“Knowingness as an Obstacle to Love”: A Conversation with Emily Ogden

By Johanna WinantMay 8, 2022

“Knowingness as an Obstacle to Love”: A Conversation with Emily Ogden
EMILY OGDEN’S NEW BOOK of nonfiction, On Not Knowing: How to Love and Other Essays, draws from her life and experiences as a reader, mother, partner, and worker, and from texts in psychoanalysis, philosophy, biology, history, literature, and literary studies. The book’s 17 chapters have such titles as “How to Catch a Minnow,” “How to Riff,” “How to Step Over a Snake,” and “How to Stay.”

In each essay, Ogden traces a theme or shape. In “How to Milk,” dairy farms and breastfeeding are discussed alongside blessings, curses, and other forms of care. And in “How to Have a One-Night Stand,” Ogden describes what it’s like to test one’s mettle and win, whether it’s a dog chasing a fox, or two academics fencing in conversation, or someone taking someone else to bed. Major figures that reappear in a number of essays include her young sons, the author Herman Melville and his contemporaries, and philosophers and psychoanalysts including Anne Dufourmantelle.

Ogden, associate professor of English at the University of Virginia, is also the author of Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism (Chicago, 2018). She discussed her new book with me via email, as she managed the disruptions of daycare quarantines and snowstorms.


JOHANNA WINANT: Early in On Not Knowing, you write, “If there is a kind of unknowing that could serve now, it is not the defensiveness of willful ignorance but the defenselessness of not knowing yet. […] I’m talking about living with the dimness that I will mostly inhabit.” You call unknowing “a capacity.” Is not knowing akin to Keatsian negative capability?

EMILY OGDEN: Yes, the not-knowing I mean is a cousin of negative capability, although its antecedents are specifically psychoanalytic. There’s a quote I come back to again and again when explaining what I mean by “not knowing.” It’s Adam Phillips’s definition of “perversion,” from his 1993 book On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored, where he says that “we could say that we are being perverse whenever we think we know beforehand exactly what we desire.” If we think we know in advance, we have given up on the possibility that otherness has something to offer us, Phillips says. I hasten to say that Phillips is not gunning for fetishists here; he leaves in suspension whether “perversion” is even a good description of what a sexual fetish is like. The “pervert” he’s really trying to describe is the clinical analyst who is too forward with his theory of the patient’s suffering. He says that, for Masud Khan, a psychoanalyst of the British middle group, “the so-called pervert, in his apparent knowingness, was an implicit parody of a certain kind of analyst”: the one who is too quick to explain patients to themselves, who has already seen it all, who has nothing to learn from a particular encounter. We could extrapolate that account beyond the clinical setting to the way we experience life. Not knowing then is a capacity to resist the temptation of having an overweening theory; to resist the temptation of having things settled. A theory that promises to sort our experiences out in advance is relieving. But it is not necessarily enlivening, and it is not necessarily true.

This book isn’t against discovery — on the contrary. Of course, we do have revelations; we do convert or fall in love; we do experience eureka moments where, after years of reading, we see a trail we can cut through a wilderness of facts. But eureka moments cannot last forever — or if we will them to last forever, we create a fixation, a perversion in Phillips’s sense. And so, the problem to which I see not-knowing as a solution is also a problem that comes after knowledge, after theory, after falling in love, after deciding you’re an opera fan: how do you retain the capacity to be surprised by the objects of your commitments?

You describe On Not Knowing as concerned not with monumental experiences, such as the encounter with a Leviathan in Moby-Dick, but rather with the “insignificant little fish” of ordinary days. You write, “It is not impossible that these minnows will trace the outlines of a whale.” I’m suspicious: this is a lot of periphrasis that gestures toward potential for your book to — what? 

You’re not the first person to suspect me of false modesty! But no, I’m not trying to pretend to be a person of no information. Not knowing is different from empty-headedness. I’m not talking about an opposition between scholars and ignoramuses. In fact, one of the outcomes of deep scholarly study on a particular topic is usually the relinquishing of some certainties — you begin to find it intolerable to hear people make blithe generalizations about the clear lineaments of this or that. With not knowing I’m talking about having the fortitude to face a muddle, knowing that the experience of it is likely to prompt ambivalent feelings. What I learn from Phillips, but also from Anne Dufourmantelle, a psychoanalyst who talks about learning to brave the risk of “not yet dying,” is that we are not really alive when we are engaged in dodging the possibility of ambivalence all the time.

The problem of Leviathan, for me as for Melville, is actually not how to harpoon it but how to share the seas with it. To a degree, how to keep out if its way. That’s what I see in the metaphor of a school of fish bending out around the whale.

One could think here about an opposition between Ahab and Ishmael, and how they pursue their Leviathan. Ahab hunts one whale with a total focus. His pursuit of Moby Dick is a perfect example of what Phillips calls perversion: he thinks he knows beforehand exactly what he desires, and it’s revenge. Ishmael is equally preoccupied with Leviathan. But he can’t focus; he’s full of little bits of information; after telling us a thousand facts he tends to tell us, at the end, that they don’t add up to any one thing. Nonetheless, we get the feeling that, obliquely, they do add up — to an approach to the world that has a kind of resilience or lightness or joy to it, so that he can bob up through the whirlpool at the end while Ahab, with his one object, goes down. What we need to see is not what Leviathan is. What we need to see is how to live with our own defenses against it, how to establish an enlivening or at least not killing dynamic with it.

So, what then would a book like this ideally help its reader to do? To bob back up. To keep on the move.

Here’s another question about false modesty: in this book called On Not Knowing, you actually know very much. You’re after something besides erudition, but also erudition isn’t useless. What is it useful for?

For this book, erudition’s purpose is to enliven us. That’s what it’s useful for. For me personally, the moment I decided to go to graduate school was the moment it seemed to me that the library was a bottomless sea — you would never get to the end of its surprises, corrections, reversals of what you had thought. I was afraid of undertaking a life’s work that it looked like I could master. But you cannot master scholarship. Of course, erudition is also for answering all kinds of particular questions we have — there is probably not a general answer to the question of why erudition since, in any individual case, the answer to the question is, well, what was it that you wanted to understand better, and what was your reason for wanting to understand?

If you discount the title, the subtitle — “How to Love and Other Essays” — sounds like a self-help book; if you run from the title straight into the subtitle, it’s something like the inverse or negative image of one, proclaiming the book’s lack of instruction in these subjects. Or one could imagine a sort of equals sign between title and subtitle: that, contra biblical usage, not knowing is a way of loving.

That “not knowing is a way of loving” — yes, that’s exactly right. That the book is about knowingness as an obstacle to love is how I would put it. Stanley Cavell’s idea of acknowledgment is a great way of thinking about this. In his essay “Knowing and Acknowledging,” which is a response to the skeptical argument that we can’t know another’s pain, he tells a parable of two brothers, one of which immediately feels any pain the other feels, no matter how far apart they are. Cavell says, I think rightly, that this immediate knowledge does not really satisfy what we are after when we talk about “knowing another’s pain.” It would seem to foreclose on what we really want, which is what Cavell ends up calling acknowledgment: hearing an account of pain, or perceiving it and believing in it, plus taking it to have a claim on you. (You might not act to redress it, but you feel the force of the claim that you should.)

If we come to those we love already knowing — who they are, what they can give us, what they want — we foreclose the possibility of encounter. Especially in parent-child relationships this is a temptation, as when parents have a theory about which of their children is the outgoing one, the shy one, etc. As a parent, it is far from simple to avoid such theorizing, because you’re trying to get a handle on the day, and get through it somehow.

With the titles, yes, I did want to gesture toward the wish for an answer to the “how-to” questions, and also to the value of ­not answering them, of not having a preconceived notion of what love, for example, requires of you.

How did the book evolve?

It started out as a set of columns on 3 Quarks Daily, about various antitheses to knowingness: surprise, hope, innocence. But what started out as a taxonomy of knowingness’s opposites became something more personal and speculative: an attempt to understand knowingness not as an achievement but as a temptation, and as something that might stand in the way of fully being alive in the world. I was asking, what are the attitudes or capacities that allow us to tolerate unknowing — that is, withstand and resist the temptation to knowingness? That meant a change in the style of the essays, and also a change in their form. The essays that made it into the book were more open-ended than the ones that didn’t. I also found it necessary to speak more personally at that point, because I needed to make clear what sort of life it was in which the temptation to respond with knowingness was presenting itself to me.

How did you organize the book?

With great difficulty. I would have liked the reader to read all the chapters simultaneously. But I knew it began with an antithesis between minnows and whales, ended with Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957), and told — among other stories — the story of my children’s birth in between. So, I started with a few fixed points and went from there. In the composition, many of the essays posed a question that a subsequent essay would then try to answer. So, I tried to keep some of those in their composition order.

How were you thinking about genre?

The most important notion about the genre of the essay, for me, was something Phillips takes from Emerson: the idea that an essay should send the reader back to their own thoughts. I wanted to prompt thought, not solve problems. And I wanted to stage the problem I was thinking about — chiefly, knowingness as an obstacle to love — not offer an analytical argument about it.

In On Not Knowing, a cast of intellectual companions reappear in different chapters: Anne Dufourmantelle, Herman Melville, Elizabeth Hardwick, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Why are these your interlocutors? What do they share in offering you, despite — or because of — their places in different disciplines and discourses?

Well, I love all of them. To a much greater degree than with my previous book, love was a criterion for citing someone. But, beyond that, a common strain was that they helped me with, and to some extent were explicitly thinking about, what Dufourmantelle calls, in her book In Praise of Risk (2011), “the risk of ‘not yet dying.’” Dufourmantelle was a psychoanalyst and philosopher who drowned while trying to save two children from drowning. But as her English translator Steven Miller points out, the story this suggests — of the philosopher who lived and died by what she wrote — is precisely wrong. For Dufourmantelle, death was the temptation; throwing away your life in a deadening routine was the temptation. We take the greatest risk not when we put ourselves in the way of death, but when we turn away from the routine of what I would call knowingness and toward the uncertainty of encounters with others.

In her book, Dufourmantelle tells the story of a patient, the pseudonymous “Eurydice,” who has always believed she knew the day she would die. (In Adam Phillips’s vocabulary, we could think of that as Eurydice’s perversion, her way of thinking the world holds no good surprises for her.) The turning point is when she becomes afraid of death, which had not previously been true. Her analyst identifies this as the moment she begins to believe the world might bring her something she desires, that she doesn’t already know about, commenting, “Perhaps you want to live a little bit more?”

I think that, in various different ways, Melville, Emerson, and Hardwick helped me think about what it would mean to travel this path, from knowing exactly what was to come to wanting to take the risk of not yet dying: wanting to live a little bit more.


Johanna Winant is assistant professor of English at West Virginia University. Her writing has appeared in Slate, Post45 Contemporaries, Avidly, Poetics Today, James Joyce Quarterly, and elsewhere. She is on Twitter at @johannawinant, and she lives in Pittsburgh.

LARB Contributor

Johanna Winant is assistant professor of English at West Virginia University. Her writing has appeared in Slate, Post45 Contemporaries, Avidly, Poetics Today, James Joyce Quarterly, and elsewhere. She is on Twitter at @johannawinant, and she lives in Pittsburgh.


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