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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Singin’ That Old Frank Sinatra Song

About halfway through my graduate degree program in philosophy, my then-advisor and I came to an unhappy impasse over a paper I wrote for his seminar on Nietzsche and Scheler. My paper was about Nietzsche’s quarrels with moral language. He wanted his meanings to be completely unambiguous. He wanted what I called a few years later, in my dissertation (under a different advisor), ‘univocity,’ that is, meanings with clear, bright, tight boundaries that could not be crossed. Nietzsche wanted to be the Autocrat of his meanings. But language isn’t like that. Wanting meaning to be that way is like wanting to create a playing card with only one side: peel away as many wafer-thin layers as you can, the card will still always have two sides.

My professor was not happy with my paper because my interpretation of Nietzsche was not one he recognized. He kept asking me to write more, but no matter how much I explained, it was always inadequate, although I think I made it as clear as clear could be and am sure readers untrained in philosophy will have at least some clue from the paragraph above what I meant. (“Wanting meaning to be that way is like wanting to create a playing card with only one side: peel away as many wafer-thin layers as you can, the card will still always have two sides.”) The professor never did get it and ultimately gave me a B++++ on the re-re-rewritten paper. There is something in academic philosophy called “the principle of charity,” which tells readers to assume that the writer whose work they are reading is not a moron and to make every effort to understand the writer’s position before criticizing it. The principle of charity is almost never extended to students. Why should it be? How could a student, of any age, possibly have anything important to say?

I had loved my superficial reading of Thus Spake Zarathustra when encountering it as a high school senior. The pages of my dog-eared paperback copy were black with underlining, the inside of the back cover thick with my personal index of topics and page numbers. The poetry seduced me. And don’t most adolescents feel like misunderstood outsiders? “Where the rabble drink, all wells are poisoned” -- one of my favorite lines! There was another about poets’ ink-stained fingers. Ah! But in the seminar room and at home in my spartan graduate student apartment I realized that my old infatuation with Nietzsche was dead and over. Twenty years past high school, all I could see in the writing was an unhappy misfit, railing at the whole rest of the world for not recognizing his genius. Jealous of Jesus, furious with God for not existing, and disdaining the “rabble,” Nietzsche made a preemptive strike against his critics, claiming that only in the future would he be understood. Clever move!

Sadly for Nietzsche, it is a feature of philosophy and history that no one has ever has “the last word.” To paraphrase Richard Feynman, we live our lives and make our mistakes, and then we die. I would add, and then our children and grandchildren and surviving friends and enemies get to say anything they like about us. Trying to have the last word, to forestall criticism, is like trying to fence in the meaning of words. Evolution of meaning and secret, coded meanings and reinterpretation and reevaluation are possibilities that will always exist, and no unhappy philosopher can hold them at bay.

During the weeks I was rewriting my Nietzsche paper over and over, I was unhappy – not because the work was difficult but because I knew my attempts were doomed in advance. A difficult assignment may be a challenge and a spur, as was my original self-assigned investigation of Nietzsche’s views on language. An impossible assignment, one given by another who will never be satisfied, is an exercise in futility. Fortunately, the seminar requirements offered a choice of options: one long paper for the semester or two short ones. I took the B++++ on Nietzsche and set him aside. Scheler and I were much more compatible, and the professor would not be threatened by my views on Scheler. Indeed, I received an A on the Scheler paper.

In those days, we did not all have our own PCs or laptops, and so the graduate student computer room, with its rows of monitors, keyboards, and printers, was where we ground out pages and pages of work, in company but only rarely in conversation with one another. Finally, during one of these rare conversations, a dissertation-stage student could hold back no longer on the subject of the professor whose seminar had cost me such agony and who was still, then, my advisor. “Save yourself!” this usually calm, sedate young man burst out passionately. “You’ll never finish with him! None of his students ever finish!”

That professor’s students did not complete their degree programs because their dissertations always needed more work. The way I thought of it was that he wanted his recognizable fingerprints on the work. Until it conformed to his views and style, it was “not ready.”

I made my escape. Transferring to another advisor, I put together a committee. My committee members (three men) were as different from each other as they could be, in terms of their philosophical interests, but the one thing they had in common was a willingness to let me do my own work. They had their own work and no desire to take over mine. Instead, one of them would ask me a simple question or make a gentle suggestion, and I would go away and work alone for several more months. In the end, I finished, and I will always be grateful to my committee for giving me room to find my own way.

Working on a project that is mine makes me happy. Working to find my own way, my own words, my own writing path means the world to me. If I am pleased with the work – and I am my own severest critic -- I have succeeded; if it falls short of what I wanted it to be, it is not a success, whatever anyone else might say. The one thing that can make me unhappy with writing is having someone else trying to mold and shape my work to satisfy his vision rather than mine. If I were still working in an office, clocking in and out, receiving a regular paycheck – or even if I were still an undergraduate, taking required classes, doing required reading and churning out required papers – I would have to knuckle under to the demands of other people and give them what they want. But I would only be doing that in exchange for future freedom, and for me those exchanges are long past.

I no longer have time to postpone being myself. The stories and letters and blog posts and book reviews I write now are things I want to write, written in the way I want to write them. 


Dawn said...

What a great line - "I no longer have time to postpone being myself." I considered doing a PhD rather than a masters when I went back...but just wanted to work in a library, not teach at a university. Still it would have been a great challenge and quite the accomplishment if I had challenged myself that way. If I had unlimted funds maybe I'd do that someday...regardless...congratulations on getting through! Do you miss those days? I often miss my school days and when we're on campus for some event I am soooo nostalgic!

P. J. Grath said...

I miss my cohort. They were mostly much younger, a couple young enough I could have been their mother, but our common interest in philosophy was more important than age. There were four of us who shared an office, and we got along great. I also miss long mornings working in cafes, reading and writing without interruption (unless I wanted to stop and visit with a friend). I don't miss the politics. I miss the professors who loved teaching and really listened to students and didn't pull rank for the hell of it. I don't miss those who were so unhappy in their own careers that they made life hell for their graduate students. I miss the intense life of mind and culture to be found on a university campus . . . the cool bookstores and bars . . . the feeling of youth that is part of a campus. I don't miss the idealism that is so extreme it is constantly slipping over the edge into nihilism. I don't miss Nietzsche one single bit.

dmarks said...

"Thus Spake Zarathustra" is also very well known as the name of a piece of music, main theme for "2001: A Space Odyssey".

Something I knew from the age of 4 or so. I wasn't to encounter the name of Nietzsche until many years later.