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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

My Place or Yours: A Case of Poetry (and Existentialism) Opening Doors

American historian, author and environmentalist Wallace Stegner (1909-1993), who  cared deeply about places and the sense we make of them, once commented that "a place is not a place until it has a poet." This entrancingly provocative remark became the centerpiece of our second Philosophy Club foray into place: prompting us to put pen to paper so as to haiku our way into a better understanding of those places that hold special resonance for ourselves and us alone; daring us to become 'the poets of our own lives and places' in order to stretch Stegner's assertion to its outer reaches.

That those outer reaches included a detour into Existentialism courtesy of Jean Paul Sartre's (1905-1980) "My Place" - a short but dense chapter buried deep inside his pivotal and weighty tome Being and Nothingness (1943), and through which we had all waded in preparation for this session - was not entirely coincidental. Sartre is famous for having sent a frisson through the literary world (and ruffled more than a few literary feathers) when he denied poets entry into the realm of "committed writing" - a realm he reserved for prose writers alone. Prose, Sartre felt, was the only art form capable of producing concrete action and with it, political change. The instrumentality of prose - its very directness and lack of ambiguity - made it the ideal mouthpiece for those committed to not only rewriting the world but spreading their message far and wide so as to spark a veritable reworking of that world on the part of writers and their readers alike. Poets, on the other hand, well, they were in the business of "bearing witness": of distilling earthly anguish into the plop of a raindrop, of making us feel that raindrop (and by extension, that anguish) strongly and vividly but not in a way that would physically spur us out there onto the barricades

In making these claims Sartre's aim wasn't so much to elevate prose over poetry as to highlight the difference between writing that provokes action, and writing that evokes affect - that breathes life into the thing itself. On the subject of affect, and its very elusiveness when it comes to pinning things down and divvying them up into neat little categorizations, a frustrated Sigmund Freud once commented, "Everywhere I go, I find that a poet has been there before me." The 'everywhere' to which Freud was referring on this particular occasion was the realm of affect, and his frustration stemmed from his inability to capture its mysterious workings in relation to the human psyche in scientifically credible psychological prose. Concluding that in beating him to the finish line, the poets had also made his task of scientizing affect that much more challenging, Freud gave up: stashing his affect research in a bottom drawer; turning his attention to more 'scientifically credible' matters like female hysteria and penis envy.

Hmmmmm...The actual point being, of course, that though Sartre and Freud did not see eye to eye on much, they did agree that poets had cornered the affect market and that - for better or for worse - they were the reigning literary champions of that domain. As for place and our relationship to it, there are poets aplenty who would venture that place is nothing if not a hotbed of affect. Which adds up to a rather long and circuitous way of saying that, as a group, we were prepared to make unlikely bedfellows of Poetry and Existentialism in order to see what poetry could and could not teach us about what constitutes those places we call our own, as well as to wring from the wrought terrain of those self-same places a testing ground for Wallace Stegner's place-creating poet-cum-geographer.

From the get-go, then, it was a case of subjecting everything on the evening's agenda to a dueling banjo gruel-fest that pitted haiku against the Word. Our first face-off revolved around participant's own observations about place, culled from our previous session together. In some cases, the observations themselves read like poetry...

"If my body becomes un-placed,
and I am physically ill
 - all at sea -
then I too will be un-placed,
no matter how convivial the setting."

                                                                      "Place, like life, just happens to you,
                                                                      And sometimes just having a place,
                                                                       Is enough."

                                           "Even the act of passing through,
                                            Of being a passenger,
                                            Can be grounds for implacement.
                                            I don't have to be stationary,
                                            To be in place."

In other cases, they were battle cries from the barricades of life...

                          "Not everybody needs, or indeed even wants, to get back to the ur-place!"

         "Topophilia! You've got to be kidding! Really?!"

                          "Only a place that is freely available to ALL can rightly be called a PUBLIC place!"

And some were just plain old Proustian...

             "Why settle for a visual crumb, for a photograph, when I have many more senses - smell,
              touch, sound, taste, to name just several - with which to get to know a place."

Spun first into theory through analytic prose, turned subsequently into poetry just dripping with affect, the results of pooling these scattered observations about place into succinct little parcels of either studied insight or atmospheric glimmer were compared and contrasted, played off each other and unpacked. Buoyed by this experimental working of what had come before, though not yet ready to come out on one side or other of the great prose versus poetry debate, we launched into the matter at hand: Sartre's reflections on his place, entitled "My Place."

A preliminary exercise in haiku gave us free reign to express our initial reaction to the piece, as well as to explore how each of us as readers brushed up against this particular authorial voice. For some, Sartre spoke in them, through them, for them, to them. For others, Sartre didn't reach them at all - something Sartre the Activist would have found deeply distressing if Iris Murdoch is right in asserting that "the driving force of all his writing" was "to change the life of his reader." Regardless of whether or not we had felt interpellated by Sartre the Writer, however, we were unanimously intrigued by his opening argument: that our initial lack of choice with regard to the place we are born sets off a chain reaction of contingency that severely restricts our freedom; that no matter how much we believe ourselves to be freely choosing any subsequent place we might opt to call our own, that original unchosen place will forever loom large, impacting how any future place is selected, occupied, and moved on from.

It was clear that we needed instruction on the finer points of freedom, and Sartre was undoubtedly the philosopher to deliver that life lesson to us. For indeed, maximizing your freedom is the only thing in life that is truly worth striving for, according to Sartre, even if managing to get some for yourself is no mean feat. In a sense, the word 'striving' here is key: for the attainment of true freedom resides in the simple acknowledgement that you exist in 'your' place for no other reason than your "being-there"; for it is only in recognizing all those 'facts' about your existence within place over which you have no control and through which your freedom as regards place is curtailed that you can even begin to negotiate a freer relationship to the place in which you find yourself, and the places you might go. In other words, to strive for freedom is to pull off the blinders and reach out towards something or somewhere else, even if that act of reaching ends up finding you happiest in precisely the place you are. It is to project yourself elsewhere, to literally make of your projections a project, and in that space of making plans and making choices and in that space only, to transform the reality of place in your life from what Sartre sees as an "insurmountable obstacle" that we unthinkingly or begrudgingly drag around with us, into "a point of attachment or a point of departure, as we wish."

This marvelously motile idea of place captured our collective imagination. What we liked was the idea that place in general, and our own personal places more specifically, could be less of a passive geographical landmark into which we have been inserted and from which all other places we choose to inhabit snowball, and more of a vibrant spatial relationship into which we actively enter: an ongoing negotiation between an actual "being-there" right here and a projected "being-there" out there that at least affirms for us that we are involved in, and committed to, the choosing of an end. As to whether we affirmed the power of poetry over analytic prose to convey the depth and texture of Sartre's existentialist thinking is another matter altogether, and one that we agreed to carry forth into the third and final session of this Philosophy Club mini-series. When we reconvene, we'll be asking ourselves how much further traditional notions of place can be stretched by putting them through the wringer of Michel de Certeau's concept of "Making Do" and the Indian innovative approach to rule-bending, Jugaad. We'll also be unpacking the notion of resonance in an attempt to get to the bottom of the driving question - what IS in a place? - that lies at the heart of this series.