Reading: J H Prynne, Resistance and Difficulty

October 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

Below, the full text of the poet J. H. Prynne’s remarkable (and difficult to find in a useful form) short essay, “Resistance and Difficulty,” originally published in Prospect 5, (Winter 1961), pp 26-30.  [pdf here]

Resistance and Difficulty
J. H. Prynne

Behind a wide range of recurring situations and problems in the fields of human relations and the various arts stands a small number of concepts of crucial but nebulous importance.  It is my intention to examine two of these, and to indicate on what lines a further and more detailed investigation might be conducted.  I make no apology for maintaining the discussion on a high level of generality, giving the minimum of specific, concrete examples; to particularize might be more cogent, but very much less economical.

There are several different ways of considering the nature and structure of process; Aristotle worked from the central notions of direction (the intentional orientation of the process) and of end (what constitutes its delimiting terminus).  The concept of substance can thus be seen primarily as the locus of processes, the dimension within which process becomes intelligible. Anton has pointed out that “substance is the ontological principle and contrariety is a necessary principle for its intelligibility, and in this respect, the latter is ontologically grounded in the essence of the former and only logically prior to it.” However, this logical priority seems to have been the more important in Aristotle’s view, and hence substance is not as fully considered as the structure of difference and change.  If a philosopher is concerned to make intelligible the word around him, then its intelligibility must be of prior importance to the given fact that the world exists.

It is not perhaps until we reach the later scholastics that we begin to find any serious attempt made to reverse the priorities and to assert the full importance of substance.  And at once we find the nature of the cognitive act and the anatomy of awareness assuming an important pace in philosophical speculation.  Ockham spend much time refining and developing the teaching of Duns Scotus on abstractive and intuitive cognition; but the feeling which these theorists may be said to have shared, that the latter mode of cognition was logically dependent on the former but prior to it both ontologically and in importance, is not an easy one to communicate, and seems to have been widely misinterpreted at the time.  Theories that subordinate intelligibility—even in part—to some other criterion of importance are characteristically difficult to expound, and also to comprehend.  When Aureolus writes “omnis res est se ipsa singularis et per nihil aliud.” this has a fine conclusive ring about it, but it does not seem to represent a position that can be argued. Intuitive cognition however, was an important concept, as it made possible the cognition of contingent facts, the awareness of objects as substance and not simply as the locus of change or the substratum of structure and relationship.  As Fr. Boehner explains, “intuitive cognition has the inherent intentionality of immediacy towards the presence, actuality and existence of an object, whilst abstractive cognition does not have or is indifferent to these conditions of the object.” The whole position is more complex than it may sound, and the technical use of notitia intuitiva should not be confused with the usage of Bergson or Husserl.  But Ockham shows himself fully aware of the significance of his position when he observes that “notitia singularis aliqua potest esse intuitiva, quia aliter nulla veritas contingens posset evidenter cognosci ab intellectu,” and this is perhaps not far from R.P. Blackmur’s contention that it is a function of poetry to increase the sum of the world’s available reality.

This brief account of some of the stages in the development of the idea of substance is necessary to my argument, as the concept of resistance can be seen, I suggest, to stand in a similar relation to substance as does Aristotle’s principle of contrariety. That is to say, the concept of resistance may provide an alternative criterion of intelligibility; one which does not undermine the “presence, actuality and existence” of an object or person, but which make accessible the fact of its existence without impairing its status as a substantial, independent entity.  And hence the reality of the external world may be constituted, not by an effort of will as Maine de Biran contended, but on the basis of the world’s perceived existence, the resistance that it offers to our awareness.

Such a viewpoint has been canvassed in part by various phenomenological writers; but as their work is largely and unjustifiably neglected in this country it may be helpful to consider their contribution.  Brentano was explicit about his debt to “was die Scholastiker des Mittelalters die intentionale (auch wohl mentale) Inexistenz eines Gegenstandes gennant haben,” and although the precise relationship has been much disputed in the case of other writers, some general indebtedness of greater or lesser obliquity seems fairly certain.  However, it is in the work of the realist wing of the phenomenological movement that the concept of resistance becomes of primary ontological importance.  Hartmann writes: “Es wird sich zeigen, dass die durchgehende Überzeugtheit vom Ansichsein der Welt, in der wir leben, nicht so sehr auf der Wahrnehmung als auf dem erlebten Widerstande beruht, den das Reale der Activität des Subjekts leistet, — auf einer breiten Basis der Lebenserfahrung also, welche die emotionalen Akte liefern.” (“It will become evident that the thoroughgoing cogency of the independent existence of the world we live in depends not so much on perception, as on the experience of resistance which the reality of the subject’s activity provides—depends, therefore on a basis of lived experience furnished by emotional acts.”)  All human action, Hartmann suggests, including physical movement and emotion activities such as expecting, hoping, desiring, valuing and so on, intend outward from the subject.  They are directed towards some object or person, and this object or person conditions their exact nature.  It is for Hartmann the resistance that these activities, radiating from the subject, encounter in the external world that is the chief source of our awareness of the world’s independent reality.  The world becomes intelligible to us—that is to say we can discriminate between different aspects of its existence—by virtue of the fact that it resists our activities in various ways.  This is what Hartmann means by his phrase “the hardness of what is real,” in complete contradistinction to the Satrian “espèce d’écoeurment douceâtre” over the pervasive viscosity of substance.

Scheler may have said to have anticipated Hartmann in this approach, especially in his anti-Kantian thesis of the “weakness of the spirit;” Hartmann follows Scheler closely by asserting that the “strength” of any category of being is proportional to its proximity in the metaphysical hierarchy to the lowest level, that of individual particularity, even though he elsewhere criticizes Scheler’s “volutativer Realismus.” Further speculation along these lines had been carried out by figures as different as Marcel and Merleau-Ponty.  (The latter’s writings deserve to be much better known in England, and his recent death is especially unfortunate.)  However, even the recent impetus given to speculation about substance by the phenomenologists and perceptual psychologists has not overcome Aristotle’s dilemma of logical and ontological priorities.  The exertions of mind and body that we make to become aware of the external world, through the facts of experienced resistance, may be seen as the attempt to gain knowledge of an already existing world; but conversely, they may also been seen as the way in which we constitute the world, make it real for ourselves by the continuous projection of our own image.  For can the world—in its full and detailed substantiality—be said to have existed for me, before my knowledge of it?  It is problems of this order that occupied Husserl increasingly towards the end of his life, and it seems likely that he decided finally for intelligibility over actuality.

At this point it will perhaps be profitable to distinguish between resistance and difficulty.  Resistance is a quality that manifests itself to me only in the context of process, though I can obtain less vivid sensations of resistance from imagined process, or from process reported to have occurred to another subject.  But resistance itself comes nearer than any other differentiable quality to being completely inherent in the object, in the core of the other person’s distinctness from myself: the stone’s hard palpable weight is the closest I can come to the fact of its existence, the reserve or disagreement of my neighbor is my primary evidence for his being really there.  Inertia is probably a more accurate term, and is the one suggested for this purpose by Destutt de Tracy as early as 1801. “Sans elle,” he observed of the inertial force, “nous n’aurions pas connu les corps étrangers à nous, ni même le nôtre.” Difficulty, however, is clearly a function of process, perhaps even—with contrast—the main criterion of its intelligibility.  Difficulty, I suggest is the subjective counterpart to resistance: I experience difficulty when I encounter resistance. It is as if the senses reported to my mind the presence of resistance outside me by means of the internal sensation of difficulty. This distinction will perhaps give us some means of coming to closer grips with the problem of priorities, since difficulty is cognitively prior to resistance but ontologically dependent upon it.

Thus if we view the mind’s exertions as constitutive of the world’s reality, then all we meet with is difficult.  This may be of an agonising order (as it was for Husserl and for Mallarmé), but it testifies to no necessarily existing reality outside itself. Abailard is typical of this approach when he writes, in his Ethica seu Scito Teipsum, “Where is the battle if the antagonist is away? Whence the great reward without grave endurance?…..For a contest, an opponent is needed, not one who simply submits.” The agonised attempts of the intellect to account for the existence of evil are all too often come to this: contrary ethical poles are necessary so that moral activity can have a dimension within which its processes can operate and become intelligible.  And furthermore, behind arguments of this order are concealed logical assumptions that the two ethical poles are in some respects at least of equal status; we recall the satanic ingenuities of Paradise Regained; If the subject allows the external world only sufficient objective reality for the major dimensions of human living to be set up, then all that can be discovered in it is difficulty.  Sooner or later the viciousness of this position becomes evident, because once it has finally been adopted it cannot admit the existence of contingent facts or other beings.  Even works of art are reduced ultimately to the status of tools, of devices without valid substance — a fate against which Heidegger gave brilliant warning in his work Der Ursprung des Kustwerkes.

At this point I shall take issue with an important essay by Professor Wild, in which he suggests that if resistance to our awareness (or “noetic resistance” as he has elsewhere called it) be a distinguishing mark of reality, then what is imagined is too fixed in its perspectives to yield evidence of changing depths opaque to instantaneous insight.  He continues his discussion by apparently identifying imagining with imagination, as when he writes: “Imagination and reason can tell us about qualities and essences, that may or may not exist, with a high degree of clarity and distinctness. By themselves alone they can tell us nothing about existence…. Such knowledge comes from self-conscious action in the Lebenswelt of man.  It comes from the sensing of variations in intensity, from the feeling of friendly forces which support our intentions, or from the sock of alien forces which resist them, and finally from the inexhaustible richness of things and persons around us which constantly blocks our attempts to understand.”  This is a carefully defined point of view, with perhaps a deceptive warmth about it.  “Self-conscious action” in the milieu described with such eloquence, as a primary source for the experience of existence, seems to point to a position where the external world’s main value to the subject lies in the graduated that it can provide him with, and by means of which the subject can render himself and his actions fully intelligible. I do not discover much about the nature of water, if I require it only to realize my ability to swim; and if the attempt to reach an awareness of substance is thus prompted by the need for self-definition, then we must expect the contributions of the imagination to be set aside.  It is in fact notable that very few formal ontological systems have made any special provision for the imagination and the special status of its products.  Even the phenomenologists have tended to enact their insights rather than explain the, as in the French existential novel or the remarkable prose poetry of Heidegger.

It is a dangerous omission, however, as the imagination is one of our most valuable modes of access to the resistance beyond our several difficulties. Resistance, I have maintained, is an inescapable sense given, found to exist, and may not be fabricated or willed into being – like difficulty – to meet the continuing demand for palpable texture of [handritten:in] human affairs. And this priority of givenness over purposiveness seems to be a distinguishing feature of the creative imagination alone of the various capacities of man – this unfathomable ability to give substance to what is needed but not simply wanted, to offer both the difficulty of contrivance and also a profound assurance that this difficulty corresponds to genuine resistance in the larger context of the outside world. It is the imagination’s peculiar function to admit, draw sustenance from, and celebrate the ontological priority of this outside world, an addition to it. Hence the tensions between metre and rhythm, between credulity and dramatic cogency, in fact the stringencies of artifice and discipline generally which constitute the dimensions within which imagination is realized and becomes intelligible, embody both process and its difficulties, and the resistances proper to the substance. Just as for Marcel and Merleau-Ponty the existence of my body, as mine, bridges the gap between my consciousness and the world, so the substantial medium of the artist and the autonomy of his creation establish the priority of the world while at the same time making it accessible. In this way the ontology implicit in Hopkins’s poetry draws much of its strength from a syntactical difficulty underpinned by etymological and phonetic resistance; the image of Christ’s body as part of the natural order constantly reasserts the valid priority of substance. For Rilke this embodied fusion of process with substance is an urgent and conscious theme:

“Und so drängen wir uns und wollen es leisten,
wollens enthalten in unseren einfachen Händen,
im überfüllteren Blick und im sprachlosen Herzen.
Wollen es werden.”

(“And so we urge ourselves on and want to achieve it,
want to contain it within our simple hands,
in the yet more crowded gaze and the speechless heart.
Wanting to become it.”)

It is perhaps ultimately from sources like these that we derive our most powerful and sustaining sense of the world, in all its complex variousness.

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