More light! More darkness!

Sometimes clarity can be more confusing than partial obscurity. I found the following quote for the epigrammatic portion of my flawed, book-length poem Cibola:

Who of the desert has not spent his day riding at a mountain and never even reaching its base? This is a land of illusions and thin air. The vision is so cleared at times that the truth itself is deceptive.
John Van Dyke, The Desert: Further Studies in Natural Appearances

A-hunting I shall go for more such quotes. The latest poem at Awake at Dawn contains this reminder:

. . . the word
that means exactly the thing is a waste of memory.


An older post in evidentiary: alchemy links to an article in the Smithsonian’s website, “Decoding the Past: The Work of Archaeologists”:

To an archaeologist, the soil resembles a historical document; the researcher must decipher, translate, and interpret the soil before it can help him or her understand the human past. But unlike a document, the soil of an archaeological site can be interpreted only once in the state in which it is found. The very process of excavation destroys a site forever, making such an investigation a costly experiment that cannot be repeated.

So with this kind of investigation, there is no simple opposition of clarity and obscurity, but a range of options involving trade-offs between a focus on being and a focus on becoming, the illusory static moment and the equally illusory flow:

As an excavation progresses, it uncovers the past in both horizontal and vertical dimensions. The horizontal dimension reveals a site as it was at a fixed point in time. The vertical dimension shows the sequence of changes within a site over time. Excavation methods vary according to which dimension of the past an archaeologist chooses to study. . . .

Researchers gather two very different sets of information during the course of any excavation. They can examine tangible findings, such as artifacts and the remains of plants, animals, and humans, well after an excavation has ended. However, excavation destroys contextual features, such as building remains, as they are uncovered. To preserve vital information about these remains, archaeologists painstakingly catalog every nuance of a site through volumes of photographs and drawings.

Martin Heidegger may have had something like this in mind when he said that “To clarify means to offend.” But consider the source: I gather from the English translations of his works that the man was constitutionally incapable of writing a clear sentence!

So much of semantic clarity is really just a stylistic affectation, a preference in modern English prose for straight, clear lines. For George Orwell, in his great essay “Politics and the English Language,” such straight lines are essential to warding off the demons of obscurantism allied with political repression. The language of power is quite often filled with intentional obscurities designed to exclude the unknowledgeable and unworthy; many of its words and phrases are so much dross, matrix to be removed only by the trained archaeological worker with the proper tools and a light touch. This is as true of modern bureaucratic jargon as it is of the cryptic utterances of sorcerer-chiefs on the light-drenched verge of the Sahara.

But among many practitioners of modern science and poetry, clarity is extolled as the highest value of communication. What then if the objective truth turns out to be mind-bogglingly complex? Can’t we also learn from language that allows our minds to boggle, to dwell in happy confusion for a while?

And if we say that communication is the sole, or major, purpose of art and language, that completely ignores the affective dimension. A good poem, novel, symphony, etc. doesn’t so much communicate emotion as it reproduces it afresh in the listeners’ hearts. This is kind of like archaeology in reverse: accumulation seems a better metaphor here than excavation, but the trade-off appears quite similar. If I watch/listen analytically, I deprive myself of the joys of full immersion in the creative flow, and vice versa.

With performances in a communal setting, mutual emotional reinforcement among audience members and between performers and audience (who often become indistiguishable) can create an additional, often quite powerful dimension that transcends mere appreciation. The right stimulus at the right moment can produce ecstasy, entheogenesis. We are beside ourselves. The gods descend. Where is your precious Cartesian clarity now?

I’ll give the final word (from the same online source as the Heidegger quote) to Robert Frost: “There is nothing as mysterious as something clearly seen.”

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