26° Medellin International Poetry Festival. Hatto Fischer: The need for poetry and philosophy
Poetry and philosophy in the global age
Hatto Fischer at the Berlin Conference 2010 © Yehuda Swed
By Hatto Fischer
Special for Prometeo
In a global world marked by uncertainties, injustices and wars, the human spirit is needed all the more…
To shine in the light of poetry, that is simply wonderful if it happens. Something else happens, if one is found standing underneath a bridge, in its shadow!
The shadow entails already a curiosity based on wondering 'what if?' Such an observation is more apt to be called a philosophical remark. It can be used to formulate the question: what about our perception of things, people and of ourselves living in this world?
In their combination poetry and philosophy, create something known as associative thinking. It is based on intuitive guesses, or interpretations giving meaning ('Deutungen' in German) as to what is there?
The description of reality begins by linking the empirical evidence with what we can imagine aside from what we see. Associative thinking relies heavily on literary references enabling a visual literacy based on letting fore mostly our senses speak, while our thoughts take their impulses from the questions we pose to ourselves.
Poets use language, by painting with words. Naturally, no one can compete with the yellow color of Van Gogh. Yet, if we look over his shoulder and see that he has painted fields besides the railway tracks, one can sense different time zones: here the fields yielding their fruits at harvest time and there the train heading towards the city at another time zone. The cut in between is quite sharp. We do remember how sad we were when still children and the summer holidays ending. It meant literally having to say good-bye to a life spent on those fields, because of the need to return to the city and there to school. We did not look forward to that.
The pain of school implies somehow that we feel cut off from our senses, while language begins to be dominated by concepts, which grip our minds independent from what our bodies wish to do.
Thus the dilemma of life begins once poetry and philosophy are no longer in dialogue with each other. Knowledge becomes an abstract adventure, irrespective of what common people can feel and think, while being exposed to the daily toils of life.
That separation is reinforced still further once philosophy denies the senses and, therefore, also poetry as a reliable source of truth. By giving priority to concepts, philosophers empower abstraction, which then can become a tool of real power.
We used to know the times according to the seasons. Today too many people live in cities. Unfortunately they no longer notice either the changes of the seasons or the stars above. The only light which gives them some sense of safety are street lights. That means they are no longer living in the ancient Greek Polis with philosophers starting out from poems to wonder about the stars, but in an urban world which has not only become hostile to the senses, but tries to overpower them with the creation of virtual realities. Technology is therefore no longer a mere tool, but has replaced any theory of society, since it dominates now as the logic of organization of everyday life.
Hence the most serious problem for both poetry and philosophy is when one no longer knows what is the language of the senses. Both poets and philosophers risk being out of touch with people, but for different reasons. While poets are often in search of the lyrical self, philosophers no longer realize that a touch with the fingers allows a sense of truth, just as a doctor would be better off to feel the pulse rather than use a mechanical instrument to measure the fever. So everywhere language has been filled by all kinds of technical terms and has virtually blindfolded us. No wonder that we seem not to see that truth lies at our finger tips.
Here then begins the problem. Do we still believe that science and the arts, including poetry, can complement each other, or else do we maintain a dialectic relationship between them? Otherwise, there is a real risk to play out the one against the other and not realize that knowledge has to be sustained by both, human experience and critical reflection.
In the sphere of philosophy, there is recently an attempt to go beyond the extremities of abstraction of 20th century intellectual tradition, that is of Modernism but also post Modernism. The new trend known as “New Realism” questions previous truths and assumptions, on the grounds that they cannot be trusted since merely constructed.
This response is due to a dilemma many have experienced. By applying previous concepts, they found themselves in an arbitrary space, whose borders are drawn by use of negation of the negation. It ended in a nothingness or indifference and had the effect of driving people into resignation, when faced with the hard reality. Reaction to the above is a return to a new, ‘idealized’ form of realism, insofar as reality is described in terms of how it should look like to be a satisfactory living condition.
Of course, there are many pitfalls awaiting this new school of thought, among which the risk of becoming a self centered, elitist endeavor with neo-liberal ideological inclinations.
So, perplexed as we are by all the different senses of the world being conveyed by poets or philosophers - poets self indulging in lyrical protest and philosophers forgetting the ‘real’ reality of common people-, where is to obtain some compass in a world ruled by arbitrariness, uncertainties, war and terror?
At this point, Carlos Fuentes describes literature as being able to do something crucial to avoid senses-vis-à-vis-intellect or inspiration-vis-à-vis-reason type of splits, by retaining the role of mediator between poetry and philosophy. Always there exists the dilemma between showing how bad reality is and not driving people to resignation. For Fuentes, mediation is a matter of upholding the freedom to imagine, so that mankind can ‘see’ viable futures, away from terrible mistakes of the past.
Also Thomas Mann tells us that for culture to thrive so that we keep our humanness, we need to experience 'Stallwärme' or the warmth of the barn where animals are kept. He added, a democratic person can be sensed when shaking his hand to realize immediately in that man body and mind are connected.
Apart from literature, theater has and is always an attempt to bring across a message about reality, to contribute to establishing public truth which can become a carrier of a new vision of society. A case in point is for instance Michael Grüber who directed a theatrical play called 'reading Hölderlin', staged in Berlin in 1976 at the Schaubuehne, when the city was still divided between East and West and the search was one for a new political identity. Altogether the performance entailed the question, why people wait for the word of the ‘’supreme leader’’, become dependent upon him and are unable to live self responsible in freedom.
Incidentally, the theatrical production was based on Hoelderlin’s ‘Empedocles fragments’΄, clearly philosophical poetry.
Also in ancient Greek theater, playwrights acclaimed public truth, that is by being more outspoken than most modern –mainstream- media. The latter, instead of sharing real truths, create mysteries, conspiracy theories or overt distortions.
Interesting here is the case of the Polish journalist Kapuscinski who, asked to cover a war that broke out during the seventies in Ethiopia, found himself at a loss on how to convey reality. He turned to literature and fiction and found that making up stories, with the help of a rich imagination, he came much closer to the truth than any ‘factual’ or journalist report.
That is why poets and philosophers have it nowadays much more difficult, since the common space called culture cannot be conveyed by a sense for a common shared truth. For that same reason, the task of poetry and philosophy is all the more crucial to uphold the search for truth.
When it comes to narrating this search for truth, the advice of Adorno was to re-account everything as it happened and therefore by not adding or beautifying something in need to be critically named, then there might be a chance to name past mistakes and reach some truths.
The search is impossible as long as we cling to an absurd reality made absolute by force of abstraction. The latter makes real life most difficult. For, it leaves us without a memory track, by which we can discover what traces we have left behind and by means of which we can tell stories and thereby discover our truer selves.
The memory track is retained according to Jean Paul Sartre by 'le vecu': the lived through experiences. Without it we would not know what is a true understanding of things nor would we appraise the world with differentiated judgments. It would make it nearly impossible to work through contradictions and conflicts, in order to reach that all important consistency in our thinking and acting. Hence, the demand that we stay in tune with life and lived experiences.
But what do we experience nowadays if not wars, violence and terrors?
Terror is the most arbitrary use of power. It seeks to send at random messages of fear into the crowds of people so that they begin to avoid public places. The latter are crucial gathering places in cities which need democracies like people air to breathe and a daily life with a happy end by coming home unhurt in the evening. Without such public spaces, culture cannot flourish. People would be unable to share one of the most important binding elements, namely trust.
Without trust in what we perceive, hear, see, smell and taste, we would not be able to share and realize democratic practices. They need the certainty of the senses. To ensure that, philosophy, instead of denying, should empower poetry to develop a strong language of the senses. In turn, poets should become philosophers, so that they gain reflective capacities in the use of images when describing reality.
To continue understanding the conditions under which mankind has to and can live on this planet Earth, the dialogue between poetry and philosophy is needed. This dialogue is an essential prerequisite for upholding our sense perceptions as well as a differentiated and enlightened public discourse. Poetic responses and analytical work are both needed for letting culture stay on the path of a search for truth. A search in which often we run up against walls, unable to see ways out…
Only the intuition of a blind man can help us here. For, he can see more than others how best to find a way out of the crisis and how to retain a sense for our common future.
Where I live in Athens, there is such a blind man. For him I wrote this poem:
The blind man
To Costis, the son of Melina
He sees better than anyone else
what you feel and contemplate.
He senses with his hands
what your smile means to others.
And he gathers a lot from your voice.
Often you wonder how he moves
through the streets and still
finds his way back home
all by himself.
He seems never to be alone
in his world of constant daze.
Everyone greets and loves him
because he knows no sarcasm
and has a friendly word for everyone,
who passes by his house.
Even to a stranger, he would say,
good that you live among us,
especially when a crisis
hits us so hard that no one can see
what lies ahead. To this he adds
with a nod of his head while his eyes
search where you are standing
the thought that life is most powerful
when the vision of a common future
guides us all. He then shakes your hand
and lets you go, trusting
you will find the way alone.
In that respect, I do wish the people of Colombia all the best for their search for peace best known as having a common future with humanity.
Final version: 9.6.2016
First draft 18.12.2016
Up dated at June 16th
Published on January 21st, 2016