Or The Annoyances of Philosophy.
By ALAN WALL.
ALL MEANING IS riddled in language, and can’t be unriddled.
It is not that I am unphilosophical. Sometimes I’m told I’m altogether too philosophical. But if you ask me the nature of my philosophy, I’d have to own up and say I don’t have one. I’ve grown dubious about the virtue of situating yourself in one of those grand constructions we call philosophies. I’ve never met a single human being who lived according to a philosophy. They lived, so it seemed to me, according to need, desire and fear, the same as I do. They often explained how they lived by employing the terms of their philosophy — but that’s not the same as living according to it. Their philosophy is a translation device; a post-hoc extemporization.
I’ve known people who live according to a religion, but then a religion has deeper tentacles into the nether regions of your identity than a philosophy. It can also threaten you with damnation, which most philosophies are too polite to do. Whenever I try to situate myself inside a philosophy, I feel the oxygen seeping out of my mind. My thoughts grow breathless. I don’t feel this is the account of reality it claims to be. I feel it is a fiction, heavily contrived, which wishes to hold me in its panopticon. I want to break free. I want to go back to my natural form of thinking, which is provisional, fragmented, essayistic. Thought systems seem to me vast bulwarks against the void. The void, sadly, always survives. You could say that we mentally constructed the void as well, but we were on top form the day we fashioned that one. However clever we might get, we somehow never manage to unvoid ourselves. Our selves are never far from the abyss.
I think I have learnt more from songs in my life than I have from philosophies. The best of them are short, beautifully crafted, and often contain a sharp and portable truth. I like the portability. It suits my vagrant brain. Late Leonard Cohen is philosophical but also anti-philosophical. When he says he no longer cares for the truth, unless it’s the naked truth, we know precisely what he means. No need of a gloss. Similarly when Dylan tells us ‘I was born here and I’ll die here/Against my will’, it turns the mind, as it does when he tells us that to live outside the law you must be honest. One of the great things about songs is the required ending; you really can’t go on for ever. Philosophers, let’s be honest, often do. And they are nowhere near as tuneful. Tunes hook the mind, lock themselves inside the memory, become a mnemonic device for the punctuation of your life.
So I do have a fondness for the philosophical miscreants, the delinquents of the humanities block. Kierkegaard is at his best when he is destroying the philosophical pretensions of Hegel. Wittgenstein is so dubious about the narrative qualities of philosophy that he breaks all his thinking up into individual statements, sometimes with numbers attached. It’s an activity, a form of behaviour, he cries, not a place for you to live. It’s a knife not a palace. Employ it; don’t announce it as a domicile. Remember it’s more like a song and less like a thesis. A song is what you write when life announces we’re all in a hurry. And desire confronted by death is always in a hurry. It shows us clearly our inescapable abbreviation.
EVERYTHING I KNOW about Spinoza makes me like him. He was, in the best sense of the word, a miscreant. Authority did not intimidate him. He was expelled from the Jewish community in Amsterdam for saying unacceptable things. He was offered a deal that might have had him teaching with some comfort, but he declined that, and devoted himself instead to polishing lenses. An honest job, if a lowly one. He asked over and over again my favourite question: ‘But what does that actually mean?’ It is a question I used to ask every day; now I often ask it every hour. Statements and propositions can sound so sure of themselves. And yet even Spinoza I prefer to read about than read. Why? Here is the opening of his Ethics:
By cause of itself I mean that whose essence involves existence or that whose nature cannot be conceived except as existing.’
Spinoza wrote in Latin, but we are already in that linguistic sphere which announces itself as philosophical. Vast concepts present themselves as actualities. Essence and existence. Well, I could spend the rest of my life pondering those two vastnesses. Some have. But above that in the text is the title: ‘Of God.’ Can’t get any vaster than that. The word God stops me dead on the page. It is of course Spinoza’s grand task to try and work out what this word might mean. Mine too, on and off.
God. Now here is a word. You only need three letters to spell it, but no one knows how many hundreds of thousands have died to insist it carries this or that meaning. God. How can such a tiny word have such vast reverberations? It constructs a vault in the empyrean so massive as to be almost indistinguishable from vacuity. It does not tend to occur in philosophical theses these days: if God’s in it, it’s theology. And it certainly does not appear in science. How could it possibly help? Which bit of the chemical reaction would God control or activate? Was it Thursday or Friday when He took it upon Himself to invent the aardvark? Will he annihilate the enzyme if it misbehaves?
Plato is readable because of Socrates. If your philosophy has a front man, who’s sharp and funny and irreverent, you are on to a winner. If dialectical thought could have shacked up with Laurel and Hardy, we’d still be roaring with philosophical delight. Maybe some of us are. But the greatest thinkers are not necessarily philosophers. Jesus never philosophizes. He reverts to short stories (parables) or questions – he’s lethal with those. He trips up his interlocutors, just as Socrates did. He entangles them with their own laws; they are always trying to catch him out, but he is smarter than they are. He can see where they are coming from; but the same is not true the other way about. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. That is true genius. And Shakespeare was no philosopher either, but he was a great thinker. He thought through his characters, and his adaptation of plot.
So it seems at least possible that it all comes down to a question of language. Is that what stops me reading works of philosophy? Well, I objected to that word God standing like a vast iron sentinel at the opening gate of Spinoza’s Ethics. But there are other works where it stands at the portal, and I don’t object. For example, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Wreck of the Deutschland’:
Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou has bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.
This does not suffer the sin of abstraction. This is a prayerful exhortation. God here is the dynamic presence who facilitates life and death. Although Hopkins is speaking for the Franciscan nuns who perished in the shipwreck, he is also evidently speaking for himself. Poetry can often be proverbially philosophical: invent a ship, invent a shipwreck. But if verse becomes unrestrainedly philosophical, it enters perilous waters. Sections of verse by Wallace Stevens do not escape this danger.
It seems to me that God in this poem is the distant lover being beseeched. He does not, after all, save the nuns. Not in this life anyway. The prayers are, as Hopkins will put it later, like ‘dead letters sent to dearest him that lives, alas, away.’ God is a participant in a dramatic exchange. One of the criticisms of Paradise Lost is that God the Father, being all-powerful, can’t interact with the other figures in any kind of dramatic way. He is stymied by his superabundant potency; He is disablingly free of contingency. The relationship of Hopkins to his maker seems much more erotic.
Philosophy would purge itself of contingency, hence the abstractedness of the language, which to my ear has a mind-grinding quality, like gears being forced in a non-synchromesh gearbox. But what is this realm of concepts, unpolluted by contingency, where philosophy goes about its business? By what mighty force was the landscape cleared? What portion of the mind do we reserve for the grandeur of these manoeuvres? And what is the price of dispensing with so much contingent lumber, in order to get at the symmetry of such abstractions? Can abstractions ever contain our actual sense of life? Can we really live in abstractions? I don’t believe so. I tried it for a bit once. My thoughts started to feel like sandpaper, crying out for rain. When Descartes whittles everything down to one moment of apperception — ‘I think’ — he forgets that you cannot whittle down the language in this way. The language is always crowded with other possibilities. ‘I’ only means something because it is not ‘eye’. ‘Think’ only means something because it is not ‘drink’. Every sentence we utter is thronged with the ghostly possibilities of other sentences. You’re never alone in a language.
WITTGENSTEIN IS OFTEN quoted as the quintessential anti-philosopher. He insists that philosophy can deliver no knowledge. Science does that. What philosophy tells us is simply how we can and cannot use language. Certain forms of talking and writing are an abuse of language. There is no conceptual apparatus specific to philosophy. Philosophy, if it’s any good, is a technique of clarification. Where did everything begin? How many pages have been inked in philosophical tomes exploring that question? The answer science delivers is the Big Bang. If you want to ask what happens before that, you’re going to need to devote considerable hard labour to defining ‘before’ and ‘that’. You’re also going to be, according to Wittgenstein, in the wrong language game.
Confucius tends to deflect philosophy into practicality. Don’t be abstract; what are you really after? Why are you abstracting from the specific when it is the specific that contains your real problems? Freud was on a similar tack: what are you really doing? What are you really wanting? What really motivates what you glibly assume are your motivations? Inside you, in the palimpsest of your experience, are clues that might lead you out of the labyrinth. Not, mind you, that you have slaughtered the minotaur in there. He’ll be roaring inside you for ever. Using the concepts of overdetermination, condensation and displacement, Freud was saying: what you say, you only latently say. Riddled inside your language is the clue that’s been repressed..
So we’re locked in linguistics, however free we roam. Look carefully: how words can be knocked around in sentences. How the football (and the man) can be walloped by a bully verb. How an adjective can be come-hitherish and simper in your ear. How substantives can lord it about in the royal tower of the gap between the capital and the full-stop. Every sentence can be the site of a minor war. We can’t go home down the diachronic route of etymology. We’re stuck with the synchronic battle for meaning, going on right now.
Freud taught us to put parenthetical query marks around every occurrence of the word ‘I’. How it once lorded itself about the place. But now? Now it is entangled in a labyrinth of doubt, censorship and repression. Now ‘I’ has to listen to Rimbaud: ‘Je est un autre.’ The ‘I’ does not command all it surveys. It is no longer king of the sentence, except grammatically. Nietzsche speculated that we still believe in God because of the persistence of grammar: the subject still commands every sentence, and God still commands us – that is His sentence. Bertrand Russell was onto this in The Principles of Mathematics in 1903:
The study of grammar, in my opinion, is capable of throwing far more light on philosophic questions than is commonly supposed by philosophers.’
Grammar is thinking its way through us, long before we think our way through it. And according to Freud, every sentence is uttered either in desire or defence. Or more frequently a riddled combination of the two. But the labyrinthine routes these messages take would have confused a minotaur. It is no use, by an act of logical fiat, blowing up the labyrinth. We are suspended in language, said Niels Bohr, and the language cannot be scrubbed down to a state of logical purity. It never existed thus in the first place. Samuel Johnson, in compiling his great Dictionary of 1755, had to give up on his own prescriptive instincts. Usage is the ultimate commanding force in language. The word silly originated in the word sely, meaning innocent or free from sin. It doesn’t mean that now.
I cannot encounter the word ‘God’ without it being encrusted with prayer. I cannot sweep away the language to get at the pure concept. The notion originated in language not in logic. Logic only got started on it later. Logic exhibits a pre-linguistic predisposition. It wants to go behind language, to find the Wizard behind the curtain. But no logical formulation has ever vindicated God. I have at times, when trying to get to the root of things, been accused of being logical. But I am also a cursed son of the Linguistic Turn. What are people saying when they say this? How are the words carrying them through the semantic passes?
A friend recently would not take no for an answer. ‘You must have some sort of philosophy.’ All right, I said, I’m Borgesian. ‘And what precisely does that mean?’ A dialectical explorer. A navigator of fictions. Some of which are as serious as your life. And as expensive.
Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.