Six years ago, thumbing my way through the Richard Rorty archives at the University of California at Irvine, I came upon a most curious artifact. Three sheets of yellow legal paper, covered with what appeared to be my handwriting.
No, let me not fall back into the appearance/reality distinction Rorty always warned us against: It was my handwriting.
The letter was dated June 23, 1985, the end of my second year in graduate school, and it was basically an agonized request for an extension on my overdue paper. I have no idea why Rorty kept it, but reading it was uncanny, as if I had been granted access to a parallel universe and allowed to revisit my 23-year-old self.
The situation was this: After taking Rorty’s seminar on Martin Heidegger that spring, I had the option of taking a final exam or writing a paper. I chose the latter because I had ideas that I knew would take a paper to flesh out. Only I didn’t know how to begin.
Being late on a paper for a famous and distinguished professor was nerve-wracking, all the more so because the seminar was a stretch for me: I was a student of English, not philosophy. Despite my ideas, I was quite convinced that there was nothing I could say on Heidegger that would be of any interest whatsoever to Rorty. Week by week that conviction deepened, as did my sense of dread. So just before Rorty left for a trip to China, I clenched my teeth, steeled my nerve, and sat down to write a letter sketching out my ideas and asking for more time.
I spent two and a half pages walking through my half-formed argument, in which I suggested that what Rorty took to be the pragmatist aspects of Being and Time (the categories of the vorhanden and zuhanden, or "present at hand" and "ready to hand") are just setups for the real payload, the insistence that "truth" is a matter of "disclosure" (aletheia). One of the reasons Heidegger goes to such trouble to establish those categories, I wrote, is to persuade us that factual assertions, far from being the locus of truth, are merely present-at-hand entities that help people get stuff done. The tricky aspect — the section on which I was stuck — was my reading of Part 1 of Being and Time as an elaborate performative contradiction whereby Heidegger argues logically and patiently (and laboriously, good Lord) that argument is not where truth lives.
If life had not intervened, my paper probably would remain unwritten to this day (with the world so much the poorer for that), and I might not have completed my Ph.D. But I did write it in late August. The reason? My girlfriend informed me that she was pregnant.
My first thought was, Oh my goodness, we’re going to get married and we’re going to be parents. My second thought, milliseconds later, was, Oh my goodness, if we’re going to have a baby, I need to finish that damn Rorty paper.
My anxiety about the Being-That-Would- Become-Nicholas-Bérubé quashed all my anxiety about the Being-That-Was-the-Paper-I-Could-Not-Write, and I wrote it in a frenzy over four or five days. It turned out to be the last paper I would write out longhand before typing. And it turned out, too, when I finally finished typing, to be 50 pages. After stewing over the essay for months, I had become the Graduate Student From Hell, turning in my paper very late and very long.
But it was a formative experience. Not only because it got me off the schneid with regard to Being and Time, but because it taught me how to manage academic anxieties: by using serious concerns to dissolve more-trivial ones. "Merciful Moloch, we’re going to have a baby, so I have to finish this class so that I can finish my coursework so that I can write my dissertation and try to get a job." That’s a lot weightier than "What if Rorty doesn’t like, or is bored by, or disagrees with my essay?" That attitude came in very handy six years later, in 1991, when the realization that I had suddenly become the father of a child with Down syndrome made all my anxieties about tenure dissipate into so much vapor.
Still, I could not believe Rorty kept that letter. I recognized the kid who wrote it, a leaner and squirrelier version of the person who is writing this essay. But beyond that, I remembered that whole weird and directionless Charlottesville summer — working at the National Legal Research Group to pay the rent; not writing; breaking up my band (but then our recording an album anyway); wondering whether I should even stay in graduate school; wondering whether I could.
But the archives also revealed to me, at long last, what Rorty really thought of my paper. He had returned it to me within a month, because he was a mensch and (as all his colleagues have testified) a voracious and deeply diligent reader of everything. But he said little more than that mine was a persuasive reading and that he didn’t have any interesting criticisms of it.
In the archives, however, I found a letter of recommendation in which Rorty called the essay "one of the best papers on Heidegger I have ever received from a graduate student" and remarked that "the paper made me rethink a lot of my own views on early Heidegger."
You can easily imagine how thrilled I was at that. But then I winced:
"On the basis of his participation in seminar discussion, I had expected a good paper from Bérubé, but I had not expected him to throw himself so wholeheartedly into Heidegger and to write 50 pages of close and detailed analysis. (He could just as easily have earned his ‘A’ by writing 15 pages, and by reading only the assigned passages, instead of spending months on the project.)"
The ready-to-hand lesson, to use Heidegger’s terminology, is that I am all too capable of making my tasks more complicated than they need to be.
But it’s the Heideggerian meta-lesson that rings truer. The truth of our interaction was not in the argument, either mine or Rorty’s quick, amiable response, but rather in the eventual disclosure of the whole episode — the nature of being, gradually revealed in time, by the traces of my writing and Rorty’s, preserved somewhere in the archives.
Michael Bérubé is a professor of literature and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. This essay is adapted from his introduction to Richard Rorty’s Philosophy as Poetry, which was published in December by the University of Virginia Press.