Truth Beauty

By | 1 August 2014

But Keats is not the first to use being in this way – or rather, not to use it. Indeed, being is often just implied, whether in English or Greek, Russian or Hebrew. For example, a fragment from Heraclitus (B119): ēthos anthrōpō daimōn. One translation reads: ‘a person’s character is his divinity’.1 Another reads: ‘Man’s character is his fate’.2 But the verb ‘to be’ does not appear in the original Greek text; nor is it absent, nor merely some combination or permutation of present and absent – for it is neither. It is, however, implied (whether its aspect is complete or incomplete).3

And not only in philosophy, but in poetry as well: being is implied. Just one example, although it would be easy to multiply them – not because implication is just another poetic use of language or common literary trope; but rather, if it is poetic, it is because it is implied. A line from Homer’s Illiad reads: kreissōn gar basileus hote chōsetai andri cherēi. And A.T. Murray translates: ‘For mightier is a king, when he is angry at a lesser man’.4 But again: being is not present; the verb einai (to be) is neither here nor there – and yet nor is it nowhere or nothing – for it is implied.

So if being is implied in the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, if being’s way of being implied is what the poem is about, it is because implication is the secret of the poem. And Keats keeps this secret (that ‘is’, being, is implied by ‘truth beauty’) hidden in full-view, speaks of it silently to everyone who would listen – almost like that which Wordsworth calls ‘the burthen of the mystery’.5 Indeed, being qua implication is the ‘still unravish’d bride of quietness’, that haunts the poem. It is not the child, but the ‘foster-child of silence’ – for this bride does not merely keep silent; it is not simply the child of silence (insofar as it implies, however quietly, which is not to say that it breaks its silence, or speaks – for implication does not just speak). Implication is the poem’s sweet melody that cannot be heard, the ditty of no tone; it is that which the lover cannot kiss, the meaning which can be approached, but never grasped. And if such an implication is the end, it is no wonder that we can only get ‘near the goal’ – for like the ‘Bold Lover’ (or lover of wisdom), who cannot kiss, so too that which is implied cannot come to be, nor come to presence and present itself, reveal or demonstrate, explain or explicate itself, make its meaning clear and distinct, nor determine the necessary grounds for why it cannot do so.

So ‘is’ is implied by ‘truth beauty’. That is what the poem implies: is, the verb ‘to be’, being. That is what the poem is about: being qua implied, implied being. What is poetic about the poem? The way in which being is implied. Obviously, in ‘Beauty is truth’, the ‘is’ is there, present; it comes to presence as itself and appears as what it is, as the relation of beauty to truth – the phainomenon of being comes to light. But in ‘truth beauty’, the ‘is’ is not simply there, although neither is it just not there; it is not merely present, although nor is it absent. Where is the ‘is’ of ‘truth beauty’? Neither here nor there. How is it? Neither present nor absent. What is it? An implication.

What does it mean then, to say that the ‘is’, being, is implied by ‘truth beauty’? First, it means that it must be implied; it is a necessary implication – for it follows necessarily, apodeictically, from ‘truth is beauty’. The ‘is’ must be carried over, transported, transferred, from the first half of the phrase to the second. ‘Beauty is truth’ means that ‘truth’ necessarily is ‘beauty’. And if ‘truth beauty’ lacked the verb ‘to be’, if the ‘is’ were not implied, if being were not a necessary implication, then it would be nonsense, meaningless – or at least incomplete, an incomplete sentence. But thanks to the implied ‘is’ in the first half, the second half is complete, comprehensible, sensible and meaningful. We understand that which the poem or the poet or the urn necessarily says, even if it is not spoken, even if the ‘is’ remains in silence – for being is implied universally, or more precisely: more universal than any universal, being is a necessary implication. Thus ‘truth beauty’ implies ‘truth is beauty’ – and necessarily so.

But how is it possible for ‘truth beauty’ to necessarily imply ‘is’? How can being to be implied at all? What is the possibility of the necessity of implied being? What makes it possible for ‘truth beauty’ to say ‘truth is beauty’?

In fact, if ‘is’ must be stuck between truth an beauty, if being is necessarily implied, if ‘truth beauty’ must mean ‘truth is beauty’, then it is because this necessity is already somehow far more possible. Indeed, ‘truth beauty’ is that which first makes ‘truth is beauty’ possible. Or rather, ‘is’ is possible thanks to the fact that it is not simply there, present (nor merely elsewhere and absent), but implied – and so can possibly be brought to presence (out of absence) at anytime whatsoever. We understand that the urn can imply ‘truth is beauty’ because it is possible to add it in, supply that which is missing, remember the forgotten, carry over what is there in the first phrase into that which is not in the second, so correct the ‘error’ of an incomplete sentence and make it complete, fill the gap, overcome the lack, actualise the potential, let it come to presence and appear as a phenomenon, answer the question, affirm the ‘negative capability’ that lies between truth and beauty. So if Keats does not simply stick an ‘is’ between truth and beauty, it is because that would destroy the ‘is’ which is just implied; writing being would translate its dynamis into the work, en-ergia, metamorphose possibility into actuality – it would metamorphose the negative capability into a positive one. Thus by implying being as a possibility, the implied ‘is’ as possible, the poem shows that ‘being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts’ is not just a necessity.6

If being is not just necessarily implied by ‘truth beauty’, but a possibility for it; or if the necessity of supplementing truth and beauty with ‘is’ comes out of the fact that it is possible to do so – well, how is that possible? What is the possibility of this possibility? Or how is it possible for ‘truth beauty’ to be (negatively or positively, possibly or necessarily) capable of implying ‘truth is beauty’? How is it possible for the urn to say that being is implied by ‘truth beauty’?

Indeed, if the possibility of implying ‘is’ between truth and beauty cannot explain its own possibility – nor can it simply be necessary, or possible – well then, it would seem that we have a problem. Or rather that ‘truth beauty’ is a problem, even the problem of the poem, and of poetry, Keats’s problem and the urn’s, truth’s and beauty’s and ours. And that is precisely the name for the kind of being implied by ‘truth beauty’, that is, problematic. The ‘is’ then, that ‘truth beauty’ implies, is a problem; it is implied in a way that is problematic. But what is the problem?

On the one hand, the problem is deciding whether ‘truth beauty’ necessarily or possibly implies ‘truth is beauty’, whether being is actually and necessarily or potentially and possibly implied – and whether we can decide at all. For prior to judging the necessity or possibility of the ‘is’, it is neither – and ‘we first judge something problematically’.7 Suspended between (before or beyond) necessity and possibility, being is a problem; and its way of being is problematic. And it is out of such a problem that ‘is’ necessarily or possibly comes to be between truth and beauty; it is because of this problem that the urn says ‘truth beauty’ and must or can mean ‘truth is beauty’. For problematic implication is the origin of necessary and possible implication alike – and being is the problem of the poem (implicated in its poetry), even before it necessarily or possibly comes to be implied between truth and beauty.

On the other hand, the problem is determining that anything is being implied at all. For perhaps ‘truth beauty’ implies nothing, and the ‘is’ must not and cannot be carried over from ‘beauty is truth’. So the problem is not that being is implied in a necessary or possible way, nor whether we can decide which, nor that something other than being may be implied (some other verb which also implies being) – nor that it is necessarily or possibly not implied; but that we might have to suspend judgment about whether being is being implied at all. Then the problem of implication is implication itself. For the ‘is’ is neither present nor absent between truth and beauty. And the poetry of the poem might not lie in how it speaks without being necessarily there, nor possibly; but rather so that its non-presence (or absence) is just as much of a problem as its presence.

The problem then, or double-problem, of ‘truth beauty’, the problem of the poem, is that the implied ‘is’ is neither necessary nor possible, present nor absent. Or more precisely, insofar as being is the problem of the ‘Ode’, it is because it is merely implied. But this problem just as much implies a chance to go back and re-read the poem as a work about being, about being qua implication, especially if it is implicated in the other things the poem is also on about: truth, beauty, knowledge, need, mortality, friendship, the Greeks and us. Such a problematic reading (whether also somehow necessary or possible as well, or not) might then be a poetry of implying.

  1. R.D. McKirahan, A Presocratics Reader (Hackett, 1996), p. 40; my emphasis.
  2. C.H. Kahn, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus (Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 81; my emphasis. I have taken up Heidegger’s reading of Heraclitus in The Irony of Heidegger, Chapt. 4.
  3. See for example: Plato, Laws X, 901c8-d2. I have addressed issues of implication in ‘Being and Implication: On Hegel and the Greeks’, Cosmos and History, Vol. III, No. 3, 2007; and in Unity and Aspect (forthcoming).
  4. A.T. Murray, Illiad (Harvard University, 1924), 1.80; my emphasis.
  5. W. Wordsworth, ‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tinturn Abby’, London: J. & A. Arch, 1798.
  6. Ironically or not, this concept, which has kept scholars busy for centuries, only appears once: “I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (Keats’s letter to George and Tom Keats, 21 27 (?) December 1817). Cf. J. Reibetanz, ‘“The Whitsun Weddings”: Larkin’s Reinterpretation of Time and Form in Keats’s, Contemporary Literature, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Autumn, 1976), p. 529).
  7. I. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A76/B101.
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