Remainder recognizes, with Szymborska’s poem, that we know, in the end, “less than little/And finally as little as nothing,” and so tries always to acknowledge the void that is not ours, the messy remainder we can’t understand or control—the ultimate marker of which is Death itself. We need not ever read a word of Heidegger to step in these murky waters. They flow through the “mainstream” of our canon. Through the negations of Beckett. The paradoxical concrete abstractions of Kafka. The scatological thingy-ness of Joyce at his most antic. The most famous line of Auden (“Poetry makes nothing happen”).--Zadie Smith "Two Directions for the Novel," as reprinted Changing My Mind (91).
One surprising aspect of the paragraph just quoted is that it involves a two-fold dispensability-thesis: first, you don't need philosophy to read views that are "often mistaken for linguistic or philosophical nihilism," but that, simultaneously, "attend to the damaged and the partial, the absent and the unspeakable." (91). As Smith suggests such views are part of the literary canon. The second bit of this dispensability thesis is that the literary canon has priority not just because Kafka precedes Heidegger historically, but because (as becomes clear near the end of the piece) these views are already articulated and presented in "the ancient plays," that is, Greek tragedy --"The Oresteia, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone" --. Again the point is not just historical priority of Aeschylus and Sophocles preceding Plato, but because on Smith's account these poets get the better of "the dream that Plato started," (76) and that expresses itself in (Smith's terms) lyrical realist novels [e.g. Netherland] that hang on "to the rituals and garments of transcendence," while "knowing they are empty" (81).
That is, the dispensability-thesis is a salvo in the ancient battle between poets and philosophers; on Smith's creative reading of this battle is that she locates it within the literary canon: she takes the realist novel (broadly construed) as emanating from Plato's dream (with Austen, George Eliot, F. Scot Fitzgerald and even Saul Bellow), and she sees a "skewed road" (with Perec, Clarice Lispector, Borroughs, etc) that within the literary canon aspires "to the concrete quality of poetry."* That is, parts of the literary canon, one may even say the inauthentic part, is itself infected by philosophy.
What unites the 'poets' (which, to repeat, includes those on the skewed road) in the literary canon is there "acknowledgment of limitations" (91). It follows from this, and this is something Smith does not claim, that one charge on behalf of the poets (in the literary canon) against the philosophers (in the literary canon) is that the latter do not recognize scarcity, which is intrinsic to the craft as practiced by the former; or, 'the philosophers' work with infinite agents and 'the poets' work with finite agents.
I was reminded -- not just because the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy also (!) takes place within professional philosophy -- of Carnap's (famous (1932) analysis of Heidegger's the nothing nothings as a pseudo-statement (see pp. 69-73), when he introduces his discussion with a footnote in which he claims that "We could just as well have selected passages from any other of the numerous metaphysicians of the present or the past." That is, there is nothing at all special about Heidegger's words -- you don't need to read him -- because at any given time one can encounter some such metaphysician. Heideger's work is, in this sense, exchangeable for any other such work without (much) loss. Carnap is being here not just maliciously funny by suggesting Heidegger is dispensable, but he also reactivates and ties Heidegger's words to a famous metaphysical claim -- to be found in Seneca and Spinoza -- that the true philosopher lacks individuality and that when she intuits the truth she participates in the truth and becomes, thereby, infinite. (I return to this below.) Carnap also goes on to suggest that the whole class of Heideggers can be best understood as musicians that lack musical ability--they are infected by the desire to be theoretical and never learn how to make proper music, and that the true philosophical poet is Nietzsche (80; recall this post on Stone's celebrated piece).
Amusing enough, Carnap recognizes, but has little time for, an objection (that one may well trace back to at least Al-Ghazali and can also be found in Ibn Tufayl) in which one may try to save the metaphysical enterprise by stipulating that infinite beings/intelligence could understand the bits of metaphysics that Carnap finds unintelligible and so convey it to finite beings (like us) in ways that overcome our limitations (72). (The discussion has an afterlife in Frank Jackson's famous thought experiment about Mary.) To put it simply: Carnap does not allow any kind of trade or communication between finite and infinite agents.
My comment on Carnap is not just a cute, over-learned aside (it may be that, too). Smith invites reflection on the Heidegger-Carnap debate not just by mentioning Heidegger, but because she quotes "the most famous line of Auden:" poetry makes nothing happen, which occurs in the second stanza of (the 1940) In Memory of W. B. Yeats. From the present perspective, one aspect of the beauty of Auden's line is that it expresses (in context) (i) the (potential) futility of poetry, while simultaneously, expressing (ii) the capacity of poetry to make that which is (taken to be) not, be. [To be sure, (ii) is not meaningful the way in which the vacuum of quantum field theory is (recall my notice on the review of Krauss by David Albert.)]** There is, in addition, no doubt that (i) is a meaningful statement and that (ii) can be made to be meaningful (although it may require some fancy logical technique or Beckett's negations).
I should stop here. But I add an extended coda:
I am incompetent at score-keeping the fame of particular lines of poetry, but the significance of Auden's point here is, in part, political. This can be seen by two points: first, Auden's poem acknowledges human limitation as Smith suggests. The poem begins with a particular (Yeats) human's finitude (or death) and ends with recognition of the inevitability of failure:
With the farming of a verse Make a vineyard of the curse, Sing of human unsuccess In a rapture of distress;
Even so, in these lines Auden suggests that the recognition of finitude can be transformed alchemically, but with toil of labor, in something more. The "words of a dead man" are modified in "the guts of the living," and are capable of "surviving us all." I don't want to suggest that the main point of Auden's poem is to claim that posterior fame (among the discerning elite) for the poet's productions is possible (they escape the finitude of life), but it is one of the points that, indeed, "death can be kept away from the poems." For, such immortality must be earned in the field of poetic politics by instructing "free men." There is a fine line between propaganda and moral education.
Second, what this means is spelled out in a quasi-companion piece (from 1948), Auden calls attention that the great issue of Yeats's life is, how could he take "nonsense seriously." In context, Auden means the kind of new age spirituality being generated in "Southern California" (188-9). Auden admits that his way of expressing his judgment involves a certain kind of British class-based snobbishness. Smith's essay "Two Directions for the Novel," and also her novel On Beauty, repeatedly return to the enduring hold of this class and its snobbishness on the American literary imagination (despite the existence of Pynchon, Wallace Foster, etc.). What interests me here is that Auden's answer to this question is grounded in the thought that historical-political circumstances determine which nonsense is taken seriously, and, more important, that this is always done in a larger social-political polemical context. For some nonsense may be useful to the poet to "make" one's "private experiences public" and one's "vision of public events personal."(191) Auden is explicit that not any nonsense will do--not all falsehoods are created equal.
According to Auden what makes some nonsense useful is their overlap with commonly believed dogma. (191) This dogma may be religious, but need not be so. As my former colleague, José A Benardete, noted (recall), a poet may invoke pseudo-sentences in the antecedent of a contrary-to-fact conditional and thereby reveal, in the consequent, what no mirror of life could reveal.