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Pathways to Philosophy

The Dweller in the Region

by Ovidiu Gherghe


'Since the genius of the wheel was accident,
The always-almost that hadn't,
A minor agony rehearsed as fun
While the lights came up and dark replaced the sun,
Seeming to complete them going round all day,
Paying to be turned that way.'[1]

I

Going to an amusement park and riding on the Ferris wheel may reveal little in regards to yearning issues of human existence. It may simply be viewed as an act of leisure with limited conceptual grasp, an event of pure pleasure with no serious weight attached to it. A poet may strike a page, or two, of his perspective, by bringing our focus to a cliche we were not previously aware of; in a moment of flash we understand a certain personal meaning the way it was intended by the author. This may even stand as a moment of significant revelation, which may turn out to represent either a new way of assessing a particular life aspect, or a philosophical perspective that gives inspiration where none existed. The meaning of a poem is always altered by the reader with his own preconceptions. Who better at explicating the arrangement between the poet and himself? Philosophy does not have to be diametrically opposed to poesis as it is with the case in traditional philosophy.

As the poet and philosopher may stand on different pedestals, the best way to understand a particular dilemma is to attempt an investigation into their own display of personal expression. Since this article will focus on specific elements of the philosophy of William James and a poem by Wyatt Prunty titled The Ferris Wheel (see Footnotes below), the best source for proper assessment and interpretation will have to be a subjective one. If the poet gets to tell us somehow in another language what the meaning of his poem is, then the philosopher can attempt to extract and expand it towards different vistas — vistas which were not originally foreseen. Where the poet cannot help — because he remains an unbounded seeker, the philosopher may emerge as 'the dweller in the region', attempting to stabilize, to find conceptual things the mind can hold on to. For James, there seems to be not such major violation if one 'feels all needs by turns' as long as the visitor is distinguished from the dweller. To James, the visitor 'will take nothing as an equivalent for life but the fullness of living itself' which in theory falls a little short for the dweller, yet they seem to coexist relatively in the pragmatic interpretation.

The character in the poem The Ferris Wheel by Prunty may look 'ahead for something in the fields/To stabilize the wheel' — a staunch feeling to grasp the concreteness one takes for granted when motion is not amplified so quickly and unexpectedly. Yet, the poet begins explaining his work by a reference to symbols of an era gone by. For Prunty the Ferris wheel is just a memory of the mechanical accomplishments of the nineteenth century — or at least one of the least functional constructs. He sees railroads, bridges and steamships, or rather he imagines a time when history experienced them in their moments of glory. The author in this case brings to the forefront his perspective that 'we are an equipmental bunch, for whom the question seems to be will versus worth.'

In The Sentiment of Rationality[2], it appears that William James took a philosophical journey to find a point of stability also. Whether he ends up succeeding or not is irrelevant to this writing. What matters the most is that he attempted to understand better the underlying principles that make a philosophy positive and worthwhile, an attempt to clarify and understand.

'When enjoying plenary freedom either in the way of motion
or of thought, we are in an anaesthetic state in which we
might say with Walt Whitman, if we cared to say anything
about ourselves at such times, 'I am sufficient as I am.'
This feeling of the sufficiency of the present moment, of
its absoluteness, — this absence of all need to explain
it, account for it, or justify it, — is what I call the
Sentiment of Rationality.'[3]

For James, the anaesthetic represents a dual stillness and if carefully interpreted it reveals itself not as a moment of pleasurable discovery, but more as a point in time and space that the thinker must avoid for not to fall in its powerful abyss of possible uncertainty. The poet may talk of 'zero-G' but the philosopher calls it uncertainty. James wit is just as lethal as that of the poet, if not more so. At the same time his acclaimed Principles of Psychology were getting world coverage, the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893) displayed the largest 'pleasure wheel' to date built by an engineer named George W. Gale Ferris. After that it became known and passed down to our generation simply as — 'the Ferris wheel.'

II

In the introspection section where the poet is asked to comment on his own creation, Prunty talks about his poem and shows an impeccable fascination with grand mechanical achievements of the Industrial Revolution. The Ferris wheel stands apart from the others by existing 'in small terms as an amusement.' For him, there is a deeper problem here as a result of a contrast between 'innocent associations' and 'angular experience.' I suggest that the same problem reveals itself in parallel by following William James's trail in the Sentiment of Rationality. Both, the poem and the essay will eventually succeed in revealing to us an unclear state of mind — although they will eventually fall short in solving any particular problem.

Reading Prunty's The Ferris Wheel too quickly may leave unnoticed another hidden perspective: the character in the poem changes places from a mere observer to an elusive participant, although he never becomes active per se. He first delights in the circular motion and breathes in the color and the beauty of the crowd below, 'a holiday of shirts... so beautiful, he thought, looking down now.' As the outskirt motion seems to increase its speed, the inward reel seems to close its aperture, mysteriously allowing for a moment that reveals itself at the center of both Prunty's poem and James' essay. The rider is — according to the author — 'a spoilsport, a drag, a retarded yea, a long sigh in the fun... out of the market.' Perhaps James would embrace this visiting spirit, perhaps he would let out a chuckle were he alive today, followed by a quick lecture about classification and reminding us that the visitor can co-merge philosophically as a 'dweller in the region.'[4]

The particular conceptual focus becomes the experience itself. Without it, the rider in the poem would not have been able to internally grasp this. Would anyone know what zero gravity feels like before-hand? Without a resembling memory of sorts? The connection the poet seems to try can eventually miss the audience. Let us assume that we experienced a dream where falling was the main theme. The poet could relate the Ferris wheel zero-gravity to the dream of falling, but is that an accurate representation? If so, then the sentiment needs explication. This discovery reveals a sort of spark of internal beauty, an interweaving of language and ideas which eventually either becomes apparent to the receiver or else the meaning temporarily cannot be grasped. As outward physical motion of the Ferris wheel increased and psychological internal ones decreased, the culmination point eventually becoming the elusive 'zero-G'. Here the poet can help James in his task to envision the experience in a clearer (and much more detailed than the naked eye) nuance, but, he is of no help when trying to get a hold of his fleeting instances he craves so much. James does not proceed to cut off the poetic vision and eliminate it. Instead, he attempts to merge his language and can even assist the poet by slicing out the moment in itself, and committing his own philosophical magic. His style may be different, but his center point is similar. Take for example the following:

'The more multiple then are the instances, the more
flowingly does his mind rove from fact to fact. The
phenomenal transitions are no real transitions; each item
is the same old friend with a slightly altered dress.'[5]

This observation by James is absorbed and freeze-framed in Prunty's poem. The participant eventually becoming himself one who loses his spatial and gravitational perspectives with 'no one prospect by which to "stabilize" understanding.' The resemblance to the Sentiment of Rationality in James' writings is brought forward, as the physical and psychological forces grind against each other. This gravitational center point with its dynamic effects is the focus for both Prunty and James.

III

'No locomotive or steamship could match the Ferris wheel at joining ergs with idleness. Imagine all that steel bolted together and going round and round to nowhere.'[6]

The Ferris wheel eventually reveals its binary aspect: aside from being 'spectacularly useless' and fun, according to the poet himself 'there is one real service the Ferris wheel performs, and that is anxiety.' Beneath the fun lies a 'minor agony' and Prunty identifies the etymological origins of the word agony as 'the word for contest or struggle for victory, but here the contest is small, and there is no victory.'[7] Agony represents an internal struggle, a natural force upon the individual. The wheel's spinning accentuates it and exposes it, becoming energy in itself. Prunty never gets to explore another aspect of this experience that may lead to an emotional and perceptional shift. He never attempts to lead the culmination of anxiety into a state where fear changes back into enjoyment as it naturally would happen on a Ferris ride. That would require an internal act of blind faith, such as simple faith in the structure's working in itself. That faith is never a conscious act made rationally by the individual, rather an instinctive jump into a state of trustworthiness, an emotional triggering.

In The Sentiment of Rationality William James also reveals the principle of faith but only after he analyzes two 'passions of thinking': the passion for simplicity and that of distinguishing. The first is a mental 'labor-saving' according to James, while the second is 'an impulse to get acquainted with the parts.' James also talks of 'distress in thought' which may bring shades of the wheel's anxiety, but not towards a purposeless effort; instead he focuses towards one that can bring stability, security and a firm conceptual grasp. The poet leaves the reader following a perspective of departure from the center and 'standing off, he felt the wheel's mild dread'. Here the anxiety returns for those riders who discover the wheel's main function as only a distraction. According to Prunty they are 'experiencing a starker sense of freedom than they wanted.' The only certainty left after the ride is only its circular motion and the memories of strong human emotions such as fear, anxiety and distress replaced by a moment of faith. The introspective investigation of a philosopher — such as James — is careful to avoid the poetical central essence and attempts to guide the reader towards that place that Prunty is not so much concerned with. James wants more from the poetic moment and moves towards positing a 'practical requirement' for a rational philosophy: 'It must, in a general way at least, banish uncertainty from the future.'[8] But to do so require a heroic act of thinking and accepting a 'feeling of rationality in its practical aspect.' According to James:

'If thought is not to stand forever pointing at the universe in wonder, if its movement is to be diverted from the issueless channel of purely theoretic contemplation, let us ask what conception of the universe will awaken active impulses capable of effecting this diversion.'[9]

IV

Following the two diversions discussed so far, one poetic in its realization that Prunty's The Ferris Wheel leaves the reader a bit disappointed in its empty happiness, and the second one being philosophical in that it considers purely theoretic contemplation also a distraction. For James this distraction is dangerous simply because it leads the mind in a Ferris spin-like. He goes on to say that for a 'philosophy to succeed on a universal scale it must define the future congruously with our spontaneous powers.' If M represents the entire world minus the reactions of the thinker upon it, then M+x represents the maximum possible philosophical propositions. This can be viewed as a blunt attempt by James to drift the focus upon the subjectivity of the individual and escape the wheel's idleness. He discovers that it is impossible for one to live without some degree of faith, not necessarily projected in God, as he claims it 'is synonymous with working hypothesis.' If all that seems to be discovered at the end of this journey is only a subjective approach to philosophic investigations, then the varieties of human experience can be philosophically investigated further in hopes of better understanding.

'The subjectivist in morals, when his moral feelings are at
war with the facts about him, is always free to seek harmony
by toning down the sensitiveness of the feeling. Being mere
data, neither good nor evil in themselves, he may pervert
them or lull them to sleep by any means at his command.
Truckling, compromise, time-serving, capitulations of
conscience, are conventionally opprobrious names for what,
if successfully carried out, would be on his principles by
far the easiest and most praiseworthy mode of bringing
about that harmony between inner and outer relation which
is all that he means by good.'[10]

Arriving at a self who accepts an internal struggle as part of being in itself is what I admire most in James' philosophical perspective. Where the poet reveals a nervous reaction, the philosopher — in this case — attempted to revive the individual from falling into the abyss of the center. Perhaps it was a place so familiar to James that he understood the importance of arriving at the power of faith, even if that faith may not lead one to a predetermined understanding of God. What is even more amazing is that this faith does not even have to be in relation to a god.


FOOTNOTES

1. Wyatt Prunty 'Introspections: American Poets on One of Their Own Poems' Robert Pack and Jay Parini, ed. (Middlebury Press, 1996) p 217

'The Ferris Wheel' by Wyatt Prunty

The rounding steeps and jostles were one thing,
And he held tight with so much circling.
The pancaked earth came magnifying up,
Then shrank, as climbing backward to the top
He looked ahead for something in the fields
To stabilize the wheel.

Sometimes it stopped. The chairs rocked back and forth,
As couples holding hands got off
And other climbed into the empty chairs;
Then they were turning, singles, pairs,
Rising, falling, through everything they saw,
Whatever thing they saw.

Below — the crowds, a holiday of shirts,
Straw hats, balloons, and brightly colored skirts,
So beautiful, he thought, looking down now,
While the stubborn wheel ground on, as to allow
Some stark monotony within,
For those festooned along the rim.

The engine, axle, spokes, and gears were rigged
So at the top the chairs danced tipsy jigs,
A teetering both balanced and extreme,
'Oh no,' the couples cried, laughing, 'Stop!' they screamed
Over the rounding down they rode along,
Centrifugal and holding on.

And he held too, thinking maybe happiness
Was simply going on, kept up unless
The wheel slowed or stopped for good. Otherwise,
There were the voices, expectant of surprise;
Funny to hear, he thought, their cries, always late,
Each time the wheel would hesitate,

Since the genius of the wheel was accident,
The always-almost that hadn't,
A minor agony rehearsed as fun
While the lights came up and dark replaced the sun,
Seeming to complete their going round all day,
Paying to be turned that way.

Later, standing off, he felt the wheel's mild dread,
Going as though it lapped the miles ahead
And rolled them up into the cloudless black,
While those who rode accelerated back
And up into the night's steep zero-G
That proved them free.

2. William James, 'The Sentiment of Rationality' in The Writings of William James, John J. McDermott, ed. (University of Chicago Press, 1977) p 317

3. Ibid. p 318

4. The 'dweller in the region' is William James expression. p 321

5. Ibid, p 319

6. Wyatt Prunty 'Introspections: American Poets on One of Their Own Poems' Robert Pack and Jay Parini, ed. (Middlebury Press, 1996) p 220

7. Ibid, p 221

8. William James, 'The Sentiment of Rationality' in The Writings of William James, John J. McDermott, ed. (University of Chicago Press, 1977) p 326

9. Ibid, p 324

10. Ibid, p 342

© Ovidiu Gherghe 2006

E-mail: ovigher@sbcglobal.net