An Interview with Ross Posnock
“It is not in the role of an artist to worry about life – to feel responsible for creating a better world. This is a very serious distraction. All your conditioning has been directed toward intellectual living. This is useless in artwork. All human knowledge is useless in artwork. Concepts, relationships, categories, classifications, deductions are distractions of mind that we wish to hold free for inspiration.” – Agnes Martin
The subjects in Ross Posnock’s new book Renunciation: Acts of Abandonment by Writers, Philosophers, and Artists chose to walk away from the world. There’s Agnes Martin in the Southwest, with her “back to the world,” as she put it, while she paints. There is Glenn Gould’s retreat from the stage and his adoring audience to the cold silence of the recording studio. And there’s William James, rejecting the “vicious intellectualism” of his age, even as he continues to work at Harvard as a professor and a philosopher.
A professor of humanities at Columbia University, Posnock moves between the realms of art, philosophy, and literature with ease, showing how a “no” can be as creative of an act as a “yes.” Posnock and I sat down in a Manhattan cafe to discuss why mysticism and spirituality makes intellectuals uncomfortable, how Salinger’s reputation has been ruined by his fanbase, and why it’s easier for us to love artists after they are dead.
It felt like the book was written against the intellectual culture, arts culture, literary culture that our time has found itself in, that we’ve created. Was that intentional? Part of the idea of the vicious intellectualism which is now found in the form of materialist, atheist thought and the fact it’s now intellectually embarrassing to be a person of faith in some circles but also kind of this against this simple remove that our artistic culture has right now?
It started with a deep dislike or exhaustion with post-modernist obsession with the mediated constructed immediate reflex accusation of naïveté if you’re talking about things like presence or immediacy. But I found that most vividly expressed with certain art critics who were saying things that I hadn’t read before among English professors and most other people. Because the non-verbal provocations of art seem to bring to a crisis the limits of language. So, as I explained in the beginning of the book it was really through my attraction to people like Emerson, Nietzsche, and William James and Wittgenstein that crystallized my interest in annunciation because all of them urge a version of William James’s critique of “vicious intellectuals.”
The more I got into it, the more I began to see reluctantly that there was a spiritual dimension to it, that I really wasn’t prepared for and left me uncomfortable. But I realized if I ignored or minimized it would basically be an inadequacy of my treatment of it, of my argument, so I decided to read, Eastern and Christian mysticism and Vedantism, and to see the deep affinities between the spiritual point of view and the aesthetic point of view, so it began to make sense why so many the people I was talking about like Salinger and John Cage and Thomas Merton and Ad Reinhardt the painter and Agnes Martin the painter were so explicitly spiritual; I always knew that intellectually, but I didn’t know what it entailed.
And why did the spiritual aspect make you uncomfortable?
For all the predictable reasons that secularized intellectuals. But reading one art critic Thierry de Duve, he talked about the need for faith in art, faith in opening yourself to being touched by images that made a lot of sense to me, so I began to let my defenses down, and I realized defensiveness is a key quality of intellectualism, a kind of superiority to abstraction, let’s say. So humanities in general have built in this, what one critic calls a “soft terrorism” about anything that might be construed as “naïve” or involved in the spontaneous, the unguarded.
Particularly in the university culture, it’s strange to me how even the art and literature departments, humanities of the university system has become so hostile to being “moved,” if that’s even the right word. I read a lot of academic work and the language itself is a way of putting you off, of keeping you at a remove. So how do you operate in that culture?
I agree with everything you just said. What makes it complicated is that the current fashionable movement in literary criticism is called “surface reading” which wants to get rid of the reflex demystification that’s inculcated by Marxism and Freudianism, inculcated through graduate school, and which entails a distrust of appearance and a distrust of surface. But when you read the manifestos advocating surface reading it’s a strictly intra disciplinary move, it never talks about any sensual surface of art, it’s really deeply invested in the strictly academic versions of it; they quote Susan Sontag, “the erotics of art,” but that’s just inert, it’s just something to refer to. So I was very interested in surface in my book, but if I’d been an eager beaver academic I would have been quoting that article and foot-noting it and paying obeisance to it, but I wasn’t interested in that.
That’s why I talk a lot about monosyllabic responses to art by Henry James and John Dewey and Susan Sontag and grunting by Clement Greenberg; things that seem embarrassingly lame in terms of intellectual richness but register something of a visceral power.
I wanted to talk about Salinger, because your chapter actually made me think differently about him. And I’m wondering if maybe the problem with Salinger is his fans? There seems to be a strange misreading of Salinger throughout the wider culture. The documentary that came out about him seemed like a nightmare.
Yeah, that’s a loathsome piece of work. I’ve written about that. I call it part of the melodrama of cultural grievance that attends Salinger and is basically Salinger’s reputation. His ex-girlfriends, his daughter, his frustrated would-be biographers, they’re all enraged about his behavior. Basically his failure to be as sweet and gentle and loving as his characters. So what’s completely ignored is his work besides Catcher in the Rye. Which is really interesting and I’ve taught it the last couple years, Franny and Zooey, Seymour: An Introduction, Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters, they’re all very risky, strange, unique kinds of work that were laughed at, ridiculed, mocked when they came out. They sold — Salinger always sells enormous amounts, but there was a certain jealousy, envy, Normal Mailer’s the only one to put that in print. So a lot of very smart people, like Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, Alfred Kazin, they condemned Salinger, completely ignoring his intentions, his achievement, his risk-taking, his experimentalism, so the time seemed ripe to intervene on that.
Do you think there’s a reappraisal of him now that he’s dead? Or is it still… the documentary doesn’t point to a reappraisal seems like more of the same but it seems like he’s someone overdue for a re-understanding.
Yeah I have a little fantasy of writing a trade book focusing on just that question — why he was basically eclipsed by grievances and what actually is of value. Students respond to it, the non-Catcher, post-Catcher. But you do have to have a certain orientation, to spiritual traditions, that the New York intellectuals of the ’50s or ’60s never took seriously, sort of a beat thing… Kerouac, Ginsburg, or a West Coast thing.
The kind of lack of seriousness about spirituality and mysticism the way that it’s been kind of disregarded… I find the current culture that insists that anything that came out of religion is somehow corrupted, that we don’t have to learn anything sort of destroys an aspect of history. It’s obviously an overcorrection, but at the same time, I just wrote this piece about St. Teresa as a philosopher and I got so many angry responses saying “she’s not a philosopher, she’s a theologian,” It’s weird the anger it inspires.
You mean what you were doing wasn’t worth doing?
Right, that we have to reject everything that came out of religion because of this atheist viewpoint. I mean is that mysticism viewpoint, I mean you said it was uncomfortable for you to write about it, but is that viewpoint kind of instilled in you or were you more willing to accept it?
I was just moved by the beauty in their articulation of it, people like Thomas Merton, he’s a Catholic monk, he’s the most famous renunciator in America by the mid-20th century.
I love Merton.
He loved Zen and thought it was completely compatible with the whole tradition of Christian mysticism, like Meister Eckhart, Marguerite Porete, people that I never imagined I would have the slightest interest in. But the fact that the writers I was dealing with like William James and Wittgenstein, and Kierkegaard, another huge favorite — the fact they read them and responded to them was sort of a tip-off that I needed to be open to them, but I certainly had the typical reflex of cynicism and contempt for anything to do with religion, and I think that’s mostly from the politicization of religion, anything invoking Christianity and politics that of course is stomach turning, so you throw out the baby with the bathwater. It’s very dumb to do, but a lot of people like me do it
So then how did you come to Merton? Was he somebody you had read in the past?
Never read a word of Merton. I knew his name for years… but I never would’ve been convinced I’d have the slightest interest in Merton. But he came up through my interest in Ad Reinhardt, this painter in the ’50s who did these “black” paintings and they were close friends from Columbia undergraduate days. And Merton was also likely a big influence on Salinger. So it made sense for me to look at Merton and the more I did the more interesting he became. Also the kind of ridiculous situation Merton was in, in that he was a monk sworn to silence and all sorts of vows of celibacy who wrote 60 books and had an affair with a nurse and was hugely involved, ten volumes of correspondences exist; he knew everybody; people would come visit him, celebrities. So he had a completely bizarre life. So that in itself is interesting in terms of what renunciation can look like.
It seemed like in a couple examples you mention, from Dave Chappelle to Salinger, the act of renunciation makes the audience really uncomfortable and angry.
And especially with Salinger there were all these attempt to break the hermitage, people sneaking on his property that sort of thing. What do you think the source of that, that need of the audience?
Good question. I tried to look at that and to me it’s taken as a rebuke or an affront to our own values, that somehow it’s an accusation against us. Even Chappelle, the guy who wrote about him in the New York Times said he started out as a mystery or just a lunatic to some and then he became an enigma, and the enigma part also includes a certain uneasiness or even anger. So Salinger incited huge amounts of frustration; Why’s he doing this? To me it was a brazen act of integrity, and that looks so bizarre it has to be reduced, psychologized. And also, the fact Salinger was a misanthrope, he was severely traumatized in the Second World War; he saw unbearable amounts of violence in combat, and he never was the same after. The documentary you mention is obsessed with that, and says that destroyed him and he turned to zen as a source for relief but it ruined his art, so basically he was living off Catcher in the Rye and everything else was a waste of time.
It’s weird we have to find some sort of psychological damage with a person in order to understand an act that goes against the wider culture.
And the damage is understood as the reason he renounces.
I find that a lot when we try to psychologically diagnose people who are long dead. We can’t handle mystery in our culture right now. And I think part of that is because we’re turning against the religious experience.
Mystery is hugely involved with religious experience—
So I feel like we’re becoming really intolerant to it.
It’s impatience, it’s like that book David Shields wrote, Reality Hunger. It’s all about to the chase, fiction is too murky. So they have to create this utterly naïve view of the real: this is real because I say it’s real.
I love the part about the reactions to Reinhardt’s black paintings, that it just freaked people out.
Yeah, it incited them to violence. Because the black paintings aren’t really black but you have to have the patience to stare at them in the right light and see that there’s all sorts of cruciforms in the blackness, that’s the whole point of them.
I feel like we’re also uncomfortable with integrity. That a person’s integrity reveals our own lack of it. I mean, you talked at several points about living in alignment with your own philosophy and that it can’t just be like a thought construct.
Yeah that’s big for Meister Eckhart who passed it on to Salinger and John Cage and other people. Well, that’s the problem with Franny and Zooey, the characters, they’re trying to figure out how to take this rich heritage from their brothers who gave them all these great works and ideas, but how do they make that a living philosophy?
My interest in the book started because I compulsively read everything about William James, so that was my in. You talk at a couple points about how his thinking is maybe the spine of the book, adds to the structure. What first brought you to William James?
I’ve written a few books on Henry James. My dissertation was partly on Henry James, and then I wrote a book on Henry and William James, so I’ve been involved with them for a long time. I love the James family the dynamics of the James family and it’s fun to teach and William James is hard to resist, certainly, if you’re enthusiastic about Emerson. Emerson actually blessed William James in his cradle because he was a friend of the father. And William James is a great exponent of Emersonian ideas that he adds his own beautiful sensibility to. But he’s saying things that only now are registering and being proved valid — the understanding of the relation of emotions and mental life — way ahead of his time. He always appealed more to students he had like Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens and many other people than to fellow scientists.
I feel like he’s weirdly adjacent somehow rather to integrated into American intellectual life. Like when we talk about American literature, Henry is like a tangent, but not integrated into… I mean I don’t necessarily see…
Who’s the real mainstream then? Mark Twain?
And Hawthorn and Poe, the New England Crew… Melville.
Henry has a lot of strange ideas. In a way, Henry James is thought to be a kind of embodiment of vicious intellectualism. Super verbalized, abstract, anxious about emotion. But those are often the characters he’s writing about, and the novels are all about the impasses of that kind of psyche, that intellectualized psyche. But inevitably people kind of confuse the characters with the author. But when you get to a first person autobiographical work like the American Scene where Henry James visits New York in 1904, it’s all about his visceral exposure to the alien things around him that he’s excited by. But that was misread for decades as a weird, grumpy travelogue.
The Agnes Martin section is actually my favorite in your book.
You like her?
I like her very much.
Big show coming at the Guggenheim.
I just missed it when I was in London. It was especially interesting to me because she was someone who I hated for a long time, or I just didn’t get. It made me angry to look at her stuff.
It seemed boring and limiting?
It seemed clever? But then I understood it was the opposite of clever.
That’s a good way to put it.
She’s such an interesting person, she writes amazingly well about art.
I wish they would republish her writing. I think they’re out of print, published only in Germany. In English of course, but a German publisher.
There’s a lot of stuff online that people put up in PDFs, but yeah it’s hard to track her down.
I was very taken with Agnes Martin for a long time. I would visit my daughter in Chicago when she was going to college and I would go to the Art Institute and stare at this Agnes Martin grid, just found it overwhelmingly powerful and of course without understanding anything about it. I proceeded to read about her and a friend of mine said, oh she reads Emerson and Thoreau and in fact she did. It turns out she’s a beautiful exponent of certain basic certain basic Emersonian ideas about impersonality and indifference to language and she had a sort of homebrewed concoction of spirituality that came from her Calvinist grandfather and from Taoism, Zen, Emerson, William James, John Dewey. So it all emerged in this completely amazing painting that does take a lot of getting used to I think. And then her life, which is a straight line from, not a straight line, but she’s born in Saskatchewan, the middle of seas of wheat fields but she makes her way to New York in late ’40s to go to Columbia Teacher’s College and then she has a very good career by the late ’50s, ’60s in New York, then her friend Ad Reinhardt died and then a few weeks later literally she packed up very abruptly with no explanation and toured the West for a year and then settled in New Mexico. She became a desert hermit for the rest of her life. She died when she was 92. And she puts into her actions, her renunciatory energies, but for all her solitariness she’s fascinating for narrating her art — not explaining it but evoking it.
You reference a speech she gave and I found the whole text of it online. I feel like there’s something in our American culture that says a person should have everything. That we obsess with balance, we’re obsessed with having it all, with compartmentalizing our lives somehow. And her speech about cutting away everything that’s not essential that you find the one thing you want, and that everything else has to not matter to you — was very powerful, but also against every message we’re told everywhere else.
I agree. And the fact that she lived it to me is amazing, and unnerving. What does it mean to live it? Well, she’s an example. It also involves schizophrenia. She said for decades she heard voices and the voices made her paint. And people said, yeah well that’s just Agnes, but it turned out she literally heard voices that were manifestations of schizophrenia that needed medication and hospitalizations. She finally got better, but she was extreme, she’s not assimilable to any kind of norm really. Her slogan is “with my back to the world” and there’s a wonderful documentary of that title that is just an hour and a half of somebody discussing things with her as she’s painting, because she will not stop painting, she’ll go on for hour after hour after hour. Because that’s what it is for her to live in the mind.
Some people you include were not able to ever live the renunciation. They wanted to — I’m thinking of like, Nietzsche.
Or William James too, he wanted to quit, but he was too in demand.
I guess I’m just circling back to my question of why it makes uncomfortable when someone actually does live their out there philosophy.
Well if you slam the door on the world you’re saying the world is not as important as it likes to believe it it is. I mean Agnes Martin would get honorary degrees from schools but refuse to accept them because she said she was just an instrument. So how many people can really refuse she never spent the money — she made millions off her work but it’s not clear she ever spent any of it, she never bought a home. So it’s a state of mind that’s really inaccessible to most of us.
I feel like once somebody like Agnes Martin is dead, then we now know what to do about her and think about her. But when they’re living — I was kind of thinking about this after David Bowie, after he died. Most of his albums got terrible reviews. He was obviously an icon while he was living, but it was kind of like “oh that weirdo,” and now that he’s dead everyone’s super excited about him.
You mean it’s safer now.
It’s safer now that he’s dead. He’s not going to make us really uncomfortable anymore.
I think that’s exactly right. These figures are all unsettling they’re challenging so you diffuse the challenge when they’re fit for posterity. Yeah, I mean feminists tried to recruit Agnes Martin for their cause and Jill Johnston visited her in New Mexico and said “do you feel you’re neglected because you’re a woman?’ and Agnes said, “I’m not a woman.” She was indifferent to designations of identity.