January 30, 2002
Our book group recently lost one of our loyal veterans: Dick Dunn. When his wife informed me that Dick had died, it seemed so unexpected, so abnormal, so strange. I thought, “this isn’t the way people usually die, this isn’t a real death, a normal death.” Perhaps it only seemed abnormal to me because I haven’t witnessed death, I haven’t witnessed death enough to know that it is, by its very nature, strange and abnormal, that every death is an abnormal death.
At the end of our book discussions, Dick always offered me a ride to my car, and I always accepted, though I could easily have walked. This was a chance to chat about the recent meeting, etc. After the last two post-meeting chats, Dick parted from me with a handshake and a look in the eye, as if he anticipated the end, and was taking a final leave.
When you lose a friend, you appreciate him more than you did when he was alive. We’ve lost one of our loyal veterans, and he isn’t coming back.
Our book group is now reading Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy, by Jostein Gaarder. Since it’s over 500 pages long, we’re spreading it over two meetings. About 50-60% of the book is a history of philosophy, and the rest is a novel, a mystery. As a history of philosophy, it’s concise and well-organized, but somewhat superficial. As a novel, it has no merit except that it leads one into the history of philosophy, reviews what it has taught about philosophy, etc. I find the history of philosophy very interesting, so I’m pleased with Sophie’s World. It’s well suited for a philosophy discussion group like ours, and it’s also well suited for a young person, a beginner. Written in Norwegian, Sophie’s World has been translated into numerous languages, and has gone to “the top of the charts” in many countries.
Though I find Sophie’s World interesting, I don’t share its approach to philosophy. It stresses the mathematical over the poetic, and the systematic over the aphoristic. My favorite philosophers — Montaigne, Thoreau, Emerson, Nietzsche, etc. — are given short shrift, or completely ignored. An aphorist like Pascal is skipped over, while system-builders like Descartes and Spinoza are given entire chapters. Jung, who was interested in the irrational and the mystical, is ignored, while Freud is given a chapter. While Jung respected mythology as a storehouse of spiritual wisdom, Sophie’s World regards mythology as just an infantile attempt to explain natural processes. While Jung was fascinated by psychic phenomena, Sophie’s World scorns the entire field of psychic phenomena.
The best book-related show on American TV is, in my opinion, Booknotes, which airs Sunday nights on C-SPAN. You can see old shows by surfing to www.booknotes.org, and clicking “Archives.” Unfortunately, Booknotes has a proclivity for political books, but it’s a good show nonetheless.
I recently watched a Booknotes interview with Bernard Lewis, an 85-year-old Princeton professor who specializes in the Middle East. Lewis is one of the West’s leading authorities on the Middle East, and he has burst into prominence since September 11. His most well-known book is The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. He has the air of a genuine intellectual, and the wit of a genuine intellectual, too. When the interviewer, Brian Lamb, asked him why he left the University of London for Princeton in 1974, Lewis said, “Princeton made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, as we say in New Jersey” (referring to New Jersey’s reputation as a Mafia stronghold).
One of the mysteries that Lewis tries to unravel is, why did the Islamic world fall behind the West in the last 300 years? Why did the Islamic world, which flourished in medieval times, lose its cultural vitality, its economic health, its military might? Lewis argues that the West was forced to build large ships because they had to contend with the Atlantic Ocean, while the Islamic world built smaller ships because they had to contend only with the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. This, in Lewis’ view, gave the West a naval advantage, a military advantage.
This theory may help to explain Islam’s military decline, but it doesn’t explain Islam’s cultural decline. Should we point to The Heavy Hand Of Religious Orthodoxy as the cause of Islam’s cultural decline? This may explain the decline of scientific inquiry and historical research, but how can it explain the decline of the arts — of poetry, etc.? Islam’s decline may be compared to China’s decline. China’s decline can’t be explained in terms of ship-building or religious orthodoxy, and it’s unlikely that Islam’s decline can be explained in those terms either. For now, we’ll have to leave this subject as an unanswered question.
Lewis argues that oil has been more of a curse than a blessing for Islamic nations. He argues that oil has made Islamic governments independent of public opinion because they’re financed by oil, they don’t depend on tax collections. As a result of this independence of public opinion, today’s Islamic governments are more despotic than in the past. Lewis reverses the old saying, “no taxation without representation,” and argues that there’s “no representation without taxation.” Furthermore, oil has removed the incentive for economic activity, the development of industry, etc.
Like many intellectuals, I’m not good at sleeping. According to an old saying, philosophers “disturb the sleep of mankind.” Is that because we’re awake ourselves, and it’s hard to sleep in the presence of someone who’s awake? If President Bush saw me in a crowd of people, he’d be moved to quote Caesar’s words:
I’m one of those sleepers who has no trouble falling asleep, but can’t remain asleep until morning; I often wake up around 3. When I sleep badly, I find myself awake without being conscious of awakening, and without being conscious of having dreamt. Conversely, when I sleep well, I’m conscious of awakening, and I recall, however vaguely, some vestiges of a dream.
A few days ago, I vowed to wake up with a dream. I focused my conscious mind, my daytime mind, on staying asleep, and holding onto a dream — as if I were holding onto a baby and protecting it, as if I were holding a big egg that had to be held gently lest it break. It worked! I awoke with a dream. I repeated the same process in the following days: during the daytime, I vowed to sleep and dream, and I clung to this resolution as best I could while the day’s demands, and the day’s temptations, swirled around me. Then, in the morning, I awoke with a dream.
Last night, I dreamed that the small, muddy pond in which I had played as a boy had been dug out, and converted into a big concrete swimming-pool. It was deeper, clearer, cleaner than the old pond had been. Two people were going around in a rowboat.
What does this dream signify? I suppose the pool is a symbol of the unconscious. Perhaps it’s something that I should delve into in the future. Interpreted optimistically, the pool’s depth and clarity are an advance on the shallow, muddy pond of my boyhood — the growth of the mind, as it were. Interpreted pessimistically, the pool’s sterile clarity suggests a repression of the vital powers of the unconscious. In sum, I’m not sure how to interpret the dream, but I’m not troubled by that. My goal is to sleep and to dream — interpreting the dream is another matter, for another day.
Psychiatrists say that if they ask their patients to report on their dreams, their patients can usually come up with something — the will to remember one’s dreams often allows one to do so. Richard Feynman, the American physicist, not only willed to remember his dreams, he willed to observe them while they were in progress, and also to observe himself as he fell asleep, and as he awakened. Strangely enough, Feynman says he was able to do this.(“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”, Part I, “Always Trying to Escape”)
There seems to be a difference between “little dreams” and “big dreams.” In other words, there seems to be a difference between dreams that stay on the surface, and dreams that plumb the depths. I regard myself as a novice dreamer, an amateur, one who is unlikely to have a “big dream.” Perhaps someday I’ll graduate to the “big dream”; the Bible promises that ‘old men will dream dreams.’