restricted access A Dialogue on Dialogue, Part I
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Dialogue . . . can never lose for the thinker its attraction as a mode of expression. By its means he can both reveal and conceal himself . . . . By its means he can exhibit the object from each point of view . . . or from those felicitous after-thoughts . . . give a fuller completeness to the central scheme, and yet convey something of the delicate charm of chance.


By its means, too, he can invent an imaginary antagonist, and convert him when he chooses by some absurdly sophistical argument.


Ah! it is so easy to convert others. It is so difficult to convert oneself. To arrive at what one really believes, one must speak through lips different from one’s own. To know the truth one must imagine myriads of falsehoods.

—Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist. A Dialogue. Part II.”

That mask! That mask! I would give one of my fingers to have thought of that mask.

—Denis Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew 76

And so we will find it possible to get beyond the magical idea of knowledge—the idea of knowledge as control and mastery, the ideal of that idea. Instead we shall have this display and celebration of our differences.


Our differences about what?


About any subject we choose to take up. This talk of ours, these conversations, what are they grounded in? Not the pursuit of truth (that old ideal of philosophy and science), not the pursuit of power (that old ideal of magic and technology). They are grounded in the pursuit of meaning, in hermeneutics and the desires of interpretation. And interpretation proceeds according to a dialogical rather than a systems-theoretical or systems- correcting model. Dialogues are governed by rules of generosity and ornamentation, not rigor and method.


Who today would challenge the virtues of a dialogic model? The star of Bakhtin stands in the ascendant. But what are you saying, exactly? Is this a call for an unrestricted play of interpretation? Does anything go? Will all the Lord’s people be queueing up for a haruspicator’s license?


That’s a cheap sneer I’d expect from Hilton Kramer, not from you. In fact, our most ancient and sophisticated interpretive traditions call for nothing less than the reader’s complete freedom. In Hebrew midrash, as we know, reading is “divergent rather than convergent . . . moving rather than fixed . . . always opening onto new ground . . . always calling for interpretation to be opened up anew.” Many still “understand the conflict of interpretation as a deficit of interpretation itself, part of the logical weakness of hermeneutics.” This “prompts the desire to get ‘beyond interpretation’ to the meaning itself . . . . [But] my thought is that this very [desire] implies a transcendental outlook that has, in Western culture, never been able to accept the finite, situated, dialogical, indeed political character of human understanding, and which even now finds midrash to be irrational and wild.”1

The need to possess the truth, the fear of doubt and uncertainty. It is the fear from which Arnold fled, in the middle of the nineteenth-century—the fear of a democratic conversation that would proceed without the benefit of governing touchstones. Its psychological form appeared to Arnold as the spectrous dialogue of the mind with itself. And he had reason to fear such a dialogue, for it can be unnerving or even worse. It can overthrow altogether what one takes to be the truth: the soul of the world’s culture suddenly brought face to face with the mask of the god’s anarchy—and with that mask appearing, in its most demonic guise, as a polished surface reflecting back the image of one’s own self, the hypocrite lecteur loosed upon the occidental world in Arnold’s day by Baudelaire.


[speaking to GM] You call this a “celebration” of differences, but to me it seems more a clash, and thus a struggle toward that truth you are so ready to dispense with. Dialogue is less a carnival than a critical exchange in which the errors and limits of different ideas are exposed by their...