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  • The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy
  • Cora Diamond

I am concerned in this paper with a range of phenomena, which, in the first four sections of the paper, I shall suggest by some examples. In the last three sections, I try to connect the topic thus indicated with the thought of Stanley Cavell.

A Single Exposure

First example: a poem of Ted Hughes's, from the mid-50s, called "Six Young Men." The speaker in the poem looks at a photo of six smiling young men, seated in a familiar spot. He knows the bank covered with bilberries, the tree and the old wall in the photo; the six men in the picture would have heard the valley below them sounding with rushing water, just as it still does. Four decades have faded the photo; it comes from 1914. The men are profoundly, fully alive, one bashfully lowering his eyes, one chewing a piece of grass, one "is ridiculous with cocky pride" (1. 6). Within six months of the picture's having been taken, all six were dead. In the photograph, then, there is thinkable, there is seeable, the death of the men. See it, and see the worst "flash and rending" (1. 35) of war falling onto these smiles now forty years rotted and gone.

Here is the last stanza: [End Page 1]

That man's not more alive whom you confrontAnd shake by the hand, see hale, hear speak loud,Than any of these six celluloid smiles are,Nor prehistoric or fabulous beast more dead;No thought so vivid as their smoking blood:To regard this photograph might well dement,Such contradictory permanent horrors hereSmile from the single exposure and shoulder outOne's own body from its instant and heat.

(1957: 55, 11. 37-45)

What interests me there is the experience of the mind's not being able to encompass something which it encounters. It is capable of making one go mad to try, to bring together in thought what cannot be thought: the impossibility of anyone's being more alive than these smiling men, nothing's being more dead. (No one is more alive than is the person looking at the photo; no one is more alive than you are, reading the poem. In Part VI, I turn back to the "contradictory permanent horrors" (1. 43) of the imagination of death.)

Now it is plainly possible to describe the photo so it does not seem boggling at all. It is a photo of men who died young, not long after the picture was taken. Where is the contradiction? —Taking the picture that way, there is no problem about our concepts being adequate to describe it. Again, one might think of how one would teach a child who had been shown a photo and told it was a photo of her grandfather, whom she knows to be dead. If she asks "Why is he smiling if he's dead?", she might be told that he was smiling when the picture was taken, because he was not dead then, and that he died later. The child is being taught the language-game, being shown how her problem disappears as she comes to see how things are spoken of in the game. The point of view from which she sees a problem is not yet in the game; while that from which the horrible contradiction impresses itself on the poet-speaker is that of someone who can no longer speak within the game. Language is shouldered out from the game, as the body from its instant and heat.

What Hughes gives us is a case of what I want to call the difficulty of reality. That is a phrase of John Updike's,1 which I want to pick up for the phenomena with which I am concerned, experiences in which we take something in reality to be resistant to our thinking it, or possibly to be painful in its inexplicability, difficult in that way, or [End Page 2] perhaps awesome and astonishing in its inexplicability. We take things so. And the things we take so may simply not, to others, present the...