Philosophy and Poetry

Continuing his series of guest-posts (earlier posts are here and here), Joel Dietz addresses himself to poetry and philosophy, particularly in the context of the Dao De Jing.

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In a previous essay, I discussed the likelihood that the Dao De Jing refers to “esoteric” techniques that were explained via oral tradition. In my next essay, I plan to discuss the “metaphysics” implied by the Dao De Jing. First, I would like, however, to tie a few loose threads together by discussing the relation of poetry and philosophy with specific attention to this same classic, since it bears on both past and future adages.

Both power and beauty are, in certain respects, ultimately a function of density. Density is the ability to move a force with a minimum of effort, it is the Archemedian lever of eternity. Poetry, because certain laws germane to prose are removed, can be more dense than prose. For instance, “drop. leaf.” removes three words from “the drop on the leaf.”

The problem with density is, frequently, incomprehensibility. I refer to “Europa’s song, Daphne’s flight, / Leda’s swan, Psyche’s light.” I am expecting my readers to know a reasonable amount of classical mythology before its meaning is comprehensible. Moreover, I might expect my readers to know something of the process of modern civilization, such that they recognize the progression and relevance of these lines within the current cultural milieu.

Because of this, which demands something of the reader both outside of the text, including knowledge, presumably the result of individual effort, and a wide acquaintance with the various motivations that can be present in mankind, it is easy to see why one would sometimes prefer that close cousin of poetry: philosophy.

Philosophy serves a similar function to poetry, but with a much greater verbosity and without an ability to adequately deal with phenomena that cannot easily be rendered verbally. Philosophy might be capable of describing the various motivations and capabilities of man that, in a certain sense, war within him, and create a situation and possibility that we can call “tragic,” but it is incapable of putting him upon the stage and allowing us to see ourselves in him.

This is, among other things, because poetry more easily than prose is able to evoke a certain mood along with the evocation of a theme, something that may reach a fusion of a sort in a philosophical novel (e.g. of Dostoyevsky), and because the “cathartic” moment is more easily reached when we are participating in the event as actors, rather than observing from the eves with our critical minds. If one brought a book of critical essays on Hamlet to the production, one would miss the main act, because the man act exist primarily within oneself (As we find in the commentary on the play within the play: “What’s he to Hecuba or she to him, that he should weep for her?”).

We have a rare group of works which do not fit neatly into either category, in which the Dao De Jing is paramount. Although certain claims are made, they are frequently negative and/or paradoxical claims. Although one might claim, with very good reason, that the process of compilation was somewhat haphazard, enough verses remain intact as to discuss this mysterious phenomenon.

Although we have already stated that these are largely negative claims, like the mystical theology of pseudo-Dionysius, there are numerous statements which make positive claims about how one should act in the world, including social, political, esoteric, economic, and other senses. Moreover, there are also fairly explicit metaphysical and cosmological statements. The implicit claim is that despite a distaste on the part of the author(s) for words, words can be useful in describing certain aspects of reality. They can even be true words. They remain, however, only a small part of the total picture and no substitute for discovering the way that exists beyond words.

I close with this piece of philosophical-poesy:

The man that walks on the way
Has not found the way
For if he had, he would not be a man
Nor would he be walking.

For this, I will, in a brief breach of the normal ethics that often pertain to esoteric schools, provide a public interpretation of these few verses. We must remember that the old story of Confucius meeting Laozi and finding only one word to describe him. And we must that this word, “dragon,” does not refer to a beast which drags his tail in the mud. Rather, they fly through the starry heavens.

2 replies on “Philosophy and Poetry”

  1. Hi Joel,

    re: “Density is the ability to move a force with a minimum of effort”
    — what a strange definition!

    Your comparison of poetry and philosophy makes some claims that makes me scratch my head. A number of the virtues of poetry you point out here could apply to prose fiction. For example, a good novel has the capability of “putting him upon the stage and allowing us to see ourselves in him.”

    • I agree about the prose fiction, something I thought I made clear with my Dostoyevsky reference. I suspect that the difference between prose fiction and poetry is degree rather than type.

      I will also reconsider my “density” definition, thanks.

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