Today, let’s continue to consider what it takes to be honest with ourselves and ditch our kitsch.
The Eye Altering, Alters All: Poetic Perception
It can be difficult, if not entirely impossible, to ditch our kitsch when we are in the midst of it, because it doesn’t look like kitsch to us—it looks like the unassailable way things need to be in order for us to be okay.
This is true even if that dubious “okay” is really miserable. Our calculating minds would still like to call that misery “okay” because at least it’s known, and what we know we think we can control. Actually, we can’t, but the illusion that we can is hypnotic. In order to break out of it, we have to be willing to alter our perception.
One of my favorite mad poet-prophets, William Blake, observed that “the eye altering, alters all.” In other words, when we change our perception, the whole world around us changes.
Abandon the Brain that Divides
I suggest that our ability to cling to shit and live in kitsch arises from the fact that we’ve learned to use the opposite of poetic perception: fragmented perception. We all come into the world as perfectly honest and expressive young poets, but school and society beat that out of us right quick.
Our culture is dominated by “the brain that divides.” We learn to see ourselves as isolated little egos who have to fight and scrap and scrape in order to hold on to our little drops of comfort or pleasure or power.
We feel threatened by the other isolated little egos outside of us who might try to take these things away. We have to push ourselves harder and harder to continue to win, to protect what we have, to get more.
Within this perception of fragmentation, we see everything, including our own bodies and talents and the natural world, as objects to be manipulated in order to attain some end.
It’s only in this fragmented perception that a life of kitsch can spring up, because kitsch seeks to manipulate the vast and messy unfolding of our lives into a neat and pretty picture that we’re confident will gain the approval of others and thus secure us our comfort, pleasure and power.
Poetic Perception Sees Wholeness
In order to end the reign of kitsch in our lives and see our shit for what it is, we need to begin cultivating poetic perception, a mode of seeing from the heart which acknowledges connectedness and interrelation amongst ourselves and everything in existence.
When we are able to see ourselves and life from the poetic perspective of wholeness, we are better able to recognize our shit, to stop telling ourselves and the world that it’s gold, and instead allow it to be simple fertilizer for awesomeness.
This recognition is enabled by the wholeness of poetic perception because we create our shit in the first place in an attempt to deal with the fragmentation and alienation we perceive.
I clung to my lousy boyfriend and my socially respectable position as an academic because I felt lacking, estranged from the flow of life. I didn’t trust that the world might have better things in store for me because I felt as if the world and me were two separate things, and why should the world care what happened to me?
As long as I saw myself primarily as an isolated little ego and not as an integral part of life’s unfolding who could be uplifted and blossomed by the same force that blossoms flowers, I was unwilling to ditch my kitsch; I still felt I needed it to survive.
A Very High Sort of Seeing
In his essay “The Poet” Emerson describes in great detail someone who has a solid grasp on poetic perception—namely, the ideal poet. According to Emerson, the ideal poet has an intuition of unity which is so total that it constitutes a kind of dramatic enlightenment, a state of higher realization. Emerson refers to this unitive insight as Imagination. He tells us that Imagination is
a very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees; by sharing the path or circuit of things through forms, and so making them translucid to others.
Yet in order to start on a project of poetic inquiry, I don’t think it’s necessary to be fully possessed of this realization of underlying oneness, and certainly not necessary to “believe” in it—I think it’s only necessary to be willing to move towards it.
In other words, I think it’s necessary to soften one’s sense of oneself as a limited, isolated entity, as a thinking subject for whom the world (including your talents and your body) is merely a mess of objects to be manipulated for socially approved ends.
Dwell in Possibility
The shift to poetic perception requires the willingness to enter, at least temporarily, the condition which I call “Possibility,” after a poem by Emily Dickinson. Dickinson wrote:
I dwell in Possibility—
A fairer House than Prose—
More numerous of Windows—
Of Chambers as the Cedars—
Impregnable of eye—
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky—
Of Visitors—the fairest—
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise—
The house of Possibility is a symbol of a condition of profound openness: it’s a a house which abounds in thresholds (More numerous of Windows– / Superior for Doors—“) and it’s also a house which declines to provide shelter from the elements (“And for an everlasting Roof– / The Gambrels of the Sky”).
Yet for the very reason that the house of Possibility gives so little shelter, it leaves its inhabitant open to receive the fairest visitors and to practice the gathering of Paradise. And that’s what we do in poetic perception.
It’s of course significant also that the house of Possibility is one which Dickinson compares to the house of Prose—implying that Possibility is identified with Prose’s opposite—poetry.
Possibility vs. Imagination
I find the term “Possibility” to be a useful word to describe the condition which it’s necessary to enter in order to begin seeking and creatively expressing truth, even more useful than Emerson’s term, Imagination.
Possibility, perhaps because Dickinson figures it as a house, suggests to me a state which one can readily enter or depart without undergoing a complete transcendental enlightenment– which is a connotation that Imagination carries for Emerson and his friends, the British romantic poets and German idealists.
This distinction is important to me, given that complete transcendental enlightenment is notoriously tough to come by.
I envision my work as a teacher of awesoming not as a project of leading you into the life of a realized sage but rather as one of inviting you to experiment with an alternative mode of being, perceiving, and expressing truth.
The ultimate end of such experimentation could be that you decide to commit to “dwell[ing]” full-time in Possibility as Dickinson herself did, but I’m pleased if it simply lets you admit your shit, to live more compassionately and bravely.
Though I envision Possibility as a state which can be easily entered or exited, to enter it at all nonetheless requires accepting a risk, because it is a condition not only of enlarged receptivity but also of increased vulnerability.
It’s a condition of increased vulnerability because when we open ourselves wide to the fairest of visitors — truth and beauty — we are simultaneously loosening our grip on our defenses– namely, our kitsch.
Stay tuned for our next post, in which I discuss explicit instructions for entering Possibility.