AD: Do you anywhere develop what this ethics of the Other looks like in action, as a way of life?
Emmanuel Lévinas: Oh no. For that you must read [Vasily] Grossman.
A breach of vigilance and I answer an invitation, not as myself (which self?), but as someone else entirely. ”Oh gosh, I’m sorry. Will you please not tell?” ”Sure, no problem. Your secret’s safe with me.” In seventh grade I gave Ty Williams my diary by accident. I meant to give him my History notebook which was the same color and size. What to do? What to do? In the girls’ bathroom clutching my hair. A desperate letter written in the passing period and stuffed in his locker vent. Later that day a vent letter in return, “I didn’t understand what it was. But now that I know I won’t read any more. And I won’t say anything to anyone. I promise.”
I lock the site down anyways. (But why post it online if you don’t want anyone to see it? Why write if you don’t want to be read?) I call Emory all day, but she doesn’t pick up til late. I feel dirty and naked and like I’ve done something wrong. ”You haven’t done anything wrong, sis.” ”Haven’t I?” This is just how I felt as a child, caught in a lie. Except that I’m working so hard to be truthful. “I don’t think that’s it, sis. A pen name isn’t a lie.” I close my eyes, listen to her breath across the line.
“Remember when we were little,” she finally asks, “and we were all the time seeing things we weren’t supposed to see? And remember how the grown ups would stand over us telling us what we in fact saw, even though we could see they were lying? The more right we were, the worse it was for us, so we didn’t saying anything about most things, even to each other, not until we were older, and still.” She stops. She starts again, “I think it’s like that, Cat. It’s not that you’re lying. It’s just that you’re saying what you see, and when you were small you were made to feel ashamed for that, made to disavow yourself. But you’re a grown-up now. And so am I. And it isn’t for anyone to dictate our vision.”
* * *
I’m reading Hamlet with my freshmen. In the midst of Galileo, Bacon, Descartes and Hume they’re grateful for the break. The idea of literature as a break from philosophy worries me and I say so. Anyway, I’m not sure what kind of break it amounts to. The play is breaking me.
We only have two days of class and I want us to see . . . ”I want us to see . . . “: In my head this is how I start every sentence.
I want us to see, really see, this moment in history that is still so much our own: the rise of mercantilism, the Reformation, the invention of the press, cheap textiles which means cheap clothes, and all of a sudden theater . . .
I want us to think about our bodies, our insides and our outsides. I want us to have on hand our familiar anxieties about where exactly the truth of the matter (any matter) resides. What is a coin, and how does it carry its value? What is a word, and how does it carry its meaning? What does the Bible say? Oh yeah? Says who? What are deeds good for? And without their aid, is there any way to discern the workings of the spirit? How will we tell classes apart if everyone’s wearing taffeta? And is that a boy or a girl up there? A hero or a villain? A nobleman or a slave? A Christian or a Jew? How do we know she’s a virgin? There’s only one way to find out . . . I want us to wonder why Hamlet’s world is populated with whores.
I want us to ask whether this is a tragedy of inaction. Really? And then to ask further, What do we, as philosophers, have staked in that conceit? Do these hours — spent in words and thought — count as real hours of our real lives? Here, now, in the classroom, in conversation with one another, or back in our bedrooms, at our desks, writing notes in the margins with our upcoming papers in mind? Aren’t we, as much as Hamlet, prone to soliloquy? And now think of all the havoc Hamlet wreaks! What are the stakes of what we say to ourselves? What hangs in the balance? Are we ever so blessed as to be spared the burden of decision?
I want us to puzzle over the relationship between epistemology and ethics. (Hamlet seems to be looking for more perfect knowledge. Is that in fact what he’s hurting for?) And I want us to bring that puzzle to bear on the relationship between philosophy and tragedy. (How does tragedy prompt us to philosophy? Can we help but think what ought be done in any given moment of the play? What does it mean that our judgment is thwarted, our solutions rendered impossible, by the progressing action on the stage? What are we at then? Racing to catch up without any hope of a finish? And why would we need to practice that? What, if anything, does it have to do with our lives?)
There’s more to talk about, so much more to talk about, but we’re out of time. I would have liked to ask why Hamlet needs Horatio to tell his story for him. And why Horatio needs a stage to tell it. And who will sound out our stories for us? Who will insist that our bodies be borne away like the soldiers we might have been?
* * *
Katy and Jean are hosting this moth’s Creative Writing dinner. Our two most famous members are out of town — he to a Greek isle, she to an Italian monastery, both to write. Their absence should take some of the pressure off, but doesn’t. I’m a wreck of nerves and all the worse for having sworn off alcohol for Lent.
We eat. We chat — gossip mostly. They drink wine. I drink water. Mike serves up generous slices of apricot tort. We move from the dining room to the living room, and out come the dog-eared pages. My pages. Printed from their home computers. Single or double-sided. With typed or handwritten comments. Red or black ink. Stapled or paper-clipped together. Jean waves his pages at me, “Now, Catlin, you know how this goes. You’re not allowed to say anything. We talk. You listen.”
They love it. They love everything about it. They read passages aloud to one another, laugh in all the right places, compare it to published authors’ work, say things like, “I’d give a thumb to have written that sentence!” They go so far as to pick out passages for contest entries and piecemeal publishing. Amy says, “Do you know Rick Johnson, Cat? Oh, right, you can’t talk. Don’t answer that. But send me an email tomorrow, ‘kay? I think he’d be into this and I’m happy to put you in touch.”
I feel happy and sick and like I wish I was drinking. Somewhere in the prose I quote Wittgenstein. Someone makes a crack about Cavell. I forget the rules and pipe up, “Be nice! I mean to write a dissertation on Cavell!”
Something changes. Jean makes a face, “You’re in the only PhD granting program in the country that will accept a creative dissertation and you’re going to write scholarship?” Paul isn’t so nice about it: “It’s a damn waste, Catlin.” Katy shakes her head, “I agree. It’s a shame.” But Paul interrupts her angrily ”You’ve got the fucking gift.” Julia rushes in with diplomacy, “Maybe she has a gift for this other thing too. Scholarship can be a calling.” Her eyes flick to mine. I’m wild inside. She looks back at Paul. Philip brings his elbows to the table, ready to level, “Look, Cat, you’re going to write the best book that’s ever been written on Cavell, or Foucault, or whoever.” Amy finishes his sentence, “And no one will care.” Philip raises his hand, “And a few people will care, but they’ll care for the wrong reasons or in the wrong way, say at the wrong depth. A footnote? A whole bunch of footnotes? That’s not what you want to be. That’s not going to be satisfying for you. You’ve got this other work.”
I drink three full glasses of water, one right after the other. ”Um, excuse me.” I get up to the use the restroom. When I return they’re back in my prose. I pick up where I left off taking notes on their comments. On the carpool ride home, Paul and Julia get in a terrible fight about whether or not criticism can attain to art. Julia speaks of Barthes, Benjamin, Sontag, Auerbach. Paul won’t give them to her. ”It’s a different thing,” he says over and over, “You’re either trying to get your point across, or you’re trying to get a world across. It’s the difference between an argument and a story.” Julia insists, “Stories are often arguments and vice-a-versa!” Paul retorts, “Bad arguments. Bad stories. The very structures undermine one another.” I let the highway noises drown them out. I’m thinking about the words implicit and explicit, implicate and explicate – the one folding in, the other folding out. And I’m thinking about Ophelia, her skirts in the water, spreading wide like her legs wouldn’t, her mad songs and her sanity, her days and her nights.