The teat of interpretation

Andrea Long Chu in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Structural problems are problems because real people hurt real people. You cannot have a cycle of abuse without actually existing abusers. That sounds simple, which is why so many academics hate it. When scholars defend Avital—or “complicate the narrative,” as we like to say—in part this is because we cannot stand believing what most people believe. The need to feel smarter is deep. Intelligence is a hungry god.

In this way, Avital’s case has become a strange referendum on literary study. Generations of scholars have been suckled at the teat of interpretation: We spend our days parsing commas and decoding metaphors. We get high on finding meaning others can’t. We hoard it, like dragons. We would be intellectually humiliated to learn that the truth was plain: that Avital quite simply sexually harassed her student, just as described. Sometimes analysis is simply denial with more words. Sometimes, as a frustrated student in a first-year literature course always mutters, the text just means what it says it means.

The immediate perceptive epithet

from Bruce Wilshire, “William James’s Pragmatism: A Distinctly Mixed Bag,” in 100 Years of Pragmatism, edited by John Stuhr:

William James is a tragic figure. I will try to fully explain what I mean by that. But right off the bat, we can point out a feature of this tragic stance. It’s fairly widely believed that James is a major philosopher. Yet in no other such philosopher’s work, I believe, are great strengths so vividly mixed with major defects. His famous, often read—too often read, I think—popular lectures, Pragmatism, gaudily illustrate this claim.

What does it take to be a major philosopher? A most difficult question. Wilfrid Sellars’s one-liner statement of what philosophy seeks to discover is hard to better: how things, in the broadest sense, hang together, in the broadest sense.

But how does one start a process of discovery without begging crucial questions that philosophy should endeavor to answer? How does one begin to comprehend the farthest reaches of complexity without prejudging things—or occluding whole horizons of possibilities and viewpoints—stupidly? James’s description in Pragmatism of expertness in philosophy is arresting: “Expertness in philosophy is measured by the definiteness of our summarizing reactions, by the immediate perceptive epithet with which the expert hits such complex objects off” (P, 25). Thee summarizing that emerges through perceptual epithet! A taking in at a glance that delivers the first sketch of the whole lay of the land. Is there any better way to avoid getting lost in the details of some corner of the subject matter, any better way to begin doing philosophy unprejudiciously?

The huge and microscopic career of time

William Carlos Williams, from Spring and All, 1923:

In that huge and microscopic career of time, as it were a wild horse racing in an illimitable pampa under the stars, describing immense and microscopic circles with his hoofs on the solid turf, running without a stop for the millionth part of a second until he is aged and worn to a heap of skin, bones and ragged hoofs—In that majestic progress of life, that gives the exact impression of Phidias’ frieze, the men and beasts of which, though they seem of the rigidity of marble are not so but move, with blinding rapidity, though we do not have the time to notice it, their legs advancing a millionth part of an inch every fifty thousand years—In that progress of life which seems stillness itself in the mass of its movements—at last SPRING is approaching.

Blind to all excellence but its own

Hazlitt, on Shakespeare and Rembrandt, from Table Talk: Essays on Men and Manners (1821):

His genius consisted in the faculty of transforming himself at will into whatever he chose: his originality was the power of seeing every object from the exact point of view in which others would see it. He was the Proteus of human intellect. Genius in ordinary is a more obstinate and less versatile thing. It is sufficiently exclusive and self-willed, quaint and peculiar. It does some one thing by virtue of doing nothing else: it excels in some one pursuit by being blind to all excellence but its own. It is just the reverse of the cameleon; for it does not borrow, but lends its colour to all about it; or like the glow-worm, discloses a little circle of gorgeous light in the twilight of obscurity, in the night of intellect that surrounds it. So did Rembrandt. If ever there was a man of genius, he was one, in the proper sense of the term. He lived in and revealed to others a world of his own, and might be said to have invented a new view of nature. He did not discover things out of nature, in fiction or fairy land, or make a voyage to the moon ‘to descry new lands, rivers or mountains in her spotty globe,’ but saw things in nature that every one had missed before him and gave others eyes to see them with. This is the test and triumph of originality, not to show us what has never been, and what we may therefore very easily never have dreamt of, but to point out to us what is before our eyes and under our feet, though we have had no suspicion of its existence, for want of sufficient strength of intuition, of determined grasp of mind, to seize and retain it.

The cleansing and deepening of the dispute

Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind, 1952:

Anyone engaged in the study, teaching, and criticism of literature as a university discipline is likely to become at some time or other aware of one fundamental problem raised by his own pursuits, of a difficulty that is all his own and is not, or at least not to the same extent, shared by his colleagues in other subjects. For however sincerely he may struggle against bias and prejudice in his own approach and appreciation, his work will still be very intimately related to his experiences in wider fields. […] and this, he will see, is no shortcoming of his own discipline, to be conquered in scientific campaigns or disguised by scientific masquerades, but is in fact its distinctive virtue. […] thus he would be ill-advised to concentrate exclusively on those aspects of his discipline which allow the calm neutrality of what is indisputably factual and “objective”. His business, I think, is not the avoidance of subjectivity, but its purification; not the shunning of what is disputable, but the cleansing and deepening of the dispute.

Freedom from force and falsity

Chekhov at twenty-eight, to Alexei Plescheyev, October 4, 1888, translated by Sidonie K. Lederer, in The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov, edited by Lillian Hellman:

Those I am afraid of are the ones who look for tendencies between the lines and want to put me down definitely as a liberal or conservative. I am not a liberal and not a conservative, not an evolutionist, nor a monk, nor indifferent to the world. I would like to be a free artist—that is all—and regret that God has not given me the strength to be one. I hate lies and coercion in all their aspects. . . . Pharisaism, stupidity and idle whim reign not only in the homes of the merchant class and within prison walls; I see them in science, in literature, amongst young people. I cannot therefore nurture any particularly warm feelings toward policemen, butchers, savants, writers, or youth. I consider trademarks or labels to be prejudices.

My holy of holies are the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom—freedom from force and falsity, in whatever form these last may be expressed. This is the program I would maintain, were I a great artist.

Not to be writing a book was not to be alive

William H. Pritchard reviewing a biography of Van Wyck Brooks, 1981:

For “not to be writing a book was not to be alive at all,” Brooks said in his autobiography. Beginning with The Wine of the Puritans in 1908, he lived through his pen; and except for a brief foray into teaching at Stanford in 1941 (he moved to California in order to marry Eleanor Stimson) and in England later, he stayed at his desk, usually beginning to write at 5:30 A.M.

[…]

The remaining 32 years of Brooks’s life are thankfully not as “interesting” as that middle passage. All he set himself to do now was read every book written by an American between 1800 and 1915 (The Flowering of New England alone was the result of reading 825 of them) and write a five-volume history (or epic, or novel, or romance) of the writer in America, creating—as he once wrote in a notebook—”an American memory.” Writing was still a matter of life and death (“every morning, at my desk, I feel that I am on trial for my life”), but he managed grandly to survive into old age, remarrying after his first wife’s death, growing in public literary eminence as he came to matter less and less to younger critics of literature.

Too comfortable in his own skin

Arthur Krystal on Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling:

As students and instructors at Columbia they had only a nodding acquaintance. Barzun, tall, fair-haired, Gallically handsome, was self-assured and interested in history, theater, music, and detective stories. Trilling, shy, intense, on the short side, was keen on Freud, Marx, and American fiction. To a budding and brooding intellectual like Trilling, the young Barzun seemed too comfortable in his own skin; there was no angst, no alienation. “Such awareness as we first had of each other,” Trilling recalled, “was across a barrier which had about it something of a barricade.” Meanwhile, in Barzun’s eyes, Trilling seemed “content to do well, with little exertion, in what he liked and to stumble through the rest.” Upon learning they would be paired up, neither one jumped at the prospect.

Essays in intellectual love

from José Ortega y Gasset’s first bookMeditations on Quixote, 1914, translated by Evelyn Rugg and Diego Marín:

Under the title of Meditations this first volume announces several essays on various subjects of no very great consequence to be published by a professor of Philosophy in partibus infidelium. Some of them, like this series of Meditations on Quixote, deal with lofty subjects; others with more modest, even humble, subjects; but they all end by discussing Spanish “circumstances” directly or indirectly. These essays are for the author—like the lecture-room, the newspaper, or politics—different means of carrying on one single activity, of expressing the same feeling of affection. I do not claim that this activity should be recognized as the most important in the world; I consider myself justified when I observed that it is the only one of which I am capable. The devotion which moves me to it is the keenest one which  find in my heart. Reviving the fine name which Spinoza used, I would it amor intellectualis. These are therefore essays in intellectual love. They have no informative value whatever; they are not summaries, either—they are rather what a humanist of the seventeenth century would have called “salvations.” What is sought in them is the following: given a fact—a man, a book, a picture, a landscape, an error, a sorrow—to carry it by the shortest route to its fullest significance. We want to place the objects of all kinds which life, in its perpetual surge, throws at our feet like the useless remains of shipwreck, in such a position that the sun as it strikes them may give off innumerable reflections.