the true complexity of the real


Some days I pick up a book and read and it seems that every other sentence or paragraph strikes me with insight. When this happens I wonder how much of it is the book and how much of it is my openness that day to thinking and ideas.

This morning this happened while I was reading Jane Hirshfield’s Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World.

The chapter was about poetry and uncertainty. I am a friend of uncertainty and doubt so I was immediately interested.

Then the insights started.

A quote from Keats about poetry’s relationship to the unknowable. “Negative Capability,” he wrote in a letter about poetic genius that is a kind of anti-talent, “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

A few pages later Hirshfield wrote this wonderful little insight: “disorder and brokenness are necessarily part of human wholeness.”

Doubt, disorder, mystery, brokenness. All ideas that float at the center of my world.

“Despair,” she goes on, “a touchstone of any life spent without blinders.”

Looking without blinders can lead to a touch of despair, but beauty and poetry can provide a respite, a solace. It does this with the use of subtlety in the face of uncertainty.

“Subtlety’s etymological roots lie in loom-woven cloth. It is the name we give to thought that is both finely textured and ranging, able to bring disparate and multiple qualities into the unified, usable fabric of a whole life.”

I had to think of Eleen’s weaving when I read this. I looked up “subtle” and couldn’t find a direct etymological reference. But the word does have roots in “French subtil ) (of an object) skilfully made or designed (beginning of the 12th cent.)” (OED)

“The uncertain is subtlety’s inscape: what is woven—and needs—gaps. In subtle response, thought is stitched into place with its own undertows, opposites, and extensions, by a mind that questions and crosshatches its statements and feelings.”

This is the opposite of the way so much discourse and intercourse between us works these days. Not too much room for subtlety. But this does not lessen its pertinence and power.

Hirshfield recounts the anecdote “involving Niels Bohr [the physicist. Bohr h ad spoken on complementarity; afterwards one listener asked what the complement of objective truth (Wirklichkeit) might be. ‘Clarity,’ Bhor replied.”

“Clarity is factuality that looks and feels more widely, letting in more than it knows it knows.” Hirshfield writes.

Later she quotes the following poem in full.

When I Heard the Learned Astronomer
by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,
and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Fun fact from Hirshfield: “Neurophysiological research into decision-making reveals that the higher the level of uncertainty, the greater the dopamine-driven pleasure response in the brain upon its successful resolution.”

I love this little poem which comes a bit later.

“Strange Type” by Malcolm Lowry
I wrote: in the dark cavern of our birth.
The printer had it tavern, which seems better:
But herein lies the subject of our mirth,
Since on the next page death appears as dearth.
So it may be that God’s word was distraction,
Which to our strange type appears destruction,
Which is bitter.

Chance and uncertainty can lead to new insights (and humor).If you’re still with me, dear reader, I thank you and close with this final quote which seems very pertinent in the age of Trump

“Over-certainty and single-mindedness irritate as well as bore; the idea that one can know what is right, or that a general truth is possible, afronts the true complexity of the real.”

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