Negotiating creative (im)mortalities, in life, together

 

This paper takes up the question of what might hinder the collaborative impulse among artists and specifically poets, and offers—as one possible answer—the complication posed by the urge of an artist for immortality, or for their (individual) name to live on. The paper begins by returning to a moment in Plato, namely that of the Symposium and its observations concerning the connection between poiesis (making) and a questing after immortality. Contrasting with what seems like Plato's broadly positive framing, the paper takes up a second reading of immortality (or the 'will-to-live') found in an early text of the Yogic canon, that of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. In this second text, written somewhat later than Plato's, the will-to-live is framed otherwise, as one of five afflictions that can be 'made thin' by practice. The paper's wager is that, viewed in this way, as an affliction, the will-to-live (or urge for immortality) deserves consideration as a hindrance to the impulse towards collaboration. Noting, however, that in the poiesis of writing poetry, where there is both the making of things and the action of making things, this creative constellation always contains the tempering solution to its own inherent lures. Writing, although providing fuel for immortal appetites (due to what it makes), also works to temper the worst of this same impulse via the contribution of practice—as dedication, craft and community-as-practice. The practice of writing, therefore, is already at play, and can be emphasised explicitly for any poet or maker who also wants to be able to want to collaborate. The practice of writing, then, and its turn away from investments in identity, works to thin out the more destructive face of an urge for a dubious eternity that can eclipse our ability to work together creatively with others in this life. 

 

 

Keywords: Collaboration—Practice—Poetry—Immortality—Patanjali—Symposium

 

'... One day you will do things for me that you hate. That is what it means to be a family.' What [my mother] does not clutch is that I already do things for her that I hate. I listen to her when she talks to me. I resist complaining about my pygmy allowance. And did I mention that I do not spleen her nearly so much as I desire to? But I do not do these things because we are a family. I do them because they are common decencies. That is an idiom that the hero taught me. I do them because I am not a big fucking asshole. That is another idiom that the hero taught me.

 Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated, 2002, p.2

 

The genesis for this paper was the author's participation in a symposium called 'The Poetics of Collaboration'[1], and more specifically in a panel titled 'Doing this Decently'. Following a decision to engage fully with the thematic constraints both of the session and the overall event, an inquiry into the relationships, if any, that might exist between poetics, decency, the 'doing' of poetry, collaboration and what might stifle it, ensued. This paper, consequently, takes up the ever-awkward, but hardly novel, notion, echoing the position of Diotima in Plato's Symposium, that one of the motors (unspoken or otherwise) of creative production (poiesis) is always also the individual artist's investment in the promise of immortality. As Diotima clarifies, when it comes to love, underneath all its guises, there is a love of what isn't impermanent implacably operating (see Plato 1952: 165). Bringing this to bear on the case of collaboration, it will be argued that this investment may be no negligible factor—whether in poetry or in other fields of creative engagement—for the success of projects intending to be decently collaborative. For this reason, it will be argued, we can begin by saying its influence and taking responsibility, via a keen curiosity, for its lure more explicitly.

The paper begins by revisiting Socrates' contribution to the evening's discussion on love staged in the Symposium (1952), and its broadly positive framing of an impulse towards immortality. It will then take up an alternative, and less optimistic, framing from the canon of Yogic literature, taken from Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (2013) where the 'will-to-live' (abinivesha[2]) is deemed instead to be an affliction, one however able to be tempered by practice. Noting that poetry for Plato qualifies as the prime example of poiesis (the making of things) and, for the purposes of this paper, poetry also qualifies as a form of practising (the action of making), this paper will propose that writing, when practised seriously, contains the medicine for the worst aspects of its own tendency. If an urge towards immortality is an incontrovertible motor behind making, and if this same motor can express itself in less-than-decent ways, then read together, Plato's and Patanjali's framings offer a way to honour creativity's press while also knowing how, through a discerning emphasis on practice in appropriate moments and phases, to temper its less collaborative and less communal tendencies. By staging an emphasis on practice, therefore, in conjunction with that which practice creates (its 'products'), this paper offers a conceptual schema for creative practitioners inquiring into wanting to want to collaborate, and provides one framing for thinking and articulating some of the latter's difficulties clearly. Along with Plato and Patanjali, whose traditions resemble each other in important structural ways—namely in their relation to transcendence—the paper will mobilise as counterpoint some of the concepts of French thinker, Gilles Deleuze, whose insistence on immanence and the 'I' as pure habit, provides the conceptual leverage for reframing entirely the question concerning immortality.

The discussion below will lean on the philosophical scaffolding cited above, while also passing via a number of illustrative literary and theoretical examples.

 

Immortality in the Symposium

In the dialogue from the third century BCE, Plato's protagonist Socrates takes up an invitation to speak about love in the famous soirée scene of the Symposium (1952: 149ff). As part of his contribution on the evening's theme, Socrates cites instruction from a 'wise woman' from Mantineia called Diotima (1952: 163), who among other things, has spoken at length about the desire for immortality as the impulse behind poiesis in general (165), as well as being invariably love's true (if not always explicit) object.

Diotima notes that we need not marvel at the love parents have for their offspring (which constitutes her first example of poiesis), since this 'love and interest is for the sake of immortality' (Plato 1952: 166)—that is, the parents can attain a 'living on' beyond their personal lifespans, via those of their children. Poiesis, then, assumed after Diotima to be unavoidably enmeshed with the urge for immortality, can take three forms: the natural form of procreation, the attainment of heroic fame, and the cultivation of wisdom and virtue in the soul. Poetry, incidentally, would fall, for Plato's purposes, into the third category. On this point, we encounter Diotima's frank provocation (repeated by Socrates): 'Who, when he thinks of Homer and Hesiod and other great poets, would not rather have their children than ordinary human ones?' (Plato 1952: 166)

In Diotima's view, then, the making of poetry (or art) can be considered superior to other examples of poiesis. 'Men', according to Plato, pursue such things out of a love for immortality or desire for an 'everlasting possession' of the good (1952: 165), one which is due to the enduring nature of the works that can be created.

Embroiled, therefore, with the delights and ordeals of the activity of making work (the 'doing'), exists the fact of poiesis, the production of something less impermanent from this very process, something which can also come to be associated with a (mortal) human's name. For the purposes of this paper, we ask then whether this desire for immortality, straightforwardly acknowledged by Diotima, via Plato's character of Socrates might be a factor, whether made conscious or not, in cases where artists find themselves reluctant to engage in collaborative creative ventures, especially collaborative poetry?

If we take Plato seriously, an appetite for immortality is a persistent, if not always candidly acknowledged, impulse woven into and at work in all or most human undertakings. Procreation, heroic renown and artistic or spiritual engagements would, after Diotima, be always already motivated by immortality's seductive whisperings, and for her purposes this seduction isn't problematic. Indeed she is cited as saying:

'Nay ... I am persuaded that all men do all things, and the better they are the more they do them, in hope of the glorious fame of immortal virtue; for they desire the immortal'  (Plato 1952: 166).

This reading, of how immortality moves humans to act and to make, emphasises the desirable and vital aspects of its press. There is something refreshing in this approach, since it honours and affirms the depth of the creative urge, its robustness and shared, if sometimes silent, longing. (We will speak more about this desirable aspect in the second part of this paper.) What Plato's example (via Diotima) doesn't emphasise, however, is the possibility of less virtuous or decent expressions of its urge. Even if, according to Diotima, the urge for immortality via poiesis is a shared one, this urge might not always express itself in ways that honour and preserve community, decent exchange, or transparent relations between fellows.  

An example from 20th century European prose fiction, which provides an illustration of the other, less clement face of the desire for immortality, can be found in Milan Kundera's novel and rumination on the theme, Immortality (1991). In Kundera's example, a seemingly romantic investment serves as the cover for a more far-reaching ambition for immortality via association with an artist and poet, namely JW von Goethe.

In his 1991 novel, Kundera makes a wry exploration of art's apparent promise that, if not our bodies, then our names can live on. As one thread of his narrative, the author takes up a liaison that existed between Goethe and a younger woman by the name of Bettina Bretano, a daughter of a woman with whom Goethe had once had a sentimental, non-physical relationship. Bettina, in her early teens, develops her own interest in the man whose name will become synonymous with German letters of his century and beyond. Canny to this, she pursues an association with him and, if we believe Kundera's representation (and we must leave this if operating!), does so relentlessly, despite Goethe's lack of reciprocation. Kundera depicts Goethe's growing wariness, and the latter's eventual realisation of what the game really was about. This understanding aligns with the novel's own conceptual premise. Kundera's narrator muses:

What, then, was at stake between them?
In 1809, Bettina wrote to him: 'I have a strong will to love you for eternity.' Read carefully this apparently banal sentence. More important than the word 'love' are the words 'eternity' and 'will'.
I won't keep you in suspense any longer. What was at stake between them was not love. It was immortality. (Kundera 1991: 69)

Slightly earlier, Kundera explains that immortality is something that all of us can pursue, and do; however he notes a difference between 'minor' and 'great' immortality, where the latter involves being remembered by people with whom one had no personal connection, as opposed to the more widespread 'minor' immortality where we might be remembered by those who knew us (Kundera 1991: 54-55). As I will point out shortly, there are frameworks that remind us that this urge is not a mere intellectual or conceptual tendency or quirk. Instead, as we'll see with Patanjali, it is very visceral, something stitched through our bodies, and an insistent strand of the desire-that-we-are. (Kundera's example of Bettina is perhaps an example of this desire being particularly insistent and persistent.)

If we can read Kundera's character of Bettina as having a strong urge for immortality and pursuing what she sees as the best means for attaining it, we see in her case that its expression does not seem to lead to a 'bettering' of her (cf Diotima's position), but rather to an alarming and non-consensual pursuit of Goethe's and by association of his ever-consolidating fame. As depicted by Kundera, she has calculated, one presumes, that Goethe's immortality will 'rub off' on her if she sticks closely enough to him (—given that Kundera is writing about her in the late 20th century, it appears that she was right![3]) What this example helps to highlight is how easily the urge for immortality can slide into less decent modes. Modes of this ilk, furthermore, would seem to bear little relation to how we might typically imagine mutually negotiated relations or satisfying, ethical collaborations. Bettina's insistence on maintaining an association with Goethe, to which he really doesn't (at least consciously in Kundera's account) consent, seems to diverge from Diotima's vision of immortality as a 'bettering' mechanism.

Faced with this complication, we will now turn to our second framing. If Plato's take on immortality and its relation to virtue and love in the Symposium seems on the surface a mostly optimistic one, Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, provides a useful counterpoint, one that both draws out the nuances of the urge for immortality as well as identifying a means for tempering its less savoury expressions.

Before we embark on Patanjali, however, I will go via a brief discussion of the notion of collaboration's decency, thereby flagging the possibility of a poetics of collaboration. The symposium that was the genesis for this article (and for the current Axon edition) was, among other things, an attempt at a shared thinking of this question. The papers on the day, and also those contained in this issue, bear witness to the fact that not only was a thinking of collaboration in train, but also an invention of how one might go about saying this very thinking.

 

(Thinking and) Saying Collaboration's Decency

The central query of this paper is whether the fantasy of, or longing for, being carried forward in time—even if only as proper name, printed (conventionally) on a book—impacts on, or poses a bone fide problem for, the spirit of collaboration. I intend the term 'problem' here in that Deleuzian sense, as something that cannot be solved via any set of existing solutions, but rather something that we would live alongside, in more or less deft ways, and which is the prompt—more out of necessity than inclination—for genuine creation (Williams 2013: 141-2). Collaboration as a question, therefore, arguably offers us a field in which to understand what is happening when we 'make' (together), as well as an impetus to invent new ways of making. That said, whether these 'ways' of making will satisfy our conceptions of what constitutes decency is a more complicated question.

Might there be, I found myself asking, a poetics of decency? The various drafts of this paper had initially been surprisingly laborious and reluctant to cohere[4], a fact that led me to wonder whether there was something about clarifying and articulating collaboration that posed a genuine problem to thinking. Together with my colleagues at the symposium I'd also had to confront the task of finding a way to speak about decency and collaboration that didn't devolve into disapproval or prescription, or pleasant sounding generalisations. A poetics of decency then, I contemplated, might itself demand a kind of inventiveness in relation to saying.

In the ornamental quote at the start of this article, we read what I consider one attempt at an innovative saying of decency. In the 2002 novel, Everything is Illuminated, Foer's young and very candid character of Alex, with English as his second language, articulates, by dint of this comedic near-proficiency, his own emerging notion of decency. The quote above, as I read it, enacts of a kind of poetics that rejects decency as moral imperative ('because we are a family') in preference for a plain-speaking, communally derived code ('because they are common decencies ...'). Despite its tone of bravado at the expense of the figure of the mother (a believable trope for the character's age and sex), Alex arguably manages to cut through the minefield of saying why we should. Via the latter's humorous and disarming voice, Foer invents a strategy for speaking, and for framing a 'should', in a way that amuses us, in a way we can almost stomach. The quote also shows how Alex, through his exchange with the hero, is constructing a new, if fragile, ethics for himself, while also explicitly articulating an acknowledgment of assistance. (This calls to mind Heidegger's quite prophetic discussion in 'The Question Concerning Technology', where he frames poiesis as a kind of collaboration involving co-responsibility, which he also terms 'indebtedness', between the maker, the form, the purpose and the material itself, as a way to question the 'putting to use' that marks a technological way of operating[5]—see 1993: 313-315)

This question of assistance and its acknowledgement (or lack thereof) brings us to an obvious point regarding collaboration. When collaboration-as-mode of making is explicit, we are often on safer ground. When making works together, works that would be signed by all parties, fairly attributed to those involved, a declaration of a collaborative process can be a reassuring sign, a possible indicator of decency. When the word 'collaboration' is in the space, in other words, we have already gone some way towards an accurate acknowledgement of the efforts of contributing parties. Attracting greater concern would be those undertakings that are clearly 'collaborative' in terms of their creation, involving more than one dedicated contributor, but which are not acknowledged as such. Collaboration when explicitly named, then, we could speculate, perhaps has more chance of proceeding 'decently' than works made by multiple contributors that aren't deemed collaborations at all.

On this basis, we could contend that the notion of  'decent collaboration' if read to the letter, could be a kind of tautology. Genuine collaboration, we could argue, might tend to include, by default, an engagement with how each party to the undertaking understands decency. Collaboration, then, could be tidily interpreted as, by necessity, requiring an engagement with definitions of decency, and with clarifying them as they are articulated. If I'm going to collaborate with you, I'm going to find out first what you think decency means.[6] If decency has also to do with accepted standards, with 'propriety' and the 'conditions of civil or social life' (The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary 1973: 498), we see that its very definition is a socially determined one, emerging out of negotiations, over time and between multiple parties. Decency, not being determined by a single person for their own purposes, is arguably then an appropriate qualifier for collaboration. The work of defining decency, however, is however likely to be plagued by the same issues to which so-called collaborations can fall foul: that collaborators come to the party with very different levels of social, institutional and economic power is always a complication to be faced. Contrasting, therefore, with the idea of 'decent collaboration' as tautology above, it might also appear that if collaboration (and the definings of decency it might provoke) involve shared engagements and interactions, they do not of themselves involve any inherent guarantees of fairness, nor any reliable mechanisms that might avoid (entrenched) exploitation of one party by another, or 'entitled' ways of working (and/or appropriating). The kinds of power gradients that might be at play here are the usual suspects of gender, class, sexual orientation, age and 'race', among others. Collaborations between parties of different classes, ages/generations, genders, sexual orientation, and races are almost certainly to encounter the difficulties countenanced above. 'Collaboration' as a term in these instances is already fraught, no matter the best intentions. (In fact, assuming 'best intentions' to be sufficient insurance against inequalities in the collaborative undertaking, is usually the beginning of the indecency of these same collaborations.)

This more grim reading provides an appropriate segue into Patanjali, whose view on immortality's urge makes fewer claims to any inherent virtue. The latter's framing of the 'will-to-live' in the Yoga Sutras provides a scaffolding for countenancing the complicated nature of our immortal urges. In Patanjali, we see that 'decency' is not the most obvious or likely mode when our impulse for 'living on' is activated. Instead, for the Yoga Sutras, we (and by extensions our relations with others) are 'afflicted' by this deeply embedded urge. This paper concurs with this concern, and will read Patanjali's proposal as to what might temper the will-to-live (on) via the lens of creative, poetic practice.

 

The Will-to-Live in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras

In this very old text, we encounter both an acknowledgement of the force of immortality's urge, as well as a means for mitigating the seed of destructiveness that Patanjali deems inherent to its mechanism, namely practice. This paper seeks to bring attention to the particularly insightful way that practice is emphasised in the Yoga Sutras (Sen-Gupta 2013) and its relevance for contemporary questions in the field of creative arts. We may come to find that Diotima's position and Patanjali's, when unpacked further, may be less divergent than they at first appear.

In what follows below, I will lay out the relevant sections in Patanjali, and then approach the three-fold structure of Patanjali's practice in order to present it as analogous with aspects crucial to, and at play in, a life of dedicated creative engagement.

Let's begin by citing the three sutras in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (Sen-Gupta 2013[7]) that are relevant for our discussion. The first lists the five kleshas (or afflictions) and includes, as the fifth klesha, the one relevant for our discussion: the 'will-to-live'. The second sutra below speaks specifically about 'the will-to-live', or abinivesha, emphasising its tenacity and embeddedness in the human organism. The third one, explains that the kleshas can be 'made thin' by the practice of Patanjali's system, in other words, that our will-to-live (or an impulsive hankering for immortality) is rendered less 'afflicting' through the engagement with a suite of precisely inflected 'doings'. This final sutra provides the key to the argument of this paper, which is that if collaboration were to be hindered of sabotaged by our unchecked urge for immortality, then fortunately, and at the same time, due to the fact that we write (that is, practise our craft, as well as produce writing-as-object), the very thing that activates impulsive strains of this urge works to mitigate or temper their expression, so as to bring out more constructive and intentional aspects. This, consequently, may leave us open to, and enthused about, working with others on shared projects, signed by numerous names, and fairly.

So, let's read Patanjali's Sutra II.3, which states:

The five [afflictions] are not-knowing, 'I-am'ness, attachment or desire, aversion or hatred, and the will-to-live (fear-of-death). (Sen-Gupta 2013: 48)

Rather than aligning the will-to-live with what reliably prompts humans to be 'better', for Patanjali, the will-to-live is classed as an affliction. Perhaps we can read affliction broadly as something that poses a challenge and is a source of difficulty, perhaps also of anguish, and which may also impact on our behaviour towards ourselves and others. An affliction, then, is something that we live with. It colours the atmosphere of our lives, our relations and our decisions.

The next relevant sutra, II.9, specifically addresses the will-to-live (or abinivesha). It reads:

The will-to-live [life instinct], flowing by its own potency, is rooted thus even in the wise ones. (Sen-Gupta 2013: 51)

For Patanjali, in this sutra, the will-to-live, or life instinct, 'flows by its own potency'. Wise or not wise, it seems that we are—in either case—channels for its power. Moving through humans, as if it had its own life, but also 'rooted' in us somehow, it is evoked in the sutra as a force, with our being the circuits through which its vitality flows. Being wise, then, is no insurance against its afflicting (and, definitely 'stimulating'!) nature. Our question regarding collaboration, then, concerns the impact of this force on both the likelihood of collaboration being initiated, and then the way in which—once initiated—it proceeds. If wisdom is no insurance, then that which would assuage its force must have less to do with rumination, or calculations—even knowledge (see Eliot below)—but requires something else.

The next sutra, II.2, hints towards a possible approach to tempering the force of abinivesha, stating that a kind of practice called 'Kriya Yoga' is done:

With the purpose of cultivating Samadhi and with the purpose of making thin the Kleshas. (Sen-Gupta 2013: 48)

Patanjali's suggestion for managing the afflictions is a form of practice (Kriya Yoga) that involves three things: heating disciplines, self-study, and devotion to something beyond the small self (see Sen-Gupta 2013: 47, sutra II.1).

A central inquiry of this paper, and the wager of its argument, is whether it is possible to consider the practice of serious writing, which may be done alone or with others, as analogous with, and therefore satisfying, the three-fold criteria of Patanjali—of that which is able to 'make thin' the klesha of abinivesha, or the will-to-live. In other words, if art and poetry can whet our appetite for living on, beyond our discrete selves, through enduring renown, activating and aggravating an already-robust and inherent urge for immortality, does it also not at the same time—as a practice, as something we commit and devote to—also offer the means for 'thinning out' the fiercer aspects of this tendency?

What this paper considers then is the possible benefits to collaboration and collaborative opportunities that obtain from an emphasis on practice as its own end, rather than only on the products of creativity, or poiesis.[8]

My suggestion here is that Patanjali's three-fold system of Kriya Yoga (which means the yoga of 'action', incidentally) is potentially instructive as a lens for thinking and saying how to inflect our creative emphases when we want our working with other people to work best.

This emphasis on practising is not a morally-inflected one, nor one with any particular loyalty to certain strands of contemporary art making, but is rather strategic and pragmatic. If, as Patanjali implies, the will-to-live afflicts us in many of our undertakings—creative or otherwise—then it is also almost inevitably going to be at play in, or under or at the surface of, our collaborations. If, as I'm suggesting in this article, one side of the urge for immortality is its potential to negatively impact collaborative ventures and a spirit of fairness, and because artistic pursuits also appear to promise, according to Diotima, an intense gratification of immortal urges, then finding a way to temper this urge, when it tips into being an affliction, stands to serve collaboration. Such an emphasis on practice is not at the same time a lack of interest in the qualities of what such making produces. In other words, there is no easy binary in which process would be on one side and quality of outcome on the other. Placing the two into opposition can be itself a manoeuvre lacking rigour and insight. If what waylays collaboration can be tempered, then the chances of the collaborative venture beginning, continuing and remaining robust as an endeavour are stronger. This can only benefit the resultant 'artefacts' of such work. Persistence in creative work is arguably at least one crucial factor in determining the quality of what emerges from it.

Patanjali, in this way, supplements the observations of Diotima, via Socrates, concerning the enmeshment of our love of immortality and poetic (and artistic) pursuits. The poet, according to Diotima, also longs for children, but 'children' of a different kind. The poet has very specific ambitions for living-on that have to do with the nature of what he or she is committed to. In a recent article, where he begins by candidly acknowledging that poets are among those who think they can 'survive [their] own death' (2011: n.p.), Clemens paraphrases Melbourne-based editor, Cunningham, who remarked that among those she had to deal with, poets 'tend[ed] to be more prolix, abusive and megalomaniacal than other scriptural supplicants' (2011, n.p.). This cannot constitute proof of the afflicting nature of the will-to-live and its grasp on those with poetic ambitions, but couched within Clemens' broader article, which addresses immortal urges and the 'survival' of several Australian poets, one can only remark the coincidence.

Rooted deeply in the human organism, and seemingly unaffected by wisdom, the urge for immortality, or our fear of death, cannot be shrugged off but arguably needs to be transformed, almost alchemically, into another version of itself. It's as if this potency can express itself as a fear (with all the inventiveness that fear demonstrates for finding guises for its appearance), or as something 'bettering'. In itself, however, it is merely a force with which we—as humans—have to negotiate and anticipate in ourselves. In the section that follows, I will argue that the three aspects of Patanjali's system for thinning the kleshas or afflictions align convincingly with aspects of dedicated creative practice, using the activity of writing poetry as an example of this.

 

Discipline, Study, Devotion – Tapas, Svadyaya, Ishvara Pranidhana

The alchemy of what, in Patanjali's terms, would 'thin' the afflicting nature of the will-to-live, relies on an interdependent, three-fold constellation, going by the name Kriya Yoga. It is interdependent since without all three operating together, the transformation of the kleshas is not assured. (In other words, very distorted expressions result from an over-emphasis on any of the two.) Kriya Yoga, after the Sutras, involves heating disciplines (tapas), which in early yoga amounts primarily to meditative practice, alongside study or reflection on oneself and tradition, and finally a devotion to something beyond the small, finite self. I do not think it is stretching things too far to say that a serious engagement in creative practice, over many years, and involving dedication to a chosen modality of creativity, aligns itself fairly plausibly with Patanjali's three aspects. For example, creative practice, when it no longer happens accidentally or whimsically, but rather as a concerted effort (which wields effort in a nuanced way) is a kind of tapas (intensive discipline) and begins to resemble closely the atmospheres of Patanjali's system. Study, deep inquiry, contemplation (svadyaya), which is also often described by the classical commentators as study of texts or scriptures (Sen-Gupta 2013: 47) calls to mind a poet's engagement with, or self-immersion in, the canon, not unlike Eliot's recommendations in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' (1982: 36-37). In this famous text, Eliot seems to be recommending something very much like a practice of engaging with what has gone before—he calls it cultivating an 'historical sense' (37)—not in order to wield it as a knowledge and quantitatively, but because the activity itself (as activity) is profoundly important for what emerges poetically. As if to clarify this very subtle difference, he writes pointedly that 'much learning deadens or perverts poetic sensibility' (1982: 39). I read this as an attempt to articulate precisely that it is not the 'what' of the learning that the poet needs (although this is still important) so much as the activity of engaging itself, accumulating over years, changing the aspiring poet's sensibility and understanding of time and their place in it. This approach, I would contend, lines up with what Patanjali's intends by 'study', or 'go[ing] into oneself' (Sen-Gupta 2013: 47). Finally, the devotion beyond a small self (which in Patanjali's era was expressed as devotion to the God Ishvara) for contemporary practitioners may be read as a commitment to something that exceeds the boundaries of the finite, individual self. It could be a politics—the chance that together we can go on, and well. In creative writing courses, furthermore, it is not uncommon to explain to students that it is the combination of singularity and universality (as opposed to particularity and generality—see Deleuze 2004: 91) that is required in writing. The self as 'particular' tends to lead to dead ends creatively, and to—at most—a generalised outcome that does not step outside temporality in the way that art can. In other words, it does not obtain to the universal. It is therefore in relation to Patanjali's third aspect that this yogic text intimates a deeper accord with the final points of Diotima's speech, as recounted by Socrates. We will conclude the essay in this vein, but before that, let's consider from another angle, what hidden assumption fuels a longing that one's proper name 'live on'.

 

Identity, Deleuze, and Difference-in-itself

If art can lure us with the promise of our name or identity living on, it can't go unremarked that also in the moment of creativity proper, properness—by necessity—at times drops away, or is at least unsettled. This intervenes in the assumption that anyone or any-self at all could be the discrete source of a creative thread or spark. The artist may simply be either the self who claims (or is positioned to claim) that spark, or the one who oversees the ensuing process in some way. (It would be this claiming that is problematic for the decency of collaboration). The question of what extended making does to a person's understanding of selfness at all is a theme of other research of the present author. We can, by way of example, however, turn to two unusually prolific collaborators, in philosophy no less, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who most famously in their 'Introduction' to A Thousand Plateaus (2004), explain that they wrote the work 'together' and that this was 'already quite a crowd' (3). Bringing the category of the stable 'I' unstuck, they nevertheless explain that they kept their own names (which feature on the cover) '[o]ut of habit, purely out of habit' (2004: 3).

In my experience too, practice (especially in intense phases of it) 'makes thin' a preoccupation with personal identity, and by extension with personality. The 'habit', as Deleuze and Guattari phrase it, remains operational and functional for practical purposes, but it exerts seemingly less and less substantial force or influence. In other words, we fret the self less. Personality, too, thereby becomes less rigorously plausible. Quite strangely, it is a self who must be corralled (by the self?) to embark on practice, but then via practice the very ruse of this 'self' and its flimsy foundations are revealed or encountered directly. Deleuze's work on this question of creativity's relation to identity is salient here. In the first chapter of his 1968 work Difference and Repetition (2004), he makes clear that, if we are precise, then identity is a mere side-effect of difference-in-itself (see below). If there has never been a rigorous thinking of difference, it is because philosophy has mostly only been able to conceptualise a difference that exists between already-existing entities, or a difference as contradiction or negation. This constitutes, famously, conceptual difference, but not a concept of difference in itself. For Deleuze, then, identity (and entities) arise on the basis of pure, a priori differences that are not differences-between anything at all. We begin with a more radical concept of difference that operates prior to the possibility of sameness or resemblance. We read:

We must show not only how individuating difference differs in kind from specific difference but primarily and above all how individuation properly precedes matter and form, species and parts, and every other element of the constituted individual. (Deleuze 2004: 48)

If art pertains to newness or difference-prior-to-concept arising, then it eschews—by necessity—regimes of identity. It is this 'difference-in-itself' from which real art will spring, and not from a rearranging of differences-between. It is not a self who makes art, but it is a self (with all its kleshas) who decides to practise in order to court creation's happening, a happening that will inevitably destabilise that same self—making it transparent as a squall of differences, without a centre or substance (as usually understood). The difficulty with collaboration, then, is that a number of selves must organise in order to practise and these same selves will reconstitute, interpenetrate and even evaporate in ways for which conventions of signing and responsibility, acclaim and attribution, are ill-prepared and imprecise.

However, we must also be careful to attend rigorously to the registers to which we apply such thinking. If we follow Deleuze, and agree that at an 'ontological' level (for want of a better term) there are technically no discrete selves, and creation, via repetition-for-itself, involves the expelling of the creator (see 2004: 113), the entrenched structures of power continue to operate and hold sway at other, more pedestrian and sedimented registers. These afford privilege, monetary rewards, and status in all the usual ways to selves that very much believe in themselves, reproducing thereby the most predictable distributions of gains. This is why questions of collaboration operate at an indistinct and fraught cusp. In genuine cases of collaboration, an additional stream, beyond the 'I' might be created, but these sets of vocabulary (which are accurate only if applied precisely to the appropriate register) can be too easily co-opted and redeployed by the old systems of entitlement, to be turned into slithery slogans for why things should remain exactly as they are and why somehow acknowledgements of histories of disadvantage and silencing are actually just uptight. The ambiguity of the sexual revolution, to offer an illustrative example, was that it also found new ways for powerful parties to access the bodies they desired, in the same old ways but under new designations. So, collaboration is a risky, growing edge, and the costs of its undisputed pleasures may well align in reverse proportion to the structural privilege of its participating parties.

As well as the cautions above, an embedded risk to collaborative decency, as this paper has emphasised, is that, even in the last moment, abinivesha might rear its persistent head, and greed (an attitude dealt with in Sutras II.30, II.34 and II.39; see Sen-Gupta 2013: 60-64) may pose its own related challenges. For this reason, one assumes, Patanjali insists that even the wise ones struggle with this final klesha. (In other words, no matter what degree of privilege or disadvantage one occupies, the affliction of abinivesha operates indiscriminately. Patanjali, we see, clearly does not exclude the disadvantaged from human foible.) Returning to the wise one of Socrates' oration—Diotima—one can ask finally whether, and which parts of, her framing of immortality align or contrast with abinivesha. In the final section of this essay, I will argue that to a certain degree, the two philosophers—Plato and Patanjali—might be less in disagreement than it initially appeared.

 

Different kinds of Immortality?

It would seem that there might be a crass immortality to which our character of Bettina clearly seems to aspire—a no-nonsense, non-spiritual version. As noted, it is hard to identify, in her case, as Kundera depicts it, a persuasive 'bettering' that results from her non-consensual persistence with Goethe. This would be that kind of immortality, imitating 'deathlessness' or athanasia, where the 'name' lives on, continuing to be uttered by those we knew and didn't know far beyond our personal life span. In this kind of immortality, to recall Clemens, it is immaterial whether the 'repeating' is more like a hangover than an edifying contribution. The contentious and prolific poet, Charles Bukowski, in his poem 'the creation coffin', brings related themes into the open, as is his tendency, flagging both decency and immortality within lines of each other. He writes:

great writers are indecent people
they live unfairly
saving the best parts for paper.
good human beings save the world
so that bastards like me can keep creating art,
become immortal.
if you read this after I am long dead
it means I made it. (2008: 213, emphasis added)

And it seems he did. If we read this with a secret flare of approval or flicker of grim affirmation, then we come to see that the notion of the challenge posed to decency by an urge for a certain kind of immortality is serious and persistent, perhaps even 'veridical' (that is to say 'accurate' or 'not erroneous')—this term from Badiou pertains to accuracies that can be verified within the known, but which bear no relation to 'truth' as eternal and universal (see 2007: 331 & 526). However, what Diotima (as reported by Plato's Socrates) tracks in her instruction is a spectrum, where the inflection of the urge to live on is gradually transformed. Her spectrum, that can be gathered under the theme of athanasia, is in itself a kind of trajectory of the soul, where what is meant by deathlessness would seem to morph in proportion to one's wisdom or insight.

Where the urge for our name to live on so that others can continue to think of us, as noted by Diotima and Patanjali, is nothing unusual, and rather ubiquitous and defining as a human function (expressed via reproduction or in other modes), if we pursue a certain reading of Diotima's words, this same press would also seem to contain the seed for a shifting understanding or refraction of athanasia. Instead of wanting to endure within time, through a longevity of the proper name, the 'bettering' countenanced by Diotima's account might have more to do with a subtractive relationship to pedestrian time scales, and pertain to the register of the eternal—to slipping the binds of a certain relation to time itself, 'inhabiting' its 'outside', via the operations woken by a dedication to poiesis.

In both traditions, out of which these canonical texts emerge, there is an acknowledgement of an eternal, transcendent realm, of an unchanging aspect. This eternity is strictly apart from the world of—for Plato—copies and simulacra, and—for Patanjali—of what is called prakriti. In the Samkhya tradition, out of which the Patanjali scriptures emerge historically, prakriti is the register of the 'seen', of which we, our 'seeing', and everything we 'see' is a part. Completely separate, with no 'relation' whatsoever to the worldly-world aside from one of 'seeing' it, is purusha, the 'see'er' (see generally Sen-Gupta 2013: 13-17). The see'er would, in Patanjali's lineage, approach the notion of the eternal[9], towards which Diotima's talk leads us. For this reason, Samkhya and Patanjali both belong to the so-called dvaita, or dualistic, traditions—where there is no overcoming of the 'binary', and clarity obtains when one ceases to muddle these registers. If both traditions acknowledge and include a register that is not affected by the impermanent world—a transcendent framing, therefore—then the two are less structurally estranged than at first glance. (Might Diotima and Patanjali, in other words, not have made a nice collaborative team?)

Perhaps, too, Diotima's contention that an urge for immortality leads to the bettering of men can be finally read in terms of immortality being the way in which humans (parents, heroes, or poets) embark on an inquiry into the eternal, an inquiry which in its early iterations, would seem to be preoccupied with us, as named individuals, carrying on, but which may mature into a different kind of preoccupation, and a more nuanced ontological reading of time and our relation to it. What we note, unsurprisingly, is that that for which we strive—the stuff of our ambitions and longings—might predictably reflect the moment and quality of our insight.

In contrast to the Platonic and Yogic traditions (that is, of Greece and the so-called 'East'), we can pause to recall Deleuze's comments on the eternal, in What is Philosophy? (1994). There he emphasises that the 'eternal' is one of the delusions—one of 'thought's mirages'—that is thrown up when transcendent thinking holds sway (1994: 49). A transcendent thinking would look to a beyond or an 'up there' which can be contrasted to the imperfection and impermanence of this 'realm'. This caution in the face of transcendent models gives us cause to reasses the precision of Diotima's vision, ontologically. In this case 'bettering' might be understood as a pragmatic effect of a belief in a transcendent realm, whose reality remains dubious, but which as motivation may indeed bring about the 'bettering' of men.

However, in other parts of his oeuvre, Deleuze uses the term approvingly. In one instance (2004: 3), he contrasts it with permanence, thereby opening a more interesting reading of it. Rather than permanence being a repair for impermanence—an ontological mistake easily committed by those hungry for a pedestrian 'immortality'—Deleuze's pair reframes eternity in opposition to permanence. Eternity here becomes another designation for the register opened by operations that pertain to creativity and the radically new. This is simply an altogether different register from any preservation of the habit of the 'I', or its signatures on artefacts of poiesis

 

Conclusion

Collaboration, strictly speaking (and perhaps also provocatively), involves an encounter with the notion of decency and may cause the latter to morph and reconfigure. Furthermore, the very nature of creativity and art is that it is entangled with, and provides expression for, a very deep impulse in us—habituated as we are to saying 'I'—to want to live on, but also as involving at its coal-face a challenge to notions of fixed identity. This inherent impulse in the organism to live on (abinivesha) is double-edged, since it propels our making, but—if not tempered—can become destructive and blind, convinced that the ends of securing a self and prolonging its habitual 'I'-ness, justify all number of nasty or impoverishing modes of engagement, in this life, now. When we dare to collaborate, we embark on a precarious undertaking that invites us into another kind of ontology. Rather than the smugness of self-reliance, collaboration holds the potential for pleasure now, in this life, for the unstable satisfactions of making-together and its unpredictable results—for our works and our selves. (Not only the work but the so-called artist is (re)made in the process of collaborating opening us to an encounter with what Deleuze proposes conceptually). To return to Kundera's literary rendering of the historical figure of Bettina as a cunning and insistent presence in Goethe's life, we note the absence of an ongoing practice (which for many reasons may have been a less accessible path for a female of that era, a perspective not to be elided ...) We can speculate that if the character of Bettina had had a practice to hold her (and had her gender had more transparent avenues to secure structural power), she may not have needed her liaison with Goethe or may have pursued it differently. What becomes clear, if we concur with Patanjali, is that no one is immune from the press of abinivesha, not even the 'wise ones'. Luckily, however, the artist not only makes works, but also makes works. And, following Patanjali, practice might open the possibility for what Alex calls not being a 'big fucking asshole', in other words, for 'common decency' (whether it's common or not).  It is via the tempering activity of making itself—or practising—that our kleshas, when they make us and others miserable, can be inflected less nefariously and steered towards something that might (or might not) make both for our being remembered in the unknowable future, and give us a life that we may be glad to remember.

 

[1] Friday 10th October, 2014. Deakin University City Campus, 550 Bourke Street, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

[2] Sanskrit terms will be rendered without diacritics in order to assist with correct pronunciation in the reader's mind. The original text shows the diacritics should readers wish to consult it.

[3] On this point, in 2011, Justin Clemens writes, in relation to immortality for poets: 'The poet desires above all that his or her poems be unkillable revenants, memorable words that keep returning or even repeating on you, like a bad hangover or hotdog. Even being indigestible can be a legitimate tactic for a poet, just so long as the poem sticks.' Overland, Issue 202, Autumn, https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-202/feature-justin-clemens/ accessed October 20, 2015.

[4] This paper itself was assisted by unofficial collaboration. Discussions with my colleague Orit Sen-Gupta, and her suggestions regarding abinivesha proved invaluable.

[5] My gratitude goes to Professor Barb Bolt for reminding me of this connection.

[6] This particular technique of inserting an italicised statement into a theoretical text to assist the reader comes from James Williams.

[7] I am choosing to use a recent translation by Sen-Gupta here, who remains very close to the source text, prioritising an unadorned rendering useful for the close reader.

[8] This article, for reasons of scope and chosen emphasis, will not engage with the vast discourse surrounding the 'process art' movement (titled as such from about the mid-1960s), and the broader term. It is clear, however, that some of the preoccupations of that movement, and aspects of this paper dovetail in salient ways.

[9] We read: '...beauty absolute, separate, simple and everlasting, ... without diminution and without increase, or any change...' (Plato 1952:167).

 

Acknowledgements

I'd like to thank my anonymous referees for advice and comments that were invaluable for improving this paper.

 

 

Works cited: 

 

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