Sunday, September 16, 2007

Prelude to the foregoing

This might offer some context for this.

At Gifthub, Phil writes:
She is a pocketbook on two legs, an ATM, she is a lead donor, she is a target, a quarry, a prospective client, an ideal client, a customer, etc. To see one another not under the aspect of "use value," but as fellow frail creatures, each seeking, each alive for such a short time, and so often less than our full selves, that way of seeing is a kind of civic love. You know something? That is meaning of the word philanthropy.
"And in short measures life may perfect be." Yes, but not exactly what we mean today when we talk of outcomes, measurement, and management. How much we have lost, haven't we, of what might have been our Noble Nature? You can't hardly measure how far we have fallen, into the businesslike, can you, since Jonson wrote so limpedly in imitation of the ancients?
In an email, Phil asked me a question that's probably been on his mind, and certainly has been a governing thread of both of his primary blogs:
How do we reconcile elite traditions with democracy?
I consider Phil a friend. He and I have kept in touch over several years. In one of his modes he appeals to humanist traditions emblematized by a teacher we both had the good fortune to study with, though not at the same time, Bart Giamatti. Giamatti was an enigma, a man who more or less had an entire academic career before he was 40. His main man was Edmund Spenser, but his book on the earthly paradise in Renaissance epics was pure sprezzatura, a seemingly effortless voyage of the scholar bee doing the work of entire hives of JSTOR regulars.

Another significant teacher we shared was Paul de Man. Though both Giamatti and de Man were on the Comparative Lit faculty at Yale at the same time, I'm not aware of their ever engaging in any forum or public dialogue. Giamatti, a born leader who seemed to earn (and deserve) enthusiastic loyalty at every turn, became president of the university, and then, and you'd have to know him to have this seem at all encompassable, Baseball Commissioner (succeeding Peter Ueberroth). De Man chaired the French Department, became a pivotal link between USian and Continental critical theory through his and J. Derrida's preoccupation with the power of texts and language. The notoriety enjoyed by the term "deconstruction" in part was due to certain implications, baleful when all is said and done, for the pretensions of scholarship across the humanities. De Man went on to become poster boy for a certain sort of tarring and feathering after his wartime writings were found. Instead of addressing some of the more disconcerting readings he'd been offering of Rousseau, Hegel, Kant, and the like, the USian academic community was pleased to offer much ado about what they construed as anti-semitic, collaborationist stuff that de Man chose not ever to reveal. His reputation suffered disaster; the bearings of his late work -- which questioned the grounds of academic assumptions about entire fields of knowledge -- are still out there, but with the rap he's got, everyone thinks they're off the hook. They're not. His work will survive the obloquy.

For Phil, as for me, Giamatti and de Man represent two key moments in a certain shared tradition of learning: the humanistic, heroic union of contemplation and action in the figure of the Renaissance Man on the one hand, and a skeptical questioning via a critical philology, an attention to linguistic components of texts, rhetoric, and problems of knowledge traceable through a line running from Diogenes through Montaigne, Rabelais, Pascal and Fred Schlegel and some heavy hitting Germans to Baudelaire and Nietzsche on the other.

Both men were enormously witty, attuned to people, overworked, and generous with their time. It could be argued that de Man was the plague infecting the rose in Giamatti's vision of academia as a humanistic paradise. It could be argued that without the searching, caustic imagination that people like de Man brought to academic self-understanding, the garden would be even sicklier. Giamatti will forever be remembered for dealing courageously with another sick Rose. De Man, despite the forthright tribute of an honest friend, is still in the doghouse, where USians, with strangely patriotic fervor, place public figures linked deservedly or no to any scintilla of anti-semitism.

Anyway, all this is by way of offering some context for something I wrote in response to Phil's email. I've no idea whether this will help anyone make sense of that. But there it is.

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