Apr/May 2010

Pointed Possibility

Brendan Boyle

Upon accepting the Georg-Büchner-Prize for German literature in 1960, the poet Paul Celan gave a speech titled "The Meridian." Celan was not given to clarity in his verse, and "The Meridian" is no different. It is, however, the best account we have of what Celan was up to in his art. An essay about the speech sits at the center of Raymond Geuss's terrific collection Politics and the Imagination and might well hint at what Geuss, professor of philosophy at Cambridge, is himself up to.

Celan says that in his poetry he attempts "to speak, to orient myself, to project for myself reality." This he does by arranging, in a single poem, an array of otherwise unconnected events along what he calls a "meridian." That the operative metaphor here is one of location is perhaps not surprising for a poet whose life was a series of dislocations. But locating a meridian is not therapeutic but revolutionary. Geuss describes Celan's search for meridians as an imaginative activity that brings about a "radical change of attitude, orientation, possibilities, or identity," a change he describes like this: "Suppose I am playing a game of chess with someone who is known to be a poor loser. Suppose further that I am winning, and pressing my advantage. . . . Suppose . . . my opponent . . . suddenly takes out a long stiletto and puts it down next to himself on the table . . . looking at my neck speculatively all the while."

The act of drawing the knife—unlike that of moving a rook three squares forward—is such a radical change of possibilities. Checkmate is no longer the worst option. Something totally unforeseen has come into view. And this, says Geuss, is what Celan's poems, structured around their orphic meridians, are supposed to do. They are to bring about what the poet calls an "Atemwende"—a change in the very way we breathe.

Geuss intends the example of the knife-wielding chessman as an homage to Celan, who not only stabbed his wife, one-year-old son, neighbor, and himself (all nonfatally), but also was published in an anthology titled My Poetry Is My Knife. But My Prose Is My Knife wouldn't have been a terrible title for this collection, which is held together by a Celan-like ambition to bring into the view the radically new, both politically and aesthetically. Impeding this task stand two forces, which Geuss wants to dispatch with his own carefully controlled violence: first, liberal pieties about rights (the more the merrier), resources (mostly well allocated, thanks to the market), and reason (the god that never fails); second, philosophy itself. Philosophy fails, writes Geuss, mostly by being unhistorical; he makes the case for understanding politics only in a richly articulated historical context. If this sounds lame, that's pretty much the point. There just isn't that much for philosophy to say about politics in the absence of answers to Lenin's famous question "Who whom?," a question Geuss glosses as "Who [does] what to whom for whose benefit?" Answering this deceptively easy question is where philosophy must always begin, though it seldom does. In an earlier book, Geuss clearly relished telling a story, almost certainly false, about how philosopher John Rawls remained blithely unmoved when criticized for having gotten the date of the Treaty of Westphalia wrong by one hundred years. "Oh, really?" Rawls is said to have replied, changing the date with the stroke of a pen. That such a mistake—getting Lenin's question totally wrong—might have fatally compromised the theory, snickers Geuss, never crossed Rawls's mind.

Geuss is at his best in these purely negative moments, which are delivered with verve. Of the Kantian edifice on which much contemporary liberal political philosophy is based, Geuss says, "it is a machine infernale of enormous dimensions and extremely intricate internal structure with innumerable elaborate gears, cogs, flywheels, sprockets, bells, and whistles. The system operates and gains plausibility by inviting the unwary in and exhibiting a truly fascinating internal structure so that one loses perspective on the project as a whole. To change the metaphor, if one tries to shake hands with the Kantian, one can easily find one has lost an arm." There is some truth to this, but just how much depends on how successfully one imagines philosophy to have reduced human suffering.

Not very, Geuss claims, ensconced as it is in another machine infernale—the modern university: "One must . . . consider the University as a complex machine with two interlocking parts, a Generator . . . devoted to producing excellence in relatively abstract areas of research . . . and then a Transformer which turned the prestige acquired through this excellence into the deepest possible cultural and political conservatism." This sinister characterization actually belongs to Richard Rorty, one of the few to have made it around the university without losing an arm, an achievement memorialized here in a beautiful address Geuss gave on his death. The address is both a picture of a passionate friendship and a quiet, elegiac antidote to the essay on Celan, showing in Rorty the possibility of confronting modernity's manifest injustices with sanguine hopefulness.

That would be an overly optimistic note on which to end. Not only because Rorty and Geuss's own friendship came apart but because Geuss is so resolutely pessimistic—about philosophical reflection, the future of liberal democracy, and much else besides. The pessimism is long-standing. In a short essay called "Melody as Death," Geuss recalls how, at the age of eleven, he was saddened by the emergence of a melody (of all things!) from Wagner's "whirl of sound." "Oh, no," said the stricken adolescent. "There is a tune in this after all." Judging by some scattered biographical references in the book, this revelation must have come in or around 1960, just about the time Celan started sharpening his knives and drafting new meridians.

Brendan Boyle teaches at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.