Lend me a fiver

Terry Eagleton

  • Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme by Martin Jay
    California, 431 pp, £22.00, January 2005, ISBN 0 520 24272 6

Oscar Wilde called experience the name one gives to one’s mistakes, while for Samuel Johnson it was what hope triumphed over for those who married a second time. Emerson thought all experience was valuable, an opinion not shared by the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay. Plato and Spinoza saw it as a realm of illusion, to be contrasted with the pure light of reason. Jacques Derrida deeply disliked the notion, suspecting it of dark metaphysical tendencies. For William Blake, from whom Martin Jay takes the title of his absorbing new study, experience is a domain of false consciousness and fruitless desire. For Romantics like Keats, by contrast, it is the zone of sensuous immediacy in which truth is revealed. Truth, for the Keatsian sort of Romantic, means authenticity – a fidelity to one’s feelings and sensations – rather than how it is with the world.

William James saw experience as the primal stuff of existence; it was a foundation that we could not dig beneath, since whatever we found there would still be a matter of experience. For empiricists like Locke and Hume, experience is what informs us that our feet will still be there when we wake up in the morning. Like the media in Uzbekistan, it is not very reliable, but it is all there is by way of information about the external world. The opposite of experience is ignorance, which makes it sound worth having, but also innocence, which does not. ‘Experienced’ can have a resonance of ‘sexually experienced’, just as ‘immorality’, in the puritan mind, usually means sex. Like the word ‘evil’ for Bushites, or ‘taste’ in the 18th century, the term can be a way of rebuffing rational analysis. It is what you have in your bones rather than in your head.

Experience can mean either the flow of everyday sensations, or especially memorable chunks of it, or the wisdom and know-how which come from having been in the game a long time. Walter Benjamin saw it as the stories which the old recount to the young, and its disintegration in modern times seemed to him one of the most grievous forms of human poverty. The warning that experience is fading from the modern world is sounded all the way from Heidegger to Adorno. The ‘eternal now’ of modern urban existence, for which everything that happened more than ten minutes ago is ancient history, has eroded that precious medium of experience, tradition. In a world of fleeting perceptions and instantly consumable objects, nothing stays still long enough to lay down the deep memory traces that Proust struggled to raise to consciousness. In modern philosophy, experience is reduced to epistemology, while in postmodern thought the whole category is in danger of sinking without trace. This theoretical death of the subject may reflect among other things some rather more tangible disappearances. In the era of Auschwitz, events take place that slip over the horizon of any conceivable experience.

Only intellectuals, one might think, could regard experience as a category in its own right. For doesn’t it cover more or less everything there is? The idea of a ‘theory of experience’ appears contradictory. Can you really isolate a subject called ‘experience’, or is it like trying to write a doctoral thesis entitled ‘Thought’? Theology, in fact, has long supposed that you could: there are various discourses about God, one of which, mysticism, deals with the actual experience of Him. Treating experience as a category in itself is useful because it allows you to raise questions about how far experience enters into such matters as reason, religious faith or moral judgment. For rationalists like Descartes, in contrast to empiricists like Hume, experience has precious little role to play in reasoning. As far as religious faith goes, Protestants are more likely than scholastics to regard it as vital; and Aristotle sees experience as more central to ethics than Kant does.

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