Three Vistas

What Was Once an Empire II, Paul Vogeler (2013).



In ‘Democratic Vistas,’ Walt Whitman’s essay on the future of aesthetic democracy in America, Whitman subtly transposes lines from poems in Leaves of Grass into essayistic prose, flattening the poetic enjambments into paragraph form so that the voice of his poetry merges with that of his essay. Is this merely a stylistic choice on Whitman’s part, or is there a direct pathway from poetry-inflected prose—what he calls the ‘democratic vista’—to the idea of aesthetic democracy?



What is aesthetic democracy? For Whitman, aesthetic democracy is realized in the simultaneity of objective, institutional freedom and the freedom of individual personalities. Institutional freedom is ‘sufficient in its scientific aspect, cold as ice,’ ((Whitman, Walt. ‘Democratic Vistas.’ In Leaves of Grass and Selected Prose. Rinehart & Company, New York: 1949, p. 506.)) while that of personalities is ‘freedom from all laws or bonds except those of one’s own being, control’d by the universal ones.’ ((Ibid, p. 532.)) In Whitman’s formula, institutional freedom corresponds with the rational, and personal freedom with the religious. The literary expression of reason is prose, the language of cogency, while that of religion is poetry, the language of indeterminacy. And since aesthetic democracy can only be realized in the simultaneity of objective and personal freedoms, which in turn posits the simultaneity of reason and religion (expressed by prose and poetry respectively), then the literary expression of aesthetic democracy depends on the simultaneous use of poetry and prose. There is, therefore, a direct link between Whitman’s choice of literary form and the idea of aesthetic democracy, and this is what Whitman calls the democratic vista.



A democratic vista is prose that is pliant to poetry. When prose is pliant to poetry, it means that prose bends to the authority of poetry without giving up its own self-concept. Prose and poetry each have their own manner of dispensing authority. For prose, the dispensation of authority is horizontal, democratic, requiring the reader to use reason to receive the argument. Its authority corresponds with the objective, institutional, and rational elements of democracy. Poetry, on the other hand, delivers authority vertically, in authoritarian fashion, asking the reader to put faith in claims that are pulled out of the air, without a foundation in reason. Poetry’s authority corresponds to the individual, personal, and religious elements of democracy. What happens to prose and poetry in the democratic vista is a two-way redistribution of authority. Poetry flattens—‘democratizes’—its authoritarian delivery, while prose lets itself be lifted off the ground of reason. Whitman puts it this way: ‘The elevating and ethereal ideas of the unknown and of unreality must be brought forth with authority, as they are legitimate heirs of the known, and of reality…’ ((Ibid, p. 539.)) The absorption of poetry into prose in the democratic vista is Whitman’s attempt to create a literary form that is specifically tailored for the articulation of aesthetic democracy, a literary form which, like its political corollary, straddles ‘unreality’ (the undisclosed, ideal future of democracy) and ‘reality’ (democracy’s extant objectivity, expressed rationally in its equitable institutions). Prose anticipates its eventual absorption of poetry in the democratic vista, just as America’s institutions, according to Whitman’s prediction, are preparing for the eventual education of the people into democratic personalities.




Poetry and prose are less modes of writing than metaphors for the life of thought. Poetry corresponds to the deep symbolic awakening that happens during childhood; prose, to the recollection of that awakening during adulthood. Poetry is nearer to spontaneous bursts of emotion. It aims to be precocious about its subject. Prose is nearer to the discipline of learning and prefers retrospection. Yet the two are less opposed than related. While corresponding to different modes of cognition, both are clarified through reading. Poetry, when it ages out of spontaneity into self-awareness, inevitably adopts some of the mannerisms of prose; while prose, as it gets honed by study, cannot but learn the limitations of argument. Thus poetry is distinguishable from prose only once it ages into prose, through self-awareness, just as prose stands apart from poetry only after the laws of argument force it to revert to a dependency on symbols. The conclusion is that neither poetry nor prose can come into its own without a middle term of reading. But then what is reading? For poetry, it seems to be a catalyst for symbols to seek the legitimacy of concepts. For prose, reading whittles away the cogency of concepts until their symbolic scaffolding is exposed. Put another way, reading matures the poet and humiliates the prose writer, turning them less toward perfection than toward an appreciation of their respective dilemmas. For the young writer, writing is the fraught labor of hedging the maturation of symbols against the deterioration of concepts—a struggle with the effects of reading on thinking.



Proper reading draws the poetic mind toward argument and forces the argumentative mind back toward poetry. There are two ways to approach reading when it is understood this way. The first is the canonical path, along which the reader is faithful that an ordained program of texts will steward the mental struggle between symbolic and conceptual thinking that characterizes adulthood. Canonical reading implies that a collective neuropathway, so to speak, is blazing through the great books, which then has a genetic effect on subsequent thought. The second is the iconoclastic path, which is comparatively less streamlined. Iconoclastic reading is concerned with brains rather than books. It presupposes the universality of mental struggle and contends that because there is no way to reconcile, only negotiate, the division of poetic from prosaic thought, that reading should be improvised in accordance with the desires of readers. Despite this difference of approach, canonical reading is never fully canonical, nor iconoclastic reading fully iconoclastic. Canons, if they recognize history, must be open to new acquisitions, which by virtue of their newness relate iconoclastically toward the old. At the same time iconoclasms, by definition, depend on canons for evaluating the success of their rebellions, and so on some level must admit their conspiracy with authority. Where these two paths converge is their openness to the new. But whereas canons select the new according to old criteria, based on a commitment to temporal continuity, iconoclasms inaugurate the new by severing ties with the old. Logically, then, it would seem that canons bring history along, while iconoclasms leave history behind. And yet the opposite is true. The canonical ideal—proffering the best of the old with the best of the new—collapses in its commitment to continuity. Canons proffer the old at the risk of crystallizing its meaning. When the question of value arises, canonists lean on the grandeur of the representative, rather than the mental struggle it represents, thereby severing it from present concerns. On the other hand, iconoclasts begin right in the middle of history, obsessing over the struggle of reading as it pertains to the present, and in this sense are nearer to understanding the fraught passage of historical (and for that matter, personal) moments. Iconoclastic reading is the beginning of proper reading, yet its dependency on canonical authority cannot be overstated. Though its goal is to break from canonical reading, its success is nevertheless bound to the health of canons.



The goal of proper reading is to form the democratic imagination. Proper reading is democratic because it validates the reader’s desire to experience the effects that reading has on thinking without having to defer to an unassailable cognitive authority. Yet the desire for firsthand experience is valid only once it attaches itself to its most authoritarian inhibitor; desire earns validation through deferral. What proper reading encourages, then, is not a hope for the eventual reconciliation between canonical and iconoclastic reading, but a desire for humiliation, a longing to be subjugated to the difficulty of thought: of being compelled to hedge between poetry, the maturation of symbols, and prose, the deterioration of concepts. The drive to read originates in this difficulty; the drive to write is how thought struggles with it. 




Etymologically, authority and originality share a common aim: The word author comes from the Latin noun auctor, which is from the verb augere, meaning to promote or originate. To authorize, then, is to have the power of an originator. The desire for originality and the desire for authority are semantically bound. But how can this stand, if authority and originality are also in conflict? It stands because while the two concepts converge in aim, they diverge in origin. Authority begins in circular reasoning, while originality begins in rebellion against that circularity. Authority cannot falter and remain itself. The slightest internal fracture threatens the whole concept. Conversely, originality must fail in order to actualize itself. In rebelling against authority, it does not just risk failure, it wholeheartedly commits to it. Were its rebellion to triumph, originality would merely substitute itself for the extant authority, thereby contradicting its origin. Success is the ‘end’—the aim and the demise—of originality.



Failure, the most necessary phase of originality, introduces metaphor to thought. A metaphor is a word that balks at its object of reference. The first sense of the English verb to balk connotes hesitation, a failure to act. The second sense originates from an Old Norse noun, bálkr, which means partition. To balk metaphorically is to leave a partition between a word and its object. When a metaphor balks, it corresponds with its object inexactly, half referring to its object’s meaning, half to the partition between. The antithesis of metaphor is literality, success. A thought literally pursued demands that a word totally possess its object, without intervention, lest it fail to uphold its standard of success. The distinction between metaphor and literality, therefore, is the distinction between failed and successful thoughts.



Metaphor has two ways of balking at objects of reference. The first is through metonym, the substituted name; the second is through pseudonym, the false name. Metaphor mitigates itself in the metonym and indulges itself in the pseudonym. A law of substitution governs metonym, implying that the object of reference still inheres in the word, yet through a veil. Metonym fulfills its responsibility to correspond with its object even as it fails to totally disclose it. Pseudonym, on the other hand, refuses any responsibility to correspond. It lures metaphor toward total failure by disassociating the word from its object of reference. Metonym is metaphor’s proper mode, pseudonym its specious one.



Because it is parted from its object, metaphor requires a middle term of translation to make it intelligible. Metonyms are translatable by virtue of being in constant communication with their objects of reference. Pseudonyms, in refusing to correspond with an object, do not assent to translation, preferring to refer ad infinitum to their own penchant for falseness. Translation therefore deals exclusively with metonyms. The goal of translation is to render the partition between a metonym and its object translucent. But why an ideal of translucency and not, for example, transparency? Transparency deceptively promises to render the partition between a metonym and its object invisible (and therefore semantically negligible), whereas translucency proffers but a silhouette of the object. In other words, translation aspires to translucency in order to validate the partial view that metonym offers. If translation goes too far in trying to clarify the object of reference, it forces metonym into the transparency of literality. Then again, if translation neglects the object of reference altogether, it risks total opacity, collapsing the metonym into pseudonym. Conceptually, then, translucency is an ideal of impartiality between transparency and opacity. Yet how could metaphor, whose definitive feature is to be parted from its object, also require impartiality? The only available conclusion is a split one: metaphor must be partial to be translatable, impartial to be valid.



A proper metaphor’s partiality is predicated on an inexact yet sustained correspondence with its object of reference. This is what makes it translatable. Its impartiality, in turn, is predicated on a simultaneous negation of transparency and opacity, which is what renders the metaphor translucent, valid. The validity of metaphor is proportional to the degree of its impartiality. What is most impartial is likewise most just. A proper metaphor wants justice for its object. Justice validates the partiality of metaphors while upholding the integrity of their objects. An object has integrity insofar as it is bound to a metaphor that fails to disclose it wholly. The failure of metaphors to disclose their objects of reference is both the beginning and the end of their validity: a beginning in that failure is necessary for incompleteness, an end in that the acceptable standard of failure for metaphors is so utterly tenuous as to leave them constantly at risk of saying too much or too little.



Metonym, proper metaphor, is the basic unit of democratic cognition. The word democratic applies specifically to metonym’s substitutive character. On the one hand, a metonym is a substitute for the object it names; on the other, a metonym is itself substitutable, in that its failure to disclose its object mortally endangers its validity, necessitating its periodic replacement. Substitutability levels the rank of metonyms such that, once they have established a proper relationship with their objects of reference, no metonym has authority over any other. Insofar as they are antithetical to authority and inclined to fail, metonyms are original. As the basic unit of democratic cognition, metonyms are the link between the concepts of democracy and originality, for it is precisely the democratic element of metonyms—their renunciation of rank, their levelness with every other of their kind—that enables them to be progenitors of original thought.

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