An End of Thinking

September 2012

Note: A revised version of this essay (and shorter besides!) was published in July 2013 in The Chronicle of Higher Education. For a pdf of this revised text click here.


There is that moment, which usually seems quite unremarkable and not unwanted, when we realize we are having fun, or, if you prefer, when we realize that we are deeply engaged in some activity—be it dancing, talking with a friend, clipping toenails or whathaveyou. What is not only interesting about this moment, but also sad, is that it marks the end of the particular pleasure or the engagement. We may continue the dance, conversation or preening, but at best it will now be a more complex experience in which the fun is mixed with a something else, the consciousness of having fun, or in which our engagement is mitigated by our consciousness of being engaged.

A personal example; a break from abstraction. One gentle summer day my son, one of his cousins and I rented kayaks and headed out on a three-mile-long mountain lake in a Vermont state park. The two or three other people on the lake were out of our sight, and the location and topography offered a luxury seldom found in the twenty-first century United States: We were neither underneath a flight path nor within earshot of a highway. We pulled up in a cove, and Jonah, my son, got us happily engaged slinging handfuls of clayey mud and clumps of water grass at one another. After a while I left the boys to continue the laughing battle on their own, and I lay down in the reeds across the way, surrounded by little snails and by insects of various sizes, a few of whom, both snails and insects, found their ways onto my arms and legs and began hunting for food. (The Platform Sutra preaches, “If you are only peacefully calm and quiet, without motion, without stillness, without birth, without destruction, without coming, without going, without judgments of right and wrong, without staying and without going—then this is the Great Way.” For the human soul and for snails and insects, we might say.)

It was around 1 o’clock, more than six hours of daylight remaining. The thought came to me that this had turned out to be one of the most wonderful days of my life. I remembered, too, how I used to walk among the summer wildflowers or lie down on my back in the hillside cemetery in Woodstock, New York. How much I had loved those times, but that had been years ago, before Jonah was born. I thought that after lunch the boys and I might move on to another part of the lake and I might commune again with nature, become part of a slightly different grouping of plants and animals. But in recognizing my feeling of well-being, in being inspired by it and planning its continuation, I distanced myself from the original experience and thereby put an end to it.

It so happened that later that day I was reading a chapter about Susan Sontag and this brought me to these lines from her essay “Against Interpretation”:

[I]nterpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.”

From this perspective, and while noting that Sontag was, as I am, an inveterate assigner of meanings (i.e., of interpretations), I might propose that interpretation is also the revenge of the intellect upon experience. This does not seem quite right, however. For one, interpreting, theorizing, ruminating, wishing, regretting, getting revenge, writing, reading, quoting and so forth: All this, too, is experience. All this, too, is being part of the world, of being absorbed in it.

A second example. I was fully engaged in drafting this piece, and now, revising, I can recall faintly a feeling that this engagement offered, a feeling of being more fully, deeply connected than I usually am with myself and with life. But now, in the noting of this feeling, this experience—and while I retain the hope that a reader or two might become fully engaged in reading these words and following her or his own thoughts on subjects here but partially unfolded—it is clear that the feeling itself has been lost. (“The impressions which the morning makes vanish with its dews, and not even the most persevering mortal can preserve the memory of its freshness to midday,” Thoreau wrote.)

I wonder, too, about the “revenge” in Sontag’s assertion. It implies a conflict, which certainly there is between mediated and unmediated experience, but it also raises this question: What would experience (or art) do to the intellect that would so provoke it, make it want to fight back? In her essay Sontag writes:

Real art [and “real nature,” “real experience,” I would add] has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comformable.


[I]nterpretation of [a certain] type indicates a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it by something else.

And so we might say that the problem with experience, and certainly with an experience like mine in the reeds, is that it threatens to reconnect us to our animal natures, to the wild life of our bodies. (And if we are to make room for art here, for the intellect’s revenge on art, then we would have things like fears, lusts, imaginings and dreams be bodily functions.)

But my sense is that the mechanism currently under consideration is (or has become?) almost as involuntary as breathing. We cannot stop interpretation—or articulating, recognizing, thinking—from distancing us from experience or from our most elemental experiences. And this may be linked to a never-ending struggle for autonomy or for what we might call discreteness, individuation. We may be afraid of allowing ourselves to feel as absorbed in the world as we are. But nor do we want to do disconnect entirely. And so we try to use our thought processes, like hawsers, to keep us connected, while also allowing us to drift with a certain feeling of independence. After Jonah, Karim and I left the lake and drove back to our B&B, all we had left of our experience— Or rather, such experiences as we retain from our day of fun are insubstantial things called memories, which may gain a kind of weight if we make use of them in reminiscing, fantasizing, regretting, longing, ruminating, theorizing and so forth. In this way we are not so much getting revenge on previous experiences as doing our best to maintain some connection, however feeble, to them.

I have already quoted from the eighth century Chan text, The Platform Sutra. I would also quote from John Blofeld’s translation of the teachings of Huang Po (a.k.a. Huangbo Xiyun), another Chan master from the same period. A seeker of wisdom asks Huang Po: “Should we not seek for anything at all?”

“By conceding this you would save yourself a lot of mental effort.” Huang Po answers.

“Since there is no need to seek, why do you also say that not everything is eliminated?” the seeker soon comes to ask.

“Not to seek is to rest tranquil,” Huang Po answers. “Who told you to eliminate anything? Look at the void in front of your eyes. How can you produce or eliminate it?”

“Do you mean that we should not form concepts as human beings normally do?”

“I have not prevented you, but concepts are related to the senses, and when feeling takes place wisdom is shut out.”

The Platform Sutra preaches that wisdom is meditation and meditation wisdom, with meditation here not to be confused with contemplation. That is, one may, for example, hear twenty-first century Americans say that they are going to meditate on a given problem or choice, something to do with their careers or a relationship. But in The Platform Sutra meditation means a state in which the mind is emptying itself or is indeed emptied of signifying and signification (meanings, interpretations). Returning to the present piece’s subject, I note that disciplined practitioners of this kind of meditation seem able to brake, or separate themselves from, the human recourse to thought and to dividing subject and object in a thinking process. However, this discipline involves a distancing from experience or at least from any experience that is not the meditation, the discipline itself. This “meditation is wisdom and wisdom is meditation” is, in a sense, an entirely closed circle, be it infinitesimally small or infinitely large.

But again I have gotten abstract, intellectual. I have to fight against my own (natural?) tendencies. And I would like not to lose the observation with which I began; this one thing that an August day taught me. We ignore how the simple act of thinking—about feelings, bodily functions, friends, politics, what’s on the television—can be regrettable, a come-down. This observation is not meant to and indeed does not lend weight to good ol’ American anti-intellectualism (“hostility towards and mistrust of intellect, intellectuals, and intellectual pursuits, usually expressed as the derision of education, philosophy, literature, art and science, as impractical and contemptible”: Wikipedia). I am talking about thinking on a much more basic level—e.g., thinking that one is having fun, thinking that a particular peach tastes particularly good, wondering in the middle of kissing if it is going to lead to sexual intercourse, or what’s for dinner?

All our lives include brief, quite undisciplined moments when—thanks in part to the absence of discipline, the forgetting of all dogma and technique—we are lost to any possible duality of subject and object; we are not coming, going, judging or interpreting—and nor are we detached from experience, or nor is our experience one of detachment. Or better: We may be absorbed in a Oneness of the universe, but we remain very much in touch with multiplicity, with snails, insects and shouting boys. In my life one such brief moment occurred one August in Vermont, lying in the reeds.


My goal here has been to write about one of the ruder aspects of thinking and of human behavior (that is, of a use we, intentionally or unintentionally, make of thinking). Along the way, however, I have found myself rather more engaged than I expected to be by Sontag’s “Against Interpretation.” Half a century after its publication, the essay continues to have a great deal to offer.  (Does it still speak to us because—likely for economic reasons; consumer capitalism, once again—we have been unable to do anything with her words besides, momentarily, taking them to heart?)

Below please find Sontagian fruits that I have plucked, without, I trust, damaging the tree of her piece. (And may I here also tip my hat to Montaigne’s essays and to the blog of a friend, the philosopher Kelly Dean Jolley, which, inter alia, champion the quoting of the thoughts of other thinkers. Instead of as a soloist, alone on a stage with his homemade instrument, we might imagine a writer like a violinist-conductor, adding his or her melodies, arising from previous scores, and also bringing to the fore other tones and melodies.) And so now, from “Against Interpretation”:

  • The task of interpretation is virtually one of translation. The interpreter says, Look, don’t you see that X is really—or, really means—A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C?
  • The old style of interpretation was insistent, but respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one. The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs “behind” the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one. The most celebrated and influential modern doctrines, those of Marx and Freud, actually amount to elaborate systems of hermeneutics, aggressive and impious theories of interpretation. All observable phenomena are bracketed, in Freud’s phrase, as manifest content. This manifest content must be probed and pushed aside to find the true meaning—the latent content—beneath. For Marx, social events like revolutions and wars; for Freud, the events of individual lives (like neurotic symptoms and slips of the tongue) as well as texts (like a dream or a work of art)—all are treated as occasions for interpretation. According to Marx and Freud, these events only seem to be intelligible. Actually, they have no meaning without interpretation. To understand is to interpret.
  • Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art—and in criticism— today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are. [Cf., Henry Adams: “Like all great artists, St. Gaudens held up the mirror and no more.”]
  • What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.

The picture of Sontag, perhaps from around the time she wrote “Against Interpretation,” is credited to the photographer Peter Hujar. Earlier in 2012, Columbia University Press republished Philip B. Yampolsky’s translation of The Platform Sutra, along with a companion volume of articles about the text and its context: Readings of the Platform Sutra, edited by Morten Schlütter and Stephen F. Teiser. William Eaton’s review of these two books appeared in Zeteo: Sutra as Power Play.

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