The Philosophy of Literature

Four Studies

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Donald Phillip Verene
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , September
     150 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Donald Phillip Verene is known principally for his groundbreaking studies of Giovanni Battista Vico (1668-1774), whom he views through multiple philosophical perspectives ranging from Italian Humanism to German Idealism. Verene’s scholarly work gives due salience to the challenge of Vico’s philosophy for our own time. He unravels Vico’s labyrinthine, baroque rhetoric with crystalline clarity, and finds visionary modes of thinking at work in this all-too-long, too-little-understood philosopher. Verene contributes mightily to assuring Vico of his rightful place among the greatest and most audacious of Western thinkers. 

Verene has long linked this exegetical project with wide-ranging explorations in literary interpretation, notably of James Joyce’s Vico-obsessed oeuvre. In Knowledge of Things Human and Divine: Vico’s “New Science” and "Finnegans Wake" (Yale University Press, 2003), Verene demonstrates just how much this obsession prevails. Moreover, the encyclopedic character of Vico’s New Science (1725) and of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939)taken together, model a kind of holistic and unlimited, interdisciplinary approach to knowing. Verene develops such an approach in interpreting this rather odd match between texts, which, nevertheless, proves to be an ineluctable conjunction, indeed, an elective affinity. Verene’s The Philosophy of Literature: Four Studies continues in this vein, with unsuspected pairings of mutually-illuminating texts of philosophy and literature. Furthermore, it promises to be a methodological reflection on Verene’s own speculative thinking, as demonstrated over many productive years especially through provocative critical-exegetical works. 

Moving beyond, but also further along the lines of his Vico studies, which are more academic and scholarly, The Philosophy of Literature is essential for its more free expression of Verene’s own vision. This vision turns on his readings of great books of world literature. These readings are focused through Vico’s monumental work, which is encyclopedic and, at the same time, a revolutionary intervention into the history of thought and culture. 

Vico’s name does not appear in the Table of Contents, and at first the “Four Studies” seem to be rather arbitrarily chosen from widely disparate literatures and epochs. Devoted respectively to (1) Jorge Luis Borges’ El Inmortal (1947); (2) Joyce’s Finnegans Wake; (3) Carl Sandberg’s The People, Yes (Harcourt, 1936)and (4) Sebastian Brant’s 1494 Das Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools)—the texts dealt with seem, at first, to have very different, not evidently comparable weight, stature, and consistency. Yet constant reference to Vico emerges as the thread giving the choices an uncanny coherence across their radically diverse cultural provenances. The same essential points about repetition and memory, about doubling and telescoping of history, are reinforced in acutely effective ways by each of the texts chosen and examined in the light of Verene’s own humanistic philosophy, inspired especially by Vico.

Verene’s The Philosophy of Literature successfully places his own vision—of philosophy as literature and of literature as philosophy—directly on display. This vision is, as we would expect, nourished by the wisdom of the ages; but now as Verene himself sees it—rather than primarily as a means of explicating Vico or Joyce. Yet, this book is no less about these books, along with some others: it is indeed written in the conviction that “all books are about other books” (38). Verene’s The Philosophy of Literature is, above all, about the tradition and transmission of humanistic wisdom through great texts of philosophy and literature. In this gem-of-a-book, brilliantly re-flecting the sublime wisdom of the ages, Verene offers a contemporary re-actualization of the great tradition of speculative philosophical thinking as reincarnated in and through literary imagination.

The Introduction sets up the frame and motivates the reading of selected great books of literature, which are placed alongside philosophical works in the following “Four Studies.” It presents an impassioned and persuasive plea for the study of the great books, as well as a poignant lamentation over their being neglected at present in our highly technical culture and, more specifically, in our deeply and tragically politicized academies. In contrast to the university today, the “school of the ages” teaches a humanity and self-knowledge that is free from practical and ideological exploitation. Great books are turned, instead, to contemplation of “the human and the divine.” Poetic sensibility and philosophical discernment are interdependent and equally important in this ideal of education as aiming at an unconditioned or timeless kind of truth, a truth that is itself the condition for our perceiving time. 

In the Introduction, poetry is presented as the basis of logic. Poetic understanding intuitively and immediately grasps the connectedness of all things and opens a vision of the whole that deductive logic will work out subsequently and reflectively in terms of cause and effect. Thus, the core of thinking is present already in the poets, particularly in their metaphors, which can be expanded into narratives. Poetry begins in myth and metaphor, which together produce a kind of knowing that is absolute. Mythic knowing does not attempt to represent the world as something separate from discourse. It presents its thinking—or rather its “proto-thought”—simply as the world. It makes no distinction between fact and word, true and false. It embodies rather a wholeness that is prior to such distinctions. This wholeness is the mark of authentic knowledge such as can be cultivated in the philosophical and literary study of the humanities more generally. Comprehensive histories, for instance, are best understood generically as transformations of the epic poem.

Verene’s The Philosophy of Literature, however, is not about staking out the territories of different genres or academic disciplines. Its thesis is that philosophy in its fullness, as realized exemplarily with Plato and with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel—is literature—and that literature, reciprocally, is love of wisdom, given that both philosophy and literature express themselves as narratives of intellect and imagination aiming “to grasp what is absolute,” and “to take language beyond itself and allow the mind to approach the really real” (39). The truth is the whole, and its pursuit and attainment is a matter of memory. This visionary grasp of “timeless truth” is the rightful aim of the studious cultivation of tradition in its philosophical and in its literary expressions. Such vision connects everything in the changing, contingent world of history to “the whole, which exists beyond time and which itself does not change” (51). 

In literature which becomes philosophical in the sense explored by Verene, we encounter not words whose meanings are already finished. “Instead we encounter words that are making their own meanings and their own truth, and there is nothing we can do about it” (79). The more we interpret the meaning into our own rationalized, exclusivist categories, “the further we get from entering into this new form of literature, formed from litter and letter, that has no beginning, middle, or end” (79). By relinquishing our language of men, and letting language repeat, rather, the language of heroes and gods (in Vico’s system), “we might enter the Wake’s world, a world in which the words are the things they mean” (80). Verene here is following Vico’s descriptions of the origin of language and Joyce’s enactments of a nonsense language that lets the first word—for Vico, this is (for example) “Zeus” as spoken in the hissing sound of lightning—be heard in its making,

Verene’s vision and language are exalted, and somewhat untimely (to use Freidrich Nietzsche’s expression), in this age of infatuation with digital technology and the finite, oppositional identities of race, gender, and class. These reigning paradigms, which have become orthodoxies in the academy of late, are acutely analyzed and indicted by Verene, most openly in the final section of chapter 3 (96-102), drawing especially on the philosophical sociology of Jacques Ellul. Earlier in that chapter, Verene discusses Sandburg, who at first seems an unlikely candidate among the Titans of world literature dwelt on elsewhere in this book. Yet Sandburg is evoked for speaking with the voice of the people, in a way that identifies the absolutely singular with the sublimely universal. In his epic poem The People, Yes, he, too, attains to the speech of the poetic archetype, like Joyce, with his “Here Comes Everybody” in Finnegans Wake. Sandburg’s heroic feat is the overcoming of any “exclusivity.” This is the logically-impossible achievement of poetic vision in the “imaginative universal”—in effect, a realization of Vico’s universale fantastico or carattere poetico

In his final case study, Verene reads Brant’s Das Narrenschiff alongside Hegel’s 1807 Phaenomenologie des Geistes (The Philosophy of Spirit), with its dialectical logic, as giving us “the world reversed”—literally Die verkehrte Welt. This was the title of Ludwig Tieck’s play published in 1797, eight years before Hegel’s philosophical chef d’oeuvre, and its source for this topsy-turvy figure. Such a principle at work in the dynamic unfolding of the world in history exposes everything as identical with everything else, inasmuch as it is enfolded into the unlimited plastic potential of the imagination. This dialectical method surpasses the analytical understanding (der Verstand) in its revelation of the doubleness of truth: all truth is also falsehood and vice versa. The coincidentia oppositorum glimpsed by Giordano Bruno and Joyce, by Borges and Vico, by Sandburg and by Verene’s own philosophy of “traditional” versus “technological” society, with the coinciding of particular and universal, of individual and type, is realized here again by Hegel and Brant in yet another avatar of singularity that turns out to be also archetypal.

Conjugating Hegel’s dialectic also with Erasmus’s praise of folly goes a long way toward teaching us how to accept the absurdity that the social and professional worlds constantly throw in our faces, without letting it drive us into despair to the point of disfiguring our humanity. We learn to laugh and overcome resentment: we are heartened to affirm life in spite of the folly by which we constantly feel ourselves insulted and assaulted. We learn to see that folly as a part of what we ourselves are.

The Philosophy of Literature teaches and transmits the uncanny wisdom of literature that philosophy becomes by losing its proud, masterful logos in the labyrinth of words, words remembering their origins connected with other words and leading everywhere, thus illustrating a true inclusiveness that the current jargon of “inclusion” actually militates against by dictating its own constantly-changing criteria of political correctness. Just as in Borges’s El Inmortal, the immortal is, inexplicably to reason, the coincidence of all times and all persons as folded into the present of the word heard doubly as murmuring its love of wisdom (philosophy) and of the litter of letters (“literature”). Verene begins with Borges’s text as offering a compact emblem of his vision of the timelessness of great books accrued through their opening upon the dimension of the infinity of language. 

Verene has written a beautifully crafted book participating in and transmitting the type of wisdom most characteristic of great books. Such wisdom is achieved, in the end, ironically, through embracing insuperable folly as one’s own—and by having a good laugh at it. As William Blake once prognosticated, “if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1793). Thinking double—Joyce’s “two thinks at a time”—both literarily (as with Brant), and philosophically (as with Hegel), enables us to bring together the particular self with universal humanity by remembering the myriad ways of folly that, taken up and seen together as belonging intrinsically to one another, constitute wisdom.


About the Reviewer(s): 

William Franke is Professor of Comparative Literature at Vanderbilt University and the author of A Theology of Literature: The Bible as Revelation in the Tradition of the Humanities (Cascade Books, 2017) and Apophatic Paths from Europe to China: Regions without Borders (State University of New York Press, 2018). His works on great books include The Revelation of Imagination: From Homer and the Bible through Virgil and Augustine to Dante (Northwestern University Press, 2015) and Secular Scriptures: Modern Theological Poetics in the Wake of Dante (Ohio State University Press, 2016).

Date of Review: 
August 26, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Donald Phillip Verene is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Metaphysics and Moral Philosophy and director of the Institute for Vico Studies at Emory University.


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