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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: May 2008 (page 2 of 2)

Donald Philip Verene: Philosophical Rhetoric

In the context of an excellent article on Ernesto Grassi and Henry Johnstone (thanks A):

Narrative is the speech of memory. Philosophies are essentially narratives.
All great works of philosophy simply tell the reader what is the nature of things.
The arguments we ?nd within such works are meaningful within the structure of
the narrative they contain. The narration confers meaning. Questions of meaning
always precede questions of truth. Philosophical arguments do not stand on their
own. They cannot pro?tably be removed from the narrative that informs them
and evaluated as though they had independent value and truth.

Philosophies, like all narratives, act against forgetting. To forget is to
leave something out, to omit or overlook a feature of a subject matter or of the
world. Philosophical speech is memorial speech because it reminds us of what
we have already forgotten or nearly forgotten about experience. The speech of
philosophical narrative can never become literal-minded because to act against
forgetting is to attempt to hold opposites together. The narrative is always based
on a metaphor; a metaphor is always a narrative in brief. The narrative is also
the means to overcome controversy, because for the self to overcome an inconsistency of its thoughts it must develop not simply a new argument but a new
position, a new narrative in which to contain any new argument.

The self makes itself by speaking to itself, not in the sense of introspection
but in the sense of the art of conversation, which is tied to the original meaning of dialectic. On this view, philosophy is not rhetorical simply in its need to
resolve controversy, nor is it rhetorical simply in terms of its starting points for
rational demonstration. Philosophy is rhetorical in these senses, but it is further
rhetorical in its total expression. Any philosophy commands its truth by the way
it speaks. Great philosophies speak in a powerful manner that affects both mind
and heart. It is common, in the Dialogues, that, after engaging in the elenchos,
Socrates says he is unsure whether a claim that seems to be true really is true.
His answer is to offer a “likely story.” All philosophies, on my view, are likely
stories, which originate in the philosopher’s own autobiography and are attempts
to move from this to the autobiography of humanity, to formulate the narrative
of human existence in the world and to speak of things human and divine.

“Philosophical Rhetoric” (2007)

Donald Philip Verene: Knowledge of Things Actual And Divine

I would feel a lot better about this book if it lost its subtitle. The full title is Knowledge of Things Actual And Divine: Vico’s New Science and Finnegans Wake, but this book is an exegesis on Vico with some Joycean flavoring. To the best of my knowledge, an extensive investigation into Vico’s presence in Finnegans Wake and its parallels with Vico’s philosophy has yet to be written. (Atherton’s book is the best treatment I know of. Campbell and Robinson give it a go but their analysis is tenuous.) Indeed, Verene complains that Joyce scholars know little of Vico. Since I know little of Vico, I thought I would apply what I learned from the book to the Wake. As for Vico himself, Verene only strengthens my conviction that Vico was an esoteric genius far ahead of his time, and had he been German, he would have stolen a good deal of thunder from Hegel. And I have great respect for the historicist thinkers that followed and paid tribute to him last century: Croce, Cassirer, Collingwood, and so on.

Verene does make some observations on the Wake, but these fall prey to the problems of making any decisive interpretation of Finnegans Wake. Early on he says, “Vico is the protagonist of Finnegans Wake. He is Earwicker.” The problem is not so much that this statement is wrong is that it is incomplete. Verene marshals many textual references conflating Vico with male archetype HCE, but Vico is no more the protagonist than Adam, Humpty Dumpty, Dublin, Finn MacCool, or some Irish pub owner. Verene analyzes Vico’s life in terms of a series of “falls,” and here he is on solid ground in equating Vico’s clap of thunder with the thunderwords of the fall that occur periodically in the Wake, but the problem is that the Wake always outsizes any interpretation because there is always such a huge remainder, and so declaring Vico the protagonist is ultimately, I think, wrongheaded. And I take issue with Verene’s claim that “Shem, like a forger, moves around a lot, but Shaun, like a post, occupies set positions and talks of past and future.” While Shem is a more slippery character than Shaun, it is Shaun who sets out on the quest in the third book of the Wake, and it is he who is the deliverer of ALP’s letter which Shem has transcribed. Again, it is not so much that such claims are wrong as much as that they need far more elaboration. So it’s best to see the book as using Joyce as a tool to conceptualize Vico’s life and work.

And on Vico, there is much of interest to Wake scholars. I’ll enumerate a few points that gave me insight into the structure of Joyce’s nightmare book. Two cycles are commonly cited as the basis for the Wake’s structure: Vico and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. But the three large books of the Wake do not clearly map onto the three ages of Vico’s New Science (divine, heroic, and human), though the final, short section does read as a recorso, restarting the book. Without elaborating on these matters, Verene still gives much evidence to contribute to the parallel. In particular, I was fascinated by the elaboration on Vico’s three languages, from the mute language of the divine to the verbal language of humanity:

The verb introduces time, and things can no longer be what they
are; their meanings can no longer just be mute. What is mute has being. It is
not transposed in time. The mute meaning is the denial of time. Like the ritual,
it takes us to the origin and stops time. The mute gesture is a ritual in brief. We
are back where the gods were.

Mapping the ages onto the Wake, this strongly parallels the curiously static character of the first book, which spends more time making lists and describing history than it does having anything actually happen. If the divine is a state of pure mute ritual language, then the non-narrative descriptions of the first book of the Wake fit well with Vico’s divine age.

Likewise, there is much to connect the second book with Vico’s seventh oration, which discusses education its goal of producing “the heroic mind:”

The ideal of ‘‘heroic mind’’ for Vico involves three things: all branches of
knowledge must be studied and put together; the human mind is divine and in
its activity of learning reaches God the creator in an attempt to make itself
whole; and the acquisition of knowledge, when rightly practiced, leads the
individual toward virtue and the good.

One crux of the second book of the Wake is the children learning about adult sexuality via the fall of man and forbidden knowledge. Joyce perverts the idea of education significantly, but it is still this education, and this very fall, that enables the maturation of the children and the eventual overthrow of the parents (who could be likened to gods themselves). That, in turn, leads to this passage of Vico’s:

Knowledge of the corrupt nature of man invites the
study of the entire universe of liberal arts and sciences, and sets forth the
correct method by which to learn them (125).

Which is to say, the fall is that which engenders knowledge and progress, and following on from that, the flowing of time itself. Joyce is perhaps more fatalistic than Vico in that he sees nothing but the endless battle of son against father and brother against brother, and little to be learned from it, but more significantly, Joyce renders this knowledge wholly physical and bodily, downplaying if not eliminating theology, philosophy, and eschatology. See also the mysterious fight between Berkeley and Patrick in Book IV, which may suggest that Joyce is neither a materialist nor an idealist, but merely a monist (or a this-ist, focused wholly on the world at hand). The exact relation of Joyce’s stance to Vico’s emphasis on the irreducibility of the real/mythic to abstraction is something I’m still puzzling over.

This is only the barest start. I haven’t even touched on how Vico’s conceptualization of language might relate to the linguistic apparatus of the Wake, as it’s simply too huge a topic to chance saying anything about. Verene’s book reminds me that I really do need to read The New Science from cover to cover, so that I can come back and say more insightful things about Verene’s book and Vico. And it reminds me how fantastic Finnegans Wake is underneath all the verbal impenetrability, as one of the greatest portrayals of human history in literature.

Philip Guston

Just saw his drawings at the Morgan. I have an affection for him that I don’t for most of his generation because Art Spiegelman plugged him in an issue of The Comics Journal that I read at a very impressionable age.

Francis Bacon

Philosophy and the intellectual sciences are, like statues, admired and venerated but not improved. Moreover they are sometimes at their best in their earliest author and then decline. For after men have joined a sect and committed themselves (like obsequious courtiers) to one man’s opinion, they add no distinction to the sciences themselves, but act like servants in courting and adorning their authors. Let no one maintain that the sciences have grown little by little and now have reached a certain condition, and now at last (like runners who have ?nished the race) have found their ?nal homes in the works of a few authors, and now that nothing better can be discovered, it remains only to adorn and cultivate what has already been discovered. We could wish that it were so. But a more correct and truthful account of the matter is that these appropriations of the sciences are simply a result of the con?dence of a few men and the idleness and inertia of the rest. For after the sciences had been perhaps carefully cultivated and developed in some areas, by chance there arose a person, daring in character, who was accepted and followed because he had a summary kind of method; in appearance he gave the art a form, but in reality he corrupted the labours of the older investigators. Yet it is a delight to posterity, because of the handy usefulness of his work and their disgust and impatience with new inquiry. And if anyone is attracted by ancient consensus and the judgement of time (so to speak), he should realise that he is relying on a very deceptive and feeble method. For we are mostly ignorant of what has become known and been published in the sciences and arts in different centuries and other places, and much more ignorant of what has been tried by individuals and discussed in private. So neither the births nor the abortions of time are extant in the public record. Nor should we attach much value to consensus itself and its longevity. There may be many kinds of political state, but there is only one state of the sciences, and it is a popular state and always will be. And among the people the kinds of learning which are most popular are those which are either controversial and combative or attractive and empty, that is, those which ensnare and those which seduce assent. This is surely why the greatest geniuses in every age have su?ered violence; while men of uncommon intellect and understanding, simply to preserve their reputation, have submitted themselves to the judgement of time and the multitude. For this reason, if profound thoughts have occasionally ?ared up, they have soon been blown on by the winds of common opinion and put out. The result is that Time like a river has brought down to us the light things that ?oat on the surface, and has sunk what is weighty and solid. Even those authors who have assumed a kind of dictatorship in the sciences and make pronouncements about things with so much con?dence, take to complaining when they recover their senses from time to time about the subtlety of nature, the depths of truth, the obscurity of things, the complexity of causes, and the weakness of human understanding; yet they are no more modest in this, since they prefer to blame the common condition of man and nature rather than admit their own incapacity. In fact their usual habit, when some art fails to deliver something, is to declare the thing impossible on the basis of the same art. An art cannot be condemned when it is itself both the advocate and the judge; and so the issue is to save ignorance from disgrace.

Francis Bacon, The New Organon (1620)

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