Sunday, July 15, 2007

Penetralia, the Verisimilar, and Sookie

I'm not sure that being taught to live in doubt and uncertainty is a significant social function, any more than Saturday morning cartoons where the villain gets blown up have an educational function in teaching kids right from wrong.

But I'm all in favor of a certain amount of doubt and uncertainty. As Keats said, once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously--I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason--Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.

This is probably a better guide to poetry than to a social contract, but it's as good a guide to poetry as one can ask for, and you hardly need me to point that out. It's the second half of it that has always intrigued me, the part about Coleridge. I had always interpreted that to mean that Coleridge was uniquely capable of remaining in in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason -- I guess that would make him uniquely . That he would not accept an isolated verisimilitude -- which I defined as something that has the appearance of truth, but not necessarily the substance. That rather than be content with half knowledge, he could maintain his equilibrium longer in doubt and uncertainty.

I have since found out that this not the accepted reading of these famous lines. The accepted reading is that Keats was criticizing Coleridge.

Here's Dan Simmons on the subject:

A lesser poet like Coleridge, Keats goes on to explain, “would let go by a fine isolated versimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery,” because a lesser poet (or novelist, or filmmaker, or visual artist) insists on – well, actually has no other choice -- impressing his own limited interpretation on reality.

Thomas McFarland, in The Masks of Keats: The Endeavor of a Poet, talks about "the charge [Keats] makes against [Coleridge], and I know these people are better Keats scholars than I am, and know more about the relationship between Keats and Coleridge at this point in their lives. When you get right down to it, I didn't even know that "penetralium" isn't a real word, in either English or Latin.

But I still like my reading of it. I'd better, since I've based my aesthetic on trying as much as possible to let fine isolated verisimiltudes go by. If they've escaped from the penetralium of mystery, then they're no longer one with that mystery or part of that penetralium, and I'd agree with Heisenberg here. If you catch one on the wing and measure it, you'll never measure all of it, and you'll alter it by the catching of it.

I looked up "verisimiltude." Merriam Webster Online says it's "the quality or state of being verisimilar," which I find a trifle odd, in that "verisimiltude" is a word I've actually heard or seen in a real context (I mean other than Keats), but "verisimilar" is a total unknown. Anyway, "verisimilar" means "having the appearance of truth : probable," which is pretty much what I thought. The penetralium is where the truth remains unreachable, like the Grail. The verisimilitudes that escape from it only have it's appearance.

Anyway, here's what my muse, Sookie, has to say about it.


Sookie let a fine
slide right by

I was not too pleased
it left a wake
of clear light
it might have come from the

of mystery
and I could have used it
isn’t that
her job? But there’s no
use fighting it

Sookie only believes
in her own
which she lets me
near on rare occasions

never all
the way in but it’s
what I’ve got
Sookie’s speed rack brand of
half knowledge

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