them as a network of bubbles condenses by the air as the gas rises.”

Hopkins’s effort to accurately observe what is before him, and to precisely notate what he observes, is palpable. Yet the passage abounds in such qualifications as “seems,” “can be perceived like,” “perhaps,” “represent,” “as,” “may look,” “I think,” “possibly,” and “It would be reasonable to consider,” all of which indicate an approximation rather than an exactness of re-presentation as well as a scrupulousness about the lack of “fit” between object and description. These are the words and phrases we use when we are not certain either that we have seen rightly or that we are capable of properly representing in language what we have seen. But is it ever possible to adequately embody the object-in-itself in language, or is such an idea as “adequacy” of word to thing itself a product of language? Hopkins clearly aims at such adequacy, such a justness of relation; he seeks, as it were, to make the flesh word. But in all his efforts to celebrate the object in, of, and for itself, and even against his own will (though not against the will of language), Hopkins finally celebrates only his own recreation of the object.

Hopkins sets himself the task of communicating the incommunicable in visual terms: yet, because language is not mimetic, he is attempting to name that which cannot be named, if we take a name to be a word to which its bearer responds when called. (Though language induces visual images in the mind, there is no necessary relation between those images and the language which has prompted them, nor between those images and the referent which may be considered their final cause if not source.

Poetry has often been considered the calling of things by their true names, the renewal of Adam’s task, but things do not have names, except insofar as we bestow them. Hopkins searches for essences in the realm of contingent entities; locating the transcendent in the immanent in an almost pantheistic manner (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God”), he sees the visible as the evidence of things unseen. Confident that the divine inheres in the created world (whatever his professed religion may tell him about the fallenness of that world, or about the absolute difference between creature and creator), Hopkins is free to locate his faith there: like Stevens, Hopkins makes the phenomenal world an item or at least a postulate of belief.

For one with such a worldview, observation of the visible world becomes a variety of spiritual exercise. Yet to approach an object from such a standpoint is to approach the object wanting something from it: it is to decide beforehand the nature of the object and to require that it disclose itself as of such a nature. Herein lies the advantage of language to the pantheist: if the object will not cooperate sufficiently, in and by means of language it can be transformed into whatever is required of it. A splendor of language may magically (Aldous Huxley asserted that magic is always a species of poetry) become the splendor of the object spoken of in such language.

Unlike Stevens, who seeks at least to “postpone the metaphysical pine” (though the very phrasing admits the impossibility of banishing it forever: the summer will be anatomized, whether we so choose or not), Hopkins does not mistrust metaphor, for by means of metaphor he may “carry over,” or at least to seem (that word again!) to carry over, the object into his language. The fact that the language is so very much his, however, shakes one’s credence in the object-in-itself which he claims to (re-)present. For Hopkins, what appear to be transformations of the object enacted in language (“Stars like gold tufts. Stars like golden bees. Stars like golden rowels,” et cetera) are actually attempts to bring one closer to the object’s quiddity. Things can only be described in terms of other things (language is a tissue of relations without substances: or rather, the relations are language’s substance). If one can find exactly the right things to which to relate the thing in question, then one can successfully carry over the unique particularity, the acceity, of the thing into language. As Jack Spicer hopefully claimed, things correspond.

But things do not correspond: or rather, things-in-themselves relate to other things-in-themselves but can never be conflated with or assimilated to those other things-in-themselves. How can a rock be like another rock? In language I can say it is, but what is the meaning of this “likeness”? Furthermore, the relations among things are not the relations between the words by means of which we speak of those things. Only in language do things correspond. In this view, simile (“seems,” “like,” “as”) is the admission of the inadequacy of all comparison or speaking in terms of; while metaphor attempts to conceal this failure, or will not concede it at all, simile admits that in language one can speak of things in no other way.

Language is system, and the function of system is to place things in relation. In itself every object is absolutely unique; language works against this absolute uniqueness, must work against it if language is to be possible at all. How can we call both this and this “rock”? Yet how could we communicate verbally if we were to call each thing by an absolutely unique name corresponding, or so we hope, to its absolute and individual uniqueness? You will note that there are no rocks in this essay, although there are “rocks.”

In any act of verbal description or representation there is a tension between words as corresponding to things in some concrete fashion (the immemorial search for the absolute language Pound thought he had found in the Chinese ideogram) and the arbitrariness of any relation between a word and an object (which have nothing in common save that they are both objects of the sensible world). Can one truly represent the thing or can one only concatenate a series of words-in-relation that one presents as analogous in the universe of verbal discourse to the object in the wordless multiverse of the “book of nature”? And how is one to decide whether this series of words is analogous, let alone adequate, to that toward which it gestures? In the language of Hopkins’s journals and poems this tension is reflected in the coexistence of bafflement and charm: the alterity, the utter otherness, of the object exists in tension with its apparent amenability to being appropriated into language and thus into the familiar. Hopkins addresses this in his distinction between the true and false instress of the thing. But if we cannot know what the thing is, then how are we to know what it is not?

What one first notices about Hopkins’s language is its extreme oddity: of vocabulary, of syntax, and of rhythm. This verbal idiosyncrasy, what amounts almost to a private language, is the product of the tension between absorption into the thing observed and the contrary determination to carry over the object intact into language, to represent silence by means of speech: which latter task makes it impossible for one to treat language as if it were a transparent medium. The claims of language are chastised by the deformation of language, which both highlights and utilizes the incommensurability of language and object.

When Hopkins describes tiny icicles in the frost covering the ground of a winter garden as “like a little Stonehenge,” the understated hyperbole ironically indicates the impossibility of a verbal simulacrum which would be adequate to the natural object. Similarly, the length at which Hopkins describes the steam over a cup of hot chocolate and the extravagance of his comparisons (the steam is implicitly equated with clouds in the sky, for example), through the very incongruity of the juxtaposition of such a tiny event to such elaborate description, undermines the idea that anything can be described at all. The passage on Lenten chocolate both embodies and confesses the paradox of representation in the course of its representational project.

The strain under which the language is put in Hopkins’s writings demonstrates both the attempt to match the absolutely unique quality of any given object and the resistance of language to any such matching. What one remembers from these passages is not the object ostensibly under description, but the language. The oddity of language betrays the object, for the object is neither odd nor familiar, known nor unknown: it simply is, and that dasein is impermeable to words. In Hopkins’s language we read not the object seen by Hopkins but language trying to persuade that it is the object. And indeed it is, for the original object has vanished, and what we are left with is language.

14 comments:

Radish King said...

Thank you for this. I was drunk on Hopkins for an entire year. Also, he was a violinist. Does that count toward anything? Only for another violinist.
r

Hedgie said...

sorry to hear about your trip to the emergency room. Hang in there; here's hoping things go better during the holidays.

Alice C. Linsley said...

This is thoughtful and lovely. There are points of contact with Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Derrida.

I hope that your Christmas will be blessed!

Mark Granier said...

Sorry to hear there were complications Reginald. I hope your full recovery is now back on track. I sent an email but it got returned. Perhaps you've changed the address? Best wishes to you and Robert and happy Christmas.

Mark

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