J.A. and Rortian Moral Progress

Richard Rorty writes in “Truth Without Correspondence to Reality” that

As I see it, the link between Whitmanesque Americanism and pragmatist philosophy – both classical and ‘neo-‘ – is a willingness to refer all questions of ultimate justification to the future, to the substance of things hoped for.  If there is anything distinctive about pragmatism it is that it substitutes the notion of a better human future for the notions of ‘reality’, ‘reason’ and ‘nature’.  One may say of pragmatism what Novalis said of Romanticism, that it is ‘the apotheosis of the future’.  (418)

For Rorty, pragmatism replaces useless abstract concepts with the idea of “a better human future.”  What would this better human future look like?  He writes, later in the same essay, that “it is best to think of moral progress as a matter of increasing sensitivity, increasing responsiveness to the needs of a larger and larger variety of people and things.”  (429)  This “increasing sensitivity” would mean, according to Rorty, that “the quest for certainty [would] be replaced with the demand for imagination […] that one should stop worrying about whether what one believes is well grounded and start worrying about whether one has been imaginative enough to think up interesting alternatives to one’s present beliefs.”  (421)

“To think up interesting alternatives to one’s present beliefs” implies a creative plasticity of mind, a “hopeful, melioristic, experimental frame of mind” (416) that does not pigeonhole itself behind large, thin, abstract concepts, but instead dives into a thickness of description, suggesting less a monotheistic quest for truth and certainty, and more a polytheistic quest for happiness and hope.  So why is Ashbery a pragmatist?  Because his poems are chronicles of a mind imagining “alternatives to one’s present beliefs” – he is a gentle but powerful satirist of any and all fixed conceptions, preferring to live and breathe in the negative capability of the moment, rather than retreating behind any escapist blockades of thought.  His poems are adventurers and adventures in thought, which is another way of saying that they – their progression both within a poem and between poems – embody the Rortian dictum that moral progress can be understood as an increasing sensitivity to the world(s) around us.  For in an Ashbery poem, to name something different or interesting is, in subtle ways, to encourage the reader to become more sensitive to what is being named.  And the plethora of vocabularies and idioms and tones that Ashbery employs means that one quickly learns to become sensitive to many things in his poems, including tone, mood, word choice, rhythm, allusion, “subject matter” and much more.  For this reason, Ashbery’s poems are both about Rortian moral progress, while at the same time they enact this kind of moral progress (i.e. increased sensitivity) in the reader, through his or her process of deep reading.  By sensitizing the reader to a larger and more diverse set of possibilities, Ashbery’s poetry serves as a kind of poetic guidebook of what Wallace Stevens, another poet-pragmatist, called “How to Live, What to Do.”

What does it mean to claim that Ashbery’s poems are kinds of life-teachers?  Let’s look at one.  Here is the first stanza of “Valentine,” from Houseboat Days.

Like a serpent among roses, like an asp

Among withered thornapples I coil to

And at you.  The name of the castle is you,

El Rey.  It is an all-night truck stop

Offering the best coffee and hamburgers in Utah.

It is most beautiful and nocturnal by daylight.

Seven layers: moss-agate, coral, aventurine,

Carnelian, Swiss lapis, obsidian – maybe others.

You know now that it has the form of a string

Quartet.  The different parts are always meddling with each other,

Pestering each other, getting in each other’s way

So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leaving – what?

A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,

Maybe not.  Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.

What is this poem talking about?  How do we account for a poem that covers, in fourteen lines, serpents, castles, truck stops, Swiss lapis, a string quartet, and “a new kind of emptiness”?  Perhaps we can get at the meaning of this poem by investigating Ashbery’s usage of “you,” and placing this in the context of Rortian moral progress.  For what is “you” in this poem?  You are the name of a castle, an all-night truck stop, something beautiful and nocturnal, with the form of a string quartet.  With each iteration of “you,” the poem expands our self-image, calling our attention to aspects of our experience and world that are not typically represented as thematic matter in a poem (say, an all night truck stop in Utah juxtaposed with the name of a castle).  In this sense, we might say that Ashbery’s quest is analogous to Whitman’s, in that both provide us with catalogues and categories that extend the boundaries of what we consider to be important, what we value.  It’s as if each iteration, each part of the catalogue, widens the circle of our self-image.  In doing so, in pushing back the thresholds for what we consider parts of our community, our deep ethnocentrism, they redescribe us, and in doing so, redescribe our values.  The poem is a microcosm of society, in which

The different parts are always meddling with each other,

Pestering each other, getting in each other’s way

So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leaving – what?

A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,

Maybe not.  Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.

What do all our interactions amount to?  Simply and complexly the moment of our attention, the “mooring of our starting out.”  It is perhaps a “fresh emptiness,” meaning an invigorating life unclouded somewhat by the insidious quality of our devotions to overly abstract concepts like “Reason” “Reality” and “Nature,” or it is just an emptiness, a kind of existential echo chamber or vacuum in which we make transitory meanings that importantly create hope for a better future and greater understanding, but which still take place in a world shorn of metaphysics, or absolutes, or “neutral starting points for thoughts.”


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