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James Guetti (1937-2007)

Rupert Read reports.

I regret to inform readers of the death of James Guetti, philosophical lettrist, at his home, on January 11th 2007.

Guetti, a philosophically-minded literary critic of the highest order, was born November 5th 1937 in Medford, Mass. He graduated from Amherst College in 1959, then taught one year at Taft School and 36 years at Rutgers University, from which he retired in 2000. His main publications include a novel, Action (1971); his chief aesthetical works Word-Music (1980) and Wittgenstein and The Grammar of Literary Experience (1993), and major articles in journals such as Raritan and Philosophical Forum.

Guetti was always finely attuned to the sounds of literary language and the subtleties of the text. In an era when the crude marshalling of ‘theory’ was often standard, this deeply-impressive attunement was not always properly valued, and sometimes not even welcome. But it was with and after his engagement with Wittgenstein’s work that Guetti’s own work flourished the most. The work which should be read for many many years to come is especially his last book, written in the early 90s, Wittgenstein and the grammar of literary experience. It is a beautiful compendium of sensitive close-readings and hearings of Hemingway, Ransom, Stevens, Faulkner, Frost, etc, braided together by promptings from Witttgenstein.

Wittgenstein did not provide anything so clunky as a literary theory for Guetti. Rather, Wittgenstein provided a framework judged primarily by its utility for thinking about how literature works, and thus for seeing it as it is (or, better, hearing it as it is). His work on ‘seeing-as’ and ‘meaning-blindness’ was a key inspiration for Guetti. Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination – sometimes. Those occasions are when a word is being heard for more that its practical use. That is when literature begins, in Guetti’s conception. Thus Guetti’s take on Wittgenstein enabled literature to be fully present.

I was privileged to work closely with Guetti while I was a grad student at Rutgers, and to write with him then and afterwards. He was a massively stimulating colleague, an extraordinary mentor and an absolutely inspirational teacher. I can imagine him standing in front of a room of rapt young people, reciting a line from Ford Madox Ford or Jean Rhys and asking, “What is the sound of that?”, or “What is the rhythm of that?” Or his asking students to reflect on the fundamental difference, crucial to literature, between the question “What does the word ‘love’ mean?” and “What does ‘love’ mean to you?” He would elicit a high level of engagement from students who were hungry for learning, but also from many who were inclined merely to go through the motions. His love of great literature and of great philosophy never failed to shine through. The fruits of his teaching are scattered across the academic and the wider world, just like the fruits of his writing (he did not much like the scientistic term, ‘research’). Both should yield a rich harvest for a long, long time to come.

© Dr Rupert Read 2007

Rupert Read is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia.

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