Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative - ISSN 1780-678X
Echoes of the Phenomenon – A Conversation with Robert Pogue Harrison
Author: Ben de Bruyn
Abstract (E): This interview with Robert Pogue Harrison discusses his work on memory and ecology. The conversation mainly centers around Harrison's intellectual background, his view of theory and literature, modern memory and ecology as well as existentialism and Christianity.
Abstract (F): Dans cet entretien avec Robert Pogue Harrison parle de ses recherches sur la mémoire et l’écologie. Les questions abordées traitent essentiellement de ses conceptions sur la pensée critique et la littérature, le rôle de mémoire moderne et de l'écologie et enfin l'existentialisme et le christianisme.
keywords:Robert Pogue Harrison, deconstruction, ecocriticism, literature, religion.
To cite this article:
What if forests are not simply natural but also cultural sites? If deforestation is not only depleting our oxygen supply but also our cultural memory? And what if living human beings are always already dead, being fundamentally connected to the afterlives of their predecessors and of their offspring? What if our expulsion from the Garden of Eden was not a curse, but a blessing? If paradise was not – andcan never be – paradise? These are just some of the fascinating questions Robert Pogue Harrison has raised in his seminal studies on Forests, The Dominion of the Dead, and Gardens. As I have tried to show in my essay on Harrison’s work in the previous issue of Image & Narrative, these studies have established the Stanford professor as an important critic with regard to topics such as ecology, memory, and humanity. His oeuvre lends a voice to the cultural echoes of phenomena, the things in the world. But how did this oeuvre about the earth and its dead, about natural and cultural conservation first emerge? And what is the relationship between these three studies which, as Harrison suggests, actually constitute a trilogy? How does he position himself vis-à-vis issues as diverse as Deconstruction and ecocriticism, humanism and existentialism, modernity and Christianity? What is the nature and value of literature, to his mind? And what, finally, does the future hold in store for him? These are just some of the questions that will be addressed in the present interview with Robert Pogue Harrison.
Theories & Motifs
I&N: Although our talk will mainly focus on your later research, I wanted to start off with some questions on your earlier work. As some of our readers may not know, you host a radio show called Entitled Opinions – freely available on the internet and warmly recommended – which has aired remarkable conversations between yourself and authors as diverse as Richard Rorty, Orhan Pamuk and Andrei Linde. In the first installment of the show, you mention that your own research developed as a critical response to the anti-referential programme of Deconstruction that you were confronted with at Cornell University. Literature, as the subtitle of the show underlines, is not divorced from, but fundamentally related to life. At the same time, you mention that Deconstruction has or had certain merits as well. Would you mind elaborating on this intellectual background of yours?
RPH: I came to Deconstruction after being steeped in Heidegger, who, after Nietzsche, was my baptismal philosopher. When I went to graduate school at Cornell University to study literature, Deconstruction was thriving along with the so-called hermeneutic school of literary theory. There was considerable rivalry between them, and while both were derivative of the Heideggerian corpus, neither of the two schools corresponded to the Heidegger who had captivated me, namely the phenomenological Heidegger of Being and Time, whose avowed objective was to clarify the question of the meaning of Being so as to find a way back to the things themselves, in sum to bring philosophy back into the sphere of phenomena, as they appeared in our lived worlds. For Heidegger Being is ultimately the mysterious process (which cannot take place independently of Dasein) by which the phenomenon emerges into the light of intelligibility and presence. In Heidegger I sensed a drive to return to the density and historicity of lived experience which I did not find to be the case with Deconstruction.
I&N: So you were attempting to articulate certain things that Deconstruction failed to see in the work of Heidegger?
RPH: I felt a certain affinity for Deconstruction, to be sure, in that I recognized many Heideggerian elements in its elaborate stage production, as it were, yet it always gave me a sense of claustrophobia – of being in a closed, indoor theatre where the drama revolved exclusively around the meaning of words, the mise enabîme of semantic referentiality. Its textual choreographies did not captivate me, as it did many of my peers at the time, even if I understood why the academy was the natural home for this kind of textualization of the history of philosophy. The academy is not particularly devoted to lived experience, or the wonders of appearance. It is a place where photophobic people come together to analyse texts, found disciplines, and squabble with each other. For this reason, among others, Deconstruction always struck me as a quintessentially academic enterprise. This was confirmed by the fierce determination with which its practitioners, starting with Derrida himself, fought to secure and promote the institutional power base of Deconstruction in the United States.
I&N: One of the reasons why I wanted to ask the question about Deconstruction is that this critical current seems or seemed to be a paradigmatic form of theory. This specific question is hence a good introduction to the more general question about your position with regard to theory and the so-called ‘age after theory’. In contrast to more theoretically minded critics, perhaps, your studies systematically start out from specific examples. At the same time, there is no denying the fact that your work shows many of the characteristics of theory, referring to philosophers such as Vico, Heidegger, and Arendt, and offering general observations on the nature of man and language, for instance. Would you call yourself a critic or a theorist and what, if anything, does that choice imply, according to you?
RPH: I have never felt comfortable with the concept of literary theory, for several reasons. To begin with, I feel that reading literature should be a veritable adventure, one that remains open to the possibility of new discoveries through an encounter with the singular specificity of a literary artifact. Literary theories – whatever their premises – usually know in advance what they will find in a literary work. Wherever Deconstruction looks, it always finds différance, dislocation, dissemination, invagination, etc. Most of what goes by the name of literary theory is a mongrel of philosophy, or a demotic way of doing philosophy. I am too committed to the philosophical tradition to consider myself a philosopher (I am a passionate reader of philosophy). By the same token I do not consider myself a theorist, since I have never proposed any theories or theorems in my own work. If you consider the books I have written, I think you will agree that it would be impossible to found a school of literary theory upon my ideas or modes of procedure. There is something about the phenomenological ‘adventure’ in my work that resists the formalization of theory. I simply try to allow myself to be guided by what presents itself to thinking in the topic at hand.
I&N: But that is really why I am asking the question. After all, you also engage some of the issues that more theoretically minded critics engage, but you seem to do so in a more ‘fluid’ way. I was therefore wondering about how you see that endeavour.
RPH: I see it in the following way, though you may disagree. If there is something distinctive about my approach, it is my insistent listening to the voice of the poet, by which I mean the voice of literature as such. I start from the conviction that literature knows better than philosophy what philosophy seeks to articulate in abstract terms – knows it not only more intuitively but also less naively. Sometimes one must first expose oneself to the abstractions of philosophy in order to discover the universal implications of what offers itself latently and specifically in the literary work. I find it frustrating that many theorists and philosophers who tout their sympathy towards literature often do not make genuine efforts to be guided by what the poem or text is revealing, especially in those cases when they put on an elaborate show of minute textual analysis (Heidegger is sometimes guilty of this, and many Deconstructionists, including the Founder himself, have mastered the art of silencing a text in the name of liberating its muffled voices). Of course, some of these same theorists are also very good readers at times.
What you call my fluidity I think consists in my preferred mode of procedure, which first chooses the literary work that is pertinent to the particular context of the argument, chapter, or topic in which I am engaged, then allows the cited text to resound in the ‘echo chamber’ of my own thought as I try to come to terms with its latent revelations. I am not sure I would even call this mode of procedure critical, but I would call it phenomenological. My allegiance to the poetic word is part of my allegiance to the phenomenon. For me literature is a phenomenon par excellence, not insofar as it represents, declares or tells us something, but insofar as it shows us something that otherwise remains unapparent. It is important to insist that literature does not only ‘wrest’ the phenomenon from concealment; oftentimes it reveals how much of the phenomenon remains enveloped in shadows. The poets and writers who interest me most are those who bring the life world to language in such a way that the phenomenon appears in its mysterious, enigmatic, yet altogether palpable character. When the phenomenon makes an appearance in this way, it also brings to light the penumbra that surrounds or suffuses its appearance. Literature is the privileged medium for this kind of revelation, I believe.
I&N: So there is still a sort of – and I know that this is an antiquated term – ‘literariness’, to your mind?
RPH: I believe that literature not only represents but is the living voice of our inner lives. By ‘inner lives’ I mean the place where we make sense of our experience of being in the world, or at times fail to make sense of it. Literature unveils the world – and our being in it – in a way that no other medium, be it music, philosophy, or visual art, can do. It is the phenomenological medium par excellence. In “The Art of the Novel”, Milan Kundera speaks eloquently of the way in which the Husserlian project of recovering the Lebenswelt – the lived world – is realized most fully in the novel, not in Husserlian or Heideggerian philosophy. I agree with him about that. For example, Heidegger proposes ‘guilt’ as an existential determination of Dasein, but Samuel Beckett gives us a full bodied account of the lived experience of guilt, as Heidegger understands it abstractly in Being and Time. Literature is in many ways the flesh of philosophy – not its figurative representation but its incarnate truth as it were.
I&N: Although your work mainly deals with memory and ecology, it frequently engages these issues by investigating specific themes or motifs. I am thinking of the ‘soldiers falling like autumn leaves’-motif in The Dominion of the Dead, for instance, or the ‘garden of Eden’-motif in Gardens. The study of themes and motifs is not uncontested, however, although publications like The Return of Thematic Criticism suggest that the theme of theme is again a more accepted part of literary studies. How would you define and characterize this aspect of your work? Additionally, it is obvious that one critic is unable to catalogue every instance of the ‘garden of Eden’-motif, for instance. How does one select the most appropriate examples and how does one study the motif’s transformation throughout the ages?
RPH: I’m not convinced that my method begins with motifs, although it would appear so from the two examples you’ve given. These motifs were not the starting points in the books in question. They were simply strategic decisions on my part about how to enter into a set of topics I already had in mind. For example, Gardens had an occasional genesis; I was asked to write an essay on gardens in the Western imagination by the American Federation of Arts (published in 2004 in Contemporary Photography and the Garden: Deceits and Fantasies). When I decided to expand that essay into a book, I had no intention to look at the garden motif through the ages, but to think about how gardens, in their essence, might help us to apprehend the human condition as such in a new phenomenonological mode. There’s a genre of thematic criticism which I find overly programmatic and ultimately unsatisfying. I have never tried merely to catalogue a motif. That is not my approach in Forests, for example. Of course one could say that in that book I take the motif of forests and follow it through the ages. But I do so only in order to re-think the ground of Western civilization by examining the latent dimensions of the history, symbolism and ecology of forests. Cataloguing the motif of the forest in Western culture would require much more – and much less – than what I’ve done. In general I am more interested in pondering a phenomenon (the forest, the dead, the garden) in as much depth as possible, and then, when this pondering process gets under way, discovering how the phenomenon is related to several other phenomena with which it is openly or covertly associated. All of a sudden, in an unexpected way, the forest is revealed as a covert presence at the heart of literary history, Western humanism, Cartesianism, Romanticism, and a host of other phenomena – not merely as a metaphor and allegory but as an ecological substrate of the civilization to which these phenomena naturally pertain. What I seek to do, in other words, is to probe a hidden history by selecting only those instances of the forest motif that contribute directly to the pondering process in question. Likewise in Dominion of the Dead, the soldiers and the falling leaves allow a certain process of ‘covert’ thinking to begin – one that brings to light a connection (between the living and the dead) which was not immediately apparent before the thinking got underway.
Dante & Modernity
I&N: Your dissertation as well as the book it developed into, The Body of Beatrice, focused on the writings of Dante. You have suggested that the broader scope and more committed tone of your later books formed a reaction against the limited reception of your first book. Nevertheless, Dante remains a crucial intertext in all of your books, appearing in the gradual mastering of the “fear of the forest” (Harrison 1993: 82) in Forests, in the analysis of the ‘soldiers falling like autumn leaves’-motif in The Dominion of the Dead and the comparison between Muslim and Christian conceptions of the afterlife in Gardens. Would you say that this continued preoccupation with Dante is simply part of your own scholarly background or that Dante’s work is rather part of our shared cultural background in ways that make it unavoidable in the type of investigations you have been engaged in?
RPH: Very good question. My continued preoccupation with Dante is not due simply to my scholarly background. For some reason I cannot explain, a genetic connection exists between my work and the Divine Comedy. Without it being intentional on my part, this trilogy of books I have authored – Forests, The Dominion of the Dead, and Gardens – in many ways re-enacts the itinerary of Dante, who wakes up in the dark forest of Inferno 1, goes through the realms of the dead, and then reaches the Garden of Eden at the top of the mountain of Purgatory. My next book would have to be about paradise in order to complete the analogy, although it is unlikely that I will write such a book at the moment. In any case, I certainly did not initially set out to write a trilogy, let alone one that follows the pattern of the Divine Comedy. It turns out that I did. Perhaps Dante had a mysterious claim on my imagination that predetermined the course my work would take in these three books. I cannot say for sure.
I&N: Another important period in your writings is the classical age. In Gardens, for instance, you refer to classical “ataraxia” (Harrison 2008: 76, 125) as an ethical alternative to our modern gluttony and carelessness. While I was reading this book, I could not help thinking of Hans Blumenberg’s claim that the late-classical solutions of stoicism are no longer possible in the early-modern age, let alone in its late-modern counterpart. The disruption of the scholastic order at the end of the Middle Ages, his argument goes, was so fundamental that the harmonious composure of ‘ataraxia’ was no longer attainable: “[n]ach der klassischen Philosophie der Griechen blieb das Postulat der Ataraxie möglich, nach dem theologischen Absolutismus des späten Mittelalters muβte Selbstbehauptung die Implikation jedes philosophischen Systems werden” (Blumenberg 1996: 167). How can we achieve ‘ataraxia’ in the late-modern age, to your mind, without relapsing into a nostalgic distance from or aloof pessimism about the contemporary world?
RPH: The one way not to do so is to make it a systematic, normative call for a New Epicureanism. A creative retrieval of ataraxia would begin by taking stock of the remarkable analogies between Epicurus’ age and our own. Epicurus arrives on the scene after the high moment of Greek democracy; his age was marked by a corrosion of faith in the traditional Greek assumption that human happiness realizes its potential only in the public sphere. I believe we are in a similar situation, where the founding myths of democracy are struggling and the public sphere has been co-opted by forces beyond our control which in fact militate against our prospects for happiness. If there is an analogy here, it concerns the possibility of cultivating a series of social, personal, and spiritual virtues in a sphere that is not public, but that is not ‘private’ either. Epicurus’s Garden School was not a private retreat, or a retreat into privacy as we understand it today, even though Epicurus resolutely withdrew from the glare of the Greek polis. The specifically Epicurean question of our time is the following: what sorts of opportunities exist for citizens to ameliorate their lives, their environments, their human relationships, and their relation to nature independently of the socio-political sphere, which seems no longer committed or able to address the most fundamental spiritual concerns of our humanity? There are many lessons from the Epicurean legacy that remain retrievable in this regard. This does not necessarily mean we must strive for ataraxia, if by this we understand a narcissistic, new-age quietism. I believe in the moral value of serenity, to be sure, but not as a mode of escaping, in a self-deceiving mode, from the realities of history.
I&N: Another interesting feature of your work, to my mind, is its attitude towards the heritage of the modern age. Although you refer to yourself as “an heir to the cultural history of modernity” (Harrison 2008: 159), your work is fairly critical of modernity as well as modernism. This critical attitude with regard to the modern, in fact, seems to explain the atmosphere of nostalgia that pervades your writings. Would you mind elaborating upon this ambiguous attitude with regard to the modern age?
RPH: You are right, there is a paradox here. I agree wholeheartedly with Rimbaud when he declares ‘il faut être absolument moderne’, ‘we must be absolutely modern’. But what does this mean? Are we absolutely modern? Have we ever been absolutely modern, or have we been at best incompletely modern? There was an intoxicating promise during the nineteenth century that the West could become genuinely modern, that it was about to become genuinely modern, but something happened that sent cultural history off the right track. If I may speak personally, I do not want to embrace the kind of modernity that makes us the orphans rather than the heirs of history. I prefer a modernity that creatively and actively retrieves, reappropriates, and revitalizes past legacies in new modern forms. The avant-garde modernisms that sought to dismantle the heritage, to innovate ex nihilo, and so forth, appeal to me only to the extent that they are now part of the legacy of Western cultural history. There is now a history of avant-garde orphanism which dignifies its experimental failures. Be that as it may, I conceive of ‘absolute modernity’ as a lexification of the cultural heritage, be it in literature, the arts, or in the political sphere (the founding of the American republic, for example, was precisely such a lexification). Of course, I would never presume to legislate an aesthetics, and certainly not a politics. Such legislation, when it is promoted by idle intellectuals, is always feckless. I am simply trying to account for this ambiguity that on the one hand makes me unsatisfied with our disinherited modernity, and on the other makes me long for an absolute modernity.
Memory & Ecology
I&N: As your previous answer already suggested, you have coined the term “lexification” (Harrison 2003: 84) in The Dominion of the Dead to describe the interaction between the living and the dead and between the past and future work of culture. In many ways, I think, this term is an attempt to rethink categories such as tradition and innovation. What is especially striking about that attempt is your emphasis on tradition and cultural conservation. Do you feel that contemporary criticism has over-emphasized the importance of innovation?
RPH: There is a quote from Hölderlin, I believe it comes from a preface to Hyperion, where Hölderlin says about his book: ‘on no account do I wish it were original, for originality is novelty to us, and nothing is as dear to me as things as old as the world itself’. If originality means mere novelty, then I am not very interested in originality. When Ezra Pound declared, ‘make it new!’, he was not recommending mere novelty. Rather, he was calling on artists to ‘make the old new again’. He was calling for renovation rather than innovation. That approach, I believe, has consistently led to more fruitful and long-lasting results in modernist art and literature than the search for newness. There is nothing more obsolete than the merely new. Whatever does not repose on the foundations of the past becomes quickly superannuated.
I&N: And how would you position this project vis-à-vis the more general turn toward cultural memory in contemporary criticism? Does your work fit into this type of ‘memory studies’?
RPH: As a critic I see my vocation as analogous to Aeneas when he descends into the underworld to commune with the dead. This communion is not merely with the past, for the ancestor is the one who points the way to the future. It is in the underworld of the dead that the generations to come are revealed to Aeneas.
I&N: Because of your first study, on the cultural resonance of the antagonism between human institutions and natural forests, you have been described as an ecocritic. However, Lawrence Buell has argued that you are “not an insider to the ecocritical movement” (Buell 1999: 701). Although you develop a similar idea, moreover, you distance yourself from the feminist “ethics of care” (Harrison 2008: 200) that is an important part of “[e]cofeminism” (Buell 1999: 712). So you also seem to distance yourself from ecocriticism. What do you think about this movement, and how does your own work relate to it?
RPH: You are right. I do not consider myself an ecocritic. There is something about submitting nature to a regional academic discourse that I find unappealing. I don’t consider nature a topic of thought. Nature is where I go to find myself, not to lose myself in discursive abstractions. Indeed, I believe that nature does most of my thinking for me. Ecocriticism for me is where the thought of nature goes astray, enters a language that cloisters its intrinsic openness.
I&N: In Forests, you speak about the relation between nature and culture in terms of a “relational bond” (Harrison 1993: 208).
RPH: That for me is the essence of ‘ecology’. Oikos is the house, logos is the bond, so ecology is first and foremost an acknowledgment of this irreducible connection between nature and culture, each of which is the correlate of the other.
I&N: In his recent thought experiment on The World Without Us, Alan Weisman discusses the fate of the Białowieża Puszcza, the primeval forest that straddles the border between Poland and Belarus. Ironically, Weisman suggests, this forest was preserved from the encroaching human world by totalitarian measures aimed at safeguarding the hunting pleasure of dubious political figures. In Forests, you make a similar observation regarding the unintended ecological benefits of the socially repressive measures of Forest Law in medieval England. At that point you conclude, perhaps ironically, that “an ecologist today cannot help but be a monarchist of sorts” (Harrison 1993: 69). Similarly, Gardens discusses Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar, which contains the following observation in the context of a visit to a Japanese garden: “[m]ust the conclusion be that the Zen mental techniques for achieving extreme humility […] require as their necessary background aristocratic privilege, and assume an individualism with so much space [and] time around it […]?” (quoted in Harrison 2008: 189). These passages raise the question of how certain ethical and ecological ideals require forms of affluence that may be inimical to these very ideals. In general terms, how can an ecological programme be reconciled with a social agenda, a question invited by your claim that one of our current moral illusions is the idea that “the assault on nature [is] unworlding the world in the name of eliminating poverty” (Harrison 2008: 158-159).
RPH: That quote is ironic, but tragically so, in that much of the environmental devastation that is taking place in our time is done in the name of improving standards of living, increasing the wealth of nations, promoting economic growth, and so forth. There is an insanity at work in the global economy, whereby nature pays the price for society’s putative enrichment. The irony here is that peace and prosperity (our highest, and perhaps even only ideals as a society these days) merely aggravate our debt to nature and promote environmental degradation. We need a transvaluation of values – as Nietzsche called it – especially of economic values. Our ‘economy’ needs to be brought back to the oikos of human habitation on the earth. One cannot destroy the oikos in the name of economy. By the same token, we need a different law, or nomos, one that justifies the logos that binds us to nature. Sometimes the law must be imposed by political decree, forbidding human encroachment on nature’s habitats. The doctrine of self-regulation – to which the capitalist ideology, especially that of the United States, subscribes to – is not the most effective nomos when it comes to managing the relation between economy and ecology. America has a better environmental record than many places, but we should never forget that the US government has often had to intervene – and still has to intervene – in the process, whether by nationalizing parks, enacting endangered species laws, or whatever.
I&N: In Gardens, the example of the homeless gardens suggests that there is always this need for a garden-like space, even in the most dire of social circumstances. But we cannot all afford a Zen garden.
RPH: No, we cannot. Homeless people in New York resort to that kind of measure because someone else has created these infernal cities and habitats. In Gardens I do not propose to overturn the entire socio-economic system that produces this inferno; instead I propose a ‘garden ethics’, according to which the citizen takes on personal responsibility when it comes to making room for, and cultivating, Edenic recesses in the midst of the inferno, allowing those recesses to grow wherever possible…
I&N: …in a way which might ultimately promote social ideals?
RPH: Exactly. The homeless gardens you refer to are social ideals of the sort I think you have in mind. Certainly they represent social statements insofar as, through their creative acts, the makers of these homeless gardens overcome the silence and anonymity to which their environment has reduced them. In effect, these gardeners become interlocutors with their fellow citizens in the public sphere. Their gardens militate against the ‘political’ silence to which they have been condemned. At the same time, those gardens provide pockets of repose in the midst of an impossible frenzy. These unlikely gardeners heed Voltaire’s famous enjoinder: ‘il faut cultiver notre jardin’. We must cultivate our garden despite and in the midst of calamity.
I&N: There are various traditions or intertexts at work in your books. I would like to ask you about three of these intertexts, as you frequently return to them but also criticize them. To use your own term, your interest in these traditions seems to be a sort of “reciprocative rejoinder” (Harrison 2003: 102). A first question, in this respect, has to do with your attitude toward humanism. Careful to distinguish your position from triumphalistic versions of humanism, you nevertheless want to defend a certain form of humanist thinking. As your systematic use of the appellation ‘we’ already indicates, your creed seems to be the Terentian phrase “homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto” (Harrison 2003: 125). Would you mind clarifying this return to the humanist tradition for our readers?
RPH: I am interested in retrieving it, as you say. While I am still Heideggerian enough to maintain a degree of suspicion towards traditional humanism (which makes human subjectivity the foundation of Being), there are several humanistic doctrines I am committed to affirming, such as human dignity, tolerance, reasoned discourse, the irreducibility of the individual, and others.
I&N: As the references to Heidegger already suggested, your work is also indebted to existentialism. Apart from Heidegger, you refer to authors such as Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard, Beckett and use notions such as death, authenticity, boredom, care and the absurd rather systematically. Nevertheless, your discussion of existentialism in Forests seems at least partly critical of this movement. How should we interpret this ambiguous attitude vis-à-vis existentialist thought?
RPH: In Forests, I was critical of the complete anthropocentric posture of Sartre’s existentialism. The world of nature, for Sartre, can only be antagonistic toward the human project. In Nausea Sartre confesses a biophobia in terms so unguarded as to be at once laughable and pathetic. At the same time, I resolutely embrace existentialism’s call to self-responsibility. While I do not believe that man is ultimately the master of his destiny – I am at once too pagan, too Christian, and too Heideggerian for that – I do think that there are a great many aspects of our personal, social, and political lives that fall under the governance of the human will. What our present age needs most, it seems to me, is a good dose of Sartrean existentialism to recall us to our own empowered agency when it comes to shaping our lives and our society, to remind us that most of our problems are of our own making, and that, to a large extent, ‘we have the world we deserve’. We live these days with an extraordinary amount of mauvaise foi. Everything encourages and even obliges us to put the blame anywhere but on ourselves. But what Sartre declared is true: for the most part we are the architects of our worlds.
I&N: Finally, Christianity also seems to be an important touchstone of the three studies we are talking about. You frequently allude to its ideas and systematically use its language to talk about man and nature and so forth.
RPH: Christianity is essential to the equation, in my view, for unlike humanism and existentialism, it reminds us that, when it comes to ultimate things – loss, death, grief and suffering – we are fundamentally powerless in our will. Christianity calls on us to acknowledge the extreme humility and even shame of the human condition. In the last years of his life I believe that Camus – who never identified himself as Christian – came to recognize that there is a guilt in human beings that no amount of resolve, self-examination, or activism can overcome. As long as we refuse to come to terms with this guilt, we remain self-deceived. At least this is how I read Camus’s remarkable novel The Fall.
I&N: There seems to be a connection between religion and nature as well. You note that the idea of God becomes less and less absurd the more one considers “the everyday miracles of [the] natural world” (Harrison 2003: 133). In a similar fashion, you have argued that our present time might benefit from a new religion, associating this need for a “new god” (Harrison 1993: 242) with a “new ecology” (ibid.). Has ecology become a new religion? And if so, this ecological religion in your work seems to be quite different from the ecological religion we often come across in the popular media, no?
RPH: You are right. I believe that the nihilism of the modern era is inextricably linked to the desacralization of the world. I have little interest in the salvation of my soul, or the salvation of mankind, in an afterlife. What concerns me is the possibility of redeeming the phenomenon here on Earth, during the time that we are here to witness its wonders. But one cannot wilfully re-sacralize the visible world. Herein lie the limitations of humanism and existentialism. Only a new god can restore sanctity to life, birth, death, appearance, the unfolding of the seasons, sex, and even – and perhaps above all – nourishment. I say a ‘new god’, because, after two millennia, the deistic God of Christianity has exhausted his power of sanctification. Can one still be a Christian today and believe, along with Nietzsche, that God is dead? Perhaps not. Fortunately the Catholic tradition in which I was raised permits me to put the question of God in brackets and to focus on the secular – and at the same time transcendent – humanity of Jesus, above all to focus on his sanctification of life through human suffering (for there is no sacrality independent of suffering). Whether the natural world has a supreme creator is less important than the fact that it exists. Its existence is in effect a miracle, that is to say an extreme improbability. The natural world gives daily evidence of this, at the macro- and micro-level. I hesitate to ascribe the astonishing, everyday miracles of nature to a creator God, because that neutralizes the mystery of their provenance. A miracle resists explanation. There’s nothing quite as impoverishing of the miraculous than ascribing its cause to God. The more the phenomenon is steeped in mystery, the more it is justified. I am alluding here to Friedrich Nietzsche’s declaration, ‘the world and life are justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon’. Nietzsche is using the language of Christianity polemically here. If the cosmos is ultimately an aesthetic phenomenon, as I believe it is, then it is fully justified in itself – as long as it remains an aesthetic phenomenon and not the visible manifestation of an invisible Godhead. Where the phenomenon appears against a backdrop of inscrutable mystery, it is justified in and for itself. Whether there is a god somewhere in the penumbral recesses of the phenomenon is less important to me than the fact that the phenomenon comes to light as such. That is how I prefer to understand the idea of revelation.
I&N: By way of conclusion, I was hoping you might be willing to share with our readers some thoughts on the direction of your future work. Now that your trilogy on human connections is finished, will you turn to different subjects or develop the ones you have been investigating in your previous books?
RPH: Honestly, I don’t have an answer to that question. I don’t have much more to say about the concept of the humic foundations of Western civilization, which binds together the three books of the trilogy we have been discussing here. My next main book may well be a novel – an unusual kind of novel, to be sure – but the less I say about it at this moment in time the better.
I&N: On behalf of myself and all the readers of Image & Narrative, please accept my sincere thanks for this interview and good luck with the next season of Entitled Opinions and the rest of your work.
Blumenberg, Hans. 1996 . Die Legitimität der Neuzeit. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Buell, Lawrence. 1999. “The Ecocritical Insurgency”. New Literary History 30 (3), 699-712.
Harrison, Robert Pogue. 1993 . Forests . The Shadow of Civilization . Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
---. 2003. The Dominion of the Dead . Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
---. 2008. Gardens . An Essay on the Human Condition . Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Ben De Bruyn is a research fellow at the Flemish Fund for Scientific Research (FWO) in connection with the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. He is currently completing a dissertation on the reception theory of Wolfgang Iser and its theoretical and literary sources. He has written texts for Image & Narrative and Journal of Literary Theory as well as for a volume on Art and Life in Aestheticism recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.
Robert Pogue Harrison is Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature at Stanford University. He is the author of several highly acclaimed articles and books, including The Dominion of the Dead and Gardens. An Essay on the Human Condition, both published by the University of Chicago Press. He is also the host of the Stanford university radio program Entitled Opinions (about Life and Literature).
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