At War With Time: The Wisdom of Western Thought From the Sages to a New Activism for Our Time, by Craig Eisendrath. Helios Press. 304 pages. $24.95.
Craig Eisendrath's At War With Time: The Wisdom of Western Thought From the Sages to a New Activism for Our Time covers 5,000-plus years in 304 pages, or 18 years per page -- time for a teen to grow to full world anxiety. I laughed when I sat down to read it. "They laughed when I sat down at the piano." Remember that classic advertisement for some quick-and-surefire way to become a virtuoso? Like that scoffing audience, I ended up impressed. Despite its cheaply printed look and its occasional lapses in proofreading, the book is valuable in one of the more unusual ways for a philosophy text: It is useful. One of its uses would be to provide an exam-taker (or philosophy major's computer science roommate) the speed-reading version of Western thought in its entirety. Amazingly condensed, it's not dumbed-down. But I have found another, more profound use for the book: to re-establish in my own mind the meaningfulness of meaning.
I'm one of many writers who have been blocked, lately, by a sense that there is no point to writing. The underpinning of at least 4,900 years of Western thinking -- the notion that history, morality and external reality itself are rooted in permanent truths, presided over by godhead and / or deductive logic -- has been replaced by the understanding that external reality and its "laws" exist only in immediate contexts that shift with periods and perceptors. The implications of the shift from permanence (Eisendrath's term) to relativism are vast. How are thinking people supposed to live life on this planet?
For a writer, the implications about how language works, and for whom, are stunning. If the connection between ideas expressed in words and the meaning of those words shifts with each reader, I have no control over how my reader perceives the objects I make out of words.
That being the case, why am I crafting them? If the writer is just one perceptor, as subject to the vectors of time and place as the reader, the writer herself cannot "mean." She can, at best, "say." (To whom? and why? these questions reiterate with every effort to get past this existential form of writer's block.) Eisendrath's answer lies in action (hence the "new activism" of the book's subtitle). Language, like people of good will, can and must not merely "be." He quotes Terry Eagleton, a prominent literary critic and Marxist theorist, who emerges as one of Eisendrath's heroes: "words like 'truth,' 'reality,' 'knowledge,' and 'certainty' have something of their force restored to them ... when we think of language rather as something we do, as indissociably interwoven with our practical forms of life."
Of course, Eisendrath is addressing an audience far wider than old writers like myself who have been thrown into doubt and despair by aspects of contemporary literary theory. But that is the stance from which I inevitably view At War With Time. And the book helped. Not that it was a quick fix. What on Earth does anybody -- writer or reader -- expect a poem to "do," for god's sake?
Eisendrath's concept of activism is, basically, for men and women to work toward global agreement on certain basic principles of humane interaction (his great example is world censure of ritual female genital mutilation, no matter how time-honored a local tradition it may be).
I cannot expect a poem of mine to work directly toward the elimination of clitoridectomy. What it can do, however, is try to mean something to readers. By writing to an audience I care about enough to seek its comprehension, perhaps I join the people of good will whom Eisendrath's book calls to action.
Clarinda Harriss is on sabbatical from her job as chair of Towson University's English department to work on her short fiction and two new collections of poems. She has published three volumes of poetry. She edits and directs BrickHouse Books.