Revisiting The Turtle Island Liar's Club was a pure joy. On one level, the book is a collection of Cherokee stories, presented by a group of four eldeRevisiting The Turtle Island Liar's Club was a pure joy. On one level, the book is a collection of Cherokee stories, presented by a group of four elders: Hastings Shade, who passed before the book wa published; Sammy Still; Sequoyah Guess (direct descendent of the man who shaped--he never claimed to have "invented" the Cherokee syllabary; and Woody Hansen. Individually and collectively, they're unforgettable, each deeply grounded in Cherokee tradition, each very much a part of the modern world. Drawing in part on Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men, which like Turtle Island is at least as much literary performance as anthology, Teuton writes in a style that recognizes the individual voice of each of the storytellers, creating a rich tapestry of tribal voices.
The center of the book is on the importance of language and stories to a Cherokee identity that is deeply rooted in a world view that has been passed down over the generations but is also evolving in response to the pressures of American materialism and popular culture. It's also concerned with the nature of education, the delicate balance between guidance and trust in the ability of the individual to find his or her own path. The sense of a shared identity, at once communal and absolutely tolerant of idiosyncrasies, provides a model that those outside the Cherokee world would do well to take much more seriously than we do. As a Cherokee who grew up away from the homelands in North Carolina and Oklahoma (where Turtle Island is set), Teuton presents his own process as a kind of model for those seeking to reestablish connections with a way of life more satisfying than that offered by America's consumerist culture. Non-Cherokees will have a different relationship to the tradition, but it's by now means exclusive. The wisdom speaks to anyone concerned with finding a balance between the often-conflicting dimensions of life.
In a sense, all of that seems a bit abstract; the real, serious pleasure of Turtle Island Liar's Club, is in the stories themselves, which are arranged in four chapters focused on "beginnings," "movement," "teachings" and "the wondrous." My particular favorite on this rereading was"Wolf Wears Shoes" but, like life, that's subject to change day by day.
Umweek, a hereditary chief of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth, sets himself two tasks in this book: to provide a thick picture of his culture, emphasizing the impoUmweek, a hereditary chief of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth, sets himself two tasks in this book: to provide a thick picture of his culture, emphasizing the importance of the title precept, which translates as "everything is one"; and to argue for Tsawalk as a methodology for scholarly research. He does a much better job with the first than the second. Basing his presentation on the linguistic, cultural and political traditions of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth, he retells several stories to demonstrate the interconnectedness of the various levels of life. Son of Raven and Son of Mucus come alive as culture heroes and Umeek clearly establishes the vitality and wisdom of his people's traditions. The emphasis on one-ness parallels similar approaches in other native traditions, but Tsawalk is well worth heeding both for what it says about the Nuu-Chah-Nulth traditions and for what it offers readers from outside the cultural circle.
The final chapter, however, falls into a trap that's not unusual in a certain current of Native writing. Like Vine Deloria in Red Earth, White Lies, Umeek seems intent on presenting Tsawalk as a methodology equivalent to western science (and in Umeek's case, social science). It's an odd rhetorical move and it pretty much falls flat. To argue that the spiritual and the physical deserve equal attention and to assert, accurately, that environmental science and (though I'd want to add some footnotes) quantum physics emphasize connection is valuable. But to argue that Tsawalk provides a methodology which answers to the same sorts of standards as science is simply wrong. The rhetoric and examples in the final chapter don't come close to making Umeek's case and, as a result he to some extend undercuts the power of his book. I'd have very much preferred it if he'd simply presented the world view and let its power speak for itself. ...more
Phi is an extremely ambitious book which sets out to explain the nature and implications of consciousness. It's beautifully put together, incorporatinPhi is an extremely ambitious book which sets out to explain the nature and implications of consciousness. It's beautifully put together, incorporating numerous images from classical painting and sculpture and contemporary scientific imaging. The images are interspersed with a text which is consciously modeled on the Divine Comedy; everything comes in threes and Tononi balances his vision of the infernal dimensions of consciousness with the wonders of life. The book is structured around Galileo's three-part journey with sections focusing on the physical foundations of consciousness, a series of thought experiments concerning consciousness, and a section of philosophical reflections on the implications of the previous sections. Each section gives Galileo a different guide, figure based on Francis Crick, Alan Turing and Charles Darwin. Each chapter is followed by a section in which Tononi provides notes for images and the numerous quotations and adapted quotations and, problematically, offers ironic analysis of the contents of the chapter.
That's the description, now the review. The core of Phi is Tononi's vision of "integrated information" (a.k.a. the Phi of the title) as the defining feature of consciousness. This leads to the notion of "qualia": the irreducible states of perception which define what consciousness is. Each set of perceptions/experiences is a "quale" and our consciousness consists of the changing array of quale we perceive. In the first third of the book, Tononi revisits, summarizes and endorses material from neuroscientific research that will be familiar to readers of Carl Sagan, Oliver Sacks and Antonio Damaso. That section's fine. The second section, however, begins to lose its clarity and focus. Tononi knows he's playing with ideas that aren't as firmly established as those in the first section and he structures things so that every time an idea is advanced it's challenged and usually undercut. While the notion of integrated information emerges clearly, that's about it. And the third section of philosophical meditations is simply unconvincing. Tononi's not a philosopher--he's a Professor of Sleep Science and Consciousness Studies at my home institution, the University of Wisconsin. There are a lot of very large speculations, which lead to the assertion that integrated information provides a way of reconciling the tension between the "one" and the "many." I sympathize but I didn't find it convincing, even aesthetically. That's partly because Tononi's dramatic approach is more device than literary performance. The characters aren't convincing as characters; rather, they're clearly mouthpieces for perspectives. And I simply think the postscripts on the chapters were a bad idea; when Tononi, with ironic intent apparently, points out the failings of the positions which he's just presented, all too often I found myself saying "yeah, that's right."
Phi is an interesting and sometimes engaging attempt to present a major philosophical statement. For me, it didn't quite work....more
It's a testimony to the limited success of Goldstein's novel that I've found myself thinking about it quite a bit since I wrote my original review (wh
It's a testimony to the limited success of Goldstein's novel that I've found myself thinking about it quite a bit since I wrote my original review (which follows this addition. But part of what I've been thinking about is the nature of the limitation. In addition to the narrative issues I originally raised, it's become clearer to me that what I find dissatisfying is that Goldstein and her characters never really question the premise that the God exists/doesn't exist debate can be settled on rational grounds. The appendix is a very useful summary of how those debates are structured, but it doesn't deal with the deeper spiritual/metaphorical *meanings* behind the questions. William James was clear that his acceptance of religious experience wasn't an endorsement of the proposition that "God is a being who exists in physical or transcendent space."
As I thought about that, thought, I also thought about the treatment of the Valdener community, especially as it comes into play at the end of the novel. And that made me wonder whether the novel isn't making a more complex statement--not reducible to propositions--than I'd originally thought. Clearly, Goldstein understands and values the community which is inextricable from its religious "beliefs".....
Quite possible I'll revisit this in days to come.
Original review follows:
A combination of philosophy and fiction that maintained my interest but ultimately didn't add a lot to my philosophical understanding of the title issue and left me a bit unsatisfied as fiction. The fiction centers on the vagaries of academic culture and some of it's amusing enough. But some of it simply rings false. I've been a tenured professor at a major university for 30 years and I've crossed paths with the standard number of jerks, but Klapper, a central figure in Goldstein's novel isn't believable. He's more caricature than character and that's a problem because his role in the experience of the central character, a philosopher who's been catapulted into public intellectual-dom through the success of a book titled Varieties of Religious Illusion (nods to William James fully acknowledged). Although his current partner is more believable, I didn't buy a key element of the plot resolution--again, it felt like caricature. I'm not opposed to Juvenalian academic satire, but the flat characters contradict the serious tone of most of the book.
That's not to say I'm sorry I read it. The appendix, which catalogs the 36 arguments, identifying fallacies and providing historical context, is useful. And I loved the portrayal of a Hassidic community and the young math prodigy who is in line to become its rabbi....more
This book came to me via the very positive New York Times Book Review review, and it made the Times list of best books of the year. I wish I'd read FrThis book came to me via the very positive New York Times Book Review review, and it made the Times list of best books of the year. I wish I'd read Freeman Dyson's review in the New York Review of Books first and saved my time.
Certianlyk the organizing question--why does the universe exist?--is interesting. Or at least I thought it was until I read the book. After reading it, I'm convinced that almost everyone who addresses it is deeply mired in circular thinking of the sort where the argument is determined in advance by the desired conclusion. Some of the people Holt talked to are familiar names in the worlds of philosophy and cosmology and I'll take his word that the others are Well Thought Of in their professional worlds. But almost all of them, if we can trust Holt's reporting, are prone to imperial pronouncements and/or technical academic argot. Almost all come off as smug and self-important.
And Holt simply drove me nuts. The chapters where he veers into his own speculations are simply awful.I think he was trying to provide a sense of an intellectual journey, but his attempts at synthesis are trite. I got really tired of hearing about what he ate for dinner before he went to talk to the man of the moment. Some of the sketches of the interviewees are well drawn. But that's about it.
What strikes me in retrospect is how sure the speakers are that the fundamental questions can be answered in rational, logical (and fundamentally Western) terms. I read a fair amount of eastern philosophy--Buddhism, Taoism--and on this question I radically prefer the humility and openness to wonder of the Tao Te Ching or Huang Po.
Despite its title and place in a series of short books introducing religious classics, this book is best suited for readers already familiar with theDespite its title and place in a series of short books introducing religious classics, this book is best suited for readers already familiar with the I Ching, or as he transcribes it in the text but not title Yijing. Smith provides lucid overviews of the difference between the most influential Chinese schools of interpretation (focusing on "images and numbers" on the one hand, "principles and meanings" on the other) and traces the book's spread from China through East Asia (Japan, Vietnam, Korea and to a lesser extent Tibet) and on to the West, mostly in forms which reflect the ulterior motives of missionaries and scholars. There's a brief overview of the best known English language translations, but there are much more thorough versions easily available (and noted in Smith's bibliography, which is a gem). Some cool illustrations spice up the serviceable but never exciting prose.
I found the illustrations of how the I Ching has been used a bit opaque. While my familiarity with consultation methods allowed me to follow them, I think they'd be murky to newcomers. This reflects my own bias, but I would have liked a much more detailed consideration of the Jungian/existential resonances of the Yijing for readers who first encountered it as part of a counterculture mix but have dug deeper over the years....more
Huang Po is one of the most influential of the Chinese Zen masters and translater John Blofield, one of the scholars responsible for introducing Zen tHuang Po is one of the most influential of the Chinese Zen masters and translater John Blofield, one of the scholars responsible for introducing Zen to the West, has done an admirable job with this compilation of sermons and anecdotes. Unlike the Buddhist traditions associated with the Hinayana School, Zen (a part of the broader Mahayana tradition which developed as Buddhism spread from India to China and Japan) says that enlightenment comes in a flash, not as the result of study and discipline. This creates interesting dilemmas for "students" and "teachers," since the primary teaching is something like "this can't be taught." Huang Po repeatedly cautions his questioners against allowing concepts and strivings, including the striving for freedom from concepts, interfere with the state where all of the distinctions vanish. The difficulties involved with translating this engagement with the untranslatable are both immense and a bit amusing. Any translation from Chinese is going to fill in numerous gaps--the ideograms sit next to each other, but there's a ton of room for projecting different sorts of connections. Blofield is well aware of this. The introduction includes a self-reflective discussion of why he chooses to translate the term which refers to the unexpressable unity as "Mind." In a first stab at the translation, he'd used "Universal." I'm a bit curious as to why he didn't go with "Tao," which invokes fewer interfering concepts for western readers. In several footnotes, Blofield comments on how similar Huang Po's approach is to those of Taoist masters like Lao Tze. I'm guessing he avoided Tao because he wanted to emphasize (properly enough) Huang Po's grounding in the Buddhist tradition, which carries with it its own vocabularies and logics.
I'm of two minds about Blofield's decisions to include parenthetical glosses of tricky terms in the text itself and to place footnotes at the bottom of each page. There's a long tradition of presenting Buddhist and Taoist texts with commentary, but I think I prefer Thomas Cleary's approach of placing them in a separate section following the text. Blofield's practice does give a clear sense of the complexities behind and within each of the sermons, but it also makes it even more difficult to escape the abstractions and conceptualizations Huang Po resists.
At this point, I can see Huang Po bopping me on the head to jar me out of my own head cloud, smile.
Main point is that this is a cool book--one that had a big impact on the Beat Generation's understanding of Zen--and that anyone interested in the dharma should put it high on their list. ...more
Somehow or another, I'd failed to add this when I was compiling my life-time bookshelf, but I'm happy to rectify the error. Whether you're atheist, agSomehow or another, I'd failed to add this when I was compiling my life-time bookshelf, but I'm happy to rectify the error. Whether you're atheist, agnostic, or theist, Comte-Sponville's elegant apologia (in the classical sense--explanation more than apology) will force you to rethink the ethical implications of where you stand. I'll leave it there and let C-S speak for himself, but this is as good a book on the spiritual/ethical life as I've ever read....more
The four stars are for the translation. Ranking the Tao Te Ching or Chuang Tzu is a fairly hilarious idea, equivalent to rating the New Testament. NoThe four stars are for the translation. Ranking the Tao Te Ching or Chuang Tzu is a fairly hilarious idea, equivalent to rating the New Testament. No book of any sort is more important to my way of thinking and, to the extent I can stay centered and uncentered, acting, in the world. Taoism is grounded in notions of flow, of the generative emptiness at the center of all things, and the Tao Te Ching particularly emphasizes the implications for political and social life.
For Americans, the main point is to embrace yin energy. We ain't good at it.
Anyway, I'm in the process of reading my way through Cleary's collected translations of the key texts of both the Taoist and (the closely related) Buddhist traditions. A Harvard professor who knows the traditions and the cloud of commentaries surrounding the key texts inside and out, Cleary has given us a set of gifts of inestimable value. If you follow my reviews, you'll be hearing about the specifics regularly over the next few years (provided I don't get hit by a bus and all).
In the case of these texts, his translation places a very heavy emphasis on what I'd call the Confucian dimension of the text: the readings and interpretations that foreground the implications for those in public life. This is a part of what they're about and anyone translating the Chinese characters is going to have to make choices. Cleary's are useful and defensible, but I prefer Stephen Mitchell's less scholarly, more poetic, and more inward translation of the Tao Te Ching. Cleary's not a poet and that's okay, but if you stick with his version, you'll have trouble understanding why I love and honor this book as deeply as I do....more