Groping nervously towards the expression of inner life

This is an expression the critic Joy Grant uses to describe the biography of Harold Monro, founder of the Poetry Bookshop and an influential figure in London’s literary scene in the early modern era. If I understand correctly she’s pointing towards the relationship between his own unhappiness and the ideal which animated him: “poetry at the very heart of life” as Sue Gee puts it in Slightly Foxed No. 72 where I was introduced to Monro for the first time. It suggests to me we’re inevitably striving to realise our inner nature in the outer world when we act towards an ideal, as manifested in the conjunction of Monro’s hyperactive cultural life and his persistent unhappiness.

There’s a gap between who we would like to be and what we do in the world which can be profoundly creative and lead us to act in ways which enable us to become more than we originally are. As I get older I’m increasingly convinced that creative people, or least people whose creativity I’m drawn towards, tend to live in this gap. In many cases they might be stuck in this gap, caught in a claustrophobic imminence in which the diffuse aspiration to be more confronts conditions which chip away at the possibility of self-transformation. Žižek offers a useful reminder of the importance of what we can’t say, highlighting how being stuck in this inarticulate gap can constitute the authenticity of our condition, even if we imagine ourself to be the changed person striding away just over the horizon:

Recall what one might be tempted to call the “Hugh-Grant-paradox” (referring to the famous scene from Four Weddings and a Funeral): the hero tries to articulate his love to the beloved, he gets caught in stumbling and confused repetitions, and it is this very failure to deliver his message of love in a perfect way that bears witness to its authenticity

To recognise this point reminds us how messy life is spite of our fantasies about escaping that mess. But we can heed Zarathustra’s warnings about the last man while still recognising we need more than Nietzsche’s philosophical fireworks in order to climb out of this discursive gap in which we risk languishing:

And thus spoke Zarathustra to the people: It is time for man to fix his goal.  It is time for man to plant the seed of his highest hope.  His soil is still rich enough for it.  But this soil will one day be poor and exhausted; no lofty tree will be able to grow from it.  Alas!  The time is coming when man will no longer shoot the arrow of his longing beyond mankind— and the string of his bow will have forgotten how to twang!  I tell you: one must have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star.  I tell you: you have still chaos in you.  Alas!  The time is coming when man will give birth to no more stars.  Alas!  The time of the most contemptible man is coming, the man who can no longer despise himself.

This is why I’ve always come back to Charles Taylor’s account of articulacy. It vanishes from my thoughts for years at a time and I inevitably circle back to it, through a practical problem I confront or a theoretical problem I’ve become intrigued by. My reading of this is that our struggle with the gap is a life long process in which we unavoidably find that what we say doesn’t do justice to what we’re trying to say, much as who we are doesn’t do justice to who we would like to be. The capacity to transcend this gap comes because we become who we are in the process of trying to bridge it, folding our awareness back upon ourself as we make our way through the world:

Much of our motivation – our desires, aspirations, evaluation – is not simply given. We give it a formulation in words or images. Indeed, by the fact that we are linguistic animals our desires and aspirations cannot but be articulated in one way or another […] these articulations are not simply descriptions, if we mean by this characterisations of a fully independent object, that is, an object which is altered neither in what it is, nor in the degree or manner of its evidence to us by the description.

In this way my characterisation of this table as brown, or this line of mountains as jagged, is a simple description. On the contrary, articulations are attempts to formulate what is initially inchoate, or confused, or badly formulated. But this kind of formation or reformulation does not leave its object unchanged. To give a certain articulation is to shape our sense of what we desire or what we hold important in a certain way.

In this sense the problem isn’t groping towards inner life, it’s doing so nervously. It needs to be a self-confident process in which, as Emerson put it, we “learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across [the] mind from within”. It recognises there’s no escape from the mess of life, no homeostatic release and no final resting place. It’s a process inevitably riddled with dissatisfaction in which other people will always to some extent fail to understand us in the last instance. But the pleasure of life comes from dwelling in that gap, exploring the shifting constellation of possibilities it leaves open for us and trying to make sense of the peculiar existential-evolutionary situation in which we find ourselves. To fail in this undertaking ultimately, as Nietzsche and Rust Cole remind us in different ways, leads to nihilism:

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