A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a conversation on Infinite Conversations, which is a wonderful online forum for people with what we/they are calling “visionary tendencies.” This is admittedly a nebulous phrase, but also I think a pregnant one, and it was one of the reasons why I was drawn to the website, the forum, and the larger “Cosmos Coop” of which IC is a part. During the specific conversation I have in mind, we were discussing Milton’s Paradise Lost, and more specifically the sort of inward experience that might have occurred within Milton while he was dictating the poem. In other words, what was happening phenomenologically when and as Milton spoke and created the poem aloud? What was happening inside Milton?
Perhaps such a question is a fool’s errand — how can we ever really know? But actually, although we cannot totally describe exactly what was happening inside Milton as he spoke and created the poem aloud, I do think there are some “parameters,” let’s say, some “orienting generalizations” (Ken Wilber’s term) that we might invoke to take and get us closer to Milton’s inward experience as he dictated the poem. And, in order to get at those orienting generalizations, I want to use an analogy from music, more specifically what we call the “improvised guitar solo,” and even more specifically, an actual improvised guitar solo by Jerry Garcia on “Tennessee Jed,” from the Grateful Dead’s “Europe ‘72” album, which is a personal favorite. Garcia’s is an improvised guitar solo, but it is also, I think at least, a quite strong, moving and interesting improvised guitar solo, which is why I want to talk about that solo specifically.
What do I mean by an improvised guitar solo? “Improvise” comes from the Italian improvisare, “to sing or speak extempore,” and the Italian word comes from the Latin improviso, which means “unforeseen” or “not studied or prepared beforehand.” So, for a workable definition, let’s say the improvised guitar solo is an unforeseen sequence of satisfying notes performed by a guitarist during a song. Now, of course, it should be pointed out that, although we are focusing on music and literature, improvisation happens quite often and even naturally in all of the arts. One of my favorite examples is seeing, years ago, a video of Helen Frankenthaler painting — I remember the video was in black and white, and she was working with an enormous canvas, onto which she was crouched and pouring paint; there was a simultaneous abandon and discipline that went into the process that actually startled me. There was something about seeing Helen Frankenthaler paint — an intensity, a total absorption in what was happening, what was being done —that seemed religious to me, which is why I think the experience of watching that video has stayed with me.
Okay, but we are talking about music, in order to talk about literature. To talk about music, which I personally find quite difficult to describe, let me resort as a framework of sorts to a short excerpt from the first chapter in Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, a book I now strenuously disagree with on many fronts, but which can still offer us something useful in regards to conceptualizing what happens during an improvised guitar solo. In that books’ first chapter, where Rorty is discussing what it means to “come up with a new vocabulary,” he writes,
The craftsman typically knows what job he needs to do before picking or inventing tools with which to do it. By contrast, someone like Galileo, Yeats, or Hegel (a “poet” in my wide sense of the term — the sense of “one who makes things new”) is typically unable to make clear exactly what it is that he wants to do before developing the language in which he succeeds in doing it. His new vocabulary makes possible, for the first time, a formulation of its own purpose. (p. 12–13)
We could read “the craftsman” as any guitar solo that is “pre-packaged,” the sort of thing you hear on the album, and then is played in exactly the same sequence in a live or recorded performance. This is also true of most political poetry— the message has already been decided upon, and so the process Rorty describes in his last two sentences above does not happen. This can explain why such poems can be intensely boring and uninteresting — because, despite whatever linguistic or formal pyrotechnics occur, the form and content is blemished by motives that impair the possibility for something new to happen. Essentially, what we are describing is a poverty, probably imaginative, in the process of making.
But if one is “unable to make clear exactly what it is that he wants to do before developing the language in which he succeeds in doing it” then we are dealing with something quite different. This state of mind, if we can call it that, has been described in many different ways and contexts — secular, religious, literary, psychological, and so on — from Keats’s “negative capability” to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow states,” from Buddhist onepointedness to Michael Fried’s descripton of “absorption.” Rorty’s figure of the poet here is essentially what I think Wallace Stevens described and imagined, when he wrote, in “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction” that, “You must become an ignorant man again /And see the sun again with an ignorant eye.” We are talking about seeing, writing, dictating, painting, without any conceptual detritus getting in the way. Here, ignorance is a form of knowledge, while the craftsman perspective is, in the context of creating art, essentially hubristic or mechnical.
So, let’s go back to the improvised guitar solo. Below is the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” from their album “Europe ‘72.” The guitar solo I want to talk about is basically from 4:52–6:45, but I would really recommend listening to the whole song, as the solo is in a sense the sort of utterance that builds up from the accretion of the verse and chorus interchange, as well as from two earlier solos that could be thought of as drafts or iterations of, or practices for, the later, more developed solo. In a way, a guitar solo is both a relaxation and an intensification of the verse-chorus strictures and structures that come before it, and I want to return to this relaxation/intensification dynamic in a bit. Anyways, here — give a listen:
It’s interesting that the last, most developed solo (4:52–6:45) comes after most of the “language component” aspect of the song (clunky phrase), by which I mean the actual words, the lyrics of the song, are mostly done with — there is just one more chorus after the final solo. But rather than ending the song after the language is mostly done, as most songs do, the song moves on and opens up and out, into different places, regions let’s say, of what we might call the “feeling imagination.” (John Ashbery writes, in his poem, “The Recent Past,” “Perhaps we ought to feel with more imagination,” and this “conceptual blending” of feeling and imagination seems relevant here, as well as for Milton.) Just before the solo under discussion starts, the Dead sing the last chorus:
Tennessee, Tennessee, there ain’t no place I’d rather be!
Baby won’t you carry me? Back to Tennessee!
What is the relationship between these words and the improvised guitar solo that follows? Is there one? I think there is, but I also think the relationship is an abstract one, having to do with musical or melodic commentary. By this I mean that the solo is essentially an abstract musical or melodic commentary on the entire song that came before it. Does this abstract commentary “say” anything? “Say” is probably not the right way to put it. The solo is constantly feeling its way into the song, doing interesting things at various points, sometimes floating above it, simultaneously transcending the song while remaining deeply a part of it, moving in and out of it, within and beyond it, revising the song, altering it, showing it in a different light, opening it to new possibilities (essentially Rorty’s definition of “the poet” as creating a new vocabulary), augmenting the song, stretching it, making it more powerful, more cohesive, somehow even more “persuasive,” to use a strange word in this context, as a song. Showing us new aspects of what came before, a what-came-before which is transfigured by what is happening during the solo itself.
What does this have to do with Milton’s Paradise Lost? We can think of Paradise Lost as the improvised solo, the abstract musical or melodic commentary. And the song that came before the solo, that invests the solo, even while the solo transfigures the song and takes it into new and different regions of the feeling imagination, is the Western literary tradition itself. Does this take us any closer into what Milton actually experienced phenomenologically while he dictated the poem? I really don’t know, but let’s try to summarize what we have said so far, and in doing so, maybe take a stab at something akin to Milton’s experience.
Strong improvised guitar solos involve, as mentioned above in the context of Frankenthaler, both abandon and discipline. The abandon aspect means that the musician sort of steps into a place, and, within that place, allows to stream through him or her a kind of abstract commentary on what is occurring at that moment, or at any moment. To allow something to stream through one means that one does not allow anything to obstruct such streaming; we can conceptualize such obstructions as anything from Harold Bloom’s “Covering Cherub” to A Course in Miracles “ego,” from Freud’s “super ego” to Judaism’s “yetzer harah” — essentially whatever blocking agent prevents human beings from being and becoming authentically creative. The discipline aspect means both that the human being doing the performance is, well, disciplined —deeply practiced in the art form he or she is performing, even, in a sense, a “master” (though ignorant)—but also, more broadly, the various disciplinary, formal and material constraints out of which the solo emerges and takes shape. If there is too much discipline, the solo is drowned out, and real abandon doesn’t happen. But if there is too much abandon and not enough discipline, the intensity wane or fades, and the result is droopy and artless. (The best Grateful Dead performances happen, I would argue, when there is a very taut relationship between abandon and discipline — think about how satisfying the aforementioned solo is — but also how satisfying the final chorus is that comes after the solo — when the abandon aspect sort of funnels, flows or merges back into the framework or sound-structure (the discipline component), after a breathtaking pause right at 6:44, and then the last chorus happens. Perhaps the final chorus is then so satisfying because, in a way, it is a subsequent, energized celebration of what just happened.)
Another angle on the abandon/discipline dynamic is in the context of relaxation/intensification. In other words, yes, both Jerry Garcia and John Milton learned to abandon themselves during their performance, while tacitly honoring the discipline, framework, tradition, structure, material, constraints, through which this abandonment could occur. But in order to do this, both had to experience both a relaxation and an intensification during their performance. Because, if you notice this, both Garcia and Milton are, to put it this way, quite self-possessed during their playing and dictating. Although I’d imagine that dictating Paradise Lost or playing many sublime improvised guitar solos would be extremely, intensely… interesting, vivid, delightful, moving, exciting, choose your adjective — at the same time, Garcia or Milton never sort of “lose it” during their performances — they are in full possession of their abilities, I guess we could say it that way. And this self-possession seems to make their abandon even more satisfying and intense. It is as if they are slowing down — even relaxing — in order to more fully appreciate the absolute pleasure of what is currently streaming through them in. I’m sure everyone has their favorite examples of this dynamic. For me, there are certain Ray Charles and Bob Dylan songs where this happens in a marvelous way — they do sort of “lose it,” but they are so self-possessed that this losing it is just another example of mastery. (Some videos of Dylan during his Christian phase are fascinating, because despite or because of the spiritual fervor going around him, he is conspicuously still and unmoving, like some sort of ghost.) Recently I listened to a song called “Better Days” by Graham Nash for the first time, and this totally happens when he sings the last chorus — there is both a relaxation and an intensification, an abandon and a discipline, that unite to form a very moving musical experience.
What did Milton experience when he dictated Paradise Lost? I think he experienced the delight of his own mastery. And this mastery involved his ability to tap into his feeling imagination, and, in so doing, to articulate a vision that was not pre-conceived, but which unfolds itself through time, like music. By emphasizing the feeling imagination, I do not want to discount the role that cognition or thinking plays in creating poems, which cannot be denied. But Paradise Lost is not just thinking — it is thinking transmogrified by a very intense feeling world, involving affective realities like gratitude, humility, boldness, strength, etc. —a feeling world so intense that Milton actually experienced a vision, which today, in the form we have it now, we call Paradise Lost. Paradise Lost endures because of the sublime energy of its thinking, feeling and imagining — its strength. In a way, Milton got out of the way, so that the better or real Milton could take his place. His poem is an improvised solo, set against the backdrop of the best that was felt and thought before him. And we can and should say the same thing about Garcia — his greatest solos are instances during which a smaller Jerry Garcia ducked out of the theater, so that the larger, bolder, fuller, deeper Garcia could stride in and play his profoundly moving, Whitmanesque tune.