secular_age.jpg[I]t is a crucial fact of our present spiritual predicament that it is historical; that is, our understanding of ourselves and where we stand is partly defined by our sense of having come to where we are, of having overcome a previous condition. … In other words, our sense of where we are is crucially defined in part by a story of how we got there … Our past is sedimented in our present, and we are doomed to misidentify ourselves, so long as we can’t do justice to where we come from. This is why the narrative is not an optional extra, and why I believe I have a story to tell here.

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

This passage comes quite early in Charles Taylor’s new book, while he is still assembling the pieces of the “story” that he will tell over its almost-900 pages. The passage is perhaps most easily read (allegorically, as it were) as a defense of the sheer length of the book. Stories, at least good stories, are full of details that demand time and space in a narrative. They are worth it, though, because they make narratives more like real life: good stories are thick and messy rather than thin and sterile. They take surprising twists and turns, double back on themselves, try things out from another angle.

What is the other option? According to Taylor, the opposite of a history is bare conceptual analysis: “But why tell a story? Why not just extract the analytic contrast, state what things were like then, and how they are now, and let the linking narrative go? Who needs all this detail, this history?” (28). The implication is that a shorter, more strictly analytical book would have missed the heart of the matter. Why is this? Because “this detail, this history” is not just an optional extra, not just a set of examples or illustrations. Rather, details are where the action is. This is a normative anthropological claim: details are where we live, because details are where history lives, and we are historical creatures.

The question that remains, then, is how best to capture this sense of history. Now one answer to this question, which began gathering steam during the period of which Taylor writes, is literature. Literature is frequently praised for bringing abstraction down to earth, fleshing it out, making it live and move. An oft-quoted example of this claim comes from Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “[T]he poet’s pen,” he writes in Act V, “gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”

By far the most sophisticated attempt in this direction, however, belongs to a group of German thinkers briefly gathered at Jena in the late 1790s and known to posterity as the Romantics. This group—principally Novalis, the Schlegel brothers, and Schleiermacher—came of age in a Germany intellectually dominated by Kant and Fichte. Against what was rapidly hardening into a battle of systematic philosophies, Friedrich Schlegel in particular argued for an anti-systematic approach that he linked to the literary genre of the fragment. Philosophy had run stuck in the wake of Kant, Schlegel argued, because it mistakenly assumed that thinking must begin from a first or unconditioned principle, a still point in a turning world. Schlegel thought this was exactly backwards: philosophy should begin in medias res, with the place where we find ourselves, conditioned creatures that we are. The fragment is the only form capable of answering this requirement, Schlegel proposed, because it reflected the state of incompletion and partiality from which we inevitably begin our reasoning. And part of that incompletion, of course, stems from the historicity of our situation. Thus, writes Schlegel in the famous Athenaum Fragment 116, “Other genres are fixed and capable of being classified in their entirety. The romantic genre is, however, still in the process of becoming. Indeed, that is its essence: to be eternally in the process of becoming and never completed.”

Taylor’s book is hardly a romantic fragment, of course. In its sprawling ambitiousness it is more like a nineteenth century novel by Tolstoy or Eliot. Still, Taylor’s defense of his method is a romantic one precisely insofar as it is literary—precisely insofar, that is, as its emphasis falls on the story that it has to tell.

One characteristic of romantic theories is that aesthetic productions cannot be paraphrased, because to paraphrase them inevitably distorts or misses everything worthwhile about them. (This idea was elevated into a theory of literature as such by the American New Critics, who for the most part hated romanticism but adopted this fundamental tenet into their thinking; see for example Cleanth Brooks’s famous essay “The Heresy of Paraphrase”.) That is the point of the romantic fragment—if you ask what a particular fragment “means” you are asking that it be translated into philosophy’s conceptual language, which is precisely what Schlegel and company were trying to avoid. There is a story about the composer Robert Schumann: after he was finished playing a new piano piece, someone in the audience asked him what it meant. For answer, Schumann simply played the piece again.

In a roughly analogous way, Taylor’s book is unparaphrasable: the level of detail and richness—the story—is so great that any attempt to extract a single thread from it inevitably mars its fabric. It would be better, given world enough and time, to simply read the book again.