One possible way to understand poetical discourse is given by Heidegger in Being and Time (1962). He claims:
In ‘poetical’ discourse, the communication of the existential possibilities of one’s state-of-mind [Befindlichkeit] can become an aim in itself, and this amounts to a disclosing of existence (Heidegger 1962).
‘State-of-mind’ is an unfortunate translation of Befindlichkeit as it suggests that he is referring to a private mental state, which is what he wanted to avoid. ‘Attunement’ better emphasises that Heidegger is putting forward the idea that our mooded apprehension of the world underpins and gives sense to our cognition of the world. To summarise his position, he argues that we are rooted and orientated in the world by the way it ‘matters’ to us (e.g. through moods (Heidegger 1962)). Heidegger argues that the way the world matters to us is a basic framework within which cognition operates (Heidegger 1962). One way of understanding this is by highlighting that moods provide the background on which anything can show up as significant and worthy of attention, which is the point at which cognition comes into play.
A more contentious claim that Heidegger can be understood to be making is that moods actually open up for us a way the world really is, rather than being merely a subjective colouring to a scientifically-described, physical world.Footnote 3 This claim was also made by Wittgenstein when he wrote that, ‘the world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man’ (Wittgenstein 1974). A possible way of cashing out this counterintuitive approach to affect is to say that the fact of the world as the place we inhabit (as creatures with certain drives and needs) is the ground on which all our other ways of making sense of it (e.g. through science) rest. In other words, the interpersonally constituted world, with its many and various layers of culture and meaning, is not a secondary or deficient mode of grasping the world to the way the world is understood through abstract contemplation in the form of science. If this is accepted then it can be argued that moods open this world up for our inhabitation both by attuning us with others and by constituting which objects in the environment appear meaningful and thereby salient to us. In this sense, our attunement to the world means that moods can be said to constitute our objective environment, rather than just being ‘inner’ states.Footnote 4
This claim is backed up by contemporary work in the philosophy of emotions. In order to interact with the world, according to theorists such as Gigerenzer and Hookway, we employ heuristics or ‘gut-feelings’ (Gigerenzer 2007) that, on the whole, allow us to operate in the world efficiently without going through immense amounts of computation. (Hookway 2002). That is, we use our moods as a basis for cognition of the world. As the term ‘gut-feelings’ indicates the claim is that our inquiries into the natural world are regulated through our emotional and mooded engagement with that same world. This position is taken further in Gibson’s (1986) notion of affordances, where an emotion:
[R]efers to a relational property, the mode of presentation consists in an action orientation that makes the property appear in a certain way, in the case of fear something dangerous appears as something to be avoided (Hufendiek 2016).
So the person perceives a feature or features of the environment in terms of their own abilities or action-readiness. This implies that the objective world is constituted and perceived as being an environment in which the properties of the world are related to the behavior and the behavior-readiness of the person. This highlights that the background structure of moods and emotions determines how we can perceive the world and different moods and basic emotions will open up different realities for us. For example science may be understood as having to be carried out in a mood of cool detachment in order for the results to be generally applicable whereas working for social justice requires a mood of concerned engagement that relies on the human capacity for empathy and kindness. This may be an oversimplification (and the scope of the essay does not allow me to go into more detailed argumentation here) but the fact that moods and emotions underlie our cognition is strongly suggested by the point made above that our environment is constituted by our abilities and our action orientation and we rely on emotions to make certain properties salient and meaningful for us. A change in basic emotion therefore would dictate a change in how we perceive the environment e.g. as hostile, welcoming, boring etc. and also what story we tell about the that environment. If we are driven by a threat to our person the environment itself becomes threatening and we look for ways to avoid the impending attack. An overactive threat system makes everything seem potentially harmful and the narratives we weave about our situation would thereby become based on this new way of looking at the world. This way of looking at the world is not a mere ‘subjective colouring’, but rather is the world showing itself in relation to our needs and concerns as an organism. This conception of the role of emotions should be seen as a sketch fleshing out Heidegger’s claim about mood and I hope this will have given at least some reasons to accept this point before developing the claim further.
The point of this digression into Heideggerian ontology is to try to identify the aspect in which poetry can be seen as similar to delusions. Taking Heidegger’s quote, alongside the elaboration of the idea of attunement, the link between poetry and delusions can be seen as the commonality of focus on the expression of an underlying mood that permeates the person’s inhabitation of the world. A feature of art in trying to accurately express a mood is that (as is found by poets) only a certain ordering of words will do to express the particular mood. For both the poet and the delusional person only certain words will do, in the same way that poems are un-paraphrasable. By this I am simply pointing out the fact that an exegesis of a poem cannot capture the aesthetic effect of the poem itself, but rather must explain what those particular words, in that particular, order do to the reader through the particular language used. We can make this point (again using a Heideggerian concept) by saying that these words are ‘ready-to-hand’ for the delusional person. The idea here is that everyday orderings of words just do not capture the mood the person is trying to communicate (because the mood is completely ‘out of the ordinary’) and so new ways of talking about objects and situations are required. What is being attempted is an expression of the mood through which the person is inhabiting the world. In both cases we could try and identify the mood the person is trying to capture for example we might say that in Plath’s case, she is elaborating a despairing tranquillity and in Leete’s case, an ominous foreboding. This would, however, precisely miss the point that only the particularity of the words they actually use really expresses the mood they inhabit.
The ‘as if’ stance of Plath can be seen as a sense in which she is aware of what she is attempting through words, whereas for Leete the mood is so basic and all-encompassing that there is no space between the sense she makes of the mood and her general orientation in the world. For Leete there is no recourse to the basic mood of acceptance, where the person has a strong sense of confidence in the commonsense everyday understanding of the world from an objective viewpoint, from which she could contemplate the mood that underlies the delusion. I would contend that it is the lack of the basic atmosphere of acceptance that would allow a contemplative stance (or what I have been calling the ‘as if’ stance in writing poetry) which is the element that separates the language-game of poetry from that of the delusional person’s expression of a (mood inflected) world from which they are unable to escape.Footnote 5 Acceptance can be taken as an underlying ground mood that allows us to fall into other moods without becoming completely lost in them.Footnote 6 In other words, in the case of a delusion there is no fall back position from which to extricate themselves from the all-encompassing mood of the delusion. In the case of poetry, the mood that is expressed can always be dispelled through a return to the everyday atmosphere of acceptance, which is still available to the person writing the poetry.