A caustic reader of this darkly-entertaining biography might call it Lying Every Day. To call Seneca a "man of contradictions" is kind. He is the pree...moreA caustic reader of this darkly-entertaining biography might call it Lying Every Day. To call Seneca a "man of contradictions" is kind. He is the preeminent example in antiquity of someone who wanted to have his philosophical cake and eat it too – preaching the ascetic virtues of Stoicism and abnegation while living a luxurious life as a Roman multimillionaire. His essays harp on the dignity of death and the heroic freedom of suicide, while his day job as Nero's court philosopher required him to connive at political murder, including Nero's assassination of his own murderous mother. One ancient historian blames Seneca's usurious greed for triggering the rebellion of Boudicca, warrior-queen of ancient Britain, resulting in the deaths of 80,000 Roman soldiers and just as many British. Buckets of blood. Yet at the end he couldn't bleed himself. He tried hemlock (in a stagy imitation of Socrates), and finally suffocated himself in a steam bath. He seems to have died convinced that he was what he pretended to be.(less)
It was probably in the preface to James Hillman's The Myth of Analysis that I first came across the name of Eranos, an annual conference held in Switz...moreIt was probably in the preface to James Hillman's The Myth of Analysis that I first came across the name of Eranos, an annual conference held in Switzerland from 1933 through the end of the 20th century. Random references to its gathering of scholars of esotericism – C G Jung, Henri Corbin, Mircea Eliade, Gerhard Scholem, to mention the most famous – have intrigued me ever since. Hans Thomas Hakl has more than satisfied my curiosity. While I'm still intrigued by the participants of Eranos, the mundane history of the conference itself ranges from kooky to dispiriting. Call it the exoteric TMI factor.
Hakl sums up the "basic consistency" of Eranos as "a readiness to extend scientific enquiry beyond the boundaries set by reason and into areas where myth, imagination, and religious experience play their roles." The promise, temptations, and dangers of such an approach are obvious to anyone exposed to dogmatic religions, cults or the wilderness of new age thinking. In my case, I grew up immersed in evangelical Christianity, a mold that cracked as soon as I began to reflect and doubt. That early exposure inoculated me against any system of thought that proposed a universal explanatory principle.
At the same, without some sympathetic participatory knowledge of such systems, it's impossible to appreciate or even understand vast tracts of art, music, poetry, literature and philosophy. Skepticism and curiosity proceed together. Thus my lifelong interest in writers such as Owen Barfield, Gaston Bachelard, Kathleen Raine, Frances Yates, Ioan Culianu and Hillman himself, each of whom grounded her or his scholarly work in the tangled loam of the imagination. I'm grateful to Hakl (and his generous bibliography) for pointing me to writers I'd never known – Chung-Yuan Chang and the unfortunately-named Jan Assmann. He also reminded me of a writer I'd long forgotten: the "polytheist" David L. Miller, who saw "the liberating and redeeming effect of laughter in the midst of tragedy" as the goal of his work. That's the wisdom tradition I want to follow.(less)
Walter Benjamin's obscure illuminations are famous for their intractable, mutually contradictory meanings. Depending on your cast of mind, he can be a...moreWalter Benjamin's obscure illuminations are famous for their intractable, mutually contradictory meanings. Depending on your cast of mind, he can be a Marxist or a metaphysician, a fantasist or a deconstructionist. For me, his literary criticism and mystical sense of history represent the most surreal instance of the theological imagination in the 20th century. His fascination with "redemption" reminds me of Kafka's apothegm: There is an infinite amount of hope in the universe … but not for us.
This excellent biography by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings provides a contour of Benjamin's contradictions, resisting the temptation to simplify or polemicize, while setting his critical philosophy within the context of his sad, heroic life. Apropos of his final "Theses on the Philosophy of History," the authors remark, "For Walter Benjamin, history remained from first to last a Trauerspiel."
Highly recommended for aesthetes of the recondite.(less)
To him or to any American president, I would like to recommend a book that I sometimes give as a gift to friends, hoping they read it and ask me, “Why this book, Orhan?” “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values” is a great American book based on the vastness of America and the individual search for values and meaning in life. This highly romantic book is not a novel, but does something every serious novel should do, and does it better than many great novels: making philosophy out of the little details of daily life.
Browsing Goodreads tonight I was surprised I'd never added my 2¢ in praise of Pirsig. (Actually I had, but only by way of reviewing Mark Richardson's Zen and Now.)
No doubt my 5 star rating reflects the nostalgic glow of reading Pirsig's book when it first appeared.* I was a dream- and philosophy-haunted college student living in Berkeley with a direct view of the Golden Gate Bridge, where Pirsig's epic journey concludes. Pirsig's book was also my pathway drug to FSC Northrop's nonpareil Meeting of East and West, published in response to the colossal carnage of World War II. In ZMM, Pirsig's alter-ego Phaedrus describes this book as "a text on Oriental philosophy and it’s the most difficult book he’s ever read." Northrop is indeed demanding but not exceptionally difficult. Anyone willing to invest the hours required to read it will be rewarded by an intoxicating, integrated vision of global culture. Probably Northrop's analysis would be faulted on many points by contemporary theorists, but in 1946 his book was authentically visionary. Pirsig's novel translates this vision into the classic American idiom of the road trip, the quest to find oneself – and is itself perhaps the most marvelous instance of that myth. ________________ * There are plenty of 1 and 2 star reviews here. Obviously the magic doesn't work for everyone. (less)
A book on Eros that – for me – never takes wing. First read when it was published in 1986, just read it again as I'm rereading Sappho. Despite Carson'...moreA book on Eros that – for me – never takes wing. First read when it was published in 1986, just read it again as I'm rereading Sappho. Despite Carson's fine writing, there's more poetry in a few fragments of Sappho than in this entire book. There are some excellent observations along the way but the substance of the book is dry & thin — compared with (for example) the music of James Hillman on Eros, Roland Barthes on a lover's discourse, Roberto Calasso on Greek mythology. (less)
"The phenomenology of pure thought is almost daemonic in its strangeness." I've thought that myself. But if you haven't read the books of the hieropha...more"The phenomenology of pure thought is almost daemonic in its strangeness." I've thought that myself. But if you haven't read the books of the hierophantic, hyper-erudite George Steiner, this book is probably not the place to begin. (Visit In Bluebeard's Castle.)
The temper of Steiner's mandarin musings has always been a bit feverish, the mood that of the "crisis theologians" of the 20th century, of existentialist extremity. Ultimate realities are often at stake. For the reader this means the high drama of ideas: Can we write poetry after Auschwitz? What was said – or more crucially, not said – when Heidegger and Celan took their walk through the dark woods of Germany? I'm only mocking a bit. I've been reading Steiner with admiration, appreciation and, yes, amusement ever since I was handed Language and Silence in the mid-70s — a book that proved to me on its first page that I'd never know as much as its author.
Another (very good) review on this page faults Steiner for being superficial and Eurocentric. Superficial isn't quite right. Steiner talks in the elite ellipsis of the classic humanities - a gliding reference indicates that he's not only familiar with a master's work but also with its attendant controversies and arcane affinities. One of the pleasures of reading Steiner is following his asides to discover whole avenues of achievement - authors and works otherwise forgotten. In this book he inspired me to actually read Paul Valery's Monsieur Teste and seek out the poet Durs Grünbein (to whom the book is dedicated).
As for his Eurocentrism – well, of course. Is this really something that requires an apology? No one can be a genius about everything; to be original and intelligent about anything is an accomplishment that escapes most of us. Steiner has been torturing himself with the irresolvable contradictions of Western thought for the past 60 years. His passion for continental philosophy and its eviscerations is everywhere evident, but he is never its apologist. Heidegger and his lesser epigones amaze him; they also elicit scathing contempt.
That said, there is the inadvertent comedy of his prose that has often proved too much, even for his admirers. Never one phrase where two will do. A rhetorical overpainting that easily muddies – an example almost at random, relating to the book's subject: "Scarcely any component of our theme, of the relations both substantive and historical between philosophy and poetics, between performative style and philosophic argument, between philosophers and poets in propria persona does not have an absolutely determinant place in Heidegger's teachings." Prose like this cumbers every page. It's obviously the way Steiner thinks, the sentence form obsessively striving for both sinuous precision and philosophic depth. Every artist has his tics. Books have been hurled against the wall for less. Caveat lector.
Reading Steiner makes me feel like an intellectual anarchist stepping into the hushed cathedral of humanism. I don't want to worship, but I'm happy that it's still somewhat intact, that the high priests (aging and aching) are still doing their job. Steiner — he knows as well as anyone — is a kind of magister who will soon be gone and will not be replaced.
This is a strange book, one that almost resists reading because it is so strange. It comes with some of the best blurbs I've ever seen. Rikki Ducornet...moreThis is a strange book, one that almost resists reading because it is so strange. It comes with some of the best blurbs I've ever seen. Rikki Ducornet: "You have in your hands a uniquely beautiful book... My copy burns brightly on my favorite shelf, beside The Poetics of Space, Eccentric Spaces and In Praise of Shadows." Richard Howard (surely the doyen of handcrafted blurbs): "Read it as you always meant to read the Bible: by chapters, by pages, persistently by sentences, readily pausing to concur, to contend, to wonder…"
Puppet lives up to its praise. It doesn't simply discuss the uncanny as typified by the peculiar world of puppets, it instantiates it. At times it seems to be a kind of private diary of Gross's favorite puppeteers and performances. There are divagations that hover at the edge of distraction and tedium, but then the discussion morphs into something truly mysterious.
You feel the world take the form of a gathering of gestures and acts, faces, limbs, bodies, cries, fragments of stories, objects of ears and eyes, mechanisms and animals. You see it in a patch of color or darkness, a line that makes a pattern in the void, a separate world that is both our world and something else, taking shape for a moment in some piece of painting or music, doubled by the landscape, the weather, the text of torn clouds colored by sunlight and shadow. One small piece of this is enough to open up a world. It is enough for a lifetime of commentary.
Howard is right: you have to read this book as curiously as you would a poem by Louise Glück or Wislawa Szymborska or one of Kafka's parables. It's a fit companion to Victoria Nelson's A Secret Life of Puppets or those almost perfect anomalous books by Harbison and Bachelard. (less)
I read the first 99 pages of this book when I bought it in 2001, then shelved it and forgot it. Recently I've been reading Puppet by Kenneth Gross, a...moreI read the first 99 pages of this book when I bought it in 2001, then shelved it and forgot it. Recently I've been reading Puppet by Kenneth Gross, and decided to read it again. I'm glad I did: it's fascinating look at the emergence of the grotesque and the concomitant disappearance of the transcendent in Western consciousness, or more accurately, its displacement into the "fantastic" literature of Kleist, Poe and their successors as well as the mass-art media of horror-fantasy films, fiction, graphic novels and games. In broadest terms, Nelson investigates the evolution of the numinous from religion into art, the inner tensions of an unstable materialist worldview.
The journey, fortunately, is far more interesting than my congested summary. Nelson's Secret Life is one of my favorite kinds of books – a history of Imagination; an eccentric, deeply intelligent meditation on the forms of art and consciousness, packed with specific examples and excurses, as well as sweeping statements such as "This drastic reinterpretation of reality [around, roughly, the Reformation] in which one's only transcendental link to God is internal marks the real dividing line in Western culture." It's the sort of book in which one enjoys the ruminating endnotes as much as the text itself.
If you're the type of reader who enjoys the historical analyses of writers like Ioan Couliano; C S Lewis (literary criticism, not apologetics); Frances Yates; Owen Barfield; James Hillman; Roberto Calasso – you'd probably enjoy Nelson. She has a new book (Gothika) coming out this spring; I've already ordered it.
A solid overview of the Romantic Revolution, with a generous set of illustrations – which, ironically, convinced me that Romanticism can't be summariz...moreA solid overview of the Romantic Revolution, with a generous set of illustrations – which, ironically, convinced me that Romanticism can't be summarized. For even the barest historical understanding, at the certain risk of being ridiculous, Romanticism's poetry, music, art, fiction and philosophy have to be experienced as passionately as possible. Even in the work of a historian as gifted as Blanning, facts are merely footnotes.
From existentialism to deconstructionism, all of modern thought can be reduced to a mechanical denunciation of the West, emphasizing the the latter's...moreFrom existentialism to deconstructionism, all of modern thought can be reduced to a mechanical denunciation of the West, emphasizing the the latter's hypocrisy, violence, and abomination. In this enterprise the best minds have lost much of their substance.
Thus begins Pascal Bruckner's entertaining, occasionally brilliant denunciation of the denunciators – who are, more or less, all of us.
It would be easy to lump Bruckner in with disillusioned Anglo-American liberals such as Paul Berman or Christopher Hitchens (in his Iraq-invasion cheerleading guise) but the temptation should be resisted. "Iraq was an exemplary case of the double bind: whether one approved of the intervention or not, one was wrong." Hard to imagine Hitchens writing that. Bruckner's analysis is subtler, more spritely – as you'd expect from the author of Perpetual Euphoria and Bitter Moon. His polemic is directed at whole pantheons of intellectuals, historians, commentators, journalists, at all the "masochists" who hate themselves more than they love others, who refuse to hold other cultures and societies to the same standards by which they condemn their own.
Bruckner is hardly the first to make this argument, but few have made it better. I did find it strange that he made no mention of The Betrayal of the West by Jacques Ellul, published a generation ago. An enterprising reviewer (not me) could provide a point-by-point comparison of the two books; in fact, in his central argument, Bruckner merely updates and re-frames Ellul. Neither has any intention of excusing the crimes of the West; they accept those as given. But each wants to defend values that have taken centuries to achieve even if those values have just as often been betrayed. "Nowhere else did anyone discover the astounding truth that is peculiar to man: he is a maker of history, history understood as the expression of freedom and of man's mastery of events, nature, and his own social life. This conception of history is characteristic of all western thinking, whether rightest or leftist." (Ellul) "Freedom is not a crusade, it is a proposition." (Bruckner) "The situation of the West brings with it a crushing responsibility – and perhaps a crushing guilt," writes Ellul. But masochism solves nothing. Culpability "provides an alibi for our abdication," Bruckner concludes. "Crime will always exceed the possibilities of pardon, and memories will always be too numerous: the dead will not be avenged or sufferings amended, wounds closed.... Only history, oral or written, can give these millions of dead the tomb they deserve."
Everyone will find plenty to argue with in this book, but it's bracing in the best sense, free of the poison of partisan politics, exemplary in its exercise of critical thought and imagination. (less)
Picked up this book at City Lights purely out of curiosity, piqued by Slavoj Žižek's blurb: "A figure like Plato or Hegel walks here among us!" This s...morePicked up this book at City Lights purely out of curiosity, piqued by Slavoj Žižek's blurb: "A figure like Plato or Hegel walks here among us!" This short apothegmatic study of Wittgenstein's "antiphilosophy" is my first exposure to Badiou. I was impressed and entertained.
This book, I suspect, will be of interest to only a few of my fellow goodreaders. If you're interested in the ancient debates of philosophy (e.g. Plato's polemic against the sophists), or if you're interested in Wittgenstein, then I recommend this book. Otherwise…
Briefly* – Badiou places Wittgenstein in the line of those he terms antiphilosophers – Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Lacan – who (philosophically) undermine philosophy's commitment to truth, locating truth outside what philosophy can say or know. I'm quite fond of the first three, so he had my attention there.
People who know only the merest bit of Wittgenstein are still familiar with the closing words of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Badiou dedicates his book to understanding (by contravening) this paradoxical proposition in prose that's hardly calculated to win over the casual reader but richly repays even modest effort. Plus there are unexpected moments of philosophical wit. "The Tractatus is a bit like A Season in Hell written in the form of A Throw of the Dice." Fans of Rimbaud and Mallarmé, take notice. ______________ * For an appealing summary of Badiou's argument, see William West's review below (or above). And although I thought it comical that a translator would require a third of his book to introduce the remainder, Bruno Bosteels did an excellent job.
Isaiah Berlin, in his Mellon Lectures on The Roots of Romanticism, said that Romanticism "seems to me to be the greatest single shift in the conscious...moreIsaiah Berlin, in his Mellon Lectures on The Roots of Romanticism, said that Romanticism "seems to me to be the greatest single shift in the consciousness of the West that has occurred," influencing every major "shift" of the two centuries that followed. Such a remark is merely eye-glazing unless it's given substance and depth, and this is exactly what Koerner accomplishes in his remarkable book on the German painter Caspar David Friedrich. It's the best book I've read on Romanticism since M. H. Abrams's Natural Supernaturalism and Owen Barfield's What Coleridge Thought – and those were so long ago, I'm not sure they count.
Koerner illustrates how terms first defined by the Romantics still determine how we think and feel today. For example, the "familiar thesis of art as a secularized religion is a foundation of the historiography of painting as it developed in the discipline of art history since Romanticism. It is in Friedrich's Cross in the Mountains that it first appears self-consciously incarnated as art." Much of his book investigates the reception and influence of this painting in the multilayered context of German philosophy and current art criticism. It's the strength of his writing, and the depth of his observations, that make this journey far less ponderous than it sounds – rewarding the reader with rich observations at every turn.
A term new to me (exposing my ignorance) is Rückenfigur: a person in a painting seen from behind, an example of the Romantic motif of the "halted traveler." The most famous of these appears on (at least) three books buried on my shelves – Erich Heller's The Artist's Journey into the Interior; D. B. Brown's Romanticism and (of course) Nietzsche's Ecce Homo. Koerner's meditation on the role of this figure in Friedrich's paintings approach the uncanny. "The Rückenfigur is so prominent in the composition that the world appears to be an emanation from his gaze, or more precisely, from his heart."
(BTW another Friedrich painting adorns the Isaiah Berlin book referred to above.)
In the context of Koerner's discussion of Wanderer I also learned a new English word that instantly lends itself to metaphor. "The blurred trees and cliffs emerging from the fog would seem to have been set down first, perhaps in contours more definite and clear than they now appear, and then overpainted with white and grey scumbles." To scumble means to "modify (a painting or color) by applying a very thin coat of opaque paint to give a softer or duller effect." Who knew?
Finally, the English publisher Reaktion Books has done a fine job in providing this book with 150 reproductions, many of them in color. That didn't keep me from repeatedly calling up high-res images on my iPad, which makes Friedrich's images even more luminous. I'm still waiting for publishers to exploit the new tablet technology to give us art books that allow us to examine paintings in depth.
Maybe this book of bite-sized bitterness doesn't aim for the heights, but it's completely enjoyable. Shaffer sets out to show that, throughout the his...moreMaybe this book of bite-sized bitterness doesn't aim for the heights, but it's completely enjoyable. Shaffer sets out to show that, throughout the history of western philosophy, "big brains and broken hearts have gone hand in hand." It's not a difficult proposition to prove, yet each instance provides comic evidence that intellectual and romantic intelligence may be inversely proportional. Painful for the genius involved, no doubt, but imagine the philosophic poverty of a cheerful Kierkegaard or Nietzsche. Now that is an unhappy thought. (less)
An obscure classic. Cassirer strives to reconcile the many contradictions of Rousseau, which in 1932 was a novel approach. I read this, less for a def...moreAn obscure classic. Cassirer strives to reconcile the many contradictions of Rousseau, which in 1932 was a novel approach. I read this, less for a definitive reading of Rousseau (whose creative profusion can support and undermine almost any interpretation), more to enjoy Cassirer's philosophical style.
A few years ago I bought a book called Rousseau's Dog about the fractured friendship between David Hume and Jean-Jacques, written by the guys who wrot...moreA few years ago I bought a book called Rousseau's Dog about the fractured friendship between David Hume and Jean-Jacques, written by the guys who wrote the entertaining Wittgenstein's Poker. Compared to the poker, the dog was a dry affair and I deserted the drama halfway through. Recently I've been reading Rousseau, so I picked up The Philosopher's Quarrel, which covers much the same territory but in more depth. It's still fairly academic, not what I'd call a riveting read, but the authors do a fine job of illuminating the difference between these two famous philosophers of the Enlightenment.
Hume is a writer who gives me pleasure every time I dip into his essays; Rousseau wrote one book I enjoy – The Confessions – but that (at least as far as I've got) is spectacular. (I plan to give Reveries of a Solitary Walker another try, too.) No doubt about it: Rousseau was an incredible disaster. Every book he wrote was a sensation, yet at the end of his life he was still complaining. "What am I doing in this world? Though made to live, I am instead dying without ever lived." Hume, by contrast, remained equable to the end. "I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could wish, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire."