The Idiotic Surd: two texts—one Desmond, one Issa


Among the current categories of poetics is the ‘surd.’ It goes easily — too easily— with nihilisms of various sorts. It suggests that ‘mystery’ by definition is absurd. So much for ‘myth.’ In opposition to absurdity as the ground of being, Desmond argues for a ‘fertile void,’
a charged field of possible meanings in which our being is embedded before any self-determination. This field is what he calls the ‘intimate universal.’ As a ‘sense’ of being, it is the first, the ‘idiotic.’ So: Not universal in the old sense of a cause from which all being(s) may be deduced , but ‘pre-‘ every determination. Myth and story ‘idiotically’ (as in village idiot) connect with this ‘deep background.’


To sum up: As we struggle free of the conceptual givens we confront the givens of experience, and even that category needs mindful attention. Call it the ‘surd’—-from absurd—- once again to escape nihilistic implications in favor of the ‘pre-subjective, the ‘universals’ embodied in myth and religion, folk tales and stories by masters such as Dickens, Pynchon, Gaiman and countless other idiots to whom we owe our sanity.

Like Issa.

Issa (a student of Basho famous for his delicately real insect haiku) writes:

From the Great Buddha’s
great nose, a swallow comes
gliding out

(Sam Hamill’s translation). The translator created a dot grid of hard ‘g’s’ from which the swallow ‘glides,’ the ‘humor’ being rooted in an intimacy of living things that predates/transcends even the statue of Buddha if not what it ‘refers’ to. It’s absurd and totally real and even sublime.

The idiotic poetics of this ‘intimate universal’ is explored in William Desmond’s The Intimate Universal (2016). The text above is from p 206).


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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