I stopped reading…
A result of reading
I was reading a poem of Ashbery. I stopped when I encountered the phrase ‘partial symmetry’. That phrase evoked, as an errant odor might, an image, or rather the skeletal trace of one, of my reading, long ago when I was studying music, a book on finite geometries. I recalled in particular the phrase ‘incomplete block design’, a mathematical object that indeed exhibits partial symmetry. The image and phrase could have set off a long train of reminiscence and reverie, but instead I began thinking about what the poem had done to me.
Modern criticism tends to set great store by evocativeness, allusiveness, multum in parvo. A poem ought to suggest more than it says. “Standing upon a peak in Darien”—the last line of Keats’s “On reading Chapman’s Homer”—is the type. A scientific report, on the other hand, ought to suggest no more than it says. It would be an aberrant report that lent itself to indefinite chains of allusion. Its effect requires no Pacific lurking offstage, no flower absent from all bouquets. The scientific flower is there in black and white or not at all.
Were I writing at length I would tease out the suggestions of ‘suggestion’. I might even venture a definition. After all, there are distinctions to be made. Scientific papers can be suggestive too. Einstein’s 1905 papers certainly were, but not in the way of Keats. Here, though, I rely on the reader’s sense of the difference.
We expect more
We—the present audience for serious philosophy—expect of philosophical writing that at its best it should place itself somewhere between poem and report. A philosophical work that suggests no more than it says tends not to be read once the dialectic has moved on. After the moving finger writes there follow many hands erasing until almost nothing is left (except for those of us who make a profession of reading old texts); what remains does so by virtue of its power of suggestion.