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Back to the Future: the Poetical as the Mind in Action: 2/2
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2007-07-25 12:03:20
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Montaigne saw the essay as a presentation of the self, while Pascal’s definition of the traditional essay was that of a “peinture de la pensée,” i.e. a painting of the mind in action. This recording of the mind in action has strong affinities with poetry. And in fact Pascal, who was also a great mathematician, creates his work out of the arrangement of discontinuous presentations of aphorisms: words differently arranged, mean different things.

Consider his inimitable “the heart has reasons that reason knows not.” Discontinuity rather than linear flow is indeed the characteristic of an electric age. As the quantity of information increases astronomically, juxtaposition, where many possibilities can be suggested at the same time, becomes almost a natural mode of composition. An example of this is the modern multi-image and the multi-screen film.

Thomas Aquinas held that the only way to teach was to lead the student’s mind through the processes of his own mind, i.e., a retracing of the processes of cognition. If one examines carefully the plethora of McLullan’s essays one will discover that each essay follows this process. So there is a definite similarity between the medieval and the modern in as much as McLuhan takes a technique which is medieval and translates it into modern terms.

If Bacon read nature as a book, McLuhan views the landscape of our age as a sort of television documentary. Now, the futurists and the post-moderns may condemn as irrelevant this kind of investigation of the origins of McLuhan’s method. To them, what is, and not how it came to be, is what really matters; they focus on the future and prefer binoculars to rear-view mirrors. But that attitude remains inadequate, for the very forces that McLuhan uses exist now by virtue of the fact that he uses them in his essays.

Like Vico, McLuhan makes history important by making it here and now in the tracing of its origins and by way of understanding the now. And indeed, without discussion of the Greeks, Humanism, the Christian Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it would not be possible to see what is actually happening in the current period. Hence the importance of the metaphor of the rear-view mirror.

But there is another important metaphor for McLuhan: that of the vortex. He was fascinated with that image. In fact he ends his book of essays The Medium is the Massage with a presentation of Poe’s vertical image from “The Descent into the Maelstrom” where the mariner saves himself by understanding the action of the whirlpool. For McLuhan, this stands for the technique that moderns must adapt as “a possible stratagem for understanding our present predicament, our electrically-configured whirl” (p. 150). The present is here married to the past, thus following the Vichian-Joycean aesthetic method: the simultaneous juxtaposition of the mythic past and the realistic present.

Let us conclude with a brief reflection on this powerful metaphor of the whirlpool. Let us imagine it as representing a deterministic, horizontal, immanent future, devoid of any transcendence, the end of history so to speak, swallowing the past and the present. Let us further imagine Western Civilization as a wonderfully comfortable transatlantic ship full of technological gadgets and wonders unknowingly approaching the whirlpool in the middle of the night without a guiding compass or chart. Will it save itself by simply understanding the action of the whirlpool? Can that understanding be achieved via positivistic, rationalistic or real-politick paradigms devoid of the poetical? Is rationalism sufficient light unto itself to discern the danger of the whirlpool ahead?

The metaphor ought to liberate the reader's imagination and suggest many more existentially vital questions. For the preservation of our Western civilization may ultimately be determined not by the glib answers but by the quality of the imaginative questions we are capable of asking ourselves. They are like the indispensable rear-view mirror and sea charts.


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Chris2007-07-27 19:00:32
Columbus found Amerigo. He was a map maker. Poetry draws the map for those lost in the libraries of labrynth conceptualization, while image as illusion tramples emotions into experiential halographies of life. Papparella, you write like sage.

Paparella2007-07-29 11:00:30
Indeed,many more voyages awaite the humankind and, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, when we arrive at our final destination we shall realize that we have come full circle at the point of origin, that in the beginning there is the end and in the end there is the beginning. Meanwhile the narration of the journey can begin at any point of the hermeneuitical circle.

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