Thursday, July 25, 2013

Mary Gordon on Kant

Mary Gordon apparently quotes Immanuel Kant in her 2010 book on the Home. What it Means and Why It Matters (New York: Sterling) when she writes:
The house, the residence, is the only rampart against the dread of nothingness, darkness, and the obscurity of the past. Its walls contain all that mankind has patiently amassed over hundreds of centuries. It opposes escape, loss and absence by erecting an internal order, a civility, a passion of its own. Its liberty flourishes where there is stability and finitude, not openness and infinity. To be at home is to recognize life's slow pace and the pleasures of sedentary meditation ... Man's identity is thus residential, and that is why the revolutionary, who has neither hearth nor home, hence neither faith not law, epitomizes the anguish of errancy. The man without a home is a potential criminal.

The quotation cannot possibly be from Kant. He could not have written this. The language is all wrong. He himself did not have a house until late in his life. It would also be difficult to see how residential identity could displace the transcendental unity of apperception. Nor would Kant, who was decried as a Jacobin and vehement supporter of the French revolution in Königsberg, have been opposed to revolutionary activity in any way. He would never have identified himself and others by such externalities as a house. My first hunch was that the "quote" is from the nineteenth century, probably French, and illegitimately ascribed to Kant.

So, I was not surprised that she referred to to Philippe Aries and Georges Duby, ed. A History of Private Life. Vol. 3 (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 342 as her source. Yet, this presumed quote cannot be found there either. In fact, Kant is not even mention on the page referred to. Again, no surprise, as vol. 3 of A History of Private Life is on the Renaissance, not on the eighteenth century. The passage can, however, be found in vol. 4 on p. 342 (i.e. it is at the page number Mary Gordon mentions). It is also identified as a quote from Kant there.

But the author of this part of A History of Private Life did not get the "quote" from a Kant himself either. Instead, she (Michelle Perrot) refers to Bernard Edelman, La Maison de Kant (Paris: Poyot, 1984), pp. 25-26. Looking at Edelman's The House that Kant Built. a Moral Tale (Toronto: Canadian Philosophical Monographs, 1987) 8-9, one can indeed find something very close to this passage, except it is not a quote from Kant, but represents Edelman's musings about what Kant must have meant.[1]

Kant, of course, meant nothing of the sort Edelman imputes to him! As a matter of fact, the "quote" is a twentieth-century French fabrication; and the main culprit in this deception seems to be Michelle Perrot.

Mary Gordon was deceived, but she should have checked. Furthermore, she heaps it on when she claims that "Kant never had guests" (35). On the contrary, he was, late in his life, famous for his dinner parties, as any reliable biography could have informed her. She obviously made no effort to find out the truth.

The rest of her book is just as shoddy as this passage.

If only Mary Gordon had taken proper notes!



1. Edelman speculates about Kant on the basis of scandalously sketchy and misleading research, though perhaps it would be better to say that he invents his evidence whole cloth.

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