Philosophy and aesthetics
Nickolas Pappas interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Nickolas Pappas is the philosopher who brings some Ancient philosophy knocking on all the doors. He broods through time on the questions that matter, on the relationship of philosophy and aesthetics, on why Plato and Socrates are not totally to blame, on the role of empty headed ignorance, poetry, divine inspiration and magic in Ion, on art and beauty in Plato, on the Menexenus and why parody can be productive, on Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and anti-philosophy, on why Nietzsche disappoints, on art and fashion and the link between Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the Alcestis. Dry your eyes, now aint the time…
3:AM: When did you become a philosopher, and was it a crisis and is it still one?
NP: Rather than begin autobiographically, let me spare a moment for this “still a crisis.” What is possible as a crisis in philosophy depends on what you consider the “ontological status” of philosophy. I am using those words irregularly, with social ontology in mind, to ask what philosophy is socially speaking – profession? pastime? habit? symptom? Because if philosophy is a profession, then crises in it can be entirely personal ones. For example: Am I good enough at this? Is this really who I am? These are questions that matter, and from my perspective on the field they are common questions, but philosophers have to share such questions with soldiers, doctors, and members of the clergy.
In philosophy there’s another kind of crisis though in addition to that one. When you ask Is this really who I am? you can start to wonder Is there a “this” here such that one can be it or fail to be? And Am I good at philosophy? invites the question Is there such a thing as being good at it? To ask questions like these is to suspend and investigate philosophy’s standing as an intact tradition and a methodology. This means you can decide that you’re practicing philosophy well, and that it suits your nature, but still feel in crisis about what you do, because of the possibility that there’s no such thing as this practice.
But now I’ve begun autobiographically after all, because I’m registering questions that kick around in my head that I was hearing in there at Christmastime of 1977. I had just finished my first semester at college; I was a pre-med student. That previous September I enrolled in a biology course, in introductory chemistry, and in linear algebra. I worked hard, and when the term ended I could see how much I had learned in every subject.
But my father, as delighted as he’d been to see me preparing for medical school, had urged me to take one philosophy course on top of the math and science. “It will wake up your mind.” So when I looked back after my first semester was over, what struck me was that I’d learned these phenomenal amounts in all my courses – except for philosophy. In philosophy I couldn’t put my finger on a single thing I had learned, in any everyday sense of learning.
This is what I’m talking about regarding the subject. I enjoyed philosophy, I did well in the course, but I hadn’t yet seen how to understand what it gave me as learning.
Why I should have gone on from that first assessment to major in philosophy, and then to chase after it into graduate school, is another part of the story. The story includes figuring out how to recognize philosophical learning when it takes place. When do you know something as a result of philosophy that you did not know before? In one respect you never can, because philosophy begins with what everybody more or less knows. And yet of course an insightful philosopher gives you an entirely new conception of the world that it would be perverse not to call understanding. There’s a reason Goethe said that reading Kant was “like stepping into a brightly-lighted room.” So perhaps the standing crisis for philosophers is not over whether Kant says something and does something; the crisis arises when you try to explain that accomplishment in terms of knowledge gained.
But in purely autobiographical terms, to answer your question, the personal crisis for me was greatest during graduate school. I was lucky enough and happy enough to study with such philosophers as Stanley Cavell, Burton Dreben, and Steve Strange at Harvard, but I couldn’t exactly be happy-go-lucky because of the usual graduate-student anxiety. In the years since then I have been able to feel more at home in academic philosophy even while still curious about the intactness of the tradition.
3:AM: You’ve worked for a long time looking at Plato and Socrates and in particular the relationship between Socrates and the arts. Do you think that this is a main source of a general contemporary tension – maybe hostility, perhaps anxiety – between philosophy and aesthetics?
NP: I do see this difficulty between philosophy and aesthetics. It has the appealing consequence that those of us who study aesthetics have to collect together against the anxious suspicions of the philosophical mainstream. We are often told that aesthetics is not central to philosophy as metaphysics is, or the philosophy of mind or of language. Assuming for the sake of argument that this is true, one might ask where this metaphor of the center comes from. To me it does sound reminiscent of the passage in Republic Book 3 that first expels imitative poets from the good city. The philosophers remain inside its gates, while all the poets seem to have come from somewhere else. In that case the philosophers who are trying to keep aesthetics out of the center are re-enacting an ancient expulsion.
And yet in fairness to Plato I can’t blame him (or Socrates) for all the marginalization that philosophical aesthetics has suffered. Much later philosophical habits of thought have also entered the tradition, probably with clearer consequences for the arrangement of the subject. I’m specifically thinking of the habit of loyalty toward science and empirical results – results, and scientific status, that aesthetics is thought to lack, and that the central areas of philosophy are imagined to possess.
You may find this an excessively tempered response to your question. I am looking ahead to your next question, and I have to say that for all his continuing presence in philosophy, Plato has some intuitions that do not translate with the same immediacy to modern thought, above all when religion is involved as it is in the case of poetry.
3:AM: Why was Socrates against poetry? Was it because it didn’t say anything or that it could be made to say anything? Or was it a moralistic critique, condemning false statements, as it was with his views on tragedy, or even just a sense that there was something bad in the activity itself, long before it got an audience? Or was it something he linked with that ‘divine sign’ which might have been considered malevolent?
NP: There are times when Socrates does complain that poetry says nothing at all, that it comes from ignorance and leaves its audience as ignorant as they had been. To my mind such comments have received disproportionate attention. Empty-headed ignorance only matters to Socrates (as Plato portrays him) when people mistake that ignorance for expertise. Children are ignorant, and the dialogues do not advocate silencing children; they don’t have to, because no one mistakenly believes that children possess valued knowledge. What we get with poetry is sometimes a belief that one’s ignorant condition is actually a state of knowledge – here you can think of Ion in the last third of the dialogue named after him – and sometimes something more perverse, that you might read as the willful preference for ignorance over knowledge. Plato seems to be accusing poetry’s audience of that willful preference at different places in the Republic.
Whichever way Plato formulates the problem with poetry, the question becomes: Why does this ignorant material of poetry achieve the credibility we see it to have? Why do people prefer an aptly-worded line of verse that says nothing at all, or that communicates unseemly content, over a sober and judicious statement, supported by evidence and logic? The problem is that much worse when poetry expresses false statements, bad enough when it offers vacuities (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”); as for poetry that issues in wise rational counsel, well there hasn’t been much of that. The Phaedrus and the Republic both allow proper moralizing poetry but treat it as the exception to the genre.
For better or for worse, poetry has an appeal. Good poetry, all good writing, brings pleasure in the hearing of it, invites memorization, and asks to be quoted again. Sometimes Socrates calls that appeal the divine inspiration or possession that takes over the poet and enters the poet’s audience. The Muse’s overflowing power attaches poet to Muse, the poetry’s reciter to the poet, and the audience to the one reciting the poetry (as Socrates says in the Ion). It is not too much to call this a magical power.
If anything the Ion portrays the magical energy in benign terms. In the Republic Socrates compares enticing poetry to sorcery. He says it has a kêlêsis “charm,” where that word means – just as the English “charm” does – both attractiveness and magical force. There is something supernaturally askew about poetry and the poet; which is why (to cite another image from religious ritual) the Republic calls for treating mimetic poets as scapegoats, expelling them from the city in the way people were expelled in times of disease or famine, when they were thought to bring misfortune with them.
You can say that poetry is ignorant in Plato’s eyes, just as you can say it contains false moral statements or that it appeals to bad emotions. These are the main readings of Platonic arguments against poetry. But they can’t answer the question, because all those readings presuppose the power of poetry, and first you have to say where that power comes from. I emphasize the divinity and the magic at work in order to do justice to this perception of poetic power.
Here it is important to bear one thing in mind. Everyone who talks about Plato and tragedy knows this, and yet the fact sometimes escapes our view. When we worry today about violence on television, we talk about the number of violent acts a child sees by the age of 18. If it’s popular music that you find dangerous, or pornography, or advertising – name the cultural ill that could persuade you to call for some social control – you are talking about an omnipresent sight and voice in people’s lives. The volume of stimulation is relevant to our assessment of it.
Now look at Plato talking about tragedy. Athenians had two dramatic festivals per year, accounting for six days a year of tragedy and comedy. It is out of the question that tragedies and comedies changed their audience by hammering away at their sensibilities – you can’t hammer away in six days out of the year in the way that you can in hourly commercials – and out of the question that Plato would have imagined them to be doing so. If not by virtue of their ubiquity in the culture, he must have seen these peddlers of harmful poetry as somehow virulent. And while among human beings it is the quantity of ignorance that he finds problematic – thus in politics the democratic system that he thinks gives a voice to thousands of ignorant citizens – when it comes to poetry he is envisioning a more toxic effect. Again, this is why we need to invoke a force such as magic in explicating his anti-poetic conclusions.
In a dietary analogy, it’s not (as we might say) that dangerous art resembles the cholesterol in food, something to be consumed sparingly. Rather it’s like toxins not to be consumed at all. It’s not all right to take in salmonella once in a while. That Plato sees poetry in those terms shows how active he considers its force to be. This is why the language of magic is (for me) irreplaceable when we talk about Plato and the arts.
3:AM: Plato saw art, represented by poetry as a great danger but beauty as a great good. So does Plato have a general aesthetic theory or is he just seeking a vocabulary and the issues of aesthetics?
NP: People have summarized the philosophies of art in Plato’s dialogues in different ways. I know I can see the overall aesthetic theory as a general theory sometimes, but at other times as a first exploration into the territory. Rather than force an answer to your question, let me offer two general statements that I find central and important to whatever we call Plato’s aesthetics.
First is this issue of the supernatural that we have both mentioned. Poetry is usually (not always, but often enough) a great danger, and as I said this danger must go beyond everyday considerations of ignorance or hyperstimulated passions. Plato seems to find the language of sorcery inescapable when he is leveling these greatest accusations against poetry and its mimêsis. When he preserves something of value in poetry, the language still draws on the supernatural, only now it is talk of divine madness and divine possession.
When you turn to the passages about to kalon “beauty, what is beautiful” in the dialogues, there too you find Socrates quickly reaching for language out of religious ritual. Beauty itself in the Symposium (in the theory that Socrates attributes to Diotima) comes to be seen and understood by a philosopher in ways reminiscent of the revelatory moments in the Eleusinian mystery cult. Anne Farrell wrote a fascinating dissertation at the University of Texas exploring the mystery-cult language in Platonic discussions of Forms in general; that language is most present in the Symposium’s account of the Form of Beauty.
So now it seems that either way, whether seeing why poetry is pernicious or why beauty performs the great services for humanity that Plato says it does, the dialogues reach for explanations of these effects that lie outside the usual network of causes.
The second general point has to do with psychology. It’s astonishing to me that the Republic works out a theory of the soul and then brings that theory to bear on the phenomenon of imitative poetry. To a lesser degree the Phaedrus similarly combines its psychology with an analysis of poetry and rhetoric. To my mind this is a striking point of contact between Plato and Freud. Say anything else you like against psychoanalysis, but give it the credit it deserves for trying to illuminate the dynamics in the arts and especially in narrative art. Most psychological theories don’t know how to begin illuminating art. Freud is being, in his subversive manner, a Platonist.
Ultimately the two moves in Plato might work against each other. To the extent that he develops a theory of the soul in the fairly secular way he does, Plato might find himself not needing chthonic or Olympian explanations for poetry’s effects, or even for the effects that beauty has. It would take some time to think this point through. All I wanted to do in response to this last question was to put forward what I consider the significant features of Plato’s aesthetics (assuming of course that there is such a thing).
3:AM: Plato’s Menexenus is rather less well known than much of his work. It suggests that history falls into patterns doesn’t it? Can you say why it’s significant? And to ask the question many have asked about it: Does Plato mean it? And further, do we?
NP: The Menexenus opens with a short conversation about funeral speeches, between Socrates and the title character. The Athenians had a famous speech in their history, Pericles’s funeral oration; Socrates proposes to top it. He tells a long speech that re-writes the speech of Pericles, correcting Pericles’s way of praising and his resistance to education; also proposing a teleological history of Athens; also revising the myth of autochthony that Athenians seem to have believed.
Plutarch called the opening part funny, in his Pericles. It does have a playful flavor. Many readers consequently read the whole dialogue as parody, as if the opening section were a secret guide to cracking the dialogue’s code. But calling it parody is one thing; then those same readers take parody to mean that this speech is meant to be worse than the original. Whereas Mark Zelcer and I think that Plato is saying that because we practice this kind of rhetoric (whether or not we should practice it in the first place), we might as well do it the right way.
About the historical theory in the Menexenus, let me stress that this is a new claim. Mark Zelcer and I recently published an article in Ancient Philosophy on the subject, and we’re completing a book about the Menexenus that contains some parts of that article, including the article’s main claim that, as we put it, history falls into patterns. The book should be out in 2014. What is interesting to me is that no one has noticed the outline we find in the historical narrative in the Menexenus, according to which first Athens fights alone – by land, then by sea – then together with other Greek cities against the Persians – again by land and then by sea – then faces a rebellion by those other cities; and by the end of the historical narrative, eleven battles after the beginning, the Persians are dominant. Well, as Mark and I argue, once you group the battles by land and sea fights, you see that the resulting five groups correspond to the five stages of the city’s decline in the Republic. Athens is like reason on this picture, other Greek cities are (at their best) like the spirited element in the soul the thumos, and Persia and other nations that Greeks called “barbarians” resemble the lowest part of the soul, the epithumiai “desires.” So, if the historical sequence in Republic 8 and 9 is a structured one, this sequence of battles in the Menexenus must also be illustrating a philosophy of history.
That’s our claim. And it forms one part of the larger argument that our book makes. In the end asking whether something is a parody can be unproductive; you take parody to mean that the work isn’t serious, and someone says piously “Parody can be serious.” Parody by its nature is hard to draw conclusions from. I think it was Nabokov who said “Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.” In writing our book we didn’t want to get drawn into those discussions because they don’t leave you with enough. So to a great extent we replace the question “Is the funeral speech in the Menexenus a parody?” with the question “Is the funeral speech in the Menexenus intended to be better (in whatever way it’s better) than the funeral speech of Pericles that it returns to and rewrites?” Here at least the alternative is clear. If you ask whether something is a parody, you might not have a clear sense of what it isn’t. But you can ask more clearly whether it’s intended to be better than the original.
Even on a quick summary it should be obvious how the discussion of the funeral speech’s historical narrative figures into the argument. Here is Thucydides laying out battle after battle, none of which takes place at random but also none of which contributes to a pattern; against Thucydides, Plato gives a history of Athens (of what a Greek would call the city’s place in “world politics”) that follows an intelligible pattern to the end. That’s better, in Plato’s eyes, than the shapeless trajectory that history has in Thucydides. So is what the speech has to say about education, about praise in rhetoric, and about autochthony myths.
3:AM: Nietzsche writes like a poet rather than a philosopher and is often characterized as an anti-philosopher. Is this why he – and Kierkegaard – appeals to you?
NP: This question is about something real. But I also find it important in replying not to use the same terminology that the question does. I do not find either Nietzsche or Kierkegaard poetic – even Nietzsche’s poems are scarcely poetic, to my ear. William Gass sometimes writes poetically; Thoreau certainly does. If you want elegant writing you can go to Hume. But I don’t think the beauty of one’s writing is at stake in this discussion. Otherwise Quine, who is a stylist in his way, would be in the group; not to mention Xenophon. I think that what is at stake in the word “poetic” is no more than “anti-philosopher”; and what is that word about?
In looking at those undoubtedly good writers among philosophers, like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who do get called poetic, as opposed to Quine and Hume who rarely do, part of what invites the title “anti-philosopher” – and mind you there are many reasons – is that they pit philosophical interpretation against philosophical argumentation. Argumentation is a time-honored philosophical practice, but I would say that most philosophers also engage in philosophical interpretation in their work, not only when they’re reading other philosophers but most noticeably then. We should distinguish between the interpretive methods that go on in the natural sciences, the interpretation of nature, and the methods found in literary studies, anthropology, and other fields, i.e. the interpretation of the human. (Though I would say that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, among others, have problematized this distinction in ways we should not ignore, seeing interpretation of the human at work even when we think we’re interpreting nature.) And certainly when we let interpretation mean either of the two, I’d say that philosophical method has always involved interpretation, not as ancillary to argumentation but as something essential to the philosophy and often a prerequisite to argument.
I would count the Transcendental Deduction in Kant’s First Critique as an act of interpretation (thinking specially of the B edition here), in which Kant shows a new way of looking at empirical statements about the world. But well before him I would say there are strategic acts of interpretation in the first Meditation, for instance in two very different ways that Descartes reads the pronoun “I.”
Whether or not philosophers will sit still to have interpretive efforts ascribed to them, the philosophers we’re talking about now – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, possibly Schopenhauer, and of course Heidegger – find the interpretive work of philosophy to have been undervalued. They emphasize the interpretation of the human, most often the interpretation of philosophical texts, that is essential before one can begin to argue philosophically. As I noted parenthetically, they tend to see the same kind of interpretation at work in our encounters with nature, by which I mean to say that they find projections at work in what we like to think are immediate encounters with natural phenomena. And they often go so far as to put interpretation at the center of the philosophical enterprise with argument as its ancilla, rather than the other way around.
Finally, these philosophers exhibit self-consciousness about their own being interpreted. They write as if they will have to be interpreted; they write so that their readers cannot avoid interpreting, and so that their readers cannot avoid realizing that they are interpreting. I would not say the same about Hume. But when you read Nietzsche, he alerts you to the problem of philosophical reading; warns you about misreading him (but also invites you to misread him and sometimes dares you to); and surprises you, as he goes, so that your first reading of him is often challenged.
Here I can also talk about Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragment, in great part a re-creation of Christianity, in which his author imagines interruptions from the reader saying “We know this already!” (As if Christianity were a thing to be known, Kierkegaard would say; and as if, if it were an object of knowledge, it were already known.) The question of how to read him can’t be put off till later. You’re seized by that question – he seizes you with it – in mid-book.
Speaking in general terms I would say that this feature of their writing, its call to be interpreted, follows from these philosophers’ belief that interpretation not argumentation governs philosophy. I would call that the cause of their being called poetic writers. What they write will not remind most people of poetry; but it has to be worked on as poetry does, because of this effort (an anti-philosopher’s effort?) to bring interpretation into philosophy.
3:AM: Brian Leiter argues that Nietzsche was writing only to fellow geniuses and that only art could redeem life for the likes of a Beethoven and Goethe. Do you agree that Nietzsche held with this idea of a high purpose for art, and is it still plausible?
NP: As I understand this sentiment in Nietzsche, and if I get Leiter’s comment on it, such a line of analysis is all part of Nietzsche’s project of translating the human being back into nature. In works as different as The Birth of Tragedy and On the Genealogy of Morals, to say nothing of the works devoted to Wagner, Nietzsche is concerned to find the natural drives and capacities that cause art to come into existence into the first place, and then the natural processes or biological effects that give art the value it has – its value to life, as he’d say. The Birth of Tragedy begins with a clear statement of the claim that nature produces art and is art’s audience. If we pass over such claims today in our desire to get at the specifics about Apollo and Dionysus, it is because Nietzsche himself has shamed us into keeping our eyes on what is natural about art. He’s made that an obvious way of looking at art though it wasn’t treated as obvious before him.
Now, I’m aware that you know all this. I am bothering to repeat the point because of your words “high purpose for art.” For against the backdrop of spiritualistic theories about art, Nietzsche’s attitude can easily look deflationary or even reductive. Art as a means for a genius to tolerate life – just compare that to “divine inspiration,” or to a conception of art as the presentation of beauty. What makes Nietzsche “still plausible” is that we continue not to find religious explanations of art compelling (including Plato’s largely negative religious explanations).
If the plausibility fails, it is because we don’t find appeals to nature nearly as compelling as we used to either. Many serious people of my acquaintance react to “naturalistic” explanations as something naïve. Now, Nietzsche is not a positivist. He has a robust understanding of the natural that does not confine itself to what modern science says. Even so, it takes a little work today to understand how he thinks art can have the curative effects he ascribes to it.
3:AM: Why does Nietzsche disappoint?
NP: There is a primal sense of “disappoint” and “disappointment” without so much of the emotional sentiment that we usually associate with that word. To disappoint in older language means: to fail to meet an appointment. You and I arrange to meet and you don’t show, and we say (or one said, once) that I was disappointed, as it were without regard to how I felt about the no-show. I suppose that Nietzsche’s No-Show might have been a slangier way of putting the thought behind my actual title The Nietzsche Disappointment.
I qualify my answer because I don’t want to give the impression that I think Nietzsche lets us down in any ordinary emotional sense; and the disappointment is as much a tribute to his accomplishment in philosophy as it is a criticism.
Now let me get specific.
In the course of translating the human being into nature, Nietzsche brings a rigorous consideration into philosophy that philosophy had not previously known. He presses and then seriously applies the idea that ideas have had histories. This is the form that his anti-Platonism takes. Socrates is not discovering and voicing abstract principles of reason but introducing a new drive into culture. Christian charity conquered an earlier morality to make itself seem to be (as it now appears) morality as such. And once Nietzsche persuades you his reader to look at such concepts as having a past and a future, it becomes impossible to keep looking at them as you once had. Socrates did not have to happen. Asceticism is not a universal value.
I say that Nietzsche temporalizes philosophy, making it matter to philosophy that it has a history.
Then comes the disappointment, in the sense of Nietzsche’s failure to arrive at the appointment. Take Socrates. He came into existence, and Socratism with him, and therefore the end of tragedy. But where could Socrates have come from? When you press The Birth of Tragedy you find it actually impossible to account for Socrates’ arrival in the Athens of his day. He is a monstrosity, which means that natural laws do not account for his existence; he’s not Apollinian and not Dionysian. According to the natural principles Nietzsche himself has articulated, Socrates is not possible. There is no answer, in other words, to the historicizing question that Nietzsche himself asked. After temporalizing, Nietzsche temporizes.
In On the Genealogy of Morals the predicament confronts Nietzsche’s story of slave morality and master morality. Slave morality triumphed, and we now see it as the only morality there could be. But how did slave morality triumph? Imagine such a thing, a revolution in which the weak, while remaining weak, defeat the poor. One explanation Nietzsche offers is that the Jews presented Christianity, which was in fact the embodiment of their own values, as their enemy. The Romans then embraced Christianity in order that they may keep the Jews as their enemies. Hence the Christianization of the Roman Empire.
What’s fascinating about that explanation is how precisely it begs the question. In order to account for the victory of slave morality it has Romans behaving reactively, holding to whatever is the opposite of their enemy’s value. The explanation makes the Romans behave as slaves do. They would have to have been won over by slave morality before they could be won over by it. And the all-important historical transition, the one that Genealogy Essay I promises us as an explanation of the morality of pity, has now been rendered impossible.
3:AM: You’ve written about aesthetics and fashion. Why have philosophers feared fashion, and what is interesting about fashion? Is this case of philosophers having too crude a notion about aesthetics to be able to notice crucial phenomena?
NP: This question moves us closer to the research of mine that I hope will be finished in the next year or two. The book I’m writing is not mainly about fashion, but fashion gives us one way into the subject. This might show in the coming book’s title The Philosopher’s New Clothes.
Why philosophers should have resisted fashion is the story we want to get right. Is it about clothes going on the body? After all, Socrates in the Phaedo does distinguish the philosopher from the wearer of fancy clothes. Philosophers’ unconcern for their bodies is what makes them scornful of fine dress. But Socrates is talking about expensive clothes and fine materials, not about what we call fashion.
Not there, at least. In the Republic he speaks approvingly of the way the Athenians adopted nudity for their athletic wear, and that change seems to have taken place as fashion changes do. And here you really can’t say Socrates is being opposed to the body, when he approves of the move to reveal it completely. But let’s leave the Platonic dialogues where they are, because their relationship to fashion is going to be something to work out after we say why philosophy has tended to resist fashion.
Recently several people – Lars Svendsen, Gilles Lipovetsky – diagnose philosophers’ antipathy to fashion in terms of their (our) distaste for change. After all fashions change; no change, no fashion. This diagnosis surprises me. It takes a description of Plato that is already a caricature about him, and then paints all philosophers with the same broad brush. Philosophers hate change. By this reasoning we should be able to find quite a few philosophers speaking out against the seasons. But I’ve never heard a peep.
What I see, looking at someone like Rousseau, or into the first chapter of Thoreau’s Walden, is a concern about imitation. As philosophers have described that phenomenon, people dress fashionably because and to the extent that they dress like others. Sometimes (as in the prophet Zephaniah; as in Walden) those “others” turn out to be foreigners.
Indeed there is no more precise allegory of fashion as seen from philosophy’s point of view than the “Emperor’s New Clothes” story. (Nor can I quote you a more idealizing allegory for philosophy’s picture of itself than the boy in that story who says “He’s not wearing anything.” The crowd immediately agrees! Isn’t that how we in philosophy would like to live, letting fly with the perfect synopsis of what everyone ought to know, that sways the world as soon as it’s enunciated?) And in that story the peddlers of this nonexistent subtle cloth are foreigners.
In Plato’s time, dressing with newfangled affectations was described as “Medizing” making like a Persian. If you carried a parasol you must be imitating Persians. The comic playwright Ephippus described a public speaker dressed with exquisite correctness (sandals laced up, beard falling full to breast) and concludes that the speaker resembles a stranger or foreigner.
It’s not just xenophobia that makes the foreigner the source of fashion. It follows from the persistent belief that people are merely imitating. If the members of a culture only imitated one another, we’d have copies but no originals. That the condemnation of fashion leads one to blame a foreigner only shows how much it’s being equated with imitativeness.
NP: This question needs a preface that might sound like an apology.
I watch a lot of films, and many of them strike me as worthy of further discussion. They get you talking, and you find as you talk that they hold up under investigation. You pose questions to which the film contains answers. Nevertheless I almost never write about film.
This isn’t a practical matter. I have not yet written as I’d like to about popular music, although Brian Seitz and I have boxes of pages about a genre of country and western songs centered around the Townes Van Zandt song “Pancho and Lefty.” That is serious material for me, and in that case I’d give a practical answer about time and space and the like.
In the case of film the issue is a different kind of practical consideration. I usually don’t think that my admiration for the best films needs to be added to the discussion that philosophers are engaged in. By comparison I don’t know of any philosophers writing about country music.
Anyway, Vertigo was different. From the first time I saw it there was something in its pawing over San Francisco that stayed with me. Why this fallen redwood, the horse in the stable, the fetishized painting? Then too I noticed more than one commentator on this film invoking Orpheus, but I couldn’t see Orpheus in James Stewart’s character Scotty Ferguson. If you’re going to make him your Orpheus, would you have him be insensitive to music? And Orpheus travels to the underworld, but Ferguson sends other people to the underworld in his place. You see that in the preface to the film, with the policeman who falls and dies.
Vertigo’s attention to the physical elements in San Francisco felt like myth-making work, and it’s very likely that the commentators who looked to Orpheus were inspired by that mythopoeic activity in the film; but they weren’t finding the right mythic connection.
Then I saw that Ferguson was like the one character from Greek tragedy who is on record as wishing he were Orpheus. And then the movie started to come together for me. In the Alcestis of Euripides, Admetus makes a strange remark that only Jean-Pierre Vernant helped me understand, about wanting to make a statue of his wife after her death and take it to bed with him. I know, there’s a long tradition of sexual relations between Greeks and sculptures. But Vernant shows how this pathological-sounding wish really reflects on an archaic tradition of using effigies for the purpose of mourning, and to seek connection with the land of the dead by means of such effigies. Then I saw that the objects being handled, sighed over, and lamented to in Vertigo were all effigies or doubles, and ways of communicating with an invisible realm. James Stewart was trying to turn Kim Novak into another such effigy.
Hitchcock brings us to the end of the Alcestis and then continues the story. In Euripides the ending is ambiguous. What is Alcestis likely to say to Admetus after Heracles brings her back from the dead and she regains her voice? Can Admetus really imagine that they will return to married life? If I’m reading Vertigo correctly, it follows out the thought that Euripides leaves dangling, that the putatively happy ending will not itself end happily.
Well, a lot has been written about this beautiful movie, but I didn’t see anything like that being written. So I thought there would be a point to my joining the discussion.
The fact that I went into ancient thought and ritual to talk about Vertigo also bespeaks my broadening involvement in ancient Greek studies. Now that I know more about Greek antiquity, and I’ve found a growing number of teachers who helped me see productive approaches to antiquity, I no longer think of the “ancient philosophy” work I do as a part of my research. It’s more like all philosophy to me now, which is to say it’s like a language in which I can do all the philosophizing I do.
3:AM: And finally, can you recommend five books that would take the readers here at 3:AM further into your philosophical world?
NP: Let me limit my answer to books published during my lifetime.
Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness. His breakthrough book about the Hollywood comedies of remarriage. Many other things by Cavell could go here too. He was my teacher in the formal sense, but also continued to teach me through his philosophical writings. I choose Pursuits of Happiness because for anyone seeking to bring philosophy and the literary arts into a productive conversation, this book blazes a trail. By a productive conversation I mean one in which art gets to speak philosophically without becoming philosophy, and philosophy remains philosophy while still attuning itself to hear the sound of art’s voice. Cavell will show you why the distinction between phenomena and noumena not only comes to mind when you think about It Happened One Night, but even comes to your mind with the sense that it had already come to that film’s mind. A much harder book than it first appears, but always worth re-reading.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. Perhaps not as hard as it first appears, but it’s hard enough. This book works toward a new conception of knowledge, and it is written under the spell of that new conception. That is to say that Deleuze and Guattari are attempting to illuminate a wide range of phenomena that rival our customary organization of rationality; and to enact the new kind of knowledge they wish to bring into existence, they write about each topic from several perspectives at once. Frustrating if you want a book that lays out and defends a theory, it is liberating in its suggestion of how else one might connect ideas together.
Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy.” Derrida on the Phaedrus. A worthy proposal for what philosophers today can do with ancient philosophical works. Paul Allen Miller has done a lot to defend the position that postmodern philosophers are worth studying in light of the classical tradition to which they are so responsive. I think Miller is right, and though I can’t agree with all the details in Derrida’s reading of the Phaedrus, it is an extremely attentive reading – attentive, as I too would like to be, both to all the things Plato could mean by what he says, and to everything he doesn’t mean, or wants not to mean, but is forced into saying because of the antecedent language and mythography into which he inserts himself.
Jean-Pierre Vernant, Myth and Thought among the Greeks. Vernant wrote papers more than he did books. This is one of several collections of his works, and the one I find most valuable, covering tragedy and politics and marriage – you name it. I don’t know of one book of Vernant’s that is not of value, and for some readers his little volume The Origins of Greek Thought might be the best place to start. I never had the good luck to meet Vernant, but I think of him as a teacher.
For this slot on the list, because I wanted one name of a classicist, I was tempted to put in a book by Walter Burkert, such as his magnificent Homo Necans; and there are others, including some remarkable short studies. In the study of ancient culture and religion Burkert poses the great alternative to Vernant, as it were pitting facts of existence as the grounds for religion against the symbolic ordering of experience that Vernant finds fundamental. In the end I find Vernant’s greater worry over how to interpret ancient practices more productive to my uses of ancient philosophy.
Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity. A confrontation with antiquity, by a modern thinker who is very much a philosopher of our own time. This book has a clear tone and a calmness of presentation (it began as a set of lectures). Don’t be fooled. Far from glib, it stages a fundamental confrontation between ethical thinking (especially the modern kind) and ancient Homeric and tragic thought. Williams himself invoked Dodds’s The Greeks and the Irrational as a model for this book, and it stands up to the comparison as a book for our time that shows us the ancient Greeks at their most alien and their most engating.
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Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 18th, 2013.