A few months ago, I found myself in the fortunate but ultimately agonizing position of having to choose between PhD programs in two fields that I love: comparative literature and philosophy.
Literature and philosophy have always appeared to me to be so closely bound up with each other that to choose between them felt like something of a betrayal, like deciding between my right hand and my left. My philosophical interests are rarely explicitly literary, and my literary interests aren’t always overtly philosophical, but the two disciplines have always seemed to me to share a central set of concerns and perhaps even a central sensibility. Their orientation is curious, critical, and, crucially, hopeful. Though there’s some philosophy that seems to me to reconcile itself before the complexity of a hostile language (this philosophy is mostly of the postmodern variant that may fall more precisely under the heading of “theory,”), the literature and philosophy I love meet the postmodern challenge head-on, constructing (or at least attempting to construct) something lasting and formidable out of flimsy linguistic implements. Literature and philosophy of this sort–the courageous, incorrigibly earnest sort–have always occupied the same core part of my incorrigibly earnest, if not particularly courageous, self.
In the end, I opted to pursue philosophy, for reasons I’m happy to explain to anyone who asks, and I’ll start as a PhD candidate therein at Harvard in the fall. But I didn’t choose philosophy over literature so much as I chose to do my philosophical work in one setting and my literary work in another. I want very badly to engage very seriously with literature for the rest of my life, and I want to be held accountable for my engagement: I want to write articles and essays that figure into, or at least could figure into, a broader conversation. There’s something invaluable about solitary encounters with texts, but there’s also something uniquely fulfilling about dialogue. Why write or think at all if you don’t come up against critical resistance by so doing? Hence, this blog, where I’ll do my best to write insightful essays about the things I’m reading and thinking about–and where I’ll try in equal measure to frame my thoughts so as to invite criticism, challenges, objections, and the like.
This blog takes its name from a Kafka quote that appeared in a letter to the author’s friend, Oskar Pollak. I’ll reproduce the quotation here in its complete form:
Ich glaube, man sollte überhaupt nur solche Bücher lesen, die einen beißen und stechen. Wenn das Buch, das wir lesen, uns nicht mit einem Faustschlag auf den Schädel weckt, wozu lesen wir dann das Buch? Damit es uns glücklich macht, wie Du schreibst? Mein Gott, glücklich wären wir eben auch, wenn wir keine Bücher hätten, und solche Bücher, die uns glücklich machen, könnten wir zur Not selber schreiben. Wir brauchen aber die Bücher, die auf uns wirken wie ein Unglück, das uns sehr schmerzt, wie der Tod eines, den wir lieber hatten als uns, wie wenn wir in Wälder verstoßen würden, von allen Menschen weg, wie ein Selbstmord, ein Buch muß die Axt sein für das gefrorene Meer in uns. Das glaube ich.
Which translates, roughly, to something like this:
I believe that we should only read books that bite and stab us. If a book that we’re reading doesn’t deal us a blow on the neck, what are we reading it for? To make ourselves happy, as you write? My god, we would also be happy if we had no books, and we could write the books that make us happy in a pinch. No, we need books that affect us like a disaster, that wound us like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from anyone else, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.
This, I think, is what literature alone can achieve. Philosophy is beautiful, intricate, and confounding, like a puzzle or a labyrinth or a piece of ingenious machinery. But it is not an axe for the frozen sea within us. I love it equally but differently. And as I pursue it, I want to keep wielding the axe–and breaking myself with it, over and over again.