The word ‘lyric’ in English comes from the Greek word for lyre and so its lineage involves music. Music clearly means, but it doesn’t mean the same way that language does. Music’s meaning is a function of resonance and resonance involves a kind of integrity. Think of a chord. The chord is what it is because of the multiple resonant relations that its individual tones have to one another. If you remove one of the tones, or alter it just slightly – like turning an E natural into an E flat – you fundamentally change the nature of the whole. A perfectly tuned chord, we might say, is coherent. And that, I think, is the basis of what we mean by lyric thought: it’s thinking in love with coherence. It seeks understanding by finding coherence, and it strives for coherence – resonant integrity – in expression.
What is the relation between lyric thought and this [Francis Bacon-inspired] picture of science? I don’t think lyric poetry is ‘subjective’ in a sense that contrasts with Baconian ‘objectivity’; it’s not (principally) aimed at voicing an unchallengeable, irreducibly personal view. But I do think that if you read a good lyric poem, you have to give yourself to ways of thinking that aren’t conditioned by the Baconian ideal. And that allows you to acknowledge that you do know things in a way that Baconian science doesn’t. Culturally, we try to control such knowing by marginalising things like lyric poetry and saying, ‘Oh, the arts are about imagination, and the imagination is for making things up. What they say isn’t “true“; they’re not “objective”.’ It’s all politics, that talk. It’s a way to control ways of knowing that are inimical to a cultural alliance between capitalism and technology, which is part of the West’s inheritance from the Enlightenment. The imagination can but doesn’t always ‘make things up’; in fact, imagination – which allows us to perceive likenesses and similarities – is fundamental to knowing the way things are.
I think massive economic breakdown is coming soon. It’s happening independently but it will ride on the heels of environmental degradation. Sea levels are going to rise. That’s all it will take. But we also know that marine ecologies are unravelling at a staggering rate. Wealso know that global warming is already having serious effects on many biotas. Everywhere. We can’t save them with science. We can’t save them with this culture. This culture will pay the price with its death, and with the deaths of a lot of other cultures and beings, both human and non.
‘Do what you can!’ The idea of political activism is itself woven into the fabric of Enlightenment thought. Our culture is not a culture of acceptance, nor of adapting the self to the larger circumstances. It aims to adapt the circumstances to the desires of the self. This attitude is actually part of the problem. But are there alternatives in this culture? Yes, I think so. Our situation is in some ways similar to the Warring States period in China. Think of the way intellectuals and poets reacted then – they withdrew, and embraced poverty, in order to meditate on the natural world. And there are those striking observations of Thomas Merton. He talks (is it in Seven Storey Mountain?) about the sense that he has that somewhere a couple of dozen guys are praying and they’re holding the whole damn thing together. It’s an echo of the Hebrew notion of the Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim, the thirty-six just people. What we see in all these cases is a reaction that is essentially the reaction of prayer. And by that, I don’t mean ‘Let’s pray to God so God will make it alright.’ I mean deep, reflective, meditative immersion in and compassion for what is happening. A widening of the self. There is both an acceptance of responsibility and an acknowledgement of truth in that gesture.
This is still something that bothers me about the vast majority of polytheist discourse – there’s still an implicit centering of the human in how we talk about our relationships with the Gods, the spirits, and the world around us. Why is this such a zero-sum game? Why this us-vs-them, even with the very things that sustain us as a species? As a people, who, in the words of the Haida poet Skaay, are merely “plain, ordinary surface birds”?
We do not have a concept of deep acceptance, we no longer have a way to contextualize smaller joys and losses, needs and desires, within a greater, ever-changing, ever self-cannibalizing whole. We no longer have a way to contextualize anything but the most peaceful, medically-aided sort of human death. What do you tell the suicidal when you both know that things will not get better?
The list of things we cannot do anything about is long, and terrible, and sweeping in its scope.
We have built a world that hates us, and from where I’m standing, and with what I know right now, all that that makes sense for me to do is to let the fire burn itself out. Because no fire can burn forever, and ashes make for good compost.
It’s how lyric poetry can matter, if it’s authentic. Praising and mourning. The praise song and the elegy are two sides of the same coin and they are annealed. We speak elegies when the thing that naturally draws praise from us is gone. It is in this praising and mourning – really experiencing what is, and what is happening – that we begin the reconstructive work of changing the culture.
And, as part of this meditative work, we recycle, and we walk or take public transit, we don’t waste water, we don’t waste heat – we try to act responsibly, that is, responsively toward the other beings with whom we cohabit. But we don’t try to ‘fix’ the world. We adapt our desires to what respectful and thoughtful living allows, and in this find joy. Real joy, not some puritanical satisfaction at having ‘done the right thing’. The self widens.
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