April 30, 2005
I haven’t been writing much lately, I’ve been focusing on computer work. I’m taking a computer class aimed at A+ Certification, and I’m planning to take a summer class in Java programming. My literary ambitions were checked by the collapse of my Brazil project.
My Japan dreams were also dashed. My hunch is that the Japanese publisher noticed that my book had already been published, and lost interest in publishing it. From my perspective, however, my book was never published in English, only self-published. Furthermore, the book has changed considerably since it was last self-published. Writers, take note: if you self-publish, you may lose potential publishers, who think that the book has “already been published.” In retrospect, I should have changed the title of the book, to make it seem new and fresh.
My India project hasn’t collapsed, but it hasn’t come to fruition, either.
As for our book group, everyone enjoyed Zen in the Art of Archery (one of the few books we’ve discussed twice). It’s very readable, very short, and one of my favorites. Then we read Lovejoy’s Great Chain of Being, which was neither short, nor readable, nor popular. But although people moaned and groaned about it, they eventually thought it was worth reading; one person said it was “good exercise,” weight-lifting for the mind. The Great Chain of Being is very dense — jammed with ideas. I thought it was a superb book, and I hope to discuss it in detail in a future issue of Phlit, but I’m not sure it was a good book for a book group. Now we’re reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and our next book is an Oxfordian work, The Man Who Was Shakespeare, by Charlton Ogburn.
This issue of Phlit contains miscellaneous material — nothing very long or very weighty. In upcoming issues, I plan to discuss three bigger topics:
A. Here’s a little poem by Robert Frost. It has long enchanted me with its style, wit, and depth of thought (for a reading by Frost himself, click here):
Fire and Ice
B. I recently saw a Chinese movie, The King of Masks, made in 1996. I recommend it. It’s set around 1920. A street performer entertains audiences with his collection of masks; he can switch masks with the flick of a wrist. But he has no heir, no one to whom he can teach his art, so he sets out to obtain a son, and the adventure begins. There’s a wonderful scene in which a powerless child uses a dramatic trick to get the attention of the powers that be.
C. I also saw an excellent French movie, The Red Balloon, made in 1956. It’s about 30 minutes long, and contains no dialogue. It’s suitable for children; when I was in elementary school, we saw it every year. It has a nice blend of fantasy and wit, and it also shows the dark side of human nature.
D. I read “The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin” to my daughter; it’s by the well-known children’s author, Beatrix Potter. It contains the sort of wisdom that fairy tales contain, perhaps because it’s based on a fairy tale, or influenced by the author’s reading of fairy tales. Nutkin and some other squirrels go out to Owl Island to gather nuts. When they reach the island, they pay a call on the owl who lives there. While the other squirrels treat the owl deferentially, and give him various presents, Nutkin is impertinent, and teases the owl. Next day, the other squirrels are again deferential, while Nutkin continues his teasing. Day after day, Nutkin teases the owl. At first, the owl pays no heed to Nutkin, but finally he lashes out, and grabs Nutkin in his talons. Just before Nutkin is devoured, he manages to escape, scarred and mortified.
How often conflicts start with playful teasing! How often the teasing continues until it provokes retaliation! In her study of evil, Marie-Louise von Franz writes
Squirrel Nutkin has this “infantile daring”, this “frevel.” It leads him into evil, and he suffers the consequences. I discussed frevel in an earlier issue of Phlit.
E. My website has a quiz — actually two quizzes. One quiz is called Ten Neglected Philosophers. The other quiz I describe as a “Quiz on Art, Music & Literature.” This latter quiz was recently expanded to 26 questions; many of the new questions deal with art history. Check it out!
F. Philosophy is not a subject, it is all subjects.
G. If life were sweet, death would be sour, but fortunately that’s not the case. Life is sweet-and-sour, hence death is sweet-and-sour.
H. A Snail Joke A man heard a knock on the door. When he opened the door, there was no one there. He looked down, and noticed a snail on the ground. He picked it up, and threw it across the street. A year later, he hears a knock on the door. When he opens the door, the snail says, “what was that all about?”
I. I recently went with my daughter to a karate demonstration in Providence. The karate teacher, Charles Earle, said that, while karate has become wildly popular in the U.S., many teachers achieve popularity by diluting the inner meaning, the spiritual meaning, and emphasizing the physical aspect — jumping around, throwing people off walls, etc. Charles said that karate is about respect — respect for your partner/opponent, and respect for your teacher (perhaps he should have added, “respect for yourself”). Providence is fortunate to have a good karate teacher, and also a good yoga teacher, Lakshyan Schanzer. Just north of Providence, in Cumberland, Rhode Island, is a Zen Center.
J. I recently noticed a headline, “Scientists Say Everyone Can Read Minds.” The article said,
Such theories don’t explain how we can sense the emotions of a person distant from us — perhaps a person on another continent. I’m skeptical of scientific explanations of occult phenomena. I find it interesting, however, that scientists are at least exploring the borders of the occult.
K. Thomas Wolfe often traveled to Europe, and he noticed one of the basic facts of traveling — namely, that it’s often more enjoyable in prospect and retrospect than in actuality. Wolfe put it thus: “he did not ‘enjoy’ travel — it was a spiritual necessity to him; in some measure it fulfilled a deep hunger in him for knowledge and change, and it awoke him from the lethargy into which he fell after he had been for too long in one place. But if it renewed him, it brought with it also incessant struggle, incessant tumult and disorder.”2
My sister’s gallery is in the Chelsea neighborhood, where many art galleries are now concentrated. A few years ago, the galleries were in Soho, but Soho rents climbed. A few prominent galleries banded together and found cheaper space in Chelsea, and when they did, the smaller galleries moved to Chelsea, too.
The west side of the city, along the Hudson River, now has an excellent bike-path — wide enough for walkers, joggers, and roller-bladers, as well as bikers. If you follow the path to the southern tip of Manhattan, you’ll be facing the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, with the East River on your left, and Brooklyn on the far side of the East River.
M. I recently received e-mail from Richard Costa, a Phlit subscriber in Brazil. We discussed two famous South American writers, Marquez and Borges. As Nietzsche objected to the pairing of Schiller and Goethe, believing that Goethe was far superior, so Richard objected to the pairing of Marquez and Borges, believing that Borges is far superior. Richard feels that Marquez is overrated, while he praises Borges for his “traditional style,” his “concise, cryptic language,” and his “philosophical themes.”
When Richard asked me what I thought of Cioran, I told him I had never heard of Cioran, and I asked Richard to tell me about him....
Cioran was a Romanian writer who lived most of his life in France, and wrote in French. While attending college in Bucharest, he became friends with Eugène Ionesco, the playwright, and Mircea Eliade, who wrote about the history of religion. Cioran was born in 1911, and died in 1995. Cioran said, “I have no nationality — the best possible status for an intellectual.” He was influenced by Nietzsche, and like Nietzsche, he wrote aphorisms and short essays. Richard calls him “the king of pessimists,” and his books have titles like On the Heights of Despair and The Trouble With Being Born. Cioran also wrote Anathemas and Admirations, which contains a vivid portrait of his friend Samuel Beckett. Beckett wrote an article on Cioran that introduced Cioran to the English-speaking world; in his article, Beckett said “[Cioran] is not a writer of despair, there is always a little blue light.”4 Cioran’s financial situation was precarious; “I don’t make a living,” he said, “I eke one out.”
Like Cioran, Ionesco was born in Romania, lived mostly in France, and wrote in French. Ionesco is a prominent figure in the theater of the absurd. Here is Wikipedia’s account of how Ionesco became a playwright:
N. One of Bush’s goals for his second term is reforming the legal system. Democrats have been blocking this reform for a generation, since they receive funds from trial lawyers. The legal system is crying out for reform. IBM is sued because they manufactured a keyboard, McDonald’s because they sold hot coffee, etc. A few years ago, I rented a canoe on the Taunton River, but when I asked recently about renting again, I was told, “I can’t rent canoes here anymore, because my landlord is afraid of liability.” Excessive litigation has an especially harmful effect on the medical system, and it adds to the cost of every doctor visit.
Higher education is often called one of America’s strengths, but now the trial lawyers have set their sights on higher education. When an MIT student committed suicide in 2000, her family sued MIT for $27 million. Now many American colleges purchase insurance for suicide litigation.
Should every misfortune, every problem, be remedied by litigation? Is any section of American society free from the rapacity of the trial lawyers?5
O. In the last issue of Phlit, I discussed the philosophical writer Leo Strauss, and his impact on American conservatives, and on the Bush Administration. While American conservatives have a penchant for philosophy, liberals seem to have little interest in it. A New York Times columnist, David Brooks, recently wrote
In the debates about interpreting the Constitution, conservatives are often “Originalists” (that is, they advocate relying on the original intent of the Framers), while liberals often advocate a “Living Constitution” (that is, they believe that the Constitution must change and evolve with changing times). Though I’ve failed to find a clear link between Originalists and Straussians, I think there’s a general agreement between them: both believe that moral principles are timeless, that truth is timeless, and both reject the historicist position that morality and truth evolve over time.
P. In the last issue of Phlit, I discussed the sociologist Edward Shils. Shils was an assiduous reader of fiction, and he was wary of science, wary of the attempt to describe human affairs with numbers.
In the U.S., there’s much discussion now about the failures of the intelligence agencies. People are asking, “Why didn’t we prevent the 9/11 attacks?” and “Why was pre-war intelligence on Iraq flawed?” In a recent column, David Brooks argued that we’ve relied too heavily on a scientific approach:
Q. A few months ago, there was a plan afoot in Russia to erect two statues of Stalin — one in Moscow, one near Ukraine. The plan drew criticism, and was quickly abandoned. Nonetheless, it’s significant that such a plan was formed, just as it’s significant that Stalin is often favorably portrayed on Russian TV, and that Stalin’s bust can still be seen on the Kremlin wall.
Imagine what a hue and cry there would be if Hitler were treated as respectfully as Stalin is treated! Why is Stalin treated so respectfully? His Gulag treated people as ruthlessly as Hitler’s camps did, and killed far more people than Hitler’s camps; this is evident from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. According to Britannica, “the combination of very long working hours, harsh climatic and other working conditions, inadequate food, and summary executions killed off at least 10 percent of the Gulag’s total prisoner population each year. Western scholarly estimates of the total number of deaths in the Gulag in the period from 1918 to 1956 range from 15 to 30 million.”
The most blatant example of white-washing Stalin is Encarta, which tells us that 900,000 people died in the Gulag.8 This is obviously a number chosen at random — or rather, chosen because it’s less than 1 million, and thereby minimizes the extent of Stalin’s genocide. It seems that some liberals still can’t admit that the crimes of the Left are as heinous, if not more so, than the crimes of the Right; some liberals act as if the crimes of the Left are an invention of conservatives and McCarthyites.
R. My poor parents! They have one child who has good people skills, but complains that every job requires computer skills, and they have another child who has good computer skills, but complains that every job requires people skills. If only they could combine us into one person!
The first thing to be said about Isaiah Berlin is that he isn’t worth reading; his reputation is larger than his talent. I’m not alone in this view; Shils “didn’t consider Isaiah Berlin great, but merely charming.”9 A writer of political philosophy and intellectual history, Berlin held several high positions in academia, and was also President of the British Academy. In academia, one can go further with charm than with talent.
I read Berlin recently because the local Great Books group was discussing some of Berlin’s remarks on liberty, remarks which were originally published in Berlin’s book, Concepts and Categories. The people in the Great Books group didn’t enjoy Berlin at all. His prose is elaborate and obscure:
In Berlin’s vocabulary, the highest compliment is “rational”; he seems to have no interest in the mystical or the occult. He lived from 1909 to 1997, and his bête noire was Fascism (or totalitarianism in general). He describes Fascism as “romantic irrationalism.” Fascists are people who want a society that is “governed in an unsystematic manner by the will of an inspired leader, or by the unpredictable movement of the Volksgeist, or the ‘spirit’ of a race, a party, a church.”
Though I find Berlin’s philosophical writing dull and dry, perhaps I should try his intellectual history. In that field, one of his most well-known works is a little 90-page book called The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History. Berlin felt that it was a mistake to seek a philosophy of history, to seek One Big Theory that could explain historical phenomena.
Like Berlin, Ayn Rand was born into a Jewish family, spent her youth in Russia, and witnessed the Russian Revolution. While Berlin went to Britain in 1921, Rand went to the U.S. in 1926. While Berlin had a successful career in academia, Rand was a popular success, and enjoys considerable popularity today; one might describe Rand as a cult figure, and her philosophy attracts the sort of passionate devotion that any religion would envy. “Fifteen million copies of her books have been sold. The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged [Rand’s most popular books] still sell 130,000 to 150,000 copies a year. In 1999, Rand even made it onto a United States postage stamp.”11
Repelled by the Russian Revolution, and by its emphasis on the collective, Rand was attracted to America’s emphasis on the individual. She was attracted by the famous phrase “pursuit of happiness,” and she believed that the individual was legally and morally entitled to pursue his own happiness. One of Rand’s books was called The Virtue of Selfishness.
When Rand arrived in the U.S. at age 21, she abandoned her former name, Alissa Rosenbaum, and went to Hollywood to be a screen-writer. She was always drawn to popular culture. “As a precocious child in Russia, she wrote action adventures and was enraptured by silent-film melodrama.... Late in life she was an avid viewer of television’s ‘Perry Mason’ and ‘Charlie’s Angels.’”12 One of her favorite novelists was Victor Hugo (whom Nietzsche scorned), and she has been called “the last Romantic.”
Rand’s first big success was The Fountainhead, which she published when she was 38; it’s still her most popular book. The Fountainhead is a novel about an architect, Howard Roark, who struggles against mediocrities. The title alludes to Rand’s remark, “Man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress.” Howard Roark was inspired by modern architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, who turned away from traditional styles (Wright admired The Fountainhead). Roark is a Randian hero, a strong individual who “takes an uncompromising stand when changes are suggested in his buildings.”13 Rand said, “This is the motive and purpose of my writing: the projection of an ideal man.”
Like Isaiah Berlin, Rand respected reason. Rand was an atheist, and she scorned religion and mysticism. When Howard Roark designs a temple, it is on a human scale, with no spires that soar toward the heavens; it is called a “Temple of the Human Spirit,” and it’s lambasted by critics as an insult to God. “My philosophy [Rand wrote], in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”14 Rand’s belief in the heroic individual reminds one of Nietzsche, whom she admired in her early years. In her atheism and rationalism, she resembles her old foes, the Communists, the difference being that she idealizes the strong individual, rather than the just society. She is often regarded as a champion of capitalism, and her disciples include Alan Greenspan. She herself said that all her beliefs grew out of her respect for reason: “I am not [she wrote] primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows.”15 Rand admired rational philosophers like Aristotle and Locke.
Perhaps the secret of her popularity is that she arouses the individual, builds his confidence, and encourages him to take charge of his life. If this is so, then her work resembles inspirational literature, self-help literature — the sort of literature that says “Take Control of Your Life,” “Get Your Shit Together,” “Success is a Choice,” etc. Rand summarized her ethical theories by writing: “To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason, Purpose, Self-esteem.”16 This remark resembles the advice that one finds in self-help books, such as the bestselling Purpose-Driven Life. Among literary people, it is customary to despise inspirational literature, to regard it as “supermarket literature.” In earlier issues of Phlit, however, I’ve argued that there’s a deep truth in inspirational literature — namely, that the mind can control external circumstances. If I take a dim view of Ayn Rand, it isn’t because her work resembles inspirational literature, it’s because she overrates reason, and she neglects the mystical, the occult, and the unconscious.
Rand’s philosophy is called Objectivism. She maintains that knowledge and values are objective, not subjective. “According to the Objectivist epistemology, through sensory perception and a process of reasoning, man can achieve absolute knowledge of his environment. Objectivism rejects skepticism.”17 In the political sphere, Rand’s followers often agree with conservatives and libertarians: “Objectivism holds that... the proper moral purpose of one’s life is to pursue one’s own rational self-interest, and that the only moral social system is full laissez-faire capitalism with a minimal government limited to courts, police, and a military.”18
I haven’t read any of Rand’s works, and have no plans to do so.
Here’s a story from the New York Times about Rick Pitino, coach of the Louisville Cardinals:
Some people would call this a coincidence, or an apocryphal story. Jungians, however, would call it synchronicity.
A couple years ago, the Brown basketball team was playing Penn, and Penn was ahead by two points with only a couple seconds left in the game. A Brown player was at the foul line, shooting one shot, and Brown’s only hope was for him to purposely miss the foul shot, and then score off the rebound. The Brown coach told a Brown player, co-captain Mike Martin, that he was being replaced by Marcus Becker, a more athletic player with better jumping ability. Martin insisted on staying in the game. The foul shooter missed, and Martin got the rebound; he heaved the ball through the basket, tying the score. Brown won in overtime.
How often does a player overrule a coach about being replaced? Martin must have felt something in his bones, he must have felt that he was the player of destiny. And the coach deserves credit for allowing himself to be overruled, for allowing Martin to stay in the game.
During the recent college basketball season, Illinois was undefeated going into the final game of the year, but they lost their final game to Ohio State. In the final seconds, Matt Sylvester of Ohio State hit a game-winning 3-point basket. “Sylvester scored a career-high 25 points — eight more than his previous best.” After the game, Sylvester said, “The other day I was in the gym with [a teammate] and I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be unbelievable to score 25 points and hit the game-winner against Illinois?.... This feels so good I can’t describe it.”20
Again, some people would call this an apocryphal story. In my view, however, Sylvester anticipated the future, or his strong feelings created the future.
One of the most exciting moments of the recent college basketball tournament was Vermont defeating Syracuse in the final seconds, with help from a long 3-pointer by T.J. Sorrentine. Though Sorrentine made only 5 of 20 shots during the game, he was confident of making that last 3-pointer; “I knew I had one more in me,” he said. He knew that he was the player of destiny. Again, the question arises: did he anticipate the future, or did his strong feelings create the future?21
It is often said that religious fundamentalism is on the rise, in the U.S. and around the world. But a recent article in the New York Times argues that fundamentalism isn’t on the rise, and may even be waning. The article says that the fastest-growing type of Christianity is Pentecostalism:
Some scholars argue that, among Muslims and other non-Christians, fundamentalism arose in the 1970s, filling the void created by the collapse of nationalism, communism, pan-Arabism and pan-Africanism. “From the 1970s on, you get the growth of not just more conservative religion, but religion with a political bent.”24 Today, however, there are indications that fundamentalism may be waning “as religious believers grow disenchanted with movements that have produced little but bloodshed, economic stagnation and social repression.... In last year’s elections in India, voters repudiated the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist group.... If Iran had a free and fair plebiscite today... ‘the ayatollahs would be dumped.’”25
Pentecostals tend to participate in society, and reach out to their neighbor, while fundamentalists often reject modern society, and create their own separate communities. Evangelicals seem to be akin to Pentecostals, though not as emotional as Pentecostals. Some may take comfort from the rise of Pentecostals, regarding them as less violent than fundamentalists.
|1.|| see article in LiveScience, by Ker Than, 4/27/05 back|
|2.|| Quoted in Thomas Wolfe, by Elizabeth Evans, ch. 1 back|
|3.|| New Yorker, 4/18/05 back|
|4.|| Click here for more on Cioran. back|
|5.|| I wrote this three or four months ago. Since then, Bush has succeeded in passing some legal reform, and he’s hoping to pass further reforms. back|
|6.|| “A House Divided, and Strong,” by David Brooks, April 5, 2005 back|
|7.|| “The Art of Intelligence,” by David Brooks, New York Times, April 2, 2005 back|
|8.|| “Millions of people were sent to the Gulag camps and about 900,000 people died in them.” Encarta, (c) 1993-2003 back|
|9.|| Portraits: A Gallery of Intellectuals, Introduction, p. 10 back|
|10.|| Introduction to Great Books: Second Series back|
|11.|| New York Times, February 2, 2005, “Considering the Last Romantic, Ayn Rand, at 100,” by Edward Rothstein back|
|12.|| ibid back|
|13.|| Wikipedia back|
|14.|| Appendix to Atlas Shrugged back|
|15.|| Wikipedia back|
|16.|| click here back|
|17.|| Wikipedia back|
|18.|| Wikipedia back|
|19.|| “Three Times a Charm for Pitino,” by Pete Thamel, New York Times, March 31, 2005 back|
|20.|| “Sylvester’s 3-pointer beats the Illini,” Associated Press, March 6, 2005 back|
|21.|| In an earlier issue of Phlit, I discussed “Baseball and the Occult” back|
|22.|| “True Believers: More Religion, but Not the Old-Time Kind,” by Laurie Goodstein, January 9, 2005 back|
|23.|| Encarta back|
|24.|| ibid back|