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  • The Philosophy of Literature: Four Studies by Donald Phillip Verene
  • Jeffrey Dirk Wilson
VERENE, Donald Phillip. The Philosophy of Literature: Four Studies. Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2018. xii + 138 pp. Paper, $20.00

This book consists of a preface and introduction, in which Verene sets forth his own philosophy of literature, and then four chapters in which he applies his method to particular works of literature. In the preface, Verene explains that he means to investigate four different relationships of philosophy to literature.

First, there is "literature as a kind of philosophy" in which the author asks the reader to think "both philosophically and poetically at the same time." El immortal of Jorge Luis Borges exemplifies this relationship "as the power of the word to embody thought." Like Vico, Borges confronts "us as readers with a style that we may call poetic learning." Granted that Vico is philosophical first and poetic second, while the relation is reversed for Borges, both can be read as refutation of Ockham's razor, for "fiction is always a doubling up," thus suspending the principle of noncontradiction since fiction makes it possible for us to "think the unthinkable," specifically in El immortal, immortality. Verene teases out an ethics of immortality by educating the memory in a way that comforts and guides us through the terror of our irreversible mortality.

The second relationship is "philosophy of literature." The text is not intended philosophically and yet, also, the text can be fully comprehended only in relation to one or more philosophical works. James Joyce's Finnegans Wake is the focus here, a work to which Verene has dedicated two earlier books. Earlier in this work, Verene claims "sincerity" to be the [End Page 384] poison of both good writing and reading and that its antidote is irony, but this irony contributes to the philosopher's and poet's disturbing of the peace. Joyce expects the reader to laugh along with him (and wake him?) as he writes, thereby denying time, the devourer of us all, writer and reader alike. Finnegans Wake has no meaning; it is what it says, a speech ontologically and poetically complete, "a bolt of lightning" (Longinus) that illuminates the world perfectly, brilliantly, instantaneously before leaving us in complete darkness.

The third relationship is "philosophy in literature" when "philosophical ideas reside" in a literary work. Throughout Carl Sandburg's The People, Yes!, "his sense of the joke" is never far from "his sense of human justice." Sandburg's poem is something of an origins' myth, concerned not with the creation of the world, rather with the creation of the people. Verene sees in Sandburg's "politics" something inimical to poetry and which the people should limit, thereby arriving at "the poetic politics of the people" in which "tradition" "that incorporates the wisdom of the ancestors" counteracts the "progress" of "technological society" in which self-knowledge and poetry are not possible, leaving the people without a language and defenseless against all-devouring time.

The final relationship is when philosophy stands in dialectical counterpoint to literature, that is, "philosophy and literature." This occurs when philosophical and literary texts illuminate each other because "they are both concerned with the same theme but each takes it up differently." While Sebastian Brant's Das Narren Schyff is the announced work, in fact Verene reflects also on the Moriae encomium of Erasmus, Die verkehrte Welt of Ludwig Tieck, and other folly literature. Verene companions Hegel throughout this chapter and claims, in effect, that Descartes's evil genius replaces the fool, and deduction replaces folly, while Hegel restores the fool in his dialectic of opposites and bounding folly with decorum. Again, it is memory that comes to the rescue. Deduction can operate in a vacuum of forgetfulness, but folly remembers everything though upside-down and front-to-back. One has to remember everything with the fool in order to laugh with him. By providing catalyst to memory, the fool liberates the thinker from Cartesian deduction: laughter too can strike like lightning. Unlike deduction, neither laughter nor dialectic comes to a conclusion.

A recurring theme with which Verene closes is the doubleness of things, especially of subjective knower and knowable...


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