Recitation as dishonesty, improv as honesty

My initial response to both talks was that both spoke in smooth tongues. Their words flowed freely and were put together grammatically. Their styles were pleasing to the ear even if their voices–hers especially: Nussbaum’s–were tinny. For a few minutes, I listened to his lecture on Neoplatonism and to hers–Nussbaum’s–on Not for Profit. Her impromptu opening was that Holland is, more than she had known before, a very “philosophical culture.” After that, that awkward salvo, she looked down at her paper and read.

My initial reaction that “here were eloquent voices” did not last long, but it was not that that judgment was false. It was rather that these were recitations and the fact that they were recitations led me to reconsider my earliest assessment of the value of these forms of speech overall. The talks induced in me a sense of something like revulsion or recoil (not me I hope!), and it came to me that all recitations, whose essence is the mastery of speech, are in some sense dishonest. Yet if this is true, in what sense dishonest? Dishonest to whom, to what?

Paradoxically, these talks reflect a culture of recitation in an age where we no longer learn by rote or quote by heart. For it seems that most people–university trained experts and political bureaucrats most surely but not uniquely–are calling back from memory, quoting one another, reading one’s prior thoughts aloud, telling another what one has heard in the order in which it was heard, calling to mind what is already seen or known or felt. Nussbaum is especially good at reciting before an audience–she has done it most of her academic life–but, to my ear, the performance, this kind, sounds a note of falseness.

This dishonesty comes on early and stays late. So long as I recite, I am dishonest with myself and with the world. With myself: in recitation I perform the role of Knower, the one summoned forth in the guise of the know-it-all. With myself: if a necessary condition for genuine thinking is the capacity to take a risk, to stake myself, to put myself out there and go into the desert, then the one who recites, in not taking a risk, does not think in this sense. With the world: I blind myself to the changes and vicissitudes of the world in general, to those suffusing the modern world in particular. I recite, recite only, recite exclusively how things were or what was held (how, say, a university was; what Chryssipus thought; how long experts say the storm lasted) and thereby do not come to grips with the precariousness of my ignorance, the fragility of living, the feel and degree of my own cowardice.

Recitation is not improvisation: this is for sure. It is not an engagement with the unfamiliar flesh or pulp; not the tentative gestures, the wavering back and forth of fingers and elbow the first time one attempts to break an egg; not an alertness to what one friend beautifully called “the heartaches of disappointment”; not an adventure into the “desert of thought” (same beautiful friend, this time a different context); not an awareness of the sense of being a learner; not the hunger, the longing to become less unwise before one dies. All this is its dishonesty. It is not daring, it is not daring, not daring myself or others to take some dare together.

I recite the unrecitated or apocryphal: that Wittgenstein used to come into the classroom without notes and simply picked up the threads and started speaking. (Speak, Pig!) Did he get stuck? I hope he got embarrassed, got lost and flushed, was on the verge of dying to himself. When I wrote The Guidebook to Philosophical Life, I didn’t look back and edit. I sat down and typed, then stopped and typed again. I’m still not sure what all I wrote because I have never reviewed it in full. Even now I make no claims about its being a good book or about its being a publishable (popular) book, but I stand by the claim that it is an honest one: an honest book addressed–then but also on into the unforeseeable future–to honest philosophical fellows.


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