A post in the ongoing series Poetry in the Arts.
In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake wrote about the “doors of perception.”
The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I have heard from Hell.
For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite, and holy whereas it now appears finite & corrupt.
This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment.
But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul, is to be expunged: this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.
What does Blake mean when he says that if “the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite?”
Why is the world “infinite?” And if it is, what does perception have to do with it?
I’m not sure about what Blake thought, but I have my own personal theories.
My illustration for these may seem like a digression, somewhat technical, removed from the grandeur of the Blake quotation. First, I’ll talk about perception and ideas — about the philosophy of mind. My goal is to talk about our perception of ourselves and others as human — and the role of the arts in shaping perception, the role of poetry in changing us.
I’d like to ask you to take a walk with me past the square black table near my desk. What I’d like you to observe is the shape of the tabletop. You’ll see right away that — in real space — the tabletop “is square.”
The tabletop doesn’t look square — it looks like this tilted parallogram that I traced exactly from Picture 1:
Let’s be careful with terminology. In Picture 1, the table doesn’t “look square” — but it does “look like a square.” It has “the look of a square” — namely because it looks like Picture 1a, which is the way a square should look from the angle at which I took Picture 1. This terminological distinction signals the topic I’m trying to talk about.
The space it occupies in the next picture is different again: more diamond-shaped.
The tabletop “is square” — but it never “looks square.” It has various, irregular, distorted apparent shapes depending on the point of view: different in each picture.
I continue walking around the table, and — far from looking square — even the parallelograms distort more. Though always remaining some sort of convex quadrilateral, some are irregular rhombuses.
Abstractly, this series of pictures looks like the following.
What we see is a collection of shapes: one in each picture. Somehow, there is a thing (the thing we mean when we say that it “is square”) that’s independent of and different from these apparent shapes. This “is square” something is what enables me to recognize the permanent shape of the tabletop even though what I directly see is a series of differing apparent shapes, none of which seems square.
It’s funny but the tabletop almost never “looks square” to me. The only way it would seem even nearly square would be if I climb up on a chair, hold my camera out, and point straight down.
Looks weird doesn’t it? There’s a hanging philodendron in the way now. Those are my shoes at the bottom of the picture.
Even now it isn’t exactly square. I must have misjudged my position when taking the picture: it’s hard to be perfect when you’re holding the viewfinder a few feet from your eyes.
It might seem tempting to think that this straight-down, square-looking presentation in Picture 7 is the “true” one and that all the other apparent shapes in Pictures 1 through 6 are in some way “false” or “illusory.” But this doesn’t really make sense. Why is Picture 7 privileged in a way that Pictures 1-6 aren’t? Since I wouldn’t have any reason to climb on a chair and look straight down (except to complete the exercise in which I took this picture) I’ve probably never, even once in all the years I’ve owned it, seen this tabletop “look square.” Yet, equally obviously, the first time I saw it I knew immediately that it “is square.”
So, an “is square” is different from a “looks square.” Some philosophers have felt that the “is square” is true whereas a “looks square” is false suspicious. But that conclusion isn’t necessary: all we really need is to accept that an “is square” is a different kind of thing from a “looks square.” They work differently — just like different grammatical categories do. There’s no conflict between them. As I said above, an “is square” is “what enables me to recognize the permanent shape of the tabletop even though what I directly see is a series of different apparent shapes.” The “is square” isn’t in the same category as the apparent shapes: it’s what organizes them all and enables me to recognize the real shape as the same, no matter where I stand.
This “is square” is an example of what Plato referred to, in Greek, as an “eidos.” This word is usually translated as “form” or “idea” — or, even more pompously, as “Idea” with a capital “I.” But I think this translation is misleading: an “idea” suggests something you think about, whereas an “eidos” is a piece of machinery you have that enables you to do something.
In geek-speak, an “eidos” is part of your “wetware” — it’s something like “software,” except it’s between your ears — or, more exactly, it’s a function of what you have between your ears.
The word “eidos” in Greek is simple and every-day, not a philosophical profundity: in English, it means something like “look,” used as a noun — as in, “it has a retro look.”
It’s widely believed that Plato thought the “Ideas” dwell in an unchanging realm, a kind of heaven far separated from the transitory world of appearances in which you and I live. My feeling is that this interpretation is part of the pompous, 19th-century-clergyman view of Plato that I eschew. I’ve tried to say above that an “eidos” is a different category of thing from any of the apparent shapes — but that doesn’t mean that it’s separate, or far away, no more than the sentence I just wrote is separate or far from the words in it.
How did I learn or acquire my “eidos” of the shape of the tabletop? Plato famously answered by saying that before birth we have all the “eidoses” we need but when we’re born we forget them all. We spend our lifetime trying to “remember” more and more of them.
I don’t know about this. Plato may not have meant it literally. He was noted for his irony, and this answer sounds to me like a sarcasm — a literary way of saying “damned if I know.” Still, he might have been serious and, if so, I have no real evidence that he’s wrong.
But, when Plato says learning is remembering, his imagery does express the essentials: A particular “eidos” isn’t something you’d figure out: you either have it or you don’t. We acquire access to them gradually throughout our lives — and this is one of the basic ways we grow, something essential to being alive. Without them, we’d still have our sensory experience. Without them, we’d see the apparent shapes in Pictures 1-7, but we wouldn’t know that they all belonged to the same thing: “is square.” We couldn’t recognize or use any of our everyday perceptions.
It may seem far-fetched to analyze “is square” in such fine detail. “Is square” is an elementary perception that we learn very young — and there’s no reason ever to revisit or change it later in life. We wouldn’t question it.
But other perceptions are more elusive.
It’s especially our perceptions of people, including ourselves, that are indispensable but hard. In his dialogues, Plato wrote mostly about things like “is happy” and “is in love” and “is just.” — Our grasp of them is incredibly poor.
We grapple with each other clumsily, as if we were always wearing snowsuits and mittens. We attack each other — or walk away — because we can’t work out any better way to live. We can’t cope finely enough to satisfy multiple goals — several of my own and several of the other person’s — so we just quit. We settle for less than we could get for ourselves, and for the people we deal with too. We separate ourselves from others because we haven’t the skill to live together.
Unlike the simple perceptions, such as “is square,” that stay the same and don’t need close examination, our perceptions of people are ones we replace and renew all our lives — or, at least, I hope we do because otherwise we’ve died.
In the tabletop pictures, the shape is never presented cleanly, all at once. It’s in a different place in each picture, and it’s cut off at the edges, and the plant and the spray bottle and the chairs get in the way. Everything is all mixed up with everything else. Somehow the “eidos” lets us untangle it.
In our more complex perceptions of people, we have the same problem: confusion. There’s too much data at once. We need to focus on the parts that are essential in the sense that they’re the ideas that help us work and live the way we want and need.
I believe that an essential function of art — beyond entertaining, which is perfectly respectable and fun — is to show us pictures. This isn’t the same as teaching ideas. Rather it’s a way of letting us recognize — in newer, finer ways — what we already see in front of us.
Art enables us to see the physical and the emotional world.
An “eidos” is a mental circuit that organizes sense data and makes perception possible. As Plato said — or joked — we get them by remembering. Art is what jogs our memory and jolts us into recognition.
But, the real depth of the world beneath these temporary rules of thumb we use to organize our experience is endless. The meanings of people and objects can be recombined and reorganized literally without end.
This infinity is what gives me hope: it means that I’m not necessarily condemned to be trapped inside the perceptions — the tools — I now have.
If I’m patient and receptive, both to other people and to my own wants, I could get better at it.
I admire an art work — a film, painting, sculpture, music, fiction, or poem — that has structure and shows its story. But I love art that has “poetry.”
This series of posts suggests three criteria for poetry:
- A poem is not an object you passively contemplate or an idea you learn: it’s something that you live through, that you experience.
- A poem is a made object: it may bring you into a story or admit you to a world, but it also shows you itself and the person who made it.
- A poem conveys emotion.
Table of Contents for this series: Poetry in the Arts
“Do you know my poetry”
— Johnny Depp as William Blake, in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man