Monday, October 26, 2009

The Sense of an Ending

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
So begins John Berryman's Dream Song 14. His instruction was ignored by Bernard Williams in "The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immorality." His argument, in brief: if one lives sufficiently long, one must either remain the same, and so become hopelessly bored; or become so different that one might as well be someone else. If you want to live forever from self-interest you are out of luck.

One might hope that an argument against immortality would reconcile us to death. But it does not follow from Williams' conclusion – that I should not want to live forever – that I should ever not want to live. Nor that I should want there to be a future time at which I die. For even if I will become so different that self-interest cannot sustain concern for my 'future self,' that is no reason to wish him ill!

In any case, both sides of the dilemma have their flaws. Why should even radical change in my desires, my character, my occupations, destroy identity of the kind that underwrites self-love? And if it does, why should consistency in those matters precipitate boredom?

Not that having final ends is sufficient to prevent it. As Elijah Millgram argues, one can have things to do for their own sakes, even things that matter very much, without being the least bit interested. Along with practical rationality, we have "a kind of intellectual phototropism": "interest and boredom […] are involuntary" and "[their] function is not to stabilize the self" but to push us towards the adoption of new ends.

Part of this seems right: we must distinguish interests – in the colloquial sense – from ends. But it does not explain why we need to be pushed: why it is that ends stagnate or fail to sustain our indefinite engagement. It is oddly circular to argue for the necessity of boredom as a provocation to new pursuits. More economical, surely, to have our interests last forever.

These questions may defeat philosophy. Perhaps this is simply how it is: a matter of psychological fact. But I wonder, with hesitation, if there is not something more to say. Think about the possible objects of interest, among our possible ends. They are, it seems to me, completable, things that can be done but only if one makes it to some final point. Walking aimlessly is pleasant enough, but it cannot be interesting. More exalted aims like doing philosophy, or being happy, or treating others well – they can be sources of much interest, but not in themselves. The interest lies in the projects one undertakes in order to be happy, do philosophy, act decently. Again, this may be mere psychology, if it is true at all. But it may instead reflect the logic of interest, the sort of end by which it can intelligibly be sustained.

That would explain what is so peculiar in Aristotle's picture of the ideal life as one of contemplation, not discovery: not that contemplation must be boring, as my students insist, but that it cannot be interesting in itself.

If interest depends on completable ends, it is inevitably finite. It expires. It must be renewed. This conflicts with a certain philosophical vision – Platonic-Aristotelian – of life as governed by a single inexhaustible end. If everything I do is for the sake of philosophy, still my interest turns on finding problems to solve. If I fail, no good. If I solve them, I need more. To the problem of boredom itself, there can be no permanent solution: no end to the need for difficulties, enterprises, work.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Rest is Silence

Hilarious, inscrutable, disturbing, Melville's Bartleby both tempts and rebuffs interpretation. The basic facts are two: that we do not and cannot know what troubles Bartleby or why he ceases copying; and that the lawyer is a decent man.

In a fashionable reading, obtuseness about these matters is combined. Bartleby is Thoreau in "Civil Disobedience," set against "the numbing world of capitalist profit and alienated labor." The lawyer is a vain and self-deceived protagonist of that world.

Dan McCall's inspiring book demolishes this line.
Bartleby is Thoreau? No, the whole point of Bartleby, the maddening and precious thing about him, is that he is a lost cause. He is inconsolable.
Nor would things be different if the lawyer were an anarchist or a labour organizer. When critics condemn him, they fail to see that they are doing so in his own words: "Here I can cheaply purchase a morsel of delicious self-approval." The lawyer sees through himself: "The truly remarkable thing about [him] is just how reliable he really is." Can we question an observer whose adjectives are so generous and so sincere?
I can see that figure now – pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn.

"I prefer not to," he respectfully and slowly said, and mildly disappeared.
What vanity in the critic not to recognize that by "decoding" Bartleby, he recapitulates the lawyer's "helpless reaching" in the Dead Letter paragraph. And how humourless. Bartleby's demurral is comic, a mild assessment of options – when I compare doing it with not, on balance – not a petulant "don't want to" or an oppositional-defiant "I won't."

To the catalogue of readings refuted by McCall, we may add a few that have tempted me.

Bartleby as Meursault: "one wouldn't be far wrong in seeing ["Bartleby"] as the story of a man who, without any heroic pretensions, agrees to die for the truth." (So Camus wrote of L'Étranger in the Afterword written in 1955.) But Bartleby does not die for anything we can divine. We have no more reason to think he tells the truth because he hates hypocrisy than for any other reason.

Bartleby as furniture: "Nippers would sometimes impatiently rise from his seat, and stooping over his table, spread his arms wide apart, seize the whole desk, and move it, and jerk it, with a grim grinding motion, as if the table were a perverse voluntary agent, intent on thwarting and vexing him"; "Yes, Bartleby, stay there behind your screen, thought I; I shall persecute you no more; you are harmless and noiseless as any of these old chairs". But Bartleby is not inanimate: his will is implacable.

Bartleby as non-rational agent: "the occurrence of other answers to the question 'Why?' besides ones like 'I just did', is essential to the existence of the concept of an intention or voluntary action." (Anscombe's Intention, §20) But Bartleby neither refutes nor confirms this conjecture: we do not know why he prefers not to, nor do we know that there is no reason.

What moral can be drawn from such critical pathologies? For McCall, that confinement in symbols "parochializes literature and limits rather severely its claims on our attention." Worse, it does Bartleby "great violence – it takes his silence away from him." In reading Bartleby, we assault his dignity more severely and more evasively than the lawyer ever does. Unlike most of us, he honestly confronts his task. McCall concludes:
The deepest question in the story is what you do with Bartleby. The deepest answer the story provides is that you can do nothing.