U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Three Mostly Bad Pitches for Intellectual Historians to Think About


In keeping with some of my past posts, today I have three random ideas I’ve thought about for writing intellectual history. I suspect all of these have been done in different ways already, but not usually assembled in one place as single projects in a thematic sense. Of course, I look forward to our readership filling me on studies already doing some of these things. Also, interested parties should add some of their own pet ideas to the mix, good or bad. Here are a few of mine:

  1. “Day Jobs/Keeping the Books” This would be a history of the work an array of thinkers did to support themselves when not writing or composing, painting, etc. Many of these are already well documented, but why not put several of them in one place? A partial list could be Melville at the customs house, Faulkner at the post office, Wallace Stevens in the insurance racket, Charles Ives in the insurance company he founded, and so on. A far as Ives goes, I’ve always been fascinated by how the same mind created “The Unanswered Question” and Life Insurance with Relation to Inheritance Tax (1918). I gotta know if there’s a connection. I don’t suspect the answer to the “unanswered question” is in the pages of Ives’ book on life insurance. Who knows? A guy can think a whole lots about existence, about why we’re here at all, when poring over estate planning. The broader inspiration for the project would be Kafka, who transformed the day job into terrifying artistry. The general gist concerns the place of the artist under capitalism/modernity, specifically those without support from universities.

There are plenty of pitfalls here. A lengthy preface might consider the idea of the independent artist itself, its origins in Romanticism, so there’s the profound potential here to head down a rabbit hole of studies on that topic, i.e., how the idea of the independent artist or genius somehow apart from and yet in-the-world coincides with the rise of capitalism/modernity, which suggests the very notion was always illusory. The conceit of the study works with the professionalization project and those vast processes Weber understood as rationalization, so all of that stuff could be part of the story. The book has tremendous potential for remarkably boring work about timetables and expense accounts, but boredom as an idea could use more thought. Boredom does create a meaningful paradox. If time flies when we’re having fun, then the best way to stave off death would be boredom, because it lengthens the sense of time. Yet, at some point, boredom becomes heartbreaking. It hardly seems worth living in the first place. (I worked on this for a while by watching fishing shows on television on Saturday mornings. But damn if I didn’t get interested in fishing shows. Bill Dance, oh how you seduce, you minx!) William James noticed that, while those full parts of life pass by quickly in the moment, they take up more space in our memory, while moments of boredom are hardly remembered much at all. So, which is it? Does one choose boredom to stretch the specious present, or opt for excitement and interest to make the world more memorable if shorter in its passing? “Day Jobs” at bottom could be just another book about another hellish existential dilemma. I wonder if Charles Ives thought about this when he wrote the life insurance book.

  1. “Late Starts?” Related to the last observation, not every thinker is precocious or ready to go early on, so what about those thinkers who take time to get going? For historians, we could call this the “screw you, Richard Hofstadter,” book. Two obvious choices come up for me here, Toni Morrison and William James. There are also figures like Sherwood Anderson or Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, and so on. Examples like these are everywhere, but I’m not familiar with any studies treating the late start as a theoretical or conceptual problem. I’ve seen countless short pieces and lists considering the phenomenon as self-help in the “it’s never too late” genre, but that genre of writing could be a critical concept from which to start. Invariably, a study like this would have to consider an intellectual history of the “lifetime,” how people measure that or conceive of it, how expectations for it have changed over time and why.

What does it mean to start “late” under late capitalism? If we’re all latecomers anyway, does the “it’s never too late” genre count as a paroxysm of guilt amidst the ruins of the discipline of worldly asceticism? Since the Protestant ethic left the building a century ago, is “it’s never too late” an absurdist joke? Of course, some figures had worked steadily the whole time and only later did institutions of culture catch up, but it would be more interesting to put together a group who just took a while to get going rather than to get noticed, if that makes sense. This one could be a sequel to “day jobs.” It’s never too late to write it, I guess.

  1. “They Shat the Bed”: The train wreck approach to intellectual history could be fun, thinking about when and where a particular thinker just lost it or went off the rails, and so on. I’ve always liked the book Wittgenstein’s Poker for this reason. It’s a really fine popular intellectual history of when Ludwig Wittgenstein supposedly got caught up by Karl Popper and brandished a fire poker at him in Cambridge in 1946. A single study with several of these instances in them featuring several different thinkers and breaks in social decorum, wildly uncharacteristic statements in public, and the like, would be fascinating reading. This one could be really hard to research, because not surprisingly the thinkers in question probably wanted to forget these events, unless they happen to traffic in spectacles or enjoy the role of provocateur. (Norman Mailer comes to mind.) Those cases of bad behavior wouldn’t be included, or would be more of a variable to consider, because the story has to be about admittedly painful or damning events. It would be interesting to accompany it with theoretical work on the phenomenology of shitting the bed, starting with a vast amount of anecdotal evidence on how the experience feels. There’s a kind of psychic split or unreality to public embarrassment, where, as it’s happening the person in question often can’t believe it’s happening, and so on. I still recall a junior high spelling bee where this happened to me. The story would have to focus on events rather than published pieces of writing, because part of the problem could do with instances of paradigm destruction, where the person in question simply can’t see or understand what they’re being confronted with.

This one scares the hell out of me, but it’s inspired by a certain love of Dostoevsky and the spectacle of social disaster. In Dostoevsky novels, social pretensions get punctured by unruly behavior, someone causing a “scene” or the like, usually accelerated by too much drinking. (Also in Dostoevsky novels, the appearance of the odd Pole or two is a good tell for when a disastrous dinner is about to happen. A gathering was never all that decorous in the first place if there are Poles in the room.) So there could be parts of the story having to do with outside influences. This one has the potential to be hilarious in places and also exceedingly sad and awful. This is not related in any way whatsoever to an idea my friend Bob had years ago for “libris scatologica,” which was about what people have read whilst on the toilet.

Anyhow, I hope these ideas inspire further thinking among our number. I’m of the mind that bad ideas have their place in intellectual history, so I look forward to some discussion.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I’m vaguely reminded by the third one of the “Speaking Ill Of The Dead” serious of biographies, which used terrible people as windows into local histories and situations.

  2. Althusser strangled his wife to death. I don’t know if you can lay a bigger turd than that. It would be especially interesting to explore under some “what does it mean in late-capitalism” lens.

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