Excursions with Edward F. Mooney
Part III: Whirling, Living, Dancing
Dean Dettloff: You covered a lot of ground in your previous answer, Ed, anticipating a few other questions I could have followed-up with. Your previous response ended in a reflection highlighting the pin-wheeled nature of your being, that is, while you may have distinguishable parts or facets, all of them blur together in the motion of life itself. This feeds retroactively into your discussion of teaching and intimacy, wherein your commitments to intimacy and its recovery are not put on hold when you enter your “professional” role but instead integrate wholly together as you touch the lives of students through the gifts you have been given. With this in mind and your veteran-status as an educator, what kind of advice would you have for those of us (such as myself) who are just beginning our roads to a career in the field of education, philosophy or otherwise?
Edward F. Mooney: I like your image of a pin-wheeled existence! It captures a sense of the dizzying whirl when one tries to get all the wings coordinated, but it also captures the sense of amazing integration in those moments when one senses stability at the center of motion and swirl. I think I use the phrase “Whirl and Sudden Center” as a section heading in my recent paper on Kiekegaard’s pseudonyms. The idea is that our lives can seem as chaotic and shifty as the multiple selves and fragments of life that Kierkegaard spinningly presents; then a child steps from the curb and we lunge to pull it back. Executive capacities snap into action overriding reflective self-doubt, pure mulling, or anxiety.
Finding a way as a teacher can be like finding a map or mapping a course, or like following a well-worn path. Or it can be going where there is as yet no path, cutting a path, discovering only on looking backward that there’s continuity or the presence of “good sense,” or a center to the swirl. One can feel the whirl of possible institutions, mentors, classes, books, friends whose impact might work in the start of new life. The prospects can seem daunting, or worse. And suddenly executive capacities snap into action, and one knocks on this door (among others) and makes a momentous discovery.
All this is far from “how to” advice. I think we improvise our way into what becomes a life, and that means listening to the last two notes we played, as well as knowing some basics: Am I any good on the sax? Should I stick to drums? Am I paying attention to what the rest of the ensemble is doing? And there are other questions. How do I discover a leaning, a capability, a pleasure, a calling? John Rawls talks misleadingly of “life plans”—I suppose this is on the model of “investment plans” or “career plans.” My mind doesn’t work that way. I can’t put down general “learning objectives” for my classes. I don’t have a life plan for my life, and don’t know what my long term objectives are (if I have any). If something goes bad, I have something to say. But I don’t start with a plan or desire for specific outcomes—except in the most platitudinous sense: stay healthy, don’t starve, be a mensch. In class, if asked for an overall aim, I’d say “get to love these issues, texts, figures, passages. Praise what you love. Get comfortable sharing your growing interests and loves as you ramble or stumble through the whirl, eye ready for sudden insight, sudden center.”
Starting out on the path of a hoped-for teaching career requires courage (jumping in), perseverance (it takes a long time), talent, good friends and mentors, and luck. No one has an all-purpose “how to” book. But good friends and mentors can help you improvise, go on, surf on the momentum of your last few papers or hunches. They can help in the way good comments on a paper can help. They can help you side-step disasters (some professors and departments are nothing less) and be alert for opportunities that suit you. A good professor will know you well enough to steer you to this conference or that, to this journal or that, to this scholarly affinity group, or that—and later on, suggest that you try this publishing house rather than that one, seek out this person, and let you know, by a slight hesitation in response, to avoid that one like the plague.
Intimate connections, and cultivated affinities with this group or that, make a big difference in the success and pleasure of one’s path-following or path-breaking. Good advice comes from someone who knows you well. If a grad department doesn’t have Profs interested in getting to know you, beware. It’s a big forest to navigate at night on your own. And trust your instincts. Take up themes and figures for study that pull you ahead, surprise and excite you. And know that there will be down times.
A few years into my teaching career I found myself isolated and annoyed at the impersonality and “delayed gratification” intrinsic to much publishing: write an article in the loneliness of a library carrel; send it off to an unknown editor who distributes it to unknown readers who deliver an impersonal verdict – I felt like a Kafka character before the law.
Teaching was OK, but the other half of a scholarly life was kaput. I needed something beyond teaching, and turned to playing and singing classical music, where I got a sense of group intimacy, solidarity, and the immediate “wow” after a good performance or during a good rehearsal. Later I returned to writing and managed to get myself voiced within it, and got to develop a continuity of output over years so that even if article x wouldn’t appear for three years, the article accepted three years ago would be a surrogate, giving pleasure to the day.
I was not following anyone’s advice in taking a detour through music, but I did have a “sudden centering” that plunged me into music, and then, some years later, plunged me back into writing. The bulk of my writing has blossomed in the last 15 years. That’s not standard. I avoided early burn out, without any plan to avoid it. Darn good luck. My first 15 years writing were at a snail’s pace and unimpressive. The key model here is Improvisation. There’s no nicely bound “Life Plan” to pursue step by step, following a predetermined itinerary.
DD: What wonderful advice from what has clearly been a long history of “sudden centerings” and a life of gratitude! How refreshing, too, that your response opts for seeking a positive outlet for creativity in the midst of adversity, rather than exhibiting an unhappy sinking into cynicism that seems all-too-common among philosophers in the academy. I’ve really enjoyed our dialogue here, Ed, and I’ve appreciated the opportunity to pose these questions to you. Sometime during Walker Percy’s career, he published an interview entitled “Questions They Never Asked Me,” wherein he interviewed himself, asking himself things that interviewers never seemed to pose. In a similar spirit, I’d like to give you an opportunity to ask a question I’ve not asked you. Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to follow out here at the end of our interview? Is there a question we haven’t touched on that we could take up now, in closing?
EFM: Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground, but maybe I can reflect on a thinker who captured my imagination as an undergraduate long before I read Kierkegaard seriously or Thoreau. I’m thinking of Wittgenstein—the existential Wittgenstein, the troubled genius who died saying “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life”—though there were so many indications that he was unhappy, or at least troubled (and for good reason).
I want to get at him indirectly by taking up a line I remembered this morning. I remembered the line from Goethe, who has Faust bewail, “I am the spirit of perpetual negation.” And then Goethe has Mephistopheles remark —“All theory is grey, my friend, but ah, the glad golden tree of life is green.” (Should we trust words from the devil?)
A recent magazine piece (maybe in the Guardian?) by Wittgenstein’s biographer, Ray Monk reflects on Wittgenstein’s collection of photographs. There’s a connection between looking at the photos collected and Wittgenstein’s emphasis on looking — rather than explaining. In a parody, we could say that philosophers explain-explain–explain. They can forget to just look at the world, or flow with it, or listen to it (like listening to music). Wittgenstein thinks that philosophy is not a set of theories, one of which may be correct. Nor is it a set of bad theories about to be replaced, thank God, by the good theory I’ve just concocted. Enlightened as I surely am, I hereby stop this proliferation of error by announcing the truth. (It’s nice to fantasize omniscience.)
Wittgenstein thinks philosophies are symptoms of unhappiness, of verbal and intellectual confusion, of anxieties that are nearly inescapable. (Don’t we really, really, need to understand?) But maybe these inescapable worries are rather unreal, like a bad dream—real enough in the moment, and troubling, but forgettable when you awake and can so easily change the subject. The solution to a bad dream isn’t to argue yourself into a better dream, but to wake up and look at the world—then laugh or cry or be bored. Whatever your reaction after fresh contact, you’d no longer worry about whether the world exists, or whether feelings are always dangerous and unreliable, or whether moral relativity is true or false. You’d soak up the morning, act as you act, and solve your daily problems the way most persons do—one by one, with a minimum of ‘theory’ directing them. So…stop explaining. Just look! That’s Wittgenstein’s advice. Acknowledge your confusion, but the aim is to move into life—join the dance!
Wittgenstein was in a way placeless, and so it was uncertain which dance, which life, was his to join. The Vienna he was born into was a true pinnacle of culture, like Socrates’ Athens, or Michelangelo’s Florence. Yet it was also a cavern of darkness and loss. He did not have to aspire to prominence—he was born into it (and resisted it). His world was in glorious decline, the exemplification of what Spengler called the Decline of the West. Wittgenstein could have been an orchestra conductor, an engineer-architect, a mathematician—but he fled all of that. He became a village schoolteacher, then an ascetic British don. He came from one of the richest families in Vienna, and following Tolstoy, gave away all his money. When we ask for context to properly understand a thinker or artist, we ask for a stable intelligible background. But things were falling apart, culturally, and equally in his personal and vocational life. So his was a context of no-context. He was stretched between too many possibilities.
Wittgenstein had a deep interest in religion, in Tolstoy, Goethe, and Kierkegaard: he wrote, echoing a bit of Kierkegaard, “faith is a passion; wisdom, like cool grey ash.” He carried Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief to the trenches during WWI, and read from it every day. His Investigations is like a maze or storm at sea or series of unsolvable puzzles, full of almost biblical enigmas. You might say it holds both that human life has no Ground, no big foundation in logic or a rock-solid God, Science or Reason, and that it nevertheless has all the (God-given?) ground it needs—in overlooked aspects of life: the smile of a child, the rise of the sun, the sound of a clarinet, or a call to prayer from a minaret. To feel that, to live from it, would be something like leading a life of faith, being grounded in it. “All theory is grey, my friend, but ah, the glad golden tree of life is green.” Yes, that’s good, but not quite Wittgenstein. For him, theory might be “cool grey ash” but life was too polychromatic, including shades of black, to qualify as golden or green. In any case, it’s not just too much theory that makes for what he called “the darkness of the times”—his and ours. In his 1929 Notebook he writes enigmatically, “What is good is also divine.” He refused ashes. He could imbibe good: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”
I know that’s not a ringing conclusion, but it needn’t be reason for disappointment or angst. Except in rare instances, philosophy isn’t (always) a well-plotted research program that culminates in definitive findings, conclusions, and closure. It’s a register of deep wonder and yearning. If that’s right, then philosophy will be always asking, no matter what, and always opening an impoverished agenda, and always improvising its way.
DD: Thanks, Ed.