Perceiving-Thinking-Writing: Merleau-Ponty and Literature

With the verbal-nouns in his title, Donald Wesling proposes a philosophy in hyphens: three-in-one and three-in-each-other. His leading argument is a cross-over theory of the humanities, with philosophy and literature in a relation of constructive interference. (The metaphor of interference figures in several sectors and levels.) What is common to both disciplines is the attempt to understand the necessary but often forgotten act of perceiving within the embodied mind. Wesling asks and answers: How does perceptual content enter thinking and writing? This book’s topics include re-definition of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology as a big-hearted rationality; quantum interference as a metaphor for thinking and also for the relation of self to the outer surround of things and persons; nine key terms from Merleau-Ponty as applied to practical reading of poems and stories; the role of the sentence as an energy that structures thinking and writing; ordinary creativity and co-creativity. Overall, Donald Wesling reveals the meaning for the humanities, now, of Merleau-Ponty’s statements that future work will be a search for “a secondary, laborious, rediscovered naïveté,” and that in this pursuit “our relation to what is true must pass through others.”

Chapter Summaries for Donald Wesling’s Book:
Perceiving-Thinking-Writing: Merleau-Ponty and Literature

Introduction: Philosophy and Literature in a Relation of Constructive Interference
On Phenomenology
Origin and Scope of the Argument
Why Merleau-Ponty?
Chapter 1: The Prodigious Search of Appearance
The Search of Appearance as First (and Continuing) Move to Initiate a Philosophy
Merleau-Ponty’s Great Preface of 1945
Chapter 2: Eye and Mind in Painting and Writing
The Primacy of Perception
Eye and Mind in Painting and Writing
“Just As”
Chapter 3: Ineinander: Energies of Interference
Structures of Relation: The Dialectic And (not Versus) Quantum Superposition
Moving Toward Writing
Chapter 4: Recovering the Subject in the Act of Speaking—and Writing
On Thinking From and Of the Body
On Perceiving-Thinking-Writing, Previous to Phenomenology
Perceptual Content of the English Sentence: The Trial With Henry James
Interference as a Metaphor for Structures of Mind
Late Essays on Recovering the Subject in the Act of Speaking/Writing
On Style
Chapter 5: Energies of Attention: Syntax in Depth
From Perceiving and Thinking to Writing—and Back
The Skills of Attention and the Forms of Energy that Connect Us to the World and to Other People
Energies of Attention: Syntax in Sentences and Sequences of Sentences
Chapter 6: Modes and Powers of Attention: Nine Terms from Merleau-Ponty
The Modes of Attention
The Powers of Attention
Chapter 7: Reading Poems and a Novel With Merleau-Ponty’s Terms
Sentence and Scene in Three Poems
Sentence and Scene in Henry James’s The Ambassadors (1903)
Chapter 8: Ordinary Creativity
The Birth of Meaning
Ordinary Creativity
The Co-Creativity of Those Who Understand
Using Our Freedom
The Summaries of Contents for the Preface, the Introduction and the Eight Chapters
The one-page Preface sets out the research questions that motivate this book, which have to do with the relation of perception to cognition. Also it speaks of how we can justify writing and reading about these issues in a time of pandemic.
Introduction: Philosophy and Literature in a Relation of Constructive Interference
The Introduction, with help from etymology and from commentary by Martin Heidegger, re-emphasizes the role of perception within phenomenology and reveals the book’s two main arguments on Search of Appearance and the Relation of Interference. After a brief direct reference to the work of scholarship during a pandemic, there is a biographical-philosophical-political account of why one might want to pay attention to Maurice Merleau-Ponty a half-century after his death. Overall, the Introduction’s assignment is to justify a literary person writing on a professional philosopher—a philosopher who takes an unusually detailed interest in painting and writing. Late Merleau-Ponty after the monumental book of 1945 has new themes, new emphases, and these will be collected from many sources, collated, applied to examples.
Chapter 1: A Prodigious Search of Appearance
Edmund Husserl’s foundational move is his mid-career, early 1900s invention of the Reduction, which is a suspension of what Husserl called the natural attitude. The Reduction suspends what we might call the easy thoughtless acceptance of what appears in front of us. The Reduction once understood as a decision in time is also prolonged into habits of processing experience and continued over a lifetime. It is skeptical of what is seen-heard-felt-touched-tasted, but does not obliterate sensory or scientific experience, just holds in doubt on the model of radical doubt in Descartes. Merleau-Ponty starts with this and founds his own phenomenology upon it. More clearly in him than in Husserl, the Reduction is actually an expansion. Here, we suggest that Wallace Stevens’ term from an essay is another useful term for the operation of Reduction: Stevens spoke of Search of Appearance as the typical labor of modern painters and poets. As a way of starting the book by referring to the legacy of Husserl in his French follower, Chapter 1 concludes with an exposé of Merleau-Ponty’s critique and extension (Preface to Phenomenology of Perception) of Husserl’s central ideas.
Chapter 2: Eye and Mind in Painting and Writing
This long chapter is the book’s main summary and display of the philosopher’s phenomenology of perception, beginning with the account of a late-1940s statement titled “The Primacy of Perception.” This delivered speech is a defense of embodied mind, beginning with a useful condensation of the 1945 book and continuing with a Q&A session with the philosopher’s senior colleagues. He is sturdy in his defense of perception as always already cognition, always already rational, thus going against the existing prejudice in favor of the presumed objective knowledge of the natural sciences. For examples, we first consider the profound expressivity of the child’s drawing: How can the artist repossess that in maturity, after the artist has learned perspective and all the tricks of conventional presentation? Next Chapter 2 engages with three long central essays that cover the whole period from 1945 to the writer’s last statement on the visual arts, namely the grand piece titled “Eye and Mind.” Here the chosen register is the sense of sight, and Cézanne is the major figure in writings by Merleau-Ponty and by commentators Jessica Wiskus and T.J. Clark. However the philosopher considers painting at length only to contrast it, eventually, with writing, finding in language and literature a more complex transformation of how things are seen in motion and heard in sound.
Chapter 3: Ineinander: Energies of Interference
Perceiving, thinking, and writing are in a feedback loop of activity, and any cut into the process will be arbitrary. Still, perceiving has primacy in phenomenology, because it affords the substances and registrations of movement that thinking and writing need to exercise their skills as those skills turn back ceaselessly to inform (indeed often to command) perception in its action. As later Chapters will show, the energies required and released in this action are energies of the mind in the turnings of attention. The structures of relation within this process are first described by means of The Dialectic, that Merleau-Ponty learns from Hegel and pursues often by reference to later commentators, Husserl and Karl Marx. Not original with this book, but often neglected in commentary, is the idea that Merleau-Ponty (who made a study of quantum physics for his 1950s lectures and writings) pushes beyond the limitations of The Dialectic (sketchy ideas of what may be opposition; triumphalism of one side winning out) to intimations of a new kind of indeterminate struggle of perception and cognition, called in quantum theory interference or entanglement. The purpose of the argument here is first to show how the philosopher himself wrote ten pages in a lecture, with up-to-date information on developments in quantum mechanics. Then this Chapter brings in theorists in philosophy and history of physics, for instance Fredric Jameson and Karen Barad, to describe the virtues of the metaphor of interference in showing a more powerful image of the embodied mind and its doings. The linking essay between philosophy and literature is a forgotten treatise from the 1970s , on cognitive-aesthetic interference in writing, by Jan M. Meijer. Our example of how this works, as the argument moves from the phase of thinking to the phase of writing, is our grammar-metrics reading of “Marine,” a 19th-century poem in French by Paul Verlaine.
Chapter 4: Recovering the Subject in the Act of Speaking—and Writing
As the argument of the book moves toward literary and other writing, this Chapter makes the pivot with an opening section to solidify the crucial idea of the embodied mind, and with a second section that takes up previous approaches to perceiving-thinking-writing in Herakleitos, Johan Gottfried Herder, Ferdinand de Saussure, and also in Charles Taylor’s recent book on the tradition of language- theory since Herder. One topic that emerges is the relation of the sentence to the proposition-in-logic, since in German but not English the word for both entities is the same word. It becomes clear that if we wish to consider perceptual content in the sentence we need to admit a huge group of cases not included in traditional logic. The example here is a short passage in a Henry James novel, which proves to have surprising richness for study of perception-in-words. The Chapter concludes with a selective unfolding of several of Merleau-Ponty’s late essays on language. How, specifically, can a writer’s expression, through style, show the subject in the act of speaking and writing—for later recovery in the co-creativity of reading?
Chapter 5: Energies of Attention: Syntax in Depth
The aim here is to remedy a certain lack of concern, in commentary, for the role of attention in phenomenological philosophy. Merleau-Ponty has eloquent pages on the topic in the early pages of Phenomenology of Perception: harvested in the opening of Chapter 5, and followed-up with definitions/examples from recent work by Susan Blackmore, Gay Watson, Zen thinkers on attention-in-meditation, and Simone Weil’s dazzling moral essay on the proper use of school studies. It is transformative to think of attention not as a kind of flashlight picking up images of things in a darkened attic, but rather as a form of mental energy for send-out and pick-up. (The quantum-physics analogy is relevant: what happens to wave-particle energies when you observe with help of instrumentation, and when the observation is itself an expression of energy?) Registration of movement is everything when it comes to perception in this type of thinking, and the movement can be of things in the surround or of words marching ahead in a sentence. Merleau-Ponty’s phrase for syntax in sentences and sequences of sentences is “syntax in depth,” and this means both doubling back to pull perceptual content forward from achieved short-term memory, and also anticipating what is to come on the basis of what’s known. As the argument of the book will now phase into stylistic analysis, we review recent accounts of ordinary language in Toril Moi and of inner speech by Bakhtin scholar Caryl Emerson. and it is relevant to make a full-scale review of the sentence in ordinary language and in verbal art by referring to Jan Mieszkowski’s new book on Crises of the Sentence. The final focus of attention upon attention will be with the theories of the Language Poets who started their work in the 1970s, with the recent practice in Tribunal of Lyn Hejinian as a member of that literary school, and with a paragraph of praise on Apostrophe—that call-out within the poem to what is beyond the poem.
Chapter 6; Modes and Powers of Attention: Nine Terms from Merleau-Ponty
The question of How to Read with phenomenology’s capacious categories calls for a reminder: Merleau-Ponty’s career-long aim was to recover the roots of rationality. Reaching this goal means taking perception all the way over to cognition and writing and back again. It does not mean abandoning rational thought but, rather, preventing rational thought from isolating itself in its majesty. In phenomenology, the Reduction is the start-that-continues, following into further phases that interrogate, describe, and disclose the particulars of relation between our bodies and their surround in the things and persons of the world. The praxis of this way of doing philosophy is one of descent to the soil, not of vaulting to heights, and so must lower the level of generality—for example to the kind of items on the list that Merleau-Ponty set out in the Working Notes of The Visible and the Invisible: “dimensions, articulation, level, hinges, pivots, configuration.” These are all ratios of relation for differential specifying of perception in its performance. Because these are rational ratios, there is no lack of cognitive caution. To begin reading in this style of thought we need faith in the mind as embodied; willingness to engage in first-person discourse; an abiding interest in how the perceptual field reveals itself to the human senses, and an abundant and mobile sense of how to describe examples. Here in Chapter 6, I offer substantial paragraphs of definition for the Modes and Powers of Attention in nine of Merleau-Ponty’s terms. The terms and their categorization into two types are chosen by me to move his approach over to the process of reading. Then in Chapter 7 I try the terms on three poems (by W. C.Williams, Ange Mlinko,and Robert Burns) and a long stretch of James’s The Ambassadors, the novel treated already but more briefly in Chapter 4. Though I can say all nine terms in this array exhibit the relation of interference, and though the Modes are I believe superintended by the Powers, I shall not offer their definitions in this summary. The Modes of Attention are: Movement, Depth, Chiasm, Reversibility, Non-Coincidence, and Rhythm. The Powers of Attention are: Interrogation, Description, and Disclosure. The most general of these and the most pertinent to literary creativity is Disclosure.
Chapter 7: Reading Poems and a Novel with Merleau-Ponty’s Terms
As modes of attention, movement, depth, chiasm, reversibility, non-coincidence, and rhythm are different phases of the same experience of perceiving, and their relevance and use must depend on qualities in the experience itself. Especially, I submit, the facets called chiasm and reversibility are close in meaning and tricky to separate in the actual approach to a text. This effort is a trial to assess how a philosopher’s terms can be set to work on the literary side, with the aim of showing how perception can lead to interpretation, indeed has already the essentials for interpretation. Not all the modes are relevant to every text. But all the modes, as named terms that are now literary too, share the virtue of sending us back to the body, back to the eventfulness of the senses as they perform the body’s relation to changes in the surround, innering what is outer. The texts are chosen for high degree of perceptual content, variety in their formal structures, female-male difference, rhyme vs. no rhyme, meter vs. no meter, and production in three different centuries. The texts are: “The Yellow Chimney,” a free verse poem from the 1940s by William Carlos Williams; “A Horse Does Not Want to be FedExed,” a rhyme-and-meter poem from 2017 by Ange Mlinko, and “To a Mouse,” an apostrophe-poem from the 1780s by Robert Burns; and Henry James’s The Ambassadors, a novel of 1903. All are analyzed down to the smallest detail with the nine terms as defined by me with the help of Merleau-Ponty’s vocabulary; the poems are quoted in full; and the fully quoted study text from James is four long paragraphs from the end of Book 11 and the beginning of the final book, Book 12.
Chapter 8: Ordinary Creativity
This essay began with Mikhail Bakhtin speaking on the co-creativity of a writer’s readers who come after and understand the writer’s utterances on the basis of art-speech that survives. Now we can add a concluding claim that what Merleau-Ponty has called the realization-completion of an unthought in a previous writer is exactly the same thing as Bakhtin’s co-creativity of those who understand. The work of perceiving-thinking-writing, Bakhtin and Merleau-Ponty knew (but Bakhtin said it) has its homecoming in a later era, under different social-historical conditions, but future readers—”those who understand”—know enough to adjust for that. Inevitably, yet unpredictably, since creativity contains the chaotic random, what the creative after-comer recognizes is the condition for the birth of creativity in the original work of verbal art. The knowledge required in the original writer’s creativity, and in his or her reader’s creativity, is both technical-formal and social-historical. What is known is, in brief, that perception always stylizes and that style always historicizes. This final Chapter makes the case for the kind of creativity perception puts into action every waking minute of every day, by reference to the philosopher’s statements and to “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” a long and pertinent poem by the American writer already important for this book, Wallace Stevens. The second-last section further discusses co-creativity and those who understand—aware that the Understanding is a freighted term whose history Heidegger excavates and prolongs—with help from examples out of sources like The New York Times and The New York Review of Books. The last section ends the book by following up on Merleau-Ponty’s example in a book and several of his essays: by considering, as part of a phenomenology of perception, the politics and ethics of freedom. Here at the last are my book’s final two sentences, commenting on the philosopher’s take on novels by St. Exupéry and by Hemingway: “Can we say that the resistance (the interference) of the aesthetic itself, in the novel as a form—also in irony as attitude and tragedy as genre—is a space in which what is destructive about reification, abstraction and unfreedom is refused? If we can say it about literature, we can say it about philosophy , too, especially as practiced by Maurice Merleau-Ponty.”
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