Of Metaphors and Moving Vans

Scott McLemee ties up some loose ends from recent columns.

June 2, 2005

Nietzsche somewhere remarks that a scholar will end up consulting about 200 books in the course of a day’s work. This was not (if memory serves) a compliment to academic industriousness. Trying to track down the quotation just now, I find the typical Nietzschean attitude summed up in The Genealogy of Morals: “The proficiency of our finest scholars, their heedless industry, their heads smoking day and night, their very craftsmanship – how often the real meaning of all this lies in the desire to keep something hidden from oneself!”

Well, be that as it may, one thing is clear. If you pull down that many books and don’t reshelve them immediately, you will definitely start losing things in the clutter. And photocopies or JSTOR printouts only make the problem exponentially worse. The situation is no less hopeless for a mere freelance essayist. I would like, for example, to order some Chinese food from a particularly good restaurant, but the menu is probably somewhere underneath a large pile of books and articles about Paul Ricoeur.

Does this reflect an ascetic imperative? Is it proof of  “the desire to keep something hidden from oneself”? What would it mean just to throw the whole pile into a cardboard box and stash it under my desk for a while?   (And furthermore: Is there room?)

In any case, it is in the spirit of grappling with overdue housekeeping that I’d like, today, to wrap up some loose ends, and pursue some tangents, from recent columns.

Last week, Margaret Soltan published a recollection of Paul Ricoeur at her blog, University Diaries. He was, she noted, “Unfailingly intellectually serious. No thigh-slapping, I can tell you that.” The one exception was his delight in “a convoluted story he told about being in Greece and seeing all these trucks that had METAPHOR written on them (this was a seminar on metaphor). How could this be? Then he figured it out! They were moving vans -- metaphor is Greek for among other things, to carry! He laughed with wild abandon at this.”

Then, parenthetically, she apologizes if her memory has played tricks on her. It didn’t. In the memoir portion of Paul Ricoeur: His Life and His Work (University of Chicago, 1996), Charles E. Reagan describes a visit with the philosopher in 1974, when he had just finished writing The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language (University of Toronto Press, 1978).

“I remember him telling me,” writes Reagan, “that, after he had completed the book, he and his family went to Greece for a brief holiday. He said that everywhere he went, he saw trucks with ‘Metaphora’ painted on them. There was no escape from the philosophical theme which had dominated his life for the preceding three years. Then he realized that ‘metaphora’ literally meant ‘moving truck.’”

It’s a good story, and you can see where the coincidence might make a big impression. It doesn’t seem all that funny, but maybe you had to be there.

In April, I interviewed Daniel Green about “Read This!” – the Litblog Coop’s plan’s to drum up attention for new fiction. At the time,  the process of selecting the first book for the group’s collective efforts was still underway. I tried to get somebody to leak the list of nominees, but no such luck.

The announcement came on May 15, with the winning title being Kate  Atkinson's novel Case Histories, published last year by Little, Brown. The decision has provoked discussion and (predictably) a certain amount of complaint.

Meanwhile, at his own site, Green has made an “open invitation” to self-publishing authors of novels and collections of short fiction: “Get a copy of your book into my hands and I will try to review it, or otherwise make it the focus of a post, on this site. I can't absolutely guarantee a review, but certainly if some unnoticed gem comes to my attention, I will make its existence known.”

The man is a candidate for literary sainthood, just for offering. At very least, I see martyrdom in his immediate future.

Some of the most interesting and substantial comments generated by this column appeared in the wake of an interview with Christopher Phelps, the editor of a recent edition of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, first published in serial form 100 years ago.

But another version is selling better, it seems: the so-called “uncensored original edition,” published by a small anarchist press. As of June 1, it was listed at 2,783rd place at Amazon, while the Phelps edition lagged at a very distant 192,877.

The main thing offered by the “unexpurgated” version (as the publisher calls it) is a whole bunch more speechifying at the end of the novel. You also get an exciting taste of conspiracy theory in the introduction to the anarchist edition – with dark hints that powerful forces have tried to “suppress” what Sinclair actually wrote.

The truth is a bit more mundane. The “uncensored” volume consists of the version appearing in a socialist newspaper in 1905. Sinclair himself trimmed the text when it appeared in book form the following year. Nor was this a matter of bowing to commercial pressure. When the author offered a special edition of the novel to subscribers, it was the shorter version.

Phelps sounds nonplused by all the artificial drama. “Haven't these people ever heard that serial fiction tends to be raw and unfinished because it is banged out, week after week?” he writes in an e-mail note. “Haven't they ever heard of editing?

Well, OK. But that’s nowhere near so exciting to imagine.

Not long after writing about the Sartre centennial, I read Norman Mailer’s strange little tribute and complaint. The gist of which is that Sartre’s problem was his atheism.

Instead of the dead end of Sartrean existentialism, it seems the philosopher ought to have created something like Mailer’s own mutant gnosticism. The stuff, in other words, that Irving Howe meant when he referred to as "Mailer as thaumaturgist of orgasm; as metaphysician of the gut; as psychic herb-doctor; as advance man for literary violence; as dialectician of unreason; and above all, as a novelist who has laid waste to his own formidable talent—these masks of brilliant, nutty restlessness, these papery dikes against squalls of boredom." (See also John Leonard’s essay, from which that gem of a quotation was extracted.)

One hesitates to argue with Mailer – who in his prime was known to butt heads with his opponents in the most literal sense of “butting heads.” But wasn’t Sartre, in his own way, the most God-haunted of atheists? Isn’t Being and Nothingness a treatise about the essentially theistic nature of human desire? We seek to become “being-in-itself-for-itself.” (Either that or the other way around.)

This is impossible, but we keep trying anyway. What does Sartre call that? “Bad faith.” And what is required to exist in an authentic way? “Radical conversion.” (That all sounds profoundly theological to me, even if an actually existing deity, as such, is nowhere in the picture.) “He guillotined existentialism,” writes Mailer, “just when we needed most to hear its howl, its barbaric yawp that there is something in common between God and all of us.” On the contrary, Sartre was almost obsessive in pursuing the definition of that very “something in common.”

Then again, Mailer has his own obsessions. “Heidegger spent his working life laboring mightily in the crack of philosophy's buttocks,” he writes, “right there in the cleft between Being and Becoming.” Holy crap!

Finally, a terse comment from a leftist historian teaching at a state university in the Midwest, who has asked to remain anonymous. In response to Tuesday’s column about the National Coalition for History, he writes: “It seems to me that the professional, institutional, budgetary questions of history really ought to be separated from particular historical judgments or trends toward critical approaches to the past in the scholarly field. There is a crisis of public knowledge of history.... I personally wouldn't mind starting with the presidents and making sure everyone knew them. Because [students] don't. They know nothing.”


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays


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