Happiness in Writing
for Simon Jarvis
[pdf]

Keston Sutherland

 

 

to speak of happiness one hesitates those awful syllables first asparagus burst abscess

—Beckett

 

 

At the beginning of part two of Minima Moralia, Adorno sets out a series of “precautions for writers.” The most formidable among the “precautions” is the following complete paragraph.

 

Should the finished text [Arbeit: “work”], no matter of what length, arouse even the slightest misgivings, these should be taken inordinately seriously, to a degree out of all proportion to their apparent importance [Relevanz]. Affective involvement in the text [Die affektive Besetzung des Textes: “Besetzung” is the technical term in Freud, known to Adorno, which Strachey translates as “cathexis”], and vanity, tend to diminish all scruples. What is let pass as a minute doubt may indicate the objective worthlessness of the whole.1

 

Readers of Adorno will know to expect impossible demands. The most confounding of all is saved for the last paragraph of Minima Moralia, where Adorno, at his most superlatively emphatical, in high prose lyric, denies that any philosophy can be “responsibly practised” except that which demands from philosophers “the utterly impossible,” namely, that they should think from a “standpoint removed, even though by a hair’s breadth, from the scope of existence.”2 By the standard of this annihilatingly beatific ultimatum, to which the most clamorous reecho of thought is by prescription infinitely mute, the demand sounded in the precaution to writers that “what is let pass as a minute doubt may indicate the objective worthlessness of the whole” seems almost humanly gentle. I know what I have to do. I should not let even a minute doubt pass, since the whole value of my work may depend upon my insight into the content of a minute doubt. But what makes this demand so formidable is that it is not an impossibilistic “demand placed on thought” by dialectic, but a practical psychological demand whose impossibility I may endlessly protest but will never predicate.3 How, practically, should I meet this demand? Or practically meet it? The demand is more impractical even than it seems on first reflection, since the experience of doubt, and perhaps of minute doubts in particular, may itself be doubted. Is this truly a doubt that I feel about the sentence I wrote, or am I giving the name doubt to my feeling because I can more easily delay the end of writing through sheer procrastination if I can claim a mental motive not yet to believe that I have done what I had to do, whatever that was? Am I doubting dubiously? How do I know that what I call a doubt is not really a fear of having nothing more to do? And in any case, or in that case, how do I know if I am a good enough doubter, even at my best? The demand not to let pass a minute doubt is formidable because it threatens to diminish the conversations I have with myself and the whole work of anxiety into the ersatz of phenomenological method. The minuteness of the doubt punitively incurs the diminution of free anxiety to borrowed thought. I ought to accept in writing nothing but what I cannot doubt; objectivity itself depends on the success of this reduction. I stare at my doubtful sentence, and under the pressure of my solicitude for its objectivity my real, living thoughts are reduced to masquerading as the mimic thoughts in some Cartesian meditation. Something not right there.

 

This is an essay in close reading doubt. It is also, incidentally, a criticism of the status of doubt in phenomenology. The major claim of the criticism is that phenomenology adopts a calculus of doubt in preference to an interpretation of doubt, whereas in reality doubt is not calculable and must be interpreted. Descartes and Husserl, and more recently, Michel Henry, all have a dubious preconception of indubitability: not the absence of doubt, simply, but the absence of doubt as what is left after all doubts have been subtracted. For Husserl, “the essence of the reduced lived experience of perception”, that is, of the experience of perception that remains after the “phenomenological epoché” has been performed, “is incompatible with disbelief and doubt…disbelief and doubt are precluded.”4 Their preconception of indubitability is an essentially quantitative absence. But the absence of doubt is not essentially quantitative in experience. This dubious preconception of indubitability is conditioned by the prior misconception of doubt as something calculable, which is a misconception not only of doubt but of calculability.5

 

But this essay is not just a formal criticism of the status of doubt; it is an essay in close reading it. What does doubt look like on paper? Can it be read? It may look like this:

 

seeking knowledge at that time

Have pleas’d me in those times; I sought not then

Knowledge, but craved for power, & power I found

Far less than craving power

 

In the reading text of the thirteen-book Prelude established by Mark L. Reed for the Cornell edition, those lines by Wordsworth, no longer with lines drawn through them by Wordsworth, have become these:

 

With strong sensations teeming as it did

Of past and present, such a place must needs

Have pleas’d me in those times; I sought not then

Knowledge, but craved for power, and power I found

In all things; nothing had a circumscribed

And narrow influence; but all objects, being

Themselves capacious, also found in me

Capaciousness and amplitude of mind:

Such is the strength and glory of our Youth.6

 

Wordsworth’s manuscript revisions, adopted at VIII. 599-600 of the fourteen-book Prelude edited by W.J.B. Owen, may not seem to make any important change to the sense of the lines. Where he first wrote “I sought not then | Knowledge, but craved for power”, Wordsworth on later reflection wrote “seeking knowledge at that time | Far less than craving power.”7 Where must of course be understood literally: the later lines of verse are written back where the earlier lines of verse already were. The earlier lines of verse are in that moment rewritten, and not simply cancelled, by the superaddition of the correcting line, the strikethrough, that deletes them without yet expunging them. For later readers they will be expunged, but for their recurrently first reader, Wordsworth, the diacritical promise of their expunction reads less dubiously than a fresh blank would. The correcting line or strikethrough reads: not yet expunged, but will be expunged in the end. Verse and correction are not on verso and recto, but in the same physical place on the page in writing, a place proved newly capacious by the amplitude of mind exercised in poetic revision. The page is, literally, an “object” which, “being [itself] capacious, also found in [Wordsworth] Capaciousness and amplitude of mind.” The discovery of an amplitude of mind is a practical, psychological moment: in this case the act of revision. In the real moment in writing when they are revised, the lines are that amplitude. Revision is not a jump from one category or judgment into another—from wrong words into right words, say. What happens to the lines from the point of view of their author is that they reemerge back into originality, not simply by being new or right, but by emerging from under the shadow of an overfamiliar or exhausted doubtfulness into the illumination of a new doubtfulness full of potential happiness. In their revision, which is not just written on the newly capacious object of the page but also spoken with new amplitude inwardly, is heard the promise that for a while at least they can be owned more passionately than disowned. No longer “I sought not then | Knowledge, but craved for power”, but, more assuredly, “I sought not then | Knowledge, but craved for power”.

 

The new amplitude of revision is a special intimacy of object and mind. It needs looking at closely, because the ideal of intimacy is that every detail should matter, because in every detail there is the potential for happiness. Does every minute detail in this transcription from the thirteen-book Prelude really matter, or do I at least minutely doubt that some details ought not to matter or need not? Is it significant that the end of l.754, “I sought not then”, is, unlike its continuation in l.755, left unchanged in writing, that it is not deleted by any correcting line, even though its replacement by “seeking knowledge at that time” assigns it to the set of verse fragments that will be expunged in the end? However demandingly doubtful it may have been earlier in writing, was “I sought not then” not in the moment of revision a significantly doubtful enough fragment to compel Wordsworth to promise its expunction with a strikethrough? In any case, the inconsistency is not essentially quantitative: “I sought not then | Knowledge, but craved for power” is not dubious writing subject to a method of reduction whose diacritical logic requires one more deletion, a line drawn through its first four words, but dubious writing whose inconsistency is an essential interpretandum irreducible to anything like a paralogism or oversight. Or so at least I must prefer to think, if I don’t want to diminish the potential happiness in the new amplitude of the revision. But other doubts occur. Should this minute detail in the bewildering immensity of the transcriptions of the thirteen-book Prelude be conceived as a choice Wordsworth made in writing? As evidence, however minute or dubious, of his Besetzung of the objective place in writing whose capacity for “Truth that cherishes our daily life” may be enlarged by revision?8

 

From the point of view of a verbal criticism narrowly interested in the ambiguity of technique and propositions in language, these questions may seem preliminary or even circumlocutory, and not yet a description of what would conventionally be called the “change in sense” that Wordsworth made with his revision. But these questions are close reading, not just speculations about what sort of reading is legitimate. A conventional reading would point out that Wordsworth’s revision suggests discomfort with the statement in the earlier lines that he did not seek knowledge but only craved for power, as though seeking and craving were entirely distinct, or knowledge and power are. It might add that the later lines are metrically less unwieldy or ambiguous, since the four stresses of “seeking knowledge at that time” are more easily kept from multiplying in utterance than the two stresses that are meant to be in “I sought not then” (shouldn’t there be three stresses, and couldn’t there be four?); but that the enjambment in the later lines is more shocking, since “seeking knowledge at that time” does not yet describe any lethargy or reluctance in Wordsworth, but suggests rather the opposite, and it’s only when the verse turns back into its next beginning and we read “Far less than craving power” that we understand that the lines are a criticism of his former ardency. We might then say that the metrical shock in the later lines is intended as a slight moral shock, too, and speculate on that example about the increasing moralization of verse technique in the later texts of Wordsworth’s poem. From there the conventional reading might ramble off distantly in pursuit of an ideological connection between Wordsworth’s lines and De Quincey’s theory of the two literatures of knowledge and of power, most fully developed in his 1848 essay “The Poetry of Pope”;9 or more distantly yet, into Foucault, a place in writing where criticism may now metacritically decide that it should find the contemporary test of its professional relevance and accountability. This conventional reading is close reading too, and is importantly close, but how close is it? Free from the threat of diminishing into the ersatz of phenomenological method, conventional close reading is also free from the fundamental obligation to interpret doubt. But as Wordsworth powerfully knew, it is in the interpretation of doubt that close reading comes closest to potential happiness.

 

I want to turn to another moment of doubt in the thirteen-book Prelude that from the perspective of the most literal calculation is still more minute.

 

They who had fed their childhood upon dreams,

The Play-fellows of Fancy, who had made

All powers of swiftness, subtlety, and strength

Their ministers, used to stir in lordly wise

Among the grandest objects of the sense

And deal with whatsoever they found there

As if they had within some lurking right

To wield it:—they too, who, of gentle mood,

Had watch’d all gentle motions, and to these

Had fitted their own thoughts, schemers more mild,

And in the region of their peaceful selves—

Did now find helpers to their heart’s desire,

And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish,

Were call’d upon to exercise their skill,

Not in Utopia, subterraneous fields,

Or some secreted Island Heaven knows where;

But in the very world which is the world

Of all of us, the place on which in the end

We find our happiness, or not at all.10

 

This famous passage about the great and beautiful optimism felt by Wordsworth and by his contemporaries who lived and fought through the French Revolution ends, in the manuscript transcriptions, like this:

 

And in the region of their peaceful selves

Did now find helpers to their heart’s desire,

And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish,

Were call’d upon to exercise their skill,

Not in Utopia, subterraneous fields,

Or some secreted Island, Heaven knows where;

But in the very world which is the world

where

Of all of us, the place on which, in the end

reap

          [? know]

We find our happiness, or not at all. 11

 

The line written through “on which” in l.726 and the superaddition of “where” are a metrical correction. The hypermetricality of the earlier line—its surplus of syllables—is deleted in revision: by striking a line through on which, Wordsworth promises the expunction of the surplus syllables in the end. Along with the deletion of hypermetricality comes the deletion of an emphatic literalism about the standpoint of possible redemption. We will literally, the line in its first form insists, be standing on the world when we find our happiness or do not at all find it; and our happiness itself will be found, if at all, on the world. We who were “call’d upon to exercise [our] skill…in the very world” will in the end, possibly by virtue of that exercise, or through fidelity to the knowledge that we were “call’d” to it, find our happiness on the place which that very world is. These are—as is too often unthinkingly said in professional criticism—my italics, my own emphatical recomposition of a distinction in meaning. By owning the italics I admit to a minute doubt over the possibility that the distinction is not originally Wordsworth’s and that my italics have travestied it. In that minute doubt, however, resounds the interpretandum of Wordsworth’s revision and its promise of meaning, an interpretandum that I begin more than minutely to lose at the moment when I find in the concept of ambiguity a set of ready protocols for its interpretation. If I treat this minute doubt as something subtractable from interpretation, either by dismissal of it or by submitting it too exclusively to the protocols for interpretation that already belong to the concept of ambiguity, I cease on that instant to interpret the doubt itself. In fact, I cease properly to understand it as doubt at all, and half-consciously begin to treat it as an obstacle to be admitted or cleared away by an ersatz of phenomenological method. What I want to interpret is not the ambiguity in two alternatives, but the doubt in one composition. My text is not the three items “Of all of us, the place on which, in the end”, “Of all of us, the place where, in the end” and their imaginary hypostasis in the concept of ambiguity, but the single real text:

 

where

Of all of us, the place on which, in the end

 

The adverb where depends on the verb find in l.727 and hangs above it, doubly suspended in its higher priority in utterance and in its termination of a clause that could not possibly terminate any correct sentence. It is higher in manuscript position too than its emphatically literal ancestor, the conjunction on which, which Wordsworth has decided is the culprit of hypermetricality. I say that he has decided this, rather than that he simply noticed it, because on which is not the only candidate for culpability; in fact, up to and including the moment at which on which appears, the line is not yet bound or even likely to turn out hypermetrical, but still flows with the rhythm of a blank verse line. “Of all of us, the place on which,—.” Wordsworth need only have completed the line with any two monosyllabic words, or any one disyllabic word, in which he could accept without too much doubt that there was a single stress. “Of all of us, the place on which, at last” would have done it; or, if he had a stronger metrical doubt and wanted to interpret it with just a flicker of hypermetricality, not by the sharply pronounced hypermetricality of the line as it first stood, then “Of all of us, the place on which, finally” might do: the deletion of hypermetricality through the compression of finally into fin’lly might even be desirable for its anxious mimetic suggestion that the end will come, when it does, a little too fast for us not to stumble just a little into it.

 

But I think Wordsworth had a compelling instinct not to do away with the hypermetricality of his line by accepting “Of all of us, the place on which—” and writing on from there. Why he should have, not an acceptable because illuminating doubt about the potential in the line as it stood at this point, but an overfamiliar or exhausted doubt about it that he couldn’t let pass, is however unclear until the line in its earliest form is given and read complete. The most important part of the line was yet to come. “Of all of us, the place on which, in the end”—I feel immediately that the most important part of the line is its end. If I try to doubt something about this judgment, all I can find to doubt about it is how unusually confident I am in believing it; and that throwback of interpretation into reflexivity I think is part of what the line must mean. Its last three words are its most emphatically suspenseful, held at the end of the line that cannot possibly be the end of the thought. “Of all of us, the place on which, in the end”—. Wordsworth must have doubted whether he could keep these last three words just as they were without abandoning the line to its original hypermetricality, and may have rejoiced in finding for on which a not too disparate alternative, one that would delete the surplus of syllables and, if not too nicely doubted, might even be taken for an equivalent of his original choice: where. In fact, not only is where emphatically not the equivalent of on which, as I have argued in saying that the revision deletes an emphatic literalism, but, more significantly and I think disastrously for the line, in the end is nothing like the same utterance in the revised line that it is in the first line. Exculpated of its hypermetricality the phrase diminishes from emphatic suspensefulness into a mere semantic and grammatical indicator of suspense. It diminishes from suspense in feeling to suspense in “sense”. The new in the end is the bathos of the old in the end. The words are of course identical, but exactly that merely verbal identity in the revised line is the glaring consummation of its bathos.

 

What is at stake in this effort of Wordsworth’s to correct a line of verse in writing, and, earlier on, in the effort of the line first written, which was the effort to make a line whose hypermetricality, however dubious, outweighs in “affective involvement” or Besitzung the potential alternative benefit of correctness, is not just a calculable mastery of technique, but happiness itself.

 

where

Of all of us, the place on which, in the end

reap

          [? know]

We find our happiness, or not at all.

 

I wrote earlier that I would turn to a moment of doubt that, from the perspective of the most literal calculation, is still more minute than the moment in book VIII I discussed earlier on. I meant Wordsworth’s doubt over the verb in l.727. Each one of the three verbs that the line includes in the transcription is doubted differently. The earliest, find, is the only one actually deleted, which is to say marked out for future expunction but not yet expunged. The substitute nearest to it in writing, know, is not yet unambiguously rejected, but is triply marked out as doubtful by its confinement in brackets, by the question mark that precedes it as an indeterminate protocol for its interpretation, and by its submission beneath a third possibility, reap. That last word, however, which is free of any diacritical mark and is also the highest on what just now begins to resemble a list in writing, does not seem much less dubious for those reasons, but is colored by doubt rising as though collaterally from the fact that the brackets and question mark of know seem unequal to an outright deletion. If the doubt in know is decisively out of proportion with the doubt in reap, why is know not simply marked out for expunction in the end?

 

Far from denying that there is a trivial aspect to this line of questioning, I want to argue that the trivial aspect is important. Its trivial aspect is what protects the interpretation of doubt against sinking into a particular aesthetic ideology. I mean the aesthetic ideology which insists that what makes a “poem” a “poem” is the fact that no detail in it could be altered without the “poem” disappearing completely. This bathydialectical idea not only turns “the poem” into an abstract category that the great majority of poets would not recognize; it also travesties the idea in Minima Moralia that I began with, the genuinely difficult idea that “what is let pass as a minute doubt may indicate the objective worthlessness of the whole.” The difficulty of that idea in Minima Moralia is irreducibly a psychological difficulty. It imposes on the writer a demand that promises to make writing an incessant trial. The idea of the poem that it conjures is of an intense and enduring forcefield of doubtful and potentially doubtful moments in language, any one of which may yet prove to be either the catastrophic undoing of the whole work or the artifice of its redemption. The aesthetic-ideological alternative which may superficially resemble Adorno’s thought is, by contrast, psychologically impotent. It imposes no trial on a writer to know that the alteration of a single detail in her work must cause it to be excluded from the category “poem.” Neither is there any happiness to be won or strained after in the transcendent security of belonging to a category so dignified that membership of it means ontological unalterability. Happiness in writing is found in the trial of enduring, intense and ineliminable doubt or not at all. Beckett knew that for longer even than Wordsworth knew it.

 

What may strike modern readers most forcefully about Wordsworth’s l.727, “We find our happiness, or not at all”, is the idea that the happiness we hope to find “in the end” is our happiness. It is normal in contemporary English to find happiness, but not to find our happiness. The locution has fallen out of everyday use and recognition. In Wordsworth’s lifetime it was not an uncommon locution. Examples are abundant. I will give here just a few, to help conjure the amplitude of the expression as it was then understood.

 

From Night the Seventh of Edward Young’s long poem Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality, 1744:

 

And he that would be barr’d Capacity

Of Pain, courts Incapacity of Bliss.

Heav’n wills our Happiness, allows our Doom;

Invites us ardently, but not compells;

Heav’n but persuades, almighty Man decrees.12

 

From the fifth volume of Hugh Blair’s Sermons,1801:

 

Placed as we are, in the midst of so much ignorance with respect to the means of happiness, and at the same time under the government of a wise and gracious Being, who alone is able to effect our happiness, acquiescence in his disposal of our lot, is the only disposition that becomes us as rational creatures.13

 

From Johnson’s Rambler, 1750:

 

It is therefore the business of wisdom and virtue, to select among numberless objects striving for our notice, such as may enable us to exalt our reason, extend our views, and secure our happiness.14

 

These three examples are all like Wordsworth’s line in treating our happiness as the object of a transitive verb. Young’s will, Blair’s effect and Johnson’s secure, though in many ways differently suggestive from Wordsworth’s find, all share with that usage a basically cognate grammar of figuration. Our happiness must be gained by an effortful activity. But whether the specific activity is a human one, as in the example from Johnson, or a divine, as Young and Blair would have it, what separates all three examples from Wordsworth’s find is that our happiness is for them unambiguously an object only in the grammatical sense, whereas the thought that we might find our happiness irresistibly connotes the possibility that our happiness is somewhere in the way that places, people and real, physical objects are. That would seem to most eighteenth century writers of sermons like a pretty, but hardly a heretical thought, provided that somewhere meant heaven, or that the connotation that our happiness is an object in a place was unambiguously figurative, as for example in a sentence like this one by William Gilpin in 1798: “The love of God consists in keeping his commandments: and if we keep the commandments of God, of course we shall love our neighbour; and shall find our happiness in our obedience.”15 In this sentence the preposition in is safely neither literal nor inexchangeable: through might do just as well. There is little or nothing to doubt in this expression, whatever we may doubt in the thought it expresses. The Wordsworthian trial of doubt, however, begins when expression must justify its emphatic literalism.

 

That God has given us abilities to provide for our preservation, support, convenience, and happiness, we may readily allow; and we shall probably think it our duty to employ them to those ends. The first error we are apt to commit, is to forget that others are constituted and employed in the same manner with ourselves; and that it is not only a cool determination of reason, they should have room given them to exert their abilities, and to make themselves happy, as we do; but that this conduct is necessary to the existence of society, where alone we can find our happiness.

 

This passage is from the first pages of David Williams’s Lectures on the universal principles and duties of religion and morality, 1779.16 The end of the last sentence quoted here may, I think, be the nearest thing to Wordsworth’s thought and expression in the original l.727 of the thirteen-book Prelude anywhere in eighteenth century prose. Williams writes society, not the very world, but the thought is very nearly kindred. Like Wordsworth, Williams permits his sentence to connote the possibility that our happiness is literally somewhere and that we will literally find it in the way that we find physical objects: a connotation so astonishing that it virtually overwhelms the more obvious figurative sense of find as used in the expression find that. Like Wordsworth, Williams seems emphatically to rule out that somewhere could be heaven, unless heaven is society or the very world of all of us. But most kindred of all is the emphatical word alone, a word that risks lyricizing an already exceptionally doubtful thought, a word to which the last words in the thirteen-book Prelude X. 709-727 make equally emphatical reply, in lyric solidarity of thought and insistence. Whether this passage was a source for Wordsworth is an intensely interesting question, because the meaning of his own famous lines will be quite different if they intend lyric solidarity with this passage than they will if their solidarity is coincidental. It would tell us something about what solidarity meant to Wordsworth if we could confirm that at this very moment in writing he desired to express it.

 

I at first keep to find rather than to know or reap, knowing that my discussion is exclusive, because I find more potential happiness in that word than in the others. The doubtfulness of find in the single composition

 

reap

          [? know]

We find our happiness, or not at all.

 

seems to me a less exhausted and less overfamiliar doubtfulness, a more tense and illuminating doubtfulness than that of [? know] or reap. Find suggests, surely at least a little inappropriately, that our happiness is already there, lying in wait to be discovered like an object or a prospect. Find also hints at a different verb, found, and found would be a good choice—we found our happiness on the world—except that it must have created some superficial but irritating ambiguity as to whether Wordsworth had forgotten what tense he was in and committed a solecism by using the past tense of find in a future tense construction. Exposure to a diminutive quibble like that would risk distraction from the real doubtfulness of the line, a sinking from the interpretation of doubt into the calculation of grammatical correctness. But perhaps neither find nor found could seem illuminatingly doubtful enough because both would make an internal half-rhyme with end, which would raise in ll.726-7 the shadow of a musical chiasmus: allend | findall. That might seem too neatly almost epigrammatic; it might also threaten to misinterpret, if only minutely, the difficult asymmetry of the human effort of looking and the human object to be found. But know seems plainly ineffective by comparison, since from the sentence with that verb it wouldn’t be clear that our happiness must be inordinately known rather than merely known in the way that anything may be known through reflection without a change of place or object. Lyric gives way to noise in the expression know our, where the potential elision of the two words in utterance would conjure a phantom nonsense word, knowour, whose second syllable might be wour, an ugly noise not least because of the difficulty of restricting it to one stress and keeping it from sounding like the infantilistic wawa. Lyric is too much at stake in this passage to be trifled with by a noise like that. Perhaps too Wordsworth thought that know our happiness was doubtless too near to a sexual pun. But know our happiness is overfamiliarly doubtful for another reason, namely that it is liable to invoke as a philosophical problem the question whether happiness can be known or if happiness in any way exceeds knowledge, opening promptly on to a vista of disquisitions on the reciprocal exceptionality of happiness and knowledge, pleasure and faith, etc. Know could also be used to mean experience, as when we say that we know what something is like because we have done it ourselves, but in that case it must be a pun: it couldn’t mean only that, it would have to mean understand or comprehend too; and Wordsworth doesn’t want a pun here for nearly the same reason that he doesn’t want a trivial noise. The line must be unambiguous in its emphatic doubtfulness, or at least it must have a very minimum of ambiguity to it, or else it will set up discord against the whole lyric of veritability. Reap our would give a sonic pun on power, not much of a pun but too much by far, and in any case a definitely inappropriate meaning. The double e sound in we reap may also have seemed unattractive; Wordsworth may even, at a stretch, have disliked the distant half rhyme with belief, also a double e. But reap is surely altogether overfamiliarly doubtful because it suggests, first, the figure of death who, once summoned and fitted into the image, is obliged by grammar to be ourselves (after Freud we might say, the figure of Thanatos); and second, a reward or payment of dues on the model of exact remuneration, you reap but what you sow, which is exactly the calculating objection leveled against Wordsworth’s more complex understanding of natural reciprocity by the embittered Coleridge, first in his brilliant, manipulative and morbid “Letter to Sara Hutchinson” and then in its yet more false and corrupt public recension, “Dejection: an Ode.”17 Reap may also have been unacceptable because Wordsworth wrote often about real farming and real peasants, even about real reapers, and he may not have wanted to use the image of agricultural labor in so strictly metaphorical a sense, particularly at such an emphatic moment of his lyric of veritability. The line would imply, very egregiously, that the real language of men’s and women’s work that had been so much his enduring concern could in the end be sublimed into metaphor when the really serious poetic business of uttering truths about our happiness was attempted. The strikethrough in l.720, “Did now find helpers to their heart’s desire”, may have sprung from the same impulse: helpers are not metaphorical, Wordsworth may have thought, and least of all should they be metaphorical in a passage on the great hope roused by the French revolution.

 

This is the line I love:

 

We find our happiness, or not at all.         

 

But I love it best of all by reading this:

 

reap

          [? know]

We find our happiness, or not at all.

 

What I am closely reading in this composition is doubt. Not, of course, doubt exclusively, but doubt more prominently and more preoccupyingly than sense or even yet meaning. I find potential happiness by close reading and interpreting doubt. I find both my own potential happiness, the love for this line that grows and flourishes in me, as I learn to respect it in intimacy, a happiness and love found on the literal object of this page in Wordsworth’s transcriptions, his great gift to the posthumous world; and, though I must doubt that I am right, I find what I think must be Wordsworth’s happiness too, his idea of happiness but more importantly still his activity of straining after it in writing through the passionate trial of enduring and ineliminable doubt. Belief in reality, like belief in happiness, cannot be found on a preconception of indubitability as the quantitative absence of doubt. If any experience not only proves this but renews the proof of it endlessly until death, it is writing (it is loving). Whatever may be true of the discursive construction of identity and its politics in theory, in writing happiness is not ontological promiscuity but ontological fidelity; but fidelity in writing is not the opposite of promiscuity, but its sublime. Fidelity is also more powerfully doubtful than promiscuity, as Wordsworth knew for longer even than Beckett. Fidelity is the element in which doubt is hardest struck by passion.

 

What is most real to me is what I most passionately doubt.

 

Kein Glück ohne Fetischismus.

 

Keston Sutherland is the author of Stress Position, Hot White Andy, Neocosis and other books of poetry. He is the editor of the poetics journal Quid and co-editor of Barque Press (www.barquepress.com). He is currently editing the collected prose of J.H. Prynne. His essay on Marx can be read in the first issue of World Picture. He teaches English at the University of Sussex.

 

Notes


1Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia. Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 2002) [1st in English, 1974; in German 1951], 85; Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 4 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003), 95.
2 Minima Moralia, 247; Gesammelte Schriften, 283.
3 Minima Moralia, 247; Gesammelte Schriften, 283.

4 Edmund Husserl, Collected Works: Things and Space. Lectures of 1907, vol. VII, trans. Richard Rojcewicz (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1997), 19-20. On the “phenomenological epoché”, Husserl’s Cartesian method of “excluding” and “parenthesizing”, see Collected Works: Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, vol. II, trans. F. Kersten (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982), 62ff. My disagreement with Husserl could be summarized as follows. First, that every possibility of insight or “originary seizing upon…objectivities” (Vol.II: 66) which Husserl claims is a special achievement of the “phenomenological attitude” in fact already belongs radically and inalienably to the so-called “natural attitude”; and second, that the “phenomenological epoché” is not a reduction, as Husserl specifically conceived it, but an increment: the “parenthesizing” of experience is essentially the superaddition of parentheses to experience. Neither of these mistakes, as I think of them, would seem tenable except for the prior misconception of doubt as something that may be “precluded” by a fundamentally calculistic “reduction.” 

5 The corresponding minor claim is that apodicticity is the bathos of speculation.

6 William Wordsworth, The Thirteen-Book Prelude, vol. I, ed. Mark L. Reed (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 229 (VIII. 752-760); for the ms. transcription, vol. II, 773 (VIII. 754-755).

7 William Wordsworth, The Fourteen-Book Prelude, ed. W.J.B. Owen (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 176.

8 “I yearn towards some philosophic Song | Of Truth that cherishes our daily life.” Wordsworth, The Thirteen-Book Prelude, vol. I, 112 (I.231-2). On philosophic song, see Simon Jarvis’s brilliant Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), whose discussion of these lines begins on the objective place page 1.

9 De Quincey as Critic, ed. John E. Jordan (London: Routledge, 1973), 269ff.

10 The Thirteen-Book Prelude, vol. I, 286-7 (X. 709-727).

11 The Thirteen-Book Prelude, vol. II, 883.

12 Edward Young, Night Thoughts, ed. Stephen Cornford (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 212 (Night VII, ll.1299-1303).

13 Hugh Blair, Sermons, vol. V (Edinburgh, 1777 – 1801), 167.

14 The Rambler, by Doctor Johnson, and Persian letters, by Lord Lyttleton (London, 1800), 174 (No. LXXVIII, Dec 15th 1750).

15 William Gilpin, An exposition of the New Testament; intended as an introduction to the study of the scriptures, vol. 2, 3rd edition (London, 1798), 409.

16 David Williams, Lectures on the universal principles and duties of religion and morality (London, 1779), 15.

17 “O Lady! we receive but what we give, | And in our life alone does Nature live.” “Dejection: an Ode,” ll.47-48.