AN INTERVIEW WITH JEAN-LUC BEAUCHARD
By A.T. Stojkovich
The Montréal Review, January 2024
The campus felt like it shouldn’t exist. Agèd history spackled with contemporary iconography—marble tympana hidden behind the logos of coffee chains, chicaning stone walkways distressed by the odd electric scooter, clerestories uselessly feeding light into motion-detecting, automatically lit hallways. Paired with the nonexistent humdrum of a university during fall break, I was in a bustling ghost town. A real-life paradox. After wandering the buildings, I found the café, ordered an Americano, and sat in a low armchair.
Sitting under the lamplight and sipping my coffee, I waited for the philosopher. After about ten minutes, he noiselessly ambled from around a corner with his hands in his pockets as if he had nowhere to be. Brown leather dress shoes, ill-fitting goose-gray suit, black plastic glasses, and short cropped salt n’ pepper hair (mostly salt). A style that belongs to the 80s, an aura that belongs to the 1880s, and a man who belongs to the 2020s. The campus came to life in the form of Jean-Luc Beauchard. A walking paradox. He sat down, answered a few preliminary questions, and promptly asked for the interview to begin.
A.T. Stojkovich: In your most recent book, City of Man, you say that a good “philosophical detective asks… why? What’s the motive?” (pg. 133). You seem to think that in order to better understand someone’s philosophy, you must understand the philosopher in question. I’d like to turn the question on you. Why do you write?
JLB: The question of intellectual genealogy is a very difficult one because the truth is that none of us knows how he came to be. Our parents and educators -- not to mention the broader culture and the state -- author most of our fundamental ideas for us. Our convictions are given to us readymade from the time of our earliest youth. We assume them unreflectively, absorbing our worldviews and self-understandings through stories, customs, morals, religion, patriotism, books -- even basic constructs such as language and number have a shaping effect. That being said, I can trace certain aspects of my character to influences throughout my life. I grew up in a French-American household. My parents immigrated to the United States about a year before I was born. They brought much of their culture with them and for the first decade of my life, I spoke more French than English. I loved to learn about French history, particularly the forgotten kings. (In France today, you'd be forgiven for thinking the nation was born after the Revolution).
For reasons not worth recounting, I lived with my aunt from my tenth to my sixteenth birthday. She was a very devout woman who taught me to read scripture and read it closely. She was also unmoved by my youth skepticism and allowed me to question and critique her faith. (At the time, it seemed naive and simplistic to me). This period was incredibly important for my development. It taught me to read well and pay careful attention. It taught me to ask questions and to trust my doubts. The seeds of my intellectual trajectory were watered and took root in my aunt's home. I went to college because that was what everyone did and I studied journalism. I even worked for a short time at a now-defunct newspaper. But my love of history, philosophy, literature continued to beckon and eventually I found my way back to school where -- for what reason, only God knows -- I decided to become a priest.
The rest of the story can be guessed by anyone with an ounce of knowledge of the Catholic intellectual tradition. I read Augustine and was profoundly changed. I found in his writings the room I needed to be wayward, to experience the pangs of uncertainty and even doubt. I taught a bit and found that students gravitated to the thinkers my colleagues neglected. My undergrads loved Camus and Nietzsche, were invigorated by the more poetic thinkers and most especially by literature. This suited me well because I teach almost exclusively what I read and gloss the rest. (Poor Kant hasn't found his way onto a syllabus of mine in almost a decade, but I have spent an inordinate amount of time parsing La Rochefoucauld's maxims). My writing is born from my reading which is why certain books and thinkers take on exaggerated roles in my works (Dostoevsky, for instance, and Plato). But mostly I write about what interests me, whatever ideas or texts captivate me at a given time. Which means that I don't really understand my motives as a writer. Would it be too crass to say I write because it's fun? Would you think me in jest if I said that good writing is often funny, and I've found that I really like to laugh?
Your background fascinates me. The profound theological influence your aunt had on you reminds me of the great Mary Moody Emerson.
When you say you were taught to “read well and pay careful attention,” how do you mean? Reading is an awfully independent, yet collaborative, endeavor. I’m reminded of the Ansel Adams quote, “There are always two people in every picture; the photographer and the viewer.” As a critical reader, do you engage in reading a text in such a way that either encapsulates or ignores this maxim? How do you approach a text?
And I would not say it is crass to “write because it's fun.” In fact, I would say that is of the utmost necessity. I would go so far as to say that a reader can feel that playful joy in a work. That’s likely why your students resonated with the poetic thinkers you mention. Why do you think philosophy is most readily absorbed and taken up by thinkers who are emboldened to march to the beat of their own literary drum?
Well, since you begin with Auntie Emerson, allow me to make reference to her nephew, one of history's most neglected philosophers in my estimation. (That he and Thoreau have been relegated to the underappreciated class of "essayists" and are rarely taught in the academy tells us everything we need to know about the state of academic philosophy). It's in "The American Scholar," I believe, that Emerson argues that to be a good reader, one must be a creator. This idea has always been incredibly important to me -- so important, in fact, that I would maintain that one simply cannot read my work if one does not appreciate it. Without this, everything I have written would be nonsensical.
But what does Emerson mean by it? What does he mean when he says that there is creative reading as well as creative writing? We've all heard it said that the best writers are also great readers. But the terms of that proposition can, and indeed must, be reversed: The best readers are great writers. That is, reading is equal parts attention and creation. One never reads a book without also writing it. Every reader is the work's author, whether he knows it or not. Borges understood this. That's why he altered the books he translated. Because, as he said, it is possible to translate for the better. (An idea, by the way, borrowed -- one is tempted to say stolen -- from Razumikhin in Crime and Punishment). Translation, Borges knew, is invention. The translator doesn't transcribe the work. He writes it. But every time we read, we are translating. We are taking an author's ideas and translating them into the images and concepts we have in our minds, we are rewriting the work with our unique understandings. This is why books are inexhaustible. For every book, there are as many readings as there are readers.
Of course, we're not accustomed to thinking of ourselves as authors. We don't respect ourselves enough for that. Or perhaps we take ourselves too seriously and so view reading as work, a skill to be mastered, rather than what it is: play, a game to be invented, a drama to be acted out. Which I think addresses your final question. The writers whom I admire most and who I find others gravitating to as well are those who remind us that philosophy, literature, life itself is meant to be fun. They are often quite funny. Especially when one realizes how seriously everyone else takes them. It's as if most readers don't get the joke.
Thank you for reminding me about your gripe with the academy. City of Man often centers around your distaste for the state of academia, its loyal auxiliaries, and the presumptions that readers go into a text already presupposing an answer. This, I think, ties back to your idea that “the best readers are great writers.” You’re right—we’re not accustomed to thinking of ourselves as authors. Come to think of it, most readers I know would never dare call themselves great writers, let alone writers. Most people read for enjoyment; they read at the surface. Do you really think that academics read like this? And why?
You say life might as well be “a drama acted out.” What do you mean by drama? I assume you mean something meant for the stage, something meant to be performed? If this is the case, who is the audience? Who is the director? Is it a one-man show written by you, directed by you, cast by, created by, and starring… You? Or is there something beyond the fourth wall that I’m not seeing?
I suppose I would quibble with your assertion that most people read for enjoyment and that that is the reason they miss so much. It seems to me that pleasure in reading is precisely what is lacking these days. (Whether or not the responsibility for this debasement falls at the feet of the legion of joyless writers glutting the world with their embarrassingly serious prose is a question for another time). But when one toils soberly, one toils in vain. Academics, of course, are professional readers -- to offer an absurd definition for an absurd class -- and any time leisure is treated as work and deprived of its frivolity, it is fit for caricature. Not that City of Man, or any of my writings for that matter, should be read as satire. No, my books are as genuine as my name. And in a way, they are like my name: given to me as much as they are my own.
Whatever could I mean by that strange formulation? I think what I'm trying to articulate is this realization I had when writing Memnon that as long as I view my work as my work -- something I possess, something that belongs to me and not, say, the reader -- I am liable to ruin it. Chesterton comments somewhere on the egoism of writers. Serious writers watch themselves too closely, care too much about what their works say about them. And, fixated as they are on themselves, they can't get out of their own way. But that's not the only kind of writing. Read Cervantes. Read de Quincey. Read Pessoa. The joy their writings exude comes from the fact that they took their work seriously and themselves lightly. They approached writing with the seriousness of play and themselves as jesters whose job is to entertain. For Plato, philosophy is a dance, a sport, a hunt, the most exhilarating of games. It is also a kind of madness. A "bacchic frenzy" he calls it. A madness that comes from without, inspired by the gods. It is my hope that my writing evinces the kind of playfulness and levity of spirit -- the divine madness -- characteristic of every good philosophy. And if readers approach it as such, I suspect they'll get more out of it, if only because they let themselves go and allow themselves to have a bit of fun.
To your final point about us playing our parts on the stage of life, I would say that -- while every chorus needs a good director -- my interest has led me to focus more on the characters, the parts being acted out. That's where the story is, as every true director would no doubt admit.
Taking a step back from the broader philosophy of writing, I’d like to talk a bit about the specifics of your recent book, City of Man. Your reading of Plato’s Republic is quite damning. In a book that you describe as a series of footnotes to the man himself, you read Plato in a way that is unlike anyone I have encountered. Not only do you propose a Platonic tyranny, but you also seem to suggest that Plato’s proffered Republic serves as a parallel to America, both in its origin and today. Do you not think that your experience in contemporary America has, perhaps, affected your reading of the Republic? Do you not think the society you inhabit has changed the way you read Plato? How do you balance this discrepancy between the ancient world and the modern? If I am reading you correctly, you also take the Republic’s ruler/ruled relationship and apply that to the author/reader relationship. What, to you, makes this comparison apt?
The more one reads history and, particularly, philosophy, the more one comes to appreciate the wisdom of the Wisdom Books. "What has been, will be. What has been done, will be done. There is nothing new under the sun," and so on. I think you're right that my reading of Plato's Republic offers interesting parallels to contemporary life. But I take it that that is because Plato is dealing with perennial problems and because human beings don't change very much, even though the contexts in which we find ourselves do. At a fundamental level, man is greedy. That was true in Athens. That is true in America today. The question that I'm interested in is: Why is man greedy? Plato, I think, offers some interesting thoughts on the subject. Civilization has always left man feeling profoundly discontented. This has been true even in the best, most liberal of societies. But why that is that case isn't always clear. The job of the philosopher is not only to recognize these facts, but to attempt to explain them. In doing so, he sometimes says an interesting thing or two about the world in which he lives.
Of course, I do live in America and I, like all of us, am a product of the culture that raised me. As I said earlier, all of us are shaped before we can begin to conceive of what it would mean to think for ourselves. So that influences my reading of Plato and every other book I pick up as well. But I work hard to substantiate my reading with constant reference to the dialogues. I always go back to the texts. I think readers will find it hard to refute my claims if they are unwilling to follow the citations to the primary sources and then patiently offer alternative readings of their own. That doesn't mean they will agree with me. Some, I suspect, will simply dismiss my interpretation out of hand. That isn't exactly charitable, but who among us is?
As for the relationship between the author and the reader, I would say that everything I have written thus far has been an attempt to untangle the various problems that arise from that dynamic. When one writes, one is trying to say something to someone. But what the author is trying to say resists even him and who his readers will be is entirely unknown. City of Man is a book about the tyranny of authorship and the servility of the reader. But, then, Plato would say there can be lawful tyrants, wouldn't he?
On that note, I’m curious about the overlap between The Mask of Memnon and City of Man. While the two seem to have little in relation to each other, this author/character/reader dynamic runs as a throughline for your writing. Specifically, in Memnon, you say that when the author creates a character, he gives him meaning for the reader’s sake, not for the character’s. The character cannot create meaning for himself in relation to the author, so he must search elsewhere. Try as he might, the character realizes he cannot engage in an act of self-creation or becoming because he is not the author of his own story. Towards the end of City of Man, you create a character which is, more or less, your Platonic ideal of a reader. You create a character and give him meaning, yet he finds his meaning in relation to himself. Is this your proffered solution to the issue of meaning in relation to the character?
I create a character? I certainly hope you're not referring to the anecdote about Professor Christopher with which the book closes. Every word of that story is true. Or are you talking about the dialogical structure the work takes toward the end? If so, there is nothing inventive about that. Freud does the same thing in The Future of an Illusion, Nietzsche in Genealogy, even Augustine tries his hand at dialogue in Against the Academicians -- all of them, of course, learned from the master: Plato. Your question about the relation between the author, the reader, and the character in my work, however, is apt. Memnon argues, I hope persuasively, that the "death of the author" literary theory popularized by Barthes (which still has purchase today) completely neglects the significance of the character in artistic creation. But for many authors -- I'm thinking of everyone from Cervantes to Dostoevsky to someone like Madrox writing today -- the character is primary. There is, of course, this question of how the character can have his own meaning, his own freedom to voice his own ideas and in a way create himself, given that he is a created being. And that is the paradox that Memnon sets out to understand.
City of Man is related -- if it is related, I leave it to readers to decide -- by means of an analogy. We, of course, are not characters in a book. We live in the absence of an author. But in relation to the state, we are indeed invented, so to speak. Socrates makes this clear in the Crito where he attributes everything from his material wellbeing to his education to even his birth and thus his life to the laws and organization of the polis. If that is the case, what freedom can we, as individuals, say we have? Whence our meaning if we are the products of the state? This is admittedly a difficult question. But I believe Plato offers some answers -- uncomfortable answers, perhaps, but answers all the same.
Finally, I’d like to ask about your upcoming book, Philosophical Fragments on Human Sexuality. Because it is described as an homage to Kierkegaard’s character-author Johannes Climacus, I’m curious about the overlap your work has in relation to the themes and content of Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments? Is it more of a tribute in style and form, or is there a greater arc of the Kierkegaardian project that is echoed in your work? And, circling back to my last question, is Kierkegaard’s idea of the character-author related to the notions you play with in Memnon (and City of Man) about the character, meaning, and the ways in which one goes about creating that?
Although I cite him just a handful of times, I cannot deny the amount of influence Kierkegaard has had on my writing. The subtle reader will, no doubt, pick up on the resonances. Leaving aside the conclusion of the first part of his Sickness Unto Death -- from which, I could imagine some charming accuser insist, I simply lift the idea for Memnon -- Kierkegaard's characters are a marvel. The freedom they are given to express themselves, the latitude they have to exercise their thinking and at times even stand in direct opposition to their author, ought to be the envy of every writer of fiction. Few novelists have invented such fascinating personages. Indeed, with the obvious exception of Plato (and allowing for the possibility that some unknown Pessoian genius -- a sort of "infinite Leibniz" to quote Borges -- is attempting a similar feat today), I would go so far as to say that Kierkegaard is the most artistically impressive philosopher ever to put pen to paper. (I say this, by the way, knowing full well what I myself aspire to; that is, I humbly admit that I am no Kierkegaard, nor was meant to be).
As for my latest work, it's hard for me to say just what it is. Chesterton has a great line somewhere about needing to be careful not to taunt an author who is ready to write books on the feeblest provocation. Well, I was mulling around after finishing City of Man, looking for inspiration, I suppose, and to my delight, I found that feeblest provocation. Fragments was the result. It is due out in 2024 from a small, independent publisher that makes very charming books: Senex Press. You, I believe, have some association with that press. I look forward to hearing what you and others think about the book.
Thanks for taking the time to sit with me today.
Beauchard and I left the café, retracing the path I walked about an hour earlier. He told me the history of the buildings, the story of the famed choir, and the state of the school’s politics. As he spoke, I finally understood the fire behind his words—he is rightly concerned. I realized that as much as he disdains academia, Beauchard is an academic to his core. His twill lapel will forever be pinned with the passion for pedagogy.
When we reached the edge of campus, he sent me on my way. I ambled to the train, hands in my pockets as if I had nowhere to be.
THREE PHILOSOPHICAL VILLAINS UNMASKED
By Jean-Luc Beauchard
The Montréal Review, October 2023