Language, as the existence of poetry signifies, inherently and inexorably fails. Produced by an individual who is by definition subjective, isolated, individual, for the communication of a message (thought, emotion, etc.), to be better understood by another, language must fail: it is too linear, too ordered, too exact, too categorical to convey that which created it, the thought and feeling that surround it, the world-gaze and intention behind it, the necessary disorder and inconstancy and deceit and feeling of the mind that authored it. Language — or ordered, grammatical language (which too is forged out of disorder) — if failing to convey to another one’s intended message and the thoughts around and beyond it, must therefore fail to convey oneself, one’s internal feeling and being, to another.
We, then, cannot be understood and are thus alone — our existence being internal, isolated, confined in itself — our thought and feeling unspeakable. Language, predestined to fail, is then a blind struggle not to fail, to convey our thought and being. In speaking, writing, expressing, we struggle to convey ourselves, our world-gaze, our feeling, to another — and speak merely a fragment of that which we intend, translate our entire being and thought and feeling into the linearity of sentences for the world’s understanding, become a shadow, a shell of ourselves to another, achieve a fragmented, failed understanding of what we are — an entire, self-contradictory, immeasurable and insurmountable being reduced to absolute, short, shallow words.
Language, therefore, is an unwavering line, a tyranny which allows neither contradiction nor profundity nor human, subjective truth. We must search everywhere else, above and beneath and around words to attempt to understand (however vainly) another’s thought and feeling and being. Language, therefore, is false — a lie.
And yet we are not left in total ignorance, total night — there are the stars and the moon which shine for us, their light for our perception, illuminating the world as we perceive it, light that serves us and is in a sense created by us — existing only as we perceive.
I do not mean to stray. That light — born of the falsity and vanity of language, born of the struggle of language to overcome its impotence and itself — is poetry.
Poetry not as substance, syntax, form or intention but as action, expression, aggression towards the thing (as Pound conceived; the object, poetry’s objective), the feverish clamor and dissonance of words that ends in impact (as Pound called it), impression of raw human feeling, thought, being. This collision — of author and reader, existence and empathy, thought and understanding, humanity and humanity — this impression of feeling, of being onto the reader produces an understanding, finds message and meaning completely senselessly, instinctually, unforcedly, unwittingly — meaning needn’t be labored after, phrases needn’t be explained expressions needn’t be made literal, the writing needn’t and mustn’t be reduced to a construction of technique and wit, a formula, a commodity.
Poetry (in whatever form), like objective truth, like any art, merely, silently exists — creating itself, existing by and for itself, itself an end. And poetic message is merely seen, heard — instantly internalized by the reader, for it is of the internal human world and cannot survive outside of it. Poetic message is felt by the reader as if their own feeling, thought as if their own thought, lived as if their own being — remembered, not learned.
Language is then poetry’s carrier. Poetry is not language; it surrounds, transcends language. Poetry, therefore, is not the poem. Poetry is the means and end by which the individual reaches the thing (the object, their own thought, their being) and impresses it onto another (the reader).
We thus find that poetry overcomes the failure of language, overcomes language; that poetry, if not language, is feeling, thought, human existence. Language does no more than surround, approach the thing; poetry lunges at it, takes it for its own.
Poetry, then, is aggression; it is conquest of and triumph over language and over the thing and over ourselves. Poetry transcends and overcomes — unspeakable, unreasonable, blind, deaf and nothing if not human.
Nickolas is a columnist for the Paper Crane.
Caption: William Blake’s watercolor for the sixth book of Paradise Lost, 1808.
Milton’s Paradise Lost is at once conventional and subversive of convention: The epic draws from the tradition of heroic poetry, the brave and necessarily unethical hero, only to redefine poetic subject matter, perspective and language.
Singing of heavenly, not earthly, war, Milton dispenses with the solely virtuous and villainous, the clearly good and bad, the simplistic and impersonal, and favors the individuality, complexity and moral ambiguity of character that tragedy brings.
Paradise Lost is sooner a lament of the fallen Satan, the fallen Eve and Adam, a rebuke of the tyranny of God’s monarchy and the inequity of accidental divine grace and blind Protestant predestination. Paradise Lost is a remembrance of the atrocity that divinity perpetuates, and people in its name: God and his Promised Land, a Land of Canaan, that was to be conquered, and seven nations to be killed by one; the anti-Semitism of the gospels; the barbarity of all holy wars.
Milton, an anti-monarchist, neither celebrates triumphant heaven nor condemns revolting angel and man. Neither glorifying and absolving nor damning, he laments.
Satan and man revolt and fall — but too calmly, too melodically, too symmetrically, too beautifully, with too great conviction and resilience. Linguistically and stylistically Milton threads a tragic, nihilistic, cold and remote symmetry through his republican epic. The reader can empathize neither with God’s tyranny (from Milton’s autarchic presentation of God) nor Satan’s blasphemy (for adherence to the biblical narrative).
And thus — disabused, without comfort, in a limbo between God and Satan, Heaven and Hell, Earth hangs, and the reader is confronted with the futility of heroism and the injustice of the Bible, literary tradition and our world. The reader blasphemes and revolts and falls with Satan and Adam and Eve.
Paradise Lost, then, is a history, a remembrance, too late and of no use, of our human sin. Milton’s is a composer’s art — symmetrical, abstract, at once symbolic and individual, contradictory and most clear.
Nickolas is a columnist for the Paper Crane.
It is a great power of literature to reflect contemporary society and politics. Through literature, as through art, the writer records what they see in a mirror held obliquely to the world. Reflecting and dreaming, literature can imagine the best and worst of humanity to lead it to better days.
In Submission Michel Houellebecq created a dissonance of social division, personal disillusionment, and political upheaval, all with the bitter taste of disquiet. The novel, translated from the French in 2015, takes place in 2022 and centers on the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood Party, an Islamist political movement that supports and later establishes religious government and social patriarchy on a France torn by ethnic conflict and popular apathy and exclusive for self-interest. The ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood (that with the Socialist Party formed the National Front) is told from the perspective of a morally resigned literature scholar, François, who recounts political wrangling, hypocrisy and violence in off-hand digressions from monologues on the Decadent author Huysmans, lurid obscenities, mockery of colleagues’ mediocrity, tirades against gender equality and monologues on the virtues of patriarchy.
The reprehensibility of François’s beliefs exists within the reprehensibility of ethnic conflict and the intolerance and ignorance from which it arises. Yet this reprehensibility is not answered, it is not qualified by even a hinted desire for justice or struggle for change in French society. Neither the speaker and intelligentsia, nor the government and public, visibly express beliefs against forced religious conversion, abridgment of education, or restriction of protest and personal liberty; nor do they believe misogyny, antisemitism, or xenophobia to be immoral and unjust. This lack of a champion for morality contributes to an unforgiving sense of doom that is helpless and that permeates the novel; this is caused by and continues the characters’ moral indifference. In the absence of ethical, human awareness the reader is led to surrender their own conceptions of justice and equality and moral right, perceiving what humanity is capable of once it resigns to avarice, hostility, and prejudice.
François remarks—after days spent in a chapel built upon the blood-stained end of a medieval French- Arab war—“I knew I was close to suicide, not out of despair or even any special sadness, simply from the degradation of ‘the set of functions that resist death’” (Houllebecq, 168).
Houellebecq portrays a people standing at a precipice, glazed with detachment. They spend the remains of life and human vigor on prejudice and bitter hostility. A thunderstorm grows on the French horizon, and it is unclear from where it came or where it will pour its rage.
Submission indulges what racism, ethnocentrism and nationalism imagine society to be and to become, to convey the error and absurdity of these beliefs and the depravity to which we will come if they are indulged.
The novel is a subtle satire, more illustration than explanation, in which Houellebecq walks a fine line between parodying and imitating, denouncing and agreeing; and in which he takes a mirror to what is past and what is to come—with the intention of inspiring change.
Nickolas is a columnist for the Paper Crane.
How do we reconcile art and government? Should art — produced by the artist who is necessarily a subject of a government, history and age — be likewise subjected? And should art be treated as inseparable from the artist, their political beliefs, and their particular social perspectives?
The 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, given to the French novelist Annie Ernaux, celebrates autobiography, writing that does not transport the reader away from the author and from reality but rather opens a personal world — of memory, people seen, emotion felt — which is perhaps as foreign and unreachable as any fiction.
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