Review: Critique of Pure Reason by Gabriel Blackwell

Review by Lilly O’Donnell

By naming his collection of short stories after one of the seminal philosophical texts of the last two thousand years, Gabriel Blackwell set the bar so high you’d need a telescope to see it.

In the original Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant sought to determine how much is knowable through reason alone, divorced from the evidence of past experience. He challenged the very idea of a priori knowledge, or what we think we already know, arguing that just because something happens the same way ten thousand times doesn’t mean it will necessarily happen the same way the ten-thousand-and-first time.

In this collection, Blackwell sets out to follow Kant’s logic to its literary conclusion. He reduces his stories to their most essential, knowable levels. By stripping them of the details that authors usually use to telegraph meaning through shared experience, accepted symbols or cultural/literary references, Blackwell forces readers to approach the page without any a priori conceptions. He tells a love story as a math problem, reduces an account of torture to a transcript, a play to a list of characters and their motivations. By silencing the static of literary tropes, characters or story lines that might remind readers of other things they’ve read and therefore set up expectations, Blackwell attempts to challenge the way we read a story in the same way Kant challenged the way we perceive the world, the number of assumptions we bring to any experience.

The philoso-literary experiment of Blackwell’s collection was most successful in a piece that consists of a description of a photograph that’s never shown. The description is meticulously, obsessively detailed, but is also convoluted and seems to contradict itself. Following along becomes a mental exercise for the reader trying to conjure a clear image of the photograph, and since the description meanders and doubles back on itself, the reader can’t skip ahead and fill in the blanks but has to build the image step by step along with the writing. It makes the reader slow down and think about their own reading, the conclusions they’re drawing and assumptions they’re making along the way.

Telling stories from a remove, through documents or notations, has the potential to abstract the subjects in a way that could make them clearer. It’s like the classic art class assignment of turning an image upside down to copy it, so that rather than drawing your a priori, preconceived concept of a face or a tree, you draw the shapes as you actually see them.

That clever extension of Kant’s philosophical principle seems to be at the heart of this collection, and it’s an admirable undertaking, but Blackwell doesn’t quite accomplish the mind-bending, a priori knowledge-challenging affect he seems to be going for. Somewhere along the way Blackwell loses sight of the great potential of his premise to serve as a foundation for great writing, and gets distracted playing with the device itself. In a way, Critique of Pure Reason reads more like a series of experiments, a book of templates for cheeky ways to tell stories, than like an actual collection of complete, finished stories.

Instead of serving as a starting point for the work, the clever idea is presented unadorned, as if its presence is enough to inspire adoration, rather like a date stripping naked upon entering your apartment without waiting for lights to be dimmed and wine to be poured.

These stories might have worked better if served up one at a time rather than together in a collection—there’s a fine line between cohesiveness and redundancy. Once the reader has figured out the game that Blackwell is playing they’re left wondering what more there is. The literary extension of Kant is fascinating, bold and clever in each story, but when they’re read one after another the luster fades with each new installment so that even a reader who’s excited and inspired during the first piece is likely to be frustrated and bored by the last, wondering why the same note is being played yet again, that sky-high bar still far out of sight.

Lilly O’Donnell is a freelance writer and a Girls Write Now mentor. She’s currently working on her first book, a work of personal nonfiction.

One thought on “Review: Critique of Pure Reason by Gabriel Blackwell”

  1. Yash says:

    I find that the trouble with wrntiig on Kant is always having too much to say, since the critical philosophy is (supposed to be) extravagantly coherent. One begins talking about the nature of a categorical imperative and suddenly finds oneself staking out interpretive positions on Kant’s modal theory and the distinction between things in themselves and appearances. Even with close readings of his major works behind me, in my research on Kant’s philosophy I feel like a worm attempting cartography – such is the scale of it all… My point is to say thanks very much for this, I find it a helpful new beginning. A year-long seminar I just finished on the first critique began to pick up the sticks in a common way, with a focus on the question as to the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge, but I think the alternative of reading one’s way out of the historical context and out of the dialectic (which seems to be where you’re heading so far) promises a number of advantages, especially for beginners. For I expect it will allow us to see at every turn many of the considerations that motivated Kant, and that the windfalls will come quickly; it may demand less patience. I’m grateful for the notes on the development of Kant’s philosophy and on the ID, which I haven’t gotten around to reading yet. I also appreciate your early emphasis on the distinction between active and passive activities of the mind*… it seems to me that a misunderstanding of the basic distinction between practical and theoretical reason spoils a number of attempts to make sense of the Faktum-Lehre. I would be grateful if you would say a few more words about the historical background of this distinction (my own knowledge of medieval philosophy is thin), and about where Kant might have come across it. In my ignorance, I tend to see Kant reacting to a number of medieval authors whom he probably never read – reading Ockham, for example, I thoguht I could hear a main, tacit voice of the dialog in the first critique, I even found specific points that receive specific responses, only to learn that Kant’s knowledge of Ockham was second-hand at best, and that my observations were perhaps only evidence of the care with which a series of philosophers marked the works of their predecessors. *btw. I haven’t had a chance yet to read your work on Kant’s theory of mental activity, and so I’m excited to see where just you’re going with this use of “mind”. I’ve just begun to venture in a serious way beyond the horizons of the last twenty years of Kant research, and I’ve found the experience very rewarding so far (particularly for Paul Dietrichson’s insights into Kant’s practical philosophy). I hope this series is a chance to get my feet wet before diving into your works and others from not so long ago. Thanks again – sure beats the Suddeutsche Zeitung as lunchtime reading!

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