Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Summer I Read Kant

When I was 16, I decided that I was going to read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. This seemed, to me, like the mark of a truly intelligent person- that you had read Kant and understood him. Needless to say, I struggled in my room with this book for hours and scrawled little notes in the margins like "Interesting!" and "Hmmm..." and generally had no idea what Kant was going on about. After a few weeks, I gave up, shelved it, and got back to things that were more my intellectual speed, such as collecting Garbage Pail Kids.

In my last year of university, I returned to the Critique. Actually, I had tried a few times in between, but each time, Mr. Kant burned me, and like a scorned lover, I came back for more. My big question was becoming: Is Kant hard to read because he's willfully obtuse, or is he hard to read because he's really damn smart?

There are a lot of writers who I have struggled through and found that they were simply willfully obtuse. I am convinced that Lacan, for example, cannot be read without a decoder ring and painful surgery, and that when you get to what he's going on about, it's all an elaborate joke to do with dogs and balloons, and how stupid you were for trying to get through it all.

Yet, Kant does reward when you get down to what he's going on about. And yes, dear reader, I finally did get to the heart of Kant. It took an entire summer, and this was the fourth time, but I did make sense of it. And, the secret is, he has to be obtuse, because honestly, there is no easy way to explain a priori synthetic judgements. Seriously, the best I can do is: "They're things that you know without really knowing them before you have any empirical experiences, which you cannot really have anyway, or not exactly", and that explanation sucks.

So, you have to tell people, "Look, I can't really boil down what Kant is getting at, but it's very significant, and it will make you re-examine the way that you experience reality, and why it's quite possible to have knowledge of God without having met him, or conversely, why it's not possible to know an apple-in-itself, even if you cut it up and look at it through a microscope." This doesn't exactly make people happy, but it's about the best I can do.

But, I can say that this particular "Kant Summer" was spent reading the book very, very slowly with a cup of coffee next to me. I can say that I had to read and re-read, and take notes, and even copy entire sections down on paper to understand them. And that Kant made me come up to his level, which is a higher level than my own, to meet him. This is what it means to say that good reading is an elevating experience. It forces you to raise yourself up and think things through that cannot be explained "for dummies". It forces you to change yourself a bit, to make yourself a bit better. It is transformative. It is sublime.

This is not "elitist", or "pretentious", or "arrogant"- it is arrogant and pretentious for the people who use those words to expect everything in the world to be pitched to them in their dumbed-down language. It is arrogant of them to refuse to be challenged, to refuse to grow- to expect, ultimately, for the higher to switch places with the lower. Life demands that you pay attention. It asks more of you than that.

And life rewards close readings.

5 comments:

Slashtact said...

This is a very good introduction.

Jerry said...

This is beautiful.

Cebolla said...

How did you determine that Kant was profound while Lacan was an obfuscating jokester? I'm very interested to know because I've thought about the problem of opaque writers before and I wondered if the mere repeated exposure to a text breeds a sense of familiarity that gets mistaken for having "insights."

lisamarieelliott said...

For my part every person should read it.

Unknown said...

Wonderfully put. Thanks!