The Coddling of the Western Mind

Forthcoming. Though the American context is specified, this book would be of salience across the Anglophonic world. A portion of the proceeds of the sale of the book go to support the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a vital and most effective bulwark against the inquisitors, their complicitous bloated bureaucrapcy and their zombie swarm minions. It was the wonderfully brave Mary Lefkowitz who, some twenty years ago, first brought my attention to the work that FIRE does. Canada-based folk should really be made aware of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS), equally worthy of your support given the recent and ongoing Wilfred Laurier cluster-fuck with, no doubt, many more cases that will come to light.

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Walker Percy Wednesday 163

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The road is better than the inn, said Cervantes-and by this he meant that rotation is better than the alienation of everydayness. The best part of Huckleberry Finn begins when Huck escapes from his old man’s shack and ends when he leaves the river for good at Phelps farm. Mark Twain hit upon an admirable rotation, whether he knew it or not (and probably did not or he would not have written the last hundred pages). A man who sets out adrift down the Mississippi has thrice over insured the integrity of his possibility without the least surrender of access to actualization-there is always that which lies around the bend. He is, to begin with, on water, the mobile element; he is, moreover, adrift, the random on the mobile; but most important, he is on the Mississippi, which, during the entire journey, flows between states: he is in neither Illinois nor Missouri but in a privileged zone between the two. To appreciate the nicety of this placement, consider the extremes. A less radical possibility would be his floating down the Hudson River; one sees at once how rotation is hindered here: One remains entirely within New York State; there is no zoning; there is no sense of pushing free of land into a privileged zone of the mobile. No one ever had the ambition of floating down the Hudson on a raft. On the other hand, the more radical possibility, his finding himself adrift on the ocean, is too rarified a possibility for rotation. The absolutely new, the exotic landfall, is too foreign to the pour soi to exhibit by contrast the freedom of the self. Compare, for example, the fantastic rotation of Tom Sawyer floating in his balloon over the Sahara in his latter-day adventures; compare this with Huck and Jim slipping by Cairo at night. The former is the standard comic-book rotation; the latter is a remarkable coup, the snatching of freedom from under the very nose of the en soi. A Cairo businessman sits reading his paper, immured in everydayness, while not two hundred yards away Huck slips by in the darkness. Huck has his cake and eats it: he wins pure possibility without losing access to actualization. The en soi is never farther away than the nearest towhead; the sweetest foray into the actual is a landing in the willows and a striking out across the fields to the nearest town. It is noteworthy that the success of his sojourns ashore has as its condition the keeping open of a line of retreat to the beachhead where the raft lies hidden-and in fact the times ashore do most characteristically and happily end disastrously with a headlong flight from some insuperable difficulty and a casting off into the mainstream, leaving the pursuers shaking their fists on the bank. What does happen when the beachhead is lost for good and Huck and Jim are stranded ashore? Rotation and possibility are both lost and in their stead we have dreary Tom and his eternal play-acting. The role of Jim should not be overlooked. The chance encounter with Jim on Jackson’s Island is a prepuberty version of la solitude a deux. When the Bomb falls and the commuter picks his way through the rubble of Fifth Avenue to Central Park, there to take up his abode in an abandoned tool shed a la Robert Nathan, everything depends upon his meeting her and meeting her accidentally (or, as they say in Hollywood, meeting cute: note here the indispensability of chance as an ingredient of rotation; he may not seek an introduction to her but must become entangled in her wirehaired’s leash). To be sure, a certain narrow range of solitary rotation is possible: Huck’s life on Jackson’s Island before meeting Jim is very fine, but after catching the fish, eating it, taking a nap, that’s about the end of it. He meets Jim none too soon. Crusoe, it is true, achieved a memorable rotation, but it is only on the condition of the abiding possibility of the encounter; at any moment and around the next curve of the beach, he may meet . . . Rotation may occur by a trafficking in zones, the privileged zone of possibility, which is the river in Huck Finn; the vagrancy zones of Steinbeck: ditches, vacant lots, whorehouses, weed-grown boilers, packing cases; the parabourgeois zone of You Can’t Take It with You with Jean Arthur and her jolly eccentric family (an exceedingly short-lived rotation: what could be drearier than the madcap adventures of these jolly folks experienced a second time?). Or it may occur simply by getting clean away. Huck’s escape is complete because he is thought actually dead. The getting clean away requires a moral as well as a physical freedom. Rotation is eminently attractive to Pepper Young in the soap opera, living out his life with Linda in Elmwood-yet he may not simply walk out one fine day. If, however, on his annual trip to Chicago for Father Young the train should be wrecked and he should develop amnesia- that is another matter. A notable escape is managed by Frederic Henry in his getting clean away from the carabinieri at Caporetto by diving into the river. Later he boards a freight car carrying guns packed in grease. A very fine rotation occurs here: “-it was very fine under the canvas and pleasant with the guns.” What is notable about Henry’s escape is that it is rotation raised to the third power. First, there is the American in Bohemia, in Paris, in Pamplona: he has gotten clean away from the everydayness of Virginia; next, there is el ingles lying on a needle-covered forest floor in the Spanish Civil War, or Tenente Henry in the Italian infantry: he has gotten clean away from the everydayness of Bohemia; next, there is Tenente Henry escaping the everydayness of the Italian army. (And later even to the fourth power: Catherine and the baby die and he gets clean away from them and walks back to the hotel in the rain. This last is a concealed reversal, for although it is offered as an undesired turn of events, a tragedy, it clearly would not have done for Catherine and Henry to have settled down and raised a family. Although Hemingway sets forth the end as tragic, it was also very fine walking away in the rain.) Hemingway’s literature of rotation, escape within escape, approaches asymptotically the term of all rotation: amnesia. Amnesia is the perfect device of rotation and is available to anyone and everyone, in the same way that double suicide is available to any and all tragedians. Whether it is Smitty in Random Harvest on his way to Liverpool or Pepper on his way to Chicago, amnesia is the supreme rotation. Who can blame the soap-opera writer if he returns to it again and again, even after he has been kidded about it? Life in Elmwood with Linda and Father and Mother Young achieves a degree of alienation such as was never dreamed of by Joseph K. in Mitteleuropa; the difference between them is nothing less than the difference between the despair that knows itself and the despair that does not know itself. Since Bohemia is despised by Pepper, since also the zone-sanctuaries of the Mississippi, Steinbeck’s friendly whorehouse, Nathan’s tool shed, and the Bomb are closed to him; and since the obvious alternative to life in Elmwood, suicide, is also unacceptable-only amnesia remains. From the literal everydayness of the soap opera, amnesia is the one, the only, the perfect rotation. Yet medically speaking, amnesia, attractive though it is as a rotative device, is not its final asymptotic term. For, though it is very gratifying for Pepper to come to himself while walking in Grant Park, with no recollection of Linda, and though it is all very well for him to meet her, the stranger, to conceal her from the police after she, in an act of desperation, snatches a purse-it is only a question of time before everydayness overtakes them. Whether it is Elmwood or the tool shed in the park, Linda or the fugitive girl, Pepper being Pepper, hardly a week passes before he is again in the full grip of everydayness and once more a candidate for suicide. Perfect rotation could only be achieved by a progressive amnesia in which the forgetting kept pace with time so that every corner turned, every face seen, is a rotation. Every night with Linda is a night with a stranger, the lustful rotative moment of the double plot in which one man is mistaken for another and is called upon to be husband to the beautiful neglected wife of the other. One man’s everydayness is another man’s rotation.

The modern literature of alienation is in reality the triumphant reversal of alienation through its re-presenting. It is not an existential solution such as Holderlin’s Homecoming or Heidegger’s openness to being, but is an aesthetic victory of comradeliness, a recognition of plight in common. Its motto is not “I despair and do not know that I despair” but “At least we know that we are lost to ourselves”-which is very great knowledge indeed. A literature of rotation, however, does not effect the reversal of its category, for it is nothing more nor less than one mode of escape from alienation . Its literary re-presenting does not change its character in the least, for it is, to begin with, the category of the New. Both Kierkegaard and Marcel mention rotation but as an experiential, a travel category, rather than an aesthetic. One tires of one’s native land, says Victor Eremita, and moves abroad; or one becomes Europamude and goes to America. Marcel sees it both as a true metaphysical concern to discover the intimate at the heart of the remote and as an absurd optical illusion-“for Hohenschwangau represents to the Munich shopkeeper just what Chambord means to a tripper from Paris.” But what is notable about it for our purposes, this quest for the remote, is that it is peculiarly suited to re-presenting; it transmits through art without the loss of a trait. As a mode of deliverance from alienation, experiencing it directly is no different from experiencing it through art. The Western movie is an exercise in rotation stripped of every irrelevant trait. The stranger dropping off the stagecoach into a ritual adventure before moving on is the Western equivalent of Huck’s foray ashore, with the difference that where Huck loses the stranger wins-but win or lose it is all the same: One must in any case be on the move. The shift from East to West accomplishes a rotation from the organic to the inorganic, from the green shade of Huck’s willow towhead (or Novalis’s leafy bower) to the Southwestern desert. But both the chlorophyll rotation (Hudson’s Riolama) and John Ford’s desert are themselves rotations from the human nest, the family familiar, Sartre’s category of the viscous. The true smell of everydayness is the smell of Sunday dinner in the living room. Rotation from the human organic may occur to the animal organic (Mowgli in the wolf den), to the vegetable organic (Hudson in Riolama), to the inorganic (John Wayne in the desert), or back again. To the alienated man of the East who has rotated to Santa Fe, the green shade of home becomes a true rotation; to his blood brother in Provence, it is the mesa and the cobalt sky. The l-It dichotomy is translated intact in the Western movie. Who is he, this Gary Cooper person who manages so well to betray nothing of himself whatsoever, who is he but I myself, the locus of pure possibility? He is qualitatively different from everyone else in the movie. Whereas they are what they are-the loyal but inept friend, the town comic, the greedy rancher, the craven barber-the stranger exists as pure possibility in the axis of nought-infinity. He is either nothing, that is, the unrisked possibility who walks through the town as a stranger and keeps his own counsel-above all he is silent-or he is perfectly realized actuality, the conscious en soi, that is to say, the Godhead, who, when at last he does act, acts with a ritual and gestural perfection. Let it be noted that it is all or nothing: Everything depends on his gestural perfection-an aesthetic standard which is appropriated by the moviegoer at a terrific cost in anxiety. In the stately dance of rotation, Destry when challenged borrows a gun and shoots all the knobs off the saloon sign. But what if he did not? What if he missed? The stranger in the movie walks the tightrope over the abyss of anxiety and he will not fail. But what of the moviegoer? The stranger removes his hat in the ritual rhythm and wipes his brow with his sleeve, but the moviegoer’s brow .is dry when he emerges and he has a headache, and if he tried the .same .gesture he might bump into his nose. Both Gary Cooper and the moviegoer walk the tightrope of anxiety, but Gary Cooper only seems to: his rope is only a foot above the ground. The moviegoer is over the abyss. The young man in a Robert Nathan novel or in a Huxleyan novel of the Days after the Bomb may rest assured that if he lies under his bush in Central Park, sooner or later she will trip over him. But what of the reader? He falls prey to his desperately unauthentic art by transposing the perfect aesthetic mtation to the existential: He will lie in his green shade until doomsday and no fugitive Pier Angeli will ever trip over him. He must seek an introduction; his speech will be halting, his gestures will not come off, and having once committed himself to the ritual criterion of his art and falling short of it, he can only be-nothing. In no event can he become a person; not even Cooper can do that, for the choice lies between the perfected actual and nothing at all . His alienated art of rotation instead of healing him catches him up in a spiral of despair whose only term is suicide or total self-loss.

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Michael Joseph Oakeshott

Born on this day, that most subtle, civilized, cultivated, elegant, insightful, humane and liberal quality of mind. For all things Oakeshottian check out the Michael Oakeshott Association, the unaffiliated Michael Oakeshott Society, loads of stuff on this site including a very rare BBC recording of Oakeshott on the philosophy of history, and last, but no means least, A Companion to Michael Oakeshott.

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Symposium on Gerald Gaus’s The Tyranny of the Ideal

Coming soon featuring this stellar lineup (to keep apprised of updates see here):

  1. Introduction to Symposium on Gerald Gaus’ The Tyranny of the Ideal — Ryan Muldoon
  2. The Imperative of Complexity — Scott E. Page
  3. The Tyranny of a Metaphor — David Wiens
  4. How Can We do Political Philosophy? — Fred D’Agostino
  5. Public Reason in the Open Society — Kevin Vallier
  6. The Tyranny—or the Democracy—of the Ideal? — Blain Neufeld and Lori Watson
  7. Political Philosophy as the Study of Complex Normative Systems — Gerald Gaus

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A hundred years of consciousness: ‘a long training in absurdity’

The very excellent Galen Strawson’s Isaiah Berlin Lecture from earlier this year. Highly unusual indeed to spot a footnote to Hayek’s TSO — so that’s rather good news. Also in anticipation of a review I’ve commissioned for Shaun Gallagher’s recently published Enactivist Interventions: Rethinking the Mind, Shaun has made available the book’s intro: see here.

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