Holden Battles the Summer Doldrums: Post 3 - Intoxication and White Teeth

This was my re-read week, not just because these two books are worth re-reading, but because I wasn't able to fully appreciate these books when I read them the first time.

The first, Intoxication by Jean-Luc Nancy, was a book I had a group of students at Westminster College read in our fledginling Philosophy Book Club. Unfortunately, the book club didn't last long; people were too busy to read dense philosophy that as an extracurricular activity. We might twice as a group and made it 2/3 of the way of through this book before the experiment... "die" is too harsh; I'll say, "before the experiment 'fell asleep.'" Anyways, I've wanted to finish this book ever since.

It is a mixture of philosophy and literary theory although that characterization might be redundant from Nancy's viewpoint, because, for him, the boundaries between literature and philosophy are blurred, despite these two genre's protests. On one hand, this book is about alcohol and thinking, the ecstasy of Drunkenness contrasted with the sobriety of Reason. Supposed enemies ever since Socrates demonstrated his intellectual mastery by drinking gluttonously and never becoming drunk in the Symposium. On the other hand, this book is about how silly binary distinctions are, and why distinctions between reason and drunkenness, and their respective analogs of philosophy and literature (Nancy includes poetry under the umbrella "literature") are less distinct then people typically treat them.

How does Nancy demonstrate this point? In classic deconstructive style, Nancy demonstrates that while philosophers historically abhorred the unreason of drunkenness, they depended on the ecstatic illumination of alcohol's 'higher' effect: ivresseIvresse is a French word that roughly means "intoxication," but connotes a transformative or contemplative state of mind. Ivresse produces ecstasy, which comes from the Greek ekstasis, which in turn directly translates to "to be beside onself," or more tactfully put perhaps (I'm no Classicist) "to be in another state of mind." Socrates impressed his students with his ability to remain sober, but it was only through his intoxication in the Symposium that he is able to discuss atypical topics for himself: love, comraderie, and poetry. Nancy's claim seems to be that we get a fresh, unique Socrates in that dialogue. Of course, he continues to find other examples in Hegel, Nietzsche, and others.

Why does Nancy make this point? Who cares about what kind of drunk Socrates was? Well, pointing out how philosophy desperately needs the very thing it purportedly rejects (unreason, drunkenness, ecstasty, or whatever name you want to give it) suggests that philosophy and philosophers aren't so different than novelists and poets. Historically, literature maintains an ambivalent relationship with scenes of drunkenness, and Nancy does a good job of detailing the highlights. The kernel I took away is that literature has a more honest relationship with the world and knowledge; by embracing unreason, even madness, literature is more holistic. Philosophy, on the other hand, depends on the reason-madness or sense-nonsense division to proceed. I mean, a common understand of what philosophers do is sniff out the truth, or at the very least they produce verifiable claims that follow some reproducible or clear line of thought. This fence is illusory and dishonest, but sometimes necessary for Nancy.

Of course, this assumes all philosophers have the same method, same goals, or are involved in the same traditions. So, for me, while Nancy's book was fun to read, I'm not sure it illuminated much. Furthermore, Nancy is assuming his reader has a deeper background knowledge than Sam Harris or some other 'popular' 'philosophers' do. I'm just not sure that having that background knowledge makes Nancy's claims more significant or not. Nonetheless, as I said, it's a fun read if you enjoy philosophy, especially deconstruction. (If you don't know what "deconstruction" is, or you do, but want to learn more, you can follow that hyperlink, read this or that book, watch this video, or do all four!)

Now my confession: I am only halfway through White Teeth, so I'll be writing about it again next week. I don't feel especially bad, troubled, or stressed about this. I had other obligations and did other things this week that kept me away from reading. Comme ci, comme ├ža

The first time I attempted this, I was a sophomore in college and I read irregularly; it took me six or seven months to finish, not because this book is difficult or especially long, but because I didn't make time for it. It should go without saying that this is a poor way to read most books. (As an example of an exception, one of co-workers mentioned that reading Herodotus over a year was the best approach for him.) However, I remember thinking it was bright, funny, and unique. I'm glad to report that this impression was correct. I'm enjoying this book a great deal, and it's won my vote for "America's Best Love Novel" through The Great American Read being conducted by PBS this summer and fall. (Check out The GAR here.)

White Teeth is the story of two families, seemingly too different to be in contact with one another, because Englishman, Jamaican nationals, and Bengal immigrants hardly mixed in U.K. (or anywhere, really) during the latter half of the twentieth-century (that may still be the case today, but I don't want to generalize unnecessarily). But  Archibald Jones and Samal Iqbal have tied the destinies of their families together. Indeed, Smith, or rather the narrator, has a wry way of making you believe that everything that happens in this story is guided by fate, determined by events far in the past. At its heart, this book is about navigating a postcolonial world, the unreasonable worship of Reason, and the quirky way people turn ignorance and superstition into factual history and essentialisms about human nature. The wit grabs me, but the way this book distills the schizophrenic, short-circuit-on-rapid-fire way of this world arrests me.

I want to say more about what I mean by that next week, and I want to delve into this word and idea "postcolonial", but for now I want to share an anecdote that captures why Zadie Smith is worth reading. I mentioned to a friend that I was reading White Teeth, and she responded with, "I hate Zadie Smith. She doesn't write characters; she writes lists of quirks and gives them names!" This is not an unfair assessment; it's not a bad thing either, at least to me. See, the characters are uncanny, truly quirky in a way that Zooey Deschanel can only hope for. I understand why they don't seem like real people to some, but I think their quirks are not too far away from how most interesting people think and behave. In fact, that these traits seem so uncanny is a testament to Smith's ability to write literature that stands out as singular and dream-like, yet captures the nuance of very real problems. To reinforce this point, I believe the quirky characters don't exist in a quixotic novel-world. Their quirks are situated within a banal, mundane world where a character's idiosyncratic interpretation of situation, delivered with zeal and volume on a public bus, is followed up by the unfortunately too common statement of an unnamed passerby: "I wish they'd go back where they came from." The quixotic characters are so because their reality is dishearteningly real.

This coming week I'll be finishing White Teeth and reading an advance copy of Amateur by Thomas Page McBee.  I can't wait!