Poetic Thinking Today
An Essay
Amir Eshel

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Foreword by PAUL A. KOTTMAN

It would be a mistake to read the word “today” in the title of this book as if it were followed by an exclamation point, as if something utterly new and unprecedented were being announced about poetic thinking—Today! as opposed to yesterday. Quite the contrary: the word “today” is meant to signal that we should not expect this book to present a new theory of poetic thinking.

While this may disappoint some readers, I want to signal this as a chief virtue of Eshel’s book, which helpfully resists the idea that the humanities should be preoccupied with coming up with new theories. If the aspiration of the natural or social scientist is to make the “history of science” as irrelevant to contemporary scientific inquiry as the history of chemistry is to working chemists today, then poetic thinking starts by recognizing persistent meanings or needs, historical traumas or ethical ruptures, that we have not yet adequately understood. So it reminds us that we need to think about them some more, today.

This can easily be confused with a kind of perennialism, or the view that there is a set of “big questions” that do not go away and must be confronted again and again. Often, such perennialism tumbles into the view that we can institute a provisionally stable “canon” of works to which we might always turn for help in addressing such big questions—a view that lends itself, therefore, to a kind of conservatism that encourages us not to forget where we know wisdom already lies.

However, while Eshel does draw our attention to thinkers (Hannah Arendt, Richard Rorty) and artists (Paul Celan, Dan Pagis, Gerhardt Richter, Dani Karavan, and Laura Poitras)—as what he calls perspicuous “examples” of poetic thinking—he does so in a way that is more essayistic and openly experimental than it is canon affirming. Eshel sees Richter “reacting” to the Holocaust instead of “just bearing witness”—art practices are participatory as well as testimonial. Rather than send us back to established classics, Eshel notes that we are living through an explosion of poetic activity—the digital-driven supernova of a star that was born with Romanticism. If we want to understand the implications of modern surveillance technology, for instance, we have much to learn from the diagnoses offered in Poitras’s 2016 Bed Down Location.

While attuned to “today,” the basic question of Eshel’s book is at least as old as Aristotle’s famous remark about poetic works being more “universal” than historical records. How can a particular work, indexed to specific historical traumas, bear any general significance? Can anything of general significance—some truth or insight, some inference or recognition—be intimated by a particular poetic work, painting, or sculpture?

Poetic works are often nothing more than illustrations or depictions, mirrors held up to reality. Such works need not show any meaning that is not already intelligible in reality itself. Put another way, artworks can illustrate or depict without necessarily making intelligible anything about the reality they depict other than the fact of their being a depiction of it. Aristotle refers to such mimetic works as eliciting a kind of childlike intellectual pleasure—the pleasure of apprehending a mimetic work as a mimetic work rather than the pleasure taken in the work’s sensible qualities.

But in addition to being mere depictions, fictional works can also generate new realities, not only the sense that their very existence alters, at least to some degree, the world in which they are made, but also in the sense that such works can intervene in the reality they depict. Artworks might also be considered a matrix for the understanding of such reality, unavailable in the same way without such works. Eshel’s way of putting this is to suggest that poetic thinking opens “spaces of and spaces for open-ended reflection” that invite us to step out of “our daily, habitual manner of thinking.” Like Northrop Frye before him, Eshel sees this as the “motive for metaphor,” which “begins with the world we (poetically) construct . . . with the imagination, and then works towards ordinary experience.” Frye, in “The Motive for Metaphor,” points out that this is what distinguishes the artist from the scientist:

Science begins with the world we have to live in, accepting its data and trying to explain its laws. From there, it moves towards the imagination: it becomes a mental construct, a model of a possible way of interpreting experience. . . . Science learns more and more about the world as it goes on: it evolves and improves. A physicist today knows more physics than Newton did, even if he’s not as great a scientist. But literature begins with the possible model of experience, and . . . doesn’t evolve or improve or progress. We may have dramatists in the future who will write plays as good as King Lear, though they’ll be very different ones, but drama as a whole will never get better than King Lear.

So, asks Frye, “Is it possible that . . . poetry is something that a scientific civilization like ours will eventually outgrow?”

Eshel answers: Perhaps, but not yet—at least, not where thinking remains possible. “Thinking in general, and poetic thinking in particular, is never separated from judgment,” writes Eshel. In this book, poetic thinking is presented as an ongoing way in which knowledge is generated out of the interpretive judgment.