Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Contingency, irony, misery

Found an interesting new blog: University Diaries by Margaret Soltan, a Professor of English in the US. She's come across an interview with the late philosopher Richard Rorty which comes across like 'a satire on a psychoanalytic session'. He turns the volume on miserabilist agonising up to Woody Allen levels. (She feels suitably guilty about almost laughing, which I do too, of course.)

I was surprised: I'd always assumed Rorty had a sunny disposition. On the cover photo of probably his best known work 'Contingency, Irony and Solidarity' he's shown relaxing in a sunlit, blooming garden - an American arcadia in pastels (above). It felt Californian in spirit, even if that may not have been its location in strictly geographical terms.

For me, this situation explained a lot about the book, in which he suggests that in a world of post-modern, relativistic morality one way to create a basis for solidarity is through literature. The claim is that it provokes a universal feeling of empathy with those suffering cruelty and is thereby productive of an all-embracing solidarity. In one of those tricksy philosophical tricks, he dodges the question by providing an answer from a different terrain.

Always seemed a questionable thesis, given you had Nazis reading Goethe and Bolsheviks reading Gorky. But I put it down to the optimism you might feel about this sort of thing when sitting in a beautiful garden on one of the untouchable coasts of the US. Makes it all even more puzzling now.

I wonder whether in finding some humour in Rorty's interview I've done something that undermines his thesis?

13 comments:

No Good Boyo said...

I hope Kolakowski has just caught up with Rorty beyond the veil and given him a good kick in the cock.

Gadjo Dilo said...

We have our own miserablist philosophers here in Romania, none more so than the lauded Emil Cioran, who spent much of his life extolling the virtues of suicide but could never quite take the plunge himself.

Gaw said...

It's a terrible weapon, your Polish-accented mordancy, and, I suspect, sufficient to deal with both of them.

Peter Burnet said...

Is there any significant philosopher who is remembered for his or her "sunny disposition"?

Gaw said...

Peter: You've got me there.

Let's just say, I was casting around for explanations as to why Rorty might think this was a plausible idea. This was all I could come up with given the evidence to hand.

Peter Burnet said...

It's a little like trying to imagine a Trappist monk with a penchant for dirty jokes, isn't it? Or maybe God as a laid back mama with a nice line in happy banter and relaxed theology. :-)

Bunny Smedley said...

Part of the hilarity, though, surely stems from those marvellous subtitles? Possibly someone out there could carry off expressions of the most extravagant self-pity in written Dutch - a rather curt written Dutch at that - but I can't imagine it happens very often.

Gaw said...

Peter: Whoopi Goldberg as God is enough to turn me Bright.

Bunny: Very true! The interviewer's accent took me back to that Harry Enfield sketch with the ultra-liberal swinging Dutch policemen:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRfluaMKoOY

Lincoln said...

I know little about Rorty, just the name. But I found his answers to be a plain honest response to questions from an interviewer who seemed more interested in Rorty's social failings than Rorty was.
I heard no whining a la W. Allen. Some people are born with physical abnormalities which require either treatment, acceptance, or understanding. Just so others are born with emotional and/or mental abnormalities which deserve the same consideration.
This is why we are different, one from another.

Jimmy said...

Gorky was probably murdered by Stalin, which served him right after all the nonsense he wrote about the White sea canal.

Gaw said...

Lincoln: I think you show admirable sensitivity. I'm sure you're right, too, about how we should behave to each other.

I do feel sorry for Rorty, having heard his story. But nevertheless - with some feeling of shame - I couldn't help finding something funny about it.

I think we British find it more difficult to talk seriously about this sort of thing. Over here, an admission like this would likely either not be made or be festooned with jokes. So it looked like a parody of American emotional incontinence and/or humourlessness. In this sense, it was the presentation rather than the substance that provoked an urge to laugh.

(But then it was an American who pointed this out originally as being guilt-inducingly funny – I can only speak for myself).

However, I was also was seeking – in a clumsy way, no doubt - to demonstrate that we humans have a cruel streak, as exampled here, and that reading lots of novels doesn't necessarily make us less cruel (I’m assuming we’re a fairly literate group). On a very basic level (which is what I reached here!) I wanted to flag that Rorty's idea is not a particularly robust one.

Jimmy: I suppose the purges did have a bit of a silver lining.

Bunny Smedley said...

The other thing that makes the Rorty interview more funny than sad for some of us (although of course Lincoln's point is well taken) is that we watch the film through the lens, as it were, of knowing something about how the story turned out - which, without for a moment wishing to minimise the sadness of what was probably a very painful and certainly unfortunately early death, is surely rather a triumph, in which Rorty's insights reached a wide audience, won considerable acclaim and will continue to be discussed long after his more personal sorrows have long since been forgotten?

But then if one wanted to be less charitable - never a very sensible thing to set out to do, admittedly - surely there's also the problem that much of Rorty's self-pity comes across as an inverted expression of self-regard. The bookishness, teaching himself to read at 4, the lack of childhood friends, the lack of small-talk at parties - are these not tokens of exceptionalism set out for admiration, rather than shameful defects? And, if that's the case, presumably our laughter is legitimate resistance to being strong-armed into acquiescence with Rorty's sense of his own superiority?

'The world outside never really lived up to the books ...'

Who knows if he really meant this, or whether it was a rhetorical reflex, but, well, as part of 'the world outside', my human sympathy eroded rather sharply thereafter, and the laughter kicked in.

PS the Harry Enfield clip is delightful btw!

Gaw said...

Bunny: You've put your finger on it (when you're being less charitable, of course). I now see why I felt both unsympathetic and amused despite his situation. He needed a 'good kick in the cock' after all.