Friday, June 2, 2017
"Transcendental Aesthetic" by Frequent Contributor James Frederick William Rowe
James Frederick William Rowe
I am told I cannot know you
That you are but a representation
A translation of an unknown thing
By a mind that can know no other
Than its structure reflected
In the world it observes
I do not know your lips
The warmth of your arms
Is as fabricated as your form
All a lie within which I am trapped
Even as I am likewise ensnared
In this illusion of love
I cannot love you
For I cannot know you as you are
My love for you is a construct
Cruelly imposed upon
These phantasmic phenomena
That you are a thing at all
Is but a postulation
Of a practical faith
That for its good
Must need believe
In that which it can never know
No wonder Kant died without
Knowing the love of a woman
A man devoted to truth
Cannot be enrapt by a lie
Nor be entwined
By mere appearances
But I am not content to allow
An impoverished knowledge
To steal from me my love
That it might survive through the theft
No, I shall not be treated as a means
To even transcendental ends
So I shall evict the vagabond faith
He called in from the cold
To shelter in the vestibule of ignorance
In the mansion of metaphysic
I will not tolerate such a tenant
In my house of wisdom
And though I myself be barred from entry
I shall find the key
Then I shall lay full claim
To these halls, these walls
Which I shall share alone
With whom is beloved of me
And I shall know you then
For what you are
Not what you appear to be
No mere representation
But the reality wherein truth resides
In the love which wisdom reveals
Poet’s Note: The title of this poem is a play-on-words, making use of the ambiguity of the definition of "aesthetic" in a way that Kant would not approve. Kant attempted to return “aesthetic” to its original meaning of "the study of sensory perception"; thus famously one portion of his Critique of Pure Reason is entitled The Transcendental Aesthetic. There Kant set forth his idea, meant to explain why, contra Hume, it is rational to believe in causality amongst other things, that the world as experienced is constructed as a result of the a priori conditions of sensation, imposing the categories of the mind on possible experience, including the pure intuitions of space and time.
In other words, we construct reality out of innate ideas that impose the formal conditions of experience on sensation, making it so our concept of reality always appears in space and time and so forth, and therefore making it possible to proclaim such metaphysical statements as "all colored things are extended things", and "cause always precedes effect". I mix this meaning of aesthetic with aesthetic as meaning the study of love and beauty, as it has come to be known in modern philosophy. Then I further mix that modern meaning with the idea that my desire for love requires true knowledge of the object, using “transcendental” in the sense that Kant uses it when he references "transcendental knowledge", which he categorizes as improper because it attempts to know things-in-themselves (the unknowable reality before it is translated by our minds), as opposed to phenomena (the world of appearances of our translation of that unknowable reality). In effect, I take Kant's title and change its meaning entirely, making his title "Transcendental Aesthetic" reference the poem's theme of desiring the true knowledge of the object of love as it is really is, not how it is represented to be.
The content of this poem is likewise taken from Kant's philosophy, beginning with a lamentation that the object of the speaker’s love is unknown to the speaker precisely because Kant forbids knowledge of the true nature of things. As such, how is it possible for the speaker to love that which he knows to be a lie? If what is known bears no relation to what it is in-it-self, how can one love it at all?
For Kant, the world of appearance bears no relation to the actual nature of the thing, aside from being somehow causally derived from it (a point criticized by Schulze, as Kant says causality is a category of the mind). My representation of objects in space and time, for instance, has no bearing on the actual, non-spatial, non-temporal nature of things as they are in themselves. The first several stanzas fixate on these themes, presenting love as being fraudulent, by Kantian measures, and even relating it to how Kant famously died as a bachelor (and by all accounts, a virgin).
I also reference Kantian philosophy otherwise, suggesting that "I will not be treated as a means / to even transcendental ends". This recalls Kant's famous second formulation of the categorical imperative: "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end." In effect, the speaker is claiming that he will not allow himself to be treated instrumentally even by Kant’s own philosophy. The speaker affirms that he is determined to love even if he is denied the knowledge that allows him to love. In other words, Kant's philosophy does violence to the speaker by denying his capacity to love, but the speaker refuses to be so treated.
In opposition to Kant's insistence that such knowledge is impossible, the poem concludes with stanzas that proclaim the speaker’s unwillingness to accept this condition, and an insistence that he will learn. I personally do not believe Kant is right about virtually anything he wrote in respect to metaphysics, and as such as a philosopher I already deny that my world consists of mere appearances. These stanzas reflect my actual philosophical position. Love is not for cowards, and I will not concede the battlefield to the Kantian perspective.
As to who exactly it is that the speaker loves, that I will leave up to the reader to decide. Do I mean an actual person, as implied by the references to arms and lips? Or is it something more abstract? Perhaps both? I use the personal pronoun in the poem, but it isn't important that the narrator is "I" in any meaningful sense, outside of the fact that clearly this is a poem that intersects with my own philosophical thoughts. As such, I will leave this matter up in the air. I like the ambiguity here. Identify me with the speaker if you want or don't. I don't care.
The composition of this poem was not at first difficult and began on the subway, where I had a fairly good start. Thereafter, it stalled for a good two months as I struggled with the concluding stanzas. Eventually those came to me, and the poem took its finished form. I have often found that if I let a poem sit for a while, the process of finishing it can become arduous. I need to stop doing that, but I am also addicted to procrastination (as my editor well knows!). Nevertheless, I am pleased with the end result--especially the verse about eviction, which I think is clever.