Blinded By the Light, Part I

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

– Walter Benjamin

I’ve always objected to the elevation of historians and critical theorists into “angels.” Since my field intersects heavily with that of the historian, I have dealt with many of them. They tend to be insufferable; not at all invested in the catastrophe before them. My experience of the practice of history is closer to that of the “fish eye,” where you peer over your shoulder while being fucked from behind. History pounds you while it stares back, seeing you glare it at it with one eye open.

Intellectual gossip was always more of a reality for me than the reified, impersonal, names you find in intellectual history. Of course, the gold standard of intellectual gossip is My Encounter With Sartre, where Edward Said transitions into a casual Victorian style anecdote that humanizes and humiliates figures he met on one infamous trip to France. He discusses Simone de Beauvoir’s immense hair, Sartre’s drool, and tells the story of Foucault escaping from Tunisia in drag. After his death, Said’s colleague, bat-shit crazy Gayatri Spivak, wrote an equally amazing essay about her working relationship with Said. After reading it, I wrote to her that the essay had brought tears to my eyes. I didn’t mention that half of them were tears of laughter. The essay detailed the way in which Said constantly made efforts to undermine her personally and institutionally, while it completely “forgot” about the many times Spivak intentionally topped him in her own work. A friend of mine was a student of them both, used as a weapon in the constant war between them. He mentioned to me once being present in the department hallway with Spivak when Said walked up to them. Addressing Spivak, who was half his size, Said patted her on the head — “nice hat Gayatri.” Furious, she turned to the department secretary as Edward walked away to loudly announce, “When Edward dies [at the time, he was receiving treatment for cancer], I want that office!” The office in question was the corner office that Said had won in an extensive campaign against Susan Sontag.

Working at an academic journal, I knew too much about my fellow academics. Gossip thickened the air, even when I simply wanted to concentrate on correcting the format of footnotes. I couldn’t read their work objectively, blind to their personal foibles — the arrogance, hubris, complete absense of humility, or without hearing even of their false modesty (such as Jacques Derrida’s fetish – his grandfather Moses’s scarf which he kept in a bag in the closet, and felt for every night with his eyes closed before going to bed). Sometimes it was because they would write about it. Derrida once wrote an essay discussing how his cat reacts to seeing him naked. Other times, it was because the embittered editors with whom I worked couldn’t stop complaining about others whose careers were different (i.e., successful) from theirs.

Intellectual history ended up being overly embodied for me. I think of the time I asked Zizek a long-winded question, and he, spastic and manic, began making a blah blah blah hand gesture at me that hit like an ice-pick. Or there was the time, after a lecture, when I questioned Spivak about reading untranslated passages of some dumb Indian language, I forget which, maybe Bengali to an audience which, at best, could only follow some French or German. Her answer involved her sidling up to me, forty years my senior in a gold lame sari, batting her lashes over her rare purple eyes, to sensually tell me ” you have a great name.” After some angry, unsolicited comments about Edward Said, she added that “unlike Arabic, Bengali is a beautiful language.”

Until recently, I could not fully understand why one would write an intellectual history as opposed to a rich, gossipy, polemic, like Ann Norton’s book about her time as a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at the University Chicago, studying with the Straussians. Intellectual history strikes me as a game of pong – a back and forth where you discuss such banalities as Adorno’s rejection of Husserl, which serves definitive evidence of “Adorno’s innate rejection of identity theory.” That sort of thing. Snore. It’s called Synoptic Content Analysis, and it’s embraced as a methodology by intellectual historians. Basically, it’s compare and contrast. Less basically, my theologian friend explained to me that the Synoptic Problem is one of the great problems of Biblical textual analysis. Theologians are on a first name basis with the Synoptic Gospels by Mark, Matthew and Luke. It’s obvious that those three gospels are interrelated, but for those who care about things like that, the open question is how so? I found a hilarious graph on Wikipedia, showing various possibilities of “originality” in the gospels. I can’t imagine spending my life playing pong to put together a theory about this kind of problem, but that pedantic exercise is the very basis of the institution of the University.

On the other hand, intellectual history is a means of attaining immortality in scholarly life. Working at a university press, one of my jobs was to sit there going through submissions to the editor. You can’t imagine all the idiosyncratic submissions we would get. Wacked out personal theories about various philosophers, literary figures, literary phenomena, etc., from folks grubbing for tenure, subsistence, basic promotion or from established scholars whose moment had passed them by. I’d type out their thank you for your submission letters at the same time as their rejection letters (which I knew would be inevitable after my editor finished with them on Friday afternoons). I was never once incorrect. On a good day, I cranked out 400 Thank You-We Are Sorry letters. Only very serious, standardized, games of pong would get attention from the boss. We published some absurdities but only by very famous people (famous in their rarefied niches). The expensive book on dinosaurs and literary theory was my absolute favorite (I tried to hock a copy once at a used bookstore, and was shocked that they offered me $3. “That much!?”) Ludicrous submissions from VIPs never passed by my desk. They went directly to the boss’s email. But if you wanted to be cited in perpetuity, though never truly read attentively, an intellectual history parsing some obscure difference between authors was always the way to go.

Martin Jay has had a stellar career writing that kind of thing. His book The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 is one such essential “guide.” It’s on the shelves of every theory inclined graduate student, a Marxian Cliff Notes. Whole dissertations are written to nitpick at Jay. To be honest, I learned a lot more from one of Adorno’s better students, who in a seminar once described Adorno’s encounter with the feminist movement. She was present in his class when “A group of female students who felt that he was deaf to the concerns of global feminism showed up and bared their breasts.” “What did he do?” I asked. Grimly, she would only answer, “he regressed.”

In approaching José Saramago’s Blindness, I reluctantly went up to one of my book cases and pulled out a lesser Martin Jay work, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century French Thought. It was a very academic knee-jerk reaction. Saramago won the Nobel Prize on the basis of several very gimmicky books. Before reading Blindness, I wanted to know what they found so appealing about his take on it. It was important to me to have some grounding in the importance of blindness to European thought. What made this dry move so academic, is that prior to reading the book, I had no basis for thinking that Saramago was deploying a wide array of cultural referents. Not everyone reaches back to Descartes to write a novel. On the other hand, they do if they want to win the Nobel Prize. Even more frightening is what else people do when they want to win the Nobel Prize; they write allegories fetishizing the Holocaust. That thought was so boring and so frightening, that I gave him the benefit of the doubt and hoped that he was simply honored for being lyrical and pedantic. Instead of being fetishistic and politically correct, I prayed he was contrived.

From Jay, I learned that blindness is heavily valued in oral, iconophobic, traditions. Calvin believed it aided access to the “voice of God.” Diderot referred to it as the “miracle of blindness,” arguing, contra idealists, that people who forgo vision possess an equally accessible source of knowledge in touch (at least he didn’t say they have “extra-sensitive hearing”). Surrealists, however, elevated the eye to iconic status within their work, so that Surrealist art critics would argue that blind eyes were “mutilated eyes.” In a reversal of the anti-iconic, anti-Catholic movements, they claimed that the blind lack the “divine spark.” Surrealists, along with many affiliated theorists such as Bataille and his groupies, always were toe-sucking, altar boy molesting, Catholic masochists, so this turn doesn’t come way out of left field.

Another famous masochist, Foucault, had surprisingly interesting and relevant things to say about blindness, as Jay shows. Foucault claimed that to “the classical mind,” insanity referred to a kind of blindness due to dazzlement from the light of reason. “The madman sees the daylight, the same daylight as the man of reason (both live in the same brightness); but seeing this same daylight, and nothing but this daylight, he sees it as void, as night, as nothing.” Foucault continued:

Descartes closes his eyes and plugs up his ears the better to see the true brightness of essential daylight; thus he is secured against the dazzlement of the madman who, opening his eyes, sees only the night, and not seeing at all, believes he sees when he imagines … Unreason is in the same relation to reason as dazzlement to the brightness of daylight itself. And this is not a metaphor. We are the center of the great cosmology which animates all classical culture.

Beside the relevance this passage turned out to have for Saramago’s book, it taught me something else. The pedant — the intellectual historian — lowers his eyes and behaves like a blind man, tapping around in a structuralist binary – back and forth, back and forth – to feel out the differences in history, instead of succumbing to the sensory overload of the intellectual gossip. We’re no longer of the Classical Mind, so what do we do? Dull our senses or walk around blinded by the light? I’m not original. G.K. Chesterton once addressed this very issue of sanctioned, willful, ignorance.

When the scientist talks about a type, he never means himself, but always his neighbour; probably his poorer neighbour. I don’t deny the dry light may sometimes do good; though in one sense it’s the very reverse of science. So far from being knowledge, it’s actually suppression of what we know. It’s treating a friend as a stranger, and pretending that something familiar is really remote and mysterious. It’s like saying that a man has a proboscis between the eyes, or that he falls down in a fit of insensibility once every twenty-four hours.

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