Letters

Letters Archive
Fall 1995, Vol. 4, No. 1
  • The Apocalypse Seminar: Fin de Siècle, Millenium, and Other Transitions
  • The Inaugural Harry C. Howard Jr. Lecture
  • Religion and Public Life: Seventy Years After the Scopes Trial
  • The Apocalypse Seminar: Fin de Siècle, Millenium, and Other Transitions

    Reactions to temporal endings, including the apocalyptic "end-time," become particularly vivid in a "period" like our own, when the end of a century coincides with the turn of a millennium. This year's Fellows Program, "The Apocalypse Seminar: Fin de Siècle, Millennium, and Other Transitions," will explore the ways human beings demarcate time and how the distinct sense of beginnings and endings structures our lives and the ideas we create of the past. Ten faculty members representing seven departments will meet weekly at the Center to discuss these themes. Throughout the year, visiting scholars will address the fellows and give public lectures. The seminar is co-directed by Margaret Anne Doody, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities, Professor of English, and Director of the Program in Comparative Literature, and David C. Wood, Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department. Letters recently met with the seminar's co-directors to discuss the relationship between philosophy and literature and this years topic.

    LETTERS: Could you explain your understanding of the motivation behind this year's Fellows Program, especially in relation to your respective disciplines, literature and philosophy?

    DOODY: For a long time, I have become increasingly worried by the emphasis placed on the "end of time," especially images I see in popular culture, television, and movies of not only coming disaster but an apocalyptic end. I am beginning to feel that we are extremely conscious of the end of the century and the end of the millennium, and that a desire to see something big and ugly happen really exists. It began to strike me that not only our literature and the movies, but also our domestic an foreign policy, are now driven by the fear or lust for an apocalypse . I want to ask why we look at a mere marker, like the year 2000, with such great respect. Where is the emotionnal investment coming from, since the year 2000 is simply an artifact? Even Christians know that it does not date time from the birth of Christ, and for Moslems and people of other faiths the year 2000 has scarcely any real meaning at all. Yet everyday we see that it is gaining in significance.
    I thought this was something that the academy needed to investigate. At first, I did not come to it as a literary scholar, but I can now see how the interest ties in with my interst in literature. I came to it as someone who believes in thinking. As members of what can be loosely identified as the Enlightenment, we ought to investigate such phenomena and not wall ourselves off from them and pretend that they do not exist.

    WOOD: I have many of the same concerns as Margaret, especially the social and political ones. My own interest, more generally, has been "time" for a number of years. I have tried to track a recent tradition of thinking about time beginning in the late nineteenth century with Nietzsche and continuing through the work of people like Husseri, Heidegger, and Derrida. I suppose this tradition goes back to Kant; it is a tradition that takes seriously the idea that when we deal with time we are not simply dealing with something "out there"; in fact, we are dealing as much with our own constructions of time as we are with any natural given.
    One of the things that has fascinated me about this tradition is that it begins to question the hegemony of the idea of unitary time, of time as some sort of progression. In the political sphere, this is translated into the idea that history is on an upward path toward some guaranteed future enlightenment. As a result, I have been trying to pursue the project of multiplying our ways of thinking about time, not to arrive at some sort of vapid pluralism, but to get a better sense of how, in different contexts and for differ ent purposes, we rely on models, assumptions, and patterns of thinking about time that are of ten hidden or not reflected on. While I do not hold some sort of a prior view about time as a form of intuition, as Kant did, I do take seriously the thought that time and space provide the deep, schematlc organizmg prlnciples of our thinking.
    The question of an ending or the question of the end of history, or the end of a millennium, or the bringing about of some ideal, are questions that not only have been particularly interesting for philosophers to think about but also affect the very idea of philos ophy itself. Philosophy aims at truth. But we ask ourselves, "Well, when is this going to happen? Is this something that we can expect in the near future?" These questions seem to aim at some sort of closure of metaphysics, or some type of total vision. We have had accounts of what that totality might look like from Hegel, for example. We have had various announcements of the end of philosophy. So the issue of the end, the end of time, the end of history, is both an issue for philosophy and an issue about philosophy.
    This Humanities Center project will enable me to explore the ways in which people from quite different disciplines have thought through these issues about tlme and history and about the coming to an end of various things. I am especially interested in ways of thinking that may not have been anticipated by philosophers and that will allow an interruption of even my best laid plans. In turn, I am hoping that I can contribute the same sort of perspective that I have already mentioned.

    DOODY: Literature is also profoundly concerned with time, not only because it keeps cropping up in literature as a theme, but because literature itself is organized in time. For instance, you cannot read an epic or a novel without noticing it takes quite a long time to do it. Reading time is part of the experience of literature. In addition, the "author" is always pointing out moments of temporal crisis or temporal passage so that one can say every literary work, even a small one, is organized around some reflection of time. Even the more conventional works operate with a desire to create some sort of interruption, if only by calling a moment of time to your attention. "Mig nonne, allon voir si la rose/Qui ce matin avoit declose/Sa robe de pourpre au soleil...." Time is part of the content of such a poem, but it is also part of its content that we, the readers, should live in the "now." Literature has an inclination to value the "now," which is what differ entiates it from philosophy to a very large degree. Philosophy is more abstract and is not so inclined to value the "now." Philosophy has its transcendental side, whereas literature only has transcendental yearnings. Literature keeps trylng to escape back into the immediate and to value an experience that is not necessarily temporally organized.

    LETTERS: According to this description, it sounds as though philosophy and literature are at odds when it their respective approaches to questions pertainiing to time and the end of time. Do you think that philosophy and literature can find a more productive collaboration?

    WOOD: The work of Paul Ricoeur, particularly his long trilogy Time and Narrative, begins from the premise that philosophers have not solved the problems of thinking about time. One of the most important reasons they have not solved these is that philosophers try to think of time independently of language. Ricoeur says we have to solve these problems by taking a detour through literature, particularly through narrative. But what is so fascinating about these books is that at the end Ricoeur realizes the problems and contradictions are still there, that the detour through literature does not completely solve them. So then we have to ask ourselves, what does literature do? One of my answers would be that it dramatizes contradictions that are not merely logical errors in our thinking about time, but reflect lived tensions in our experience of time as an interruptive event and time as an intelligent, narrative continulty.

    DOODY: I think you are right; the great thing about literature is that "the poet nothing affirmeth, therefore never lieth." It is not philosophy; it is not the search for truth. It does not say this is so; it asks, what if it were so? Even the most solemn novel, like Anna Karenina, even the lightest lyric is doing this. Literature plays without having to commit itself to some program. At the same time it also points out, as you say, the disruptions and the tensions. Literature treats the grittiness of tlme m our experlences of loss, bereavement, growing older, and the decay of hope, things which philosophy typically does not engage. For the most part, modern philosophy, beginning in the seventeenth century, has seen such things as belonging to the "vulgar" world and not worthy of attention. And I think that ignoring the vulgar world is one of the errors made by the Enlightenment academy in which we still live, move, and have our being.
    Literature is very important. It is not a frill or an extra, something that you do after tea when your work is done. A nineteenth century tradition held you did not read novels in the morning, because it was considered something like daytime television. But I think literature has a great deal to say about where we are, who we are, what we do, and where we run aground on our own assumptlons.
    It also explores our own culture, but one of the goals of this seminar group will be to get away from a purely Western orientation. It is the Western fixation on the year 2000 that is causing a lot of the world's problems. So we want to ask, how do other peoples in the world see time?

    WOOD: I think we can get to this same point via certain philosophical reflections, too. Margaret talks about the positive importance of literature as reminding us of the grittiness that philosophers have traditionally tried to put to one side. The appeal, for me, of many contemporary philosophers is that they themselves are raising this very question about the philosophical tradition. Philosophy itself is at war with a certain narrow, logo centric conception of philosophy, of our desire to get one which would put literary awayand be free of forms of thought to one side as time and matter, too informal or non-systematic. In fact, it is this do not see literature as something coupling of time other or absolutely separate from and matter that be philosophy, rather as that which comes very impor enables philosophy to recover instant. Literatures own "authentic" possibilities represents that which is trying to work toward possibilities other than a similar return to this grittiness, what I call "dry the place from which philosophi-transcendence," cal reflection begins and towhich which is an at it needs to continue to return. tempt to get away Merleau-Ponty calls this "hyper-from the world of reflection." I know that sounds even worse than reflection, but he means returning to the perceptual or experiential grounds of our systematic thought in order to rub ItS nose against the concrete, the empirical, the singular.

    DOODY: I do not see philosophy and literature at odds, but I think they are looking in different directions. Real philosophers have had a strong relationship with literature and, indeed, are very fine literary writers. The most notorious case is Plato, who for centuries has been an influence on what we call literary types.

    WOOD: But in Plato, writing is seen as a mere shadow of spoken language. In fact, for many philosophers, Plato's claims, rather than his own practice, have had a very negative influence on our thinking about the relationship between philosophy and literature. Plato's style may have inspired great, philosophical writings, but what he said has had a negative effect on the philosopher's capacity to deal productively with good literature.

    DOODY: The Phaedrus itself is a terrific example, because it starts off in a very novelistic way, and it evokes a natural landscape with trees and the water. But then it moves into the daily life of eros, after which it turns away from this to look at the transcendental love of the earth itself. The entire work is a strong expression of our desire to get away and be free of time and matter. In fact, it is this coupling of time and matter that becomes very importatnt. Literature represents that which is trying to work toward possibilities other that what I call "dry transcendence," which is an attempt to get away from the world of matter. And, in as much as women stand for matter and time, women must be transcended. Within this framework, women are like trees and soil, in that they are there to be used like other matter for the purpose of achieving transcendence. As a result, there is a move to get rid of those who are calling for respect for women, for attention to be paid to the environment, etc., because they are speaking as if matter is important.

    WOOD: I might also add that the same seems to be true with animals. That is, they are there for us to use. To use a concrete example, we can chop down huge tracts of the Brazilian jungle, in order to graze cattle, in order to supply beef for fast food chains. Animals, like women and the environment, are simply a resource for transcendence.

    DOODY: TO take the point one step further, I think when time is seen as an extension of matter, time is hated. It is in time that we live and die. Time is used as the measure for biological events that are distressing; therefore, time is often attached to that from which we want to escape.

    WOOD: Are you thinking of decay?

    DOODY: Yes, time is thought of as decay, so then time is hated. It is a tyrant; therefore, to reach the "end-time" would be to cheat matter. For instance, in Paradise Lost, Milton has difficulty imagining how you could garden in a world without death. Any gardener knows that you rely on death a great deal if you are going to be a good gardener. You are always trimming and pulling out weeds, fertilizing, and poking dead leaves back into the soil. The whole cycle of gardening is a cycle that depends on decay. We use words like "decay" and "corruption" negatively, but we rely on these as part of the whole system of things.

    WOOD: We might start to think here of the apocalyptic sects that seem to be appearing all over the world. It is as if they are responding to a sense of loss of control over themselves, over time, over matter, by wielding the force of death. Both suicide and mass-murder are attempts at avoiding subjection to forces with which these sects feel they cannot deal.

    One of the real problems with the current approach to the millennium is that we still take shelter under the belief that the future is when things are going to turn out right and come together. And yet everything we read would suggest this is not going to happen. This brings with it an extraordinary sense of loss of control, loss of confidence, and a breakdown in the horizon of the future. Death-dealing sects are actually attempting to recover control.

    DOODY: The odd thing is that human beings usually have very little control over their life and death and over their environments; life is harsh. The modern world has been given a great deal of technological control, and it is interesting that we are finding much of this apocalyptic fervor cropping up in rich countries that have a lot of technology. While technology has promised some control, we want infinite control. But the only in finite control would be to stop the world of nature all together, which is the world of time in which things die. It is almost as though to accept a natural death is to fall prey to the ugly, dirty forces of matter, of nature. But to bring an end to time, to force the millennium to come, to force a new world to appear would be magnificent, because it would put an end to that cycle of powerlessness and decay. As a result, every Hegelian or neo Hegelian pursuit of synthesis has to be referred to with a certain irony.

    WOOD: The trouble is that irony is a dead end, because it devalues various kinds of commitments to tolerance, pluralism, and so on. It can be a form of detachment rather than a form of life that will enable us to get along with each other.

    DOODY: This is where we part company. I see irony as a very creative possibility, a way of laughing at ourselves and getting rid of some of the rigidities of acknowledging that we often hold paradoxical views. I think Swift is a great ironist and, at the same time, a great fighter for human freedom and human rights, but he is not nice about it. He pokes us where we have our inconsistencies.

    WOOD: But irony is never constructive.

    DOODY: No, I think that is not true. I think irony can be and very often is constructlve.

    WOOD: I am happy to agree with this when we regard irony as a transition or as a mode of imagination, not as a form of life.

    DOODY: I would really rather live life ironically, but I do not want to think one could not live one's life seriously either.

    WOOD: Someone like Rorty seems to me to be advocating irony as a form of life, which looks like giving up on a whole range of ideals, including the ideals that might get us to abandon certain apocalyptic desires.

    DOODY: But I think there has to be a comic sense about the in completeness and paradoxical nature of our own pursuits, and that is where irony resides. It is an ability to see quite different refiections of human behavior and desire without eliminating them. A novel like Virginia Woolf's The Waves seems to be helpful as a picture of not only time but of different people trying to live a life in time. In many ways, it is a very ironic book, but it is not a destructively ironic book.

    LETTERS: In a certain way, it seems as though these ideas con cerning time carry with them a relationship to the ways in which we employ our imagination to anticipate the future. What do you think is the relationship between time and imagination?

    WOOD: Imagination cuts both ways. On the one hand, if we think about the year 2000, we think about a new society where everything will be put right and all problems will disappear. It is actually very easy to imagine; it is easy to construct a utopia where the year 2000 becomes the point of truth. The mentality is such that we will either get what we want, or we will have to tear it all apart in order to get what we want. On the other hand, imagi nation can actually help us imagine what it would be like to construct a new society in detail and show us just how awful things could be. The imagination can serve to penetrate and prick the bubbles of our dreams, be cause when we take our dreams as realizable as they are in all their usually static and undeveloped dreamlike character, then we are faced with the most incredible danger. In fact, one of the really important things about universities is that we can develop these two sides of the imagination. The university is an enclave of slightly detached sanity that can export the possibility of thinking all of these things through.

    DOODY: Right now, however, universities are seen as training grounds that serve the technological world. I think that writers of literature have more chance for leadership than university scholars, because writers are less fettered. They are the "unacknowledged legislators of the world." To change our dreams, to change the ways that we look at possibilities, seems to be of major importance.

    I think writers of the moment, however, are paralyzed in the face of steady doses of television footage from Bosnia. What could be worse? What could a writer tell you about the evil of violence that would be worse than what we see? We see it and go on; we simply do not care. We become calloused to the insanity and the cruelty and the suffering; and, as a result, we just turn the television off and go to dinner.

    WOOD: Part of what the writer can show us is that the tribal warring that erupted after the breakdown in Yugoslavia is based on stories people tell about themselves, about their own identity,and about their own hopes of being. The misery in a photograph of orphans is sadly linked to the stories that people have told about themselves. It is linked to narratives and to the impossible convergence of some of these narratives. In a sense, what we have here is an invisible background. We know how much photographs or images are not the whole truth, so in a sense our job is to reconstruct the background that gives some kind of sense to this nonsense. There is, however, a sense of fragility within the very possibility of writing, the fragility of meaning, the fragility of communicating anything to anyone else.

    There may have been times in the history of the world when this was not a problem. Since the Holocaust, however, the very words that have voiced some of the highest human idealsó"free dom," "justice," "equality," and so onóhave become hard to believe in. These words now have, for many people, a kind of worn out quality to them. Even as they are reaffirmed, there is a sense that these words are written on the surface of something that is empty and hollow. I am thinking particularly of the work of Maurice Blanchot in his book Writing of the Disaster. It is not as if the disaster is going to happen in the year 2000; it has already happened. It may have happened in the early 1940s. The basic assumptions of reference and of communicability, shared values that we thought were built into language, have become untrustworthy. What Blanchot is offering us is a reminder that language itself, writing itself, and hence literature and philosophy are not things that allow us to move forward with confidence; they are themselves the sites of problems that reflect our difficulty with the year 2000. They are themselves the sites of miniature apocalypses.

    DOODY: I do not think in a blanket way anything can be wholly trusted. Even the very best and highest, often turns out to be often the worst; it corrupts, so the better it is, the worse it gets. But that does not mean that we cannot to some extent trust imagination; we have to. In fact, that is one of the few things we have left.

    To go back to your earlier point, I think the stresses of the 1990s are in many ways peculiar to ourselves. These stresses come out of a bloody twentieth cen tury, with its horrible and dramatic events, apocalypses without endóWorld War I, the Holocaust, World War II. Yet it is horrible to think that these "apocalyptic" epochs of the twentieth century have inspired other people to want to repeat them. These terrific events seem to have grandeur that gives meaning as a temporary rush. Here is an addiction much more sinister than drug addiction. It is an addiction to the kind of rush of power and meaning that you get from a truly vlolent event.

    WOOD: When there is nothing that seems to make sense to do, or to will, or to desire any more, the will to negate and destroy is very powerful.

    DOODY: I certainly do not want to universalize it, because those people who are weeping for the children in Oklahoma City are not the people who set that bomb off. But there are those who delight in the rush of power that comes from destruction. One of the things that appeals to people about the horrible history of the twentieth century is that these orgies of destruction release people from individual meaninglessness and give them a certain war mentality that excites a sense of divine meaning. That is extremely hideous. I am not sure how this would be possible, but the business of ridding some other human being of life must be deglamorized.

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