I am linking an essay of mine that has been hanging out in my Huh? File. That is, the file in which I put things I have written whose merits and demerits are unclear to me, or so nearly even that I cannot decide whether to invest any more effort in them. I wrote this for viva voce delivery. I don’t know that it deserves further work, deserves my trying to make it a full-on scholarly essay. If any of you have the time and the curiosity to read this, let me know what you think. Thanks in advance!
I’ve been reading Browning for the last two or three years–but only here and there, a little at a time. He’s like strong drink: in the right amount, he sweetens and deepens experience; in the wrong amount–too much–he overwhelms experience, making it too easy to lose oneself in the various dramatis personae on offer. But what has been on my mind lately is the systemic and instructive similarity between what Browning is doing in offering his dramatis personae and what Kierkegaard is doing in offering his psuedonyms.
Browning plots his course in various places, Book III of Sordello, in the Epilogue to Dramatis Personae, in intrducing The Ring and the Book and in Fifine at the Fair. He aims to be a “Maker-see”, not just a poet who tells you what he sees but rather a poet who causes the reader to see:
See it for yourselves,
This man’s act, changeable because alive!
He takes it that we simply do not possess the requisite moral imagination–call it a negative capability–for really understanding the lives and the aliveness of others:
Action now shrouds, now shows the informing thought;
Man, like a glass ball with a spark a-top,Out of the magic fire that lurks inside,
Shows one tint at a time to take the eye:
Which, let a finger touch the silent sleep,
Shifted a hair’s-breadth shoots you dark for bright,
Suffuses bright with dark, and baffles so
Your sentence absolute for shine or shade.
Human beings are not always in their Sunday best or Saturday worst. Browning wants us to catch a glimpse of the “bustle of a man’s work-time”, to see what the man or woman sees on a middling Monday, to see how hard it is to categorize when we attempt to realize the concrete spiritual drama of an individual’s life.
Once set such orbes, –white styled, black stigmatized, —
A-rolling, see them once on the other side
Your good men and your bad men every one
From Guido Franceschini to Guy Faux,
Oft would you rub your eyes and change your names.
…The inward work and worth
Of any mind, what other mind may judge
Save God who only knows the thing He made,
The veritable service He exacts?
Browning believes his work will be of value for so long as the soul of a person remains precious to us. Now Kierkegaard works a slightly different angle, but it is importantly related in its technique. He too wants to be a Maker-see. He wants us to confront the concrete spiritual drama of the lives of others. But the lives he dramatizes are lives we are meant to see as objects of comparison with our own–they are meant to lead us to self-confrontation. No doubt Browning’s dramatic monologues can and in fact often do the same, but that does not seem to be their primary purpose. We might say that whereas Browning wants us to awaken to the mystery of others, to the littleness of our understanding of others; Kierkegaard wants us to awaken to the mystery of ourselves, to the littleness of our understanding of ourselves. I suspect, though, that the two tasks are inextricably related, and that their being so is one reason why often Browning seems like Kierkegaard and Kierkegaard like Browning.
I plan to pursue this comparison across a few post in the next week or two.
Bill Mallonee–the centerpiece of Vigilantes of Love, recorder of 50-some albums–writes the following in a preface to the liner notes of his two new albums:
Maybe it takes years of doing something long & well before you “wake up” and realize that you’ve put your own style, or own imprimatur on it. Perhaps it took years of writing songs, recording albums & then laying the wares in front of folks every night for me to “spark;” to feel comfortable in my own skin.
Here’s where it went: Eventually, one comes to that (glorious, liberating) place as an artist where you can leave the hipsters to their hip-ness, be amused by the cultish-ness of the blogger/critics, and walk away from trends.
Eventually you can say: “Hey, this is what I do. Maybe not for everybody, nor is it meant to be. But, it’s good and it’s what I do.”
Maybe that’s how an artist is “born.”
Here are a few lines from Fr. Stephen Freeman, addressing place and stability:
In monastic tradition, a monk makes four vows: poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. Most people are familiar with the first three but not with the fourth. In classical monastic practice it meant that a monk stayed put: he did not move from monastery to monastery. It was not a new idea. Before this vow was formalized in various Rules, there was already the saying from the Desert: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”
I have been lucky to have been able to stay put. Perhaps, if I had been more talented or more ambitious or both, I would not have stayed put. Perhaps I would have aimed more seriously at career upward mobility. But I was not more talented and was not and am not more ambitious. So, here I am. So, here I stay. Here I hope to stay–until I stay put permanently, resting, I hope, in peace.
When I got my job at Auburn, my teacher, Lewis White Beck, was very pleased. He grew up not far from here. His brother still lived (in those days) just north up 85, in Westpoint, Ga. (I used to visit him to hear stories of Lewis’ childhood.) Beck counseled me about Auburn: “Don’t go and leave. Stay and make it the kind of place where you want to be.” The philosophy department at Auburn has become that, although I deserve little of the credit. But I do think that staying has made me more of the person I have wanted to be. I do not mean I am not deeply flawed; of course I am, of course. Still, staying put has been a revelator and tutor: I have learnt something about fidelity and commitment, about what it means to work with others to build something bigger and better than the builders. I have learnt something about being unknown and unremarked, and about first being restively reconciled to it and later accepting it and still later coming to desire it. “Live hidden” is good advice. (Beck was once asked by the NYTimes (if I remember correctly) if they could do a feature on him, a sort of Elder Philosopher at Home bit. He declined, telling them that he was determined to enjoy “the beneficent obscurity of senectitude”. –Is that a line from Gibbon?) I guess I still have a few years before I enter my senectitude, but it is not too early for obscurity to be beneficent.
As I grow older, my classes and my students fascinate me more than ever before. Philosophical problems incarnate are now my meditation. Philosophical problems disincarnate no longer exert much pull on me. Perhaps what I have come to appreciate more fully is that there is a strict specificity about philosophical problems–they exist only in a specific person and they can be grappled with only in conjunction with that person and they can be solved–in whatever sense they are solved–only by that person. Where I am not that person, I can help or hurt (from the lectern, from the page); but I can only help or hurt; but I can no more solve the problem for him or her than I can be prudent for him or her. Philosophical problems arise from and are finally only responsive to the living experience of a specific person. I believe I have learnt that from Socrates–himself a master of staying put.
As Robert Frost once recommended: “Don’t get converted. Stay.”
I consider my students and I consider myself–and I think: our problem is that we know heaps and heaps of things but we believe nothing, or almost nothing.
A friend of mine asked me the other day about Christian religious belief and being a good person, about whether you can be a good person and disbelieve. That sort of question I cannot answer formulaically, and would not, I hope, even if a formula came to mind. What I found myself saying was something like this:
We most of us have no real knowledge of what we believe or disbelieve, in the existentially indexed form of belief I take ultimately to be at issue in Christianity. What we believe or disbelieve is something that isn’t captured by putting a ‘T’ or an ‘F’ in the blank before, say, “There is a God”, on a True/False test. Perhaps living a good life–a genuinely good life, not a conventionally good one–is itself to believe. And perhaps living a bad life–a genuinely bad life, not a conventionally bad one–is to disbelieve.
What I said was something like that. At any rate, I reckon that someone who has a false understanding of Christ could disbelieve in that Christ without disbelieving in Christ. So too someone with a false understanding of Christ could believe in that Christ without believing in Christ. Kierkegaard somewhere attempts to elucidate Christian belief by talking about it as ultimately a matter of the imitation of Christ: imitation is the sincerest form of belief, we might say. Does imitation–in the sense at issue, whatever exactly that is–require that one know that one is imitating, who one is imitating?
“No one can come to the Father except through me”, “I am the door of the sheep”: couldn’t ‘going through’, ‘entering the door’, be a matter of what we are ontologically (salvation as theosis) and not, or not so much, a matter of what we are epistemologically, of what we believe in a non-existentially indexed sense? “Not everyone who saith unto me Lord, Lord shall enter into the kingdom of heaven…” Will non-existentially indexed denial prevent entrance?
What significance would all this have for the Church? Well, that is a huge topic. But Orthodoxy has taught me to believe that although we know where the Holy Spirit is (in the Church) we do not know where it isn’t. –What the Church does is to help us to live a good life, a genuinely good life, to live in imitation of Christ, deliberate imitation, and imitation of Christ truly understood.
Living a genuinely good life is far harder than we reckon it to be, I think, far harder; a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Both inside the Church and outside it, people underestimate how hard it is. Mea maxima culpa. And it is not just hard to live a genuinely good life, it is just as hard to figure out what one would be, what it would look like. Especially on your own, especially in situ. “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, that leads to life, and few there be that find it.” Travelling the way is hard, yes; but finding it is just as hard.
I know there is much to complain about here–but I am just thinking aloud, quasserting, not asserting.
Since I posted bits of this already–its first part yesterday and its last part a while back–I thought I would go ahead and post the whole thing. I find writing talks for audiences that will include both philosophers and non-philosophers especially hard. I wish I were better at it.
The Philistine only dies with us, and always lives with us.
There’s much to profit from in Moran’s recent interview at 3am magazine. The section on Experimental Philosophy is a tour de force.
As to ‘experimental philosophy, I can’t claim to be very well versed in it, but it seems to be a research program in its early days. I think that by now, even its practitioners are beginning to realise that simply asking people, outside of any particular context, about their “intuitions” about some concept of philosophical interest is not really going to be informative since without any philosophical background to the question, the respondents themselves can’t really know just what question they are being asked to answer, what their responses are responses to. There are just too many different things that can be meant by a question like, “‘Was such-and-such an action intentional or not?”, for example. And without further discussion or further analysis, the experimenters themselves can’t know what answers they are being given by the respondents. It’s not good data. So I can imagine experimental philosophy evolving in a way to account for this, and starting to include some philosophical background to the investigation, perhaps even some philosophical history, to provide the needed context to the particular intuitions that they are trying to expose and test for. At that point, the experimental situation might also become less one-sided, with a researcher examining a respondent, and could allow for the experimental subjects themselves to ask questions of the experimenters, including questions of clarification and disambiguation, and perhaps even challenges to the way the experimenter has framed the questions.
Later it might be found useful to conduct such experiments in small groups rather than individually, with one experimenter and one subject, and instead the respondents could be encouraged to discuss the questions among themselves as well as with the experimenter. People could meet in these groups two or three times a week and perhaps some relevant reading could be assigned, to clarify and expand upon the question, and the respondents would be given time to do the reading, and asked to write something later on about the question in connection with the reading and the discussions they have had. Then the experimenter could provide “comments” on this writing for the experimental subjects themselves. I think grading the results would be optional in such an arrangement, and probably of no experimental interest, but other than that I think something like this could be the future of experimental philosophy. It’s worth trying anyway.
Scholars say that an author – usually of a philosophical text with literary dimensions – ‘invites’ us to do this or that, think of this or that, when they wish to treat the text as possessed of a sort of rigor, but also to avoid having to show how this rigor is essentially a matter of the literary dimensions of the text. This is like receiving an invitation, not accepting it, but passing it on to someone else.
‘We’ve been invited!’
‘Oh, how nice. Are you going?’
‘Well you’ve been invited! We all have!’
‘But what about you?’
I would like to say that this can’t be done halfway. To acknowledge the text’s rigor is to accept the invitation. The troublesome question should be, can it be accepted at all if one’s response is any less literary than the original? And more troublesome: how will one make one’s response just as literary, without loss of rigor?
I have been teaching Descartes’ Meditations in my Intro class. It is the first time in many years that I have worked past the Second Meditation with any care.
Among the many things that strike me–and I am of course not claiming original insight here–is the way in which Descartes’ epistemological struggle runs parallel to spiritual struggle. Like the acknowledged sinner, Descartes repents, and, in repenting, seeks for a true change of mind. To do this he must, again like the sinner, conduct an agonizing examination of conscience, testing himself at every turn. He makes but fitful progress: lessons learnt are soon forgotten; old habits die very hard. But he keeps at it, keeps salting his beliefs with the fire of doubt, and eventually he purifies himself. He stands naked, vunerable–apparently alone. The purifications of doubt, have, however, done their work–blessed are the pure in heart, in mind, for they shall see God. And Descartes does. He finds that he is not alone: God is with him. And, it turns out, God has been with him all along: though Descartes has been wandering through a valley dark, no evil demon need he fear. God’s shepherd’s crook comforts him. And, so, in the end, much like Job, Descartes gets back what he had before (at least, what he really had). God prepares a table for Descartes before the face of the evil demon, and Descartes’ epistemological cup runs over.