I spoke to John Kaag about his memoir, American Philosophy, shortly after the 2016 presidential election, so although we did spend a fair amount of time talking about his personal story, and how a rare book collection tucked away in an old building in the woods of New Hampshire helped Kaag make his way back from a profound, life-questioning despair, we also discussed what American philosophy can do to give solace to those of us who were shocked by what looked (and still looks) like the triumph of wrong over right, of evil over good. Philosophy, I think, offers us a guide to how we can live our lives, how we can best respond to the world around us, by getting in touch with what others have called “the better angels of our nature.” Kaag had some thoughts on that:
“One thing [philosophy] can do is to [help us] actually understand the gravity of the situation, so we can clarify how bad things actually are—and they’re bad. And William James actually had a good sense of this… James struggled with personal depression for most of his life, but he was also very touched by the political workings of imperialism, and James directly fought back against those forces.
I think that philosophy gives us a way of understanding what to do in the face of desperation or desolation. Sometimes Americans aren’t the best at this, but I’m thinking about Rilke. There’s this amazing story about Rilke in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge… a story about a guy who’s facing utter desolation; he thinks that the world possibly is meaningless. But he also says if that is possible, it’s also possible that he himself, as an individual, might have the ability to do something about the meaninglessness. And I think that that’s actually a line that runs through American philosophy as well.”
Kaag also recommends essays by James and Henry David Thoreau as starting points for readers interested in what the American philosophical tradition, with its emphases on pragmatism and renewal, can tell us about how to move forward. And he hints at future writings on his part that might follow in those footsteps: “I think that there are lots of times in the history of philosophy where philosophers have had to stake a great deal on their thoughts, and I think that we might be entering one of these times,” he says. “I’m in the process of writing another sort of memoir like this one, but… it will have to be in some ways politically oriented, or socially oriented, because I think it’s wholly unacceptable for philosophers to ascend into the ivory tower when things are going really nasty.”
Listen to Life Stories #88: John Kaag (MP3 file); or download this file by right-clicking (Mac users, option-click). Or subscribe to Life Stories in iTunes, where you can catch up with earlier episodes and be alerted whenever a new one is released. (And if you are an iTunes subscriber, please consider rating and reviewing the podcast!)
photo: Rick Bern
Barry Yourgrau actually lives just around the corner from me in Queens, so it was absurdly easy for us to get together to chat about his memoir, Mess—and the fact that this episode was recorded in my kitchen explains the occasional traffic noises from outside the second-floor window. Anyway, we had a great time talking about why he didn’t let anyone into his working studio—not even his girlfriend, whose apartment it was originally—and what happened when she finally told him to get it together. That led us to the differences between clutter and hoarding, and about how his efforts to create a document of his efforts to finally clear out his apartment sometimes created a “double block,” where he wasn’t writing and wasn’t cleaning. And then I mentioned how Mess foregrounds one of the fundamental qualities of memoir, the way in which it offers the memoirist’s life up for judgment, because that’s something Yourgrau does himself with practically everyone he encounters in the course of his story. Here’s what he said about that:
“To a certain extent, memoir is… people have doors which they—this is my room, don’t go in, a room of one’s own, right? So in a certain sense, a memoir opens that door. So for an artist to go into there is really difficult, a process of tremendous opening up vulnerability. But, on the other hand, the act of writing is a way of controlling.
Nobody’s memoir is the forensic truth… I mean, how many memoirs have you read where people remember conversations in their childhood? You tell me one person who remembers what they said in the kitchen to their mother. I mean, they may generally remember, but if they start offering you dialogue, it’s all constructed. Sometimes constructed with more veracity, sometimes constructed with less veracity…
For me, one of the things that’s interesting is that I’m usually a fiction writer, of, if I may say so, surreal fiction, but it’s surreal fiction like dreams, which means that it’s actually rather revelatory and confessional… I’m known kind of as a fantasist or something, but actually everything is—they’re all based on emotional events in my life that I dress up and change.”
Listen to Life Stories #87: Barry Yourgrau (MP3 file); or download this file by right-clicking (Mac users, option-click). Or subscribe to Life Stories in iTunes, where you can catch up with earlier episodes and be alerted whenever a new one is released. (And if you are an iTunes subscriber, please consider rating and reviewing the podcast!)
photo: Charles Raben / Urban Face