Monthly Archives: November 2012

When I placed Derrida on the side of the angels in the previous post, I was simply recruiting him (at third hand, via Shatz and the reviewed biographer) in support of the truism that writing allows us to be at our best. It is a device that brings us out. Crucially, it is a vehicle or medium for the hopes addressed by metaphysics, ever since Plato (or Parmenides), without the transcendence. According to Kant, the fascination of the perennial metaphysical questions is as inescapable as they are unresolvable — meaningless, as analytic philosophers have said. No. Pick up a pen, and enter the realm of the Ideal, with no ectoplasm in sight.


Adam Shatz’s recent review in the LRB of a biography of Derrida makes the latter sound eminently reasonable and humane, beneath the obscurantist bluster, and despite the bullying use to which that obscurity lends itself. Actually reading a page or two of De la grammatologie could well make such a rosy picture look like a mirage; but it is heartening to learn that Derrida refused to endorse the Cultural Revolution when Maoism was all the rage in Paris. So when Shatz writes that, according to Derrida:

Western thought from Plato to Rousseau to Lévi-Strauss had been hopelessly entangled in the illusion that [spoken] language might provide us with access to a reality beyond language, beyond metaphor: an unmediated experience of truth and being which he called ‘presence’

it sounds like a sturdy rejection of language mysticism, no more a repudiation of “common sense reality” than Kant’s assertion that the thing-in-itself is unknowable. The priority ascribed by Derrida to writing over speech would thus place him on the side of the angels.

Jonathan Franzen’s collection How to Be Alone opens with an essay on his father’s death from Alzheimer’s. Franzen’s novels satirise fashionable reductionisms, pharmacological in particular, and here he is explicit. Recalling how perusing his mother’s letters helped reconstruct the events of his father’s illness, he describes the urge to record stories in writing as:

akin to the conviction that we are larger than our biologies. I wonder if our current cultural susceptibility to the charms of materialism — our increasing willingness to see psychology as chemical, identity as genetic, and behaviour as the product of bygone exigencies of human evolution — isn’t intimately related to the postmodern resurgence of the oral and the eclipse of the written: our incessant telephoning, our ephemeral e-mailing, our steadfast devotion to the flickering tube.

Writing provides a peg to hang memory on and renders it more potent. Writing is the theatre of our cultural memory, a theatre where new writing is in dialogue with its tradition and the world beyond the stage door. The technology that preceded writing was oral poetry such as Homer’s (but examples from other cultures are recorded); a technology with the flaw that its main scope for creative engagement with the tradition was to overlay it with embroidery, reducing the length of its reach.

By eroding memories, piece by piece, Alzheimer’s obliterates the sufferer’s very self. In memory lies written a narrative, wherein we and others are the characters. Writing is a kind of prosthesis to enrich, strengthen and broaden memory’s grasp, opening the individual to a wider circle of sympathy and a more reflexive, elaborate self-understanding. In using the word “prosthesis”, I’m thinking of Bruno Latour, who argued (I’m afraid I can’t find a reference) that the limits of the self don’t necessarily coincide with those of the body, but may include various gadgetry. Perhaps the computer keyboard and its graphical interface are an example. The blind man’s stick (or even dog) might be another. Information technology has certainly changed the intimate tenor of life, so that although it seems reasonable to hope that humanity will find new sea-legs or surf-legs, and not be submerged in an ocean of ephemera and froth, it would be risky to regard it as a sure thing.

One of the most common uses of the diminutive in Portuguese as it is spoken in these parts is to excuse or mollify something that might be seen as illegitimate or a nuisance, but which the speaker imbues with positive feeling. The classic example is the ‘jeitinho’, bending the rules, which is the evil twin of sclerotic Brazilian bureaucracy: each exists to thwart the other. That deserves its own post.

Some examples, with glosses:

musiquinha My music may annoy you, but I like it

cervejinha One too many

dinheirinho Come on, it’s not that expensive

comprinhas Shopping spree

cachorrinho It may crap on the pavement, but it’s so sweet

espera só um pouquinho Wait here for the present (with apologies to Laurie Lee)

amiguinhos “just friends”

precinho Discount

saidinha Just popping out for a minute

As the last example shows, there are ways of doing this sort of thing in English, as no doubt in all languages (pace Whorf); but my guess is this style is particularly common in just Spanish, Portuguese and Italian (maybe Roumanian) — southern Romance, let’s say.

Wittgenstein (the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations) wrote that we can just see that someone is in pain — we do not deduce the fact by tortuous analogies. Not only can I see my dog is hungry, but without needing to measure the activity of her salivary glands, I feel the inhuman intensity of her anticipation as I rattle about in the kitchen with dog dishes.

Ethology studies hard-wired behaviour. The spider, like the hedgehog, only knows one thing. (Either reason is the one thing we know, or it is where mankind rises above ethology, at least momentarily.) Given the role played by neoteny in domestication, it seems plausible that the affection of a cat for its owner is a transference of affection for the mother; the affection they sometimes show one another seems different in character, perhaps fraternal. Dogs are pack animals, cats have territories, and that knowledge sometimes sheds light on what they may be thinking; though in those cases it’s different enough from human thoughts to make them behave in non-human ways, there is a fundamental kinship that certainly facilitates empathy.

Then there is evolutionary speculation. Most dogs have trouble untangling themselves from the lead if it gets under a leg. Mine (who have long, extensible leads) are baffled when they go the wrong way round a tree and have to come back the other way. I’d say they are not cognitively equipped to deal with the problem, which would not occur in nature, even though some dogs could be trained to solve it. This is similar to the human difficulty with large numbers, or probability and risk. That looks like a case where reason is larger than ethology: it is possible to learn better habits of mathematical thought even if it remains natural (if that is the word) to worry more about plane travel than crossing the road, or panic about childhood inoculations.

Apart from the crutches of evolutionary psychology and ethology, last not least, there is history. If I were to tell you about my cats I would tell their stories, which it seems likely they do not know. Belinha frequented the bar round the corner, but the owner shooed her away when she got mange because it put off the customers. So we adopted her. She had two kittens, the only ones born and bred in the house, who have different parts of what I find it hard to resist calling her personality — and ten times the confidence. She certainly never showed affection to the others, because she was afraid of them, but she warmed to people over time if approached gently. The other cats chased her away, and she would go off for periods of several days. Recently she disappeared for good. Maybe she was turned into “beef” kebabs by the vendor on the square.

Those three kinds of knowledge don’t go very far. They may tell us more about ourselves than the animals we watch. That leaves careful attention, putting all theory aside.

Elizabeth Costello, much to the annoyance of her analytical philosopher daughter-in-law, uses Thomas Nagel’s essay as a foil to her own argument that we can empathise with other creatures, that we are not prevented by our different conceptual equipment from getting under their skin; nor does the supposed superiority of human reason over other ways of being give us dominion over them, in a hierarchy of “sentience” borrowed from the Great Chain of Being, perhaps along the line taken by Peter Singer. This presumably misses Nagel’s point (his essay is currently heading my way on the banana boat). It also suggests a practical exercise in empathy: what do I know of the inner life of my cats (or you of your pet snake)? The word “inner” won’t quite do. I recently eradicated a termite infestation in my daughter’s room without any compunction at all, despite my admiration for the social insects and their capacity to organise themselves into something beyond the sum of those six-legged parts. That touches on another question in the philosophy of mind (is the mind an emergent property?), but that is merely to take the termite as a thought-provoking example, as Nagel perhaps does with bats. The fascination I experience lies on the contrary in the attempt to bridge the gap to the particularity of that milling community and its social atoms, even if epistemology dooms it from the start. A similar case is Mead‘s analysis of the Self in terms of what he thought could be deduced from observing dogs scrapping; it is important whether he is right and whether his speculations can be empirically justified in that or some other way.

Elizabeth Costello, it is safe to say, does not enjoy the same level of popularity as Franzen’s Freedom. A book about an old woman giving polemical talks about vegeterianism and then arguing with her hosts at each venue could never have the broad appeal of a grand family chronicle informed by the stateside culture of therapy. As far as I know Coetzee is indeed a committed vegetarian, just as Franzen really is a liberal with a fondness for birds. Coetzee’s book shows that he has thought deeply and read widely about animal welfare. The distance fiction allows him to take from his own hobbyhorse (as it may well be) transforms it into matter fit for art. Paradoxically, this way the case for vegetarianism is stated less convincingly than it might have been in an earnest, literate essay: Elizabeth is muddled and hectoring, led astray by her strength of feeling. Because the novel is a study of character, the contradictions of her conviction can be explored, and other, more temperate voices given their due. Thus Elizabeth Costello is as much about what it is like to hold strong moral views, and the corrosive effect that may have, as the question at hand. It also casts doubt on the humane values that might be held up as our justification as a species. Coetzee does not here wear his learning lightly, but he succeeds in giving it dramatic form and showing how what might be dismissed as dusty old debates — such as those of the Renaissance — are played out in the flesh. Likewise with the more pedestrian convictions of Franzen’s characters: Richard in Freedom, like Chip in The Corrections before him, has some good liberal riffs on consumer culture, but what makes them interesting is his sardonic excess. Attempting to generalise, and with apologies to Lukacs, who said it better: the key seems to be that the views being expressed are plausibly attributed to characters motivated by a dramatic situation; they are lifted above the merely personal into a hypostatic realm of representative significance. That doesn’t mean they need be typical, and Coetzee’s novel is the better as art (if not entertainment) for having more rarefied interests. Franzen — having made his name with The Corrections — does once allow himself what must be considered a merely authorial pronouncement when he makes Joey give up on Atonement, a Christmas present from his worthy sister:

[he] struggled to interest himself in its descriptions of rooms and plantings

even though that is both in character and an eminently plausible realist detail — at the time, McEwan’s novel must have enjoyed sales comparable to Franzen’s own.