Monday, January 18, 2010

A Philosophy of Language

The argument that Stevens is making here is one of empiricism against rationalism. Are the pears a priori or are the a posteriori?

Let me back up.

I have a daughter who is three months old. She is beautiful and strong, innocent and perceptive. But most of all she is inquisitive. Her eyes take up half of her head, it seems, and she looks at everything with a piercing gaze, moving methodically from the starboard side of her head to the port, locking on to any object she can make out. When something truly interesting catches her eye, she will cock her head slightly and squint her eyes just a fraction, as if she is trying to discern its reality.
But she has no words. At her age, she barely has sounds. So how does she define what she sees? When she sees her mother her eyes light up and she grins. But how does she define mother? She doesn't know what a mother, mom, mommy or mama is. She can't understand me when I tell her that Mom is home. How does she define mother?
And does Mom exist? She is young enough that objects have no permanence to her. She believes in mommy, indeed love mommy, only as far as she can see her, smell her, touch her. Her world is entirely a posteriori - known by experience; sensed. She is an empiricist. She knows only because she can see.

I love my little girl. She is my daughter, my princess, my angel and my joy. I have more words for her than this blog will allow me to write. I remember every moment... from the first time I held her to when she fell asleep in my arms this afternoon and I let my hand fall asleep because I didn't want to disturb her. I can tell you what she sounds like when she is happy or hungry or lonely. But right now she is up stairs in her swing... away from any sense I possess. I know for certain that I loved her before she was even born, before she kicked... just as I love her now, not seeing, hearing or smelling her. My world has elements of a priori - things I know before I can perceive them and things that remain after my perceptions are passed. I can be either empirical or a rationalist.

Back to the pears.

Stevens forces us to engage in a battle of language. How do these pears exist and what is the nature of their existence. They are not violins, models or any other manner of still life. Stevens takes away the use of metaphor in describing the pears in the first stanza. We are forced to confront the pears as they are, not in comparison to other things. Stevens then begins to describe the pears as a painter would, noticing color, form, shading and shadow. The pears may be on a canvas for all we know. These pears do not have scent or taste or texture, the do not even have a third dimension. We know of their top and their bottom, but not what is on the back of them. But always it is only the pear being described. Even the color of the pear, yellow, is described using only itself: "The yellow glistens. It glistens with various yellows..."

But without language, how do we understand these pears. They are not described as fruit or organic matter anywhere in the poem. They are not compared to anything else. And Stevens forces us to confront this reality in the final stanza. He tells us that the pears are distinct from our will. They exist beyond our perception... even their shadows are only non-descript blobs.

Stevens poem is an empiricist who has recognized the boundary of his realm, and is now searching for a way to understand something without senses, and without comparisons.

New Wine for New Wineskins

Three saplings and a skin of wine

    Grapes freshly crushed and newly fermented

Lambs blood on the door mixed with the smell of bread that can now never rise

and the crap shoot for whipped rags

A lance carrying an acidic sponge

The market value for 30 pieces of silver

Now the old temple curtain blankets the pale horse


The line I appreciate most in all this is the Magi's quip, "But there was no information, and so we continued…" I think that Eliot is telling something of the nature of time – that it was all there in the beginning. His references to biblical events that the magi witnessed on their journey include the book of Exodus (some fifteen hundred years prior to the birth of the Christ) to the gospels (thirty years after the birth) and up to Revelation, which was written some hundred years later but prophesies events that may or may not have occurred even now. Eliot seems to be claiming that the summation of existence was fundamentally changed by this birth, and that all that was and is and shall be was present.

The change is present in the other stanzas of the poem as well: in the change from a land of death to a land of life between stanza one and stanza two, and in the longing for the "hard and bitter agony" of the birth which the Magi longs for once he reaches his home.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Twas Brillig

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.