Per Serritslev Peterson’s “Jack London’s Medusa of Truth” (Philosophy and Literature 26.1) challenges our ideas about the notoriously eclectic and idiosyncratic philosophical thought of Jack London, a.k.a. “The Boy Socialist,” a.k.a. “The Adolescent Nietzschean,” a.k.a. “The College Spencerian,” a.k.a. “The Middle-Aged Nietzschean Socialist,” a.k.a. “The Forty Year-Old Jungian.” Despite bouncing from one hermetically-sealed-but-internally-coherent philosophical system to another for the majority of his short life, Peterson insists that London’s critics misconstrue the nature of his philosophical questing. So he gathers London’s little truthlets and declares
London as philosopher 1) was a Nietzschean dialectician who mastered and negotiated the juxtaposition of conflicting ideas, perspectives, and values in life (the Medusa-Maya dichotomy being a crucial case in point); and who consequently, 2) possessed philosophical authenticity and integrity, or what Nietzsche terms “intellectual conscience."
I generally applaud counter-intuitive readings. When Peterson identifies his as being such a beast, stating that his “contentions must appear highly questionable in contemporary American academe,” he implicates his article in the storied tradition which, as just noted, I generally applaud. However, the second clause of that sentence baffles me: “seeing that very few London scholars or critics take the novelist’s philosophy seriously.” Most London scholars not only take one of his philosophical positions seriously, they construct elaborate channels through which they can safely navigate three or four of them. Peterson’s argument is counter-intuitive in an artificial and synthetic fashion...and in this sense resembles those London himself favored. In short, then, Peterson’s consistency fetish neatly doubles London’s own; furthermore, it blinds him to the inconsistencies of his work much as London’s blinded him to the inconsistencies in his. That said, Peterson’s performance easily outshines London’s clunky stabs at synthesis; it is, to be frank, a bravura performance on Peterson’s part. But I still don’t buy a word of it.
Then there’s the case of James Berger, a man I treated unfairly in a brief post about what I (mistakenly) believed to be an (unintentionally) infelicitous pair of sentences. In “Falling Towers and Postmodern Wild Children: Oliver Sacks, Don DeLillo and Turns Against Language” (PMLA 120.2), Berger discusses the work of Oliver Sacks as a singular body of thought, consistent throughout, be he writing for a popular audience in The New York Review of Books or the scientific community in Neurology. (Now, I admit that Sacks is not the best example, since as I’ve skimmed some of his scientific writing he seems more consistent than someone like Steven Pinker. But bear with me, since I’m not here to bury Berger, but praise him.) For Berger, Sacks’ theory of a pre-linguistic subjectivity--accessible through interaction with highly acculturated aesthetic objects like symphonies and modernist poetry--exists in equal measure in his popular and scientific thought.
I would argue that a savvy rhetorician like Sacks would recognize the ideological investments of his audience and pitch his presentations to them: hence his references to patients cured by Beethoven, pains ameliorated by Mahler and people reborn through Brahms. I doubt those staples of NPR appear as frequently in his scientific papers like, say, “Cycad Neurotoxins, Consumption of Flying Foxes, and ALS-PDC Disease in Guam.” Those references say as much about the audience a popular science writer like Sacks keys his performance to please as it does about his own thought on the matter. (Or not. This is why Sacks is a bad example of this general phenomenon.) Here’s the thing: Berger’s argument would be strenghtened were he to turn from what Sacks believes to what Sacks’ audience believes. He need not worry about Sacks, or whether Sacks’ scientific work jives with his popular, because the rhetoric of his popular work--in which he appeals to an idea of a pre-linguistic subjectivity accessible through highly acculturated aesthetic objects--proves Berger’s point more powerfully by dint of its popularity. He need not focus on Sacks’ personal beliefs to deliver his argument convincingly.