Adventurous forgetting is common with scholars. The urge to move beyond the page estranges us from the work. We chase the next illuminating ‘maybe’, losing sight of the words we began with.

The problem is not iconoclastic interpretation; not disorienting or disturbing responses – this is all the stuff of creative reading. “There is a joy in getting someone to hand us their butterfly,” quipped novelist Zadie Smith, “so we can spend twenty pages making the case for its being our giraffe.” The problem is confusing these creations with the author’s achievements. We need not bow meekly to a writer’s motives or purposes, particularly when these are lost or obscure. But it is revealing and fair to recognise an author’s choices where we can. As Russian philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin argued, we cannot hold a writer responsible for their milieu. But we can try to be clear about their decisions within it. We note these phrases, this rhythm, that structure, those themes. We invent the author through the text, but not randomly or capriciously. “We imagine to ourselves,” as Bakhtin put it, “what the speaker wishes to say.” Curiosity turns monstrous when it no longer respects this, the ‘will’ of the author.

With academics, this mistake is often part of what Bourdieu called the “scholastic disposition”. The scholar takes for granted the conditions of his own work. He forgets not only the money behind his leisure and power behind his pronouncements, but also the training behind his thinking – the scholar “credits agents with his own vision”, as Bourdieu put it. Sociologists and anthropologists, for example, see their own abstractions in the communities they study. Likewise, Heidegger saw modern German ontology in ancient Greeks.

If intellectuals like Heidegger are more prone to overreaching, the basic tendency is more common. This is not a failure of scrutiny, but of its focus: when curiosity is not sufficiently conscious of its own motives. Curiosity is best when it looks back at itself, questioning its own interrogations.

Take Batman, who snatched my consciousness as a misanthropic teenager. Clearly the Gotham mythos continues to hold my focus as an adult. I am drawn to the Dark Knight world for its pathos and thrills, but also for its cultural power: the glimpses it gives of contemporary society. Batman is neither singular nor static. There are precursors and variations. And I can read these stories, weekly if need be, for fun and intellectual exercise. However challenging the historical fact-finding or symbolic analysis might be, it is existentially easy to read Batman. Less simple is this curiosity, directed against curiosity: the drives behind my own interest.

The clown won, and this was primally satisfying. Not because I wanted the boy to die, or because I sympathised with the criminal. I believed I was confronting stark existence: madness, death, grief.”

As a child, I was drawn to Batman for his righteous rage and victorious perseverance – classic petty wish fulfilment. But looking back now, there was another longing: for truth. Death in the Family, which features the murder of Robin by the Joker, felt like an initiation. The villain beats the young sidekick with a crowbar, then blows him up. I will never forget the unsettlingly colourful panels: huge, red-lipped grin against white skin, purple steel arcing over and over, silhouetted by a bright orange backdrop. The clown won, and this was primally satisfying. Not because I wanted the boy to die, or because I sympathised with the criminal. I believed I was confronting stark existence: madness, death, grief. The mocking destruction of vivacious youth, so rarely seen in children’s literature. The tone of these issues, for all their epic superheroism, was pessimistic. In an earlier scene, Batman and Robin question Lady Shiva, whom they believe is the Boy Wonder’s lost mother. First, she laughingly suggests she cannot know. “I’ve dropped litters,” she sneers, “in every corner of the globe!” Then, injected with a truth drug, she confesses: she is childless. Her slurred ‘no’ changes the atmosphere entirely, from swaggering antagonism to quiet confession.

Again, this seemed revelatory. I was witnessing not only a neatly tragic plot, but also a moment of mature reckoning: a soldier exposing her life unlived. To me, this was recompense for years of social distance. Batman afforded the conceit of adult wisdom, gained one panel at a time.

And now? As the nods to Batman suggest, perhaps this need for recognition continues, only in the form of scholarly strutting. By waving aside the curtains between high and low culture, Heidegger and superheroes, I display my rejection of academic stuffiness. I reveal youthfulness and mainstream relevance, and invest in the symbolic capital of the hip intellectual. A casual geek among university staff, and highfaluting philosopher among lay nerds, I seek singularity in each subculture. Alongside this Žižek move, I reveal the universal aspirations of philosophy; the confidence to cross the borders of genres, disciplines, epochs, without concern for my academic passport.

This does not make my readings of Borges, Batman or Heidegger false. It simply suggests that my scholarship need not be pure; that there are less congenial drives alongside the pleasure of cognitive effort. Curiosity about curiosity unmasks its own mixed humanity.

From The Art of Reading (Scribe, £9.99)


Art_of_Reading_290Damon Young is a prizewinning philosopher and writer, and an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne. His previous books include How to Think About Exercise, Philosophy in the Garden and Distraction, and he has also written poetry and short fiction. The Art of Reading is published by Scribe.
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