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CRITICAL EXCESSOverreading in Derrida, Deleuze, Levinas, Zizek and Cavell
By Colin Davis
STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Ancient Quarrel: Philosophy and Literature
"Both poetry and thinking need each other, when it's a matter of going into the extreme, each in its own way in each other's neighbourhood. Poetry and thinking will determine where that neighbourhood has its place, certainly in different ways, but so that they find themselves in the same domain" (Heidegger 1959: 173). Here, Heidegger describes the need of literature and philosophy, or more precisely what he prefers to call poetry and thinking, for one another. Each remains separate; there is no over-coming of the differences between them. And yet they are companions in the journey into extreme places, each drawing strength from the other's specific resources. Literature is not the "other" of philosophy, nor the illustration or the testing ground of its theses, nor a well-earned relaxation after a hard day's philosophising. Literature and philosophy have equal but different, distinct but interdependent, roles to play if we are to release ourselves from ingrained habits of thought, to find again valid ways of dwelling in what, following Hölderlin, Heidegger calls a destitute time (from "Bread and Wine," Hölderlin 1965: 298; quoted Heidegger 1971: 89).
Some readers will have no difficulty agreeing with the claims made in the previous paragraph whilst others may find them blatantly nonsensical. Many philosophers still have little time for literature, and would regard Heidegger's way of writing about poetry as extravagant, portentous, prophetic rather than properly philosophical, or just vacuous. Other philosophers take literature very seriously indeed, finding in it vital sustenance for their own activity. They learn more, it seems, from a book of poems than from the publications of their professional colleagues. In some quarters at least, it is now uncontroversial, banal even, to insist that literature, music or film are places where thought happens. The most brilliant minds garner the intellectual meat from the obscure recesses of Shakespeare, Celan or Hitchcock. Does this mean, though, that the ancient enmity between philosophy and the arts has been overcome? Or, despite all their protests to the contrary, do the philosophers in fact discover only what they already thought, rather than encountering anything genuinely new, in the works they purport to revere with Heideggerian earnestness?
These questions underlie the discussion of Derrida, Deleuze, Levinas, Zizek and Cavell in the following chapters. The current chapter prepares the ground for that discussion by considering what is at stake in the encounter between philosophy and literature. Why does the ancient quarrel matter and what is achieved by its resolution? Understanding this entails first of all going back to Plato to see why he outlawed the poets from his ideal republic, and then leaping across the centuries to Heidegger, the key thinker whom some consider to have completed what the Romantics began by achieving the philosophical rehabilitation of poetry.
Plato and the Poets
Let's begin at the beginning, or at least quite close to it. In Book 10 of Plato's Republic, Socrates reiterates his conviction that poets should not be tolerated in the ideal city:
Let us, then, conclude our return to the topic of poetry and our apology, and affirm that we really had good grounds then for dismissing her from our city, since such was her character. For reason constrained us. And let us further say to her, lest she condemn us for harshness and rusticity, that there is from of old a quarrel between philosophy and poetry. (607b)
This quarrel, which Socrates also calls the "ancient enmity" (607c) between philosophers and poets, is described as already being "from of old" in Plato's time; yet there is also something inaugural and performative about the Republic. It names the quarrel and outlaws the poets at the same time. Socrates is not, though, advocating that the poets should be executed or violently punished. If a great poet arrives in the city, "we should fall down and worship him as a holy and wondrous and delightful creature"; we should "[pour] myrrh down over his head and [crown] him with fillets of wool" (398a), and then we should ensure that he leaves and goes somewhere else. He should be revered, and politely accompanied to the city gates. He may be bad, but he is not evil.
A number of questions immediately present themselves. Why does Plato want to banish the poets? Does he offer arguments which are coherent and consistent? Is his hostility integral to his philosophical system, or is it an unnecessary or temporary aberration? And how does his rejection of poetry fit with what, from our perspective, look like the eminently literary qualities of his own writing? Plato in fact offers several different arguments for hostility towards the poets. However, in the twenty-four centuries since the Republic was written, few-even amongst his fervent admirers-have been persuaded that Plato was right, and many have been bemused that such a brilliant philosopher was so blinkered when it came to the arts. Nevertheless, the banishment of the poets in the Republic, even if it is not Plato's only or last word on the subject, is directly linked to themes developed elsewhere in his dialogues. In Plato's account poetry is dangerous because it purports to know things of which it is ignorant, and thereby it confuses us in our search for truth.
Some of Plato's misgivings about poetry are adumbrated in the early, short dialogue Ion. Socrates' interlocutor in the dialogue is the rhapsodist Ion, a man who makes his living by reciting poetry. Ion specialises in the work of Homer, whom Socrates describes as "the best and most divine of all [poets]" (530b). Reflecting on the nature of poetry, Socrates argues that epic poets are "possessed" (534a) and "inspired" (534b); lyric poets are "not in their senses" when they compose (534a). A poet is, he says, "a light and winged thing, and holy, and never able to compose until he has become inspired, and is beside himself and reason is no longer in him" (534b). Poets do not speak of truths which they have conceived themselves; instead, "it is the god himself who speaks, and through them becomes articulate to us" (534d). If the poet is the interpreter of the gods, the rhapsodist is the interpreter of the interpreter. Socrates then goes on to question what the rhapsodist actually knows. Ion concedes that even though, quoting Homer, he speaks of driving a chariot, he does not know the art of the charioteer; even though he speaks of healing the sick, he does not know the art of the physician; even though he speaks of catching fish, he does not know the art of fishing. In fact he more or less confesses that he knows nothing. Gamely, though, and apparently unaware of the fun that Socrates is having at his expense, he insists that the art of the rhapsodist and the art of the military general are inseparable; because his knowledge of Homer is unmatched, he can regard himself as the ablest general among the Greeks. Socrates is not discourteous towards Ion. Indeed he agrees in the closing exchange to call the rhapsodist divine rather than, as we might suspect he is considering, dismissing him as a charlatan who passes himself off as an expert in everything whilst in fact knowing nothing.
In Ion Socrates' polite mockery is directed at the rhapsodist, not the poet himself; it is not difficult to see, though, how his comments could quickly be turned into an attack on poetry. The poets are "inspired," "possessed" and "not in their senses" because they are the mouthpieces of the gods; but it is also only a short step from here to say that they are irrational, estranged from clear thought and communication. And the claim that the rhapsodist knows nothing of the arts of which he speaks can easily be extended to the poet whose works the rhapsodist recites. If Ion does not know what it is to be a charioteer or a physician, then neither did Homer. When Socrates turns on the poets, it is in part because they speak without knowing, and thereby make themselves the allies of rumour, falsehood and illusion. In the Apology, for example, Socrates compares poets to seers and prophets who do not understand the meaning of their own words. Moreover, they nurture the illusion that they in fact know everything: "I also observed that the very fact that they were poets made them think that they had a perfect understanding of all other subjects, of which they were totally ignorant" (22c). Knowing nothing, they speak as if all wisdom were at their command.
In Books 2 and 3 of the Republic Socrates describes the dangers and potential social utility of poetry. Poets tell false stories about the gods and as such they may be morally corrupting. Some stories, even if true, should not be told to the young; at best they should be buried in silence, or revealed only to a very small audience bound to a pledge of secrecy (378a). The right stories, told in the right way, may nevertheless be used by nurses and mothers to help shape the souls of the young, giving them decorous lessons in virtue. So poetry is allowed an important role in education, even if it can be dangerous when it is not properly censored.
Book 10 of the Republic resumes the discussion of poetry, and to some extent appears to shift position. Whereas earlier in the work, poetry appeared to be the paradigm of the arts, Book 10 sets up painting as the paradigmatic art, with the painter demeaned because he is the imitator of an imitator: God creates the ideal form of a couch; the carpenter copies that form when making a material object; the artist copies the copy rather than the thing itself and thereby creates images and illusions instead of engendering true knowledge. The attack on poetry is now problematically derived from this account of visual art. Commentators have observed further differences between Book 10 and other parts of the Republic. The key term mimesis appears to be used in a different sense from earlier in the work: in Book 3 it referred to the imitation of actions, whereas in Book 10 it is used in reference to pictorial representation. The earlier tolerance for the right kind of poetry and the acceptance of its role in education are now replaced by an outright ban; only hymns to the gods and the praise of good men will be tolerated in the ideal city (see 607a). These differences have prompted some to suggest that Book 10 is not an organic, necessary part of the work and may even have been a separate piece of writing which was added later. It is as if some of Plato's descendants were reluctant to believe that his attack on the poets could belong integrally to his system of thought.
It may be, though, that Socrates is not so much contradicting his earlier view as radicalising it. The poet is deemed to be an imitator who does not have real knowledge. He does not genuinely know, for example, about how to be a general or how to make a pair of shoes. Instead, he charms his audience, appealing to its irrational side and fostering its desire for pleasure rather than its rational faculties. So the poet is on the wrong side in the struggle between emotion and reason, between knowledge of the real world and illusion. Poetry is an art of the floating world rather than a pathway to unchanging truths. In Book 10, three distinct arguments are deployed to support the poet's exclusion from the city: like the visual artist, the poet does not have true knowledge of what he depicts, so he promotes a world of illusion; poetry appeals to the lower, desiring part of the soul and by strengthening it may destroy the higher, rational part; and finally, in what Socrates calls his "chief accusation" (605c), which develops the previous point, poetry is morally corrupting, because it encourages us to give in to what is bad and weak rather than to choose the harder path, which leads to the good and the true. A particularly disturbing aspect of the poet's dangerous influence is that, by causing us to be moved by the suffering of others, poetry makes us behave like women. Rather than bearing our sorrows calmly, which is the conduct of a man, we praise the poets who move us most (see 605d-e). Reason is male and good, and the domain of philosophy; emotion is female and corrupting, and the domain of poetry. To be overly affected by poetry is to be unmanned.
It is small wonder that Socrates wants rid of the poets; and yet their banishment is not entirely irrevocable. Having described the ancient enmity between poetry and philosophy, Socrates invites the poets to defend themselves: "But nevertheless let it be declared that, if the mimetic and dulcet poetry can show any reason for her existence in a well-governed state, we would gladly admit her, since we ourselves are very conscious of her spell. But all the same it would be impious to betray what we believe to be the truth" (607c). Socrates is torn between love for the truth and an appreciation of the charms of poetry. His ambivalence suggests, perhaps, that the enmity between philosophy and poetry is not definitive, and that poetry may after all be rehabilitated. Socrates appeals to lovers of poetry who might argue its cause in prose: "And we shall listen benevolently, for it will be clear gain for us if it can be shown that she bestows not only pleasure but benefit" (607d-e). Having made what appeared to be a virulent, unanswerable and uncompromising case against poetry, Socrates concedes that he may not have spoken the last word on the matter. Indeed, the later dialogue Phaedrus seems to mark a distinct change in Socrates' position. There, Socrates conceives of philosophy as an inspired activity, and therefore closer to poetry than it previously appeared. When he ranks lives in order of excellence, he places at the top "a seeker after wisdom or beauty, a follower of the Muses and a lover" (248d). The poet and lover are now, perhaps, no longer the philosopher's enemies; they may even be his equals.
The question remains: what exactly is Plato doing when he banishes the poets from his ideal city? In two related books, Love's Knowledge and The Fragility of Goodness, the philosopher and classical scholar Martha Nussbaum provides an instructive context for understanding Plato's rivalry with the poets. Dissatisfied with the compartmentalisation of different disciplines, Nussbaum became convinced that literature and moral philosophy are allies rather than enemies. Their concerns are the same even if their languages and styles are different. In fact Nussbaum goes further than this: she regards the style of literature as an integral part of its ethical significance. Style is not merely a decoration, but part of the very texture of ethical engagement. This belief lies behind her account of the quarrel between Plato and the poets. As she explains the situation, before Plato the Greeks did not distinguish between philosophy and literature in the manner that we do now. The epic and tragic poets were understood to be ethical thinkers and teachers, to whom people turned for guidance about how to live. Tragic poetry in particular was committed to what Nussbaum calls "a certain, albeit very general view of human life, a view from which one might dissent," which she undertakes to summarise:
The elements of this view include at least the following: that happenings beyond the agent's control are of real importance not only for his or her feelings of happiness or contentment, but also for whether he or she manages to live a fully good life, a life inclusive of various forms of laudable action. That, therefore, what happens to people by chance can be of enormous importance to the ethical quality of their lives; that, therefore, good people are right to care deeply about such chance events. (Nussbaum 1990: 17)
Excerpted from CRITICAL EXCESS by Colin Davis Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
1 The Ancient Quarrel: Philosophy and Literature 1
2 Derrida, Hermeneutics and Deconstruction 26
3 Deleuze: Against Interpretation 56
4 Levinas and the Resistance to Reading 81
5 Zizek's Idiotic Enjoyment 108
6 Cavell and the Claim of Reading 135
7 Conclusion: In Praise of Overreading 164