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Idling the Engine: Linguistic Skepticism in and around Cortázar, Kafka, and Joyce, and: Literature and the Taste of Knowledge (review)

From: Comparative Literature Studies
Volume 44, Number 4, 2007
pp. 515-518 | 10.1353/cls.2007.0083

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Idling the Engine by E. Joseph Sharkey is the book I have long been waiting for, but did not think I would ever see published. I say this after years of suffering in silence at graduate and faculty seminars, at which I felt unable to counter the prevailing academic orthodoxy that there is no such thing as "truth" because, to quote Sharkey's summary of the orthodoxy, "no knowledge or tool of knowledge, least of all language, can be trusted" (viii). What I found particularly insidious, not to say pernicious, was the unquestioned view that historiography is but another kind of fiction. Here the slide, not to say sleight of hand, is evident. From the perfectly acceptable, indeed innocuous, view that the historical record is subject to interpretation and reinterpretation—that, for example, neither Michelet nor Simon Schama has written the definitive study of the French Revolution—we are asked to endorse the totally unacceptable position that any account of a historical event is a fictional construct to be "deconstructed." Try telling victims of the Shoah that the history of the Final Solution needs to be "deconstructed"! That of course is precisely what Holocaust-deniers seek to achieve. But scholars who would not be seen dead in the company of such people embrace in other contexts much the same idea, summed up two millennia ago by Pontius Pilate in his notorious question, "What is truth?"

For the Pilates of this world, Professor Sharkey points out, "no knowledge is to be trusted because everything is suspect until a justification can be provided for it" (viii). This distrust, he says, is born largely of noble impulses like the wish to combat conscious or unconscious prejudice. The consequence, however, is to push doubt to nonsensical extremes: "the standards required for certainty are unreasonable and even impossible; when 'justification' is called for, it is 'absolute justification' that is really meant—this in a world without absolutes" (viii). He quotes admiringly Charles Altieri's observation: "It may well be the case that we have no absolutely secure grounds for truth, but the more important question is whether we need these grounds for coherent discourse" (viii n). Sharkey's answer to Altieri's question is that we do not need them, and I agree with him. I find it curious that academics, who on the whole are agnostics where the alleged "truths" of revealed religion are concerned, seem to think that total certainty, absolute truth, can be attained in other fields. Or rather, that since it cannot be attained, they would put Schama's history of the French Revolution on a par with the Gospel of Mark.

Sharkey brings insight, logic and, above all, common sense to bear on the artificial dilemmas of postmodern linguistic and aesthetic theory. He cites Gadamer and Wittgenstein in support of his critique, which is courageous of him because, as he points out, their philosophies of language are "often taken to serve a skeptical, subversive cause by exposing language as unjustified and therefore untrustworthy" (viii). Sharkey draws on their writings to argue the opposite, namely "that such extreme distrust betrays an unreasonable, even puerile, rejection of the finitude of human being and understanding" (viii). Worse, when we scorn truth for not equaling Truth, and beauty for falling short of Beauty, what we are really doing is scorning ourselves "for not being God" (x).

Sharkey is quite right, of course. When Wittgenstein declared in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that "the limits of my language are the limits of my world" and "what we cannot put into words we must consign to silence," he was far from claiming that language is unfit for any purpose. Instead, he was arguing that language is finite, as we are; or, as he graphically put it, "a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water even if I were to pour a gallon into it" (259).

After bringing such thinking to bear on Paradise Lost and on works by Cortázar, Kafka, and Joyce, Sharkey's conclusion is masterly:

Ulysses, I would like to say, is Joyce's teacup, and he has no interest in attempting to force the transcendent into it. Yet there is such...

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