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Please Take the Other Pen

The reason I’m disappointed by almost every conversation is because I have such a high view of the revolutionary power it can have—and such a belief, probably childlike, in the magic of words. In some sense, I’m always putting too much pressure on it to deliver. But at the same time, I strongly believe that while speaking we are trying things out. You told me you’re teaching a class on the essay. Why do I probably love the essay more than any other form? Why are Emerson and Thoreau and Nietzsche and Montaigne so important to me? Montaigne writes something like, “Dear reader, I’m trying this out.” Conversation is something like that, something like the essay; they’re places where you are trying out ideas.

I’m sure I spoke about my father last time we spoke. He’s now 96. Still to this day, if I am to get his respect, I better argue well. I better have a reason why I believe in this rather than that. Even if it’s wrongheaded, make it interesting.

[Tyler Malone asks:] Because words are not the world, they’re either too specific or too vague, do we mar our thoughts by forcing them into language? Would it be better to be silent?

What is the last line of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus? “Whereof we cannot speak, we must remain silent.”

I think silence would be very difficult—at least for me. I will admit though that in conversations, I love moments of repose. I love the uncomfortable silences. I relish them. The other day we had Karl Ove KnausgÃ¥rd here. He had this moment when Jeffrey Eugenides was speaking to him, where he was silent for a good thirty seconds. So uncomfortable, so great. Everybody refers to that moment. So I love those moments in conversation when there is silence, but do I think that we should be joining a religious order and taking a vow of silence? I can see why it could be tempting, especially in this day and age where I worry there may be too much chatter. I fear I contribute to that. But I think it isn’t in my future to be quiet.

I do find your question fascinating though: the intersection of language, approximation, disappointment. A rose is not a rose—we know this. It is an approximation. The word flirts with the possibility of arriving at the thing itself. But in phenomenological terms, we can’t arrive at the thing itself. It’s not there.

I was educated in the Belgian system, and also in France, and nearly everything was an oral exam. I was mainly educated by Jesuits. A nice Jewish boy educated by Jesuits is interesting. I remember we were studying the Platonic ideal. This Jesuit professor who was maybe all of five feet tall was terrifying and intimidating to us because he knew so much, was so encyclopedic in his knowledge. Jesuits, as you may know, study for fourteen years. He came in and placed a pen on the table, and said, “For Plato, how many pens are there there?” My friend got up, put the pen in his jacket, and said, “Please take the other one.” Which was so brilliant. The professor said, “This man will go far. We don’t even need to have the rest of the exam. You’ve understood the philosophical gesture.”

—Paul Holdengräber, interviewed by Tyler Malone

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