Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The Simple Truth

Once, like any clever kid, I was in love with difficulty and complexity (so long as it didn't involve maths). German was more satisfying to learn than French, for example, but Russian was the business. Even the price of admission was learning a new alphabet -- perfect!

Now, my sarcasms aimed at the likes of Derrida in previous posts may have given a misleading impression. If you have your Big Book of British Stereotypes to hand, I don't see myself as the bluff, Watsonian, common-sensical, rosbif sort of chap, with no time for airy-fairy Frenchified nonsense or dangerous Teutonic bombast. No, I prefer to think that I'm out of the conflicted Holmesian mould (now there's a man with an idiotic hat), with an admiration for the complex nose and long finish of continental thought, but a wounded wariness of its absinthe-like toxicity, more Maturin than Aubrey. Though with Watsonian facial hair and girth, it's true, and possibly also his delusions of sophistication.

As I think I've already mentioned, I played the Theory Game myself in the 1970s, and might have had a modest career cutting English cloth to the latest continental fashions. I moved from Marxism through Semiotics to somewhere quite interesting in the neighbourhood of "Reception Aesthetics," and long enough before the fat Do It Yourself Deconstruction primers hit the college bookshop shelves to have written one or two myself. However, in the late 70s my partner and I spent a little time in Paris staying with a friend, who was studying with Gilles Deleuze at the Paris VIII Vincennes campus, and who went on to become his translator. It was clear Hugh's cleverness and engagement was of a different order to mine. After some hazy evenings in which I failed utterly to understand the significance of rhizomes to philosophy, I decided to follow the advice of Rumi and "sell my cleverness and buy bewilderment." I've never regretted it.

Il faut cultiver notre jardin

I think I've learned three useful things since those days. First: no-one is as clever as they like to think. Second: Yes, the truth may be multiple, provisional, mischievously unreliable and poisoned at the well by language, but any useful account of anything worthwhile nevertheless has to be kept simple. Third: there is an irreducible mystery at the heart of existence which -- like a deep, dark, dangerous and ever-moving pit -- needs to be acknowledged, mapped, and continually fenced off, and to which "bewilderment" is the only healthy response. Once in a while, everyone needs to lean on that fence and gaze into the darkness, but there's work to be done in the world, and such gazing is not an occupation for a sane person.
If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Ordinary folk have always known these things, of course: a hard life is a good teacher. The rigid certainties and dishonest complexities peddled by priests and pedants have always given "book learning" a bad name. Deservedly so: if you work in a university, you cannot help but be aware of the jaw-dropping stupidity of some very clever people. Education is a terrific ladder but -- especially when closely allied to religion or some other officially approved codebook -- it can look an awful lot like the Indian rope trick from ground level.

The problem is that it's all too easy to substitute the smoke and mirrors of prestidigitatory obfuscation ("Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen! Before your very eyes!") for genuine difficulty and complexity. The Cyrillic alphabet or the calculus are not obstacles, just vehicles that are a little tricky to learn to drive. But the sort of ponderously allusive, earnestly ironic wordplay that is typical of second-rank po-mo academic writing is less a vehicle than a Keep Out sign. In effect, we have seen the reinvention of scholastic Latin (aut disce aut discede, maybe?). A cynic might say that -- far from accelerating anyone's liberation from delusion, colonialism or exploitation -- the main "project" of much recent work in the Humanities has been job security: "This stuff must be serious, as it's so hard to understand."*

Humourists like Kurt Vonnegut have had humane things to say about the limits of human understanding. One of my favourite Vonnegut passages is this bar-room exchange between the narrator, a prostitute and a bartender in Cat's Cradle:
"He said science was going to discover the basic secret of life some day," the bartender put in. He scratched his head and frowned. "Didn't I read in the paper the other day where they'd finally found out what it was?"
"I missed that," I murmured.
"I saw that," said Sandra. "About two days ago."
"That's right," said the bartender.
"What is the secret of life?" I asked.
"I forget," said Sandra.
"Protein," the bartender declared. "They found out something about protein."
"Yeah," said Sandra, "That's it."
Curiously (prophetically?) this scene, published in 1963, describes a Commencement Address, something for which Vonnegut was to become known for delivering in his years of reknown (including a famous internet spoof); as a medium, perhaps, it was even better-suited to his folksy, avuncular wisdom than fiction. In the words of his prophet Bokonon:
Live by the foma [harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.

*Once you have accepted that, yes, OK, the world looks different depending on where you happen to be standing (or being stood upon), that your view of it is not "naturally" privileged over anyone else's (understandably, a traumatic discovery for those white males who thought they were making the rules), and that language both constructs and mangles reality, then it only seems worth going on and on about all this -- at length, in depth, and with every silly pun and rhetorical trick you can lay your hands on -- if you also refuse to give up your "privileged" position in the academy. Otherwise, who cares? Become a postman, for Foucault's sake. As someone once said, postmodern kibbitzing about the scientific worldview does not cause aeroplanes to fall out of the sky.

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