Phenomenology: Cheltenham Elegies



To introduce the inquiry into phenomenology and phenomenological interest in the Cheltenham Elegies, I would like to include, in its totality, Apparition Poem #414, which is placed early in the 2012 Blazevox print book Cheltenham:

And out of this nexus, O sacred
scribe, came absolutely no one.
I don’t know what you expected
to find here. This warm, safe,
comforting suburb has a smother
button by which souls are unraveled.
Who would know better than you?
Even if you’re only in the back of
your mind asphyxiating. He looked
out the window— cars dashed by
on Limekiln Pike. What is it, he said,
are you dead or do you think you’re Shakespeare?

The chiasmus and comparison with Keats’ Odes: the preponderant weight, in the Elegies, of humanism over formalism and drama over prosody establishes that the Elegiac Protagonist consolidate an identity over and against the identity of the Odal Protagonist. The “I” here is social, and brings his phenomenological biases and concerns into a social context. In 414, the Elegiac Protagonist is confronted with an Antagonist who sets into motion his own phenomenological interest or gambit. As per this phenomenological movement— the Antagonist in 414 maintains the conceit that he has made cognitive boundaries dissolve and has entered, and is speaking from within, the Elegiac Protagonist’s mind (“Who would know better than you?/ Even if you’re only in the back of/ your mind asphyxiating”). His conceits are thus multiple— first, that such a cognitive break-in is possible— that, by a phenomenological movement, one human mind can break into and inhabit another with authority— second, that the Antagonist has successfully jumped into and inhabited the mind of the Elegiac Protagonist— third, that he has not only broken into but (Zen) mastered this mind. He is magically in possession not only of his mind, but of someone else’s.

In 414, tensions and ambiguities around this phenomenological confrontation are left open and unresolved— to what extent the Antagonist has (Zen) mastered the Protagonist’s mind is not addressed. The truth, were it aired, might be quantifiable— as in, his mind is 50% mastered, or 60 or 70— but we are left to surmise these calculations for ourselves. It is also important to remember that this attempted cognitive break-in works as a metaphor for Cheltenham itself, both as an external, physical reality and as, on a phenomenological level, a mindscape for the Protagonist. The phenomenological reality of Cheltenham, for individuals, is that it is a dystopia of hostile aggression and violence, but also (conversely) of the mind’s enchantment with darkness, deterioration, and decay. The included concrete detail, of cars dashing by on Limekiln Pike, fulfills a specific function in the Elegy— it breaks the phenomenological tension (whether the Antagonist speaks from within the Protagonist’s mind or not), and enumerates how an enclosed circuit (mind to mind) has been broken by an impersonal, outside the mind reality (cars, Limekiln Pike), demonstrating as well the obdurate hardness of outside the mind realities (the drabness of cars and of Limekiln Pike), and that the Antagonist now (rightly or wrongly) feels himself moved back into his own mind. Important with Keats: his outside the mind realities are almost always beautiful, conventionally enchanting ones (forests, mountains, birds, trees, etc). Outside the mind realities in the Cheltenham Elegies tend to be cold, hard, eerie, or even repulsive ones; but redeemed by superior truthfulness as regards humanity and the human condition. Back to 414: once the attempted cognitive break-in ends, and the phenomenological tension (mind against mind) disperses, a sense of discretion is restored to the vignette. That the final interrogative iteration more or less concedes non-mastery is significant— and once again, because the answer to the question is left unspoken, the ambiguities and tensions of phenomenological combat (who is more inside the other’s head) are left intact.