Solway is the author of many books of poetry including the award-winning
Modern Marriage; Bedrock; Chess Pieces; Saracen Island: The
Poetry of Andreas Karavis and The Lover's Progress: Poems
after William Hogarth, the latter illustrated by Marion Wagschal
and adapted for the stage by Curtain Razors. He has recently completed
a new collection of poems entitled Franklin's Passage,
forthcoming with McGill-Queen's University Press in Fall 2003,
and is now working on his fourth book in education and culture,
entitled Reading, Riting and Rhythmitic. A collection of
literary/critical essays, Director's Cut, is due out with
The Porcupine's Quill in Fall 2003 and a novel, The Book of
Angels, is slated for Spring 2004 with Mosaic Press. He is
currently a contributing editor with Canadian Notes & Queries
and an associate editor with Books in Canada.
* * * * * * * * * *
One may review an actual situation by redescribing it
without making any mathematical or logical statement.
John Wisdom, Paradox and Discovery
I cannot put the subject through his paces in my inquiries
into his inclinations as I can in my inquiries into his competences.
Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind
As a student at the university
I intended to become a professional philosopher. I took my quota
of graduate courses, learned to smoke a fisherman's pipe, and
celebrated Kant's birthday by drinking his favorite wine and speculating
on the Transcendental Unity of Apperception. The pipe in particular
was indelibly associated with the pursuit of wisdom. The cigarette
belongs to the poet with his nervous, sporadic inspirations and
the cigar to the novelist, the verbal tycoon, with his larger
and more relaxed rhythms of composition. But the pipe is the philosopher's
congenial instrument. The amount of time and fussing it requires
to be kept lit furnishes the thinker with massive intervals of
unrelated activity in which to formulate his abstruse and ineffable
ideas. This was especially true of Kantian studies where what
might be benignly construed as a scholarly accessory assumed the
status of a rigorous prerequisite. Our sessions over the Critique
of Pure Reason, however, in which we tried to emulate our
professor's sobranie meditations, had the opposite effect on us.
Smoke billowing from our intellectual chimneys, we coughed a lot
and our eyes watered copiously in an enveloping atmosphere of
fug and dottle. But we puffed heroically away as we gradually
lost touch with the Paralogisms and saw the Axioms of Intuition
recede into the double obscurity of philosophical jargon and visual
occlusion. We had obviously a long way to go to master the art
of Transcendental scrutiny.
I attended courses in Ethics
in which we were taught to discriminate between the cash-value
of practical conduct and the rubber cheque of utopian imperatives.
I was deeply impressed by my teacher in Greek philosophy, the
kindly and diffident scion of a wealthy family, who had met Bertrand
Russell-"good old Berty" as he called him-in his Yale
days, discoursed endlessly on the Parmenidean dictum that Whatever
Is, Is, and was chauffeured to class imposingly ensconced
in the back seat of a big, green Bentley, like Plato sailing plutocratically
into the court of Dionysus of Syracuse. And I was duly terrified
by a lean, dry, inexorable Englishman who operated linguistically
on such innocent statements as "Bismarck was an astute politician,"
disdained a priori concepts, and befuddled us with assertive links,
ifs and cans, and illocutionary sentences.
Because the department was of
the Analytic persuasion, it compensated for its bias with the
occasional expensive French import. This was how the famous commentator
on Sartre, Jean Wahl, found himself scurrying frantically between
library and office, classroom and coffeehouse, always on the go,
as if to present a moving target or stay out of the firing range
of what must have appeared to him as a cavalry of jodhpured Positivists.
As he was scarcely five feet high, the joke made the rounds that
Jean Wahl had committed suicide by jumping off a curb.
The conflict that divided us
in those days and set philosopher against philosopher in crusades
of internecine pettiness was that between the British and Continental
schools, a hangover from the English blockade of Napoleon. Empiricists
and Existentialists could not bear to be in the same faculty lounge
together. There was an apocryphal story that dramatized the absurdity
of the dispute. At a prestigious conference of contemporary philosophy,
a British Empiricist condemned the Continentals for vagueness
of phrasing and hyperbolic imprecision of thought. "Tell
him," said a leading French Existentialist on hearing of
this piece of defamation, "that he is a cow."
The reason I did not take sides
was that they were all equally bewildering: Kantians, Neo-Thomists,
Positivists, Hegelians, Phenomenologists, Ordinary Language philosophers,
the whole sick crew, as Thomas Pynchon would say. To use the choice
word of Humpty Dumpty, the teetering founder of the school of
Linguistic Analysis, they were of an unbreachable "impenetrability"-which
meant, according to this learned arbiter, "We've had enough
of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention
what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop
here the rest of your life." Nevertheless, I persisted, deaf
to good advice. Wittgenstein's Tractatus left me cold.
I could not get past his paragraph numerology and agreed only
with his conclusion, "What we cannot speak about we must
pass over in silence," because that at least was understandable
and because it coincided with Hamlet's dying speech. As for Husserl's
Ideas, not a single word registered, and his Cartesian
Meditations drove me to paroxysms of incomprehension. Switching
to Willard Quine was no antidote: identity, ostension and hypostasis
made one feel as if one were developing cataracts. Heidegger was
a disaster and I could see him only as the reverse counterpart
of his namesake in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story Dr. Heidegger's
Experiment: Hawthorne's doctor possessed an elixir that
made people younger but the torpid prose and tortuous thinking
of the German philosopher aged me overnight. Clarence Lewis was
better. The only problem with Mind and the World-Order
was trying to divine why it had been written in the first place,
as it seemed no more than the unfolding of a colossal tautology.
Who had ever doubted that experience was such as to be amenable
to conceptual formulation?
At one point I decided the only
solution was to apply to the oracle himself. Accordingly, I sent
off a letter to "Berty" who was living in Wales at the
time, offering my services as amanuensis, occasional chess player
and loyal apprentice. I described the turmoil and confusion generated
by my studies and even confessed to a certain boredom. Praising
the titan for his indefatigable brainwork, his espousal of noble
causes and his legendary excesses in the matrimonial field, I
promised to be a good companion, a devoted student, and to let
him win from time to time at chess. The letter concluded by congratulating
the old man on his longevity but reminding him that even genius
as it ages requires infusions of new blood, fresh perspectives
and the intellectual buoyancy only youth can provide. The aging
genius did not reply, an omission which looked at first like a
personal insult and only afterwards as a critical appraisal of
my philosophical ambitions.
As the semesters went by my faith
began to waver. I was the only one in the class who thought that
Samuel Johnson's refutation of Bishop Berkeley's principle of
Subjective Idealism, namely, esse est percipi or to be
is to be perceived, was basically sound. The perambulating doctor
had kicked a curbstone and uttered the immortal words, "Thus
I refute Bishop Berkeley." To defend this position was like
siding with Cardinal Bellarmine. The seminar room presented another
major problem. It had no windows. At the end of a three hour class
on the Categories or the Dialectic the hallucinations came thick
and fast and I would dash madly down the stairs, too desperate
to wait for the elevator, just to reassure myself of the continued
material existence of the ginko tree at the top of the campus.
It was growing increasingly clear that although my grades were
reasonably good my prospects were not and that a philosophical
career might be nothing more than a pipedream.
One evening I visited the most
brilliant student in the department who had devised a kind of
Mercator projection of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.
It was a road map of the Absolute, about one meter square, which
resembled a cross between a genealogy table and the Tibetan
Book of the Dead. Everything was neatly marked in black ink.
All of Hegel, the whole labyrinthine country of that cluttered
and tenebrous mind, lay spread out before me, while my benefactor
performed miracles of explanatory acrobatics. When I left, I was
more in the dark than ever.
The time had arrived to submit
my thesis proposal to the department moguls. I had decided that
what was missing in philosophy, as currently practiced and taught,
was the sense of wonder and delight which had presumably informed
its beginnings. Thus I proposed a return to origins to which,
as a student under the age of twenty, I was manifestly closer
than my teachers, who were all over forty. Basing my intentions
on the models of Parmenides and Lucretius who wrote in verse,
I notified my advisors that I was ready to tackle the enigma of
existence in all its primeval and crepuscular splendor and, moreover,
would do so in decasyllabic metrics. Instead of a prefatory Abstract,
there would be an epigraph, suitably ambiguous, taken from Milton's
Il Penseroso: "Where glowing embers through the room/Teach
light to counterfeit a gloom." The stares of incredulity
and affront which greeted this proposal served merely as a mild
prelude to the storm of abuse that broke over my poor, unmortarboarded,
anti-philosophical noggin. My betters were both stupefied and
amazed. Philosophy, it seemed, not only began but ended in wonder.
In the name of Wisdom, the presiding rota was incontinently Ryled.
Poetry, it must be remembered, operated as a rhetorical dismissive-"That's
just poetry," the profs would sneer when crushing some notion
or proposition advanced by their romantic catechumens. To address
oneself not to the tidily articulated commonplaces of a celebrated
British Analyst, preferably P.E. Strawson or A.J. Ayer, but to
the richly inscrutable cosmic text authored by a nonentity and
philosophical tyro like God, and to suggest verse as an appropriate
medium for cognitive inquiry rather than the narrow and exclusionary
technolect favored by a club of fastidious empiricists, was about
as close as one could get to the kiss of academic death.
I was slowly coming to see that
my philosophical career was in considerable jeopardy. Part of
the trouble was that I had no Socratic daimonion, no inner
voice that could always be counted on to tell one what not to
do. If anything, I was possessed by its polar opposite, a perverse
little devil out of Edgar Allen Poe with a nasal twang egging
me on to behave in ways precisely calculated to erect obstacles
in my path, like proposing a thesis in verse on the prepreSocratics.
Nevertheless, the temptation of secret gnosis continued irresistible.
I loved the gnarled and idiosyncratic rhetoric of the German metaphysicians
as I admired the ostensibly crisp and limpid prose of the 18th
century Brits. The fact that I understood little of what they
wrote did not deter me from seeking the invisible grail of wisdom
that surely lay at the core of their testimony. And there was
always the hope that one day I might experience the moment of
visionary consummation, the noematic indescribable, the Kantian
ding an sich, the Platonic eidos, the Aquinian music,
in short, paydirt. My little impish voice said, "Go for it."
And, credulous as always, I went for it, enduring yet another
year of the Higher Bafflement.
Nothing offered to lighten my
miseries, not even the occasional social encounter. I had made
friends with a graduate student who intended to become a Neo-Kantian
and we would regularly engage in long, pointless controversies
over esoteric and insignificant questions, such as whether one
could really generalize the maxim of one's conduct and whether
one should do away with oneself if one couldn't. Debating such
deep and pressing issues, we found ourselves one evening at a
Graduate Society party, smoking our pipes, wearing the obligatory
tweed with leather elbows to complement the solemn expressions
we assiduously cultivated, pretending to be oblivious to the fact
that all the girls we secretly coveted seemed sublimely unaware
of the charms of philosophical discourse and plainly preferred
the company of sweet-talking literature majors and budding biochemists.
Even the psychology and economics students were doing alright
compared to us. It came to me in a flash that "doing philosophy,"
as it was then called, was tantamount to committing eroticide,
and that it didn't matter one bit if one could generalize the
maxim of one's conduct or not because, whatever conclusion we
arrived at, whatever triumph of intellectual insight graced our
speculations, there could be no consolation for enforced celibacy.
"The parchment philosopher has no traffic with the night,"
as Elizabeth Smart told us. One might as well take Holy Orders.
The doubter was ripe for reality.
Now I had read my philosophers
at least well enough to know that reality was a problematic concept,
but this no longer appeared to matter very much. Whether reality
could be proven by kicking a curbstone-the same curbstone, probably,
that Jean Wahl jumped off-or by doubting everything but the cogito
that does the doubting or by bracketing empirical phenomena or
by relying on episteme rather than dianoia to furnish
a link with Truth or by catching a glimpse of the supersensual
Forms and the primum mobile or by hitching a ride with
World-Historical Reason on its way to Berlin, there was no point
going it alone. Condemning oneself to an existence without women
was nothing short of suffering a terminal deprivation of the Real.
But even though I was by this time convinced that a man's true
quest involved penetrating to the essence of muliebrity, aspiring
to that condition which Ezra Pound in an early poem described
as "after years of continence he hurled himself into a sea
of six women," I had not yet succeeded in shrugging off a
residual sense of guilt. Perhaps philosophy, like theology, subjected
its candidates to harsh preliminary deficits in order to reward
them at the end with the cash-value of knowledge and joy. Maybe
the girls came later. Or failing that, a vision of ultimate clarity.
Perhaps my thinking was still far too muddled to act upon. Should
I wait just a little while longer before embarking on new ventures?
Would lucidity finally arrive?
The coup de grâce
was administered by two French professors on loan from the Université
de Montréal who, riding in tandem, delivered a course on
Existentialism and Phenomenology as part of the department's affectation
of openness. To listen to the dual explication of Husserl in broken
English and in process of constant mutual interruption was like
falling under the simultaneous influence of alcohol and hashish-too
drunk to see one's deliriums clearly. I retired early and did
not attend another class for the rest of the term. Learning that
the final essay was due, I spent a weekend filling two examination
booklets with my cogitations on Gadamer and Dilthey, neither of
whom I had ever read, in a turgid and sibylline language borrowed
from Kant's Prolegomena. I was counting on the fact that
the professors were as foreign to English as their student was
to philosophy, but I did not expect more than a soupçon
of Gallic amusement. Quel divertissement! I received the
second highest grade in the course. At that moment, in a blaze
of sudden enlightenment, I understood the truth about reality:
reality was a dividend of not being found out, a credible simulation
of what did not exist, a function of A.N. Prior's logical operator
"Tonk"-the fudge factor that allowed whatever theory
of the world you were brokering to work, a kind of "runabout
inference ticket." In a word, reality was the genuinely inauthentic.
And since as a pseudo-philosopher I was already there, what would
be the point in prolonging the redundant? So it was I abandoned
the pursuit of the higher wisdom, free at last to indulge my natural
laziness and duplicity in good conscience and become a poet. And,
as always, richer in memories than in knowledge.