My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

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Friday, April 23, 2010


This is perhaps as good a time as any to say something about the effect of my relationship with Cindy on my knowledge of literature and the techniques of its interpretation. I have never been an avid reader of classy fiction. As I have already noted, I began as a boy with an interest in Sherlock Holmes, moved on to science fiction, switched to detective fiction in college, and on occasion read the odd schlock spy novel. While fulfilling my undergraduate Humanities requirement with a single year long survey course, I had in fact read The Brothers Karamazov, and that had prompted me, unbidden, to plow through Crime and Punishment and The Idiot as well. I had read War and Peace as a graduate student, although I needed the encouragement of the Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrar, Anita Ekberg movie to make it all the way through, and I must admit, with considerable embarrassment, that in my first graduate year, during a rather dark night of the soul, I read The Fountainhead. But literature was not, by any stretch of the imagination, my constant companion.

Nevertheless, when Cindy started working on some author, I routinely plunged in and read a bunch of the books she was dealing with. Partly this was simply out of curiosity, of course, but much more was going on. I found Cindy's mind fascinating -- powerful, intuitive, original. Though I did not know much about literature, I knew a good deal about intelligence, and Cindy was the genuine article. In some ways, Cindy's intellectual relation to her field resembled my relation to mine. Neither of us was a typical academic scholar. Cindy had an uncanny ability to get inside the head of an author on whom she was working, in order to divine the complex of feelings that drove the work. I puzzled over this ability a good deal, because it was so different from the way my mind worked. I was constantly struggling to find the core idea in a text and then to reconstruct it into a rigorous argument. Cindy seemed to be able to let down the psychic barrier between herself and the author and somehow allow the author to live in her mind, so that she could, in effect, know what the author was thinking not by examining texts but rather by merely introspecting. This ability, which I finally came to understand was the cause of a good deal of the trouble in our marriage, was a source of enormous strength in Cindy's work. It is perhaps not so obvious in her first book, on Samuel Richardson, but it is clearly at the heart of the brilliance of her books on Edith Wharton and Emily Dickinson.

During our twenty-three year marriage, I discussed Cindy's reading with her, listened to her textual explications and interpretations, read every word she wrote, commented on it, edited it, and slowly, by what I have on occasion referred to only half-jokingly as pillow talk, acquired a fairly sophisticated understanding of great fiction. Although I learned almost everything I know about literature from Cindy, I was never able to incorporate an author into myself in the way she did. I would not say I was an autodidact, because I did not teach myself. I suppose I might be called an uxor-didact, if such a word could exist. Those twenty-three years contained too much pain and strife to be called happy, but the intellectual bond between us never weakened. Even near the end, when we were struggling unsuccessfully to hold the marriage together, we continued to talk about her work, which by then focused on Emily Dickinson.

Although I have not thus far said much about my own writing, save for the books on Kant and deterrence theory, I was fairly regularly writing about political issues and also the occasional philosophical piece. While still at Harvard, I wrote a piece for the Nation on "Moral Standards in Foreign Policy," and also published an attack on Herman Kahn in The New Republic [back before Marty Peretz got his hands on it] called The Game of War." Osborne produced a splendid cover cartoon for the piece, which led off the February, 1960 issue. Stanley Hoffman, the wry, mordant political scientist who was the first Director of Social Studies at Harvard, put me in touch with s French journal called Les Cahiers de la République, in which I published two articles. I also wrote a number of pieces for the Committees of Correspondence Newsletter. I wrote some reviews for The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and I contributed pieces to New University Thought and Dissent. I never thought of any of this as a contribution to scholarship, of course, and in my vita, I actually separate it out from my philosophical work. The books on Kant and deterrence pretty much constituted my serious writing in this period, although I did publish, in the Chicago based journal Ethics, the first of what would be many essays on the relationship between formal models and normative theory, under the title "Reflections on Game Theory and the Nature of Value." I even found time to review Laws of Freedom by the excellent and always under-appreciated Kant scholar, Mary Gregor.

As our first year of marriage was nearing an end, Ingrid Stadler wrote to say that she was going on leave from her position at Wellesley, and asked whether I would be interested in spending a year as a visitor replacing her. Cindy and I were not happy to be living in Chicago, and I jumped at the opportunity to move back East. Since Bert Dreyfus was teaching in the Humanities Department at MIT, I thought I might be able to wangle a professorship there so that we could stay in Cambridge. Cindy got a job teaching Freshman Composition at B. U. for the year [always a back-breaking assignment], and we prepared to move East.

At about that time, my Kant book actually appeared. I held the first copy reverentially, smelled the pages, and ran my hand over the slightly nubby cover. Then I opened it to the page of Acknowledgements, and my heart stopped. I had written an effusive encomium to C. I. Lewis, who had been my model of what a philosopher should be, explaining that I had been privileged to attend his lectures on Kant. At least that is what I thought I had written. There on the page, it said "attend his lectures at Kant." I may very well be the only person who ever saw that error -- it was corrected in the next printing. But then, when the architect of a beautiful formal garden casts her eye over the ranks of exquisitely organized plants, she probably only sees the single petunia whose head is drooping.

With this post, I bring to a close the first chapter of Volume Two of my memoirs. Tomorrow, I shall begin Chapter Two.


Pranay said...

Ayn Rand was my intellectual heroine between the ages of 10-12, and The Fountainhead my favourite book; until I read Atlas Shrugged, obviously.

The horror, the horror!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

The pre-teen years are the appropriate time for an infatuation with Rand. Unfortunately, Alan Greenspan never made it out of his pre-teens, and we all had to suffer for it.