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Here is the poem "Philosophy" by Nissim Ezekiel. What do the parts in bold mean?

There is a place to which I often go,
Not by planning to, but by a flow
Away from all existence, to a cold
Lucidity, whose will is uncontrolled.
Here, the mills of God are never slow.

The landscape in its geologic prime
Dissolves to show its quintessential slime.
A million stars are blotted out. I think
Of each historic passion as a blink
That happened to the sad eye of Time.

But residues of meaning still remain,
As darkest myths meander through the pain
Towards a final formula of light.

I, too, reject that clarity of sight:
What cannot be explained, do not explain.

The mundane language of the senses sings
Its own interpretations. Common things
Become, by virtue of their commonness,
An argument against the nakedness
That dies of cold to find the truth it brings.

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  • It means pretty much anything you want it to. That's the beauty of art.
    – user12179
    Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 9:38
  • 2
    For "mills of God", see Wikipedia Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 12:25

2 Answers 2

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Ezekiel starts by saying that at times, he is able to assume a philosophical attitude, a "cold lucidity" beyond everyday phenomena. This lucidity's "will is uncontrolled", i.e., everything is subsumed to this frame of mind. Defined as it is by excruciating clarity, in this state even the mills of God operate at speed, grinding very fine very quickly. The proverb about the mills of God grinding slowly means that consequences follow at a far remove from action. But in philosophy, consequences follow immediately, because they are an abstract, logical result rather than a human one.

Being pure mind, the philosopher is able to assume a godlike stance outside history, emotion, and even the universe. Nothing remains. The vastness of time and space that unfolds when he is in this attitude allows him to see all of existence as meaningless: the cosmos is just slime, and passions vanish in the blink of an eye.

In the second half of the poem, Ezekiel rejoins the rest of us on the quotidian plane, rejecting the cold comfort of philosophy. A philosophical attitude explains away pain. Consider, for example, the Buddhist attitude: all life is suffering; suffering is caused by attachment to impermanent things; give up attachment and suffering will cease; so will life, because one will attain Nirvana, literally a snuffing-out of existence. This is a wonderfully logical argument, but its clarity dismisses everyday human experience. The pangs of an illness? Health is not a permanent condition, and it's foolish to expect to avoid sickness. The death of a loved one? Everybody dies, and it's foolish to have expected not to be parted. Any sorrow becomes trivial and meaningless from a philosophical standpoint, because human beings are insignificant and human existence meaningless when seen against the grand vistas of infinity and eternity. Human beings suffer all the same.

Ezekiel avers that providing philosophical explanations for this suffering is beside the point. He insists that "residues of meaning still remain" even as pain is rendered meaningless in the philosophical "formula of light". And like those residues, he, too, calls into question "this clarity of sight". He rejects the rationalism of the first half of the poem and embraces empiricism, the "mundane language of the senses". The very ordinariness of human existence clothes us, keeping us warm and alive against the cold light of philosophical truth. The last stanza of the poem strikes me as one of the greatest ever written.

Ezekiel's attentiveness to poetic detail allows the poem to enact the truth of its argument: mere fripperies are nevertheless meaningful. His control over rhyme and meter, syntax and vocabulary are superb. Take the lines:

... I think
Of each historic passion as a blink
That happened to the sad eye of Time.

Passion can mean love, anger, desire, or lust; it can also mean suffering and death, as in the passion of Christ. From the philosopher's perspective, all those are the same, a passion being merely something that happened. What an unusual word to apply to a passion! Driving home the point, one doesn't say a blink "happened" either. To say that something happened in the blink of an eye would be cliche, except that what happened was a passion and the blink happened to the eye. And not just any eye: the eye of Time. Ezekiel's handling of tone here beggars description. The line is deliciously funny as it yokes together the incongruity of something as trivial as a blink happening to something as grandiose as the eye of Time. But from the vantage of eternal time, all human endeavor is incongruous, simultaneously trivial and grandiose. Like poetry, or, for that matter, philosophy.

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  • Wow! Excellent answer. Thank you so much! :)
    – user392289
    Commented Mar 25, 2023 at 14:05
  • And if I may ask (before this comment gets deleted), was all of this immediately apparent to you? Because your answer explains everything so thoroughly and clearly, I'm kind of surprised I didn't understand more of the poem back then :)
    – user392289
    Commented Mar 25, 2023 at 14:33
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    Glad you liked it. No, not immediately. I first read this poem, oh, 35 years ago, so I've had a lot of time to think about it 🙃 . Joking apart, it took a bit of hard thinking to untangle the "too" in line 14 and realize it referred back to the residues. Finding the right words to explain "each historic passion as a blink / that happened to the sad eye of Time" took a while as well, because it was such a complex set of impressions. I worked out this answer while waiting for a Python script I'd written to finish running—about 1.5 hours. The script itself took a lot less time to write.
    – verbose
    Commented Mar 25, 2023 at 20:12
  • 35 years ago! Wow. Thanks once again, verbose. You’re the best.
    – user392289
    Commented Mar 26, 2023 at 1:24
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The whole poem undoubtedly has several layers of meaning.

Let me give one possibility for the meaning of the third stanza.

In the first two stanzas, the poet seems to be contemplating the entire history of the universe from some timeless viewpoint.

But residues of meaning still remain,
As darkest myths meander through the pain
Towards a final formula of light.

This reminds me a lot of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s quote:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

The next lines:

I, too, reject that clarity of sight:
What cannot be explained, do not explain.

reject this view, and say that you shouldn't be looking for morality in the history of the universe.

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