Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Totality of Prose

There's always Hegel. Thomas Presskorn tracked down the source of the phrase "the prose of the world" for me in his comment to a post three weeks ago. It's given me something to think about.

It turns out that the phrase appears in Hegel's Lectures on Fine Arts. I can't say I've fully digested the passage, and I haven't looked at the rest of the text, but it looks as though he is using the concept of prose to indicate the quotidian—that “gorgeous Latinate word” which “suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace”, as Don DeLillo put it (Underworld, p. 542). In short, prose is the ordinary. He ties this idea of a "world of prose" to the "deficiency of natural beauty" and contrasts it to the pursuit of "Ideal beauty", as in the fine arts. This is also what Merleau-Ponty seems to have been after when he confronted "the prose of the world" with "a poetry of human relations". Well, beauty is difficult, said Aubrey Beardsley to Ezra Pound. In a sense, then, prose articulates that difficulty.

In writing, I want to argue, prose emerges from the unavoidable partiality of our experience. A poem is arguably an expression of our own universality, but when we write in prose we are implicitly admitting that we're only getting some of the experience down on the page. But we are also, as academic writers, trying to be objective and universal—in a word, impartial. Again, "prose" comes to stand for a particular kind of difficulty, namely, our struggle with "the entire finitude of appearance .... the totality which is not actual within [us]" (147). We are, first and foremost, implicated in the ordinary, the hustle and bustle (as Heidegger might say) of everyday living.

Even in our pursuit of "spiritual interests"—like knowledge, I presume—we do not get beyond prose. The life of the spirit, Hegel points out, depends upon satisfying also our "physical vital aims". Even the most sincere and diligent (and even the most distracted) scholar will not completely extricate herself from practical contingencies. "[T]he individual as he appears in this world of prose and everyday is not active out of the entirety of his ownself and his resources, and he is intelligible not from himself, but from something else" (149). Maybe this is where DeLillo got his views on "the quotidian". Hegel says: "Here is revealed the whole breadth of prose in human existence" (148).

Scholarship in general, and academic writing in particular, is deeply implicated in ordinary pursuits. When we express ourselves in prose we are implicitly engaging with these day-to-day contingencies. We are struggling to keep our footing in a world of everyday "actions and events," as Hegel puts it. (In my book, I'm going to have to tie this to Heidegger's views on research as Betrieb.) It is precisely because the scholar expresses her views in a world of ordinary concerns that research must be approached as a conversation where other interests and concerns must be respected. That is, in prose you write about things that you might be wrong about. And you write prepared to listen to what others think of what you think. You are not "active out of the entirety of [your] own self". What your words mean depends on what others make of them. The totality of that dependence, then, is what Hegel is talking about.

"This is the prose of the world ... —a world of finitude and mutability, of entanglement in the relative, of the pressure of necessity from which the individual is in no position to withdraw" (150). But a community, I want to suggest, allows for a partial withdrawal, a smaller place within "the entire finitude of appearance". A finite finitude, if you will. (I'm always harping about how the academic writer must appreciate her finitude.) It is a way of simplifying (for a particular set of themes) your "entanglement in the relative", a way of relieving "the pressure of necessity". This is the community of scholarship that constitutes your field. A community of prose. It helps you to engage precisely with the ordinary totality.

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