As If It Were True: An Interview with Richard Kearney

June 21, 2022   •   By Matthew Clemente

The main point was that Socrates was trying to prove to them that authors should be able to write both comedy and tragedy: the skillful tragic dramatist should also be a comic poet.

Symposium, 209c–d


¤


I WENT DOWN to the Kearney residence from Boston College — the university which the eminent philosopher Richard Kearney and his wife Anne have called home for over two decades — on a gray fall afternoon. When I approached the door of their cozy, New England house, I was greeted by a note directing me to walk around back. There, it said that I would find the philosopher reading and writing in the leisure of his garden. As I made my way round and let myself through a small wooden gate, I saw that the yard was enshadowed by an enormous tree. Not a plane tree, I thought. Perhaps a yew. Then I saw Richard before he saw me. He was making one final pass at his forthcoming novel, Salvage, before sending it off to the press. Anne was back on campus teaching art to undergrads. Her sketches and paintings, which I observed through an open window, adorned every wall of the house. There was a bowl of clementines on the table next to Richard and when he looked up, he lifted the bowl and offered me one. At first I refused, but, with his typical Irish hospitality, he insisted — “Eat.” As we peeled back the skins of the sweet, ripe fruit — he joined me in devouring one, too — I found that there was something in the sharing of that simple meal that opened us both to conversation.

Author’s Note: The following is an excerpt from an interview conducted in October 2021 for the volume misReading Plato (Routledge, 2022) where it appears in full under the title “The Philosophical Poet and the Poetic Philosopher.”

¤


MATTHEW CLEMENTE: One of the themes that comes up in the volume we are putting together is how Plato can be read as an artist as much as he can be read as a philosopher — the importance of aesthetics for his philosophy. Rather than going straight to Plato, however, I’d love to talk to you a little bit about what artistic creation means for you. After all, you are someone who writes novels, poetry, fiction, and philosophy. How do you see these things working together and informing one another? What does it mean to be a philosophical artist and an artistic philosopher, and how does that relate to your work?

RICHARD KEARNEY: I suppose it goes back to when I was finishing high school and was deciding what to do at the university. I was struggling to decide between drama at the Abbey Theatre School in Dublin and philosophy. I wrote to the director of the theater and told him my situation and he wrote back and said, “Look, go to university and study philosophy, because you can always come back to drama later in life, but you can’t return to philosophy.” So I went to college and studied philosophy and literature. I never went back to drama, except that I think philosophy can become a sort of performance. And literature is obviously dramatic. So I guess there’s always been that sort of crossover from the beginning. Even teaching is a kind of performance. I’ve always loved the big classes. Now that I’m older, I’m getting tired and quite happy to have 20 or 30 students, but I used to love the buzz when I was teaching and there were no excuses. Nine o’clock on a Monday morning, teaching existentialism to a hundred students — you have to perform.

I wonder how this performative element, this dramatic approach to teaching philosophical texts, has shaped your writing.

Well, I think I’ve tried to keep the literary and the philosophical relatively separate in my writing. There have been books that have sort of crossed over, like On Stories and such, which bring in quite a bit of literature and examples from literature and film. But never experimental writing like Derrida’s “Circonfession,” which I find unreadable. You have Geoffrey Bennington on the top of the page trying to capture Derrida in systematic, speculative, academic language and then on the bottom you’ve got Derrida’s diaries and journal entries and that’s confessional, experimental. But the two never really meet. And this is true of a lot of philosophers. There was Heidegger the speculative philosopher and Heidegger the poet. Sartre did his philosophy and his novels, but they were separate. De Beauvoir, likewise. Separate. Merleau-Ponty always wanted to write a novel, wrote a novel, never published it, kept it hidden. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a certain literary quality in their works. But it is still, strictly speaking, relatively rigorous speculative philosophy in the Continental tradition, from Husserl on.

That’s certainly true of the phenomenologists. But what about thinkers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Unamuno?

Yes, there have been those who muddy the waters and bring philosophy and literature together in provocative ways. But this sort of literary philosophy really dates back to Plato. Maybe even Heraclitus. Certainly, with Plato there’s already the mixing up of the literary and the philosophical. That’s his genius. You only have to compare him to Aristotle. Sure, on one level, I’m much more partial to Aristotle in terms of his conclusions — the primacy of touch over sight, for instance. But compare the two and you’ll see the difference in artistic merit. On the one hand, Plato is more speculative. His philosophy is not about people, it’s about ideas. On the other hand, he creates people to give voice to his ideas. He’s a great dramatist, a great inventor of human beings.

You know, Nietzsche says in Birth of Tragedy that Plato invents a new art form with the Dialogues, the novel. And then, of course, he tried to write a philosophical novel, Zarathustra. But you make an interesting point about contemporary philosophers, let’s say from Husserl on, when you observe that they will be poetic in their philosophy, they will at times even write works of fiction, but there is a distinction between the philosophical and the imaginative that really isn’t there for Plato. Of course, Plato will say that there must be such a line. But if you look at the Dialogues themselves and consider how performative they are, the line doesn’t seem to exist. I wonder why you think it is that we continue with what Plato says — that there’s a hard distinction between logos and mythos — rather than following his example of melding the two. It seems to me like we’ve taken him at his word more than followed him in his deeds.

There are two things I would say about this. One is the distinction between the Platonic Dialogues and works of unambiguous fiction — say, Aristophanes’s and Sophocles’s, the comic and the tragic. The difference is that dramatists make no truth claims. They’re writing “as if” it were true. And that “as if” makes all the difference. Nobody says, “Oh, Oedipus is right, Jocasta is wrong! Iphigenia has a better argument than Agamemnon.” That doesn’t matter. In drama, mythos trumps logos. Not that there isn’t a particular truth proper to mythos. As Aristotle says in the Poetics, mythos can get to some truths better than facts can. And, in a sense, the mythos in Plato gets to the essential truths that Aristotle has in mind. Plato’s Dialogues, I think, don’t make a claim to historical veracity. We don’t know whether Socrates existed or any of these characters existed for that matter.

Some of their names are just too on the nose to believe they did. Antiphon, for instance. Or Callicles. Even his own nickname, Plato, was the name of a comic poet, a contemporary of Aristophanes. It’s as if he lifted his pseudonym from another writer.

Exactly. But even if his characters did resemble real people, no one was going to bring a libel case against Plato. When you read his work, you know you’re entering into a dramatic dialogue. That said, while there is mythos as opposed to historical chronicle in the Dialogues, there is still a gesture at the primacy of logos. In other words, if you compare Sophocles to Socrates, there’s logos and mythos in both, but in Sophocles the “as if” trumps the argument whereas in the Dialogues the opposite is true. Mythos is there. Mythos contaminates, to use Derrida’s word. Nevertheless, there are persuasive arguments being put forth. The reader is being asked to weigh the arguments and see which is stronger. In drama, the fatal flaws of the tragic heroes are apparent to everyone. Oedipus, who is the hero and the protagonist, is living in ignorance and we know it. But Socrates is not living in ignorance, and we as readers are not meant to believe that we know better than him. Socrates knows what he’s doing. Even though he begins with the confession of ignorance, he doesn’t end with the confession of ignorance. He goes knowingly to his death. There isn’t a complete conflation or confusion of logos and mythos.

We’ve been talking a lot about the relation between art and philosophy and how philosophers use the tools of the artist in the service of philosophy. As a final question, I want to reverse course for a moment. As you were speaking, I was thinking of one of my favorite poets, T. S. Eliot, who, while working on his PhD in philosophy, decided to quit and become a poet. David Foster Wallace was getting a PhD in philosophy and quit to become a novelist. And even the poets Eliot admires, he calls them the “Metaphysical poets,” that is, the philosophical poets. They’re the ones with the most to say. So, just as there is the poetic philosopher — Nietzsche, for instance, or Camus — there is also the philosophical poet. But something distinguishes them. When we look at Nietzsche and at Dostoyevsky, we know on which side of the divide to place each of them. Dostoyevsky may be a philosophical novelist, but he’s a novelist, not a philosopher. And Nietzsche is not a poet. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on where the dividing line between these two ways of knowing or even different approaches to artistic creation can be found.

Before I come to that, I want to say one thing more about how philosophy uses poetry or literature or imagination in its own service. It does so, as we’ve been saying, to make ideas creative, to bring them to life. But it also does so to make ideas accessible. You and I both teach philosophy to undergraduates. When we design a course, we know not to begin the semester with Aristotle or, God forbid, Kant. Even teaching a text like the Poetics is impossible. You can’t read the Poetics. It’s just dead on the page. It’s dry. The dry rocks of mathematics, as Joyce says in Ulysses. Instead, we start with Plato. We start with Nietzsche or Camus. Or even with Sartre. When he writes in Being and Nothingness about bad faith, he uses quasi-literary descriptions. That’s what it takes to show students the value of the discipline.

Sartre’s always telling stories. He’s describing the movements of the waiter. He’s searching for his friend Pierre in the café. I lean on those examples all the time in class.

You’re right to do so. If you’re a philosopher who wants to be read, who has something to say, write philosophy in a literary way. Not as literature, because if you’re trying to do that, then you become a novelist.

Or a bad poet.

Or a bad poet and a bad philosopher. Now, back to the other thing. How does one distinguish between a philosophical poet and a poetic philosopher? I want to return to my distinction between telling something as true and telling it as if it were true. In philosophy, no matter how poetic, there is a philosophical claim. Not so in poetry. For instance, if you go to Dostoyevsky and say, “You’re wrong! Ivan’s arguments are false!” he’d say, “I agree. But I’m not Ivan.” “No, but Alyosha’s arguments are false and Dmitri’s too,” he’d say, “I agree. But I’m not Alyosha. I’m not Dmitri.” A philosopher, on the other hand — and perhaps Plato is a rare exception here — does not say, “I didn’t write that. That’s not me.” A philosopher who makes an argument and signs his name to it is responsible for what he says. A philosopher has a responsibility to say what he or she means. Roland Barthes signed Death of the Author. If you said to him, “Hey, Roland, what do you mean by the death of the author?” and he said, “Well, that’s not me who wrote that but my character” — you’d feel cheated. Because, you know, you signed your name to that and made an argument. So stand by it.

Kierkegaard comes the closest to walking the line because he writes under pseudonyms. He doesn’t sign his work. He lets someone else sign it.

That is different. That’s definitely different. And he’s obviously doing that for a reason. It’s a bit of Socratic irony. But just as behind the scenes, Plato is directing the whole chorus and yet we still know that Socrates is his favorite, his main ventriloquist’s dummy, so too does Kierkegaard have his favorites. Silencio, for instance, rather than the Hilarious Bookbinder. Or Climacus over Anti-Climacus. And not only that. In his signed works, he says something like, “Hey, secretly and off the record, I’m a religious writer. Yes, I’ve written ethical and aesthetical works under pseudonyms but if you want to really know what I’m after, it’s the religious.” That’s what makes him a philosopher.

That he has a stance. He makes a claim.

Yes. And even though he doesn’t want to make it systematic, like Hegel, he does want us to choose. And what he wants us to choose is the religious.

Whereas for the poet, it really is about play. It’s a game.

Yes. As Joyce says, nobody has been raped by a novel. In other words, I’m not Molly Bloom. I’m not saying, you know, let’s all have rape fantasies. I’m describing the rape fantasy of a character, a fictional character who could exist and who we look at as if this person exists but whose thoughts and ideas I do not necessarily condone.

There is no moralizing. Maybe it’s a moral distinction.

It’s poetic license. Yes. There’s no morality in a poem. A philosopher who advances antisemitic ideas is different than a character in a novel doing the same thing. A character is not meant to be taken seriously or believed, which is why we don’t burn the book.

That’s why you read Conrad, but not his contemporaries who were advocating for the ideas we see on display in Heart of Darkness, let’s say?

Yes, that’s because the novel is not advancing a truth claim. It’s not saying, “This is how we should behave or what we should believe.” It’s a work of fiction. So I think there’s a moral and an epistemological distinction in terms of truth claims and value claims that we expect from philosophy, at least minimally, and which we don’t expect from literature. Now, to go back to your original point: Plato, by mixing up the poetic and philosophical, allows for more gray area — but it’s not “anything goes.” Not every character is equal in their truth claims. Even if Alcibiades — you know, the poetic, the Bacchic, the drunkard, the artist — even if he bursts into the Symposium and interrupts the philosophical dialogue and upends the entire conversation, well, the text doesn’t end with him.

It ends with Socrates.

It ends with Socrates. Socrates is the only one who’s still awake. The poets have all fallen off to a drunken sleep. The philosopher outlasts his rivals. Socrates alone is left.

¤


As the conversation wound down, Anne entered the garden. She was done teaching for the day and asked Richard if he might fetch us a little wine. He excused himself to grab a bottle from the kitchen, and Anne and I began discussing the works of one of her favorite writers, Marcel Pagnol. As we spoke, she reached across the table and helped herself to a clementine.

¤


Matthew Clemente is an author, philosopher, husband, and father of five. He lives and teaches in Massachusetts.