The Vitalist: A Literary Laundry Blog 8th Jul 2012 Interview:
Professor Mooney teaches courses in the Religion and Philosophy Departments, relying on authors as diverse as Kierkegaard, Cavell, Nussbaum, Lao Tzu, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Heidegger, Thoreau, and Iris Murdoch. His writings include On Søren Kierkegaard: Dialogue, Polemics, Lost Intimacy and Time (2007), and two other books on Kierkegaard, a figure who defines for him the vital intersection of religion, philosophy, and literature. Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy from Thoreau to Cavell evokes the intersection of the poetic, the religious, and the philosophical in American writers; it came out in October 2009. Postcards Dropped in Flight is a set of lyrical meditations on birds, water, and the soul. [Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, appeared in 2015.]
VITALIST: What does the phrase “lyrical philosophy” mean to you?
EM I’ve always thought that there were certain passages from philosophers that just begged to be read aloud, as if at a poetry reading, for the very musicality of their expression. Of course that goes against the grain if philosophy is exclusively the isolation of arguments assessed for their truth-value in detached, objective fashion. As someone said recently, philosophy aims at truth, music doesn’t. But I love certain sentences, say hearing Thoreau sound out in my ear “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse and a turtle dove” (that’s in Walden) and I can repeat it like a nursery rhyme. It makes me smile and sad simultaneously. And then I can move from its lyricism to think of it as part of his view of grief and mourning, whereupon the words enter a more detached framework for assessing what life’s all about. Or the hound and bay horse can remind me of reading a sober line from Hamlet or Emily Dickinson. And there are whole paragraphs from Schopenhauer or from a Wallace Stevens essay, or poem, that are poetry AND philosophy and need to be read aloud as well as pondered in the way we would if our existential attitudes or feelings were at issue.
So the quick answer is that lyrical philosophy is philosophy to be sung, read aloud again and again. Once you get a philosophical proof, or good argument, you can set it aside, and move on; it has no more interest, it’s like solving an equation or balancing the budget — you do it once and that’s that. You know the answer and the argument. But lyrical philosophy doesn’t give you an answer to pocket because it does not respond to true-false questions, or good-bad argument questions, as if on a philosophy exam. You tune into lyrical philosophy every morning, or at least once a week, because you never tire of the tune, and you attend to the way it’s performed today (as opposed to yesterday) and how it fits your mood today (as opposed to yesterday’s mood). I think the biblical psalms and wisdom literature (the Whirlwind in Job, Ecclesiastes), are often lyrical philosophy. We love musical philosophy because we’re musical creatures, creatures of rhythm and sound, and voice, not just evidence-collecting, proof-producing, and argument-hawking creatures. Lyrical philosophy, like music, explores, sounds, sympathizes, excites.
VITALIST Do you see then, a larger role for philosophy in the every (presumably American) day than it currently has? In other words, could you see there being a “common-reader” of meditative, lyrical philosophy in the way that Woolf imagined there was a common reader of English literature? Or as may have briefly existed among a people, among friends, in Concord?
EM I think there are at least two temperaments at war here. One is the ideal of a community sharing common bread, reading from a common stock of literature and poetry and philosophy that inspires and binds souls together, the sort of wedding-scene of comedy, with wine and dance and circling communions of flesh and spirit, a wedding scene built around celebration of words, words of rhythm and color, of anchoring and affecting in the world. Of course such a dream no doubt hovered over Concord for a spell, where utopian communities and joint writing, philosophical, and literary projects sought (and momentarily found) a convergence and transcendence of the dull and deadening.
Many – and I include myself when I don’t judge myself too deluded — hope for such a community hovering at the edge of humanities departments in colleges and universities, or at least at the edge of faculty and student watering holes. But of course the reality is that faculty are pushing their mortgages ahead of them, heads down, making payments through the labor of specialized publications, etc., and have very little time (or interest) in chatting to neighbors or enjoying or constructing “A Common Reader.” If a wedding were in progress in the meadow to the left, they’d trudge on by. If they happened by Walden, they’d not notice, and fall right in. So that’s one ideal of community, known mostly by its sad shadow, a desperate inattention to its fragile buds of existence and deep ignorance of even its possibility.
The other temperament — and of course to say “two temperaments” is immediately to provoke us to think of three or four or five — is not marked by community-yearning but by battle-seeking. Non-lyrical philosophy loves a fight, loves to defeat the competition in getting the ‘right theory’ of this and that, and thinks of intellectual inquiry and exploration as a Darwinian survival struggle or as justified colonial imperialism. The barbarians must be made to listen. If there’s a moment of lyricism, it’s in celebration of victory over benighted, now defeated or mortally crippled, opponents, or over those so benighted and superfluous that they never even saw there was an issue there to fight over, settle, or to be correct about.
I try to repress my attraction to philosophy-as-warfare. I once half-jokingly planned a journal, with a colleague, conceived on long runs in the Berkeley Hills. It would be called “The Journal of Refutations.” In whatever field an argument might be advanced, we’d just deliver the refutation by return mail. But I wished my gravestone to have other than “EM, A Beloved Refutation Machine”. Hence my essays often have titles like “Love, that lenient interpreter” (as a counter to “How to Become a Master of Suspicion”).
To take your question a bit further, I’d want to say that we are ironic creatures in the sense that we can see ourselves naked as we now are (minus aspirations and hopes) full of awareness of failure and limits — “We’ll never sit down and enjoy a set of essays, poems, and music together — there’s just too much difference and competition and disinterest — poetry readings are an anomaly and blue grass concerts are all-too-selective in audience, like conventions of dentists interested in the latest extraction-techniques — community is like that, narrow and mostly uninteresting except to the select-few — Get Real!”.
As ironic creatures we are painfully aware of our limits and of the actual impediments to doing much that is going to join us in celebration around literature and poetry and philosophy. But if we’re not just defeatist or cynical or nay-saying creatures, if we are, structurally speaking, ironic creatures, then there is another fact about us beyond our capacity to see ourselves naked. The second fact about us is that we DO have aspirations and hopes and we DO (some good number of us, at least) have faith that these hopes and aspirations and yearnings are not utterly illusory and futile. The gap between these two facts about us hurts, is our wound, a wound in our ontology (if that doesn’t sound too grand).
If religion means harboring ideals that seem a little outrageous, or learning to live with our ontological wounds, learning to grieve (as well as celebrate), then this is where we get a little religious – or call it something else, if you want. The embrace of ideals makes even an avowedly secular philosopher look a little like a person of faith. Without faith, without having a disposition toward being outrageously hopeful, would we really overcome disillusionment and start blogs on Thoreau that create mini-communities, or start journals like The Vitalist that seek to smoke out others of a lyrical-philosophical bent, or write books (like I do) that say that thinkers, philosophers, and literary types have a role in saving all that’s best in a culture, preserving it, nurturing it — not just a duty to expose its clay feet and corrupt underbelly?
So I have great hope for a “common-reader” of lyrical philosophy and I hope that I am doing something (by example) to push recognition of such a genre. I also realize that this is a Quixotic task, that another (including myself in some moods) could find such hope ridiculous. But as you know, Kierkegaard taught us that although the world be stripped away, the possibility of its return (as a blessing) is never foreclosed. Let’s collect that “common reader.” If not now, when?
VITALIST Richard Rorty wrote just before he died, a piece in Poetry magazine where he said “I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths; there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp. Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts — just as I would have if I had made more close friends.”
What I think Rorty is saying here is that in a deeply contingent, unstable epistemological landscape- we are perhaps better off sticking with what is enriching to the soul, rather than be tempted by the doomed pursuit of objective truth… Now forgive the length of this question- but this seems to me like, ultimately, a very Kierkegaardian statement – an assault on rationalistic philosophy for failing to equip the soul for its journey from life to death… Now, you’re someone who started, I believe, studying analytic philosophy and eventually became a Kierkegaard scholar, and lyric philosopher yourself- so would you say that your progress was similar to Rorty’s? And what was that process like- that evolution in philosophical approach?
EM Much as I respect what Rorty did for philosophy by deserting the ranks for literature, back in the 80s, I think in the long run he just maintained the old fissure between poetry and philosophy, opting for the other side and leaving philosophy for dead. And I’m sad he thinks that what poetry would have given him is so meager and trivial – that with more attention to poetry in his life, he would have had more “old chestnuts’ to “rattle off” to spice up conversation. Those are more or less his dying words? It’s a shame.
Socrates wished that he had had more ‘music making’ in his life, but that music, I’m sure, was not just repeating ‘old chestnuts.’ We can get something, a truth, a fidelity to experience, from a poem about death, and Hamlet’s truths will differ from those of Socrates or Tolstoi or Heidegger. Rorty is so anxious to distance himself from what you rightly call ’objective truth’, Matt, that he thinks there are no truths to be had, period — poetry gives only ‘chestnuts’, glorified fortune-cookie ‘sayings.’ Socrates doesn’t think that the voice that whispers, “Socrates, make music and compose” is telling him to give up on truth, but rather, to hear truth in a different register than objective argument.
I started out as an undergraduate and grad on the analytic side of philosophy because I loved clear, jargon-free writing – Rorty’s kind of writing. I thought that the existentialists had all the right questions but a far too Teutonic way of writing about them; and that the linguistic analysts had the right way of writing but a woefully impoverished sense of what to write about. (Wittgenstein was an exception here.) I liked Iris Murdoch, Cavell, and later Nussbaum and Cora Diamond because they were clear as a bell about good things like the passions, life, death, and intimate relations (three out of four, women?) and they took poetry seriously. Philosophy should equip the soul, in the sense of giving it a foretaste of the challenges it will face in its journeys.
True, Rorty fixates on a “deeply contingent, unstable epistemological landscape.” But that doesn’t silence us, does it? I may realize that each sentence I write is open to a counter sentence, just as each tune I play is open to a counter-tune that may displace or upstage my opening notes. But that shouldn’t stop my playing.
I can be more or less truthful in my fidelity to the sense of a tune, and to modes of performance. I can expose my subjectivity through artful, poetic, lyrical philosophy, and let that exposure prompt others to respond, as they will, matching my commitment (I hope) to getting the sound and rhythm and color ‘right.’ We who join in these back-and-forths believe in our bones, as we write like hell, that the fake and the true are often self-evidently what they are, and that we’d better not forget that the difference matters.
Then philosophical conversation becomes more like jazz improvisation than like truth-claims in a physics text. Rorty’s right, his life would be richer with more jazz and poetry, but the richness is not in more chestnuts but in more fidelity to experience, more wisdom, as we undergo life’s vicissitudes, as we are exposed to them, and share our exposure with others.
VITALIST So it seems like you’re saying, that pace Rorty, that “the fake and the true are often self-evidently what they are”- that philosophers are still capable of uncovering or at least offering questions that can guide us to those truths. You also seem to suggest, that each philosopher’s (or each person’s for that matter) honest pursuit of that truth, takes on the quality of music. The mistake you seem to be assigning to Rorty then, is the false assumption that because the philosopher can’t make truth statements, there is no truth- when in reality, there is truth, and the philosopher just has to find creative ways of illuminating those truths. A metaphilosophy which would, I imagine, allow us to say that Emerson and Kierkegaard, are the contemporaries of Plato and Hegel- that Hegel’s “Owl of Minerva” or Plato’s “Cave” are no more or less flights into (truth-illuminating) language than sections of Either/Or or Representative Men. Do you think that this is a fair exegesis of your thinking about what philosophy is? A broader network of illuminating thinkers, rather than the narrower canon of system builders?
EM Right! That’s it! Our spontaneous ‘truth search’ is tending toward truth, we’re avoiding the fake. ‘Truth’ can be a static proclamation or assertion decreed from on high or through an ‘infallible’ series of argumentative moves, or it can be a looser series of illuminations we can’t but affirm, or at least consider over wine.
We hardly ever hear a philosopher say that Socrates is a fake, no matter how many errors in reasoning he commits (we’ve tabulated thousands). He’s true to himself, faithful to his sense of what’s right, that he should not run from Athens, for instance. How do we know he’s true to something here? Well, he acts loyally, and in keeping with a promise implicit in his life. How do we know what’s implicit in his life, such that we know he’s being true to something in not fleeing? You see, at each step of this exploration, we expose our willingness to grant that the question makes sense: Is Socrates true to himself? And each move in clarification is something like being mesmerized by the ‘rightness’ of his responses. We know he is true, even as we’re puzzled (somewhat) about the degree of our confidence. It’s, as if we were tracking the rightness of a jazz musician’s “true sense” of where an improvisatory line should go. We want to stand up and cheer and weep as Socrates ‘self-evidently’ acts and speaks truly at the end, even as we’re puzzled by the voice at the end that tells him to make music.
I like your way of saying it, that the philosopher “just has to find creative ways of illuminating those truths” — truths, I’d add that shine forth in moments of recognition, as we sense that Socrates is right in his loyalties, and sense that something is disastrously wrong as Ezra Pound began to flippantly endorse fascism and spout antisemitism and at the end of WWII finally commits himself to an asylum to avoid a firing squad. His poetry might be tracking truths, but his life and radio broadcasts became rubbish and worse.
The network of “mutually illuminating thinkers” you hypothesize helps us out here. Of those we trust (Gandhi, Socrates, Bergson, Thoreau, Spinoza, Sartre, Russell), none can be imagined broadcasting anything as vile as Pound did. Now maybe I could be disabused of this assurance. But a good account of ‘truths to live by’ would begin by saying we aren’t raising a chimera in asking if Pound is fake and Socrates true.
Now everyone should leave a discussion like this with a sense that there’s more to be said. That’s true, isn’t it? So not to disappoint, let me just say that in addition to truths of systems and of the sciences, and things we are true to in a life, there are also what I call ‘contact truths.’ Well beyond my capacity to give a good account of the matter, I nevertheless know that it’s true I was born in NY State. It can’t be a good reason to say “My mother told me!” I know that it’s true that I am nauseated by roller coasters (do I have to do more experiments to know this?) and that I get ravenous when I see a Starbuck’s pastry. How do I know it’s true I get ravenous? I’m in contact with something I know isn’t fake, that’s ‘self evidently what it is.’
I ask you to accept my exposing this truth to you, and to know in your bones that truth matters, and that in this instance, I’m not faking it — in the matter of Ezra Pound and in the matter of my ravenous need for a morning bun. I’d also ask you to expose yourself to a truth (I know you’ll comply!), or a set of truths, that, as we’ve seen, Rorty is utterly tone-deaf to. And that that set of truths might culminate in a wonderful line from Wallace Stevens, spoken truthfully from Connecticut: “The search for reality is as momentous as the search for god.” Truth is an ordinary event, or then a series of glimmering and audacious and painful and remarkable events, moments of illumination.
A good time now to have a sip of Grigio — true?