A Little Madness to the Method
Writing something good is never easy. It almost always requires a lot of fore-thought and preceding structure in order to convey to the reader a cogent message, an end; very seldom can truth be transmitted in writing without a structure, a discernable methodology, to that which is written. Vers libre is a great example of this difficulty: though it seems devoid of any strongly defined form, the best free verse poems always possess it in a way that is fitting both to the lack of regularity and the content. Great paintings or drawings still need lines, limitations, boundaries, colors – or the lack thereof; so too does great poetry realize its limitations, even when it breaks from the conventions. The Waste Land puts the free verse form to its best use, in its content’s seeming disjointedness, its jolting juxtaposition of imagery and words, and its helter-skelter dialect, all reinforce the fact that the poem does have structure, does have five parts, does have a beginning, middle, and end. Yet it is not good poetry because T.S. Eliot sat down and decided, “I ought to chop coherent a string of unrelated coherent thoughts into incoherent phrases and assemble them, ultimately creating a coherent whole, in five parts.” In fact, Ezra Pound was the one who suggested Eliot remove phrases here and there throughout, giving the poem its distinctive rhythmic and cogent discontinuity. What Eliot started with was not a method of writing, but an idea of what to write about; presumably, to judge by the poem’s somewhat vaguely inferred meaning, the dissolution of the continuity in the modern world, the jarring of a world that has cast off its metaphysical considerations and is just now realizing, with horror, what that entails. Indeed, what can conceivably be derived from Eliot’s Waste Land, though with admitted imposition on an impossibly indefinite poem, is the terror that comes to a world in which there is nothing other than method. Though not of itself a bad thing, method can never be anything more than a mere accident of the causality, of the totality, which results in some effect without the effect being fundamentally flawed.
What is method? Denotatively, it is the manner, procedure, or technique employed in order to achieve some particular end. In the sciences, by which is more or less meant those ordered bodies of knowledge about some definite subject matter, method did not achieve precedence until the work of Rene Descartes, whose Discourse on Method has had a profound and lasting effect on man’s perception as to what constitutes certitude. Disillusioned with the natural sciences, Descartes set out to determine a new way of conducting, orienting, and grounding his reasoning; philosophy gave him no certitude, and though theology did, there was nothing against which he could hold it, and its pure transcendence left him feeling a lack (ironically, Descartes insists in his Discourse that he is not suggesting his method for anyone else, and yet his certainty in mathematical rigor pervades almost every science today).
Ultimately, what Descartes sought above all was the undeniable, the complete enumeration of everything whatsoever relevant to his subject matter, starting with that which was smallest among the constituency of any problem, situation, or object of study. Thus, he made his method of inquiry more important than that about which he was inquiring: his own mind set the rules, rather than the reality to which those rules were subsequently applied. Ultimately, what Descartes wrought was a system incapable of fulfilling its aims: by placing his methodology first and foremost in any endeavor, he assured that the inquiry would never get beyond its self-imposed limitations. No enumeration is every fully complete, for the realm of possibility, the chance that there could be something out there yet undiscovered, something yet-to-happen, always leaves a possibility of error, of miscalculation. Every judgment, every calculation, every mathematical formula, though it may work perfectly in theory, is always somewhat inaccurate in reality. While this method has great value in maintaining a healthy skepticism in certain sciences, it is all too frequently applied to bigger, more universal subjects of inquiry, such as literature or philosophy.
In contrast to Descartes’ flawed method, and undue elevation of methodology, is that sort of inquiry which innately examines the world in front of it, which considers things as they are; that which proceeds, in the language of Scholasticism, a posteriori. This manner of inquiry starts not with presuppositions or some rigidly defined criterion of certainty, but with those things that are immediately, naturally observable; and somewhat paradoxically, it starts where it ends. In other words, when the inquirer sees a stone, he sees the stone, and is likely confident as to what it is. Its weight and dimensions of depth, though they may corroborate his observation, do not determine it; instead, he looks for something other than its qualities which may be cut up and quantified in any number of ways. Descartes’ method insists upon dividing every problem, every obstacle encountered on the way to truth, into the smallest possible parts. This contrary “method,” which is not really a method at all but simply man’s natural though all-too-often neglected mode of being in a world of knowable objects, insists instead upon seeing the whole of a thing before seeing its parts. This is the method of phenomenological inquiry. Of course, since every individual object is part of some greater whole, there are some complications in simply looking at it this way; a simple way to conceive of it is by what Hans-Georg Gadamer termed the “hermeneutic circle,” that which attempts understanding of every object (or totality of related objects) by referring the parts to the whole and considering the whole in relation to each of its parts. Seeing a thing merely as an object to be quantified, or as that which must be squeezed into the framework of a definite method, is a sure way to miss the truth nature of not only that particular thing, but of all those things which are related to it.
On a practical level, this inadmissibility of the primacy of method can be seen in many ways. In literature, for instance, if one were to apply a rigorous, mathematical method of interpretation of T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land, all he would return is the irregularity of meter and language. In philosophy, the Cartesian methodology (and all its progeny) fail to account for the ontology of objects themselves, for the rule and measure of all things becomes that which comes forth in theory from the human mind. Even in the sciences such as physics and chemistry, it ultimately fails to provide full, complete answers as to what their subjects are, or how they do what they do; any explanation of the natural world by math leaves man hanging, because he cannot explain math by math.
Method, as man’s means to meaning, is madness.