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So the lesson I draw from Proust's example is that novels are a safer medium than theory for expressing one's recognition of the relativity and contingency of authority figures. For novels are usually about people – things which are, unlike general ideas and final vocabularies, quite evidently time-bound, embedded in a web of contingencies. [...] By contrast, books which are about ideas, even when written by historicists like Hegel and Nietzsche, look like descriptions of eternal relations between eternal objects, rather than genealogical accounts of the filiation of final vocabularies, showing how these vocabularites were engendered by haphazard matings, by who happened to bump into whom. [107-8]I'll get back to raking Rorty over the coals some other time, but let me get to my point here. To that last quotation is appended its own footnote, which reads: "There are, of course, novels like Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus in which the characters are simply dressed-up generalities. The novel form cannot by itself insure a perception of contingency. It only makes it a bit harder to avoid this perception."
In those years school life is life itself, it stands for all that life is, school interests bound the horizon that every life needs in order to develop values, through which, however relative they are, the character and the capacities are sustained. They can, however, do that, humanly speaking, only if the relativeness remains unrecognized. Belief in absolute values, illusory as it always is, seems to me a condition of life. But my friend's gifts [i.e., Leverkühn's] measured themselves against values the relative character of which seemed to lie open to him, without any visible possibility of any other relation which would have detracted from them as values. Bad pupils there are in plenty. But Adrian presented the singular phenomenon of a bad pupil as the head of the class. I say that it distressed me, but how impressive, how fascinating, I found it too! How it strengthened my devotion to him, mingling with it – can one understand why? – something like pain, like hopelessness! [Lowe-Porter translation, altered slightly]So described, the young composer sounds quite a bit like Rorty's "ironist," and indeed, the next paragraph discusses "one exception [i.e., mathematics] to [Leverkühn's] uniform ironic contempt." Here, though, the skepticism is explicit. Belief in absolute values, however necessary "as a condition of life," is always illusory. The only alternative to "absolute" is "relative," and regarding some value as (merely) "relative" is equivalent to rejecting any claims it may have to validity. Where Leverkühn differs from Zeitblom is that the former did not let the recognized illusoriness of absolute value stop him from acting as if he accepted it. He even excelled at what others took seriously, while he himself saw it as merely a game – one he was good at, but a game nonetheless.