Poetry, Imagination, and Higher Consciousness

The American poet William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) began his authorship with imagist poems and quirky mixtures of prose and verse like Spring and All (1923), which intersperses paragraphs of speculation concerning poetry, consciousness, and the world with seemingly improvised but in reality carefully composed verse-effusions that attempt an audacious transformation of the banal into the sublime. Scholars of Twentieth-Century American poetry invariably categorize Williams as modern or avant-garde, but I would argue that Williams continues strongly in the Transcendentalist or American-Romantic tradition of the century previous to his own. Spring and All, supposedly an epitome of idiosyncratic American modernism, offers a case in point, even in those statements where Williams appears to reject tradition altogether and extols the virtue of “the imagination, freed from the handcuffs of ‘art.’” In an early prose-sequence of Spring and All, Williams denounces those whom he called “The Traditionalists of Plagiarism.” Williams uses the term plagiarism in an unusual way, as a failure of consciousness and perception to rediscover the newness and beauty – indeed even the sublimity – of the given world in all its particulars. In effect, in Spring and All, Williams engages a new version of the Romantic critique of complacency, recording, as he puts it, “our despair at the unfathomable mist into which all mankind is plunging.”

Complacency is the failure of imagination, the epistemological counterpart of original sin. Williams, like all good Romantics, aims at redeeming humanity from its great lapse, its Winter of Discontent, so as to establish men and women in the paradisiacal springtide of refreshed apprehension.

I. Williams means by plagiarism not simply a deficit of invention that tempts a dishonest party to claim as his own what belongs actually to someone else, so as to create a counterfeit impression of his own creative élan; invention by itself, as creativity or originality, is not the main issue. Thus in one of Spring and All’s early prose-sequence, Williams produces “the great English divine, Sam Butler,” who “is shouting from a platform, warning us as we pass,” that, “there are two who can invent some extraordinary thing to one who can properly employ that which has been made use of before.” Williams admires the “one,” who can rediscover usage rather than conjure novelty, and who does so. The task, however, is arduous. The inertia of routine insists on its frigid codicils and icy formulas, from which meaning has been frozen out until the tokens function as mere cold fetishes, by acknowledging which complacent men and women signify their conformity to bland indifference and continue about their business. Williams proposes that, “So long as the sky is recognized as an association… is recognized in its function of accessory to vague words whose meaning is impossible to recover… its value can be nothing but mathematical certain limits of gravity and density of air.” By contrast, “the farmer and the fisherman who read their own lives there [that is, in the sky] have a practical corrective for – they rediscover or replace the demoded meanings to the religious terms.”

According to Williams, imagination, the opposite principle of plagiarism, “is essential to freedom.” Lacking imagination, the standard modern consciousness of the standard modern subject only “contends with the sky through layers of demoded words and shapes,” whose significances “have been lost through laziness or changes in the form of existence which have let words empty.” The words being dead, they never convey to the subject the living reality of the thing to which they refer. In order to replete the words, to replete the language itself, by which each people has constituted its image of the world, poetry requires of itself to recreate for each item of diction the necessity according to which its coiner originally enunciated and articulated it. In its first iteration every word, responding to a crisis, came like a thunderclap of revelation to throw clear to perception and cognition some hitherto unsuspected region of the world and to establish via the word a vital link to that region. In this wise the truly imaginative composition undertaken today will be “no different from the earlier aristocratic compositions of the earlier times, [the] Homeric inventions.” The poetic becomes for Williams a synonym, indeed, of the “civilized.”

Where Williams writes of “the inevitable flux of the seeing eye toward measuring itself by the world it inhabits,” such that the seer might “raise to some approximate co-extension with the universe” and “feel himself largely moved with sympathetic pulses at work,” he echoes Ralph Waldo Emerson. In The Poet (1844), Emerson writes that, “Everyman should be so much an artist, that he could report in conversation what had befallen him.” The counterfactual admonition notwithstanding, however, “in our experience,” as Emerson continues, “the rays or appulses [of reality] have sufficient force to arrive at the senses, but not enough to reach the quick, and compel the reproduction of themselves in speech.” The common parlance remains bland, its coin effaced. For Emerson, “The poet is the person in whom these powers are in balance, the man without impediment, who sees and handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole scale of experience, and is representative of man, in virtue of being the largest power to receive and to impart.” Emerson might have written what Williams wrote: “The work of imagination is not ‘like’ anything but transfused with the same forces which transfuse the earth.” Likewise when Williams asserts how “the exaltation men feel before a work of art is the feeling of reality they draw from it.”

“The Sea,” one of the verse-effusions that separate the prose-sequences of Spring and All, addresses original seeing, the lapse of original seeing, the redemption of original seeing through belated restoration, and the eros that draws consciousness to build its representation of the world. Once it has built that representation, it enters through it into communion with the order of being and the structure of reality. “The Sea” tells how a thing – anything – first impresses itself on consciousness and receives a name; how, through consciousness, events befall a subject, reminding him that the external world acts upon him and bestows meaning from without. Finally, “The Sea” attests that consciousness leaps into life collectively and never as a solipsism. I give the poem in its full thirty lines –

The sea that encloses her young body
ula lu la lu
is the sea of many arms —
The blazing secrecy of noon is undone
and and and
the broken sand is the sound of love —
The flesh is firm that turns in the sea
O la la O
the sea that is cold with dead men’s tears —
Deeply the wooing that penetrated
to the edge of the sea
returns in the plash of the waves —
a wink over the shoulder
large as the ocean —
with wave following wave to the edge
Oom barroom
It is the cold of the sea
broken upon the sand by the force
of the moon —
In the sea the young flesh playing
floats with the cries of far off men
who rise in the sea
with green arms
to homage again the fields over there
where the night is deep —
la lu la lu
but lips too few
assume the new — marruu
Underneath the sea where it is dark
there is no edge

The poem contains many obliquities; it never editorializes or otherwise gives away its game. Now and then, indeed, it seems to lapse into nonsense, with its “ula lu la lu” and “oom barroom.” Yet incantation and onomatopoeia live in the heart of the poem’s verses and lend to the poem their archetypal freshness. If, generally, humanity in its modern, amnesiac phase were descending into an “unfathomable mist”; then in the moment that “The Sea” records, a reversal will have taken place wherein old usages, newly recovered, charge themselves again with vital meanings. The sea itself, the moon, and the “young flesh” that “floats” – these resemble that sky, which, for Williams, exceeds confinement within “mathematical certain limits of gravity and density of air.” Williams transforms a day at the Jersey Shore into an apparition of Homer’s wine-dark sea or Hesiod’s primordial Ocean, but his lines also recall the troubled stillness of William Wordsworth’s sonnet, “The World Is Too Much With Us,” with its references to “the sea that bares its bosom to the moon” and to the Pagan deities of which its lyric subject would like to catch a “glimpse,” but cannot. Wordsworth’s Romantic discommunion from a capitalized Nature, the desolation of which his lyric soliloquy dramatizes, stands antecedent in its thesis to Williams’ idea of “plagiarism,” that routine-afflicted loss of affect in perception and the concomitant diminution of meaning.

A female figure dominates the scene of “The Sea,” but the first line introduces her only indirectly through the accusative: “The sea that encloses her young body.” She undoubtedly offers herself as an object of erotic interest, a quickening and awakening erotic attention, but the status clings to her also of an object that resists direct naming, just as she would resist the attempt of any desire directly to appropriate her contrary to her wont. She, to name her without really naming her, therefore constitutes a theme, furnishing the poem with its quasi-sacred center or focus. She is, among other things, the poem’s Themis, the numinous figure of good counsel and bestower of order, whose very name means that which is set in place, which, having been set in place, makes itself conspicuous, and which extends its conspicuity to the scene that surrounds it. The closeness of Williams’ imperative declaration in the early draft (1927) of what would become the first book of his Paterson (1963) only four years after Spring and All that there should be “no ideas but in things” to the motto from Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations (1901), “back to the things themselves,” transcends any mere coincidence of words. Whether it concerns Williams or Husserl, thematization and consciousness imply one another; consciousness implies intentionality; and intentionality implies living, active tension.

To the degree that she is a theme then she is also a thing, a term used here non-reductively; that is to say, she is an item of contemplation, but not by one sole party. Consider the titular sea. Williams qualifies it somewhat peculiarly as “the sea of many arms.” In the same instant that she emerges into the monologist’s awareness, those “many arms” likewise reveal themselves such that “the blazing secrecy of noon is undone.” Williams presents his readers with the riddle of a paradox. What is “the blazing secrecy of noon” and how does it come to be “undone”? Secrecy connotes concealment. That “blazing secrecy” links itself to the poem’s later reference to the “dark” realm that lies “underneath the sea.” The two are one: Either the pre-representational or the post-representational, the second being the equivalent of “plagiarism,” or the forgetting of meaning. In one of Spring and All’s prose sequences, Williams writes how the dead preconception, “the particular theory [that a man] is following,” in a phrase, “blinds him to his world.” The sun might stand ascendant in the zenith while the sense of reality remains unaroused. Heat makes people lazy; the flowers wilt, after all. A thing once become real, it becomes present to consciousness or imagination, insofar as it arouses the simultaneous interest of a multiplicity of contemplators and a simultaneous multiplicity of contemplations. “The sea of many arms” consists of the necessary others whose interest in “the young flesh” mirrors and at the same time mediates the monologist’s interest.

II. Under this identification, numerous other details of the poem gain clarity. Consider the repetitions or near-synonymous replicating figures. “Her young body,” “the flesh is firm that turns in the sea,” and “the young flesh playing”; or “the sea that is cold with dead men’s tears” and “it is the cold of the sea.” Consider also “the sea of many arms,” “wave following wave,” and “men /who rise in the sea / with green arms.” Begin with the latter set. The figure of “wave following wave” obeys a mimetic logic: What one sees, he only sees because others also see; and the seeing itself is imitative. Waving, moreover, already appears as a gesture of designation – a pointing to something. The “men / who rise in the sea” rise in the sense that they rise to and acquire consciousness by acquiring a thing, an item of public interest, in the thing’s function as a sign. The poem’s sea has not only an “edge,” dividing the water from the land, but also a surface that divides what is below from what is above. Below is animal mentality, driven not by desire, which requires a concept, and therefore also a sign, but by appetite only ever reined in involuntarily by instinct. Above is consciousness, the human mentality, freed from the restraint of instinct and so requiring a non-instinctual, an ethical, way of placing limits on itself. The wave, as gesture, makes a reference to an object which incites desire, but, being distant from the object, cannot appropriate it. Indeed, the wave as gesture can also serve to wave off encroachment on an object which, having become a theme, has also acquired the protection of a taboo.

That meaning derives from the tension in intentionality, and from the communitarian character of the sign, Williams knows full well. In a little aside on Edgar Allan Poe in Spring and All, Williams writes, “Poe could not have written a word without the violence of expulsive emotion combined with the in-driving force of a crudely repressive environment.” Expression requires impression and vice versa. Undoubtedly, in make a theme of “her young body,” the firm flesh “that turns in the sea,” and “the young flesh playing,” the monologist feels desire blazingly, like the noonday sun that he invokes; but the protecting sea opposes to the project of desire its own protecting coldness. Desire must cool itself. There is a “cold of the sea,” the poem tells its readers; and the sea has been made cold by “dead men’s tears.” Desire remains itself only to the degree that it remains unrequited; otherwise, completing its project and possessing its object, it calls itself repletion or satiation, but really it can find no motive to utter itself, as it has surpassed any need for representation. Poe, for example, often thematizes a young woman, but she always belongs in an ideal realm, untouchable, or made untouchable by the fact of her death. The “tears” of “The Sea” commemorate the immemorial and necessary chagrin of desire.

The poem offers a history of consciousness and articulation, which are one and the same, beginning with their dual genesis. The onomatopoeia, “oom barroom,” and nonsense syllables, such as “ula lu la lu,” play a role in this history, as original utterances; and so too does the stuttering “and and and.” The onomatopoeia emphasizes the mimetic character of the sign, being a vocal imitation by a subject of the natural sound of something in the external world, which imitation is then imitated by others, becoming a kind of minimal instance of a signifying utterance. That any first utterance, in order to acquire status as a usage, must be repeated by others, rippling as it were through the community, Williams recognizes in “the cries of far off men / who rise in the sea.” Their rising, and their presumed arousal, respond to the initial designation of an object in the vocalization of the “ula lu la lu” and its cousin-vocalizations the “O la la O” and the “la lu la lu.” The character of a rite imbues the action, which takes on the structure of an invocation and response. Nonsense utterances and ululations figure in ritual performances, where they assume magical potency. The first utterance of any word must have struck its hearers, who immediately revocalized it, as numinous and potent. They must have felt a compulsion to repeat it, to partake in its power, which they did by echoing back to the first speaker.

In Spring and All Williams writes how “men [truly] feel an enlargement before a great or good work,” a type of “expansion.” This conviction of “enlargement,” Williams asserts, “is not, as so many today believe, a ‘lie,’ a stupefaction, a kind of mesmerism, a thing to block out ‘life,’ bitter to the individual, by a ‘vision of beauty.” Rather, “It gives the feeling of completion by revealing the oneness of experience,” and “it rouses rather than stupefies the intelligence.” A work of art – a poem, say – demonstrates, as Williams puts it, “the importance of personality, by showing the individual… that his life is valuable.” The work of art, like the word itself, reveals the value in things. Williams affirms the principle, rejected by the elites of modernity, that values pervade reality, standing ready to be discovered. Despite the formal modernity of Williams’ poetic project, his deliberate quirkiness, his elisions, and the plainness of his images, he aligns himself, once again, with his precursor Emerson and his older contemporary Husserl.

Emerson in The Oversoul (1841) describes the anima as “the perceiver and revealer of the truth,” adding that “we know truth when we see it, let sceptic and scoffer say what they will.” In anticipation of Williams, who undoubtedly owes a debt to him, Emerson too criticizes a dead type of hackneyed world-apprehension, with an accompanying jejune language, from the freshness of the aboriginal seeing that he calls Revelation. “For the soul’s communication of the truth,” Emerson writes in The Oversoul, “is the highest event in nature, since it then does not give somewhat from itself, but it gives itself, or passes into and becomes that man whom it enlightens; or in proportion to that truth he receives, it takes him to itself.” Emerson insists that aboriginal seeing – or “revelation” – is other than a solipsistic event; he sees it, on the contrary, as a heightened, a genuine type of consciousness, fully communal in character, which belongs in a position ontologically prior to the prevailing flat consciousness or mere egoism. He writes: “In all conversation between two persons tacit reference is made, as to a third party, to a common nature.” That “third party” partakes in the “impersonal” and might well be called “God.” Most importantly, however, “in groups where debate is earnest, and especially on high questions, the company become [sic] aware that the thought rises to an equal level in all bosoms, that all have a spiritual property in what was said, as well as the sayer.”

Husserl likewise posits a domain of hackneyed representations, abstracted from the stream of experience to become mere tokens of a conformist exchange, which fulfills the sole purpose of sustaining conformity. Husserl distinguishes the realm of ossified opinions from the realm of a type of consciousness that revivifies itself through access to the “lifeworld.” Husserl’s term lifeworld is the equivalent of Emerson’s “revelation” and Williams’ “imagination.” Thus “the power of historical prejudices,” as Husserl writes in The Crisis of the European Sciences (1936, unfinished), massively prevents the indoctrinated mind from detaching itself from “the ‘patent’ life of the plane” and accessing “the ‘latent’ life of depth.” What Husserl calls “the pregiven world” strongly resembles those primordial representations that play a role in the American discourses of Emerson and Williams – those first unions of perception and signification that originally flashed out like the lightning of revelation but that gradually came to be taken for granted in a flattening out of consciousness. Emerson writes in The Oversoul that in the instant when “the doctrine of the immortality is separately taught,” it follows automatically that “man is already fallen.” In Spring and All, Williams writes how “the greatest characteristic of the present age is that it is stale – stale as literature.”

III. The “Ula lu la lu” belongs, of course, to burlesque. When the pretty girl in the scant bathing suit passes before the lascivious Frenchman in the vaudeville sketch, the Frenchman utters the only French that most Americans know, his ou la la! Whereas that vocalise is indeed the only French that most Americans know, nevertheless all those who know it, know what it means even though explaining what it means is difficult. What does it mean? One might begin by noticing that it is, as used to be said, a fresh remark. One might also employ a modern locution and say that the fresh remark objectifies women, a cardinal sin in the reigning puritan dispensation. In fact, the fresh remark objectifies only one woman, the particular one who passes, not women generally, a plural noun that gathers all instances of a species into one abstract category, whose legitimacy is strictly limited. As Williams writes in Spring and All, “The fixed categories into which life is divided must always hold… they exist – but not as dead dissections.” Before the “fixed categories” can be fixated, moreover, they must appear as revelation, aboriginally, in the manner that I have previously set forth.

The ou la la at least borders on having a lexical meaning. In French, la, given an accent as là, can mean there or present, like the German da. The Frenchman in the sketch indicates that something worthy of attention has made itself present if only in passing, hélas. The something-that-passed, fetchingly no doubt, quickened the Frenchman’s blood and forced the enunciation from him willy-nilly. Nor did he speak but in monologue. His outrance registers not only his sudden impression of vivified interest but also that its provocation should be provocative to others, whom it notifies and calls to attention. Reciprocation of the interest will intensify the moment for everyone. It will undoubtedly have been a memorable moment, worthy of revival – worthy, perhaps, of ritualistic revival. But what else is a comic sketch? It is a ritual perpetually revived. In the burlesque vignette la demoiselle qui passe makes herself thusly an instance once again of something that makes itself a theme.

I earlier reminded readers that the literary and psychological term theme maintains a link to a divine apparition of antiquity, the goddess Themis and asserted that insofar as the floating demoiselle was the theme of the poem then she endowed herself on the poem as its virtual Themis or divine figure. This reference might have struck sensible people as an entirely arbitrary imposition on Williams’ authorship, but I believe it was justifiable. The monologist’s vision from the sand of the “young flesh” suspended in the cold waters, beyond being the very image of a theme, is also a mytheme. The most significant work in Williams’ canon prior to Spring and All was Kora in Hell (1920), subtitled “Improvisations.” The Kora of myth (in Greek kora means “girl”), the daughter of Demeter the corn goddess, famously found herself rapt away in the underworld as the involuntary bride of Hades. The mother’s woe posed an existential threat to humanity (the crops would not grow without Demeter’s attention) and Olympus intervened to force shared custody of the girl between the mother and the husband. The mother got custody in spring and summer; the husband in fall and winter. Kora is le demoiselle qui passe as well as la demoiselle évanouie, held in memoriam only as the inappropriable figure, dematerialized. Given Williams’ discussion of painting in Spring and All, the range of deific iconography hardly seems foreign to “The Sea.” Sandro Botticelli’s Venus imbues the central image of “The Sea,” as does Homer’s Leucothea from his Odyssey, Book V, and so again Paul Cézanne’s female bathers who are indistinguishable from his goddesses. All this would be natural if the poem were a representation of consciousness, mediated by the sign, as it plausibly is, for consciousness and temporality go together. The poem immortalizes its object, raising it to the level of virtual divinity.

When Williams writes of imagination, he writes of consciousness. Sensitivity to beauty belongs to imagination – openness to reality and experience. In Spring and All Williams asserts that, “beauty is related not to ‘loveliness’ but to a state in which reality plays a part.” Beauty in this scheme communes with reality – communes with reality and informs it so as to produce the highest pitch of reality. The highest pitch of reality, the pure being, corresponds to the highest pitch of imagination or consciousness. The poet, that expert of imagination, seeks “to perfect the ability to record at the moment when the consciousness is enlarged by the sympathies and the unity of understanding which the imagination gives, to practice skill in recording the force moving, then to know it, in the largeness of its proportions.” In the poem, experiencing the necessary rebuff of desire, but delighting in the image that provokes it, the monologist gives “a wink over the shoulder / large as the ocean.” The knowing gesture, like the fresh remark, commemorates a sudden manifestation of reality, including the fact of reality that knowing necessarily renounces possession. Imagination, the equivalent of “art,” conceives of itself as “the emplacement of knowledge into a living current – which it has always sought.” In its very askesis, consciousness vivifies what it emplaces, and enriches it. The term “current” refers to duration, which refers in turn to memory.

The term imagination already appears in Kora in Hell. “It is a quality of the imagination,” Williams writes, “that it seeks to place together those things which have a common relationship.” This power cuts across time such that in the imagination “all things and ages meet in fellowship,” for “thus only can they, peculiar and perfect, find their release.” Imagination would merge with the objects that place it in tension with them. Thus, “a poet witnessing the chicory flower and realizing its virtues of form and color so constructs his praise of it as to borrow no particle from right or left.” Rather, “he gives the poem over to the flower.” One notices that the poet acts so as to praise what he represents. Just so, “The Sea” praises the object of its interest while holding her in chaste suspension. The poem’s seeming failure directly to name its object of interest – referring to it by quirky grammatical circumlocutions and metonymies – comports itself with such praise. The sacredness of the object prohibits direct naming. To name this particular object would be to touch it, to attempt to posses it. Williams observes that “all things brought under the hand of the possessor crumble to nothingness.”

Praising a new installment of Ezra Pound’s Cantos in a 1935 review, Williams declared: “Poetry as daring thought toward a constructive understanding of human destiny – a construction which embodies among its concepts, its words and the form of their composition, the deep and serious aspirations of man, that is, poetry as I understand it, is inherent in these verses.” Twelve years separate the review from Spring and All and fifteen from Kora in Hell. In Spring and All, readers will find these statements: “Art is the pure effect of the force upon which science depends for its reality – Poetry”; and “it is for this reason that I have always placed art first and esteemed it over science – in spite of everything.” The Prologue to Kora in Hell begins with a statement that, in the non-sequitur style of the presentation, has no direct sequel, but casts a spell nevertheless over the remainder of the prose: “The sole precedent I can find for the broken style of my prologue is Longinus on the Sublime and that one farfetched.”

Williams’ claims for art as prior to science echo the Aristotelian observation that philosophy, including natural philosophy, commences in astonishment. The invocation of a “force” cleaves more closely to Henri Bergson than to any type of Aristotelian view. The world must constitute itself for a subject before the subject can experience astonishment (“Ula lu la lu”) and feel moved to investigate a topic in search of knowledge or science. As codification, however, knowledge or science amounts to a doctrine that has abstracted itself from the original astonishment and become, in Williams’ word, “stale.” On the other hand, the reference to Longinus’ study On the Sublime helps to clarify Williams’ meaning. Posterity has inherited On the Sublime only in fragmentary form, in what amounts to half or a third of what scholarship can infer about the original. What exists betokens what has been lost and can never be redeemed. In his text, which in its fragmentary state stands as warning about the fragility of consciousness, which is the same as the fragility of the cultural continuum, Longinus describes sublimity, as a sudden galvanic quickening of the spirit when in contact with the loftiest diction – the sublime is the aesthetic equivalent of a divine manifestation. This is Williams’ “enlargement” and his “reality” both. Moreover, in his opening remarks, Longinus decries his era as one from which sublimity has retreated.

IV. It was Wallace Stevens who, in his preface to Williams’ Collected Poems 1921 – 1931, remarked that his somewhat younger contemporary was, among other things but also “first” among them, “a romantic poet.” Stevens continues: “This will horrify him. Yet the proof is everywhere.” Stevens writes that Williams has necessarily reacted in his poetic authorship to “sentimentalization”; that, “what Williams gives, on the whole, is not sentiment but the reaction from sentiment, or rather, a little sentiment, very little, together with acute reaction.” What is a sentiment? A sentiment is the catachresis of a genuine emotion: It is precisely a case of staleness and of something rich made bereft through overuse of, and distancing from, its original vitality. Stevens’ view that Williams’ authorship is “anti-poetic” comports without difficulty with Williams’ concern in Spring and All to avoid “plagiarism.” Insofar as poetry itself has lapsed from its previous liveliness into blandness and staleness, a genuinely vital poetry would need to oppose itself to the hackneyed existing idea or practice. According to Stevens, the “antipoetic” is “a phase of a man’s spirit,” namely Williams’ spirit; but it is also “a source of salvation.”

A poem by Stevens might have provoked Williams’ “Sea.” In “Lulu Gay” (1921), Stevens tells how Lulu “sang of barbarians before the eunuchs.” What she tells shocks and outrages the eunuchs, those unmanned guardians of a stultified palace regime, who “heard her / with continual ululation.” As the little poem’s last line would have it: “‘Olu’ the eunuchs cried. ‘Ululalu.’” Puritans of the imagination, impoverished of imagination, the eunuchs ululate defensively against Lulu’s report of adventures in a to-them-uncouth realm. Unfecund, the eunuchs protect themselves from Lulu’s artless art – from her naïve but fresh perception. A sentence by Williams from Spring and All might well be imported as a comment, if roundabout, on Stevens’ poem: “The exaltation men feel before a work of art is the feeling of reality they draw from it”; but some men instinctively take refuge from reality, sealing themselves against it and living thereafter by what they misname as theory, which is really, however, only a type of situational sentimentality – a catachresis of consciousness.

Williams can have read Longinus no later than 1920, the year in which he published Kora. On the Sublime must have impressed Williams mightily because allusions to it appear in his later work. Posterity owes to accident the preservation of the treatise; it owes to the treatise the preservation of one of the few intact poems from the pen of the Aeolic poetess Sappho to have survived. (In the catalogue of her work, it figures as No. 31.) Three decades after the appearance of Spring and All, in the fourth book of Paterson, Book V (1958), Williams inserted his translation of that poem:

That man is peer of the gods, who
face to face sits listening
to your sweet speech and lovely
laughter.
It is this that rouses a tumult
in my breast. At mere sight of you
my voice falters, my tongue
is broken.
Straightway, a delicate fire runs in
my limbs; my eyes
are blinded and my ears
thunder.
Sweat pours out: a trembling hunts
me down. I grow
paler than grass and lack little
of dying.

In this poem, as in “The Sea,” readers discover a description of consciousness discovering itself. “Peer of the Gods” differs from “The Sea,” however, in that it records the emergence of the privative mood of consciousness, that of resentment. Now resentment leaves no trace in the tableau of “The Sea,” where the monologist winks it wisely into banishment, but here in “Peer of the Gods,” the monologist experiences exclusion from the thematized object as humiliation and injustice such that she cannot reconcile herself to it. The one who can possess bears the brunt of this impotent jealousy, which transforms him paradoxically into a quasi-divinity. The Greek original begins with the phrase phanetai moi, “to me it appears,” but with the syntactical emphasis lying on the verb, to appear. What “Peer of the Gods” shares with “The Sea” is that the phenomenon becomes manifest through shared simultaneous designation. Did Sappho take interest in the girl before the young man took interest in her? The poem being silent, readers can only infer that the girl becomes interesting because the young man’s attention has incited Sappho’s attention.

The monologist’s feeling of exclusion befalls her intensely as her total banishment from the society. Even more than that, she dramatizes herself as a sacrificial victim of the society, an offering to the “delicate fire” that “runs in [her] limbs,” consuming her. One might call this self-representation the egocentric aspect of consciousness as opposed to the social aspect of consciousness, which requires one to step outside the ego precisely so as not to become involved in rivalries with one’s kith. That egocentrism is in this way privative never lessens its necessity. The knowing consciousness that can step outside itself and embrace askesis originates in the self-consciousness that leaps into being as resentment of the other, which it then overcomes. Everyone experiences exclusion, in the throes of which no one can really lay claim to uniqueness. Intensity of conviction, in any case, is at least other than complacency. It constitutes the awakening to one’s being. While Williams’ translation of Sappho comes late in his authorship, its relation to the earlier work (as in the reference to Longinus in Kora) points to his having been thinking along such for a long time.

These meditations on Williams’ poem “The Sea” and the other material that gives the poem its context have opened the way to certain insights concerning the mystery – for it is a mystery – of consciousness. Insofar as consciousness is thematic, consciousness possesses a ritual structure; it is theatrical and spectatorial. Conscious arises, and perhaps arose originally, in response to appetitive objects that arouse also the appetitive interest of others. Consciousness always has this collective or communal character. Equally, consciousness always possesses a commemorative character, being oriented not to the future, nor even on the present, but rather on the precedent to the present, which it extracts from the archive of personal and communal experience, and by which it understands the present. Having a communal and commemorative character, consciousness also has a ritualizing – and beyond that a sacralizing – character. What the dictionary defines as a “theme” is merely the lowest level of the sacred. In an original moment of consciousness, what provided the focus of the sudden, new communal attention, appeared to that attention as godlike. In its godlikeness, moreover, that kernel of attention also seemed to permeate the community of spectators and imbue them with its sacred character. It exerted powerful attraction, but at the same time, sealed itself of from possession, suspending itself in a new, immaterial realm.

Consciousness can also manifest itself as exclusion due to the persistent delusion that the self ought to constitute the center of things, exercising over all others the powers of the actual center, the thematized object. Spectatorial consciousness is no doubt ontologically prior to egocentric consciousness, but the latter tends to conceive of itself as primordial. Another inherent and dangerous tendency of consciousness is that it can “go stale.” The vividness of constituting experiences, either at the communal-historical level or at the individual autobiographical level can grow distant, such that their meaningfulness, their robustness, and their vitality diminish. Art is an externalization of consciousness, necessary so that consciousness might study itself. It is on this premise that the humanities are founded – and for no other reason.

Thomas F. Bertonneau earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Califonia at Los Angeles in 1990. He has taught at a variety of institutions, and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. He is the author of three books and numerous articles on literature, art, music, religion, anthropology, film, and politics. He is a frequent contributor to Anthropoetics, the ISI quarterlies, and others.

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