Plutarch's Table

In Praise of Levity

December 4, 2010

I went to a great party a few nights ago.  It was in support of a wonderful cause, the Archie Alleyne Scholarship Fund, so everyone was feeling good, and in addition to great music, food and drink, there were some really interesting people to talk to. I am pretty sure that I didn’t engage in any small talk at all, since everyone I met seemed to be passionate about something really important and eager to share their ideas and their visions.  But it was a party, and appropriately during all this talk about important things everyone was having fun.  This got me thinking about Nietzsche’s critique of seriousness, of the heaviness he sees as such a destructive part of the legacy of Western thought and civilization, which is a large part of my inspiration for the salons.   His view is that if you think that everything you do and say will have consequences for your eternal existence, then living becomes a pretty serious business.  What is important – grown-up matters for mature people – absolutely cannot be fun to talk about.  I think we can agree that what is never fun – at a party or anywhere else – are fanaticism and dogmatism, and these just aren’t an option for those with a light-hearted attitude to life, the laughers and the children.  For Nietzsche the extreme nihilism that is the modern predicament can turn with the flick of a switch – a radical change of perspective – into the recognition that life has no transcendent meaning, and that it waits for us to affirm it.  In contrast to the denial of the value of this life in favour of that other (true and eternal) life that Nietzsche sees as having saturated our thought with such heaviness, nihilism can lead us to affirm this life, to love the earth and our bodies and temporal existence in all its fleeting richness.  When the shepherd in the vision at the climax of Thus Spoke Zarathustra finally bites off the head of the snake that is choking him, he is transformed into a “dancing, laughing being”, a powerful, healthy and unserious but philosophical sort of creature such as the earth has not yet seen.  Zarathustra is a prophet for the coming of this new creature, preparing the way for humans to live less seriously and with more substance.  The superhuman lives kinder and smarter and has way more fun doing it.

If it goes without saying that we could all stand to be a little less serious some of the time, it can be hard to imagine being less serious when it comes to those things that we hold to be of the highest importance.  What if you are fighting for social justice?  Is there any sense to the claim that you should be less serious about this endeavour?  Perhaps not, but my guess is that there would be a lot less injustice in the world in the first place if there were less gravity.  We are serious, I think, when our positions involve our own vested interests.  Henry Miller talks about the “ferocious gaiety” of a certain philosophical indifference that comes with the recognition that “all is flux, all is perishable”.  This refusal of attachment has a very Buddhist element to it, but in Miller’s more Nietzschean view it is very much a sense of dying to moralistic gravity in order to be born to a genuinely celebratory love for the temporal.  Miller as he describes himself is certainly capable of some reprehensible behaviour, but I always think he is the kind of person who would be utterly incapable of real baseness on the scale we now see it every day on the news, and just because of this lightness, this lack of personal investment in anything but expanding his perspective as much as he can.  The very thing that makes him seem cruel to the overly serious – he seems particularly talented at bringing impious hilarity to funeral scenes in Tropic of Capricorn, for example – is what makes him relatively harmless, as well as enormously fun and full of life.  Making light of things, and its concomitant irreverence, seems incompatible with genuine cruelty.  I wonder – if we take some position to be of great importance and are passionate about it without any personal interest whatsoever, would it not necessarily be a good, affirmative position?  Or put another way, is it even possible to be passionate about something that is negative and destructive without some personal interest guiding us?  I suspect not.  Of course, it must be nearly impossible to be entirely free of personal interest in anything.  But we can aim for that, and can aim to be less serious people, without having to let go of the notion that some things really are more important than others.  Some things call for our commitment and passion and dedicated attention, and may be harder to laugh about, but in this short life if we begin to take anything too seriously we may get stuck in the trap of dogmatism.  Since even good causes can turn dogmatic, I think it is imperative to practice philosophy in the spirit of levity, and to make a clear distinction between the important and the serious.


Literature and the Universal (including comments on books I have and haven’t read)

October 1, 2010

I’ve decided to give Jonathan Franzen’s wildly popular novel, Freedom, a miss.  I am trusting the critics – the critics who I like to read and tend to agree with on literary matters, that is – rather than Time magazine, who featured Franzen on a recent cover celebrating him as “The Great American Author”.  Two recent reviews seem to agree that Franzen does a fair enough job of portraying middle-brow America, but urge us to expect more from art than a mere portrayal of what is (Ruth Franklin “Impact Man” and Evert Cilliers “Are our Writers as Lousy as Our Bankers?“).  A third review warns that my investment would be wasted on a “576-page monument to insignificance” (B.R. Myers “Smaller Than Life”)  There seems to be consensus, then, from writers whose reviews I like to read, so I’m thanking them for their contribution to my time management and moving on to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, which I taught twice last year in my Philosophy and Literature class at the University of Toronto and am re-reading now for a third time, which like the second is an almost entirely new experience.

But these reviews raise an interesting question for me, a question about novels and their relationship to the universal.  The complaint is that Franzen’s work speaks a language that will not survive very long, both literally and figuratively.  Literally, because Franzen is so concerned for his characters to sound like contemporary middle-brow Americans, and figuratively because he doesn’t have anything to offer in the way of universal resonance.  We are taught that to be readable a story must have something to say outside of its context.  Apparently, Franzen’s novel not only doesn’t have anything to say about poor or uneducated or even fabulously wealthy Americans or anyone who is not American, but it sounds as though he doesn’t have anything to say to anyone at all.  To have something to say to any audience, a writer has to not merely hold up a mirror, which is allegedly all that Franzen does, but must smash that image and stab the reader with the shards.  This seems to me to be one important element in distinguishing good from bad art, and yet if this lack of resonance is the result of a work that is too much of its context, I think that there are also works that commit this crime of mere reflection by being too universal in scope.  They may speak about everyone at all times, but there is nothing that can be said about everyone that is going to change anyone.

I used to think that my favourite contemporary novel was Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces. As a poet, and a very good one in my opinion, Michaels can craft a sentence that knocks the wind out of me.  Her words are so hauntingly lovely to read that it is no understatement to say that I fell under their spell, lost in the beauty and ease of the language.  But a strange thing happened when I put it down – my world was not changed one bit.  It remained on my list of recommendations nonetheless, until recently when I started reading Miller rather obsessively and figured out why a work like Fugitive Pieces has no real lasting power for me.  Michaels is a stupendous writer but her writing is only universal in scope; it speaks a timeless message that in its transcendence of the truly gritty details of life speaks to nobody in particular of nothing that we aren’t already capable of understanding.  It captures nothing of the real.  I would still read anything Michaels writes, and anything Michael Ondaatje (who I would describe in a similar way) writes, and I think that the ability of these writers to put into beautiful and lofty words some penetrating insights into how humans have been for a very long time is admirable and gratifying.  But to change us, to be a novel worthy of being called great literature, I think a work has to offer more than a portrait of what all humans can recognize in all other humans under the right circumstances, more than insight into the essence of humanity as it is and always will be.

In fact, I don’t happen to believe that there exists anything so absurd as the timeless essence of humanity.  The life on earth of this species is in constant flux, and it is best captured by exploring the ways in which it resists our attempts to capture it.  Maybe great art can help us glimpse those resistances, and in this lets us see something of the real.  The fragmentary and disturbing in literature always performs an actual experiment on life in a way that the great sweeping treatises that peddle a theory of everything cannot (in my mind this is Dostoevsky the agitator vs. Tolstoy the portraitist).  The universal message is the message about what we are, when Nietzsche (and possibly even Plato) long ago taught us that what we are is nothing but a creature that is constantly becoming something else.  So to say that a novel should speak beyond its context is undoubtedly right, but this is not rectified by speaking a universal language.  The greatest capacity of the literary is that it has the power to undo the image of the human as something static.  In this I don’t know of a great American writer since Henry Miller.

About author

My name is Joanna Polley. I am a writer and a philosopher experimenting with ways of practicing and teaching philosophy outside of the university environment. I completed my PhD at the University of Toronto and have taught for several years in the departments of philosophy and literary studies, and am currently exploring ways to bring philosophy out of the ivory tower and into the wider public sphere. My specific research interests have been in the history of philosophy, philosophy of language and culture and the philosophy of literature, but I am interested in any philosophy that helps illuminate contemporary problems and deepens our experience of being alive. You can also visit me at for information about my philosophical therapy services.