The Ends of Literary Narrative
Serious literary fictional narratives seem important; they have a significant place in university curricula. But why are they important? And what makes them serious and literary, as opposed to or in addition to just fictional and fun? They seem not to embody accredited knowledge in anything like the ways in which it is embodied in scientific treatises, well-documented histories, or mathematical proofs. These questions are investigated by taking up the topic of how literary narratives reach their endings. Understanding poetic closure is, it is suggested, central to understanding the cognitive work that literary narratives do.
Richard Eldridge: So there's a handout that's gone round, if you come away with nothing else from this talk, you can at least come away with one of the most spectacular and impressive pieces of poetry from the early 20th century, as it happens.
A couple of preliminary remarks before I start into my main text: There is a controlling, deliberate ambiguity in my title, embodied in the word 'ends', I mean to allude both to the endings of narratives and to the purposes or functions of narratives and my argument will largely be that the purposes are evident, particularly in how the endings are achieved or reached.
Second, I will be talking in general about the function of literary narratives in life, so let me give myself some wiggle room on that one. Literary narratives have many functions in life, it seems to me, registering social situations and structures so that literary narratives can reasonably and legitimately be used in various kinds of historical research. They also express or register features of personality, so literary narratives can reasonably and legitimately be used in various kinds of psychological research and, for that matter, psychological and social historical research can overlap.
And thirdly, literary narratives can often provide a lot of pleasure, entertainment and fun and hooray for that.
So there are many functions that literary narratives have. Nonetheless, I will be suggesting a central function, a function that will be among the ones that defines the aims of distinctly literary practice or of the literary as a form of art.
And the last qualifying remark, giving myself a little wiggle room. There are, I think, no sharp boundaries between literary narratives and other kinds of narratives. There's continuum of cases, including, at least: memoir, biography, history, autobiography, essay, journalism, jokes are miniature narratives, all in addition to the mostly canonical-for-us forms of literary narratives, say: the poem, the drama and the novel and short story. So there are no sharp boundaries.
But I will be looking for a feature that is highlighted or foregrounded in fictional narratives of art. It's sometimes discernible also in less deliberately and self-consciously artistic narratives, but the effort to embody this feature is, I think, a distinct motivating aim of self-consciously literary artistic practice. An aim evidently achieved when the practice is successful.
Good, so those are the preliminaries. Mostly, I will read through what is not a terribly long paper here, I think.
We can begin to approach what might be called the peculiarity of literature as a form of cognitive practice, by comparing how literary works end with how other pieces of intellectual work end. A proof in mathematics ends by reaching its final line, where each line that is not an axiom is generated in explicit accord with a rule of inference that, in principle, anyone might follow.
Reports of experimental results generated in a lab, specify procedures that were followed in setting up equipment and carrying out tests. While they often also offer conjectural interpretations of results and suggestions for further work, they, that is lab reports, describe minimally a procedure that anyone might follow in order to achieve a like-enough result. Hence, we can speak readily of objective evidence that a certain state of affairs can be produced so-and-so.
In statistical social science, one finds reports of results from questionnaires or other data about populations expressed in numerical terms. Under the assumption that a larger population will not be so different from a sample, one can then draw conclusions about distributions of traits and tendencies of development.
History undertakes to tell us what happened and the claims of professional historians are supported with reference to primary sources, indicated in footnotes.
In economics, one often finds abstract mathematical models that describe processes of income distribution or GNP growth, for example, that are imagined to occur underneath a confusing surface of extra variables that induce deviations from the model.
Among these other cognitive practices or in comparison with them, literature is perhaps most like economics, in giving a model of certain processes in the world. This is scant comfort, however, since whether the processes described by economic models really do occur, on the one hand or are rather fairy tales invented by clever calculators on the other, is itself a subject of more than a little dispute.
Literary models, moreover, if that is what literary texts offer us, are in even worse shape, since they focus only on very small numbers of mostly made-up cases and they lack even the potential of refinement through the incorporation of further data.
Instead then of focusing on literature as a form of cognitive work, we might think of works of literature as aiming at producing a certain sort of pleasure. If we further suppose that all pleasures are subjective and rankable only in terms of duration and intensity, then the point of literary works would be exhausted in their consumption and there is not much more to be said than this.
As Bentham notoriously remarked: "All other things being equal, pushpin is as good as poetry." This view is unsatisfying, however, in that the experience of reading a good novel is not really much like the experience of eating an ice cream cone or wallowing in a warm bath. Well, not for me I mean, maybe for you. It takes some work to pay attention. It is not exactly fun at every instant. The pleasure, if that is the right word, seems not to have much to do with sensory processes, but more with the work that the reader is doing and surely writers are trying to do something that is both cognitively available to their audiences and cognitively significant.
But then again, works of literature do not offer us results that are much like those of mathematics, laboratory science, history or statistical social science, so we are faced with a puzzle. We seem to learn something from reading literature, but we have trouble explaining how or what we learned. At least when we're in the grip of a certain picture of knowledge, as the methodologically correct achievement of a fact stating result.
It is easy to suggest that there must be a third way, between the forms of knowledge that are available in other disciplines and mere predominantly sensible pleasure, in which literature is significant. We can see that this suggestion makes sense, I hope, when we contrast art in general with scientific knowledge on the one hand and decoration and entertainment on the other. Art is somehow in the middle here.
If we are offered too much scientific knowledge by a particular work, a particular literary work, then we are likely to find it didactic and to want more pleasure. If we are offered too much pleasure, we're likely to find the work either decorative or an escapist guilty pleasure, like the novels of Ian Fleming or Dan Brown, say. We want, at least sometimes, to work harder and to learn more than that, but just how can we do this? The mere postulation of a third way does not yet answer this question.
In their valuable comprehensive survey, 'Truth, Fiction and Literature', Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen explore a number of ways of thinking about literature as a source of knowledge. Centrally, they consider the following three suggestions: One: Literary works might help us to know what it is like to be or to be in the situation of a certain character in the sense of subjective knowledge that has been broached by Thomas Nagle and worked out with regard to literature by Dorothy Walsh. Against this, Lamarque and Olsen object first that while we do have experiences while reading, we mostly have our own experiences, not the experiences of Leda or Leopold Bloom, Yeats or Joyce. In particular, we mostly observe or imagine characters having experiences and while we take an interest in this observation, we're not learning the felt qualia of, say, fried kidney for Leopold Bloom.
Second, even if we did get some sense of what things are like for characters from reading literary fiction it is strained, Lamarque and Olsen suggest, to describe what we get as learning something. There are no methods in view for a crediting or testing any knowledge claims, such as there are in the sciences and much of what we might think we learn, we must in fact already have known in order to understand what is going on. For example, that rape is a violent, terrifying and world-altering experience.
Or Two: Literary works might enable us to enrich our store of concepts or they might modify our sense of the applications conditions of concepts we already have, as Catherine Wilson and D.Z. Phillips have suggested. Against this suggestion, Lamarque and Olsen object that while some literary works might help us to deploy new concepts or to widen the application conditions of concepts we already have, this is by no means necessary for a work to have literary value. Second and more sharply, they suggest that some authors sometimes explore the same concepts and conditions of application in different works, so that when one reads a second work, for example a later play by Ibsen, one may not learn anything new, but the later work, nonetheless has literary value, so that learning about concepts and their application conditions is not necessary for literary value.
Or Three: It might be that literary works help us to become better perceivers of the moral lives of persons and so better reasoners about what it is good or right to do when, as Martha Nussbaum and Hilary Putnam have suggested. Against this suggestion, Lamarque and Olsen object first, that improvement in moral reasoning is by no means brought about by all successful literary works and second, that having or furthering the correct valuational stance is not a necessary condition for literary value. We can and do value, as successful literature, works with whose stances and points of view we disagree.
One might suspect, I suspect, that there is something wrong here with Lamarque and Olsen's divide and dismiss strategy. Perhaps what we get from reading literature is some mixture of subjective knowledge, improvement of our conceptual capacities and moral insight. Lamarque and Olsen themselves offer the positive suggestion that literature quote "develops themes that are only vaguely felt or formulated in daily life and gives them a local habitation and a name." Giving a name, their formulation taken from Shakespeare, at least hints that some sort of cognitive achievement is on offer.
Literary appreciation, they further remark, quote "constitutes its own form of insight. Its own kind of interpretation of thematic concepts", but this form of insight, they argue, is better construed as the cultivation of understanding, than as the acquisition of knowledge of true propositions. Quote: "Literary works can contribute to the development and understanding of the deepest, most revered of a culture's conceptions without advancing propositions, statements or hypothesis about them. We can imagine, ponder, entertain thoughts or speculate about something without any commitment to the truth of our ruminations." Literary practice, they say then, is best understood as an imaginative exploration of themes that is guided by the literary work which undertakes, as they put it, to develop in depth, through subject and form, a theme which is in some sense, central to human concerns.
This talk about understanding is a good start, I think, but it leaves us still not so far beyond where we were before. Exactly what do we understand, when we understand the theme of a literary work? How is this understanding related to, but different from, propositional knowledge either that the world is thus-and-so or that the author thought thus-and-so, itself just another fact about the world. How is this understanding cultivated by the experience of the work itself? And what, if anything, makes it valuable in human life?
John Gibson suggests that the important cognitive work of literature consists in "bringing into full view our standards of representation and our linguistic criteria for what the world is." A literary work, he writes, may show some phenomenon just as it is. For example, we may see the essence of racism in the figure of Iago. Shakespeare's presentation of Iago "draws together at a level of clarity and order, everything we call racism, thus making the shape of our concept available to us for acknowledgment."
This suggestion too, is a useful start, but what it fails so far to explain is how we can fail to know the criteria of some of our concepts and hence, why we need to explore and acknowledge them. Surely, we need already to have some pretty clear command of the concept of racism, in order to understand Iago's actions at all. What further dimensions of our concepts then, are subject to repression or forgetting? And how do the details of the presentation of Iago as a literary character activate these dimensions? What exactly is the cognitive import of having our concepts activated and somehow filled in?
Gibson further suggests that a general reason why we turn to works of literature, is that we are able there "to read the story of our shared form of life." This is the suggestion we must pursue if we are to have any hope of unpacking the jointly cognitive and emotional work of acknowledging and working through themes and concepts that reading literature makes available to us.
So, what is the story of our form of life? Oh my god, I'm about to tell you. This enormous question is one that will have to be faced, if we are to make any progress here. Part of that story is the playing out of a biologically engendered imperative to survive. We need to eat, sleep, protect ourselves and procreate in order to survive as a species and we are, so far, wired well enough for success in these endeavors.
In the absence of extraordinary strength or speed, we have managed to cope with our environments mostly through superior cunning. We are better at recognizing and manipulating more features of our environments than are members of other species. In particular, as concept-mongering creatures, we're able not only to see objects brutely, as it were, as members of kinds. We are also able to see them from a point of view, as this or that. For example, a stick may be recognized by us as a weapon, a piece of building material, an implement for drawing in the sand or a staff. A fundamental part of learning language is developing this repertoire of seeing an object as something.
We manage this achievement not simply through picking up on the individuals just sorted into natural kinds that are present in our environment. Other animals do this as well, but lack our conceptual repertoire. My dog responds to the sound of my car, but does not think of the car as either a station wagon or a Volvo. We, however, manage feats like this by picking up not only on our environments brutely, but also by picking up on how others are interacting with our shared environment, by picking up on their points of view on things.
Our having of a wide repertoire of concepts and application criteria enabling manifold different responses to our environment is not a matter only of matching inner idea or platonic archetype or brain-state with object. It is a matter of learning to see things within multiple and shifting contexts of engagement and use, a matter of catching on to a large number of things that are done or might be done by others and by oneself at once, with objects and with words, within practical engagements.
In coming to be masters of words that encode objects, phenomena and events seen in one way or another, in relation to multiple contexts of engagement and possible response, we are not machines and not the quasi-automatons of Wittgenstein's Language Game II and Philosophical Investigations, rather we are creatures who have become capable of a life of plastic attention, capable, that is, of culture.
The fact that we develop conceptual consciousness not only in relation to problems of biological survival, but also in relation to cultural contexts of flexible attention and engagement, brings with it then certain distinctive burdens and possibilities. Not only is one trying to survive, one is trying to play the game of attending under concepts, both with others and in competition with others to have one's own point of view and way of playing the game recognized. Concepts in words for all that they register features of our environment that are there to be registered are also in their life, within cultural contexts of shifting attention and engagement, stable enough to permit communication and sharing of a point of view on things, but also tolerant of new uses as new contexts of attention and interest develop.
Hence, coming to language and conceptual consciousness brings with it uncertainties about how to go on from where we, or one, is. Am I playing the game in the right way? Is my conceptual performance, in using these words, such that it can and should be taken up by others? Do I really know what I'm doing? What are evident and exemplary, fluency and command in making moves with words? Just who do I think I am and am I right about that?
These questions are such that they cannot and do not arise at every moment. Comprehensive skepticism is not a genuinely available stance in life, but they are also such that they can always arise at some point. As the Kantian tradition emphasizes, a life with concepts is a life in which questions of judgment are always potentially in view and the fact of continuing responsibility, in and for conceptual performance, is unavoidable.
R.G. Collingwood tells the following wonderful story about what it is like to come to conceptual consciousness and language, thus becoming a subject of and in culture. This is my very, very favorite passage about what it's like to grow up to become a person at all, a subject.
Here it comes, from Collingwood:
"A child throws its bonnet off its head and into the road with the exclamation, 'Hattiaw!' By comparison with the self conscious cry discussed earlier in the present section, this represents a highly developed and sophisticated use of language. To begin with, consider the emotion involved. The child might remove its bonnet because it felt physically uncomfortable in it, hot or it tickled or the like, but the satisfaction expressed by the cry of 'Hattiaw', is not a merely psycho-physical pleasure like that of rubbing a fly off the nose. What is expressed is a sense of triumph, an emotion arising out of the possession of self-consciousness. The child is proving itself as good a man as its mother, who has previously taken its bonnet off with the word that it's now imitating. Better than its mother, because now she has put the bonnet on and wants it to stay on, so there is a conflict of wills in which the child feels himself victor."
As this example shows, even very early on in our life, as possessors of conceptual consciousness and self-consciousness, we bear distinctive emotions and attitudes towards our situations. We are capable of accepting, working through and expressing these emotions with a resulting sense of a certain kind of triumph, when our point of view is recognized by others through our performances. We are also capable of solemnly shirking our emotions, avoiding them or otherwise failing to express them with a consequent sense of disappointment, frustration and failure and, sometimes, with a further wish to escape or reject the burdens of the responsibility for expression.
When this happens, we then suffer or merely undergo our emotions as we remain stock in the state of having what Spinoza calls, "an inadequate idea of an affection." We don't know what is worth caring about; We take no delight in the investment of our energies in our performances, and confused, unexpressed feelings wash over us.
Our actions are as much then reactions as expressions of our self-hood. Philosophical skepticism and its intimate, antagonist, epistemological realism are both, at bottom, misbegotten intellectualized efforts to repudiate the situation and expressive possibilities of conceptual consciousness and self-consciousness by describing them away.
What Stanley Cavell calls "the truth of skepticism," is the fact that the skeptic, at least, registers a certain failure and disappointment that attach to this effort. More happily, however, there are also what Charles Altieri calls "the kinds of satisfactions that are available for agents, simply because of the qualities of consciousness they bring to what they are feeling." We can do something with these qualities of consciousness. As Wordsworth argues in the preface to Lyrical Ballads, the poet through thinking long and deeply, in relation to our feelings, may uncover "what is really important to men", with the result that when this course of discovery is taken up and followed, the understanding of the reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened and his affections strengthened and purified.
Friedrich Holderlin on infinite satisfaction and John Dewey on consummatory experience describe, in quite similar terms, the distinctive sorts of satisfactions that are open to us as human subjects, as the minded creatures we are. The achievement of further understanding coupled with strengthened and purified affections, with both understanding and affections then discharged in a dense, medium-specific performance of working through, in which a point of view is made manifest and recognition and like-mindedness are successfully solicited, is what I have elsewhere called the achievement of expressive freedom. It has, I would think, some claim to be regarded as an imminent telos of human life, made both possible, partially, and valuable for us by our mysterious possession of conceptual consciousness and self-consciousness.
It is impossible to prove the correctness of this view according to the standards of proof that are held in place in the Cartesian Tradition. Those standards were specifically enforced in order to block talk of the purposes of things, but it remains, nonetheless, an articulation of what is going on in human life that may be unavoidable and illuminating. If it has any chance of being right, then Lamarque and Olsen are wrong when they remark that: "Mostly, we simply do not meet the grand themes in trivial daily life."
Yes and no. Yes, we do not meet them, they're clearly formulated and perspicuously manifested. There is too much muddle for that and there are too many different circumstances in which lives are led for it to be just obvious that we are in pursuit of expressive freedom, but no, we do meet these themes there latently, to be acknowledged, as we come to see our lives as in part, caught up, in situ, in the pursuit of expressive freedom.
Great writers, then, manage to achieve expressiveness. That is, to face up to and work through the emotions and attitudes that come with being a human subject, as those emotions and attitudes are given specific contours in specific situations. They make it manifest for themselves and for us, how a specifically shaped emotion, mood or feeling has been brought about in or by a situation and how, further, that emotion, mood or feeling can be accepted as appropriate.
As a result, the emotion, mood or feeling is actively accepted, not passively suffered. Barbara Herrnstein Smith describes the achievement of poetic closure from the reader's point of view, in just these terms. Here's Barbara Herrnstein Smith: "Closure occurs when the concluding portion of a poem creates in the reader a sense of appropriate cessation. It announces and justifies the absence of further development. It reinforces the feeling of finality, completion and composure, which we value in all works of art, and it gives ultimate unity and coherence to the reader's experience of the poem, by providing a point from which all the preceding elements may be received comprehensively and their relations grasped as part of a significant design."
For the reader, that is to say, the poem itself is experienced as coherent, closed and designed as its parts form a self-completing whole. This experience is a function of form, but not of form alone. It occurs in part, because the poet has succeeded in making sense of experience and emotion, has succeeded in working them through to achieve acceptance and composure. As Herrnstein Smith notes, "the experience of closure is the complex product of both formal and thematic elements." This means that the poet has found, formally, words and structures to thematize, connect and accept experiences and emotions that were initially burdensome, troubling, exhilarating or provocative.
She goes on to note that many contemporary poems, beginning with T.S. Eliot and reaching a high point in Robert Lowell, exhibit increasingly dialectical associative thematic structure. In much modern poetry, she writes, "the occasion for a poem is likely to be the existence of an ultimately unresolvable process." There is what she calls "a poetry of non-statement" that takes both subjective-lyrical-streams of consciousness guises and objectivist-imagist language-play guises.
The reason for this development is that we have grown appropriately skeptical of the availability and livability of: they lived happily ever after. 19th century novels, as both Henry James and David Lodge mordantly remarked, "seemed to end only with marriage, death or an inheritance." In contrast, we have grown suspicious of the availability and value of these kinds of closure in life, which seems to us to be more complicated than that, but even in the contemporary poetry of anti-statement, the shape and feeling of a particular instance of perplexity are expressively worked through, at least when things go well.
The writer, and the reader afterwards, come to know and accept exactly how there are complexities of situation and feeling. As Herrnstein Smith puts it: "A poem allows us to know what we know, including our illusions and desires, by giving us the language in which to acknowledge it." Such an achievement of acknowledgment is available and important for us just insofar as we are human subjects who attempt to lead lives actively with senses of meaning and of appropriate responsiveness to events, unlike Nietzsche's cows, who do little besides undergo their lives.
Unlike other animals we remember and anticipate incidents quite widely, together with an awareness of how incidents and things are seen by others from multiple points of view and so we wonder: who am I to see, remember and anticipate things like this? To what extent are my point of view and emotions toward things apt and appropriate? Am I genuinely acting as a reasonable subject in seeing things and feeling as I do?
In the grip of a healthy empiricism, it is of course possible to find this talk of expressive freedom and of leading a life actively to be quite misplaced in relation to what is, after all, also a sheerly material situation. There is, again, nothing like a proof by Cartesian standards that expressive freedom is the imminent telos of human life, but what does it look like, according to this conception, when someone rejects it and denies that expressive freedom matters for us and that it is partially, but only partially, available to us through different actions in different settings? It is possible to say anything, after all.
The Hunian-skeptical, Darwinian-naturalist insistence that we are nothing but natural beings who must simply cope with things and the Cartesian-platonist insistence that absolute knowledge of our place in nature can guide us, if we but somehow think or write. Both appear as hysteria-driven denials of what it is to be a finite, active being in time.
"You ask me," Nietzsche one wrote, "which of the philosopher's traits are really idiosyncracies? For example, their lack of historical sense, their hatred of the very idea of becoming, their Egypticism. They think that they show respect for a subject when they de-historicize it, sub specie aterni, when they turn it into a mummy."
To deny that our lives are caught up in becoming and impossibilities of the achievement of expressive freedom is, in part but only in part, in relation to it, can look like an attempt to deny or kill human life, because it is too painful. Yet as Nietzsche also remarked, it can also sometimes happen, if and when we manage ourselves to work through and express our emotions in a dense, commanding performance or if and when, as readers, we follow and participate in the workings-through of others. That we are left with the sense, at least for a time, quoting Nietzsche now, "That life is at the bottom of things, despite all the changes of appearances, indestructibly powerful and pleasurable."
A pattern can be discerned, partially and dimly, in our relations, as subjects to things and events and emotions, feelings, attitudes and moods can be experienced and worked through as appropriate to that pattern. Discovery and exhilaration are mixed with a sense also of mystery and complexity in the face of a becoming. A life in time that is not wholly masterable.
The experience of an ending, then, is like what Aristotle describes as the catharsis. At once, the clarification and the unburdening of an emotion in relation to a situation, but as Frank Kermode notes, "Whereas, for Aristotle the literary plot was analogous to the plot of the world, in that both were eductions from the potency of matter, which eductions are presided over purposively by divine intelligence."
For us, the sense of plot in life proceeds, at least in part from, Karmode's nice phrase, "our own store of contrivances," as we are driven by a need to live by a pattern. We half-believe in these patters as we experience our lives within them and experience possibilities of clarification of our situation and yet, we also remain aware of our own role as contrivers, aware of the lack of a presiding pattern that is everywhere evident in human life and aware also of our own failures to live in perfect freedom and infinite satisfaction, in the face of the mysterious complexities of becoming.
And so, we tell stories and attempt to work through our emotions in relation to the particulars of changing situations, so that we can, as Karmode puts it, "both avoid the regress into a myth of presiding proposiveness and yet preserve the sense that the scene of human significance has not yet been finally and totally struck, fictions that find plots so as to work through emotions, in relation to situations and experiences, remains for us both deeply distrusted, since they are only our contrivances, but also humanly indispensable, since only these contrivances can give us the sense of leading a life meaningfully and actively.
They offer us a way, even the way, to cope with both anxiety at a sense of the pervasive contingency of things and bad faith in fixed, master, supernatural plots we can no longer trust. They are our means of coping with what Karmode calls "the tension or dissonance between paradigmatic form and contingent reality, between the sense that every life is a parable of each with meaning to be found and a sense that there is only brute and empty, material happenstance."
In a famous sonnet, appearing as the first of his new poems, Second Part, 1908, one of his so-called thing poems, Rainer Maria Rilke describes what it is like to come suddenly to a sense of our middle situation, between dead materiality and perfect transcendence, so here's the poem. The English goes:
"We cannot know his legendary head with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso is still suffused with brilliance from inside, like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low, gleams in all its power. Otherwise the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could a smile run through the placid hips and thighs to that dark center where procreation flared. Otherwise this stone would seem defaced beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur: Would not, from all the borders of itself, burst like a star: For here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life."
This poem describes not simply an object, but pre-eminently an experience of an object. The statue fragment is characterized, above all, in terms of its effect on the speaker/viewer in its overwhelming presence to a viewing consciousness. Within that experience, the fragment presents itself as having an inside, felt as a source of expressive and sexual power, that is brought to fullness of presence in its outer surface. The formed surface glows, glute, gleams, glanced, blinds the viewer, dich blenden, bears a smile, ein lacheln, as a promise of responsive sexuality. Its parts are not detached or misplaced, [00:41:25]antschteldt], instead the stone glistens, in its translucent falling, as though everywhere breaking out of its borders, as if seeing us from every part of itself.
These verbs describe the presence of what is inner in what is outer. The statue fragment is intensely, expressively present, so that it serves as a standing rebuke to us who fail to bring our own personality, intelligence and expressive and sexual powers to full embodied expression, but instead live at second-hand, palely, under conventions that lack full life for us.
Hence, the fragment rebukes us for failing to be what we dimly feel we might and ought to be, as possessors of unexpressed inner intelligence and power, namely more fully animate, more fitly ensouled, and yet the poem is itself a classical sonnet too, with an octave rhyming A-B-B-A, C-D-D-C, followed by a sestet rhyming E-E-F, G-F-G.
In place of a classical turn, or volta, after the octave, however, there are two turns. In line five, with a move into the subjunctive, in order to clarify and deepen the initial sense of the fragment's glowing and then, in line fourteen, with the sudden and brutal ascription of quasi-agentive sight to the fragment, issuing in a rebuke to the viewer/subject, who falls under its gaze in judgment.
This rebuke felt by the viewer/subject and addressed first to himself and thence to us, his readers, is startling, but the E-E-F, G-F-G scheme of the sestet houses this rebuke in a structure of strong, formal coherence, giving s sense of appropriateness and closure to the experience. Through the tightly controlled form and images, the rebuke is earned by the experience as it is registered in the poem itself.
The poem itself, that is to say, strikes us through its form and images as itself, like the statue, a composed, animated, ensouled whole, both rebuking us, its readers, in the way that the fragment has rebuked the viewer/subject and showing us concretely that the housing of expressive power in controlled surface is still possible and commanding for us, even after the loss of the older dispensations.
For the poet, and for us who follow and share in his experience, first of the fragment and then of the poem itself as constructed yet as it were a living object, it remains possible for experience to mean something. Possible to have an adequate idea of affection, with full investment in one's responses to things, at least at times.
To be sure, this poem is, in a way, a fiction. It does not report a material reality that is independent of subjectivity and discerned through practices of measurement, rather it tells a story about an experience and its significance, where the terms of significance involve a sense of emplotment and possibility in human life that are not simply given in either tradition or simple sense experience. That sense of emplotment and possibility is itself felt, both by the poet initially and subsequently by us who follow him, as shaped or contrived in human time, just as first the fragment and then the poem have been shaped or contrived.
We, like the poet, must construct it, our sense of emplotment, yet this sense is also felt as inevitable, present and altogether other than arbitrarily invented. It is commanded of us, in our contrivings, by something that makes itself manifest in the formal and thematic working through of experience. In this working-through, both the emplotment of this experience and the relation of this particular emplotment to a larger emplotment of human life, are both constructed and accepted as given, by both the poet and by us.
This half-constructed, half-given experience of emplotment does not, however, admit to being fully unpacked and generalized into a master plot of human life, as such. Perhaps either the unanticipatedly other and new will inevitably disrupt any settled life policy. Perhaps nature and passion are the always-present, unruly birthplaces of any civil order. No recipe for how one is to change one's life, so as to achieve expressive power, is on offer.
Instead, the speaker, by the statue, and we, by the poem, are stopped and reminded that something better, we know not what, at least not in specific detail, haunts and draws us. Perhaps we should not call what we get from deeply absorbing, cathartic yet contingency-acknowledging constructions of experience, knowledge. Even framing the issue about the role of literature in our lives in terms of knowledge, as it is construed paradgmatically in the natural sciences, expresses the philosopher's characteristic bad faith in wanting everything circumscribed and life guided by rationally obligatory rules.
Yet, we cannot live as human persons without this literature. What we get from it is a sense of life in a human reality that is, if marked by brute contingency, not everywhere dominated by it. Arriving at this sense is a way of knowing, by acknowledging, what and where and how we are.