MARCH 31, 2019
IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE Mark C. Taylor retired. Though he’s spent his life in the Northeast, I have always thought of him as the Midwestern farmer of cultural criticism and philosophy of religion, the type of person with a determined spirit and inexhaustible work ethic who wakes before dawn to head to the barn, even in subzero temperatures, even when everyone else is taking the day off. Taylor does rise before dawn, and he does head to a barn. But, it’s to write. His home in Stone Hill in the Berkshires — more specifically his barn-study — has been his sanctuary for decades. In the shadows of Thoreau and Melville, this is where he has written dozens of books, thousands of pages.
Yet the man who speaks proudly of his daily routine of domestic isolation, situated at a desk adorned with ivy clippings from Hegel’s grave and dirt from Kierkegaard’s burial site, has made a career of wandering. In 1984, Taylor published Erring: A Postmodern A/theology, which was the first book-length work to reflect on the possibilities for religious reflection opened by Derridean poststructuralism. For Taylor, deconstruction was the “hermeneutic of the death of God,” and it opened new pathways for understanding the sacrality of mortal life. As the heir of Nietzsche and Heidegger, Derrida refused to envision the human being as either buoyed by a cosmic anchor (like a theist might) or as the anchor itself (like a humanist might). Instead, Derrida steadfastly posited that the human is untethered from any origin or goal, leaving uncertainty, unpredictability, and unknowability at the heart of its condition. “The erring nomad neither looks back to an absolute beginning nor ahead to an ultimate end,” writes Taylor. While understandably not everyone’s philosophical cup of tea, Taylor’s post-death-of-God atheology became a touchstone for philosophers and scholars of religion who wanted to work through the complex intersections of secularity, meaning-making, and mortality in and through religion.
In the three decades since Erring, Taylor has neither cultivated an army of acolytes nor used his position at Columbia University to lay the foundations for a Taylorian School of Criticism. Instead, he’s ventured into various corners of culture and thought — from postmodern literature to complex systems, desert art installations, and the logic of Las Vegas — in order to explore the meaning of life after God’s death. These voyages were motivated by a task already envisioned in Erring: “The task of thinking at the end of theology is to think and rethink the tear of time. In this tear and as this tear we might be able to think the sacred anew.” Nearing retirement, Taylor now sees fit to ask: How does the philosopher who made a life of wandering decide it’s time to end the journey? What should the errant philosopher do when his time is coming to an end? These are the questions at the heart of Last Works: Lessons in Leaving.
Taylor has never been one to stand on the shoulders of giants. A lifelong teacher, he is not a good disciple. Instead of advancing the work of his forebears, he has drawn on their wisdom as trusted paths from which to sojourn and then return. In Last Works, Taylor maps these paths in an intellectual autobiography through an investigation into the life, and often troubled deaths, of the literary or philosophical ghosts who have haunted him for half a century. Despite the breadth of Taylor’s oeuvre, it has always been clear that a handful of thinkers have determined the direction of his scholarship. In each chapter of Last Works, Taylor looks to one of them for guidance on how to leave and how to end.
At first glance, it appears he chose badly. Three of them died young. Three committed suicide. Another three spent the last chapters of their lives in some form of isolation, silence, or madness. The only ones to reach old age in relatively good health were Freud, who died amid the horrors of World War II, and Derrida, who died of cancer in his 70s. If, as Taylor says, “[t]he art of living is learning to leave gracefully,” it seems that the writers and thinkers in this group rarely, if ever, experienced or bestowed such a grace.
Taylor’s ghosts are in many ways homogeneous: they are all white, and Virginia Woolf is the lone woman. In other ways, they are diverse: David Foster Wallace’s reflections on his addiction to television are different from Blanchot’s dispatches from his militant isolation. Hemingway’s stark prose stands opposite Derrida’s inscrutable writing style. And yet for Taylor they are united by the fact that their writing refuses to be a solution to the conditions of living and dying. They are the saints of liminality — those who attempted to represent the unrepresentable void that constitutes the mortal condition, who sought to make sacred the tragic experience of temporality.
The book is not, therefore, an annotation of wisdom from Taylor’s heroes. He refuses the path of glossing their works for parables of wisdom to hand down to a younger generation. It is also not a set of biographies. The book is rather a reflection on the end of life through the question of its meaning — and, by extension, the purpose of writing. In every chapter Taylor weaves together each thinker’s formative biographical influences, usually through reflection on their relationships with their parents, with their most poignant philosophical and literary contributions.
In such reflection, we gain a map of the philosophical bedrocks of Taylor’s thought. Through Kierkegaard and Nietzsche (chapters one and two), Taylor outlines the impenetrability of the self to itself — the human as “mysterious as vast oceans once had been.” This leads to the lessons learned from Blanchot, Freud, and Derrida (chapters three through five), where we proceed from the self’s opacity to its restlessness. The irresolvable structure of selfhood results, according to Taylor, in an inexhaustible movement between life and death, self and world, meaning and void. Through Poe, Woolf, Hemingway, and Wallace (chapters six through nine) it becomes clear that the meaning, and unending challenge, of writing is to articulate this irresolvability. Taylor’s analysis of these figures traces back to what he first learned from Derrida in the early ’80s. They all in their own ways try to represent the irreducible horizons of birth and death through their fiction. Their brilliance, in Taylor’s estimation, is their recognition of the perpetual liminality of the human condition. They all understood in different ways that the self is constituted by an empty center around which all things evolve, or as Wallace Stevens puts it in “Sunday Morning,” “death is the mother of beauty, mystical.”
The last two chapters on Melville and Thoreau are the most personal. Taylor admits that in these chapters he is reflecting on two disparate, and yet generative, aspects of himself. Taylor is “thinking, writing, and indeed, living between Melville and Thoreau,” because they represent the melancholy he inherited from his mother, a teacher of literature, and the love of the earth bestowed upon him by his father, a science teacher and botanist. Just as he linked the beginnings of each thinker with their endings, in these final chapters Taylor links his own origins to the question of how he will end his career and life. From his mother, and from Melville, Taylor believes he inherited the melancholy required for a philosophical life, the kind of will-to-self-introspection that never ends. In his father, and in Thoreau, Taylor locates the wandering spirit that has typified his thought for over three decades. After retirement, Taylor explains, his father Noel spent countless hours chronicling the flowers, trees, and animal species at a green space near his home that eventually became a city park — now “Taylor Park.” In Taylor’s estimation, there was no ultimate why to an old man working tirelessly to organize a garden in the middle of a bustling and populated city. The why came in the seemingly small, and surely temporary, project of holding open a space in which people could play, think, and — in ways similar to Thoreau — walk without a purpose. In other words, the purpose of the work for both Noel Taylor and Thoreau was to wander, to explore without a stated purpose or endpoint. In doing so, both of them made it possible for others to follow — not close behind as acolytes, but along their own paths and according to their own intuition.
This is the most poignant autobiographical lesson Taylor offers in Last Works: the realization that what he can take with him into retirement is the perspective that his long career of philosophical wandering has opened a space for others to wonder. For a philosopher who envisions the human being as ineluctably errant, and thus refuses to envision a final resting place for human thought or action, this is the final lesson to learn. A hard one no doubt, since it means the end is neither a homecoming, nor a homegoing. Just the end of a long, and meaningful, journey.