Some Supposedly Fun Links
February 22, 2012

English: David Foster Wallace at the Hammer Mu...

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Yesterday would have been David Foster Wallace’s 50th birthday. I’m not quite the DFW superfan I once was (I haven’t even read The Pale King yet), but I still feel an enormous debt of gratitude to the man. As much as his writing gets accused of being solipsistic or self-involved (often by his old friend and rival Jon Franzen), I’ve always read it as an antidote to solipsism. Okay, so comparing his legacy to that of Dostoevsky is a little hyperbolic, but the two did have similar projects: both were obsessed with finding a way out of the compulsive self-abuse of everydayness and into something approaching real grace and compassion.

Some recommended DFW reading:

The famous “This is Water” speech he delivered at Kenyon University’s 2005 commencement ceremony:

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.

Jon Baskin on Wallace v. Franzen:

The episode indicates what really united Wallace and Kierkegaard—not, as Franzen implies in “Farther Away,” their narcissism, but rather their profound appreciation of its death grip on the modern self. Central to both was the conviction that narcissism was a matter predominantly of belief, less a defect of personality than a symptom of spiritual vacancy. It was not something that could be addressed by smart social policy, abstract argument or higher-quality news. Perhaps only organized religion had ever checked the narcissism of the contemporary person, for whom the difficulty was not to be sophisticated, cynical and “free,” but to invest herself in some definite course of action. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard had introduced the “knight of faith”—his version of a modern hero—who, he said, would look from the outside “just like a tax collector.” In Pale King, Wallace encourages his sophisticated modern reader to acknowledge the glory of the tax collector, a job that is “truly heroic” because “a priori incompatible with audience or applause”—that is, with narcissism.

Such a definition of heroism may seem sentimental or silly; it is nonetheless important to acknowledge that Wallace meant it.

Big Red Son, one of DFW’s most darkly hilarious nonfiction essays. It also has one hell of an opening:

THE AMERICAN ACADEMY of Emergency Medicine confirms it: Each year, between one and two dozen adult US males are admitted to ERs after having castrated themselves. With kitchen tools, usually, sometimes wire cutters. In answer to the obvious question, surviving patients most often report that their sexual urges had become a source of intolerable conflict and anxiety. The desire for perfect release and the real-world impossibility of perfect, whenever-you-want-it release had together produced a tension they could no longer stand.

It is to the 30+ testosteronically afflicted males whose cases have been documented in the past two years that your correspondents wish to dedicate this article. And to those tormented souls considering autocastration in 1998, we wish to say: “Stop! Stay your hand! Hold off with those kitchen utensils and/or wire cutters!” Because we believe we may have found an alternative.

Every spring, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents awards for outstanding achievement in all aspects of mainstream cinema. These are the Academy Awards. Mainstream cinema is a major industry in the United States, and so are the Academy Awards. The AAs’ notorious commercialism and hypocrisy disgust many of the millions and millions and millions of viewers who tune in during prime time to watch the presentations. It is not a coincidence that the Oscars ceremony is held during TV’s Sweeps Week. We pretty much all tune in, despite the grotesquerie of watching an industry congratulate itself on its pretense that it’s still an art form, of hearing people in $5,000 gowns invoke lush clichés of surprise and humility scripted by publicists, etc.—the whole cynical postmodern deal—but we all still seem to watch. To care. Even though the hypocrisy hurts, even though opening grosses and marketing strategies are now bigger news than the movies themselves, even though Cannes and Sundance have become nothing more than enterprise zones. But the truth is that there’s no more real joy about it all anymore. Worse, there seems to be this enormous unspoken conspiracy where we all pretend that there’s still joy. That we think it’s funny when Bob Dole does a Visa ad and Gorbachev shills for Pizza Hut. That the whole mainstream celebrity culture is rushing to cash in and all the while congratulating itself on pretending not to cash in. Underneath it all, though, we know the whole thing sucks.

Your correspondents humbly offer an alternative.

A review from The Canadian Review of Books that includes a quote DFW loved (and which is often misattributed to him):

Irony, we’re all coming to discover in the Age of Irony, is the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.

And lastly, here’s a review I wrote of David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, his book-length conversation with DFW.

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Nietzsche Blogging: Thus Spoke Thom Yorke
September 15, 2010

I’ve been slacking off on the Nietzsche blogging—so much so, in fact, that I missed all of Part Three of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Though perhaps that’s for the best, since Part Three lost some of the aphoristic style that has thus far defined Nietzsche’s work and instead added in a narrative arc. This arc begins when Zarathustra realizes that if time and the universe are infinite, then all things will recur infinitely, even the “small man” who he holds in such contempt and hopes would one day be obliterated by the overman. This throws him into deep despair, although by the end of Part Three he has come to terms with this revelation and decided to embrace the infinite and, by extension, all its constituent elements.

I’ve already written all I really have to say on the subject of eternal recurrence, so we might as well move on to Part Four; which begins, for me at least, with a different kind of revelation: I think the boys in Radiohead might be Nietzsche fans.

Consider the evidence: Much of the prologue to Part Four of Thus Spoke Zarathustra consists of Zarathustra elaborating on a metaphor for how he views mankind. In the Walter Kaufmann translation, Zarathustra sees man as “queer fish”—but another way of translating that might be “weird fishes.”

Zarathustra says that he wants to go fishing for these queer fish, baiting his lure with his own laughter and humor and then reeling them in to bring them up to the height of his wisdom.

Now listen to the song “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” embedded above. In typical post-OK Computer Radiohead fashion, the lyrics are pretty cryptic, so there’s a lot of room for interpretation; but one interpretation I’m finding increasingly plausible is that the song is being sung from the perspective of someone who lives “in the deepest ocean” among all the other unenlightened “weird fishes” and knows he would be “crazy not to follow” Zarathustra, yet is too scared.

I don’t know, maybe that’s a little far-fetched. But I wouldn’t put it past those guys.

How Not to Read Nietzsche
August 29, 2010

Cover of "The Portable Nietzsche"
Cover of The Portable Nietzsche

As I’ve mentioned before, I purchased my copy of The Portable Nietzsche at Niantic, CT’s wonderful used bookstore The Book Barn. The book’s prior owner—S. Pritchard, according to a note on the title page—took a lot of notes in the margins, notes which I was hoping would provide insightful commentary on some of the more difficult passages. No such luck. S. Pritchard’s notes are easily the most frustrating thing about my reading experience so far, and only useful insofar as they are an excellent primer in how not to read philosophy.

From S. Pritchard’s notes I gather that he is a committed Christian, which means that there’s much in Nietzsche for him to disagree with. If S. Pritchard were interested in a challenge to his beliefs, then his problems with Nietzsche’s philosophy would make for far more interesting notes, not less. After all, Walter Kaufmann, in his excellent introduction, advises the reader to allow Nietzsche to challenge him. While the philosopher’s arguments often challenge some of my most deeply held convictions, I can’t imagine how much more frequent the challenges would be were I a person of faith.

In a way, it makes me envious of the devout Christian who dips into Nietzsche for the first time. The philosophers you disagree with the most often yield the greatest rewards, but only if you’re willing to give their position the most charitable reading you possibly can. When it comes to your own philosophical development, the harder an argument you disagree with is to refute, the greater its riches.

S. Pritchard squanders those riches by being extraordinarily uncharitable. In his notes on the title page he accuses Nietzsche of “emotional perversity” and “philosophic nihilism.” The first charge is a bad faith ad hominem attack, and the second should appear obviously untrue to anyone who’s even skimmed the book, let alone taken notes on it. Nietzsche describes himself as having “a more severe morality than anybody,” which, if not strictly true, is at least closer to the truth than the accusation of nihilism. Just because his moral intuitions do not align with ours does not mean he had none.

But S. Pritchard’s agenda—making himself feel more secure in his own belief by denouncing contradictory views—overwhelms his capacity to understand Nietzsche’s arguments, and even his capacity to mount coherent responses. Instead he contents himself with scribbling dismissive notes such as, “idolatry of reason.” Most egregiously, he writes “CONTRADICTORY” next to every single line in which Nietzsche refers to something or someone as “God,” even though he is obviously using it as a metaphor.

The irony of all of this is that S. Pritchard’s notes serve as evidence for a lot of what he is so quick to dismiss. Nietzsche, though probably not a humble man himself, strove to teach us intellectual humility by exposing how easy it is for our own arrogance to lead us astray.

Or, as he put it: “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”

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Nietzsche Blogging: Truth, Reason, and Moral Weakness
August 24, 2010

Cover of "Human, All Too Human: A Book fo...
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I’m starting to get a better sense of Nietzsche’s style, and although I’m still a novice, I know this much: he would have made a damn good blogger. It’s not just his whole books full of pithy aphorisms—like The Gay Science and Human, All-Too-Human—that make me think this. It’s the fact that Kaufmann has seen fit to include a lot of his hastily scribbled notes, and with good reason. You could even excerpt a lot of his longer essays and turn those snippets into self-contained reflections.

But like posts from the best blogs, all of these little scraps are best viewed in the context of his greater project. If you’ll forgive the cliché, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

That being said, the whole is frequently bewildering, even in the early stages. (Maybe especially in the early stages? Hopefully.) Nietzsche often seems to contradict himself from one passage to the next, and I can’t decide whether it’s because of the inherent difficulty in translating all the nuances of meaning (which translator Kaufmann acknowledges in the introduction), or because apparent self-contradiction is simply a part of Nietzsche’s inimitable style. I’m leaning towards it being some combination of the two, especially because so far I’ve always managed to parse out some reading in which he’s not actually contradicting himself.

Take the odd juxtaposition Kaufmann creates (presumably intentionally) between the essay “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” some of Nietzsche’s 1874-1875 notes to himself and selected passages from Human, All-Too-Human. In “On Truth and Lie,” Nietzsche convincingly argues that very little of what we consider to be “true” is little more than a “lie according to a fixed convention.” He does this by pointing out the inadequacy of words to truly express what they represent, something that I’m already well familiar with from my recent reading of Sartre’s Nausea. (Here, as in the focus on projects, struggle and competition I noted in “Homer’s Contest,” we can see Nietzsche’s influence on the development of existentialism.) Because words have no real fixed attachment to the objects they represent, to use words to describe the outside world at all is to lie in some sense. The example he uses here is the use of the word “leaf” to describe an individual leaf. There is no true, default form of The Leaf as the Greeks might have suggested, and to imply that there is by classifying an individual leaf as being a descendant of that form is inherently dishonest.

So if “truth” is itself a lie, what to make of Nietzsche’s claim in his notes on the very next page that only “friends of the truth” can help determine the proper use of the German state’s power? Is there anything truly true behind this consensus?

Two pages later, we get the answer. If Nietzsche believes in anything, it’s reason. Our ability to describe the real world may be profoundly limited, but the thing that makes us human—or, as I would put it, persons—is that we have some capacity for a priori reasoning, and to, as Nietzsche later points out, “draw correct inferences.”

But then we stumble into another apparent contradiction. If the “highest” reason lies within “the work of the artist, and he may experience it as such,” then what to make of the assertion that, “regarding truths, the artist has a weaker morality than the thinker?”

Here, I think Nietzsche means to draw a distinction between truth in, as he puts it in the title of his essay on the subject, “the extra-moral sense,” and moral truth. The artist may be an enemy of moral truth, a destructive, nihilist force, but he challenges it in the service of truth overall. The artist is a vaccine, and it’s no coincidence that Nietzsche refers repeatedly to “inoculation” of society in Human, All-Too-Human. In his view, society could always use a bracing jolt of destructive nihilism in order to defend, reassess, and thereby strengthen, its convictions. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is also what Nietzsche does for his individual readers.

“To educate educators!” he writes in his notes. “But the first ones must educate themselves! And for these I write.”

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Philosophy Book Blogging
August 21, 2010

Cover of "A History of Western Philosophy...
Cover of A History of Western Philosophy

I’ve finished Nausea and I’m now kicking back and taking it a little easy by reading Franny and Zooey. But once I’m done with that book—which probably won’t be too long from now, since, as Salinger himself writes, it is “pretty skimpy-looking”—I was thinking of tackling one of those hefty books on philosophy I picked up from the Book Barn, and blogging my impressions of it. The books are: The Portable Nietzsche, and Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. I’d like to read both at some point, but have no strong preference regarding which one I should read first.

So I thought I’d open it up to the floor: is there one in particularly any of you folks would rather see blogged about?

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John Stuart Mill on Partisanship
August 15, 2010

Mill, weaned on the philosophy of Jeremy Benth...
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I recently discovered the website FiveBooks, and I’ve been having a lot of fun with it. The site consists of a collection of interviews with experts in various fields; these experts come to the interviews with a list of five books on a specific topic, and then answer questions about why they think the books illuminate that subject so well. Today, the featured expert was the Cato Institute’s Brink Lindsey, who came prepared with a list of books on “Traditional and Liberal Conservatism.” First on the list: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, perhaps the great treatise on utilitarianism.

I’m not terribly familiar with the parts of Mill’s political philosophy that aren’t directly related to rule utilitarianism, so it was fascinating to read Lindsey describe why Mill thinks that liberalism and conservatism complement each other:

He strays from the contemporary libertarian line in a number of respects. But the reason I selected him is that there is a brief passage in On Liberty (in the second chapter on defending liberty of thought and discussion) where he lays forth what I think is the best concise explanation for why there is a left and a right – and why there always will be. Why, even though he wasn’t a conservative and didn’t think much of conservatives, he thought conservatism was a necessary and wholesome part of political life. Let me quote a sentence or two: ‘In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life; until the one or the other shall have so enlarged its mental grasp as to be a party equally of order and of progress, knowing and distinguishing what is fit to be preserved from what ought to be swept away. Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity.’

I think the typical view of politics from inside a partisan mindset is to see politics as a battle of the good guys versus the bad guys. Maybe the good guys are on the left, maybe the good guys are on the right, but it’s this Manichean struggle and the way to get progress is for the good side to win and impose their will. Mill sees through that and sees that, in fact, politics is a dialectical process. At any given time truth is partly on one side and partly on the other. It’s more a battle of half-truths and incomplete truths than of good versus bad. The excesses of each side ultimately create opportunities for the other to come in and correct those excesses. Liberalism, in Mill’s view and in mine, provides the basic motive force of political change and progress. It will go astray, it will have excesses, it will make terrible mistakes – and a conservatism that is focused on preserving good things that exist now will be a necessary counterweight to that liberalism.

I think this is exactly right, but it’s important to recognize that the current political dynamic in America doesn’t function like this at all. The current major political figure in the US with the most cautious, incrementalist disposition is President Obama, while those to the right of him are lobbying for radical, deeply rash changes in government policy (the call to repeal the fourteenth amendment comes to mind). Sure, they justify their platform with appeals to nostalgia, but it’s nostalgia for policies that either A.) never existed except in their minds, or, worse, B.) represent extreme atavism far more than cautious incrementalism.

In other words: Instead of impassioned reformers on the left and cautious inertia on the right, we have cautious reformers on the left and extreme radicals on the right who distinguish themselves largely by running in the opposite direction. The fearful crouch of the Democratic Party and the dangerous lunacy of the Republican Party have thrown Mill’s dialectic model completely out of whack.

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The Eternal Recurrence of Not Too Much
August 13, 2010

Friedrich Nietzsche
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NYU’s Philosophy department has a mostly-deserved (I think) reputation as the most prestigious philosophy department on earth, but it’s particulate focus on analytic philosophy and snobbish attitude towards most other fields left some pretty substantial gaps in my education. One of the bigger gaps is shaped like Nietzsche’s comically large mustache, and I hope to soon plug that hole with a copy of The Nietzsche Reader that I picked up at the Book Barn (stay tuned for a lot of Nietzsche blogging once that happens). One reason I’m excited to dig in: the concept of eternal recurrence has been on my mind a lot lately.

For those who only have a foggy notion what I’m referring to, here’s the relevant passage from The Gay Science:

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

I’m obsessed with this passage. Part of the reason why is because I love the whole concept of philosophy imparted by aphorism. It’s a far cry from the lab report-style of analytic philosophy; it’s a good deal more Gothic, and a bit more poetic.

What also intrigues me about the aphorism is that it’s impossible to tell whether Nietzsche intended it as a metaphor for how to take stock of one’s life, or as an actual metaphysical proposition about the way the universe is. His writing elsewhere clarifies that it’s the latter, but I refer the ambiguity here. There’s more to the idea as a simple thought experiment than as a real theory.

It’s a thought experiment that carries particular personal resonance for me at this point in my life. I just finished college, and I am currently unemployed. Since I’m not sure what state (or even what country) I’ll be moving to once I find a job, I’m living with my parents for the time being. There’s not a whole lot for me to do, and to the extent that I feel any real pressure to complete a project, that pressure is all internal. It’s been this way for about a month. As someone who only feels comfortable when he’s busy, the frustration has been, at times, immense. What drives me crazy is the lopsided feeling of the days: how they’re over before they’ve even begun, and how I find myself straining for some way to occupy the hours until the next one appears.

But then I think of eternal recurrence, and imagine my July—my month of very little—not as thirty-one days I squandered and will never see again, but as thirty-one days I will repeat throughout eternity. After all, in a way, I will: those days, or at least the narrative I tell myself about them, are now an irrevocable part of the grander narrative of my life. When I think about it that way, I start to grasp the stupidity of wishing them away, or just wishing that it will be over soon. When I start doing that, I’m squandering an opportunity to construct something of value out of those moments.

To me, the challenge presented by eternal recurrence is to create something of value out of even the most mundane moments. In order to do that, one must have a preternaturally fertile inner life. Since I’ve always believed that cultivating your inner life is something that deserves a lot of effort and care, maybe the days that force us to rely on it for stimulation are valuable after-all, like an intensive introspection workout. It’s in that spirit that I look forward to reading some more Nietzsche—and, since I’ve missed it, doing some more philosophy talk on this blog.

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A Scanner Darkly
June 28, 2010

Drawn portrait of Philip K Dick
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The AV Club just posted the first entry in an ongoing discussion of Philip K. Dick’s classic sci-fi novel, so take that as further incentive to read the thing if you haven’t yet.

Or actually, just read any Philip K. Dick novel if you haven’t yet. His books have their flaws—most notably clunky prose and, far worse, a pretty ugly attitude towards women—but the author has an eye for the absurd to rival Kafka’s, and a surprising tenderness directed at those trapped in absurd situations. A Scanner Darkly captures that about as well as any of his books, shifting from his trademark grim sense of humor to a conclusion that’s genuinely heartbreaking.

Incidentally, Richard Linklater’s film adaptation is also very, very good. There have been many film versions of Dick’s work in the past, and they’ve ranged from good-but-completely-detached-from-the-tone-of-the-original (Blade Runner, Minority Report) to let’s-just-pretend-that-never-happened (Paycheck, Impostor, and most likely the upcoming The Adjustment Bureau). Linklater’s adaptation is the only one I’ve seen to capture the druggy digressiveness of his novels, the surreal sense of humor, and the all-pervasive atmosphere of paranoia and existential dread that hooked me when I first picked up his work in high school.

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The “Second Holocaust”
May 17, 2010

Having now read the Beinart article I linked to earlier, I want to focus a little more on Phillip Klein’s response.

One can’t help but wonder how closely Klein actually read Beinart’s article, particularly when he says stuff like this:

While I would never suggest that Jews who happen to be politically liberal would want a second Holocaust to happen, I do think that by participating in a campaign to defang Israel and prevent it from taking the actions necessary to defend itself, that Jewish liberals are making things significantly easier for those who do want to carry out a second Holocaust.

Beinart actually addresses this “second Holocaust” nonsense in the article when he says:

But the message of the American Jewish establishment and its allies in the Netanyahu government is exactly the opposite: since Jews are history’s permanent victims, always on the knife-edge of extinction, moral responsibility is a luxury Israel does not have. Its only responsibility is to survive. As former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg writes in his remarkable 2008 book, The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes, “Victimhood sets you free.”

Sort of reminds me of this quote from Portnoy’s Complaint:

It is coming out of my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jews! Do me a favor, my people, and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass– I happen also to be a human being!

Prolonging the Magic
May 13, 2010

Dara’s (and Mark Twain’s) cautionary words on the danger of reading books that meant a lot to you earlier in life are well-taken, but I maintain that On the Road is a special case. Note that I didn’t re-read the originally published version, but instead went back further and read the original scroll on the second time around. And I was older and [marginally] wiser, sure, but the magic was still there.

Maybe you love On the Road. Maybe you think it was kind of meh. Either way, I maintain that you haven’t really gotten the full experience until you read the original scroll, and either way I think you’ll come away from the scroll feeling like you just had a much richer, vibrant experience than from reading the book alone. The novel version, I like to think of as a sort of practice run. But the scroll is the real thing.

(When I say “the real thing,” I don’t just mean because it’s unedited. I am, by no means, anti-editing; I happen to like Raymond Carver a hell of a lot more, for example, after Gordon Lish got his hands on him. But Kerouac’s project was uniquely weird and trying to format it into a novel kind of undermined the book’s real value, which is as a sort of cracked-out non-fiction prose poem.)

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