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Self and Otherness in Norman MacCaig’s Poetry

Dominique DELMAIRE

Texte intégral

  • 1  Henceforth CP.

1No other Scottish poet has concerned himself more thoroughly than Norman MacCaig (1910-1996) — the author of such poems as “Ego,” “Other Self,” “Other self, same self,” and many more in the same vein — with the problematic issue of the subject and his relations to both reality and to his own multiple avatars or projections. “Other self” (Collected Poems1 95) is such a case in point that it deserves full quoting:

      My inmost creature, Caliban perhaps,
     Perhaps St Francis (at least, a sort of dunce)
     Sits, like a Chinese sage listening to
     A colloquy of summer afternoons,
5     Inscrutable understanding on his brow.

      The panegyric that his silence is
     Comes clear to me (that other sort of dunce),
     Written with smallest wrinkles, the stillness of
     A sleeve, the half-beginnings of a glance,
10    An air of sensuous contemplative.

      What pool rocks what white petal in his gaze?
     What fluffed out bird is blobbed upon its bough?
     I can see mountains, but they are not his
     Tressed with cascades and single in the sky,
15    Removed by poems from glittering paddy fields.

      If I could make the epigram he is,
     The seventeen syllables saying exactly what
     They exactly do not say, this other man
     Would see such blossoms frosting with their light
20    The barbarous province he is banished in.

  • 2   “une évidence seconde qu'ils désignent, à quoi ils renvoient, mais qui n'est pas en eux vraiment” (...)
  • 3  “l'éclat singulier que ces poètes ajoutent à la figure des choses — cette netteté sans épaisseur s (...)

2The poem refers to the speaker’s “inmost” or “other” and true poetic self. For one thing, the reference to Caliban suggests a primeval authenticity. Hence “this other man”’s “[i]nscrutable understanding” of natural phenomena (l. 3-5), which his “sensuous contemplative” and spiritual mode of being — just “like a Chinese sage” (l. 3) or “St Francis” (l. 2) who could speak with birds — allow him to achieve. But, above all, he embodies a poetry of the highest kind (he is “the epigram,” l. 16), a celebratory (“panegyric,” l. 6) poetry of suggestive “silence” (l.6), “[w]ritten with smallest wrinkles, the stillness of / A sleeve, the half-beginnings of a glance” (l. 8-9; note the phonemic reverberation of the sibilants of “silence” throughout these two lines), and quite possibly related to Chinese haiku with their “seventeen syllables” (l. 17) and their deceptive plainness saying in fact “exactly what / They exactly do not say” (l. 17-18) — alluding, that is, to another order of reality “which is not really in them,”2 “the nothing that is” which Wallace Stevens’s “listener” beholds in “The Snow Man” (10) for instance, or, still, “that absence in presence” which, according to Yves Bonnefoy, they seek to convey.3 That is the kind of ideal poetry the speaker wishes he could transcribe (l. 16) and unlock from “[t]he barbarous province [it] is banished in” (last line) at the moment — possibly the barren field of his poetic imagination.

3As it is, he is faced with both an inner division within his own self (the writing subject vs. the “other self”) and an ensuing separation from the natural world with which, by contrast, his “inmost” self, “listening to / A colloquy of summer afternoons,” seems to be in communion. It will be interesting to note that this scission is bound to occur at some point in the course of many poems by MacCaig and that the poet’s failure to heal it may be ascribable not only to his “modernity” but to his obviously Calvinistic turn of mind.

4A very short poem like “I and my thoughts of you” (247) shows the poet trying his hand at a first stanza whose pithiness and imagery have similarities with Eastern poetry:

Remember that old thorn bush
amazed by
its one flower

  • 4  Cf. Shiki: “Crépuscule du matin — / la gueule du crapaud / exhale la lune”  (Munier 93) [my transl (...)

5It has some of the haiku’s features, notably compression — three short lines (with, however, fourteen syllables instead of seventeen) — and an unusual and illuminating perspective on the ordinary.4 What matters is the intensity of the contemplative poetic experience that the poet and the addressee have shared. The emphasis is on the bush itself and not on the poetic persona. But all this stops with the second stanza:

If I stood by it, would it be diminished
as an image must be when
it stands beside
what it’s an image of?

6Here the speaker nominally steps into the picture, shattering the contemplative stance and putting things into perspective: a relationship is set up, or a comparison is made, between the bush and the diegetic self of the poet, and its status is now that of an image of the latter, possibly a metaphor of him (the one flower on the old thorn bush then being the odd verse that the dried-up poet does not even expect to produce any more) or a physical analogon of the man standing by it. The parallel also implicitly suggests that the whole first stanza is but an image, that is, a projection by the poet, an instance of the pathetic fallacy, an anthropomorphic reconstruction of reality. At any rate, the poet’s gratuitous speculation mars the straightforward simplicity of the initial poetic experience. As Nigel Forde puts it, MacCaig “is a man who never looks without thinking” (127) and his poems often “raise a metaphysical issue” (Hendry 73). Does he, then, qualify as a “reflective poet of modernity” for whom, in Habermas’s judgement, the “perfection of naive poetry has indeed become unattainable” (34)?

  • 5  “[...] each stone in the dam is a year of my life (hence the title) and the water is time, drownin (...)

7This reflective-speculative bent is not something MacCaig can deny, though he admits that it often takes him by surprise. For instance, he originally conceived of “Birthdays” (CP 300) — beginning with “In the earliest light of a long day / three stags stepped out from the birch wood / at Achmelvich bridge” — as a “‘snapshot poem’ only, and it was nearly finished before [he] realised that it was not only a description of that place and those events, it was also about time and memory” (quoted in Lindsay 86-7), with each item of the landscape having taken on symbolic significance in the meantime.5 Even when he tries to keep his philosophical intrusions at bay, MacCaig will not take blunt sensory impressions for granted according to some kind of naive sensualist dualism. On the contrary, he is fascinated with “the enigmatic relations between observer and observed” (Fulton 71), and ”he is a truly modern poet in the way he places self-awareness [...] at the very centre of his art” (Whyte 108): “my mind observed to me,” he declares in “An ordinary day” (CP 154-5), “how extraordinary ordinary / things are, like the nature of the mind / and the process of observing.” Marveling at the world is inseparable from the subject’s self-observation in the very act of perception.

8Many poems foreground the perceiving ego and its inevitable lack of neutrality; “to perceive is to corrupt,” the poet declares in “Inward bound” (CP 256). Not even our senses can be trusted: “eyes change what they look at, / ears never stop making their multiple translations” (“Report,” 325). In “Instrument and agent” (3), the supposedly discrete objects of outside reality — “Every one equal” (l. 4) — do not retain their original separate purity for long. “In the mind,” says Joy Hendry, “they [...] are influenced by each other, shaped by the interpretation of the perceiving mind” (71). And so, indeed,

[...] in the short journey they make
To my skull’s back, each takes a look
From another, or a gesture, or A
special way of saying Sir.

So tree is partly girl; moon And wit slide
through the sky together; [...]

9Reality (“moon”) and subjectivity (“wit”) become intertwined in such a way that, as Christopher Whyte puts it, “once human consciousness starts working on it, [the star] is transformed, even perverted or contaminated into something very different” (89). It is the very concept of reality which is being questioned in the last lines when the poet asks: “And which is star — what’s come a million / Miles or gone those inches farther?” What matters above all is the interplay between consciousness and the objects of perception, the “preoccupation with the self and its relation with the not-self” (Hendry 67).

10However, soon enough again, there will be a clear shift from not-self to self, as is the case, for instance, in “Summer Farm” (CP 7), where “we see him [...] as the centre-point of his own poetry” (Hendry, 67)

1        Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass
      And hang zigzag on hedges. Green as glass
      The water in the horse-trough shines.
      Nine ducks go wobbling by in two straight lines.

5       A hen stares at nothing with one eye,
      Then picks it up. Out of an empty sky
      A swallow falls and, flickering through
      The barn, dives up again into the dizzy blue.

      I lie, not thinking, in the cool, soft grass,
10    Afraid of where a thought might take me — as
     This grasshopper with plated face
      Unfolds his legs and finds himself in space.

       Self under self, a pile of selves I stand
     Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand
15     Lift the farm like a lid and see
      Farm within farm, and in the centre, me.

11As a matter of fact this early poem (1955) already sets the pattern for a long list of structurally similar pieces, including “I and my thoughts of you.” In it, too, the speaker veers from contemplation of nature (“the poet is marvelling at the world around him,” says McCabe — 113) to self-engrossment, and contrary to what happens in “Instrument and agent” there is no attempt at blurring the clear-cut division between self and not-self, each of these taking up one half of the poem. The farm is metonymically foregrounded in the first two stanzas (“Straws” and “hen” at the incipit of each), whereas the poet’s self (“I”, “Self”) becomes the focus of the last two. And, if it does appear in the second part of the poem, the farm is then just a simile for the poet’s self (“Farm within farm,” l. 16, being an analogy for “Self under self,” l. 13), which is by now the true focus of the poem.

12To be sure, “MacCaig is never simply a ‘nature’ poet and his preference for linking precise observation with creative wit can be seen in [this] poem [...]: ‘A hen stares at nothing with one eye, / Then picks it up’” (Watson, The Literature of Scotland 430). However, his “wit,” highly idiosyncratic as it may be, is always geared to poetic insight into reality: “straws” look indeed “like tame lightnings” and the hen does “stare [...] at nothing with one eye, / Then picks it up;” metaphors do not strike us as far-fetched and intricate expressions of subjectivity, unlike, for instance, the Metaphysicals’ conceits. Instead, they highlight the peculiarities of the world around us, much as Zen koans or haikus do, revealing the object as it is hic et nunc — “la chose comme elle est, dans l'instant de sa révélation soudaine et là” (Munier iv). Besides, most statements are plainly descriptive (“The water in the horse­trough shines,” “Nine ducks go wobbling by in two straight lines,” “A swallow falls,” etc.). In that sense, the first half of the poem is definitely concerned with the object, and not with the subject, of perception. The latter is, to that extent, transparent and at one with the scene he describes.

  • 6  My translation of Garaudy 42: “La conscience exige opposition, sans quoi il n'y a pas conscience d (...)
  • 7  “Je pense où je ne suis pas, donc je suis où je ne pense pas.”

13The intrusion of the “I” as of the third stanza marks the beginning of consciousness (still dormant — “not thinking” — at that stage) and the attendant distance that will then open up between the observer and the object at which he gazes, both in terms of space (“Afraid of where a thought might take me,” l. 10; “in space,” l. 12) and time (which crops up in the last stanza). Whereas “there is no distinction between the subject and the object in the real experienc. When one starts to distinguish subject and object, the experience disappears” (Hanh 83). Consciousness becomes possible only at the cost of the original indifferentiation. As Garaudy points out, rephrasing Hegel’s thought, “consciousness demands opposition, otherwise there is no consciousness of nature but merely nature. Consciousness, even in its most basic form, implies division and the splitting of unity: the knowledge of the object is not equal to the object of knowledge.”6 What the poem acknowledges is the basic incompatibility of being and consciousness, or of being and the symbolic order (speech or thought), which constitutes a mediation but also a division between the subject and reality — what Lacan epitomizes in the formula: “I think where I'm not, therefore I am where I do not think”7 (Écrits 277).

14In addressing this philosophical issue MacCaig enters into what Linda R. Williams describes as “the familiar modern dichotomy in British poetry, that of the privileging of inside or outside. Is poetic writing an attempt to clarify as succinctly as possible the autonomous and the objective, or is it an act of poetic individuation and self-definition?” (81). It is certainly somewhere between these two extremes that MacCaig will attempt to find the right positioning.

  • 8  “Le principe de la Phénoménologie est, du début à la fin, la médiation de la pensée avec l’être, d (...)

15A poem like “Painting — “The Blue Jar” (CP 195-6), for example, alternates object-centered and self-centered perspectives. After a first stanza devoted to the jar in the painting (“The blue jar jumps forward / thrust into the room / by the colours round about it”), the second and third stanzas both begin with “I” and are concerned with the poet’s speculation (“I wonder [...],” l. 4) and identity problem (“I sink into my surroundings, / leaving in front of me a fictitious space / where I can be invented”). In the fourth stanza the jar comes to the fore again, whereas the last one foregrounds the observer once more (“I admire [...]”). This alternation is reminiscent of Hegel’s “continual back-and­forth swinging from the object to the subject and from the subject to the object” (Garaudy 44; translation mine) by means of which he hoped to overcome common “philosophical oppositions [such as] nature and spirit, [...] judgment and imagination, I and non-I, [...] (Habermas 21), as well as achieve the “mediation of thought and being” (Bloch 56)8 which Lacan sees as antithetical.

16Many of MacCaig’s poems seem to progress “in true Hegelian fashion, [...] in a fascinating exchange between two separate immutables, the self on the one hand, and the external world on the other, and with the self firmly in his place” (Hendry 74). “Stonechat on Cul Beg” (CP 314) is another case in point. The poem focuses at first on the bird (“A flint-on-flint ticking — and there he is, / Trim and dandy — [...]”), simply recording the sensible data as they come up (sounds, and then sights); and although the speaker occasionally breaks in to express his recognition of the animal and his perception of it in vivid metaphorical terms, he is never the focal point. The second stanza, however, zooms in on the “I” (“I queue to watch him. He makes me [...]. / I want to thumb the air [...]. / I murmur [...]. I murmur [...],” l. 5-8), only to swing back eventually to the bird in the third stanza. Still, just as in Hegel’s dialectic with its overriding importance of the relation between self and non-self, “l'immédiateté n'[étant] ni dans l'objet, ni dans le Moi, [mais] dans leur rapport envisagé comme une totalité singulière” (Hyppolite in Hegel 87 n. 17), the emphasis now falls on the ocular and aural relationship between the stonechat and the observing “I” (“He gives me a stained-glass look and keeps / Chick-chacking at me,” l. 11-12) who tries to interpret the bird’s language (“I suppose he’s swearing,” l. 12).

17The following stanza, however, is taken up by a dialogue between the speaker and the reader (“You'd expect something like oboes or piccolos / (Though other birds, too, have pebbles in their throats —”) which leaves the original picture out. Although the last stanza returns to the stonechat, the poet has, by then, clearly imprinted his mark on the scene through multiple instances of anthropomorphization (“the up-staged loch would yawn if it could. / Only the benign sun in his fatherly way / Beams on his bright child throwing a tantrum,” ll. 18-20) that are mockingly exaggerated and which suggest that empathy (that is to say, self-projection into) is at risk of being replaced with self-projection onto the object.

18“Gale at Stoer Point” (CP 442) takes up the issue more vigorously in that it makes no bones about personifying nature from the very beginning:

The wind roars through the hot sunlight.
Great waves tower up and smash their foreheads
On the sandstone cliff, savagely exhilarated
As though they thought that this time, at last,
They’d bring down the lighthouse to be chewed at leisure.

19Conversely the poet cosmicizes himself (“[...] pushed by the wind / And hauled by the moon / Just like me, I thought, / Smashing my forehead against other cliffs,” l. 7-8) and compares himself to “a moorhen” (l. 13), wondering if he too has “Longtoed green legs with neat red garters” (l. 15), so that “the subject no longer behaves toward what is objective as if it were something alien to him” (Bloch 57; translation mine). Ultimately, just as in Hegel’s Phenomenology, the poem comes across “not only as mediation between subject and object, but also as a movement by which subject and substance become identical” (77; translation mine).

20None of this should nevertheless be taken at face value. For one thing, the anthropomorphization in the first stanza is clearly over the top, and thus gets derided — which is confirmed by the poet’s dismissal of it all (“They don't think, of course,” l.6). And yet, the poet dismisses his own dismissal (“Forget that,” l. 9), only wanting to go on “savour[ing] the satiny brows / Punched into brain froth by the stolid sandstone” — l. 9-10), that is to say, disregarding reality for the sheer enjoyment of his anthropomorphic interpretation of it. Little wonder, then, that he should put this final assimilation to the moorhen in the interrogative mode. The poet who has had, as he declares in an earlier poem (“Compare and contrast,” CP 424), “forty years of poking about / with his little torch / in the dark forest of ideas, /in the bright glare of perception,” has obviously not yet been able to reconcile “ideas” and “perception,” that is to say ideas and the direct apprehension (“the bright glare”) of external objects through one’s senses, or in other words self and non-self, along the lines of Hegel’s intended dynamic objective idealism. MacCaig does not seem to be spared the condition of most men, those “exiled translators of reality” (“The tribes of men,” 425), forever projecting their subjectivity onto the world. So do in particular the “image-mad” Romantic writers with their pathetic fallacy (“Romantic sunset,” 110), which the poet consistently debunks and exposes as a blatant case of solipsism, whereby reality is utterly denied in favor of a Berkeleian emphasis on perception envisaged as the subjective and idealist act of an autonomous mind for which nothing exists outside representation (esse est percipi — or “a rose [...] / Thickened to existence by my notice” in the poem below), thus leading to the immaterialistic spiritualism of “Ego” (45):

I see a rose, that strange thing, and what’s there
But a seeming something coloured on the air
With the transparencies that make up me,
Thickened to existence by my notice. Tree
And star are ways of finding out what I
Mean in a text composed or earth and sky. (l. 7-12)

  • 9  That position is significantly different from the philosopher's original anti-spiritualist stance (...)

21Even in the most empathetic mood, the observer “stares, in the end, at his own face” (“By comparison,” 8) and reduces a “squelching countryside” to a “dry thought” (“Absorbed,” 165), prompting MacCaig’s contemporary, Iain Crichton Smith, to ask: “What exactly does the observer see when he sees a heron, a horse, a toad? Is it only an idea of these that he sees? Is the world a series of Chinese boxes of ideas?” It seems that the same kind of “idealist triumph of being-for-itself”, of “complete collapse of the object into the subject” (Bloch 92, my translations) has unfortunately been achieved as in the later stage of Hegel’s Phenomenology — that ”regime of a subjectivity puffed up into a false absolute” (Habermas 56).9 The subject, having become “the ultimate fetish” (Bloch 96), condemns himself to an alienation which he can only lament from then on.

22In “On the pier at Kinlochbervie” (CP 424), for instance, the poet’s voice splits up into two voices alternately describing the reality out there and expressing his self-disparaging comments on his own composition or state of mind (l. 4, 8, etc.)

The stars go out one by one
as though a bluetit the size of the world
were pecking them like peanuts out of the sky’s string bag,

A ludicrous image, I know.

Take away the gray light.
I want the bronze shields of summer
or winter’s scalding sleet.

My mind is struggling with itself. [...]

23Because of those “two single, isolated and isolating lines [that] ring out to break the flow of the poem” (Watson 1990, 141), the overall effect is one of inadequacy and disconnection between self and non-self, compounded by the jarring ejaculation of his desire to have something which the landscape before him is not currently providing (“I want,” l. 6, repeated throughout the poem). The final optative utterances (“I want an extreme of nearness. / I want boundaries on my mind. / I want to feel the world like a straitjacket,” l. 16-18) implicitly admit to the unbridgeable distance between the speaker and the world. The poet is once more thrown back upon his own subjectivity. Just as Hegel in his final dead-end he finds himself caught up in “the infinite processing of the relation-to-self that swallows up everything finite within itself” (Habermas 36).

24It should come as no surprise that, as a twentieth-century poet, and a Scottish one at that, MacCaig should have experienced his share of the (post)modern so-called “crisis in representation.” “He is [...] a Scot,” Joy Hendry remarks, “and has been profoundly affected (and this need not be a conscious process) by the metaphysical bent of Scotland as a whole, which was once reflected in the educational system’s using metaphysics as the basis of any study whatsoever [...]” (63). The lasting and stimulating influence of such considerable figures as the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume and his opponent Thomas Reid — the founder of the “Scottish School of Common Sense” —, or that of James Frederick Ferrier (1808–64) as a key link between continental Hegelian ideas and British thought, and others provided MacCaig — even more so, possibly, than for other less formally educated Scottish writers of his generation, that of the second wave of the “Scottish Renaissance” — with the intellectual stimulation that led him to defend “the need for Scottish poetry to have its head as well as its heart” (Hendry 64) and sometimes take the risk of being called “an intellectual conman” (quoted by Ross 7). Still, it seems that any analysis would fall short if it did not take into account MacCaig’s obviously repressed Calvinism which his proclaimed atheism is not enough to refute. For how can a man who “confesses himself to be “a happy man, who likes people, and loves the world in which he finds himself” (Hendry 63) infuse his poetry with so much despondency and guilt? If MacCaig, then, is more of a Calvinist than he will admit to being, it may not be entirely preposterous to correlate the poet’s obsession with self-consciousness to the dark, psychotic Calvinist ethos perceptible in his writings and whose thrust is all the more powerful as it is held back.

25The gloominess that pervades large sections of his Collected Poems goes well beyond the sadness and nostalgia of “Shadow in summer” (CP 14), “False summer” (21), “Between mountain and sea” (411) and many others. Its root is an obsession with death (“I know I had my death in me / from the moment I yelled upside-down / in the world” — “Triple burden,” 335) that undermines confidence in a future seen as a perpetual threat: “beyond the yellow light are lurking / Microbes of frost, and in the air / Are ghosts of claws that, one clear night, / Will pinch to ashes the cheated flower,” he declares in “False summer” (21). Rejoicing over the present is therefore pointless: “No need, I say to myself, / to be glad of its beauty. That won't keep / the sorrows of the world / from coming back [...]” (“The white bird” — 242). Hence an extremely problematic relationship to time. “Time is not for keeping,/ And a strange tomorrow / Already is taking hold” (“Shadow in summer,” 14); it is synonymous with loss — namely loss of the loved one, who, by going away in “You went away” (7), “created time” — and endless wandering (as an “aimless wanderer”, “Low tide,” 411, the poet declares: “I sail / on the never-ending voyage / to where I am already” — “Sealubber,” 413), and leads to a loneliness (“I [...] / must walk alone / My field of flesh and highway of hard bone” — “Accuser,” 22) amounting to sheer stupefied imprisonment in the kind of timeless bubble that schizophrenic patients experience in place of temporal linearity: “I hear / Only the clock whose wintery strokes / Say, “Now is now, that foul truth, over and over” (“You went away,” 7). Far from being rehabilitated by any kind of healthy Messianism, time is — with space — perceived as one of “those two clowns whose act / Seems all disruption” (“Harpsichord playing Bach,” 13), very much in keeping with true austere Puritan spirituality and its running metaphor of pilgrimage and earthly disorder (“Life is pilgrimage; earth is not ‘our native countrie, byt a place of banishment and confusion’” — Mullan 113). It is also depicted in judicial or economic terms as a ruthless “lawyer” (“Still two,” CP 12) to whom one’s debt (“mortgage”) must be paid off, though that is an impossible task as every godsend further adds to the debt: “Grace is a crippling thing. You've to pay for grace,” concludes the poet-hiker who, on “(a fine day, for once) / [...] twisted a knee” “walking down from Suilven” (“No accident,” 140). Time is in fact a metaphor for the vengeful God of the Old Testament who not only exacts retribution for one’s sins and payment of one’s debt, but remains aloof and inaccessible (“No ladder from the sky / Can slant for me where I lie in that cell,” he wails in “Accuser,” 22), watching from on high the anguished sinner, as the poem “Empty pool” (20) suggests: “Within me / There’s anguish too, there’s something trembling [...] / What’s watching me?”

26That masochistic schizophrenia should be the upshot of such an outlook is hardly surprising. If, just like the early Calvinists who took it for granted that “Christians are at their best under affliction” (Mullan 116), the poetic persona of “Roses and thorns” (CP 41) can declare that “in your cruelty lies your truth,” it is important to note that the suffering is mostly self-inflicted. In “In a level light” (98), for instance, the “human mind” undergoes a typically Calvinistic spaltung which sets its two halves against each other, the superego forbidding the ego from enjoying the benign landscape which he has nevertheless projected onto reality as “one of its moods” and into which he feels quite “accepted” (although this projection is in itself a mark of subjective idealism), with the result that the mind obdurately “sits in its sense of sin, / Hacking a cross from gross beatitudes, / The price to pay warm in its purse of skin,” bent on cultivating pain and solitude (as he is not “out in that bliss”). The Calvinistic twist is in the persona’s ability to transmogrify into something harrowing the blissful reality which he has conjured up in a highly religious — and therefore unfortunately ambivalent — mode consisting at the same time of, on the one hand, a description of “birds at their plainsong shed / Pure benedictions on water’s painted glass” and “the sea [...] / Silvering the sand’s ecclesiastic gold,” and on the other that of an “angel [...] / Working his god down his rebelling throat.” The inner division of the Calvinist’s psyche here appears as an effect of the believer’s schizoid attitude to God.

27It is because conscience for the Calvinist is the reproachful voice of a God who is perpetually watching and ready to chastise that “Scottish puritan piety [is] restless, introspective, and subject to dramatic emotional swings[, and that] Puritans [are] driven to scrutinize and interpret their innermost thoughts and feelings” (Mullan 111) in “persistent, indeed daily, self-examination” (112), thereby hoping to secure some assurance on salvation. Probing the nooks and crannies of his or her mind and heart in order to avoid their ruses, becoming aware of the self being conscious, watching it endlessly, chasing down the ego: such is the task of the guilt-haunted Presbyterian — an “Adventure most unto itself / The soul condemned to be — / Attended by a Single Hound / Its own identity,” as another dyed-in-the-wool Calvinist, Emily Dickinson (399, # 822), expressed it in her days.

  • 10  See Kirsten Stirling, “Bella Caledonia? Deformed Theories of Scotland” (paper given at the ESSE co (...)

28Still, one must realize that this Calvinist’s syndrome, pathological as it may seem in “In a level light,” is but an aggravated form (a case of Scottish schizophrenia?10) of what Lacan has highlighted as a fundamental split in the speaking subject resulting from his being bound up with a symbolic order that has once and for all broken off “the original continuity between oneself and oneself, oneself and the other and the world” (Rifflet-Lemaire 128, my translation) and condemned the individual to “the impossibility of the ideal of a fully present self-consciousness” (Evans 192). Bearing in mind the specific features of the Scottish Spaltung, we may now briefly return to the last stanza of “Summer Farm”:

Self under self, a pile of selves I stand
Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand
Lift the farm like a lid and see
Farm within farm, and in the centre, me.

  • 11  Interestingly, Gourevitch has shown that the perception of time passing conditioned the passage in (...)

29“Thought,” says McCabe, “disrupts the harmony of the man’s being-in-the-world by introducing the concept of Time” (113), which in turn brings discontinuity and instability to the self, now made up of a multiple and successive “pile of selves [...] / [t]hreaded on time” (l. 13). Time has wrenched it both from its original contemplative and fusional unity with the world and from its eternal self-sufficient wholeness, into an agonizing and lonely consciousness of itself.11 It is apprehended by the speaker as an apparently endless series of Russian dolls (“Farm within farm,” l. 16), a sequence of changing aggregates that are contingent on, if not equated with, circumstances. As each new farm opens onto another, so the different selves follow upon each other. They can be described, in Humean or Buddhist terms, as “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement” (Hume 165). The self as such no longer appears as the enduring core substance of the personality, but, along much more postmodern lines, as an extremely problematic concept which can never be fully comprehended but only glimpsed on the imaginary stage of consciousness. To go on with Hume in the same chapter of A Treatise of Human Nature,

The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different; whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity. [...] They are the successive perceptions only, that constitute the mind.

  • 12  See Rifflet-Lemaire 142: “De même qu'il a été dit que le mot engendre le meurtre de la chose, qu'i (...)
  • 13  Evans 51, quoting from Lacan's first Seminar.
  • 14  Speaking of the central role of fascination in the forming of the ego, Lacan points out that “refl (...)
  • 15  See Jean Hyppolite (in Hegel 146): “la conscience de soi est essentiellement retour en soi-même à (...)

30Having bypassed the objective reality of the world around him and collapsed into solipsism, the subject is now caught up in the contemplation of himself: “I [...] see [...] me” (ll. 13-16), says the speaker in the last stanza, significantly passing from the “I” to the “me,” naming and pinpointing himself at the cost of losing his own truth,12 trying to grasp a reified, and therefore illusive and elusive, image of himself (“for the subject cannot (or must not) be objectified [...], nor be studied in an “‘objective way’” — Evans 195) in an endless specular process, the “I” being, phonetically at least, no more than an “eye” gazing fascinatedly at a “me” and the latter being in turn, as the rhyme with “see” implies, but an insubstantial projection of the very act of seeing. That might be what is meant by those critics who decry “the ‘egocentric’ nature of MacCaig’s poetry” (Ross 7). For what the subject discovers is not his true self (“he knows, of course, that he is not in the centre,” says Nigel Forde, 129), but what Lacan, not unlike Eastern metaphysics, has called the “seat of illusions”13— in other words, the ego, that is the “imaginary formation” where “the subject becomes alienated from himself” (Evans 51). Trapped in narcissistic fascination, he experiences reflection in the double sense of a specular (reflexive) image of himself and the speculative and self-reflective split in consciousness.14 This is the outcome of his withdrawal from outside reality. Just as in Hegel’s phenomenology, knowledge shrinks from the world and “comes back toward itself and reveals itself to itself” (Kojève 137), thus becoming self-consciousness15 and ending up in the mirage of the ego, that is the self reified:

c’est en raison [...] de cette absence de contenu, sur laquelle débouche la Phénoménologie, que le thème de sa relation sujet-objet — la connaissance de soi comme but de la prise de possession de soi, par conséquent une fondamentale objectivation — se dissout en vapeur d'esprit, voire en narcissisme de cette vapeur. (Bloch 94-5)

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Bloch, Ernst. Sujet-Objet. Eclaircissements sur Hegel. 1962. Trad. Maurice de Gandillac. Paris: Gallimard, 1977.

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Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems. Ed. by Thomas H. Johnson. Boston and Toronto, Little, Brown & Co, 1955.

Evans, Dylan. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London and New York : Routledge, 1996.

Forde, Nigel. “The Unlikely as Usual.” In Joy Hendry & Raymond Ross eds. Norman MacCaig — Critical Essays. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990.

Fulton, Robin. “Norman MacCaig.” In Contemporary Scottish Poetry: Individuals and Contexts. Loanhead: Macdonald Publishers, 1974.

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Hendry, Joy. “The Metaphysical and Classical Humours of Norman MacCaig.” In Joy Hendry & Raymond Ross eds. Norman MacCaig — Critical Essays. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990.

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—. Le Moi dans la théorie de Freud et la technique de la psychanalyse. (Le Séminaire – Livre II.) Paris: Seuil, 1978.

MacCaig, Norman. “My Way of It.” In As I Remember: Ten Scottish Authors Recall How Writing Began For Them. Ed. by Maurice Lindsay. London: Robert Hale, 1979.

—. Collected Poems. 1990. London: Chatto and Windus, 1993.

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1  Henceforth CP.

2   “une évidence seconde qu'ils désignent, à quoi ils renvoient, mais qui n'est pas en eux vraiment” (Munier iv).

3  “l'éclat singulier que ces poètes ajoutent à la figure des choses — cette netteté sans épaisseur substantielle, cette absence dans la présence” (Bonnefoy xxvi).

4  Cf. Shiki: “Crépuscule du matin — / la gueule du crapaud / exhale la lune”  (Munier 93) [my translation: “Morning twilight— / the frog's mouth / exhales the moon”]; or Issa: “Le crapaud ! on dirait / qu'il va vomir / un nuage” [my translation: “The toad looks like / it is going to throw up / a cloud!"] (93), and  “Le saule / ondule en souriant / à la porte” (29) [my translation: “The willow / sways smiling / at the door"]; or Kikaku: “Le saule / contemple à l'envers / l'image du héron” (84) [my translation: “The willow / gazes at the inverted / reflection of the heron]”.

5  “[...] each stone in the dam is a year of my life (hence the title) and the water is time, drowning what was known and now exists only in the memory” (Lindsay 86-7).

6  My translation of Garaudy 42: “La conscience exige opposition, sans quoi il n'y a pas conscience de la nature, mais simplement nature.  La conscience, même sous sa forme la plus humble, implique donc scission, dédoublement de l'unité : la connaissance de l'objet n'est pas égale à l'objet de la connaissance.”

7  “Je pense où je ne suis pas, donc je suis où je ne pense pas.”

8  “Le principe de la Phénoménologie est, du début à la fin, la médiation de la pensée avec l’être, du moi avec le non-moi.”

9  That position is significantly different from the philosopher's original anti-spiritualist stance as it appears in the Phenomenology. See Hegel 83: “l'objet est ; il est le vrai et l'essence, il est, indifférent au fait d'être ou non, il demeure même s'il n'est pas su , mais le savoir n'est pas si l'objet n'est pas.” See also Hegel, Leçons d'esthétiques: “Le plumage multicolore des oiseaux brille, même s'il n'est pas vu par personne ; leur chant retentit, même si personne ne l'entend [...]” (quoted by Serreau 29).

10  See Kirsten Stirling, “Bella Caledonia? Deformed Theories of Scotland” (paper given at the ESSE conference in Strasbourg in 2002): “Pursuing Smith’s link between lack of cohesion in literature and ‘something about the Scottish psyche’, successive critics have described Scotland as ‘neurotic’ or as ‘schizophrenic’ (in the popular understanding of the word). Cairns Craig is able to write of ‘the sickness that afflicts the spirit, the psychoses in the communal Scottish mind’.”

11  Interestingly, Gourevitch has shown that the perception of time passing conditioned the passage in European society from an eternity-geared conception to a conception centered around individual consciousness (see Gourévitch 152-3).

12  See Rifflet-Lemaire 142: “De même qu'il a été dit que le mot engendre le meurtre de la chose, qu'il faut que la chose se perde pour être représentée, de même, le sujet à se nommer dans son discours et à être nommé par la parole de l'autre, se perd dans sa réalité ou sa vérité.”

13  Evans 51, quoting from Lacan's first Seminar.

14  Speaking of the central role of fascination in the forming of the ego, Lacan points out that “reflection too is fascination, freezing” (“La réflexion aussi est fascination, blocage” — 1978, 75).

15  See Jean Hyppolite (in Hegel 146): “la conscience de soi est essentiellement retour en soi-même à partir de l'être-autre.”

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Dominique DELMAIRE, « Self and Otherness in Norman MacCaig’s Poetry »E-rea [En ligne], 2.2 | 2004, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2004, consulté le 19 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Dominique DELMAIRE

University of Lyon-2
Dominique Delmaire, an associate professor at Lyon-2 university, is the author of L'Ascèse de l'écriture dans la poésie de George Mackay Brown (Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 1999) as well as a dozen articles on 19th-and-20th century Scottish poetry and fiction.

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