Tag Archives: A N Whitehead

Process, Reality and Maximus

Annette Lamballe 2/01/13

Sunrise over the Channel from our garden. Annette Lamballe 2/01/13

Looking at the wordpress dashboard gizmos, I now realise that I haven’t blogged since August which (for me) is a very long time indeed. This was a conscious break to get away from the poetry blogging mentality and to do Other Things. These are ongoing works in progress in both the creative and political ends of my life and I’ve recently begun to polish/refurbish the arduity project primarily because people like it and it gets a consistent level of traffic that I know I can grow.

Whilst doing other things I’ve been reading Langland and other middle English stuff and engaging with bits of philosophy. This wasn’t deliberate (I’m supposed to be immersed in the more arcane parts of social policy) but I fell across ‘Selves’ by Galen Strawson which tackles an aspect of one of the creative collaborations that I’m involved in. This prodded me into another attempt at Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’ which, in turn, has caused a bit of a re-think of Charles Olson’s ‘Maximus Poems’ which I’ll outline here.

I’ll start with ‘Maximus’, regular readers will by now have gathered that I think this is one of the greatest poems of the 20th century and one of the most accomplished. Olson was a great fan of the above mentioned Whitehead tome and it is possible to read ‘Maximus’, at least in part, as a working through of the Whitehead thesis. I don’t intend to spend too much time on the intricacies of ‘Process and Reality’ but I do want to quote two bits that might put ‘Maximus’ in a slightly different light.

Before we go any further I do need to confess that I’m yet to complete my reading of ‘Process and Reality’ and some of what follows is loosely based on/in argument with what others have written. The following are the first and ninth of Whitehead’s 27 ‘Categories of Explanation’:

That the actual world is a process, and that the process is the becoming of actual entities. Thus actual entities are creatures; they are also termed ‘actual occasions.


That how an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is; so that the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent. Its ‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming.’ This is the ‘principle of process.’

It strikes me that these two require a fundamental shift in our current ways of thinking because they indicate that, instead of thinking of things as fixed and reasonably stable objects, we should be thinking of everything in terms of an ongoing process of becoming. The issue I want to raise is whether ‘Maximus’ reflects the very radical nature of this shift or presents a poeticised position which is at least one step removed from Whitehead.

I’m going to use ‘Oceania’ from the third volume of the sequence because it is a brilliant and technically accomplished poem but also because it contains at least two overt references to the Whitehead project.

The poem is ‘about’ Olson walking around Gloucester’s harbour in the early hours of the morning and writing and making a note of the time as he writes and describes what he sees. It’s lyrical and fiercely intelligent and manages to make the technically difficult feel effortless. ‘Oceania’ begins with:

                           the Child
              of the Moment of Mind 
              and Thought

            I've seen it all go in other directions
            and heard a man say why not
            stop ocean's tides
                              and not even more than the slow
            loss of a small piece of time, not any more vibration
            than the small wobble of the earth on its present axis

         no paleographic wind will record these divergent
         and solely diverse animadversions - some part also of emotions
         or consciousness........

So, we appear to start with an exploration of the temporal and the cerebral and end with a reflection of what Whitehead says about the importance/centrality of feelings. There are however a couple of areas of ambiguity- what has been seen to ‘all go in other directions’ and which ‘animadversions’ won’t get recorded?

Later on the poem has:

       As a stiff & colder 
       wind too, straight down
       the river as in winter
       chills  cools
   the night - people had sd

   earlier they'd hoped
   wld have been a
   thunderstorm  I had sd no
   the wind's still
   where it was 

       Excuse please  no boast
         only the glory of

       the processes
         of Earth
              and man.

This can be read as a straightforward reiteration of the first Explanation above but, given the radical implications of this and the rest of the principles of ‘Process and Reality’ it does feel a bit thin. I’m saying this because I’ve previously read ‘Oceania’ as one of the best examples of philosophic poetry that we have and now find myself a little disappointed at it’s lack of daring. The poem does elucidate both the principle of process and the consequent focus on the relational but it doesn’t give full voice to what is really revolutionary about what Whitehead appears to insist upon- that it’s a fundamental error to think in terms of objects rather than of the potentiality of events (becoming).

Some might argue that the first few lines are a stab in this direction but they’re too vague and I’m still reading them as a nod towards the notion of the past always existing in the present which isn’t the same. I need also to state that this is my own readerly (rather than expert) response and one that is based on the beginnings of my understanding of all things Whitehead. I do however think that it does throw into sharp relief the problematic and endlessly convoluted relationship between poetry and philosophy.

I read philosophy because it can enable me to think about things in different ways and to confront challenges to my current beliefs. For example, I’m having this intensely enjoyable readerly argument with Galen Strawson on the singleness of the self. I don’t get this level of challenge from poetry even though, at its best, it does aim at a kind of accuracy, rather than truth, about how it is to be in the world. The difference between the two is that poets can/should use ambiguity whereas philosophers have this need to be absolutely clear about what’s being said- even when they’re acknowledging the ambiguous and provisional nature of things.

The other difference is one of brevity. ‘Process and Reality’ runs to 353 pagtes of densely worded text, Strawson’s ‘Selves’ weighs in at 425 pages, the UK press is at the moment bursting to the seams with the latest dismal assault on the welfare state which J H Prynne brilliantly encapsulates as “great lack breeds lank / less and less” which manages to combine elements of Rawls and most of Marxian philosophy at once but does so without finding fifty different long-winded ways to say the same thing.

In conclusion, ‘Oceania’ is a shining piece of delightful brilliance in it’s own right but it isn’t philosophy because the two activites will always be different.