The (in)human author and the (in)human characters

The other night we were talking about fiction, or more generally any art, that could represent a non-human reality, a non-human perspective and experience. I argued that fiction was particularly unsuited to this task, because it’s a genre rooted in very human experiences and conventions for representing those experiences. A couple of us speculated that any art is ultimately going to founder on this problem, because we always bring our human perspective to bear, both in the making and in the reception of the work. But I suggested that other genres—poetry, nonfiction—might do better at getting us closer to some such world.

Soon afterwards I read a long Wallace Stevens poem called “Credences of Summer.” (I can’t find a link to the full text at a site I trust.) I was especially struck by the ninth section, for various reasons, but one of them was that it seems to move closer to that idea of nonhuman experience. (I say “idea of” deliberately: even this is ultimately a human construct, conveyed through human language.) Here’s the ninth and part of the tenth sections:

Fly low, cock bright, and stop on a bean pole. Let
Your brown breast redden, while you wait for warmth.
With one eye watch the willow, motionless.
The gardener’s cat is dead, the gardener gone
And last year’s garden grows salacious weeds.

A complex of emotions falls apart,
In an abandoned spot. Soft, civil bird,
The decay that you regard: of the arranged
And of the spirit of the arranged, douceurs,
Tristesses, the fund of life and death, suave bush

And polished beast, this complex falls apart.
And on your bean pole, it may be, you detect
Another complex of other emotions, not
So soft, so civil, and you make a sound,
Which is not part of the listener’s own sense.

The personae of summer play the characters
Of an inhuman author, who meditates
With the gold bugs, in blue meadows, late at night.
He does not hear his characters talk. …

Highly structured, artificial forms (the arrangement into regular lines and stanzas, specifically the use of iambic pentameter, alliteration and other play with the arbitrary qualities of language); also narrative, history of a sort the awareness of which we conventionally deny to animals; abstract concepts (the “complex of emotions,” the “arranged” and the “spirit of the arranged”); the minute observation of the non-human creature from an external vantage (“with one eye you watch the willow”); metaphor (“salacious weeds”); assertion through a series of negations, which Bateson says are unknown to “primary process” (imagination and, he claims, animal consciousness): not soft, not civil, not part of the (human) listener’s “sense” in all senses of the word—all of these would seem to militate against the possibility of conveying nonhuman experience, yet these forms speak to the human imagination in a way that helps transport it beyond itself, into this world that it’s connected to, out of which it grows, even though we often forget the fact. Stevens puts us in the abandoned garden and gives us, if not the bird’s eye view, a very powerful sense of what it’s like to feel for a moment that you’ve connected with the bird, identified with it, and grasped, however transiently, what it might be like to be that alien being.

(I had to look up douceurs. The Oxford American Dictionary tells me a douceur (singular) is “a financial inducement; a bribe” or “a gratuity or tip.” But I think we get closer to Stevens’ meaning by looking at the etymology: literally, in (older?) French it means “sweetness.” Tristesses means “sadnesses” or “melancholies.”)

The “inhuman author” of section ten helps connect our conscious understanding with the more imagistic and intuitive insights of section nine. It’s hard to imagine fiction getting away with this kind of pronouncement; almost inevitably, it seems to me (I may have to revise this later), it would be caught up in a larger rhetorical pattern—the authorial voice, the narrator—and a narrative, so that the “gold bugs” would be seen to signify primarily in relation to the human characters, the human drama. In a poem the assertion can stand more autonomously as a direct statement about the world and so move us, if only as a matter of will, beyond the bounds of human consciousness.

Here’s some semi-technical stuff about rhythm. I’m always trying to write about what I find so compelling about prosody, and always failing. This is another failure.

What caught my eye at first about this passage was the rhythms, especially of that opening line. At first I just heard it; now I would describe it as a series of emphatic beats—each of the four one-syllable words at the start of the line—followed by a sudden swoop, coming to rest on “pole,” then a complete stop and minute rest, ending in a dramatic additional beat that leaves us hanging. It’s almost too perfect an enactment of the flight of the bird, its wings beating one-two-three-four, then swooping in to land abruptly but gracefully on the pole, while the dangling “let” at the end is like the bird’s momentum carrying it forward after it has landed so it sways a bit, maybe opens its wings a fraction for balance. All this mimesis only occurred to me now, as I was writing this; what I noticed first was the sound of it all, the musicality of the line and especially that breathtaking conclusion, with its daring rest one beat before the end.

Then of course there’s all the play with sound: let/breast/redden; brown breast; wait/warmth/watch/willow, etc.

All the lines are iambic pentameter; they follow the basic underlying pattern of da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM. But each one realizes the pattern uniquely, so that it never feels monotonous. The first line, for example, has eleven syllables; instead of the usual da DUM the fourth spot has da da DUM: on a BEAN … This simple addition helps give that part of the line its swift swoop. Others (the first, second, and fifth) have two strong syllables: DUM DUM instead of da DUM: FLY LOW, COCK BRIGHT…

Compare the third line of the last stanza in this section:

Another complex of other emotions, not

I had to stop and scan (measure) this mechanically to see how it fit the pattern. It’s strikingly different in sound and feel from the first line, even though it also makes use of that dramatic last-minute rest or pause (the comma after “emotions”). It turns out that here too we get a couple of extra syllables mid-line. Instead of da DUM we get da da DUM: -plex of OTH-er eMO-tions, NOT… Yet the effect is almost the opposite. This line, instead of getting a swoop and a lilt from the extra syllables, is deadened, like a complex fluid dynamic in which the various currents counteract each other. It lacks most of the obvious musicality of the other, that sing-songy cadence that iambic pentameter often has, and instead feels—as it should—like dry abstract prose (except that the not at the end adds a bit of a spring).

Other lines are very regular in their realization of the pattern:

the GARdener’s CAT is DEAD, the GARdener GONE


All this, and a great deal more besides, to try to explain why the lines work so well, why there’s an excitement or exhilaration in reading them that also helps to put us in the scene, to make us feel as music makes us feel without really understanding why.

Addendum, a few weeks later

Following my nose this morning, I came across an old blog post by Don Share (poet and co-editor of Poetry Magazine), which impinged on this discussion in interesting ways, I thought. (The post as a whole also relates, even more directly, to the question of poetry’s utility or instrumental value.) The most direct intersection came when someone he was quoting quoted the famous conclusion to Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques:

“Man is not alone in the universe, any more than the individual is alone in the group, or any one society among other societies. Even if the rainbow of human cultures should go down for ever into the abyss which we are so insanely creating, there will still remain open to us — provided we are alive and the world is in existence — a precarious arch that points toward the inaccessible. The road which it indicates to us is the one that leads directly away from our present serfdom: and even if we cannot set off along it, merely to contemplate it will procure us the only grace that we know how to deserve. The grace to call a halt, that is to say: to check the impulse which prompts Man always to block up, one after another, such fissures as may open up in the blank wall of necessity and to round off his achievement by slamming shut the doors of his own prison. This is the grace for which every society longs, irrespective of its beliefs, its political regime, its level of civilization. It stands, in every case, for leisure, and recreation, and freedom, and peace of body and mind. On this opportunity, the chance of for once detaching oneself from the implacable process, life itself depends.

“Farewell to savages, then, farewell to journeying! And instead, during the brief intervals in which humanity can bear to interrupt its hive-like labours, let us grasp the essence of what our species has been and still is, beyond thought and beneath society: an essence that may be vouchsafed to us in a mineral more beautiful than any work of Man: in the scent, more subtly evolved than our books, that lingers in the heart of a lily; or in the wink of an eye, heavy with patience, serenity, and mutual forgiveness, that sometimes, through an involuntary understanding, one can exchange with a cat.”

Beautiful, and so true.


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