Transcription of a lecture given at the Constellations Symposium, at the Technische Universität Dresden: A polemic on the poet’s role in the society of the statistical age, and on the western canon’s necessity to our current technological world.
Please forgive me for I will play devil’s advocate.
There was much talk the last few days here about the future, but I would like to speak a little about the past, instead.
While what I am going to say here may seem at first irrelevant, I deeply implore you to bear with me for a few moments, as the matter I am about to speak of is our society at large; a society that to function, requires many diverse roles, from accountants to engineers, from scientists to artists, and in particular, and what would be my point, I would like to speak from the vantage of another, very ancient role: The role of the poet.
It is an odd role that almost defies definition, as it is not merely writing poetry that is the poet’s role, but also to aesthetically define the world and morally investigate the state of his or her’s society. A poet, you see, is always a contemporary. You may ask yourself why should you care, well, one answer, in the words of Dylan Thomas, is that “A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.”
One such significance-shaping poem is Koheleth [Ecclesiastes], it is attributed to Solomon, a king whose rule spanned from circa 970 to 931 BC. Koheleth is a poem about knowledge, but moreover, it is also perhaps one of the first existential texts ever to be written. It is unfortunate that while the King James translation maintains its spirit, it could not maintain the poetic beauty of the original Hebrew, this beauty, perhaps, is the underlying answer to its aggravating words, words that make the reader wonder why one should bother living at all. The fundamental conceit of the text derives from its attributed author, not only a wealthy king, not only one that is said to have had seven hundred wives, but one who is considered to be the wisest, most erudite scholar, one who has dedicated his life to learning. Which is why it is surprising for such a man of comfort, luxury and intelligence to write the following words (and here I quote): [Flip slide]
And I applied my heart to inquire and to search with wisdom all that was done under the heaven.
It is a sore task that God has given to the sons of men with which to occupy themselves.
I saw all the deeds that were done under the sun, and behold, everything is vanity and frustration.
What is crooked will not be able to be straightened, and what is missing will not be able to be counted.
I spoke to myself, saying, “I acquired and increased great wisdom, more than all who were before me over Jerusalem”; and my heart saw much wisdom and knowledge.
And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I know that this too is a frustration.
For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge, increases pain.
But perhaps it is not surprising after all, as Solomon is also attributed to have written another text, the Song of Songs. It is basically a candid, beautifully written, erotic love poem. Among other things it depicts the body of a woman, his wife to be, and how splendid he obviously found her (and here I quote): [Flip slide]
Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely: thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks.
Thy neck is like the tower of David builded for an armoury, whereon there hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men.
Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies.
The poem, for me, is a pivotal moment in poetry and art. It was Rashi, the biblical scholar, who had interpreted the poem as an allegory. [You can think of him as an 11th century literary criticism] The sexual evocations, the physical attributes, according to his criticism, are ones that aim to the metaphysical. The more lascivious, erotic, the language, the more it pertains to the abstract. This is a general quality that does not only exist in Solomon’s poetry, it is a quality which places the subject of the physical first, with then metaphors being built, in a way, upon it.
One can recognize this artistic approach throughout history, in the poetry Chaucer all the way to the modernism of T.S. Eliot, say, or in Monteverdi’s music, up to the works of Shostakovich, and at least one way to define it would be to say that those artists had not neglected the grotesque, the obscene, the physical and real, they had not neglected our faults, they had not modeled our universe and created upon their model, so much as they have embraced and celebrated our imperfections, above all, they were outstanding students of the past. Their creations are fantastic, as they came from the broken hearted, the sick, [the ugly], from all the inherent faults of our world, the beautiful metaphors we see in them only arrived at a later point.
Even though I cannot signify a contemporary artistic movement that exists in our times, we do seem to have an overarching theme to matters these days, to our art and industry, to this symposium, concerns not so preoccupied with the physical or sensual, but with the abstract as contents in and by itself. This absorption is scientific in its systematic spirit, the result of its aggregation of metadata is hypothetical, prophetic even, but most of all it declares statistics as the unequivocal triumph of our age, a triumph that governs nearly all recent innovation in the sciences, from particle physics to economics, from biology to behavioral psychology, as if constructing a consistent underlying method to explain phenomena, to predict phenomena, and then to alter it. This theme creates a little contradiction of artistic intent, little, but not inconsequential, a dichotomy between the abstract and the erotic, between the meta-synthesis of statistics, for example, and the sexual depictions of the Song of Songs. Our quest for modeling the universe could lead to us falling in love with our constructed model, not the actual and physical. This is similar to how Ovidus described Pygmalion, a man who found all women flawed, and so he made an ivory sculpture and fell in love with it, though I am not sure that we will have the same conclusion that Pygmalion had in the end of his story, I am not certain that Aphrodite would breath life into our constructed model.
The abstract, or, the purely philosophical, in a way, employs a derived source as its initial substance, one that risks to sometimes completely supersede the sensual, like a hierarchy that has been flipped on its head, one that is sometimes so abstract, that as an unintended consequence it could quietly discard works that are the foundation of our democracy, humanism and compassion.
These arguments are not recent, Plato, with a famous and contradicting dislike to poets, in The Republic, has notified us that “There is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” with similar points being made in his time, the poet’s accusations of philosophy being a “Yelping bitch shrieking at her master,” and this is a text that was written at 380 BC.
Which brings me back to the role of the poet; I am not a neo-Romanticist or a reactionary, not at all, I do not suggest in any way that we should abandon the most fantastic ideas of our time, but the body of our artistic creation is tremendous and extensive, and we should remember that we should also incorporate from our canonical works, from our mythologies, from all of our conflicting philosophies, from the scriptures of all religions and faiths, from ancient stories, from music, from theatre, from poetry, from all those who had felt and experienced before us, from the past.
For numbers and symbols on a mathematical proof contain the beauty of the universe only as much as notes on a sheet of music contain a melody. The melody’s pitch and rhythm we may deduce from its notes, not the incalculable sentimental humanity it may evoke in us. Mathematics is beautiful, but it seems to also offer an idealistic childish refuge, one that seems to make perfect sense when considering the postmodern nihilism at the end of the 20th century, that led to our current hyper-technological age. But art is vaster, the individual is vaster, as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the inexhaustible individual, had written in Notes from the Underground (and here I quote): [Flip slide]
“Upon my word, they will shout at you, it is no use protesting: it is a case of twice two makes four! Nature does not ask your permission, she has nothing to do with your wishes, and whether you like her laws or dislike them, you are bound to accept her as she is, and consequently all her conclusions. A wall, you see, is a wall … and so on, and so on.”
Merciful Heavens! but what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason I dislike those laws and the fact that twice two makes four? Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength.
As though such a stone wall really were a consolation, and really did contain some word of conciliation, simply because it is as true as twice two makes four.
The adoption of these arithmetical metaphors, if you will, seems to have produced conceptual art, clever art, but did they produce good art? Similarly to how atonal music stresses its “atonality” rather than its symphonic, emotional value, and where is classical music now? We must preserve these achievements, we must continue and create them, even if they are not lucrative or measurable.
Art is constantly extending the pointed edge of the spear of human emotion, in order to help us to proceed in the sometimes unbearable task of being alive. It allows us to celestially transcend, even for a moment, ourselves,
as we do when listening to a great symphony, it is what Dostoyevsky was trying to tell us; it is symphonies we need in life, in art, not merely twice two making a four.
The fault, partly, is the current climate of psychological inferiority of literature, the classical arts and the humanities, for they are, for the most part, unprofitable, which inevitably led to their sometimes contrived coercion with technology. It is a little unreasonable when considering that we have enough to fill several worlds with our poetry, even when it seems like our texts can be computed in seconds, whatever that may mean… That exceptional tool of computer algorithms and statistics – a tool, let us remember – can and should be used in the arts, with care however, remembering that if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. Luckily we have much more than a hammer; we have a tremendous tradition of imagination, of beauty and of ideas to our disposal. Especially now, when the heroic texts, the epic texts, theology, the arts, seem by themselves not satisfying, as if their structures were exhausted, their longevity irrelevant, their primordial human drama unfashionable. But they are the contents of ourselves, of our archetypes, of our art, they describe the physical, the sensual, more so than any fashionable preoccupation with a new form of electronic delivery, phone or tablet, or any type of algorithmic meta-analysis.
The medium then is not the message, the message is the message.
The western canon and its imagination, its passions and desires, got us here, the same desire expressed in Odysseus’s return to Ithaca in Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, written around the 7th or 8th century BC., which then gave us James Joyce’s recreation of it, Ulysses, written fairly recently, in the beginning of the 20th century, one brimming with absolutely innumerable, absurd and gorgeous poetry, its mere sounds so exhilarating that they need be here to remind us (and here I quote): [Flip slide]
Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips.
Horrid! And gold flushed more.
A husky fifenote blew.
Blew. Blue bloom is on the.
A jumping rose on satiny breast of satin, rose of Castile.
Trilling, trilling: Idolores.
Peep! Who’s in the … peepofgold?
Tink cried to bronze in pity.
And a call, pure, long and throbbing. Longindying call.
That is, ladies and gentlemen, art for art’s sake.
It is true that we live in a great transformation.
The classical arts, writing, it’s been said, seem like Latin on the eve of the Renaissance,[*] a language of an irrelevant establishment.
Our new tools and language seem to offer unmatched organization and optimization, but we need not to always seek optimization or a canonical arrangement of everything in bits and bytes, we need not to always find the efficient, the fast, even if, as Anatole France once put it, “Life is too short and Proust is too long”. The same Proust who famously told us that “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were”, meaning, it is not sentimental longing that I intend to evoke here, to times before computers, to the times of my grandfather, say, no, what I do mean to evoke is the foolishness of mindless participation. There is a finer interplay between science and art that is disregarded, a deeper beauty that we are at risk at losing. This loss is expressed by the fashionable compound word in academia nowadays, “interdisciplinary,” you must have heard it, as if art and science are two distinct matters that need to be amalgamated together. But they are not different disciplines, merely two groups of dissenting disciples, grappling with the same world, like the ancient story of the blind men who were touching the same elephant and then guessing at the meaning of its body parts. It is simply the act of creativity, of pensive thought, that leads to scientific and artistic unison, to their underlying quest of beauty, like in the dialectic of Plato’s Republic, that grand philosophical cathedral had its depth not despite of its seemingly conflicting physicality and metaphysicality, but because of it.
Here again is the role of the poet; to resist participating in a popularity contest, even when it comes to concerns that seem morally pressing, those that speak to the hoi polloi, matters that make it to the front page, like “inequality,” say, the populist dernier cri of the masses, the same masses that lead the algorithms analyzing them, as a herd masked as a shepherd. If we examine the subjects the masses attend to, we’ll find almost nothing but flimsy products of moral regression, mostly compressed to seconds of videos, quickly scribbled then shared texts, there to save time, we’re told. The masses are then studied using computers to compute their optimality, then optimized, and are then bought and sold, and bought again in infinite derivatives. I would like to stress that I do not think that there is anything necessarily very bad about this, but we should just tread lightly, as we do on thin ice, when committing everything to any newest fashion, not tromp the entirety of our existence to our latest whim. Luckily for me I am a poet, I do not care about inequality, a relativistic term that evokes deranged Marxist theories that I find crude, or optimality, a term that to me evokes humanity’s most ruinous crimes, or even saving time when reading, does not appeal to me, as it may turn it into the shallowest of pursuits, no, what I do care about is simply: Quality, that endless investigation of aesthetic comprehension in one’s mind and in one’s world, not how it is applicable to a large crowd, as if solving an equation that governs insects in their hive. As Boris Pasternak delightfully once put it, in not only what is one of the 20th century’s greatest novels, but its greatest manifestos of the asymptosy of the artistic endeavor, Doctor Zhivago (and here I quote): [Flip slide]
Reshaping life! People who can say that have never understood a thing about life — they have never felt its breath, its heartbeat — however much they have seen or done. They look on it as a lump of raw material that needs to be processed by them, to be ennobled by their touch. But life is never a material, a substance to be molded. If you want to know, life is the principle of self-renewal, it is constantly renewing and remaking and changing and transfiguring itself, it is infinitely beyond your or my obtuse theories about it.
To conclude I will say something about the future, even though I said I would not, I will say something that I am almost entirely certain of: Statistics will be a major part of everything. It is such a forceful tool that its effects will be felt everywhere. It would appear to be irreplaceable. The idea of statistics produces ambivalence in my mind: On the one hand, it provides a way to deduce from scores of datum, to better organize our society, to better cure our diseases, to find new clues on the origin of our universe, but on the other hand, we could end up being the victims of its phenomenal success; it being so effective could limit our metaphors. Metaphors are the building blocks of creativity; we need many of them, not just a single, very strong one. If history has taught us anything, it is that when we pursued only a single metaphor, no matter how successful, good or irrefutable it seemed at the time, it led us to unfortunate outcomes. But it is less the immediate moral implications of the statistical methodology that concern me at the moment, rather its potential finite artistic confinement [that is to say, soon as you place an algorithm on something you confine it as something finite, whereas in my view art is infinite]; its unmatched success could lead to a thousand year cultural dark age of sorts, one where less optimal ideas are discarded, ones not with the individual, the human, at its center, but everyone en masse. That alone, to the poet in particular, would be a moral regression. That, to me, would be decadent. The role of the poet is not to be a prophet of doom, despite what you may deduce from my words, and to some extent, modeling the universe and our society is not ideal either, even the computerized way we reroute ourselves when being governed by algorithms is not due to one algorithm, but many of them, affecting, pushing, pulling each other in an ensemble, in a cacophony of algorithmic voices, shouting to further optimize in their mathematically modeled world, but ours is not only a mathematical world, ours is the physical one of pathological insanity, one that contains such an incomprehensible human existence, one where art and love are made.
Now, I wholly adopt our new tools, and I see no principal difference, from the point of view of the artist, between the invention of the paintbrush and that of the computer. I had written about this ambivalence in some of my poetry, of how the Null hypothesis had replaced Tolstoy’s integration metaphor, say, or in a gimmick of self-referential irony, or sometimes using it as a useful linguistic tool, thus making my statements here all the more ambivalent and contradicting. I will leave you with the first stanza of a poem I had written, it is titled Maybe, which is really what I would like to think of the future, it is not set, maybe it will happen in one way, maybe in another. And it is this Socratic ipse-se-nihil tone, the tone of ambivalence, the tone of maybe’s, that I would like to keep: [Flip slide]
I see a mother shepherding her young girl
And I’m trying to decipher what is being said
In a language as old
As one used by Amoebas
[This occurred to me when I observed a mother talking with her prepubescent daughter on the subway, how their language is an ancient language that passes evolutionary wisdom, one that a mother transfers to a daughter, the same one used by amoebas, in order for them to survive and so on.]
What springs to my mind
During this impromptu
Homo sapiens cryptographic rendezvous
Is how Eusebius reported
That Origen Adamantius
Followed Matthew 19:12
[This is the story of Eusebius, a Roman historian, who reported that Origen had castrated himself after reading Matthew 19:12: “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”]
Maybe he did.
Maybe he did not.
Maybe is my favourite word
And how I prefer its stochastic definition
Like that in a Markov chain
The same way I prefer Voltaire’s God
[Though nowadays I prefer Whiteheads brief Galilean vision of humility, where is says about his God: “it does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operates by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present.” Also, Markov chains are kind of out now, people use far more abstract and complicated statistical methods.]
Where future states depend only upon the present one
The present one and “maybe”, that is,
And maybe “Maybe”
It is the epistemological limit of my own universe of discourse
And this is all where it kind of boils down to “Kind of”.