Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Who Am I?

The other day my daughter Maren and grandaughter Kylie walked into my office while I was taking photos of books on two of my shelves.

I'm thinking about who I am, I explained. The things I have collected and treasured over the years surely tell something about who I am. And I have a lot of books. These two shelves have mostly books of philosophy, I said, and I've always been interested in philosophy.

The first shelf has an odd set of juxtapositions: the Frankfurt-School Marxist Adorno cheek-to-cheek with St. Anselm and St. Augustine, who is right up against Barthes.

Am I simply interested in anything I come across? Yes, it's true. Over time, it's true. Taste changes. Focus changes. But the interest in ideas is constant, be they religious or anti-religious or simply and aesthetically literary. I would read Augustine today for his take on the nunc stans, but not on God. And Adorno is fascinating for his negative dialectic, but not for his mistaken diatribes against jazz.

Buber's I and Thou / Ich und Du will always be important to me, in part because a fellow Mormon missionary in Germany, Cole Durham, gave me the German edition with his recommendation and led me, perhaps, into my first philosophical reading. Cassirer became interesting as a philosopher of language as my studies took me in that direction. Cavell I discovered through Richard Rorty. And Deleuze and Guatari and Derrida came with graduate studies in the late 1970's.

Vilem Flusser was a discovery one night in Bonn after an extraordinary film about photography and truth by the filmmaker Harun Farocki. In a bar after the film, Farocki answered my question about Derrida being a possible influence by stating emphatically: everything I know about photography and film I learned from Vilem Flusser.

No getting around Foucault in my time, nor would I want to. Besides the books, there was that ecstatic moment in the Woodrow Wilson auditorium at Princeton when he stood under the brilliant lights, his bald head shining like a saint's, and spoke about sexuality to a huge and worshipful crowd.

And Freud: I have his dreams every night.

Habermas -- so logical, so thoughtful, so harelipped, so damned admirable. Heidegger, on the other hand, is so slippery and so mistaken and so fraught with history and so ongoingly influential on me. Holzwege may be my bible. And the two, Habermas and Heidegger, conjoined by Hegel. Holy "h",s!

There's Kant in the middle, after Jung, who I don't like as much as the books would suggest. And Kierkegaard's "Either/Or," forever enshrined in my life by the dedication written by the college girlfriend who gave it to me: "When I'm loving you more than I can stand, all I can think to do is to give you a book." Fond erotic/philosophic memories.

Karl Marx behind a coil of barbed wire. Not entirely fair. I love the seriousness of his thought; and wish he had a funny bone. Alasdair MacIntyre gave me the German translation of his book; and once came striding into my office at Vanderbilt to congratulate me on the fact that my religion (his was Catholic) had just entered its Renaissance period -- proof being the New York Times front page article about the forger Mark Hoffman who had just been arrested for killing a Mormon collector with a bomb.

Leiris, Levinas, Levi-Strauss -- love those "L"'s.

Frau Lou! Nietzsche's lover (and Rilke's and Freud's). I've nestled her up against Nietzsche. And Martha Nussbaum! I've always been half in love with her (and the power and breadth of her thought), especially after she was such a thoughtful reader of my "Immortal For Quite Some Time."

Tillich is a remnant of my first philosophical ventures at BYU. Wittgenstein is a much more lasting influence, especially the idea of language games and truth relative to that sort of context.

The photos cut out lots of books to the left and the right, most notably Plato, who taught me about eros and philosophy, and those by Richard Rorty, perhaps the most influential of all these writers on me. I'd describe myself, I think, as a pragmatist in his mold.

In short: this is who I am. Well, part of who I am. There's also the mountainbike and the backcountry skis.

Not to mention my thoughtful and kind and beautiful daughter and granddaughter.


* said...

you are first and foremost a person who has enough space for not having to keep the books in double rows and on top of them etc etc etc how do you do this. how do you keep on top of the bookaccumulation?

Scott Abbott said...

space and time. i'm an aging academic (time) with an office with shelves and also bookcases at home (space).

there's also the annual ritual of giving books i can't imagine using again to the university library.

ebb and flow.