Steven Pinker Should Read Some Nietzsche For Himself

Steven Pinker does not like Nietzsche. The following exchange–in an interview with the Times Literary Supplement makes this clear:

Question: Which author (living or dead) do you think is most overrated?

Pinker: Friedrich Nietzsche. It’s easy to see why his sociopathic ravings would have inspired so many repugnant movements of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including fascism, Nazism, Bolshevism, the Ayn Randian fringe of libertarianism, and the American alt-Right and neo-Nazi movements today. Less easy to see is why he continues to be a darling of the academic humanities. True, he was a punchy stylist, and, as his apologists note, he extolled the individual superman rather than a master race. But as Bertrand Russell pointed out in A History of Western Philosophy, the intellectual content is slim: it “might be stated more simply and honestly in the one sentence: ‘I wish I had lived in the Athens of Pericles or the Florence of the Medici’.”

The answers that Pinker seeks–in response to his plaintive query–are staring him right in the face. To wit, ‘we’ study Nietzsche with great interest because:

1. If indeed it is true that Nietzsche’s ‘ravings…inspired so many repugnant movements’–and these ‘movements’ have not been without considerable import, then surely we owe it to ourselves to read him and find out why they did so. Pinker thinks it ‘It’s easy to see why’ but surely he would not begrudge students reading Nietzsche for themselves to find out why? Moreover, Nietzsche served as the inspiration for a great deal of twentieth-century literature too–Thomas Mann is but one of the many authors to be so influenced. These connections are worth exploring as well.

2. As Pinker notes with some understatement, Nietzsche was a ‘punchy stylist.’ (I mean, that is like saying Mohammad Ali was a decent boxer, but let’s let that pass for a second.) Well, folks in the humanities–in departments like philosophy, comparative literature, and others–often study things like style, rhetoric, and argumentation; they might be interested in seeing how these are employed to produce the ‘sociopathic ravings’ that have had such impact on our times. Moreover, Nietzsche’s writings employ many different literary styles; the study of those is also of interest.

3. Again, as Pinker notes, Nietzsche ‘extolled the individual superman rather than a master race,’ which then prompts the question of why the Nazis were able to co-opt him in some measure. This is a question of historical, philosophical, and cultural interest; the kinds of things folks in humanities departments like to study. And if Nietzsche did develop some theory of the “individual superman,” what was it? The humanities are surely interested in this topic too.

4. Lastly, for Pinker’s credibility, he should find a more serious history of philosophy than Bertrand Russell‘s A History of Western Philosophy, which is good as a light read–it was written very quickly as a popular work for purely commercial purposes and widely reviled in its time for its sloppy history. There is some good entertainment in there; but a serious introduction to the philosophers noted in there can only begin with their own texts. If Pinker wants to concentrate on secondary texts, he can read Frederick Copleston‘s Friedrich Nietzsche: Philosopher of Culture; this work, written by a man largely unsympathetic to Nietzsche’s views and who indeed finds him morally repugnant, still finds them worthy of serious consideration and analysis. So much so that Copleston thought it worthwhile to write a book about them. Maybe Pinker should confront some primary texts himself. He might understand the twentieth century better.

An Ode To The Semicolon

I discovered semicolons in the fall of 1992. I had asked–on a lark of sorts–to read a term paper written by my then-girlfriend, who was taking a class in literary theory at New York University. In it, I noticed a ‘new’ form of punctuation; I had seen the semicolon before, but I had not seen it pressed so artfully into service. Here and there, my girlfriend had used it to mark off clauses–sometimes two, sometimes three–within a sentence; her placement turned one sentence into two, with a pause more pronounced than that induced by a comma. The two separated clauses acquired a dignity they did not previously progress; there was now a dramatic transition from one to the other as opposed to the blurring, the running on, induced by the comma. I had not read writing like this before; it read differently; it spoke to a level of sophistication in expression that seemed aspirational to me. I immediately resolved to use the semicolon in my own writing.

And so I did; I plunged enthusiastically into the business of sprinkling semicolons over my writing; they sprung up like spring wildflowers all over my prose, academic or not. Like my girlfriend, I did not stop at a mere pair of clauses; triplets and sometimes quadruplets were common. Indeed, the more the merrier; why not just string all of them along?

Needless to say, my early enthusiasm for semicolon deployment necessitated a pair of corrections. (My girlfriend herself offered one; my ego was not too enlarged to make me reject her help.) One was to use the semicolon properly. That is, to use it as a separator only when there were in fact separate clauses to be separated, and not just when a mere comma would have sufficed. The other, obviously, was to cut down just a tad on the number of clauses I was stringing together. Truth be told, there was something exhilarating about adding on one clause after another to a rapidly growing sentence, throwing in semicolon after semicolon, watching the whole dramatic edifice take shape on the page. Many editors of mine have offered interventions in this domain; I’ve almost always disagreed with their edits when they delete semicolons I’ve inserted in my writing. To my mind, they ran together too much and produced clunkier sentences in the process.

I don’t think there is any contest; the semicolon is my favorite piece of punctuation. The period is depressing; it possesses too much finality. The comma is a poser; it clutters up sentences, and very few people ever become comfortable with, or competent in, using them. (I often need to read aloud passages of prose I’ve written in order to get my comma placement right.) The colon is a little too officious. (My ascription of personalities to punctuation marks comes naturally to a synesthete like me.) The semicolon combines the best of all three, typographically and syntactically. It looks good; it works even better. What’s not to like?

Virginia Woolf On Autobiography And Not Writing ‘Directly About The Soul’

In Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature, (New York Review of Books, 13 August, 2015), Joyce Carol Oates writes:

[Virginia] Woolf suggests the power of a different sort of inspiration, the sheerly autobiographical—the work created out of intimacy with one’s own life and experience….What is required, beyond memory, is a perspective on one’s own past that is both a child’s and an adult’s, constituting an entirely new perspective. So the writer of autobiographical fiction is a time traveler in his or her life and the writing is often, as Woolf noted, “fertile” and “fluent”:

I am now writing as fast & freely as I have written in the whole of my life; more so—20 times more so—than any novel yet. I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; & that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there…. The truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes: but look [elsewhere] & the soul slips in. [link added above]

I will freely confess to being obsessed by autobiography and memoir. Three planned book projects of mine, each in varying stages of early drafting and note-taking, are autobiographical, even as I can see more similar ventures in the offing; another book, Shapeshifter: The Evolution of a Cricket Fan, currently contracted to Temple University Press, is a memoir; yet another book Eye on Cricket, has many autobiographical passages; and of course, I often write quasi-autobiographical, memoirish posts on this blog all the time. In many ways, my reasons for finding myself most comfortable in this genre echo those of Woolf’s: I find my writing within its confines to be at its most ‘fertile’ and ‘fluent’–if at all, it ever approaches those marks; I write ‘fast’ and ‘freely’ when I write about recollections and lessons learned therein; I find that combining my past sensations and memories with present and accumulated judgments and experiences results in a fascinating, more-than-stereoscopic perspective that I often find to be genuinely illuminating and revealing. (Writing memoirs is tricky business, as all who write them know. No man is an island and all that, and so our memoirs implicate the lives of others as they must; those lives might not appreciate their inclusion in our imperfect, incomplete, slanted, agenda-driven, literary recounting of them. Still, it is a risk many are willing to take.)

Most importantly, writing here, or elsewhere, on autobiographical subjects creates a ‘couch’ and a ‘clinic’ of sorts; I am the patient and I am the therapist; as I write, the therapeutic recounting and analysis and story-retelling kicks off; the end of a writing session has at its best moments, brought with it moments of clarity and insight about myself to the most important of quarters: moi. More than anything else, this therapeutic function of autobiographical writing confirms yet another of Woolf’s claims: that “one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” Sometimes, one must look at the blank page, and hope to find the soul take shape there instead.


‘Prison Literature: Constraints And Creativity’ Up At Three Quarks Daily

My essay, ‘Prison Literature: Constraint and Creativity,’ is up at Three Quarks Daily.  Here is an introduction/abstract:

In his Introduction to Hegel’s Metaphysics (University of Chicago Press, 1969, pp 30-31), Ivan Soll attributes “great sociological and psychological insight” to Hegel in ascribing to him the insight that “the frustration of the freedom of act results in the search of a type of freedom immune to such frustration” and that “where the capacity for abstract thoughts exists, freedom, outwardly thwarted, is sought in thought.”

In my essay I claim that the perspicuity of this “insight” of Hegel is best illustrated by a species of intellectual production intimately associated with physical confinement: prison literature. The list of this genre’s standout items–The Consolations of Philosophy, The Pilgrim’s Progress for instance–is populated with luminaries–Boethius, Bunyan, De Sade, Gramsci, Solzhenitsyn, Jean Genet etc. Here, constraint is conducive to creativity; the slamming shut of one gate is the prompt to the unlocking of another. For the prison writer, confinement may produce a search for “substitute gratification”–whether conscious or unconscious–and the channeling of the drive toward freedom into the drive for concrete expression of abstract thought. Where freedom to act is not appropriately directed toward alternative artistic expression it can become pathologically repressed instead (as the Nietzsche of The Genealogy of Morals indicated.)

For the prison writer, freedom has changed from being a purely practical affair to one grounded in the act of writing. I explore this stance of the prison writer, its resonances with the perennial struggles of all writers, everywhere, and the truth of the claim–to which Hannah Arendt’s remarks about totalitarianism and the Orwell of 1984 resonate–that those that place prisoners in solitary confinement are onto a vitally necessary piece of knowledge for oppressors: if confinement is to work as a mode of repression, it must aspire to totality. I explore this via a consideration of the relationship between repression and creativity–a general one, and the  more specific variant to be found in Nietzsche and Freud.

The Distinct Relief Of Being (Partially) ‘Off-Line’

I’ve been off blogging for a while, and for good reason: I’d been traveling and did not bother to try to stay online during my travels. Interestingly enough, had I bothered to exert myself ever so slightly in this regard, I could have maintained a minimal presence online here at this blog by posting a quick photo or two–you know, the ones that let you know what you are missing out on, or perhaps even a couple of sentences on my various journeys–which might even have risen above the usual ‘oh my god, my mind is blown’ reactions to spectacular landscapes; network connectivity has improved, and we are ever more accessible even as we venture forth into the ‘outdoors’; after all, doesn’t it seem obligatory for travelers to remote ends of the earth to keep us informed on every weekly, daily, hourly increment in their progress?  (Some five years ago, I’d enforced a similar hiatus on this blog; then, staying offline was easier as my cellphone signal-finding rarely found purchase on my road-trip through the American West.)

But indolence and even more importantly, relief at the cessation of the burden of staying ‘online’ and ‘updated’ and ‘current’ and ‘visible’ kicked in all too soon; and my hand drifted from the wheel, content to let this blog’s count of days without a new post rack up ever so steadily, and for my social media ‘updates’ to become ever more sporadic: I posted no links on Facebook, and only occasionally dispensed some largesse to my ‘friends’ in the form of a ‘like’ or a ‘love,’ my tweeting came to a grinding halt. Like many others who have made note of the experience of going ‘off-line’ in some shape or form, I experienced relief of a very peculiar and particular kind. I continued to check email obsessively; I sent text messages to my family and video chatted with my wife and daughter when we were separated from each other. Nothing quite brought home the simultaneous remoteness and connectedness of my location in northwest Iceland like being able to chat in crystal clear video from a location eight arc-minutes south of the Arctic Circle with my chirpy daughter back in Brooklyn. This connectedness helps keep us safe, of course; while hiking alone in Colorado, I was able to inform my local friends of my arrivals at summits,  my time of commencing return, and then my arrival back at the trailhead; for that measure of anxiety reduction, I’m truly grateful.

Now, I’m back, desk-bound again. Incomplete syllabi await completion; draft book manuscripts call me over to inspect their discombobulated state; unanswered email stacks rise ominously; textbook order reminders frown at me.  It will take some time for me to plow my way out from under this pile; writing on this blog will help reduce the inevitable anxiety that will accompany me on these salvage operations. (Fortunately, I have not returned overweight and out-of-shape; thanks to my choice of activities on my travels, those twin post-journey curses have not been part of my fate this summer.)

On to the rest of the summer and then, the fall.

George Steiner On The ‘Unvoiced Soliloquy’ And Collaborative Creativity

In Grammars of Creation (Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 84-85), in making note of the ‘anxiety of influence,’ and the valorization of solitary creativity, George Steiner writes:

I want to point to the elected presences which makers construe within themselves or within their works, to the “fellow-travellers,” teachers, critics, dialectical partners, to those other voices within their own which can give to even the most complexly solitary and innovative of creative acts a shared, collective fabric. Elsewhere,¹ I have tried to draw attention to what remains a terra incognita in linguistics, in poetics, in epistemology….It is that of inward speech, of the discourse we conduct incessantly with ourselves. This unvoiced soliloquy in fact contains the bulk of speech-acts; it far exceeds in volume language used for outward communication. It also, I suspect, is under formative or inhibiting pressures of historical-social circumstance, of the state of public vocabularies and grammars, though it may add to them elements of a private argot. It could well be that, in Western cultures until recently, soliloquy has been the unheard eloquence, vituperation, poetry of countless women. Our true familiars are the “selves” or fantom-auditors and respondents to whom we address the lexical-grammatical-semantic currents of silent speech. Our consciousness, even when our inward audition and notice are fitful, is a monologue of the many whose creative powers, whose capacity to generate terror or solace, illusion or inhibition, are as yet scarcely analysed.

In a post here on ‘Imagined Interlocutors‘ I had made note of the incessant conversations I have with myself–with real and imagined figures; inner conversation allows for argumentation with those absent, temporarily or permanently. I could not do without these conversations. Indeed, I often frame material I will write later, here or elsewhere, by means of a ‘conversation in the head’–mostly while walking. Talking to myself is thus an integral part of my ‘thinking’ and writing; even here, at this most elementary level, creativity and creation are not solitary endeavors but active collaborations–perhaps unsurprising for a being whose consciousness is not a unitary entity. Consider that a creative work is formed over time; its creator, an always-in-flux entity changes too. It is a commonplace for authors and poets and artists to find out that a piece long in the making is simply not viable anymore; they have changed, their work must in response. The harshest critics of our works always lurk within us. Fail muster with them, and you cannot proceed.

Steiner’s suggestion that soliloquy is often the voice of the otherwise silenced is provocative. Sometimes talking to oneself is the only recourse when conversation with a larger world is denied. The woman confined to the private sphere, the prisoner in solitary confinement, the survivor in the wilderness; in all of these circumstances, we find that we cannot stop talking–whether directed inwards, or at walls, or at animals and trees and ocean waves. It’s the best way we know of keeping sane, even if at the risk of being judged insane by others.

Note#1: Steiner cites his On Difficulty here.

Writing And Therapy

Writing can be therapeutic. Not just autobiography and memoir, the obvious venues of this particular kind of clinic; letters, novels, short stories, poems, screenplays, can all enable a ‘working through‘ because they call upon a kind of ‘remembering,’ a dynamic ‘free association,’ unprompted and unbidden, that trawls through the various levels and layers of our consciousness. Writing is a form of communion with oneself, so it is not surprising that self-discovery and its partner, self-construction, take place at the writing desk, on the writing pad, on the word processor screen, through the pen and the cursor. To find ourselves returning to the same themes again and again in our writing is to learn a great deal about ourselves; the avoidance of particular topics can also serve a similar function. (Unsurprisingly, writers are often finicky about where and when they choose to write; patients and therapists often are. Peter Gay‘s description of Freud’s clinic in In Freud, Jews and Other Germans: Master and Victims in Modernist Culture [Oxford University Press, New York, 1978] is instructive and revealing.)

Therapy is a kind of story-telling with two authors engaged in the co-construction of a narrative that works for both: the patient emerges with a ‘new’ tale trailing out behind, and slowly taking shape in front; the therapist’s tale of healing receives a new twist, even as it sets the healer on a new path. Writers take this dual task on themselves; as a ‘story’ emerges–whether ‘fiction’ or ‘nonfiction’–they engage in forms of ‘transference‘ and ‘countertransference‘ with themselves, letting a new self emerge.

Full disclosure: I write here, on this blog, because in addition to serving as a scratchpad for test driving thoughts that sometimes find their way into other writings–academic and nonacademic–of mine, I intend this activity to serve as a therapeutic exercise. Unsurprisingly, many of my posts are self-indulgent reminiscences, unapologetic exercises in nostalgia mongering, tales of times and people long gone. But they have often provided a great deal of understanding to me, enabling me to view the past through many different perspectives, often helping to dredge up dormant memories and making associations and forming conclusions that would have otherwise remained inaccessible to me–and my family, which now includes my daughter. Among the many writing projects that await completion by me, three are memoirs of one sort or the other; I look forward to working on them and completing them not just because I will have completed a writing task, but because I expected to be transformed by the experience.

Note: Writing and art as an ‘official,’ institutionally recognized form of therapeutic modality–for PTSD, for instance–has a fairly distinguished history. In my remarks above, I’d wanted to indicate that all those who write are engaging in–whether they know it or not–a similar activity. We all need–whether we know it or not–some kind of therapy. We just get it in different ways. That is why, among other reasons, that human creativity takes so many different forms.