What’s Immoral About the Immoralist?

I think I can be forgiven hoping to find something lurid in a novel entitled The Immoralist, written by a notorious French pederast. But at first blush there’s not all that much to blush about in André Gide’s book. I closed it a bit underwhelmed, feeling as if I’d finished a competent but frankly somewhat prudish mashup of Oscar Wilde, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Edgar Allen Poe. The story had, however, entered the two-chambered stomach of my mind. I chewed the cud of it for a day, and by the time I’d digested it I realized just how interesting it was.

Michel, the eponymous immoralist, is a bookish and independently wealthy young man. He marries his childhood sweetheart, Marceline. On their honeymoon he almost dies of tuberculosis. Galvanized by his escape, he decides to abandon books in favor of sensual experience: sunbathing naked, hanging out with pretty little boys, roaming about at night poaching rabbits on his own lands, that sort of thing.

Marceline doesn’t much like Michel’s new philosophy, and when she gets pregnant he seriously considers taking back up the burdens of typical bourgeois life. But then Marceline miscarries and gets tuberculosis herself. By way of a cure, Michel foolishly hustles her from place to place. He convinces both of them that carting her around the Middle East is the best way to treat her. They retrace the path of their honeymoon: for him it was a journey of convalescence, but for her, now, it’s a journey of deterioration. In a suitably gothic finale, she dies hemorrhaging, drowning in her own blood, covered in sheets of it, just about where Michel was definitively cured, in a remote desert village beyond the reach of any doctors.

Plenty is disturbing in this story, especially the fate of Marceline. But where’s the immorality? A bookworm almost dies and realizes he needs to live a little. For the most part he doesn’t hurt anybody, except by accident. It is disturbing when the narrator suggests that Michel was unmoved by the death of Marceline. But even there, apart from Michel’s poor medical theories — for which he did, actually, have some basis, since he’d been cured by the same desert that kills Marceline — he does nothing to deserve serious opprobrium, offering Marceline devoted daily care, even though he’s long since ceased to base his happiness on their love. Can you fault someone for being unable to muster an emotion, when he doesn’t allow that inner coldness to interfere with any external duties? Where’s the immorality?

I think questing for that immorality, an almost inevitable readerly task, as Gide surely realized when he chose the title, unfolds a seemingly straightforward and simple story into something more profound and challenging.

Perhaps the key to the book is a conversation that takes place about halfway through. After Michel and Marceline’s honeymoon they end up back in Paris where Michel gives some lectures. He tries to express his new philosophy of sensuality in these lectures, but nobody understands. Nobody except one former acquaintance, Ménalque, a man much further along the same path. Here’s the pertinent exchange:

Ménalque, who was walking up and down the room, absentmindedly lit a cigarette, then threw it away at once. “There is,” he continued, “a ‘sense,’ the others would say, a ‘sense’ you seem to be lacking, my dear Michel.”

“You mean a ‘moral sense,’” I said, trying to smile.

“No, just a sense of property.”

Michel doesn’t lack a moral sense; he lacks a sense of property; yet we find him in a book called L’immoraliste. This isn’t a contradiction because there’s a difference between immorality and amorality. An important difference actually, one all-too-often elided. If two people believe in different accounts of what is good, and therefore judge different actions to be right, each will perceive the other to be immoral. If one of them didn’t believe anything was good, and that there were no right actions, he would be amoral.

Michel does lack something: a sense of property. And this makes him appear immoral to people who possess that sense.

What does it mean that he lacks a sense of property?

In the remark’s immediate context, it quite literally means that he isn’t jealous of his possessions. He lets a child steal from him for the pleasure of witnessing the theft, for instance.

But in a deeper sense that Ménalque teaches him, Michel has no property because he lives entirely in the present. Don’t cling to memory, advises Ménalque. Don’t steer your craft by the north star of principle or any particular constellation of previous felicity, but follow the erratic comet of present inclination. If a friend tires you, drop them; if a former hobby bores you, neglect it; if you want something, buy it. Relinquish both the past and the future.

What becomes of property if there is no past or future? It ceases to make sense as a concept. For something to be “property” to you, you must project your possession of it into the future as a right, on the basis of some supposedly legitimating act of appropriation in the past. Perhaps you bought this banana yesterday, and therefore you consider that only you or your agents may eat or dispose of it tomorrow. (My beloved and I experience the antinomies of banana ownership on a weekly basis, as she considers her act of purchasing the bananas reason enough to deprive me of what I perceive to be my right to dispose of them when they get black and mushy.) The very coherence of the idea of property depends upon time-consciousness, depends upon our not fully inhabiting the present.

But why does Michel’s lack of a sense of property, in either the shallow or the deeper sense, make him immoral? Remember, the immoral is a comparative term, used by those with a different conception of the moral than those whom they consider immoral. We may therefore presume that Michel’s immorality is a feature of how he appears to those who differ from him in the essential way that they possess a sense of property. And indeed this is fully borne out by a second key scene in the book.

One of Michel’s tenants realizes that his landlord is poaching rabbits on his own land. He’s buying copper wire to help the son of his overseer set up illicit snares, and then he’s running around at night setting them up, taking great delight in, essentially, stealing from himself. Michel’s tenant, Charles, delivers a sermon to his landlord:

Charles’s voice grew more and more assured. He sounded almost noble. I noticed that he had shaved off his whiskers. […] “It was Monsieur who taught me last year that property involves certain responsibilities — but Monsieur seems to have forgotten. Either you take those responsibilities seriously and stop dealing with those [poachers] or else you don’t deserve to own anything.”

Michel doesn’t deserve to own anything: but what would make him deserve ownership? Presumably, the missing sense of property. The circularity of this observation delights me. It highlights the arbitrary nature of ownership itself. The will to own is itself the prime justification and qualification for ownership. And in fact isn’t that the disillusioning reality?

I think I’ve found what makes the immoralist immoral. Michel’s immorality is a feature of how he is perceived by a bourgeois who properly understands what Michel has become. What has he become? A sensualist, someone wholly absorbed by the present and therefore unwilling and unable to entertain a sense of property. That’s not so bad, though, I don’t think. In fact it’s… admirable. Not being amoral, Michel is immoral because he has detached himself from the obsession with property that festers at the heart of bourgeois morality. Earlier, before the perfection of his sensuality, he saw just how unhappy this obsession could make him:

Furniture, fabrics, engravings, everything lost all its value for me at the first blemish — things stained, things infected by disease and somehow marked by mortality. I longed to protect everything, to put it all under lock and key for myself alone. How lucky Ménalque is, I thought, owning nothing! It’s because I want to save things that I suffer.

A year ago I was briefly misdiagnosed with a heart problem and spent several weeks convinced I might die at any moment. It was among the best things that ever happened to me. Months later, I wouldn’t trade the memory of that gaze into the abyss for anything. Among its many lingering effects is a strong and existential disgust with possessions. I keep finding ways and reasons to get rid of my things. The Immoralist revealed something to me about this disgust: it’s the obverse of a newfound appreciation for immediacy, for the present. All those things, mementos of the past or collections curated and aimed at a future completion, were bifurcations of the present, so many incursions of death upon life.

The various gothic thrills and horrors of The Immoralist conceal a quietly more interesting idea: the transvaluation of values effected by a clear perception of the precious contingency of existence.

The Torture of Reading Yourself

Once upon a time, I genuinely enjoyed rereading myself. Homeschooled, unexposed to any serious literature fresher than the nineteenth century, I harbored a prose-crush on Nathaniel Hawthorne. The same labored syntax could be found in my sentences, the same archaic diction, the same reliance on periodicity, apostrophe, and the indefinite pronoun. By contrast to my anachronistic affectations, everything I read in newspapers and magazines seemed inferior, simplistic, discordant. For the brief years of my naivety, I really thought I might be something special as a writer.

Then I discovered the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Spent the next decade cleaning the cobwebs off my verbs and dusting my lines for commas. Learned not to sound like a breathless nymph from the era of corsets and hysteria who had picked up her diction from the Authorized Version. And I really read.

After you’ve really read, you don’t think you’re special anymore. With Thomas Browne and Joan Didion and William Gass and Samuel Johnson and Samuel Delany and Elizabeth Browning and George Eliot and Henry James and Penelope Fitzgerald all living in your head, looking over your shoulder, sniffing at your choices — well, you know the truth.

Still, I never thought I’d get this deep into self-loathing. Lately it’s physically painful to read something a month old. I saw my last Open Letters essay featured in A&L Daily and instead of delight I felt a shudder of horror — I had almost accidentally clicked the link and put myself face to face with the gibbering abortions of my own brain. It’s bad. You don’t even realize.

Sometimes it’s worse than others. After a few pints or a single stiff drink, I can just about make it through something I’ve written in the last year without choking on my own bile. But in the full clarity of the morning, after my coffee, in peak mental form, I would rather drag steel wool across the jelly of my own eyes than face those limping phrases.

Aha! — Subjectivity, you say. But nope, that’s not it. I’ve tested this. The ends of Orwell’s essays and the beginnings of Austen’s novels are just as ego-meltingly wonderful in any state of mind. It’s only the palatability of my own sentences that varies with my appetite, temperature, hydration, and the dilation of my pupils.

Supposedly this sort of wretchedness is a good sign. Disliking your own words means you haven’t reached the acme of your powers of expression. We can hope. But isn’t it also possible that ability and taste are out of joint? The strength of my disgust and admiration for the prose of others used to give me confidence that I possessed some kind of ear or ghostly sense, rare of its kind, for proportion and euphony, line and color. I can hear meter easily and my teachers always praised my scansion and I can appreciate le mot juste. But the repeated disappointments of my own writing make me increasingly nervous that fineness of perception does not endow skill as a matter of course.

But there’s no giving up. Mere failure can’t stop a man besotted with Calliope. You just keep studying the masonry of syntax, the husbandry of diction, the dance steps of style; you just keep learning how to trawl for metaphors and plant those parallels fathoms-deep, unobtrusive, and resonant. And you read. And you suffer in the name of unachievable perfection.

Me, having just been forced to read myself.
Me, having just been forced to read myself.

Two Kinds of Minimalism

A social disease?

This summer an editorial in the New York Times announced that minimalism is a social disease:

The fetishized austerity and performative asceticism of minimalism is a kind of ongoing cultural sickness. We misinterpret material renunciation, austere aesthetics and blank, emptied spaces as symbols of capitalist absolution, when these trends really just provide us with further ways to serve our impulse to consume more, not less.

This annoyed me for two reasons. First because it preempted a piece I’d been meaning to write myself, a big social critique of minimalist self-help writers. I shelved my essay in order not to appear derivative. But I was also annoyed because it seemed to completely miss the point of the kind of minimalism I’m most familiar with — the kind I practice.

My minimalism

I don’t maintain a Pinterest account specially for pictures of my livingroom whitespace and monochromatic outfits, nor does my minimalism amount to certain brand choices within an otherwise generic consumerism. But I do practice a sort of voluntary asceticism.

I have two pairs of pants, two pairs of shoes, one coat, and so on. Even though I read all the time, I don’t permit myself to own more than 100 books. Knicknacks and clutter annoy me. I schedule my life to give myself long periods to focus on doing one thing at a time. Each day, I budget internet time — no more than an hour, for everything from email to news-gathering to social media. I do not own a car, and I hope never to do so. And I eat a very simple diet, often just Soylent (which, despite its many and often justified detractors, has the great benefit in my case that it’s the one food which has never, ever triggered a migraine).

Minimalism is expensive

Another NYT editorial rightly points out that this kind of minimalism is a privilege of the well-off. To make do with few clothes, for example, you have to buy durable ones, which are more expensive. The elements of my compact workspace, my phone and computer and ebook reader, represent a considerable investment. Poverty would debar me from these forms of minimalism. One ought not take any kind of moral high-ground about a minimalism of things — there are material preconditions for this efficiency. Nor should one moralize about time-minimalism. The freedom to focus is also a privilege. Simplicity is a kind of wealth, unequally and unjustly distributed. The poor often live among clutter and in terrible, stultifying distraction.

To the extent that the critique of minimalism is a critique of smugness or superiority, I endorse it. But there is a larger, erroneous critique having to do with the emotional, practical, and, dare I say, spiritual outcome of minimalism. It argues that at the end of minimalism lies boredom, depression, and nihilistic emptiness.

No, not necessarily.

The two minimalisms

Minimalism is a means. Essentially it’s the act of releasing unnecessary things. I think the editorial’s fundamental critique of minimalism only works insofar as that means is taken to be an end in itself. There are two minimalisms. There is the releasing of unnecessary things because this means itself is taken to beautiful, good, or satisfying; and there is the releasing of unnecessary things because they allow one to focus more completely on fewer and more rewarding things.

An example:

Earlier in the election cycle (a time, despite its aggravations, which I now look back upon with nostalgia for its innocence), I was consuming a lot of samey, quick hit political journalism. I got around my internet time-limits by sending too many articles every day to my Kindle. (To read them offline, see.) But at some point I realized it was eating into my ability to focus on other things. Each little hit of “x said y today,” was another tiny piranha nibbling on the things that matter.

So I cut news-cycle politics entirely out of my reading diet. I refused to read anything but longform and longue dureé essays about the political and world situation. As a result I ended up looking further abroad for the kind of reading matter that satisfied my new conditions. Now I get my news not just from local, US sources but from Japan and India, Germany and Spain, Argentina and China. It’s just about the only good thing to have come out of this election, as far as I’m concerned.

For minimalism to yield this kind of reward, I must link it to a fairly comprehensive set of personal goods. There’s no virtue in itself in ignoring the blow-by-blow of daily news. For some people — let’s say political organizers or the editors of political journals — it would in fact be a foolish and detrimental restriction. But for me, because I prioritize my vocation to write, this act of minimalizing was deeply enriching.

Most of the elements of my “minimalist lifestyle” were chosen this way, as discrete means to enhance my ability to write and to do the thinking and reading necessary to write well. I wouldn’t necessarily advocate any individual instance of my minimalizing as a universal good. But I can and do think that considering the blooming buzzing whole of one’s life, and determining where one’s energies would best be spent, and where those energies would be wasted, would benefit nearly anyone. If that’s minimalism, I’ll gladly defend it.

There is, of course, a second minimalism, the proper target of the NYT editorial. This minimalism elevates a means to a panacea-like end and moralizes at those who dissent. It is the minimalism of the disruptor, whose vision of social progress is the unnecessary streamlining and capitalization of some new, unsuspecting facet of daily life. This kind of minimalism is the reason a lot of people I respect despise Soylent. They perceive it to be an unnecessary “creative destruction” of eating. I get it (while, as stated above, dissenting for medical reasons of my own).

In that long-abandoned essay I was going to write about minimalism, I planned to point out that simplicity, clutter-free spaces, and empty schedules can often take the form of a narrow-minded rejection of the personal consequences of capitalism, which amounts to leveraging the distress of others to seize one’s own peace. There we have a minimalism not just empty and dissatisfying, but actively noxious.

All I ask is that we distinguish between the unassuming, meaningful simplicities of the one minimalism, and the narcissistic, grandstanding aridities of the other.

As plain a thing as an ordinary sentence

Don’t all writers have a hidden nerve, call it a secret chamber, something irreducibly theirs, which stirs their prose and makes it tick and turn this way or that, and identifies them, like a signature, though it lurks far deeper than their style, or their voice or other telltale antics?

These words are by André Aciman and they apply to him also, though it can be difficult to look beneath his style, which is so unusual, so beguiling in its coils and toils, that it’s often the first thing critics mention. So let’s dispose of that style summarily and look at what “lurks far deeper,” then return to the style to consider it as a manifestation of that deeper thing.

The uniqueness of Aciman’s style follows almost entirely from his willingness to write long sentences. His sentences are remarkable for more than their length, but length is their precondition. Because Aciman is willing to give himself space, to sacrifice the sacred cow of modern English prose—immediate, self-effacing intelligibility—in pursuit of more rarefied aesthetic goals, he simply has more room to experiment. Long sentences, as should be mathematically obvious, have more possible variations than short sentences. Many of Aciman’s long, recursive sentences have an exploratory feeling, as if he is always probing into the terra incognita of syntactic hinterlands. Here’s a lovely example:

You go out into the world to acquire all manner of habits and learn all sorts of languages, but the one tongue you neglect most is the one you’ve spoken at home, just as the customs you feel most comfortable with are those you never knew were customs until you saw others practice completely different ones and realized you didn’t quite mind your own, though you’d strayed so far now that you probably no longer knew how to practice them.

Within these long sentences, Aciman performs miracles of subtle rhythm and felicitous diction. He seems to feel what few writers, however inventive and vigorous their prose, feel anymore: the difference not just between the right and the wrong word, but between the beautiful and the ugly word. His sentences are beautiful, but they’re emphatically not his signature, hidden nerve, secret chamber.

That would be desire.

Desire’s a funny thing. It’s a pain, a discomfort, because it signifies a lack. When you desire something, you move toward it restlessly, hoping you’ll get it and desire will cease. But if you get the thing you want, and have no further desires to prick you with further discomforts, likely you’re bored. Boredom is even more uncomfortable than desire. And so the life of someone attentive to their own gratification will be a constant rocking to and fro between desire and its fulfillment and the emptiness that brings. Perhaps the lowest point of all is to be bored so intensely that you begin to desire to desire something: and this desire, this meta-desire, a second order self-consciousness of the lack of desire, is numbness.

These three moments in the movement of desire are basically the entire focus of Aciman’s writing. Writers with such exclusive focus upon their theme are rare. If he were a lesser writer, this narrowness of vision would make him minor; but I think he plumbs the depths of his theme, makes the minor major by sheer thoroughness.

The book I read recently which prompts these reflections is called Alibis. It’s a collection of travel writing, but as, I imagine, anything Aciman writes will tend to do, each piece bends toward evoking and analyzing the workings of desire: “it is not the things we long for that we love; it is longing itself. . .”

 

alibis

 

When Aciman visits a place, his regard slides off the present into memories of his own dreams of the future. You know that aesthetic, the retro-future? The future as imagined by someone from the 50s, say? That’s Aciman’s experience of the present: he revisits a place and remembers how he imagined it otherwise. He experiences this both as a painful thwarting, and, self-consciously, as an exquisite pleasure. So when he goes to visit Rome, where he lived as a boy, he thrills with nostalgia for the memory of how he despised the streets he is now seeing, how he used to imagine them as the streets of other cities from the books he escaped into. Or when he writes about New York, he imagines how it might have appeared to Walter Benjamin if he had managed to escape France and emigrated to America. “What we ultimately remember is not the past but ourselves in the past imagining the future.”

But boredom is also there in the elaborate pains Aciman takes, when visiting or revisiting a place, to arrange the most exquisite sensations, to ensure that he will stir up the most poignant desires. And when he fails, he complains about numbness, and turns to writing to kindle the missing fire, and then turns against writing with doubts about its suitability for the therapeutic role in which he’s cast it: “Does writing, as I did later that day, seek out words the better to stir and un-numb us to life—or does writing provide surrogate pleasures the better to numb us to experience?”

If these brief adumbrations of the theme he explores at excruciating (and exquisite) length, in every variation, haven’t made it clear, I’ll say it bluntly: Aciman’s travel writings use terrestrial geography as a pretext to explore the geography of consciousness. These essays, and the travel that occasioned them, are themselves pretexts for inner journeys away from the places his outer journeys are toward. The full title of the book is Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere. That word “elsewhere” does typical Acimanian double-duty, alluding both to the fact that this is a book of travel essays, and to the fact that Aciman himself is always elsewhere than where he travels to.

I say this is about desire, because I think Aciman raises to the level of an all-absorbing theme a dynamic of universal significance—desire itself—but Aciman himself seems to interpret his hidden nerve, secret chamber, signature, as exile. In childhood his family was forced to move from his birth city, Alexandria, and also to descend socially due to the circumstances of their departure. So he attributes his “parallax” vision, his constant absence from the present in favor of the speculations of the past or the counterfactual future, as a consequence, an internalization of the fact of exile: “an exile is a person who is always in one place but elsewhere as well.” His sense of exile is so complete that it has no relation to place; it’s an exile in time, a complete exile, permanent, irrevocable: “This feeling of being cut off from oneself or of being in two places at the same time is as though what was left behind were an amputated limb, something that was cut away from us and was not allowed to travel with us—an arm, a grandparent, a baby brother.”

So, given this absolutely unwavering interest in the dynamics of desire as raised to consciousness by the fact of exile, what are we to make of the style? Is there a connection between those lovely long sentences and the displacements of desire? I think so, yes, absolutely.

For one thing, at their most expansive and wandering, his very long sentences act out the displacement he’s usually describing. With imperceptible slippage, clause by slippery clause, he leads you to a thought that leaves you wondering: where did that sentence begin? You wonder not in a startled, confused way, as when the run-on sentence of a bad writer startles you into attention by a sloppy failure to be consistent in tense or precise about antecedents: no, instead it’s the kind of wondering that comes from wandering, as when you look up from your walk and realize you don’t know where you are are because you got lost in thought and then in reality, or when you’re trying to meditate, to think of nothing, and catch yourself cleverly metamorphosing this well-intentioned nothing into elaborate daydreams.

But the best part about the perfect fit between Aciman’s style and his subject is that he professes to be as helpless in the former as he is in the latters. He regales us with the intricacies of his travels by foot into memory because that’s just how he can’t help but experience those travels, and likewise, “cadenced prose, for all its pyrotechnics, is also a way of hiding that I can’t write as plain a thing as an ordinary sentence in English.”

On Philosophy: What Is It?

Since I am not teaching this year, I had assumed the large-scale questions about philosophy’s nature and significance, the ones that obsessed me as the lecturer in an undergraduate intro class, would subside (for me) for a while. Instead, my organism misses the act of lecturing. And, yes, the act of worrying about philosophy. I’m still thinking about it. To exorcise this distraction, I want to set out very simply, without a whole lot of technical detail or defense of minutiae, what I believe about the nature, method, and importance of philosophy. I’ll do so in three blog posts.

Clarifying the Question

First, what is philosophy? It’s a question answered so many times in such contradictory ways that venturing one’s own answer might seem both impertinent and pointless. But I think some of the apparent intractability comes from ambiguity. Is the question asking, what has philosophy been for its classic exponents? Is it asking, what does it mean to love wisdom (as the etymology of the word “philosophy” might lead you to expect)? Is it asking, what is the dominant view of the academic discipline of philosophy according to its own practitioners? Is it asking, what unites the genre of writing classified as philosophical? Is it asking, what does it mean to live the contemplative life?

(My point about the ambiguity of the question is a very philosophical one, by the way. One of Aristotle’s favorite observations about virtually any word or concept was, “it is said in many ways.” He would follow this observation with a virtuosic set of distinctions, often the most stimulating passages in his books.)

I mean the question “what is philosophy?” this way: assuming that philosophy is a form of inquiry, what sets it apart from others? This version of the question sets aside (perfectly reasonable) questions about what a philosophical lifestyle would look like, what academic departments of philosophy are for, and what self-styled philosophers have claimed for themselves. Those aren’t unimportant questions; they’re just not the one I’m interested in right now. By assuming that philosophy is a form of inquiry, I am assuming that it is a way of seeking to answer questions. That is not to disqualify other uses of the word, just to specify the use I am interested in exploring.

Take the commonly acknowledged core disciplines of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. What’s the difference between metaphysics and theology or cosmology? What’s the difference between epistemology and psychology? What’s the difference between ethics and legal thinking or ideological thinking? Not their objects, I think, which, often as not, are shared. “Does God exist?” is a question about which metaphysics, theology, and cosmology have had things to say, for example.

So, in my sense of the question, what is philosophy?

My Answer

Here’s my answer: I think philosophy is uniquely married to the way of thinking known as dialectic. I use this word, dialectic, in its ancient sense, as inquiry by dialogue, not in the interesting but more complicated senses that one can find in Hegel or Marx or other modern philosophers.

“What is philosophy?” “Philosophy is inquiry by dialogue.”

To reason by dialectic is to form an answer to a question, then to modify or defend it in response to alternative answers and strong objections. It’s inquiry by dialogue because it maps out the territory of answers to a question, disposing of facile ones and sharpening plausible ones and, often as not, inspiring new ones. It’s inquiry by dialogue because it’s basically an extrapolation of what happens when two or more reasonable and well-intentioned people try to answer a difficult question together. Even when you perform dialectic alone, it’s a dialogue. To do it by yourself, you have to imagine the alternatives and objections of someone else.

(This, by the way, is why Socrates is commonly treated as the fountainhead of philosophy. There were philosophers before him, and there are philosophers in traditions quite separate from him. But he is like an avatar of dialectic: what we are most certain about, in his case, is not the content of his beliefs, but the dialectical method by which he sought to answer questions.)

Philosophy’s closeness to dialectic explains why it’s the mother of so many other sciences. In the 17th century, for example, a whole slew of natural sciences peeled off of “natural philosophy.” Often their founders or first innovators thought of themselves as philosophers. This is because almost all sciences that have a method are a specification of dialectic.

For example, taxonomic inquiries are a pure form of dialectic in which objections take the form of pointing out instances of a thing which escape current definitions, and modifying or replacing those definitions with better ones. Even sciences of proof-making, as in many branches of mathematics and pure logic, are basically dialectical. When you make a proof, you construct an argument that shows how premises which have no plausible alternatives lead without contradiction to a certain conclusion. (Think back to the proofs you constructed in geometry class.) The plausibility of alternatives and the possibility of contradictions are the tests by which dialectic proceeds in all its forms.

Why define philosophy that way?

So why do I claim that dialectic distinguishes philosophy in particular, if I think virtually all forms of reasoning are specifications of it? Precisely because philosophy is the form of inquiry that employs dialectic without specification. The standards of evidence that specify other forms of inquiry set them apart as particular forms of inquiry. To inquire whether you have a broken arm, a doctor will manipulate the limb, ask for a subjective report of your feelings, and perhaps order an x-ray. These result of these tests are considered adequate to answer the question. Philosophy differs, I think, in that it has no such specifications, and therefore it really is, at root, about two or more well-intentioned and reasonable people trying to hash out the answers to a question together, by whatever means possible.

Some Consequences of My Answer

As a consequence, nothing’s ever settled in philosophy. Many people consider this a decisive objection to practicing it. I don’t: instead, I consider a sign of the inescapable role of philosophy in the ontogeny and phylogeny of human thinking. It’s a direct consequence of philosophy’s refusal to specify and standardize the kind of objections and alternatives that count in philosophical dialectic. To “settle” most inquiries requires that two or more people posit what kind of dialectical tests will count as decisive for both of them. In short, almost by definition (I think), special sciences are going to produce a lot more consensus than philosophy. That’s sort of the point of them.

Let’s carefully distinguish between “philosophy never settles things” and “philosophers never settle things.” The latter claim is false. Many philosophers think they have settled things, and have a reasonable claim to it. The answers they espouse have fared well in the dialectical tests they have administered, in the debates they’ve participated in. The possibility of such temporary and contingent decisiveness is probably why philosophy isn’t actually demoralizing, but exciting and even fulfilling. But the grinding engine of philosophy as a whole tends to undermine the claims to settlement of even the most successful philosophers in their own day.

Philosophy’s refusal to specify dialectic makes it generative. A lot of the more special sciences, where the limits of dialectical conventions have enabled enormous progress in inquiry (the way putting your thumb over the end of the garden hose makes the water shoot out farther) grow out of the dialectical free-for-all of philosophy.

Why Philosophy in My Sense is Useful

I think, if I’m right about what philosophy is, that I can plausibly argue it’s a useful form of inquiry for anyone to learn about and attempt to practice. (I’m not arguing everybody should be a pro philosopher in their spare time, or even that philosophy classes should necessarily form the core of an undergraduate curriculum. I’m just saying pretty much anybody can benefit from it.):

(1) Philosophy will make you better at conversing intelligibly in everyday life. After all, it’s just an intensification, a formalization of two reasonable, well-intentioned people trying to answer a question together. And most of us find ourselves in that situation multiple times a day. Why not learn to do it better?

Aristotle wrote, in a book about dialectic called The Topics:

The possession of a plan of inquiry will enable us more easily to argue about the subject proposed. For purposes of casual encounters, it is useful because when we have counted up the opinions held by most people, we shall meet them on the ground not of other people’s convictions but of their own, while we shift the ground of any argument that they appear to us to state unsoundly.

(2) Philosophy will school you in intellectual humility. It does this in two ways: first by demonstrating, over and over again, that there’s more to be said after even the wisest or cleverest have had their say. Second, by highlighting the role of posture or attitude in the pursuit of truth. In more specified forms of dialectic—when you’re hunting for tardigrades, let’s say—the decidability wrought by conventional standards of evidence can induce the idea that inquiry is a mechanically applicable method. What philosophy’s open dialectic shows, over and over again, is that the best thinkers are the most self-critical ones, the ones who are best at imagining what a reasonable opponent would say. Literally no other study teaches the importance of learning to think against oneself in the way that philosophy does. And a refusal to think against oneself retards the progress of many special sciences and many powerful people: they could use some experience of dialectic.

In The Dawn of Day, Nietzsche writes:

Make it a rule never to withhold or conceal from yourself anything that may be thought against your own thoughts. Vow it! This is the essential requirement of honest thinking. You must undertake such a campaign against yourself every day. A victory and a conquered position are no longer your concern, but that of truth and your defeat also is no longer your concern.

(3) Philosophy makes it easier to take up more specific forms of inquiry. Because of its unspecified dialectic, philosophical discussions always pass through stages of disambiguation and definition, and end up working out careful, detailed distinctions. In short, practicing good philosophy makes you more precise, better at thinking about how your assertions sound to others, and avid for clarity and simplicity of expression. (This might surprise you if you’ve read the awful writing of a lot of academic philosophers: but more on that some other time.)

In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume writes:

[I]n every art or profession, even those which most concern life or action […] a spirit of accuracy, however acquired, carries all of them nearer their perfection, and renders them more subservient to the interests of society. And though a philosopher may live remote from business, the genius of philosophy, if carefully cultivated by several, must gradually diffuse itself throughout the whole society, and bestow a similar correctness on every art and calling. The politician will acquire greater foresight and subtility, in the subdividing and balancing of power; the lawyer more method and finer principles in his reasonings; and the general more regularity in his discipline, and more caution in his plans and operations. The stability of modern governments above the ancient, and the accuracy of modern philosophy, have improved, and probably will still improve, by similar gradations.

Everything I’ve just said about philosophy is highly contentious and scandalously simple. Being a graduate student in philosophy is like an indoctrination against the kind of bold generalizations I’ve just committed. Nonetheless, it’s more or less what I think, as I would explain it to someone who is not themselves knee deep in the morass of a graduate program in philosophy.

Next up, when I get to it, I’m going to explain how I think you—anyone, really—can do philosophy. (This is something I think a lot of undergraduate introductions to philosophy neglect in favor of presenting the history of philosophy.)

Why did I read four biographies of Stefan Zweig?

[Trigger warning: talk of suicide and despair, including a disturbing picture.]

Why did I read four (well, three and a half) biographies of Stefan Zweig in a row? The short answer is, I’m not sure. The long answer will take us through train rides, insomnia, paragraph-structure, marriage, suicide, political despair, and then leave us where the short answer did, in uncertainty. So come along if you don’t mind futility.

These days I choose what to read according to spontaneous interest or arbitrary schemas, in order to maintain the impetuosity of my enthusiasm. Lately I’ve put the list of all the books I want to read onto Goodreads, where I can order them by author or publication or title or whatever. Just for the serendipity of the thing, I’ve been reading them alphabetically by title. I had a long train ride coming up, so I needed a journey-specific project, and I was getting a little tired of books beginning with A. First I thought I’d start from the other end and read one beginning with Z. But then that seemed too predictable. So I really mixed things up and decided to start with authors whose last names begin with Z. Which led me to Stefan Zweig.

I got hold of a few of his novellas, and his wildly acclaimed autobiography, The World of Yesterday, and settled in for my train ride.

Clive James had alerted me to the existence of Zweig in his crotchety fabulous Cultural Amnesia. According to James, Zweig was important for the friendships he cultivated and for the portrait The World of Yesterday paints of pre-war Vienna; his fictions, James thought (if I’m remembering correctly), were competent but inconsiderable.

Well, by the end of my trip I disagreed with James. I found Zweig’s novellas masterpieces of concentrated narrative. And most of the world agrees with me, having kept him continuously in print. The US is waking back up to him too, and recent years have seen lots of new translations and republications and biographies and so on. Zweig is in the air. He ought to be. I felt that I had a lot to learn from his craft as a writer. His paragraphs for example, dazzled me. They’re longer than you find in contemporary fiction. But they’re also propulsive and remarkably orderly, even while they seemed to grow organically from the demands of the story. They are a strange hybrid of the logically unfolding paragraph of the essayist or historian and the dancing-forward, streaming paragraph of the story-teller. Here he is, for example, describing a professor who only really comes alive as the genius he is when a lecture rises spontaneously from a discussion in his classes:

Soon what began as mere intellectual conversation became electrical excitement and took fire, with his skilful hand fanning the flames— forceful argument countered claims made casually, sharp and keen interjections heated the discussion until the students were almost at loggerheads with each other. Only once the sparks were really flying did he intervene, calming the overexcited atmosphere and cleverly bringing the debate back to its subject, but at the same time giving it stronger intellectual stimulus by moving it surreptitiously into a timeless dimension— and there he suddenly stood amidst the play of these dialectical flames, in a state of high excitement himself, both urging on and holding back the clashing opinions, master of a stormy wave of youthful enthusiasm which broke over him too. Leaning against the desk, arms crossed, he looked from one to another, smiling at one student, making a small gesture encouraging another to contradict, and his eyes shone with as much excitement as yesterday. I felt he had to make an effort not to take the words out of their mouths. But he restrained himself— by main force, as I could tell from the way his hands were pressed more and more firmly over his breast like the stave of a barrel, as I guessed from the mobile corners of his mouth, which had difficulty in suppressing the words rising to his lips. And suddenly he could do it no longer, he flung himself into the debate like a swimmer into the flood— raising his hand in an imperious gesture he halted the tumult as if with a conductor’s baton; everyone immediately fell silent, and now he summed up all the arguments in his own vaulting fashion.

(Admittedly I also like this paragraph because it describes—and I say this without imputing to myself the success Zweig’s character has with it—almost exactly the method I used to lecture when I taught philosophy. I’d stir up an argument, nurture it like a little fire—the same metaphor has even occurred to me—and restrain myself from jumping in until things had gotten really intense and I could count on the students caring about my intervention.)

But anyway, after I’d read a few of his novellas, I moved on to Zweig’s autobiography. The World of Yesterday was certainly remarkable, evocative, fascinating, but it raised more questions for me than it settled.

theworldofyesterday

Zweig had purposefully retired into the background of his own autobiography, but I couldn’t help wondering about his career—how did he support himself when he decided to just take a few years off to translate obscure French poets? How did he parachute into a regular gig at the Viennese equivalent of the New Yorker, becoming one of their lead essayists when still in his teens? Why did he turn from writing poetry to writing the narrative fiction for which he became famous? Also, naturally, his personal life intrigued me—what was his relationship to Judaism when his career was launched by the founder of Zionism and yet he himself became the living symbol of pan-Europeanism, an avatar and advocate of assimilation? How did he make friends so easily—seemingly considered a bestie by everybody who was anybody in Middle European culture—even when he was a nobody absconding to France from graduate school in Berlin? And of course, why did he commit suicide in Petropolis, Brazil, with his much, much younger second wife Lotte, shortly aftering mailing in The World of Yesterday for publication?

I would have to read another biography.

But I didn’t get to it for a few days, too busy socializing at the place my train had taken me. Then, one night, I found myself sweating onto a matress in an air-conditionerless basement where the humidity was approximately 323%—breathing felt like chugging a glass of water—and the dark, lucid wings of insomnia unfolded above me. So I got up and downloaded onto my Kindle a biography-cum-memoir by Zweig’s first wife, Frederike, and proceeded to read it in one sitting.

federikeandstefan
Federike and Stefan Zweig

It was a strange mixture of compelling memories and shrewd analysis interwoven with unreadable schmaltz and special pleading. The first caution of a biography about an artist who took their own life must be, I think, not to interpret the whole life as a journey to suicide; but Zweig’s wife is understandably fixated on his end, and you can tell a lot of her character-analysis is basically an attempt to understand why he did it, and to blame it, as much as possible, on the woman he left her for. I found Friderike’s information illuminating. She explained some of the contradiction I had noticed in The World of Yesterday, such as the way Zweig castigates the sexual repression of the pre-WWI Vienna but then complains about the sexual freedom of post-WWI Vienna. He apparently exhibited the same contradictions about freedom as a step-parent:

He could not, he said, repress a feeling of envy at seeing the youth of today enjoying itself in such free and easy fashion. And this explained a strange trait, entirely contradictory to the rest of his nature: incited by such memories, he would suddenly deprive the children of some harmless pleasure he himself had suggested. Such retractions, coming from a man who loved to make people happy, seemed inconceivably harsh.

One of the sad implications of Frederike’s biography—and I don’t doubt her for a moment, because it’s an old, familiar story—is that Zweig’s demands as an artist whose life needed to be managed by others and protected from disturbance stole her own career from her.

As guardian of his inner world I was to keep the outer world away, pregnant as it always was with disturbances. Therefore — a fact but seldom openly confessed — I was to have no world of my own, no work of my own that might possibly deflect me from my watch. The circle was widely extended, but I had to stay within it.

I was glad for the shadows Frederike’s biography added to my perception of Zweig. But now I had become interested in her, curious how candid her apparently very open and honest memoir actually was. Some things struck me: even in her own account of their romance, for example, it’s clear that Frederike decided she would go get Zweig for herself, even before he knew who she was, when she was a young unhappily married mother of two. She got him, and according to her became the light of his life, only to be betrayed for a secretary after twenty years of marriage. I had no real desire to exonerate Zweig of being a patriarch, a shitty father, or a ungrateful lover; but there are usually two sides to stories of domestic distress.

So when I got home from my trip I picked up another biography of Zweig, this one by George Prochnik: The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World.

impossibleexile

Here I feel a made a mistake. I don’t mean that Prochnik’s is a bad book or that I regret reading it, but the reason I wanted to read it was to clear up some of the details about Zweig’s career that remained for me, and to add to that an assessment of Frederike’s candor as a memoirist. Prochnik’s book isn’t actually a biography. It’s a meditation on exile and a very moving investigation of the reasons for which Zweig committed suicide, presented in a mixture of novelistic scenes, brief out-of-chronology explorations of his past, and comparisons to the experience of other exiles, including, most prominently, Prochnik’s own grandparents. It was interesting; but it answered virtually none of my questions and raised a bunch more. I think I’ll probably write something about the book on its own account another day. In the story of why I read four biographies of Zweig, however, its role is just that it wasn’t what I needed at the time.

I confess it: at this point I began to get tired of Zweig. I was an absurd expert on certain details of his life. I could probably write my own biography, of considerable length, just from memory. But, an intractable puzzle, I couldn’t leave his life alone, particularly because I still hadn’t gotten any real insight into the things that most concern me when I read a writer’s biography: the material basis of their career, their working habits, how they learned their craft, whether they felt they had completed their work when they died, that sort of thing.

So, with some hesitation, I picked up my fourth biography, Matuschek’s Three Lives. Immediately, it became clear I should have begun with that biography. It was a normal chronological study, based on an exhaustive survey of available sources—including new batches of letters and so forth—and fully satisfying me as to the material details and personal chronologies I was so curious about. But a weird transformation in my motivations for continuing to study Zweig began to take shape as soon as I realized I’d found what I wanted.

threelives

Suddenly I didn’t care about my usual practical interests in this writer I liked. Suddenly I was obsessed with his suicide.

The unthinkable had occurred. I’d fallen prey to that morbid kind of clue-seeking attitude that afflicts biographers of artists like Virginia Woolf or Ernest Hemingway. I blame Prochnik. The end of his book is a truly horrifying account of Zweig’s last hours, and of how his body and that of Lotte, his young wife, were found. Some of Lotte’s clothes were in an untidy heap beside the bed, and it was apparent she’d taken her poison shortly after Zweig. Prochnik speculates that Zweig took his while she was in the shower or bath, and she realized what had happened only after it had happened; she was faced suddenly with the choice of whether to follow him or not. Prochnik has this line I’d like to quote—but don’t have the book in my hands at the moment—about how Zweig looks dead, but Lotte looks in love. That’s because after she took her poison, she climbed in beside her already dead husband, she lay down on her side, gazing at his face, and wound her fingers through his. To pound home the nail with a last blow of the emotional hammer, on the last page Prochnik prints the death photo he is describing. I doubt I’ve recreated the effect of these pages in my brisk summary, but this is what they did to me: I was now obsessed with Zweig’s suicide, with the existential fact of it, with imagining it, horrified and fascinated.

Lotte and Stefan Zweig, as found by their housekeeper and the police.
Lotte and Stefan Zweig, as found by their housekeeper and the police.

As a result I gave up on the last, best biography of Zweig halfway through it. It was now not the book I wanted. As Emil Cioran says:

Each desire provokes in me a counterdesire, so that whatever I do, all that matters is what I have not done.

I gave up reading, but I didn’t give up thinking. I continued to obsess over Zweig’s last days, to imagine the causes and moment of his suicide.

He was by then a refugee. A wealthy and opportunity-rich refugee, admittedly, but one exiled from land and language. His books were banned in both Germany and Austria. He had spent a few years flying, dissatisfied, from country to country, Britain, the US, Brazil. Just before decided to do the deed, he and Lotte had descended into Rio for Carnival, a festival that tended to put him back into his usually happy, gregarious, life-loving frame of mind. Something happened during that trip. Perhaps he read some of the newspapers, with their stories of German advance on the fronts of WWII. Perhaps it was a chance remark a friend made to him around that time, when he casually asked them whether they thought Brazil was safe from Nazi agression—they thought not, that Hitler might come for them, and Zweig’s face had shown he took this prediction much harder than its source warranted. Whatever the case, he was suffering from political despair.

The situation seemed hopeless. Because he had invested his entire life in the cultivation of international literature with a specifically political purpose—the creation of a European culture that could transcend the disgusting aggressions of nationalism—he experienced that political despair as an existential despair, a despair about himself and his own life. Despite his continued wealth, the wife he loved, his many friendships, the prospect of continued work, and the beauty of the landscape in his adopted country—despite all this, he was done with life.

It occurred to me today, when I sat down to write a blog post for an hour (and then apparently forgot about that limit and wrote this behemoth instead) that I finally feel like I understand Zweig. I feel some small taste of political despair myself right now, the day before the first presidential debate in the most sickening election cycle of my life. I can hardly bear what is happening to my country or what may happen to the world, and I am oppressed by nightmares and dark daydreams about how things could, will, must go terribly wrong and plunge our century into bloodshed and hatreds that will make the 20th century look like an era of humanity and hope. I don’t pretend this is a fraction of the political despair felt by Stefan Zweig; but perhaps reading about him was a way for me to cope with my own small despairing. That’s my best but still inadequate explanation for why I read three and a half biographies of the same person in a row.


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A Landslide In the Mind

I read Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women out loud with Rachel. We try to make it a habit to read together every evening, partly because it’s a pleasant, intimate way to spend time, a way infinitely superior to watching TV together, and partly because we’re trying to establish a culture of bildung among ourselves for the eventual day when perhaps we’ll add a tiny third. I was required/privileged to sit for an hour every evening as I was growing up, in an extremely religious household, for “family devotions.” It’s an institution whose purposes of religious indoctrination I now deplore, but it really did contribute to my love for books and serious conversation. Reading aloud together, playing the piano, intentionally conversing are probably the secular echo, in my menage, of that regular childhood experience.

We’d heard Pym’s Excellent Women was hilariously funny, so we read it hoping to laugh. It’s not that funny, or it wasn’t to us. But it’s pretty interesting. It’s about the (lack of a) lovelife of an English woman during or a little after WWII, who grew up in a manse and now teeters on the edge of old maidenhood. A smart couple with a rocky relationship move in below her flat, the male half of whom she finds charming, while her best friends, the local (unmarried) vicar and his sister try to cope with the fact that he’s fallen in love with a boarder they take on.

excellent-women

The book’s actually pretty painful. Mildred Lathbury, the heroine, is smart and perceptive, kindhearted and good in an emergency, but her internal monologue is relentlessly self-deprecatory. As Rachel said when we read the last line, with a frown, “I thought she was going to stand up for herself!” Everybody uses her without consideration for her feelings or hopes: married and unmarried female friends, flirting husbands, eligible bachelors in need of people to cook their dinners and help them with secretarial work, even clergymen who are supposedly there to minister to them. This book is about how the spinsters of England, back then at any rate, if they were religious and docile, got burdened with all the emotional labor of everyone in their lives and were expected to assume the role of mother and wife-servant to the public at large. Endless tea-making, listening to other people’s troubles, lavishing time and attention where it isn’t requited, while enduring the condescension and mockery of the same people they served. It’s searing, the longer you think about it.

The funniest parts—because it was funny in places—are when Mildred questions some of these expectation of the spinster’s part, and gets slapped down. As here:

Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea?’ she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury . . .’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind.

What makes the novel ultimately pretty sad is that this landslide in the mind never really gets any momentum in Mildred’s own mind. As how could it?

I was reminded, reading Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, of Excellent Women, when I got to this passage:

Custom seemed to preserve [young girls] as a symbol of its most secret ideals, as an emblem of womanly chastity, virginity, and unworldliness. But what a tragedy it was if one of these young girls missed her time, if she was not yet married at twenty-five or thirty! Cusom pitilessly demanded of women of thirty and forty years of age that for the sake of “family” and “morality” they maintain this condition of inexperience and freedom from desire, of naivete although it no longer suited their age. But then the sweet picture usually turned into a sharp and cruel caricature. The unmarried maided became an article left on the shelf, and the left-over became an old maid, the butt of shallow derision of all the comic papers. Whoever picks up a volumen of the *Fliegende Blätter*, or any one of the humorous magazines of that period, will shudder at their stupid jeering at aging maidens, who with nerves disturbed did not know how to conceal their natural desire for love […] people ridiculed them with a lack of understanding that disgusts us today. For a society is always most cruel to those who disclose and reveal its secrets, when through dishonestly society itself has outraged Nature.

When I read this, shortly after finishing Excellent Women, it stopped me cold. Rachel and I agreed, as I mentioned earlier, that the book wasn’t as hilariously funny as it was reported to be, and it suddenly occurred to me that this supposed hilarity might have been a misplaced perception that the book was a contribution to the literature of mockery that Zweig talks about here. Perhaps many of its first readers thought it was so very funny because they believed there was something laughable in being a middle-aged unmarried woman? I have no idea if that’s true; but if is, that’s horrifying. If anything, Excellent Women is a book that demands empathy for the oppressed, the shows the real unhappiness of a supposedly laughable kind of person.

An English example of the cruel humor that Zweig describes.
An English example of the cruel humor that Zweig describes.

A Man Should Know His Own Leg

Oliver Sacks’ A Leg To Stand On is my favorite of his books, which is saying something: I like it better than his wonderful biography On the Move, and better than his many collections of narrative essays. A Leg To Stand On is a philosophical memoir-novel, based on his own experience and with himself as the main character.

Sacks went to a Norwegian village on vacation and chose to climb a nearby mountain. Near the top, he ran into a bull, right in the middle of his path. Attempting to flee this bull, he fell over a cliff and severely damaged his leg. The first part of the book tells a man v. nature story about trying to inch back down the mountain, scrabbling on his butt like a crab with a wounded pincer, increasingly convinced that he wouldn’t make it, night would fall, and he would freeze to death.

Most of the book is about what happens after he’s rescued, but the gripping early chapter already displays the book’s best features: a narrative style of surpassing clarity and readability, intermixed with reflections of quite astonishing philosophical penetration and literary scope.

a-leg-to-stand-on

Sacks has a very cultured near-death experience: he motivates himself by quoting Goethe and Nietzsche and he plays Mozart in his mind as a soundtrack to his wounded exertions. If we can assume that much of the book is a faithful record of the sort of thing that actually went through his mind—and having read his autobiography and numerous recollections of him, I think we can assume that—then A Leg To Stand On shows, among other things, the incredible internal richness that bildung, the lifelong process of thirsty cultural self-shaping, can lend a life. John Stuart Mill famously defends the pleasures of high culture by saying that anyone who has experienced both vulgar pleasures and more refined ones will know the latter possess more value, more intensity and quality as pleasures. This can be difficult to prove to anyone, since everyone assumes their cognizance of pleasures, high and low, is sufficient for such judgments, and few agree about the superiority of high culture; but reading Oliver Sacks describe himself creeping down a mountain like a wounded animal stirs up, in me at least, a desire to have the kind of internal life he displays. It feels like an affective proof-by-novel of Mill’s claim.

The real plot of the book only begins after Sacks’s operation to fix the leg. He wakes up from the anaesthesia to discover that his leg has disappeared. It’s still there, visibly attached to his body, solid and available within its cast for him to wrap with his knuckles or knead with his fingertips. But it’s a foreign object, disconnected from his proprioceptive internal map, and it feels like inert meat distressingly connected to his self-sufficient trunk.

Such a syndrome was first described in the last century by Anton and is occasionally referred to as “Anton’s Syndrome,” though he only picked out a few of its features. More had been delineated by the great French neurologist Babinski, who had coined the term “anosognosia” for the singular unawareness that characterized such patients.

It turns out this anosognosia is a rather common experience for the victims of the kind of injuries that require a limb to be immobilized for a long period of time. Actually, most of us have experienced in at least the minor form of sleeping on an arm and waking up to find it, like a foreign object, weirdly insensible and immobilized until it prickles back to life.

Sacks experiences his injury not just as a stressful physical manifestation. It also sets in train a series of reflections, about identity, knowledge, even the history of philosophy:

Johnson and Wittgenstein were in perfect agreement: one existed, and could show it, because one acted—because one could lift, or kick, a stone. I suddenly thought: a man with a phantom—a phantom leg—could not kick a stone.

The story—which never ceases to be a story—becomes a meditation upon the implications of the neurology of body-image for epistemology, metaphysics, even aesthetics. I found myself looking up every few pages to reflect and frequently I was sent scurrying for a notebook.

With all the satisfactions of a plotted climax, the leg comes back to life in a most surprising and wonderful way:

And suddenly—into the silence, the silent twittering of motionless frozen images—came music, glorious music, Mendelssohn, fortissimo! Joy, life, intoxicating movement! And, as suddenly, without thinking, without intending whatever, I found myself walking, easily, joyfully, with the music. And, as suddenly, in the moment that this inner music started, the Mendelssohn which had been summoned and hallucinated by my soul, and in the very moment that my “motor” music, my kinetic melody, my walking, came back—in this self-same moment the leg came back. Suddenly, with no warning, no transition whatever, the leg felt alive, and real, and mine, its moment of actualization precisely consonant with the spontaneous quickening, walking and music. I was just turning back from the corridor to my room—when out of the blue this miracle occurred—the music, the walking, the actualization, all one. And now, as suddenly, I was absolutely certain—I believed in my leg, I knew how to walk.

A Dance With Three Legs, by Magritte

This is an incredible book, perhaps—in my opinion—the best Sacks ever wrote. Strangely, it stands rather low in the poll of popular opinion, decisively beaten out by blockbusters like Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. But I think the book may have a greater claim to being a major work of literature than anything else he wrote. (Admittedly, I haven’t read everything he wrote yet, so my assessment is heuristic.) Sacks’ writes brilliantly on the features of his experience common to us all, here for example on what it feels like to recover from serious infirmity:

From this moment there was no stopping me. I went out constantly, I fell in love with the world, I chartered taxis as extravagantly as a potentate visiting from another land. And, in a sense, this is what I felt like—a man, a king, long exiled, returning, accorded a wonderful, royal welcome by the world he was returning to. I wanted to hug familiar dear buildings; I wanted to hug chance strangers in the street—to hug them, devour them, like my first meal in the teashop—for they too were part of the wonderful feast. I must have smiled and laughed a great deal, or otherwise exuded happiness and love, because I received a great deal in return. I felt this especially in the pubs around Hampstead—wonderful, jolly, crowded pubs, with gardens and awnings bright in the warm sun, and people the most genial and congenial in the world. My crutches (for I needed both, to get in and out of taxis), my cast, served as a passport of universal validity. I was welcomed, I was made much of, wherever I went. And I loved it, I who had been so withdrawn and so shy. I found myself singing, playing darts, telling bawdy stories, laughing. Everywhere, and in myself, I discovered a Rabelaisian gusto—a coarse, but festive, and perfectly chaste gusto. But also, and equally, I sought for the byways of life, quiet glades, moonlit walks, for meditation. I wanted to give thanks, in every mode—in energy, in quietude; in company, alone; with friends, with strangers; in action, in thought. The joy of this time was extraordinarily intense—but it seemed to me a healthy joy, without mania or sickness. I felt that this was how one should find the world—how the world really was, if one were not jaded or tarnished. I felt the gaiety and innocence of the newborn. And if this was “the truth,” or how things should be, how could one find the world dull? I wondered if what one normally calls “normal” was itself a sort of dullness, a deadening of sense and spirit, if not, indeed, a very closure of their doors.

But in addition to this almost definitive expression of common experience, A Leg To Stand On contains the sorts of experiences and reflections that only someone as uniquely situated as Sacks could share with us.

I happen to know that this book gave Sacks more trouble than any other. I know this from his autobiography, in which he describes the years it took him to complete the manuscrip—not because he was blocked or mentally constipated; no, Sacks’ symptoms tended in the other more—um—fluid direction. The reasonably sized, normal novel-length book that we possess had to be cut from a mountain of manuscript many times longer. I think the trouble was repayed in full, however, and perhaps the invisible excess that lies behind what we possess, is what gives the book its feeling of infinity, the feeling that its significance stretches off over the horizon in every direction, no matter how thoroughly, how comprehensively it treats of the phenomena in describes.

It case you couldn’t tell, I recommend A Leg To Stand On without reservation!

To the sea he leads me, like a spider

This weekend I resumed my long-delayed project of reading straight through Grene and Lattimore’s Complete Greek Tragedies. I started up again with Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Maidens. Almost immediately, things got real. Too real.

The Suppliant Maidens is about fifty sisters, refugees from “a holy precinct bordering Syria,” who come to Argos to beg for shelter. Hot on their trail is an army sailing at the behest of fifty brothers who want to forcibly install the sisters as their wives. The sisters ask the local ruler, Pelasgus, to give them sanctuary. But he’s dubious, offering the politician’s excuse:

…never may people say, if evil comes,
“By honoring immigrants you destroyed the city.”

This is a play about what it feels like to be “an immigrant group in a foreign land, which bears the brunt of every evil tongue, and is the easy target of calumny.” I did not expect that. This play is very topical, right now.

Refugee Women
Refugee Women

The sisters manage to convince Pelasgus to give them sanctuary. But not before the army of Egyptus (their pursuers) shows up and attempts to abduct them. That attempted abduction involves some really intense and disturbing language. [Trigger warning.] Sexual violence seems imminent:

Hurry!
Hasten to the boats
fast as you are able,
lest torn and pricked,
pricked and scratched you’ll be,
bloody and bloodstained,
your heads cut off!
Hurry, hasten, curses! Curses! To the boats!

Like all great literature, The Suppliant Women raised a bunch of questions I had to work through.

First, there was the matter of why Pelasgus finally decides to shelter the sisters. Here’s the speech where he sums up his reasoning:

If I do not carry out what’s due to you,
you’ve warned us of unmatchable pollution.
But if before these walls I take a stand
and bring the battle against Egyptus’ sons,
your cousins, wouldn’t that be a bitter waste—
men to bloody the earth for women’s sake?
But yet the wrath of Zeus the Suppliant—
the height of mortal fear—must be respected.

The “unmatchable pollution” he mentions is that the sisters have promised to hang themselves outside the city gates if they’re not given shelter. Horrifyingly, Pelasgus requires the threat of an avenging Zeus to give a shit. Other things being equal, he’d rather leave the women to their fate.

This reasoning made me wonder about the far-famed hospitality of ancient cultures. You hear and read people waxing nostalgic for the duties of hospitality. But it had its ugly side. I wonder if it wasn’t largely a duty of fear, an unpleasant duty that you performed so as not to be smote by a god. (And while we’re enumerating its unpleasant sides, let’s not forget Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, and the murderous, carousing suitors that descend upon her and demand her hospitality the moment her husband disappears.)

Another question the play raised for me is an old one that I frequently reconsider when I read a new Greek tragedy: the discomforting theology. I wrote about this regarding another Aeschylean tragedy, Prometheus Bound, for Open Letters, and I’ll quote something from that piece: “This must have made very uncomfortable viewing for pious Athenians at the festival of Dionysus—here was a play that proclaimed Zeus unjust and anti-human.” The same could be said for The Suppliant Women, in the larger context of the tragic trilogy it was originally part of. Early in the play, the sisters observe that, “an altar’s stronger than ramparts; it’s a shield impenetrable.” In other words, even assholes like Pelasgus have to help those who need, because Zeus.

But here’s the thing: the army of Egyptus does eventually seize the sisters. Not in this play—though there are omens at the end—but eventually. Their marriage night is the occasion for one of the other, now lost, plays in the trilogy: on it, at the urging of their father, forty nine of them stab their new husbands to death.

So much for the impenetrable shield of an altar…

I bet someone has written a book on the theology of the Greek tragedies. It would be interesting to see what a systematic exposition would reveal. I would have found them very discomforting to watch, assuming I believed that beings like Zeus, Artemis, and Aphrodite really existed. The tragedies would have undermined my confidence in the gods.

Finally, I had to ask myself how this play was a tragedy. Obviously lots of unpleasant things happen in it, and it’s part of a larger narrative (if we look at the whole trilogy) of typically Greek ruination and horror. But the plot of this specific play is a happy one! Some refugees come to a city, beg to be protected, almost get abducted, but are rescued at the last moment and given a home. That’s no so bad, right?

But there is something deeply tragic about this play, something that goes below the level of mere plot, something that has more to do with what makes a drama tragic (I am coming to believe) than whether things end better or worse at the end of the story. My current thesis is that the greatest tragedies are about inherent and inalienable precarities and tensions. In this case, the tragedy of The Suppliant Women is the condition of being a woman in the heroic age.

These fifty sisters are really stuck between a rock and a hard place. Their father is one of those sexual-purity-or-death types, who tells them: “Only regard this command of your father: value modesty more than life itself.” And so they’re utterly terrified of the would-be husbands on their trail. And then these would-be husbands are the worst sort of men, whose bitterness at their rejection by the women has turned into a vicious, brutal anger. The sisters are disregarded as people by Pelasgus, who only helps them because he’s afraid they’ll hang themselves and bring Zeus down on him, and even when they’re given shelter they’re told to watch out, because they should expect sexual violence just as a consequence of who they are and not merely from the bad guys: “I beg you,” says their father, “not to bring me shame, you who have that bloom which draws men’s eyes: there is no simple guard for fruit most delicate, that men and beasts, both winged and footed, devour.”

The last words of the play are the women trying to extract some maxim for future behavior from the trauma they’ve just undergone. This is the best they can come up with:

I am content with two-thirds
of good, just one of ill;
and justly, with my prayers,
through the saving arts of god
to follow justice.

Translation: being a women sucks at least 33% of the time. At least. So stop hoping for anything better and just try to be pious in the hope that you get the maximum 66% of happiness. At best. Yikes.

One final note. I would be remiss not to mention how poetic this tragedy is. The language sings. It’s amazing to me that Aeschylus could have written both The Persians, which I found mostly tedious and pedestrian, and things like The Suppliant Women, Prometheus Bound, and Agamemnon (to which we will come next!). But he did. I know which I like better.

Here’s a parting shot, something the women sing as they think they’re about to be abducted. It would make a fascinating libretto for a song in an opera:

Ah, father, to the sea he leads me;
like a spider, step by step,
a dream, a black dream.
O woe, woe!

Far from his desk, he was still at work

I had a friend in graduate school who sickened and died before he could complete his degree. He was frail and congenitally ill; an early death was always in the cards. But there was a period of about two years when he gradually suspended his activities as a student, at first on the assumption that he would return once he had rested and recovered, then with the increasing certainty that he would never come back. Immediately after he died, I became obsessed with imagining what it must have been like for him in the period before he was hospitalized but after he he stopped working on his degree. What did he do then? I imagined him walking around Boston, feeling that special alienation of the adult who has nothing to do in the daytime in a city.

One day, sitting on a bench beside the reservoir near Boston College, watching joggers, parents pushing strollers, and people deep in conference pass me by, it suddenly dawned on me that the reason I was so interested in my friend’s mental state during those months was that I myself do and probably will inhabit something like that same twilight zone for most of my life.

Many writers work very hard, but the appearance and feeling of aimlessness in the middle of the day, when everyone else is more or less toiling away, will always be a strange way of life, in some ways privileged, in others cursed. Even if you’re not watching the bustle with the eyes of someone waiting to die, in other ways that’s exactly what you’re doing.

Peter Handke’s The Afternoon of a Writer is a devastatingly beautiful novella about what it’s like to be a writer when you’re not (physically) writing. It’s lyrical in a way peculiar to German literature (and, for some reason, Marilynne Robinson), in which the evocation of sharp yet subtle mental states is intertwined with a kind of serious philosophical inquisitiveness. Thus The Afternoon of a Writer has those special qualities that make great lyric poems at once utterly particular and universally relevant.

It begins when the writer, who remains unnamed, finishes his day’s work, in the mid afternoon, and sets out for his daily walk. That’s it, that’s all that happens: he walks to town, gets a bite to eat, picks up a newspaper, has a few conversations, and walks home. But the tiny book is utterly enthralling. I kept jerking upright with the feeling that Handke was describing my own pathologies. For example, the writer is always making vows to himself about this or that aspect of his daily life (I will stop reading newspapers, I will read newspapers faithfully; I will walk into the center of town every day, I will avoid the center of town…). Partly this is because “he seemed to need an idea to carry him through the most trifling daily movements…” Sometimes he wonders:

did he actually have any rules? Weren’t the few that he had tried to impose on himself constantly giving way to something else—a mood, an accident, a sudden inspiration—that seemed to indicate the better choice? True, his life had been oriented for almost twenty years toward his literary goal; but reliable ways and means were still unknown to him. Everything about him was still as temporary as it had been in the child, as later in the schoolboy, and still later in the novice writer.

I have this identical problem. I know just what I need to do next in the big things that matter to me (reading and writing, basically), but I often find myself conflicted to the point of paralysis by small decisions about where to go on a walk, how to spend my free time, in what order to perform small chores, what sources of news to read and whether to pay attention to current events at all… Then I’ll formulate a plan, usually with a vow or two to myself, happily constructing a utopia of rules, which gives me energy for a day or at most a week, until I find myself suddenly faced with all the same questions as if they’d never been resolved. Surely a large part of the explanation for this helpless feeling of having to rethink the structure of what should be mindless habits has to do with the constant preoccupation that is a writer’s work?

It seemed to him that he was not going away from his work but that it was accompanying him; that, now far from his desk, he was still at work. But what does “work” mean? Work, he thought, is something in which material is next to nothing, structure almost everything; something that rotates on its axis without the help of a flywheel; something whose elements hold one another in suspense; something open and accessible to all, which cannot be worn out by use.


Just a few days after I finished the book, on twitter JM Schreiber shared a link to some promotional materials about a forthcoming documentary about Peter Handke. Reading those materials, and watching some preview clips I decided “the writer” of The Afternoon of a Writer is unquestionably Handke himself.

The Compassion of Irreverence

In Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook the narrator castigates novels which amount to no more than “journalism,” when they should be “philosophical statements about life.” This has stuck with me because I profoundly disagree with it. Reading A Manual for Cleaning Ladies, a collection of Lucia Berlin’s short stories, I found myself rehashing Lessing’s idea as I sought to explain to myself what I enjoyed about Berlin’s collection. Here’s Lessing:

During that period of three months when I wrote reviews, reading ten or more books a week, I made a discovery: that the interest with which I read these books had nothing to do with what I feel when I read—let’s say—Thomas Mann, the last of the writers in the old sense, who used the novel for philosophical statements about life. The point is, that the function of the novel seems to be changing; it has become an outpost of journalism; we read novels for information about areas of life we don’t know—Nigeria, South Africa, the American army, a coal-mining village, coteries in Chelsea, etc. We read to find out what is going on.

I wonder, first, why philosophical statements about life and information about areas of life we don’t know are mutually exclusive. Surely they aren’t. But also, even if we assume that a single novel can’t do both things, I’m not all convinced that a philosophical statement is superior to information.

So I’ve been thinking about this again because I enjoyed A Manual for Cleaning Ladies as journalism. I enjoyed the information I got from it about areas of life I didn’t know. I learned about alcoholism and those titular cleaning ladies, about Mexico city and what it’s like to live with a terminally ill sibling, about how it feels to wear a back brace as a child in grade school and to work as a switchboard operator in the ER.

Of course mere information about these things wouldn’t be enough to interest me in a collection of short stories. Even if, in retrospect, this information is the majority of what I have taken away from the experience of reading. I also need a reason to care about this information—which the narrative provided me—and I need the experience to be one of aesthetic significance. Lucia Berlin hit all my buttons at once: I found her prose delightful, her stories enthralling, and I am glad for the information they’ve imparted to me. This is rare in a collection of short stories. Usually I can’t make my way through one without interruption, where I might read a novel twice as long on the strength of just good prose or just a good story or just fascinating information. I have higher—too high—standards for a short story collection. (Interestingly, in light of Lessing’s allusion above, I’ve been defeated on three separate occasions by Thomas Mann’s collected short stories…)

Most of A Manual For Cleaning Ladies is evidently based on Lucia Berlin’s own life. As Lydia Davis puts it in her preface (which is a work of art on its own, as you’d expect), Berlin was practicing “auto-fiction” well before it was a thing. This auto-fiction often features a protagonist called Lucia. And lots of characters reappear in different stories.

As a consequence of this seamlessness I found the organization of the book annoying. The plot-lover in me wished the stories had been organized by the implied chronology of Lucia. That the stories about the girl with the back-brace and alcoholic dentist grandfather had all been clustered at the front, followed by the college stories, then by the stories about love and children, then by the stories about addiction, and so on. But I also completely understand why the editors chose not to give me this satisfaction: by disrupting the implied continuity between stories, each story stood on its own as a fiction, as a poetic construction. (Or, come to think of it, maybe the stories were just organized by the order of publication or writing. That would make sense too.)

Whatever the case, the point I want to make is how astonishingly strong these stories are. Besides my general disinclination to persevere with less than sterling collections, I was actively annoyed by the organizational choices of the editors—and still I kept at it, eagerly, until the last sentence.

A large part of my fascination is the way Berlin tells stories. Lydia Davis gets it right in the preface:

How does she do it? It’s that we never know quite what is going to come next. Nothing is predictable. And yet everything is also natural, true to life, true to our expectations of psychology and emotion.

In her book on writing thrillers, Patricia Highsmith argues that the ideal turn of events in a story would combine the greatest possible surprise with the greatest possible feeling of inevitability. That doesn’t just apply to thrillers: it’s the mathematical ideal of the interesting story in any genre. What makes a narrative is the imposition of writing onto life: artificial organization and the chaos of chronicle. Davis is saying that Berlin approaches this ideal. I agree.

Here’s an example. One of the stories in the collection is about caring for an aged parent as they become senile. Like every Berlin story, it parsimoniously evokes a setting both as a material place and as a network of relationships. The protagonist learns to know the other residents at the nursing home and their caretakers. The end of the story sees the protagonist joining the nursing home for an outing to a park. By this time her father no longer recognizes her; he has, in fact, created an elaborate story about her abandoning him. Nonetheless, she’s come on this outing. The nursing home residents have been stationed among a group of winos, one of whom keeps slipping an old man cigarettes. It’s an almost unbearable scene of contrast: addiction and senescence, human wrecks in the midst of a beautiful landscape and a beautiful day. The story ends with Lucia pushing her father’s wheel-chair away from the group:

It was hard to push the chair up the hill. Hot and loud with the cars and radios and interminable thud thud of the runners. It was so smoggy we could barely see the other shore. Memorial Day litter and debris. Paper cups floated in the foamy brown lake serene as swans. At the top of the hill I put on his brakes and lit a cigarette. He was laughing, an ugly laugh. “It’s awful, isn’t it, Daddy?” “It sure is, Lu.” He loosened his brakes and the chair started down the brick path. I hesitated, just stood there watching it, but then I threw away my cigarette and caught his chair just as it was picking up speed.

I don’t know if it comes through just as an addendum to my summary, but this paragraph packs a whole lot of surprise and yet logical culmination into a few words. We have the suicide attempt, obviously, and the jarring moment when Lu almost allows it; also the brief return of clarity in her father’s mind; but perhaps what really displays the surprising-yet-inevitable quality of this ending is how it conflicts with the kind of ending we have come to expect from this type of story. The temptation to melodrama is almost irresistible: either to end like this, “I hesitated, just stood there watching it.” Or to end with something heartwarming, some meagre little uplift. What Berlin actually did is more bracing. It both reaffirms the squalid strength of convention—of course Lu doesn’t let her father wheel himself into a lake—while letting out the ugly inner truth—it would be better for both of them if he were dead. Oof.

This is the quality of moral vision displayed throughout the collection: a quality I would call “bracing.” (Perhaps the existence of this quality has implications for Lessing’s suggestion that fiction-as-journalism isn’t a philosophical statement about life? Maybe you don’t need to pontificate like Thomas Mann to make such a statement.) Bad stuff happens. Really bad stuff. And its devastation is defused with wry humor and by the very fact of clear-eyed presentation. Berlin excels at the compassion of irreverence. For example this, from a story about her time as an ER switchboard operator:

There are “good” suicides. “Good reasons” many times like terminal illness, pain. But I’m more impressed with good technique. Bullets through the brain, properly slashed wrists, decent barbiturates. Such people, even if they don’t succeed, seem to emanate a peace, a strength, which may have come from having made a thoughtful decision.

After Hegel, by Frederick Beiser

Frederick Beiser is, in my opinion, the most interesting historian of philosophy working today. Through a wide range of publications he has single-mindedly executed the job of introducing English speakers to the treasures of post-Kantian German philosophy, an era and region of thought bizarrely understudied in light of its tremendous influence. He wrote what I consider the best introduction to the notoriously opaque philosopher Hegel: Hegel, from Routledge. my favorite of his works is The History of German Historicism, but he’s probably best known for The Fate of Reason, a book in part about the immediate context and reception of Kant. I like his work so much that I’m spacing out the volumes I haven’t read in the same way I’m spacing out my consumption of the remaining Jeeves novels from P.G. Wodehouse, or Mark Twain’s historical fiction. I just find them so delightful that I need to know I still have one waiting for me when I need it. Recently I allowed myself the treat of Beiser’s After Hegel—and it was predictably awesome.

I know what you’re thinking: the “history of post-Kantian German philosophy” doesn’t exactly sound like catnip. Well partly that’s because you’re not a professional philosopher and I am: but even besides the topic of Beiser’s research, he’s also an expositor with a genius for clarity. I think I would read him for pleasure even if I’d never come to grad school. Let me just give you one example of what I mean.

Where most histories of philosophy are organized by thinker, topic, or theory, Beiser tends to organize his books around controversies. Organizing an intellectual history around a controversy gives a narrative shape to the exposition of individual thinkers and their theories, making it easier to pay attention and remember. It also has the useful effect of flattening our current canon. Only in such a context can we non-anachronistically assess the significance of a famous thinker’s contribution in their own time; and often such a context reveals that we’re re-litigating old disputes. (For example the correspondence that was conducted immediately after Descartes wrote his Meditations and then published in the back of the book adumbrates nearly every major criticism of his arguments that decades of scrutiny would subsequently re-invent.)

This virtue of Beiser’s method of exposition is fully on display in After Hegel. As you might suppose from the title, it’s about German philosophy after Hegel up until it gets famous again at the beginning of the 20th century. But in between 1831, when Hegel died, and 1900, Beiser convincingly argues that some of the most important trajectories of modern philosophy were determined by a set of controversies about the nature of philosophy, the limits of scientific knowledge, the truth of materialism, the status of history as a science, and the advisability of pessimism about life.

I’m not going to go deeply into any of these things; instead, here’s a list of what I learned from the book.

First, I had no idea Arthur Schopenhauer was such an important philosopher. I always thought of him as a minor and eccentric thinker (I still think he was pretty damn eccentric) whose major influences were disseminated into the wider culture rather than affecting the development of formal philosophy. How wrong I was! Beiser describes how he came to fill a vacuum in German philosophy in the realm of ethics that forced mainstream movements like Neo-Kantianism to respond to his views:

That philosophers in the 1870s and 1880s were forced to move away from their rigid scholastic agenda was due to the work of a single man: Arthur Schopenhauer. By the early 1860s he had become the most famous philosopher in Germany. His works not only had an appeal to the general educated public, but they also proved powerful competition for philosophy professors whose agenda was limited to the logic of the sciences. Schopenhauer had performed a remarkable feat that was the envy of the professors: he had made philosophy relevant again, so that it was asking basic questions of concern to everyone alike, not only professors interested in abstruse matters of logic.

Second, I learned about two important female philosophers I’d never heard of before. I’m always on the lookout for female philosophers because they’re systematically ignored in the annals of the discipline. The years I’ve spent teaching Intro to Philosophy and talking with young women who like philosophy but can’t see themselves in its history has made it transparent to me that the suppression of female thinkers is an ongoing trainwreck that damages the discipline, not just as bad PR, not just as injustice, but integrally in the quality of its dialectic. Anyway, in the Pessimissmustreit, a controversy about Schopenhauer’s pessimism, Agnes Taubert and Olga Plümacher were major players. (This is a controversy virtually unknown in the English-speaking philosophical world. Beiser convinced me it should be better known, and now I want to read the book he wrote exclusively about this controversy.) I will look carefully into these two women next time I teach. In fact the whole pessimism controversy in general might serve as a wonderful question to organize an introduction to philosophy around:

When, with the benefit of hindsight, we look back over the pessimism controversy, it is impossible not to view it without a sense of loss. The discussion was pursued at a high level of philosophical subtlety and sophistication by Schopenhauer, Dühring, Hartmann, the neo-Kantians, Taubert, Plümacher, and Hartmann’s many critics. Rarely has so much intellectual energy been focused on an issue of such great existential importance and of such wide public interest. Yet the pessimism controversy has been largely forgotten, and the issues it raised about the value of life have not been much discussed in contemporary philosophy. This is a pity, because the pessimism controversy shows us that the question of the value of life was capable of very exacting philosophical treatment; the topic raised classical philosophical issues about pleasure, desire, work, love, good and evil, and the role of art in life, which no serious philosopher can ignore.

Third, I didn’t realize that the frontiers of materialism are virtually the same today as they were in the 19th century. The battle rages: to what extent ought one to assume that only physical stuff exists? Can the ultimate constitution of “matter” be said to be physical? And how can we explain the seemingly qualitative leap from brain activity to consciousness? A speech by the prominent scientist Dubois-Reymond kicked off a fascinating debate about these things—a debate I felt like I recognized, because we continue to litigate the exact same issues today.

The main question posed by the materialism controversy was whether modern natural science, whose authority and prestige were now beyond question, necessarily leads to materialism. Materialism was generally understood to be the doctrine that only matter exists and that everything in nature obeys only mechanical laws. If such a doctrine were true, it seemed there could be no God, no free will, no soul, and hence no immortality. These beliefs, however, seemed vital to morality and religion. So the controversy posed a drastic dilemma: either a scientific materialism or a moral and religious “leap of faith.” It was the latest version of the old conflict between reason and faith, where now the role of reason was played by natural science.

Fourth, I learned a lot about the origin and trajectory of several movements I knew about and had even studied through the work of selected thinkers, but never really contextualized or properly understood: the Neo-Hegelians (from whose ranks came Karl Marx), the Neo-Kantians, and positivism. I particularly appreciated Beiser’s succinct exploration of the origins and influences of Neo-Hegelians (the Young Hegelians, or Left Hegelians as they are sometimes known), whose concept of critique is instrumental to my own conception of philosophy:

Though it began in theology, neo-Hegelian criticism soon extended to other spheres. It was the task of critique to expose alienation in all its lairs, whether in society, economy, state, or church. Besides faith in God, self-enslavement assumed many forms: the belief in a divinely ordained prince; the doctrine of absolute spirit; the belief in natural economic laws; the ethic of absolute commands. The neo-Hegelians made it their business to expose alienation wherever it took place, so that people would cease to enslave themselves to their own creations and begin to take control over their lives.

So, fifteen hundred words later, I think it’s clear I really liked this book. I am currently forcibly restraining myself from rushing on to another volume of Beiser. I have my eye on either Diotima’s Children, about the origin of aesthetics as a discipline of philosophy, or his book about the pessimism controvery. But I’ll hold off, space out the pleasure.