Sunday, September 13, 2009

Basman on Nussbaum

I have not read Christine Nehring’s A Vindication Of Love and I barely know who she is. But I did read Martha Nussbaum’s TNR review of Nehring’s book; and I do know something about Nussbaum.

For Nussbaum an exemplary life is one of risk, challenge, profundity, seriousness and encountering big things: “The smallness of aspiration against which Nietzsche inveighed in his portrait of “the last man” is not, as he suggested, a recent creation of bourgeois European Christianity. It is a pervasive inclination of ordinary human life.” And: “The wise thesis is that one should be willing to incur risk for the sake of a deep and valuable love…”; “given that people tend to be self-insulating and risk-averse, valuable love involves “conquest and self-conquest,” a struggle against one’s own selfish and self-protective propensities. In this sense, struggle does seem intrinsic to the valuable type of love.”

An anecdote may illustrate the problem I find with Nussbaum’s arguments. I had a friend of mine too many years ago—in 1969—guest teach my first year English class, the students of which I otherwise taught, graded and passed and failed when I was a graduate student in English literature. He had not long before been an Assistant Professor who had never finished his PhD. After a power shift in my university’s English department he was deemed part of the dead wood. He was denied tenure. He went through ample protest, grief, apathy, depression and finally emerged with a not so bad teaching job in a local junior college which he stayed at for the rest of his career. In the guest class, at a certain point he launched into a paroxysm of passionate advice for my freshman students to take risks, court the possibility of failure, engage chaos if need be, rather than lemming like proceed through life with nothing ventured nothing gained.

I gave him a ride home after the class and at a certain point I asked him (told him really) whether it was presumptuous to so harangue my students when he did not know the first thing about any of them and when his own lived life contradicted all his advice. He had the same need for security and stability we all did. He was married and had to worry about paying a mortgage and such like—he had no kids—and to do that to bring home a pay cheque. I did not see him taking any risks, meeting great challenges, doing anything outside his day to day work remarkable for its seriousness and gravitas; nor did I see him engaging big things or courting either danger or chaos. I said, getting a head of steam going, that considering the example of his own life his advice was near a lie and that even if he exemplified his advice, dispensing it to impressionable first year students who never sought it was out of line, and, I thought, undeservedly self congratulatory.

I don’t like the notion of the last man though I think Nussbaum softens it almost to the point of platitude--reducing it from a specific social observation rooted in a specific time-- by saying, as if one upping Nietzsche, “…his portrait of “the last man” is not, as he suggested, a recent creation of bourgeois European Christianity. It is a pervasive inclination of ordinary human life.”

Ya’ think?

Really, you don’t need a PhD in philosophy from Harvard to know that “pervasive inclination”.

I note Nussbaum’s slicing of Nehring’s argument into two theses: the willingness to incur risk for the sake of a deep and valuable love; and the measure of love’s quality as the quantum of danger, risk and suffering we incur in its attainment. That second thesis is, as Nussbaum says, “adolescent and silly” for the reasons she points out and others--it's melodramatic, self absorbed, and an abstraction which fixes on a vulgarly romantic conception of love rather than the mature actuality of it as we experience it concretely in our lives.

But the first thesis which Nussbaum calls "sensible and wise" is no bargain either though for different reasons. Who is Nussbaum (or Nehring for that matter) to be recommending to people that they take risks for great love? What does she know, like my advice dispensing rather hapless friend, about whom she is talking to? What body of evidence gives her advice any foundation? After all, she herself notes that “Nehring provides no systematic evidence for the claim that attitudes to love have changed”. And what is her own systematic evidence? It amounts to this:

“…But it is certainly possible that in America in our own era we are seeing a rising tide of risk aversion. If I compare my students today with my student contemporaries of the 1960s and 1970s, they certainly do seem to be more cautious and more calculating--about career choice, political engagement, and aspiration generally. They make prudent life plans, and they are unembarrassed by all their prudence. It would not surprise me if attitudes to romantic love have become similarly cautious and calculating, and perhaps also similarly ironic and detached. How could they not, if people are determined not to take large risks in any precinct of life?...”

This seems illogical to me. Let’s assume that students are more prudent and calculating now than they were in the sixties—a case I’d rather see made than asserted impressionistically (and note the hedging " is certainly possible"). How does anything telling about their attitudes to romantic love necessarily follow? What, even in these impressionistic surmises, are we to gather about the attitudes of the more activist students of 30 and 40 years ago towards such love, of which I was one (save perhaps that the whole notion of romantic love was thought to be a bourgeois con)?

These quarrels with Nussbaum’s comments feed my more overriding criticisms of her argument: she has nothing to say to people she doesn’t know about incurring risks for love; she doesn’t know what people in the specificity of their lives risk and what the depths of their love may be; and she is platitudinous and vacuous—we all tend to be risk averse; take great risks; follow your heart—all tricked out in fancy language and with learned examples and names being dropped here, there and everywhere.

If one wants to test her fatuity consider how attenuated and unspecific her advice is. When do we incur such risks: when we just have met Ms or Mr. Right in sharp juxtaposition with a spouse of some years whose attractiveness has lost its luster, with kids, with the pressures of work, with bills to pay, with illness present, with all manner of setbacks, when years of a difficult life together have settled into something manageable or congenial or just pleasant and companionable? That in the midst of life one might find a great love—a “soul mate” as they say—and decide to forsake one's spouse, promises, moral obligations, commitments and fidelities of course happens. But that isn’t necessarily incurring great risk for great love. And either side of the decision so to forsake could be argue persuasively either way.

I don't think people not asking for it need prescriptions from Nussbaum, Nehring or anyone else on how to calibrate their souls so as to be open to great love or to be told pontifically what to risk for what.

My point is that Nussbaum is empty, unhelpful and self important burying platitudes in the here soft pillows of her scholarly learning and philosophical wisdom.

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