HUSSERL & POETRY
Edmund Husserl did not invent Phenomenology. After all, Hegel had written a book called Phenomenology of Mind (or Spirit) more than 100 years earlier. But Hegel’s book was a travesty, written with the intention of bamboozling readers into believing that history and human activity had a transcendent purpose and was unconsciously striving towards the fulfilment of that purpose. Husserl was the first to take Phenomenology seriously as a branch of philosophy in its own right, and get down to the ‘nitty-gritty’ of describing what it actually means to be conscious and have ideas. His main book was simply called Ideas. After Husserl, of course, came Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, et al, who took Phenomenology in directions he himself would probably not have considered legitimate. However I don’t want to get into those areas of controversy.
Ideas is a fascinating book, but extremely difficult to follow and I can only discuss here those aspects of it that interested me while I was reading it. Curiously enough, both Heidegger and Sartre are easier to follow, because they are I think imposing their own vision on the practise of Phenomenology – a vision which has wider philosophical implications. There’s is a more ‘moral’ approach, and much less technical. Husserl actually wants to describe as closely as possible the structures of consciousness. He is much more Kantian than Hegelian in that he limits his aims as Kant did when he discussed the properties and limits of Reason. Reason, of course, was a god to Hegel - much less so to Kant, whose concern was to determine its limits.
When I read Husserl, I get a very strong idea of what a complex and multi-layered ‘thing’ consciousness is. (In my own life, I am very aware of this in relation to memory – some of whose facets do not connect at all up to others!) Of course, consciousness is not a thing at all. It constitutes ‘things’, as Husserl himself recognised, and the various aspects of things so constituted are always ‘ideas’. Things and their properties exist only in the realm of phenomena and we never unravel the thing as it is in itself – as Kant recognised. Perhaps the only thing we can have essential insight into is consciousness and that is precisely because it is not a thing. The natural sciences, for instance, deal largely with ‘things’. When they treat consciousness as a thing, they are making a big category-mistake. Consciousness grounds the thinginess of things and their ostensible properties; it is the medium itself whereby things come to be present to itself. It is therefore not simply one thing amongst many things, although it is often treated as such. Husserl also recognises the importance of belief in the way we experience the world – which he might call its doxic dimension. We couldn’t experience the world in any other way. That, of course, is not the same as saying that is how things are in themselves, for it is impossible to say how things are in themselves. We just bracket the world off and make various working assumptions about it which have proved efficacious up to now. (Shades of David Hume, I think!)
Husserl also says that if you ‘do Phenomenology’, you have to exclude everything that isn’t relevant to it or doesn’t help you unravel the essential structures of consciousness. In other words, you are engaged in what he calls a “phenomenological reduction”, which suspends all non-phenomenological points of view and perspectives – i.e., those from the natural sciences, psychology, culture and so on. And I think he is right. For me, the most important section of Ideas is connected to the question of Noesis and Noema I suppose you could equate Noesis with the process of thinking itself and Noema with the object of thought – but of course nothing is ever so simple, since there would be no process of thinking without any objects of thought and vice versa; the two go hand in hand. That is to say that if we are thinking we are always thinking of something. Language can be unhelpfully ambiguous here because the word “thought” can refer to both the process of thinking and its object – e.g., I thought (verb) about you and I had a thought (noun) about you. Words like judgement are even more ambiguous. - e.g., he sat in judgement and his judgement was damning. The important thing to remember is that consciousness has both of these aspects which are distinct and yet inseparable and sometimes you have to penetrate the fog of ordinary language to get to grips with the actual ideas being expressed by using a special terminology – like Noesis (or Noetic) and Noema (or Noematic).
Husserl’s discussion is so full of fiendish ramifications and complexities that I am not going to even attempt to deal with it here. But I couldn’t help noticing how it might apply to such activities as writing poetry or painting pictures, both of which are obviously processes with certain objects in view. Husserl is big on intentionality, but I have often noticed how my own intentions change in the process of writing a poem, so that the object of the poem to start with may not be the object of the poem when it is finished. This perhaps suggests that what we are dealing with is highly fluid and also perhaps full of unconscious pressures which influence consciousness in ways Husserl may not have taken into account - since he does want to exclude all psychological elements. Maybe he’s right; maybe he’s wrong, but it would still be interesting to see how unconscious processes impact on consciousness in the process of thinking and arriving at the final product of thought. This avoidance seems to me to be rather typical of most writers in the existentialist and phenomenological tradition.
Husserl is also a great advocate of the role of the ego in conscious activity. It is there at the heart of it, according to him. In Sartre, for instance, the ego, is posited by consciousness like any other object of thought. It is not fundamental. But, of course, it all depends on what you mean by the ego. You often hear people saying “So and so has too much ego!” And the word “ego” here seems to have negative connotations. “Oh, if only his ego didn’t get in the way!” So there seems to be a good “ego” and a bad “ego”. Husserl’s “ego” is obviously a ‘good’ one – or at least necessary. It accompanies every thought and there is no getting away from it. Even animals have an ‘ego’ in this sense. They fight their corner. They defend their territories. They do their best to avoid being killed. And when they panic or stampede it’s every animal for itself. They seem to join together because it is advantageous to each member of the group to do so. This form of ‘egoistic’ behaviour is obviously not consciously posited in the way Sartre’s ego is posited. It’s much more primal and fundamental, which is perhaps why I think Husserl is right rather than Sartre. The ego does accompany conscious activity; it is there at its very heart. This message may not be very palatable to some people, who think we should be altruistic rather than egoistic, but really it has nothing to do with either altruism or egoism. It simply states that we are at the centre of ourselves, and this "we" goes with everything we are and do. And to deny that is to deny something very fundamental in our constitution. It doesn’t stop us being altruistic. After all, animals can be altruistic and have empathy as well, just like very young children can. This has nothing to do with ethics. It has to do with phenomenology instead, and ethics cannot and should not impinge on that; it should be bracketed off like everything else that is not purely phenomenological.
Anyway, back to poetry and Husserl’s possible relevance to it. When I think of poetry as a practising poet, I do not just think of it simply in terms of finished products, or the Canon – that is to say a body of ‘canonical’ works compiled by some kind of critical priesthood – as many commentarians of an academic persuasion would have us believe. I also think of it in terms of a process in which poetry is not only being written now, but is also a tradition which is undergoing transformation, fertilised by many sources and many other traditions. while still retaining its own distinctiveness. Irrespective of what T.S.Eliot said on this subject, the individual poet impacts on the tradition as much as the tradition impacts on the individual poet. The Tradition, in other words, is something that is inventing and reinventing itself as it goes along through whatever poetic random-mutations might emerge to its benefit. And these 'random mutations' are always the product of individuals.
Perhaps we should draw more explicitly on Husserl here and talk in terms of Poesis (& Poetic) and Poema (& Poematic), the one referring to the process of making poetry and the other to the body of poems which is the end-product of that process and of course makes up 'the Tradition'. Traditional criticism seems only able to talk in terms of the latter, because, well it is familiar, and they feel safe doing so. Poets today still engage with that tradition (and other traditions) in their own inimical ways, and they are still being excluded from it because in the eyes of these Poematic critics they fail to pass muster and don’t meet up to expectations rooted entirely in what has already been produced. Criticism needs to free itself from these expectations and become much more open to other emergent possibilities in which we see Poesis impacting much more strongly on Poema. However, I fear they will continue to police new forms of poetry and new ways of writing it that don’t fit their preconceptions, just as they have up to now. And there’s not much poets can do about that until a new, more open-minded generation of critics emerges.
I don’t think I can say too much more about this. This essay started off about Husserl and I seem to have strayed from my intended subject rather a lot. But only because Husserl’s own ideas – especially about Noesis and Noema - have stimulated me to apply them elsewhere – as Poesis and Poema. I apologise for this. It is, however, important that our thinking about poetry is fertilised from many unexpected quarters and Husserl’s, it has to be said, is a very fertile quarter indeed.