Oh The Places We Will Go:

Preface: This paper was the only assignment for the Heidegger seminar. I took the assignment lightly, but I am happy with it. The font on this blog is kind of annoying, so it might be more productive and simple to read it here.

Oh The Places We Will Go:
Following Guff from Rilke to Dr. Seuss, and Back Again

“Oh the THINKS
you can think up
if only you try!

If you try,
you can think up
a GUFF going by.”

I have always been fascinated by great works of creative minds. Ever since I was a child, I have enjoyed deep reading. I say deep, because I always traveled as far into the world of an author as my imagination would allow. With Dr. Seuss, I remember asking my parents what words, like “guff”, meant. Meaning, they taught me, was a very tricky thing. Some words have meaning, they claimed. Other words were nonsense.

I turns out that “Guff” has an established semantic meaning. In the early 19th century, “guff” was an informal noun meaning trivial, worthless, or insolent talk or ideas. Dr. Seuss, a well-read scholar, might have purposefully chosen this word as an elusion to deeper meaning. With the aforementioned text, there is a marvelous picture. In Dr. Seuss’ creative illustrations there is a wise man in robes. His eyes are closed. His hands are around a long string of orange fluff, which, incidentally, is the guff. This guff, also blindly traveling, leads this old wise man around. If Dr. Seuss intended for the guff to represent trivial ideas, then this picture takes on a whole new meaning. Rather than blindly following our trivial, worthless ideas, Dr. Seuss suggests that if we try, we can think up a guff going by. If we are aware of the guff, we can catch it before it leads us into trouble. Otherwise, like the wise old man with his eyes closed, we are oblivious to the world around us.

The paradox is that thinking both creates the guff, and makes us follow the guff. Similar themes are explored in the children’s novel Harold and the Purple Crayon. The concept of the book is that Harold has a magic crayon, which he uses to draw. The drawings become real, although it is still recognizable as a childish sketch. When Harold wants to go for a walk, he draws a path with his crayon. And along this path Harold strolls. When Harold is frightened, and his hand draws a mass of squiggly lines, he falls headfirst into his imagined sea.
When Harold finally finds his safe way home, he re-imagines his true world: “drawing” up the covers. Harold is safe at last, and he drops his purple crayon as he drops off to sleep.

I have had far too many sleepless nights to assume that this story is mere fantasy. Rather, I think that it explores a very important part of human existence: the imagination. My favorite neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer, claimed that: “Harold is a perfect example of what’s known as “double-scope integration”. This is a fancy term for something we all do everyday, and have been doing since preschool. In essence, double-scope integration (aka “conceptual blending”) is the ability to combine two completely distinct concepts or realities in the same blink of thought. (Childhood Rituals, 8-17-09) Lehrer illustrates the ability for all people, children and adult alike, to seamlessly blend the world of space-time and the fictional, imagined world of Harold.

I think that Heidegger has a similar understanding of cognition. In Poetry, Language, and Thought, Heidegger writes
“Three dangers threaten thinking.
The good and thus wholesome
danger is the nighness
of the singing poet

The evil and thus keenest danger is
thinking itself. It must think
against itself, which it can only
seldom do.

The bad and thus muddled danger
is philosophizing” (Poetry, Language, Thought, 8).

Heidegger explains that thinking can be compromised in three ways. First, by the closeness of the poet. Second, by thinking itself. Third, by bad and muddled philosophizing. Similarly, Harold is compromised by the closeness of his crayon, his thinking itself, and by his own philosophizing. Perhaps the primordial is the childish. As we age, it would follow that we might lose the ability to integrate conflicting frames. The good and wholesome danger of the poet may be identical to the glories of Harold’s journey. The evil and danger, thinking itself, may be like the sea, into which, Harold accidentally falls. The bad and thus muddled danger of philosophizing may be my double-scope integration of Heidegger and Harold in the first place.

Regardless, Jonah Lehrer argues that there are many important things that brilliant minds can teach. At Columbia, Lehrer double majored in neuroscience and English. When studying the molecular nature of memory, he picked up a copy of Proust’s Swann’s Way. “All I expected from Proust was a little entertainment, or perhaps an education in the art of constructing sentences,” he writes. What he got instead was the surprise Harold gave me; Proust had already found what Lehrer was searching for. Proust knew that the powers of smell and taste create the strongest memories. Also, Proust knew that memory is dependent on the moment and mood of the individual remembering. These facts, according to Lehrer, were only established a few years ago. Proust made the same point first way back in 1913.

Heidegger might have tipped his hat at this analysis, for he believed that creative works relied upon other creative works. There is no vacuum of thought. Heidegger says that the great thinker “is one who can hear what is greatest in the work of other “greats” and who can transform it in an original manner” (Nietzsche 35). Wherever we look, Heidegger says that tradition is central. A historical movement “becomes all the more historical, which is to say, it grounds history all the more originally, as it overcomes radically what has gone before by creating a new order in that realm where we have our roots” (Nietzsche 27). By integrating various parts of our experience, great poets can revitalize Being. Through double-scope integration, a natural process of intellectual synthesis, great thinkers can take two great works, and combine them.

For an enlightened person, all ideas can merge together around Being. For the artist, soul-searching can accidentally integrate two previously separate ideas.

“With this being, the artist, Being lights up for us most immediately and brightly… To be an artist is to be able to bring something forth. But to bring forth means to establish in Being something that does not yet exist. It is as though in bringing-forth we dwelled upon the coming to be of beings and could see there with utter clarity their essence” (Nietzsche 69).

Dwelling, or integration, can merge conceptually independent ideas into new realities. The cognitive psychologist Mark Turner has explained in his essay “The Art of Compression” that great visual art, like Picasso’s cubist work, depends on conceptual blending. Art depends on the ability to effortlessly merge the real and abstract. By looking at the real and abstract with the mind’s eye, we can notice new connections and thereby establish meaning.
Yet, as Heidegger argues, “the time is destitute”. Even the trace of the holy is hidden. “Concealedness exists inasmuch as the realm in which [pain, death and love] belong together is the abyss of being” (Poetry, Language and Thought, 95). Heidegger proceeds to ask if Rilke is capable of reaching into the abyss. Further, Heidegger wants to know how far. Personally, I found little meaning in translations of Rilke’s works in the book. Instead, I was much more fascinated by some poems I found in a superior translation. I would like to first look at Rilke’s poem, Imaginary Career:

1. At first a childhood, limitless and free
2. of any goals. Ah sweet unconsciousness.
3. Then sudden terror, schoolrooms, slavery,
4. the plunge into temptation and deep loss.

5. Defiance. The child bent becomes the bender,
6. inflicts on others what he once went through.
7. Loved, feared, rescuer, wrestler, victor,
8. he takes his vengeance, blow by blow. 9. And now in vast, cold, empty space, alone. 10. Yet hidden deep within the grown-up heart,
11. a longing for the first world, the ancient one…

12. Then, from His place of ambush, God leapt out” (Rilke, 157).

Lines 1-2 seem to explore the primordial being of unconscious childhood. They explore, to use Harold’s terms, what it is like before the mind separates the creations of crayon from reality. Lines 3-4 remind me of another childhood story: The Giver. In this tale, the main character Jonas lives in a perfect world. Everything is under control. Every person is assigned a role in the community. When he turns twelve, Jonas is singled out to receive special training from the giver. The giver alone holds the memories of the true pain and pleasure of life.
“Jonas closed his eyes, waiting…as he lay basking in the wonderful warmth, he felt the passage of time. His real self was aware that it was only a minute or two; but his other, memory-receiving self felt hours pass in the sun. His skin began to sting. Restlessly he moved one arm, bending it, and felt a sharp pain in the crease of his inner arm at the elbow…

He knew there was a word, but the pain kept him from grasping it.
“Ouch,” he said loudly…”It hurt,” he told the man, “and I couldn’t get the word for it.”
“It was sunburn.” the old man told him.
“It hurt a lot,” Jonas said, “but I’m glad you gave it to me. It was interesting. And now I understand better, what it meant, that there would be pain” (The Giver, 86).

This new knowledge of pain, and the recognition of words to describe it, corresponds perfectly with lines 3-4 of Rilke’s poem. Lines 5-8 illustrate a different story.

5. Defiance. The child bent becomes the bender,
6. inflicts on others what he once went through.
7. Loved, feared, rescuer, wrestler, victor,
8. he takes his vengeance, blow by blow.

Here, the story travels into Dr. Seuss’ tale about the guff. The terror, temptation and loss echo Heidegger’s claim that “The evil and thus keenest danger is thinking itself. It must think against itself, which it can only seldom do.” The bending that Rilke refers to seems identical to Lehrer’s concept of double-scope integration. As the child becomes the bender, the defier, he learns how to create concepts for himself. He desires to explain himself to others, to teach them what he has gone through. Now that the child can recognize his guff’s he can integrate them into theories, and explain them to others. Thus, he inflicts them upon others. This echoes Nietzsche’s claim that “For many, abstract thinking is toil; for me, on good days, it is feast and frenzy” (Nietzsche, 5)”. There is an animalistic, frantic feeling when one is bending the world with double-scope integration. Taking his vengeance, the wrestler insists upon defiance. Similar to Nietzsche’s concept of resentment, those who merely negate can lose contact with all positives. In this time period, the student and pupil separate.

Another Dr. Seuss story explains the feeling;

“And then I got mad. I got terribly mad. I yelled at the Lorax, “now listen here, Dad!
All you do is yap-yap and say, ‘Bad! bad! Bad! Bad!’
Well, I have my rights sir, and I’m telling you
I intend to go on doing just what I do!
And, for your information, you Lorax, I’m figgering
on biggering
and BIGGERING
and BIGGERING
and BIGGERING,
turning MORE Truffula Trees into Thneeds
which everyone, EVERYONE, EVERY0NE needs!”

Though the story is the different, the premise is the same. Here, the character even refers to the defender of nature (the Lorax) as “Dad.” The certainty is evident in the individual’s rage. He thinks he has figured out the world, and wants to spread his knowledge to all. With his newfound vocabulary, the student rejects the elder. The third threat to thinking that Heidegger established is philosophizing itself.
Eventually, a transition occurs. After this point, the student longs for his past. He longs for the simple days of Harold. He wishes to be lead by guffs. Yet, this day is past.

9. And now in vast, cold, empty space, alone. 10. Yet hidden deep within the grown-up heart,
11. a longing for the first world, the ancient one…

This longing for the ancient world echoes Heidegger’s love for the pre-Socratics. This empty space can also be understood as nihilism. Having lost their binding force, the hidden deep longs for the ancient.
“Nihilism means that the uppermost values devalue themselves. This means that whatever realities and laws set the standard in Christendom, in morality since Hellenistic times, and in philosophy since Plato, lose their binding force, and for Nietzsche, that always means creative force” (Nietzsche 26).

Having learned how to use philosophy, the thinker can no longer find meaning in the world. This, the values de-value. Therefore, individuals are lost warriors. For Nietzsche, creativity is gone. His crayon is a type-written stuck in the font of other philosophers.
The solution, as far as I understand it, comes in many names. For some, it is called God.
11. Then, from His place of ambush, God leapt out”

It is difficult to find space in philosophy for spirituality. As Heidegger points out, “We must avoid uninhibited word-mysticism.” Heidegger did not believe in a traditional God. As William Lovitt explains, Heidegger is not a mystic. “He does not describe or advocate the experiencing of any sort of one-ness with an absolute or infinite. For him both man and Being are finite” (The Question Concerning Technology, i). The relationship Dasein takes towards Being is determinative of what Dasein gets out of it. God leaping out can be understood as the first awareness of Being.

“Nevertheless, the ultimate business of philosophy is to preserve the force of the most elemental words in which Dasein expresses itself, and to keep the common understanding from leveling them off to that unintelligibility which functions in turn as a source of pseudo-problems” (Being and Time, 262).

Heidegger is not lost in spirituality. He is not a mystic. Rather, he wants to bring Rilke’s Imaginary Career back into childhood. Yet, as we all know, this isn’t possible. Too many concepts have been integrated. There is no going back. “The arts should no longer be realized apart from one another, that they should be conjoined in one work” (Nietzsche 85).
From here Heidegger turns away from the scientist and towards the Poet. As Richard Rorty comments in his Essays on Heidegger and Others, “What is Being?” is no more to be answered correctly than the question “what is a cherry blossom?” (36). Only by abandoning the quest for certainty can resolution be attained. Yet, this certainty is difficult and frightening. It requires much more than coming to terms with one’s own mortality. It requires reaching into the abyss of nothingness and pulling meaning out. Or as Rilke writes,
“I love my life in widening rings
which spread over earth and sky.
I may not ever complete the last one,
but that is what I will try.

I circle around God, the primordial tower,
and I circle ten thousand years long;
and I still don’t know if I’m a falcon, a storm,
or an unfinished song” (Rilke, 5).

For Rilke, language is like a series of widening rings. These rings spread over the world – earth and sky. He may not ever find the final borders, but he will still try. He circles around God, himself, and the all. Yet, throughout his circling, he never finds himself. He never knows if he is a predator, disaster, or poet. Rorty echoes the same sentiment;
“We can neither leap out of our blossom into the next one down the bough; nor rise above the tree and look down at a cloud of blossoms (in the way in which we imagine God looking down on a cloud of galaxies). For Heidegger’s purposes, we are nothing save the words we use, nothing but an (early) stanza of Being’s poem. Only a metaphysican, a power freak, would think we were more” (37).

Talent, in this understanding, is an acknowledgement of one’s predecessors. T. S. Eliot takes a similar stance towards the poet. In his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, he comments that: “Talent is acquired through a careful study of poetry”, claiming that Tradition, “cannot be inherited, and if you want it, you must obtain it by great labour.” Eliot asserts that it is absolutely necessary for the poet to study, to have an understanding of the poets before him, and to be well versed enough that he can understand and incorporate the “mind of Europe” into his poetry. For Eliot, Rilke, Heidegger, Lehrer and perhaps even Dr. Seuss, creativity is the process by which worlds melt together.
*I have chosen to include three of my own poems. Do not feel obliged to read them.*

Traces of Meaning As I swim, dragged through the river Sometimes I get lost in a pool of sea turtles As the dream sediments as waves embrace the giver I find a nice corner and nap: Hide. Snap, Popcorn clouds engulf my visual cortex and I Sigh: It’s all a dream. A dream, but one that gently pours all night. With the light of morning and pour of cream, The corner slowly spins away revealing the pool And crisp like bacon all the turtles lay, red Dead, like Sun Dried Tomatoes
There once were turtles all the way down, now just skittles.

the cold absence of song
as the track begins
the air in my longs struggles along
the soul of music sins
I struggle for my ground
Grinding patiently, as my head spins.
The silence makes my heart pound
Like all big ideas, he is disturbed,
Yet grins
Years Pass
The controlled smells and sights of Whispers
The whispers whimper confusion, in order
To order this whimper, this whisper of smoke
To rapture in flumes, capture howling Tunes,
To follow this suffocated Whimper of tree
To trap this whimper of burning disease
Express! She demands,
She demands upon knees,
Like music’s vibration, spilled paint in the seas
Trapped suffocation, the whimper in trees
Lost in warm sparkles,
These Candles left Charcoals!
On bones onto souls, the wind carries
Smoke, smoke, her body, sweet cherries
Oh! Candles and wax, red and sour
And smoke and whisper
To Hide and to Cower
To feed on her flesh Flower
To suffocate my candle
The longing in matches
This tree-grown handle
To be struck upon this,
Upon her wax lips,
To the flame, her kiss sprays
“Too fast!”
As she melts, wetting the floor
“Too fast!”The friction of heart beating
“Too fast!”
Slow this icing glaze
Candles the dwindling amaze,
It is my wax that you burn.
It is my suffocation in aroma
It is my sickness in winter’s flume
It is my burning rain that showers in seasons
Years pass, she whispers,
“Too fast.”

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