Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Monday, March 12, 2018

Doggerel composed in a dream

Woke up one morning, fumbled for my notebook, and scrawled this down, fresh from the oneiric workshop:
The Superego's decree:
Rhyme and meter, as strict as may be!
The Ego dissents:
"These days, forms can be slant --"
But this limerick comes straight from the
Id, mothafuckah!!! I can do whatever the Hell I want!!!
Freud and others noted fairly early that patients started to report dreams that seemed to cater to certain readings of symbolism or other aspects of psychoanalytic terminology. Even our unconscious creative process can become theory-laden. For instance, construing itself as an "unconscious creative process."

Thursday, March 1, 2018

My teachers (2): Bernard Harrison

I had two professors at college who made a deep impact on my philosophical development. The first was Fred Hagen, who was equal parts challenge and validation.

My other great "official" teacher (I have been lucky in my unofficial ones as well) was Bernard Harrison, who filled a more traditional (but perhaps more crucial) role, party advisory, partly exemplary -- a teacher who would really argue with you, and really listen. He was closer to me in my intuitions and orientations than Hagen, but he was also more challenging because I had to think hard about every divergence, without the luxury of an Oh-well, agree-to-disagree shrug.

Harrison let me audit several courses -- on Wittgenstein, on phenomenology (this was when I first read Husserl, and also Merleau-Ponty), and on the interweave of philosophy and literature. I will always be grateful to him for making room for an extra (and sometimes non-paying) student, one who must have seemed more than a bit odd at first. I spent many happy hours discussing problems with him in his office -- not just Frege, Heidegger, Rorty, but Coleridge, Austen, Kermode. Without ever consciously shouldering his way into an avuncular role, he did what is rare and welcome in a student's life -- he "took an interest." He not only sold me his car for a shockingly low price when he and his wife Dorothy eventually stopped coming to Salt Lake regularly from the UK, but he personally drove me to his insurance agent to see to it that I had coverage. I remember a day when I walked with him to his apartment after class; it may have had to do with the car, or perhaps he was going to lend me a book. I was feeling a little under the weather, and thought I ought to wait outside. "My dear fellow," he said, "you may have the wog, but you're a human being!" Up I came, and sat down for a cup of tea with the two of them. Much later, the visit my wife and I made to them in Sussex was a highlight of our honeymoon. I also credit Harrison for confirming my intuition that I would be miserable in academia, a conclusion I have re-affirmed many times since.

Bernard Harrison's work deserves to be much better known. He did not agree with my assessment of Wittgenstein in every respect and he let me know it (we also disagreed on Husserl), but he did pay Wittgenstein the compliment of treating him as a single thinker rather than as a mythical beast with the head of a logical positivist and the body of a pragmatist. (He had studied under Wittgenstein's student Peter Geach.) He placed equal emphasis upon the early and late work in a way that underscored their continuity, and for a while I believe he was something of a voice crying in the wilderness. (Eventually I found my impression of Wittgenstein confirmed in Ray Monk's excellent biography.) Harrison's project is a nuanced one that essentially takes seriously the Wittgenstinian insight that our thinking is a kind of practice, and it derives far-reaching consequences from this apparently modest seed, including a full-blown defense of a literary tradition both recognizably humanistic and as endlessly "experimental" as you like. In some ways, Harrison's work is the successful fruition of the dialogue between Wittgenstein and the great critic F.R. Leavis, who argued with Wittgenstein throughout his career. Moreover, Harrison, too, saw the split between analytic and Continental philosophy as a false dilemma, and his work is a robust example (and the first one I deeply appreciated) of what would be done if you act like these are different dialects, rather than a zero-sum contest for the soul of philosophy.

The best introduction to Harrison's work is his own prologue to the volume Reality and Culture, an anthology of essays on his entire oeuvre, edited by Patricia Hanna (his co-author of the important Word and World, and a longtime colleague at the University of Utah). Here he outlines the root intuitions of the project that has occupied him his entire career. He acknowledges that it looks a bit curious, initially. His first two books were an odd couple indeed: the para-Wittgenstinian Form and Content -- a minor and unacknowledged classic of the philosophy of practice disguised as a very specialized investigation in the grammar of colors -- and Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones", which I'm tempted to describe as a display of unabashed enthusiasm for Fielding disguised as a canny excusrus in moral philosophy disguised as a "reading" of Fielding. Except there's no "disguise" involved here; at every step you know exactly what Harrision is about, because he tells you in advance, and reviews it patiently, in well-wrought prose and without any didacticism. He somehow manages to keep you reading as if he were surprising you at every step, all the while getting you to say, "Yes, yes, I see that. OK, right." As if you were the mark in a Socratic set-up -- but never feeling the barb of the ironist's scorn.

These two works, "as bizarrely different in ostensible topics as they must seem ... laid down the foundations" for what turned out to be Harrison's lifelong project. In Harrison's account, Fielding -- and by extension (an extension he went on to make himself) any other great literary artist -- shows you the force of an argument without actually arguing it. That is, in engaging with a novel, you find yourself shown things (human relationships, actions, and more importantly the valuations and grammar of these relationships) that are not expressly contended for. Harrison's point is that this "not expressly" is a feature, not a bug, and that it is essential not to the nature of the art ("indirection" or "brain-washing" or whatever) but to the realities in question. In short, Harrison was deploying the saying/showing distinction from early Wittgenstein in a very late-Wittgenstein sort of way.

Harrison's essay goes on to show the way these insights developed, how he wrestled with strong objections and how he extended the arguments through numerous other authors and milieu. His work in literary studies has since filled up two more books (Inconvenient Fictions and What is Fiction For?); these works show Harrison as very close to his teacher Iris Murdoch in how he sees the work of literature as not merely illustrative of a paraphrasable philosophy, but vital and irreplacable in its own right. Meanwhile his book with Hanna, Word and World, develops the argument in Form and Content into a full-blown reading of Wittgenstein (one he calls here "reading Wittgenstein for the arguments") and, far more importantly, an extensive engagement with questions of language, thought, practice, and the whole scope of what philosophy is and ought to be about.

Harrison's prologue to Reality and Culture also gives a flavor of what it was like to be in class with him, as by turns he raises an eyebrow at the reader, or thumps on the table, laughing aloud; also as into a philosophical argument he slips a joke or a historical observation or a biographical note. The biography in particular comes through here, because of the occasion (a prologue to a volume of essays honoring his whole career). But there is one aspect of his work that does not show up in this prologue, which I want to underscore. It is Harrison's engagement with Judaica and Judaism.

Harrison is, or was the last I talked with him, a gently skeptical agnostic on matters beyond the horizon of our temporal finitude, but he has been concerned with Judaism for his whole career, I think. He is an outspoken defender of Israel and a grave critic of those who would flirt with the line between criticism of Israel and an older, uglier and more deadly set of tropes. Harrision has engaged with anti-semitism several times (and this engagement is treated by some contributions to Reality and Culture); for my money the best example is his essay "Talking Like a Jew," again because of the biographical element. Harrison talks here about the esprit of Judaism in thinking and culture; he talks about antisemitism both of the cranky one-off kind and of the endemic and ruinous; and he tells, very movingly, the story of his own personal encounters with Jewish culture in the household of a childhood schoolmate, an encounter which clearly inspired a loyalty which has oriented Harrison through his life. The essay is both intellectually compelling and humanly moving, and not because it treats of all-too-easily manipulable occasions like the Shoah, though it is worth saying that it persuaded me once and for all that those who argue for the "uniqueness" of the Shoah among the horrible parade of human atrocities are not wrong (though they might be mis-motivated). Harrison's discussion of the death camps it is the only place I have ever encountered the word eldritch outside of Lovecraftiana, and it was the only time I understood it. In its interweaving of biography and argument (political and philosophical), "Talking Like a Jew" shows the way that reasoned but frankly partisan commitment emerges from the warp of rational reflection and the woof of personal life.

The essay takes its title from a moment in which Harrison, mistaken by Jewish tour-guide in Jerusalem for being Jewish himself, tries to disabuse his guide, only to be told: "Well, you talk like a Jew." And Harrison knows immediately what is meant, even if this impression is impossible to summarize more succinctly. What, exactly, is "Jewish" in Harrision's presentation of philosophy? I would venture: his enthusiastic returning to argument, his refusal of the pretensions of any single set of argumentative rubrics to give the secret of life; his willingness to look atrocity in the eye and not despair for the possibility of a good life. None of these are "uniquely Jewish," it will be (rightly) objected, of course, and so the question will remain, but it seems to me that Harrison's refusal to accept the verdict of "mere subjectivity" on human culture is precisely the fruit of his having engaged over and over with this Biblical inheritance; above all with the twin refusals of idolatry (worship of images) and paganism (worship of nature).

That would perhaps not be Harrison's way of putting it, but I know of no one who has more thoroughly internalized the way in which Wittgenstein's distinction between saying and showing recapitulates the Mosaic interdiction against graven images -- an insistence on theophany, not theology, as it were -- than he has. This kinship between Wittgenstein and the second commandment has been observed before. What is less frequently seen is the way in which this forbidding of idols -- i.e., the making and ultimate valuation (i.e., "worship") of human constructs, whether material or conceptual -- is entwined with another ban, on the ultimate valuation of "nature". It needs emphasis that this is not -- pace Nietzsche, and pace Fred Hagen -- the same as a devaluation of nature; it is a refusal of regarding nature as ultimate. There is a widespread assumption, rarely stated in so many words, human culture is a matter of distraction and illusion -- the Sellarsian "manifest image" turned though various societal permutations -- while "nature," by which is always meant non-human nature, is the "only reality." In all of his work, Harrison is at pains to point out, contest, and undermine this unexamined and all-too-frequent ostensible correlation between culture and "subjectivity". To him it seems plain that this is an absurd prejudice; culture, art, value, language, are as real as anything extra-linguistic, and non-human reality, while (in itself) unstructured conceptually is accessible by the senses, by cognition, and by contrivance. Harrison underscores that human meaning is grounded in the paradoxical way that Being "loves to hide," and that values are part of what it means to be the kind of creatures we are. There is nothing inescapably "unreal" about that!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

My teachers (1): Fred Hagen

Getting ready to present at the Awe and Attention Symposium put me in mind of my very on-again-off-again time at the University, and I decided to write a couple of brief (and belated) appreciations.

I have been very fortunate in my teachers. I have no academic certification, no diploma on my wall, no letters after my name, because during the years most people spend in college, I was doing other things -- mainly playing rock and roll, falling in love several times, living in a long-lived unofficial artists' commune (though we never called it that), and working in bookshops. (I also worked for ten years in a group home for a population which was then called "developmentally disabled;" I assume this is one of those phrases one "no longer says," but I have not kept up with the lingo.) Along the way I read a not inconsiderable amount (though far less than I am suspected of -- and far less than I wound up owning!), and I began writing in earnest. I did also manage to take a few classes at the University, thanks to the very kind forbearance of a couple of professors. I took the last course ever taught by the late, great Fred Hagen -- a class on Nietzsche, which was filled beyond capacity, but to which he very kindly admitted me simply because I had engaged him in coffee-shop conversation a few times. Hagen was a genteel, old-school pre-Stonewall queer. He enjoyed -- maybe a little too much -- hiding his keen acumen behind the persona of village atheist, much to the scandal of local Mormon culture; many times he took what seemed to a be purely provocative pseudo-blasphemous stance, only to pounce with an uncompromising rationality that was scary if you were the one it was thinking about eating alive. He had honed his logical chops in higher mathematics -- I remember trying unsuccessfully to follow as he walked some students through the Löwenheim-Skolem theorem -- and his mind was the sort for which the cliché about the steel trap was invented. Slightly more terrifying was his wit, which somehow managed to be as fast as the crack of a whip, and yet delivered in the lilting, aristocratic Texan accent he still had. There was a legend -- cultivated by Hagen himself, but based in truth (I have independently confirmed it from other sources) -- that in one lecture he blasphemously taunted the heavens during a thunderstorm that raged outside, upon which a bolt of lightning struck quite close, with a loud thunderclap. (In one version of the story it struck a nearby tree, but that at least may be apocryphal.) Unfazed, Hagen lifted the window and bawled out into the wind, "Your aim is getting worse and worse!" with a few other choice words about the divinity's increasing senility. A few days later, when called into the dean's office -- some of the more pious students had been scandalized -- Hagen raised an eyebrow and said, "But I don't understand the problem. Jehovah isn't the wielder of the thunderbolt, after all. That's Zeus."

But he could be astonishingly generous if he knew you were not a fool. I wrote an essay which was decidedly antipathetic to Nietzsche’s overt conclusions, a paper of which I am still very proud, most of all because despite how it provoked him, Hagen pulled me aside quietly to praise it, and gave me an A for the course. Once I said something about believing in deus absconditas. Hagen took a long draw on his long cigarette (he is the only person I've known who could pull off the affectation of a cigarette holder), let out a meditative plume of smoke, and hmmmm'd. "Well, He's gone somewhere, that's for sure," he said. For all his disdain for small minds, Hagen's bark was worse than his bite. He prized kindness above brilliance and knew that the victories of argument were often shallow and short-lived. What I have managed to track down of his published output is slight, and buried in old journals. I deeply wish this were not so. He was a fine scholar of culture (especially German) and was ignoring the analytic/Continental divide way, way before it was cool. He called himself an unabashed generalist. In the reminiscences of people who knew him better than me, I have consistently heard anecdotes of a surprising gentleness of spirit -- though not without a sometimes wicked sense of humor.

Fred Hagen died in 2002. May he forgive me, I still sometimes pray for his repose.

I had been going to end this post there, but yesterday after I finished my brief talk (essentially an expanded version of this post) and the panel discussion had wrapped up, I was talking to someone about a point that got raised in the Q-&-A when a woman walked up to the table and put a small note down on top of my sheaf of papers. I didn't get a good look at her because I was still engaged in what the other fellow was saying and there was a lot of milling about, but I wish I had been more attentive (and at a conference with "Attention" in the title, what could possibly be my excuse? I'm sure I knew her, but it's been a long time. I hope I get a second chance, but...) When I picked up the slip of paper I read: Fred Hagen would have loved that. I really can think of no greater compliment.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Reinhold and the need for interlocutor

Of the many "minor figures" in the history of philosophy who have diverted my attention over the years, I am especially fond of Karl Leonhard Reinhold. Famous as a populariser of Kant, for attempting to give the critical philosophy a foundation and to accomplish scientific and systematic certainty in its context (an effort which gave a strong impetus to work by Fichte and others), Reinhold also had a number of less well-known later stages in his career after his expressly Kantian beginning. Serious criticism led Reinhold to set aside his so-called Elementary philosophy, but his pursuit of certainty, as well as a religious bent (he had been educated by Jesuits, took Roman Catholic holy orders, and was a Freemason) took him through a number of subsequent philosophical systems. He wanted, he said, a philosophy "without epithet." He engaged by turns with Jacobi and Fichte, then with Bardili (speaking of "minor" figures ...) and finally expounded an approach more grounded in linguistics, critiquing his own earlier standpoints from philosophy of language (in this respect, at least, not unlike the work of Herder and Hamann), until he died in 1823. His considerable influence on German philosophy arguably extended until the death of his student Trendelenburg in 1872.

Hegel's main engagement with Reinhold is in the early work on the difference between Fichte and Schelling, and it does not leave a flattering impression of Reinhold. Hegel faults him for inconsistency, for being a bad reader, even for not recognizing his own footprints. He cites a review of Reinhold that suggests that Reinhold's infatuation with Christoph Bardili (whose work, he said, helped purge him of the influence of the transcendental philosophy) was really unwittingly "going to school with himself" because -- surprise! -- Bardili had been influenced by Reinhold first! This is a double-whammy of a critique, because it's hard to avoid noticing that Hegel's estimate of Bardili is already not high, so he's really saying that Reinhold stands behind this second- or third-rank philosopher, and then adding that Reinhold isn't sharp enough to notice this himself. (Nothing by Bardili has been translated into English, to my knowledge, but there are a few secondary sources if you dig around. To spell it out in detail would be the matter for another post, but suffice to say I don't feel Hegel has been fair -- though scholarship does acknowledge that Reinhold may well have influenced Bardili first [he was, after all, the older thinker and had a head-start].)

Hegel is not alone in proffering the charge of inconsistency as reason for not taking Reinhold seriously, but you can't help but feel from the "Difference" essay that a good part of Hegel's polemic is just a little mean-spirited, which casts some doubt on his motives (even if Reinhold's reading does have some blind spots). In any case, Reinhold made no secret of his serial conversions, and inconsistency (when owned and acknowledged) is not a philosophical disqualification; it's hard to imagine this being held against Wittgenstein or Russell or Putnam, for instance. Speaking for myself, Reinhold's shifting stances were an effect of the reason I myself am so fond of him, and of why I feel close to him temperamentally: he read his contemporaries enthusiastically and broadly and as if they might genuinely teach him something. There is, to me, something very winning in Reinhold's unsettledness, and if we smile at his readiness to proclaim each of his successive lodestars the answer, one may still admire his perpetual openness, his hope, his willingness to begin again.

Now it's true that I read differently than Reinhold, who really did seem to have a series of discrete positions (though there's also a continuity from phase to phase). I turn repeatedly to one "new name" after another (new to me, anyway), not because I believe that the key to all the mysteries is just one elusive master thinker away, but because I'm not in the market for a master thinker at all. I'm hungry for serious engagement with the questions, and the names I haven't heard before tend to give me a slant (and sometimes much, much more than a slant) that I haven't yet encountered. It doesn't matter if this is an off-center contemporary or an overlooked or eclipsed past figure; I'm far more likely to get something unanticipatable from them than from someone like Heidegger or Quine precisely because of the ubiquity of Heidegger or Quine. (The suggestion that I'm just going to get watered-down, derivative Heidegger or Quine from most of my contemporaries is one of those dangerous half-truths that would require another post to engage it fully; for now let's leave it at saying that I do tend to shy away from reading secondary literature and "applications" ["...a Deleuzian account of..."] but I also do not regard thinkers as merely functions of, or reducing to, their "predecessors.")

Some read and re-read only (or almost only) the "big names" in the canon (or commentary on them), or some subsection thereof. Others read in their "field" -- keeping up to date in aesthetics, ethics, bioethcs, political philosophy, ecophilosophy, philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, philosophy of.... I am both more scattered, and more focused. My interest is philosophy per se, When I read a thinker who is definitely doing that, with the unspecifiable je ne sais quoi that is the hallmark of thinking -- a weird high-wire act of Kantian confidence and Keatsian negative capability -- the question of whether I "agree" or not becomes secondary. The example -- not the method, not the content, but the thinking -- is so invigorating, and essential to this is the fact that it's someone else, not me -- a thought I couldn't have anticipated and never would have.

Perhaps part of Reinhold was looking for the next "big name," but I think most fundamentally, he just needed that encounter. And to me, that feels just so much healthier than a one-man show like Kant or Hegel.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Wondering about wonder

Theaetetus: By the gods, Socrates, I am lost in wonder when I think of all these things, and sometimes when I regard them it really makes my head swim.
Socrates: …. This feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy, and he who said that Iris was the child of Thaumas made a good genealogy.
--Plato, Theaetetus 155d

It is through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize; wondering in the first place at obvious perplexities, and then by gradual progression raising questions about the greater matters too, e.g. about the changes of the moon and of the sun, about the stars and about the origin of the universe. …thus the myth-lover is in a sense a philosopher, since myths are composed of wonders.
--Aristotle, Metaphysics A 982b
Wonder is often supposed to be the special provenance of children. This supposition is perhaps another aspect of the so-called "invention of childhood," the ostensible cultural shift in the west which (it is claimed) gave us a new construal of the difference between children and adults. The historian usually credited with (or blamed for) the idea that childhood is a modern construct is Philippe Aries, who pointed out, among other things, that before roughly the 1600s, children were visually represented in Europe as miniature adults. Among thinkers, Locke and Rousseau are frequently associated with this re-construal, which cast childhood as a window of innocence and goodness and vulnerability.

I am dubious about such historicist claims that such-and-such a phenomenon was "unknown until..." some date that usually winds up being suspiciously late. (Similar claims are made about homosexuality and romantic love, for instance). Talk like this has a tendency to become overblown and to foment the worst sorts of historicist relativism. We do well to beware of anachronistically projecting a contemporary perspective on the past, but such due caution is not the same as thinking that the "new" development was unprecedented and would have been unrecognizable to previous ages. (Similar arguments are made about "judging history" by contemporary values, and here too, one must walk a careful line. There is such a thing as anachronism, of course, and I take the history of modes of consciousness seriously, especially as informed by technology -- which really does change; in thinking about these things one is continually compensating in one direction and then the other).

There is plenty of evidence to show that children were always seen in certain ways as different from adults – for instance, the fact that they are counted (or sometimes not counted) separately. Example: when the New Testament recounts the miraculous feeding of the multitude, it specifies: "The number of those that ate was about 5,000 men, besides women and children." And one could also point to all the specific emphasis Jesus puts on children, which cannot be explained away as sentimental Victorian haze even though it was surely obscured by such sentimentality. Whatever the real differences between children and adults, it is certainly not unreasonable to suggest that this difference has been read in more than one way from era to era. Why this alleged shift should be described as the "invention" (and not, say, the discovery) of childhood is not obvious; but it's at least arguable that the idea of the child as especially prone to "wonder" is an instance of such ideology at work.

In short, I think that the notion of "wonder" is associated with children for good reason that modernity may have magnified but which it did not invent. And yet, in the same era that would have (per hypothesis) projected this image of the naturally-"wondering" child, specifically engaging the very young in expressly philosophical discussion has more and more fallen out of practice, except in the most informal or "framing" of contexts. Teachers may allow themselves a philosophical aside, or discover that they and their young students are having a surprisingly wide-ranging conversation, but in modern academic pedagogy, philosophical instruction tends to begin in undergraduate years. The notion of intentionally presenting philosophy to young people (between elementary and high school) as an investigation in its own right is (for the most part) foreign to primary education.

What does this say about our presuppositions about pedagogy, about philosophy, and about the "wonder" from which philosophy supposedly springs? Might the modern "disenchanted" world – a world from which wonder has (supposedly) been banished – be a symptom, a cause, or both, of our assumption that philosophy is a matter for "adults"?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Awe and Attention Symposium

I don't do a lot of publicizing of academic events, but as I have (somewhat to my surprise) wound up on the program for this one, I suppose I ought to mention it:

Awe and Attention
"A two-day interdisciplinary symposium addressing the widely perceived loss of attention in the contemporary world. Presenters and keynote speakers will speak to the consequences—social, psychological, and ecological—of the crisis of attention, and consider possible ways to alleviate it through a renewal of awe."
University of Utah College of Humanities, Friday-Saturday, February 16 and 17 2018

Friday, December 29, 2017

"The best / worst thing there is."

My problem has never been finding things interesting enough to talk or write about them, it’s always been finding too many things interesting to talk or write about only one of them. ... But this is me. I like explaining things more than everything else, pretty much. I don’t study philosophy. I don’t teach philosophy. I am a philosopher. I philosophise. It’s what I do. When I can do it it’s the best thing there is. When I can’t it’s the worst thing there is.
This disarming and frank declaration comes in the midst of one of the most candid depictions of depression and philosophy I've ever encountered. Because it's Pete Wolfendale writing, and Pete is a philosopher, it is also about everything else: it's an account of his post-doc struggles with the academic market, a more general descriptive theory of academic career paths, a spot-on slam against the misappropriation of Spinoza by the vulgar Deleuzo-Guattarian left, a whirlwind inventory of SSRIs and assorted other neurochemical blunt instruments, a theory of thinking as navigation through fractal problem-space, a self-reflexive instance of its own narrative of possible "bad career moves," and a lovely and moving homage to Mark Fisher, whose suicide a little less than a year ago sent shock waves through the leftist blogosphere. There is no way I can do justice to it, you just have to go read it. I am sure that many will remark upon the courage it takes to write about one's mental health issues in a public forum, and they'll be right, but I feel only a little less queasy speaking that way about someone else than I would of myself -- getting called "brave" is obviously not the reason for writing such an account. I just want to underscore here a few of the things that rang true for me as I read Pete's post, and urge everyone to go give it the carefully (and patient) reading it requires and deserves.

Philosophy can be a really, really lonely business. Pete's post resonates strongly with me in the wake of my own meditations on melancholia. Melancholia feels isolating. Even when you are sociable, at parties and at home with your family and wherever else you may be surrounded by joviality, there's a sense of estrangement. It's not just that they eventually roll their eyes when there you go again, that they really don't seem to get the puzzlement with which you face an ordinary punch bowl or the fired-up enthusiasm you have for a question no one else ever thought to ask. It's not even just that to explain yourself -- sometimes even to reassure them that while you aren't merely "playing devil's advocate," you aren't the devil either -- you'd have to back up so far.... It's that when you philosophize you really do kind of "go somewhere else." Where are we when we think? Arendt asked, and part of her answer is -- nowhere. Tantôt je pense et tantôt je suis, she cites from Paul Valéry -- sometimes I think, and sometimes I am. No wonder philosophy is bound up with melancholia! Who can be with me when I am nowhere?

Somehow it does happen, though -- at least sometimes. I often think that friendship is simply the question of philosophy, maybe even of how philosophy is possible. (Aristotle arguably thinks this too). Of course, I think a lot of questions might be "the" question of philosophy, but maybe that's what philosophy is: seeing how every question is holographically encoded in every other. Maybe that's how we hear each other across the chasm, above the din of the party conversation and the wailing of sirens and the silence of centuries and the drumbeat of our own egos -- philosophy cues us into how your puzzlement opens onto (answers, mirrors, analogizes with, inverts, reframes, subverts, is a species of...) mine. At worst, this would just be appropriation and projection. But there is something about philosophy that can make it more, and I think that at least in part it's because we sense how fragile and precious the connection is. It's fucking scary out here. The chasm is real. (And who wants to cross it for someone who might turn out be on the devil's side?) Just that being seen and heard, regardless of approval or agreement, from across that chasm, is a lifeline to the thinker. And if it dissolves....

Arendt responds in part to the displacement of the thinking self into the void by counterposing our temporality to our spatiality:
The everywhere of thought is indeed a region of nowhere. But we are not only in space, we are also in time, remembering, collecting and recollecting what is no longer present ... anticipating and planning.(see The Life of the Mind, pp 197-202)
In other words, our character as temporal can also orient us in our thinking, and provide a direction that will guide us in what might otherwise be nothing but vertigo. It's noteworthy then that Wolfendale's account of his own condition includes a point-by-point description of how memory breaks down during depressive states, and the way -- for him, at least -- this feels like another sort of spatial estrangement:
memory becomes strangely dissociative. You remember facts about yourself. I know this. I can do that. But if you try to call it up it isn’t there. You can recall what you think but not why you think it. You can’t traverse the argumentative tree. ... you can’t find the connections that normally carry your thoughts forward, generating the possibility spaces you used to explore. After a while, you stop even trying to reach out. It’s just too jarring. The intimations of stuff that should be there but isn’t, a sort of cognitive phantom limb syndrome, slowly fade away.
None of this is to say that philosophers are more prone to depression, or suffer it more keenly (or God forbid "more authentically"), than others; or that (vice-versa) those who must deal with depression are any more likely to be drawn to philosophy. I don't know that this is or is not the case and I don't know what it would indicate if it were. Pete does speculate that
one of the reasons a lot of philosophers struggle with depression is that we spend so long sharpening our knives they cut deeper when we turn them on ourselves.
What I am sure of is that philosophy was meant to challenge the deadening sense that life cannot be lived well. Philosophy has taken the measure of the tragic account of life which doubts that life can be good, and says: it can, if.... If what? If we embrace what Socrates called examination, what Malebranche and Simone Weil refer to as "the natural prayer of the soul": attention. (And this attention is not to be reduced to that sharp-knived analysis, though that may be what remains -- a technique -- once the wonder is bled out.) This does not mean that we encounter no misery, that we "can be happy on the rack," as the Stoics aspired to be; it means our life is worth living. It is literally not a "waste of time." But philosophy is a dangerous cure, a "hair of the black dog," as it were. The name of the noonday demon is sometimes given as Panic. And philosophy contends against this enemy by confronting Pan, the All. Pete gives an account in which I recognize very well the obsessive tracking-down of ramifications, the exhaustive and exhausting chase of the argument "wherever it leads," which can be merry hunt indeed with friends as the night wears on and the pints keep pouring, but can also feel lonely and obsessive and hopeless when you look at all the books stacked up and the pages marked and the half-finished drafts and the unfinished, unfollowed trails....
I furiously chased up every possible lead regarding the provenance of the terms ‘ontology’ and ‘metaphysics’, all the way through Calvinist theologians and the Arabic appropriation of Aristotle, to the subsequently titled Metaphysics itself. I burned out so badly I can only half-remember most of it. There’s another unfinished paper for the folder. Another possible choice. Which one should I pick up and have another go at? Will it burn me again if I stare into it too long?
"When I can do it, it's the best thing there is. When I can't do it, it's the worst thing there is."

Pete follows this declaration ("... when I can't do it....") immediately with an acknowledgment of the role the philosopher's community plays:
This is not the bipolar cycle talking, this is the core of my self-image. It’s also how other people see me. I don’t know about anyone else, but the sort of mutual recognition I get from my academic peers means a great deal to me. That moment when someone else understands what you’re saying and thinks it was worth saying, whether they agreed with it or not.
This rapport is crucial and the validation it provides is far deeper than what follows from any mere agreement. I can trace, to the day and the hour, my self-identification as "philosopher." A trusted friend of mine was raising gentle but insistent and serious objections to an argument I was making in print (it was a short review of Ken Wilber's Sex, Ecology, Spirituality). In an email, he wrote to me: Yes, he had practical concerns about the sort of thing I was arguing about, which I was defending and he was attacking; but then he also wrote:
But also, because you are a philosopher, I care that you might be making logical connections that ultimately don't hold.
I felt the inner pause as I read this. Because you are a philosopher.... Was I? For a long time I had taken the Straussian line: "I am only a scholar." But as I re-read that sentence, I felt myself assent to a kind of inner inevitability; a re-alignment in my psyche. Something in me stepped out of self-protective faux-modesty as if from a chrysalis. (It took a while to complete the transition. In my inaugural post on this blog, I repeated the "only a scholar" line, and I still make use of it now and then; but it differentiates me, now not from love of wisdom per se, but from the much different claim of being a "great thinker," which is also I think how Strauss meant it.) I think it is important that this recognition came precisely in the midst of a disagreement; not someone saying, Whoah! What a stunning insight! but rather, Friend, as a philosopher, you can do better.

Pete's essay is long, and (notwithstanding his craft) it is raw. It starts with and circles back to Mark Fisher, who most certainly got cast as being "on the devil's side" more than once; and whose own candidly described battles with depression ultimately led to Fisher's suicide. (When it happened -- last January -- it was only months after my brother's death; I couldn't muster the energy to face writing about it.) In between it is shot through by wonderful writing (by turns wry, frantic, understated, desperate, and completely disarming), and draws all sorts of other things into its net. Pete suggests that this wide-ranging scope is one more instance of his turning the hypomanic energy to good use, but he also acknowledges that this same energy has plowed itself under many times. To me, though, it is also very clearly an index of philosophy itself: the assumption that everything pertains to everything. (It makes me almost spitting-angry to think that this omnivorous "weirdness" of Pete's might be, as he intimates, one of the things getting in the way of his job prospects. To me it is blazingly obvious that this is how philosophy works, and if you don't like it, you're probably a bit scared of philosophy -- albeit, yes, with good reason, but if you feel that way you shouldn't be on a hiring committee for philosophers.) Is there something obsessive about this energy? Well, speaking for myself: Of course. Could it do with a bit of gelassenheit? No doubt. But anyone who has really wrestled with the thrill and desperation of philosophy will recognize something of themselves in Pete's account, and -- just as importantly -- see how different, how very specific, is his particular circumstance. I don't want to suggest that Pete's story is to be reduced to a universal stencil to which "everyone can relate," any more than he wants to appropriate Fisher's story to illustrate his own. It's a matter of recognition, across a chasm. And without that, the loneliness of philosophy is unrelieved.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

very brief note on form, content, and scare quotes

The stance of many of Socrates’ opponents -- Callicles and Thrasymachus being the most obvious -- seems to have been that if you were fortunate enough to have the wherewithal to take what you wanted, you were a fool to waste time on those you took it from. You are happy; enjoy it while it lasts. To these opponents it was also plain that the stories about right and wrong were tools to be exploited. Persuade others that it is wrong to struggle, and your own work is all the easier. This critique of ethics follows upon, and is abetted by, a critique of religion. It is a short step from the cultural relativism that was making the rounds -- the observation that the nations’ gods all tended to resemble the nations’ respective inhabitants (for example, their kings), and the observation that the laws vary from city to city as well -- to the conclusion that laws and gods alike are mere stories that serve the interests of the powerful and distract the weak, the gullible, and the fearful. Atheism has not evolved very much since then. Neither, incidentally, has superstition -- i.e., “religion” as a human instinct; but that is not surprising, for atheism is simply a special case of superstition.

But faith has indeed “evolved,” if by this we may mean become deeper, more encompassing, more profound -- and also more wise. (More cunning, Nietzsche would rejoin -- and he’s partly right, but not for the reasons he thinks). This does not mean that “the faith once given,” as Jude 1:3 calls it, has changed, but the language for it has indeed developed, responding to one cultural shift after another. The critique of religion was not merely propounded by the sophists and tyrants and opportunists like Thrasymchus. It was also -- and perhaps even primarily -- propounded by philosophers themselves, albeit in a different spirit. But parallel to this philosophical critique of religion, there was developing another critique -- what I have called the religious critique of religion; and this has required a continual.

The other human endeavor that has certainly “evolved” is science. I would say -- in a from-the-hip sort of way that I might regret for its possibly too-easy symmetry -- that whereas faith has evolved precisely as regards its “form”, the cultural apparatus it uses, science on the other hand has evolved in the way faith has not -- and only in this way: as regards its “content,” which is (as is continually averred by scientists) corrigible and revisable in a way that “the faith once given” is not.

The scare quotes within which I enclose “form” and “content” here are meant to indicate that I'm using a rough and ready distinction. It needs to be be queried. But one possible formulation might be that faith is to form as science is to content -- this comes through, for instance, in a certain reading of Meillassoux in which he holds that it is precisely the content of a scientific assertion with which correlationism cannot cope, and precisely the form of faith which is ascendant in correlationism, because it has remained committed to the the idea of sufficient reason even after any possible candidate for such a reason has been abandoned. What this underscores is that the very idea of form and content are philosophical and when they are applied to faith they are a function of the philosophical critique.

Or -- possibly -- the very split between philosophy and faith is itself a function of religion fighting back -- a divide-and-conquer strategy, or a desperate cornered slashing.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The shoreline

At one point in The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard (or rather Anti-Climacus, his pseudonym) makes the striking claim that "to be ignorant of being in despair is the specific feature of despair." If one likes, one can congratulate oneself on perceiving the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose structure of this claim, but like most such arguments in philosophy, the "fallacy" here is a feature not a bug. (Strictly speaking there is nothing fallacious about the notion of a condition that structurally works against ones realization that one is in that condition -- and in fact such an idea figures in a good deal of contemporary ideology critique; arguably, this is part of the prevalent critique of "privilege," for instance.)

One of the consequences of Kierkegaard's identification of despair with sin, and vice-versa, is his conclusion that "the opposite of sin is not virtue, but faith." The above-mentioned account of despair not knowing that it is despair means that there can be forms of despair that look like anything but: that look "positive," life-affirming, or indeed "virtuous;" that look, in short, "healthy." Kierkegaard spends a lot of time underscoring that the spirit is as it were in crisis continually -- in a state of perpetual decision "before God" -- and that absent the notion of spirit (i.e., self -- "the relation which relates itself to itself"), ones philosophical anthropology will have no place to put the idea of sin; one will have only "health" or "illness." One could unpack the entirety of the critique of "the triumph of the therapeutic" (in Philip Rieff's phrase) from this passage in Kierkegaard.

Despair is perfectly compatible, S.K. warns, with feeling (in modern therapy-speak) "positive" and "life-affirming." One can have
an intense, energetic life, the secret of which is still despair. In the latter case, the individual in despair is like the consumptive: when the illness is most critical, he feels well, considers himself to be in excellent health, and perhaps seems to others to radiate health.
But for S.K., the condition in question is spiritual, and
the condition of man, regarded as spirit...is always critical. [And] we speak of a crisis in relation to a sickness, not in relation to health.
SK goes on: if a human being is regarded only "as a psychical-physical synthesis, health is an immediate qualification" -- that is, it is the assumed baseline, from which one can deviate. But "spiritually, or when man is regarded as spirit, both health and sickness are critical; there is no immediate health of the spirit." "Critical," in the sense of "crisis" -- a decision, which is continuous and onging, a decision to relate oneself to oneself by grounding oneself in God -- or not.

I remember a conversation about fifteen years ago about theodicy. I was talking with two fellow-Christians; we were discussing the question of suffering. The question arose out of a common and indisputable experience – the encounter with absurd and unrelieved hurt. Natural disaster, freak accidents, human malevolence, the relentless grind of ordinary nature chewing itself up – it doesn’t matter. The “problem of pain” is a real problem. Did I even need to justify saying so? I quoted with approval a passage from a book of semi-popular theology a statement of shaken faith: "I have no trouble believing that God is good. My question is more, What good is He?"

My appreciation of the stark pull-no-punches approach is not always shared. The friends to whom I was speaking were more than scandalized; they winced. One looked as if I had struck her. It was as if asking the question had broken a crucial decorum and occasioned real, even physical, discomfort. The idea of God being good had been conflated -- so it seemed to me -- with being good for -- good for something, some specific end, or and after end, as each occasion arises. God who “delivers”, not from the logical spiritual conclusion of our narcissistic self-sabotage, but from – terrorist attacks, viruses, sub-prime mortgages. Human vulnerability.

All such vulnerability ultimately points to the one great vulnerability of our lives -- that we die. And the turning of Christianity into one more ineffective salve on this vulnerability has been aided and abetted by the enormous success of all the technological and social maneuvers of the technologico-capitalist West, which has made it more and more easy to put off the remembrance of death until the last possible minute. (Say what one likes about Medieval Christianity, one thing it did not do was deny the reality of death.)

Alexander Schmemann, one of the indispensable theologians of the twentieth century, has critiqued this modern aberration as secularism. That such secularism can sit comfortably with religion – or rather, vice-versa -- is part of Schmemann's point; indeed, secularism has forced other religions to compete with it on its own terms, but as Schmemann argues, secularism is itself a religion. Nevertheless, Schmemann’s account is different from that of those who point to the “religious” character of (for instance) scientism or Marxism. Secularism is a religion, Schmemann says, not because it too is somehow “based on faith,” but because like all religions it is
an explanation of death and a reconciliation with it. It is the religion of those who are tired of having the world explained in terms of an "other world" of which no one knows anything, and life explained in terms of a "survival" about which no one has the slightest idea; tired of having, in other words, life given "value" in terms of death. Secularism is an "explanation" of death in terms of life. (For the Life of the World p 98)
Like Schmemann, I think of secularism as a Christian heresy, not only genetically derived from Christianity but (though this is a more challenging point to argue) unthinkable without it. Wiser heads than mine have seen the same thing -- I think, for instance, of Ivan Illich, or Rene Girard, or Jacques Ellul -- but as was often the case, Kierkegaard was there ahead of most:
There is and remains a difference, and it is a qualitiative difference, between paganism in the stricter sense and paganism in Christianity...namely that paganism does indeed lack spirit, but that is still is qualified in the direction of spirit, whereas paganism in Christendom lacks spirit in a departure from spirit or in a falling away and therefore is spiritlessness in the strictest sense.
Schmemann thought that if it were a question of being reconciled with death, secularism was decidedly an improvement over Christianity or indeed over any religion, and that Christianity had already ceded too much when it tried to compete, casting itself as a religious "service", advertising
in subways and busses as a valubale addition to "your friendly bank" and all other "friendly dealers": try it, it helps!...but here we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity, help is not the criterion. Truth is.
But does the believer not turn to God for help? Indeed, "a very present help in time of trouble." Wittgenstein's worry at one point is precisely that in the absence of the ressurection, Christ is simply dead "and can no longer help."
If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like any other man. He is dead and decomposed. In that case he is a teacher like any other and can no longer help; and once more we are orphaned and alone. So we have to content ourselves with wisdom and speculation. We are in a sort of hell where we can do nothing but dream, roofed in, as it were, and cut off from heaven. But if I am to be REALLY saved, -- what I need is certainty -- not wisdom, dreams or speculation -- and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind. (Culture and Value p 33)
But the "help" LW is asking for here is not the help in any particular instance, but a help beyond them all -- the help that saves, not the help that finds my car keys or delays me on my way to work so that I "miraculously" do not arrive in time to be killed by the rampaging disgruntled former colleague with a gun. Do such minor, trivial "miracles" occur? Maybe. But they are not and cannot be the object of faith -- of "ultimate concern," as Tillich called said.

When I met that wince, I of course did not know just what it meant, and I still don't – nor is it really my business. But it felt to me at the time like a rebuke simultaneously fierce and pitying. Nor was it an isolated incident; I've routinely encountered people who (meaning well enough, I suppose) try to encourage me to just "be faithful" in some way that would have meant to them more emphasis on something they would have called "Good News!" and less real acknowledgment of sorrow or pain -- or indeed, of sin. "Sometimes we resist being Easter people," one guy said to me. I had to hide my inner cringe. No doubt there is a scriptural warrant for claiming that Christians even or especially in tribulation are "more than conquerors" in Jesus Christ, that "nothing shall separate us from the love of God;" but there is plenty of scriptural warrant also for asking why the wicked prosper, how long God will hide His face, and why he has forsaken us.

All of this occurs to me because in the wake of my brother's suicide a little more than a year ago, I have been reflecting upon and owning my own deep melancholia. This has been a slow unfolding of an awareness of something that has always been the case. As awareness, it is also a shift: what is new is the realization that this was here all along.

There's a passage attributed (questionably) to Aristotle that asks "Why all notable men of genius" (or some such) have suffered from melancholy. I doubt if I am anything like a man of genius, but I suppose I do "suffer" from melancholia, and in a way that I also would distinguish from the modern sense of a word like "depression." Not that I believe there is no lexical overlap between the words, nor any psycho-somatic overlap between the conditions they name. But Melancholy is obviously a less modern, and less (modernly) medicalized, notion, and I don't think it's merely quaint antiquarianism on my part to identify more with the ancient term than the modern. There are connotations of both boredom and sadness bound up in melancholy and especially in the associated term acedia, which is identified as a sin (it gets translated as "sloth", which has far more connotations of laziness or disinclination to effort than either "depression" or "melancholia." There is a spectrum of these states which includes lassitude, boredom of the what's-the-point kind, despair, deep and paralyzing sadness, anxiety, and a kind of recoil at existence -- Sartrean nausea, maybe. All of these seem to me to fall under the rubric of the "Noonday Demon," which the old Christian desert fathers call acedia but which is also called Panic -- as in, terror of Pan, the "All."

That might seem like quite a spread, and the term Panic might seem hyperbolic. Certainly my own experience is what I would usually describe as "mere" melancholy -- a sort of wistfulness, a great sensitivity to what is called the "poignant," a keen appreciation of what the Japanese language calls mono no aware -- an untranslatable phrase for (approximately) the passingness of things, or maybe the "Ahh!" of things. I am certainly not usually "bored," and I am not paralyzed -- usually. But there are times when I am very much aware of how my usual mood could slip incrementally and yet decisively towards these more crippling states. (This is in my own case bound up with a sense of procrastination – of a struggle against and sickly acquiescence to time -- ) Moreover, sometimes these can burst upon me, almost without warning. I don't mean that I am volatile or that I wildly oscillate -- such moments are (thank God) rare, and also probably not as unpredictable as I make them sound. But I can "lose my balance." In fact, my "owning up" (as it were) to my lifelong melancholy is part of what feels like an effort to maintain my balance -- to claim honestly what has always more or less been the case but not always named.

I do not have an answer to the questions about the prospering of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous, nor to the questions about Nature Red in Tooth and Claw. I do hold that writing these off as non-questions is an abdication of thinking, and not just by Christian theology. If you haven’t really stood aghast at the problem of evil, you do really need to brace yourself. But the huge examples of suffering -- the famines and tsunamis, torture chambers and abattoirs -- are only the garish face of something much broader. The falling cherry blossoms that are given iconic pride of place in accounts of mono no aware are not instances of meaningless absurd cruelty; but there is still here a deep and poignant suffering in the passing-away of things. (In Sanskrit this is called viparinama dukkha, the suffering that arises because of impermanence -- even in the midst of pleasant experience.)

Kierkegaard's claim that one can actually look completely "healthy" and positive and still be in despair -- perhaps not even know it -- can be inverted. There would then also be a spiritual state which is keenly aware of the struggle of things, deeply tuned in to dukkha, but which would remain, by S.K.'s lights, faith -- a orienting of the self to the power that grounds it. Indeed, I admit that I cannot see how a stance that was unaware -- well, let us say, willfully unaware --of dukkha could even qualify as faith.

But if there is such a faith, what would distinguish it?

In 1982, Alexander Schmemann was hospitalized with the cancer from which he would die the following year. From his hospital bed he wrote a note of thanks to seminarians at St. Vladimir’s (where he was dean). The single scriptural citation in this note is three short verses from 1 Thessalonians 5:
Rejoice evermore.
Pray without ceasing.
In every thing give thanks.
This names the very center of Christian devotional life; for "give thanks" here is (of course) ευχαριστειτε.

It is dangerous to so much as whisper the names of ones own attempted virtues, but over this past year as I have been thinking of my acedia, I've also had borne in upon me another perennial aspect of my own experience which I had not consciously connected with melancholy until now. It is gratitude. For a while I started to think of these somewhat like compensating traits: Yes, I can be (unduly?) aware of how hard things are, but I am also (often unexpectedly) overtaken by deep gratitude for things, even the most trivial. This is another aspect of mono no aware. More recently, I've come to recognize this thanksgiving and this sadness not as a mutual "balance," but as (de facto) inseparable: each of them is an apprehension of the way things arise and pass away in time. They are more like the sand and the waves on the shore. One can surely have waves alone, and one can have sand alone; but one cannot have a shoreline without both.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sartor re-re-resartus

A philosophy costume party. The challenge was to dress as something philosophy-related. One person dressed as Mary, the colorblind color scientist. Another dressed as a strange loop -- she had a full-body leotard suit imprinted with with a photo of her wearing a leotard suit with a photo of her....

With a trip to the thrift store, a pair of scissors, and some quick amateur sewing, I had improvised a costume as the Analytic / Continental divide:

The costume obviously employs some clichés about Oxford dons in tweed, versus hip postmodern theorists in leather jackets. Its an interesting question why these clichés obtain, but all I needed to make my costume was to acknowledge them.

Admittedly my own effort is a shotgun wedding, not an elegant aufhebung of leather and tweed like these I found browsing online:

If we grant the necessity, or at least the acceptability, of trading in clichés for the purposes of these comparisons, then, accepting the correlations:
Analytic = tame tweed conservativism
Continental = dangerous leather-clad fashionable elegance,
what we find is that when we really try to depict the split in terms of costume, in terms of the grammar of fashion, the Continentals win -- a depiction in terms of the grammar of fashion of the division will be loaded in favor of the Continentals because the Continentals "are" fashionable. In dialectical terms: only the Continentals care about weird Hegelian things like "synthesis," so a dialectical account of Continental-vs.-Analytical will be a Continental account. An Analytical philosopher is (in this obviously unfair and stacked-deck story) perfectly happy with a stark juxtaposition like my costume, and may indeed be deeply suspicious of any blurring of boundaries as these swank and expensive new designs try to pull off. So it seems as though maybe my splitting-the-difference costume is really a costume of the Analytical costume of the Analytic / Continental split, while the high-fashion, high-pricetag syntheses I found online would be the Continental costume of the same split.

Of course, you could make higher-level juxtapositions or syntheses out of these, but they'd be a lot more expensive than my costume was.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Notes on Wallace Shawn's The Fever

[...] Still, it is the personal,
Interior life that gives us something to think about.
The rest is only drama.

-- John Ashbery, "But What is the Reader to Make of This?"

The subject is not psychological. It's quite the opposite. He doesn't learn things about his psychological problems. He learns ... how he's viewed by a poor or oppressed person indifferent to his psychological problem.
-- Wallace Shawn on The Fever, in the Los Angeles Times, May 12 1991

Belief in the existence of other human beings as such is love.
-- Simone Weil, paraphrased in W.H. Auden, A Certain World

For the last several months I’ve been rehearsing for a production of Wallace Shawn’s one-person show The Fever. For those who don’t know it, it’s the depiction of a person with a comfortable life, coming to realize the human cost of that comfort elsewhere in the world. A man (in my production, but not always -- Vanessa Redgrave stars in the 2004 film) wakes up sick in his hotel room, and through the night his illness and the assaults of a guilty conscience build to a breakdown. You overhear his nocturnal dialogue with himself, as one by one the excuses of privilege fall away. His aestheticism comes into ever more naked conflict with his growing awareness of the radical disparity between those who have comfort and security, and those who have next to nothing. Where is there to hide, when the truth is in plain sight and your accuser is yourself?

As I’ve mentioned my work on this play to people, whenever I’ve given that one-sentence summary -- “a person with a comfortable life, coming to realize…,” -- the reaction I’ve heard the most has been something like, “Ah. Timely.” I think it’s good that people say this -- it means they care about what is happening in our own political moment -- but I can’t agree. The Fever is not especially timely, in at least two senses. The first is fairly obvious: the show is clearly marked by the era in which it was first created and performed, in the late 80s and very early 90s. Except for a brief mention of “Communism [having] finally died,” no specific political circumstances are invoked -- not the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Iran-Contra scandal, the transition to democracy in Chile, the Gulf War -- but the spectre of Communism, and especially Latin American Communism, haunts The Fever, in a way that might feel almost quaint today when the word “Soviet” seems like ancient history and the War on Terror, now well into its second decade, has long ago replaced the Cold War. Even for domestic critics in the US, theoretical basis for political resistance is provided far less by Marxism than by a melange of pluralism and more or less New Deal economics, or -- among radicals and Utopians -- by Anarchism. (This is true despite David Graeber’s lament that Marxism is over-represented in academe and anarchism is under-represented, for the effective center of leftist critique in the US has long ago left the academy.) In short, The Fever’s continual reference to “the followers of Marx” makes its account of global inequality far less timely than it might otherwise seem. The foreign threat haunting the American psyche is no longer a Communist soldier in combat fatigues, but someone in a cartoon robe and “turban,” or a suicide vest; and the feared document is not a nineteenth-century manifesto but a seventh-century holy book.

Marx got a some things wrong, but he saw one thing clearly that I've never known compelling reason to disavow: class, more than race, more than gender, is what lies at the root of social dynamics good and bad. This is not to deny the continued relevance of other lines of division. I sometimes think twice about whether gender doesn't play as crucial a role in certain ways; and I’ve learned a lot from scholars who have theorized intersectionality as a way of understanding the experience of people who are marginalized by power and privilege, or who may share such privilege in some ways but not in others. But still, when it comes to thinking about power and difference, class is where I usually start. (I do not believe that class "explains everything," but I do hold that class distinctions, while perhaps not inherently pernicious, aggravate and likely foment other social evils, especially those pertaining to race. you want to convince me otherwise, I’m up for the discussion.) In light of these positions, perhaps I’d argue that The Fever ought to seem a lot more timely than it in fact does, when you pay attention to the actual words. But still, to me, the play is not timely at all, if by “timely” one means "especially pertinent to right now," more than any other time. A different -- and only apparently paradoxical -- way of putting this might be that the questions The Fever raises are always “timely;” has there ever been an era in which the distinction between rich and poor didn’t exist? This play will be pertinent as long as this difference is built into our way of life, as long as our way of life is premised upon the notion of some having more and some less, of a handful living in opulence, many living a hairsbreadth from starvation, and most struggling for “upward mobility” and more or less keeping at arm’s length the panicking thought of slipping closer to ruin. Which means, it’s not especially pertinent, because it’s always pertinent -- the issues never go away; what changes, and is still changing, are the accounts we give of this, and the options they open or close. Are the poor resigned, fearful, miserable without recourse? Do they aspire to "join the middle class," or does it never occur to them to ask why some are lucky and some not? Or are they ready to try to dismantle the system? And the rich -- are they entitled and satisfied, or do they torture themselves with regret, or -- most perniciously -- do they want to have it both ways?

But I have a more idiosyncratic reason for considering the play perennially relevant, which has little to do with history. There’s a tension in The Fever, that is not resolved by the time the play ends. One reading of the play would make it a sort of transformation of a person, like Ebenezer Scrooge, or Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, though perhaps more ambiguous. This reading would say that the play shows how a comfortable bon vivant, psychologically sensitive and more or less reflexively assuming that his own sensitivities correspond to the most important things about human experience, is disabused of this illusion -- how he comes to realize that the most important thing is not, after all, “the inner life,” one’s autobiographical bildungsroman. Rather, the real evidence, what reveals who you really are, is the “outward circumstance,” one’s actual behavior and its material conditions: what hours you keep, the color of your skin, your tone of voice to people you know or don't know, where you go to eat lunch, if you water your lawn, if you go to sports games or indie shows or the ballet or political rallies or union meetings or scientific symposia or elementary school parent-teacher conferences or online antifa organization somewhere on the dark web. On this interpretation, The Fever would be claiming that one’s subjective love of music, of the arts, one’s private story with its disappointments and minor triumphs, the thrill of your first home run or the crushing disappointment of not getting the date you wanted, of learning to forgive your parents or yourself, all of that is left on one side as so much ephemera. What matters is, Whose side are you on -- the status quo, or the wretched of the Earth? -- and this is shown not by your out-loud declarations but simply by how you live, especially when you aren't thinking about it at all.

But this argument -- if it is an argument -- is obviously being put forward in a work of art. A work that took money to produce, that you are likely charged money to attend -- a work that took hours and hours of creative effort to write and practice and stage. And of course, it’s the story of an episode in the inner life of a person. Moreover, those poor with whom one is asked -- challenged -- to align oneself, are not an undifferentiated social mass. Their suffering matters, not because it is some abstract sum of woe, but because every instance is particular -- a particular woman desperate to get medicine for her child, a particular little girl feeling an unnamed shame at her shabby clothes in school, a particular man stuffing down his impotent and inarticulate frustration as he goes off to yet another exhausting night shift while his family sleeps. The hollow vacuum behind the junky's eyes, the scary voices in the head of the woman sitting by her overstuffed stolen shopping cart, the 15-year-old with the gun, eager to impress his gang leader and who assumes he won't make it to 18 in any case. In other words, a huge tangle of inner lives.

The Fever does not present intellectually watertight refutations of any protest from the rich; it shows how protest and refutation alike begin to wear more than a little thin in the face of real human wretchedness. It does not lay out a political programme, but presents a problem: what are the relationships between between aesthetic delight and ethical obligation, between inner and outer, between refined culture (whose?) and bodily suffering (whose?) What kinds of costs are 'acceptable,' or not, by which standards? What could exiting a corrupt system really look like? The questions are suggested -- and sometimes expressly posed -- in utterly stark terms (some may say, too stark), but they are posed in the course of a story, not an editorial or a treatise or a manifesto. The starkness is meant not to make the questions simple, but inescapable. Just because they aren’t simple, does not mean we are given excuses for not doing (more of) what we can. I’ve wanted to perform this piece for a long time. I relate very much to both sides of this character -- the aesthete who loves Beethoven and Rilke and Monet, and the demand that says, Who cares about your precious "inner life?" (or yes, "Who cares about your precious inner life, white straight cis bourgeois "legal" first-world man?") -- and I believe that the existential experience of the struggle is worth more than coming up with a neat conclusion. But it's a precipitous and unwarranted leap from “no neat conclusion” to “Oh well.” The personal interior life does matter, but what matters about it is that it's here where one asks, How must I live? -- and asks it in the light of knowing that those "interior lives" surround you everywhere. Do they matter?

When The Fever first was performed, Wallace Shawn received a number of negative reviews from critics who rolled their eyes at “liberal guilt.” I think this is a travesty -- but it’s clear that some self-excoriation does happen in the play and that it’s a preoccupation for the author. Shawn’s most recent book, Night Thoughts, begins with a meditation on a crime:
Night. A hotel. A dark room on a high floor. … I turn on a dim lamp and stare at a newspaper, and my eye goes as always to the stories about crime, the murders. … They’re writing about me. Well, no, not me, not quite, not yet. But I know, as I read, that I’m not reading as the victim, I’m reading as the murderer.
Almost three decades after The Fever, Shawn is still turning over the same question, even the same scene. It is, then, not an easy question. What is still most compelling to me in this play – what I feel sharply and personally, and why I wanted to stage it – is the tension it shows between the aesthetic and the ethical. It’s a work of art that says that the love of art can be part of the problem; a depiction, possibly even an enactment, of a desperate inner struggle against the overweening claims of the inner life. To me this is a conundrum, not a gotcha. I’m willing to argue that none of us do all we could. But how to face that truth, and how to respond? The Fever gives us a story – not a manifesto. Will we write the story off as a spasm of ineffectual guilt? Will we try to invent a litmus test for how this response should look? Will we let the difficulty of the question serve as an alibi for doing nothing?

Monday, September 4, 2017

R.I.P. John Ashbery, 1927-2017

John Ashbery has died. For some he was, at least for a while, the clown prince of the democracy of American poetry. For others he was always an irritating pretender, or became one after a brief good run. I never regarded him as the culmination of the spirit of Whitman but I am unrepentant in loving his book of prose-poetry Three Poems. Below is a modified mini-appreciation of this which I initially posted online in 2006.

A definitive work of late 20th-century American poetry, Three Poems is John Ashbery's masterpiece. (Some will try to tell you that this status belongs to Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which is probably true if you are asking about importance and influence in the ranks of American poetry. But I'm talking about depth.)

You may love what Ashbery does with language, washing it and wringing it out; you may find him too clever by three quarters; or you may think his work over-rated and his influence disastrous; but you can't ignore him if you care about poetry in English. For myself, Three Poems is up there with the Upanishads, the Tao te Ching, the Cloud of Unknowing, Spinoza's Ethics, Fear & Trembling, the great poetic sequences of Rimbaud and of Rilke, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, I & Thou, and Green Eggs and Ham. It is one of the great genre-transcending manuals of spiritual discipline. Charles Williams distinguished between two ways in the spiritual life: the Way of Affirmation, and the Way of Rejection, of Images. What Ashbery does here is walk the latter by way of the former, mixing the right-hand and left-hand paths.
I thought if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.
"The poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth," Sidney assured us. Three Poems is Ashbery at his most "affirming," but he's showing the absence that is stirred in everywhere, and if this seems a postmodern bankruptcy, at other times it reads like a sort of suburban sunyata.

If you find it just baffling and weird, try reading it without the obligation to "get it." You can even go through it fast the first time, just letting the sound of words and the rhythm of the prose work on you. You may find that the meaning comes into focus about halfway through,like one of those 3-D pictures you have to stare at for a while. What Ashbery has done is to evoke the extreme nuance and imprecision of ordinary life, the way things happen in practice and not, ever, in theory, the way every instant is constantly shading off into the next moment and no experience stays put: you can be falling in love, or hearing terrible news one day; then, after some finite duration, you'll be learning to juggle or changing a diaper or realizing you never liked sushi. These things just happen, in all their bewildering thicket. And yet, an order emerges. Was it always there? Is "seeing it" just a function of our editing what has happened as we talk to ourselves? Or do we live in a broader story, only part of which we are overhearing? Ashbery makes these questions not a theoretical diversion but a lived mode of being, a prayer in the pulse. After this book "living inquiry" means something new. It isn't for everybody, but for some, Three Poems can become almost a breviary.

Ashbery's late-later works got cuter and more non-sequitury by the year, and I never learned to love them, but in Three Poems he either tapped into something so raw and real that it scared him away thereafter, or he mastered the art of seeming like he had tapped the raw and real so well that he never needed to try that again. I'm happily agnostic about this question most days, and then some nights it keeps me up, staring at the pages again. In any case, while he was often funny or even (maybe too often, as his career wore on) jokey, Three Poems is genuinely comic, culminating in a marriage of sorts between the "old" and the "new", and yes, raising suspicions about which section might have mapped onto which, if we care to force the analogy with that other great three-part Commedia. (It's neither a straightforward parallel nor a straightforward reversal, like Seidel's Cosmos Trilogy, but if I had to guess, I'd say Ashbery's three should be read roughly as Purgatory, Hell, Paradise.)

He's gone now, slipping out of this dark wood, and he's taken his secret with him. Or left it in plain sight. Or both.

Memory Eternal.