I would like to say something about how I write. Since what I have to say will be, among other things, embarrassingly self-congratulatory, I am going to invoke the fiction that I am responding to several email messages from admiring readers who have asked me about the subject. The NSA, no doubt, will know that this is false, but even someone as self-absorbed as I must acknowledge that the NSA has better things to occupy itself with, so I am pretty sure they will not out me.
Reviewing the books I have written, and the essays, reviews, speeches, and drafts that I have chosen to include in my Collected Papers, I am struck by how often I employ humor of one sort or another in writings with a deadly serious purpose. It is worth asking [at least it is worth it to me -- here is where the element of self-congratulation enters] why I have chosen to do that.
Let me give just a few examples. In the third chapter of Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, I undertake to explain the precise meaning of the famously mysterious section of Chapter One of Das Kapital in which Marx goes on at great length about the Relative and Equivalent forms of value. Heaven knows, I am not a scholar of the vast international secondary literature on Capital, but I am unaware of any other student of Marx who has ever succeeded in explaining that puzzling passage in precise, clear, non-technical language. Louis Althusser considers the first chapter so formidable that he actually recommends that readers skip it until they have mastered the rest of Volume One. So why on earth do I introduce my explication by telling an old Jewish joke about Mrs. Feinschmeck’s Blintzes, the structure of which, I claim, is exactly the same as Marx’s account of the relative and equivalent forms of value?
My review of Allan Bloom’s awful book, The Closing of the American Mind, the preface of which is by Bloom’s colleague in the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, novelist Saul Bellow, is written entirely on the absurd premise that the book is actually a novel by Bellow in which Bloom is a brilliantly realized character.
My “unpublishable” account of a conference on Kant’s Philosophy of Law is presented, à la Kierkegaard, as having been written by “Johannes Climacus” [the pseudonym that Kierkegaard uses for both The Philosophical Fragments and for The Concluding Unscientific Postscript.] the account is full of satirical sketches of the participants and, at one point, argues that legal scholars view Kant’s arguments in the way that players of Dungeons and Dragons view weapons they acquire along the way as conferring on them large numbers of “hit points.”
What is going on? Can’t I just be serious?
There are three reasons why I choose to write in this fashion, aside from the simple fact that it amuses me to do so. The first is that I have spent my entire professional career trying as hard as I can to make really difficult ideas simple and clear, so that I can show them in all their beauty to a class of students or a group of readers. Most philosophers [but not the greatest of them, of course] seem to spend their time trying to make simple ideas appear suitably complicated and obscure. These authors strike me as being fearful that if they say what they have to say simply and clearly, no one will realize how smart they are. Analogizing Marx’s obscure argument to a joke is my way of saying, “Look! I have now made this so clear, so simple, so immediately comprehensible, that it is no harder to understand than a joke. Now you can enjoy the beauty of Marx’s argument, as I do, immediately and spontaneously, in the way that one laughs at a joke.”
The second reason is more complicated. As I explained in my tutorial, “Ideological Critique,” Karl Mannheim shows us that the aim of the speaker in an ideological exchange is not merely to refute one’s opponents but to defeat them, destroy them, shame them, ridicule them, drive them from the field of battle. Ideological polemic, unlike scholarly discourse, is a form of warfare. Some of my writings have this character. I am angry, offended, repelled by my opponents, not simply convinced that they are mistaken about some point of logic or philosophical explication. But righteous anger has the often unintended effect of acknowledging one’s opponent as an equal. If I were to review Bloom’s book straightforwardly, advancing arguments against his central theses, I would be accepting him as an equal, according him a place in the arena of debate equivalent to my own. The deliberate purpose of satirical humor is precisely to reject that equivalence. I laugh at those beneath me, not at my equals. In the case of the Bloom review, I hit upon the ultimate rebuke. After all, what is the absolute worst one can say about an author for whom one has contempt? Not that he is incorrect. Not that his views are without foundation. Not even that his stance is immoral. The worse one can say about him is: that he does not exist!
The account of the conference on Kant’s legal theories is a gentler example of the same impulse. I was not offended by the participants in the conference [save for one of them, a really despicable homophobe], but I was amused by their pretension. The frame I chose allowed me to make gentle fun of them, while also taking seriously the handful who had contributed genuinely interesting and scholarly contributions to the discussions.
The third reason is entirely self-aggrandizing. I am blessed with an unshakeable confidence in my own superior intelligence [whether deserved or not!], with the result that I feel no need to demonstrate it by writing obscurely. It is not for nothing that I chose as the epigraph for my Autobiography Emily Dickinson’s great short poem, “I am nobody, who are you/Are you nobody too?”, which is, among other things, Dickinson’s declaration of her superiority to every other poet of her time. By writing in a humorous vein about genuinely difficult and obscure matters, I conceive myself as dancing gracefully through the realm of ideas, in much the same way [although I really do not in any way compare myself to him!] that Bach plays with the rigorous and difficult form of the fugue by writing crab fugues and inverted fugues with effortless ease.
Let me conclude this little ode to myself with one more appallingly inappropriate analogy. Far and away the greatest contemporary cellist is Yo Yo Ma. He has so completely mastered the ferociously difficult technique of the cello that when he plays, he looks as though he is not so much producing the music as listening to it. There is something about the way he holds the cello, leaning back away from it as though it were playing itself, that communicates that he need no longer even think about the fingerings and bowings that absorb the attention of lesser cellists. The great Russian cellist Rostropovich used to play in much the same manner. God knows, I do not think of myself as a satirist in the same world as Jonathan Swift, say, but there are times when I feel like Fast Eddy Felsen, moving around the pool table with an animal grace, secure in the knowledge that he cannot miss.