Ordinary language is all right.
One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.
I've asked myself often in the past several months, why reading, why books. Why that constant in my life? Still hurt, the past winter, by a sense of being rejected by my discipline, by my profession, I felt newly aware of a level of emotional work I had invested in what I did, everything I did, had done, for years. But most of all in my reading. And I felt newly indignant, suddenly, about not having that work recognized, neither counted as work nor counted as the kind of work it was, a peculiar kind, sure, mainly centered on me, but not confined to me, a sort of deep investment of myself in something not myself, with obscure but real profit for others the potential but unrealized result, especially those others with whom I could share the books in which I had become more deeply involved. I don't know how to say how that work was work with, or on, my emotions; why it should be that it be due that kind of recognition, that kind of understanding. I know it from the inside, as a reader. As someone whose life has been spent with books—with my nose in a book. I was that kind of kid, the kind for whom 'avid' or 'voracious' sound like trite labels for what was really more a constant, natural affinity for, fluency with, the printed word, not so much a hunger for it as a decided wish to be there rather than here. 'In' a book. Since, when I was younger, I could read fiendishly fast, I tended to prefer whatever would last, or whatever I could readily read more of: mysteries, fantasy, science fiction—genre fiction, especially if it came in the form of a convenient series of 5 or 10 or 100 books. And my reading would often run into the demand from others that I not read. My parents owned a tract of under-developed land, a field, hills, woods, located out in rural Iowa, far enough away to mean a tedious drive whenever we would visit it, which would often be on summer weekends, bright and early, under what I felt to be a kind of conscription to brush-clearing, wood-carrying, hill-trudging duty, to be escaped through constant efforts to return to the truck—and the book waiting in it—to read. So of course, as I grew up and learned what people say about books, about their value, I wondered if I read mainly to escape, if that was the attraction of books for me. Who wouldn't want to escape study hall? Or the schoolbus? But with experience and perspective I could see, and start to talk about, how in reading I was doing something, something else besides hiding, shirking, withdrawing: something like building something up for myself, or making, or growing. Reading's privacy acquired a positive valence. Most recently for me, that particular potential in reading was highlighted by reading Schopenhauer. I had read some, in English, enough to get a picture of what was going on. But I was also teaching myself to read German so that I could work on Wittgenstein while writing my dissertation. And as my power to read improved, and my frequent weariness with reading more Wittgenstein (the defeats, the perplexities, the feeling of not knowing where you stand, at all) demanded some kind of recompense or restoration, I took to reading Schopenhauer in German as well. Very little at first: often just the first few sections of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, day after day, along with breakfast, before making slash allowing myself to get back to work on Wittgenstein: 'Es wird ihm dann deutlich und gewiß, daß er keine Sonne kennt und keine Erde; sonder immer nur ein Auge, das eine Sonne sieht, eine Hand, die eine Erde fühlt; daß die Welt, welche ihn umgibt, nur als Vorstellung daist, d.h. durchweg nur in Beziehung auf ein Anderes, das Vorstellende, welches er selbst ist'. I read this with difficulty, and little fluency, used as I was mainly to Wittgenstein's relatively direct German, but helped by philosophy's love for a familiarly small circle of words, concepts, and with enough Heidegger to be enchanted by the morphology of words like 'umgibt' and the newly strange cast given even pronouns. This was enough for me to stay interested—I think because I felt it gave me a way into better understanding the grand traditions of epistemological and metaphysical speculation that had always felt somewhat remote to me, inaccessible. So I kept reading, now and then. But a few years later, when I found myself unemployed, searching futilely for another teaching job, living as an adult with my parents, and worst of all, grasping at ways to redeem myself, make myself more competent, more expert, more marketable, more of a philosopher, I took to reading Schopenhauer more seriously. Evidently as a source of emotional support, stability: every day I would wake up, prepare to leave the house, and visit a coffeeshop, to sit and read Schopenhauer, sometimes for a few hours at least, before turning to some less cosmically irrelevant or possibly more materially remunerative work, like writing job application letters, or writing a book proposal, or poking away at 'papers'. Pessimism a consolation, ha, I know. I don't know any better there, than in any other case, how I should say that work constituted partly emotional work for me. Rather, I don't know how to relate the many small ways in which I know it to have been, like any other serious act of reading, also emotional work; I don't know how to sum those things up and make them seem relevant to the investments of feeling others will recognize and accord the importance and response due to 'the emotions'. But I know—say—that's what it was for me: emotional work.
So much of my life hangs on fantasies, dreams, about what 'we' could mean; hopes for what books could be.
'… if there was no opacity (i.e. no noise) there's be no (sense of a need for) conversation – and yet conversation is humanly necessary for more reasons than merely exchanging and clarifying plain information.'
'It is a being, but not a life, to be tied and bound by necessity to one only course.'
My pride gave way. H. is back in town—been back, since summer. All the way from Africa. We've hardly been in touch since. She had a new job, new husband, new life, and I had—nothing. An embarrassment of despair, trepidation about going out, a story stuck in once place for too long. But Monday was my birthday. I've never been so alone as I have these past few months, jobless, friendless (I feel), living by myself, coming up on an age where I seem to have left youth behind, with nothing to show for the time marked. Except failure, too much now. The saddest sort of failure that just looks like a failure to try, from the outside—the sort that makes you suspect yourself, makes you wish to be believed in. This adds up—added up, for me, to where I figured something, however small, had to change. Not to elect to spend that day, night, alone. So I got in touch with H. and asked if she would eat dinner with me. H. is the kind of person whose judgment you feel confirmed by. You can know that if you're OK with her, you must be doing alright.
The same day, failure on my mind, I hazarded a response, out there on the internet, to a question: why does academic rejection hurt more? Quoting myself:
'As with many of the ritualized/proceduralized forms of acceptance we subject ourselves to in order to become officially counted as members of our disciplines, our employment in permanent academic jobs is premised in part on our potential (in complex, variable, and vaguely defined ways).
But coming off a Ph.D., you have arguably established that your potential has become actual. You accomplished something which is supposed to be not just a school exercise; you belong. (It could even be 'better', i.e. worse, for those who can't find work: you might have been publishing, had your work endorsed by important people with good judgment, etc.)
And you belong in a way which is the condition for gaining the kind of work you are looking for.
But when it actually comes down to finding work, you face rejection on all kinds of counts that cause you to call into question whether you belong in any particular place. And on counts which you seem to have no control over (or you might have, but the die was cast long ago) and which have nothing to do with your main accomplishment. Which all along the way to it has depended on your acceptance by others, on a recognition of your past accomplishments and your potential for more.
It's hard not to feel rejection or non-acceptance at this point to reflect on your potential. And since your accomplishments seem not to matter you turn more and more to your potential: to different ways you can style yourself to people who want different things, to areas you can reach to cover, courses you can quickly learn to teach, research projects you can shift to take up.
Obviously those are often risky and desperate resorts to your potential, especially in a climate where those who hire are conservative for institutional reasons (or worse) and who enjoy a buyer's market for economic reasons. Because they can much more easily rely on official accomplishments of those who do happen to suit their idiosyncratic little demands, of people the market hasn't yet thrown back on themselves.
And evidently, resorting to your potential to get around further rejection doesn't work very well, because the condition you're in materially deprives you of what people in academia need in general to develop their potential, what you had before when you were accomplishing the things that didn't get you a job. So it comes to seem that even your efforts to develop your potential differently, to get you out of the slough, only dig you in deeper.
When you look outside academia, where your accomplishment is impressive but also somehow just a piece of paper, you find that people either regard you as a failure, or as so inappropriate for the rigidly-controlled conditions for career entry or advancement in practically every single kind of job, or as wildly overqualified for almost every job that every non-academic person has, that you can't even get work doing things for which your potential is overflowing.
You come to feel in the end that you have accomplished nothing and have no potential. You can't believe this, but you can't stop feeling it.'
H. and I talk, naturally, about work. More of my story spills out than I want, being sick of saying it and sick of thinking of it by now. But it's been a while. As she reminds me, this was a different country last time she was here. Not that it's much easier for her. We met in school, but she doesn't identify as a philosopher (thank god). She's an activist. She literally does work that matters. Of course, no one pays money for that. Not even just for her ability to make things work. 'It's who you know', she says. She doesn't know anybody. I don't know anybody. Nobody we know can do anything.
I've hit a breaking point with my recent thoughts about doubt. I need, I see, to think more honestly, and more directly, about what I'm about as a philosopher. To identify myself to others, to know my own aim. Otherwise, I don't know what I'm trying to do—what all my projects are fumbling around to accomplish. This has put me in a contrite mood, with a cautious wish to just let it all be for a while, if only my circumstances were not desperate enough to make me compulsively return to my work again and again, however ineffectually.
At the beginning of the month, birthday rushing up at its end, my wish was instead for a showy accomplishment, one that I could rush through in a month to feel that I had at least done that. As usual with me, a book. Thinking of the personal turn (first-personal turn) a lot of my work has taken in the last five years, I had this nagging feeling that I should have read Montaigne by now. Something has always stood in the way. So maybe that, I thought. But no! Frame's Montaigne is just too boring. I couldn't do it; I couldn't take it personally, couldn't let it be just academic, instead.
But! Last week I chanced into reading selections from Florio's Montaigne, and I'm delighted where before I was bored. I have a foothold I had lacked.
What I want from Montaigne, besides the obvious, I don't exactly know. But the past few days, thinking about my birthday but also thinking back to my first (!) spate of unemployment, to the choices I made then about what to read, what to write, what to think about, the famous passage from 'Of Experience' kept coming to mind:
'What egregious fools are we? "He hath passed his life in idleness," say we: "Alas I have done nothing this day." What, have you not lived? It is not only the fundamental but the noblest of your occupations. "Had I been placed or thought fit for the managing of great affairs, I would have showed what I could have performed." Have you known how to meditate and manage your life? You have accomplished the greatest work of all. For a man to show and exploit himself, nature hath no need of fortune; she equally shows herself upon all grounds, in all suits, before and behind, as it were without curtains, welt or guard. Have you known how to compose your manners? You have done more than he who hath composed books. Have you known how to take rest? You have done more than he who hath taken empires and cities. The glorious masterpiece of man is to live to the purpose. All other things, as to reign, to govern, to hoard up treasure, to thrive, and to build are for the most part but appendixes and supporters thereunto.'
With this my mood is unrepentant. I know I'm not that good a 'professional', stubborn, proud, vain, I know how I undermine myself. Nevertheless, failure weighing me heavily down, I never think, oh, I wish I had lived instead. I have! Some of the most elated days of my life were days where I had thoughts. I count conversations I've had among the most important events in my life. I know how to live by thinking: to think along the way, to live along from day to day with my thoughts. And I know how to share this kind of thought with someone else: how to help them bring it out, keep it going.
This has become, more and more, a source of anger for me. I am not just wistfully describing a history of reveries here. I'm not trying to valorize woolgathering. I have a great real and specific value in a profession which stupidly has no place for me, is incapable of seeing me. And however self-serving this obviously is likely to be, I think my value derives from my pained efforts to take philosophy personally. From a starting point where I, frankly, found very little about philosophy believable, and in a profession dead set on there being nothing personal about anything.
A couple years ago, I was out of my depth in an ethics course in which I still managed to do some things well. One often sticks in my mind. We were reading about Rousseau and kindness and vulnerability. I told the class a story, my story, about what I'd been doing the year before—graduating, teaching, jobless, living at home again with my bankrupted family and my underemployed mom and my jobless dad, reduced like I'd never seen him. I told them about the small pleasures I found in being kind, cooking dinner, cleaning things up—the look of surprise on my dad's face at being treated kindly for no other reason. And then I told them about an offhand remark my dad made one day, as I was headed off to the campus library in town to do some work, and said so: 'you don't have a job', he said, sounding but probably not meaning to be disparaging, deflating, withering. I was hurt and angry at those words, but I just swallowed it and left.
I shouldn't have. The anger I swallowed ate away at my kindness. My vulnerable heart grew smaller. My life grew smaller, ungenerous. Contracted.
There was a young man sitting up front that day, when I told that story, said what I just wrote there about my smaller life. The look of recognition on his face told me what I needed to know about whether there's any place in philosophy for the personal.
'I think I just don't belong', I tell H. 'No!', she protests. 'Philosophy is a place for people who don't belong!'
Doubt, or, not taking your word for it.