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.”
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photo: Rick Bern
photo courtesy Biblioasis
Canadian novelist Catherine Leroux’s second book, The Party Wall, won the Quebec Booksellers Prize and the Prix France Québec when it was first published in French in 2014. Lazer Lederhendler’s English-language translation, published this year by Biblioasis, has just won Canada’s Governor General’s Award for translated literature, and it made the shortlist for the Giller Prize for fiction, too. I’m pretty excited about this novel; at first, you don’t know how its various threads, from two young sisters walking through a threatening neighborhood to a Canadian prime minister in what now reads like an all-too plausible dystopian future whose wife uncovers an earth-shattering secret, connect to each other. But Leroux brings everything together in a way that still allows each story to maintain its separate power—you might spend some time trying to guess how she’ll do it, but it’s not going to distract you from the dramas she’s set up for her characters.
Leroux is just one of many Québécois writers Lederhendler has translated in recent years, making this literary scene accessible to English readers. In this guest post, though, he hits upon an idea that makes me think about just how thick (or thin!) we should make any line we draw between Québécois literature and English-language Canadian literature.
In a past life teaching English and, later on, translation in Montreal, I often made a point early in the term of quoting Wallace Stevens’s well-known aphorism, “French and English constitute a single language.” Granted, most people anywhere would find it hard to get their heads around this concept, let alone college students in Quebec, where the relationship between French and English is at the heart of a centuries-old conflict that is far from over.
My aim, though, was not to persuade students that Stevens was right but rather to bring into question some widespread and entrenched assumptions that draw a sharp, dichotomous boundary between the two languages: “English is the language of business, French the language of diplomacy”; “French is difficult, English is easy”; “English is concrete, French is abstract”; “English is demotic, French is elitist,” and such. Whereas to postulate that English and French somehow form one language is to floodlight the overlap, the liminal region where kinships and affinities as well as tensions (the dreaded “false friends” and their kind) are played out.
16 November 2016 | uncategorized |