Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Applied Poetry

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Applied Poetry

Article excerpt

Miroslav Holub. Shedding Life: Disease, Politics and Other Human Conditions. Translated by David Young et at Milkweed Editions 1998. 280 pp. $22.95

Miroslav Holub. Intensive Care: Selected and New Poems. FIELD Translation Series 22. Oberlin College Press 1996. 205 pp. $25.95

A Walk with a Philosopher

Reading Miroslav Holub's collection of essays Shedding Life, his last and most forceful contribution to a genre that should probably be called metabiology, a book published in English translation a year before his death on July 14, 1998 and written in an inimitable style out of Lewis Thomas and The Good Soldier Svejk, reminded me of Heine's description of Immanuel Kant in his famous-and prophetic-essay on the history of German thought: "Truly, if the citizens of Konigsberg had suspected the significance of his ideas, they would have felt far deeper horror of this man than of an executioner."

Kant, you may remember, was a mild, conservative man so regular in the pattern of his afternoon walks, during which his servant Lampe would scurry after him with a long umbrella, that his fellow citizens could set their watches by him.

It was this same mild man who ventured the idea that each generation could advance, not out of love of the good, but out of selfinterest-an amplification of Adam Smith's market economy and the Invisible Hand. Kant's idea, that out of evil comes good, that antagonism will ultimately perfect human faculties, was pregnant for the future. It wasn't his only refinement to what has become known as the Enlightenment. In "If Kant Were Around Today," an essay in one of his earlier collections, Holub himself cites this passage from the Critique of Practical Reason:

The first view of a numberless quantity of worlds destroys my importance, so to speak, since I am an animal-like being who must return its matter from whence it came to the planet (a mere speck in the universe), after having been endowed with vital energy for a short time, one does not know how. The second view raises my value infinitely, as an intelligence, through my personality; for in this personality the moral law reveals a life independent of animality and even of the entire life of sense.

Kant made a virtue out of a dilemma in the blithe assurance that he was investigating the human mind in general. In order to preserve autonomy from the wholesale application of causation to the entire observable world, which needs must include us, its human inhabitants, he set conditions for minimal humanity. Without genuinely free will we would be automata-"turnspits" was his word-at the mercy of external factors, and our intrinsic actions (autonomy) would be devoid of any moral value. Actually, the second law of thermodynamics, and then Maxwell's demon, banished the assumption that the future state of any system could be predicted in such a way. But that came later. Kant, in thrall to Newton's universal science, formalized a view of human nature which transferred sovereignty to the individual who, girt with reason and a Strict Father morality (the categorical imperative), would advance towards the just society. It was a theory which left almost no place for the specific, least of all the culturally specific.

Kant also believed that truth and adequacy, self-evident as they were, would spread from the impersonal standpoint of reason to the arts and science, thence to the activities of government. This has never happened: In the academy the rational discourse of enquiry goes on in accordance with Kant's ideals while political life is a mishmash of arguments and lobby-talk above the head of citizens who, in their turn, are trained to acknowledge the "expertise" of their supposed betters. Like most philosophers, Kant was a religious man who thought that his methods would flow back into religion one day and strengthen belief, yet it was his distinction-as Heine noticed before Nietzsche-to have dispatched the transcendental auditor in the most sober, Robespierrean manner, thus leaving civilization with what has proved to be one of its most powerfully transcendent goods: the vision of a disengaged, rational, free agency. …

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