At some point I suppose I’ll have to try to make clear what I mean by “Perplexed with Narrow Passages.” Allow me to attempt a partial explanation, by way of anecdote, which you’re welcome to make of what you will, or not at all, as dictated by your fancy or leisure or lack thereof.

Now that I’m officially on break, I’ve got a nice stretch of time available to read and think and write uninterruptedly. (I try not to construe life as an interruption, though when there’s a deadline to meet it certainly can feel that way.)

No one who knew me in graduate school suspected me of being a literary theorist. In fact, I was probably thought of as anti-theory. That was a misconception, but one with pretty strong roots in the truth. I was always pretty deeply suspicious of the whole exercise, despite not having read Ricouer at the time. And, then as now, I wasn’t fully committed to an ideological position. And theory demands commitment–ideological “coherence” among the cohort is the name of the game, at least until the game changes. Being a committed Marxist means that I’m not interested in belonging to any club that’ll have me as a member.

So, not being one to have hard-and-fast allegiances, I don’t really have them to change or challenge. Instead when I was in graduate school I took graduate-level courses in philosophy because—and this’ll sound weird, but bear with me—I was interested in them. I wanted to learn about the history of philosophy as it pertained to my field of study and, dare I say it, learn something from the Big Minds. Since I work on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century texts, I wasn’t able to be postmodern and ignore all the stuff that Kant’s Copernican revolution rendered irrelevant. (A caricature of the postmodern condition, sure, but also the stance taken by more than one lit student I knew who fancied himself interested in philosophy.)

As I later learned, the academy is not always keen to have its members following their noses willy-nilly towards enlightenment, unless those noses also happen to be pointing in the direction of the zeitgeist as far as publishing opportunities are concerned. (A digression I shan’t follow up, here, but one worth a post in its own right.) Unlike colleagues who got a certificate in Psychoanalytic Studies or Women’s Studies in addition to the Ph.D., I wasn’t able to get a Certificate in the History of Philosophy for the simple reason that there wasn’t such a thing. And that’s not meant as a slight to anyone who did get those certificates, just a minor grouse about how I did all that course work outside the department and got nothing tangible (and therefore nothing marketable) out of it. I did have the satisfaction of studying something for its own sake, which isn’t a bad reward but also isn’t especially careerist. Fortunately I wasn’t and ain’t careerist, but if I had been I’d have done better to read Heidegger and Lacan instead of Aristotle and Kant. Then I could’ve set up shop as a “theorist,” whereas now I’m merely perplexed with narrow passages in a way that doesn’t make for terribly interesting or terribly valuable material on the job market.

And here, a necessary digression on my current department, for being a very pleasant home to perplexities of all sorts—a better set of colleagues and karaoke enthusiasts is not to be found on this continent, I don’t think.

So it’s not that I don’t like or understand theory. One benefit of studying philosophy is that it makes you a much better reader of someone like Blanchot, Bakhtin, or Adorno. And yet having that training also makes you question some of the applications of theory in ways that don’t always sit comfortably with adherents. Few job listings advertise for people with a secondary interest in debunking and generally being a pain in the arse. An example: there’s an old saw about how a person can’t travel down a road in philosophy without meeting Plato already returning on it. Makes sense given his historical importance, but then I’ve also heard that saying adapted to Foucault. To which I respond, really? I’m as interested in archaeology as the next person, but it’s a stretch to claim that Foucault defines the horizons of contemporary thought. At that rate we may as well claim that one can’t go down a road in philosophy without meeting Speusippus returning on it—and that’s a claim I’m pretty sure no one has ever made or will ever make, in the history of philosophy, for as long as it has a history.

So, what does all this rambling have to do with this blog?

I spent yesterday reading Samuel Johnson’s diaries and puzzling out how the Psalter works in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. I’m writing a paper and I found what I think is one of Johnson’s allusions to the Psalms. I’m curious to understand, as exactly as I can, when and how an Anglican like Johnson may have encountered a particular Psalm: was it sung? recited? prayed? and where? when? And so on: I want to know the circumstances, the exact historical contexts, he came into contact with the Psalms, and how he used them habitually.

If this were fifty years ago, I might just assume a basic familiarity with the Psalms and get on with the serious business of unpacking the (alleged) textual allusion. If I were a theorist, I’d meet Foucault (or someone else) on the road back from the eighteenth-century Church of England with a fine tale about the largely deleterious implications of its ideology, and in lieu of taking my own journey there I’d take that account on faith (as it were) and run with it in my own work. But being what I am—perplexed with narrow passages—I wasn’t satisfied till I trudged out there for myself to see what’s to be seen. And since I’m a slow walker, I haven’t gotten there yet or seen all I intend to see. I won’t be resolving these perplexities anytime soon, which means that I won’t be publishing at an excessive rate and therefore will not be the recipient of a festschrift or an endowed chair or any of the other perks that go with being one of the intelligentsia.

Boobyish antiquarianism it is, then! And a happy Festivus to all, and to all a pleasant Airing of the Grievances.

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