Simon Critchley is Professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York and at the University of Essex. Simon studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Essex before completing a Maitrise de Philosophie at the University of Nice and returning to Essex where he was awarded a PhD in philosophy. He is a Programme Director of the Collège Internationale de Philosophie, Paris and author of many books, most recently Very Little, Almost Nothing and Things Merely Are. His new book, Infinitely Demanding - A Political Ethics, will appear at the end of the year.
Mark Thwaite: In your excellent book Things Merely Are, on the poetry of Wallace Stevens, you say, "Stevens is the philosophically most interesting poet to have written in English in the twentieth century"? What leads you to make that claim?
Simon Critchley: What led me to that claim was a long love affair with poetry that really intensified once I stopped writing poetry in my mid-20s (I just wasn’t any good and thank God I stopped), combined with my professional deformation as a philosopher. Most of the philosophers who interested me and continue to interest me are concerned with poetry (Heidegger, Blanchot and others), but usually concerned with poets writing in German (Trakl, Rilke, and obviously Hoelderlin) or French (Ponge, Mallarme). I discovered Stevens late, I was in my late 20s and I immediate saw how many of my philosophical obsessions and my hesitations about philosophy were articulated by him and furthermore he was writing in English, although an uncanny and doubly distanced English, at once very American and very Frenchified. I first tried to clarify my thoughts on Stevens in about 1993, so this has been a slow burner.
MT: Your book introduced me to the writing of Stevens - and I thank you heartily for that. He seems to me to be a poet more regarded than read: why should we read him? Just for the philosophy?
SC: I’m delighted that my book introduced you to Stevens. That is exactly what I wanted to happen. For reasons that would take us back into the specific problematic and thickets of post-Kantian philosophy, in particular the legacy of romanticism and its broad wake (in both senses of the word), Stevens is the poet who best expressed for me the situation of the relation of philosophy and poetry, but I am adamant that he should not be read for his philosophy. On the contrary, his poetry has different phases and moments, often very linguistically sensuous, musical and far from abstruse philosophical concerns, particularly the early work. But there is no doubt that much of his poetry, in particular the long, late poems like An Ordinary Evening at New Haven and Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction and the last poems from The Rock give powerful voice to the nature of the relation between words and world, thought and things. This relation is the province of epistemology, in many ways the central area of philosophy: how can a subject know an objective world? Stevens shows the shortcomings of this question and how we can, in a word, overcome epistemology. Thus, Steven’s poetry is a powerful challenge to the way in which philosophy and philosophers see the world, particularly in the Anglo-American tradition.
MT: You say that it is your belief "that a life without poetry is a life diminished, needlessly stunted", that there is an "idee fixe that needs to be unfixed that poetry is difficult and therefore to be avoided". But how can we cultivate the difficult art of reading difficult poetry?
SC: With difficulty. Poetry is difficult, I mean interesting poetry, not confessional babble or emotive propaganda. Reading a new poet is discovering an entire world, what Stevens called a ‘mundo’ and it takes a lot of time to orientate oneself in such a world. What we have to learn to do then, as teachers and militants of a poetic insurgency, is to encourage people to learn to love the difficulty of poetry. Eliot says somewhere what poetry should communicate before it is understood. This is absolutely right. The entire difficulty is allowing the time, or creating the time or time-lapse between communication and understanding and acknowledging that we often do not understand the poetry that communicates with us. It can take years or a whole lifetime to acquire such an understanding. I simply do not understand much of the poetry that I love.
MT: There seems to be an awful lot of mawkish and very sentimental poetry written these days. Do you see any up-and-coming poets that offer us more than emotional versifying?
SC: Sadly, I read too little new poetry, but the poetry I read is done with some intensity. This has the drawback of not allowing me to discover new voices. As I think I mentioned in your books of the year review, this year I have been reading Fernando Pessoa with great pleasure and some care, in particular his master ‘heteronym’, Alberto Caeiro. I have also begun to dip my toe into Neruda. The other two poets I have begun to be acquainted with this year are Jan Zwicky, whom I heard read and it blew me away. I also discovered Geoffrey Squires through a student in New York and am greatly enjoying some of his verse. It is a poetry of perception, a kind of poetic direct realism and hugely well-crafted and modest.
MT: Of the modern European poets who, in your opinion, is the most philosophically interesting? Celan? Ungaretti? Montale?
SC: Oh lordy, that’s hard. My friend Howard Caygill has introduced me to Ungaretti; Montale I confess I don’t know (what should I read?); and Celan I have always read in a quiet way and not written about, mainly because too many philosophers have written on him. I heard Marjorie Perloff give a stunning anti-philosophical reading of Celan recently. My ‘euro’ shortlist would include Hoelderlin, Rilke, Ponge, Pessoa, some Neruda, or at least those are the poets on my shelf behind where I write that I have re-read in the last few months.
MT: Very Little, Almost Nothing was your very moving and fascinating response to your father's death. A book based on Blanchot's theories, Stanley Cavell's interpretations of romanticism and the importance of death for Samuel Beckett ... and a surprisingly good seller, I hear, for a difficult book of continental philosopy! Were you pleased by the response to that book? Did writing it help you understand yourself and your place in the world?
SC: Yes, it did and I am enormously pleased that VLAN has continued to thrive. We brought out a very tastefully designed revised edition about 18 months ago. Of my work published in the 1990s, it’s the book that I get most responses about and which still interests me. My first book was called The Ethics of Deconstruction and it also did alright, but I was determined to make the second book as different as possible and VLAN emerged out of all sorts of nasty existential shit that was going down in those years, so it’s a little testament to the powers of sublimation. I published it against strong advice to the contrary to at least change the title, but I’m happy that I didn’t. Readers seem to find something in the book that continues to surprise me. I think it’s an existential rawness that I do not seek to hide under scholarship.
MT: Our place in the world, our Being-in-the-world, I unconsciously went all Heidegger in my last question! Heidegger is such an important thinker: almost a fraud, if you are an "analytical" philosopher, but key if you are part of the "continental" tradition. And key for Blanchot. How do both these writers figure in your work and thinking?
SC: Blanchot is a clandestine companion whom I rarely teach and who interests very few of my philosophy students. He is a sort of secret resource for me. I read Blanchot often and what impresses me most is the limpid clarity, economy and strangeness of the critical writing. I intend to teach a seminar on Blanchot in New York before too long. Heidegger is a more public interest. I’ve just finished teach Being and Time for a whole year, that’s 28 lectures, 2 hours per lecture. It was a complete fucking nightmare to prepare every week, but the experience was exhilarating. I teach Heidegger in a very austere way, but keep veering off into issues in art, politics and life. But, to be clear, I wouldn’t want to be in the same room as Heidegger, not even the same building! I always find his work possesses by a dangerous power that I try to inoculate myself against and always fail.
MT: Is Blanchot's star likely to keep rising do you think?
SC: Oh, I hope so, but I am not convinced it will. I am always surprised at who gets picked up and read. For example, when I started reading Levinas in the early 1980s, one had the impression that there were 10 people reading him in the UK and you knew them all. Now, he’s big business and there is a whole industry around his work. This makes me feel deeply ambivalent, pleased that I am that he is being read.
MT: Who is your favourite writer/book? What is the best thing you have read recently?
SC: Easy question. My favourite writer is Beckett and I keep going back to wallow in his work like a deep pool of dark humour or like an oxygen tank when you can’t breath in a world consumed by piety, hypocrisy and self-satisfaction. At the moment, I am reading lots of different things: Rousseau, as I have unfinished business with him; Pessoa in order to try and see how he complicates the approach to poetry I started in Things Merely Are; and I have Ibsen open on the desk at the moment and I’m trying to gather some thoughts on what I see as the uncanny background noise of Ibsen’s universe, particularly in Hedda Gabler and Ghosts.
MT: What are you working on now?
SC: All of the above, but I am also trying to finish a book called Infinitely Demanding, which is what call a political ethics, where I try and get clear my views on ethics and how their implications for aesthetics and politics. I’m not happy with it. My other crazy idea is to write a book called The ABC of Impossibility, but that might prove impossible.
MT: Anything else you'd like to say?
SC: All thanks to God (only joking). Thanks for your questions and forgive my answers.