“Always Keep Watching for Terms”: Visits with Kenneth Burke, 1989-1990

William Cahill, Independent Scholar


The interview provides a look at Burke in his twilight years as well as something of the sound of his eloquent but halting talk in that period.  Burke's ideas in the transcriptions offer insights about his method and philosophy that could prove helpful to scholars but would also make a useful introduction to Burke as a philosopher of language.  They also tell the story of humorous profound American thinker still vigorous in a green old age.

DRIVING UP AMITY ROAD, a narrow, quiet lane running through a little New Jersey Highland valley, we had glimpsed darkly shaded clay tennis courts and a sinuous, brimming pond on the lower side of the lane and then the frame house, sided with cedar shakes behind which dark screen forsythia came into view.  The house was on the upper side of the road, quite close to the pavement.  A large maple hid one side of the house, whose curtainless windows framed stacked books almost from their sills to their upper sashes.  A small porch-roof projected above the front door, which met the road with a few narrow mossy stone steps. A large galvanized mailbox at the foot of stone steps by the front door said “Burke” and a note on the door told visitors to come around back. 

The house was set on a narrow ledge under the shoulders of a dark hill forested with oaks, maples and hemlocks.  A stream swelled in summer to a pond in the low ground traced the bottom of the little valley below it.  Stone paths led to the back of the house, opening to a grassy, sunlit crescent of grass keeping back to tall trees of the hillside.  The lawn was edged with lilacs, forsythias, peonies, hostas, bluebells, daffodils, poppies and crocuses, as well as milkweeds and wild grasses.  This was the Andover, New Jersey home of philosopher, poet and critic Kenneth Burke.  Standing in his kitchen, Kenneth Burke greeted us with a wave through the window, inviting us in.

Robert Brewer and I were two among an intermittent stream of visitors who came to Kenneth Burke’s home in Andover, NJ in his later years to talk with him about his writing and his philosophy.  Burke loved to talk and was a generous host.  I was a schoolteacher and graduate student who had recently read Burke in university courses.  One of my professors, Janet Emig, who had assigned two of Burke’s books in a course I was taking, mentioned one evening in class that Burke lived in New Jersey and that Andover wasn’t far from our university.  Emig suggested, “Some graduate student from here [Rutgers] should go up there to Andover and talk with Burke.”  This precipitated our contact with him, which is described in the following pages with transcriptions from Burke’s conversation on several visits in 1989 and 1990, when Burke was in his early nineties.

Kenneth Burke (1897-1993), author of A Grammar of Motives (1945), A Rhetoric of Motives (1950), Language as Symbolic Action (1968), and other works on the philosophy of language, was a poet, novelist, literary critic, music critic, editor, composer, and teacher, and rhetorician.  Burke was born in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.  He attended Peabody High School there and moved to Weehawkin, New Jersey with his parents after graduation.  Burke attended Ohio State and Columbia Universities without taking degrees.  In the late nineteen-teens he lived in Greenwich Village in New York studying classical texts, medieval philosophy and poetry, modern literature, and languages on his own and writing poems and stories.  His first publication was a poem, “Adam’s Song, and Mine,” in Others, in 1916.  From 1920 to 1929 he worked as an editor and music critic at The Dial magazine with Marianne Moore and others.  He assisted with that magazine’s first publication of “The Waste Land” and contributed translations of French and German works, including Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (in March 1924).  During these years of literary and critical apprenticeship Burke participated in New York’s literary culture in a complex way; as a junior editor and critic at The Dial which published many major figures in modern writing, and as contributor and editor with friends of his generation for avant-garde little magazines such as Secession and Broom.

Burke's first book, The White Oxen (1924), was a collection of stories. His novel Towards a Better Life, written as a series of “declamations” by an anxious self-loathing protagonist in love with a woman he is not sure he deserves, was published in 1932.  Three books published in the 1930s, Counter-Statement (1931), Permanence and Change (1935) and Attitudes toward History (1937), developed ideas of criticism and literary form.  In the latter two he began to write about social experience as having the form of the drama and social action.  This was the beginning of his philosophy of “Dramatism,” which characterized human action as symbolic in the same sense that literature was, operating on principles that could be understood through the study of poetics.  Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941) included essays exploring poetics through ideas from psychoanalysis and the psychology of addiction.  A Grammar of Motives (1945) studied philosophies as actions, working out a scheme (the “Dramatistic pentad”) for analysis of theoretical texts as agendas for living that emphasized alternately action, the agent, scene, purpose, and agency or means of action, or various “ratios” of these elements.  Burke’s decision in the early 1940s to make a symbolic analysis of philosophies expanded his thinking as he theorized about all writing and expression as symbolic action.  A Rhetoric of Motives (1950) showed how identifications operated in social life through compelling associations of terms that built our social order.  Burke’s conception of identification showed it to be an ineluctable linguistic process that could be understood and managed in action through careful criticism.  This led Burke to the idea that human characters were held together as expressions of motives by the same principles that held poetic texts together, which would be the subjects of his “symbolic of motives,” a study in poetic principles, and an “ethics of motives,” a projected study in the formation of the poetics of character.  The latter two works were never completed.  But as he worked on these projects Burke also developed his theory of symbolic action as distinct from the realm of motion, the sheerly physical aspect of the world, which action shaped and influenced.  His idea of “the thinking of the body” addressed the question of how people might understand this influence.  These latter ideas are clear in many of the transcribed remarks from Burke’s conversation printed below.

Burke's studies of The Book of Genesis and St. Augustine’s Confessions became The Rhetoric of Religion (1961), in which he analyzed as a compulsion of language to generate the divine as a fundamental human orientation, his theory of “logology.”  Burke’s writing after this turned to a critique of technology, which he saw as an expression of language that created monstrous social projects whose criticism should be sensed in ecological awareness.  Burke’s ideas about language and criticism anticipated postmodern theoretical ideas and his understanding of rhetoric, identification and argument have influenced speech and composition theory as well as criticism.

Language involves us in hierarchy and guilt, Burke claimed in many of the pieces he wrote for his unfinished Symbolic of Motives. It structures in our expression involving us always in the commitments of meanings our words brought to us—though we might think things transpired the other way around. Things are the signs of words, as he eventually put it (in an essay called “A Theory of Entitlement”); our world is so mediated by language, and language by our past uses of it, that everything in the world of human action speaks to us persuasively, compelling us to believe in the order they have borrowed from the language people have imbued them with.  Our bodies, too, then become signs of the words we have lived with and through, which are the leading and shaping actions of our lives.  No wonder that a man who thought like this would attend keenly to anything that was said, including everything he could remember having said or written in his long life.  Burke was committed to listening critically to the action of language in the world, starting with this action in himself.

Burke had also been a teacher through much of his life, relating his teaching closely with his writing and his belief that understanding the meaning implicit in his expression could be helped by hearing what others read in it. He seems to have made this a principle, at least for himself, of teaching and giving talks at universities, as well as a principle of writing. He remarked to me that in teaching he never like lecturing as much as a seminar, saying he found lecturing “too much like talking to yourself.” A seminar could bring questions that would prompt new thinking. Burke’s teaching career started with temporary appointments at the New School and the University of Chicago in the 1930s and continued through the rest of his life with visiting professorships at many institutions. He was a professor at Bennington College in Vermont between 1943 and 1962.

Burke’s wrote poetry throughout his life. His first collection, Book of Moments, was published in 1955 hisCollected Poems in 1968, and a further collection, Kenneth Burke: Late Poems, 1968-1993, edited by Julie Whitaker and David Blakesley, was published in 2005.

Music had also been important to Burke since he was young. Talking to me he recalled how his father would take him for walks in Pittsburgh and stop outside a black church in the East Liberty neighborhood where they lived to listen to spirituals sung by the congregation. Burke said his father would not dare go in and that he held the normal prejudices of his class, but that these dissolved when he heard the music. He said he believed his father deliberately walked by that church on Wednesday evenings because he knew the congregation would be singing. Several times in our talks Burke sang spirituals. His voice was too hoarse to do them justice, but their words and his spare rendering of their rhythms carried the songs nevertheless. Burke said he began studying music in high school, learning piano. He said he had a feeling for music, if not technical mastery and used this in improvising. His lessons were with a piano teacher who rented rooms above the office of his family’s physician in Pittsburgh. (The physician was Malcolm Cowley’s father; Burke pointed out that Cowley, too, took piano lessons, but from another teacher, who was more expensive.) Burke said his father, James Leslie Burke, had written music and had a song published. The elder Burke had taught himself to play piano by ear; Burke’s mother could sing and they accompanied each other often on Sunday afternoons in their apartment in Weehawkin. Burke said his father also wrote sonnets a few of which were published.

Kenneth Burke was ninety-two at the time of our first visit. When we asked him how he was doing, he said, “Oh, hanging on, you know. Force of habit. Burke had long white hair combed back from his temples, penetrating blue-gray eyes appearing slightly unequal, prominently flared nostrils, and thick, expressive lips. A neatly trimmed Vandyke beard accented the triangularity of his portrait. A purple lesion marked his lower lip toward one corner of his mouth. Burke’s face was smooth, faintly stained with age spots, but barely wrinkled. His right ear was slightly deformed, its lobe broadened and flattened, something he concealed in early photographs but mentioned obliquely in his writing. His hands and wrists were muscular and articulate as a pianist’s; they played out his turning thought in vivid gestures, some heavy, others light and melodic. His fingernails were clipped to sharp points he used in lifting papers. On these visits he dressed in striped Oxford or plaid shirts with the collar unbuttoned, chinos, and, when it was cool, tweed sport coats with pens in their outer breast pockets. He wore leather sneakers and walked carefully in short, shuffling steps, usually, I noticed, humming a tune to himself as he went. All the time,” he shouted once quite suddenly, you live in fear of falling. Always in fear of falling. It’s goddamn boring. His back was hunched and twisted. Walking, he would balance with a cane, which he held to a pivot when he stopped to talk. He put on glasses when he went out.

We usually spoke in Burke’s kitchen, where he read his mail. Burke would sit at one end of the maple table there, which was strewn with books, letters, manuscripts people had sent him, announcements for conferences, pages of notes he had written. A similar mass of books and papers lay on the floor beneath the table, where he could just reach it. He said he had trouble finding things since his wife died, which was in 1969. On the walls were inked drawings she had done, one showing a cat in nine expressions, another of herons at a pond, and a third of a rustic mill. Behind him in a corner was a heavy dark cabinet on which he kept his telephone and several photographs, one showing him with his wife dressed in city clothes on a sidewalk in New York. Also on the cabinet was a small black, gray and white painting of a labyrinth of stairs, towers, and passageways by Burke’s son, Michael Burke.

At the entrance to the next room, a portable manual typewriter rested on the corner of a table, touching the window sash, which held it from falling, a sheet of paper typed a third of the way through still in is carriage. I remember seeing that on another visit, when the machine was perched in a similar way, the page was different. He had been writing. The machine sat among papers—envelopes, letters, the New York Times Book Review, typed pages with handwritten notes—with no apparent order. The light from the window read the words in the carriage, the letters and numbers on the keys, and a few exposed lines of writing thrown into diverse perspectives.

For Burke, talk and correspondence, poetry and fiction writing, were ancillary to the project of writing critical essays about texts as a search for principles of language that could outline for us the structure of our action in the world. He seemed to be still thinking his way through the implications of his writings on language and human action. He spoke of his writings as a body of work he or others could draw new conclusion from. He said he wanted people now to tell him what he had said. Always the critic, Burke wanted to hear what people thought his writings meant. He valued expression as a wellspring of clues about what he saw as our life as bodies that learn language.” “Five books have come out on me,” Burke said, “and I’ve got to answer them.” “I wanted to ask you about books,” I said. “Well,” Burke answered, that’s rather awkward, because mostly I’m reading Burke at the moment.

Brewer and I came late in the day each time and Burke would talk late into the night. I still remember the cool blackness of the New Jersey Highland hillside where he lived when we would say good-bye and walk invisibly to our car. Burke’s talk rambled, sometimes responding to a question, sometimes starting a line of reflection or recitation that went beyond anything we had asked him or any comment we had made. Brewer silently took the pictures that appear here while Burke talked and I took notes. I read more between visits and my notes seemed more and more revealing as I did so.

Burke’s speech in these interviews was difficult. He spoke haltingly and did not finish some sentences. His pronunciation tended to slur some syllables, obscuring some words, but the momentum of his sentences carried through these imperfections and as his meanings came clear these elisions almost seemed strategic, as if his clipping and slurring of syllables were necessary economies made to get things said in spite of the voice’s dwindling power. His speech would sometimes fade entirely, like a distant radio signal, but he persisted. His handwriting had slurred, as well, his written words flattening into illegible lines with minimal figuring has his pen moved across the paper. On one visit I noticed a musical score note book among the papers and books he was reading. It lay open to pages scrawled with penciled notations. He joked that posterity might be interested in these, if anyone could read them. He said he found he could not read his notations himself and had given up the project.

Though his talk was sometimes hard to follow, much of what he said echoed the themes of his books, or rippled from the contours of their thought. I had thought to make a formal interview, but found Burke’s talk too incomplete for this. I recorded what he said to me, mostly on tape and sometimes in a notebook. What follows here are transcriptions of those tapings and notes. Burke sometimes had trouble starting a sentence and repeated its opening words until he could get it going. These have been omitted silently. Burke said “by God” and “my God” in many of his sentences and I have left most of these in because they seemed expressive and dramatic. In making these transcriptions, I have used dashes to indicate pauses in Burke’s speech or places where he substituted one word for another. Where his speech trailed off, I have not indicated this if his next remark fit clearly with what he had been saying. Thus the transcriptions in some places have a fluency that Burke’s speech lacked. In most of the places where he repeated a word several times at the start of a sentence, I have given the word just once. Where words are italicized for emphasis, the emphasis is from Burke’s speech.

Burke’s talk in these visits flowed like an erratic stream, moving around obstacles age had put before him, but finding its way. Here and there the currents would eddy and slow, but then resume with vigor. A good host, Burke recited anecdotes from his literary career for his visitors and said things that helped elucidate his theory. But he also mentioned new things he was thinking about, as in his remarks on binding and loosing,” which he said he was still trying to understand. His rambling stream of talk seemed to have several currents with their own sources and directions, but the currents joined with the main stream of his ideas about language theory and critical method. This is not unlike the spirally approach to topics Burke used in many of his essays and books. I have left the transcriptions in their original order. Reading through them, they seem in their meandering to represent the drama of my experience meeting Burke.


The following transcriptions were made on June 5 and August 11, 1989, and on January 2, June 1, and June 13, 1990. Those from January 1990 were from a visit with Burke at his son Michael’s home in New York; the others were at Burke’s house in Andover, NJ.

June 5, 1989:

When we arrived for the first visit, Burke said he had to “get into a groove or he wouldn’t be able to talk. He gave me two photocopied sheets, one the “Poem” printed that year in Hebert W. Simons’ and Trevor Melia’s The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, and the other a typed page on “constitutions” that he wanted to talk about.

Burke mentioned working with Marianne Moore (1887-1972) at The Dial. “Marianne,” he said, “made a deal. ‘I want it understood, Mr. Burke, I have no appreciation at all for your stories.’ ‘All right, that’s a deal.’ And we got along fine that way. She’s the one finally ended up getting me The Dial award for my Towards a Better Life story. So she changed her attitude on that. She finally, when the poems came out—I had dirty poems, too. She said, ‘Well, he’s in a tradition there, a great tradition: Baudelaire, Rabelais and Aristophanes.’ ” He said he had been thinking about his theory of “two constitutions” that he had spoken about in Seattle at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, but then turned to an old subject close to his beginnings as a theorist. “Where I first got the word ‘symbolic action’,” Burke said, “was from [Bronislaw] Malinowski, The Meaning of Meaning, that Ogden and Richards got out [in19--]. There’s a supplement in there [by Malinowski] and he tells us that language is not to tell you what things are, it’s to get you to do things. And he tells you, it’s a form of action, and his simple example—these people, a tribe that lives by the sea—and a tribe further in—and [they] fish for them, and transfer [the fish to] them. And then he gives you the whole terminology that they have. They have a wonderful way of catching these fish. You don’t realize it, but fish catching itself is—the most marvelous thing. You get this great cooperative act. This whole group know when to get the things, where to get them, and what to do, and they call back and forth to one another—and in this great cooperative act they got the fish and then they go back home and, by God—on the way back they have a game competing in their boats. You’ve got three kinds of language out of that one thing, which started out of that one business, the one when you’re using it to catch the fish. And I think that that notion, that’s the instrumental principle.

Among the things Burke talked about in our meetings was his theory of “Two Constitutions” and he gave me a photocopy of typed page on this. The single-page text was written to develop the ideas of "Two Constitutions" Burke had recently spoken about at the “4 C’s” (the Conference on College Composition and Communication) in Seattle. “The one constitution,” Burke told me, “gave us two constitutions.” “Nobody [at the conference] ever murmured about it,” he said. “My God, maybe they took it for granted or something.” The Founding Fathers, Burke’s typescript explains, had originally given the country a constitution based on the civilization or technology of their time, economically grounded in slavery and other means of production. But the Constitution actually had become double as another kind of constitution, a technological one, developed from the original. This other was “constitution” had developed as an abstract one, an “artificial intelligence,” in the form of the country’s gross national product, which measured productivity as a whole. The Constitution, as a document, Burke theorized, could be seen as a political means for organizing groups within the country as a pluralistic society to “compete” rhetorically for the right expression that would apportion these things in the ways they wanted. Thus the Constitution was a technological and a political document. “You see,” Burke said, “I was against technology for a long time, until I realized, by God! Environmentalism’s attack on the world is really an attack on—if you attack technology, you need technology to say what’s wrong with it. The only person I can think of to give you a really radical attack on technology would be St. Augustine. He’d probably say it took your mind off God.” “One thing it [technology] has done,” Burke said, “It’s led to a whole new system of perception.” Technology, he continued, “often introduces things that throw all your plans, your original constitution, out of line.

Referring to someone who had said to him, “You kept the same thing all your life, Burke said: "Yes, kept the same theory, developed it, but kept the same thing. I started out—my first book, Counter-Statement, was the transformation I needed. I started out with theory of form. I put it under literary form, and after I’d worked on it a while, I finally discovered, my God, form was the arousal of expectation in the audience. Shakespeare, his stuff. By God, if anybody ever worked on his audience! Therefore I had a double thing as I started. I started out with the theory of form as self-expression and then theory of form as communication and for a long time I worked with those two, self-expression and communication. Then [I] found out something, a third thing was needed here—like the last stage of Joyce, the end of the line—and I found out, by God, where this thing originally started. I had a secular conversion and I left Columbia. Dick McKeon, a boy I knew very well, was in philosophy, medieval philosophy. He was a Catholic, from his family, but he lost his faith, but loved, like me. I don’t believe, but I love the theology. My dad—I made a deal with him, let me out and I’d go down to the Village [Greenwich Village in New York] and I’ll sit there and do my work, and I did, I did all the work. Dick and I were going along with a class with a Jesuit scholar giving a talk on fides quaerens intellectam, ‘faith seeking understanding.’ I’d been trying all that time to get from feelings of theology to secular equivalents of them, [linking] the idea of faith with the idea of self-expression. Your impulse, your faith, comes in as your self-expression and then the intellect, fides quaerens intellectam, ‘faith seeking understanding,’ that would be your communication. I worked on these two that way and then finally I got to the stage where, the third stage, and it transferred medieval thought. When you get to the third stage, it’s just fulfilling, you see, you finally get—what I decided to call it is the technical equivalent of inspiration, technological inspiration. You see, you’re really inspired when your vocabulary takes over. You start using words and words finally get you going and then the thing comes to life. When you get to Joyce’s last stage everything he does is carrying out; he’s inspired in that sense all the time. His terms have taken over. ‘Faith seeking understanding’ would be your way of building yourself up so that other people will follow you.”

Burke recounted attending and speaking at a memorial for Malcolm Cowley, who had recently died, at the Century Club in New York. He recalled belonging to the club once but then quitting because he could not afford it. He mentioned that he sat next to Daniel Aaron at the memorial and that Aaron had recently reviewed The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley (edited by Paul Jay, New York: Viking, 1988) for The New Republic. Burke told me he had been asked to speak at the memorial and chose to remember his high school days with Cowley in his talk. “Ellsworth Avenue was a street that we went [on] when I started to go to Peabody High School where Malcolm went. Malcolm was further down in East Liberty than I was. We found that we’d started each going over to the library at the same time. We used to walk to this library—in those days you walked, you know—and so we arranged to go down at the same time. Well, then I started—and the idea is this—this is going back, of course—birds like to fly, and sometimes fly either to get something or to get away from something, and fish like to swim, and we like to verbalize—and I had to tell my joke about ‘chewing the phatic communion’… And so then, we started out just talking back and forth, just talking, and then, by God, first thing you know we began to have something to talk about. We had to talk about classes. We’d talk about our teachers, our games, our courses. We were all interested in what we were taking there. And we got all this stuff going that way. And then, as Malcolm points out [in Exile’s Return, 1956, p. 21] lots of books [at the library] had restrictions, because some of them were a bit sexy, but most of them were just—oh, Bernard Shaw, people like that. Some of them were just too far out. We found out that some of the librarians would give us these books, some wouldn’t. So then we’d talk about that. We got our education by getting the ones that would give us these restriction books. But the whole point was, by that time, whenever I thought of something I thought I was talking about it to Malcolm. Sometimes [if] I was just reading something I would, just naturally, it was just something I did, I thought I’d tell Malcolm about it. And this time I thought—by God, I suddenly started thinking again into what I was going to say to Malcolm the next time I saw him.” Burke said that Cowley at the Century Club memorial for Cowley he had started to cry. “By God, I felt like a damn fool. I’ve known Malcolm longer than anybody in his whole family knew him. It’s the damnedest thing. When I wrote to Muriel [Cowley] about Malcolm, I said, ‘We should have died at the same time, I wish we had, but not yet!

Asked what differences he saw between himself and Cowley, Burke replied: “He and I were doing the same job, but with this difference. He got the more literary end of it, the more Bohemian end of it, and I had done this work with [Joris Karl] Huysmans [1848-1907] who actually started out—he was an understudy of Zola. His A Rebours [1884]—he [was] transforming and ended up a straight royalist, a believer. Coming through all this stuff, I had read a lot of medieval stuff, poetry, and when I got into [Remy] de Gourmont [1858-1915], Latin Mystique [1892], that was the book I needed. De Gourmont had no belief at all in theology, in religion, but he loved the beauty of the thing, you see, the beauty of the language, and, my God, that Latin Mystique of his is a wonderful book, in that respect. You’ll find in some of my early stories my use of some of the material that I got in him. And then also he put me on to some of the early Christian poets. The language was always the belief; it was always the language. When they started to modernize the Church, that’s the last chance I ever had. I could only get a thrill out of the rituals of the Church.” Then returning to his thought about Cowley, Burke said: “I was going on to what it is to be a symbol-using animal in general; he was sticking to what it means to be a literary [type]. We have an overlap, but there’s always a lot of differences in there, and that’s where we worked all our lives.” Cowley had written a sort of sociology of the twentieth century American writer in The Literary Situation, 1954.

Burke told of his childhood fall from a second story window, which resulted in a neck injury and persistent “fits,” delaying his starting school: “What happened was, I had this broken neck. I had fits and I didn’t go to school until I was about eight years old. Ironically enough when I got there in the first grade Miss Clancy—at that point, I couldn’t read. They gave me a dictionary and I carried the dictionary around and they never told me how to read the damn thing. It was funny, carrying the dictionary around. The Catholics always had these books of piety, these books of miracles and stuff like that. I remember one of them was Christ going up to heaven on a ray of light. I didn’t want to go to heaven. I wanted to put it off. Every once in a while I’d see a ray of light coming down through a cloud that way—well, [he would say] ‘This is it’—and I’d have one of my fits again. I got the fits until a doctor came, or my dad came home, either one. They’d fix me up. Every night I had this dream, this fall I had, oh, my God, going out a second story floor, I lost my grip. But Miss Clancy, she created a class to read this book, Heidi [Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning, by Johanna Spyri 1860. Oh, boy. That’s where I first got my dislike of technology. Heidi is a wonderful book. There’s a lot of stuff in it, reactionary stuff that I didn’t know about at all. All I [would] know is there was this one little kid up on a cavern on the mountainside, lived up there with the sheep. My whole business, the technology thing, I’d kept this a long time, and then I had a problem about it, because, my God, technology is in, and I felt so bad about it. I finally solved that problem for myself: technology is your whole feeling of—what’s the word for it—oh, God damn it, what’s the word I’m trying to get—the word for attack on pollution—environmentalism is technology’s self-criticism. If you say something is polluting, you’ve got to get a technological expert to tell you what it is. If anything in the world, I’m a critic; and that solved everything for me.

“I don’t think that technology can give you a vision, but it gives you a conceit and the conceit is that we are the only animal that, by God, it’s as though nature had done this job of producing someone who could talk.”

August 11, 1989:

I asked Burke if he would talk more about his childhood fall from a second story window in our August meeting: “Oh, yes. Oh, that was—that was, the trick was, I had this fall. I had a broken neck, literally a broken neck. When I was a kid, around the back of my neck there, I was young, and they said my neck was actually broken, and I could push a little spot there and make my heart flop. Until a few years ago I could do that, push there and make my heart flop—and I think it had a lot to do with my sleeping problem. But anyhow, I didn’t go to, didn’t go to school, and I was so irritated that during that period [that] my mother never taught me anything about reading—she just thought it was something that was taught at school, you see, and I could have read. They gave me a dictionary, and I carried that damn dictionary and didn’t know a word in it. And so, then, later on I was—the best thing that ever happened to me—because when I got to words, by God, I loved ’em so—boy I ate ’em up from that time on. I learned what words are!” “My mother,” Burke said, “she wasn’t intellectual herself, she never thought of this, doing it that way. She thought it [learning to read] would be done at school. The first place I went to school,” Burke said, “in Bruxton—Bruxton is one of the low suburbs of Pittsburgh.” He told more of his first reading at school, Heidi, saying his teacher “used to teach us and read us little bits of Heidi and Heidi gave me my whole feeling about, dislike of technology. She [Burke’s first grade teacher] kept the kids busy… if they didn’t stay good, she wouldn’t read them their Heidi every day. The whole class went for that damn book. But later on I realized it was quite a reactionary book, in a way, but I didn’t know. I got this beautiful Swiss landscape. But then after I’d gone through school for a long time I knew what I wanted to do. I had two years of Greek and six years of Latin and they still wouldn’t let me take any Medieval Latin at school. That you had to take at graduate school and I was still taking regular [undergraduate courses]. I was going to Columbia then and finally I made a deal with Dad. I said, ‘Pap, I’ll make a deal with you.’ I said, ‘Let me stop, send me down to the Village and just give me enough to live on and I’ll go one with my work.’ And I did. People used to come and look and say, ‘By God, there was a guy that was really working.’ I went over my Greek. I became a Loeb’s Classics scholar of Greek. I had all the basic texts.” I asked Burke why he was so interested in Latin: “Well,” he said, “for one thing, I just took a shine to language. I learned Esperanto, a wonderful language—if you know Latin, you almost know it already—and I took to languages very much—did my German, and I made a living a long time translating from German.” On learning German, Burke said, “I went to school on that, started out in school, and then I took a course—I started it for pronunciation. I took a course with Berlitz. But, I always said, I got so deep into—well, of course, the book that made a terrific difference to me, the one book in the world that made a difference to me was Remy de Gourmont’s Latin Mystique. That thing—you see, de Gourmont was not a believer. He was completely a disbeliever, but he knew, he saw the beauty of, well, the beauty of religion, and he had this book, a marvelous book—you should have a look at it. You’ll never get over it; it’s got all kind of stuff. Now that I’m back with religion again, not as a believer, but as a lover, I find that—I always say, even an amoeba may have religion, but he doesn’t have theology. And why I like is theology.” “Another twist I got into,” Burke said, continuing on his beginnings, “was—you see, Malcolm [Cowley] got his start out of [Henry] Murger, Scene de la Vie de Boheme [1888], ‘Scenes of the Life of the Bohemian.’ Then I got into the French, to Huysmans. Huysmans had originally been an understudy of Zola—a materialist, a materialistic thinker—and, by God, when he began to write, he had to get converted. The book that made sense to me was A Rebours. That book—you go through that thing, he goes through that line there and comes out—he’s converted. I got into that for a while. I realize I was in a whole stage of my life that’s completely lost; I’ve lost it totally. I’ve got to go back—and I began to realize how deep it was with me; I followed this fellow so damn thoroughly. And then I got into—even anti-Semitism, a literary kind. Hitler fixed me up completely. I was very anti-Semitic, but I certainly got over it. I was wild about Spinoza, Bergson.” Burke noted that anti-Semitism was common enough in those days and in his family, though he was now “ashamed of it.” Burke continued: “I got over the damn thing, but it was there for quite a while. One thing I always loved was literature that—battles, all kinds of fighting, and so in Cicero’s ‘Oration against Catiline’—I remember, I used to love that thing, read it over and over, in all its venom. Then, my God, at that stage, a certain leftover of the Civil War, of the French Revolution, a Catholic movement, intellectual Catholics who attacked that whole war, and I got into that. I’m trying to get it straightened out now. But what I felt was, when they started fixing up the Church, modernizing the rituals, and so on, my only chance of ever being saved was, if they kept the Latin.”


Burke described his getting a job at The Dial as fortuitous: “They were looking for Malcolm [Cowley] for it,” he said. “I didn’t find this out till later. They couldn’t find Malcolm. You see, they [Schofield Thayer and James Sibley Watson, The Dial’s publishers] were both Harvard men, so they naturally got work in that way. Malcolm was much more able to get around than I ever was. I don’t know what would have happened to me [if it] hadn’t happened that way.”

About age, Burke remarked, “I’ve found out when you get old, there’s two of you. There’s you and your body; and your body sets the rules, house rules, and, by God, you obey the house rules, or else [it’s] out with you, kid.”

“My whole thing now,” Burke said, “I’ve got my technology business. Did I tell you this thing? There’s different languages. Even when you’re learning the same language, you’re learning a different language. And your body, see, all what we call psychogenic illnesses—that’s your body, you taught your body that. It’s just a matter of languages. You learn a language in such a way that you end up with—well, like [Marcel] Proust, you end up with asthma, and then somebody else turns up with stomach ulcers.”

January 2, 1990:

Referring again to psychogenic illness: “When I wrote Towards a Better Life, that was written in high blood pressure and when I wrote the sequel I turned it around. I turned my whole method of writing around. I changed my ways of writing and my thinking. Whereas before that I thought always that you fought your enemy, I began to realize, my God, your enemy is useful to you. He’d tell you something your friend wouldn’t tell you. I really felt that—get a nice mean enemy and you learn a lot from him. I had Sidney Hook, when I wrote my Attitudes toward History. He reviewed it as though I was a Stalinist. I’d used the word ‘bureaucratization of the imaginative’ and he thought I’d universalized the thing in order to save Stalin.” Sidney Hook (1902-1989), philosopher and social critic, had died he summer before Burke made these remarks. Burke mentioned at this point his plan to write letters to people who had died, including Hook. He said that he could never pronounce Hook’s name correctly after Hook’s attack on Attitudes toward History, thereafter dubbing him “Shitney” Hook. The problem had a precedent, Burke said, in the Bible, the pet insult becoming his “shibboleth.” He said he would have to tell Hook about this in the letter he planned to write him, to clear the air; after that he would say to Hook, “You’re a good man,” and go on to tell him, “You did misunderstand me.” With this, Burke returned to the Cowley theme. “Everything I wrote, I always told Malcolm about it,” he said, but “that began to break down” shortly before Cowley died. “While Malcolm was still alive,” Burke said, “he said he didn’t want to talk about ideas anymore.” On the Century Club memorial for Cowley Burke said: “When I got back [to the Century Club, which he had belonged to years before] I felt the whole place was different and sensed a terrible feeling that something had gone and then I started to cry and then I was so damn vexed because after all I was a rhetorician. If you [a rhetorician] cry, you should do it purposely! And if you did it on purpose, it would be awful! Either way, it was awful, you see. One is professional crying and it would be a dirty trick.”

Responding to a question about technology: “It’s critical, criticism. Permanence and Change—the book starts out with criticism: the wily trout, food as bait, the critic. And at the end of the book, I end up with a little routine of the poetry of cooperation. Then competition is a phase of cooperation—can’t compete without having an organism that has great cooperation in all its parts. Well, that’s all just conceits,” Burke said, emphasizing the word. “Nothing—no visions, just conceits.”

June 1, 1990:

Burke mentioned several times that he was trying to understand the phrase “binding and loosing” that he thought represented something he had written about years before and that might be a lead into a new idea. “In my head, the words ‘binding and loosing’ is a formula—the keys, the powers of binding and loosing is a way of working at form and I cannot locate it again. I don’t know where the hell I got it and why it disappeared. It’s sort of, well, making a contract; ‘binding and loosing,’ making a contract with God, or something like that, a serious contract. You make a vow, a votary of some sort, that’s the ‘binding’. If a person can be bound to kill a pagan, for instance, you’d bind him. In war we all have binding and loosing. A man in war is supposed to kill the enemy, yet ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is a famous law, you see. That sort of thing has to change the thing around. The pacifists get out of war that way. Pacifism would be a ‘binding and loosing’ kind of thing I have in mind.”

Burke wanted me to read his essay on Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand.” “The trouble about this thing—” Burke said, “this is just note-taking, and therefore it’s not finished at all. I’m in this absurd position of showing you how, when something’s unfinished, [you are] supposed to finish everything.” “Your notion is that you’re supposed to finish,” I said. “Yes,” Burke said. “I take notes. The way I taught my course up at Bennington, I realized—I found out that I was really teaching them what is called ‘Deconstruction’ I told them, ‘Anything could come out of your note-taking’. Anything went. The first half of the year they’d take notes while I was talking—take anything out of it—each would be making it—analyzing—making it—the terminology of a book. The usual thing that would happen, they’d got to a—and some word—they’d write that down in the book. They’d get certain words that fit their scheme. They could even do that, you see. Quite possible—somewhere it fits in that—the two books overlap. Anything goes in your first draft, that way. Then we had this term off—an administrative problem up there, Bennington was too damn cold to heat in the winter. The winter term off, they would get jobs or something. The first half of the term, they’d take notes on the book. And then I would have a discussion with them and they’d show me their notes to show me what they got out of it. The midterm [they would] show me a copy of all the material. And when they got back [he would ask them], ‘Now what could you prove out of all this? Just use what you’ve got proof of, how it develops, and work out this theory. That’s the way I taught, started out, to take notes. And this example, this story of Hawthorne’s, the story of ‘Ethan Brand’—I used to take notes on ‘Ethan Brand’. I’ve got all kinds of notes in there. To give a good example of what I meant by note-taking: for instance, if I started writing a review, the first thing I’d get would be—after I’d read a few pages I’d get the title I wanted for it. At first I wouldn’t even know what the title was for it. For instance, one thing you can try to do with titles: If the title is formal, then you could look for individuating terms for it. For instance, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: I would say the first section is the introduction; the introduction is preparation, building of the terms; and I say that the name for that is ‘The Pandybat’, because the pandybat starts it all going there. The priest takes his hand”—here Burke made a slapping gesture on his own hand to illustrate. “Then the last chapter, which could be the completion of the thing, I would use some word like ‘The Refusal’, something like that. The idea would be this: in that chapter, when he’d been asked to become a priest and the priest holds—takes his hand and starts asking him to become a priest, he pulls his hand away, no violence, but he pulls away. And then he crosses a little stream, a little bridge over the stream, and he goes this way, and four priests are going this way. He’s going out, going in, like that. I use terms—imagistic terms, like that. In that case I would tentatively—if he’d called it ‘The Pandybat’, I would have called it something else; I would have taken a formal name for it. That’s the idea. It’s a tentative way. You see, what I figure is that everything you do, you keep looking for titles for your work and for what titles are going on in the meantime. You get the idea? You always keep watching for terms. That’s why I keep watching out all the time. You find out—but I find out I gotta put in one place, sometime soon, all my definitions I’ve given. Each one of those definitions has been a stepping forward in my way of working things out. And what I find out when I said, ‘We are bodies that learn language’, the last step I got in that definition of ‘the symbol-using animal’: ‘that learn language’—it brought out certain things I hadn’t thought of before. Things that you do as a body and things that you do with language.”

Continuing is talk about the relations of the formal and individual meaning, Burke talked about a connection between his writing and music. “I discovered that because of my interest in music I have a twist in my writing that’s never been developed. What I did finally, to at least make it useful—since I write so badly now, I can’t read my writing anyhow—the idea was that I would write down anything that happened that I got a tune. I’d just write down the tune and then—say a phone call came, a person called up about something or other and then I would—immediately a tune occurred to me—what did that have to do with the phone call? Then I would write down, ‘Phone call with so and so; who said such and such’. Every tune is a response to a situation and I have a whole way of working that way, a twist. But the idea is that anything goes in your first draft. That’s a law. Anything goes in the first draft. You see I have [an essay called] ‘Auscultation, Creation, and Revision’. Auscultation is the pulse-beat, then creation is the relation in the formula—” “The nearest approach—apostrophes—poetry that is very apostrophic, like a sudden splurge, a sudden expression, is the nearest you get to symbolism and reality—and verbal reality. You get an attitude. The attitudes in poems are that sort. I’ve got a whole theory coming from that thing I quote about moods in poems, ‘Our moods don’t believe in each other’. The absolute—and Emerson uses his symbolic words and his analogical words and his ritualistic—very interchangeable all the time. That thing I did on his ‘Eye, I, Aye’ gives a good example of that. But here’s—this thing—this thing can get—.” At this point Burke resumed looking among the papers on his table for his “Ethan Brand” essay, which he wanted me to read. The essay is “Ethan Brand: A Preparatory Investigation,” The Hopkins Review 5 (Winter 1952): 45-65.

“I found out that a poem or tune or idea,” Burke continued, “occurs after—a tune occurred to me after a phone call, then I wrote that down and wrote down what happened when I got this phone call. Somehow that’s a response to that. You try to get’ em. It’s rough. You try to do as you can. Now next time—my tune varies quite a bit. Suppose I find, here’s another tune, a totally different relationship, that has this same damn tune turns [sic] up in there. Well, then I think, my God, it’s a matter of putting that—a totally different world—that’s my real world—that’s what this other thing—and I began to work—it’s spying on yourself.” Burke related this to his memories of Malcolm Cowley, picking up again the theme of their mutual discovery that their talking together on the way to and from the library in their high school days became the beginning of shared interests that lasted and developed over their literary careers. “In those days you walked to the big public library. We found out we were walking over certain hours, at the same time, so we agreed to go over together. Well, the first thing you do, walking with somebody you don’t know—I use Malinowski’s idea of ‘phatic communion’—and I had a pun on it, ‘chewing the phatic communion’—then gradually, we began to have something to talk about. We’d talk about our teachers, we’d talk about our courses, and our fellow students. The first thing you know, by God, we had a whole world to go with. Then we were terribly interested in our reading at that time. Particularly, we’d found this way of getting the minor restriction books. The minor restriction books were—by God, they weren’t porn. Never got any porn. They were just books that—oh, George Bernard Shaw was ‘minor restriction’. We found out certain librarians would give us books, certain ones wouldn’t. Then we’d talk about which ones we’d know—if we went to her, might get a book. [Another librarian] gave us all the writers he could. Some of those were a little on the edge of porn. Schnitzler, for instance, had a lot of stories of, well, whores, and things like that, not in a big way, but a little bit on the side. Then the articles published in The Smart Set [were] right on the edge.”

Burke made his way back to Remy de Gourmont. “When I began to lose my religion, he [de Gourmont] taught me the beauty of Latin literature, and I got it all in poems. I went from truth to beauty. ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all you need to know’—you get that in Keats, you know. I had my analysis of ‘Ode to [sic] a Grecian Urn’, which, by the way, Denis Donoghue mentions in a book he just got out and sent to me. He, finally, after all these years, disagrees with my analysis if the ‘Urn’. But the irony is that I also have a second analysis of the ‘Urn’. Remember the D. H. Lawrence ‘How I Learned Dirty Words’: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty; body is turd, turd body, that’s the miracle.’ The irony is that I had both. The way I get into the other one, there’s a formula; I get Freud in there. Freud had a thing called the cloacal theory. Freud becomes, ironically enough, a Trinitarian. Well, I carried out the cloacal theory to perfection in this thing. I take it that Freud’s Trinitarian theory is the real truth about the body. The body is the way of seeing tings. You see, my notion is that poetry is very radical. Of course, in Flaubert, in his Education of St. Anthony, there he ends up with matter and matter is just simply filth. He ends up in getting the final reduction of reality, material things. He never got over that. It had a terrible effect on me. I had a period when I really saw everything in those terms. I find I analyze a poem in which I analyze, analyze my own stuff, my poem on the cloacal theory, ‘Ecclesia’—there’s a formula of ‘church over a sewer’ [Collected Poems, p. 84]—a strange thing—and how real is that? I went to the last minute here; didn’t get changed into modern plumbing till very late, till Libby [Burke’s second wife] was having trouble. Had to do it then. But, by God, I had staying at the place up the hill for a while. He was a psychoanalyst and the kid—finally he had to get away because his kid was so horrified, because they had the ‘can’ out there and the kid—he finally decided the kid was too mixed up. He found out that carrots, for instance, were born in the dirt. The kid couldn’t take it. I said, ‘My God, if you’ve got a kid that can’t take the reality of the body.’ ”

Again on the subject of “tunes,” Burke said, “I find that when I take a bath it is a ritual. I have a way into it, a way of developing it. I had a funny thing happen. I happened to fall over backwards on the floor—got careless, fell over backwards onto the floor. My God, I couldn’t get up. I wasn’t hurt in any way, but it took me almost an hour to get up and the only way I could do it was this: I had a tune, the tune was finishing up, you see, leaving, and at this interval I dropped to the floor. I had to get myself turned over, had to get pushed up, and this damn tune, that notion wouldn’t go that far. Finally, I had to give up the tune entirely and make another tune, like starting out, not finishing up. I threw the tune away, threw the old tune away. I made a new one. As soon as I did that, I got up, no problem at all.”

Burke in his nineties thought he might rely on others writing about his work and the subjects he studied to give insights about their meaning, which he would accept if they were thoroughly worked out, whether they affirmed his conclusions or not. “I’m the eponymous founder of six Kenneth Burke societies and I’ve worked out this theory of ‘operation benchmark’ and ‘operation benchmark’ is: Anybody can belong to any of these societies; if he disagrees with me completely, he has to say, ‘Burke says this and I say that’.” A few minutes later, talking about people who had written recently about him, Burke said: “You see, what I’ve found is that I’m asking them, ‘What am I saying?’ I’m not telling them anymore; I’m asking them, ‘What am I saying?’ ” On one of my visits, a phrase similar to this was written on a sheet in the carriage of Burke’s typewriter.

Returning to his thought on ‘binding and loosing,’ Burke said, “I’ve got a feeling I did something along that line. My ‘Perspective by Incongruity’ is mixed up with that. I’d put two things together that before weren’t together. So I’m sure that the principle of ‘binding’ is there in that sense, but what the devil goes on from there I don’t know.” With this he turned to the philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952): “Santayana was a wonderful guy who didn’t believe in religion except as a trick. He was a regular Marxist in [relation] to religion, but he liked the idea of it. He started with the principle of solipsism. You go from solipsism to high development of nomenclature, solipsism to your secularized theology—‘Realms of Being’, he calls them. His psychology is completely secular. There’s a principle of transcendence in your body and all that is your tricks with language. He’s my patron saint, you know. Somebody told me up at Boston once, the James boys were afraid of him. They didn’t—he wasn’t right.”

Burke spoke again of his religion in childhood. When he was young, he said, he “got tied in with the Christian Scientists and the whole thing there is the verbal cure. I was a Christian Scientist. The thing about Mary Baker Eddy is that she—it was a science. The whole thing was a matter of error. Sin was an error and pain was an error and that’s where I lost my religion, my faith in Christian Science. Pain—my God—there were actual people in institutions that didn’t have pain, when they were young, children that didn’t fight, they didn’t have their sensations and therefore they didn’t know how to take care of themselves. Pain is your great admirer and the trouble is we have so many painkillers we haven’t learned to [use] pain [in this way] anymore.” Burke said his had lost his faith in Christian Science when he was in high school. He remembered a Christian Science practitioner who came to his home when he was about six and prayed for him when he had a swelling that his family feared was tuberculosis. “The thing burst and I got better,” he said. But he had a cousin who had gone to a regular doctor for the same thing and had died. Christian Science seemed better than medicine, Burke said, because in those days all the doctors did was to put poultices on these swellings, which didn’t work. Referring to his cousin, he said, “They put poultices on his, and they burst inside and choked him. The marvelous thing is I did get better from it. I remember going to school with that damn thing; if it burst, I’d come home.” Burke related his memories of Fourth of July fireworks and tetanus infections kids incurred from being wounded by them to his realization that Christian Science’s doctrine of “error” couldn’t be true. “We got these big enormous things, lit ‘em and they’d blow up. They all came from China. The Chinese, they had corked them with mud and that mud was Chinese dirt, full of tetanus. You see, after the Fourth of July in those days there would be these stories of people dying of tetanus. It was fantastic. You get one of these damn things that blows up and you get a wound; once you get that dirt put into your blood you’re done for. I knew that tetanus was a bug; there’s no error about that. That was accurate and if you got tetanus in your blood stream it was tetanus did it, the bug that did it, not any error. It was a standard thing after every Fourth of July. Kids’d pick up something and thought it was done and just as they’d get there it would blow up belatedly. There were several of those things. There was tetanus; that was one. There was sleeping sickness and there was—oh, what the devil—whooping cough. Whooping cough was a terrible thing. There were four of those things they already knew, other than the one you get when you get bitten by a dog or something—rabies. They had four of those things lined up that way, the beginnings of your modern medicine. There was no error about those.”

I asked Burke about his remark that while at Columbia he had started to think a metaphysic could be turned into a psychology. “I started in belief,” he said. “And of course psychology—the whole idea of cure, belief—I knew stories about people who would die. This other business, turning it around, and you just tell yourself you’re feeling good. Certainly, there’s no question about it; you can worry yourself more really than you have to.”

Turning back to “Ethan Brand,” Burke said, “You see, what I did on the thing, I first ‘joyced’ the name: ‘Heathen-Ethan-Heathen Brand’; and then the ‘Brand’ is ‘burnt’: ‘Heathen Burned’. And of course the whole story is about his burning, the lime kiln, you see. ‘Kill’ is a pun on ‘kiln’: ‘k-i-l-n’, ‘kiln’. People say ‘kill’ but it’s really ‘kiln’. One of the first things I do, tentatively, in everything I read, I look at the man’s name, try hexing it, try ‘joycing’ the name. You see, you take—well, the best example I have of that is ‘Flaubert-Bouvard’. ‘Bouvard’ as ‘Bovary’—‘Bouvard et Pechuchet’ and ‘Bouvard’ and ‘Bovary’. He said himself, ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi’. He was very delicate about names like that.” Continuing, Burke said: “Also I think my trick with ‘Perspective by Incongruity’—my word for the opposite of the imaginative was ‘bureaucratization’, and I remember when Bill Brown discovered ‘Bureauke’—‘Burkeratization of the imaginative.”

Burke said that in hindsight he realized that in writing Towards a Better Life “I was “building a life for myself.” “Justice is when you do it all to yourself. That’s the basic rule: you finally punish yourself.” Quoting the last words of Towards a Better Life, “Silence, that the storm will be heard descending in all its fullness,” Burke said: “My God, here I’m gonna spend my life talking and here—with silence. What have I done to myself? Why did I put that curse on myself?”

Burke mentioned that in high school he had admired Jack London. “He [London] had a theory of what we would call ‘magic’, I guess. He was a socialist, very leftist, but very snooty about the white as the greatest race on the earth. Working it out that way, his idea was that they were the only ones that could see this great socialist wish carried through. They had a superior way of looking at things, racists.”

Speaking again of Marianne Moore Burke mentioned someone he had recently met who had been studying Moore. “She specialized in Marianne Moore and her idea was obviously that Marianne Moore had no sex in her and I thought that was so goddamn dumb. She was the most sexy woman I ever met and yet she didn’t know it herself. She taught me to flush. Certain associations would make her flush. Taught me for a while; I could flush for a while. But, my God, we had a sort of—it had water in it—big fountain there, big can for our water, and sometimes the water wouldn’t come down right and she says, ‘Oh, you just put your hand right up in there’ and the great—oh!” But sex, Burke said, “was the last thing she ever thought about. I was [once],” he said, “in an awkward position to come to her defense. There was a guy up in Bennington tried to say, ‘Tell me this, was Marianne Moore your mistress?’ I said, ‘My God! Now I’ve seen the world!’ If I had been wise, I would have said, ‘I’m not saying.’ ”

Burke showed us two books he had annotated as examples of his “indexing,” which he made into a technique central to his teaching, writing, and reading. This was Burke’s method of listing key terms from a work that he thought might as a set represent the work’s “motives,” an interpretive technique he developed for his unfinished “Symbolic of Motives.” He thought his “Ethan Brand” essay represented the method clearly. It also assumes an important role in his educational scheme in “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education,” published in Modern Philosophies and Education, the 1955 Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, by the University of Chicago. (This essay is the subject of an anecdote Burke told a moment later.) One of the books Burke showed us was Wilhelm Windelband’s 1901 History of Philosophy, which he said was from his study at Columbia; the other was William H. Rueckert’s Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations (1982). Both books were copiously annotated in pencil. Burke opened their indexes side by side on a desk to show that he would add terms to a book’s index as he read it. Paging through Rueckert’s book he told an anecdote. “Did I ever tell you about this essay I did in the—theories of education. Maritain did Catholicism, I did theory of language, and so on. I started to use this book that year [with] the kids [at Bennington], [asking them to] just take one of these things at a time and discuss it this way, and I had my own chapter in there. Coming back on the train down from Albany to New York, I could see a guy that was looking at my book sitting next to me. Finally he says, ‘Pardon me, I wonder if you could answer some questions about that book. There’s a chapter in there that didn’t make any sense to me. I wonder if you would help me. It’s the one of Burke.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I won’t say I can speak for Burke, but I could say what it means to me.’ So he says, ‘Take some sentences; start from them. What does this mean? What does he mean by that?’ I’d say it the other way, you see, and then, [the other man would say] ‘Well, why didn’t he say that?’ Finally, we were all this way and by God he got into the swing of the thing and he began to see it. Then, we got into New York, time to close up, and he said finally, ‘You’ve done a wonderful good, because my sister [is] up in Columbia, the girls’ school there, and she’s doing this chapter on Burke and she asked me to help her. I couldn’t make any sense. My God, you sound wonderful.’ And then he introduced [himself to] me. He says, ‘I happen to be down on Wall Street’. And I said, ‘You know who I am?’ ‘You’re not Burke, are you?’ The kids [at Bennington] thought it was a damn lie.” Burke opened a folded letter he found in one of the books on the desk. It was from teacher, critic, and poet Elder Olson (1909-92) about Towards a Better Life. The letter, which Burke read interpreted Birle’s novel as “euphuistic.&rdquo: “It never occurred to me,” he said.  “It’s true in a sense.  The book is really euphuistic.  You see, Euphues is a guy that can’t tell what his name is until he sees his girl.  I never thought of it before.  I must remember I’ve got it [the letter] in there, when I go over that book.”  Then he turned to the Windelband volume, showing his notes in the text, his underlining and circling.  “It’s the one I studied at Columbia.  The last part of this thing, back there, you get into this theory of values.  I’ll never forget Nietzsche’s ‘transvaluation of all values’.  That’s where this comes out.”  Burke said he could show us similarly annotated volumes of Aquinas and Freud.  “And this book,” he said.  “Boy, I used this thing.  And that last chapter.  I didn’t even study that when I was up there [at Columbia University], but I got working on it myself, later.”

June 13, 1990:

Showing again the annotated copy of Windelband’s History of Philosophy, and referring to Kant, on whom he had written notes at the back, Burke commented:  “He was all based on knowledge and apparently he never knew a woman.”   The notes said: “Immediate knowledge, knowing is feeling.”  “Get that, too,” he said.  “Those are good notes.  His third book is feeling, it can’t be either proved or refuted.”  I read some of the notes aloud, with Burke reading silently:  “Kantian epistemology might be the most ingenious symbolic structure ever made, in its way of growing from itself.  With regard to the thinking of the body, I can’t keep from wondering whether this fantastically inventive solution to the problem of knowledge could possibly have been thus thoroughly pursued if he had ever known a woman.”  Burke said he wanted to show me his notes in Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, but couldn’t find the volume.  “By God,” he said.  “They’re wonderful notes.”  Burke’s attention just then was distracted to the facet of his kitchen sink, which dripped almost imperceptibly.  “Look at that damn thing,” he said.  “That thing—you turn that thing off, and you go—twice, lately, I’ve come out and that thing was doing that all night long.  The last minute, isn’t good enough.  You’ve got to come back and close it again.  And it costs me money.  Money, money, money, money!”

“I told you my new scheme,” Burke said, referring to his being the “eponymous founder” of several “Kenneth Burke Societies.”  “[For] anybody [that] belongs to the society,” Burke said, “for the whole thing: ‘operation benchmark’.  In other words, anything you start, you locate it, and you don’t have to agree with me on anything.  ‘Burke says this, I say that’.  Then I say, ‘If it’s right, and they got me, and there’s nobody in my society that can take care of it, then, by God, he’s right and I’m through anyhow.  I saw an ad for a paper on Coleridge.  I’ve got to get some people in my group to look at that for me.  In my Philosophy of Literary Form all my work I did on Coleridge—terrific amount of work on Coleridge—analyzed all his magical poetry, his ‘Ancient Mariner’, all his opium stuff.  If he’s found a different way, then our outfit should do one of two things: either bring him in, or else, ‘What the hell’s the matter with you.  You didn’t mention Burke.’  I swear to God I don’t see how the hell they can beat me on that that I did on Coleridge.  I’d be surprised.  Anyhow, there’s certainly something he can add to the Burke stuff on Coleridge.  If he does it some other way entirely, that’s something else, but I don’t see how in hell he could do anything without saying, ‘Burke said this and I say that’.  I took all Coleridge’s poems and analyzed them on different aspects of the drug addiction business and ended up with ‘Kubla Khan’.  I had a whole new thing I did on ‘Kubla Khan’.  It’s in Oscar Williams.  It’s one of my analyses where I say why I’m doing it at the same time.” (The essay is in Williams’ Master Poems of the English Language, 1966, reprinted as “Kubla Khan: A Protosurrealist Poem” in Burke’s Language as Symbolic Action.)

Reading an article on Aquinas in The New York Review of Books, for June 22, 1990, Burke said he was thinking of animals’ souls.  The animal, he said, “can’t reflect on things, because he hasn’t got words to reflect on.  I always say, ‘An amoeba may have religion, but doesn’t have theology’.  One of the great problems that you find about rhetoric in this thing too is that often—you see, in the Middle Ages, theology was knowledge and you had questions.  We treat science that way now, but we admit that science always changes.  The Church couldn’t do that.  The point is that the relation between belief in theology and rhetoric would be like the Stoic one, science and rhetoric: Science was your knowledge and rhetoric was what you do about it, how you get people to act.  In all those guys the soul was just a thinner matter.  Everything was matter.”

Burke stood at his kitchen counter, leaning on it over an open page of the New York Review of Books, talking about an article he had been reading.  “Peristroika,” he pronounced, saying that he had been figuring out how to say it in a way that would reveal some pun within it.  He had heavily underlined the page.  (On another visit, in the same place he had a paper copy of Language as Symbolic Action, the binding cracked and the book divided in two, open to two essays he was reading together.)  He had notes penned in the margins of the paper, paragraphs reddened with his underlining and circling.  His marginal notes were words he wanted to remember particularly.  He said he had to check on “Kulaks” as the term for those in Stalin’s Russia who exploited peasants.  “Intifada is the PLO resistance movement,” he said.  “I have to learn all these damn words.”  He punningly linked “Peres”— then the Israeli prime minister—and “perestroika” and suggested jokingly that Peres “ought to get a little perestroika.”

Speaking again of constitutions, Burke said, “I say that we’re the symbol-using animal.  Well, what’s so basic about that?  Well, you organize.  What it is that organizes the symbol-using animal, is a constitution.  It’s a constitution that is a way of living together.  One thing about it, our way of living is self-constituted.  We actually have a written constitution.  We’re the only one that has a written constitution.  You tell me that we can ever do it any other way.  We’ve got something here that, if you’re gonna change it, [you might] change it all kinds of ways, make it some kind of Fascism, or anything.  There are so many attempts now to gain control of this whole system by the big information racket.  I say that it may go this way, it may go that way, but we’re in it now to stay and we’re gonna go on from there.  You can’t make one [a constitution] that will stick.  Animals, they have a way of doing things and that’s the way they do them.  But with a person, you make a constitution, and every few years a new twist in your constitution.”


On this visit, I walked down to Burke’s pond, which filled the little valley across the road.  The pond dates to about 1930, when Burke dammed the stream running there, paying for it with money he received from the 1929 Dial Award, which he was given “for service to literature.” In its springtime fullness the pond’s waters would be visible from the front windows of Burke’s house.  He joked, “Other people that got that award, their money might have gone over the dam, but, by God, I got the dam.”  He called it “Lake Bottom.”  The dam was cement, some 21 inches thick and more than fifty yards long, giving an eight-foot head of water for the pond.  It had a few cracks, some patched with tar, some with mortar, and it was colonized with moss and lichen medallions.  The water poured through a spillway eight feet across, rushing down a cement ramp with the sound of a torrent, foaming and roiling there, resuming again, after being part of this human artifice, its nature as a narrow stream disappearing among alders, willows, viburnums and maples, and thence under an unpaved lane.  Six cement steps descended alongside the spillway to the stream, the uppermost bearing the imprint of a foot, large enough to be an adult’s, and the lowest seven handprints and the small rounded figure of someone’s buttocks.  Catching water splashing from the spillway, the handprints when I was there were visited by the red-spotted newt, coming to drink.  The torrent is loudest down there, racing from the pond and disappearing beneath the bushes.  Beyond its spillway, the dam makes an oblique turn, flanked on its downstream side with swamp bushes and trees, its watery boundary brimming against the concrete.  The view up the pond mirrored the shrubby, sedgy banks, thickly growing trees, and the oblique descent of a wooded hillside defining the valley.  The pond was long and sinuous, its banks tangled with viburnum and maple, cattails and sedges.  On my springtime visits I could hear frog choruses ringing there at night and songbirds in the daytime.  Pumpkinseeds lurked in the shallows and larger fish briefly touched the air making slowly fading concentric rings on the surface farther out.  The pond’s surface was littered with pollen, leaves, drowned insects collecting as detritus behind shoreline snags where water-striders skated.  Swallows darted in looping curves after insects above open stretches of the water.  The air was cobwebby along the path leading to it, thick at night with moths and mosquitoes.  When I returned Burke repeated William Carlos Williams’ comment on the pond: “It’s still wet.  Still wet.”

The last recording I had from these visits is of Burke reading his inscription in my copy of his Collected Poems, by the poem “Lines from out my Scatteredhood.”  The words are illegible in the volume.  The inscription said “Aubade, a morning song.  An aubade, a morning song, as versus a song of mourning.”  “You see,” he said, “here it is the last thing in the book.  I ended on a good note.  Pointing to the piece on the opposite page, he read, “the chance to have lived / the need to die” and remarked that that poem had been “an answer to Schopenhauer, I guess.”

* William Cahill is an independent scholar who is affiliated with the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University.  He can be contacted via email at wcahill7@gmail.com.  

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"“Always Keep Watching for Terms”: Visits with Kenneth Burke, 1989-90; by William Cahill is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.