Thursday, 10 June 2010

Live with the living

In 1984, my marriage to Cindy was in serious trouble. I had started once a week therapy with a McLean Hospital based psychiatrist named Lenore Boling, and I used the sessions really just to give voice to my unhappiness with what my relationship with Cindy had become. Despite the unhappiness, I do not think I ever shed a tear in those sessions over the shambles of the marriage. One day, however, I started talking about my work. I tried to explain to Dr. Boling that in all of my writing, whether it was on Kant's First Critique or Hume's Treatise or Das Kapital, my goal always was to plumb the depths of the author's central idea and recast it in a form so simple, so clear, so transparent that I could hold it before my students or my readers and show them its beauty. As I said these words, tears started to well up in me, and I finally had to stop talking because I could not finish. It was the only time in twenty years of psychotherapy that I cried openly in a session. Ever since that day, twenty-five years ago, I have understood that it is this intellectual intuition of the transparent beauty of an idea, not the desire for status or recognition or money, that has throughout my life been the driving force behind my writing and teaching. This is why it makes little difference to me whether reviewers agree with what I say, and it is why I am made somewhat uncomfortable by praise. The intrinsic beauty of the idea is the focus of my concern. It seems that I am, after all, more capable of shedding tears for the central argument of the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding than I am for a failed marriage or even for a deceased parent. I am not at all sure that is admirable, but it is closer to the truth about myself than I have ever come before.

Written by an academic who, I would say, has provided something of a definition of the intellectual, at least in its pejorative (and English) sense: 'I am, after all, more capable of shedding tears for the central argument of the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding than I am for a failed marriage or even for a deceased parent.'

On reading this, an initial feeling of sympathy rapidly turned to chill. Surely, a lot of the world's troubles have come from this sensibility? Indeed, it may be that intrinsic to this sense of 'intellectual' is a lack of empathy, of personal feeling, elsewhere found in the autistic and even in the psychopath (cf. Robespierre to Pol Pot and numerous points in between).

But not all academics are intellectuals. I'm re-reading a collection of the writings of Richard Cobb (if you read one other thing today, read his obit). This passage, on walking in Paris and against the abrupt rationalisations of Haussmann, seems apposite in this context. He urges us: push beyond the formal facades of the grands boulevards, triumphal arches and the geometrical perspectives of streets, arcades and buildings designed for collective show and for the glorification of State power. Les Mystères de Paris lurk in dank, leprous places, and Haussmann knew what he was doing when he ordered the levelling of the Butte-des-Moulins to make was for the avenue de'Opéra, and cut through the maze of the old cité, rue de Jérusalem, the lair of the tapis francs, to construct, in their place, an enormous neo-Gothic Palais de Justice, the triumph of Authority over Individualism. At least that is how I see it, that is the angle of vision that gives me most satisfaction. Just as I like my history to look inwards, from light into semi-darkness, from the street into the interior, if posssible even to cross the threshold and negotiate the dark staircase, enjoying on the hand the smooth curling wood of the banister, just as I want my historical itineraries to be capable of reconstruction in terms of both walking distance and regular habit - to and from work, the different itineraries of leisure or of the seasons, and again the different promenades de dimanche - all of which will contribute to a sense of reassurance, of predictability and continuity (because discontinutiry in history is utterly alarming), so I feel that Paris should be both walkable and walked, if the limitless variety, the unexpectedness, the provincialism, the rusticity, the touching eccentricity and the often tiny scale of the place are to be appreciated.

Measured using a human scale ('in terms of walking distance and regular habit') and rooted in the particular ('the smooth curling wood of the banister'), this passage is also without dogmatism ('At least that is how I see it...'). As far away from intellectualism as you could get, and where the first passage above chilled, this one warms.

Cobb's writings are full of descriptions of the particular, based on close and sensitive observation. Elsewhere he describes his working method. The historian, or rather his sort of historian, is...
...a stationary witness, an observer of a whirling collectivity of which he is not a part. lonely, given to fantasy, having to make do with a few scraps of evidence, in an effort to give life to the passing faces. In his passionate desire to know, to establish contacts, there is an element of self-identification; he is both the blonde girl and the young man, and the red-faced, leather-coated gas man in the peakced cap, and the hard-faced woman in her late forties who looks as if she runs her own small business. attempting to break out of loneliness, even if it is a matter of living with the dead. For, to live with the dead, he must live with the living. Loneliness gives him that extra perception, those qualities of curiosity, imagination, and compassion, that are the necessary tools of his trade. I can only speak from experience; and history is experience. One becomes a certain sort of historian because one is a certain sort of person. I have always been a very lonely person, and like others simlarly placed, I have sat in restaurants, picking up fragments of conversation, have headed for the café open late at night...

An instinctive, natural, commonsensical Burkean. When reading Cobb, I'm also regularly reminded of one of my favourite novels, Naipaul's 'The Enigma of Arrival'. There are parallels between the two writers in that they're both working outside their native cultures, in Cobb's words, inhabiting 'a second identity'. And Naipaul not only shares Cobb's power of close and sensitive observation: they both narrate their accounts personally but unobtrusively and without inflection; they create effect through the layering of detail upon detail, this way almost imperceptibly establishing something that approaches the substance of a matter.

But I think the reason I find this sort of writing as engaging as I do - and why I keep returning to it (typically, I rarely re-read) - is that its solving of ordinary mysteries does nothing to diminish, and in fact reinforces, a wider sense of mystery. Ultimately, it evokes a kind of wonderment at what it is to be us, a wonderment too large to be encompassed by a theory.

H/t Tyler Cowen.


Sean said...

Naipaul's "amongst the believers" is the best book about being hypnotised by ideas, and of course way ahead of its time by 20 years. I doubt he would have gotten his Nobel if 9/11 had been sooner.

So I guess its best the "west" has these "intellectual" people cocooned in a sort of academic condom.

Sophie King said...

I followed the link you provided to the 'academic'. My admiration for the forbearing Cindy knows no bounds. I would have stuck a knife in the self-absorbed t**t years ago.

Barendina Smedley said...

Sophie's right. I only hope Cindy had better luck next time round.

I wonder what his psychiatrist said?

Brit said...

Yes once you start taking philosophy seriously you're screwed.

Sean said...

All day ive been hypnotised by the thought of sticking that well known intellectual US President Derick Obama oversized intellectual head in the Deepwater Horizons leaking well head., afterall he fancies his self as an engineer.

I also noticed that Derick is a bit like the late Eddy Said, when saying "british" as Eddy did when shitting (yes he sounded like he was on the toilet) out "Israel"

As my Gran said, "never trust anyone who has never done a decent days work in their life"

malty said...

Daily, the list of reasons for not having a university education grows longer.
'We do know as much as them, it's simply that we can't talk about it as often.'

Hey Skipper said...

Indeed, it may be that intrinsic to this sense of 'intellectual' is a lack of empathy, of personal feeling ...

Intellectuals love humanity, hate humans.

Gaw said...

Sean: It is a good book. Have you read A Million Mutinies? Good too.

Sophie and Barendina: T's first reaction on reading this too. She didn't mention anything about sticking a knife in him, but then she probably didn't want to worry me.

Brit: Occasionally guilty as charged!

Malty: I dunno. University is where you'd find (very, very occasionally) oddballs like Cobb.

Skipper: Yes, and it's an equation that seems very persistent given how it's been so thoroughly seen through.