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Redemption from Egotism by Richard Rorty

  1. Jun 2, 2003 #1
    "Redemption from Egotism" by Richard Rorty

    REDEMPTION FROM EGOTISM: JAMES AND PROUST AS SPIRITUAL EXERCISES
    by Richard Rorty

    1. Bloomian autonomy and the avoidance of cant

    Harold Bloom is America’s wisest, most learned, and most helpful student of literature. He has recently published a book called HOW TO READ AND WHY. In it he says that “The ultimate answer to the question ‘Why read?’ is that only deep, constant reading fully establishes and augments an autonomous self.” (p. 195)

    By “reading” Bloom means “reading novels, plays, short stories and poems”. The dozens of books that he tells us how to read in his new book do not include any philosophical works. It is an implicit premise of his work that imaginative, rather than argumentative, literature is the most efficient way to achieve autonomy. The philosophers and religious writers he discusses in his other books are people like Emerson and Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism—writers who make as little use of argument as do Pindar or Nabokov. By using “reading” to mean reading books which do not argue, Bloom is falling in with the practice of what I have been calling, in these lectures, “the literary culture”.

    Much of Bloom’s advice about how to read concerns the need to avoid what he calls “ideology”. When he uses this term, he is thinking primarily of attempts to use Heideggerian-Derridean critiques of metaphysics, or Marxist-Foucauldian critiques of capitalism or of “power”, to tell you what to look for when reading imaginative literature. He believes—rightly, in my opinion--that the dominance in US departments of literature first of “theory” and then of “cultural studies” has made it more difficult for students to read well. For such attempts to give politics or philosophy hegemony over literature diminish the redemptive power of works of the imagination.

    Bloom’s criticism of transitory and local academic fashions is not terribly important in itself. But it underlines his conviction that it is imaginative novelty, rather than argumentation, that does most for the autonomy of the entranced reader. Bloom need not deny that works of political economy such as Marx’s, or of philosophy such as Derrida’s, can offer such novelty, nor that exposure to such novelties can transform a reader’s life. But the kind of autonomy he is thinking of is primarily the sort that liberates one from one’s own previous ways of thinking about the lives and fortunes of individual human beings.

    It is by causing us to rethink our judgments of particular people that imaginative literature does most to help us break with our own pasts. The resulting liberation may, of course, lead one to try to change the political or economic or religious or philosophical status quo. Such an attempt may begin a lifetime of effort to break through the received ideas that serve to justify present-day institutions. But it also may result merely in one’s becoming a more sensitive, more knowledgeable, wiser person. The latter is the sort of change that comes over Lambert Strether (the hero of James’ novel THE AMBASSADORS). This sort of change—increase of sympathy rather than change of ideas—contrasts with the sort of change that comes over Tom Joad (the hero of Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH), and also with the sort described in novels that focus on loss or acquisition of religious faith.

    Bloom’s thesis about how to attain this sort of autonomy chimes with my claim that the replacement of religion and philosophy by literature is a change for the better. We are both saying that the best way to achieve Heideggerian authenticity—the best way, as Nietzsche said, to “become who you are”—is not to ask “what is the truth?” but rather to ask “what sorts of people are there in the world, and how do they fare?”

    Answers to this question are provided by novels like Steinbeck’s, Zola’s and Stowe’s—novels that tell you about the wretchedly poor. They are also provided by novels like James’ and Proust’s that tell you about rich people expanding their horizons. Reading either sort of novel may help the reader to transcend the parents, teachers, customs, and institutions that have blinkered her imagination, and thereby permit her to achieve greater individuality and greater self-reliance.

    Bloom regards ideology—in the sense of a set of general ideas which provide a context in which the reader places every book she reads--as an enemy of autonomy. Insofar as he is suspicious of treatises by theologians and philosophers it is because he fears they may give rise to bad reading habits. His ideal reader hopes that the next book she reads will recontextualize all the books she has previously read-—that she will encounter an authorial imagination so strong as to sweep her off her feet, transport her into a world she has never known existed. In this new world, all the authors and characters with whom she has previously been acquainted will look different—as Milton looks different when one encounters him in Blake, Hegel when one encounters him in Marx, or Hamlet when one encounters him in Eliot. The reader’s real-life friends, relations and neighbors will also look different, as will their motives and choices.
    .................



    Read the Rest of this Essay Here
     
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  3. Jun 3, 2003 #2
    This essay is also in Rorty's book, Philosophy and Social Hope. I strongly recommend it for anyone who's interested in philosophy.
     
  4. Jun 3, 2003 #3
    It isn't philosophy, its politics.
     
  5. Jun 3, 2003 #4
    Well, you can't really make a judgement about the book from just that one essay.
     
  6. Jun 3, 2003 #5
    No, but it is quite representative of everything I've ever seen written by the man. If you have a different insight, please post it.
     
  7. Jun 4, 2003 #6
  8. Jun 4, 2003 #7
    Re: "Redemption from Egotism" by Richard Rorty

    A fascinating bit of insight. Thank you for posting that, RageSk8.
     
  9. Jun 5, 2003 #8
    Most of Rorty's rescent writing has had a political slant. In his old age he is becoming much more politically vocal. But one should note his extensive philosophical backround and impact. His book "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" (published in 1979) was a landmark work. Besides, philosophy and politics have always overlapped.
     
  10. Jun 5, 2003 #9
    Philosophy has also overlapped with just about every other endevor humanity has ever undertaken. That is not the point. That he has gone from simple moralizing to political stumping comes as no surprise considering his so called "philosophy." At some point, we must exchange the word philosophy for politics, morality, etc. else these words loose all meaning by his own standards, much less anyone elses.
     
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