David Lo / An Encounter between Phenomenology and Literature

Merleau-Ponty in his working notes of The Visible and The Invisible suggests the echo between philosophy and literature: “Philosophy, precisely as ‘Being speaking within us,’ expression of the mute experience by itself, is creation” (p. 197). Philosophy as well as literature deploys creative use of language to render the invisible being visible. Both philosophers and writers rely on language but they differ in terms of their use of language in their inquires: while philosophers make enigmatic human experience and condition linguistically comprehensible, writers relish ambiguity and exhaust verbal suggestiveness. The manifestations of their thoughts are different but their shared general concern is the human relationship with the world. Phenomenologists are particularly aware that we are born into a natural and cultural world that pre-exists us; writers, although hailing individual originality, create within literary traditions and conventions. Literary criticism therefore has to keep both the general and the specific in perspective. My research specifically expounds the English Romantic poet John Keats’s proto-phenomenological ideas in his poetry and poetics such as “negative capability” and “the vale of soul-making”. Drawing upon Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of embodiment, the project on the other hand has a generic concern about how the poet refashions poetic genres such as romance, lyric, and epic to address the problems of reality, alterity, and expression. My reading of John Keats is in a sense informed by my study of Merleau-Ponty, whose developed concepts of the aforementioned concerns help elucidate the poet’s less systematic poetical thoughts. The study in turn traces the notion of sensing in the Romantic tradition that Merleau-Ponty acknowledges in Phenomenology of Perception. Although I took philosophy as my minor, I lacked expert guidance and was not versed enough in the scholarship of phenomenology. For these reasons, I took on a challenge to present my work before phenomenologists in order to get feedback on my early research work. Thanks to the collegial atmosphere and stimulating intellectual exchange at the Centre, my research stay (2 September – 2 October 2019) proved to be extremely conducive to strengthening my philosophical framework as well as my understanding of phenomenology.

In order to chime with the research project of we-consciousness and collective intentionality at the Centre, I gave a presentation entitled as “The Resistance of the Other in the ‘I-Thou’ Relationship in Romantic Lyric Poetry”. In the presentation, I drew examples from Danish poetry, Chinese poetry, and popular songs to illustrate the prevalence of the “I-Thou” relationship in the lyric and Jonathan Culler’s idea of the lyric as an event in his recent publication Theory of the Lyric. The lyrical I cannot be reduced to the representation of the subjective experience of the poet, for the lyric also entices the reader to take up the position of the speaker. In this sense, the lyrical I proffers a generalized I, and that explains why translators knowingly or unknowingly translate “I” and “me” in the Danish and Chinese poems I cited into “we” and “us”. Accordingly, the lyric can offer a peculiar case for further inquiry into why it is so tempting to construe an “I-Thou” relationship in the lyric communication and whether there is any overlapping of our use of “I” and “we”. My second half of the presentation moved on to Romanticism, an apotheosis not only of lyric poetry but also of its theorization. I focused on John Keats’s two famous odes “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to investigate how lyric poetry can address the other. In light of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the chiasmic structure of flesh in relation to the other, I showed that Keats in the two odes dramatises the resistance of the other. Merleau-Ponty is particularly helpful in explaining how the dualism between the subject and the object dissolves in the “I-Thou” relationship in the poems since the self is also simultaneously the other. Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on the importance of separation (écart), instead of synthesis, in chiasm also advances the understanding of the autonomy of the other in the “I-Thou” relationship. The feedback from my colleagues at the Centre was helpful for me to clarify different types of alterity and my philosophical positioning in relation to Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. I was truly grateful to the members of the Centre for their encouragement and expressed interest in my work, which shows the Centre’s genuine dedication to interdisciplinary dialogue.

As a researcher of literary studies, this research stay opens the door for me to the exchange with philosophers, to which I had no access before. Talks and presentations of other members at the Centre enriched my knowledge of the most cutting-edge scholarship of phenomenology. The friendly and cosy environment of the Centre helped me overcome my anxiety about my insufficient knowledge of phenomenology. Professor Dan Zahavi also kindly read the manuscript of my article prepared for publication, and his constructive comments helped me strengthen my argument and philosophical framework. All the help and kindness shown to me will remain endearing in my memory of Copenhagen. As there will be a conference on literature and phenomenology at the Centre in June 2020, I very much look forward to meeting all members of the Centre again and continuing our conversation about philosophy and literature.

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