Rorty on Poetry

For whatever reason, I’ve been rethinking, as I prepare for another Thoreau seminar up in Jerusalem, the way words that verge on the poetic are not wasted, the way they can lead in writing like Thoreau’s to profound reorientation of perception and perspective.  And of course the counter-views started to swirl: isn’t it just metaphoric? Isn’t poetry an abandonment of the philosopher’s quest for truth?  And I knew from somewhere in the shadows of my mind that I had addressed this question in response to a very shallow view of Richard Rorty.  I tracked down the memory to an old July 2012 interview with The Vitalist.  And was quite happy with my response — it seems on target — and so I  share it now.  I start with the interviewer’s question.  I hope the opening it gives to Thoreau’s shifting and mobile poetic prose isn’t obscure:

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. I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnutsjust 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, 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?

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 think 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, are exposed to them, and share our exposure with others.



5 comments on “Rorty on Poetry

  1. dmf says:

    I think that Rorty made a distinction between formal poetry (a focus as you note of his late and dying days and I would argue an extension of his earlier passions like bird-watching) and the poetic-dwelling that we are always already in the process of, that is the ‘foundation’ of our co-operations/socialization, and this can be found in his Contingency book where he ‘democratizes’ the poetic ‘genius’ of Nietzsche/Bloom in relation to Freud via self-cultivation/sublimation, and right in the heart of analytic philosophy with his work on Donald Davidson’s descriptions of the paradigmatic (read Kuhn) roles of “living” and dead “metaphors”,
    if that bricolage of Davidson’s writing isn’t a marriage of poetics and philosophy (and not a substituting of one for the other) than I’m not sure of what is.

    • efmooney says:

      Well, he’s a complex man, and I admire him for his many ‘poetic passions.’ But he said what he said, which reflects a very wide spread view, that poetry is ornament to go with after-dinner drinks, and (I suspect) that bird-watching is a passion like Caputo’s passion for the Philly’s — important to life, but far from serious philosophical concerns like leading a better life or getting closer to truth. He has an equally disappointing quip about what we get from William James that I lament at the end of LOST INTIMACY. Davidson is another matter. To talk now and again ABOUT poetry is not at all weaving it into the warp and weft of one’s thought. At his best Davidson does not value poetry in the way Nietzsche or Kierkegaard or Plato do. These latter ‘lyrical philosophers’ do not at all think of the poetic resources of language as something useful for after dinner chatter.

      • dmf says:

        hey Ed, not sure that you are addressing (not that there is any necessity to it) the textual resources that I raised and so I think we are talking about two different Rorty’s at this point.
        As for James Rorty of course gave a fairly involved public address of his reading of WJ (you can find it on youtube if it’s of interest) and I think it came close to a very serious tension (aporia?) that James himself never really came to terms with:

      • efmooney says:

        The end of that James lecture is what I lament in LOST INTIMACY. I’ll check those other resources. Thanks. Maybe his ‘last days’ remark about poetry is not his best hour. But you know my larger point is that Thoreau isn’t admitted as a philosopher because so many think of poetry or poetic prose in the off hand way I describe.

      • dmf says:

        “But you know my larger point is that Thoreau isn’t admitted as a philosopher because so many think of poetry or poetic prose in the off hand way I describe.” yes but this is what puzzles me as Rorty gambled his academic author-ity on moving away from scientistic-philosophy to championing writers like Nabakov and Walt Whitman, was there a more vociferous voice for the centrality of imagination to human-doings/being in the academy during his lifetime?

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