Textual Friendship: The Essay as Impossible Encounter-From Plato and Montaigne to Levinas and Derrida

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Kuisma Korhonen. Textual Friendship: The Essay as Impossible Encounter—From Plato and Montaigne to Levinas and Derrida

New York: Prometheus Books, 2006, 494 pp.
How does the form of the essay relate to its content? How should one “read” the essay—in opposition to, or in conjunction with rhetoric, philosophy, and literature? Why does friendship appear as a recurring motif in so many notable essays? These are key questions that inform Kuisma Korhonen’s Textual Friendship: The Essay as Impossible Encounter—From Plato and Montaigne to Levinas and Derrida, a thorough and ambitious literary and philosophical analysis of the rhetorical and formal strategies that have been applied to the study of essayistic discourse. Korhonen centers this consideration around the thematic element of friendship: friendship as a recurring trope in the essay where the essayist is at various moments haunted by the memory of deceased friends and cognizant of future readers, and where the writer transcribes a living friendship or responds to a friend’s letters in the assumed privacy afforded by this literary form, as occurs to varying degrees in Plato’s Phaedrus, Montaigne’s Essais, and Derrida’s Politiques de l’amitié. Friendship also structures the author/reader pact at the heart of the reading experience and within the scope of rhetorical persuasion. However, as Korhonen reminds us, any notion of textual friendship, as inscribed within the framework of textual encounter is, in many ways, always already haunted by the possibility of rhetorical violence; thus, textual friendship necessarily implies the impossibility of friendship.

In the first part of this work, “The Essay and Textual Friendship,” Korhonen provides a comprehensive overview of the many ways in which the essay as a genre has been considered. As an “antigenre,” rather, the essay occupies a liminal status: neither philosophy nor literature, or, perhaps more precisely, both philosophy and literature. As such, the essay resounds with a polyphony of voices. Who speaks in an essay? The writer? The narrator? The real-life author? For the purposes of this analysis, Korhonen refers to the essay as the history of transition from the rhetorical violence implied by the collision of textual voices to the (im)possibility of textual friendship. Friendship, like the essay, remains situated at the problematic crossroads of Aristotle’s definition of secondary friendships: pleasurable on the one hand and useful on the other. Like the essay, friendship too is both/and and simultaneously neither/nor useful and pleasurable. Alongside the cacophony of textual voices in the essay, the definition of reading and readership becomes equally blurred.

Korhonen considers three distinct reading strategies in the second part of this work, “An Ethical Genealogy of the Essay,” citing three traditions that have played an important role in the history of the essay: rhetorical composition, philosophical dialogue and the Pyrrhonian skeptical method. Korhonen notably cautions us to avoid considering one single method in our own analyses; rather, we might seek a reading in between these three approaches. To this end, Korhonen turns to the ethical relation between self (writer) and other (reader) and the potential for dialogue opened up within the space of the essay. In the third part of this study, “From Plato to Derrida: Some Readings on Textual Friendship in the Essay,” Korhonen turns to specific and exemplary essayists and those essays (or, in the case of Cicero and Seneca, ethical writings and letters respectively) that explicitly address friendship: Plato’s Phaedrus, Lysis and Symposium, Cicero’s Laelium, Seneca’s Epistulae ad Lucilum, St. Augustine’s Confessiones, Montaigne’s Essais, Bacon’s Essays, Emerson’s writings, Saint-Évremond’s “Maxime qu’on ne doit jamais manquer à ses amis,” “L’amitié sans amitié” and “L’intérêt dans les personnes tout à fait corrompues. La vertu trop rigide. Les sentiments d’un honnête et habile courtisan sur cette vertu rigide et ce sale intérêt,” Madame de Lambert’s writings and Derrida’s Politiques de l’amitié: Suivi de l’oreille de Heidegger. It is refreshing that Korhonen includes female voices in this study as they shed light on questions of friendship between women as well as friendships between men and women; however, it is rather disappointing that more examples were not given, particularly in light of Korhonen’s inclusion of Luce Irigaray’s work. This final part of Korhonen’s analysis nonetheless best exemplifies the weight and significance of this work as it moves adroitly between textual analysis of specific essays and theoretical questions of friendship all the while illuminating the link between these single essays and the breadth of secondary literature on them.

Adrienne Angelo <#> Auburn University


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