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, October 13, 2014

Allen Grossman, זיכרונו לברכה

On Sunday, October 19 there will be a service at Brandeis University for the memory of the poet Allen Grossman, who died last June 27. I am tempted to call Grossman one of the last great American modernists. During a time when poetry was being dissolved into a play of power differentials, historical-political agendas, personal musings, and trivial deconstructive animadversions, Grossman seemed like a character from the wild Romantic bygone. Aside from his grey hair being pulled back in a short ponytail, he looked every bit the aging academic in tweed or corduroy; but no one who ever heard Grossman read left with that impression. The man proclaimed poetry, like that old recording of Yeats going off to Innisfree's bee-loud glen; "like an Old Testament prophet," I've known more than one person to say. Despite what you might think about that sort of elocution -- now that it is out of fashion, it seems to remind us, for no very clear reason, of bad Shakespearean actors -- Allen Grossman was absolutely convincing at it. (What is more, he could do this while remaining familiar, earthy, heartbreaking, and very funny.) If that tradition is still alive (and I'm not sure it is -- the only other reader I ever knew to use such a style was Ginsberg, which makes me wonder if it is a coincidence that these two late holdouts were both Jewish), it is due in no small part to Grossman's defense of it. He was sure that the over-cautious delivery of poems that he saw spreading was a sign of poets' self-protection -- from their public, but especially from poetry itself, in all its raw danger. Grossman thought this self-protectiveness was the symptom of our avoidance of a deeper crisis in representation itself. The task he set himself was to face that crisis and think it through. This was not a wistful wondering about on what restricted terms we might still hope that poetry matters; it was a warning about what "mattering" means at all, and what the consequences are if poetry doesn't.

Grossman was of the same generation as many of the so-called Confessional poets (he was born in 1936, the same year as Sylvia Plath), but his career took a different arc, although he mined as deeply as any the autobiographical, even turning back towards his early poetic self in his late publication Sweet Youth, which juxtaposed many of his first poems with those he had lately written, in a kind of unfolding dialogue between past and present, as the young man and the old man "meet and acknowledge one another for the first time and pass on a stair -- one going up and the other down."

Over his career Grossman not only produced poetry in the strong mode of late Modernism, he elaborated an astonishingly rich ars poetica. This enterprise has a tremendous theoretical range, unmatched in breadth or depth by any similar body of work in the past half-century. Through all this work of a lifetime -- profound wrestlings with predecessors from Homer or Caedmon to Stevens and Dickinson, and unflinching meditations about the problems of poetics under the conditions of late capitalism and the nuclear age -- Grossman never stints from asserting his basic faith: he fully believed that poetry still was, or could be, a kind of sacred vocation. Although he didn't talk about the Muse as White Goddess, there was still, from Grossman as from Graves, the same utterly serious and unapologetic straight talk about the power of poetry, with nary an overblown word. If you didn't see poetry that way, fine. Grossman wasn't going to wear himself out arguing with you; but he was quietly sure you were cheating yourself.

Grossman's deepening concerns can be traced over the length of his whole career, but three crucial installments in that oeuvre are found in The Sighted Singer, which is, I swear to you, one of the great, weird works of poetics in the West, to rank alongside the Biographia Literaria or In the American Grain. The first two portions of The Sighted Singer are records of two sets of conversations, a decade apart (in Winter of 1981 and Summer of 1990), between Grossman and poet Mark Halliday. In these talks, Halliday and Grossman transmute respectful and serious disagreements into a compelling, but open, assessment of the stakes for poetry. They don't converge upon a single vision, but let their mutual demurrals and unfinished trains of thought hang there like the minority views in a Talmudic tractate. After that comes the third part, Summa Lyrica -- a different sort of work, sprawling and systematic at the same time, a very strange sort of -- well, I'am tempted to say "gnosis," despite the Bloomian appropriation of the word. The first section of Summa Lyrica opens with a magisterial declaration:
Immortality I

1. The function of poetry is to obtain for everybody one kind of success at the limits of the autonomy of the will.

1.1 The limits of the autonomy of the will discovered in poetry are death and the barriers against access to other consciousness.

1.2 The abandonment of the autonomy of the will of the speaking person as a speaker constitutes a form of knowledge—poetic knowledge. The knowledge that not “I” speaks but “language speaks” (Heidegger). The function of this knowledge is to rescue the natural will at the point of its death, that is to say, at the point where death arrests its intention.

1.3 Poetry is produced by the mortality of body and soul, the immiscibility of minds, and the postponement of the end of the world.

1.4 The kind of success poetry facilitates is called “immortality.”
If there is a more ambitious way of commencing a work of poetics, I do not know what it is. But the work is not merely ambitious; it is full of poignancy, depth, close analyses, erudition, refusals of stock response. It is profound but it is not portentous, and does not elaborate simple responses. In fact, Grossman believed that the notion of "sufficient response" to our human dilemma was a snare. As he wrote in an appendix to his late volume How To Do Things With Tears,
The poet...opposes the satisfaction of supposing that thinking is innocent....The conviction of "sufficient response" ("what will suffice," "answerable voice," "closure") is peculiarly delusive. Any NEW poetry must be aware that there is nothing that will suffice.
Or, as he enjoined elsewhere in the same volume:
Do not be content with an imaginary God.
This question of the new in poetry is also what accounts for the title of The Sighted Singer, a reversal of the traditional trope by which the poet's gift of prophecy was counterbalanced by blindness (e.g. Tiresias, Homer, Milton). This revision of a tradition in which he was so deeply grounded was not lightly undertaken. His were very high stakes, and Grossman did not claim he had won; only that there was no honor or praise in pretending the stakes were otherwise. For Grossman, when one reads a poem as a poem, one is seeking "the presence of a person," and personhood is (I think) the center about which his project turns -- what he called "the hard problem." Immortality. A non-imaginary God. From beginning to end, Grossman's work is a sustained engagement on the terms of this problem. He did not offer easy solace, and he did not despair.

Remember what he remembered.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"Cosmopolitan Philosophy in a Polycentric World"

I want to do my (modest) bit for publicity for this pitch from Jonardon Ganeri, a philosopher teaching at NYU and King's College, London. It is a learned, well-documented and very timely call for asking for philosophers to take seriously the cosmopolitan ideal. It is also imminently philosophical itself, in that it is a call for committed encounter -- not a pointless and going-nowhere "discussion" where everyone shares their story and nothing happens, but a proposal for action -- it is philosophy engagée, but it is very much philosophy.

Ganeri is a well-known scholar of Indian philosophy, and his proposal -- a blueprint for an “Institute for Cosmopolitan Philosophy in a Culturally Polycentric World” -- is informed by a formidable historical expertise. It is also all the more urgent in the wake of a great deal of discussion of Eugene Park's recent Huffington Post article on the way he thinks university philosophy departments, and philosophical assumptions at work in those departments, remain caught in a moribund patriarchal monoculture even as other humanities have successfully moved into a promising multicultural future.
Philosophy of mind does not typically engage at all with Indian, East Asian, African, or Native American ideas about the nature of mind. It’s as if non-Western thinkers had nothing to say about the matter. Similarly, those who work in the history of philosophy work almost exclusively on the history of Western philosophy — e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Russell, Wittgenstein, etc.
So why don’t Anglo-American philosophers engage with non-Western philosophical traditions? In my experience, professional philosophers today often perceive non-Western thinkers as inferior. Of course, few would say this explicitly. Rather, philosophers often point to non-Western philosophy’s unusual and unfamiliar methodology as the primary reason for the disconnect....[But] The excuses for excluding non-Western thinkers from the philosophical canon are sometimes more obviously derogatory. For instance, philosophers often claim that non-Western thought lacks "rigor" and "precision," essential characteristics of serious philosophy. As a result, many philosophers simply dismiss non-Western intellectual culture as (mere) religion, speculative thought, or literature.
Brian Leiter, who's made a nuisance and menace of himself in more than a few ways lately, acted like he had explained the whole thing thus:
My own impression, from having talked to a lot more philosophers than Mr. Park and for a much longer period of time, is that most Anglophone philosophers have no opinion at all about non-Western philosophy because they are simply ignorant of it. Some regret the ignorance, others think it is excusable since there are so many philosophical traditions in the world and one can only master so many, and others just don’t think about it at all because it is possible to pursue an academic career in philosophy ignorant of a lot of things, including large swaths of the history of European philosophy (and the further back in the past we go, the more the boundary lines of "what’s European, what’s not" get harder to draw).
Leiter's modest proposal is that, well, sure,
more study of non-Western philosophical traditions would be salutary and illuminating; ... that some parts of so-called "feminist" philosophy are as illuminating as their so-called "Marxist" predecessors; and... that race -- like class and gender -- benefits from philosophical attention, and that critical theory approaches to social-political philosophy are at least as important as the kind of work done by bourgeois liberals, whose work dominates the Anglophone curriculum. What I still do not believe is that we should add Asian philosophers, or African-American philosophers, to the curriculum in order to “encourage” (on some misguided theory) minorities to enroll in philosophy courses.
Leiter is not a guy I an used to agreeing with (well, to be fair, I'm not used to paying attention; sometimes I regret the ignorance, but mostly I think it is pretty damn excusable). So it is with reluctance that I even give the appearance of condoning, however tangentially, any part of his position. I find his tone condescending and I suspect that his posting on the topic at all is an act of grandstanding which distracts from his other woes at present. (I'm not even going to mention, though I will link to, the silliness that is his silly treatment of this guy "Terrence".) Nonetheless, I'd bet he's right that many or most academic philosophers don't have a thought in their heads about Mohism or Mīmāṃsā; and I mostly concur with the gist of his remark that the motivation for expanding the philosophy curriculum should be, well, philosophical. While I doubt is that Leiter has much interest in this, I could be wrong. But I'd also argue that there is -- obviously -- a genuine philosophical gain to be made in expanding philosophical attention beyond the usual railroad with its Plato - Augustine - Descartes - Hume - Russell - Husserl stations. That this should have to be argued for is just astounding. Does anyone really dispute that Platonism and, say, Confucianism are at least comparably robust and rich philosophical traditions? Leiter faults Eugene Park for never explaining or "even affirm[ing] the merits of these thinkers" from Asia and Africa and South America. Neither, of course, does Leiter defend or even mention the merits of Aristotle, Kant, or Quine. Their merits are self-evident to him. This is exactly the question, though: what is it that will go without saying?

Ganeri's proposal (which I first read about on Amod Lele's indispensible blog Love of All Wisdom, still one of the only online spots that really practices the kind of philosophy I am talking about in this post) suggests an autonomous institute, separate from academia's usual disciplinary boundaries ("Asian studies," "Philosophy of Mind"), which would be geographically spread out in multiple locations, structured as a linked network.

In his blueprint, Ganeri asks after the cross- and multi-cultural aspirations of philosophy, and speculates on the kind of institution that would best serve and embody them. As Lele underlines, Ganeri is frankly asking for input and discussion either by email -- he includes his email address on the blueprint -- or on blogs or other online forums. I don't know Ganeri personally, but it is obvious that something like his proposal needs to be taken seriously for Western philosophy to really face alterity, or for that matter, for philosophy per se to really aspire to universality, instead of a picture of "the universal" that looks the spit'n' image of something very parochial. It is shockingly clear that this is what philosophy should be doing -- not swaddling the love of wisdom in in a bundle of relativistic politeness, but really aspiring to genuine catholicity. And it seems more and more clear that it isn't going to happen in academe as it stands.

I am a strong proponent of the idea of "the canon"; as the twelve people who read this blog can attest, my shorthand for my position is "platonist," and it's all too plausible that I suffer from less than my share of white liberal affluent (by many standards) guilt -- i.e., that I reflect less often than I could on just how good I have it compared to so many (and that I act on this reflection even less). Point is, I'm not motivated here by standard-issue political correctness. I'm not sure anyone is, anymore. But the blinders on western philosophy have got to come off. I find it impossible to imagine Plato, or Diogenes-"citizen of the world"-the-Cynic, (or Leibniz or Spinoza for that matter) being threatened or annoyed by the suggestion that we might be able to seriously profit from really listening to people who have thought about the same things for going on three or four thousand years.