“'Shadow Consciousness' One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” C. G. Jung
There is a difficulty in writing about poetry and where it comes from and it is one perhaps that, among philosophers, Heidegger alone has tried to address. After all, he is one of the few philosophers to actually take poetry seriously. He says in his often tortuous way that we should attend to Being and not just beings in our quest for such ‘origins’. But what can he possibly mean?
Perhaps one can answer this by saying the poets are not merely arrangers of words, chosen as if they were separate objects or things in the world around them. Rather they are immersed in words from the word go. Words are part of their very Being and not simply beings in their own right (Heidegger makes a big thing of the distinction between Being and beings.) which poets are supposed to manipulate to fulfil particular designs they may have. In other words, there is nothing instrumental about poetry, nothing which simply submits to the rigours of external techniques. What techniques it ‘employs’ are part of its own emergence into Being, the movement towards what Heidegger might call its un-concealment. Heidegger was right to say, “Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while, in fact, language remains the master of man.” ‘Man’s’ subversion of this fundamental relation is, according to Heidegger, what drives ‘his’ essential Being into alienation. I cannot completely agree with Heidegger on the last point. I would side with Lacan, who, following Freud, would say that language – the Symbolic Order – is itself a medium of alienation, but from the perspective of the instincts and drives, which I think we must consider as integral to our Being as language itself is. Heidegger, perhaps, would like to keep ‘man’ in a state of pre-Freudian innocence, though he is essentially correct to point out that we are used by language as much as we use it and that our arrogant instrumentalist attitude towards it reflects our attitude toward Being as a whole, which we mistakenly believe we can separate ourselves from in a sort of subject-object fashion. Not that we should reject this kind of consciousness completely, or the praxis that corresponds to it. The point is to cast it into the perspective of Being or “Dasein”, to borrow Heidegger’s own word, and recognise how secondary it is.
What this dichotomising of “Dasein” – the word coined by Heidegger to refer to that being within Being which puts its own being in question, i.e., us - does is lead us away from Being and Dasein towards ourselves as no more than subjects relating to objects. Purged of all metaphysical presuppositions, (God, Spirit, Matter, Will and so on) the question of Being involves a return to Being on a deeper level, a sort of re-submergence into our essential Being seen as a kind of homecoming, whereby Being becomes our dwelling place again. I must admit to having a few problems with language like this because the frequent repetition of words like “Being” begins to seem almost mantra-like to me and I invariably start to lose focus when I feel that some kind of mantra or linguistic formula is being employed to take the place of thinking itself. This doesn’t mean that I don’t see what he’s getting at in his purely critical arguments against instrumental reason, logic, conscious praxis, rationalism, metaphysics, subjects, objects and so on. Furthermore, and this is a real plus, Heidegger’s stress on Being qua Being, mediated by Dasein, pre-empts Sartre’s reduction of Being and Dasein into Being-in-itself and Being-for-itself, which are more or less Sartre’s equivalents of Subject and Object. I entirely concur with Heidegger here. Another difficulty I have with his thinking is simply that the effort to think ‘Being’ in more positive concrete ways is an impossibility, since it is clearly without any attributes. In other words, all you can say about Being is that it is; you can never say what it is and therefore never really orientate yourself towards it.
Heidegger is on surer ground, I feel, when he talks in terms of viewing our relation to Being as a sort of un-concealing, bringing forth what was previously concealed into the light of consciousness. I have had many such encounters, even in connection with my own poetry, when I have realised the poem was much smarter than I was and was able to tell me things which I could never have arrived at without it. Opening up to Being in such ways, therefore, might have value in this sense and prompt us towards instances of re-cognition. The last time this happened was fairly recently when someone pointed out how a flayed horse with its eyes “placed on a plate for the gods” in one of my poems could be seen as a form of primitive sacrifice. While writing the poem, I was only interested in the images and not concerned to join all the dots regarding their meaning. Therefore, I had not thought of this possibility. The suggestion then made me think of Peter Schaffer’s play, Equus, in which six horses had had their eyes struck out by a very disturbed 17 year old boy and how the psychiatrist treating him had to go back to ancient religion and Jung to find a clue to the boy’s behaviour. This is what I mean when I say that a poem can be smarter than the poet who wrote it.
It has often been a subject of great speculation to me how much of what Jung called the “Collective Unconscious” – as something integral to our Being – might enter poetry without our knowing. I have long since recognised that intentions don’t count for very much in poetry. This is how it has to be if what Heidegger called un-concealment is to take place and enter poetry without our knowing. Are all these unconscious elements part of our overall Being, which rises to the surface in poetry without our becoming aware of it at the time? If so, how might this happen? It is obvious that what consciousness locks onto is highly selective. But is this the case with ‘the Unconscious’? (Note to myself. Must avoid thinking of the unconscious as some kind of thing or noun, rather that simply as an adjective.) I think we should draw a distinction between seeing and looking. Looking is necessarily intentional, while seeing isn’t. You can see things out of the corner of your eye without looking at them, momentarily registering them and then moving on and forgetting them or remembering them later. How much of what is seen without being looked at is assimilated by us without our ever becoming aware of it? Surely, only that comes to consciousness which consciousness deems important at the time. The rest slips under its radar-screen. But does that mean it just disappears. What of the possibility of its having been instrumental in generating structures as we evolved necessary to the survival of the species, without awareness entering the equation at all?
All that, however, is very speculative. The question of Being itself is not so speculative. But it does need to be explained better. In talking about it, I suppose I could use a word like “spontaneous”, but that term has become too loaded to be very useful. However, if I refer to an ordinary piece of behavior like smiling, the point might become a bit clearer. There are spontaneous smiles, smiles that you cannot help producing and which often make other people smile as well. And then there’s the put-on smile, the rictus you affect in front of a camera, for instance, or the smile the Queen uses when she shakes hands with hundreds of complete strangers at Buckingham Palace. In the first instance, the smile just comes; you don’t have to do anything for it to happen, it just emerges from your Being as it were. In the second instance, it is put on for the benefit of others, it is a product, in other words, of instrumental reason and of you placing yourself as a subject in a world of objects – including other subjects of course – in relationships which Sartre would say were full of “bad faith” or Heidegger would say were “inauthentic”. The authentic smile has overflowed, as it were, flooded your face, your body-language and your whole demeanour, without you being able to control it. The non-authentic smile is a deliberate exercise, a way of attempting to control your environment. It is not an overflowing of “Dasein” at all, but part of an attempt to manipulate the external world in some way that divides you from both yourself and the world. Poetry, I believe, enters the world or comes into existence in a similar way to the authentic smile, or as Keats once said, like leaves on a tree. Once it emerges, you have to get it down and develop it, dropping everything else in the process. It comes as a ‘call’, but from your own Being, at the interface between your own Being (or “Dasein”) and an aspect of Being in general previously hidden from you, which is what I suspect, Heidegger means by “unconcealment”.
Poetry is often discussed in terms of subjects creating objects – or artefacts – as if it were a craft to which certain techniques were appropriate – rather like the craft of a stone-mason or cabinet-maker producing objects according to some pre-existing specifications. This assumes, more or less, that poetry is simply a product of instrumental reason and that while practicing it we are manipulating words which are seen as being ‘at our disposal’, or, to use Heidegger’s expression, ‘ready to hand’. But the very being which is supposed to be manipulating words in this way is ‘saturated’ with words. And that, of course, leaves the question of how it can get outside of itself (and its words) to treat them as objects to be manipulated by some kind of sovereign subject. Mostly, poetry emerges unbidden, imposing itself on the poet, whose activity is not sovereign, although, of course, it is crucial. Poetry, in short, to revert to Heideggerian language, emerges from the highly porous interface between Dasein and Being. I don’t think it can therefore simply be reduced to being a craft and the secret of writing poetry does not only consist in being a master of certain techniques. This is where the instrumentalist view of language leads us, however. It’s one of the many ways we have of dehumanizing and devaluing what we produce which itself emerges from the matrix of Being which we ourselves are an integral part of.