Rereading Practices in Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Emerson

Philosophy, Revision, Critique: Rereading Practices in Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Emerson

Moon, Michael

PHILOSOPHY, REviSION, CRITIQUE: REREADING PRACTICES IN HEIDEGGER, NIETZSCHE, AND EMERSON. By David Wittenberg. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. 266 p.

David Wittenberg makes two crucial interventions in this book: one in bringing practices of “revision” radically understood, to the center of the history of philosophy, and another in further destabilizing the Berlin Wall between philosophy and literature. In the epilogue to the book, Wittenberg explicitly raises Lacoue-Labarthe’s polemical question of 1979, “What if, after all, philosophy were nothing but literature?” He goes on to say, in ways his book richly substantiates, that although recognizing that the assertion of “the literariness of philosophy no longer surprises”-for what were still “suspicions” twenty years ago “have become thoroughly conventional” by now-one must still not “deny the [ ] erstwhile radicality” (p. 195) of the refusal to accept the traditional model of the philosopher as solitary, autarkic, “self-reliant,” rather than as someone always already engaged in intertextual, palimpsestic, revisionary labors. The force of the word “erstwhile” here is easily overlooked, but it should not be, for it is the refusal of any simple notions of sequence, influence, and determinate chronology as informing the history of philosophy that enables the kind of enlarged understanding of the practices of revision that Wittenberg argues for-revision understood not only as one philosopher rewriting the work of another in his or her own work, but also as “writers prerevis[ing] themselves albeit in rhetorically sneaky ways” (p. 199).

The first half of the book rigorously reviews Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche as Wittenberg’s primary model of what he calls a “revision-encounter.” It is necessary, he argues, that this “rereading encounter” be understood as more than a mere “genealogy or… contrast” between “two competing texts”; rather, it focuses on “the space between the two thinkers, as freely as possible from any critical evaluation implied by the term ‘revision’ alone” (p. 65)-thereby avoiding the errors pursuant on reading one philosopher’s writing through the lens of another’s, as though the point were to adjudicate in any simple sense who had gotten the thinking right, or whether X’s revision of Y were correct or accurate. Wittenberg’s major achievement in this book is to refresh our sense of the potential largeness of the philosophical and theoretical domain described by the rhetorical figure of paralipsis, in which a speaker emphasizes something by affecting to pass it by without notice, usually by the use of such phrases as “not to mention” or “to say nothing of” (Wittenberg cites the locus classicus of this figure: Cicero’s “declining” to bring up the matters-on the grounds that they are patently “irrelevant”-of the defendant’s debauched boyhood, his bad military record, and his previous criminal convictions in a devastating “aside” in his discourse Ad Herennium; scholars of English literature will recognize the figure from Puttenham’s English Poesie [1589]). For Wittenberg, the ironic, generally disavowed scope of paraliptic referentiality serves as his basic rhetorical tool for reopening what he calls “paraliptically bespoken perspective[s]” (p. 73) that permit a reader to see the philosophical revisions going on between and among texts as a fully dynamic, anything-but-one-way process.

In the second half of the book, Wittenberg exposes the Eurocentric focus of the philosophical material examined in the first half to the thoroughly contaminating new-world theory of revision espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson and his many rewriters. His discussion of how to split the difference, so to speak, between the supposedly contrasting models of reading history in the first two essays in Emerson’s Essays: First Series, “History” and “Self-Reliance,” is brilliantly incisive: even though “Self-Reliance” is, on its surface at least, the modern locus classicus of the call for “original, declarative” thinking, for intellectual independence and autogenesis, Wittenberg notices that it begins with a sublimely paraliptic reference to what Emerson claims is an exemplarily original poem that he has just happened to read-but which he declines either to quote or to name the author of, explaining that the sentiment of such remarkable examples of writing is always more valuable than any “thought” they may contain. “This is a rhetorician’s little joke,Wittenberg comments, “based in the self-effacing irony of paralipsis” (p. 138). His chapter on the most influential theory of writing and revision from the first heyday of critical theory in the U.S., Harold Bloom’s output from The Anxiety of Influence (1973) through Poetry and Repression (1976) to Agon (1981), leaves a reader desirous of moving on to what Wittenberg rightly calls “other, more rhetorically severe grounds” (p. 113). His closing discussions of Stanley Fish’s work on “interpretive communities” and Richard Rorty’s on the pragmatics of philosophical canon formation are, unlike everything that precedes them, relatively “paint-by-number” in their procedures; they lack the “Emersonian rudeness” (p. 160) that energizes his own quite aggressive “revision-encounter” with the more daunting (but safely dead?) Heidegger-although, to be fair in this regard, Wittenberg is commendably forthcoming in specifying what he sees as the considerable limitations of previous “takes” on “Nietzsche as writer,” such as Arthur Danto’s or Alexander Nehamas’s.

Scholars with an interest in theories of literary revision have much to learn from this fine book. How-and how not-to make sense of the existence of two Arcadias by Sir Philip Sidney, of “the two King Lears,” of Wordsworth’s different versions of The Prelude, of Whitman’s eight different versions of Leaves of Grass, of Emily Dickinson’s production of widely variant texts for many of her poems, or Henry James’s thoroughgoing revision of almost his entire oeuvre for the New York Edition of his works-these are some of the most engaging questions in literary history and theory. Two or three decades ago, scholars became aware that our questions about these texts and their complex relations to “themselves” were too important to be left to the (by and large) conventionally minded empirics, the “textual editors.” For the most part, Wittenberg’s book does not engage with the usual terms in which these literary phenomena have been debated (there is, for example, no entry for “writing” or theories thereof in the index to his book), but perhaps all the more for that reason literary scholars concerned with practices of revision should avail themselves of the lessons of this book. “We are tendencies, or rather, symptoms, and none of us is complete” is a sentence of Emerson’s from Representative Men that Wittenberg quotes approvingly; certainly, in this auspicious debut, he fulfills “Emerson’s only demand” that a reader (not to mention a writer) “at least be excessive, singular, tendentious.”


Johns Hopkins University

Copyright Comparative Literature Summer 2002

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