An Interview with Robert Pogue Harrison (Part 1 of 2) - 3 Quarks Daily (2024)

by Gus Mitchell

An Interview with Robert Pogue Harrison (Part 1 of 2) - 3 Quarks Daily (1)

Professor, writer, talk show host, part-time guitarist–Robert Pogue Harrison stands in a category of one among American intellectuals of his generation.

His first book, The Body of Beatrice (1988) a study of the Vita Nuova, lay well within his wheelhouse as a Dante scholar; since then, however, Harrison has charted an increasingly idiosyncratic course as a thinker, a writer, and an educator––in the broadest sense of the word.

Harrison joined the faculty of Stanford in 1986 and became chair of the Department of French and Italian in 2002. He turned 70 this year and announced his retirement. (Andrea Capra’s tribute, part of at a day-long celebration of Harrison’s career at Stanford held on 19th April, was recently republished by 3 Quarks Daily.)

Harrison has written books at a steady clip, each beautifully written and finely wrought, combining intensely felt thought and erudition with quietly challenging daring. His subjects–the forest, the garden, the dead, our obsession with youth–might appear dauntingly bottomless. Yet Harrison’s style, a graceful inter-flowing of literary, philosophical and (increasingly in his recent work) scientific reference-points, gives the impression that one is both ascending and descending, reaching strange giddy heights while delving deep to the essential mysteries at the core of the matter in hand.

It’s the same style that marks the conversations and monologues of his radio show-cum-podcast, Entitled Opinions. I stumbled across an episode of Entitled Opinions sometime in 2020 on the iTunes Podcast app while looking for something about W.H. Auden. But the show has been broadcasting for almost 20 years, “down in the catacombs of KZSU” (Stanford’s local radio station) where, in Harrison’s phrase, “we practice the persecuted religion of thinking.”

Past guests have included philosopher Rene Girard, filmmaker Werner Herzog (and, separately, his wife, photographer Lena Herzog), the novelists Shirley Hazzard and Colm Toibin, and many, many others. If you feel like hotwiring your brain, you would do well to listen to any episode of the show, from the latest program on “The Spirit of Rivers”, to music shows devoted to Pink Floyd or Hendrix, or the monologue on not liking Proust.

I interviewed Professor Harrison in May of 2023 in Cambridge where he was delivering the annual Clark Lectures at Trinity College. The overarching theme of the four lectures was “Thresholds”: between the living and the non-living, spaces and worlds, perceived and unperceived…and many other barriers besides. I left each one buzzing; Harrison can synthesise the literary with the philosophical, the philosophical with the scientific and the historical, taking his audience into fertile, uncharted and un-partitioned intellectual territory.

The interview is in two parts:the second part will be published in June. The conversation has been edited for ease of reading.


Your early education was in Italy. You had a formative European education, but you did most of your university work in America and have taught in America. How did this split upbringing influence you?

RPH: For a number of haphazard reasons, I was born in Izmir Turkey, on the Aegean coast, and lived there until age 12, immersed in a landscape of ancient Greek ruins. Many of the place names on that coast are the ancient Greek ones: Ephesus, Miletus, and so forth. There was also a sizeable population of Greek-speaking people in Izmir when I was growing up there. Above all I had the immensely good fortune of being surrounded by the same sea, the same sky, and the same brilliant tones of light that surrounded Homer, Anaximander, Thales, and other Ionians of old.

When I was 12 my American father died and the family moved to my Italian mother’s native city of Rome. For me it was a move from an enchanted, almost mythological place (Asia Minor) into high civilization. I went to an international school, the Overseas School of Rome, which had wonderful high school teachers, especially the English teachers, many of them from Ireland. Desmond O’Grady, a well-known Irish poet, was one of my many memorable teachers. A lot of my literary sensibilities, I think, were formed at the Overseas School of Rome in the early 70s.

From Rome I went to America for college, completed my undergraduate degree at Santa Clara University, and after drifting for a few years went to graduate school at Cornell, where I wrote a thesis on Dante.

The overarching title for your Clark Lectures is ‘Thresholds’. How do you conceive this idea in relation to your work?

RPH: I wrote a trilogy of books – one on forests, one on the dead, and another on gardens – and I realized in retrospect, as I was preparing the Clark Lectures, that all three of them in fact involve thresholds of sorts. Where does the forest meet, and separate from, civilization? Where do the dead touch, and separate from, the living? Gardens are defined by their perimeters. Thus you pass into a garden – in fact the word “garden,” in many languages, has an etymology related to boundary and enclosure. A garden always has an edge. In that respect thresholds are essential to the very space of the garden.

My Clark Lectures deal with a different, yet related kind of threshold, more cosmic in nature, namely the threshold between the terrestrial and the extra-terrestrial. I locate that threshold in the planet’s atmosphere. Our atmosphere is the membrane of a living organism. Every living entity is defined – enclosed – by its membrane. Every such entity needs a border of containment, a limits that defines, protects and animates it. In the case of cells, the membrane both separates an inside from an outside and allows for a relation across the two.

Thus life itself is defined by a threshold, namely a relational boundary of containment. The membrane must be strong enough to maintain integrity, yet porous enough to allow for relations between the inside and the outside. That’s what’s so dynamic about thresholds in general. Our atmosphere, for example, is self-contained yet it also is made possible by forces that transcend its limits, whether from above or from below. Thus the terrestrial and the extra-terrestrial are always in modalities of transitivity if you will. It is in that sense that I believe our biosphere, if not our planet as a whole, is inspirited. I don’t know exactly what spirit is, but it crosses thresholds readily and easily.

So, thresholds are associated with the spectral for you?

RPH: Yes, especially when it comes to the threshold between the living and the dead. Orpheus crosses such a threshold when he descends into the underworld and obtains permission to bring his wife back to the world of the living. On his return to the world of light, he turns around at the threshold and thereby loses his wife for a second time. In my book Dominion of the Dead, I seek out that threshold between the living and the dead in its many of its secular instantiations: in burial places, in landscapes, in nations’ constitutions, in cultural memory, in literature, in portraits and images. There are any number of places where the dividing line between the living and the dead becomes relational.

When did you begin to develop such ideas about limits and finitude? Were there any major influences on that thinking?

RPH: My obsession with the primacy of limits probably goes back to the kind of landscape I grew up in, where an overwhelming luminosity throws into bold relief the defining edges of phenomena – be it sea, land, mountain, flora…. That landscape – the memory of it – made me especially receptive to Heidegger’s commentaries on the Greek word peras, limit or boundary. Under an Aegean sky it is easy to see that the peras is not where something ends but where its being bursts forth into phenomenon. The peras gives form, yet in addition to form there is the presence of form. The peras is where the very presence of appearances comes into its own.

Limits also define human finitude. I dwell within my limits – the limits of my body, my age, my gender, my historical era, my ethnic heritage, and of course my mortality. Limits in fact generate identity in its many articulations. Heidegger says that death is the ultimate limit of being, that it marks our own impossibility of being – and that our being unfolds from that limit. In sum, limits are generative, not restrictive.

The most important influence on my thinking about limits is Albert Camus. Camus also grew up on the Mediterranean, and that’s why I think that he too had a strong allegiance to the idea of limits. For Camus, that allegiance was not just existential but political. His book The Rebel was a reasoned response to the devastating totalitarianisms of the 20th century. In Nazism and Soviet-style communism, he saw an ideological drive to bring about the absolute without regard for limits, I mean historical, cultural, and human limits. This thirst for the absolute, the unconditional, the infrangible, this thirst for what Zizek calls the ‘sublime object of ideology’, along with the willingness to destroy everything that lies in the putative path toward it, has engendered the worst excesses and nightmares of 20th century history. For Camus, the acknowledgement of limits became the basis for his vision of a politics of moderation. Moderation, in its acceptance of limits, is a form of humility – a humility that is sorely lacking these days, I would add, especially when it comes to the unrestrained will of modern technology to transcend any limits it encounters.

An Interview with Robert Pogue Harrison (Part 1 of 2) - 3 Quarks Daily (2)

Moving from philosophy to literature––I’ve heard you mention the liberatory, even subversive, potentials in what is dubbed the ‘Western canon.’

RPH: The Western canon has become just an empty buzzword, an ideological strawman. We assume we all know what it is, and what defines it, yet in reality nothing is more unexplored or misrepresented than the Western canon in its textual multiplicities and palimpsestic stratifications. Critics of the Western canon tend to be appallingly ignorant of its continental depths. Even the most erudite among us know only a fraction of its contents. Those who know it best are also the most modest when it comes to extolling its virtues (Harold Bloom is clearly not among them). They know that it is as non-western as it is western in nature, and that what we call the ‘Western canon’ is a river with many remote tributaries feeding into it.

The most canonical author of the Anglophone world is Shakespeare. He is also the most elusive, revolutionary, and subversive of authors. If you read Coriolanus, you will find a full-fledged Marxist vision of class relations, means of production, and false consciousness. You will also find a Nietzschean psychology of ressentiment as well as a Freudian Oedipal complex at work. Coriolanus is just the tip of an immense iceberg. The corpus of Shakespeare’s plays contains an unlikely proleptic quality. We find there a “hermeneutics of suspicion” of the sort that informs our own present suspicion of the Western canon itself.

I’ve been reading Pliny the Elder lately. It’s astonishing what he teaches about the natural world in its surplus of manifestations, as well as the many local traditions and knowledges that came to the West from the East. How many people alive today have read Pliny in depth? A few hundred at most, I would guess. Who besides a handful of people have read the complete works of Lucan, or Vico, or Saint-Beuve, or Karol Capek, or W.H. Hudson, or Sandor Marai? You get the idea, the Western canon is mostly terra incognita, and it’s becoming more incognita with each passing day. Our hermeneutics of suspicion these days have gone from the ‘grand style’ of Aristophanes, Machiavelli, Nietzsche and Marx to downright naive and childish forms of suspicion that have hardly any connection with what arouses that suspicion.

If you don’t know anything about the Western canon, you don’t know how much of your critique of it owes to authors that belong to its ranks. The English Romantics were not just nature lovers writing f*ckless lyrics. They were revolutionaries of style, ideators of freedom, and critics of establishment. Behind the French Revolution lies the Western canon itself. The idea that you can overthrow an entire political or social order, which is in the DNA of our contemporary thinking about resistance and militancy, was incubated by dead white males.

That’s why I would say the Western canon does not need defending. It’s not a question of conserving it, it’s a question of discovering it – of rediscovering it.

Does rediscovering it mean approaching it with no pre-set ideological expectations? With the humility that you talked about?

RPH: I’m not sure one can read without presuppositions, yet the same text can yield very different meanings, depending on who is reading. Every great work has a penumbra of the unspoken, the unthought. Therein lies its rediscoverability. More often than not, when you venture into that penumbra thoughtfully and with a bit of imagination, you’re going to discover just how radical even the most canonical work can be. A canonical work comes alive only when it’s reappropriated, and thereby reborn, by its reader. It calls out to be reappropriated and thereby to gain a vita nuova in the present.

An Interview with Robert Pogue Harrison (Part 1 of 2) - 3 Quarks Daily (2024)


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