Wisdom Won from Illness: Essays in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis, by Jonathan Lear

William Kolbrener on an extraordinary collection that explores literature’s role in shaping ethical thought and helping to ‘transform the psyche’

April 27, 2017
Michelle Terry as Rosalind
Source: Alamy
Michelle Terry as Rosalind

Socrates may have expelled the poets from the polis, but Aristotle found good reason to bring them back, famously noting in the Poetics that poetry is in fact “akin to philosophy”. In these essays about mourning, ethics and illness, Jonathan Lear, classicist, philosopher and psychoanalyst, introduces psychoanalysis into the Aristotelian hierarchy of disciplines – although with the psychoanalyst now the “handmaid” of the philosopher, and the poet, in an overturning of the Platonic norm, precedent to them both.

Beginning with the question “what is the appropriate relation of human reason to the psyche?”, Lear rejects models of the soul in which opposition, conflict or, in Freudian terms, repression describe the relationship between reason and desire. In turning to the literary in this volume – Marilynne Robinson, Shakespeare and J. M. Coetzee – Lear affirms that imaginative works help to elicit internal unity by addressing competing psychic agencies and permitting a “conversation of the soul”.

Lear has long been making his Freudian case to philosophers that without a recognition and appropriation of the non-rational parts of the psyche, the philosophical categories of autonomy and reflection may be only a form of “entrapment”, and that the “asking and answering of reflective questions” will sometimes only be reinforcing “the prejudices of the day”. Writing about critical responses to Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, Lear critiques a degraded philosophical culture of ersatz self-reflection, specifically those “tranquilized by the illusion of being in a moral vanguard”. In contrast to a moral philosophy repeating, and sometimes “crippled” by, older concepts, Lear’s novelists, poets and playwrights enact a “poetic practical reason”, not simply creating new possibilities but opening up “new possibilities of living”.

Shakespeare’s Rosalind in As You Like It lives out this poetic sensibility, which – unlike theoretical wisdom – is the cause of what it knows. Shakespeare’s comic and feminine version of Hamlet, “an ironist”, is able, through her “anxious erotic longing” (somehow elicited by her clichéd forest lover Orlando), both to question and to affirm that to which she aspires to be – a “true lover”. She is both earnest lover – “when I think I must speak” – and also sceptic: “men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love”. The “uncanny disruption” of irony that Rosalind experiences promotes her aspiration while at the same time “blowing it apart”. Rosalind affirms that love is an illusion while she, at the same time, aspires to love, indeed, in some ways, is herself madly in love. In Lear’s paradoxical formulation, “irony becomes a profound form of earnestness”, a form of conviction that defies both sceptics and fundamentalists.

For Lear in this volume, openness to the uncanny ironic is prerequisite for both ethics and politics in its push for the continual rearticulation of values and concepts. Lear thus reads the poet, in Aristotelian terms, as more akin to the psychoanalyst than to the philosopher. The latter needs the analyst, for without him, the philosopher descends the disciplinary hierarchy with his only partial – and in the end impoverished – understanding of the self. But the poet, in this extraordinary and varied collection of essays, takes new precedence – for “poetic reason” cultivates imagination and irony, and helps to “penetrate and transform the psyche”.

William Kolbrener is professor of English, Bar-Ilan University, Israel, and author of The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition (2016).


Wisdom Won from Illness: Essays in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis
By Jonathan Lear
Harvard University Press, 344pp, £29.95
ISBN 9780674967847
Published 26 January 2017

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