Beyond the Masturbatory

One of the great pleasures in talking about books with a whip-smart grad student is that when the M-word is dropped it actually elevates the conversation. It gives heady concepts a certain street cred. This isn’t a natural born talent either. It’s earned. You have to spend a lot of time in the philosophical wilderness, as PJ Welsh has done. Like an intrepid explorer, he’s plunged into the heart of Hegel’s darkness and lived to tell about it in admirably clear language. That’s no small feat, I assure you.

studious pj

PJ Welsh

Who are you?

I’m a graduate student in philosophy with interests in German Idealism, hermeneutics, and literature. I grew up in Minnesota and currently live in New York.

What was the last book you read? What did you think of it?

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by José Saramango. As the title indicates, it’s an imaginative retelling of the Gospel story. Saramago’s approach is difficult to characterize. He’s a religious skeptic, but the book is not a satire; in many ways, it is quite a compelling account. The angels, God, and Satan assume visible form to interact with Jesus and others. All of the miracles are taken at face value. Mary Magdalene redeems Jesus with her embrace just as much he her with his. Dialogue is embedded directly into the narrative, so that speech is less differentiated from other happenings in the natural world, less the product of an individual subjectivity. The overall effect of the treatment is at once to humanize the divine and to re-mythologize our earthly, human existence.

If you could meet a character on the halodeck, who would it be? And what would you do?

My first thought was Socrates, who, as he’s been handed down to us, is a literary character. I could solicit opinions on subsequent philosophers — maybe even lift a dissertation topic from Socrates himself! But this probably shouldn’t count; for he is, first and foremost, a historical figure. My next thought was Helen of Troy. But this is more than a little bit of a cliché (and also puts me in an awkward position with regards to the second part of the question). Upon reflection, what I realize is that I don’t want to meet any literary characters. What fascinates me is the way they inhabit their worlds, and so, as soon as we strike up a conversation, they’ve become divorced from what makes them interesting.

What is your favorite scene in literature? Explain.

There is a moment in the fourth act of Twelfth Night that stands out.

Here’s the set-up:

Fraternal twins, brother and sister, have been separated at sea, each believing the other to be dead. The sister, Viola, dresses up as a man, assuming the name Cesario, and enters the service of a duke who asks her to woo, on his behalf, the beautiful Duchess Olivia. This duchess falls in love with the youthful and eloquent Cesario, who is, unfortunately, in love with the duke on whose behalf he is courting the duchess. Olivia professes her devotion to Cesario, who desperately evades her attentions. Also in the duchess’s court, the inept Sir Andrew, with the assistance Olivia’s debauched uncle Sir Toby Belch, futilely competes for Olivia’s attention. Sir Toby, for his amusement, contrives to orchestrate a dual between the reluctant Sir Andrew and a rather alarmed Cesario. The dual is upset and the parties quickly disperse.


Zaniest threesome ever

Enter Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, fully believing his sister drowned. Wandering into Olivia’s estate he is automatically taken for his disguised sister Viola/Cesario. The court jester, Feste, sent to fetch Cesario, bewilders him with his insistences. Then Sir Andrew arrives on the scene and strikes him. Sebastian, unlike Viola, aggressively rises to the challenge. Enter Olivia, protesting this assault in heartfelt verse, demonstrating again her infatuation. Then this brief, delightful exchange:


What relish is in this? how runs the stream?

Or I am mad, or else this is a dream:

Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep;

If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep!


Nay, come, I prithee, would thou’ldst be ruled by me.


Madam, I will.


O, say so, and so be!

The power of the scene stems from the complexity of the set-up — which the reader, with the entrance of Sebastian, is forced to recollect and confront all at once — juxtaposed against the simple binary terms in which Sebastian grasps, and ecstatically surrenders, to the situation. It’s a brilliantly literalized dramatization of the reader’s experience.

When it comes to books, what’s your greatest pet peeve?

Literary antics, for their own sake; the subversion of convention as an end in itself. Reading and writing, to sustain their legitimacy, must outclass the merely masturbatory.

According to Hegel, how does the novel contribute to the good life?

That’s the sort of question you should know better than to ask a graduate student! But I’ll do my best to gloss over the scholarly and technical issues. First of all, Hegel says a lot about the fine arts (1,000 pages worth!), but precious little about the novel. So any position is both speculative and tentative. Art, for Hegel, is the expression of our freedom in a form that invites contemplation and enjoyment. At an earlier stage of cultural development — e.g., he contends, for the Greeks — art satisfied our deepest concerns and ambitions. But we’ve now reached a stage at which art is no longer an adequate vehicle for the exploration of the most comprehensive truths about human existence. That’s because we’ve achieved a self-reflective level of rationality that seems to defy sensuous representation, and so requires an explicitly philosophical development and articulation.


Picasso: Self-portrait. Who's really seeing whom?

This “death of art” thesis has been a source of long-standing controversy. One recent suggestion by Hegelian Robert Pippin is that, rather than simply accept its diminished role, art might instead adopt a new stance not anticipated by Hegel. Pippin proposes that modern art has transcended its classical and romantic preoccupation with beauty — assumed by Hegel to be definitional of art as such — shifting its orientation away from sensuous pleasure toward more cerebral preoccupations. Abstract painting, for instance, can take as its subject the self-imposed rules constitutive of painting as such, thus addressing the interpretive activity at work in all representational practices. The preoccupation with meta-narrative in some modern literature can be viewed through a similar lens, as an exploration of the normative frameworks we bring to bear on experience, our various ways of investing the merely given with a distinctly human significance, and so remaking an alien and sometimes hostile environment into a characteristically human world in which we can feel ourselves genuinely at home.

Why do you read?

Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine

Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine

Oh dear, that’s a big one. Different books work in different ways, of course, and so they do different things for me. In general, however, I find literature therapeutic in a way well illustrated by Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine. The driving concerns and ambitions of her characters have markedly little in common with my own aspirations, or with those of my friends and family — to the extent that, were I to find myself in any of the situations typical of the characters of Love Medicine, I would consider myself to have failed in quite a fundamental way, to have gone badly astray from many of the values that I have good reason to hold dear. But Erdrich brings that world to life, sympathetically illuminating its characteristic norms, its problems and its values, so that the reader can appreciate the legitimacy of lives its inhabitants pursue and the ethical worth of their manifold accomplishments. I call this therapeutic because it is reassuring, at least for me, just to be reminded of many, diverse forms of human flourishing, the objective situation being whatever it may.


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