Reading the In-Between: Dante and Michael Longley’s “The Daffodils”
891 words 10 / 21
In the last century, the concept of metaxy or the In-Between (or just “the between’) has been explored at great depth, notably by Simone Weil, Eric Voegelin, and William Desmond. Voegelin’s meditation in “Anamnesis” (Collected Works, vol 6), is unparalleled as a commenteary on the original text, Socrates’s speech in the Plato’s Symposium. If the metaxy is the “space” of consciousness as mediation, Eros is the “mediator.” Commenting on the myth of the “descent” – birth, origin — of Eros from the seduction of Poros by Penia — Poros (plenty, fullness, wealth) and Penia (penury, poverty, need), Voegelin notes the equivocal nature of the “poles” of the tension of the In-Between: variously “time and eternity” or “ignorance and knowledge.” This is the first aspect one should note: The original metaxy begets many metaxies.
As a structure the understanding of which does not admit of geometric clarity, the metaxy lends itself to poetics. The originator Plato of course banned the poets from his ‘republic,’ perhaps to repress the less than rational origin of this basic Platonic concept. Be that as it may, the structure of poetry seems to reflect the structure of the metaxy. Indeed, I have been writing about “composition as participation” for decades now, and the more I study the metaxy in Weil, Voegelin and Desmond, the more the concept illuminates the inner shaping form of a poem (I often call this “inner form” to distinguish it from the outer form of conventional poetics).
As a working editor and critic, I am always surprised by the metaxological shape of good poetry.
Specifically, the metaxy appears as the climax of the process of mindful experience in a poem. In an analysis indebted to Desmond, we can argue that the movement that has its end in the metaxy proceeds from the wonder that such-and-such a “thing” (the original subject of inquiry) exists, through stages of wonder and perplexity that ask increasingly more of me as understander-reader-partcipant. From the initial “thatness” flow questions, ambiguities, possibilities, doubts, perplexities. At a certain point, a saturation point is reached without exhausting the equivocal nature of the experience. This is the cross-roads of erotic self-mediation. Fullness may lead to sadness, bitterness and retreat, or it can open up to movements beyond the self: Eros, the desire to possess the truth, has reached a crisis.
This is the critical moment I dub metaxyturn. If the metaxy appears now as the ultimate — “object” or “subject” – beyond the erotic dialectic, the knower becomes known in light of the transcendent other. At this final stage of the movement of thought, if all goes well (if “all is well”), eros is transformed to and by agape. The reading/understanding experience is transformed: “I” am transformed. Yet as the moment withdraws and the tide of experience turns, the tension between the poles of fullness and lack begins the process once again.
The movement of the metaxy, as a whole, at “metaxyturn” opens toward transcendence as other, and this structural turn informs myth and poem. It occurs, for example, at the climax of The Divine Comedy (Paradiso 28), where, in the words of Christian Moevs, Dante’s mind is left “pure as the Northern Hemisphere after a north wind, so that come stella in ciel il ver si vide (87): like a star in the sky, truth (what is) saw itself. To achieve this pure reflexivity of conscious being is to become (one with) the ultimate ontological principle, what alone cannot not be . . . “ (The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy, 2005, p.7). Dante interpretations often encourage philosophical debate, and the reader is encouraged to read Moev’s book.
Metaxyturn may prove crucial in following a poem to its proper end. Even small modern lyrics benefit from metaxical analysis. In Michael Longley’s “The Daffodils” we note the process of persuasion that foreshadows – provides – metaxyturn, evoking it for the reader who becomes participant in the moving scene.
Your daughter is reading to you over and over again
Wordsworth’s “The Daffodils”, her lips at your ear.
She wants you to know what a good girl you have been.
You are so good at joined-up writing the page you
Have filled with your knowledge is completely black.
Your hand presses her hand in response to rhyme words.
She wants you to turn away from the wooden desk
Before you die, and look out of the classroom window
Where all the available space is filled with daffodils.
–from The Weather in Japan (2000, p 37)
Poems this small are easily overlooked. Yet poems this small often stick in the memory (and no doubt Homer served Plato’s memory well), dwell there as models of experience, creating an origin for fresh experiences and other good poems.
Longley attentively unfolds the process from the outset. Notice we are asked to identify, Dante-like, with the subject: the loving voice encouraging in us an awareness of our “goodness”; pointing to the evidence of applied will and attention to the task at hand. With this the subject responds the gentle pressure of the voice’s rhythms. Now the intention of the voice becomes clear in light of finitude, the time available to the subject. We are urged to look up from our absorption in our activity towards what lies beyond.
The metaxyturn is “limned” – it is promised, “provided,” by the poem as an act of attention to life in the metaxy. This indirectness is crucial to its meaning and its power. The vision of life in metaxy remains a vision, however much we may become enchanted. We must always return to our page “black” with our efforts to maintain our sense of self as “good.” But suffering/enacting metaxyturn, the poem-as-experience becomes a “model” for understanding, making metaxyturn always already potential at every turn of thought.