Friday, January 27, 2012

Silence, Exile, and Cunning

Look here, Cranly, he said. You have asked me what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile and cunning. (James Joyce)

As always, let me urge some caution when interpreting the pronouncements of literary types about their art. First of all, as an academic writer your aim should not be to "express yourself" nor to do so "as freely and as wholly as you can". Secondly, in serving the modern university, you are very likely to be serving something in which, at least partially, you don't quite believe. That is, you will be subject to a great deal of ambiguity that Joyce was pretending to keep himself aloof from. (A good example of something similar in the world of academia is Wittgenstein, who was also able to decide for himself what he would and would not do, even when he was at Cambridge. But there is good reason to think that he was armed with more than just silence, exile and cunning. He was also very rich.) Still, I bring this up because there must be some part of us, often precisely the part of us that has the task of writing, that must experience "the loneliness which is the truth about things". We write in order to communicate a truth to others that they don't yet know. And so our knowledge of that truth is a lonely one as we write. Fortunately, as scholars, we are very much first and foremost (Heidegger's "proximally and for the most part") embedded in a community of shared knowledge. This makes the work easier. It means that we must withdraw into our exile for only a few hours each day.

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