Ringing Rocks

That you can go the length without anything coming of it - these words are associated with the tragically drawn scholar figure, Casaubon, in George Eliot's Middlemarch, to which I will soon devote a post. And that theme keeps recurring like so many hollow shudders in the different muted mirrored views of the various folk around him.
Can we say the same about the artistic endeavour? I think somehow that it is safer, because the artist may always defend himself by saying that he is following his own vision. In proper scholarly work it is hardly justifiable to go one's way without checking what others, and now we consider others in other countries, have said before. Except - if we accept George Eliot's implication in Middlemarch that the scientific in the humanities is the ability to see comparisons, it is perhaps not enough to have the dry logical mapComparison furnishes relevance; it is what kind literature teachers show of seemingly distant novels and insightful history teachers reveal of different ages and mores: all part of the ongoing story of what we're doing here, how we're making do with what we have, which also includes, to quote a book title, wishes, lies, and dreams.
Going the length with something coming of it may mean nothing more than engaging given material and not abstracting out of it. William Carlos Williams' no ideas but in things. Just like Rilke's poems after his trip to Russia with Andreas-Salomé: all of that spirituality (the "fourth dimension" of the "Slavic soul" that he saw precisely because he sought the inner intuition) began to get concentrated into things in The Book of Pictures and later Dinggedichte, which is rather like how Kandinsky saw the icon as a way to see pictures not just as a flat surface. Icons, described by Julia Kristeva as not revealed in the gaze alone, but affecting the entire affectivity by inscribing, not manifesting, divine presence. Like a promissory note? So it is that by extension any thing may be seen as the concentration of ideas, some better than others. To go the length is to search for the thing that resonates. Perhaps one will not find it. It hides. Φύσις κρύπτεσθαι φιλεῖ.




But I feel bold despite that hollow shudder in Middlemarch that is the memento mori for the thinking mind. Socrates comes to the saddened thinker wondering at their fate: at all of the work which may have been the wrong work. He says two things in the Phaedrus that may give direction. One is his answer to Phaedrus' question of whether he believes in the myth said to have taken place near by, when he says that he accepts the customary belief about them because the more scientific explanations "very clever and laborious and not altogether enviable" used to explain the myth away require much time for leisure which he does not have, for he has yet to follow the Delphic inscription and know himself (229c-230a). He has demarcated for himself his line of study and in this way seems quite contemporary.
It is less contemporary, however, to keep connecting the self to one's inquiry - but this is what promises relevance: for in this way one is bound to be relevant to at least one. And this is also what often seems missing from contemporary scholarship: not the I of pride but the I of human limitation, like Auerbach ending Mimesis by explaining that there were no notes because he had written his work where he had no access to adequate libraries and literature - yet had he been able to access myriad related works "I might never have reached the point of writing". In other words, he writes that the book was produced in part by a situation, his situation (for how many minds could write that book - and without the relevant literature?)




Socrates also presents the doubting thinker with the comparison between being in one's right mind and madness. It is the latter that he connects to love, poetry, and a philosophy of happiness often referred to as the tenets necessary for the good life. Socrates says, "he who without the divine madness comes to the doors of the Muses, confident that he will be a good poet by art, meets with no success, and the poetry of the sane man vanishes into nothingness before that of the inspired madmen." (245a)
It is the suggestion of inspiration that is so concretely described by reference to the Muses, also this larger tradition of inspiration as being a visitation. Rilke hearing a voice in the wind in Trieste giving way to The Duino Elegies. Socrates drawing on the crickets in the Phaedrus. To listen - for what? The mad idea, the one that at first might not make any sense. Like how people who think they are moving away from their dream actually end up getting closer to it. Has the pursuit called you?
I had an answer to that question a few times before. Despite that, there are times when it seems I, or anyone else, could be Mr. Casaubon so long as we have not met with tenure or have not made our name in any number of ways. Judging by the ending, Woody Allen's Rome with Love seems to be about how even the person who has made a name struggles to retain their relevance. Anyone might be Casaubon. 
Again and again one might but have to listen for that song and seek some degree of humility, as per the finishing lines of Pindar's first Olympian ode: "For me the Muse tends her mightiest shaft of courage. Some men are great in one thing, others in another; but the peak of the farthest limit is for kings. Do not look beyond that."
And for the times of subjection, Rilke writes of the soul that "carries something like a secret playroom" generating endless and individual freedom despite "crushing conditions". The canvas is either blank or when it is painted, behind it may be that secret playroom suggesting the next painting. It is my opinion that the antidote to the Casaubon syndrome is seeking the relevance of a given matter, humility before it, and allowing ideas to come forth, no matter how mad or seemingly unrelated at first glance. The latter is one of the rules of creation, which is not the same as mindful emending, which may follow if there is something of quality to emend: the secret of things that resonate with one's rocky core, not hardened through obstinacy as to not be lithophonic furniture.  




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