YEAUHHHHHH!!!! SWEET 16 IN THE POST-MODERN BRACKET!!!

Edmund Wilson, who bullied his way into the Sweet 16: Yea, I’m an asshole, what of it? he seems to be saying. In Letters, arrogance goes a long way.

EDMUND WILSON VERSUS NORTHROP FRYE

Wilson (d. 1972) was a magnificent snob, believing himself above government, morality, tact, and popular literature. He didn’t pay taxes for 10 years after World War Two and got off with a slap on the wrist. He served on the Dewey Commission in the 1930s, an elaborate effort by a few American intellectuals to clear Trotsky against the Soviet findings of the Moscow Trials. Trotsky wrote the following re: the Commission:

The Moscow trials are perpetrated under the banner of socialism. We will not concede this banner to the masters of falsehood! If our generation happens to be too weak to establish Socialism over the earth, we will hand the spotless banner down to our children. The struggle which is in the offing transcends by far the importance of individuals, factions and parties. It is the struggle for the future of all mankind. It will be severe, it will be lengthy. Whoever seeks physical comfort and spiritual calm let him step aside. In time of reaction it is more convenient to lean on the bureaucracy than on the truth. But all those for whom the word ‘Socialism’ is not a hollow sound but the content of their moral life – forward! Neither threats nor persecutions nor violations can stop us! Be it even over our bleaching bones the truth will triumph! We will blaze the trail for it. It will conquer! Under all the severe blows of fate, I shall be happy as in the best days of my youth! Because, my friends, the highest human happiness is not the exploitation of the present but the preparation of the future.

“It is the struggle for the future of all mankind. It will be a severe, it will be lengthy. Whoever seeks physical comfort and spiritual calm let him step aside.”

These are indeed fighting words. “Give up physical comfort” to spread Socialism over the face of the earth. “It will conquer!” Etc. Here’s the world which Wilson, Princeton man, snobby blue blood and literary critic, swore by and lived in. One can say, “despite his pedigree, Wilson was fighting for the salt of the earth,” or, Wilson was a dangerous political lunatic, who thanks to his pedigree, was able to do as he pleased.” Take your pick.

Wilson dismissed J. R. Tolkien as “juvenile,” and asked Anais Nin to marry him, claiming he would teach her how to write. Wilson was interested in “Symbolist” literature, a genre which cannot be defined; those like Wilson, who were interested in it, claimed it was post-Romantic. Wilson, a typical Modernist, defined Romanticism as something silly which preceded Realism. Wilson’s opinion of Poe was that Americans were too “provincial” to appreciate him, unlike Wilson himself, who thought Poe “insane” and whose whole understanding of Poe was that Poe was a bridge between Romanticism and Symbolism—which is ignorant. We always hear that Wilson had “many wives and many affairs,” but why any woman would be interested in this pompous hack is hard to fathom. My guess is that he tried to have affairs and they came to eventually be reported as affairs. He could get literary women published, since he was a well-connected reviewer; perhaps he had personal charisma; perhaps his socialist opinions made him seem gallant with a certain set. His writing  is pedantic, dreary, worthless. A writer who believes in world socialism and makes Baudelaire his specialty has to be suspect. Wilson hung around Edna Millay a great deal; it calls to mind for us Yeats and Maude Gonne: great women harmed by politically motivated men who did more than admire them. Millay was a thousand times the genius Wilson—the more worldly—was.

Northrop Frye, unlike Edmund Wilson, was not worldly. He was merely a professor, and a very good one. He came under scrutiny from the Canadian government for his opposition to the Vietnam War, but Frye’s influence was chiefly literary.

Frye’s influence can be summed up this way: Harold Bloom. Criticism eclipses Reviewing. Useless and pretentious literature gets a free pass because it fits into the professor’s “scientific” view of literary “tradition.”  Frye, like Bloom, excuses all sorts of nuttiness in the name of Profound Scholarship. One doesn’t read a book. One takes a book and fits it into an ever-changing tradition that includes the Bible and various texts throughout recorded history, in a way that changes those texts: modernism, as invented by its godfather, T.S. Eliot. The one thing that is not allowed is common sense. The unstable and the ‘highly significant’ rule. Reality as understood in a populist context is forbidden.

Edmund Wilson falsely presented himself as an authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, in order to “upset” theological authority. Frye/Bloom has the same ambition, a bold one. Confuse, and then attempt to be influential within that confusion. Literature as Fabricated Contemporary Religious Scholarship. Literature, for the Ambitious Modernist Critic, is not something which comes into the life of someone who peruses a story or a poem for a half an hour from its beginning to its end, the story or poem succeeding or failing on its own terms. Literature is rather a vast joint corporate enterprise which demands abstract expert-ism as far removed from the ordinary reading experience as possible. Welcome to John Crowe Ransom’s “Criticism, Inc.” Welcome to Harold Bloom’s “Anxiety.” Welcome to Edmund Wilson’s “Symbolism.” Welcome to Northrop Frye’s “Science.”

Words, words, words.

WINNER: EDMUND WILSON

*

HELENE CIXOUS VERSUS J.L. AUSTIN

Austin exists in the present, with his theory of performative language: language, in the most radical sense imaginable, does not mean; it does.

Cixous (pronounced seek-soo, or ‘looking for Sue’) exists in the past, since her work comes out of her academic success in the radical 60s and 70s in France, when French Writing (Ecriture) Theory exploded onto the scene, casting aside German Idealism and Anglo-American pragmatism as the sexiest thing around. Why sexy? Why the past? Because Western Tradition had repressed everything that was not Male and Ideal; and now Cixous was ‘writing’ the ‘female body’ in order to redeem the past—which clings to the effort.

Austin worked for British intelligence; in him, Anglo-American pragmatism, in its smug complacency, triumphs over the French Theory and the Freud and the Feminism and the Derrida and the Lacan of Cixous—who finally over-argues her case.

If the goal of the woman is to triumph over her mere flesh, while the man’s ambition is to reduce the woman to mere flesh for his pleasure, it is clear that feminist projects which rely on dualisms of past/present, A/not A, penis/no penis, male/female, light/darkness, many/one, speech/language, West/East, body/mind, beautiful/ugly, are doomed to fail, for even with conscious efforts to subvert these dualisms, the French Theorist either remains trapped in them, or drifts off into over-heated incoherence.

Austin, by showing that language is performance, brought flesh to language in a way the French Theorists, with their deferrals of meaning and their difference, could never quite pull off; non-gendered flesh, too, and thus deliciously feminist/not feminist.

WINNER: AUSTIN

*

EDWARD SAID VERSUS SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR

The one overwhelming thing which Modernism did, and here we include everything, whether it is the feminism of a De Beauvoir or the postcolonial historicism of a Said, was the squashing of sincerity.

Is sincerity a good in itself?

If it is naive, and based in ignorance, if it lacks irony or a sense of humor, they will say sincerity verges on stupidity.

We speak of a useful sincerity, however, free of pain, which, even within its “stupidity,” has the potential to abide and achieve and discover hidden good.

There is a kind of false and bitter “sincerity” which depends on a surrounding insincerity for its existence, an energy possessed by the socialist who needs to convert the world to its vision of simple good, for example. But such ‘save-the-world’ proselytizing is rarely sincere. It assumes too much insincerity in the other.

The kind of sincerity which Modernity has destroyed is the pure and simple kind, guided by love and hope and innocence, neither afflicted nor distracted by deep anxieties or doubts.

This type of sincerity, we imagine, is at the heart of Mozart’s music, and any sustained action of genius: naive, focused, splendid, unique, human, alone, happy.

At first blush, this good type of sincerity is described (and attacked) as sentimentality. The cynic dare not call it stupidity, for the cynic is well aware of how everything is stupid or ‘not what it seems,’ this knowledge characterizing the unsentimental cynic in the first place.

Simone De Beauvoir had to attack sentimentality to ‘free’ women from the dire effects of Victorian romance. For Said, the citizens of the West had to be made aware of the blood on their hands—not just employees of the East India Company—everyone is somehow guilty.

Sentimentality as it existed in the 19th century in the great writings of the Romantics and even in writers like Wilde, who used his wit to keep the spirit of the Romantics alive, was banished in the 20th century, and with it, the more important, and more beneficial, sincerity; the sincerity which stimulates people in a reciprocating atmosphere of cheerfulness and good withers, as churlish cynicism triumphs among the self-aware, chattering classes.

Stupidity of the brain is sometimes necessary for wisdom in the heart.

As De Beauvoir writes:

To recognize in woman a human being is not to impoverish man’s experience: this would lose none of its diversity, its richness, or its intensity if it were to occur between two subjectivities. To discard the myths is not to destroy all dramatic relation between the sexes, it is not to deny the significance authentically revealed to man through feminine reality; it is not to do away with poetry, love, adventure, happiness, dreaming. It is simply to ask, that behavior, sentiment, passion be founded upon the truth.

She protests too much.

Said, who spent his childhood in the British colony of Palestine, wrote:

Too often literature and culture are presumed to be politically, even historically innocent; it has regularly seemed otherwise to me, and certainly my study of Orientalism has convinced me (and I hope will convince my literary colleagues) that society and literary culture can only be understood and studied together. In addition, and by an almost inescapable logic, I have found myself writing the history of a strange, secret sharer of Western anti-Semitism. That anti-Semitism and, as I have discussed it in its Islamic branch, Orientalism resemble each other very closely is a historical, cultural, and political truth that needs only to be mentioned to an Arab Palestinian for its irony to be be perfectly understood.

The genie is out of the bottle. Not only is war impossible, peace and reason are, too. Where the phrase “anti-Semitism” exists, sincerity cannot exist. Luckily, one can get back a certain amount of sincerity by stepping off the stage, putting aside certain books, and ignoring certain individuals. But the problem with the landscape remains.

WINNER: SAID

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SARTRE VERSUS HAROLD BLOOM

We expect critics to be critical. As Northrop Frye has said, we can’t teach literature, only the criticism of literature, and this is why so many poets hate critics—precisely because critics are critical in Frye’s sense. And, since Frye is correct, Criticism dominates learning, our learning, whether we want it to, or not. And more than this, Criticism writes our poetry, as well. Wilde and Poe both explicitly stated the obvious: the critical sense is what writes the poetry; the so-called creative or imaginative faculty is merely the critical faculty reversed. Criticism does not create, it judges; exactly, and the creative faculty does not create either (only God does)—the creative faculty combines; and every moment of the combining process is effected by the judgment, by the critical intelligence of the artist.

Harold Bloom is a successful critic for the same reason Poe was a successful critic: a host of minor poets strongly dislike them. Bloom pursues the logic laid out here by vilifying Poe and championing Emerson; Poe’s test was more severe: one was less a critic if one was not a poet (Bloom is not) while Emerson’s test simply said that any strong argument was poetry. Poe’s rivalry is something Bloom cannot face. Bloom is therefore not critical, precisely because his critical choices are driven by the fact that he is not a poet himself—which fulfills the prophecy.

Sartre is too anti-Literature to be a poet or a critic; Sartre is like Bloom, then, but one who knocks over Bloom’s chess pieces, even as Sartre agrees with Emerson that argument is finally all.  Listen to Sartre here:

There is no ‘gloomy literature,’ since, however dark may be the colors in which one paints the world, one paints it only so that free men may feel their freedom as they face it. Thus, there are only good and bad novels. The bad novel aims to please by flattering, whereas the good one is an exigence and an act of faith. But above all, the unique point of view from which the author can present the world to those freedoms whose concurrence he wishes to bring about is that of a world to be impregnated always with more freedom.  One can imagine a good novel being written by an American negro even if hatred of the whites were spread all over it, because it is the freedom of his race that he demands through his hatred. But nobody can suppose for a moment that it is possible to write a good novel in praise of anti-Semitism. For, the moment I feel that my freedom is indissolubly linked with that of all other men, it cannot be demanded of me that I use it to approve the enslavement of a part of these men. Thus, whether he is an essayist, a pamphleteer, a satirist, or a novelist, whether he speaks of individual passions or whether he attacks the social order, the writer, a free man addressing free men, has only one subject—freedom.

Sartre is still playing chess, with white and black pieces, even though some have run away in an attempt to be “free.” Bloom plays a more elaborate game of chess, one that keeps the pieces upright, even as we have no idea how the game is proceeding, though we do know Shakespeare is Bloom’s king and Emerson, the queen, perhaps. Literature can be ‘too gloomy’ for Bloom—he accused Poe of precisely this, even as he praised Emerson’s health and clarity. But those who accuse Poe of playing too much in a minor key tend to be those who play in no key at all and instead do a lot of thumping: Sartre thumps very loudly in order to flatter a certain sensibility. Bloom sings fragmented medleys, flattering in a far more rarefied fashion.

WINNER: BLOOM

The last of the women—de Beauvoir and Cixous—have fallen!

The Post-Modern bracket is now Wilson, Austin, Said, and Bloom!

 

 

DE BEAUVOIR AND ADRIENNE RICH DANCE IN FIRST ROUND ACTION

DE BEAUVOIR:

A sentiment cannot be supposed to be anything. “In the domain of sentiments,” writes Gide, “the real is not distinguished from the imaginary. And if to imagine one loves is enough to be in love, then also to tell oneself that one imagines oneself to be in love when one is in love is enough to make one forthwith love a little less.” Discrimination between the imaginary and the real can be made only through behavior. Since man occupies a privileged situation in this world, he is in a position to show his love actively; very often he supports the woman or at least helps her; in marrying her he gives her social standing; he makes her presents; his independent economic and social position allows him to take the initiative and think up contrivances: it was M. de Norpois who, when separated from Mme de Villeparisis, made twenty-four trips to visit her. Very often the man is busy, the woman idle: he gives her the time he passes with her; she takes it: is it with pleasure, passionately, or only for amusement? Does she accept these benefits through love or through self-interest? Does she love her husband or her marriage? Of course, even the man’s evidence is ambiguous: is such and such a gift granted through love or out of pity? But while normally a woman finds numerous advantages in her relations with a man, his relations with a woman are profitable to a man only in so far as he loves her. And so one can almost judge the degree of his affection by the total picture of his attitude.

But a woman hardly has means for sounding her own heart; according to her moods she will view her own sentiments in different lights, and as she submits to them passively, one interpretation will be no truer than another. In those rare instances in which she holds the position of economic and social privilege, the mystery is reversed, showing that it does not pertain to one sex rather than the other, but to the situation. For a great many women the roads to transcendence are blocked: because they do nothing, they fail to make themselves anything. They wonder indefinitely what they could have become, which sets them to asking about what they are. It is a vain question. If man fails to discover that secret essence of femininity, it is simply because it does not exist. Kept on the fringe of the world, woman cannot be objectively defined through this world, and her mystery conceals nothing but emptiness.

RICH:

It is not enough for feminist thought that specifically lesbian texts exist. Any theory or cultural/political creation that treats lesbian existence as a marginal or less “natural” phenomenon, as mere “sexual preference,” or as the mirror image of either heterosexual or male homosexual relations is profoundly weakened thereby, whatever its other contributions. Feminist theory can no longer afford merely to voice a toleration of “lesbianism” as an “alternative life style” or make token allusion to lesbians. A feminist critique of compulsory heterosexual orientation for women is long overdue.

I do not assume that mothering by women is a “sufficient cause” of lesbian existence. I believe large numbers of men could, in fact, undertake child care on a large scale without radically altering the balance of male power in a male-identified society.

Pornography does not simply create a climate in which sex and violence are interchangeable; it widens the range of behavior considered acceptable from men in heterosexual intercourse—behavior which reiteratively strips women of their autonomy, dignity, and sexual potential, including the potential of loving and being loved by women in mutuality and integrity.

Lesbians have historically been deprived of a political existence through “inclusion” as female versions of male homosexuality. To equate lesbian existence with male homosexuality because each is stigmatized is to erase female reality once again.Part of the history of lesbian existence is, obviously, to be found where lesbians, lacking a coherent female community, have shared a kind of social life and common cause with homosexual men. But there are differences: women’s lack of economic and cultural privilege relative to men; qualitative differences in female and male relationships— for example, the patterns of anonymous sex among male homosexuals, and the pronounced ageism in male homosexual standards of sexual attractiveness. I perceive the lesbian experience as being, like motherhood, a profoundly female experience.

Who can navigate the maze of ‘women’s issues’ touched on above by De Beauvoir from 1949, and Rich from 1981?

Simone de Beauvoir’s personal issues are well-known: intending to be a nun until she was 14, she had a devout Catholic mother and a free-thinking father; she was suspended from her teaching job for seducing a female student; she seduced girls and passed them on to the existentialist Sartre; one of these girls, who rejected Sartre, eventually married de Beauvoir’s male lover.

As for Rich, we have the suicide of Rich’s Harvard professor husband, father to her three children, in 1970, just as she was separating from him in Rich’s radical Black Panther days; also her shared National Book Award prize in 1976 with Allen Ginsberg, rejected by Rich, and instead ‘accepted’ with the two other woman nominees, Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, on behalf of all women.

Arnold Rice Rich, Adrienne Rich’s father, was Chairman of Pathology at Johns Hopkins Medical School.  John B. Watson, the father of Behaviorism, was fired from John Hopkins in 1920 for having an affair with his student.

Behaviorism is the philosophical component of Simone de Beauvoir (b. 1908)  and Adrianne Rich (b. 1929)

Personal crisis and Behaviorism seem to go hand and hand, and we would not be a good behaviorist philosopher if we did not point this out.  Perhaps the philosophy should be called Bad Behaviorism.  Remove the ‘bad’ and it is no philosophy at all.  It fades into custom. We anticipate a certain amount of objection to bringing in personal issues; but without the personal issues, have the philosophical issues any basis?  Behaviorism is a bold response to crisis—the “bad” behavior is owned and accepted—as behaviorism—putting aside intellectual reasons, in the spirit of either existentialism or its mirror-reverse, moralistic and religious fanaticism.

De Beauvoir says, “a sentiment cannot be supposed to be anything.”  This is the door to behaviorism.  According to some views, “a sentiment” is not to be rejected—our feelings about an issue are of paramount importance, and not to be dismissed, no matter how authoritative the radical social science branch of learning is, which attempts to dismiss it.

The door is opened and de Beauvoir walks through: “Discrimination between the imaginary and the real can be made only through behavior.”

Any philosophical system which makes “behavior” the primary tool for discriminating between “the imaginary and the real” cripples thought, and hinders philosophy itself.

What is love?  What is gender?  What is sex?  If we turn these questions into mere descriptions of discrete patterns of particular behaviors, the ‘things anyone, at any time, might feel compelled to do’ becomes the ruling animus of philosophical investigation, and we strip ‘making sense of the universe in terms of both pleasure and reason’ from the whole process; we destroy science, ideality, happiness, morality, and reason, and replace it with experience—experience which justifies itself, no matter what. 

Behaviorism is used to justify behavior, any behavior—but philosophy is the way to determine reality above and beyond behavior.

In ordinary human experience, behavior creates our reality; in philosophy, our understanding of reality determines how we behave.  The two are radically different.

It begins innocently enough, with de Beauvoir, who, as we see in the example above, takes love away from its sentiments and attaches it instead to specific forms of behavior—love becomes utilitarian, in the name of making things better for women, even though, as de Beauvoir points out, it is not the utilitarian aspect which makes things worse for women; what de Beauvoir seems interested in is erasing the differences between men and women.  Turn the tables, she says; make the woman wealthy and the man poor, and the ‘mystery’ of the woman for the man disappears; in other words, there is no ‘sentiment,’ there is no ‘intangible’ factor; put the man’s dress on the woman and she is, in fact, a man. 

If a woman behaves like a man, she is a man.  Judith Butler already exists in de Beauvoir.

The ‘radical’ nature of de Beauvoir’s argument is based on simple equivalence.

Rich, though she might be considered more radical than de Beauvoir, a radical “advancement,” to some, actually travels backwards; Rich argues for lesbianism as a sentiment, not simply as behavior; in her pornography statement, for instance, Rich pleads for a woman’s “dignity,” which is not a behaviorist (or existentialist) term at all—Rich is more traditional and conservative than de Beauvoir.

We see “radical” philosophy developing in a “step-forward, step-back” fashion: a step forward with de Beauvoir, a step back with Rich, even though, as a whole, it moves forward in the same behaviorist fashion.

What is this “compulsory heterosexual orientation” which Rich mentions, but, in her view, philosophy at odds with reality, old philosophy at odds with behaviorism?

Rich wants more than an “acceptance” of lesbianism; she believes there is an unquestioned, mysterious core value to it  (beyond behavior) worth cultivating. Rich doesn’t want to look at the issue scientifically; she is not interested in cause-and-effect. “I do not assume that mothering by women is a “sufficient cause” of lesbian existence.” The philosopher would ask, “Scientifically speaking, what is lesbianism exactly?” Rich, like de Beauvoir, is hunkered down in behaviorism—there is no interest in a philosophy standing above the behavior; but unlike de Beauvoir, Rich invests a mystery and sentiment to the lesbian existence, precisely as de Beauvoir dismantled the mystery and sentiment of the woman’s existence.

Who wins, here?  The one who began the job.

WINNER: DE BEAUVOIR

SARTRE TAKES ON DERRIDA

Sartre wanted to marry her.  de Beauvoir said, no.

SARTRE:

Each of our perceptions is accompanied by the consciousness that human reality is a ‘revealer,’ that is, it is through human reality that ‘there is’ being, or, to put it differently, that man is the means by which things are manifested. It is our presence in the world which multiplies relations. It is we who set up a relationship between this tree and that bit of sky. Thanks to us, that star which has been dead for millennia, that quarter moon, and that dark river are disclosed in the unity of a landscape. It is the speed of our car and our airplane which organizes the great masses of the earth. With each of our acts, the world reveals to us a new face. But, if we know that we are directors of our being, we also know that we are not its producers. If we turn away from this landscape, it will sink back into its dark permanence. At least, it will sink back; there is no one mad enough to think that it is going to be annihilated. It is we who shall be annihilated, and the earth will remain in its lethargy until another consciousness comes along to awaken it. Thus, to our inner certainty of being ‘revealers’ is added that of being inessential in relation to the thing revealed.

If I fix on canvas or in writing a certain aspect of the fields or the sea or a look on someone’s face which I have disclosed, I am conscious of having produced them by condensing relationships, by introducing order where there was none, by imposing the unity of mind on the diversity of things. That is, I feel myself essential in relation to my creation. But this time it is the created object which escapes me; I cannot reveal and produce at the same time. The creation becomes inessential in relation to the creative activity. First of all, even if it appears finished to others, the created object always seems to us in a state of suspension; we can always change this line, that shade, that word. Thus, it never forces itself. A novice painter asked his teacher, ‘When should I consider my painting finished?’ And the teacher answered, ‘When you can look at it in amazement and say to yourself, “I’m the one who did that!”

Which amounts to saying ‘never.’ For that would be to consider one’s work with someone else’s eyes and to reveal what one has created.

DERRIDA:

A text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible. Its law and its rules are not, however, harbored in the inaccessibility of a secret; it is simply that they can never be booked, in the present, into anything that could rigorously be called a perception.

And hence, perpetually and essentially, they run the risk of being definitely lost. Who will ever know of such disappearances?

The dissimulation of the woven texture can in any case take centuries to undo its web: a web that envelops a web, undoing the web for centuries; reconstituting it too as an organism, indefinitely regenerating its own tissue behind the cutting trace, the decision of each reading. There is always a surprise in store for the anatomy or physiology of any criticism that might think it has mastered the game, surveyed all the threads at once, deluding itself, too, in wanting to look at the text without touching it, without laying a hand on the “object,” without risking—which is the only chance of entering into the game, by getting a few fingers caught—the addition of some new thread.  Adding, here, is nothing other than giving to read. One must manage to think this out: that it is not a question of embroidering upon a text, unless one considers that to know how to embroider still means to have the ability to follow the given thread. That is, if you follow me, the hidden thread.

Modern philosophy’s obsession with absence, lack, impotence, estrangement seems to spring from this little poem by Poe:

…I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand—
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep—while I weep!
Oh God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! Can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all the we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

Beauty, to be truly beautiful, needs to be partially obscured, or veiled, and Truth cannot be looked at directly either, and needs to be wrapped in riddles—the Divine Mysteries, from Oracles, Prophecy, and Fate, through Christian Exegesis and Parables, lands in the 20th century as Philosophy which Teases and Deceives—but the Ancient Philosophies and Religions which propounded their stories, their sciences and their devotions attended by actual spirits in actual settings, covered in mists of ignorance and beauty as they might have been, can be contrasted to 20th century Philosophy, which seems to tease us for no end; or, simply out of despair, or vanity, or some philosopher’s ambition.

Sartre (b. 1905), in his excerpt, evinces the Man-centered universe inherited from the Renaissance: “man is the means by which things are manifested” and, invoking the “speed of our car and our airplane,” he revels in “we know we are directors of our being,” but with it, also, comes the sad recognition that, “we also know that we are not [our being’s] producers” and we are “inessential to the thing revealed.” This is unfortunate, but why, philosophically, does Sartre need to assert this gulf between “directing” and “producing?”

Sartre does so for no other reason, it seems, than to produce a kind of balance: being and non-being.

But it doesn’t feel motivated by anything beyond a kind of philosophical or mathematical attempt at a tidy formula, and we see how it manifests itself in Sartre’s discussion of art: “I cannot reveal and produce at the same time; the creation becomes inessential in relation to the creative activity.”

Why this pessimism?  How is it true, for instance, that the painter or poet’s “creation” is “inessential” to his or her “creative activity?”  It is mere pedantry to fret whether a work of art is “finished,” or not, and Sartre’s explanation is an empty piece of cleverness.  Sure, we can always tweak our poem, but the gist, and the excellence of its entirety is not some illusion. Sartre had a political and a real world existence, as his fame will testify, but we should not therefore miss what is in front of us here: Sartre’s overly fastidious, overly academic, and feeble complaint, passed off as scary existentialism.  It brings to mind the famous anecdote in which Sartre finished first in his examinations to become an instructor, with de Beauvoir, second. Much was made of the “open relationship” between these two public intellectuals, but few bothered to point out that de Beauvoir did not want to marry him, or live with him.  Sartre’s philosophical fretting is merely academic, or perhaps just as bad, personal.

Sartre eventually argued that anyone making art was reactionary and hopelessly bourgeois—a political position almost inevitable, considering the major philosophical qualms he first lays out.

As for Derrida, as time passes after his death, and his reputation fades, his audacious hiding appears more and more as insufferable cuteness.

WINNER: SARTRE

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