Friday, December 4, 2009

On opposition: sharp or... dull?




... for what is freedom if we do not, in winning it, discover both the limit of our own nature and what lies beyond it?  We need only indulge ourselves to be free within our own limit - but that's no problem, no freedom, and no morality.  The problem is rather, how shall we be free without self-indulgence?  Then we must transcend our limit.  But how shall we transcend it? for the limit is real.  Here cuts the double-edge of freedom with its terrible, excellent sharpness: one edge toward ourselves - how sharp the limit is! - and the other, more terrible, away from us - what a deep cut we have taken of the impossible!  Sheathe either edge and you are defeated.  Without the wound of the limit, you would cut without blood; it is idealism, in the disgraceful sense, to believe in a freedom without limit, it is unreality and cowardice.  Sheathe the outer edge and you have a worse cowardice, called determinism, but actually, contentment with things as they are, smugness, the amoral convention.  Sheathe both edges and you have dullness on your hands.  -- Isaac Rosenfeld

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The expert on dullness: not you or me, but Alexander Pope; see the Dunciad (and variora).  To call me or what I do dull, quiet, anything ending in -ist, is something you do at your own peril, for accusers exemplify, as Pope's mock history shows, what they profess to disdain.  Perhaps it's projection?  Is there such a thing?  If you mean to be in opposition, then souls are to be searched, if souls are still to be found.

Opposition is familiar in our small Am-po world, all too familiar: it breeds familiarity.  But what is "opposition?"

Opposition is true Friendship.

So believed Blake - or, as Christopher Ricks recently added, "at any rate hoped."  True, other sayings of Blake might better, Ricks points out in his new book True Friendship, fit the case of the poet's opposition to, say, Sir Joshua Reynolds: Damn braces: Bless relaxes, or Without Contraries is no progression.  This is from Blake's famously cutting marginalia:

Reynolds: I found myself in the midst of works executed upon principles with which I was unacquainted: I felt my ignorance, and stood abashed.

Blake: A Liar [!] he never was Abashed in his Life & never felt his ignorance.

Reynolds: ... enthusiastick admiration seldom promotes knowledge

Blake: Enthusiastic Admiration is the first principle of Knowledge & its last.

No, Ricks - who is good on opposition - says:

... Blake's proverb would have told more truth (but would not have been as telling) if it had reduced itself to the thought that opposition may on occasion be true friendship.  Then the matter is further complicated by there being no simple opposition to friendship.  What would friendship's antonym be?  An enemy is in opposition to a friend, true, but despite Roget's Thesaurus, which heads its boldly controntational columns "Friendship" and "Enmity," enmity declines to be simply the opposite of friendship, any more than would be animosity or hostility.  Enmity is "the disposition or the feelings characteristic of an enemy: ill-will, hatred" (Oxford English Dictionary).  Friendship is not limited to - though it is pleased to accommodate - "Friendly feeling or disposition felt or shown by one person for or towards another" (OED 2), for friendship is also OED 1: "The state or relation of being a friend."  So an enmity will never be exactly the counterpart to a friendship.  Friendship is mutual by definition; a mutual enmity has to say that it is such.  The English language has done without - might even be thought to have wished to do without - an abstract noun from enemy that would be to it what friendship is to friend.  Tom Paine had a go at this in 1776: "The nearest an only true way of proving enemyship, if I may so call it."  No, you may not, for it is against common sense.

But Ricks has perhaps not yet had a go at the word frenemy.

It doesn't matter...  Wait, here's how it can matter:

"It would not matter, I think, if we did not altogether agree, so long as we made our differences conspicuous and interesting." So Eliot to his frenemy, John Middleton Murry.

Opposition is not the basis of knowledge.  Something can be learned, though, from differences, if they are made "conspicuous and interesting" - they can be sharp or... dull.

(For more on the illusio that is the root of the competition which pits Am-po-folk against each other - the illusio as the condition for the functioning of a game of which it is also, at least partially, the product . . . see Kent Johnson's post here.  Canadian readers may wish to view "The Cage Match of Canadian Poetry," featuring Christian Bök "versus" Carmine Starnino.)

Pictured: cheese board and mousetrap combo, by Tom Parker

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