Politics and Poetry in the Work of Blaise Tobia
by Joseph F. Gregory © 2003
__ Much of the art of the modern West has been openly concerned with the political transformation of bourgeois consciousness. One has only to think of Dada, for example, with its shrill attack on bourgeois rationalism and materialism, or Futurism's assault on bourgeois complacency with its blustering nationalism and pro-war rhetoric, or more recently, the predominantly liberal activism of postmodern times that has taken up virtually every social and political concern of the contemporary world (war, patriarchy, racism, colonialism, multiculturalism, ecology, and the relations of capital and power). Frequently, however, the disruption of consciousness sought by modern artists has been more clearly poetical in nature. One thinks, for instance, of the way in which Klee, Picasso, and Chagall marry childlike imagination to the world of adult intelligence, or of the anti-gravitational, Mediterranean joy of Matisse. But while it is easy to understand why artists would be inclined to address the urgent social and political issues of their time, it is not so clear why they would elect to set up shop within the cloistered, playful space of the poetical. Is it simply a matter of socially irresponsible escapism? Or is there possibly a deeper purpose to the poetical in a society such as ours?
__ Any answer to this question will depend upon how the nature of the poetical is understood. One of the clearest and most cogent explanations of the nature of poetry was offered in the early twentieth century by the Russian formalist literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky: he claimed that the purpose of the poetical is to make the world "strange," to inculcate a child-like wonder in us by countering the process of habituation by which we become numb to everyday experience. Poetry achieves this goal by playfully reshaping the linguistic structures that lend form and meaning to the world of our experience.(1) This concept is closely related to Heidegger's well-known claim that man "dwells poetically" because language is the container of being: as the primary instrument of culture, it establishes what things are for us and what they mean to us and thereby places each individual within a historical horizon of experiential and intellectual possibility.(2) Language, in other words, does not simply reflect a world that is already given; the world first comes to stand in its own being in and through our representations of it. This is why there is a real danger in allowing our use of language to become careless and shopworn, for that is precisely how experience blanches and thickens into the tedium and meaninglessness of the commonplace. Both Shklovsky and Heidegger hold that the poetical is the great antidote to this inexorable tendency of all sign systems to sink into a state of unthinking familiarity; its irreplaceable virtue lies in its ability to create new experiential possibilities by frisking open and revealing the intrinsic rearrangibility of the seemingly fixed horizon of significations that envelopes the consciousness of the individual. And this applies as much to habituated modes of visual representation as it does to words. The modernist assumption of an autonomous and therefore endlessly malleable aesthetic form was, in part, the collective expression of a liberated individual consciousness awakened to the possibility of new modes of experience and thereby freed from an implied debt to tradition and the imitation of nature.
(1) For a concise discussion of Russian formalism, including the ideas of Shlovsky, see Terence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1977, pp. 59-73. The classic account of the subject is to be found in Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism: History-Doctrine, The Hague, Mouton, 1955.