E. E. Cummings and Pataphysical Love


I would like to maintain the broadness and openness of this brave topic of love as I write about love in the poetry of one of America’s most experimental modernist poets, E. E. Cummings. He is known for his erotic poetry, but I wish to explore not only his eroticism, but the pataphysical and philosophical implications of his poems about love itself, about what it means to make love. Cummings views love as a proposition, as if, that must be nurtured and treated as real, not simply regarded as ideal or abstract. For Cummings, love is an idiosyncratic creation, a laughing exception to the norm, which reveals that the norm is but a chance collection of convenient exceptions. This is pataphysical, and this keeps the topic of love entirely open. To begin, I will read a simple ten-line poem written by Cummings in his 1935 volume No Thanks, re-named from 70 Poems after fourteen publishers rejected it ; second, I will trace Cummings’s poetic heritage ; third, his pataphysical influences and effluences ; fourth, his philosophical lineage ; and finally, I will return to the little poem, through Cummings’s poetry, pataphysics, and philosophy, to analyze it and to summarize his conception of love. First, the poem (CP 443) :

love is a place& through this place of love move (with brightness of peace) all places yes is a world & in this world of yes live (skilfully curled)all worlds

Cummings’s Poetic Heritage : Modernism

Cummings wrote between 1904 and 1962, and is therefore considered a Modernist. But his so-called modernism is due to his being peers with the likes of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Marianne Moore, because he does not share their characteristic tension and ambivalence, reflexivity and allusion, and detachment (Friedman, 1996, pp. 7–8). Instead, his work is rife with livelier forms of parody, irony, and language-bending plays influenced by cubism, Dadaism, and surrealism (Ibid., p. 95). He took seriously and anticipated Pound’s joke to Make it new ! by cultivating his own spontaneous and anti-intellectual poetic language by repeating choice words, by creating portmanteaus and reverse portmanteaus, and by manipulating grammar, syntax, and parts of speech. According to his critics, “in a world baked and puckered by fear, […] he proposes gaiety and laughter, openness and delight” (Spencer, 1962, p. 123)—he has “ostensibly simplistic answers to the times” (Friedman, 1996, p. 73). He strives for “a state of unified awareness beyond, outside of, and apart from such conflicts” of Modernism (Ibid., p. 79).


In his simple striving to go beyond the conflicts of Modernism, Cummings has more in common with the Romantics, from whom he descends through the Transcendentals Emerson and Whitman. Pound refers to Cummings as “Whitman’s one living descendant” and addresses him as “My Dear Walt Whitman” in their personal correspondence (Ahearn, 1999, p. 124). Cummings, like Whitman, “created an artistic persona and then transformed the man into the persona so that they became one” (Friedman, 1996, p. 119). This creation and subsequent treating-as-real is pataphysical and is key to Cummings’s figuration of love, albeit in another sense—lovers create a plural self and form into it. With the Romantics, though he disseminated thousands of little poem-seeds rather than one arboreal epic, Cummings also shares a penchant for (a)theistic theologizing, for wonder and nature, for the individual, for preserving mystery, and for privileging feeling : “the best gesture of my brain is less than / your eyelids’ flutter,” he writes (CP 291). Like Coleridge, he “views nature as process rather than product, as dynamic rather than static, as organic rather than artificial” (Friedman, 1966, p. 5).

Metaphysical Poets

Cummings’s lyric inventiveness and his catachrestic metaphors make him an anachronistic member of the group of lyric poets Samuel Johnson grumpily labeled the Metaphysicals, a group of whom Cummings was aware thanks to his education and to T. S. Eliot’s 1921 essay. Gary Lane notes that Cummings’s vocabulary “bounds romantic vagueness […] with hard edges” (1976, p. 97), and like Donne’s persona, “Cummings’s lover solipsistically acknowledges real existence only in the love of his lady and himself” (Ibid., p. 106–07). The Metaphysicals were most famous for their metaphysical conceits, which according to Christina Hall are “absurd gesture[s] that render […] startlingly appropriate” (2014). A metaphysical conceit, a metaphor, draws its power from referencing a plane of reference, or an abstraction. Cummings, on the other hand, writes pataphysical conceits, or pataphors : these do not reference an imaginary world outside our own, but create this “imagined,therefore limitless” world as our own (CP 574). A startling pataphysical conceit may seem absurd, because it actually startles the ego out of egocentricity by being eccentric, outside the center. Helen Gardner says that a metaphysical conceit is “a comparison whose ingenuity is more striking than its justness,” which implies that it still has justness (Gardner, 1961, p. xxii) ; but a pataphysical conceit is a comparison whose ingenuity is not only more striking than its justness, but a comparison whose ingenuity has no regard for justness. Justness is cancelling exceptions, and it will come later, when the metaphysicians lug in their skulls full of sharp little tools for measuring angels and “scalpels for dissecting kisses” (CP 556). To summarize : pataphysical conceits create ; metaphysical conceits relate.

Cummings’s Pataphysical Influences and Effluences

Cummings is a pataphysical chimaera—i.e. both a hybrid and an illusion—of Modernism, the period in which he writes, of Romanticism, and of the Metaphysicals. I would call him a para-Modernist, or a post-Romantic, but these are tired prefixes—he is a pataphysicist. Pataphysics is the imaginary science of exceptions. As I have been hinting, pataphysics studies exceptions, mistakes, and jokes ; it treats the imaginary as most real and the humorous as most serious. It creates worlds through pataphors rather than referring to worlds as metaphors. It was invented at the turn of the century in France by a man named Alfred Jarry in his book The Adventures of Dr Faustroll and in his play Ubu Roi. In Cummings’s 1931 book ViVa, he alludes to Jarry’s Faustroll, who sails in a sieve thanks to Kelvin’s law of surface tension : “launch we a Hyperluxurious Supersieve” with “the philophilic name S.S. VAN MERDE” (CP 335)—a name that mimes Jarry’s Ubu Roi, whose first word in his play is merdre, a clinamen of the French for shit.

To “study” idiosyncrasies and exceptions, these things that metaphysics implicitly ignores, pataphysics deploys a fairly complicated vocabulary. I will look at one concept, the clinamen or the swerve. A clinamen is “the smallest possible aberration that can make the greatest possible difference” (Bök, 2002, p. 45), like Lorenz’s butterfly effect. Pataphysics is the best physics for Cummings’s idiosyncratic love because, as Cummings writes, “love’s function is to fabricate unknownness” (CP 446), to create what is not yet real, what is as if. This is what it means to make love—and Cummings, as a Taoist, focuses on the body as locus of this creativity, as do the Modernists and the Metaphysicals. The orgasm is to Cummings what Lingis will later call a “dissolute decomposition” (2003, p.180), wherein two become one and create their world of two-as-one, perceived from two-as-one : “two are halves of one” (CP 556). “Cupidoergosum” Cummings declares (CP 431), rewriting Descartes’s cogito to read “I love therefore I am,” a portmanteau that connotes spontaneity, recombination and union, and graphically, the word “orgasm” (ergosum). Pataphysics studies each little clinamen that, as Christian Bök says, “posits the possible consequences of an impossible inconsequence” (2002, p. 25). Physics does not concern itself with the as if, and metaphysics— a “suspension of disbelief in the as if” (Ibid., p. 26)—changes as if to if then, operative to imperative. But pataphysics operates through the as if. “Life,” Cummings notes in his play Him, “is a verb of two voices—active, to do, and passive, to dream” (Friedman, 1966, p. 52). Pataphysically, to make love is to do a dream.

Cummings pataphysically perceives all things, especially all living things and all people, as loving laughs. He uses the word love 344 times in his poetry and the word laugh 66 times (Winters McBride, 1989). Excluding a score of oft-used function-words and pronouns, love is Cummings’s second-most used word, after be and its conjugations. He writes in his Jottings that “only so long as we can laugh at ourselves are we nobody else” (Welch, 2010, p. 10). Laughter is integral to Chinese naming conventions : the Tao Te Ching refers to a child as k’e, which means the smile of a baby, because “the child is not really in a position to possess a superior soul until it is capable of laughter. It is the father who teaches it to laugh and straightway gives it that personal name” (Chen, 1989, p. 104). Laughter is most serious : it is a tiniest smile that may be bigger than all hearts never which have loved (CP 397) ; it is what Emerson, who drew on many Taoist themes, calls “immortal hilarity” (Emerson, 2000, p. 191), the ha of disorder within order, as in the Joycean portmanteau c(ha)osmos—“If Tao were not laughed at, / It would not be Tao” (Chen, 1989, § 41.1, p. 154). To Cummings, “every human being is in and of himself or herself illimitable ; but the essence of his or her illimitability is precisely its uniqueness” (Friedman, 1966, p. 57). Here, a paradox : the universal is in the particular, (w)here it always is. Laughter is the uniqueness that creates the individual, hahaecceity–the idiosyncrasy that defies (and may even be one of the seeds for creating) language.

I coin this neologism, hahaecceity, after John Duns Scotus’s word haecceity, or thisness—those individual and specific differences that make a thing a certain thing. Hahaecceity amplifies the laugh inherent in haecceity. Bosse-de-Nage, Faustroll’s subhuman companion in Alfred Jarry’s novella, can only say ha ha. Ha ha is multiplicity in singularity : pronounced slowly, ha ha is a duality, but pronounced quickly, haha is unity (Bök, 2002, p. 42). Haecceity, writes Deleuze, co-opting Duns, is merely “a mode of individuation” consisting “entirely of relations” (1980, p. 261) that “enters into composition with other degrees, other intensities, to form another individual” (253) ; but hahaecceity is the enfleshed uniqueness of each thing, not merely a degree or intensity of some metaphysical immanence, but the contingency and coincidence of idiosyncrasies that make a person, exemplified by laughter, what Alphonso Lingis calls the “current of intense communication between strangers” (1998, p. 127), what Emmanuel Levinas recognizes as “refusing language” (1974, p. 8), and what Mladen Dolar identifies as the inarticulate quasi-animality that is “quintessential humanity” (2006, p. 29). Laughter is fundamental to being-with-others : it is an “emotional contagion” that creates a “direct link between senders and receivers” due to “mirror neurons” (Gervais, 2005, p. 405). We laugh when another laughs, and we strive to laugh their very laugh. And hahaecceity calls—ecce, behold !—for itself, its sound, and those who hear it to be humble, to be joyous, to be love. To love. Laughter is how we charge “into the strenuous briefness” of life (CP 108) ; and “the laughter of afterwards” teases our mor(t)ality and promises joy in the midst of the greatest trauma, where “new fragrantly young earth space opening was” (CP 357, 432). Laughter is both an example of love and a pataphor that introduces and creates love. I am therefore I laugh and love. I love and laugh therefore I am. A little laugh, a hahaecceity, refuses language and unites strangers in what Deleuze calls “a perfect individuality lacking nothing” (1980, p. 261). As laughter, most serious, creates the individual, the idiosyncrasies and foibles of the flesh, so love creates worlds.

Cummings’s Philosophical Lineage

Cummings’s pataphysical love anticipates the work of several philosophers—unsurprisingly, poetry reaches and surpasses the following (in)conclusions on love, “who wields a poem huger than the grave” (CP 378), before philosophy has rubbed the sleep from its eyes. Kierkegaard wrestles with love in Works on Love, and arrives at several unexceptional though thorough conclusions. Kierkegaard is most compelling in his word choice : he calls love eccentric (1847, pp. 92, 20) ; he writes that love “is not the proud flight that soars above the world ; it is self-denial’s humble and difficult flight along the ground” (Ibid., p. 84), that love is present in the least things (Ibid., p. 100), that to love the neighbor is to “find him lovable despite and with his weaknesses and defects and imperfections” (Ibid., p. 158), and that love is “infinitely fragile” (Ibid., p. 251) ; he writes that love believes and hopes all things without being deceived or shamed ; and he speaks of a “divine kind of madness” in love (Ibid., p. 287). Reading Kierkegaard against himself, we see that he points to a pataphysical love of little clinamens and hahaecceities.

But Kierkegaard does not venture through what he calls these “inconstant, futile, weird phantasmal flashes of possibility” (Ibid., p. 254), through these seams into the “seamy side of existence” (Ibid., p. 257), into pataphysics, and instead remains within the riskless realm of metaphysics, where propositions go untested and unactualized, where propositions are limited and imposed upon by Platonic Forms and grand Laws, rather than exposed by laughter and actions. While Cummings beckons us to open and grow in love, asking that “all the weird worlds must be opened” (CP 378), Kierkegaard frowns and barks that to “shut your door and pray to God” is the shortest way to find love (1847, p. 51). As if in response, Cummings writes that “Love is something illimitable ; and a lot of people spend their limited lives trying to prevent anything illimitable from happening to them,” anything unique.

The great Dane tills the fields of love-philosophy where Nancy and Badiou will later sow Cummings-like seeds. Unwittingly watering the plants of Cummings’s love-place and yes-world, Jean-Luc Nancy announces in his essay “Shattered Love” that love is “perhaps nothing but the indefinite abundance of all possible loves” (2003, p. 246). To Nancy, love is an “infinite migration through the other” (Ibid., p. 253) that “arrives only at the limit, while crossing” (Ibid., p. 264), and an imminent immanence that is “the impossible” and in which “there are no parts, moments, types or stages […]. There is only an infinity of shatters : love is wholly complete in one sole embrace or in the history of a life” (Ibid., p. 266). In his short book, In Praise of Love, Alain Badiou argues for a constant re-invention of love (2009, p. 11) as a “two-scene” or “identical difference” (Ibid., p. 25), as a locus of two rather than one from which the world is felt (Ibid., p. 80), like Donne’s and Cummings’s lover. Pataphysically, “love invents a different way of lasting in life” (Ibid., p. 33). We does not exist without love : “we sans love equals mob” (CP 803). We is the pronoun of love, a two-scene, ha ha, a little singular-plural place from (w)here the world is felt : “one’s not half two. It’s two are halves of one” (CP 556).

Love is a Place (No Thanks, #58)

To tie up all these loose ends, I will return to Cummings’s little poem about love. The poem is symmetrical, almost—every symmetry is really an asymmetry, for if each verse was identical, they would merely be copies ; since they are different, we notice that they are symmetrical or the same, like butterfly wings. This is a clinamen : symmetry is always asymmetry. This symmetrical asymmetry is what Badiou calls the “two-scene” or identical difference ; it is like ha ha or haha, two hahaecceities uniting to form a perspective from which the world can be viewed. This symmetrical asymmetry is love. Love is through pataphor : love is a place and yes is a world.

Through (a)symmetry, Cummings shows us that love is yes, that place is world, that through is in, that live is move, and that brightness of peace is skilfully curled. Love is a place, that is, a meaningful space ; love is a place that does not yet exist, but insists, and that can exist when it is lived—when it is laughed and loved, as universal in specific, the only way the universal can be. He shows us the curling-together of two perspectives in the twining and the conjunction of the ampersand in the second line (&), and he shows us the pataphysical action that love must be in the third line, love move—a clinamen from an l to an m that makes the greatest difference. Love is movement and also place ; it coalesces and transcends space and time by creating new spacetime. In the fourth and fifth lines, Cummings shows us that all places move “with brightness of peace” through love—love, as Badiou says, is constant reinvention, or, as Nancy says, is an infinite migration through the other. Love’s movement-placement, symmetrical asymmetry, is bright and peaceful. Love is both that which acts love, what Nancy calls the embrace, and that in which love is acted, what Nancy calls the whole history of a life, and is complete in both. Love, Cummings writes, “is the whole and more than all” (CP 520). As Nancy says, love is the abundance of all possible loves : with brightness and peace, all events and moments are actualized in love, in the place created by treating the as if as real.

In this way, yes “represents the sum of all the situations in which it might be used” (Maurer, 1972, p. 91), and love is, eternally, momentary actualization of these possibilities. Yes is a world ; yes is love. To say yes to the idiosyncrasies of another person, another hahaecceity, to “laugh their joy and cry their grief” (CP 515), is to say a bright and skilful yes to the pataphysical as if, to create a place and world wherein all other places and worlds live and move. This place is eccentric, not egocentric, and it is in the least things, as Kierkegaard says. All experiences of lovers come from the creation of the two-scene where their hahaecceities laugh together—haha—and love together : “Twice i have lived forever in a smile,” writes Cummings (CP 765). Lovers live and laugh with imperfections, hahaecceities and idiosyncrasies, as Kierkegaard notes, not despite them.

As to love was to move, so yes is to live. These are all verbs, and they are all almost infinitives, though they are bare infinitives, without to, and so they are not quite infinite but rather, as Friedman says, “the never-changing infinite […] found in the ever-changing finite” (1996, p. 17)—and as Cummings writes, “A forever is love’s any now / and her each here is such an everywhere” (CP 576). To say yes to the as if, to act in love, is what it means to really live. This life, now and here, is fragile, nowhere ; it embraces exceptions and hahas, as to live is a clinamen of to love, i from o—in the Tao, i is righteousness and o is that which is shunned or avoided.

Cummings writes that love is “all of wishing” (CP 446), and this is how I read the second-last line. “Skilfully curled” does not mean that something curled all worlds with skill, nor that these worlds curled themselves skilfully, but rather that the worlds are full of skill. Yes is full of skill and worlds and wishes. They are curled inside yes, in the parentheses, like cotyledons inside a seed, waiting to dehisce when yes replies to the as if. The asymmetry of the poem shows us that through is in the same place as in, after the ampersand, as love is both a movement and a place. As Nancy says, love crosses through the limit even as it exists in the limit. (Im)possibility.

“Love is more than love,” writes Cummings (CP 684). Love is a place and yes and a world, wherein everything lives and moves and is. To make love is to make a world. With the little clinamen-swerves from love to move and yes to live, from love and laughs to living, Cummings creates a pataphor, or a pataphysical conceit, that plays on the metaphysical conceits of the Metaphysical poets, treating them as most real. He makes the jokes, exceptions, and parodies of the Modernists most serious by making them worlds of nature and mystery, like the world the Romantics wondered at, but more. Love fabricates the unknown. It says yes to the as if, it does dreams, it is a place, “an everywhere which you’ve and i’ve agreed”—not which we agree upon, but which we agree into existence, pataphysically (CP 741). The smallest joy of love is “a universe emerging from a wish” (CP 768). Love is idiosyncratically embracing the idiosyncrasies of another and pataphysically creating places from them, a place from which lovers can experience the world, and worlds in which lovers can move and place and laugh and be. They are a ha in the cosmos, disorder in order, an exception in the norm that creates totality. I think I have opened Cummings’s seeds of love, treating these tender shoots, these as ifs, as most real, and thereby hopefully and wishfully opening some skilful and joyful thoughts about love.