Eat that question

Eat that Question

I was glancing at one of those books that I’ve wanted to read, but keep grazing instead: The Questioning Presence: Wordsworth, Keats, and the Interrogative Mode in Romantic Poetry by Susan J. Wolfson. A song from Frank Zappa popped in my head: “Eat that Question.” It’s a catchy little instrumental, with a Roman flavor. “Eat that Christian,” the original title, makes more sense, while the final title is more of a problem.

I like problems, particularly in poetry. While I prefer straightforward prose, I like my music and my poetry a bit on the twisted side. Wolfson’s observations brought out many of the reasons why I prefer the Romantics to the Victorians. Romantics asked and seldom answered questions. Of course the industrious Victorians wanted answers, so poetry quit asking its questions quite as overtly, and moved deeper into dramatism and role-playing. Questions became increasingly tangential to the poetic enterprise, as did answers. Reading later poems by Browning requires more penetration into character roles and less infusion of an authorial presence. A boundary is drawn between author and text more carefully, a boundary that drops like an iron curtain over the modernists. The author becomes a property you are discouraged from possessing.

I find this to be a problem. Grazing on Aporias by Jacques Derrida, he begins with Diderot’s consideration of the Roman Seneca. Diderot is frightened that he has found the story of his life in De brevitate vitae:

I did not read the third chapter without blushing: it is the story of my life. Happy is he who does not depart convinced that he has lived only a very small part of his life!

Readers always gravitate towards works they see themselves in. Browning’s obsession with Shelley when he was young was not driven by “schemes and systems” but by Shelley as the person he sensed behind the words. Browning knew nothing of Shelley’s misanthropic biography. In later years, Browning constructed a theory of subjective and objective poetry, with a third class of poetry where the two interpenetrate in order to forgive Shelley his personal failures. Browning saw the dangers of identifying too closely with heroes without the comfortable distanciation of theory. Unlike theory — which can be penetrated, mastered, or overthrown— people don’t work that way. People are a problem.

Derrida takes possession. If we own anything, surely we own ourselves. Is this “property” of self precious, to be guarded and secured as private? When we give ourselves are we wasting time? Doctrines of privacy protect the precious self by establishing a clear border between what is “us” and what is “them,” attaching martial metaphors. The rhetoric of boundaries explored by Seneca seems crucial and something else to add to my reading list. Rhetoric in the classical model is a campaign to penetrate the minds of others to bring them to your way of thinking, positively phallic in most respects. Burke’s consubstantiality seems more feminine, taking ideas in rather than overthrowing external ones. But there is more to the problem than these sexual metaphors; it makes me think of Salvador Dali and his irrational orality.

I’d rather eat that question. Sexual metaphors don’t explain the hunger we have to consume people. Derrida’s exploration of problem in the original sense results in key a distinction. Problema in Greek can signify both projection and protection. It’s both a synonym for shield, and the act of projecting a task forward between you and the other.

Is swinging to the pole of objective expression a protection of the precious qualities of self to avoid being devoured by the crowd? Is self a quality that can be exhausted which must be bounded for its own protection? Some selves, like Shelley, are difficult to swallow whole. A sane person can only process them in pieces; we choke on the projection, but must we replace it with a shield? I’m not sure.