human development, Jacques Lacan, Language, literary criticism, Philosophy, poetry, sense sublime, The philosophic mind, Wordsworth, writing process
Language is that which gives rise to difference, to the desire for difference, and, at the same time, the desire to dissolve those differences.
We saw that in Part II of this series with Lacan’s explanation of the infant’s development in the “Mirror Stage,” and its “quest for wholeness.” Our psychic journey from the womb to maturity is a kind of “becoming” where our quest to return to the undivided bliss of infancy leads us through a world of difference, loss, and desire, to a point of ecstatic expectancy of “something more.”
This “process of becoming” and the desire for “something more” is the turf of poets as well as psychoanalysts. And no poet writes more upon this subject or with such longing, perhaps, than William Wordsworth, who explores our journey from unknowing childhood innocence to the development of the philosophic, or poetic, mind.
This journey from unconscious bliss to the conscious sublime can be traced in “Tintern Abbey,” “The Ode to Immortality,” and “The Prelude.”
In “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth recalls his childhood experience of undifferentiated bliss when Nature “was all in all.” He describes the “aching joys” and “dizzy raptures” as:
An appetite, a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied
Yet as he grows into a man, his journey into language and difference has given him “abundant recompense.” He has “learned to look on nature, not as in the hour of thoughtless youth,” but from within the thoughtfulness of the mature philosophic mind.
By recollecting the original experience of undifferentiated wholeness from within a state of differentiation, he has felt:
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And tolls through all things.
Here we see a clear distinction between the thoughtlessness of the original experience and the thoughtfulness of the second recollected experience. The memory of the undifferentiated wholeness recollected from within a state of differentiation (words, language, thought, and poetry) transcends the original state. It reaches a state of sublimity which far surpasses the original state.
Yet this sublimity, this joy, is mixed with the “still, sad music of humanity”—a futile desire for the unmixed bliss which can be “recollected” but may never be regained.
Wordsworth continues exploring this problem in his “Ode to Immortality.” He states that although “our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting” of our original home in God, yet we come from that state of wholeness “trailing clouds of glory,” memories of that bliss.
The “prison-house” which closes upon the growing child, dividing him from God (wholeness, undifferentiated bliss), cannot squelch his memory of, nor quench his thirst for, that which once was.
Yet it is not for this, for what was lost, that Wordsworth raises his “song of thanks and praise”:
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings:
Blank misgivings . . . .
In other words, he gives thanks for those futile and fleeting things, the desire that accompanies loss, the desire to recollect and recreate. In this he finds “strength in what remains behind.” This is the desire which does not disdain difference and loss, “human suffering” and ”death” but looks through them toward “faith” and the “philosophic mind,” rather than past them toward any final fulfillment.
This is the insatiable desire with finds in the “meanest flower / thoughts too deep for tears.” It is desire expressed as poetry. It is the desire of which Wallace Stevens later writes in “Of Modern Poetry,” desire which:
Like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With mediation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear . . . (italics mine)
It is desire speaking poetry and poetry speaking desire. Perhaps it is not so strange that Wordsworth, the poet for whom “the mind of man” was the main “haunt” and “region” of his “song” should be the first to write “the poem of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice” (Stevens)
For Wordsworth, the fleeting bliss hat he fails to sustain as a child in experience, he re-experiences at a more elevated level as a man and poet in the act of recollection—in the imagination.
He explains in “The Prelude” how this new bliss, or sense of sublimity, in which he “recognizes grandeur in the beatings of the heart,” does not shy away from difference, from “pain and fear”, but is founded in “such discipline.”
This sublimity is not a return to unity, an end of desire, but desire which recreates itself as poetry. It is a sense of intense identification with nature which does not erase difference, but thrives on it.
The central problem he explores in all his poetry is:
How does one get back to a sense of unity and undifferentiated bliss in spite of the fact that difference, pain and loss, remain?
The answer he provides is:
One does not return to what was, but moves through what is, on the way to something else, something higher (poetry, the imagination, the sense sublime).
One doesn’t get there in spite of difference, but because of it. The desire which feeds upon difference never quite reaches its destination because there is always, already, that something more, beyond representation, to hope for.
Wordsworth tells us in “Tintern Abbey”:
Our destiny, our nature, and our home
Is with infinitude, and only there:
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
and something evermore about to be.
For Wordsworth, as well as Lacan, desire attenuated into a state of ecstatic expectancy is “a sense sublime.”
It is a state of intense identification with the Other—not as it was or is, but as it becomes within the act of interpenetration, or re-interpretation within the act of creation.
What Wordsworth experiences is a becoming—a transitory and fleeting thing which, nonetheless, becomes the essence of his poetry. This “something evermore about to be” is sublime expectation.
It is Emily Dickenson writing: “Not what the stars have done, but what they are to do, is what detains the sky.”
It is Wallace Stevens’ “black water breaking into reality.”
This elemental theme of difference, loss, desire, and “something more” to come, is also explored in Milton’s great work on the fall and redemption of humanity, “Paradise Lost.”
I’ll explore more of that in my next post in this series. If you missed the first two posts in this series, you can read them here:
“Some Tragic Falling Off” Into Difference and Desire
Our Quest for Wholeness – Part II, “Some Tragic Falling Off”