Poetry’s true objective

‘I’ve been trying to deal with the old subjective v objective chestnut since the age of 12 or 13’

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The scene was a bar in the enchanting sherry town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda in southern Spain. Having heard me say I wrote poems, an earnest young man dealt me a poser: “Is your poetry subjective or objective?” I wasn’t sure how to answer, having been trying to deal with the old subjective v objective chestnut since the age of 12 or 13.

I knew the answer “subjective” would put me in the dock for wishy-washy vagueness. My poetry would be all about feelings, my feelings, quite likely with no grounding in objective reality (unrequited love, in other words). On the other hand, objective poetry sounded like an oxymoron, a strange beast that could neither fly nor swim nor walk.

I answered that I didn’t really accept the subjective/objective divide, which I saw as the result of centuries of misguided philosophy. But I don’t think I convinced my interlocutor. In fact, he had touched a raw nerve. I can still remember how annoyed and frustrated I felt whenever certain schoolfellows came up with the withering retort, “That’s merely subjective,” in response to any statement involving feeling or aesthetic judgment (the areas I was most passionate about, then as now). It felt like and, indeed, was intended as a put-down, implying that purely subjective feelings or judgments had no objective value.

If I felt impaled on the horns of a dilemma, I was not the first or the only one. You could trace it all back to Descartes. The great French philosopher made a truly astonishing move in pinning certainty not on the objective world but on the thinking “I”: cogito ergo sum. Nothing is indubitably real in the world (I could be imagining it all) except the thinking, doubting, imagining “I”.

So was Descartes my ally when I wanted some help bolstering my “subjective” opinions? Descartes, having opened the door to a world full of subjective meaning as well as objective reality, promptly closed it again. He made the mistake of conceptualising the thinking “I” as another thing or substance in a world of things, rather than the essential precondition for or way of perceiving the world. In fact, Descartes’ subjective turn led, paradoxically, to the triumph of what the later philosopher Edmund Husserl called “physicalistic objectivism”, the worldview of all-powerful science.

Husserl, the father of phenomenology, thought he had smoked out a fundamental error in western science and philosophy as practised since the time of Galileo and Descartes – “the surreptitious substitution of the mathematically [constructed] world of idealities for the only real world, the one that is actually given through perception, that is ever experienced and experienceable – our everyday life-world.” We now trust only objectively verifiable data, with the absurd result that we might eventually rely on a brain scan in preference to the words “I love you”. Husserl wanted to restore the immensely rich nuanced fullness of the world as each one of us experiences it.

Husserl was on to something. The lucid contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel agrees with Husserl that (in the words of Matthew Ratcliffe in his excellent paper “Husserl and Nagel on Subjectivity and the Limits of Physical Objectivity”), “Any wholly objective account of the world will fail to accommodate the essentially subjective quality of mental states.” There is “something that it is like to be” an organism – I quote from Nagel’s splendidly titled essay “What is it like to be a bat?” – that can’t be captured in any reductive, physicalist view of the mind. But Nagel thinks Husserl’s phenomenology goes too far, in subsuming the objective into the subjective.

We may seem to have travelled a long way from that bar in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and too far into the realms of metaphysics. But the question the young man asked still seems to me pertinent and important and difficult to answer.

The objectivist, scientific view of the world still holds power almost everywhere. One of the results is the downgrading of poetry itself, now regarded as an innocuous hobby or activity for children rather than an essential way of apprehending the world. The idea of the poet as seer or prophet, exemplified so magnificently by the later Yeats (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”) now seems a distant memory.

Husserl and his fellow-phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty wanted to restore poetry to the world – in particular what Merleau-Ponty called “the poetry of human relations”. We need meaning as well as facts; what is the use of any amount of facts if they have no meaning for us?

The trouble with extreme subjectivity is that it seems to lead to solipsism, a world in which only I exist. But Husserl had an answer to that. The foundation of objectivity (which Husserl does not want to deny) is, in fact, intersubjectivity – the way the world is made up of beings each experiencing it in their own particular but communicable way. Or as Merleau-Ponty more poetically defined it: “The call of each individual freedom to all the others.”

harry.eyres@ft.com, @sloweyres

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