Monday, October 22, 2007

By the blooming, buzzing confusion of literature and artistic creation

TOME RAIDER: Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
By DAVID L. GOLDING Crimson Staff Writer Published On Friday, October 19, 2007 3:21 PM
It is sadly common enough for students of literature who harbor a passion for philosophy to find their curiosity rebuffed by arrogant university departments. Obsessed with their private jargon games, these faculties dismiss other disciplines as dealing with “pseudo-problems” at best and, at worst, fanning the flames of irresponsible politics. But in the late Richard Rorty, we have a philosopher from the analytic tradition who became its Judas, who boldly addressed continental thinkers like Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger, and writers like Proust, Yeats, and Nabokov. Most controversially—and most refreshingly—he argued that academic philosophy had become sterile and irrelevant, and that the true function of philosophy, that of continually questioning and redefining the meaning of human life, was best served not by conferences and obscure dissertations but by the blooming, buzzing confusion of literature and artistic creation.
Irony is the essential theme in “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity,” the book in which Rorty makes his most ambitious foray into literature and aesthetics. Nietzsche and Heidegger are his heroes as ironists, historicists, and slayers of metaphysical chimeras, though Rorty takes them to task for exempting themselves from their own exuberant irony. Some historical or ontological apocalypse is always about to unfold for these German Dionysians, but Rorty insists incessantly on his own contingency. He wants us to believe that his words have no more truth than anyone else’s. He is merely changing the subject from two thousand years of dried-up metaphysics; he is talking about more useful and interesting things. Rorty locates the original sin of western philosophy in Plato’s concept of mimesis, the idea that our experience of the world is a more or less opaque manifestation of the real world—which can conveniently only be accessed by philosophers.
Rorty lauds the German Idealists and the Romantic poets for their rejection of external reality, but, in their fetishization and spiritualization of the Self, he sees mere Platonic claptrap. In Rorty’s view, humans and the world have no fixed essence or meaning. Instead, they are in perpetual flux, constantly dissolved and recreated by the language we use to make sense of our experience. Although Rorty extols the great ironist philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries, he finds them deeply troubling and precarious, precisely because philosophy will always hear the siren song of Truth, the irrepressible desire to be universal. Thus we get Hegel’s “absolute,” Nietzsche’s “will to power,” and Heidegger’s “being.”
For this reason, Rorty believes that philosophy is done best in the context of the novel, because the novel seeks to express solely the contingent. Proust is his ideal, because Proust wanted to create his paradise out of contingency, out of his self alone, and wanted to define himself forever both to stave off oblivion and to prevent other people from defining him in words that were not his own. Rorty compares Nabokov, the author of aesthetic bliss who despised all vulgar political propaganda and “topical trash,” with Orwell, the earnest, morally courageous author of clumsy allegories. He bases his ideal of the “liberal ironist” on this opposition, confronting the unsettling truth that the Nietzschean ethic of self-creation and eternal struggle can often conflict with the liberal politics of J.S. Mill.
Rorty thinks we can have both by keeping the language systems separate. This stringent partition of human nature between public and private, however, comes off as callow. One would be very hard pressed to be an Übermensch over breakfast and a model democrat at the office. Only in a world in which language completely controlled human behavior would his “liberal ironist” paradigm become viable. And this, really, is the book’s serious failing. For no matter how piously Rorty professes his conversion, his mind is still steeped in the twentieth century analytic tradition in which nothing exists besides language, and everything else—God, the self, time, the world—is a diversion for undergraduates scratching their pimples.
Rorty thus misses a fundamental point: novelists do not flee from the lofty abstractions of philosophers to the microcosm of the contingent because they are forsaking the universal, but rather because they believe the contingent is the only true portal into the universal. They believe that the one humdrum Dublin day in the life of a middle-aged, Jewish cuckold who defecates, masturbates, feeds animals, attends a funeral, remembers his dead son, and kisses the ass of his adulterous wife can speak not just to one perverse character’s experience but to the experience of humanity as a whole, across all time and nationality.
As Stephen wanders along the beach in “Ulysses,” he asks himself, “What is the word known to all men?” To Rorty, the answer is that there is none. But the book’s theme, we know, answers the question for us. It is “love,” and it is both universal and contingent. Rorty’s book is an excellent analysis of literature as contingency, but he is still too much of an academic philosopher to understand the flip side of the literary coin. —Staff writer David L. Golding can be reached at

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