My earlier post on stupidity, magic, and poetry was meant in large part as a flippant provocation, an indulgence to which I am at times lamentably prone. But like many such provocations, it lends itself to subsequent redaction. One form of said redaction occurs, inevitably, in the shape of a fourfold categorization, in this case, of types of application of language with the objective of making something come into being, or at least swim into our ken. Let's say: 1. Philosophy, 2. Poetry, 3. Religion, 4. Magic.
Philosophy has as one of its definitions a striving toward truth--the formulating of things that can be reasonably demonstrated or asserted through language. Language thus employed demands constantly its own chastening, its careful monitoring in the name of accuracy. Language is accordingly set against its own tendencies, its tendencies to profligate overdetermination and willful vagueness. Whether it ever succeeds in this goal we might debate, but that is its aim: through language, to strip away the occultations of language itself.
Poetry is an intermediate step, I want to suggest, in the transition from philosophy to religion (though, as I will elaborate, that transition is not entirely linear). But let me put the former aside for the moment and skip straight to the latter.
Religion, like philosophy, is concerned with truth--but whereas philosophy depends on the processes of rationality, religion depends on pure assertion. The Word is its own justification, its own evidence. Religious language presumes belief, and fosters that belief via mere gratification of the same. Religion is nothing but telling. Telling that everything will be all right, that things are whatever one hopes they might be. Language retains its communicative function, but jettisons the means whereby it might be challenged or questioned. Religion, like philosophy, sits uneasily in the necessary medium of language: but whereas in philosophy the uneasiness stems from an internal apprehension of language's fundamental fallibility, in religion it stems from the apprehension of others' ability to make that observation. Philosophy would purify language, rendering it free of context--dependency and arbitrariness; religion would have its subjects forget that language exists in the first place.
Magic is religion without the anxiety. In magic, there is no illusion other than the illusion itself. Everyone, except the very young and the mentally infirm, knows that magic is unreal. If it made any claim to the contrary, it would become a religion--or at least the basis for one.
So, back to poetry. Like magic, poetry makes no claims to an "authenticity" outside its own self-proclaimed parameters. Or, the authenticity it stages is always just that: staged, conditional, bracketed by artifice. And yet, like religion, poetry always solicits an irrational belief of sorts. But this is where it gets weird. Whereas religion demands that its followers forsake logic entirely in the pursuit of truth, and whereas magic sets aside the question of truth altogether, poetry wants to be understood simultaneously as fiction and, if not truth, something that draws from the same cognitive resources as truth. One might say that poetry aspires to the status of virtual truth (unlike magic, which only wants to create a falsehood whose remarkable similarity to truth is always--by necessity--recognizable and recognized).
What is this "virtual truth" to which poetry attains? Perhaps it might better be understood as a fundamentally ironic rehearsal of the conditions through which philosophy, religion, and magic all entertain the possibility of investment in some kind of truth. For even magic implies, by negative comparison, a solid truth against which its own facile machinations may be measured. And so we are revisited by the specter of stupidity: poetry deliberately invites us into dead ends of understanding and intelligibility, null spaces where the usual postures of certainty lose their power. What is this loss, this falling away of reason and faith, but a becoming-stupid, a gaping in the face of an agnostic void? Religion similarly fosters unknowing, but only as a recruitment feint, a way of coaxing the sheep into the fold. Magic too relies on its audience's ignorance, but only to the extent that ignorance is founded on an investment in an occluded but assumedly infallible system of knowledge.
Poetry's position, then, is one of radical pointlessness and aporia. Even--especially?--when it is enlisted in the service of a philosophical, religious, or magical "message," its underlying ludic structure points the way through the holes in that message to the absence of underlying ground. When philosophy encroaches upon this mode, it becomes a certain kind of self-negating deconstructive theory. When religion does it, it becomes heretical. When magic does it, it becomes absurd comedy (in a way, magic is always comedy).
Conversely, poetry could be thought of as philosophy, religion, and/or magic at their most self-ironized state. All the gestures of reason, faith, wonder, etc.--made as though in front of a funhouse mirror that one knows in advance will distort and discredit one's "meaning." What a stupid thing to do.
Lest it be concluded that I am trying to dissuade my readers from their poetic pursuits, I should say that I think stupidity, like wisdom, has its place. And there are different kinds of stupidity. Here again the other three disciplines of magic, religion, and philosophy are relevant. Magic encourages a local, temporary application of stupidity to a specific, staged set of actions. This stupidity is always already recognized as contingent and insincere. It is pretend stupidity, largely harmless but also largely frivolous. Religion encourages a total or near-total investment in the most dangerous kind of stupidity: the kind which leads one to surrender wholly to whatever powerful idea or feeling is presented as necessary, and in so doing to render oneself an unthinking pawn for whoever presents that idea or feeling. Philosophy encourages, like magic, a stupidity that is temporary and contingent: a voluntary placing of oneself into certain postures of unknowing, in the interest of isolating and clarifying those truths that are (hypothetically) knowable. Poetry uses all these strategies, but strips them of their practical applications. In poetry, we engage stupidity almost in the spirit of confession or ecstatic ritual. We stare it in the face and acknowledge it. We admit it as a fact, and don't try to control it. We simply experience it, like absurd laughter, or a surge of morphine through the veins. We own it in the hope that it won't own us.