The Maximus Poems and Alfred North Whitehead

A Later Note on Letter # 15

In English the poetics became meubles - furniture -
thereafter (after 1630

& Descartes was the value

until Whitehead, who cleared out the gunk
by getting the universe in (as against man alone

& that concept of history (not Herodotus's
which was a verb, to find out for yourself:
'istorin, which makes any one's acts a finding out for him or her
self, in other words restores the traum: that we act somewhere:

at least by seizure, that the objective (example Thuicidides, or
the latest finest tape-recorder, or any form of record on the spot

- live television or what - is a lie

as against what we know went on, the dream: the dream being
self-action with Whitehead's important corollary: that no event

is not penetrated, in intersection or collision with, an eternal

The poetics of such a situation
are yet to be found out

(From The Maximus Poems and dated January 15th 1962. The penultimate line should be indented.)

The above can be read as both the beginnings of a manifesto and as a blueprint for 'Maximus' which has the history of Gloucester and the nature of process as two of its main themes.

Whitehead was a British mathematician of some prominence who co-authoured 'Principia Mathematica' with Betrand Russell. He later went on to writing about metaphsysics arguing that it is process rather than substance that should be seen as the fundamental metaphysical content of the world.

Whitehead went on to say "In a certain sense, everything is everywhere at all times. For every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location. Thus every spatio-temporal standpoint mirrors the world."

'Maximus' is very much concerned with process and the poems move effortlessly from one time-frame to another, emphasis is given to the passage of time and to the notion of the 'past in the present' but these themes are never forced, it is entirely possible to read the work without being aware of Whitehead's influence.

The reference to 'event' above is an adaptation of Whitehead's notion of an 'actual occasion' which is a process of becoming and his insistence that "the flux of things is on ultimate generalisation around which we must weave our phiosophical system." Hence Olson's assertion above that on the spot records are "a lie" because they fail to recognise that everything is always in the process of becoming.

The references to Herodotus and Thuicides indicates Olson's strong interest in ways of 'doing' history which is exemplified in 'Maximus' by his frequent use of the Gloucester archives.

I read the last couplet as a piece of false modesty, Maximus is about working out these poetics and it is also a challenge for others to do likewise.

The description of Whitehead clearing out 'the gunk' is a wonderful way of encapsulating the fundamental challenge that Whitehead presents to all of Western metaphysics. Although his work has never gained the recognition it deserves, Whitehead continues to be read and debated by theologians and is gaining increasing recognition from those thinkers concerned whith physical space.

A Selection of Whitehead's work (including the seminal 'Process and Reality') can be downloaded from the AAAAARG site for free although you will need to register.

comments powered by Disqus