prepared for “Epiphanic Moments: A Conversation About Poetry and Painting” (with Ken Hada, Nathan Lewis, and Jonas Zdanys) at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, 18 April 2018
In his Pedagogical Sketchbook (1925), Paul Klee described painting as “taking a line for a walk.” I fell in love with that image the first time I encountered it, because it gets right to the point – and it calls to mind one of the most compelling intersections of poetry and painting. It marks an obsession – the line – shared by the two arts. It’s interesting to me that this obsession is – on the face of it – a geometric figure, one of the basic elements, in fact, of geometry. It is front and center in the first book of Euclid’s Elements, and I find that tangle of connections fascinating.
It occurred to me a number of years ago when I was doing a close reading of the book with a small group of students at the University of Chicago that Euclid was a kind of poet (which is, by the way, how Kierkegaard described himself – and also god: as “a kind of poet”). You can, in fact, say that of just about every early “Greek” thinker – and, though we have splintered disciplines and increasingly quarantined science and technology from the arts, when we work our way back to the thinkers known as Presocratics who were scattered around the Mediterranean from the 7th through the 4th centuries BCE and are often credited with taking the first steps toward science in “our” collective memory, there is poetry and, with it, music.
François Jullien and others have made it clear that this is strikingly similar to steps early Chinese thinkers took – and we can find similar starting points in Africa (as in Kwame Gyekye’s studies of Akan thought) and in the Americas (before they were known as “the Americas”). One of the questions that has obsessed me in my work as a philosopher is how this unity came to be fragmented and what price we have paid for it.
But back to Euclid for a moment. Here’s the first stanza of a poem called “boundaries” composed of translations of a number of his definitions in Book One of the Elements:
sign is that that that has no part line is that that that has
length no width limits of lines are signs straight line lies
even with signs it contains epiphany is that that that has
length and width alone limits of epiphanies are lines
ground level epiphany is that that that lies with lines it
contains boundary is that that that is limit scheme is that
that that is bound by some limit circle center is sign
Let’s play with that for a moment. What I’ve translated as “sign” (semeion) is usually translated as “point” — and that’s fine (and understandable, given that this is a treatise on geometry). But it also obscures something that I think is important. Euclid’s “sign” has no dimension. It is no thing. And that’s the point. We start where we are (where else?) with a sign (which is, for want of a better term, a figment of our imagination) and we make something of it. We mark it.
Euclid takes the sign (which is nothing) and gives it length by connecting it with another sign (nothing to nothing), The sign is the limit of the line, and now we have some thing that we can see – not the line, mind you, but the passage between two signs, from here to there. We can see ourselves walking. We have, so to speak, taken the sign for a walk to describe a line. What happens if we take the line for a walk? Euclid says we get an epiphaneia. That has almost always been translated into English as “surface,” but here now you can hear it: epiphany. So. Make a point, walk it to another point, and you have a line. Walk the line to another line and you have an epiphany. Do you see what I’m saying?
The philosophical tradition I was educated in and have mostly worked in is Augustinian and comes to me via Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, and the pragmatism of C.S. Peirce, William James, Cornel West, Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens. This is not the time or place to go into detail about how all these people are connected – but suffice it to say that, particularly in conversation with Daoism and Zen Buddhism, they all take nothing seriously, as “the force” – as Emily Dickinson put it – that renovates the world. They share (and I share) a fascination with becoming that turns on how we make something of nothing.
And I come to that at least in part by way of poetry and painting — in my own experience, painting first, then poetry, then philosophy – backing into language (where philosophy takes place) from the play of appearances (epiphanies) in the world. I want to try to be as clear about that as I can (and I count on you and my friends here on the panel to help me make it clearer). I can speak of a sequence (and even dredge up pivotal moments and rough dates if I work at it), but the experience is of a whole, all at once, not a narrative so much as a vision – not an epic but a lyric poem.
I spent a lot of time with my Grandpa as a child. I lived across the street from Granny and Grandpa right up to the edge of adolescence, when we moved to the Texas Panhandle. These aren’t words he would have used, but that time with him taught me that everything we do is both an investigation and a construction of the world we live in. And, looking back, it taught me that two of the most important philosophical questions we can ask are “what do we mean by ‘we’?” and “what do you think you’re doing?” Grandpa was a builder, and I suppose that’s why I would include a third question that has been of particular importance for me in both painting and poetry (as well as philosophy): “What do you make of it?”
I am interested in the way light breaks on edges, the way pigment takes to surface, the way words tumble out onto the page, the way the eye of the ear sees them. I find common ground with John Cage when he says “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry” and (in the same piece, his “Lecture on Nothing”) when he says “Kansas is like nothing on earth.”
Kansas, southeastern Colorado, the northeastern corner of New Mexico, the panhandle of Oklahoma, and (especially) the panhandle of Texas – that is where I grew up, and it shaped my eyes like nothing on earth. (On that note, I also want to credit my Granny, who, when she encountered the Texas panhandle for the first time when we moved there from Wichita Falls when I was eleven, said “This is the end of the world.” That got me thinking about edges.)
I find common ground with Helen Frankenthaler when she embraces chance and lets paint flow on raw canvas to create forms that surprise and invite us to see worlds we would never have seen alone. This leads me to embrace lyric poetry as a form of abstraction (in the way that computer scientists use the term), a simplification (and an interface) that allows us to manipulate complexities below the surface (remember, that’s an epiphany) without getting bogged down in them. And it leads me to agree with Georgia O’Keeffe when she says all painting is abstract. (I’m going to resist the temptation to cite the Star Trek Next Generation episode that illustrates what this means for the relationship between epic and lyric poetry. But ask me later if you’re interested.)
I’m not big on bullet points. (A group of my students in China who were struggling with a poem I had written on the blackboard during a lecture asked if I couldn’t just underline the important words. So I turned to the blackboard, underlined the whole poem, and said “Every word is important.”) But I am genetically predisposed to nailing theses on church doors as invitations to scholarly discussion. So I leave you with a handful of theses for your consideration.
1. The intersection of poetry and painting is the line. Lines appear in the same inexplicable collisions that inspire our poetry and our painting.
2. At the point where science begins, there is poetry and music. This may also be extended to the claim that the structure of human consciousness is musical. I’d go so far as to say that the structure of human consciousness is more like a collection of lyric poems than a narrative.
3. When we take a line for a walk – in poetry or in painting – we make an epiphany.
4. Nothing is the force that renovates the world (or, as Laozi put it, “the wheel has thirty spokes, but nothing makes it work”).
5. We move from the play of appearances in the world to visions – glimpses – of the whole. One of the ways we do that is in lyric poetry. Another is painting.
6. Both painting and lyric poetry are forms of abstraction that function as what Piaget called “structures of the whole.” They make “epiphanic moments” in which, like Julian of Norwich, we may see the whole universe in what we can hold in the palm of our hand.
7. There are three central philosophical questions around which our creative work circulates: “What do we mean by ‘we’?” “What do you think you’re doing?” and “What do you make of it?”