How to read a book

The cultural left exerts a tyrannical force policing our speech. To take just one small example, witness the case of novelist Lionel Shriver. The cases can be multiplied endlessly. You don’t need my help on this score.

The cause of free speech threatens to become the exclusive property of conservatives, it has not already become so. Wherever the left holds sway, free speech is a dying if not dead letter. The utopia implicit in leftist thought provides for thought control as well. The left means to stamp out our heterodox thoughts as well as our nonconforming speech. Guilty thought gives rise to guilty speech!

Traditional liberal thought arrived late in human history. With the fate of Socrates in mind, writers who took up political subjects from Plato forward nevertheless found the means to express their thought. They did so through the use of irony, concealing their true thought below the surface of their writings.

This is the subject of Arthur Melzer’s superb 2014 book, Philosophy Between the Lines. I’ve been rereading it over the last month. Melzer is an incredible teacher. Just about every page of the book provides a model of, and a lesson in, humane learning. Damon Linker’s admiring review for The Week offers a particularly good summary.

Melzer uses the terms “politic irony” and “pedagogic irony” to express the means of those who wrote about politics but obscured their true thought. “Politic irony” is defensive. In illiberal societies, one can’t say what he really thinks about the defects of the powers that be. The fear of persecution counsels prudence. One must write in the most guarded terms. One must speak somehow in Aesopian language, as they put it in the regimes of Tsarist Russia and Soviet Union.

The irony also serves a “pedagogic purpose.” Ironic literature imposes a discipline on the reader. It compels the motivated reader to rise to the challenge. Melzer quotes Aquinas: “The very hiding of truth in figures is useful for the exercise of thoughtful minds.”

I highly recommend Melzer’s book. I should add that I wish it included a reading of an author who wrote in the style he so brilliantly expounds. I have in mind something like Allan Bloom’s opening essay in his Giants and Dwarfs on Gulliver’s Travels, but what Melzer has done within the four corners of his book is more than enough. There are many excellent books seeking to unravel Plato and his successors for the inquiring reader. Instead, he reserves the exercise to a late chapter (“A Beginner’s Guide to Esoteric Reading”) and confines it to the interpretation of an ambiguous personal letter of his own creation. It is a hilarious example of the natural uses of esoteric writing.

I took a lot of great courses in college, but Comparative Literature 22 (literature of the Renaissance) was easily one of the best. Taught by Dain Trafton, just about every class referred in one way or another precisely to “politic and pedagogic irony.” We read The Prince, Utopia, The Praise of Folly, Don Quixote, Gargantua and Pantagruel, The Courtier and a few of Montaigne’s Essays (I’m pretty sure “Of Cannibals” and one other).

Professor Trafton taught the course as a seminar in two-hour classes twice a week. He is a wonderful (now retired) teacher. A specialist in Shakespeare, he loved the literature of the period. The students were good too. I vividly remember one observing of the opening of Don Quixote that tilting at windmills didn’t seem to be all it has since been cracked up to be.

These are all entertaining and challenging books. What Professor Trafton had to say about Gargantua and Pantagruel is a complete loss to me. I wrote him to ask if he might remind me. He responded:

Thanks for your note. It’s great to hear from you….When you signed up for a course like Comp Lit 22 you gave the great, old books of that course your best shot at that time…[Y]ou write to say you want to give “another stab” to uncovering the wisdom (if it is wisdom) hidden in what is probably the most puzzling of those old books: Rabelais’s five-volume account of the most fearsome and terrible and heroic deeds and sayings of Gargantua and Pantagruel. Good for you.

Rabelais has a lot to say about these giants and their friends–over 700 pages worth–and his tone moves confusingly from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the heroic to the comic, from the serious to the lowest and crudest in a chain of episodes calculated, I think, to provoke thought that begins by making us wonder what he means or even whether he means anything at all. Count me among those who still wonder what Rabelais means by the five volumes taken together. Do they add up to, do they reflect a coherent view of the world? And if so, what is it? Having admitted to pretty significant doubt, however, I hasten to add that my interest in Rabelais, refreshed by numerous visitations, continues to be strong, and if I were to invited to give a seminar on “The Meaning of Gargantua and Pantagruel”–for example–I would build it on this framework.

1 Throughout the five books Rabelais shows a lively interest in the ancient disciplines of rhetoric and philosophy, and especially in the perversions and misuses of those disciplines. It is unlikely that there is unwitting incoherence in his own writing. Incoherence is likely to be a deliberate mode of expression to which the interpreter should pay attention.

2 On the first page “The Author’s Prologue” calls attention to this possibility through the reference to Socrates as a “Silenus.”

3 And gives a pregnant example of it by immediately afterwards contradicting the implications of the reference to Socrates by a reference to Homer, thus pitting poetry against philosophy in a comparison that may be accurate but that reveals nothing for sure about how to read either Socrates or Plato.

4 One may read Plato’s Socrates as full of hidden meanings and Homer’s epics in a quite different way–a more literal way. Each is a valid way of writing and not without meanings of its own.

5 And that is how one must be prepared to read the wildly varying passages in Rabelais.

6 One must discover the right way to read the particular style he uses what he is saying.

7 Read this way the book turns out to be an interesting mix of conservative and revolutionary thinking–or so it seems to me.

8 Conservative in its emphasis on many aspects of education and politics; revolutionary in its emphasis on the body as a corrective to medieval theology and science, and revolutionary in its emphasis on laughter and the comic spirit, which requires some serious thought.

9 To work this way of reading Rabelais into a thoroughgoing interpretation of his great, old book is a major interpretative task, but short of completing the great task there are many pleasant way stations along the road–interesting investigations, speculations, and laughter.

As we confront the necessity of communicating our true thoughts in a tyrannical time, I hoped that some readers might find this of use.

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