Reading Ebersole, Reading Bouwsma

(A section from an unpublished essay.)

Their pages crucially differ in animating spirits: I have talked about one
as mulish the other as sprightly. But I can say more. At an even deeper
level, Ebersole’s pages are animated by a strictness of linguistic conscience.
Bouwsma’s are animated by a spontaneity of linguistic consciousness—a lin-
guistic hilaritas libertatis. For example, there is an deep-going reason why
Bouwsma was attracted to and imitated pages of James Joyce, and self-
consciously built unacknowledged quotations or near-quotations of literary
works into the structure of his essays. Bouwsma provokes his reader ver-
bally, reminds his reader of all of the highways and byways of words, of all
the wonders of words, and of how their wonders can and should make us
marvel at them. Ebersole minces words. He was a working poet as well as a
working philosopher, but anyone who knows Ebersole’s poetry knows that in
it the same strictness of linguistic conscience is on display. I cannot imagine
Ebersole on a spree among words like Bouwsma’s in this passage of his John
Locke Lectures, a passage describing Plato’s Realm of Being:

Imagine…a museum—a museum, deep in calm, fixed in breath-
lessness, done in silence, clothed in invisibility, awful, laid away
in heaven. And the walls thereof are purest essence, some quint-
essence, some tri-essence, but none semi-essence. If senescence is
no wall, for neither is oldness nor youngerness any ness at all, all
is evermore and never the less. And of what essence and what
essences are those walls? Of all heavenlinessences are they and of
brightlinessence of the beaminest. Essences participating in one
another, they ring-round this conjugation of hyper-supers…This
is the museum of quiddities, of whatnesses in their highest nest,
tucked away, ensconced, waiting for the refiners defining, so fine
are they. The museum of none-such such-and suches.

Line up alongside that this from Ebersole’s (anticipatory-posthumous au-
tobiographical) poem, “Conversation with a Dead Philosopher” (a crow is

The clock can’t tell you what it says
the way a human tells you.
Maybe I am just a mess of gears and wheels,
and everything I say
is just like half past two—
where I can’t tell you
what I say at all.
People stopped and puzzled when I talked,
wondered what to make of
anything I said.
And if I made them ask themselves
What of heads or tails to make
of a philosopher’s talking,
that was a good thing I did,
I would say.
Yes, I would say that.
Then he flew away,
calling “caw-caw.”

Here is another, related deep difference: it makes sense to say that Eber-
sole and Bouwsma each aims at a kind of simplicity, a philosophical sim-
plicity. But the simplicities aimed at are not the same. We can borrow
a pair of terms from French criticism in the nineteenth century: simplicité
and simplesse. The first we might call naive simplicity, the second
sophisticated simplicity.  The first is simplicity as a native endowment,
an unspoiled innocence or uncorruptedness.  The second is simplicity
as a complicated disposition, an achievement of disciplined responsiveness.
Ebersole presents himself as the simple man.  Bouwsma presents
himself as the simple wise man.  Ebersole’s mulishness, his strictness of linguistic
conscience, his simplicité mean that he is prone to be charged with failing to be a
philosopher by being a plain man. Ebersole can seem Xenophonic. Bouwsma’s
sprightliness, his spontaneity of linguistic consciousness, his simplesse mean
that he is prone to be charged with failing to be a philosopher by being a sophist.
Bouwsma can seem Protagorean.

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