I probably shouldn’t be writing this, as I have a deadline on the philosophy book manuscript, which needs to be sent off by the end of the month; but there’s time for a quick post on the subject of writing and pleasure.
The philosophy book I’m working on has been through more drafts than I can possibly count; and it is good to see it close to completion. In terms of editing, I am now in the final edit, which I consider to be a kind of ‘editing for pleasure’. Editing, I think, is always a process of editing for something or other: editing for consistency, for factual accuracy, for coherence or argument, for sentence construction and so on. This is one reason that for me at least, things need multiple edits, because each time you are looking for something different.
So, in this final edit, I am editing for pleasure. That is not to say that I am editing because it is pleasurable—by this stage, I just want to get it done, and it would be more pleasurable to go and sit with a book in the park; but instead it is to say that I am editing to make sure that the text of the book itself is pleasurable. I see editing for pleasure as partly a matter of attention to the cadence and music of language, partly a matter of excising any lumpy and inelegant parts in the argument, and partly a matter of preserving that quality which Italo Calvino, in one of my favourite books — his Six Memos for the Next Millennium — calls “lightness”.
Philosophy is a famously “heavy” subject. We talk about “weighty” tomes; we talk about “weighing” arguments, we talk about “gravity”. And particularly when it comes to the kind of continental tradition to which I am an heir, weight is often considered a virtue, and lightness associated with the flightly, the irresponsible, the hopelessly shallow. Philosophers are terrified of seeming “light”; and if they are interested in pleasure at all, as often as not it has to be a contorted kind of pleasure, a pleasure touched with darkness and with gloomy foreshadowings of death.
The kind of pleasure that I am talking about is a lighter, simpler (and less psychoanalytically tangled) thing than all this. It is about a delight in playing with patterns in language and in thought, it is about the excitement of finding new pathways, it is about the surprise of unexpected connections, and it is about the savouring of passing jokes. It is, I hope, a pleasure that has about it what Calvino calls the ‘lightness of thoughtfulness’, as opposed to the ‘lightness of frivolity’.
And this is not, I think, a matter of packaging, as if style and content could be separated entirely: it is also a matter of method. One of my contentions in the book is that there’s a commitment to the notion of existence as something inherently and fundamentally terrible that runs throughout Levinas’s work. It is a view that I do not share, and a view that I think is unhelpful. It seems to me that the notion of existence as terrible and weighty and dark and contorted may necessarily require a terrible, weighty, dark, contorted language; but, conversely, a lighter language may allow the breathing space for other possibilities, for other kinds of relationship with the world and with ourselves and with each other.
It seems to me that the prejudice that equates gloom with profundity runs deep, and not just in philosophy. So there will be those, no doubt, who find this lightness, these passing jokes, these strange conjunctions, this concern with the pleasure of the reader, frivolous. And these readers will no doubt be able to marshall weighty reasons why this is so. In response, I may—fearful of too much weight—pull out a few jokes, jokes that may serve to confirm their worst of their suspicions. And so it will go on. Nevertheless, I’m hoping that there will be some who manage to get hold of the book after it comes out in early 2013 (despite the regrettably weighty price-tag), and who might find in its pages a lightness and a pleasure that do not rule out thoughtfulness…