“The ‘Riven’ Self as remedy to ‘a Certain Blindness'”
Frederick J. Ruf
|Abstract: In “A Certain Blindness in Human Beings” William James observes that humans are blind to what is strange, most especially to strangers. He both forbids a quick judgment of strange lives and urges “tolerance, respect,” and “indulgence.” And yet James does more. By modeling a strange self, himself, through the style of his essay, he displays a self that has the capacity “to be grasped” by the strangeness of others. Similarly, of four novels that were written in the wake of 9/11, by Richard Ford, Ian McEwan, Philip Roth, and Don DeLillo, only that by DeLillo is responsive to the event, and he does so by means of the Jamesian remedy: stylistically embodying the “riven self.”|
| Though it might seem odd to make the claim (an oddness that might, however, recommend the comparison, rather than not, according to the logic of James’s own essay), Nietzsche would seem to be a valuable key to understanding “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.” In section 355 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche wonders about knowledge. “What do we want when we want ‘knowledge’?” he asks. “Something strange is to be reduced to something familiar,” Nietzsche points out. “Look, isn’t our need for knowledge precisely this need for the familiar, the will to uncover under everything strange, unusual, and questionable something that no longer disturbs us? Is it not the instinct of fear that bids us to know?”1
|James, too, finds that we are blind to what is strange, and, most especially, to strangers, to those in “prisons and sickrooms,” to those with “alien lives.”2 Not fear for James but the practical life “hardens” us to “everything unlike [us].”3 None of this is news or worth yet another paper on James’s superb essay. But I would like to follow the turn that Nietzsche takes in the section from which I’ve been quoting and then follow it in James … and then a little ways beyond James into another writer, contemporary to us, Don DeLillo, in order to look at what I take to be a crucial consequence of James’s essay, the value of strange selves in a strange world.||2|
| First Nietzsche. Since he is most comfortable in the accusatory mode, Nietzsche berates us for reducing the strange to the familiar and then, wonderfully, berates us for thinking that the familiar is less strange and, thus, more easily knowable. No, corrects Nietzsche, “What is familiar is what we are used to, and what we are used to is most difficult to ‘know’—that is, to see as a problem; that is to see as strange….”4 By a characteristic reversal, Nietzsche moves us back from the familiar to the strange and forces us to consider how that which is most familiar, that is, we, our own selves, are what is the most difficult to see as strange. It is the self that is the most strange, and knowledge should mean encountering that strangeness.
|In the essay he wrote roughly a decade after Nietzsche discussed strangeness, William James seems not to take that final turn, back into the self and its own strangeness. He seems to be focused on others, our blindness of them. “What is the result of all [the] considerations and quotations,” James asks. They “[forbid] us to pronounce on the meaninglessness” of strangers.5 The strangeness of others consists in their feelings, so much harder to understand than their ideas. And those feelings are a “vital secret,” so strange to us locked within our own feelings.6 The “havoc” of the North Carolina mountaineer and the incommunicable joy of Stevenson’s bull’s-eye lantern “confound” us.7 Yes, it is the strangeness of the other that impresses and attracts James. “Hands off” any attempts to render that strangeness familiar, he commands.8 But what of James’s self? What of the strangeness of his self?||4|
|James does not address his own strangeness directly, but that is just because James is more subtle than Nietzsche, that self-described “subtlest of spirits,” when it comes to the nature of the self and its strangeness.||5|
| In late Nineteenth Century literary circles, it was a commonplace that the style of a work—or style more generally—presented personality. From the time of the Romantics, the point of writing was not to be the mirror of nature but, as we well know, the expression of the self, and while that aim applied especially to the substance of a work – that the content of a work exists to express the author—by the time of the late 19th Century aesthetes such as Pater and Wilde, it was the mere style, that which had seemed superficial and the mere means, that was of particular value for seeing the self. I know of no one who thinks of James as an aesthete, far from it. But, nonetheless, it is in the style of James’s essay, that we see the man … and his strangeness. James himself praises embodiment, and wants us to “descend to a more profound and primitive level,” to the level of “seeing, smelling, tasting, sleeping, and daring and doing with one’s body.”9 James’s self in “Blindness” is embodied in the style of his writing.
|The manner of James’s writing can be found to be exasperating (I once told Mark Taylor, the preeminent postmodern theologian, that I was writing on James and he declared that James was simple and superficial!). There is Ralph Barton Perry’s description of the Principles as “meanderings, zig-zags, and circles.”10 But let us look more closely at the style of “Blindness” to see James’s self. We can note three characteristics: First, stylistically his essay is populated. Second, the others in his text have strong voices. And third, the voices in his essay articulate some element that is both attractive and incorrigible.||7|
| Remarkably, well over 50% of “On a Certain Blindness” is composed of quotation. Robert Lewis Stevenson, Josiah Royce, William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Leo Tolstoy, among others. Vast tracts of quotation and not just isolated lines. Long paragraphs, whole pages. These speakers have a chance to get started, to build momentum, and to take over, to own the reader’s attention. We may not forget the context of the essay but, then again, we may, and at the least James’s own voice becomes faint. That is especially true because of the nature of the voices James has chosen. He reminds me (perhaps again oddly) of someone like Henry Miller who selects his friends for the power of their personalities, for their ability to perform the “Ninth Symphony of their travails,” as Miller says of a friend in The Colossus of Maroussi.11 Stevenson, Royce, Wordsworth, Whitman, Tolstoy—these are not minor writers or thinkers. They have the intellectual heft and artistic skill to seize a page or an essay, to commandeer a work and steer it. Moreover James allows each to speak of that “vital secret,” that “joy,” that “burning, wilful life.”12 The power of the inner life of these men is what speaks in these voices, such that James likens it to a “revelation,” with qualities of attraction and repulsion, of that which has both value and which defeats our habits of estimation.13 I like Charles Winquist’s term “incorrigibility” for the experiences that James arranges to have uttered in his essay: experiences that refuse to be tamed, feelings that defeat our understandings.14
|James both forbids a quick judgment of these strange lives and urges “tolerance, respect,” and indulgence.15 But he does more. He models a way of being that has, as he says, “responsive sensibilities,” a capacity “to be grasped.”16 The model lies in the style of his writing. A self composed (not unlike Whitman) of a plurality of strong voices empowered to speak of what is attractive and incorrigible. That is the self of this essay, and that, I would suggest, is James’s remedy for blindness, a much more impressive one than tolerance. Only the strange self can be receptive to the stranger.||9|
|My observation, then, is a fairly simple one. James argues that we are blind to strangers, and he enacts an adequate (but tacit) remedy to blindness by taking on a style and self that are strange, as well, by being composed (quite literally) of many strong voices uttering visions of the attractive and incorrigible. My suggestion, following James in this essay, is as follows: would we be adequate to the strangeness of others and the world, we must take on strangeness ourselves.||10|
|I would like to illustrate my suggestion by looking at four literary responses to 9/11 by four of the preeminent novelists of our time, Richard Ford, Ian McEwan, Philip Roth, and Don DeLillo.17 Do not fear; I will be brief. Only DeLillo presents us with the Jamesian solution.||11|
|Over the past several months, I have found myself interested in literary responses to September 11—that odd apostrophe for an event that re-taught us the meaning of the term, “enormity.” As English teachers instructed us in high school (and as we did not understand), “enormity” does not mean “of great size.” It means “a considerable departure from the expected or normal,” though this definition from Merriam-Webster is too weak, as well.18 An enormity defeats the expected or normal. We are blind to enormity, “the whole scheme of our customary values gets confounded … our self is riven.”19 Those last expressions are from James’s essay, of course. My interest, then, is how our most responsive sensibilities are adequate to this enormity. Are they blind? Just what does it take, today, to see?||12|
|I heard Richard Ford interviewed on the NPR show, Studio 360, in August 2007. The Pen/Faulkner and Pulitzer Prize winning novelist was asked why his latest novel, The Lay of the Land, which was written after September of 2001, was placed before that event.20 Ford replied, “I didn’t think I had the capacity to write a novel that was set in the aftermath of Sept 11 … events, even cataclysmic events … all around me have to settle into the ground around me and then sort of percolate back up into my feet.”21 I love the metaphor Ford uses: the cataclysm must have fallen, settled, and been broken completely down into the elements that we can draw up and absorb into our accustomed bodies. We need to be able to walk upon the cataclysmic events and draw them into us as plants draw up water. The affable, gently ironic, chagrined self that inhabits Ford’s novels is not confounded.||13|
|Another contemporary novelist, Ian McEwan, likewise the recipient of numerous awards, including the Booker Prize, also has a novel that was written after Sept. 11. It is called Saturday.22 Terrorism is distantly alluded to, as a character wakes in the night and sees a flaming plane descend into Heathrow. “Everyone agrees, airliners look different in the sky these days, predatory or doomed.”23 An atmosphere of ominous threat persists in the novel, but the genuine threat is closer to home, vicious men who take the family hostage, and a neurological disease that is on the edge of killing one of those men. McEwan’s cultured and cultivated prose, skilled and sensitive, erudite beyond any of the others in this group—that self is shaken by personal violence, including his own, but it is unable to encounter the greater strangeness and enormity of that Tuesday.||14|
|Philip Roth, too, has a post-9/11 novel, Exit Ghost, and it, too, has a glancing relation to the “enormity,” a woman who wants to leave Manhattan.24 “I’m scared all the time,” she says.25 But, as with McEwan, there are more immediate threats, namely Nathan Zuckerman’s prostate cancer and his looming death. Postmodern Roth’s self-referential, morally demanding, destabilizing style of writing is still held together by a self-fascination that successfully deflects being confounded by anything other than a mortality that is both terrible enough and not all that strange.||15|
|Only Don DeLillo, in Falling Man (note the title), has written a novel directly about September 11.26 Only DeLillo is responsive to its great strangeness and to the strangeness of those who lived though it. Only he allows “the whole scheme of [his] customary values [to get] confounded.” How? Stylistically DeLillo presents us with what we might call the “riven self.”||16|
|This is a brief paper. I can’t perform the whole analysis of DeLillo’s very, very odd style of writing, let me first quote a passage and then point out a few of his stylistic aspects in that and subsequent paragraphs.||17|
|DeLillo’s style (I would say his self) is made of indefinite pronouns, “It was not a street anymore,” an indefinite way to begin a novel (“Call me Ishmael,” it is not). “It happened everywhere around him.”28 “He watched it coming down.”29 His style (and self) is made of the frequent use of the even more vague pronouns “this” and “that.” “This was the world now… . The world was this as well” without any clear references for those pronouns.30 The style and self is made of truncated conversations, of narrative failure (“There was something critically missing from the things around him. They were unfinished, whatever that means. They were unseen, whatever that means.”31) I could multiple the stylistic elements that would indicate poor writing ordinarily. We might compare Ford, McEwan, and Roth who never write in such a way. They are what we consider to be superb stylists, masters of clear, precise prose. To read them is to feel pleasure and satisfaction: events as difficult as neurological diseases and prostate cancer, criminality, and fear have, as Ford says, percolated from the ground and been rendered in well-shaped, articulate sentences; they have been made into a body and a self that is cohesive, coherent, and accomplished. Not so DeLillo. We admire writing that depicts personality and character, a voice that is a human, even a humane voice. DeLillo’s style depicts an oddly dehumanized self, one that is made of words, not thoughts; one de-contextualized, not contextualized; one abstract not concrete. There is an expression that DeLillo uses for Alzheimer’s patients who are in a writing class in the novel: their writings are of “a mind beginning to slide away from the adhesive friction that makes an individual possible.” DeLillo’s voice in the novel lacks “adhesive friction.”32 It has, in another expression he uses (one terribly appropriate to the event of 9/11), “downdraft.”33||19|
|DeLillo’s self is certainly a strange one. I sometimes feel the impulse to condemn him for dehumanizing the self, for losing the cohesive and coherent self that we can see and admire so much in Ford, McEwan, and Roth, and that I sometimes think is identical with being human and humane, But our standard here is one of blindness. Implicit in James’s essay is the notion that being human and humane means having a remedy to blindness. Do Ford, McEwan, and Roth “feel intensely the importance of their own duties,” as James says, and are they, thus far, blind to the “havoc” of the enormity of September 11 and those who most directly experienced it?34 Does DeLillo, alone, have the “responsive sensibility”? I would say yes. A much more extensive pragmatic analysis is needed, but we can say that, like James, he has loosened the “adhesive friction” of strong authorial control, and there takes place in the self of his style a “downdrift” that values and responds to the other, even if (no, because) that response is confounded and riven. There is no absence of coherence and cohesion, of course. But they are noticeably lessened—in James and DeLillo—so much so, in fact, that what we have might be different in kind. What we have in DeLillo, as in James, or as in “the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves,” might be too strange for us to appreciate.35||20|
1 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science transl. by Walter Kaufman (New York, Vintage, 1974), pp. 300 – 301.
2 William James, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” in Talks To Teachers on Psychology and To Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), pp., 149, 132.
4 Nietzsche, p. 301.
5 James, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” 149.
6 Ibid., 132.
7 Ibid., 133, 138.
8 Ibid., 149.
9 Ibid., 146.
10Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James, Vol. II (Boston: Little, Brown, 1935), p. 668.
11 Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi (New York: New Directions, 1941), 58.
12 Ibid., p. 138.
13 Ibid., p. 149.
14 Charles Winquist, Desiring Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 17-44.
15 James, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” 149.
16 Ibid., 146.
17 These authors have had other novels published since 2001, but those I will look at seem to be their first to actively reflect (or avoid) the events of September 11.
19 Ibid., 138.
20 Richard Ford, The Lay of the Land (New York, Vantage, 2006).
22 Ian McEwan, Saturday (New York: Anchor, 2005).
23 McEwan, 15.
24 Philip Roth, Exit Ghost (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007)
25 Roth, 37.
26 Don DeLillo, Falling Man (New York: Scribners, 2007).
27 Ibid., 3.
28 Ibid., 3.
29 Ibid., 4.
30 Ibid., 3, 4.
31 Ibid., 5.
32 Ibid., 30.
33 Ibid., 32.
34 James, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” 132.
35 Ibid., 132.