A mission of unsettlement

Rosanna Warren brings academic mischief to the Committee on Social Thought.

Poet and essayist Rosanna Warren, the Hanna Holborn Gray Distinguished Service Professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, joined UChicago in 2011; she taught a course before going on leave for the 2012-13 academic year. "All I knew was the route to the library and the classroom," she says. After a year in New York writing poetry and working on a biography of the French poet Max Jacob, Warren returns to the University this fall as a faculty member. She will teach two courses: a graduate seminar on Yeats and Auden and an undergraduate course on French poetry in translation.

What drew you to the Committee on Social Thought?

I used to teach in an interdisciplinary honors program at Boston University called the University Professors Program, which was a tremendously imaginative and academically intense program and the nearest thing I knew to the Committee on Social Thought--in fact, one of my colleagues there was Saul Bellow [X'39], who had come there when he left Chicago. So I did have in my experience the sense of the community I wanted, which was interdisciplinary and had very high academic standards.

What do you find so appealing about interdisciplinary programs?

It helps to set these different arts and disciplines next to one another, because that illuminates something about what kind of thinking can occur in their realms. If you're just in a French department or an English department, you can get a little provincial in your thinking, a little too comfortable with the terms. I've always enjoyed the unsettlement of having my colleagues using a vocabulary with which I'm not that familiar. As an example local to Chicago, there's Adam Zagajewski, who is also part of the Committee of Social Thought. He is trained in philosophy, has a philosophical imagination, but is also very much a lyric poet. To me his work dramatizes the ways in which lyric refuses philosophy but also plays with it at the same time and perhaps challenges it.

What does it mean to say that poetry "refuses" philosophy?

This is a generalization, but on the whole, philosophy is a discipline dedicated to the pursuit of truths through the exercise of reason through argument, generalization, and abstraction. It is dedicated to building systematic structures of tested thought. Lyric poetry doesn't so much "pursue" truths as it dramatizes them. It lives by concrete imagery, singular details, cadence, and the mobilization of the unconscious into the precincts of consciousness. It rebels against systematic thought and abstractions. If it employs them, it often does so mischievously. Poetry tries to enlarge our sphere of awareness by playing upon the sensory aspects of language--phonetics, rhythm--and by cunning derangements of accepted codes of sense, whether syntactic or semantic. I like to think that poetry and the other arts have a mission of unsettlement too--that they should unsettle philosophy, history, sociology, and so forth. 

How might you unsettle some of your students and fellow faculty?

[laughs] I think that it's not that I will unsettle them. I think that poems themselves--good poems, read seriously--do unsettle the receptive soul.

What experience do you have with the city of Chicago?

Oh, very little. I'll be learning a new city and a new part of the country. Obviously there's a great art museum, some of the most historic architecture in the United States, all of the things that one knows about, and which I look forward to exploring. I'm almost worried about blowing a fuse with so many revelations that Chicago promises, so I have to calm myself down when I think about it. I know that the daily work of the classroom, of the library, is all very steadying, so I'm looking forward to that too--not being like a firecracker constantly going off.

Can you think of any poems that an anthropologist or a philosopher would be productively unsettled by?

This is off the top of my head, but I'm thinking of a poem by Yeats called "The Cold Heaven."

Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice, And thereupon imagination and heart were driven So wild that every casual thought of that and this Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago; And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason, Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro, Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken, Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken By the injustice of the skies for punishment?

The reason I quoted this poem is that it's illogical. First of all, it ends with a question--it doesn't have a propositional argumentative content or form. And then there's an illogic within the poem: why should the soul be sent out after death and punished by the injustice of the skies? In normal theological structures, if the soul has done ill during life, then after death it's justly punished.  The lyric poem is dramatizing a challenge to a certain kind of logical argument. And that would be just the beginning for an interesting conversation, where one would have to ask, What's the course of thought here, then, if it's teasingly giving us logical categories about moral judgment but then somehow refusing to keep to them?