Here’s an (ugly?) truth that many of us do not want to face:
Every thought, every action, every conversation, and every human interaction in human life is a dreary, exhausting exercise in fighting, strategizing, gaining power, gaining advantage, and gaining knowledge towards gaining power, for the endlessly strategizing subject.
The world consists only of objects in relation to the strategizing subject. Life is war. When friends and family don’t call you, it’s not because they don’t love you, necessarily, it’s because human interaction, even when we don’t want it to be, is a battle. Even when affection is involved—and perhaps even more when affection is involved—human interaction simply wears us out.
Yes, war is hell. But war is all there is. Peace is merely a pause in the action, in order that more fighting can occur, and real, lasting peace (if that is possible!) requires war to give it a chance.
We can’t sleep well unless we’ve fought a good fight. We can’t relax unless we’ve gone to battle.
This is equally true in art as it is in life. We must struggle to paint the peaceful picture, strain to produce the peaceful poem.
We can leave sports aside, which is quite evidently a battle within agreed-upon parameters, the “agreed-upon” part making this “battle” palatable to many of us on a certain level.
But to the non-athletes or “game nuts” among us, to those of us who refrain from, and disdain, gaming, gambling and the competition of sports, the truth is, the war of everyday life—on every level, whether you are a monk, a bishop, a gardener, or a yoga instructor—is far more fraught, simply because you are a human being, with infinitely complex, non-agreed-upon, make-or-break-whatever-rule-you-want, war maneuvers. And this is not just an aspect of life—it is the whole of it. One is either fighting, or resting up from fighting.
Pleasure itself is nothing more than a rejuvenation in order to fight more.
This is not some “realpolitik” rant from a four star general, or a war-gaming adolescent. Remember, you are reading Scarriet.
It doesn’t matter how “laid-back” one’s personality is, or how “politically peaceful” one is, or whether one is a vegan, or not. The complex psychological struggle of every human being is vast and endless. The “game” is on, and it’s always on, whether you are trying to convince your fellow human beings to become a vegan, or whether you are tearing into a cow.
Every single thing you do is judged, whether you’ve written a poem, done (or not done) the dishes, or are just staring into space. It doesn’t matter whether you are “on stage,” or not. It doesn’t matter whether an audience is before you, or there is no audience present. You will judge yourself. Even if you hate all judgement, all quantifying, all opinion, all truth, or all half-truth, complex judging is going on within you and without you all the time.
Most would acknowledge this reality of what we are outlining here, but many would insist: they are not part of that; that is not them, or (in an unfortunate choice of words) I myself fight against that whole competitive, strategizing, cynical vibe.
Others will go on the offensive without apology: This whole thesis is just an excuse to fight, an excuse to be a jerk!
Yes, but “being a jerk” is not a good strategy. The point here is not that we must strategize viciously or unfairly or randomly—just that we must always strategize.
So let’s go back to sports and its “agreed-upon” parameters for a moment. How crucial is the “agreed-upon” aspect of this war—that we call life? If the two choices are war with no rules and war with rules, obviously the “agreed-upon” aspect is very crucial.
But life is not a game, is it? How much do “the rules” in life apply?
If strategizing involves knowing which rules to follow, which rules to bend, which rules to ignore, which rules are useful, which rules are not useful, which rules are coming, which rules are going, which rules apply to whom and when, then it is clear that strategizing itself is more important than the rules—which are nothing more, in sum, than a less complex aspect of random reality, and which still reflect the brute forces of reality which we all must continually navigate.
So are we rejecting the rule of law? That which essentially civilizes us? Are we naked, then, as we fight this war?
Yes. Each of us is merely a soldier. And alone.
But what unites us? Surely it can’t be all of us against all of us all of the time?
It is. Because we judge ourselves, we cannot escape judgment, and therefore no one can escape the state we have been busily describing above.
We may seek alliances, and many of us do this in order to mitigate the general lonely horror that is the fact of our war-like state, and this explains why the culture of partnerships and political parties can be acutely acrimonious and emotional. But the truth is known only by ourselves and determined by ourselves, as much as we may be comforted by the warm, piss-temperature propaganda of the group. As Da Vinci and Blake have told us, let your own eyes prove the case, not the wind of authority or hearsay. The group is a lie. We are alone to the degree that we are human. The genius is not alone because he is alone; he is alone because he is a genius.
Epicurus suggested the only real escape from this horror: pleasure. The body seeks pleasure as a means to replenish itself before the next round of war; this is really the epicurean philosophy in a nutshell, the whole philosophy of pleasure, really, as now stated here; it is taking whatever is naturally restful and replenishing to the body, mind, and soul, and isolating it as an end in itself.
Poetry has been described by the Romantics (Coleridge/Poe), Pater, and Helen Vendler, as that which has pleasure as its immediate object. Poetry is how our brains temporarily relax.
Poetry naturally has two main parts: the vessel and what is contained within it; the vessel (the action of poetry) partakes of pleasure, but the further question is: what is in the vessel, for all language by its very nature is a double entity—signifier and signified. If seeking pleasure is both the vessel and what is contained within it, we have pleasure for pleasure’s sake, art for art’s sake, the enjoyment of rest for the Epicurean, who desires simplicity and beauty for their own sake.
Criticism belongs to war, and is the opposite of poetry as defined above.
But as we can see, the greater poet will always be a critic first, and a poet second.
We can test our thesis by looking at actual poetry, and Alexander Pope proves our case; one of the greatest poets, Pope’s Poetry and Criticism are often the same thing. Need a greater poet? The same is true of Shakespeare, whose plays are Platonic dialogues and whose Sonnets are really Critical essays: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” questions the worth of simile and metaphor.
The best poets put Criticism in the vessel of Poetry, this being naturally more efficient, since in this way, the poet may fight and be at peace, may have their cake and eat it—which is even more than what Epicurus, nibbling on a cake in the meadow, promises.