In one of his letters, Wallace Stevens claims, “I have never studied systematic philosophy and should be bored to death at the mere thought of doing so” (1). He admits dipping into a “little philosophy” sometimes—no “serious contact . . . because I have not the memory”—”in the spirit” of a friend who had renounced studied, interpretive reading in favor of “read[ing] it as a substitute for fiction,” as though Locke and Nietzsche were vagrant storytellers (2).
That is probably a useful way for poets to approach any discourse that systematizes, abstracts, or otherwise tries to theorize the mess of lived experience into some conceptual framework. Poets are into a different kind of human record-keeping. Whatever philosophizing they do is only one part of a congeries of effects: sound, syntax, image, rhythm, form, metaphor, allusion, association, narrative, intuition, characterization. Philosophy is salt in the soup, too much and it tastes wretched. “I am sorry that a poem . . . has to contain any ideas at all,” Stevens apologized elsewhere, “because its sole purpose is to fill the mind with the images & sounds it contains. A mind that examines such a poem for its prose contents gets absolutely nothing from it” (3).
Most philosophy bores the shit out of me. Or rather, while the practice of philosophy is great, I dislike most of the texts I encountered in classrooms. This is shameful and lazy, I know. I tried my best in college, taking seminars on Eighteenth-Century Empiricism, and again during graduate school, where I pretended to care about the philosophers and theorists I was then reading. I still enjoy Plato (from what I recall) on matters of the soul; Nietzsche can be funny, and J.S. Mill is tidy; cribbing from George Scialabba’s essays is a pleasure; and I can definitely get behind indeterminate weirdos like Gaston Bachelard. Oh, and Blaise Pascal. Love Pascal.
The Pensées were not published during Pascal’s life (1623-1662). He didn’t even leave a title, because there was no book yet, only a mass of lapidary fragments, some comprising a few paragraphs, many just a sentence or two. Some are probably close to the form they would have been published in. Many are rougher. But Pascal was a fine prose stylist and a mensch, so they’re all engaging. After his death, friends and family assembled the material into what is essentially the text we have today. I use the Oxford paperback translation, the introduction to which will tell you more than I can (4).
I like fragmentary texts (5). The preference probably has something to do with my disorganized poet brain (6). More importantly though, such works seem true to what life is actually like. This resonance becomes even stronger when a text is literally unfinished, fragmentary because of some event in the writer’s life (usually his death). Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, meant to be a unified theory of modern life but scuttled when the Nazis drove him to suicide, is an example. You could throw in some classical Greek or Roman poets if you want to talk lost texts.
Texts can also be fragmented—or at least rhetorically, aesthetically, and philosophically jumbled—by design or genre convention. Think of shaggy dogs like Tristram Shandy, Gothic encyclopedias in the vein of Moby-Dick, total jumbos like Bleak House, a book about paper and bureaucracy. Writers’ journals are great, too: Pepys, Kafka, Woolf, Boswell (an Enlightenment satyr with radar for strong drink), Cheever, Plath (more stuff about cookbooks and good housekeeping than you’d imagine). Jules Renard: man, that guy is awesome. Many letter collections rock, particularly the letters of poets—get Lord Byron’s when you can. Then there is table talk and other types of recorded conversation, such as Faulkner in the University. Plus epigrams like Martial’s.
Samuel Coleridge wins the fragment gold medal. Not only did he leave behind unfinished poems, unfinished lectures, unfinished letters, an unfinished critical behemoth (the Biographia Literaria), and sterling table talk (“Examine nature accurately, but write from recollection; and trust more to your imagination than to your memory” ), he also kept a notebook of midnight hashings: “What a swarm of thoughts and feelings, endlessly minute fragments, and, as it were, representations of all preceding and embryos of all future thought, lie compact in any one moment! . . . and yet the whole a means to nothing—ends everywhere, and yet an end nowhere” (8).
Anyway, where was I. The Pensées. It is/they are fantastic. You can wander for hours in this thing. You might set it aside for months, only to open it at random when the urge strikes, and it probably will. Reading a bit of Pascal leads to more Pascal. He intended this material to be a religious treatise, but its humanism is of such breadth and warmth that you can set the Christian apparatus aside, or at least make it share space with other approaches (9).
Hans Holbein, woodcut from the “Dance of Death” series (1549)
Within it all, one question: How do we spend our time before we don’t have any more time? That’s Death above, jumping out on a medieval bro.
In Pascal’s writing this often leads to the problem of boredom. We get bored easily. This anxiety bubbles inside his ruminations on classical authors, political power, Scripture, paganism, wine drinking (the gist: moderation), aesthetics, labor, sports, Montaigne, social ritual, spiritual hierarchies, and other human pastimes. Why would any of us be bored? For him, only the contemplation of God’s love would scratch the itch; for many of you general readers, I suspect, such faith is no longer something to grasp, even though we’ve still got all the itching—in forms like boredom—to which Christianity is one response.
Here are some choice bits arranged at random, in the spirit of the Pensées. Like a true #failedintellectual, I’ve cited them by page and fragment number in the Oxford English translation; slashes indicate paragraph-ish breaks within the fragments. You’ll find it all downright modern. Pascal would have understood iPhones and Twitter.
Man’s condition: Inconstancy, boredom, anxiety (10, his italics).
I have often said that man’s unhappiness springs from one thing alone, his incapacity to stay quietly in one room. [. . .] That is why we like noise and activity so much. That is why imprisonment is such a horrific punishment. That is why the pleasure of being alone is incomprehensible. That is, in fact, the main joy of the condition of kingship, because people are constantly trying to amuse kings and provide them with all sorts of distraction.—The king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to entertain him and prevent him from thinking about himself. King though he may be, he is unhappy if he thinks about it (11).
The feeling of the inauthenticity of present pleasures and our ignorance of the emptiness of absent pleasures causes inconstancy (12).
The whole of life goes on like this. We seek repose by battling against difficulties, and once they are overcome, repose becomes unbearable because of the boredom it engenders. We have to get away from it, and beg for commotion. We think about either our present afflictions or our future ones. Even when we think we are protected on every side, boredom with its own authority does not shrink from appearing from the heart’s depths, where it has its roots, to poison the mind (13).
It is not good to be too free. / It is not good to have everything necessary (14).
We are so unhappy that we can only take pleasure in something on condition that we should be allowed to become angry if it goes wrong (15).
It is unfair that anyone should be devoted to me, although it can happen with pleasure, and freely. I should mislead those in whom I quickened this feeling, because I am no one’s ultimate end, and cannot satisfy them. Am I not near death? So the object of their attachment will die (16).
When we read too quickly or too slowly we understand nothing (17).
Descartes useless and uncertain (18).
Anybody who does not see the vanity of the world is very vain himself. / And so who does not see it, apart from the young who are preoccupied with bustle, distractions, and plans for the future? / But take away their distractions and you will see them wither from boredom. / Then they feel their hollowness without understanding it, because it is indeed depressing to be in a state of unbearable sadness as soon as you are reduced to contemplating yourself, and without distraction from doing so (19).
Man’s greatness lies in his capacity to recognize his wretchedness. A tree does not recognize its own wretchedness. So it is wretched to know one is wretched, but there is greatness in the knowledge of one’s wretchedness (20).
The parrot’s beak, which it wipes even though it is clean (21).
Paul Valéry thought that most texts are never finished, only abandoned. Since you can extend this to the unwritten work of most lives, I’m with Pascal: “I blame equally those who decide to praise man, those who blame him, and those who want to be diverted. I can only approve those who search in anguish” (22). This life thing does bewilder you sometimes, provoking all sorts of bootless cries. “Who put me here? On whose orders and on whose decision have this place and this time been allotted to me?” (23).
1. Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed. Holly Stevens (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), p. 636.
2. For what it’s worth, your critic considers much of Stevens’s corpus a lyric parody of philosophical discourse, one meant to tantalize readers of a certain bent with the notion that a poem contains a quantum of Meaning that can be deracinated and subjected to interpretation.
3. Letters of Wallace Stevens, 251.
4. Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, ed. Anthony Levi, trans. Honor Levi (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1995, 2008).
5. That is, if it’s good fragmentary stuff. Not something like Rev. Casaubon’s “Key to All Mythologies” project in Middlemarch. Everyone hated Casaubon.
6. As Robert Frost claims in “The Figure a Poem Makes,” scholars and poets both “work from knowledge,” but whereas “scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic,” poets “stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields.” Excellent point. See “The Figure a Poem Makes” (1939), in Selected Prose of Robert Frost, eds. Hyde Cox and Edward Connery Lathem (New York: Collier, 1968), 20.
7. Coleridge: Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Elisabeth Schneider (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1951), 464. It’s true, my home library’s Coleridge is a paperback from 1951. What? You gotta economize.
8. Ibid., 476-477.
9. One can do the same with George Herbert’s poetry and Graham Greene’s novels.
10. Pensées, pp. 36-37, fragment 146. Pascal’s italics.
11. pp. 44-45, frag. 168.
12. p. 107, frag. 107.
13. p. 46, frag. 168.
14. p. 22, frag. 90.
15. p. 22, frag. 89.
16. p. 7, frag. 15.
17. p. 16, frag. 75.
18. p. 105, frag. 445.
19. p. 16, frag. 70.
20. pp. 36-37, frag. 146.
21. p. 35, frag. 139.
22. p. 8, frag. 24.
23. p. 26, frag. 102.