Poetic Truth, Part I: Giambattista Vico

Vico drove me to it!
I may be the only person ever to have a traffic accident because of Giambattista Vico. Partly, this is because he has been dead since anno Domini 1744, and partly because not that many people (I guess) meditate on his theory of poetic language while navigating rush-hour freeway traffic. (Perhaps also because most people who do are smart enough to buy cars with anti-lock brakes, but that discussion will have to wait.)

Anyway, assuming that you, gentle reader, are not yet counted in the number of those privileged to have glimpsed the beauty of Vico’s theory of poetic language (which makes up one portion of his wonderful work, La Scienza Nuova or The New Science (by which is meant not “science” but “knowledge”), I will give you a very rough idea of what I’m talking about. It’s been many years since I first read Vico, and almost as many since that traffic accident, and it’s entirely possible that my apprehension and application of Vico’s ideas is, ahem, idiosyncratic and my current memory of them imperfect. Nonetheless, (having thus indemnified myself against the objections of those who may know Vico much better than I), here, in a nutshell, wrenched from its proper context in Vico’s theory of Western history, is my take-away of his theory of poetic language:

Inadequate representation of the truth of God.
Ancient poets were, for the most part, trying to express, in human language, truths for which ordinary language is utterly inadequate. Many of these truths could be called “theological” – i.e., truths about the supernatural, about God(s). Now, in those primitive times, when language itself was still new and unrefined, mankind did not yet possess words to express the ineffable, the supernatural, but human language did possess plenty of terms for indicating and describing the natural (rocks, birds, trees, bolts of lightning). Therefore, since human language was inadequate for the task of explaining divinity, the poet was forced to express himself by means of metaphor (or analogy), substituting something natural (which language could express) for the supernatural thing the poet desired to communicate. The power of Zeus/Jove, for instance, is not a lightning bolt, but a lightning bolt is a familiar, natural phenomenon (for which human language has a word) which has important similarities to the power of god (for which language has no adequate term).

In other words, poetry is necessarily analogical or, if you prefer, metaphorical. “Poetic language” means, before anything else, figurative language; “poetic truth” is a truth which cannot be expressed in ordinary, expository language – the poet must cast about for a metaphor that seems to grasp the essence of the truth he wishes to express. Once you have grasped this essential truth, you will recognise that much of what calls itself “poetry” these days is anything but. It possess rhythm, rhyme, and other features or uses of technique which we associate with “poems,” but if it is not trying to express truth through concrete verbal images, it is not “poetry,” strictly speaking.

I’m skipping over a lot here, but this will do for my purpose, which is to explain the value of “poetry” (by which I mean what most people call “literature”). Poetry/literature’s purpose is to communicate truth, and its method is to express that truth metaphorically (by means of analogy), because that is the most adequate way to do it. I’ve had students (future engineers, accountants, and fry cooks) who complain that it is much easier just to say things in plain words, but the poet (or the lover of literature) knows that they are wrong.

Perfectly adequate expression
of the truth of God.
It’s important to point out that the theory of history and language that Vico elaborates in La Scienza Nuova referred specifically to what he called the “Gentile” (pagan, Graeco-Roman) world, NOT Judaeo-Christian history. The Christian should recognize that in Judaeo-Christian history, God did not need poets to describe or explain Him, rather He did it Himself – i.e., Divine Revelation does adequately what the mytho-poetic tradition of the pagans did inadequately. God’s perfect self-expression is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Logos, true Man and true God. Nonetheless, even in this (I would say), God Himself is the poet – i.e., he provides us adequate analogies to give us glimpses of his true nature. But as every Christian mystic who ever lived has known, what God has revealed is true, but it is not the whole truth. Neither our language nor our minds are adequate to the task of comprehending God in His fullness – for that we must wait until “we shall see Him as He is, for we shall be like Him.”

I’ve got more to say on this subject, but for now I’ll just let you chew on that. Stay tuned for parts 2, 3, etc. Meanwhile, think about poems, or other works of fiction, that you have read which have given you new insight into some truth about the human condition. Something which, upon reflection, you recognized to have “opened your eyes” in some respect. (I am not talking about information but about insight.) If you can think of something along these lines, please leave a comment and let us know what it was, and what it illuminated for you.

(If the idea of poetic truth appeals to you, you might like to read this post from a while back.)


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