Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/04/2011

Poetry, not logic: the million-fueled bonfire

So the question is “how aware are you of the ways your body reacts to—expresses—what you are feeling?” An impossible question because “so” means “thus” which must follow a proposition. “The heat in Dallas is unbearable; so (thus) you better . . .” Thus, my question, “So how aware are you of the ways your body reacts to—expresses—what you are feeling” is meaningless because it does not follow a proposition. And what is this “feeling?” I feel sad. I feel joyful. I feel afraid. If I feel all of those things at once, how do I know which one—if any—my body is expressing?

And so. . .what?

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection” (1888), [one critic says], “. . . acknowledges the ephemerality of the physical universe, but . . . it does not confuse impermanence with worthlessness” (1).

My question does follow a proposition, but I have not stated it.

Death is at once completely foreseeable, one of our most elemental certitudes, and yet the very definition of the absolutely unforeseeable. It is a common and everyday occurrence, and yet nothing is more unknowable, more unimaginable, more apophatic (2).

So a friend corrected my grammar recently when I wrote a sentence similar my opening here. He passed over the strange idiomatic use of “so” and went directly to “how aware. . . “ He insisted I needed a comma before the question in quotations. He is wrong. The word “how” is a subordinating conjunction, which makes the entire clause “how aware. . . feeling” an objective complement; that is, the clause finishes “question.” Therefore, the grammatical structure is subject/linking verb/objective complement, and a comma cannot stand between the subject and the word/ phrase/ clause that completes it.

Subject/linking verb/objective complement: death/ is/ (completely) foreseeable.
Subject/linking verb/objective complement: nothing/ is/ (more) unknowable.

“Nothing” substitutes for “everything we can possibly experience” or some such absolute.

“Feel” is another linking verb. I feel sad. I feel afraid. Subject/ linking verb/ objective complement. “Sadness” and “fear” complement (complete) “I,” the statement about “I.”

Death is completely foreseeable, and I feel sad.
Death is unknowable, and I feel afraid

So the question “how aware are you of the ways your body reacts to—expresses—what you are feeling?” is tricky. Question/ is/ tricky. Nothing/ is/ more unknowable.

We wander around in bodies that we care for, study in minute detail, establish National Institutes of Health to protect, spend 16% of our total resources on (3) but—in the end—neither understand nor have ultimate control over. We depend on science that’s really not much better than voodoo to fix bodies that are broken, and whatever we do, whatever percentage of our resources we spend on them, our untold number of bodies simply provide kindling for the processes we cannot control, and the

Million-fuelèd, nature’s bonfire burns on (4).

The millions (billions) of our bodies simply fuel nature’s bonfire. And whatever we do, we can’t stop the force of nature, even though mankind is the creation that is “bonniest, dearest to” nature.

Everything flows on and nothing remains

Everything flows on and nothing remains

But quench her bonniest, dearest to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, his mark on mind, is gone!

Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark

The force of nature, Hopkins proclaims, drowns our mental prowess, all that we are able to “mark on [our] mind[s]” in an enormous dark. Hopkins found in the work of Heraclitus background for his own (Christian) thought. The popular understanding of Heraclitus (spiritual father of the Stoics) is best distilled to, “All things dance away. Everything flows on and nothing remains” (6). Cervo asserts that

To Heraclitus, what exists is not Being but Becoming; change is the only reality: Whatever is, in so far as it is, is not. Like fire, material constructs flicker and caper away in an unlimited succession of deaths resulting in as many births. . . (7).

Because my own thinking/belief about Hopkins’ continuation of Heraclitus’ metaphor into Christ as the culmination of the fire (or something else I do not quite understand) is incomplete and uncertain (to say nothing of skeptical), I will not attempt to explain it here. The articles I have referenced treat the “Resurrection” in the last half of Hopkins’ title and poem.

I dragged both Heraclitus and Hopkins into this morass quite unbeknownst to them (obviously) and most likely corrupting both of their thinking. “So the question is how aware are you of the ways your body reacts to—expresses—what you are feeling?”

I did not need, of course, to state what the question is. All I needed was to ask the question. But there’s the problem. The question itself, “. . .how aware are you. . .” is meaningless because the answer is the given. You (and I) are not aware of the ways [our bodies] express what we are feeling. And we (I, at any rate) must continue to remind myself that is the question. It may be the question.

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire

Asking the question presupposes the proposition (“so” or “thus”) that we can be, we are, aware of our bodies, that our minds can resolve the conundrum “everything flows on and nothing remains,” that even as we think we are aware of what is, what is is not. Both what we think and the mind with which we think it are gone.  “Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark Drowned.”

My thinking/writing is more poetic than rational (if it is either).

Last Sunday I was required to accompany (on the organ) a choir singing an anthem I could not quite get “under my fingers.” I was terrified. But for many days I was not aware I was terrified. I thought I was feeling incompetence and anger at being required to do something in public I was not given time to prepare for. Eventually, I felt (physically) the tightness in my neck, the difficulty breathing. I realized fear was literally clutching at my throat. I’m not able or willing to describe (or even to believe) the rest. I engaged in what some might call “prayer.” That is, my mind (housed in my body) began requesting of nature, of whatever it is to whom I am her “bonniest, dearest to her, her clearest-selvèd spark,” to unclutch the fear from my throat.

I easily (though far from perfectly) played the anthem; thus, the question(s) is (are), what of any of that experience was other than “Whatever is, in so far as it is, is not.” The music or the fear, “the mark on [my] mind.” How aware am I of what my body tells me I am feeling? What is feeling? If  “all things dance away. Everything flows on and nothing remains,” what remains?

So how aware are you? You/ aware/ how. Subject/ link/ complement.
(1) Boudway, Matthew. “Hopkins Agonistes.” Commonweal 138.9 (2011): 12-16.
(2) Caputo, John D. “Bodies Still Unrisen, Events Still Unsaid.” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 12.1 (2007): 73-86.
(3) Sorry. I don’t have time to research. I’ve depended on (shudder) Wikipedia for this figure, in “Health Care in the United States.”
(4) Hopkins, Gerard Manley.  “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection.” Poems.  1918. Available at Web. 1 Aug 2011.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Translation from:  Cervo, Nathan. “Hopkins’s That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the. . .” Explicator 56.3 (1998): 135.
(7) ibid.


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