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  • Poetry And Metaphysics
  • Joseph Bottum


We ought to begin with what is true: things stand over against us—over against philosophers, over against poets, over against us all. The sheer existence of a thing, the mute unspeakable “it” of it, is as impossible of being thought as it is of being said. Things confront us, always other; the other has no other face.

Of course, the problem with trying to begin this way is that language shies as soon as we begin. By existence, we mean the this (utmost concreteness, utmost particularity), while words speak of ideas, verba mentis, thoughts, abstractions. Philosophers and poets alike hear the swindle when we use the most abstract language—“being,” “thing,” “existent,” “this”—to speak of what is most concrete, the most general to speak the most particular. It is precisely because “Being” sounds so generic that Aristotle must insist Being is no genus. 1

And skittish thought shies here as well. Just as language throws us when we come to speak the real, so thought slips sideways and refuses when we come to that same hurdle in the thing. What advance is made when the unthinkable is recognized as unthinkable? We certainly hold no infinite thought when we understand we cannot think the infinite; we do not grasp our death by understanding we cannot imagine being dead. So we miss somehow the thing and catch instead our thinking when we suppose unthinkability belongs to the unthinkable thing. Only in misdirection can we point to that with which we must begin. Logic might have warned us: there can be no answer to the question “What is this?” when what we mean by this is what is left when all the whats are stripped away. But our resistance to the real is not merely from the sort of logical contradiction that makes square circles or mountains without [End Page 214] valleys impossible to think. Though we know it is wrong to take resisting as an intention of the thing, nonetheless behind the passion that is our own being resisted we feel what seems to be an action of the other: the something-there for which thought itself does not account.

We know, in other words, that existence is not a form, but we can only think existence as though it were some sort of form—the attempt to describe which leads us further and further from the existence we are trying to describe. Language is insufferable. Through the window I see my neighbor Mr. Wheeler over there across the lawn, raking while his daughters fill the dark green plastic bags with leaves. Between us and the real, a gap persists—though “persists” is not the word I need; we lack the words to posit a negation. The Wheelers have a birch tree in their yard, with half its strangely splayed yellow leaves still clinging on. The twigs and branches all point up; the leaves and autumn catkins all hang down like tatters that on the indifferent tree, turned inward for the winter, no longer notices. The stiff curls of parchment bark, the black scars in the white along the trunk, the—all of this is failure. I cannot create with words the tree, the unspeakable angle, color, shape, the overwhelming all-at-once thingness of it here now, existence. Reaching out with words to touch the tree, I am betrayed: the word “tree” barely stirs, “birch” just begins stretching out, but every word beyond them either breaks the thing apart to smaller things (the scarred trunk, the yellow leaves) or breaks off in abstraction.

The failure of language to speak the real is a failure of language. My capacity to call it a failure, however, comes not from language but from my conviction (while I see the birch) that the real exists. “There are two principles which I cannot render consistent; nor is it in my power to renounce either of them,” writes David Hume, “that all our distinct perceptions are distinct existences, and that the mind never perceives any real connexion among distinct existences.” 2 Because we encounter no things that are what they are, no existing essences, the sheer existence of a...

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pp. 214-226
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