Truth from the Trenches

In poetry, which is all fable, truth still is the perfection.
—Shaftesbury [1]

I.        Wittgenstein responded to the outbreak of WWI by joining the Austrian Army as an artillery corpsman.  Twenty years later he abandoned teaching at Cambridge to enlist as a hospital orderly, while his colleagues (some of them) toiled at desks in British Intelligence.  In his twenties he was true to his Austrian roots, and later he was true to his recently grafted British roots.  He had a primitive, non-intellectualized hold on some truth he should be true to, something that was real to which he should witness.  He lacked any articulate basis for regarding that witness as a witness to truth rather than to illusion or falsehood.  Yet his actions showed that in his fifties he could be true to British soil without being false to Austrian terrain, and he could be true to Austrian terrain (earlier) without desecrating British soil.  His later British loyalties were not a self-betrayal.

How is it so easy to malign truth, call it an illusion, deny that there is such a thing as truth?  Can’t we say Wittgenstein was true to his roots?  Well, perhaps he joined up for a less exalted reason:  say he wished to undermine a fear that he was an arrogant privileged aristocratic above the call of common duty?  But if that is true, we wouldn’t be maligning truth, we’d just be arguing that someone could be true to his roots, but that was not true of Wittgenstein.  We’d still have a robust notion of truth in play.

Wittgenstein read Kierkegaard and called him the greatest philosopher of the 19th century – better than Marx, Schopenhauer, or Nietzsche.  We could say that Kierkegaard remained true to Christian roots even as he was true to his pagan, Socratic roots.  To say that would be to keep a robust notion of truth in play.  Kierkegaard was an unrepentant admirer of Socrates. A pagan could tell him something about how he should live, about where his loyalties lay. He knew he was fully Christian and fully Socratic, and that neither loyalty betrayed the other.  Neither Christ nor Socrates, as he saw it, put much stock in winning anyone to a creed. He could be true to the paths they followed, though one path was Christian and the other non-Christian.  He could remain true to a path that might seem to crisscross wildly between Athens and Jerusalem. We might find integrity in his living while we puzzled how one could make intellectual sense of an amalgam of Christ and Socrates.

Truth gets maligned.  We hear on the streets and in the academy that it’s an empty idol, that with the death of God we also have to accept the death of truth.  But does that mean it’s useless to wonder if there’s a true path one should follow, that we should think it’s bogus to say Kierkegaard was true to a Christian path and true to a Pagan path, or that Wittgenstein was true to his Austrian roots, and then true to his British roots?  Of course we might discover that Kierkegaard betrayed his Christian or Pagan roots, but then we’d be maintaining a robust philosophical sense of truth.  The notion of being true to something in one’s life isn’t jejune.  It’s just that after much examination, we decide that Wittgenstein or Kierkegaard weren’t true to what they claimed they were true to.  A robust notion of truth would be in play.


II.     When someone speaks truthfully, or acts in a way she takes to be true to her path, or true to who she is, we have a notion of truth in play that allows us to speak of the integrity or virtue of Socrates or Kierkegaard or Wittgenstein.  Each, we could say, bears witness to something, in action and comportment.  Each bears witness to a good.  This is a noble sort of truthfulness, a truth embedded in character and ways of life.  How do we come to recognize a good life – recognize that Socrates acts truly, that not caving before the Athenian public and not escaping his death sentence as his friends urge him to do, is not self-betrayal, but self-consolidation, integrity, being true to oneself?  This is a sort of truth to cherish.  Truth is not a hollow shell we toss aside as we become philosophically sophisticated, skeptical, and perhaps cynical.

On his deathbed, at the conclusion of what can only be called a tormented life, Wittgenstein asked his comforter, “Please tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”  He spoke truthfully, I’m sure, though that witness was nothing that he, or anyone else, could confirm as true.  He was not uttering a proposition to be tried and found adequate to some state of affairs.  He spoke truly, witnessed truly.  I often imagine Kierkegaard witnessing from his deathbed, despite his Christian torments, “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful, a wonderfully Socratic life”.  The moral here is that a plurality of truths is not evidence for the absence of truths – or truth.  (This is an error Nietzsche and others can fall into.  To say that truth is perspectival, always delivered from a perspective, does not entail that there is no truth.  From the perspective of an ant, humans are very large — that’s a truth; and from the perspective of a whale, humans are not that large at all — that’s a truth.)

Speaking at Syracuse a few months ago, Helene Cixoux confided to the sweet touch of shared words over the years with Jacques Derrida. She was a true friend to him as he lived and a true friend to bring him alive, as she did, far from Paris that day.  She delivered truth to those with ears to hear:  a resonant truth, a tactile truth, a truth that touched and blossomed from touch.  Like Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, she witnessed truly to a quality of life.  Truth matters.


III.      Speaking in a large public stadium in the wake of 9/11, a Lutheran pastor shared a space of prayer with Imams and Rabbis and Priests, witnessing not to friendship but to true and truthful communion across sectarian lines.  In distain for such truth, he was defrocked forthwith.  Witness is not trouble free.  Through his comportment, he embraced Islam and Judaism while wedded to Christianity.  He might have whispered, “Tell them that there, for the moment, I was Muslim and Jew.”  He was truly exemplary of solidarity in mourning and compassion across faiths and non-faiths.

Truth matters because we yearn for it and because we’re up to our necks in untruth.  Disparaging Big Truth, Richard Rorty left a constraining Princeton for a looser Virginia, and then moved on to hang-loose California. His replacement, as it were, Harry Frankfurt, speaks for tactile truths from Princeton in a little book called Bull Shit.  If you want to expose BS, you’d better believe in truth.  Truth is triumphant as BS gets outed.  It glows also in true witness, true communion, true friendship, true service – in being true to oneself and others. My apprentice must “true up” the juncture of that beam and its support. Perhaps it’s asking too much to have politicians live truly, but we want John Wayne to have true grit.   To dump truth is to dump the goodness of Wittgenstein’s service, the beauty of Cixoux’s friendship, the witness of a Lutheran pastor, the incisiveness of Frankfurt’s polemic against BS.   To scorn truth is to leave untruth standing.  If a madman cries out that truth is dead, you can block your ears or send him away.



IV.       We don’t need a theory of truth to grasp truths of witness, communion, or friendship any more than we need a theory of music to grasp Beethoven’s invincibility, his immortality.  We don’t need a theory to grasp Thoreau’s witness to the Concord and Merrimack as revelatory sites, sites of truths.  Knowing the landscape, we have an instinctive grasp of BS (Frankfurt helps us sharpen it).  Knowing the field, we have a grasp of the quarterback’s true vision, true grace under fire.  Doing considerable reading in Thoreau country, we can grasp the truths of his witness — in writing, walking, and civil resistance.

Getting to religion’s tactile truths is getting around in the landscapes of prayers, tears and apocalypse; getting the feel of confession, pieties and beloved mothers; of absent fathers, envies, loyalties, fear and trembling.  These terrains are enlivened as we trace how Buddha or Jesus or Gandhi cut through them, interrupting and disrupting and reassembling as they go.  We get a knack for their witness to the lay of the land and to the things and practices it embraces. We move among tactile truths.

The thought of tactile truth is linked to Wallace Stevens’ invitation to let poetry give us “Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself.”  And to be given “the thing itself” is a gift to touch, not an idea about what touches us. For Thoreau, death appears on a Fire Island beach as the bones of his friend Margaret Fuller, close enough to touch.  He works for a harmony of head and heart, ear and eye, nose – and hand.


V.    A few years ago at a conference at Wheaton College a speaker evoked El Capitan’s walls in Yosemite as a site where a climber could have tactile knowledge of an exhilarating, timeless moment, an Augenblick, or series of them, high above the valley floor.  There was witness to tactile truths revealed to the living body, truths of the most extraordinary kind, available nowhere else and in no other way than by inching one’s way up the granite face ‘til a thousand feet dropped off below, and thousands more beckoned above.  Truth spoke from the rocks and the climber alike – from the skies –and to those viewing rooted in the meadows below.  The moral is that tactile truths, and witness to them, get us through the night.

Pilate asks, What is Truth? but his interlocutor ducks, as he should.  The question is doubly mocking, of truths and of the exemplar before him.  If my son gathers his equipment to attempt an ascent I think he’s ill prepared for, I won’t halt him at the curb and ask “What is truth?”  I’d ask, if he were young and ill-prepared, “What’s up with your foolhardy ways?  Why shouldn’t I ground you?”

Pilate is also asking, but of Jesus, “What’s up with your foolhardy ways?  Why shouldn’t I ground you, or worse?”  He needs a tactile sense, a grip on what’s up with an ill-dressed man who, it’s rumored, witnesses to being all that a true human being in fact is and should be, who comports himself as if he’s an exemplar for others.  Perhaps his detractors fancy that he takes himself to be a true king relative to others.


VI.     Pilate wants a story to tell, to himself and any who might question him later, about what’s up with this trouble-maker/ prophet/ teller-of-parables/ harmless-miracle-worker/ delusional-self-styled-king/ insufficiently-humble-wanderer/ disrupter (of the temple stock-exchange – what’s up with this person who says he’s the way and the truth – what’s up with him, and what will he, Pilate, do about it.

On my view, Pilate couldn’t care less about the truth that good academics in theology and philosophy ask graduate students about in PhD qualifying exams.  In their allotted hours, our good students run the gauntlet: “What is truth?”  Well, let’s look at skeptics, conventionalists, pragmatists, deconstructionists, pre-postmodernists, semanticists, Platonists, nominalists, Aristotelians, etc., etc.

What’s wrong with this picture?  Well, this is precisely not truth seeking — but Why?  Truth seeking culminates in a witness to truth or to it’s absence.  It does not culminate in a theory about truth.

For a theory of truth, we assume that there’s a neutral “view from nowhere” from which we can announce “there is no truth” or “truth is what works” or “truth is the interest of the stronger” or “truth is a distillate of gender, history, and genes – not to mention a distillate of party affiliation, income, and having or not having resolved one’s Oedipal issues”.  Or “truth is a distillate of anyone’s mood, his mood of the moment”.  But I’ll get off this train, if you please, there’s something deeply untrue in the direction these tracks are going. I’m not skeptical about truth.  I’m skeptical of proceeding at this non-living level of generality, at this great distance from the street.


VII.     “Is it true that Derrida had an aversion to binaries?” – I can handle that. I’ll consult texts and come up with something at least passable.  “Is it true that binaries bully our perceptions and discourses?”  I’m not clueless about how to argue, one way or the other.  “Does JD smuggle in a false absolute, the “absolute truth” that you can’t get deeper than binaries – or is his view here just an offhand remark that he’d retract in a moment?”  I can handle all this. Truth has a grip, there’s a road and the rubber — and one hits the other.

However, if I hear yet again, “But come, just what is this . . . this “truth of the matter” that you so confidently invoke?” – if I hear that, I shut down.  I head for the door.  Or get shrill or insistent.  The question sounds deep but is in fact mere air.


VIII.    Asking about truth is not asking about One Big Thing, but asking about true witness, true friendship, true communion – no more, no less.  It’s asking about true liars and true BSers, about true heroes and true villains; it’s asking whether binaries push us around or whether global warming is upon us – no more, no less.  There is no Big Question about Truth left over, still to tackle, after thinking about these truths (or falsities) from the street.

There is no Big Question about Truth — say how to define that Big Thing – we have to answer before we dig in to ponder true witness, true friendship, and so forth.  If someone persists “But what is truth – in general, overall?”  Then we should, like the good Socrates, artfully change the subject, or tactfully get off the train.   Or offer very modest, push-cart versions: “a ‘true X’  is the best of its kind” — whether a true musician or true Christian, a true description or a true scholar.

To give the idea a range of application, from low to high, I’d offer a parallel push-cart version:  “a true X is a legitimate instance of its kind” — not a counterfeit or a forgery, but not necessarily the best of its kind.

I’d stick with push-cart versions, but not because Big Truth is a messy and difficult part of the city.  I’d get off the train advertising Big Truth as destination because like Gertrude Stein will say of Oakland — “There’s no there there” – no there to go to.


IX.   To knit one’s brow and worry the question “What is truth?” is to try to think from a supra-celestial nowhere, surveying all time and eternity.  It’s to try to think oneself into divinity.  More ornately, to ask The Big Question is to beg a release from Dasein, a release from Heidegger’s “there-ness.”  It’s to presume exemption from the only field from which sensible questions about truth can be safely launched.

“What is truth?” – overall, in generalis a rootless, hopeless, slightly inane question.  It flutters weightlessly in gossip and chatter. Emerson anticipates wonderfully.  “We are place”, he announces.[2]  That is, we are not gods, not disembodied consciousness, not exempt from placement, from the street or the village.  Thoreau would agree – from a pond not far from the village of Concord.

If we are place, what is our place? Our place is the place that addresses us, and the place that addresses us (me) enjoins a regard for truth.  It will have no truck with lies and falsehoods.  The oak or the neighbor or the sunset have no use for dissimulation; they require my frank response. If I am the context, the place of my friend’s address, that friend can insist that I be true to that.

We hope persons with religious sensibilities admire true human beings outside the circle of their practice, and if we are outsiders to each other, we might still ponder the true aims of argument, prayer, confession, or prophecy.  It is our place to be moved by gestures of true friendship or true solidarity, to acknowledge the true magnificence of granite walls, or of a truly ripe Camembert.

It’s truly our place to respect the quiet of another’s prayer, and listen to chants in languages we don’t understand.  The moral is that I know these truths of appreciation and comportment like the back of my hand.  Might I be wrong?  — of course.  Might I be right?  I’d better believe it.

images-2     The truths of space-time and of the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth can co-exist.


X.      Getting truths from the trenches (or the streets) calls for a kind of tactile ability to sense what to trust and what to mistrust, what’s exemplary and what’s third-rate, what’s “true love,” “true friendship”, “true pitch”, “true aim” – and what’s a shoddy simulacra.  Working toward the genuine, toward the shining exemplar, is a knack, something we pick up — or don’t.  Some can’t miss a shill or a conman, others predictably do.  Some light up at a true cabernet, others don’t.  Some see Jesus as king, others won’t.  Some will hear genius in Dickinson and others will miss it.

There’s a knack for tactile truths, visceral truths.  We get it from the streets, or in classrooms or under temple roofs or Concord skies.  We are the place where these truths get worked out and negotiated, where we absorb their touch and scent and ring.  The truths we have a knack for detecting are not true propositions we can pocket and consult when we’re lost.

Having a knack for the tactile ones allows us to hear the truth in Wittgenstein’s deathbed words, “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life,” or to grasp the truth in his honoring newly grafted British roots, or to grasp the truth that he doesn’t thereby uproot his Austrian ones.  With this knack, we hear Cixoux’s celebration of friendship, and intimations of persecution.


XI.    Is truth objectivity? In science, in law courts, in serious journalism, we aim to attain it.  We aim for objectivity, and when we achieve or approach it, we pride ourselves on realizing some passable degree of it.  There, we seek truths-of-objectivity.  In science, law courts, or serious journalism we aim for objectivity in reports and descriptions, because in those contexts objectivity is the genuine thing to pursue, the real thing, the best of its kind.   If we miss objectivity, we feel shame.

Is truth subjectivity?  It is when the domain of attention insists that I be true to what I am and must be as a human being, insists that I probe and weigh my passionate investments, and not refuse an awareness that I count for something and that the world can surprise.  Subjectivity is, among other things, acknowledging responsibility, and that’s a good thing, something to be true to. To answer for oneself is an individual imperative that flows primitively from me, not from the “objective” spirit of culture or city or commonplace gestures and platitudes of the time.

Truth is objectivity; truth is subjectivity.  A deep personal investment in honest scientific research weds subjective truth and objective truth. Einstein’s embrace of Relativity coupled his embrace of objective truth with witness to subjective truth, so tightly was his identity coiled around it.  And some truths are perhaps neither one nor the other.  I have a true taste for Camembert and Richter has a true touch for Schubert, but these truths are neither the outcome of reliable, verifiable reporting nor a responsible witness to a personal investment.  And there’s the subtle point that an ear for BS is something other than an ear for the absence of objective truth; it’s closer to having an ear for the betrayal of the subjective truth that truth matters to me.

Across large reaches of our dealings with truth, we hardly know what to say about subjectivity and objectivity.  We learn to sort the sham from the real, the true from the false, the deep from the shallow.  We learn to sort the objective from the subjective and the instances of neither and both.  To sort is to have a knack for attunement to the varied landscapes I pass through.  Learning music is getting the gist of its spirit, the gist of true pitch, true expression, true regard for a composer and one’s fellow performers.



XII.    How about religious truth, or truths in religion?  It’s best to think of religions on the street rather than seek them and their truths sequestered in heavenly raptures.  The rubber hits the road when we look for religious truths, sometimes with a deadly crash.  In a violent emergency, it’s best to steer away from the hopeless question “Which religion is true?” — and away from the presumptions that Pilate’s question makes sense, and away from the illusion that if we only knew the answer we could adjudicate other people’s lives in light of that answer.

There is no such light or answer.  What we can do is to steer for an insider’s knack.  We need a knack for the truth not of a bulk-item, “religion”, but for the tactile truth of a singular lilt of a Haiku, of the feel of a prayer shawl, of the taste of communion bread and wine, of the ornate patterns of tile-work in a cathedral in Byzantium.

Little is gained philosophically by a fixation on the spectacular clashes of one so-called religion with another.  And to minimize the debilitating fallout from such clashes, we need to stay in the trenches, work harder for the tactile feel of ways of singing, praying, burying, wedding, blessing, forgiving, praising, meditating, walking, dressing, eating — and how these weave in and out of things holy and sacred, polluted and corrupt.

Staying in trenches means learning aspects of Quaker quiet and of Orthodox iconography and of Staretz Silouan on Hell and Despair.  It’s to have a feel for Buddha on the afflictions of age and wealth.  It’s being able to smile with the sage as he confides, with a twinkle, “My Lord told me a joke.  And seeing him laugh has done more for me than any scripture I will ever read.”[3]


XIII.      If I’m worried about religious sensibilities or truths that seem strange or threatening to me, it wouldn’t help to ask “What is truth?” It wouldn’t help or head off to work on a NEH-funded research program.

I’d ask, at street level, from the trenches, “May I listen in?”  “May I sit with you?”  That might lessen the chasms between my sensibilities and yours, letting me get some small knack of your sense of true friends, true prayer, true blessing, true dance.  That will not close all the gaps between us; nothing can, and probably nothing should.

At the level of institutional conflict, it’s doubtful that having a more intimate sense of another’s religious truths and will eliminate violence, though it might bring the level down a notch, for a moment.  But we should no more expect theories of truth or immersion in another’s ways of life to bring contesting religions together, than we should expect theories of truth or immersion in other’s ways to bring warfare or hatred or greed to a quick end. [4]


XIV.    Let me close with two instances where I’ve had small but important glimmers of hope – places where rubber hits the road, and one knows one has hit something significant.

One: A recent graduate of Duke, Peter Dula now has given us a fine book on Cavell and theology.[5] A pacifist, he served a year in neighborhood shelters in Iraq with the war going full tilt. We’d learn more from his tactile sense of truths – truths of hope and faith under fire — than we would, I suspect, from reading a thousand essays on truth and pluralism.

Jacob-angel-Rembrandt  Did Rembrandt truly believe love of God’s angel was wildly erotic?

The truths to which he can witness resonate with the cry of Starets Silouan: “Keep your mind in Hell, and Despair not![6] His witness is Gandhi’s or Simone Weil’s.

Two:  A woman wearing a Muslim scarf sits quietly in a summer class I lead at a local Catholic College. She’ll teach me something without uttering a word.  I have no theory of truth or handbook for negotiating religious difference. We’re reading Melville.

I’ll be alert to Melville’s text in new ways.  I linger with the delight Ishmael and Quequeg take in each other in their room at the Spouter-Inn. One celebrates Ramadan, the other Christmas, one shyly covers his feet, the other shyly covers up other parts. One sleeps with a knife, the other doesn’t.  One drapes his arm comfortably over his bedmate; the other is terrified. They become best of friends.

Quequeg invites Ishmael to join in his pagan ritual. Without batting an eye, Ishmael thinks: “I would do as I would have done to me — I would have Quequeg join me in prayer; I will join him in prayer.”

He arrives at a tactile truth, not unlike that of our good Lutheran pastor, and all for the good.  My scarfed student listens.

No doubt I’d have a sixth sense working as I got students thinking of this scene – a sixth sense, to monitor my scarfed student’s response, revealed, perhaps overtly, perhaps in a subtlety, in her face or eyes, in a stiffening or relaxing of her posture.  At another point I might bring up Muslims of great means and good will giving shelter to persecuted Christians fleeing other Christians in 13th century Spain.

A Christian rabble was fleeing for their lives amidst sectarian violence, victims of Christian terrorists attacking other Christians.  The persecuted were saved, for a moment, hidden, for a moment, by generous and brave Muslims.  My sixth sense might prompt me to share this aside, while ready to abort, if discomfort seemed dangerously high.

She listens, and as important, her classmates listen — and listen to her listening, and listen to each other listening — tactile truth, truth from the trenches, grips and releases.

[1] Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, ed. John M Robertson, 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Library Reprints, 1964), 2: 37.
[2] See Robert H. Richardson, Jr., Emerson, The Mind on Fire, University of California Press, 1995, p. 312.
[3] Love Poems from God, Daniel Ladinsky, Penguin, 2002, p.9. The words cited there are humorously apt and worth quoting quite apart from the very questionable attribution.
[4] My sense of tactile truths and the limits of philosophical theory owe much to Wittgenstein, who provided what he called “perspicuous representations,” vivid and telling pictures of things, as a way to get insight into our how our lives and words work when we are away from philosophy’s abstractions and theories that so often float far from the playing fields of life.
[5] Cavell, Companionship, and Christian Theology, Oxford, 2011
[6] See Gilian Rose, Love’s Work, New York Review Books, 2011.





After a week in residence thirty minutes by dependable transportation from the center of town, I have an image of friendly tranquility, in the first instance, canal tranquility. The waterways are strips of serenity that float ducks and docked barge-homes and in their still quietude make the endless bustle of bikes mystical as movement rather than just business.

bikestwoEach sets off the other, the canals, the bikes, as the steadiness of trees sets off the alighting and departing of birds on their branches.


Neither canals nor bikes are pretentious.  The waterways do not have scrubbed docks or attractive retaining walls and are simply straight without curve or flourish, and unlike a stream, boast no movement at all.

amsterdam-bikes-The bikes are old and drab, mostly black, banged up, ridden by folks ferrying kids to school, or ferrying themselves to work or other unstated destination. Their brute numbers allow them to dominate cars on the streets alongside the canals, and pedestrians.

bikes-4They especially dominate visitors from away, who are in peril. It would take strangers weeks to master and anticipate the flow of bikes and motor bikes and occasional cars, and on the wider streets, trams and buses, each allocated an unmarked path forward that seems occult to the newcomer. You wait baffled only guessing whose lane you’re about to cross, and from which direction danger is approaching.


But relax. There’s no rush to work if you’re just there to take in the show, and the canals are there to remind you all is well, and has been, decade on decade, century on century. Spinoza found peace here, at least for a couple of decades, and so can you amidst watery geometric eternities.




I’ve just received a dissertation from Columbia on weather. LeAnn Holland takes up Thoreau, Bugbee, and my own attempts to explore connections we have to others and the world — connections that are not knowledge connections. Non-knowledge bonds include sympathy, intimacy, love, and, it now occurs to me, rapport. Michael Polanyi titled his big book, Personal Knowledge, but that’s a misnomer. It should have been Personal Rapport, or “Intimacy,” as in Lost Intimacy in American Thought.

When I drive by tidal flats, neither mine nor yours, and am impressed yet again by their quiet dignity and quietude — their slow arrival and departure, oblivious to the news of the day or to the souls, troubled or settled, of viewers — I’m reminded of my favored sense of mystery. It’s not something we haven’t yet understood intellectually, a puzzle yet to be solved, but the presence of something speaking to us, and speaking of that which we never tire of, and that which will greet us again and again with its allure, unendingly – an infinite, elemental source of the infinite and elemenal that holds us in its thrall, like the advance and retreat of the tides.

I will have to study LeAnn’s “philosophy of weather.” We are both close and distant to weather, its bracings and embracings. Weather reports give us data to file in knowledge banks, but reports give us nothing of its felt-presence, its surprise or allure, annoyance or blessing. And on given days, its mystery.



           If I were reincarnated

I’d be the fox Thoreau chased across snowy ice,

or the Thoreau who chased the fox,

or the snowy ice that made them slip and slide

        while the sky watched and laughed.


Short of that, I’d read his journals.

Assistant Professor? To Be or Not to be. . .

In the circus, humans are represented as freed from consignment to death. There one person walks on a wire fifty feet above the ground, … another hangs in the air by the heels, one upholds twelve in a human pyramid, another is shot from a cannon. The circus performer is the image of the eschatological person – emancipated from frailty and inhibition, exhilarant, transcendent over death – neither confined nor conformed by the fear of death any more….
William Stringfellow

Me!an assistant professor!the butt of those Postscript jokes?

He’s excellent at outlining arguments and giving historical overviews, but never considers his existential relationship to these things. Personally, he shrinks to an abstract cipher, a talking head. Teaching science you’re detached and objective, right? So teaching Kierkegaard . . . I’m involved . . . and subjective?  


In Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Steven Pinker, Harvard professor, public intellectual, and “new atheist,” intones like a true assistant professor: Is the world really falling apart? Follow the data: In 6 graphs, you’ll see that health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are all on the rise.”  — So — I’m hysterical to feel angst at shootouts or Yemen, at melting icecaps or Putin blackmails? 

An Existentialist’s Survival Guide gives our friend Gordon a moment to appreciate angst. It can instruct, alerting me to danger – the toddler about to step into the street. It can teach me what it means to be me — by showing me my values when they clash. If I hurt others without angst, I’m a worse “me” than the “me” that feels sharp angst doing hurt. Angst is colliding tectonic plates.  Having to hurt collides with my revulsion at hurting. The collision shows what makes “me” me.

Pinker, the assistant prof., is deaf to what Kierkegaard calls “an existential contribution.” [1]   Kierkegaard addresses my particularity, my personal angst and joy. I’m not one of a crowd or a cipher caught up in the spirit of the age — not a random sample of humanity-in-general, or an instance of human progress, scientifically graphed. In receiving your existential address, I am then-and-there a unique and original presence. And if I reciprocate, addressing you existentially, I’m not an assistant professor.

Sometimes an existential act marks who I am. I march in a woman’s rally or I light a candle for a friend on the day of the dead. In those moments I am those discrete acts. But often my “me” lies in scattered reveries of a “me” yet-to-be congealed in an act. Dreaming of what I’ve been through, my ‘me’ is a shifting, multitude. Sartre loves the definitive act. Kierkegaard loves these “what if” moments where a “me” has not congealed.

There’s not a single Abraham in Fear and Trembling, but four reveries of possible fathers of Isaac, and fathers of faith — and four reveries of Abraham as mother. This “existential contribution” from Johannes de silentio attunes me to the complexities of identity. The search for who Abraham is mimics the dream-like search for the “me” who picked up Fear & Trembling 50 years ago.  An Abraham worth savoring is an angst-tormented enigma slouching toward a conclusive “me.” These are beautiful tales, Silentio says — and Rilke says beauty is the beginning of terror.

Kierkegaard’s parade of pseudonyms is a model for my sifting through a parade or panorama of memories, each highlighting a less than decisive “me.” I am a multiplicity of singularities: the father confronting a bear with his son, the soloist playing slightly out of tune, the scholar making sense – or not — of “an existential contribution.” It’s as if I look through a photo album. Each picture of me is a “me” —  and the “me” who looks at the photo is slightly altered with each new photo observed.

Exchanges I’ve had with Kierkegaard over the years flicker as if album photos. They expose my existential relation to Kierkegaard’s living words, living titles, living sentences, paragraphs, appendices, prefaces. These address a me responsive to them. To evoke the shifting seas of intimate mutual address is evoking an existential relationship. It’s like evoking the flow and leaps of couples’ figure skaters — or like a Socratic dance before God. Only if I share dancing snippets of what I am to myself can I bear witness to Kierkegaard’s gifts. You must feel presence of the recipient as well as the donor. His dance brings out what I am to myself. I am a relation related to myself and to another who constitutes me.


I own an assistant professor’s cap.  I’m donning it here to sketch four sectors of identity, four ways to focus who I am.  

1) My “file-identity” – my name with code numbers for tax collectors, passport offices, motor vehicles departments, university payroll offices, and administrators who have my CV on file.[2]

2) My bodily identity — my height has been more stable than my weight. I have footprints as well as fingerprints. There’s a distinctive lilt to my walk, and a distinctive timbre to my voice. I am an envelope of flesh and a plumber’s delight. I lack a linebacker’s body. My singing voice is bodily.   

3) My multilayered socio-political-cultural identity. I’m Irish, a Mainer, with dashes of Berkeley counter-culture and New York intellectualism.  I’m more a Concord Saunterer or tax delinquent than a Slovakian skier or model. I identify with “Never Again.” To be ‘me’ must be to live from my many social-political roots and commitments.  

4) My punctuated existential identity: an unruly, shifting sense of presence to myself in discrete memories. The “me” who marched at King’s funeral is not exactly the “me” who joined the woman’s march in January. The “me” who reads Kierkegaard in Yafa is not the existential “me” who writes in Berkeley or Portland. We bask in the hope that identity is singular, and worry if it’s double, and freak if it’s four. What if it’s forty-fold?

My social-political-cultural and file identities are pretty stable, if not singular. The intimate feel of my writing with Kierkegaard is unstable. Turning over shifting images exposes a somewhat naked me, unclothed by those more commonplace file, bodily, socio-political-cultural identities. I’m not an assistant professor. Existentially, I undergo that feeling of me-from-inside as I cheer on my granddaughter at water polo, or flee with my son from a Yosemite bear, or summon the existential vagaries of my long-term Kierkegaard affair.

I live in Cora Diamond’s “difficult reality.”[3] A desk-top photo elicits warmth and wonder at a woman caught short in her prime. And also the grief of a life caught short. In my bones I feel the that double reality. Similarly, I am double, in sync with my double feelings, viewing the woman. I am multiple, in sync with my multiple feelings surveying the unending memory-flashes of my affair with Kierkegaard.

An assistant professor knows it’s undignified to air personal, existential laundry in public. Either I throw in the towel, forego my assignment to come clean, or I gird up my loins for self-revelation.  Kierkegaard gives me tools for self-revelation: irony, humor, pseudonymity, paradox. Mimicking Kierkegaardian-Socratic evasive inquisitions lets me evoke what it is to be me without becoming stark naked.


On a given morning I’m a flaneur, promenading with him through paragraphs or streets or memories. Perhaps I mull reveries of father-and-son tromping Tuolumne Meadows, aware of the bears. Or perhaps he listens to me cheering my granddaughter’s rifling shots in her water polo meet. Or perhaps he encourages my reveries of me as lover of souls, far away and close by, or my reveries of toddlers and friends, here and there. Parts of my existential condition get unmasked as phases in a difficult reality, many-faceted and often inharmonious, not unlike the many-faceted, inharmonious voices of my friend’s pseudonyms. I arise as myself in glancing bits and pieces.

There are existentially celebratory moments that are more definitive: “here I stand, I can do no other.” Or: “here we stand, we outfoxed the bear.” These moments of resolution upstage “me” as multiple phases in imagination. Before we outfoxed the bear, there were many possible ‘me-s’ in waiting: a fleeing me, a fighting me, a nonchalant me, a paralyzed me, a me that stuck with my son, a me that shamefully didn’t. Taking my friend as a mentor, I find evocative moments which I struggle to hide or not to hide or that I resolve in decision. I ponder “me-s” to unmask and to mask amidst love, shame, anger, and a thousand other moods and presences, vivid or misty.


I confess I’ve succumbed to Kierkegaard’s wiles these five decades–succumbed dialectically and lyrically, comically and pathetically, through zillions of scenarios. I’m bewitched by an endless raconteur, a Socratic inquisitor, a theatrical prompter.

On Mondays, I come to realize that I’ll never outlive my existential challenges, nor escape being forever an enigma to myself. On Tuesdays, he confides that my despair needn’t be crushing: I can morph toward a saving existential hide-and-seek, an indispensable coping mechanism. I can mimic his mimic-ironic-pathetic excursions. Late night terrors can morph into shadow-boxing. On Wednesdays, he whispers that even classroom stints can be laced with humor, paradox, and theatrical pseudonymity. On Thursdays, I’m reminded that humor, paradox, theatricality, and pseudonymity are part and parcel of living lives nested within lives: solitary life masks romantic life, family life humors temple life, musical life tempers body-maintenance life. Letting a sense of me emerge from transience and multiplicity demands humor and pathos, paradox and irony, inwardness and pseudonymity.

Fridays are books. I notice details in the smallest of things, even titles. He lingers with graveyard night mists, or with throw-away Crumbs; he lingers with Either/ors and Fear and Trembling. Life and books become carnivalesque, full of daring sideshows, high-wire acts — feats of strength, passionate infinities, throwaway prefaces, and the hide and seek of pseudonyms.[4]

Saturdays we move to charades. Living room furniture is pushed back and invited guests join us in carnival and farce, romance and heartbreak, grief and salvation. Sundays are praying, rest, and recuperation — walking, taking in the cityscape, the landscape, the church interior.


Kierkegaard introduces that monster book, Fear and Trembling.  Weaning mothers mimic a weaning Godhead. Whistling shop-keepers embody Abraham’s faith. High-wire acts. A difficult reality – especially for Assistant Professors. On an evening Kierkegaard unravels cordiality, heartfelt inwardness. These are existential contributions passed my way. Our thinking becomes contrapuntal, a fertile mix of the ethical, the poetic, the dialectical — all the while avoiding impersonal, one-dimensional facts, arguments, or knowledge.

He tries on the garb of parson, professor, lawyer, editor, journalist, dramatist, bachelor, master thief — Socratic flaneur, writer sans portfolio. It rubs off on me. My file identity of professor and writer, overlap motorcycle escapades, being on stage with Medgar Evans or Leontyne Price, looking down from the Golan Heights to the Valley of Tears. Each of these is the start of identity-exploration. I’m arm in arm with my granddaughter by the Guadalquivir, or talking on a St Olaf lawn: match-maker-Kierkegaard. I thank him for all those friends I’ve meet through him.

Think of the circus vitality of his titles: Either/Or, Prefaces, Repetition, or the clincher, Postscript: in full spiffed up regalia, A Final Unscholarly Afterthought, Sequel to Scraps of Philosophy: A Mimicking, Pathos-filled, Dialectical Compendium, an Existential Provocation. [5] This is riot and carnival.

Odd creatures like Prefaces (it’s nothing but prefaces), Either/Or, and Postscript break up literary cubbyholes. They are Socratic irritants that can teach us Socratic ignorance, bafflement viscerally conveyed in a difficult reality of annoyance, helplessness, joy, and allure. Socrates’ interlocutors, like Kierkegaard’s, are left puzzled. Why does he sidestep the closure of definitions and single reality?

I relish the vitality of his titles. He says his Prefaces are “like tuning a guitar, like chatting with a child, like spitting out a window.” Put that in a resume!  I suspect he is pulling my leg. Postscript and Fear and Trembling aren’t entirely serious — more like “tuning a guitar.” In fact, an early section of Fear and Trembling is called “attunement.” His feints provoke our parries. He calls Prefaces the work of “a light-hearted ne’er-do-well”.  Is that in his resume?

 I watch him shift through moments poetic and literary, dialectical and theological, in fetching titles like Philosophical Crumbs, or A Final Unscholarly Afterthought, a 600 page Sequel to Scraps of Philosophy: A Mimicking, Pathos-filled, Dialectical Compendium and Existential Provocation. This riot of a title sparks me beyond scholarship into my books of poetry and evocative prose and acceptance of the philosophical depth of the carnivalesque.

His menagerie is a mirror asking whether my own works and life are a menagerie – father-professor, wanderer-musician, family-chief-of-staff, seeker-of-love and home-scape, a me now emerged from a cocoon, blooming as a social butterfly — a carnivalesque life quite beyond career, family or fitness paths, and even carnivals end in the rude closure of death.  

My Socratic-Kierkegaard passes the task of authentic response on to me. His elusiveness shows up in the feint and parry of those books part literature, part philosophy, part polemic, part sermonic, part farce, part . . . Why expect all books should have proper places, simple niches? Why expect my friends fit snugly in social-cultural niches, or that I occupy a single translucent niche?

The number and sort of faces in the theater of me is not pre-determined but up to me. If I acknowledge only my social and file identities – professor, father, resident of Portland, musician — I leave out my existential bits. There’s a rich texture to my walks with my son, to cheering my granddaughter, to assembling poems, or performing Elgar’s Salud D’amour. I relish each fleeting face in the theater of me, and mourn those I can’t relish.


Kierkegaard-Socrates conducts trials of existence, of my existence, and yours, or in another of his favorite images, he invites us to sweep onto the floor for a solo dance before God, before a presence pleased or displeased with the tilt of my soul. Kierkegaard’s writings bring me to the dance, demonstrate some steps, and leave the rest to me. His manner of writing is in our service, in my service. In its poetry and philosophy, its comic mimicry and tearful pathos, it is a great gift, an existential contribution.

There’s not just one trajectory through the mess of my experience culminating in the realization of just who I am. I’m a bit of this and of that, this side-show, and that, this musical act, that family drama.  SK makes an existential contribution in his actual performing – playing out the paths of pathos and mimicry, dialectic and lyric. Being a multitude – musician and poet, teacher and father, wanderer and a stay-at-home — is a carnival of existential richness, difficult but exuberant, well beyond the ken of an assistant professor.     



[1] The term “an existential contribution” is the final cadence in the mocking title and sub-title of Concluding Unscientific Postscript. (The actual  title is much longer.) It’s worth noting that this is the first time in the Western philosophical canon – so far as I know — that an action or gesture or claim is called ‘existential.’  Sartre and Jaspers will build on this seed, dropped by one Johannes Climacus almost offhandedly in Denmark in 1851.
[2] What it is to be me arises objectively, in the mode of a single reflection, as I read my “file identity” from a card, signing my name for taxes, or hospital records. Pieces of objective identity arise in single reflections, pieces of information. When I recall fearfully fleeing bears, I’m alive in a double reflection, reflecting first on a bear, on my son, on me, on the trail ahead — and then on what it is to be me faced by a bear, in fear and angst. I learn over time how to feel myself existentially, helped in off-hours by probing existential give-and-takes found in novels, films, psychology, folklore. These cultural templates help in narrating and feeling more subtly the tones of anxiety, despair, love, or morality.
[3] “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy,” Cora Diamond, Philosophy and Animal Life, Columbia. See quotation below.
[4] One might see pseudonyms alternately as a) fluffy devices to provoke public interest, b) suspect means to deflect personal responsibility for opinions or positions, and 3) tools to incite Socratic self-awareness and interpretative alertness. (Apart from the motivations for using pseudonyms, there remains the issue of power. Can “Kierkegaard” overrule the claims to authorship made by Climacus, Johannes de silentio, or Nicholas Note Bene?) See my “Pseudonyms and Style.”
[5] “The Very Tang of Life: Lyrical Jesting in Kierkegaard’s Postscript Title” [Authority and Authorship in Kierkegaard’s Writings, ed. Westfall and Tietjan, 2018.
*William Stringfellow:  on how the circus is a gift of sober intoxication:
[Cont. from epigraph]   So the circus, in its open ridicule of death … shows the rest of us that the only enemy in life is death and that this enemy confronts everyone, whatever the circumstances, all the time…. The service the circus does – more so, I regret to say, than the churches do – is to portray openly, dramatically, and humanly that death in the midst of life. The circus is eschatological parable and social parody: it signals a transcendence of the power of death.
[This quote from Stringfellow is from my friend Rev Clark West. I’d love to have the source tracked further.]








The Circus as Easter


Here’s theologian William Stringfellow on how the circus is a gift of sober intoxication:

In the circus, humans are represented as freed from consignment to death. There one person walks on a wire fifty feet above the ground, … another hangs in the air by the heels, one upholds twelve in a human pyramid, another is shot from a cannon. The circus performer is the image of the eschatological person – emancipated from frailty and inhibition, exhilarant, transcendent over death – neither confined nor conformed by the fear of death any more….

So the circus, in its open ridicule of death … shows the rest of us that the only enemy in life is death and that this enemy confronts everyone, whatever the circumstances, all the time…. The service the circus does – more so, I regret to say, than the churches do – is to portray openly, dramatically, and humanly that death in the midst of life. The circus is eschatological parable and social parody: it signals a transcendence of the power of death.

[This quote from Stringfellow is from my friend Rev Clark West. I’d love to have the source tracked further.]

Love Bubbles and Others


A few weeks ago I was in a local breakfast nook sharing eggs and toast with my good friend the Doctor.  I knew today’s talk was coming up. I asked him what I should do.  He wrote a prescription on a napkin: in big letters: “bubbles.”

I was baffled. Bubbles hardly seemed serious, certainly not serious enough for a Sunday talk. He gave me a wry smile, but didn’t explain.  Later that day, I caught a glimmer of light.

The Doctor and I share a friendship bubble, and I share one with Merrill Hall music lovers, and with my Blue Grass companions. A bubble is a comfort zone, a place I can relax and feel at home. It gives meaning to life, a reason to live, a place of vibrancy. At its best, it’s a place of peace. A State Street Sunday gives peace, life, solidarity, and meaning. It’s a peaceable kingdom.

Bubbles of romantic love, matrimony, and family life are a blessing, as are bubbles of solitude and singlehood. Our illustrious Blue Grass band is as inclusive as can be.  We love what we do, and invite others in — as players or listeners. Not all bubbles are inviting. Bitter politics builds walls. Bubbles collide and burst. I fear for the survival of the democracy bubble that’s been ours.

 Vocations and careers become bubbles. In middle age and ‘til a few years ago I competed for standing and accomplishment. I’m transitioning from my busy former habits of matrimony, child-rearing, and career to treading slowly, lightly.

Ursula Le Guin writes,

The daily routine of most adults is so heavy and artificial that we are closed off to much of the world. We need to be closed in order to get our work done. When we hear music or poetry or stories, the world opens up again. The same can happen when we’re around young children or persons of age who’ve unlearned habits of shutting the world out.

Treading lightly – my goal — is unlearning go-go habits that shut out so much.

I take pride and pleasure in my three years in Portland. It’s open and varied, and offers mystiques of good eating, Bug Light, ferries, and music – not to mention good people. After the unhappy election and talk of unneighborly deportations, hearts appeared on Munjoy Hill in places of business and in Christmas lights. Hearts instead of hatred. Portland isn’t Caribou, Norway, or Fryeburg. I can love those places, but my spirit would be less without Portland, especially The Hill.                                  

          The Maine bubble has shifting borders. My friends, from away, think I’m a Mainer, and sometimes I call myself one. But old-timers on Chebeague say I’m from away. Some folks have summered on the Island for two generations and they’re still from away. Lovell, population 1,000, is up in Steven King country. If your plumber isn’t born in Lovell, you’re crossing a line. Up there, “away” is beyond the town line. Not very neighborly, or kind, or Christian, or Buddhist.

There are linguistic bubbles. Icelanders don’t speak English. Main-ahs don’t talk Texas or the Queen’s English. If your Mom speaks Maine and your Dad speaks Texas, which bubble do you assimilate? Maine-ah is a dying language, thanks to TV.  I try to revive it whenev-ah possible.

I’m excluded from techno-geek and sports-freak bubbles, but they’re non-threatening.  A politics of exclusion does threaten me – and us. Sexism and racism pollute. Tribalism and nationalism are weaponized bubbles. Dark bubbles turn neighbor against neighbor, country against country. Their threats and propaganda give us the worst of times. Bubbles of love, generosity and beauty give us the best of times. These are the best of times – these are the worst of times.

Great music and great art give immense joys and challenges. They’re eloquent and meaning-laden, friendly and intimate, a window on peace and joy — and yet terribly demanding.

          A year ago, I travelled to Vienna. Music is everywhere and everything: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss. Vienna also was home to Wittgenstein and Freud. Coffee houses abound.

Vienna’s café culture in the early 20th Century was a gathering place for artists, musicians, psychologists, political radicals. You could drink, talk and read at your table as long as you wished. But the café bubble did not foresee Hitler’s arrival. Before that you’d find Stefan Zweig, Freud and Adler, Gustav Klimt, the founder of Zionism Theodore Hertzl, and Leon Trotsky talking and sipping coffee in these hot beds of creativity. Perhaps all bubbles burst, one time or another.

                                                            **   **   **

A vibrant faith-bubble gives glorious loft and liveliness to life. Bad times begin when it excludes others and identifies mainly with institutions and dogmas, particular churches, mosques or synagogues.

Bubbles are the stuff of meaningful life: mine, yours, my neighbors’. They let ideas and places and friends share space — my space, your space — my home, your home — our café, our congregation. They let hopes and loves soar free of rush hour traffic and bill-paying. The best ones keep us in hope, love, gratitude, and goodness of heart. They circle upward and soar as bliss and transcendence. Of course, they can blind. They also lift us to supreme wonders, great hope, great gratitude.