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See Part One, here.

Prompted by the recital of part of Matthew Arnold’s poem, The Buried Life, at a memorial event for Richard Holbrooke, I wrote earlier about one way of defining a meaningful life. A meaningful life would be one you’ve made meaningful, in your own way; and one you’ve understood in terms of the coherence of those self-generated meanings.

Although Arnold’s poem begins as the speaker’s plea to his lover to stop, for a time, their fond but empty chatter, and get serious –

Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.

– it’s really his own inmost soul the speaker’s after. The rest of the poem traces the poet’s frustrated attempts to unearth his own “hidden self,” his “soul’s subterranean depth,” so that he can know the truth of his being, and thus know the motive and shape of his life.

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But what’s the profit? Philip Larkin poses this question in one of his most famous poems, “Continuing to Live.” So you’ve been able, with stupendous effort, to uproot your deepest self. You finally, as the days wane, perceive who you are, and why your life was the way it was. You’ve illuminated, for yourself, your particular character and fate story. So what?

… [O]nce you have walked the length of your mind, what

You command is clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist.

And what’s the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.

We’re at the place Wallace Stevens called the palm at the end of the mind, the place you get to when you’ve walked the full length of yourself; or, in Arnold’s metaphor, when you’ve dug down to the very bottom. But you’ve disinterred a purely contingent object, applying only to one man once, and that one dying.

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Richard Rorty thinks Larkin has made a fundamental mistake:

[Larkin’s mistake is to want a] ‘blind impress’ which applie[s] not only to ‘one man once,’ but, rather, to all human beings. Think of finding such an impress as being the discovery of the universal conditions of human existence, the great continuities, the permanent, ahistorical context of human life … [These conditions would be] necessary, essential, telic, constitutive of what it is to be a human. [If they exist, they will] give us a goal, the only possible goal, namely, the full recognition of that very necessity…

Traditional philosophers, Rorty writes, were “going to explain to us the ultimate locus of power, the nature of reality, the conditions of the possibility of experience. They would thereby inform us what we really are, what we are compelled to be by powers not ourselves. [The point of our lives would be] the … self-consciousness of our essence.”

Rorty goes on to say that philosophers in the wake of Nietzsche have seen “self-knowledge as self-creation…. [A] human life [is] triumphant just insofar as it escapes from inherited descriptions of the contingencies of its existence and finds new descriptions.” Larkin’s churlish conclusion, then, derives from his demand that there be universal and established, rather than contingent and new, truths.

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As to the value of those contingent truths to a larger world of human beings, here’s what Alexander Nehamas, writing about the centrality of the experience of beauty for the creation of a self and a life, argues:

[I]ndividuality and distinctiveness presuppose coherence and unity; without them, nothing can stand on its own as an object either of admiration or of contempt. If there are discernable in my aesthetical choices, in what I have found beautiful, in what I have in turn found of beauty in it, in the various groups to which my choices have led me, in what I received from them, and what I in turn had to give them – if my choices both fit with one another and also stand out from the rest, then I have managed to put things together in my own manner and form. I have established, through the things I loved, a new way of looking at the world, and left it richer than I first found it.

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2 Responses to “The Buried Life, Part Two”

  1. Michael Tinkler Says:

    Stop that! people pay you MONEY for that!

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    I can’t help myself.

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