On Susan Howe’s ‘That This’

In “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” Charles Peirce says:

“Many a man has cherished for years as his hobby some vague shadow of an idea, too meaningless to be positively false; he has, nevertheless, passionately loved it, has made it his companion by day and by night, and has given to it his strength and his life, leaving all other occupations for its sake, and in short has lived with it and for it, until it has become, as it were, flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone; and then he has waked up some bright morning to find it gone, clean vanished away like the beautiful Melusina of the fable, and the essence of his life gone with it.”

We all abide with “the shadow of an idea” that accompanies us and is a fundamental premise of our lives: “All human beings are mortal.”  Our habit is to neglect this sobering premise; however, if our minds reason to the next logical step, then we can recognize how an individual is related to a universal: “X is a human being” and thus, “X is mortal.”  A universal characteristic is attributed to or predicated of an individual.  It is syllogistic reasoning, and the pragmatics of ordinary language, the predication of qualia or attributes to a metaphysical subject, and the connection we make between words and ideas, that Susan Howe explores in a beautiful elegy to her late husband, the philosopher Peter Hare, entitled That This.

Employing documentary technique, Howe recounts the facts of her and her husband’s morning habits, distressing details since her partner’s whereabouts are unknown and the house is “too quiet,” implying that something is amiss.    She makes oatmeal, expecting that her husband is already awake; as if a conversational aside, Howe adds, “Peter always woke up very early, he would have been at work in his study.”  He would have been if it weren’t for what?  Something has happened contrary-to-fact, a counterfactual, as logicians call it.  If P, then Q.  If Peter was awake, then he would have been in his study.  If it weren’t for the silence in the house, then Peter would have been busy in his study.  If Peter was busy in his study, then the house wouldn’t have been too quiet.

In addition to her intuitive logic, she adds empirical testimony:  “there was no sign of his having breakfasted.”  Contrary to facts, due to the events of many previous mornings, she infers that the morning is not quite the same as previous mornings.  Facts begin to mount, and as a perlocutionary speaker she calls her husband’s name in reference to his habits, mannerisms, an old inside joke, once uttered with ironic glances, to stir a response.   “I called his name again,” and with that utterance the shadow of silence perched on chiasmus, “Again, no answer.”  Perhaps he could not hear her calling him.  But no, no word except the silence of nothing.  “No.”

Howe attempts to clarify her beliefs.  Why wouldn’t this morning be like other mornings?  What would cause the deviance in relation to time and previous happenings?   If the morning is not like other mornings, then why is that the case?

Howe finds him.  “He was lying in bed with his eyes closed,” she says, “I knew when I saw him with the CPAP mask over his mouth and nose and heard the whooshing sound of air blowing air that he wasn’t asleep.”  With this solemn discovery her husband’s body—his memory— is documented in an elegiac poem that excerpts entries from the letters of Sarah and Johnathan Edwards, philosophical remarks of Heraclitus and Charles Peirce, cites an autopsy report, and quotes personal email messages, exploring a main feature of Howe’s poetic: the connection of language to the world.  Following Peirce’s great essay “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” Howe subtly addresses the ways our ideas become clear and distinct, the fixation of belief in light of empirical testimony, the causal nexus, and the poetic processes of ratiocination.

Her poetry dwells on the “relations between sounds and objects, feelings and thoughts…[how] language attaches to and envelopes its referent without destroying or changing it—the way a cobweb catches a fly.”  Howe approaches poetry in a similar way that Ludwig Wittgenstein clarifies philosophical problems: we must learn how the fly becomes caught in the ‘language games’ of sense and reference, with all the symptoms of ambiguity and nonsense, only to resolve problems by letting the fly out of the fly-bottle.   Regardless of passing of time, memory and forgetting, the function of words remain—“something has to remain to rest a soul against stone.”

What remains are not things, but that this—the individual words that describe states of affairs in the world, and declare the history of the individual as an emergent assemblage of facts.  As Wittgenstein says in the opening of the Tractatus, “The world is the totality of facts, not of things.”  According to Wittgenstein, a proposition represents a fact, not an object in the world.  “The world is everything that is the case,” not a world of objects that may disappear over time or be forgotten.

Howe concludes the opening prose paragraph with the following meditation: “Starting from nothing with nothing when everything else has been said.”  The “everything else” recalls a married couple’s myriad conversations, words heard or unheard, significant or trivial, fragmented phrases.  The silence of nothing; the nothing of silence.  Words no longer heard or spoken shadow the former movements of the individual who once was.  Howe’s sentiment is similar to Wittgenstein’s famous aphorism: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”  Except in Howe’s case, the words have been spoken along with “everything else.”  Again, we recall Wittgenstein’s remark, “Anyone can either be the case or not be the case, and everything else remains the same.”

Peter was no longer a living individual but a totality of facts.  And only a sign could bring forth memories of the object lost.  “The name means the object.  The object is its meaning.”  For Wittgenstein, as for Howe, we wish for an isomorphic relation between words and objects.  In uttering the name, we think the object.  But the object would be lost or meaningless without the holdfast of the proposition: “In the proposition the name represents the object….Objects I can only name.  Signs represent them.  I can only speak of them.  I cannot assert them.  A proposition can only say how a thing is, not what it is.”  How can we say what a thing is or was when we have already said “everything else”?  Also, what can a proposition show us?  What does logic permit us to think?

“The limits of language mean the limits of my world….Logic fills the world: the limits of the world are also its limits….We cannot therefore say in logic: This and this there is in the world, that there is not.”  The purpose of elegy is for us to lay claim to that which has passed, studying that which is not, no longer, such that we may come to understand, as Wittgenstein remarks, that “Death is not an event in life. Death is not lived through.”

The concept of death brings forth the counterfactual: If death were an event in life, then we could not experience it directly, only witness it.  If death is not lived through, for if it were, then we would be dead, our testimony is “sayable” only within the scope of a proposition as a picture of the facts.

Interspersed with her own personal memories, Howe excerpts Sarah Edwards’s letters after the death of her husband Johnathan Edwards.  Less focused on grief and mourning, Howe is fascinated with the speech acts of disembodied signifiers.  Our words are intimately combined with our works; for “all works of God,” presumably the mysterious ways of divine command over human destiny and fate, “are a kind of language or voice to instruct us in things pertaining to calling and confusion.”  Thereby, “each soul comes upon the call of God in his word,” and Howe admits that “I read words but don’t hear God in them.”

As words relate to ideas, and ideas transpose to images, and names refer to objects, Howe carefully addresses the transubstantiation of words from material signs to supernatural signifiers.   The first lyrical offering in the book’s second section, “Frolic Architecture,” introduces an assortment of “scissor cut” texts, fragmented but carefully arranged, which reads: “That this is a history of / a shadow that is a shadow of / me mystically one in another / Another another to subserve.”  Perhaps this is Howe’s way of exploring the pragmatics of words serving a purpose, used or recycled, subserving one’s voice to another’s shadow.

Two examples will suffice to demonstrate that Howe’s fragmented texts convey a force of implicature as powerful as the similes, metaphors, and analogies that she admires so much in Johnathan Edwards’s sermons.  The first example is a scissor cut “shadow” entry with words cut off at the beginning and ending of lines, set in two slant parallel columns, and reads like this:



n the

der h

own ocean

e lan

nd a

sea ;

ned t


“in one. No sun

nor did the waxin

not yet did the ea

n the circumamb

ed her arms alon

, though there

could tread th

air was dark.

; all objects

ld things strov

The first column with the words “own ocean” and letters forming the conjunction of “land and sea” implies the difference between a planetary sea and the cosmic ocean of the supernatural, the in-dwelling of spirit that humans discover in the natural order of things.  Truly, Howe’s suggestion concerns the metaphysics of creation, a theogony of primal life-urgings crawling from the ocean in the tide of evolutionary progress.  It also suggests the mystical union of planetary sea with the transcendent celestial ocean—the tidal flow whereby “all rivers run into the sea yet the sea is not full.”

The second column offsets the first one in that primal life does not begin in the light of dawn but perhaps owes its existence to “no sun” or the waxing moon.  “Her arms alon[e],” “though there,” “could tread,” “air was dark,” “all objects,” “things,” suggests a gathering of names for objects in a disjunctive poetics.  Something treads as the air was dark; all objects are things; if only things strove to make a coherent proposition in a picture of life.  Howe’s fragments suggest an antithetical realm of the counterfactual: if words were to form propositions, then propositions could represent the facts.  But there are no facts, only words.  But how do words come together to form a totality of facts, the world?

The second example reads as follows:

“ing body my body slipping

d down full toward its own

secret       sermon      rough

a myst      sermon      of gra

and i          sermon      sent to”

It’s hard to say exactly what “body slipping full down toward its own” means, but in relation to the three columns and rows of words, we get the sense that Howe is not operating on literal terms.  The words don’t necessarily combine to form a complete thought or proposition.  A body can slip literally or figuratively, of course, but the phrase makes more sense figuratively in an expression on the metaphysics of time, corporeality, and personal identity.  How can we identify or refer to a body that remains the same object over time?  Evoking the sermons of Johnathan Edwards, Howe suggests a mystical connection between body slippage and the subject of sermonizing.  Whatever the connection may be it is esoteric, a secret, and it involves a mystical self or self-effacing communion.  How does ‘this’ relate to ‘that’?

Perhaps Wittgenstein’s bugbear—the philosophical notion of solipsism—is relevant here.  “What we cannot think, that we cannot think: we cannot therefore say what we cannot think.”  The world is my world, which shows itself in the fact that the limits of language mean the limits of my world.  Howe’s fragments show the limits of the world, the limits of logic and language, because we can go only so far until we hit a dead end, the margin of that this–the thinkable, the sayable, the referential.

Let’s return to Howe’s opening phrases in the “Frolic Architecture” section:  “That this book is a history of / a shadow that is a shadow of / me mystically one in another / Another another to subserve.”  What mysticism?

In many ways, Howe’s project contemplates the pragmatics of ‘this.’  How is ‘this’ related to ‘that’?  What constitutes the substance of that this?  As Wittgenstein remarks, “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.

Howe’s world (and the limits of her language) is transformed by the discovery of her husband’s body.  And she translates his body into a state of affairs, facts, and propositions of the mind.  The passing of time transubstantiates the substance of his being, his life, into ephemeral words and images.  The vagueness of images, metaphors and similes, fragmented propositions, begs the question of how we make our ideas clear.

Finally, let’s return to one of Howe’s favorite philosophers Charles Peirce.  For him, the essence of belief is the establishment of a habit.  Of course, we are prone to errors, like Wittgenstein’s fly.  Language trips us up.  We need to attend to the grammar of language, reflecting on the function of thought to produce habits of action.  We examine words in their actual use or practice.

According to Peirce, for example, Catholics and Protestants mistakenly believe that they disagree about the doctrine of transubstantiation:

“The Protestant churches generally hold that the elements of the sacrament are flesh and blood only in a tropical sense; they nourish our souls as meat and the juice of it would our bodies. But the Catholics maintain that they are literally just meat and blood; although they possess all the sensible qualities of wafercakes and diluted wine. But we can have no conception of wine except what may enter into a belief, either —

1. That this, that, or the other, is wine; or,

2. That wine possesses certain properties.

It appears, then, that the rule for attaining the third grade of clearness of apprehension is as follows: Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.”

By documenting the factual details of Peter’s life—the undeleted emails, the clutter on his desk, old letters and journal entries, the autopsy report—Howe attempts to account for the totality of facts that constitute a person–his habits, actions, murmurings–to clarify the perceptual acuity of her conception of an individual lost, not forgotten.  Like Orpheus and Lot’s wife, she looks back when the footsteps of a loved one fades into the distance behind her.

Howe questions, “Can a trace become the thing it traces, secure as ever, real as ever—a chosen set of echo-fragments?  The sound of Peter’s voice communicated something apart from the words he was saying.  Listening—I experienced early memories or mental images in distant counterpoint.”  Surely, this is the mysticism that she evokes throughout the book.  In listening, she hears words that served a purpose, subserve her own finite being, and remain when everything else has been said.  Moreover, the word images form a “distant counterpoint,” the relationship between lyrical voices that intermingle, combine, and are interdependent, creating polyphony, yet are distinct in contour and rhythm.  The voice she remembers echoes a trace of an individual, a shadow of an image, a name representing an idea, a fragmented proposition, a counterfactual of past-present moments, the man he was, that this.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s