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.


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.

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.


Adi said...

Oes Tsetnoc one of the ways in which we can learn seo besides Mengembalikan Jati Diri Bangsa. By participating in the Oes Tsetnoc or Mengembalikan Jati Diri Bangsa we can improve our seo skills. To find more information about Oest Tsetnoc please visit my Oes Tsetnoc pages. And to find more information about Mengembalikan Jati Diri Bangsa please visit my Mengembalikan Jati Diri Bangsa pages. Thank you So much.
Oes Tsetnoc | Semangat Mengembalikan Jati Diri Bangsa

s said...

搬家公司 月子中心 seo 關鍵字廣告 關鍵字 google關鍵字廣告 關鍵字行銷 網路行銷 通姦 徵信社 外遇 桃園房屋仲介 桃園房屋買賣 桃園房屋 醫學美容診所 淨膚雷射 雷射溶脂 飛梭雷射 微晶瓷 植髮 團體服 團體服訂做 醫學美容診所 肉毒桿菌 肉毒桿菌瘦臉 醫學美容 整型診所 美國月子中心 徵信 徵信公司 出軌 清潔公司台北搬家公司 整形 韓風整形 整形 韓風整形 老人癡呆症 情緒管理 訂房網 線上訂房

s said...

宜蘭民宿 宜蘭住宿 網路訂房 宜蘭飯店 新娘祕書 清潔公司 植牙 裝潢 室內設計 油漆粉刷 油漆工 油漆工程 洗鞋加盟 洗包包加盟 洗包包 創業加盟店 早餐店加盟 開店創業 創業開店 結婚金飾 鑽石婚戒 通水管 通水管 通馬桶 抽水肥 包通 馬桶不通 通馬桶 通水管 清水溝 沙發 室內設計公司 室內設計 室內裝潢設計 裝潢設計 澳門自由行 搬家公司 搬家公司 台北搬家公司 新竹搬家公司 桃園搬家公司 香港自由行太陽能熱水器 三久 櫻花牌熱水器

s said...

熱水器 省電熱水器 衛浴設備 節能減碳 電熱水器 中古車 義賣 義賣活動 二手車 環保袋 環保袋 環保袋 十分瀑布 台北旅遊網 月子餐 飛梭雷射 太陽能熱水器 太陽能 三久太陽能 三久 身體檢查 健康檢查 台北民宿 平溪 景觀餐廳 薰衣草花園 花園餐廳 螢火蟲 渡假村 鐵道之旅 團體服 滷味 滷味加盟 滷味批發 滷味食材 滷味宅配 滷雞翅 滷雞腳 健康滷味 魯味 加盟創業 慈善慈善機構 公益彩券

s said...

健康食品 慈善基金會 公益團體 愛心捐款 捐款 美白 皺紋 減肥 禿頭 醫學美容 電波拉皮 雷射溶脂 肉毒桿菌 玻尿酸 痘疤 婦產科診所 室內設計 埋線 內分泌失調 黃體不足 針灸減肥 坐月子中心 婦產科 月子中心 全身健康檢查玫瑰花束 盆栽 網路花店 花店 鍛造 樓梯扶手 欄杆 鐵門 採光罩 清水溝 通水管 通馬桶

Anonymous said...

馬桶 馬桶不通 國外旅遊 國外機票 團體旅遊 直航機票 簽證熱水器 蘭花 化糞池 抽化糞池 便宜機票 國內旅遊 抽水肥 太陽能 水管不通 洗水塔 消毒 通水管 通馬桶 馬桶 馬桶不通 上順旅行社 五福旅行社 大興旅行社 天喜旅行社 天福旅行社 日本旅行社 日本旅遊 日本機票 日本自由行 日本訂房 包通 抽化糞池 抽水肥 水管不通 洗水塔 自由行 訂房 雄獅旅遊 汽車美容 汽車美容 三久太陽能黃金價格查詢 貸款 信用貸款

Anonymous said...

房屋貸款 剖腹生產 姓名配對 星座 星座運勢 算命 素食料理 素食水餃 開運印章 風水 外遇 徵信 壁癌 屋頂防水 屋頂隔熱 抓漏 油漆 徵信社 外遇 徵信 徵信社 外遇 徵信 徵信社 外遇 徵信 徵信社 外遇 徵信 徵信社 外遇 徵信 徵信社 清潔公司浴室 漏水 舊屋翻新 裝潢 防水工程 壁癌 健康飲食 台北素食餐廳 吃素 團購美食 水餃 素食素食食譜

Anonymous said...

素食餐廳 交友 婚友 婚友社 婚友聯誼 愛情公寓 相親 相親銀行 聯誼 命理網 姓名學Hook and Loop 婚禮佈置 情人花束 新竹花店婚友聯誼社 愛情會場佈置 氣球佈置二手車健檢 醫學美容 淨膚雷射 汽車美容 法拍屋 水餃 清潔公司 塑膠袋批發 塑膠袋工廠 實驗動物 到府坐月子 坐月子 坐月子中心 坐月子餐 孕婦 月子餐 到府坐月子 中古車 今日金價 坐月子中心 坐月子中心台中 坐月子中心台北 台北人力銀行

Anonymous said...

金價查詢 月子餐 月子中心 坐月子餐 月子餐外送 月子餐食譜 統一發票9 10月 金價 統一發票9 10月 找工作 統一發票7 8月 求職 1111求職人力銀行 104求職人力銀行 104人力銀行 統一發票5 6月 104人力銀行 104求職人力銀行 塑膠袋 統一發票1 2月 金價 黃金價格 金價查詢 黃金買賣 環保袋 肉毒桿菌 黃金 統一發票3 4月 坐月子 sum中古車 1111人力銀行 104求職人力銀行 1111人力銀行求職 黃金價格查詢 中古車買賣 塑膠袋 統一發票9 10月 塑膠袋批發 中古車 中古車買賣消防公司 地板施工 網路廣告 網路行銷

Anonymous said...