267. (John Keats)

Postscript: The recognition of truth as truth, of something as true, is a particular species of judgment that is often of central importance to a poem—sometimes serving as an occasion for a poem, sometimes occurring within its course, sometimes dictating its entire movement, and sometimes impelling it by negation, by the recognition of something as untrue. But that is in a way to only specify one aim or activity of judgment in a poetry; there is, in a sense, no more to be said than that a work of literature both constitutes judgment and reflects upon it.

The surprise occasioned by a work of literature is kin to the surprise at discovering something true; it is surprise that “truth” can be, first, imagined and told at all, and second, often more thrillingly, that it can be imagined in whatever situation, from whatever materials. Literature is a record of the emergence, growth, and occasional failure of the phenomena of “truth” in the imagination—“truth” as a phenomena that is part of experience, to which experience might be subject, and which might be transformed through it—and most remarkably, truth as something that, because it is an element of life and phenomena in it, can be imagined, even as it holds the imagination to its measure. ( I can imagine this thing called “true,” and the my imagination will be subject in part to that “true.”).

For a poet, the experience is internal: to imagine truth, to make the phenomena real, if not actual, in one’s own imagination. But for the poet whose masterpieces are not just poems but letters, the experience is slightly different. Thus Keats whose experience of “truth” and “truth-telling” is most intense and animated in the letters—or so, in words quite other than these, runs the implicit argument of Christoper Ricks’ Keats and Embarrassment.

There, the letters are shown to apprehend not just what is, per Ricks shrewd analysis, true to some common humanity, but also “truth” as an element, obstacle, and standing challenge common to humans—the truth of oneself and one’s life communicated in letters, the obligation to be true in the right way, the encounters with deceptions that others offer or set, and the disparity between what is claimed to be an act of truth and the inadvertent betrayals that accompany it. Keats is observer of self and other, but most impressively, he is an observer of the “truth” (“truths”) under which all labor and play. It impinges in his consciousness, sometimes a tickle, sometimes an itch, and sometimes a pain.

Embarrassment is the handle, not the bundle itself: embarrassment because to confront and imagine it as Keats does is to confront and imagine a distinct, central and potent mode of judgment, intimate with truths and their concealment.

Keats is honored by Ricks as being, with Baudelaire and Goethe, “men who are important first because they are human prototypes of new experience and only second because they are poets.” That new experience is one of “truth”; a chief lesson of literature is that it manifests variously across time and place and can likewise be experienced differently.

In Foucault’s late work, truth-telling is tied to, served by and in service of, power. But truth being a basic competent of discourse, thought, and practice (as mud is basic to the land) cannot be solely object or cause of suspicion unless life is to be, too. The phenomena and experience and function of truth-telling may be varied (like mud), and that variation may be a consequence of ideology, episteme, or discipline, but it is no less an occasion for creative achievement: the experience and element of truth as something that might be imagined more or less persuasively, more or less richly, more or less, by its own measure (but also the measure of a reader with her own experience of it), truly. Recognizing that achievement is, I take it, the aim and success of Ricks’ criticism of Keats.

The pleasurable surprise at reading Keats is seeing that truth can be so imagined, and truthfully—by its measure and our own. But also, in reading the letters he wrote, it lies in seeing how keenly he could perceive truth at work and play in the world.


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