The Discipline of Finitude and the slippery word Being—with a text by Milosz

Writing about the dangers of religious enthusiasm, Desmond says, ‘Do not worry. The discipline of finitude will keep us in check.’ This discipline, he goes on to explain, is the ‘mindfulness of the ontological sources and resources of the between, its riches and its snares’ (‘God and the Between,’ 128).

We write about life in ‘the between’ precisely because ‘the between’ names the otherwise unnamed space where we live between the extremes of the immanence of life and the nothingness of death. Those extremes mix in the between but neither defines it. But words sometimes lure us into speech about what we cannot know.

Words are slippery. Poets struggle with words: too many of them —- certainly the key cultural concepts—-have such authority that we get carried away when we use them. Freedom is a good example. A key concept in our lexicon of desire and yet exceedingly hard to pin down.

So what is this discipline of finitude that inoculates us from the contagion of such words?

Mindfulness regarding the ontological sources and resources…? Poets dislike the word ontological. It is metaphysical. And yet the word, properly handled, does clarify a source of basic confusion.

Traditional grammar and logic has things to say about certain concepts. Being is the source of existence, but there is no ‘it’ there. Everything that is ‘has’ being, being being the exception. But then maybe being isn’t in the valid senses of ‘is.’

Being may be the most important source of confusion for poets. Do we experience Being? Not in so many words. But it’s key! Czeslaw Milosz uses the language of religion to write about Being as ‘presence’; ‘Presence’ presides everywhere and every being rises ‘within one enormous unknowable Being.’ (‘Presence,’ dated July 23, 2002 in ‘Selected and Last Poems, 1931-2004’)

The caps on Being are among the disciplines of finitude.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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