Start with Adam’s post about this podcast. In the podcast, Bill, Joel, and their guest Phil do a great deal to illuminate Adam’s novel The This — if you haven’t read the novel, you should, and if you have read it, you should listen to the podcast because you’ll learn a lot. I certainly did.
(And if Adam hadn’t warned me, I would have been greatly surprised to hear my name come up in the discussion! As Phil — I think it was Phil — says, Adam and Francis Spufford and I aren’t quite an -ism but we do form a kind of “vector.” I should think more about what that vector is. All I know for sure is that I greatly value my friendship with these two and don’t think that as a writer I am worthy to be mentioned in the same sentence with them.)
There are a thousand things I could say about The This, but for now — prompted by the podcast — I just want to talk about the brief final chapter. Because what I think is going on there is Adam playing the role of Alcibiades.
That final chapter says,
You are an old man, living in a European city big for its era, small by later standards, a philosopher, a teacher, a student. You, a subject of the king, have made Spirit the object of your study. You, objectively, wrote a book whose subject is Spirit. The bacterium Vibrio cholera enters your system and propagates through your gut. You experience fever, shivers, severe stomach pains. There is no diarrhoea and no swelling, and initially the physicians are hopeful. But you grow iller. You vomit gall. You cannot urinate. You begin hiccuping violently. You lie in your bed, on your side, the sheets damp from your sweat. You are shaking. You cannot stop hiccuping. You stare at the wall.
The dying old man is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and here you should know two things. The first is that a very similar chapter concludes Adam’s earlier novel The Thing Itself, only in that one it’s Immanuel Kant dying. Philosophers die, just as the rest of us do. The second thing you should know is Kierkegaard’s comment that Hegel’s philosophical System is a vast magnificent castle, and he lives in a little shack just outside it. Because all of us live in those little shacks, no matter how glorious our external constructions.
You are a man, you live a lonely life, you grow old and die. You are a man, you live a life rich with friends and lovers, you grow old and die.
You live, you die. Not another person. Nobody can die for you. You have to do this yourself.
That’s how it is. And here’s how else it is:
You see, love is not an abstraction. It’s not a theory or a cosmic force or a slogan or any kind of diffuseness spread across the world. Love is particular. You do not love in general, you love this person, this thing, this life, you love this, this, this, this, this, and this, and this, and this loves you back. This is the only thing in the world, and it is precise and specific and real, and it is everything and infinitude.
Which brings us to Alcibiades.
Plato’s Symposium, many scholars over the years have said, — well, here’s one of them, Gregory Vlastos: the “cardinal flaw in Plato’s theory” is that “it does not provide for love of whole persons, but only for love of that abstract version of persons which consists of the complex of their best qualities. This is the reason why personal affection ranks so low in Plato’s scala amoris.” But as Martha Nussbaum points out, to say this is to assume that the speech of Diotima in the Symposium, narrated by Socrates and described by him as a view that has “persuaded” him, is Plato’s view. The problem, Nussbaum says, is that that’s not a safe assumption.
For after all the participants in this symposium (including Diotima-by-way-of-Socrates) have had their say about the nature of love, Alcibiades shows up, drunk and voluble, and he provides the dialogue’s final account. Nussbaum: “Diotima connects the love of particulars with tension, excess, and servitude; the love of a qualitatively uniform ‘sea’ with health, freedom, and creativity.” But Alcibiades says this is all horseshit. “Asked to speak about Love, Alcibiades has chosen to speak of a particular love; no definitions or explanations of the nature of anything, but just a story of a particular passion for a particular contingent individual. Asked to make a speech, he gives us the story of his own life: the understanding of eros he has achieved through his own experience.” Asked to speak about Love, that distinguished abstraction, he instead tells stories about how much he loves Socrates — and in that way gives the lie to the account of Love by which Socrates himself has been persuaded. (Alcibiades has no “account of Love” — he doesn’t think it exists.)
Much of the The This portrays our various attempts to escape from … well, from this world, this space/time nexus, this life. Just on the pages that immediately precede the one I have quoted from we have the Hegelian Absolute, the timeless aesthetic perfection of Kubla Khan’s “stately pleasure dome,” the cyclical temporality of Joyce’s (and Vico’s) “commodious recirculation” — all ways to answer the question “Is this all there is?” with a strong firm NO. But the brief final chapter of the novel, in which Adam seems to speak in his own voice, rejects all such Systems and schemes as false comfort — or rather, as false and ultimately comfortless. What we have is not the Absolute but the This: this life, this love, and, in the end (there is an end), this death.
My view as a Christian is, of course, that they’re all wrong. (A topic for another post, which would begin by quoting Auden’s poem “Friday’s Child.”) But Adam is less wrong than those who seek to escape the this. He sees that, if we would understand our quotidian vale of tears and our place in it, we need poems and novels — accounts of our particulars — more than we need Systems “or any kind of diffuseness spread across the world.”
And maybe that’s the vector where Adam and Francis and I meet: Love calls us to the things of this world.