Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Life wins out

In my classes today I was teaching from two works where writers with a very strong voice tried to convey weakness.

In Theorizing Religion it was John Caputo's 2001 On Religion, a chatty deconstructionist take-down of smug definitions of religion and the secular. As a "post-secular" thinker Caputo demands we face the obsolescence of all absolutizing views - everything, he says, people capitalize: the Way, the Secret, the Truth, the Apocalypse. Instead he proffers an understanding of religion based in a phenomenology of love, which, he argues, is unconditional, open to a radically unknowable future, and so involves a pact or "covenant with the impossible." What fulfills human life is precisely this capacity passionately to commit ourselves to things we can't control or predict. In this we at once find ourselves and become a question to ourselves - a religious question.

Caputo's main terms are from Derrida (religion without religion, the impossible, etc.) but he starts with Augustine and his language becomes progressively more (Catholic) Christian as he goes on. Concomitantly he argues that, even as those who think religious systems can and should be final have lost sight of the true heart of religion, the historic traditions are necessary to us, precious repositories of stories about the reality of the human covenant with the impossible, and of true change, metanoia. Caputo's been part of this class for several iterations now and, as in years past, his use of explicitly Christian language in what claims to be a general account of religion rubs many students the wrong way. In vain do I point to the passages where he says religion means realizing we can never move beyond the infinite play of always flawed interpretations, interpretations we must never mistake for truth; we can but use the religious languages which work best for us - humbly and self-critically. Indeed, his use of Christian language is a gesture of humility! But he writes too well. His playfully provocative attempt to perform fallibility comes across as too knowing, even glib. He writes with abandon of passionate openness but sounds dogmatic.

A different kind of strong voice was on the menu in The Seminar in the City, the start of Anatole Broyard's posthumous memoir of his time in Greenwich Village, including The New School, in 1946. Kafka was the Rage (1993) has been part of the New School history project for many years, fruitfully connecting to discussions of alienation and the city and even Gestalt psychology. But today's topic was learning, so new things emerged. The New School is the topic of Broyard's second chapter, sandwiched between two chapters about his living with artist Sheri Donatti, who for him exemplified the spirit and affectation of the Village. The fourth chapter describes his starting a used bookshop. If it hadn't been for books, we'd have been completely at the mercy of sex (30). There's a sly shift from "sex" through "literature" to "life" in these chapters. In the contest between life and literature, he ends literarily luminous chapter 4, life wins every time (33).

Broyard is a great stylist, witheringly precise in his characterizations of Donatti and other people. The professors of The New School, too (15):
There's something troubling about likening these professors, whom he calls "Germans" although all he mentions by name (Erich Fromm, Rudolf Arnhem, Max Wertheimer, Karen Horney) are Jewish, to KZ warders and storm troopers. Indeed, there's something dismissive, even mocking in his accounts. It seemed to me that Germans were sometimes stunned into a kind of stupor by an ordinary insight, which they would then try to elevate into a philosophy or a system. Colliding with a modest fact in the midst of their abstraction, they just couldn't get over it. (17) Broyard shows no patience for the academic - or, for that matter, for the consequences of colliding with traumatic facts.

But in our discussion yesterday it seemed that wasn't all that was going on. We admired the German professors, he also writes, sitting spellbound through their lectures. According to [Fromm], we feared freedom, saw it as madness, epistemology run amok. In the name of freedom, we accepted everything he said. We accepted it because we liked the sound of it - no one knew then that we would turn out to be right in trying to escape from freedom. (16) I'm not sure what the last phrase refers to (it's a somewhat frivolous observation regarding theories of the rise of fascism and mass society), but Broyard's acid wit lampoons the students no less than the teachers. Still, the students were young and hormone-addled, isn't there a different edge to his mockery of the faculty, who should know better?

It's a stretch but we decided that Broyard might really have been letting us know that he learned more, was more challenged, than he was comfortable admitting from the New School professors. This discussion is part of an account of a sentimental education. It comes right after a chapter in which he tries to make light of his relationship with Sheri Donatti, to whom he was drawn more and more powerfully than he could understand. He writes about her in the clinical way of a sophisticated appreciator of women, but the story he tells makes clear that, in fact, she was more fully herself than he - and clearly the one in charge. Writing over forty years later (in an account which Sheri Martinelli, her real name, dismissed) Broyard still seems a little unnerved by her. His bravado writing cloaks but ultimately discloses just this.

I'd rather see Broyard's snark about the New School professors as the same sort of thing, rather than as mean-spirited dismissal of dour foreigners' raining on American's postwar picnic. The exile professors spoke with more authority than he could quite admit. The problems they dwelt on were real problems, problems one could understand most people's shying away from confronting.

Does life win out through them, or despite them - or both?! I'm aware of being a little defensive, a little protective of Fromm et al, and not just because they're New Schoolers. They're professors! How do we want to be described, remembered? Broyard manages to include professors in his Bildungsroman but he isn't becoming one, his Bildung is broader. The professors play their part by getting hung up on things he thinks he understands, or doesn't need to understand. They might even be right, but he goes on with his life, less shaped than haunted by his encounter with them...

I was going to call this post "anxieties of influence" but, having found my way through it, "life wins out" seems more fitting. Like Caputo, even like Broyard, intellectuals step out of life to scrutinize it, then try to use our hard-won insights to protect and promote it. Impossible...?

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