Philosopher Irad Kimhi teaches unhappiness in his own way.
Last year Irad Kimhi’s undergraduate Unhappiness course, according to a friend who was enrolled, attracted tenured philosophy professors, graduate students, and auditors who filled the lecture hall to bursting. Kimhi, an associate professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought and the College, is famous in modern philosophical circles for his Thinking and Being: A Two Way Capacity—a book forthcoming from Harvard University Press but long in circulation in the form of drafts and lecture notes passed among colleagues and former students.
His research connects logic and the philosophy of language to questions in metaphysics and psychoanalysis. He has broad expertise: in two years at UChicago, after stops at Yale and Tel Aviv University, he’s taught Martin Heidegger, Hamlet, psychoanalysis, and the analytic philosopher Gottlob Frege.
When I arrive at the fifth-floor classroom in Foster Hall on a Tuesday in April, I find a diverse group of about 15 undergraduates, a few missing among 19 enrolled. This is a comparative literature class, a philosophy class, and a Committee on Social Thought class, and I recognize fellow English majors besides. It’s the fourth week of spring quarter and everybody looks comfortable; several students have brought lunch or sip coffee.
Kimhi arrives just as the clock hits 1:30 and wastes no time jumping into the deep end: Sigmund Freud’s reading of Oedipus Rex, which pioneered the idea of the Oedipus complex (the child’s repressed sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex). “There’s an intimate relation between psychoanalysis and this play,” says Kimhi, who speaks in a stentorian tone with a thick Israeli accent and an unhurried cadence. “It has to do with the unconscious question being asked: What is the father? Who is the father?”
Oedipus Rex, says Kimhi, sets up the question of the father as a crisis of succession. Oedipus fulfills a prophecy whereby he kills his father, beds his mother, and unwittingly brings disaster to his city, Thebes. “We have this question of maintenance, of how the world continues,” says Kimhi. “The three plays we discuss”—Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, and Samuel Beckett’s Endgame—“have a corrupt world in crisis. We start with a scene of disease, and the corruption is connected to a crisis of transmission in the figure of the father. In this crisis of the way the world continues, we have this emergence of the poetical world.”
Kimhi is almost free-associating, his audience rapt and silent. The overarching objective of the class is to tackle poetic and philosophical conceptions of unhappiness. Kimhi argues that the three plays he assigned reflect a change in mankind’s consciousness over time. Before we can get to unhappiness, though, we have to define our terms. For Kimhi this is far from a trivial task. His stream of associations leads from Oedipus to the etymology of Freud’s term “uncanny” and its connotation, in the German, of “unfamiliar,” or “not family.” The prefix “un” is especially complex. “How can you think the not?” he asks. “How can you think something that is not a unity; how can something come to be that is mortal? How can nonbeing become a subject matter for philosophy?”
For Kimhi, this all emerges from the strangeness inherent in psychoanalysis. Freud “discovered” the unconscious, says Kimhi, in the sense that psychoanalysis works by diagnosing what patients are simply unable to recognize in themselves. This is the source of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, where he introduces the Oedipus complex. Dreams and art are interrelated, Kimhi says, with all art forms displaying a “dreamlike character,” a reflection of humanity as not fully awake.
From there he brings up Freud’s idea of the individual dreamer as a “stranger at home.” The stranger is dreaming, Kimhi says, but the dreamer is also “in some deep intimate sense, you.” This, he adds, reflects “the uncanny character of the unconscious.”
Kimhi’s careful to qualify, though, that he’s painting in broad strokes. “I’m not suggesting these images are concepts,” he says. It’s 30 minutes into the class, and a student finally pipes up. “I’m not totally sure what you mean by ‘concept,’” says a reedy-voiced guy who gives off a grad-student vibe.
Kimhi responds with the typical Kantian definition—“general representations in use by conscious judgment.” Philosophy emerged for the Greeks, he goes on, as “a demand for conceptual clarification. ... This understanding is a fundamental part of our existence, our intellect.”
Kimhi explains that contemporary philosophy is still figuring out exactly what a concept is; this is a foundational question. “The relationship between language as a metaphor, figure, and concept is a deep issue; how do we have a concept of consciousness? And every concept has a negative, so we have something of the uncanny in our concepts.”
This sends him back in time from Freud to the classical philosophers. Plato asserts that pleasure is concordant with the good in being. “Beauty is supposed to be a radiation of organic unity,” says Kimhi. But we also have a “perverse” fascination with the “beautiful dead.”
“In some sense, all art—you think about sculpture—has beauty from some ambiguity of life and not life. That’s what you find in this piece of the uncanny,” says Kimhi. Aristotle, on the other hand, disagrees that such pleasure is perverse. “What is the kind of pleasure we take when we ride a roller coaster?” Kimhi asks. “You go through your own death, so to speak, but you came out alive. There is a tremendous pleasure we take, and it is not a pleasure we take with an eye towards nonbeing.”
This is where he stops for the day. My head actually hurts from all the abstraction, but it’s hard to stop working on untying the mental knots. The classroom empties with minimal banter, Kimhi’s ideas and images echoing in our minds.
“The old quarrel between philosophy and poetry. Wisdom attained by suffering vis-à-vis happiness.” That’s the first week’s subject matter in Irad Kimhi’s Unhappiness course, which goes on to explore notions of “negation, nonbeing, and the poetic image” and “the uncanny, negation, totem, and taboo.” Readings, which make up the majority of the course requirements along with a five to eight page paper, include Parmenides, Plato, Freud, Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Beckett.