Excursions with Edward F. Mooney
Part I: Style, Lyricism, and Lost Intimacy
Here is the first part of my interview with Ed Mooney. I first encountered Ed’s work as I studied the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard. Ed managed to open Kierkegaard’s work up for me in new and exciting ways, and I’ve been gobbling his articles and books ever since. As you will see, Ed’s interests extend well beyond Kierkegaard studies. I have broken the interview into three parts. Without further ado, please enjoy the following interview, where we begin by discussing questions of style, lyricism, and lost intimacy.
Dean Dettloff: You have had a broad and eclectic career, with work ranging from original poetry to studies of American writing to, of course, the life and work of Søren Kierkegaard. In all of your writing, I have personally been impressed and formed by your commitment to a lyrical style that expresses philosophical concepts clearly while being anything but dry. Your latest release, Excursions with Kierkegaard, allows that style to continue to shine through, and that this is done in an interpretive work gives your commentary the added effect of also being a work of original philosophy. Can you discuss the interplay of form and content, particularly in relation to investigating the world of philosophy?
Edward F. Mooney: I’ve always been moved, emotionally as well as intellectually, by writers like Kierkegaard, Thoreau, Nietzsche, Plato, and Henry Bugbee (just for a start). I think I’ve wanted in my writing some of that visceral “sting” that can make you stop in your tracks that I find in the writers I read. That desire to “keep a feeling-thought” on the move, let it transfer from the page of my reading to the page of my writing, accounts for the lyricism others have found in my work. I want to meet the writers I like in a way that shows my appreciation. It’s as if they start a song, and instead of wanting to write the notes down on a piece of staff paper, I want to sing along—without intrusion, but showing my solidarity with the project. Of course, writing down the notes I’ve heard on staff paper might happen along the way. But if I only did that, I’d be an engineer or copyist, not a musician.
If a writer knocks on my door, and I only remark on their height or weight, I’ll have missed an essential dimension of their being. I can report on what a philosopher said for an exam, if required. But that would leave the living spirit of the saying out of my response. I want to convey my sense of the living spirit I’ve been excited by. If I adopt “professional distance” as a posture of response, then I’ll be leaving out ever so much. Lyrical philosophers (I can’t think of a better name) deserve lyrical response, especially if there’s a reason they need to be lyrical. So I guess that leads to a question beyond the question of why I write the way I do. It leads to asking why Thoreau and Kierkegaard (for example) write the way they do. Why does anybody need lyrical philosophy?
DD: That, of course, is a question deserving some exploration. Why does anybody need lyrical philosophy?
EFM: Of course, that’s the big question. Let’s say we grant that Kierkegaard or Nietzsche or Plato or Schopenhauer have moments of great lyricism. Let’s assume this isn’t an accident or mere aesthetic flourish but a moment when each feels that to say what they want to say lyricism is inescapable. Why should this be?
Well, it’s based in philosophical anthropology, I think. We are calculating logic-wielding creatures and can be marvelous proof machines (and counter-example machines). We can shine at producing persuasive logical argument tending toward definitive conclusions. That’s our stock in trade as philosophers. We are also, at a more primal level, deeply moral creatures, wanting a fair deal, wanting reciprocal trust, needing to promise and to have promises honored. So lots of philosophy deals with understanding these matters of logic, argument, and morals.
We are, at an equally primal level, creatures of dance and singing, theater and narrative. Sometimes—especially when we move out of the corrals of logic and forensic morality—we face wild questions (Why death? Why birth? Why suffering? Why rain? Why love lost? Why love requited? Why injustice? Why beauty?). These can be given “social scientific” answers, but they also resonate deeper than that. At this deep level, they can best be articulated (if not answered) lyrically, artistically, religiously. Dance and singing, theater and narrative, articulate the enigma that we are creatures who in fact agonize over these questions (Why do we bother? What’s the evolutionary advantage? What’s the practical advantage?). And perhaps it’s our essence as humans to be self-reflective this way. We agonize even as answers continue to elude us, and even as we know they will always elude us.
I see lyrical philosophy as approaching poetry and great narrative, myth and song—say in Schopenhauer or Thoreau or parts of Plato—at exactly those moments when these wild questions obtrude. They strike at an angle that tells us that logic and morals and standard arguments fall short. These fail to address them in their depth. And we know just as certainly that we will falter in giving lasting or satisfying answers. But we can’t leave the questions, in all their intensity and passion, unvoiced, suppressed, abandoned by the road. We dance without practical or logical rationale to express what seems to elude our everyday philosophical capacities. We write a hybrid philosophy that melds with the poetic, musical and dance-like.
Not all philosophers appreciate the lyrical-dialectical mix. W.V.O. Quine makes a revealing comment at the end of his autobiography (a story that relates every flight over borders on his way to delivering papers all over the globe). He says, “Sometimes I have been strangely moved by great music, especially opera . . . and so I avoid it as much as possible.” He avoids, suppresses, what moves his soul. I too have been moved by great music, and by the musical undertows of many so-called “literary philosophers.” And I have tried to immerse myself in their writings, letting myself be carried along by the emotion and passion, the lyricism. It has its own philosophical bearing, hovering on the other side of staid ethics and rigorous argument — matters that too quickly become technical and dry.
The philosophical bearing of lyrical philosophy is to express those heartfelt, nagging, inescapably wild questions that surely ought not to be buried or avoided. Are we not, as persons, drenched in love and love-lost, envy and eloquence, new life and old age, iniquity and pain of every sort—and also drenched in great moments of unspeakable serenity and joy? Aren’t these worth philosophical memorialization, praise, and lament?
DD: I find it telling that even your response to the question is done in lyrical fashion, honoring the can of worms I opened by expressing the idea in both content and form. You’ve done work on what you call “lost intimacy,” a phrase appearing in the titles of both a book on Kierkegaard and a book on American thought. Is your recovery of lyrical philosophy an attempt to bring intimacy back to the fore? What kind of healing do you think this might bring to a land that has lost its tradition of intimacy?
EFM: I think anyone would want to “bring healing to the land,” but maybe it has to be done through a whole spectrum of ways, keyed to the gifts we’re bequeathed. I end up writing philosophy (who knows to what effect); my neighbor is a therapist who went down to Louisiana after Katrina to hear people’s stories as a help to shattered lives; some try local politics or activism; I think the Beatles had a profound effect in their day. We surely need healing words and actions in this time of senseless neighborhood killing, failing cities, and gassing of civilians. I gave a talk in Iceland last month: they have no standing army, no armed police, and exactly 157 people in jail from a population of 300,000. That’s a special case; but still, in America we jail more than any other industrialized nation.
I shouldn’t forget the quieter hurts that could use quieter healings. There are sufferings that don’t appear in the daily news or in hospital statistics. My student with a blank look on her face; or the other one who drops out, preferring dorm drinking to whatever a poem might offer. There’s the other guy, who freaks at the idea of putting a thought in a sentence; there’s the one whose parents exert devastating pressure to succeed on their kid, now a senior (translation: “make enough money that our investment in your education won’t have been in vain”); then, the one who has become a smart-aleck cynic. Often the hurt comes from a sense of disconnection from anything that matters—a lost intimacy with others and our shared world.
I think sometimes it’s only when we come across writing that speaks to soul-ache that we can “discover” how much we hurt. We’re given a measure of articulation and depth. We unexpectedly feel recognition of our own pains and joys that we had not yet found words to equal. The discovery of expressiveness is a discovery of what we have to express. At the moment it arrives to us, we become vulnerable and then capable of returning expressiveness in kind. We can find ourselves hurting or singing or carried away in exaltation just as a sentence we’ve encountered bespeaks hurt or song or exaltation.
What I’ve called “lost intimacy” is the loss, I suppose, of participating in occasions of such expressive mutuality. It’s the loss of lyricism in philosophy, or the feel of the poetic in universities and much of cultural life, and the hegemony of an ideal of professional distance and suspicion of what I’ve called the soul. It’s related to the fact that we don’t have companions or mentors with whom we can speak about the joys that course through our lives, or about the emptiness that can cloud our days, or make nightmares of sleep. We have professionals who in therapy “hear our story,” and we sometimes have Rabbis or Gurus, Pastors or Coaches or Priests. But we also need to share intimate matters as equals, not just as client to an expert responder, or priest to parishioner. Attentive aunts, parents, siblings, or lovers might fill the bill. I think complaints about unchecked globalization and technology bespeak a fear that fragile enclaves of intimacy (if they exist) are increasingly at risk.
I know this is utterly romantic, but when I read a lyric poet or novelist or philosopher, I imagine them speaking to me as a dear companion who knows me better than I know myself. And when I read such writing, I also imagine walking with this author or another, or visiting them, soul-sharing. Utter fantasy, I know. Yet it reveals a real need, I think. It’s not an ideal easy to confess, in an age of self-sufficiency and “just do it” grappling. And it can’t be marketed in a culture where mall-driven consumerism is a substitute for community, and where even the ideal of an intimate community of 3 or 13 can seem on many days hopelessly utopian. So books and writing become solace.
Lyricism brings people together in song, and sharing song is a form of intimacy. I like to read aloud passages from Emily Dickinson or Melville or Kierkegaard in the midst of class—read them as if performed on stage at a recital. If the looks from the seats are an indication, this often works. I think we don’t hear intimate words delivered intimately often enough—perhaps the exception is at religious services, or at exceptional political moments of mourning (or celebration). Lyric philosophy is a great compendium of material to deliver performatively. It can cure or heal in the way serious theater can heal—through its “acting out” intimacies, showing that they are shared, and showing that for the moment, we can know we’ve become privy to the satisfactions of reciprocal communication and the bonds it installs.