Friday, 17 August 2012

Motifs of Anti-Intellectualism: The 'Compensation' Theory

Review of Deleuze in the LRB: "A sickly, asthmatic boy, he grew his nails long because of a skin disease which left his fingertips painful to the touch, and he wore a scarf all summer. ‘It was like visiting Marcel Proust in his bedroom,’ a friend recalled. Philosophy became his refuge.."

Why did ill-health not simply enable philosophy, make possible a different relation to the world? Or might there simply be no meaningful relation? No, for the reviewer, philosophy is seen as a kind of ‘compensation’, a bolt hole into which the philosopher retreats in order to make the most of a forced exclusion.

For many, philosophy opens up the world anew, there is the gathering excitment of discovery and the whole 'fascination of what's difficult'. But no, here it is seen only from the point of view of what it flees. Normality, health, social integration. Philosophy consoles Deleuze for the absence of these things.

It seems to me that such 'consolation' or 'compensation' theories, if they can be called that, are an all too familiar motif in reviews of writers, philosophers and 'intellectuals', esp in England. The philosophy or writing is never the prime mover, as it were, but prompted by - and redressing -deficiences in other ('normal') areas.
A constant sense of vulnerability as a result of physical frailty and weak eyesight leads him to cultivate a mental space where he focuses on the language his companions use, at once feeding on them and keeping himself detached.
 This from a review of James Joyce's biography, where the writing becomes a rather pityful theatre where personal defects are dramatised and resolved, a series of Pyrrhic and imaginary victories over real conditions. On Ulysses:
Jung would say at once of Ulysses that it displayed a schizophrenic use of language – discontinuities, coded messages, superimposition of different levels of discourse, every kind of imitation, pastiche and distraction – such that the predicaments of the two Joycean alter egos at the core of the novel, Stephen’s troubled relationship with his father, Bloom’s difficulty responding to his wife’s betrayal, are all but submerged under wordplay, extraneous information and mythical parallel
Joyce emerges as a contemptible character, an emotional weakling, the emperor of his own typewriter, making words obey his call as the world would not. Now, it's not that Joyce didn't have personal failings. That's not at all the point. But firstly, why can't it be that the writing or thinking leads the way, dragging the life in its wake, often selfishly, yes, but still: the personal failings are in part a function of the focus on writing. But no, time and again, the writing or thinking lags behind various familial and personal 'deficiences'. It walks with a limp.Writing or thinking never seem to be the first choice, only the consolation prize or symptom of a failure to achieve health or normality.

Finally of course, it matters not how Deleuze stumbled on philosophy. Or at least, the origin does not in any way taint his ideas. To think that ideas are somehow inevitable tainted or compromised by their origin is simply the old 'genetic fallacy' resurfacing. Nor would any biographies or or reviews of biographies of Joyce be written if his writing were only a place of symptoms and imaginary resolutions. It is precisely what is more than these aspects of the work that are of enduring interest. Literature might begin in the foul rag and bone shop but surpasses it too. The critic who doesn't address the surpassing is really just dealing in dross.

As the blog title suggests, I do think that the 'compensation' theory of writing and thinking is a staple of anti-intellectualist discourse, but I will continue the point in another post.

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