“I think that poetry (and poetic thinking) can now play a significant role in expanding our awareness of the world and ourselves. This is not a return or regression to a pre-philosophical world, but an extension of the self-awareness that philosophy has achieved into the realm of imagination”
Interviews Luke Fischer
Michela Beatrice Ferri: Luke Fischer, what are the origins of the great project presented in your book “The Poet as Phenomenologist – Rilke and the New Poems” published by Bloomsbury?
Luke Fischer: That’s a big and difficult question, as you know––the question of origins and beginnings. As a central concern of this project is the relation between poetry and philosophy, the seeds of this project lie at least as far back as my adolescence, when I concurrently developed a passionate interest for metaphysical or philosophical questions and poetry (including writing poetry). In my undergraduate years at the University of Sydney, I majored in Philosophy and English. While philosophy engaged me more than literary criticism I experienced a certain lack in both disciplines. I saw a great deal of philosophical significance in literature, but did not find this in the critical approach to literature, that tended to be more philological than philosophical. Philosophy, in contrast, seemed to lack the richness of literature, and often substitute abstractions for phenomena. More specifically, I had the feeling that while phenomenology can articulate the formal structures of experience, literature, in particular, poetry, seems to be able to give us the phenomena themselves. This was my feeling about the relationship between philosophy and poetry at that time. I developed a strong interest in philosophical movements that sought to bridge the gap between poetry and philosophy (such as German Romanticism and certain directions in phenomenology, especially the later Heidegger––my Honours thesis was on Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin). One motivation for writing on Rilke and phenomenology (which was also the subject of my doctoral thesis that I completed in 2008) was that, for a number of reasons, I considered Rilke to be the most significant poet of the twentieth century. In a way, I wanted to investigate the relative significance of poetry and philosophy by bringing the greatest twentieth century poet into dialogue with what I considered to be the most significant philosophical movement of the century (phenomenology). This was not merely a scholary question for me; rather, it was an existential and personal question. I felt equally drawn to philosophy and poetry and wanted to come to a sound conclusion about which pursuit was more valuable. In a sense I was exploring the question: should I be a philosopher or a poet? As I was committed to the truth, my answer to this question could not simply be determined by inclination. Could poetry really do something that philosophy couldn’t do? Many philosophers would think of literature and poetry (and the arts) as inferior to philosophy, as vaguer and more accessible or popular ways of exploring the kinds of questions that philosophy rigorously investigates through the application of reason. Of course, one could divide things into the traditional ideas of truth and beauty, and apply them to philosophy and poetry respectively. However, any kind of simple division of the rational and the aesthetic, the true and the beautiful, philosophy (or science) and poetry (or art) seemed shallow to me. There is truth in art and poetry (and I think the aesthetic is also part of philosophy). In other words, part of the origin of my project on Rilke and phenomenology was a need to resolve an internal quarrel between philosophy and poetry.
Another central part of this project, as you know, is the problem of dualism. I had the sense that certain kinds of poetry seemed able to convey a unified vision of the sensible and the spiritual, the visible and the invisible, in a way that exceeded the capacities of philosophy. I don’t want to repeat the arguments in my book, but I felt that dualism was not merely a theoretical problem but also an existential one and that poetry was able to address (overcome) this existential dualism. At first my project was not specifically focussed on the poetry of Rilke but was a broader consideration of how poetry could address dualism. However, early on in my research (in 2006) when I was doing my doctoral research in Tübingen, Germany, I came to the realisation that Rilke’s poetry, and especially his Neue Gedichte, addressed my concern in the most concrete and exemplary way. Thus my question about the relation between philosophy and poetry came to centre on the problem of dualism and especially on how Rilke’s poetry could address this problem.
MBF: In the Preface of the book, you write that one of the main conclusions of your book is “that the art of poetry can address certain philosophical problems more adequately than philosophy itself”, and, so, that this book “provides a philosophical justification for the writing of poetry”.
How can poetry face the “Crisis of Philosophy” (recalling the title of the first paragraph of your Introduction)?
LF: I share the view with a number of other thinkers that philosophy has come to an end, and it is this end that I have in mind as the “crisis” of philosophy. Making this claim so directly always sounds a bit outlandish and this claim is easily misunderstood, so I should specify what this claim means and doesn’t mean. It does not mean that philosophy as a discipline ceases. Nor does it mean that philosophy has ceased to be culturally significant. I think philosophy (the formation and critical reflection on concepts) is incredibly important for the present and future of human culture and society. However, if we look to the whole history of Western philosophy then we can say that philosophy begins with the Pre-Socratics in ancient Greece through the gradual internal transformation of mythic thinking or imagination into rational thinking. In the Pre-Socratics we do not find the kind of pure reason we expect of a philosopher or scientist today but what looks like a hybrid of thought and myth. However, it is anachronistic to call it a hybrid because that makes it seem like Pre-Socratic thought was the combination of two separate elements. At that time, in contrast, it was simply a step in the process of a mythic worldview being transformed from within into a rational grasp of reality. It is with Plato, and especially Aristotle, that rational thinking finds its complete autonomy as a way of determining the structure and nature of reality. Let us now jump forward more than two thousand years to the present, and we can say that rational thought has now penetrated every aspect of our world (philosophy, sciences, technology, the arts, our institutions, etc.) and the world has been completely demythologized and disenchanted. This does not mean that the less than rational (and the irrational) are no longer powerful forces in the world. However, those who have not attained, generally speaking, a rational determination of reality are simply behind the times (just as, in a reverse sense, Plato and Aristotle were way ahead of their times). As reason has penetrated all aspects of life, philosophy no longer holds its former significance. In a sense, the end or telos of philosophy has been reached. Philosophy is in crisis because it no longer bears the world-historical significance it once had, for the reason that it has achieved its most significant end––the rationalisation of the world.
While the conceptual determination of reality through rational thinking was, in important respects, a progressive development, I think that conceptual thought also has its horizon and limit. The original transition from myth to philosophy was not only a new correspondence of Being and thinking, so to speak, but also has its boundaries and in certain respects involved a diminishing of previously experienced dimensions of the world (nature, for instance, was gradually disenchanted or de-animated). As a kind of mirror image of the ancient transition from myth to philosophy, I think that poetry (and poetic thinking) can now play a significant role in expanding our awareness of the world and ourselves. This is not a return or regression to a pre-philosophical world, but an extension of the self-awareness that philosophy has achieved into the realm of imagination (Owen Barfield’s writings on poetry and philosophy––see Poetic Diction and Saving the Appearances––have been a key influence on this aspect of my thought). In short, poetry can extend philosophy.
I have addressed your questions in reverse order––begun with the “crisis” of philosophy. Now I will respond to the two aspects of your first question above. The central problem addressed in the book is that of dualism––the book argues that poetry can significantly address this philosophical problem. The Poet as Phenomenologist demonstrates how Rilke’s poetry mediates a concrete vision of things, in which the opposition between the visible and the invisible––the sensuous and the spiritual––is overcome, in ways that exceed the capacities of philosophy alone. The abstract universality of the concept cannot render the same concrete unity as the poetic imagination. However, as I also point out in the book, philosophy plays an important role in delineating and thematizing how poetry can respond to a philosophical problem. The book itself is, I hope, a mutually illuminating dialogue between poetry and philosophy.
Finally, to your question about how the book provides a justification for writing poetry. My response to this question relates to something I indicated above. As someone dedicated to truth and who felt that poetry was significant, it was important for me to determine whether poetry could mediate a truthful vision that transcends traditional philosophy. It is in this sense that the book provides a philosophical justification for writing poetry. Poetry can be a way to the truth, to a disclosure of the world that extends into territories beyond the boundaries of philosophy. By the time I had finished my doctoral thesis (2008) I had already resolved this question for myself, and from that time onwards I have dedicated more of my energy to writing poetry (as you know, my book of poems Paths of Flight was published at the end of 2013 and creatively explores some of the key concerns of The Poet as Phenomenologist). However, this philosophical justification for writing poetry not only has a personal significance but is also relevant to anyone who feels similarly called both to poetry and truth.
MBF: The title of the book and your path in philosophy: how can you explain the relation between poetry and phenomenology?
And how did you begin to be interested in phenomenology as a poet?
LF: The second question is easy to answer, as I’ve already implicitly answered it. I was not first a poet and later a philosopher and phenomenologist. I was passionately interested in philosophy and poetry from my early teens onwards. In my years of university study, phenomenology and poetry were concurrent interests.
Below I will say more about how I see the specific relationship between Rilke’s poetry and phenomenology, so here I will just say a few words about poetry and phenomenology more generally. Language plays a central role for both poetry and philosophy. Thus, there is already a closer proximity between poetry and philosophy than, say, philosophy and painting, in that both are dependent on language and articulated in language. A poem––in contrast to philosophy––does not proceed by way of arguments. However, this does not mean that poetry has nothing to do with truth. Rather, poetry conveys the truth––reveals phenomena––through a more intuitive (as well as imaginative and “musical”) articulation of things. Without needing footnotes or rational arguments, poetry conveys its significance. Its way with language is more intuitive than philosophy. However, precisely in this respect one could say that there is a closer affinity between poetry and phenomenology than poetry and other philosophical movements. Description––in contrast to explanation––is crucial to phenomenology and whether one is committed to a Husserlian understanding of “evidence” or a Heideggerian notion of truth as “aletheia”, there is a sense that what matters in phenomenology is that one acquires insight into the matter at hand. There is, so to speak, a strongly intuitive dimension to phenomenology. One either sees or does not see, and the task of the phenomenologist is to describe the phenomena in such a way that another can arrive at the same insight. Both phenomenology and poetry (at least certain kinds of poetry) involve a saying that intends to show. Nevertheless, as a form of philosophy, phenomenology still requires more recourse to argument and logical justification than poetry does. And a poem, as a work of art, generally seeks to realise certain aesthetic and formal demands (that are essential to the way in which a poem says) that are of little concern to philosophical language.
MBF: Enzo Paci, Italian Phenomenologist, wrote: “Il Geist di Husserl sembra, così, avvicinarsi al Geist di Rilke nel quale si costituisce la relazione e nel quale noi viviamo le figure, gli eide [Husserl’s Geist seems to be close to Rilke’s Geist in which the relation is constituted and in which we live the essences, the eide]”.
What do you think about this statement of Enzo Paci?
LF: Yes, there are certainly significant affinities between Rilke and Husserl. I am not familiar with Enzo Paci’s philosophical works, so, lacking this background knowledge, I probably cannot respond in detail to his statement. Nevertheless, I think that Rilke, like Husserl, was aware of the problem of constitution, what one might call the interrelation of acts of consciousness and the appearances of the world––the noetic-noematic relation. In this sense, they both see the world and conscious life as relationally intertwined. There are many examples throughout Rilke’s work where he thematizes, for instance, the relationship between perceiver and perceived as an act of meaningful constitution which enables the emergence of phenomena into consciousness. I discuss numerous examples in my book but I’ll offer one marvellous example here that I don’t discuss in my book. Consider the beginning of Rilke’s poem, “Begegnung in der Kastanien-Allee” (“Encounter in the Chestnut Avenue”) from the second volume of New Poems (Der neuen Gedichte anderer Teil):
Ihm ward des Eingangs grüne Dunkelheit
kühl wie ein Seidenmantel umgegeben
den er noch nahm und ordnete: als eben
am andern transparenten Ende, weit,
aus grüner Sonne, wie aus grünen Scheiben,
weiß eine einzelne Gestalt
[The entrance’s green darkness
coolly enveloped him like a silk cloak
that he was still accepting and arranging; just as
at the other transparent end, far off,
in the green sunshine, as if green panes,
a single white shape
The poem begins by describing a person entering into an avenue overarched by the foliage and branches of chestnut trees. We get a precise register of the first sense impression of “green darkness” that is compared to a cool (this adds a sense of the felt coolness of the air in the shady avenue) enveloping silk cloak that the perceiver is still accepting and arranging. If Rilke had remained with only a description of “green darkness” and other impressions in the poem, we might be justified in calling him an Empiricist and the poetic equivalent of an Impressionist. However, Rilke speaks of “accepting” or “taking” and “ordering” these impressions. He vividly describes perceiving as a noetic process of making sense––the phenomena are ordered by our mental acts and their appearance is correlated to these acts. This is only one of the many diverse depictions of the noetic-noematic relationship in Rilke’s poetry. However, as I argue in my book, there are various ways in which Rilke shares deeper affinities with Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, than with Husserl.
MBF: Which could be the points of distance between Rilke and Husserl’s phenomenology?
LF: As you know, Käte Hamburger wrote a long and highly significant essay “Die phänomenologische Struktur der Dichtung Rilkes” (1966) in which she argues that Rilke’s poetry corresponds entirely to Husserl’s phenomenology. Wolfgang Müller takes issue with some of the parallels that Hamburger draws between Rilke and Husserl. For instance, Müller regards Husserl as more of a rationalist than Rilke (the affective, for instance, is a more central concern for Rilke than for Husserl). He also thinks that Rilke does not perform the phenomenological reduction in a way that matches Husserl’s idea of it. Relatedly, Müller makes the point that sense in Rilke emerges out of a relationship between consciousness and things (as poetic epiphanies) that presupposes, rather than suspends (as the phenomenological reduction would) the positing of their existence. While I mostly agree with Müller’s assessment of these matters, I think he falsely draws the conclusion that because Rilke’s poetry does not match Husserl’s phenomenology, Rilke is not a phenomenologist. I argue in my book that precisely where Rilke diverges from Husserl one can see his proximity to other phenomenologists, including Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, and Marion. I think there are especially interesting affinities between Rilke and Merleau-Ponty and that they both stress relationality to a greater extent than Husserl. While Husserl places emphasis on the transcendental subject as the source of meaning, both Rilke and Merleau-Ponty emphasise the way in which meaning emerges out of a reciprocating relationship between perceiver and perceived, mind and world. (My ultimate argument though is that Rilke’s poetic phenomenology is distinctive and cannot be circumscribed by the framework of any philosopher.) The American phenomenologist and Husserl scholar, Anthony Steinbock, read an earlier draft of The Poet as Phenomenologist and gave me some valuable feedback. He thought that I was giving insufficient attention to aspects of Husserl’s phenomenology that highlight the affective resonance in our experience of perception. He referred me in particular to Husserl’s lectures on active and passive synthesis, which led me to modify my interpretation slightly by the time of the final draft of my book. However, I still hold to my overall view on the matter of Rilke’s relationship to various phenomenological philosophies. At one point I characterize Rilke as a kind of poetic equivalent of a fusion of Merleau-Ponty and aspects of Novalis (or another Romantic with an interest in the numinous).
MBF: Why were you interested in analyzing the Neue Gedichte, New Poems, of Rilke, and how can you define their phenomenological character (feature)?
LF: Here I can only indicate a response to these questions, which, I think, my book answers fairly comprehensively. I was interested in the question of how poetry could respond to the problem of dualism, and I think Rilke’s New Poems offer an exemplary unified vision of things, what I call in my book a “twofold vision”. The two volumes of Rilke’s New Poems are the crowning poetic achievement of his middle period. The influence of visual art (Rodin and Cézanne were the most significant influences) and a strong focus on perception are evident in many of these poems. Wolfgang Müller aptly describes Rilke’s New Poems as embodying an “Imagism” before the movement of Imagism. The poems––especially the so-called “thing poems” or Dinggedichte––not only facilitate a vivid imagination of the perceptual appearance of things, but also simultaneously intimate a sense of their meaningful and invisible depth. The visible and the invisible, the perceptual and the intellectual, the sensuous and the spiritual are revealed as an indissoluble unity. These terms are not in opposition to one another but presented as a “twofold” unity. Nowhere else in Rilke’s oeuvre is there such a thorough interpenetration of the concretely sensuous and the invisible. This was my main reason for focussing on the New Poems rather than Rilke’s late masterpieces, Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus––although there are important continuities in Rilke’s oeuvre. Moreover, within the entire history of lyric poetry, Rilke’s New Poems are exemplary for their twofold vision.
With regard to their phenomenological character, I can, again, only intimate what is substantially argued in the book. I argue that Rilke’s poems are concerned with the “things themselves”. The connection to Cézanne is striking here, as Merleau-Ponty, for instance, regarded Cézanne as a phenomenological painter. Rilke emphasizes Cézanne’s concern with portraying the things themselves in his paintings, what Cézanne himself called the task of “réalisation” and what Rilke also described as a “sachliches Sagen” (an objective saying). Moreover, Cézanne and Rilke are both concerned with much more than a kind of realism or naturalism. Through the various means at their disposal, as a painter and poet respectively, they thematize not only the “what” of seeing but also the “how” of seeing (to which one can also add the “thatness” of things)––in Husserlian language, their works concretely reveal the “noetic-noematic” correlation. Cézanne does this, for instance, through the constructive dimension of his paintings (which I won’t elaborate here) and Rilke through thematizing processes of perceiving (as in the example I gave above from “Begegnung in der Kastanien-Allee”) and evoking the phenomena through poetic devices such as metaphor, simile, rhythm and assonance, etc. In the book I argue that Rilke’s poetry offers us a poetic embodiment and equivalent of Heidegger’s formal definition of phenomenology in Being and Time as a saying of the “things themselves” and, more specifically, as language that allows phenomena to show themselves. In a nutshell, Rilke’s “new poems” mediate twofold disclosures of the “things themselves”.