Have you ever read something for a specific research purpose, in the routine of study, which suddenly carved you up and reordered your entire being? That happened to me around December 2007. I remember the evening vividly, because my reading was interrupted a few times by my walk to and from the laundry room, as though it were calculated to give me ten minutes of gloomy quiet to absorb it all. I disagreed profoundly, but the way it teased my core beliefs was compelling. And, over time, I came under the spell of the American philosopher Richard Rorty.
I found out much later that he had died from pancreatic cancer, aged 75, only a few months before my first encounter, just over ten years ago today – a trivial coincidence that I’ve dressed in significance. I was unaccountably sad at the thought of that particular brain turning cold. Shortly before his death he wrote an essay about his diagnosis and disease (‘The Fire of Life’), in which he admitted that ‘neither the philosophy I had written nor that which I had read seemed to have any particular bearing on my situation’. These words gave me pause, as I had been deeply affected by his philosophical writings on life and death. This last characteristic shrug of indifference toward his own thought left me unsettled – he had given me some comfort, at least.
Rorty confided that rather than grand philosophical statements on being and death, he found comfort in snippets of verse from Swinburne’s Garden of Proserpine and Landor’s On His Seventy-Fifth Birthday, both expressing ease with a life that grows weary and wanes. Such lyrics contained no special truths for Rorty, but instead made him feel more human: to be human is to use language; to possess a richer language is to lead a richer life.
Yet over two decades earlier he had dwelt with considerable feeling on another, darkly contrasting poem by Philip Larkin, in an essay on the contingency of selfhood. Larkin’s poem meditated on a particular fear of death: the anxiety that everything that was meaningful to him ‘applied only to one man once / And that one dying.’ It is not the fear of general nothingness that bites, but the awareness that one’s cherished idiosyncratic self will be extinguished. This, Rorty wrote, is the anxiety of the poet, a name he gave for anyone who seeks a novel answer to the possibilities of life. The philosopher, in contrast, is one who seeks the consolation of being in touch with a truth greater than oneself. Safety is found by binding one’s perishable body to the eternal.
Rorty encouraged all of us to be poets, in his sense, by admitting that ‘we shall never be in touch with something greater than ourselves’. He urged us to cease millennia-old efforts to achieve universality – the search for something inhuman to justify us humans – and embrace contingency. Recognising our contingency allows us the freedom to tell our story without demanding it chimes with the universal. Rorty suggested that Freud had given us a way to see every human life as a private poem, forever incomplete. We may never be fully self-created, but we may succeed in giving birth to a small part of ourselves.
At the moment of death, then, the poet may find consolation ‘in being that peculiar sort of dying animal who, by describing himself in his own terms, had created himself’ (a consolation that consciously turns away from Yeats’s alchemic hope of warbling a timeless song.) The poet’s fear is dying in a world borrowed from others, without contributing a single mutation. But if we let go of the philosopher’s desire to transcend her contingency by touching the universal, and if we resist substituting the poet’s fantasy of mastering her contingency by becoming entirely new, then perhaps we will be content to see human life as the ‘always incomplete, yet sometimes heroic,’ reweaving of our web of contingencies.
So was all this, eventually, beside the point? I wonder how Rorty felt about his own attempts to reweave his web. I wonder if he felt he had succeeded in giving birth to a part of himself, however small. I wonder if he found comfort in being able to tell a story about himself in terms that were, in some sense, his own.
If these ideas had no bearing on his situation, then perhaps Rorty’s philosophy had already given him a simpler consolation long before he was faced with a terminal illness. In a turn of phrase that made me gasp with recognition, he once offered this statement (I forget its origin) on the therapeutic reward of his anti-essentialist pragmatism: ‘I rid myself of the fear that there was an antecedent truth about myself’. Rorty helped me rid myself of the same fear. The fear that the secret of my true self had been placed deep within me at my beginnings; that I was only ever a symptom of myself; that I was living in error; that I must urgently discover my essence; that every day my true self was suffocating. To fully explain the grip of this fear I would have to tell the tedious story of my life up until that moment. But the effect of release was dramatic: I was no longer haunted by the presence of an imagined self I could only fail to become.
When I picture an old Rorty, I see a man free from any crippling fears or regrets at having failed to achieve his true self or learn universal truths. I consider this the greatest comfort his philosophy gave him. I hope it was this contentedness that blanketed a dying old man, leaving him to peacefully murmur a few old chestnuts as his fire sank to embers. His own regrets were beautifully small: to have had more close friends and remembered more poems. I find such delicate wishes of an exhausted animal gently heroic.
There is one more comfort to which we might point. At the end of Rorty’s musings on Larkin’s ‘pathos of finitude’ he turned outwards, to the kindness of future strangers. While we are not destined to fuse with the eternal, our unfinished life-poems may yet blur into the continued life of the culture from which we emerged. We do not begin or end as solitary animals, no matter how isolated. All our life-poems are commentaries. We may say with Walt Whitman,
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment, only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.
(‘Poets to Come’, Song of Myself)
Rorty wrote a few words before hurrying back in the darkness. And we might do the same, happy to be unfinished.
James Fisher is a third-year PhD candidate at King’s College London, researching the relationship between books, knowledge and labour in early modern Britain. He was a previous editor at The Still Point Journal. This essay derives from his time studying an MA in Political Philosophy at York University. Follow James on Twitter @JamDanFish.