Heidegger on Philosophy, Art and Religion

Here’s a thing about Heidegger.  For all that is forbidding and foreboding in his writing, he can produce passages of a peculiar beauty.  Often, the passages seem to come from next-to-nothing, like a mouse spontaneously generated from grey rags and dust. Or they suddenly loom up, unforeseeably jutting out of an apparently flat landscape.

Consider the abrupt apotheosizing of the inner form of philosophy in this passage:

Only if we go along with this work [Hegel’s Phenomenology] with patience–understood in the sense of really working with it–will it show its actuality and its inner form.  However, the form of this work–here as everywhere else in genuine philosophy–is not an addition which is meant for the literary connoisseur.  Nor is the question that of literary decoration or of stylistic talent.  Rather, its inner form is the inner necessity of the issue itself.  For philosophy is, like art and religion, a human-superhuman affair of primary and ultimate significance.  Clearly separated from both art and religion and yet equally primary with both of them, philosophy necessarily stands in the radiance of what is beautiful and in the throes of what is holy.

(It is fascinating how this passage resonates with the Preface of PI.  Wittgenstein there relates how he pictured the essence of the book he wanted to write, and how he then came to repent of the picture.  He realized that the actual inner form of his book was the inner necessity of the book’s issue itself–and that the book’s inner form was not one that proceeded from one remark to another naturally and without breaks.  So when he ends the Preface by conceding that he has not written a good book–or not as good a book as he would have liked to write–he is not measuring his lack of success against the pictured essence of the book.  And he is not measuring the book’s literary decoration or his stylistic talent, where each of those is understood as ‘additive’.  No.  He is measuring the book, measuring himself as its writer, against a full realization of the book’s own actual inner form, a full realization of its own inner necessity. Every force evolves a form, yes; but not every force fully evolves its form.)

Emerson and Montaigne 1

I will begin with a quotation–as I so often do.  But–“we are all quotation”–so, why hide it?

This is from Firkins’ strange and compelling book on Emerson.  He is addressing the issue of clarity in Emerson.

Dr. Garnett writes of the individual sentence in Emerson:  “His thought is transparent and almost chillingly clear.”  For most men, the clarity is hardly of the sort that regulates the temperature.  It is true, nevertheless, that for Emerson, as for Browning and Meredith, around the fact of obscurity and illusion of greater obscurity has grown up.  The trouble with Emerson is more often strangeness than dimness; the indistinctness of the moral Monadnock or Agiochook which he points out to us is due rather to the distance of the peak than to the haze of the atmosphere.

I will let this quotation stand alone for a moment.  I will have something to say about it, and about other moments in Firkins, in the next post.

Emerson on Montaigne, a New Start

Last year, around this time, I was writing here about Emerson’s essay on Montaigne.  I got distracted from that and moved on to other things.  But I am going to get back to it now.  Look for more posts in the coming days.  In the meantime, you might want to look at the initial post I wrote last year.

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
speaking):

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.

Style Meld–My Partial Answer

I want now to answer my own question, presented earlier in Style Meld.

F. R. Leavis–that is the writer whose writing I would most like to reduplicate in my own.  Part of what I love about Leavis is the spirit on display everywhere in his work, but most obviously perhaps in what he called his “higher pamphleteering”:  a remarkably strong push-back against the dead and deadening relationship to language shown throughout our culture, but particularly (alas!) among academic humanists—to use Leavis’ words, a “blind, blank, urbane unconcern” for the kind of sensibility that can live only in a living relationship to language, a kind of sensibility that runs deeply counter to the “technologico-Benthamite” times in which we live.  Leavis doesn’t just say things in this spirit, though; every sentence he writes embodies it.  His prose appeals, and perhaps can only appeal, to what he termed “the full attention of the waking mind”.   His sentences command a discriminating, nervous energy, and carry a relationship to their full context that shapes their content and the choices of words in which they are expressed.  So often in Leavis, the argumentative burden is borne not only by the relationships among his sentences but also and simultaneously by the relationships among the words of the sentences.  Leavis once remarked that he thought the novel should be a dramatic poem; and certainly for Leavis, criticism is a critical poem.  (Leavis’ clear concern for and complete mastery of the (internal and interrelated) rhythm of his sentences is comparable to a great poet’s concern for and complete mastery of meter.)  As Wittgenstein once said of Frege,  “I wish I could have written like Frege!”, I will say I wish I could write like Leavis!  (And of course I do not mean slavishly to copy his style or to produce some stiff-fingered pastiche of his writing, but rather to write in a way that displays the same spirit, as such a spirit might take form in my prose.)

I’ll supply some illustrative quotations, as separate posts, over the next few days.

Some Underdeveloped Thoughts on Montaigne’s Style

What should be said about the way Montaigne writes?  He writes essays–as he says, if his mind could gain a firm footing, he would not make essays, he would make decisions, but his mind is always in apprenticeship and on trial.  On apprenticeship and on trial:  what Montaigne says of his mind I apply to his words.  His words are on apprenticeship and on trial.  His words are apprenticed to his subject, they are on trial by their use.  The question is:  will this word do?  Do what it needs to do, stand the test it must stand, carry the burden it must carry.  Above all, his words must portray passing, not being.  They must be capable of illumining the moment of obligation in experience, where ‘moment’ means both a brief period of time and an important point in a course of development.  But they must be able to do so in a way that does not make of the moment of obligation anything that steps free of the experience, that steps free of time.  Even the moment of obligation in experience passes.  So his words must be chosen in such a way that they do not arrest time or run from it.

One of the deepest peculiarities of Montaigne’s essays is that they too pass in time, in his time and in the reader’s time.  Consider the way in which most essays are organized spatially and not temporally, even where on occasion their logico-rhetorical form is temporal.  Most essays are written in such a way that the entire essay is to be understood as ultimately present to the reader’s mind all at once, in a timeless present, as it were.  The introduction to the essay is not earlier than the body, or the body earlier than the conclusion; no, the introduction is above the body, which in turn is above the conclusion.  Although it may take the reader time to work from top to bottom, all the parts of the essay are compresent, and understanding it means coming to hold all its parts together in compresence, in what Augustine might have called the present of the present, available to one contemporary summary observation.  But Montaigne’s essays pass.  The introduction become the past of the body which becomes the past of the conclusion.  Each part jettisons the earlier part, takes its place in the present.  The essay is thus not available to observation, but instead to memory, where it is still not present all at once, but rather passes in review.

Now I should say that I am not venturing into the metaphysics of composition or of reading here.  Instead I am picturing two different processes and two different understandings of composition and reading.  The crucial idea is that the parts of Montaigne’s essays replace each other, they do not exist together with the other parts.  That does not mean that the earlier parts do not bear on the later, but rather that they bear on the later parts in a different way.  Montaigne changes as he writes the essay.  Sometimes he intends to change; sometimes he just does.  And the moment of obligation in his experience changes too.  So what he writes now may not agree or harmonize with what he wrote earlier.  But since what he is presently writing supplants what he wrote earlier, he sees no reason to treat the disagreement as vitiating the essay.  The essay may contradict or be in tension with itself but it does not contradict and is not in tension with the truth.  The conclusion of his essay concludes the essay but it is not a conclusion in the logical sense.  The essay starts and ends but its beginning is not a function of its ending in any argumentative sense, although the beginning and the ending are thematically united, united by subject.

The essay I have been leaning on as I have written this is Montaigne’s “Of Repentance”.  I have been leaning particularly on its opening paragraphs.  That essay’s title provides a way of focusing what I have been struggling to say.  Montaigne’s words are always in apprenticeship and trial.  Because of this, Montaigne writes so as not to have to repent for his essays:  He does not teach, he tells. He tells us what he sees as he sees it.  What Montaigne tells now may contradict what he told earlier, or at any rate may not chime perfectly with it, but what he tells now never contradicts him–he remains always in creative fidelity to himself.  He also remains in creative fidelity to the relevant moment of obligation in experience.  But he does not worry about remaining in creative fidelity with what he has already told; that is, in an important sense, gone.  He did his best with it as he does with what he is telling, but he is no longer responsible to it.

Spending time trying to unify a Montaigne essay wastes time.  If an essay is out of agreement with itself, then it is.  There is no deeper unity.  But that does not mean that each essay is out of agreement with itself.  It may be that the later parts of the essay are such that, although they do not follow from the earlier, they follow the earlier, in the sense that they progressively enrich and deepen the creative fidelity of Montaigne’s treatment of himself and of his subject.

Now the lines of my painting do not go astray, though they change and vary.  The world is but a perennial movement.  All things in it are in constant motion–the earth, the rocks of the Caucasus, the pyramids of Egypt–both with the common motion and with their own.  Stability itself is nothing more than a languid motion.

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