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Category Archives: John Donne

John Donne’s Material Monism of Love, and Spinoza’s Eternity of the Mind

John Donne’s “Valediction Forbidding Mourning” articulates a metaphysics which makes of a death an anchor point, upon which a living being can compass itself, creating a death-defying eternity of affection. He speaks in seemingly dualist terms of a sublunary love “whose soul is sense” contrasted with a love “inter-assurèd of the mind”. In this he seems to compose a rarification of affects such that when stretched materially, thinly enough, become etherialized, though substantial:

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
-Whose soul is sense- cannot admit
Of absence, ’cause it doth remove
The thing which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two ;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

But here is a certain monist clue in the description of sublunary love. The love whose soul is sense “cannot admit of absence”, since the very elements of its composition, if absent, destroy the very love which might do such perceiving. Much as in Spinoza, the idea cannot be torn completely away from its object (knowledge is merely a privation, and there is nothing positive in knowing, which is false). In just a few lines Donne sums up a physicalist argument of a sort, the very recognition of absence is itself the testament of the physical preservation of that love’s elements. In a certain sense, there can be no such missing (or missing is merely a misconception, as Spinoza puts it, it has no Being). The elements which preserve a state prove to its perseverance. Instead Donne proposes an “inter-assured” love of the mind, a presencing in which any separation is necessarily an expansion, and not “a breach”. The transformation of “breach” into expansion is the view of a monist assemblage, and not of a dualism; “mind” is still composed. Despite the abstraction of such a love, its spiritualization (compared to gold beat thin) by the same reasoning of compositional elements, is a material endurance, made clear by mind.

 

Though the love after death is not of “eyes, lips and hands”, it seems it must still be physical (just as beat gold is still gold, just as the mind has the body for its object), made of the elements of which it is an expression. In fact, instead of anatomical body parts, it is made now in part by text, in part by bodily afffections, and the relational compositions which preserve. Donne here, in the compassry of two legs, the geometry of a circle, makes an argument against Time (as breach), as the material going out is subsumed in a deeper circle. Like Spinoza he proposes a world where absence has no basis, sub specie aeternitatis, which is experienced through memory, trace, but also the material expansion of those traces in Time, as understanding.

Place Donne’s notion along side what some have taken to be controversial and inconsistent, declaration of the eternity of the Mind:

5p23: The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the Body, but something of it remains which is eternal.

Scholia: There is, as we have said, this idea, which expresses the essence of the Body under a species of eternity, a certain mode of thinking, which pertains to the essence of the Mind, and which is necessarily eternal. And though it is impossible that we should recollect that we existed before the existence of the Body-since there cannot be any traces of this in the body, and eternity can neither be defined by time nor have any relation to time-still, we feel and know by experience that we are eternal. For the Mind feels [sentit, senses] those things that it conceives in understanding no less than those it has in the memory. For the eyes of the Mind, by which it sees and observes things, are the demonstrations themselves.

Whereas Spinoza wants to make a distinction between memory trace, and “the eyes of the Mind,” Donne’s point seems a bit more refined, as he speaks of the experience of circular and timeless inscription, as compositional trace, the way that when one “foot” stops moving in time, the physicality that binds foot to foot moves it still, drawing it out, as it stretches so thin as to reveal a tremendous arc, the experience of ending where one has begun. There no absolute dichotomy of existence and Mind, memory and mental seeing. I believe that Donne captures something of Spinoza’s argument, that Spinoza himself is not here capable of.

To add to this account see Spinoza’s Letter 17 to Peter Balling (July 20, 1664):

…a father so loves his son that he and his beloved are, as it were, one and the same. According to what I have demonstrated on another occasion, there must be in thought an idea of the son’s essence, its affections, and its consequences. Because of this, the father, by the union he has with his son, is a part of the said son, the father’s soul must necessarily participate in the son’s ideal essence, its affections, and consequences…

 

Closely Related Post: Anselm’s Proof of God, Wittgenstein’s Lion, Davidson’s Belief

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