This is an essay about disquieting feelings and my personal journey to make sense of them.
A few years ago, a book I had been writing for the past half decade finally appeared in print. I was delighted. The result of countless days of meticulous scholarly labor had finally taken shape in 350 pages. The front cover was adorned with a beautiful painting. The back displayed praise from colleagues I greatly admire. In the following months, my book received (mostly) favorable reviews. Colleagues from near and far expressed their admiration of the work.
But then I started to notice something: their compliments were often couched in vague terms that indicated, to my increasingly suspicious mind, a rather cursory reading. In teaching my university courses, I pointed my students to this newly published book when discussing relevant themes in class. I noticed, though, that like those of my colleagues, their reactions to the book were often a mixture of generic admiration and only an oblique familiarity with its details. Gradually, I had to accept an unsettling realization: I had written a respectable scholarly work, a book that followed a careful methodology, a book that was filled with countless verified details and a consistently rigorous argument. And I had written a book that hardly anyone actually read.
Or perhaps more accurately: hardly anyone read it from cover to cover as you would read a book that was enthralling. And even those people who did read it seemed to do so out of a sense of obligation rather than captivation.
I was convinced in those days (as I am now) that the book’s driving idea is valuable: When remembering traumatic historical events, contemporary literature acknowledges the pain of the past, but that remembrance is also an expression of futurity—it presents us with an opportunity to imagine a better future. In the months after the book’s publication I began to admit (mostly to myself) that this central argument had gotten lost in countless details—in the abundance of “evidence” that I was convinced was necessary to make a valid claim. This idea that I cared about so much was obscured by my desire for what Richard Rorty has called “knowingness”: “a state of the soul which prevents shudders of awe . . . [and] makes one immune to romantic enthusiasm.”1 To be clear, Rorty is not suggesting that we should replace our wish to know with mere romance and wistful sensations. He cautions that we should not study a novel or any other work of art the way that we would, say, a geologic formation or the spleen—as objects of scientific knowledge. Because when we do so, we lose sight of the great capacity of art: the way that art renders us sensitive to ourselves, and to our world, precisely by not committing to the scientific method. We overlook its ability to afford us insight and wisdom, which art is able to do because it remains free from any restraining system of thought, any rigorous method. Whether my book—or any academic book, for that matter—can be considered a work of art is debatable. Nevertheless, the more I thought about Rorty’s idea, the more dismayed I became.
The reasons Rorty gives for “knowingness” are the same that drove me to clothe my intellectual intuition with a thick layer of corroborated “proofs”: I was lured by the wish to be regarded as a “rigorous” scientist, capable of demonstrating to those in and outside my discipline the validity of my “discoveries.” Rather than offer a humanistic perspective on some of the novels I admire because they touch on memory and history and trauma, I wanted to be revered as a scientist is, emerging from the laboratory with an exciting new finding. I submitted my writing to the justifiable, yet often despotic, tendency in the sciences to follow a strict method, to present a systematically argued thesis and evidence, to base the analysis on rigor and logic.
My unease about the book increased in the following months, exacerbated by the growing debate about the future of the humanities, particularly about the lack of interest in humanities scholarship and declining enrollment in humanities classes.2 I couldn’t resist the thought that my book’s fate was somehow related to what I and many of my colleagues have observed in recent years: countless gifted students in North America and across Europe (the continents I am most familiar with) have started to avoid the humanities. Surely, I thought, these students’ choices are related to the ever-growing demands of the so-called knowledge economy. They must be driven by pressure to spend their precious time in college pursuing their dream careers or the paths their parents have charted for them. I still had to account for the fact that the students I was meeting on campus were not merely blind followers of their parents’ dreams or, worse, comatose slaves of neoliberalism. I couldn’t resist the thought that some of them would choose to attend courses in the humanities, and perhaps even read my writings, if only . . . if only what?
Contemplating this question with unease, I remembered a set of conference panels I had attended the previous year. The lectures were grouped under the title “Poetic Thinking,” a notion advanced primarily by Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. They described how some of our most captivating writers—Montaigne and Kafka and Ingeborg Bachmann were the examples given—cultivate intuitions, insights, and wisdom in the process of crafting their work, whether it is an essay, story, or poem. In other words, thinking proceeds in some of our most admired literary works not by systematically arguing the points of a thesis but by inventing a moving metaphor or a stirring scene. There was something delightful, something of Rorty’s “romantic enthusiasm,” in the literary works these lectures described and, not surprisingly, in the talks themselves. Both highlighted the imaginative, playful, and ultimately uninhibited exploration of ideas afforded in literature and the arts. They showcased words and images that illuminate our lives by not being subjugated to the hallmarks of scientific thinking, by remaining free of rigor, method, or the pursuit of “Truth” with a capital “T.”
Maybe, I thought, what humanities scholarship and education should be focusing on more attentively is precisely the cultivation of the very kind of thinking I experienced in those lectures. There is nothing wrong in striving for rigorous knowledge in the humanities. There is much value in finding out, for example, all we can about the life and work of Franz Kafka in the years before and after the First World War. Yet, shouldn’t presenting Kafka’s work also aim at fostering the kind of uninhibited thinking his aphorisms exemplify: “The true path is along a rope, not a rope suspended way up in the air, but rather only just over the ground. It seems more like a tripwire than a tightrope”?3 Isn’t the value of humanistic writing and education not also, or perhaps even primarily, in the kind of free contemplation demonstrated in Kafka’s words—in the open-ended reflection on such questions as “What is true?” and “What is the true path?” “Could the pursuit of the one true path be like walking on a tightrope?” Or, “Is it not actually like tripping over a tripwire?”
These questions have led me on a journey, metaphorically and physically. First, I reread some of the most moving poetry I have studied in the past three decades to consider how this genre—arguably the most free genre of the written word—can foster uninhibited thought and wisdom. It quickly became clear that this kind of thought is not restricted to poetry. I branched out from the written word to visual art. I traveled to several exhibitions to experience and reflect firsthand on artworks I had only read about and to interview the artists who created them. The result of this personal and intellectual expedition is this essay, which explores the manifestations and the necessity of this thing called poetic thinking. At its best, an essay, Georg Lukács and Theodor Adorno remind us, is poetry’s sister. Free of the demands of “the academic guild,” it has greater possibilities: it doesn’t “strive for closed, deductive or inductive construction . . . [but] revolts against the doctrine—deeply rooted since Plato—that the changing and ephemeral is unworthy of philosophy.”4 The following pages are not an attempt to present a theory of poetic thinking. Such an attempt would be, in my view, contrary to the free forms of reflection and creation at its core. Rather, I wish to illustrate several (for me, telling and deeply moving) examples of what poetic thinking is.
To be clear, I do not wish to suggest that all literature and visual art, across era, language, genre, and medium, engage in poetic thinking; nor do I wish to offer a comprehensive account of all cases in which they do. We begin along the path that I took, and with the artists I encountered, in the hope that each reader will further delineate and grow the immense promises of poetic thinking. “He writes essayistically who writes while experimenting,” notes the philosopher Max Bense, which is just what I aim to do.5 I begin by reflecting on the potential of poetic thinking, the way it can offer philosophical guidance in our lives, focusing especially on what I see as poetic thinking’s greatest offering to us today in the realm of politics and ethics. I believe that poetic thinking can offer us a crucial mode of reflection on how we treat the people we love and the people we don’t, and how we interact with life around us, with the world at large.6 I then describe specific works in literature and the visual arts that can invoke those “shudders of awe” that Richard Rorty describes: in other words, we see how poems, paintings, and sculptures can become manifestations of poetic thinking and how those manifestations can alter the ways we see the world.
The choice of genre and art forms is not accidental. Poetry is a literary genre I practice, study, and teach. All the paintings and environmental sculptures I discuss are artworks I have seen firsthand. My discussion is also informed by conversations on thinking in the arts that I was fortunate to have with some of these artists: the painter Gerhard Richter and the sculptor Dani Karavan. I believe that the ideas I develop here have a broader reach than the specific artists and works I discuss. I am confident that this essay can inform a broader view on other works of art and other artistic mediums. Therefore, in the Coda, I indicate how we may extend the scope of this essay beyond its intentionally modest range.
As with all journeys, my exploration of poetic thinking did not occur in a vacuum. I began writing this essay at a moment in which repressive, in some cases plainly tyrannical, political tendencies gathered momentum around the world. In some places—Russia and Egypt being the most obvious examples—those tyrannies presented themselves through the face of a single ruler, a self-proclaimed strongman who controls all the tools of power. Elsewhere—from Turkey to Hungary, Poland to Venezuela—governments have been democratically elected, yet once they assumed power, they began to exercise elements of tyranny: the excessive use of authority, merciless supervision, the repression of free thinking and expression, and the brutal clampdown of dissenting voices. Even established democracies, as we have seen during and after the 2016 elections in the United States, are not immune from tyrannical tendencies. Writing this essay, I became convinced that setting our gaze on poetic thinking and cultivating an uninhibited intellectual life are beneficial not merely for writing more effective books or for enriching humanistic education. Poetic thinking, this essay suggests, has the potential to counter the rise of tyranny: poetic thinking is no less than a means to defend political freedom and foster truly meaningful cultural expression.
It is thus no coincidence that all the literature and art discussed here touch, in various ways, on the experience of tyranny in our time. Given my scholarly interests, the works I discuss turn mostly to the fascist regimes of the twentieth century and their aftermath, specifically but not exclusively to Nazi Germany. The Coda shows that artists of all kinds, and the rest of us as well, have the ability to use poetic thinking—even if we don’t always name it as such—to understand any other occasion in which the freedom of thought, writing, and action is under duress. This essay suggests that the freedom encouraged by poetic thinking serves to counter the tyrannical tendencies we experience today. Two ideas drive me in this essay: the wish to promote poetic thinking as a path for renewing the writing and teaching of literature and the arts; and my conviction that cultivating poetic thinking will help counter the forces that strive to restrict our cultural and political freedom.
1. Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 126. Rorty goes on to describe the consequences of this thrust for philosophy departments in the English-speaking world as they adopted the rigorous-logical protocol as the hallmark of philosophical writing (126–31).
2. See, e.g., Eric Hayot, “The Humanities as We Know Them Are Doomed: Now What?,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 1, 2018, https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Humanities-as-We-Know-Them/243769; and Benjamin M. Schmidt’s detailed analysis of the general commitment to the humanities in undergraduate education during the last six decades, “Sapping Attention,” July 2018, http://sappingattention.blogspot.com/2018/07/mea-culpa-there-is-crisis-in-humanities.html.
3. Franz Kafka, The Zürau Aphorisms of Franz Kafka, trans. Michael Hofmann (New York: Schocken Books, 2006), 3.
4. T. W. Adorno, “The Essay as Form,” trans. Bob Hullot-Kentor and Frederic Will, New German Critique 32 (Spring–Summer 1984): 151, 158.
5. Adorno, “Essay as Form,” 164, quoting Max Bense, “Über den Essay und seine Prosa,” Merkur 1, no. 3 (1947): 418.
6. Following Geoffrey Galt Harpham and others, I focus here on literature and the arts as an exploration of “outsiderhood,” that is, of other human beings in general but, more specifically, those who differ from us in their language, culture, beliefs, and values. Geoffrey Galt Harpham, Shadows of Ethics: Criticism and the Just Society (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 7.