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Wives and Philosophers

In response to:

I'm Laughing But Don't Ask Me Why from the July 1, 1965 issue

To the Editors:

No writer can hope for understanding from the daily press; but many of us had come to think that in The New York Review of Books, at least, ignorance and arrogance could not pass as criticism. Were we wrong?

I have in mind the hapless review of my play The Wives by some person unknown to me (NYR, July 1). What is his name? I shall have to look—I don’t want to misspell it. But before I point up some of the errors in his piece on me, I should like to say a word for someone else who objects to him. I noted that in the same issue of your Review in which my play was discussed, Professor Pritchard questioned some statements about Robert Duncan by the very writer who reviewed The Wives. I noted, too, that for his questions Professor Pritchard was abused by your writer, and told to stay in the sticks where he belongs.

Let us see who belongs in the sticks. Professor Pritchard objected to your reviewer’s association of Robert Duncan’s poems with the ideas of White-head, and of Heidegger. How did your reviewer reply? I quote: “Is the professor aware of Whitehead’s remarks concerning the Romantics, of Heidegger’s monograph on Hölderlin, of Process and Reality or Being and Time?” The implication is clear: Professor Pritchard is hardly conversant with the authors your writer associates with Robert Duncan. Now I am not sure that your reviewer knows these authors well…When he writes of Heidegger’s “monograph on Hölderlin,” is he referring to one of Heidegger’s essays on Hölderlin or to the various essays Heidegger wrote on the poet? Of these essays only one is taken seriously by those who admire Heidegger’s philosophy. I wonder if your reviewer knows which of Heidegger’s essays on Hölderlin I am referring to here.

Your reviewer, commenting on two stanzas in a poem of Robert Duncan, explains the meaning of these stanzas in what he thinks Heideggerian terms. Explicating the stanzas, your reviewer writes: “Robin Hood, ‘the outlaw who has the strength of his own lawfulness,’ attempts through self-will or aggression to conquer Being, while the Other hopes through surrender to abide within it. I find in that hope the equivalent of Heidegger’s notion of ‘letting be,’ the dictum that one must not preconceptualize the phenomenon of existence.” But your writer does not know whereof he speaks. For Heidegger, only man exists. Neither animals nor things exist. So that when Heidegger urges us to let things be what they are, he is not referring to anything that might be called “the phenomenon of existence.” And in urging us to let things be what they are, Heidegger did not at all mean to distinguish two different attitudes toward things, one which would let things be what they are, and another which would try to force them to be what they are not. Who, for example, ordering an egg sandwich in a restaurant, would want it to “be” anything but an egg sandwich? Would a positivist, a pragmatist? Nothing could be more absurd. Heidegger, in urging us to let things be as they are, is referring neither to choices in moral attitudes nor in the poetic contemplation of things. Following Husserl, he is simply pointing to the fact that our passive and involuntary acts of synthesis have an ontological priority over our active syntheses: predictions, hypotheses, etc. For example, when we see a house and recognize it to be that, what does it mean to say that we let the house be what it is, that is to say, a house? Now it is not true as your reviewer thinks, that we do not conceptualize the object or phenomenon, that is to say, the house. For our perception of it shows us only one side of it, and if we did not conceptually supply its other sides, we might take it for a painting of a house, rather than a real house. So we do have to conceptualize every object that we see just in order to see it as it is. What Heidegger has in mind, though, is that in our recognition of a house, our synthesis of its various aspects is effected passively, that is, not through an act of volition. For there is no such thing as the purely given. Even what we call are given is in a real sense taken. But what Heidegger, like Husserl, does is to grant a certain primacy—in the order of knowledge, that is, and not in the orders of moral experience or poetic creation—to the passive syntheses we effect of objects, since these syntheses bring us as close as we can possibly get to the unobtainable ideal of the purely given. Poetry? That is something quite different. When Eluard says to his beloved: “Your hair is blue as an orange,” he certainly is not “letting” the hair of the beloved “be” as it must have appeared to him.

Now as to Whitehead’s remarks on the Romantics. I am not sure that your reviewer understands these remarks, which he intimates Professor Pritchard does not even know. Whitehead never thought Wordsworth had the same ideas he, Whitehead, wanted to express; for why should Whitehead have gone to the trouble to forge a new and difficult set of terms if he merely wanted to repeat what had already been said in Wordsworth’s simpler diction? I think Whitehead tried to be influenced by Wordsworth, even as Heidegger tried to be influenced by Hölderlin.

I admire many of Robert Duncan’s poems, but I can hardly conceive of any philosopher trying to be influenced by them. It is of course possible that Robert Duncan tried to be influenced by Heidegger…But this is not what your reviewer said.

What I am driving at is this: Heidegger’s philosophy ends, as I think Whitehead’s does, too, in an appeal to poetry. In a real sense this means defeat for a philosophy. But it means something else, too. It means that from the point of view of both philosophies in question, that while it is desirable for poetry to influence philosophy, it is not at all desirable for philosophy to influence poetry.

I have gone to some length to expose the superficiality of the person—I will not call him a critic—who was sent to review my play. Again I shall not deal with his judgment of me. Nietzsche once said: “Blessed are those who have taste, even if it is only bad taste.” So bad taste is a state of blessedness. Should I attack the blessed? But when your reviewer calls the Iole in my play “a kewpie doll Cassandra” I think I am entitled to ask whether he is describing something in my play or something he would have liked to have found in my play so as to be able to attack it. At no moment in The Wives was it suggested that Iole had the gift of prophecy. So what is your reviewer talking about? He says that Hyllos, “the blighted romantic” of Sophocles “is presented as a summer replacement of Soupy Sales.” Never mind what I did with the character of Hyllos, or what the actor Alec Murphy did with his part. The question is: did Sophocles treat Hyllos as a “blighted romantic”? Now anyone who had the slightest acquaintance with Greek drama would know better than to say that.

Your reviewer does grant that in my Metatheatre I wrote “a brilliant theoretical treatise.” I am sorry, but I cannot compliment him in turn. I do not think he has the judgment to review plays, their production, or direction. And it is quite evident to me that he knows very little about the writers he pretentiously refers to. The only good thing I can say for him is that he has a liking for Robert Duncan’s poetry. Which liking, were I Robert Duncan, I would view with alarm.

Lionel Abel

New York City

Robert Mazzocco replies:

As drama The Wives is indefensible. Quite naturally, then, Abel lectures me on Heidegger. He serves the following mishmash: the egg sandwich which can not “be” anything but an egg sandwich, the hair of Eluard’s beloved “blue as an orange,” and the example that when we recognize a house to be a house, “what does it mean to say that we let the house be what it is, that is to say, a house?” Abel’s reasoning seems as mixed as his concoction. Where we should have Heideggerian ontology we have Hüsserlian phenomenology, or vice versa. Our perception of a house “shows us only one side of it, and if we did not conceptually supply its other sides, we might take it for a painting of a house, rather than a real house.” Like Hüsserl, Abel is “bracketing” the “real” world, and in Abel’s “house,” Sartre and Wittgenstein, perhaps, are peeking out of the window. But where is Heidegger? “What Heidegger has in mind…is that in our recognition of a house, our synthesis…is effected passively, that is, not through an act of volition.” Is that at variance with the disputed passage? “Robin Hood…attempts…to conquer Being, while the Other hopes through surrender to abide within it.” As for the refutation of “the phenomenon of existence,” that parallels “Now as to Whitehead’s remarks on the Romantics.” Where is the refutation? Where are the remarks? In a customary flip-flop, Abel announces that he cannot conceive of any philosopher being influenced by Duncan’s poems. That of course is the reverse of what I said. I think I am entitled to ask, therefore, just whose “superficiality” he has “gone to some length to expose”?

Abel charges me with ignorance. Like Cassandra, Iole was a princess who lamented her fate, the destruction of her father’s kingdom, and her forced concubinage. She was called a “kewpie doll” because the actress portraying her looked like one and because the lines she had to recite made her sound like one. Sophocles’ Hyllos journeyed from the innocence of youth to the disillusionment of manhood. He learned we do wrong trying to do good; he marked “the malevolence/Of the unforgiving gods.” Abel charges me with pretentiousness. Yet he wishes to know whether I was referring to the Hölderlin essay of the Thirties, or to those of the Forties, and whether I know which of these is now the “in” one. Finally, Abel charges me with arrogance and abuse. If I have been arrogant or abusive, I am indeed sorry. But for one so concerned with such faults, perhaps Abel should re-read his letter.

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