Open the Door

This is an essay that talks (among other things) about the convergence of two subjects (if not more) that keep coming up here: the fashion for biographies of intellectuals–poets, philosophers, historians, scientists–that dwell lovingly on prurient personal details and skip lightly over the ideas and thought and books that are why the people are interesting to begin with; and the dominance of identity politics over every other kind.

The fixation on biography, particularly when it is mixed with interpretive suspicion, suggests a retreat from philosophy’s aspiration to truth; we wallow in the particular and revel in salacious detail, whether it be Wittgenstein’s homosexuality, A. J. Ayer’s promiscuity, Foucault’s “sadomasochistic” experimentations in the gay subculture, Dewey’s sexual shyness, or Hannah Arendt’s affair with Martin Heidegger. The ease with which moral judgments are passed on the lives and passions of others and the titillation derived from cutting intellectual giants down to size are indicative of our own culture. Citizens in a republic of voyeurs, we are intent on microscopic moralism, incapable of appreciating more gracefully the contradictions, tensions, and ragged edges of all lives and unwilling to take ideas seriously, as something more than bandages for personal wounds.

Just so. There is a very interesting passage where Benhabib questions the way Richard Wolin takes his subjects to task for being ‘assimilated’ Jews, for not being ‘authentic’ Jews, and says that his analysis suggests a disturbingly fixed idea of ‘authentic’ Jewish life. Indeed. It is after all possible to be Jewish, or a woman or a Muslim or gay or Nicaraguan or what you will, and still not be consumingly interested in the fact. It is possible, in fact, to be intensely interested in other things, in a wider world than one’s own race or gender or religion, to be fascinated with stars or rocks or molluscs or maps or Louis XIV or Keats or topology, instead of being interested in one’s own parochial roots. It is a terrible claustrophobic oppressive stifling ghettoization that the identity-enforcers want to thrust on everyone, a narrow Balkanized world they want us all to live in, brandishing our ‘identities’ at each other and boring each other to death.

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