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July 27, 2007

Rorty's Binoculars

audubon am avocet.jpg This morning my older son, Hugo, and I went on a gentle, slow-motion canoe trip through some of the twisting sloughs and inlets of the Baylands Nature Preserve, an area of mudflats and salt- and freshwater marshland in our corner of San Francisco Bay. I always feel happier on the water. It rocks my body and settles my mind, as if even the slight movements of the boat are tipping some of the small, ugly anxieties of my immediate world off the psychic shelves and crevices inside me and that these are drifting slowly downwards till they came to rest on the dark, chocolate-y silt-floor far below consciousness. Wind and waves constitute relief; a kind of spring-cleaning by means of the lapping water on a hull.

Hugo and I and the rest of of our group saw plenty of interesting wildlife today: bat rays flopping through the shallow creek in search of food, the tiny camera-flashes of small fish's backs breaking the rippling surface for a moment, even a seal — head raised, looking back and forth cautiously, as if it were expecting an ambush — pushing its way up an inlet. We scooped handfuls of the rich, black Bay mud, which the industrial processes of the Gold Rush have left probably permanently contaminated with mercury, up out of the water. With a slightly mocking smile our guide, calling from another canoe, made me repeat after her: "In my hand I am holding over 40,000 small organisms." When I bent my face down to it, the mud (full of over 40,000 bits of life, much of it feeding on dead organic matter) smelled sulphurous.

The Baylands is one of the most important birding areas around here. As we canoed slowly in and out of the marsh's trickling channels we saw black-billed and Western gulls, a blue heron, several kinds of egret, sandpipers, white and grey pelicans, high above us a turkey vulture wheeling on thermals, and what looked to me like scores of swifts. With the help of a chart, the scholarly Hugo correctly identified a small group of marbled godwits standing on a mudflat right at the border to a shapeless kingdom of crabgrass. The godwits' have a long, delicate beak with a subtle upward curve towards its tip. Their chests are a softly-barred brown and chesnut colour, which looks like a patch of cloudy autumnal evening sky.

Though today the Baylands are always replete with birds, these are nonetheless the hardy remnants of the great tribes which once congregated here. In the later 18th century Caucasian explorers of the land around San Francisco Bay noted that whenever there was a sharp sound — perhaps a gun firing, someone emitting a croaking, syphilitic cough, or a bottle smashing as it dropped onto a rock — a huge, swarming cloud of birdlife would rise instantly into the air, crying and calling and darkening the sky and the land beneath it.

There were many American avocets around today, looking almost exactly like the example which Audubon created for his giant album Birds of America. "Almost exactly", but not quite. My eyes kept turning back to these birds amongst all the others in the sky and on the mud, so I suppose that I must have some special, half-recognised fondness for them. Audubon's American avocet looks militant, active, self-confident, like a middle-class entrepreneur, a reader of Poor Richard's Almanack, striding hungrily across the mud as bountiful "opportunities" arise for it to "acquire" bugs and worms. It must largely have been due to the time of day, but the American avocets we saw this morning were identical in markings to the one Audubon painted. Yet these birds, unlike his, were standing absolutely still, all seeming to stare off in the same direction into the hot, hazy distance as if they were trying to remember something which they had collectively forgotten. In their summer plumage, their necks and heads have turned a spectacular pale reddish-brown, making it look as if they are experiencing a warm blush without any of the attendant human embarrassment or guilt.

As we drove home afterwards, I started thinking about Richard Rorty, who died little more than a month and a half ago. Rorty had a "sunset" appointment at Stanford, teaching in the Comparative Literature Department. As far as I can tell, to many professors here he was a well-liked, and strongly admired, colleague. I hardly knew him at all. He was a hefty man, and I winced at his beefy handshake and smiled into his seemingly indifferent eyes just a few times. But we never exchanged anything more than the most cursory pleasantries. I had the feeling that, when we did, his mind was somewhere else, a bit like the group of avocets which we paddled past earlier, and, although I felt a bit crestfallen after the experience (aren't I interesting too?), at the same time I admired and envied his evident intellectual self-preoccupation.

As for his philosophy — well, my opinion of it is about as useful to any serious student of Rorty's work as his opinion of, say, The Faerie Queene probably would have been to a specialist in Elizabethan poetics. To have rebelled in the way he did against his own philosophical training gave him an impressive intellectual stature in my eyes. But, for what it's worth, and in as far as I understand what he was writing about, I feel that there is something uncomfortably cosy about the Pragmatism which he espoused so artfully as his act of rebellion. We form into groups, we talk about problems in ways which those of us who are inside the group understand but which are meaningless to those others who are not embedded within the same social-linguistic co-ordinates as ourselves. What we say is never really a statement about "the world" but just part of a sophisticated, higher-level linguistic game. We need not agree and we need not be upset about not agreeing because we can always keep talking, and, anyway, little (or nothing) is absolutely at stake in these discussions because our verbal mirrors are just reflecting other mirrors' reflections of mirrors. Philosophy never holds a mirror up to nature. It seems to me a bit like a version of social interaction based on the premise that everyone's life everywhere is like that of a tenured professor — we do our own thing, we go our own ways; you do your thing, you go yours. And we will meet again next week at the same time. As for scrambling for food, burying babies, stealing out of desperation, murdering a rival pimp and seizing his territory — ah, even as we speak someone somewhere else is doubtless doing that for us. In a very muted key, Rorty's views seem like those of a Nietzschean "haunted thinker".

But there was an interesting rift between Rorty's philosophy and what very little I know about his personal conduct. As a person, Rorty's heart was evidently just where I think anyone's heart should be. His mother's father was the socially-involved theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. His father, James, had been a poet (Children of the Sun and Other Poems, 1926) and journalist, closely associated in the 1930s and 1940s with Partisan Review and with New York's anti-Stalinist left. Richard Rorty too was politically progressive and had a strong social conscience. He was never more decent, sensible and honourable than when he wrote to the New York Times not that long ago ridiculing the idea that a person like himself who, after a successful career, had more than enough money to look after his needs in his post-retirement years should have a "right" to social security payments as well. Of course, his selfless statement fell, as he knew it would, clattering into an otherwise silent void.

My most pleasurable memory of Rorty, and the one which best serves and encourages a philosophical illiterate such as myself, is of a silent, off-campus non-encounter. It must have happened about three years ago. Siri, Hugo, Owen and I had climbed out of our car and were entering the Baylands a little further south than where Hugo and I canoed today. It was at the marsh entrance between Adobe Creek and Charleston Slough, near a point where in the autumn you can often see great flocks of American White Pelicans resting during their annual migration towards the Gulf of Mexico. As we bundled ourselves through the Nature's Preserves gate, Rorty came striding along in the opposite direction, a pair of very expensive-looking binoculars in his hands. We exchanged nothing more than glances as we passed. But, afterwards, while I tugged gently at Owen's sleeve, trying to urge him in a stage-actor version of paternal firmness to speed his reluctant steps up a bit, I felt an exquisite amalgam of embarrassment, sympathy and puzzlement. Rorty was a bird-watcher.

I don't care much what I think about the durability of Richard Rorty's work. Surely no-one else does either. When I remember him, what comes back instead of irrelevant judgements is that subtly odd moment at the edge of San Francisco Bay. Somehow, while walking briskly down a straight path, he swerved into authenticity in my mind. It made me understand that he had what every writer needs — a hinterland, a psychic place to return to at will, privately. This hinterland must be cut off from direct connection with (and is, perhaps, preferably antithetical to) his or her public "opinions", loyalties, books. In Rorty's case, the contemplative and unassertive practice of bird-watching may have moved him into that place in his head. The man who debunked the fiction that philosophy could give us a reflection of the world as it really is, spent many solitary hours sitting still and probably feeling chilly, as he gazed through powerful lenses at the markings and habits of these insignificant "others", wholly alien to us, whose province is as much sky as earth.

Maybe that archetypal journey from the private place to the public one, or from the public one to the private, is traced out surreptitiously in everything a good writer composes? Remembering Rorty and his binoculars certainly convinces me that one of the essential markers of "truth" in language (as of truth in life) is that we recognize it first because, seeming to emerge suddenly out of nothing, it comes as an absolute, and vaguely disturbing, surprise.

Posted by njenkins at July 27, 2007 07:55 PM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins