the intersubjective & phenomenal garden

For Merleau-Ponty, all of the creativity . . . that we have come to associate with the human intellect is, in truth, an elaboration, or recapitulation, of a profound creativity already underway at the most immediate level of sensory perception. The sensing body is not a programmed machine but an active and open form, continually improvising its relation to things and to the world.

David Abrams, The Spell of the Sensuous

I've been trying to clarify my mind on this scorching July afternoon to better grasp the idea of dasein, the term coined by Martin Heidegger to describe being in time. In other words, I want to understand in my bones the purest experience of being fully present in this existence. Not to worry, I am in no danger of drowning in abstraction and philosophy. Soon enough I'll still stop to pour a cold beer, pet the dog, chat with my neighbor, write a poem. Maybe that's what I'm chasing, after all. Maybe those activities are the pure essence of dasein.

But I admit—that's three philosophers I've mentioned already and I'm just a couple paragraphs into this posting. If you read on, be aware, there is more of this in store, though I hope to distill it, make ideas manifest in things.

And now from a fourth philosopher—Edmund Husserl—comes the phrase lebenswelt, which translates roughly as life-world. It's relative to the other concepts above in that it describes the world of our immediately lived experience as we live it, prior to all our thoughts about it.

I'm interested in all these concepts because it's my job to lead a discussion next week with a group of very intelligent, creative people, all of whom are passionate about expanding their minds and enhancing their creativity. They're willing to pay for the chance to do this, and I know every one of them will work hard at using what they acquire. I must not disappoint them. In fact, I am the same as them, with the minor exception that I'm meant to facilitate and guide the conversation. So my homework of late has been to prepare some structure for our discussion.

It begins here, with this image, and the next.

This is, simply, a newly opened blossom of a zinnia. It is unremarkable, in one sense; zinnias are common enough. On the other hand, it's absolutely remarkable—I am, in fact, remarking on it now. But my ultimate point requires another image.

This is to prove a fundamental concept articulated by yet a fifth philosopher, Heraclitus, about 2,500 years ago: you can't photograph the same flower twice, for it is not the same flower and you are not the same person.

The zinnia photos were taken 24 hours apart—same camera, same blossom, same photographer. Despite the "sameness," it's obvious to us all there is a difference. What's different is that I and the flower and the light and everything occupy a different moment. My senses permit me to experience a distinct dasein.

The photographs here stand in for perception. To put it another way, my senses are the means by which I know the world, and if I had no camera, I would have to reason out the distinctions without the documentation I've provided above. I would sense with my eyes (and other senses) the bloom, and the next day I would sense it again, and hope to note the distinctions.

My garden and I are intersubjective. David Abrams, quoted above, explains that a person experiences the world of phenomena—the "field of appearances"—through and only through the senses. My human body and the flower are enmeshed in a moment of time. That moment passes, is replaced by another; likewise, the flower changes and I change, so in the new moment, everything is different.

And so I am overwhelmed with how spectacular, how awesome, how invigorating and mind-blowing it is to simply be alive. In every moment we occupy, this complex intersubjectivity is available to us. If only I can learn to embrace that more often, more fully. Since my present task is to speak to creativity, what better message could I convey than this: inhabit every moment fully, openly, and use your perceptions to create vibrantly.

And this is what I'm learning from my garden this summer: that I can never enter the same garden twice. I walk its rows, I handle the vines and fruits, I yank out some weeds, I go inside at nightfall and sleep in my bed. In the morning, a new me steps into a new garden. Everything is new, including my perceptions. And damn if there aren't even some new weeds.

If you don't find this line of reasoning rather exhilarating, well . . . then OK. But I do. I find it a reason, in fact the reason, why I'd even bother to pick up a pen again each day. If I can live in the lebenswelt, the particular life-world presented to my senses anew every day, I have renewed chances to create afresh.

And it's a struggle. All creative people know this. You must try and try and try again to escape distractions. You have to work, to eat, to converse with people. You have to feed the cat.

Yes, trust me—you have to feed him. And these interruptions can break your concentration, spit you out of the creative state, force you into a field of activity in which what happened before, and what happens next, are shouting in your ears—or at least the past/future seem to be shouting, even though neither actually exists. But that's another argument for another time.

The point is this: to be creative, you must command your perceptive skill. You must know that the subject is the matrix of the body and the world in which it's immersed at the moment. You must be able to find yourself there and sustain your concentration within that spacetime. For a writer such as myself, the made thing that comes from this is language in form—the poem, the essay, the story. For painters, musicians, sculptors, it would be the materials of their particular arts.

And this may be the whole point of a creative life: you make things, and each made thing is synthesized, an object that did not exist before, and which itself can now be perceived. It generates a new intersubjectivity with the creatures that encounter it.

We and our world are intersubjective. Creative people extend the opportunity for intersubjective experience to their fellow beings. The poem I write tomorrow will be different than the one I write today. I owe myself this awareness. I owe my readers, if I am lucky enough to have them, the made thing that is evidence of this. As Abrams aptly describes it, the writer may best reach audience by striving to create text that evokes the greatest phenomenological "consensus, greatest agreement or consonance among a plurality of subjects."

Once cannot write without perceiving, and perception requires awareness, openness, and ultimately, humility. To create anything, I have to inhabit the moment, without distraction. I and my cat sit on the bench and look at the garlic scape depicted above, and I perceive one thing, him another, no doubt. I'll never know what he perceives, but I can know that he does. And is it the world of the scape itself, or the one reflected in the ephemeral lens of the precariously balanced water droplet, that speaks most eloquently?

It's worth writing about. But let me wait until this fellow creature is finished with his perceptions.