He has things to tell me, W. says when I meet him at Newcastle airport in the morning. Great things! But first he needs a pint. He needs to regroup.
W.’s plane was full of obese children, he says. — ‘When did everyone get so fat?’ They ran up and down the aisle, unhindered by their girth. But W. got down to some reading despite their bellowing. He underlined passages and wrote in his notebook.
And what was I reading, as I waited for him? When I tell him, he nods and murmurs. — ‘Mazzarri, oh I see. Flusser, ah that’s far too complex for Lars. . .’
I’ll have to pay for the beer, W. says in The Trent. He no longer carries money, he says. He’s like the Queen.
W. wonders why I always make my lips — my great fat lips — into a funnel as I lift my drink. No doubt it’s all the better to pour it down, pint after pint: a funnel for the two pints I always neck at the bar before I sit down, and for the dregs of pints that other people leave behind. . .
A legal technicality, W. says over his second pint. Sacked by his university when they closed down the humanities, and what saved him? A legal technicality.
It’s not as if he hadn’t tried to defend himself, W. says. On the contrary, he’d mounted a heroic defence! At his termination hearing he performed a great oration, his version of Socrates’s apology to the jurists of Athens. How he spoke!, W. says. Hours and hours without cease! The committee groaned, they slept. They tried to interrupt, begged to adjourn, but each time W. simply held up his hand. He wasn’t done.
He showed charts and circulated handouts, W. says. He pushed his Summa Idiotica across the table: four hundred pages to make the case against his dismissal. Chapters! An index! A table of contents! Twenty-four appendices! It will stand as his finest work, W. says. But it was all for nothing.
A legal technicality, W. says. That’s what saved him. Which is ironic, because it was through a legal technicality that they tried to get rid of him.
His Union uncovered it. Something about the way the college management had had him marched off campus, when they suspected him of sedition. . . Something about interfering with his freedom of movement, with his freedom of speech. . .W. had a case for legal action against the College, his Union said. He could create bad PR for the College. Bad press! . . . At a stroke, W. was unsackable.
A legal technicality. It’s the contingency of his salvation that bothers him, W. says. He was saved, but he might not have been. And if he was saved, it wasn’t because of anything he’d done. It wasn’t because of fate, or grace. It wasn’t because of his apology. It wasn’t because he’d been chosen in some way. . .
But he’s going to act as though he was chosen, W. says. As though he was saved by grace. As though a divine mission has been allotted to him.
That’s what our lecture tour is to be about, W.’s decided. Our great lecture tour of Great Britain, our last look at the ruins of the humanities. We are to investigate the conditions of his sacking!, W. says. The conditions of the destruction of philosophy at his university — of the destruction of philosophy in Britain — of the destruction of philosophy in the whole world! The end days are upon us, and we must witness them at first hand, W. says. The Pharoah is drowning the children of philosophy. — ‘Drink up, fat boy!, there’s not much time’.
* * *
Newcastle. My office. The collected works of Kierkegaard, spanning the windowsill. W.’s always admired them — their sober spines, the different colours against which their titles appear, varying from volume to volume (Point of View in charcoal, The Book on Adler in bronze, Fear and Trembling in a handsome burgundy). And then there’s the sheer bulk of them, with my improvised bookmarks sticking out at random.— ‘You mean you’ve actually read something!’ W says.
And I have read them. The books look worn, tired. — ‘Is that blood?’, W. wonders, of the blotches in the margins of Practice in Christianity. ‘Are those tears?’ There are even annotations, W. notices. ‘What did you write?’, W. asks, turning the book sideways. He can hardly make out a line. Iration — what does that mean? Livity — what is that?
Why is it that Kierkegaard attracts lunatics?, W. says. He’s seen it before, with some of his more desperate students. The half-wild ones, who’ve come off the streets after years of destitution. The half-mad ones, who want only to lose themselves in some great task of scholarship, but who are made for anything but a great task of scholarship. . .
In truth, I know more about Kierkegaard than he does, W. admits. It’s my Danish connection. Of course, I’m only half Danish, W. says. Half Danish and half Indian, a peculiar combination, he says. He, of course, is Irish on one side of his family and from Jewish stock — Ostjude stock — on the other. The wrong background for Kierkegaard, W. says.
But he wants to understand Kierkegaard, W. says. Kierkegaard’s become fateful to him. Kierkegaard is the philosopher of despair, W. says, and it’s despair we’ll have to think, if we’re to confront the closure of philosophy departments in Britain. It’s the philosopher of despair we’ll have to read, if we’re to grasp the conditions of that closure, which is to say, capitalism itself.
I’m to be his guide in the mountains of Kierkegaard, W. says. His sherpa. I’m to carry his things. What should he bring? His learning, W. says. His years of study in the philosophy of religion. He’ll instruct me as we climb, W. says. He’ll point things out, and when he gets tired, I can give him a piggy-back.
‘God, what a racket! How do you do any work?’, W. says.
The sound of drilling, high pitched, then lower pitched as they cut through something. The fizz of a lorry’s brakes. The clattering of metal poles being thrown onto metal poles. A heavy chugging in the distance. The faraway throbbing of engines. . .
They’re rebuilding the campus, I tell W. They’re putting up new office blocks for the private partners of the university.
He requires silence when he works, W. says. Silence and calm, in his study in the pre-dawn morning, just the pigeons flapping their wings and cooing to annoy him, and Sal asleep in the other room.
Stand well clear, vehicle reversing: a warning from a tannoyed male voice. And now warnings overlapping with warnings, as many vehicles reverse: Stand well clear. . . Stand well clear. . . Stand well clear. . . And now a high pitched throb, very loud, like a helicopter landing. — ‘Surely a helicopter isn’t landing?’, W. says. ‘A helicopter couldn’t be landing. . .’
We walk out through the campus, through the narrow pedestrian routes left to us alongside the building works. W. feels so channelled, he says. We’re being route-marched, he says, staff and student alike, heads down and in lockstep. — ‘Where are they leading us?’, he says. ‘Where are we going?’
A thick smell — is it tar? They must be pouring tar. They must be making some kind of route for the lorries. A hiss, as of gas escaping. The high beeping of a reversing vehicle. — ‘They’re going to crush us!’, W. says.
We emerge safely into the quadrangle. — ‘They’re going to crush us’, W. repeats calmly. What use is philosophy to the private partners of the university? What use will it be to the new breed of the university, which is busy hatching from the old one?
‘How long do you think we’ll last?’, W. says. ‘How long before philosophy is destroyed altogether?’ Because there’s no room for us in this world, he says. No room for Kierkegaard and for scholars of Kierkegaard. . .
‘Are they shredding trees?’, W. asks, as we look back at the building works. Yes, they really are: we can see them cutting off the boughs with chainsaws, and feeding them into huge machines. Leaves fly up over the fence. And the smell: sap. The stuff of life, W. says, being shredded.
It’ll be our turn next, W. says. They’ll cut off our arms and legs and feed us into the huge machines. . .
Stand well clear. . . Stand well clear. . .
The Town Moor: escape. We wander through the knee-high grass. What are those birds?, we wonder. What are those flowers? But we have no idea.
The Moor is like the world on the fifth day of creation, we agree — before Adam, before anyone, when everything went unnamed and unredeemed. It needs words, we agree. It needs a poet! Where is the Rilke of Newcastle to sing of the Moor?
Above us, a shore of clouds and then blue sky. — ‘That’s a weather front’, W. says. Which way is it travelling? Where is it heading? And where are we heading, we who walk beneath the shore of clouds? Is the future open to us, or closed? W. can never decide. Are we making progress, or falling behind? W. can never decide that, either.
Alcoholics in the long grass, stretching their limbs and laughing, half-drunk bottles of cider by their ankles. Anyone can walk on the Town Moor, he likes that, W. says. Where the alcoholic can walk, he walks, W. says. And where the alcoholic cannot walk — where his way is barred by security guards or policemen — W. will not walk either.
Should we lie down in the long grass and drink ourselves to death?, we wonder. Should we just give up — give up everything — and let death come and find us on the Town Moor? But we consider ourselves to have work to do — that’s our idiocy, and our salvation. We actually take ourselves to be busy — that’s our imposture and our chance of survival. W. remembers how it all began. I came into his care, like a Robin to his Batman: a ward, a protégé. How was he to know what would happen?
He taught me table manners as best he could. He tried to teach me politeness — to shake hands, to make chit-chat. He stopped me from continually touching my skin through my shirt, and tried to quieten my bellowing.
Friendship involves a lot of nagging, W. says. I had to be nagged! I was like a prisoner, released blinking into the light. What had I known of life, before I met him? How had I survived?
I was a scholarly Kasper Hauser, W. says, who knew nothing of reading, or note-taking. I could read, that much is true. But only just, only approximately, and with a great deal of pathos, with wild underlinings and illegitimate identifications.— ‘You thought every book you read was about you, didn’t you?’ That’s me!, I would say, pointing to a passage in Hegel. It’s about me!, I would say, pointing to the Science of Logic.
And all along, W. was waiting to see if I was the harbourer of some secret wisdom, if my years of unemployment had taught me some great and unguessable insight. He took me out into the scholarly world. People were impressed at first, then frightened. Why is he covered in his own spittle?, they asked. Why is he covering us with his spittle?
I made audiences flinch, W. says. Professors would turn white, or leave to vomit. — ‘They couldn’t understand what had just happened’. But W. understood. His heart leaped up.
Hadn’t he always sought an outsider scholar? Hadn’t he always dreamt of intellectual movements that took place outside the university? Of professors of desperation; of the university of alcoholism?
I came from the outside, and I brought the outside with me, W. says. I came from the everyday and had to stamp the everyday from my boots. — ‘How long had you been unemployed?’ Years, I tell him. Years!: W. can’t imagine it. — ‘And for how long before that had you worked in your warehouse?’ Years again. — ‘Years!’, W. exclaims. Of course, there was also my time with the monks. Ah yes, my ever-surprising monk years, W. says.
But there you were, and who had seen anything like it? — ‘You were like a one man horde, a Tartar’. There was spittle on my lips and drool in my beard. Had I ever heard of a footnote? Did I know what an appendix was, or what op.cit. might mean? Scholarly standards were an irrelevance to me; academic conventions an imposition I could completely ignore. It was quite impressive.
‘Your book! Your first book!’ W.’s still amazed. It was entirely without scholarship, without ideas, W. says. Without the usual concern to explain or to clarify. A book almost entirely lacking in merit. And yet! W. saw something there, although no one else did. He saw it, and not in spite of its many typos and printing errors. . . It was there because of them, W. says. It was inextricable from them: a kind of massive, looming incompetence. A cloud of stupidity covering the sun, and belonging to it like its shadow.
It was demonic, W. says. It was as forceful as a demiurge. That’s when he became aware of it as a kind of unGod, as a division of darkness within light, of death within life. How could anything so bad have been written? Who could have defiled the temple of scholarship and revealed it to have been always defiled? He saw it, W. says, even if no one else did. And it was his role to look after me, until the very end.