Apr 13, 2016

“A philosophy of unassumingness”

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell
This week I’ve been reading Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, which I’d been meaning to pick up ever since I read what Nick Hornby had to say about it in More Baths, Less Talking. As Hornby says, Bakewell’s book is part traditional biography, part history, part philosophy, and always compulsively readable. It also touches on some of the same ideas that drew me to Upheavals of Thought — if mostly from a different angle — and is therefore proving a very good match for my current interests and preoccupations.

In the chapter that answers the title question with “Question everything”, there was a passage that particularly stood out for me:
The Essays are suffused with [scepticism]: [Montaigne] filled his pages with words such as ‘perhaps’, ‘to some extent’, ‘I think’, ‘it seems to me’, and so on — words which, as Montaigne said himself, ‘soften and moderate the rashness of our propositions’, and which embody what the critic Hugo Friedrich has called his philosophy of ‘unassumingness’. They are not extra flourishes; they are Montaigne’s thought, at its purest. He never tired of such thinking, or of boggling his own mind by contemplating the millions of lives that had been lived through history and the impossibility of knowing the truth about them. ‘Even if all that has come down to us by report from the past should be true and known by someone, it would be less than nothing compared with what is unknown’. How puny is the knowledge of even the most curious person, he reflected, and how astounding the world by comparison.
I’m very drawn to this idea: not as a refusal of intellectual commitment, but as a corollary of my interest in, to paraphrase Sara Marcus, making visible the process of figuring things out — and also as an acknowledgement that this process is always provisional. I’ve written about this before, but it’s an idea I keep returning to. It’s become increasingly important to me to adopt this “philosophy of unassumingness” as a deliberate stance, and to become comfortable with it. Once again this brings me back to Upheavals of Thought, with its arguments in favour of a sense of ease with being porous to the world, and with its refusal of shame as the inevitable response to this porousness.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
This week I also picked up Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which I devoured in one gulp and found incredibly smart and intensely moving. It was interesting to see Nelson address more or less the same idea, and zoom in on exactly why achieving a sense of comfort with “unassumingness” has been a struggle for me in the past — on why I felt shame, and the need to constantly edit myself:
My writing is riddled with such tics of uncertainty. I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back in later and slash them out. In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me.

At times I grow tired of this approach, and all its gendered baggage. Over the years I’ve had to train myself to wipe the sorry off almost every work e-mail I write; otherwise, each might begin, Sorry for the delay, Sorry for the confusion, Sorry for whatever. One only has to read interviews with outstanding women to hear them apologizing. But I don’t intend to denigrate the power of apology: I keep in my sorry when I really mean it. And certainly there are many speakers whom I’d like to see do more trembling, more unknowing, more apologizing.
This “gendered baggage” and the accusations of weakness that generally come with it are less likely to rattle me now. Still, and to borrow from Nelson again, these are voices that have “terrible clarity”, even if I generally know better than to listen to them. I remember the feeling of being paralyzed by self-doubt, which is very different from the sort of uncertainty one welcomes, all too vividly. My partial inoculation has been achieved by reading Deborah Cameron at every available opportunity — there’s no better writer for boosting one’s immunity to what she calls the terrible logic of patriarchy. As Cameron points out, it’s not even that women are more likely than men to express themselves in ways that make room for tentativeness — it’s simply that people respond do it very differently when it comes from a woman. In a different piece, she adds:
So what women are being criticized for—using ‘just’ when they make requests—is not a form of excessive feminine deference, it’s a way of being polite by displaying your awareness of others’ needs. Where is the logic in telling women not to do that? I think we all know the answer: it’s the logic of patriarchy, which says ‘a woman’s place is in the wrong’.
Apologising is slightly different from expressing uncertainty, of course, but it seems to me that it’s rooted in the same logic. In this case, the goal is to express awareness of the lack of universality of your perspective — which renders it partial and potentially impermanent, sure, but not valueless. It’s a way of writing and of being in the world that might not be suited to everyone, but which has always come naturally to me, and which I’ve grown to embrace and value. It’s a conscious rejection of the idea that one must adopt a place of absolute authority to have a right to speak at all. So I’ll continue to riddle my writing with “to me” and “I think”, not because I don’t know any better but with deliberation, and I’ll do so knowing I’m in good company.

23 comments:

  1. I love the whole of this but especially, this: “the goal is to express awareness of the lack of universality of your perspective.” Yes. I know exactly what you mean.

    Off to look-up Sarah Bakewell, and Deborah Cameron.

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  2. was reading the deb. cameron link, and realized one reason why I enjoyed what you wrote here so much is because you’re making it ok to be whoever you are. (this was also one of the reasons why I loved The Argonauts)

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    1. Thank you for saying that - telling myself it's okay has been important to me, and it's really good to be able to communicate that to others. And thank you again for recommending The Argonauts! How was the event?

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    2. You can watch it! (I'd forgotten that all NYPL events are livestreamed, else I'd have mentioned it earlier!): http://livestream.com/theNYPL/NelsonAndKoestenbaum

      It was Nelson in conversation with a long time friend of hers, Wayne Koestenbaum. There were bits of their talk that really jumped out at me, and some that I couldn't really relate to. I did make some notes--I'll be posting it all sometime later next week, I think.

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    3. Ahhh, that's amazing! I didn't know that about NYPL events! I'll definitely watch it over the weekend, and I look forward to your post, too!

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  3. Isn't The Argonauts a good book? I liked it very much too. I've been meaning to read How to Live for ages yet it continues to sit on my shelf. Sigh.

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    1. It really is. Have you read any more or Nelson's work?

      Also, it took me years to get to the Bakewell too, but I think I did so at the right time. Sometimes it's good to just leave a book on the shelves until it calls to you!

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  4. There's this line in The Charioteer that I absolutely love where a character is described as "a person who hated soft thinking on one hand and intolerance on the other; much of his life must be spent fighting a war on two fronts." I feel that way so, so often. Even when I am on the same side as people ideologically, I get really uncomfortable with the tendency to make things simple and declarative when the real world is complicated and resists easy answers.

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    1. Yes, yes, yes! Also, you should read The Argonauts because it touches on this a lot.

      (One of these days I'll read Mary Renault at long last. PROMISE.)

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    2. Hello yes. Exactly what Jenny said.

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    3. JENNY AND HER BRILLIANT WORDS ♥

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  5. Thank you, Ana!!! You just helped me beyond measure. I don't know how to explain quite how, but you know me well enough that you may understand without explanation.

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  6. Philosophy of ‘unassumingness’ - interesting! I've recently seen in several places a call to women to stop using so much "I think", "I feel" in their writting, especially work emails. Apparently, several studies prove we do it more often than men and it's hurting our careers or something. I've became self-conscious when I use those expressions and have actually starter to edit myself. So this is a whole new perspective!

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    1. I really recommend reading this piece by Deborah Cameron. She's an Oxford professor of linguistics who's studied these issues for her whole career; as she points out, the research shows the exact opposite. There are no significant gender differences in the use of polite language, and no empirical evidence for the idea that it undermines women. I think the popular articles claiming that there is are part of the long tradition of policing women's language, pathologising it, and blaming them personally for structural inequality. It's tiresome, and over the years I've lost any patience for it I had left :/

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  7. Very pertinent post for me. One of my reading groups is reading The Argonauts next. I am happy to learn about the Bakewell book. As I get older and look back on how arrogant and certain I was about my views in my 20s and 30s, I feel a bit appalled. But again, sometimes I wish I could get back that boldness because I was such a feminist that I felt every right to declare my thoughts without apology. But the truth is ‘Even if all that has come down to us by report from the past should be true and known by someone, it would be less than nothing compared with what is unknown’. It takes years of living and reading to be able to see that. Some never do.

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    1. It's funny because I still feel that my convictions are pretty strong. But I guess more and more I also feel the need to acknowledge that nuances of experience exist even within things that are close to my heart, like feminism; and the desire to discuss them without automatically aligning everyone who disagrees with the particulars with extreme opposite positions. I want to talk openly and in good faith with anyone who respects me enough to do the same. I don't mean this about things that are empirically wrong and harmful to boot, like say homo- or transphobia or white supremacism or anything like that. It's about, like Jenny so well puts it, resisting simplicity in my conception of the world.

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  8. Oh goodness. There is so much here I want to touch on.

    First off, I've immortalized my love for Montaigne's joy in the uncertain by getting 'Que sais-je?' tattooed on my back. I love it because it means so many things at once. It means that I don't have all the answers, it means that I might have an answer now but it could change in the future, it means that my answer may be different from someone else's answer, and that that's OK, because what do I really know about their life and their experience?

    I too have long struggled with balancing a need to break out of that "paralyzing self-doubt" that can stop me from making a decision or saying something for fear of looking stupid but also recognizing that a certain amount of hesitance, a certain amount of willingness to acknowledge that there are other good ideas out there is perfectly healthy. I think you're right that this can get so tangled up in gender norms, and I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of women being penalized for using words like "sorry" and "just." I think there is an argument to be made for women asserting themselves more strongly, but I also see how policing their speech is just another way to cut women down.

    In conclusion, so much to think about here. You always make me think so much, Ana!

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    1. That's such a great idea for a tattoo, and I love what you said about what it means to you ♥

      I was reading the book and thinking about Bakewell's description of Montaigne's "But I don't know" at the end of an argument as charming - I agree that it is, but how often would we see a woman showing the same unassumingness described in that way? Of course, it's also possible to argue that this position is a direct challenge to masculine posturing and authoritativeness, and thus a slap in the face of the patriarchy either way. I think I like this way of looking at it.

      Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comment - it made me happy :D

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  9. Oh, I hate it when people take shots at women for "apologizing too much" and the like. There's such a difference between apologizing for existing and being aware or respectful of others' needs with your language, and I feel like the pot-shotters often don't understand that difference.

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  10. Although I keep a lookout in my work emails for if I'm being unnecessarily apologetic or hedging, I keep a lot of supposedly bad qualifiers in because it seems so much more polite, friendly and natural to do so than to take them out. I appreciate the link to Cameron's piece "Just don't do it." She explains the problem of over-policing our language very well.

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    1. Doesn't she? I love her writing. And yes - my least favourite arguments about this are the ones where people go, "You think this comes naturally to you, but actually you've just been brainwashed into being demure". As Clare says above, there's a distinction.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.