In the Moat
an unsolicited preface to Mind and World
The way that a journal degenerates into a to-do list must be one more deformation from all those years in school. Think of the hours you sat at that table or a desk, pen in hand, someone else’s words clouding the air, with the sense of a weight of lumber to be cleared away but no room to start, and nothing to do but count and recount the unbudged planks. That sense follows you out of the classroom and into the office, the car, the train compartment, the bed before dawn. The wants are so gaping and the means so scarce that even to mark out a starting position is tantamount to squaring the circle. You operate at a loss. You fail to keep what you have, and never pay down the principal on what you owe to yourself, or to the great causes that you claim to believe in. My daughter understands that there are shapes and there are apertures, and she has seen one pass through the other, but they won’t be led, they won’t give up their brute obstinacy in her hands.
The mind is free, says Epictetus, and many after him. The mind has a moat; this is your side, that is theirs, and nothing crosses the bridge without your assent. Again and again we’re driven back into that bunker, with all its melancholy fantasies. Think of Borges, for instance, in “The Secret Miracle”that dream of freezing in time before the firing squad is a commensurate picture for the freeway commute, the continuing-education seminar. The only possible freedom of conscience under such circumstances is the backward plunge into what John McDowell calls “frictionless spinning in the void.”
The claim of “The Secret Miracle” is that one can always be making poetry. The cost is only that the poem cannot cross the moat, and is therefore lost even to its maker; a devotion sub specie aeternitatis has no recipient (“no trabajó para la posteridad ni aun para Dios, de cuyas preferencias literarias poco sabía”). The elision of that eternity, in Borges, into the narrator who recounts the story from a later time is that bit of circle-squaring sophistry we allow our fictions to get away with.
And suppose such a poema play in verse, we are told, written in hexametershad somehow crossed the moat? To write as a devotional was already the practice of the modernists, who found all the other envelopes returned to sender; and before and after that time we all have heard entropy’s dull wings at our backs. The problem isn’t to fill the moat, nor to cross the moat once it’s filled. The problem is to be easy enough in the world that the moat ceases to be interesting.