After Postmodernism: 9. My Work and Aesthetically-Mediated Belief

"Nocturne I," Martin Wittfooth


Responding with denial to the damning critique just leveled, the sunken deity defiantly refuses rescue by his former angel—a standoff that is only settled when Joel is able to convince Yahweh that it is in fact he, the singer, the poet, who is actually God, and thus in a position to command his Creature. Under these (false…?) pretenses, the two move on together, now assuming a radical reversal of roles: the poet/artist as Creator of transcendence, and God the humble suppliant.

The lie does not last long. Eventually, the ‘truth’ comes out: the artist, it seems, can offer no more transcendence than the crippled God next to him. It was all a sham, Joel admits. But God himself disagrees. Reflecting on the role of art to truth and transcendence, He wonders and asks:

These songs you sing…this poetry, this rhyme—

it tells a Truth beyond equations, no?

Past what the world can count—to fire and fire?

which is what living is: the sense inside

the solid heart, the nova of no-thing…

For all this talk of heart and fire is false

(though it seem true): what blood-pump pulses love

or burning char us in amazement? These

are tools, succeeding where expression fails—

the panders of our souls and understanding—

interpreters of cries and grunts and grins

that beg translating—these: the stuff

you revel in, the makings of your art,

which lie beyond small language to a Truth

mere truths but groan at, dumb to reckoning…

Is human song but frequency? vibration?

Or do all those unfeeling elements—

the troubled air, the fretted string, dead space

and whirling particles—become alive

in symphony? the prickling of the skin

and spine—sublimity? the ecstasy

of rapturous harmony—the holy flame

of beauty bare: is that not real as well?

Dissect these fiery wonders how you will,

the pieces cannot make the sum. Inside,

the sky’s vast swirling galaxies reduce

to mostly-empty space. And yet… gaze out

upon a mountain peak that crowns the world

and see such weighty stuff stretch limitless,

immeasurable! How can this be? Where lies

the warping bridge from mere material

to Meaning?

Look: perhaps we are the stair!

Perhaps we climb ourselves: impossible

to think—until we’re higher. …Am I not

now closer to the stars for following

your falsehoods? Poet, prophet, king or god:

perhaps all truths will lie a little… play

the tender heart’s beguiler… woo with looks

and fictions till late facts are numbed by love—

the seeming-prodigal who, bankrupt, buys

on credit till indebted winnings pay

their debts away, then reaps far more from less…

Yes…credit, creed, credulity: Belief.

That is the ladder that we throw away.

That is the want we foist upon what is

to fashion higher Truths

from baser things.

(Canto 15, lines 126-74)

The argument here hinges on a couple of key points. First, there’s the turn to phenomenology from empiricism—or, as Eshelman would put it, a shifting of the framework of argumentation to aesthetics from epistemology. Art “tells a Truth beyond equations”, offering a unique insight into reality by means of a language different from materialist logic. Art pushes back against scientific reductionism: music is more than frequency and vibration—it has a felt component, a subjective and experiential domain, with its own form of reality that resists scientific dissection. This point occasions comparison between the irreducably subjective and the irreducably objective, as the language of emergence enters in: “the pieces cannot make the sum”, the total, complex truth is not to be found in its smaller, sometimes-conflicting constituent parts. Both arguments, one subjective and one objective, explore a locus for transcendence entirely within the immanent frame—in short, a progressive approach to the return of dimensionality.

Both points are taken up in the angel-poet’s response to God: a long, formally-expansive song that offers an extended meditation on these themes. The concluding sonnet is representative: “I see all Cosmos is a Symphony,” he says (Canto 15, lines 434-49):

Or so I’ll sing—for who can Cosmos clutch?

When Reason, like our speech and memory,

Has too small room to comprehend so much…

Then let it break! Burst, singularity!

‘According to the poets’ be our crutch.

When crippled logic falls from Harmony

And lies sustain to know the Truth as such.

For everything beyond what eyes can see—

The quarks, dimensions, or the vast too-much—

Puzzles the mind…

yet fits as poetry,

If ever God and Adam are to touch.

Then alchemize each atom to a string;

One fault in ‘Truth’ lets all the Cosmos sing.

The “lies” of poetry and the imagination, the basic falseness of metaphor (to call some thing another thing that it is not) and the fictiveness of creative invention, thus become the means for articulating even deeper truths, truths beyond strict epistemological claims. Through art, specifically poetry, we “lie beyond small language to a Truth” unattainable using merely rational speech. Art, an immanent phenomenon, is thereby our principal bridge to transcendent experience—our ladder to truths more mysterious, more fundamental even than thought—to the “beyond” deep within us, and to that without. Indeed, Joel and God are ultimately able to escape the underworld—to transcend it, you could say—by means of the bridge built by Joel’s song: an ascending stairway re-constructed out of the fallen blocks of Heaven’s ruins. A way forward has been cleared: a progressive return of dimensionality through art…

The only way, it soon turns out, as the God Joel has carried back from the underworld has grown weaker and weaker along the journey, withering away: “Sick, / it seems, out of the sea we’ve damned him to” (Canto 16, lines 76-77). The old transcendence, simply brought back, fails, it seems, and cannot be sustained long out of its element: now, properly among the outmoded and discarded ideas of history. Despite his efforts, the God Joel has suffered to bring back can only die again:

God, my God

and Father, fails before me, withered up

and ending… all my Father fading out

into a sunken rind—and I am crushed

so near to heartache, I must keep my tongue

above, and silent, lest it sink and choke

in its own tears…

I am not for this time,” he says—his eyes,

though empty, sweeter now than ever else.

Jehovah passes into dust, and all

my work, my time are finished. Look! For now

a new thing must arise.”

(Canto 17, lines 76-82, 101-5)

Leaving the ailing deity a moment, Joel goes in search of assistance. He finds a group of artists: a simmering group of dissident painters, writers, etc. who all reject the dominant paradigm, and have turned instead to ecology and craft. Collectively, they are creating a massive statue—a bold, confident woman, made of earthen materials.

Heeding Joel’s call for help, they yield to curiosity and answer—but returning to the spot with Joel, find God lifeless, unresponsive.

Their awkward remorse puts to the test Joel’s clarified mission: the progressive return of dimensionality through aesthetically-mediated belief. After burying the old transcendence in the womb of the statue, he challenges them all:

Dead? The God is dead?—is dead?

Well…what is that to us? Goddamn you all,

you are no ARTISTS! Weathermen, more like—

Accountants! Scales-and-beams! An artist looks