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A Night of Philosophy in NYC, 04-24-2015 7 P.M. To 7 A.M.

“Come and experience that philosophy is performance.”


If philosophy takes in everything, it was all here on this night-morning. Of course, you might say to yourself, why just a night of philosophy, why not, perhaps, a day and a night, or several of each, or what about a life of it? This variety of philosophical night (you might wonder if there might be another, but this one will certainly do) has been worked out, lived through previously in Paris, London, and Berlin, and each time with outpourings of public manifestations—long lines, 3,000 and 4,000 people queuing up—and this time the New York Times counted 5,000, taking place at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and the adjoining Ukrainian Institute of America, spreading throughout ballrooms, concert halls, marble rooms, board rooms, gold-leaved rooms, and chandelier rooms.

All sorts of amusing things surrounded the event, like the well-meaning and curious liner-up who asked me as I was coming out of the French Cultural Services building: “What is it like in there? Is it fun?” Well, yes, it was fun and worth lining up for, and interesting always, and quite often, brilliant. The timing was perfect: longer would have been too long, shorter too short. Marathons are what they are: here in Manhattan, we have had, thanks to the grand Paula Cooper Gallery, all-night-and-day readings of Joyce’s Ulysses, of Stein’s Making of Americans, of Homer’s Iliad, among other epic performances. Joining in them has been a
privilege, and attending them no less so. Something about completeness.

Apart from the talks, each about 20 minutes, some a bit longer, there was a lot of everything else: constructions and readings (of the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir—clearly marked EXPLICIT, since it is and was), combinations like The Hut: From Walden to Space, and in this, you felt surrounded by, or included in, Thoreau and the Mercury Manned Space launching of 1959, and was it beautiful in its pale wooden shape, with music sounding all in a room to itself! You could, of course, migrate to whatever appealed most to you, from the program so well planned over this past year by Mériam Korichi.

Talks coincided, and so you had to choose, making your way between buildings and bodies, padded against the weather outside, toward chairs or floors to sit on or walls to lean against. The only protests occurred during the first talk, about “freedom of speech,” when the speaker was accused of having forbidden exactly that a few years ago, with posters held up and polite reprimands, and then from time to time by various speakers against the inevitable noise of participants conversing outside the packed rooms.

Some of the lectures roused enormous applause, for good reason. First that of Kwame Anthony Appiah, at 1:30 a.m., celebrating “Honor Now” by the use of examples, some projected on the screen, from a prime minister dueling in the midst of a crisis (an illegal pursuit but “necessitated” by a sense of honor), then from foot-binding in China, only stopped by a Chinese poet declaiming it a national shame. Then from a woman seeking divorce, murdered because of a sense of honor, whose corpse was taken away by her mother, “cool and collected” at the deed, since honor was at stake, and finally, the Guantanomo case. In each instance, only insiders or thoughtful outsider friends who share the national values, can bring about a change in outlook, through the recognition of shame.

At exactly 4:48 a.m., Simon Critchley addressed us on the topic of suicide, focusing on the example of Virginia Woolf and her farewell note to Leonard about his having made her so happy. It was not, said Critchley, the suicide that gave her life coherence, but her work, and he led up to that poignant passage from To the Lighthouse where Mrs. Ramsay exclaims about small daily miracles, what happiness she has known, what “intense happiness” and then concludes “it is enough.” Stand still here, she says, and the speaker insisted that we notice “this moment, on an evening-morning in New York.” This passage was the motivation for his talk, and indeed it was a celebration of “it is enough,” as we all echoed in unison.

One quite extraordinary delivery—and as the information for the night of philosophy pointed out, performance is philosophy, so it mattered—was given by Achille Varzi, about an 1884 text called Flatland, based on a sort of topological narration, where a square is met by a sphere and contemplates the outlook of a triangle and so on, with metaphorically vigorous reflections by the square on the “different ways our world could be. ... The world is flat for us, but curved for those who observe us from above.” Varzi showed how that statement might have been made from the surface of a potato-skin or a tube, considered Moebius strips, doughnuts perforated with holes, and entertained us all.

There were discussions of “scientism,” of “modal objectivity” and “modern subjectivity,” of “essentialism” and “liberalism” and borders and limits: what one might expect from philosophers holding forth, albeit all night. The talks ended at 6:10 a.m., after Lydia Goehr’s moving meditation entitled “Early Morning Exit, or the Concept of Exodus,” on the leaders and strangers involved in exodus, on what it means to be at home and leave it and return, on how one liberation entails another imprisonment or destruction, and finally on the hard work of “beginning.” This was planned for the morning moment, for sunrise, and somehow echoed Critchley’s evocation of the crucial importance of the moment and presaged the lyrics of the wrap-up of the night, Matthew Caws’s final song about an ossuary in Rome: “See these bones … What you are now, we were once,” as a musical invocation, more about vitality than melancholy, to livingness, now.  The night was definitely and triumphantly, about right now.


Mary Ann Caws

Mary Ann Caws is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in 20th-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2015

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