A Note On John Ashbery and Charles Sanders Peirce

I was reminded of Ashbery’s phrase, “notes from the air”, the title of a poem from Hotel Lautréamont and part of the title of a selection of his poetry published in 2008, while reading an essay published in 1878 by Charles Sanders Peirce. In it, Peirce uses the word “air” as musical composition, a form of the word not as common today:

In a piece of music there are the separate notes, and there is the air. A single tone may be prolonged…. and it exists as perfectly in each second of that time as in the whole taken together…. But it is different with the air, the performance of which occupies a certain time…. and to perceive it there must be some continuity of consciousness…. These two sorts of objects, what we are immediately conscious of and what we are mediately conscious of, are found in all consciousness.

Pierce could have said (in an essay entitled, How to Make Our Ideas Clear!) simply, a musical composition cannot be experienced in less time than it takes to play it. Further on, reiterating, even belaboring his point that the goal of all thinking is to arrive at belief, which is a state of rest but also ground to spur further thought, he writes:

The action of thinking may incidentally have other results: it may serve to amuse us, for example, and among dilettanti it is not rare to find those who have so perverted thought to the purposes of pleasure that it seems to vex them to think that the questions upon which they delight to exercise it may ever get finally settled; and a positive discovery which takes a favorite subject out of the arena of literary debate is met with ill-concealed dislike. This disposition is the very debauchery of thought.

Now, if poetry were thinking, as Peirce has defined it, then it would be this very debauchery, not because poetry by definition is antagonistic to the settling of questions, but because belief as the goal of all thought is not its prime motivator. I hope that this is obvious enough that I don’t have to make an elaborate demonstration (perhaps my philosopher friends would say such a demonstration is indeed necessary; thus I would have to become a philosopher). Doubtless for Peirce poetry shares the same epistemological status as music: “we do not call that thinking,” he says flatly. Let us suppose, for now, that poetry is not thinking as defined by Peirce.

I have no idea if Ashbery read Peirce, much less if he is responding to him in Notes From the Air, but I think it’s likely, given the singularity of the phrase, that he did have Wittgenstein in mind when he wrote the phrase, “if only the boiler hadn’t exploded”. Surely this is an echo of:

What does man think for? What use is it? –Why does he make boilers according to calculations and not leave the thickness of their walls to chance?…. –Now, may not a boiler produced in this way explode? Oh, yes.
Philosophical Investigations, I:466

In the world of Ashbery’s poem the boiler has exploded. The explosion has already taken place. The bits are flying. We are the bits flying. And now what shall we say in such a situation? What shall we say about thinking? Whatever it is it will be fragmentary and provisional. We might even be forgiven enjoying ourselves a little, out here flying among the bits. It’s not like we have a choice about the situation, unless we want to delude ourselves about it. Lucidity is indeed an option! All of the failures and deaths mingle with the buds of new growth, and our lucid enjoyment respects the losses incurred. If that is a debauchery of thought then so be it. If it’s not even thinking, OK. But it is a lucid relationship to thought that could be defended in rational terms, should we wish to do so–and we don’t, for that process (trivial pursuits) would, like explaining a joke, strip poetry of its rewards. Answers (or call them beliefs) come when they come, and they serve their purposes when they do, but they’re not the whole Easter basket. Along with the candy eggs some bleached bones are sprinkled in.

…. No more trivia, please, but music
in all the spheres leading up to where the master
wants to talk to you, place his mouth over yours,
withdraw that human fishhook from the crystalline flesh

where it was melting, give you back your clothes, penknife,
twine. And where shall we go when we leave? What tree is bigger
than night that surrounds us, is full of more things,
fewer paths for the eye and fingers of frost for the mind,

fruits halved for our despairing instruction, winds
to suck us up? If only the boiler hadn’t exploded one
could summon them, icicles out of the rain, chairs enough
for everyone to be seated in time for the lesson to begin.

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One Response to A Note On John Ashbery and Charles Sanders Peirce

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    I can’t think of anything more appealing at the moment than flying among the bits. It seems to me that the exercise of concluding has got humanity at large into a whale of a lot of trouble. Answers are indeed, not the whole Easter basket, and perhaps don’t even belong in it.

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