“A Parent Before Thought”: Ramblings About Poetry and Philosophy



What do we learn from the world?  It’s a strange question.  Why?  Learning is arguably bound up in large part with language, and language is not always – and for good reason – considered in light of such a rather huge and unspeakingly unspeaking category or thing as “the world.”  For example, one of my favorite thinkers, Richard Rorty, writes in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity,

“To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do no include human mental states.  To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.” (5)

We did not (this sounds portentous and pretentious) create the world; therefore, according to Rorty, it makes no sense to ascribe truth to the world, because truth is the project of human descriptions.  Rorty goes on to write,

“Truth cannot be out there – cannot exist independently of the human mind – because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there.  The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not.  Only descriptions of the world can be true or false.  The world on its own – unaided by the describing activities of human beings – cannot.”

These statements seem right to me.  Rorty is understandably wary of returning to a time in which “the world was seen as the creation of a being who had a language of his own.” (Rorty 5)  In other words, concomitant with the belief in God is the belief that the world does speak – it speaks the language of its creator.  In that sense, the world would be a kind of second Bible, in which we may read the writing of that creator.  The world would then be metaphysically legible.  Here’s Guy Rotella, in Reading and Writing Nature: the Poetry of Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop:

“In this view, [the view of the Puritans], natural facts are real, and they have meanings that point to the absolute realm beyond them.  Those meanings are not the result of human fancy or creativity.  Humans do not make meaning; they perceive it.  In keeping with the Puritan notion of nature as God’s book, meaning is already present there, inscribed by God.  The task of the regenerate soul is to observe that meaning.  If the regenerate soul is a poet, he or she has the additional task of conveying that meaning to others.” (8)

While Rorty is talking about religion more generally, and Rotella talking about the Puritans specifically, it is not a stretch to connect what they are saying together.  Both are describing a metaphysical mode of interpretation, in which the world is seen as undergirded and/or transcended by a creator God, whose very creation – it meaning, its implications, its truths – can be perceived or discovered.  The world speaks a certain language, which is our responsibility to perceive, observe, write down.  This is why Rotella writes “For the Puritans, the world ” invent” means “to discover.” (3)  But, as Rotella goes on to argue, “By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, faith in the correspondence between knowledge of the here and now and of an absolute beyond it is everywhere challenged and often lost.” (3)  The word “invent,” then, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, starts to mean less “discover” and more to “create…construct…contrive something….fabricate…feign…make up.”  (Rotella 3)  Nature, and by extension the world, becomes less the kind of key for unlocking the mysterious wisdom of the creator, and more a kind of unknowable blank, onto which the poet projects his or her desire.  Thus, for example, for Wallace Stevens, while “nature’s transports are radically exalting…they are radically provisional as well, projections of wish and of will rather than discoveries of truth or ways of knowing that are underwritten by God.” (Rotella 97)  Again, for Robert Frost, in the context of the poem “Most of It,” Rotella writes, “Any terror the manifestation of the buck evokes is presented as itself a projection of human concerns, concerns to which nature is quite indifferent.” (87)  For Frost and Stevens, meaning is something that is created, invented, fabricated.  It’s either a reason to rejoice or to despair, but it is inextricable from a certain interpretation of what the world is and means.


What do we learn from the world?  So far, it seems like the answer is “it depends on how we conceptualize the world.”  This answer is frustrating – it seems slightly wishy-washy and non-committal – so I want to turn to some passages in the sometimes-impossible philosopher Martin Heidegger’s work, in order to get a firmer grasp on how we might define the word “world.”  In Being and Time, in Heidegger’s third chapter called, somewhat provocatively and somewhat mystifyingly, “The Worldhood of the World,” Heidegger writes about four uses of the word “world.”  The first use “signifies the totality of those entities which can be present-at-hand within the world.”  We might think of this definition as the “furniture of the universe.” (Dreyfus )  In other words, the emphasis is on the within in the phrase “within the world.”  In this definition of the word ‘world,’ attention is called to the totality of things within the world, like pictures within a circle, cabins within the snow-globe.  The second use is when “world” becomes “a term for any realm which encompasses a multiplicity of entities,” after which Heidegger adds, “for instance, when one talks of the ‘world’ of a mathematician, ‘world’ signifies the realm of possible objects of mathematics.”  Here, the usage of the word “world” is slightly looser and vaguer than the first definition – notice that the translation uses the word “realm,” so that “world” can be applied to virtually anything – the world of an architect, the world of a person or persons of a certain gender, race, class, ethnicity or age, etc.  The third usage of the world, about which Heidegger writes, “We shall reserve the expression “world” as a term for our third signification,” reads in part,

“not, however, as those entities which Dasien essentially is not and which can be encountered within-the-world [the first definition], but rather as that ‘wherein‘ a factical Dasein as such can be said to ‘live.’  Here again there are different possibilities “world” may stand for the ‘public’ we-world, or one’s ‘own’ closest (domestic) environment.”

In this third definition, world connotes the social and public shared world while at the same time evoking a kind of house or dwelling, in which “Dasein can be said to live.”  Here, the word world takes on a kind of intimate coloring, a closeness or nearness, a lived and breathed familiarity.  It loses some of its abstractness, and becomes something in which we (kind of obviously?) live.  Lastly, Heidegger’s fourth definition “designates the ontologico-existential concept of worldhood.  Worldhood itself may have as its modes whatever structural wholes any special ‘worlds’ may have at the time; but it embraces in itself the a priori character of worldhood in general.”  Worldhood thus means, “that on the basis of which a set of entities forms a world.” (Dreyfus 236)  In other words, here world refers to worldhood, which appears to signify the conditions out of which a world is formed.  In this sense, the world takes on a more active character, for it is not static but a kind of stance or orientation towards something.  I’m honestly kind of fuzzy here on what worldhood means still, but let’s start with this understanding of it as the conditions out of which a world is formed.

What seems most important about these definitions is that Heidegger chooses the third to serve as his way of thinking about the world throughout Being and Time.  For Heidegger, we cannot think about the world in a way that is disconnected from our lived and felt experience.  And yet this very nearness of Heidegger’s definition of the world seems in some interesting ways to subtly subvert some of Rorty’s claims, as well as problematize the understanding of the world as suggested often in the poetry of Frost and Stevens, in which the world is an unknowable blank onto which we project our concerns and desires.  What I”m arguing, then, is that for Heidegger, to put it mildly, we do learn from the world – and we are able to learn from the world because it does speak a kind of language.  Yet this language is not human.  Therefore, for Heidegger, the concept of the inhuman mentor seems to resonate.


But what do I mean by a nonhuman language?  Is that concept in any way, shape or form coherent?  According to Rorty, language is a human creation.  So how is it coherent to talk about a language this is not human?  I want to list some quotes of Heidegger’s in the third chapter of Being and Time that seem to gesture towards this notion of the world somehow speaking:

“The kind of dealing which is closest to us is as we have shown, not a bare perceptual cognition, but rather that kind of concern which manipulates things and puts them to use; and this has its own kind of ‘knowledge.’ (95)

“Nature which ‘stirs and strives’, which assails us and enthralls us as landscape” (100)

“our concern discovers Nature as having some definite direction” (100)

“does not Dasein have an understanding of the world – a pre-ontological understanding, which indeed can and does get along with explicit ontological insights?” (102)

“the world announces itself” (105)

“In this totality of involvements which has been discovered before-hand, there lurks an ontological relationship to the world.” (118)

In all of these quotes, the world is something that involves involvement.  This involvement in some ways demands a kind of grammar of the world, grammar used loosely here in the context of rules that dictate comportment and behavior.  The world speaks to us, as Heidegger might use this word, “primordially,” prior to language but at the same time serving as the condition out of which our language develops.  This is why Krzysztof Ziarek, in Language After Heidegger, writes that “the essential element of language in Heidegger is nonhuman” – in other words, “language does not begin with living beings but is granted, addressed to them…from the event.” (19,8)  Here is Ziarek on thinking about language as a kind of listening to silence:

“The notion that human beings ‘have’ language assumes that language is primarily a tool, an informational instrument, which can be owned, used, and manipulated, and that as such a tool, it can be adequately described and understood through linguistics, philosophy of language, or (bio)informatics, or perhaps by the combination of the three.  The fundamentally Aristotelian understanding of language is based on the conception of logos and reason, whose origin in what Heidegger calls “the attentiveness to beyng capable of holding still” (stillhaltende Achten auf das Seyn), remains uninterrogated and unexperienced.  As a result, instead of approaching language through attentiveness to being, reason (Vernuft) and language become mistakenly conceived as a special capacity attached to animality (Vermogen im animal), which renders inaccessible language in its originative relation to being.” (17)

“Language in its originative relation to being” – what does that mean?  And how is it connected to us learning something “primordial” from the world?  Also, how do we talk about the language of the world without returning to the religious sense of the world itself as the language of the creator?


One way into this is Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Irish Cliffs of Moher” from The Rock.  That book is arguably Stevens at his most bare, most austere, and it is haunted by an argument that seems to place reality, the world, the lived-in world, before the imagination.  In this sense, Stevens is obsessed with and possessed by the desire for representing a primordial world, in language but somehow prior to language.  How does he do this?  Stevens writes,

Who is my father in this world, in this house,

At the spirit’s base?


My father’s father, his father’s father, his –

Shadows like winds


Go back to a parent before thought, before speech,

At the head of the past.


They go to the cliffs of Moher rising out of the mist,

Above the real,


Rising out of present time and place, above

The wet, green grass.


This is not landscape, full of the somnambulations

Of poetry


And the sea.  This is my father or, maybe,

It is as he was,


A likeness, one of the race of fathers: earth

and sea and air.


It is not too difficult to see what Stevens is doing.  Notice how the question he asks at the beginning of the poem –  “Who is my father in this world, in this house, / At the spirit’s base?” – is both answered and not answered, for the answer itself, an attempt to arrive at origins –  “My father’s father, his father’s father, his -” – is interrupted by “Shadows like winds,” though at the same time these shadows work to revise the speaker’s answer, taking him or her to “a parent before thought, before speech.”  One can feel the direction of the speaker’s mind sort of tugging on the poem, and the answer emerges like a mountain and as a mountain:  “They go to the cliffs of Moher rising out of the mist, / Above the real, // Rising out of present time and place, above / The wet, green grass.”  The world emerges here in the image of the cliffs of Moher emerging from the mist.  But what does Stevens mean by “Above the real”?  It can be interpreted as an appeal to imagination, somehow “above the real,” and yet this interpretation seems to place too much emphasis on imagination, especially in a poem so bare, so devoid of the imaginative pyrotechnics of many of the early Stevens poems in Harmonium.  The cliffs of Moher, furthermore, are not imaginary mountains, but actual mountains.  So why does Stevens say “Above the real”?  “Real” here might mean our habitual ways of making sense of the world, so that the “parent before thought” is actually the world itself, more real than our human reality, for it came before us and will outlast us.  In keeping with this argument, Stevens writes, “This is not landscape, full of the somnambulations / Of poetry // And the sea.”  In other words, Stevens is not talking about human creations at all – not landscape, not poetry, not the cliche of the sea.  He is talking about something primordial, some way in which he both humanizes and dehumanizes nature.  Here, “earth / and sea and air” are “one of the race of fathers.”  Yet I think Stevens’ means this in a way that productively confuses the categories of imagination and reality, for although he is personifying earth, sea and air, the sense is less on imagination as projection, and more on imagination as “likeness.”  Here, it is as though the imagination has been so profoundly permeated by the world that its ability to imagine is haunted by that world; for that reason, there is nothing really freewheeling about this poem, and the tone is grave and somber.  If we were to ask, then, what does Stevens learn from the world, (and by implication, what do we learn from the world), we cannot just say that he learns that the world does not speak.  For Stevens in this poem, the world speaks through silence and stillness, and this silence and stillness is eerie.  Why?  Because we somehow understand it – i.e. it is familiar.  All of this seems kind of obvious.  But in a way, it’s as though we’ve come full circle, or done a little Hegelian dance – nature as metaphysically legible, nature as secularly illegible, and finally nature as ontologically – well, not legible or illegible, because we aren’t reading or writing it, but as somehow audible or aural, as something strange that we listen to, though with all of our senses.  Heidegger (and Rorty) is already ahead of us here in his emphasis on aural metaphors replacing ocular metaphors, but that’s a different subject for a different time.            






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