Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON
LECTURE ONE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d__In2PQS60
LECTURE TWO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al7O2puvdDA

ALSO AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ONE THROUGH TEN ON IDEOLOGICAL CRITIQUE



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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

NAVEL GAZING


As I plodded along this morning on my four mile walk in 26 degree cold, bundled up in my thermal underwear, two sweaters, and a hoodie, I congratulated myself on my stoic determination and self-discipline.  Quite naturally, my thoughts turned to the seventeenth century English Puritans, who were virtuosi of self-discipline.  By turns exalted and bedeviled by the doctrine of predestination, they obsessively examined their every thought and action to determine whether they had been from all eternity chosen for salvation or damnation by an omnipotent and unforgiving God.  Their favorite literary instrument for this self-examination [which, oddly, gave rise to the earliest English novels of Samuel Richardson] was the Puritan diary, a daily record of one's doings, written "to the minute" without forethought or artistry.  Afterwards, it could be re-read for tell-tale signs.  The experience kept them on a knife edge of anxiety.  Too self-critical, and one might be guilty of the sin of despair, a clear sign of damnation.  But too self-congratulatory, and one was clearly guilty of the sin of pride, equally incompatible with salvation.

The twentieth century secular descendant of this torment is the Rorschach ink-blot test.  Subjects are shown bilaterally symmetrical abstract black or red-and-black designs of the sort that might be made by spilling ink on a sheet of paper and folding it over vertically.  They are then asked to report what they see -- there being nothing at all actually to see, of course.  Salvation and damnation, alas, are not on offer, but schizophrenia may be, and at the very least one's previously private sexual predilections will be on display as one reports that this blot looks like a couple in flagrante delicto, that one like a woman handcuffing and beating a submissive man.

All of which [it is a very long walk, and it was very cold] made me reflect on the curious activity known as blogging.  Blogging has much in common with the Puritan writing to the minute, for there is really no time for reflection, editing, and wiser second thoughts.  The first few posts may be the product of a long gestation, but as day after day passes, and that blank screen sends out its "objective demand" to be filled [quite as unnerving as an ink blot], one cedes editorial control to the subconscious.

What can my readers tell about me, I wondered, from the daily flow of my posts?  A disquieting thought.  Two things came immediately to mind.  Quite obviously, I am more than ordinarily concerned about my age, and about my literary reputation or lack thereof.  These subjects seem to crop up whenever I have no more pressing subject for a post.  It is also obvious that I am afflicted with what might be called an intellectual form of synaesthesia.   Synaesthesia is a neurological condition in which the pathways from sense organs to brain get crossed, so that, for example, the stimulation of the optic nerve will produce the sensation of a sound, or the stimulation of the auditory nerve will generate the sensation of a smell.  In my writing, I am constantly making exceedingly unlikely and even outré connections between materials drawn from quite different literary spheres or spheres of experience.  The opening of this blog post is itself a good example.

When I had reached this point in my musings, roughly halfway through my walk, I found that my fingers were beginning to regain sensation and my face was no longer frozen into the simulacrum of a smile, so I stopped brooding and began to look about for signs of a Blue Heron or a deer.

3 comments:

David Auerbach said...

There's the great old joke about Rorschach tests, whose punchline (you can reconstruct the joke from the punchline) is: I'm obsessed with sex?? You're the one showing me all those dirty pictures!

Nick said...

While not directly related to this post, I just discovered that José Saramago, the Portuguese author, published The Notebook--a collection of his blog posts for a year (Sept. 2008-August 2009).

Since every now and then you worry about blogging and its seeming triviality and navel-gazing, I figure that if a Nobel laureate kept a blog (and turned it into a book!) then blogging is entirely respectable.

Jim Westrich said...

I often think of José Saramago when reading this blog (just recently was discussing refusing awards I thought of Saramago's Nobel Speech--no refusal or protest but yet skewered the notion of the honor).

If nothing else I (and this undoubtedly just me) would love to hear Prof. Wolff's comments on The Cave, Seeing and Cain even though he has never read them!

Maybe Nick's suggestion of the Notebook will make it possible.