Annotating Kierkegaard; an intellectual’s appreciation

I am largely an intellectual because of Soren Kierkegaard.  I mean this primarily in terms of intellectual biography rather than genealogy.  A few days ago I noted briefly my own vocational journey into English at the hands of T.S. Eliot.  That is a true tale. However, at Eliot’s hands and through English alone as an undergraduate I largely wanted to be the next great poet or novelist.  Kierkegaard taught me to think, or at least taught me that thinking was something a Christian could do, ought to do, with whatever capacity God had given him.  Through Kierkegaard I came to Walker Percy, subject of my undergraduate thesis, and then John Updike, subject of my first scholarly essay, and probably too to literary and cultural theory which became a field of my doctoral studies and has remained a passion.   His writerly creativity, his playfulness with language image and authorial personae, never let me believe that critical writing was the inherent inferior to fiction, even if it is often practiced poorly.

In honor of Kierkegaard’s birthday yesterday, I took down some of my old SK from the shelf and blew the dust off.  The old Walter Lowrie paperback editions that were 3.95 back in the day.  The rapturous and pious annotations that fill the margins are now cringe-inducing, but I am reminded of the passions an intellectual engagement deeply felt can arouse.  A lot of the passages are marked over in four or five different colors of highlights and underlining, a way of trying to keep track, I suspect, of the many different readings I gave those book back in the day, a way of tracking the different person I was becoming.  And if I now have moved a long way from those Kierkegaardian roots in to other hipper modes of thinking, I’m also of an age where I’ve started realizing that the newest thing is not necessarily a mark of the best thing, maybe only showing you what you already knew without realizing it rather than what you need to know.

I still think The Great Dane wears well.  His comments on sectarianism, as well as his more general clarity about easy piety, say something to our own age as equally as his.  And, I still wonder sometimes, deep down, whether my first love was not the best.

From Fear and Trembling:

The true knight of faith is always absolute isolation, the false knight is sectarian. This sectarianism is an attempt to leap away from the narrow path of the paradox and become a tragic hero at a cheap price. The tragic hero expresses the universal and sacrifices himself for it. The sectarian punchinello, instead of that, has a private theatre, i.e. several good friends and comrades who represent the universal just about as well as the beadles in The Golden Snuffbox represent justice. The knight of faith, on the contrary, is the paradox, is the individual, absolutely nothing but the individual, without connections or pretensions. This is the terrible thing which the sectarian manikin cannot endure. For instead of learning from this terror that he is not capable of performing the great deed and then plainly admitting it (an act which I cannot but approve, because it is what I do) the manikin thinks that by uniting with several other manikins he will be able to do it. But that is quite out of the question. In the world of spirit no swindling is tolerated. A dozen sectaries join arms with one another, they know nothing whatever of the lonely temptations which await the knight of faith and which he dares not shun precisely because it would be still more dreadful if he were to press forward presumptuously. The sectaries deafen one another by their noise and racket, hold the dread off by their shrieks, and such a hallooing company of sportsmen think they are storming heaven and think they are on the same path as the knight of faith who in the solitude of the universe never hears any human voice but walks alone with his dreadful responsibility.

The knight of faith is obliged to rely upon himself alone, he feels the pain of not being able to make himself intelligible to others, but he feels no vain desire to guide others. The pain is his assurance that he is in the right way, this vain desire he does not know, he is too serious for that. The false knight of faith readily betrays himself by this proficiency in guiding which he has acquired in an instant. He does not comprehend what it is all about, that if another individual is to take the same path, he must become entirely in the same way the individual and have no need of any man’s guidance, least of all the guidance of a man who would obtrude himself. At this point men leap aside, they cannot bear the martyrdom of being uncomprehended, and instead of this they choose conveniently enough the worldly admiration of their proficiency. The true knight of faith is a witness, never a teacher, and therein lies his deep humanity, which is worth a good deal more than this silly participation in others’ weal and woe which is honored by the name of sympathy, whereas in fact it is nothing but vanity. He who would only be a witness thereby avows that no man, not even the lowliest, needs another man’s sympathy or should be abased that another may be exalted. But since he did not win what he won at a cheap price, neither does he sell it out at a cheap price, he is not petty enough to take men’s admiration and give them in return his silent contempt, he knows that what is truly great is equally accessible to all.

Either there is an absolute duty toward God, and if so it is the paradox here described, that the individual as the individual is higher than the universal and as the individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute / or else faith never existed, because it has always existed, or, to put it differently, Abraham is lost.

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Cosmopolis, My Home Town

In my first school years growing up as a child of American missionaries in Papua New Guinea, my friends and I lined up outside our two-room school house every day, stood to attention, and sang “God Save the Queen” to the raising of the Australian flag.  We played soccer at recess.  And cricket.  I learned quickly to speak a fluent pidgin–the standard language of commerce and conversion among the 1000 different language groups on the Island–and probably spoke as much pidgin in my four years there as I did English.  By the end of the first six months I spoke with an Aussie accent.

At the same time my friends and I were fiercely loyal Americans, even though America was mostly an idea our parents talked about.  A place in pictures we inhabited in the Polaroid versions of our infant selves.  I proudly proclaimed myself a Texan even though I had spent only the first two years of my life in Texas and had no living memory of it except hazy dream flashes of a  visit to a beach in Galveston.  Once, erudite already at the age of seven and reading my way through the World Book Encyclopedia, I proclaimed confidently that Australia was as big as the continental United States.  Fisticuffs ensued. My friends in utter disbelief that anything in the world could be so large as America–so large did it loom in our telescopic imaginations–and in disbelief too that I would have the temerity to state the blasphemy out loud.

I think this urgency to be American was born somehow out of an intuited recognition of our placelessness.  It was a longing to belong somewhere, and an acknowledgement that somehow, despite appearances, we were not entirely sure we belonged where we were. Unlike most of my friends, I returned to the States after only four years.  I shed my Aussie accent hurriedly.  When my father came to my third grade classroom in Bethany, Oklahoma, I refused to speak pidgin with him, embarrassed, pretending to forget.  No one played soccer.  No one had heard of cricket.  I semi-learned to throw a baseball, though my wife still throws better than I do.  For the first year back in the states, I rooted for the Texas Longhorns, before finally getting religion sometime right around 1970.  I’ve been a Sooner fan in good standing ever since.

This sense of cultural dislocation, of belonging and not belonging to two different countries and cultures, was, I think, felt much more acutely by my friends who remained in New Guinea for the duration of their childhoods.  And it has certainly been detailed and discussed much more movingly and thoughtfully by my former student here at Messiah College, Carmen McCain.  Still, I think this cultural lurching has remained important to me.  While I became thoroughly and unapologetically American, I retained a sense that people lived in other ways, that I had lived in other ways.  Somehow, to remain loyal to all the selves that I had been, I could never be loyal to just one place or just one people.  In that sense, I have always been drawn to a kind of cosmopolitan ideal, a recognition that the way we do things now is only a way of doing things now, bound by time, chance, and circumstance–that there are many different ways to live, and that these ways may be at different times taken up and inhabited.  And so the possibilities for our selves are not bounded by the blood we’ve been given or the ground to which we’ve been born.

At the same time, I’ve really been impressed lately by a couple of cautionary essays on the limitations of cosmopolitanism.  This week Peter Woods over at the Chronicle of Higher Education sounded a cautionary note about the ideal of global citizenship.

Being a “citizen of the world” sounds like a good and generous thing. Moreover it is one of those badges of merit that can be acquired at no particular cost. World citizens don’t face any of the ordinary burdens that come with citizenship in a regular polity: taxes, military services, jury duty, etc. Being a self-declared world citizen gives one an air of sophistication and a moral upper hand over the near-sighted flag-wavers without the bother of having to do anything.

Well, one can only say yes this strikes me as incredibly fair.  Though I will point out that it seems to me that a lot of times recently the flag-wavers seem to be not too interested in the basic things of a regular polity, like paying taxes.  Still, Woods has a point that cosmopolitanism can often devolve into a kind of irresponsible consumerist tourism–imbiber of all cultures, responsible for none.  He implies, rightly I think, that whatever the values of global awareness, the bulk of life is worked out in the nitty-gritty day to day of the local business of things.  All living, not just all politics,  is local in some utterly conventional and inescapable sense.

Wood goes on to critique Martha Nussbaum, though it is a generous critique it seems to me.

Higher education inevitably involves some degree of estrangement from the culture and the community in which a student began life. If a student truly engages liberal education, his horizons will widen and his capacity for comprehending and appreciating achievements outside his natal traditions will increase. Thus far I accept Nussbaum’s argument. But a good liberal-arts education involves a lot more than uprooting a student; showing him how limited and meager his life was before he walked into the classroom; and convincing him how much better he will be if he becomes a devotee of multiculturalism. Rather, a good liberal arts education brings a student back from that initial estrangement and gives him a tempered and deepened understanding of claims of citizenship—in a real nation, not in the figment of “world citizenship.”

I like a lot of what Woods is doing in passages like this, but I’m concerned that his only means of articulating a notion of particularity is through the category of the nation.  In a nation as big and baggy as the United States, does this give us a really very robust sense of the local and particular?  And does it solve my basic problem that I feel loyal to different localities, to the integrity of the memory of the person I have been and the people with whom I was and somehow still am.

I’m more attracted to what my colleague here at Messiah College, John Fea, has to say about cosmopolitanism in his recent and very good essay on the issue in academe, where he develops the concept of cosmopolitan rootedness as an ideal to strive after.

But this kind of liberal cosmopolitanism does not need to undermine our commitment to our local attachments. Someone who is practicing cosmopolitan rootedness engages the world from the perspective of home, however that might be defined. As Sanders writes:

To become intimate with your home region [or, I might add, one’s home institution], to know the territory as well as you can, to understand your life as woven into local life does not prevent you from recognizing and honoring the diversity of other places, cultures, ways. On the contrary, how can you value other places, if you do not have one of your own? If you are not yourself placed, then you wander the world like a sightseer, a collector of sensations, with no gauge for measuring what you see. Local knowledge is the grounding for global knowledge. (1993, 114)

Or to quote the late Christopher Lasch:

Without home culture, as it used to be called—a background of firmly held standards and beliefs—people will encounter the “other” merely as consumers of impressions and sensations, as cultural shoppers in pursuit of the latest novelties. It is important for people to measure their own values against others and to run the risk of changing their minds; but exposure to other will do them very little if they have no mind to risk. (New Republic, 18 February 1991)

So is cosmopolitan rootedness possible in the academy? Can the way of improvement lead home? Can we think of our vocation and our work in terms of serving an institution? Our natural inclination is to say something similar to the comments in the aforementioned blog discussion. I can be loyal to an institution as long as the administration of the institution remains loyal to me. Fair enough. Administrators must be sensitive to the needs of their faculty, realizing that institutional loyalty is something that needs to be cultivated over time. But this kind of rootedness also requires faculty who are open to sticking it out because they believe in what the institution stands for—whatever that might be. (This, of course, means that the college or university must stand for something greater than simply the production of knowledge). It requires a certain form of civic humanism—the ideological opposite of Lockean contractualism—that is willing to, at times, sacrifice rank careerism for the good of the institution.

Instead of Global citizenship, John is championing what is sometimes called by administrators institutional citizenship (and as an aside I would only say John is exemplary as this essay might suggest).  Yet I admit that I find myself still grappling after that thing that speaks out of our memories, those places to which we remain loyal in thought and speech because we have been committed to those locations too.  And I wonder then if it is possible that we might be loyal to the places and spaces of our imaginations, places and selves and worlds that we can imagine as places of becoming.  If I have been in and of these other places, how is that reflected in being in and of this place I’m in, and how should that be imagined in light of the places I might also be in and of, if only not yet.

John, I know, is a loyal citizen of New Jersey, and defends it when none of the rest of us will. I wish him well.  And I am a loyal citizen of the Papua New Guinea of my memory, and I am a fiercely loyal southerner and southwesterner who takes an ethnic umbrage at the easy sneering about the south that springs unconcsciously to the lips of northerners, and I am a fiercely loyal Oklahoman who believes the state has something to be proud of beyond its football team.

I am also, in some sense, a loyal citizen of the heaven of my imagining where all and everyone speak in the tongues of men and angels  and we hear each and every one in our own tongues, a transparent language without translation, a heaven where every northerner finally learns the proper way to say “Y’all.”

What theory of locality and cosmopolitanism can get at this sense that I am one body in a place, but that this body bears in its bones a loyalty to many places, growing full of spirit at the smell of cut grass after rain in the hills of Arkansas, nose pinching at the thought of the salty stink of Amsterdam, remembering faintly the sweat in the air and on the leaves of the banana trees in highland tropics of New Guinea?

Scott Cairns: Recovered Body

Recovered BodyMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

I admired these poems more than I loved them. Though that may say more about me than about the poems. Believing with the Konstanz school that the work of art is an event occurring only when an object is encountered, reviewers should probably preface what they have to say with self-critique, admitting that, after all, every act of criticism is disguised autobiography, or at least disguised desire. (How else to account for the different ways a person takes a book in the course of a life—thrilled in youth and bemused or embarrassed in middle age that we took the time once to be enthused.) In that spirit I should say that I was tired when I read these poems, and more tired when I read through a second time. It also likely didn’t help matters that I had read through Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do” earlier this week, a collection that left me feeling shaken and undone, as if in counting her losses she had fingered the raw places left by mine. Finally, it may be that in the recesses of my brain I’m carrying the memory of Cairns visit to Messiah College several years ago, delivering a reading that I felt was both profound and down to earth, deeply serious while also good-humoured.

By comparison, these poems seemed to me this time around more accomplished than moving, as if written while attending more to other poems than to readers. This is not to say that there’s not a lot to admire or that there is not a great deal of accomplishment. Indeed, it a poet’s great advantage that if even half a dozen poems that strike the anvil, an entire collection will have been worth the reading. By comparison, fifty good pages in a novel otherwise full of dreck leave me infuriated that the promise in those pages had been such a tease. Cairns is at his best in taking the old, old stories and finding the new thing. His curiosity presses the “Why?” and “What if?” Why, after all, did Lot’s wife look back. Could it have been something like compassion? And, if we were truthful with ourselves, won’t we admit that we are, in the lurid eye of our imaginations, looking back too at smoldering Sodom? What if Jacob slew Isaac after all, the story of rams and angel a good tale to give God a little cover. Perhaps the most moving of these to me was his rendering of Joseph, long after the successes of his life and the moral triumphs of his forgiving spirit, never quite forgetting the terror of that adolescent grave he’d been assigned by his brothers:

“And in succeeding years, through their provocative turns of fortune—false accusations, a little stretch in prison, a developing facility with dreams—Joseph came gradually into his own, famously forgave his own, pretty much had the last laugh, save when, always as late in the day as he could manage, he gave in to sleep and to the return of that blue expanse, before which all accretion—accomplishment, embellishment, all likely interpretations—would drop away as he found himself again in the hollow of that well, naked, stunned, his every power spinning as he lay, and looked, and swam.”

This is old hat defamiliarization. But it is also really good stuff. How absolutely true it must be, or at least could have been, about Joseph. We want triumph without memory, and redemption without regrets. This and other poems like it tear Biblical and historical figures out of the thick mask of their necessary reputations, places where, as Cairns puts it in another poem, they are “all but veiled by chiaroscuro and the prominence.”

All of this is praise, and it may say something that I find myself admiring, and even liking, these poems the more I write about them in this review, writing, after all, an act of thought, an exercise of the imagination on the idea of poetry and literature and these poems and this literature. But in the reading I found all this just a little distancing, as if the manner of these poems was too far from my need. While the technology of the poetry was to make remote figures human for me again, to, as the title of the collection suggestion suggests, give testimony to the “recovered body,” the poems’ achievements seemed primarily intellectual or literary or interpretive, rather than visceral. Someone said they wanted poetry that made them feel as if the top of their heads had been taken off, and I tend to agree. But again, perhaps that only speaks to my own needs, my own place, my own embodiment, the facts of my father’s gradual descent in to dementia and my mother’s grappling with depression, that I miss and worry anxiously about my daughter away at school, or fret and feel tired already at the sense that the past summer never actually began and now it is all but ended. So perhaps it is not surprising that the poem I liked the most in the collection was also clearly the most lyric and personal. The one in which Cairns, remembering the death of his father, struck me as a person more than an imagination:

As we met around him
That last morning—none of us unaware
of what the morning would bring—I was struck
by how quickly he left us. And the room
emptied—comes to me now—far too quickly.
If impiety toward the dead were still
deemed sin, it was that morning our common
trespass, to have imagined too readily
his absence, to have all but denied him
as he lay, simply, present before us.

This poem–unlike the others, all occupying their own form of goodness–made me say Yes.

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Intellectual Praise

I really like this bronze from C. Malcolm Powers, an artist I don’t really

Intellectual Praise--C. Malcolm Powers

Intellectual Praise--C. Malcolm Powers

know much about, but then I don’t know much about contemporary artists at all.  I like how the arms are books, suggesting that intellectual work is a kind of praise, and it has a kind of angelic feel to it.  May be somewhat grandiose, but I like the notion that reading can be a form of praise.

Lee Siegel on Obama and the New Yorker: or, I feel smarter when people in the NYTimes have the same ideas I do

Lee Siegel has a piece in the NYTimes today that is relatively close to my own analysis of a couple of days ago as to why the New Yorker cover fails at satire.

The problem is that the cartoon accurately portrays a ridiculous real-life caricature that exists as literal fact in the minds of some people, and it portrays it in terms that are absolutely true to that caricature. An analogous instance would have been a cartoon without commentary appearing in a liberal Northern newspaper in the 1920s — a time when Southern violence against blacks was unabated — that showed a black man raping a white woman while eating a watermelon. The effect of accurately reproducing such a ridiculous image that dwelled unridiculously in the minds of some people would have been merely to broaden its vicious reach. The adherents of that image would have gone unsatirized and untouched.

In satire, absurdity achieves its rationality through moral perspective — or it remains simply incoherent or malign absurdity. The New Yorker represented the right-wing caricature of the Obamas while making the fatal error of not also caricaturing the right wing. It is as though Daumier had drawn figures besotted by stupidity and disfigured by genetic deficiencies — what might have been a corrupt 19th-century politician’s image of his victims — rather than the corrupt politicians themselves, whom he of course portrayed as swollen to ridiculous physical proportions by mendacity and greed.

But if that very same New Yorker cover had been drawn in a balloon over the head of a deranged citizen — or a ruthless political operative — it would have appeared as plausible only in the mind of that person. The image would have come across as absurd and unjust — a version of reality exaggerated to the point of madness.

By presenting a mad or contemptible partisan sentiment as a mainstream one, by accurately reproducing it and by neglecting to position the target of a slur — the Obamas — in relation to the producers of the slur, The New Yorker seems to have unwittingly reiterated the misconception it meant to lampoon.

Well, Siegel is more literate than I am since I can barely conjure anything at all to mind associated with the name Daumier. Good thing we have Wikipedia. And Google.   The internet as a collective memory machine. In any case, Siegel’s point seems not so very far from my own when I said:

We could, of course, satirize the reader of the The New Yorker because the reader is at the scene of reading and so, in viewing the image, would view something grotesquely true about themselves. Instead, the New Yorker cover tries to laugh at someone else without referencing that someone else anywhere in the image. Thus the image seems to be “about” Obama even when we pause and have to say “No, it really can’t be.”

Come to think of it Siegel begins his piece by noting how wonderful it is that the world is obsessed with things normally reserved for literary scholars, kind of like my own notation that I’m thrilled that the world is abuzz with cultural theory.  Or not.  Is this a case of great minds–in this case my own and Siegel’s–thinking alike?  Or is it possible that Lee Siegel is a secrete devotee and admirer of Read Write Now.  And could it be a case of internet plagiarism.  And does such a thing exist. INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW!

[Side note: Thanks to Monda over at “Theres just no telling” and to Jon Vaitl at “I have an Idea “for their comments yesterday.  Monda, I actually just resubscribed to The New Yorker so I guess I haven’t given up on them yet, though I am tempted.  Jon, I don’t actually think irony is always smug.  As a literary device irony can depend upon the speaker knowing something that either his hearers or his subject do not, but it can also depend upon readers understanding a doubleness within a discourse that is not self-evident to the speaker.  For instance, Satan’s effort to tempt Jesusare ironic because he is tempting Jesus to doubt his status, and also attempting through that doubt to displace Jesus as the central focus of the world’s story.  The reader perceives the irony of this situation, however, in noting that Jesus demonstrates his heroism not by overt demonstrations of power, but through the simplicity of resistance.  Satan’s temptation becomes the occasion for Jesus demonstrating his strength through weakness, a central feature of the the gospel narratives.  Satan does not seem to perceive this, even when the reader does, or can.  Similar kinds of doubleness exist throughout Christian stories:  Joseph’s being sold into slavery as an act of evil by his brothers and an act of goodness by God;  the story of the crucifixion as an act of evil by human beings and an act of love by God.  Redemption, in this sense, is always ironic.  I’ve wondered whether irony is present in unique ways in the Western World because of the centrality of the Jewish and Christian narratives.  Rheinold Niebuhr’s notion of th irony of history might suggest so, but I’m not enough of an expert on how irony functions in non-Western cultures to say with any security.