Philosophy, like every other academic discipline, is gossip-prone. So when Rachel Aviv’s New Yorker profile of Agnes Callard’s marriage was released this week, the story was old news to a lot of us. Even I, who left graduate philosophy in 2017, was familiar with all the main beats. But many people are wise enough to not study philosophy! There was more than enough intrigue to go round.
Agnes Callard’s Marriage of the Minds is one of those pieces that goes viral on Twitter every few months among a certain type of person (reader, that person is us!). Many liked it. But I suppose I’m interested by the people who didn’t, who responded to the piece with one of the following themes:
Agnes Callard is weird
Agnes Callard is weird
Ugh, why are we supposed to be interested in Agnes Callard?
This is cheap and voyeuristic.
Why doesn’t this piece get that Agnes Callard is weird?
(I don’t really feel like doing that thing where I link to tweets to prove to you what the Discourse is Saying About This, so you’re just going to have to trust me. Or don’t! I don’t care.)
What’s remarkable about reactions like these is that they are really just sub-genres of a response we can call I had a negative affective response to what is on the page and I feel motivated to say so. The reasoning is secondary to the emotional response. Well, I had a positive affective response to what is on the page and I feel motivated to say so. Also, this is a good chance to say something about what we want from reading, and from love.
A challenge for us is that reading is extremely difficult. It takes an immense amount of skill, and to make matters worse that skill is imperfectible. There’s no ceiling to how good a reader you can be, just as there is no ceiling to how good a writer you can be, because the act here is not the clearly delineated transmission of discrete information but the mutual creation of human meaning; human significance.
In our scientistic, anti-humanist, STEM-forward culture (yes he said it! so brave) this fact is either forgotten or never recognised. Instead, a common idea is that people “achieve” literacy, or “know” “how to read”. We like to think that people who finish high school or university have ticked that box and are ready to go off and do other things. This is wrong. By the standards of the people we could become, (ought to become?), very few of us can read at all. I certainly can’t.
For example: Elon Musk does not know how to read. By all available information he can read, sure. But can he read? Clearly not. He lacks emotional and aesthetic sensitivity; a refusal to grapple with human complexity and ambiguity. He displays an atrophied moral sensibility and an unyielding solipsism. These are all symptoms of not knowing how to read.
To see this, imagine handing Elon Musk Middlemarch. It’s hard to imagine him cracking the spine, I know. But let’s imagine him pushing on. I can barely believe he would get halfway before throwing his hands up in boredom, frustration, and disgust. I imagine him saying to himself I don’t get it, it sucks, I’m going back to tweeting. Do you disagree? Maybe I’m wrong! But I’m pretty sure Elon Musk would hate that book, and I’m pretty sure he would think himself right to do so.
I’m confident saying this because I too had a tough time with Middlemarch. The first 400 pages, at least, were really difficult. But I was lucky to have been forced to read a lot of books before, and doing so taught me the crucial rule of reading: it takes finishing Middlemarch to develop the skills you need to read books like Middlemarch.
Once you’ve learned that lesson, you find yourself realising something else. If you don’t like Middlemarch, the problem is not that George Eliot lacks skill. The problem is that you do.
Attentive readers will already see the argument-by-implication I’m forming here – that so much Twitter complaining about Agnes Callard’s Marriage of the Minds comes from people who do not read very well.
What they’re missing, first and foremost, is that every negative emotion, every feeling of dislike, every sense of complexity and disappointment and humanity failing that emerges from the experience of reading is not an accident, not a mistake, but a deliberate and successful move by Rachel Aviv.
To make my point I’m going to do what I said I wouldn’t do and give an example tweet (screenshotting and cropping so no one feels picked on, even if this is a published author).
"What idea in here is supposed to be new or exciting at all?” This is, of course, literally the point of the essay. (I have in my head that Simpsons meme of Rainier Wolfcastle deadpanning “that’s the joke” at a stand up comedy night. I will not post the meme here because, well, come on now.)
It is as if people are so unused to profile subjects being written about in honest terms (by which I mean terms flattering and unflattering; complex and ambivalent) that they are unable to identify those terms when they come along. We’re so used to the puff-piece / hit-piece binary that we can’t escape it. My sense is that, sometime after, like, The Journalist and the Murderer, profile subjects got wise to the dangers of being written about honestly and started turning these “opportunities” down. (Why would you, when you can talk to your audience directly, anyway?) So now readers expect every article-with-access to be an endorsement. When a writer finally does get access to do an honest bit of profile writing, the audience lacks the literacy to read it properly. (This explains the weird reaction to that Jeremy Strong profile from a while back).
The answer to “what idea in here is supposed to be new or exciting at all?” of course, is “none”. To believe there should be is to make the mistake I described above, to take this tragedy for a hero’s journey. What I enjoyed about Agnes Callard’s Marriage of the Minds is how it has the shape of a Greek play. It’s the story of hubris, of pride before the fall. Callard is given to be, believes to be, the holder of special information, special abilities, that we mortals lack. She makes a radical break in her life on the basis of that insight. And yet, by the end of the piece, the cracks are showing. Callard, despite all her philosophy and her public intellectualdom and her eccentricity is shown to have nothing more than the rest of us. She’s down here in the muck with you and me, fumbling through the disappointments and dangers of human love. Philosophy cannot save you (try Middlemarch instead).
She’s the last one to know that, of course. She’s such a good profile subject exactly because she’s so naive, so hopeful, so arrogant as to think she might have escaped the most ancient of human failings – the failure to love. She doesn’t seem to realise how widely-shared (dare I say, universal?) her story is. (The intrigue of rapid divorce and marrying-your-student mask for the reader the deeper truth that we are all of us always trying bravely, and always falling short, of true communion with the other; that no one, not even a philosophy professor, gets to escape this tragic human condition.)
All this we know through her own words, which never suggest the self-knowledge she claims, here and elsewhere, to so aggressively pursue. Instead we are shocked at how late in life she is learning lessons many of us have known since our youth. Aviv is always giving her just enough rope to hang herself.
Consider – after the piece came out, Callard shared it approvingly on Twitter, adding:
Rachel Aviv wrote this profile of me & I am struck and honored by how direct it is--before reading how it turned out, I wondered, "what will her angle on me be?" and I don't see any angle, she is just trying to present me as straightforwardly as possible.
This made me think a lot about what I am trying to achieve when I teach reading (and whether I must also go get a copy of Middlemarch).
I guess I’ll give Middlemarch a go then!