Commonplace Book: Esoterica in the Literary Press

Three political cycles ago, when George W. Bush was the liberal literati’s Hitler of the hour, much ink was spilled on the question of esoteric writing.

Leo Strauss, mentor to the neoconservatives who formed the intellectual armature of Bush’s presidency, wrote a famous essay called “Persecution and the Art of Writing.” There Strauss postulated that great philosophers composed their texts in a kind of code. They intended an exoteric meaning, a socially acceptable one, for the guardians of public order, and a secret, socially unacceptable meaning—an esoteric one—for their inner circle, for the adepts of philosophy. If they had not used this secret writing, the authorities would turn on them and have them executed, as Athens did to Socrates, or banished, as the Jewish community did to Spinoza.

But what is the nature of philosophers’ secret meanings? What is the esoteric message? And can we trust those who explain it to us, or are they in turn only concealing something they’d rather we, the philosophical laity, not know? According to the neoconservatives and their orbiters—e.g., Bush-era Hitchens—the philosophers were concealing irreligious views that foretold democracy and the Age of Enlightenment from their priest-benighted contemporaries. (Spinoza might work well as an example here.) By extension, Bush’s coterie of neoconservative intellectuals pled national security when they wished to wage war, but their secret and enlightened goal was to spread democracy. On the other hand, the neoconservatives’ liberal and leftist critics suggested that their real purpose—here Plato is the predecessor—was to conserve the power of the economic and intellectual elite by asserting military dominance over the rest of the world and security- and surveillance-state dominance over American citizens and residents.

My own point, though, is that once you’ve introduced the idea of an esoteric subtext, then every text become suspicious. Take for example a fun fact I’m sure I’ve shared in these electronic pages before: Straussian protégé Allan Bloom was the tutor who taught a young Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to stalk subtexts for significance, a reading practice she famously developed into queer theory with its vertiginous epistemology of the closet. To an utter paranoid—and Sedgwick, you’ll recall, decried paranoia—this neoconservative lineage of avant poststructuralist theory might suggest a hidden kinship between the ostensibly opposed right-wing military and financial elite and the left-wing educational and cultural elite.

Thoughts like this make one feverish and dizzy—no, it’s not coronavirus, only apophenia—so it might be best to remember the famous observation of Whit Stillman’s (conservative) protagonist of Barcelona:

Fred: Plays, novels, songs—they all have a “subtext,” which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So subtext we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that’s right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what’s above the subtext?

Ted: The text.

Fred: OK, that’s right, but they never talk about that.

Despite this wise admonition, a few things struck me in my recent reading of the literary press. Now that George W. Bush is revered—by the same liberal literati that once called him Hitler—as a great statesman whose steady helmsmanship we could sorely use in this age of the newer and oranger Hitler, who knows what else we might need to rethink?

To be fair to Christopher Beha, his recent Harper’s essay on Kierkegaard deals little in subtext. He concludes his piece by straightforwardly answering the question, “So what does Kierkegaard have to tell our age?”:

But perhaps the greatest thing Kierkegaard has to tell our age is that we might stop thinking of ourselves as occupying an age at all—stop thinking that the meaning of our lives is determined by impersonal historical forces outside our control, or that our primary objective in life is to respond to the peculiar challenges of our moment. In 1848, the liberal revolutions sweeping through Europe arrived in Denmark, transforming the absolute monarchy into a constitutional democracy. “Out there everything is agitated,” Kierkegaard wrote in his journals. “I sit in a quiet room (no doubt I will soon be in bad repute for indifference to the nation’s cause)—I know only one risk, the risk of religiousness.”

Kierkegaard, as Beha explains, developed his Christian Existentialism against the historicism of Hegel. For Hegel, history was the rational coming to self-consciousness of humanity in the aggregate; implicitly, God was just the name of the law we didn’t yet know we were obeying before we saw the light of the rational. The spiritual is our own unrecognized material power, which we mistook for an alien force. Both the individual and the deity are therefore dispatched as mere parts of a mechanism that circumscribes them both. Kierkegaard replies, by contrast, that the social and collective world is perhaps the most illusory of all—that the deepest and highest things, very nearly inexpressible and certainly not reducible to human law, are my experiences of God’s presence.

“We are all Hegelians now,” Beha laments. Why lament? He doesn’t fully elaborate, but allow me to consider some possibilities. From Hegel, with his drive toward totality and his assumption of individual difference into social wholeness, comes the totalitarian and terroristic qualities of modern expert discourses, which have taken over from theology as that which does not allow itself to be contradicted, just as secular academe and its diaspora in the professions form the modern clerisy: Marxism, which, if you dispute it, will arraign you for ideology; psychoanalysis, which, if you question it, will diagnose you with repression (or, in its pop-psychology variant, denial); and identity politics, which, if you criticize it, will explain either that you are an -ist/-phobe (if you’re the “wrong” identity) or that you have internalized -ism/-phobia (if you’re the “right” one).

But what would it mean to cease being Hegelians and become Kierkegaardians instead? One hesitates, to say the least, at a political answer, so Beha sagely doesn’t provide one. I can imagine—can’t you?—a Kierkegaardian defense of Trump, for example: his liberal enemies in the intelligentsia and the media class, whose revulsion from his person hardly even rises to the ethical, being only a sordid class-based disgust (how dare this outer-borough arriviste with gold-plated toilets presume to run the country?), sputter with outraged rationality at precisely his sublime, boisterous indifference to the normative or legal. Obeying a summons to an undefined greatness, he expresses knightly contempt for the merely actual. None of this depends on a moral evaluation of his behavior. On this reading, he is superior to his enemies in the same way, for instance, that the Misfit is superior to the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor, whose story ought to have this line from Fear and Trembling as its epigraph: “there dwells infinitely more good in a demoniac than in a superficial person.” Weirdly, the same might apply mutatis mutandis to Bush, suspending the ethical to slaughter Saddam as Abraham did when he prepared to offer Isaac. What I can’t really imagine is a Kierkegaardian defense of any liberal politics.

These speculations, though, are just a parlor game, and Trump is surely too secularly corrupt and Bush too literalistic in his religiosity (not to mention captive to the Hegelians in his foreign policy) to impress Kierkegaard. No, Beha delivers his secret message earlier in the essay than its ostensibly resonant conclusion (hide-the-moral-in-the-middle must be the first rule of esoteric writing):

Another fact about this inward turning is that we falsify it when we attempt to put it on display in the way that we might our ethical behavior. Of course, writing about the religious was a form of precisely this kind of objectified display. Kierkegaard was aware of the contradiction, and he had an ambivalent relationship to his own work. (He does not seem to have had any relationships that weren’t ambivalent.) This accounts in part for his use of pseudonyms, which was not just a writerly device. For some years, he took great care to keep his literary identity concealed. He made a point amid his work to go on long walks so that he could be seen by the people of Copenhagen, who knew his distinctive figure, and he turned up at the theater during intermissions, giving the impression that he’d spent his evening at the show, before sneaking home to work. He went out of his way to appear still mired in the aesthetic stage.

In other words, seem to obey every Hegelian injunction, even as you rebel inwardly with fear and trembling. Hegel—as Mann’s Naphtha points out—is esoterically a Catholic philosopher. Kierkegaard, we might add, is a truly Protestant one.

In another Harper’s essay on another 19th-century rebel to rationalist orthodoxy, a patron saint of unreasonable artists everywhere, Heinrich von Kleist, Christine Smallwood just about overtly deals a coup de grace to the reigning literary aesthetic of today’s Hegelianism, identity politics:

There is no cult so fervent in contemporary fiction as the cult of voice. Voice is easily confused for, but importantly distinct from, style. Where style is manufactured or arch, a mask that distances, voice, despite being performed and constructed, is a tool of immediacy and intimacy. Voice is inherently contemporary, the node of an interlocking web of other contemporary values: authenticity, personality, identity, speaking one’s truth. To encounter real literary style is almost always to encounter the past, because style itself is a remove, an art of arrangement that puts the tale and the way it is told before the person telling it. To encounter style in a time of voice can be shocking: it has the authority that our age, and our literature, reject.

Because she must move quickly to Kleist—writers for august publications can’t freely digress as we independents can—she doesn’t draw out the implications. Later in the essay, quoting Thomas Mann, she does suggest that an antidote to “voice,” one that preserves Kleist’s skepticism about truth (see also Becca Rothfeld’s brilliant analysis of Kleist’s perverse Kantianism), is an artful “confusion of affects.”

Trying to be exoteric, I once wrote, give or take a revision, the following: The belief that a novel or any other complex artifact is an organic or even biological component of its creator comparable to the voice is an innocent-seeming trope, but it is in reality quite dangerous. It rests on a fascist ontology of culture, a view of culture as a spontaneous and primitive ethnic effluvium, generated without the mediation of the creative intellect. Art, to my mind, is the precise opposite of voice: not an expression of organic identity but organic identity’s sublation into the artifice of eternity by passionate intelligence.

The last phrase, with its Yeatsian vocabulary, is too grand for Kleist or Kierkegaard, both of whom would suggest more provisional human attempts at meaning. But voice remains inferior to style: with the first, you may be able to tell your truth, but with the second you can reveal the higher truth that you have no more access to truth than anyone else, and do it moreover through the complex beauty of an artifact rather than through the shrilling of an “identity” truncated to some prefabricated social role. Note, too, how the shift from style to voice mirrors in literary aesthetics the broader change from a society focused on production (the writer as worker and artificer making an object) to one focused on consumption (the writer as unique member of x demographic expressing an identity).

With this observation, we come to our final esoteric essay, if an essay about the esoteric can count as esoteric. Marie Mutsuki Mockett writes wonderfully of reading Bashō under quarantine with her young son:

All poetry requires interpretation, but it is a characteristic of Basho’s haiku that the reader plays a role in fully constructing the poem. It’s as though Basho has left out a step somewhere in a math equation, and you must make the mental effort to do that step for the answer to reveal itself. This kind of cooperative art feels relevant right now, in a time when we are all staying home as much for ourselves as for each other. While Basho is respected in the West for his sense of play, his concision, and singular imagination, he himself most valued his ability to write poems that required another poet to add lines to his prompt, to which he would add additional lines. He valued most his ability to share a creative space.

May we cooperate with Mockett in completing the meaning of her piece? A clue or two:

Someone once said to me that harsh cultures seem uniquely able to produce beauty. Homeschooling has brought out a repressed desire to insist on precision from my son, just as it was once squeezed from me. I am trying to use haiku as a chance to explore beauty, wonder, and play—something beyond the search for one perfect answer.


In 1635, the ruling lord closed Japan’s borders to the rest of the world in an effort to keep out as many foreign influences as possible. Basho was born in 1644. And while historians like to point out that Japan was not entirely isolated from the West during this period of its history, it was closed off enough during Basho’s lifetime that his aesthetics are often admired as “purely Japanese.”

What message waits between these lines? And how is it that in our least harsh of cultures—our permissive societies of the postmodern West—we find liberal organs (never mind their origins) full of messages so abbreviated, whispered, intimated, encrypted? Only a fuddled malcontent would wonder. Enjoy the text for what is, I say, and leave the subtext to the paranoids.

Portrait of Bashō by Hokusai, late 18th century (Wikipedia)

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  1. Bravo. You give your fellow citizens a real service in this one.

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