Before Monday’s lecture, the instructor who teaches in my room during the previous time slot asked me what songs I’d be playing. “Songs with ‘cosmopolitanism’ in the title,” I replied. “Oooh, we don’t like cosmopolitanism,” she said, going on to explain that she and her teaching assistants were all classicists, and they felt that cosmopolitanism was being used to justify the acquisition of antiquities on the black market by collectors. She had particular animus toward Appiah: “He’s gone over to the dark side.” I suggested that if nations operated according to a theory of cosmopolitanism there might not be a black market in antiquities in the same way that there is today, but she wasn’t buying. So I told my class that there were those on NYU’s faculty who thought of Appiah as a version of Darth Vader, suggesting to them that they realize that both Appiah and cosmopolitanism are controversial and that they should give his arguments close scrutiny.
At the end of the class, I had the students fill out a questionnaire, asking them what they thought the most important point made in lecture had been, whether they had any questions about the lecture, and whether they had any questions about Appiah’s book. Here are my favorite responses:
I really appreciated how he had his own set of beliefs, but he
respected and cared about those of others. He learned from them. That
is rare. [This makes me sad.]
Is the world eventually going to be a cosmopolitan society? [Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so.]
Why did Appiah say that a lot of philosophy books are not useful? [A bit of an oversimplification, I think.]
Appiah’s ideas seem so logical that I find it hard to consider cosmopolitanism controversial, despite his deconstruction of the terms he defines. [Clearly not voting for McCain-Palin.]
I wonder what race his wife is … [Read the acknowledgments, but why are you asking?]
Some of the queries, however, I’ll address at the beginning of the class, particularly one about cosmopolitanism as an elitist perspective (I opened the door to that myself in class by referring to Tim Brennan’s critique of Salman Rushdie), one about the limits of cosmopolitan theory, and another about Appiah’s attempts to be prescriptive.
I’m also going to a few moments in the text that will help me to introduce Moby-Dick, since the ostensible subject of the lecture is the “Etymology” and “Extracts” sections and Chapter One, “Loomings.” These will include Appiah’s argument about the value of storytelling (p. 29); his suggestion that “what it’s reasonable for you to think, faced with a particular experience, depends on what ideas you already have” (p. 39), as a way of reintroducing the idea of the “horizon of expectations,” which I discussed in the opening lecture; and Appiah’s invocation of Hilary Putnam’s maxim “Meanings ain’t in the head” as a way of talking about intertextuality.
I plan to talk more about the nature of “meaning” and to argue that the “meaning” of a literary text arises through a complex negotiation between author and reader thorugh the medium of the text. I want to stress that meaning is a collaboration between between author and reader and to do that I’ll use a device I’ve used before in my American Literature survey: I’ll show a set of clips from the film Shakespeare in Love that show how Romeo and Juliet is produced not by a solitary genius but by a writer who transforms the materials of the everyday world around him and works in collaboration with other writers (such as Marlowe), actors, and indeed the entire culture around him. And I’ll suggest that Melville is doing something similar.
Shakespeare will arise again when I call attention to the story of Melville’s meeting with Hawthorne and his statement, in “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” that “Shakespeare has been approached.” The other thing I’ll show them in “Hawthorne and His Mosses” is Melville’s description of the “great power of blackness” in Hawthorne, which “derives its force from its appeals to
that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free. For, in certain moods, no man can weigh this world, without throwing in something, somehow like Original Sin, to strike the uneven balance.”
And of course, on the eve of the anniversary of 9/11, I’ll have to end with that uncanny moment at the end of “Loomings,” when Ishmael makes his joke about his role in the script that the Fates have written:
And, doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:
“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.”
“WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL.”
“BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN.”
Whoa. Cue Led Zeppelin.