Drawing the line on the “originals of faith”
i recall mentioning somewhere in my previous essay, influenced in large part on Browning’s salacious (raunchy) Red Cotton Night Cap Country or Turf and Towers, that there were a number of topics, or more accurately, ideas, which the poem raised, for me. These ideas are more accurately, exercises in strong misprision. Here’s another (not about sex or Atheism though).
There is, in part III of the poem, a chunk of verse, in which Browning makes a sort of false start, he makes as if to go “into the originals of faith…as apprehended by mankind…” but which, if tackled “would too distract, too desperately foil inquirer.” Rather than express his reasons directly, Browning opts for a series of rhetorical questions, a common tactic of Browning’s; seldom a poet who chose the exoteric option. It’s the sensible option however, taking the long, elliptical way round the problem: faith is no easy topic, especially its origins, after all.
As i see it, Browning’s option to take the long way round might reveal more about the originals than we may suspect. For though he tells us in the opening lines
Now into the originals of faith,
Yours, mine, Miranda’s, no inquiry here!
it seems to me that Browning is, with this rhetorical circumscription, illustrating that this is a literary matter, a strategy.
The first question he asks is:
……………………..How may analyst reduce
Quantities to exact their opposites,
Value to zero, then bring zero back
To value of supreme preponderance?
This is complicated; i’ve been scratching my head over many a glass of soju with this one. It seems to me a sort of inversion that still manages to be what it was originally, an inversion that toggles 2 scales, remaining both. This appears counterintuitive, but Tim Morton may provide us with an example.
Morton explains in an interview with Verso books (which i highly recommend, so here’s the link) that the maxim “the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts” never sat quite right with him, but that, instead “the whole is always less than the sum of its parts” is better, more exacting. Using a fresh example, we can reveal it to be more inclusive of everything than when everything is “always greater”.
If we take the hand as our example & say the hand is greater than the sum of its parts, then we give precedence to the hand over what it actually does, how it is composed, its evolution; we have stationed its objective unity, above the importance of its form & function, which takes a step closer to subjectivity (if additional incentive is required). Once the hand is less than the sum of its parts we interrogate what those parts are: the joints, muscles, veins & arteries, the ability to grip, touch, perform skills, eat, wash, learn, the everyday interaction it enables us to have with objects. The list could go on. In fact, we get a new list of wholes with which we might dismantle into more parts, themselves wholes.
Lessening the whole we strategically maneuver ourselves into a better vantage point from which to appreciate the details of a thing, the wider environment & ultimately the composition of reality. Try this with anything.
So there is this oscillation back & forth between the micro & macro, toggling two scales: bringing “value to zero” then “zero back to value of supreme preponderance” although, with our example, the “supreme preponderance” will be the renewed sense of importance that the dismantling of wholes into parts has for us. It becomes a process whereby wholes are continually dismantled, creating for us an active partnership with objects & how we see them.
This, if we go back to somewhere near the beginning of the poem, relates to something Browning writes: “‘Heaven’ saith the sage ‘is with us, here inside / Each man’”.
Heaven is a macro-concept, a vast, other realm— spiritually proportional to our best guesses, but if it is here in us, it still retains those properties, & the slightness of our corporeal form is still as it is, except the idea of Heaven here, conflates man with the abstract, thus reducing it, while expanding man. The value of zero toggles again.
The next question is “How substitute thing meant for thing expressed?”
i’d answer this with, synecdoche (aside: WordPress spell check is very bad, it doesn’t recognize synecdoche & would have it changed to Indochinese— perhaps WordPress is telling me that everything in this essay is nonsense.), metonym— figurative language in general.
We are slap bang in the territory of the above question, but we have moved from value to motive. Kenneth Burke in A Grammar of Motives (which i don’t have a copy of here in Korea, so have had, to my shame, pull from Wikipedia) defines synecdoche as
“part of the whole, whole for the part, container for the contained, sign for the thing signified, material for the thing made…cause for effect, effect for the cause, genus for the species, species for the genus.”
Figurative language is useful, if we know how to use it for our benefit. For those uninitiated in the language or jargon of a topic, analogy is a door in. The Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli spoke about the importance of analogy in his profession recently in a Guardian interview. i pulled a brilliant quote from that interview:
“In the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between ’cause’ and ‘effect’.”
Which again might have something to do with the togglability (my own shoddy neologism) of scales; for the context i have distinguished here.
It moreover foments emotional change. Take the change in emotional register of ‘the police’ & ‘the boys in blue.” As ‘the police’ the image is one of authority, obdurately bureaucratic; but as ‘the boys in blue’ there is something approachable, trustworthy, on-our-side about it. The authority is defused & there is something compatible with welfare.
Browning substitutes direct confrontation of the “originals of faith” problem & in doing so devises a set of questions that bring literary strategies to the fore. Might Browning (perhaps against his own inclination) be hinting that the “originals of faith” were literary inventions, a literature, at once symbolic & moralizing? An illustration of our organic susceptibility to art?
Browning offers a metaphor: “the wire thread through that fluffy silk men call their rope.”
The wire gives structure, strength & durability, it is unseen, of zero value to the eye, but without it there is no rope. The rope for me, works in tandem with Browning’s use of the word meridian in the lines
Since one meridian suits the faulty lungs
Another bids the sluggish liver work.
The association isn’t a strong one, but both rope & meridian put me in mind of lines. At the opening of Browning’s poem Prince Hohenstiel Schwangau The Saviour of Society Hohenstiel says
………………………………………………..…I’m rested now
Therefore want work; and spy no better work
For eye and hand and mind that guides them both,
During this instant, than to draw my pen
From blot one—thus—up, up to blot two—thus—
Which I at last reach, thus, and here’s my line
Five inches long and tolerably straight. (my italics)
The line is of immense importance, you will struggle to complete a whole without it, it is the most fundamental part of most (if not all) works of art, all structures, the first mark made in architectural plans & in building or carpentry; without it what is a poem or novel, a philosophy, even an equation. It is a reason why Robert Okaji’s line from his poem, One
I am Brahman
the straight line, the upright being
is so moving; it is the foundational aspect of the line, basic yet encompassed by unlimited potential— single yet composed of a multiplicity of words, which in themselves are vested with the power of arrangement & rearrangement, as Brahman is not a single entity but should be considered as an amalgam of all things under a single title; we can takes ourselves back to Morton’s flipped maxim.
Browning could be hinting that rather than worry & discombobulate ourselves with worrying about the origins of faith, we might be better considering the origins of art & literature: the simple line.
The line is a compositional element. George Santayana explains in The Sense of Beauty (a veritable bible of aesthetics):
“It is found where sensible elements by themselves indifferent, are so united as to please in combination. There is something unexpected in this phenomenon, so much so that those who cannot conceive its explanation often reassure themselves by denying its existence.”
Santayana then illustrates to those who cannot conceive with 4 longer & 6 shorter lines, seemingly indifferent to artifice. With these 10 lines he shows how 3 different faces in profile can be created: one grumpy, one handsome & indifferent & one grinning deviously. The differences are clearly evident, no ambiguity. The line triumphs in expression.
Burke proves a suitable reference again— for concluding. In his short essay Literature as Equipment for Living from his book The Philosophy of Literary Form (which i do have to hand) we find a strategy for the utilization of literature in the pursuit of welfare. i like to think that, if Browning had read Burke, he’d have said something to the effect of “that’s bloody bang on the mark that is kiddo, what a clever fellow you are, let me buy you a pint.”
Burke zeros in on the proverb (a single line) & thinks “why not extend such analysis of proverbs to encompass the whole field of literature.” It is no wonder this affected a relation to Browning for me— there is that word analysis, where Browning has a hypothetical analyst wonder about zero values & their preponderance.
Burke goes on the say
“could the most complex and sophisticated works of art legitimately be considered as proverbs writ large?”
Yes, they may very well. Why not let the line speak for the whole while you’re at it.
i think Burke gives us pause here to connect the dots i am trying to lay down: that the micro can, in place of the macro, represent it in some measure, & because it can be simmered down it can be brought into daily usage. Furthermore, with the handheld version of the behemoth, the manageability enables an active participation with its potential, because analysis is easily accomplished; the line is self-evident, engageable.
“The point of issue is not to find categories that “place” the proverbs once and for all. What I want is categories that suggest their active nature. Here is no “realism for its own sake.” Here is realism for promise, admonition, solace, vengeance, foretelling, instruction, charting, all for the direct bearing that such acts have upon matters of welfare.”
(We could say a lot about this list but i am aiming to stay under 2000 words.)
Here Burke provides how he envisions the active “place” of the proverb working in this context of the microcosm of great art & literature. Essentially, Burke seems to want to make literature available to people (same reason he had quarrels with Marxist terminology), because of how it can affect welfare as it becomes more available. i’d argue this is what Browning is considering when he decides to skirt the “originals of faith” topic.
Avoiding this, focusing on the line, man avoids “struggling with uncongenial earth and sky” & instead
…tread[s] the surface of the globe,
Since one meridian suits the faulty lungs,
Another bids the sluggish liver work.
In other words, our newly discovered simplicity enables corrective pairing. i take it to be self-evident how valuable this is. i don’t feel it necessary to go into it at length but leave the reader to go into this themselves or in the comments section.
Overall, i class Browning’s rhetorical questioning as a strategy for overcoming. i could be argued that Browning is advising his reader on a tactic for tackling his own works, which are mighty & complex, perhaps another time.
The humble line is available to everyone. We can invert it. It can play against its own strengths. We can build upon it confidently. We can work around it. It is the foundation. The baby steps to greatness. A unit in the welfare of individuals & even communities.
Take your time with it, invest in it, with it; never take it for granted— you just might discover how it affects you, & it’ll probably be in ways you never imagined.