Interview with Mark C. Taylor

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Professor Mark C. Taylor

This is part of an interview between Mark C. Taylor and Creston Davis upon the release of Taylor’s new and most extraordinary book, Field Notes from Elsewhere: Reflections on Dying and Living published by Columbia University Press. This book recounts Taylor’s “unforgettable, inverted journey from death to life.” Mark C. Taylor is one of the most respected and provocative public intellectuals in North America. He chairs the religion department at Columbia University and has written over twenty books including Erring: A Postmodern A/theology widely considered to be the best text on postmodern theology ever written.

CRESTON DAVIS: This book is wholly unlike any other book you have written. How does the genre of this text relate to both philosophy and theology on the one hand, and your own interior and irreducible singularity on the other?

MARK C TAYLOR: Having taught philosophy and religion at Williams College for many years and now at Columbia University, I had long considered writing a book that would bring together abstract ideas and the concrete experiences and dilemmas of human life in the form of a philosophical memoir. For many people, the writings of Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida, which lie at the heart of my academic work, are so abstract that they often seem irrelevant. Since my student days, however, I have always found that these writers illuminate questions we all ask and decisions we all face. Over the years, my intellectual life has been suspended between Hegel, who is a speculative systematic thinker par excellence, and Kierkegaard, who probes individual subjectivity with unparalleled insight.

I have written many books over the years on subjects as diverse as philosophy, religion, literature, literary criticism, art, architecture, technology, and economics. In addition, I have published artistic books, done some art and even had an exhibition, Grave Matters, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Though I did not realize it at the time, there is a coherence to all this work that has only become clear as I look back. My latest book, After God, represents an effort to integrate the many strands of my thought. It is my most Hegelian book.

Field Notes from Elsewhere is, by contrast, my most Kierkegaardian book. It is a meditation on personal experiences, friends, family, teaching and many other topics. I have also included 120 photographs that are either from family albums or that I took for the book. Rather than a continuous narrative, I tell the story in 52 chapters, each of which has an AM and a PM section. The book begins with a meditation on dawn and ends with reflections on dusk. I regard the book as a cross between a diary, a book of hours and a family photograph album. Each chapter is a three-or-four-page meditation on paired topics like: Premonitions/Postcards, Abandonment/ Mortality, Pleasure/Money, Solitude/Loneliness, Failure/Success, Imperfection/ Vulnerability, Love/Fidelity, Hope/Despair.

The point of departure for the book is a severe illness I suffered in December 2005. As a result of a biopsy, I went into septic shock and suddenly fell critically ill. For two days a team of forty doctors, many of whom did not think I would live, worked to save my life. During the first night, I realized things could go either way but thought I was out of the woods by morning. I was not; my condition remained serious and would not stabilize for several weeks. After five days in the intensive care unit and ten in the hospital, I was released. Five months later, I underwent surgery for cancer. These experiences have changed my life in ways I still am trying to understand.

CD: Do you see your text related to Augustine’s _Confessions_ in any way?

MCT: All autobiographical writing is haunted by Augustine. His Confessions (c. 397) was the first autobiography ever written. For Augustine, knowledge of self and knowledge of God were inseparable – he could not know himself by himself but could only come to know himself through God. Obviously, this mode of self-analysis is the precursor of psychoanalysis as well as many other contemporary strategies of self-interpretation. Augustine presented his work as a prayer to God in which he asks God to show him how to understand himself. Augustine’s theological insight is not, of course, new. Why, then, we might ask did Augustine construct the narrative of his personal experience in the way that he did?

The answer to this question can be found in his understanding of the inextricable interrelation between time and the self. In books IX-X of the Confessions, Augustine presents a revolutionary account of memory and of time. He asks, “What, then, is time?” and proceeds to respond, “I believe I know what time is until someone asks me about it, then I do not know what to say.” Augustine suggests that we generally think there are three tenses of time: past, present and future, but in fact, Augustine argues, there is only one tense of time with three modalities. Only the present is real – there is a present of things present, a present of things past and a present of things to come and all three of these are held together by the mind. With this insight, what Augustine discovers is the subjectivity of time. But this is only half the story – and it is a story; the converse of the subjectivity of temporality is the temporality of subjectivity. The self, in other words, is irreducibly temporal – it has a history and that history defines the self. If the self is temporal, the only way to know the self is to narrate the history through which the self becomes itself. This is what Augustine did in the Confessions. But his analysis could not stop with his own story because his narrative is part of a much larger story. He completes his journey to selfhood by writing City of God. In this work personal history is placed in the context of the history of the world, which, in turn, can only be understood through God’s providential purpose.

My first doctoral dissertation was on Kierkegaard and was entitled, Kierkegaard’s Pseudonymous Authorship: A Study of Time and the Self. I began that book with an account of Augustine’s view of time and the self in the Confessions. My second doctoral dissertation was entitled Journeys to Selfhood: Hegel and Kierkegaard. In this book, I argue that Hegel and Kierkegaard present alternative phenomenologies of the self. Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous writings reenact Augustine’s Confessions and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit extends his City of God in the form of a realized eschatology that unfolds from the time of Christ down to Hegel’s own day.

In many ways, all of my writing and teaching explores the issues raised by Kierkegaard and Hegel. After God is my most Hegelian work and Field Notes from Elsewhere is my most Kierkegaardian book. In Field Notes, as in many of my other books, I give indirect indications of points I prefer not to make directly. The book includes about 120 images in Field Notes, which are either from family photo albums or are photographs I took for the book. The last three photographs are images of a container of dirt I collected from Kierkegaard’s grave, a plant of ivy I grew from a slip I took from Hegel’s grave and a bunch of grapes, which suggests Nietzsche’s Dionysus, the Anti-Christ. Kierkegaard-Hegel-Nietzsche. That’s as close to a holy trinity as I will ever get.

I was not self-consciously thinking about Augustine when I wrote Field Notes, but, obviously, his work is never absent. I conceived the book as a combination of a diary, a family photo album and a book of hours. One of the basic questions I had to answer was how to structure the book. I did not want to write a continuous narrative in a manner reminiscent of Augustine. Life is not, I believe, continuous but is episodic – periods of continuity are punctuated by moments of disruption. As I pondered how to structure the book, I considered taking as my point of departure the Danish word for ‘diary,’ Dagbog – day book. I made up the word Natbog – night book – and thought about writing the Daybook from front to back and the Nightbook from back to front. But this strategy presented certain design problems and, more important, I decided it would not be a good idea to group all of the day entries and night entries together. I then had the idea of structuring the book like a year-long diary – there are 52 chapters each of which has an AM and a PM entry. Each entry is a meditation on a single topic – indeed, a single word.

As I have suggested, the narrative is not continuous but is episodic. There is, however, an overall trajectory to the book and the different subjects are organized in a deliberate way. The book begins with Day/Night and ends with Ordinary/Extraordinary. Day opens with a meditation of dawn breaking on the Berkshire Mountains, which I see from the barn where I write, and closes with “An Ordinary Evening in Williamstown,” which is a rewriting of Wallace Stevens’s, another ghost who haunts these pages, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven.” Between beginning and end, the reader discovers stories of family, friends and colleagues as well as reflections on questions none of us can avoid. The last lines of are:

Weeds – but why weeds? – grown tall waiting to be mowed.

Sun, moving south, slipping below the distant tree line.

“The instinct for earth,” for Williamstown, where, unexpectedly,

“The real and the unreal are two in one.”

The truth of incarnation.

Wisdom asks nothing more

Nothing more.