Monthly Archives: April 2022

Some years ago I mentioned to an artist friend a curator’s comment on a delectable country scene by Corot, lightly disparaging it as a studio composition not drawn from nature. “Disparagement” may be too strong, as who would be so crass? My friend, in any case, took the view that what counted was the succession of real encounters with nature that lay behind the artist’s sensibility and vision. Even a painter working in the open air draws on things seen before as well as in that moment, which is the latest in a lifetime of looking. It’s not an artistic sin to have got your eye in.

Writing’s raw material is words themselves. The heart of the matter is redrafting: the words on the page must be panned for gold. Just as an artist must look very hard, a writer must listen, weigh, discard, extend, ponder. Fluent, natural expression is the opposite of the unvarnished. And yet, over time, first thoughts are likely to turn out better with practice; poise, instinct, and style become as if innate. As with any skill, a degree of mastery is probably necessary in order to be able to exercise it at all. The messy business of handling the raw clay of language begins before it is even there on the page. Such an ability is the residue of earlier, clumsier attempts. The words do just flow: cliche is stillborn, or brought to life by being made explicit as metaphor in the words and echoes that first surround it; rhyme and other sonic effects eschewed or turned up a notch; tricolon and binary contrast ordered according to balance or crescendo; chiasmus. But underlying all that is the primal encounter with the native potency of words, the life they have in them independently of what is already in our minds.

This bootstrapping process is analogous to Aristotle’s account of the formation of moral character through ‘habitus’. It’s no good adopting standards of right action on the authority of others. We must ourselves freely choose on the basis of values deduced through experience. Choices settle into dispositions (‘habit’ is a false friend) which together make up character. The raw material is simply life itself, but it does not blindly shape us in its spontaneity. We shape ourselves — not according to blind whim — both autonomous and objective.

To tease that thought out, I would need to consult my sources. But the point is the analogy between the truth of art, and the truth of the heart. In fact it is a commonality of substance: to be creative is to be virtuous.

Wittgenstein says somewhere — probably in the Philosophical Investigations — that the form of a philosophical problem is “ich kenne mich nicht aus”, I don’t know my way around, I have lost my bearings. Philosophy has two warring tendencies, which might write each other off as woolly, and arid. The problem clumsily described in my previous post leaves me, intellectually and in the most personal way, befogged and bemuddled. “Perhaps it is time to embrace that”, I wrote, and remembered that the one thing I think I know, the one thing worth holding on to, is clarity of language, precise expression that sloughs off cliche, like the morning crust around the eyes.

The clumsily described problem is that reason appears to have lost its purchase on our lives. This isn’t just a difficulty “out there” in public discourse, but nor is it merely a private matter; not that the personal is somehow less worthy of attention than the political. Six or seven months ago I came across a book on Hannah Arendt by a follower of the American philosopher Stanley Cavell, which offered the promise of saying something about this “purchase” — a way out of befuddlement. I will not provide chapter and verse (as the internet would so easily allow me to do) because the book just befuddled me even more. Some painters ill at ease with the classical tradition leave their working in, as it were — while painting in realist mode, they don’t erase the lines and marks used to keep the composition together. Again, I could read up on it and put it better, but the whole point is I am seeking a different mode from the prickly one I formerly cultivated here. I am going to show my working. A practising intellectual encounters new stimuli by the serendipity of the stacks, that is, working in the library, something you didn’t know you weren’t looking for turns up on the shelf next to what you are pursuing; Henry James, as it might be, instead of William, though that wouldn’t happen in an academic library. A dilettante such as myself reads the LRB.

Stanley Cavell is in the woolly camp, if you will. Here’s a reviewer in the NYRB, on Cavell on Lear:

… certainty of the kind that Lear, a mouthpiece for skepticism, asks of his daughters, or Othello of his wife, is not available in human affairs, and … demands for certainty lead inevitably to tragedy. As an alternative, Cavell offered what he called acknowledgment, our everyday, trusting substitute for certainty. He later summed up the distinction in an aphorism: “The eye teaches skepticism; the eyelid teaches faith.”

Christopher Benfrey, NYRB LXIX/8

“Skepticism”, for Cavell, is the wrong turning that leads away from human affairs to that arid place. I’m trying to give the lie of the land, but that’s too crude, even an example of the aporia of side-taking I’m trying to find my way out of — here’s Cavell again:

The misunderstanding of my attitude that most concerned me was to take my project as the application of some philosophically independent problematic of skepticism to a fragmentary parade of Shakespearian texts, impressing those texts into the service of illustrating philosophical conclusions known in advance.


I’ve always found the misunderstanding on which the plot of Lear hinges implausible, something to be swallowed as a donne, like the trial of Job. “Misunderstanding” is the wrong word, though; in Portuguese, it would be desencontro, a fateful encounter at cross purposes. It’s the same with Othello and sexual jealousy. Perhaps at the root of every tragedy, there is a moment of blindness in the sheep’s clothing of clairvoyance. These are real human problems, just as Job’s is; maladies of the heart, that express themselves as disorders of reason, but which reason alone cannot mend. There is no argument against grief.

If we consider for example the phenomenon of radical skepticism about government that is tearing the public mind of America apart fibre by fibre — an explosion of irrationality — it is not the case that looking harder would lead to a more reassuring and accurate view. The demand for certainty (the “rabbit hole”) is insatiable, and it is not reasonable to expect the unimpeachable absence of any flaw; if, that is, you look for trouble, you will surely find it, but that picture may still represent a hysterical failure to see the wood for the trees.

Cordelia’s “according to my bond, no more nor less” is wilful and stubborn; but should she respond like her sisters? Which is the better answer to Lear’s petulant enquiry?

I’m not sure if I have got Cavell’s “seeing with the eyelid” right. I’m reminded of Hamann’s much-quoted phrase, seeing “like a painter who steps back”. The painter has an involvement with both canvas and subject, and must move back and forth between brushwork, and looking to see what’s really there. But that does not mean objectivity, it means casting away preconceptions. What use is the subject at all, if it brings only something supposedly already known? “Stepping back” is a moment of judgment, whether the image is true, but that cannot imply objectivity. Representation exists within the relationship between the one seeing and the one being seen. What makes it art is the humility and humanity of that gaze.

My mode in these sporadic texts may seem opinionated, but it is the opposite: perverse. Give me an opinion, and I will disagree with it, because opinions are execrable. Every opinion is a little gravestone of the mind. How could we not rise against it? Thus sister has turned against brother; been turned — abused by history. How could it have come to this? We are consumed by froth, like the mermaid. Either take your side, and join the mêlée, or refuse, and leave the field to the barbarians.

We are all barbarians now. But this cannot be allowed to stand. We have it in us to do better.

What I would like to do is find a way to comment about these things without taking the “other” side, since to do so is no better. Jesus reportedly said, He that is not with me is against me (Matt. 12:30). In other words: join my cause, or get lost. Just a few years ago, bien-pensant liberals used to read the Guardian, and believe they were on the same side, within that broad church. Now we castigate one another for castigating one another with insufficient enthusiasm, over toilets, statues, or Hollywood transgressions. But that’s such a “culture wars” thing to say, isn’t it?

I refuse the choice between being an old fogey, and a righteous tribune. The only way between Scylla and Charybdis is to take refuge in the past, which is still all our birthright: that foreign country. That means reading between the lines.

Somewhat at random, I chanced on this passage:

Only great pain, that long, slow pain that takes its time and in which we are burned, as it were, over green wood, forces us philosophers to descend into our ultimate depths and put aside all trust, everything good-natured, veiling, mild, average – things in which we formerly may have found our humanity. I doubt that such pain makes us ‘better’ – but I know that it makes us deeper… one emerges from such dangerous exercises in self-mastery as a different person, with a few more question marks, above all with the will henceforth to question further, more deeply, severely, harshly, evilly, quietly than one had previously questioned. Trust in life is gone: life itself has become a problem.

That’s section three of the preface. This sort of thing gives Nietzsche a bad name, but perhaps he wasn’t being as smug as he seems. In context, the passage is putting forward a way to consider recovery. Like many German authors, Nietzsche often makes a lot more sense in the original. You understand why the translator found his task so difficult.