Other Minds (Ashbery)

Take this poem by John Ashbery, published in his 1995 collection, Can You Hear, Bird?:

A Poem of Unrest

Men duly understand the river of life,
misconstruing it, as it widens and its cities grow
dark and denser, always farther away.

And of course that remote denseness suits
us, as lambs and clover might have
if things had been built to order differently.

But since I don’t understand myself, only segments
of myself that misunderstand each other, there’s no
reason for you to want to, no way you could

even if we both wanted it. Do those towers even exist?
We must look at it that way, along those lines
so the thought can erect itself, like plywood battlements.

That early “duly” sets a resigned tone: we understand (or “understand”) the river of life out of a sense of obligation, or, perhaps more accurately, because it is there to be understood, because there is nothing better to do. “And of course that remote denseness suits / us” — but it suits us, again, because it is there, and were the world another way, full of lambs and clover, say, we would duly understand and be suited by it instead. But no: we find ourselves on the river of life, carried ever further away from its cities, and we make of it what we can. Do not hold it against us if we misconstrue it.

I have been saying “we”. Perhaps this is an error. To understand the river of life, for gibbering apes such as ourselves, is, at least in part, to understand others. There is an issue. First issue: “I don’t understand myself”. A bad start. It gets worse: “only segments / of myself that misunderstand each other”. What to do?

There is a real insight into the problem of other minds here. We appear to have privileged access to our own minds: we know them immediately. Other minds we can know only mediately, a source of great angst to epistemologists. But we do not know our own minds immediately, not if by “our own minds” we mean something more than our sensations in the ever-vanishing Now. The problem of one’s own mind cuts as deep as the problem of other minds.

We can now see that our being carried away from the cities, the towers (do they even exist?) is also a being carried into solitude, away from others, away from our past selves. A lonely prospect. At the height of our poet’s gloom: “no way you could [understand me] // even if we both wanted it.” But, against this despairing conclusion, the question—“Do those towers even exist?"—and the answer:

We must look at it that way, along those lines
so the thought can erect itself, like plywood battlements.

Cold comfort, perhaps: we do not know those towers exist, but we must believe as if they do. Only in that way can the thought (what thought, exactly? but that may be the wrong question) “erect itself”. Let us not ask too much of it: the thought is “like plywood battlements”: hardly likely to withstand a siege. But not nothing, possibly sufficient to protect us. Possibly. But, yes, a cold comfort. Still, it is as another poet, dear to Ashbery, once said:

We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.