A fragment on love

For the past year, I have been working, though with less constancy than I would like, on an essay — the word should be taken as it was meant, and ought not merely connote the often-stale genre so contrary to its etymology — about love, a subject about which I was surprised to find, when I first wished to know more of it, sadly little has been written. Like everything to which one’s mind earnestly turns, it threatens to vanish into a coil of collapsing prolegomena, its object escapes the grasp, in this way it parallels the experience of yearning.

. . . I have long admired dialectical thinkers, the incorrigible optimism of dialectical thought as regards its resourcefulness, it is like watching the Herculean exertions of an athlete whose destiny cannot but be the helpless misery of frail old age; the sheer vigor displayed by Benjamin, Panofsky, Marx in the marshaling of evidence; in broad strokes they have magnificent suasive force (and in a sense, the more prodigious the detail, the more preposterous the claim) but I wonder whether they really believed, whether we really believe, their fine points. It is a favored pastime among writers of this stamp to speculate as to problematization: why what was stable comes to seem suspicious, how a once-shadowy phenomenological field is brought to light, the conditions under which thought posits novel objects, why a question occurs to us. Often the accounts given of problematization are dazzling in their erudition and ingenuity, but are they true? Do they not rather represent — let us not say arrogance, because even a meek person may be possessed of a corrosive curiosity that apathy cannot sate, and will begin to find answers, just as an explorer lost in a cave will begin to hear voices and see phantoms — a ham-fistedness, then, with the inscrutable delicate filaments of the individual lives in which problematizations have come to fruit? The necessary, but not sufficient, conditions of genius are the most to which one might aspire.

Those who weary of the philosophy of the present day and find consolation in Schopenhauer and Montaigne have tired of the stentorian tone of the philosophical technician and long for a good table-mate. The grating, pedantic voice is the most lamentable apportation, not of Marx or Hegel themselves, who were both subject to lyrical transports occasionally of great beauty, but of the Denkstil they ushered into being. Schopenhauer is far from humble but his eloquence is a generosity and an invitation to follow down the path of his thoughts and to stop and ask questions if we wish. With Marx and Hegel we see the beginning of ideology proper, the impulse to philosophy as an autocratic knowledge system clothed in the idiom of science and divested of the Socratic, of the spirit of the banquet.

This shift in idiom, it strikes me, owes its existence to a change in the character of intuitions regarding what it is to be right, which, bitter it is to confess, can never be anything more than a feeling. In saying this, I am sure (but this is also only a feeling!) of laboring under the same historical conditions, thanks to which a suspicion of the merely human and a denial of auctoritas is a default position, as those heritors of Marx and Hegel who relinquish the seductions of rhetoric in favor of a style at least in its appearance evidentiary.

That the attainment of the aforementioned feeling is this idiom’s true end is illuminated by its proponents’ wonted hostility to the applied science from which it is in great part derived. The historicist critique of ideology, if totalizing, either admits to its self-invalidating recursive implications or retreats into a deeply suspicious obscurantism. Otherwise we are left with positivism. And if this is so, the critique of science as an ideology is misplaced. Science is fundamentally procedure and gives rise to theory as though casting a shadow; thus engineering is an aftereffect of building, anatomy an outgrowth of dissection. The belief that the reverse is the case, more than any ideological bias on the part of scientists, is likely the result of the ever-increasing specialization of professions and their discursive arenas according to which, after the end of the nineteenth century, a simultaneous competency in philosophy and science became nearly impossible.

I recall as an adolescent and bitter atheist having read that before the eighteenth century, atheism was epistemologically impossible, that blasphemy was the most radical renunciation of which the medieval and renaissance mind was capable. It was tempting to believe this, and consequently to feign comprehension of the determining conditions of thought and, by extension, of its opportunities for liberation. But this is vanity. Just as I cannot accept, when I lie awake in horror at the thought of my own annihilation, that before d’Holbach all slept well in assurance of the indestructability of their immortal souls — for even in Hell we have our memories, otherwise our subjectivity would want for the intactness requisite to render it apt for punishment, and with a lone memory of you, my love, my happiness would perdure indefinitely — so it seems to me unforgivable egotism, when I imagine the long-dead masses in their mud-brick homes conversing in incomprehensible tongues, to lay claim to the inclinations that arose in their impenetrably specific hearts.