August 15, 2011

1. Miscellaneous

A. I saw an interview with Erik Larson, a popular non-fiction writer. Larson is best known for The Devil in the White City, which is about a series of murders that occurred in Chicago in 1893, during the World’s Fair. He also wrote Thunderstruck, which deals with a murder in London, and also discusses the development of radio technology (when the murderer, Dr. Crippen, fled to Canada, radio was used to catch him). Larson’s latest book is In the Garden of Beasts, which deals with William Dodd, U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1937, and his daughter, Martha Dodd.1 Martha had affairs with various prominent men (including American writers Thomas Wolfe and Carl Sandburg), and later spied for the Soviets.2 [Update 2015: Larson just published Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.]

In the interview that I saw, Larson didn’t seem to be a good public speaker. But he doesn’t lack scholarly credentials: he graduated summa cum laude from Penn, specializing in Russian history, then received an M.A. in journalism from Columbia.

B. Want to live abroad cheaply? Consider WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). Their website says, “In return for volunteer help, WWOOF hosts offer food, accommodation and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles.” Their website has links to similar organizations, such as, which offers “A few hours honest help per day in exchange for food and accommodation and an opportunity to learn about the local lifestyle and community.” These programs are especially popular with students who are taking a year off (a “gap year”) before starting college or after finishing college.

C. The perpetrator of the Norway massacre, Anders Behring Breivik, reminds me of the Unabomber insofar as he’s intelligent, he has a bent for philosophizing, he writes treatises, and he’s critical of contemporary society. His politics are far-right, he targeted liberals/leftists. Though media reports sometimes describe Breivik as Christian, he isn’t a Christian in a religious sense, only in an ethnic sense. He’s anti-Muslim, but not anti-Semitic (Wikipedia speaks of his “far-right Zionism”).

His parents divorced when he was 1, and he lived with his mother. If a young boy lacks a father-figure, his conscience (his super-ego) may not develop normally. Such was the case with Lee Harvey Oswald. (Before I read about Breivik, I should have predicted that something was amiss in his relationship with his father.) Breivik himself referred to his “matriarchal upbringing”: “I do not approve of the super-liberal, matriarchal upbringing as it completely lacked discipline and has contributed to feminizing me to a certain degree.”

D. If you want books, but don’t want to pay for them, consider, a site for book swapping. Unfortunately, it’s easier to give away what you don’t want than to get what you do want.

E. My three phases:


Later phases don’t reject earlier phases; rather, the earlier phases survive in modified form. One might say that later phases are a larger synthesis. My earliest philosophical interest was ethics, and the question, What should I do? But my interests expanded to embrace the whole universe.

F. Huston Smith’s book on religion is good — clear, profound. But it’s dense, heavy — the pages turn like sheets of lead.

When he discusses Judaism, he says that the god of the Jews was a loving God, and Christianity carried on this tradition, emphasizing God’s love for every individual. But the Philosophy of Today, if it believes in God at all, sees God as an impersonal energy/force/spirit/mystery, so it doesn’t see God as loving anyone, much less everyone. Thus, it undercuts a central tenet of Judaism and Christianity. What about Eastern religions? They seem akin to the Philosophy of Today, insofar as they don’t subscribe to a personal God, a loving God.

G. I discovered a Shakespeare critic, Harold C. Goddard, best known for The Meaning of Shakespeare. Harold Bloom compared Goddard to Johnson, Hazlitt, and Bradley; Bloom said he “passionately” recommended Goddard to his students.3

2. Syria

As Arab dictatorships fall, the question arises, What will take their place? Will Arab countries fall into ethnic/religious strife, like Yugoslavia after the fall of the Iron Curtain?

In Syria, Sunni Muslims make up a large portion of the population — about 71% of a population of 23,000,000 — but the ruling Assad family is Alawi. If the current government is ousted, and Sunnis gain power, will they respect the rights of Syria’s minorities? Will Syria’s various ethnic/religious groups cooperate or quarrel?

The city of Hama is a center of the current unrest in Syria; Wikipedia calls Hama a “Sunni town” with a Christian minority. This isn’t the first time that Hama has rebelled; Hama also rebelled in 1964 and 1981. The 1981 rebellion was brutally suppressed, and about 30,000 people died.

The Alawi make up about 12% of the Syrian population. Historically, the Alawi were a marginal group in Syrian society; it is said that an Alawi ruler in Syria is like a Jew becoming Czar of Russia, or an untouchable becoming the ruler of India.

The Alawi are an offshoot of Shia Islam; Wikipedia describes the Alawi as “mystical and syncretic.” Sunnis sometimes say that Alawis aren’t Muslims; the Alawi are sometimes compared to Bahai. (As we mentioned in the last issue, the Bahai faith grew out of Shia Islam, and tries to bring together the world’s major religions; like the Alawi, the Bahai can be described as syncretic.)

Another minority in Syria are the Druze. The Druze are also an offshoot of Shia Islam, but they’re no longer under the umbrella of Islam; Wikipedia describes them as “monotheistic” and “esoteric.” “The Druze have an eclectic set of beliefs,” according to Wikipedia, “that incorporate several elements from Abrahamic religions, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism and other philosophies.” Thus, the Druze remind us of the Alawi (in their mysticism) and the Bahai (in their syncretism). The Druze make up about 3% of the Syrian population.

Since Shia Islam has produced the Bahai, the Alawi, and the Druze, it seems that Shia Islam has a tendency toward a “big tent,” toward a syncretic approach, and perhaps toward an esoteric approach. I find this interesting since I believe that the Philosophy of Today is also syncretic and esoteric. I once received e-mail from a Shiite who found my writings congenial, and I said, “Perhaps this e-mail strengthens the argument that the Hermetic philosophy of today can unite different cultures, can build bridges.”

There are also Kurds and Christians in Syria; each make up about 7% of the population.

Syrian Sub-groups

Lebanon, which borders the southwestern section of Syria, has some of the same sects that Syria has — Alawi, Druze, etc. But the percentage of Christians in Lebanon is much higher than in Syria; Christians make up about 40% of the Lebanese population. Lebanon is far smaller than Syria, and its population is only 4,000,000. In 2005, a Sunni who had been Lebanon’s prime minister, Rafic Hariri, was assassinated, probably by the Shiite organization Hezbollah.

3. Movies

A. The Piano is a movie made in 1993, set in 19th-century New Zealand. It was popular with the public, and acclaimed by critics. It’s about a woman who’s mute — she can hear but she can’t speak. Her Scottish father sells her to a New Zealand man whom she’s never met, so she travels to New Zealand and marries the man. She brings her beloved piano, her chief means of expression, and she brings her 10-year-old daughter. It’s a rather somber movie — the sun rarely shines, the characters rarely smile. I don’t recommend it: it has no humor or suspense, and the romance verges on prostitution and perversity. The Piano was written and directed by Jane Campion, who’s from New Zealand.

B. I also saw a JaneCampion movie called Bright Star (2009). It’s about the poet John Keats and his relationship with Fanny Brawne. It’s a somber movie, depicting first the death of Keats’ brother, then the death of Keats himself. Critics liked Bright Star, the public was cool toward it. Fans of Keats might enjoy the recitations of his poems, and the quotes from his letters.

C. I also saw a 2009 movie called Julie & Julia, which describes itself as a movie based on two true stories: the story of Julia Child, who learns French cooking in Paris in 1949, and the story of Julie Powell, who tries to make all the recipes in Julia Child’s cookbook in one year. Powell blogs about her cooking, her blog becomes popular, and her blog is published in book form. The movie moves back and forth between Julie and Julia, as they hone their culinary skills. My response to the movie was similar to that of critics: I thought it was pleasant and entertaining, but I wouldn’t call it a “must see.”

D. I saw an old favorite, Eric Rohmer’s Love in the Afternoon (L’Amour L’Après-Midi, sometimes called Chloe in the Afternoon). Rohmer is tasteful and intelligent — just what American filmmakers often aren’t. This movie even has some humor and some suspense. What it lacks is deep passions, obsessions; it’s rather light, it stays on the surface.

E. Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) is based on a popular memoir by American writer Frances Mayes. I found it dull, I agree with the critics who said it was “formulaic and superficial.”

4. Yogi Amrit Desai

I’ve been taking some yoga classes in Providence. My teacher recently said that her teacher, who’s 79, was coming to Providence for a day-long workshop. I attended the afternoon session, and was much impressed.

The session was so well attended that we could barely squeeze into the large room, and when I lay on my yoga mat, I could feel the feet of the person behind me grazing the top of my head. Despite his advanced age, Gurudev (also known as Amrit Desai) seems to be in good shape mentally and physically. He’s an excellent public speaker, though his accent (he was born in India) made me lose a few words. He spoke about the folly of living for the future and losing the present, losing happiness.

His topic was “The Yoga of Loving Relationships.” He said the most important relationship was with yourself; he would agree with Nietzsche’s remark, “The ultimate art is the art of self-love.” He said that stress is caused by not accepting yourself as you are, not having a proper relationship with yourself. He took a dim view of anti-depressants and other such medicines, believing that we could overcome such problems without such medicines. He spent much time chanting and playing an instrument called a harmonium.

He had us do a few simple yoga postures, and managed to have a profound effect on our mind and mood with these few postures. He conducts intensive workshops that last a few days or a week; these workshops are usually in Salt Springs, Florida, sometimes in Rhinebeck, New York, sometimes elsewhere. He emphasizes “yoga nidra,” which is sometimes called “yoga sleep” or “body scan”; in yoga nidra, you put your attention on various parts of your body, without moving. He has written numerous books, including Amrit Yoga. His recorded teachings can be purchased at this site.

When I got home, I looked him up on Wikipedia. I learned that, in 1983, he founded a large yoga/meditation institute in Western Massachusetts, The Kripalu Center. He left Kripalu in 1994. Apparently he had drawn an annual salary of some $400,000, while the staff worked without pay. Kripalu paid $2.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by former staff. While residents of the Center took a vow of chastity, Desai himself had sex with several female disciples.

These reports reminded me of the Tibetan guru, Sogyal Rinpoche, whom I discussed in an earlier issue. I don’t think these reports should prompt us to ignore the teachings of these gurus. On the other hand, I think critics of Eastern philosophy can use these reports to raise legitimate questions about Eastern ethics.

If a yoga school reveres a particular guru, and if the members of the school are emotionally close to each other, the school may take on the appearance of a cult. Perhaps every yoga school must ask, “How can we generate dedication and enthusiasm without becoming a cult?”

[Update February 2012: A New York Times article says sex scandals are common in the world of yoga, and it mentions the Kripalu scandal. Another article mentions a scandal at the Shaolin Temple in China. A third article mentions a scandal in the Bikram school of yoga. A fourth mentions a scandal at the Shambhala organization. “In 1995, sex between students and teachers became so prevalent that the California Yoga Teachers Association deplored it as immoral and called for high standards.” Yoga began as a “sex cult.” “Hatha yoga — the parent of the styles now practiced around the globe — began as a branch of Tantra.... The rites of Tantric cults, while often steeped in symbolism, could also include group and individual sex.”]

5. David Brooks on the Modern Intellectual

I recently stumbled across a book by David Brooks called Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, which was published in 2000. The cover tells us that Bobo means Bourgeois Bohemian. Brooks argues that the new upper class is a blend of bourgeois and bohemian.

Time was, these two groups were clearly distinct, and glared at each other over the barricade. In the last fifty years, though, the bourgeoisie and the bohemians have drawn closer and closer. In a chapter called “Intellectual Life,” Brooks says that the modern intellectual is no longer a loner and a rebel; Brooks quotes Irving Howe, who said in 1954 that the modern intellectual no longer stands “firm and alone.” The modern intellectual dabbles in the business world, in the political world, and in the pop-culture world. Today’s artist starts his day with The New York Times because he wants to stay abreast of political developments, and keep track of his investments.

Intellectuals like Irving Howe noticed this change because they remembered an earlier time, a time when the life of the mind was taken seriously, a time when literature mattered, a time when magazines like Partisan Review were written by intellectuals, for intellectuals, and had a small circulation. In an earlier issue, I said that “New York Intellectuals” like Irving Howe and Lionel Trilling were serious about literature, but the next generation — John Podhoretz, Bill Kristol, etc. — abandoned literature for politics.

Brooks notes that, in the 1950s, highbrow culture was contemptuous of “middlebrow” culture. Middlebrow culture tried to make art and literature accessible and popular; “they wanted to take the realm of ideas and drag it back to earth.” Perhaps those who attacked middlebrow culture would also attack my writing, since I share the middlebrow aim of accessibility.4 In my view, culture today must be accessible or it won’t exist at all. Furthermore, I think that classics like Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Mozart, etc. were accessible and popular; I reject the notion that higher culture should be obscure and unpopular.

Brooks notes how higher culture has merged with pop culture: “Now writers and cultural studies professors embrace mass culture and devote conferences to Madonna or Marilyn or Manson or Marilyn Manson.” Higher culture has also merged with business, and the intellectual has come to think of his work as a profession, a way to make a living. “Today the Bobo intellectual reconciles the quest for knowledge with the quest for the summer house.”

Brooks discusses a French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, who has written about intellectual life as a business, a career. Bourdieu says intellectuals dream of “consecration power” — that is, the power to confer honor on certain individuals, certain styles, etc.

At the end of the chapter, Brooks says he wouldn’t want to go back to the days of the isolated intellectual, he prefers the engaged intellectual. One of his heroes is Jane Jacobs, a community activist and writer on urban affairs; Jacobs is known for squelching the plans of Robert Moses to build a highway through southern Manhattan. Brooks says that knowledge is “gained by involving oneself in the scramble and feeling the contours of reality immediately, then trying to describe what one has sensed.” Today’s intellectual, Brooks says, “can reach a more accurate sense of the state of the country and the world.... and her descriptions will be more true and her ideas more useful.” Clearly, Brooks is defending his own approach to the life of the mind, his own engaged lifestyle. In my view, spiritual life and artistic life require far more solitude than the “engaged lifestyle” permits.

6. George Steiner

Brooks mentions numerous contemporary figures, some of whom were new to me. For example, I wasn’t familiar with George Steiner, an intellectual of Jewish descent who was born in France, went to college in the U.S., and spent his career as a professor in Switzerland and England. When Steiner was six years old, his father taught him to read Homer in the original. Steiner grew up with three “mother tongues”: German, French, and English. He said that his mother often started a sentence in one language, and finished it in another. As a college student, Steiner studied math and physics as well as literature. According to Wikipedia,

George Steiner is regarded as a polymath and often credited with recasting the role of the critic by exploring art and thought unbounded by national frontiers or academic disciplines. He advocates generalization over specialization, and insists that the notion of being literate must encompass knowledge of both arts and sciences. Steiner, who is Jewish, rejects Jewish nationalism and is a critic of Israel.

Steiner published a collection of essays on Homer, and a book that contrasts Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. One of his best-known works is a book about translation called After Babel. Steiner has also published several volumes of short stories. Most of his academic positions have been in the Comparative Literature department. His wife, Zara Steiner, is a historian who specializes in international affairs, especially the period between the two world wars.

Update 2020:
Steiner died at age 90. An obituary said

With Harold Bloom (who died in October [2019]), [Steiner] argued on behalf of the canon of Western art and against a procession of critical movements, from the New Criticism of the 1950s to post-structuralism and deconstruction of the 1960s, whose advent he foresaw in an early essay, “The Retreat From the Word.”

Mr. Steiner’s quasi-religious view of literature informed his first book, the comparative study Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1959), which was pointedly subtitled An Essay in the Old Criticism.

“The old criticism is engendered by admiration,” he wrote in the first chapter. “It sometimes steps back from the text to look upon moral purpose. It thinks of literature as existing not in isolation but as central to the play of historical political energies. Above all, the old criticism is philosophic in range and temper.”

....Mr. Steiner tried to define the meaning of culture in an age overwhelmed by atrocities. In the preface to Language and Silence, he wrote, “My own consciousness is possessed by the eruption of barbarism in modern Europe, by the mass murder of the Jews and by the destruction under Nazism and Stalinism of what I try to define in some of these essays as the particular genius of ‘Central European humanism.’”

© L. James Hammond 2011
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1. Dodd had no previous diplomatic experience. He was a history professor at the University of Chicago, and the author of books on the ante-bellum South. back
2. Since Wolfe’s novels are based on his life, one wonders if Martha (and her father, and the embassy) has a place in his novels. back
3. Goddard was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1878. Robert H. Goddard, the rocket pioneer, was born in Worcester in 1882. Were they related? back
4. When I self-published my first book, Conversations With Great Thinkers, I followed the advice of Dick Dunn, a Providence copywriter. Dick tried to make my book seem more middlebrow than it was, hence the subtitle was “the classics for people too busy to read them,” and the back cover said that the book would enliven your conversation.

The idea of “Conversations With Great Thinkers” has a parallel in the world of painting: the Sacra Conversazione (sacred conversation) between the Virgin and Child and saints of different eras.

Sacra Conversazione
Giovanni Bellini

In his Room With A View, Forster speaks of, “the Santa Conversazione, in which people who care for one another are painted chatting together about noble things.” back