The Sense of Being Right

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

- Bob Dylan

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.
- Gospel of Matthew (Sermon on the Mount)

Around 1930, when Stalinist repression was closing in around poet Osip Mandelstam, he was asked by an interviewer for a definition of poetry. He replied, in typical pithy fashion : "the poet's sense of being right" (or sense of "inner rightness").

M's adage planted itself in my mind years ago, & keeps returning, like an unsolved puzzle. About 13 years ago I wrote a couple of impressionistic essays for Chris Reiner's spunky little magazine Witz, which attempted to come to terms with it; I will try to come up with an online copy of the 2nd one ("Sense of Being Right"), which raised more questions than it answered. (The 1st Witz essay can be found here, & here.)

The crux of the puzzle is that M.'s defining characteristic for poetry comes not from aesthetics but from ethics and morality. In the latter Witz essay, I wrote that M. had asserted that poetry's purpose - its end, its telos - resided beyond itself : in a realm of the moral imperative, an ethical Absolute. "Rightness". And I said that it was a mistake to separate this moral telos from some hypothetical (aesthetic) beginning - in creative nature, in process or praxis, etc. Rather, M. is saying that the "beginning" is in the end : they cannot be separated. And he bolsters this position by suggesting that poetry (at least, Acmeist poetry - his poetry) has, as its subject, "the idea of Man". Not Man as Citizen (or subject of history or the State), but the idea of Man in its most universal and inclusive (& non-gender-specific!) sense :

"It's not Rome the city that lives through the centuries
But man's place in the universal scheme."

In other words : our human being, our nature as individuals and as species, is constituted and characterized by moral conscience. Our consciousness is a moral consciousness : our inner compass or gyroscope, our "sense of being right", is an expression of inherent justice (or the seeking thereof).

Mandelstam elaborates on this in another essay, on Pyotr Chaadev, a 19th-cent. thinker perhaps somewhat comparable to Emerson in the U.S. Chaadev's theme was that Russia's destiny depended on a quality (represented by the choices & acts of individual Russians) which he called "moral freedom". Roughly speaking, he was reminding Russians that individual conscience - and not the forces of the collective, the State, or history - is the anchor of civilization.

In another place, M. portrayed this general view of things as "the gold coins of humanism" - a Renaissance-vision of civilization as a kind of personalized, human hearth. Nothing is outside the human spirit, which makes the world a "home" ("domestic hellenism") : and yet Man is the measure of all things only so long as she/he remains devoted to a consciousness of rightness & justice - to an absolute, standing beyond our willful grasping. To a "plumbline", in other words. So this allegiance to something beyond ourselves is actually our defining, distinguishing characteristic - that which makes us human.

What I am suggesting here, is that our "plumbline" is not simply a kind of critical tape measure, a tool we can apply in some detached technocratic fashion. In Mandelstam's view, poetry is a living tradition, a distinct emanation of our humanness per se : it is far too engaged and intertwined with the moral & existential choices facing individuals and peoples, now & every day, to support the arrogance of mandarins, aesthetes, jobbers, technocrats. Poetry is the living speech of the Personal and the Human - the Individual and the People; that which reaches deep, grasping & mirroring our common nature with a piercing, proverbial intensity.

& if culture, civilization & poetry are built on the expressions of individual conscience & spiritual freedom, then, for working poets, issues of theme, rhetoric, & mode of address become both problematic & more pressing. None of the partial measures of value - populism, programmatic engagement, aesthetic autonomy, style for its own sake, canonicity, etc. etc. - can be deemed either absolute or even substantial. Rather, the measure of value seems to return to a kind of independent affinity of whole persons - a line of ethical/aesthetic communication - established between poet and reader, dramatist and audience. Here the ethical can be distinguished (analytically) from the aesthetic - but they cannot be separated. Poetry returns to humane expression between integral and individual persons. Concrete & unique, because moral-historical existence is only apprehended in the incomparable particulars of changing life.

Thus we are reminded that a plumbline dangles from a point of leverage (related, perhaps, as Joseph mentioned in a comment, to Pound's Confucian notion of the "unwobbling pivot") which stands in its own firmament, and firmly beyond the reach of those changeable circumstances to which it is applied as measure. This is an image of human conscience aligned with justice, the moral absolute. The fact that both poetry and human life generally dangle from the same spiritual pivot is what makes possible the various syntheses, on various levels (ethical, aesthetic, political), of the mediating "golden mean". And this same pivotal situation holds out a perennial promise to the artist, that her labors will find an echo with an understanding audience.


J.H. Stotts said...

you have a time signature ('endless, because beginningless' to quote tsvetaeva)
which you can play in the key of firmamento (the akme) or in the minor key.

what's interesting about mandelstam's Philosophy is that he engages the irony of his imaginative fallacy--that is, he considers the possibility and impossibility of life have meaning together, and realizes that poetry's meaning exists in that realm of only potentially having meaning, not necessarily, and sees the role of culture and history as the place where that potentiality can maybe be realized. dante's italian is a moral imperative for his russian, once it is discovered. memory is a powerful tool of redemption in that it allows the synthesis of genius, and the poem is the woven tapestry of synthesized genius, more than the self, beyond.

Henry Gould said...

JH, you should get ahold of Elena Glazov-Corrigan's book, "Poetics Mandelshtam's Poetics : a challenge to Postmodernism". Your comment reminds me of things she says having to do with his early development, dealing with the "blank" (emptiness, void, meaninglessness).

Kaz Maslanka said...

A Confucian ‘’unwobbling’’ pivot seems a bit dangerous to me. I think the Bush administration felt that they had nailed the “unwobbling” location of the “pivot point” to justify their crusade. I remember hearing them speak of rightness and justice numerous times. I see the “pivot point” as a constant moving target. But interestingly enough the point moves from location to location without moving through any of the points between the locations, a quantum leap so to speak. Furthermore, I see the location of the “pivot point” being defined by the extremities of which the plumb swings which always points back up to it’s pivot point. The poet’s job is to delineate/illuminate those extremities which in turn define the location of the “pivot point”. I have a couple of examples of a polyaesthetic poem in which a mathematical metaphor points at a “pivot point”; the mechanics of which uses the algebraic midpoint formula to do so. I would like to share them with you.




Joseph Duemer said...

Henry, I'm usually leery of the idea of moral absolutes, having grown up among fundamentalists, but your description of M's idea of spiritual freedom suggests the idea that the poet is both free and indentured (to reality?). Within the field of the poem, the poet must be absolutely free, which is why great poems often offend or trouble us; but that freedom only becomes meaningful when put to moral / political / social use -- ideas I take from Wittgenstein and the American pragmatists, especially James and Dewey.