May 18, 2004
It has recently come to my attention that some Phlit subscribers aren’t reading every word of every issue. Rather, they’re skipping sentences, paragraphs, even (horribile dictu) entire sections. Skippers, you know who you are, and I will find out who you are. You can run, but you can’t hide; the long arm of the law will arrest you when you least expect it.
I recently corresponded with a self-confessed skipper in California, Sherry, who wrote thus (her remarks are in italics):
Ok, look here, I confess, I do read everything I can connect to in Phlit BUT sometimes some of the topics are...
I knew you were a skipper! Finally I force you to admit it!
I’ve had positive feedback on the Gide piece. People seem to regard it as a breath of fresh air, something different, better than the previous issues. I don’t think people liked the previous issues. They don’t like
1. scattered thoughts on scattered subjects
The Gide piece is different, it’s a new version of my Realms of Gold: A Sketch of the Western Classics (like the Kafka piece). Perhaps you’re wondering, “why do you write things that you know readers don’t like?” I believe in the value of this stuff, though I admit it isn’t easy reading. I think someone, sometime, somewhere, will find it valuable. I view it as philosophy in the present tense, a daily struggle toward truth. I try to do the best I can within the constraints I have (my time/energy is divided between family, home, business, etc.).
I was wondering if you have studied or read any books about sociobiology or evolutionary biology. I am reading Edward Wilson’s On Human Nature.
I had Wilson as a teacher. It was a big class, so I never met him. But he was a good lecturer — interesting, funny, etc. I also read at least part of On Human Nature. As philosophy, I think it’s mediocre, and as literature, I think it’s worse than mediocre. Stuffed with hastily-assembled quotations that feel like they were gathered by graduate students who were being paid $12.25/hour. (Sorry to sound so negative about one of your favorites; Montaigne says that contradiction is part of conversation.)
It seems several of the theories I have been reading from him seem to reflect aspects of Nietzsche’s observations on ideology, religion, and art, perceiving them to be products of our physiology more than our education or environment.
That’s a valid point, a valid connection. But I think that’s a reductionist view of religion and culture. I doubt whether Wilson has gone beyond Nietzsche, and Nietzsche is 100 years old. I think Jung has gone beyond Nietzsche, but I doubt that Wilson knows anything at all about Jung. So I think Wilson is at least 100 years behind the times.
The problem with what I’ve read from Jung and Freud is that their theories seem to exist in a vacuum. They make very powerful reading sometimes, but in the end I am left with the feeling of having briefly shared someone’s ungrounded, subjective experience.
Excellent point, I sometimes feel the same way, but I never put it into words. Maybe that’s why academia usually ignores Freud and Jung — they can’t be proven, you can’t use statistics to argue pro and con. I know a psychology scholar who uses advanced math in psychology! That’s what academia loves: rigorous argument, statistics, math — something that fits on a blackboard, something the teacher can mark Right or Wrong. What I love about Freud and Jung is that they speak to my own experience; I can prove their observations from my own experience. Sometimes they deflate my ego, but that can be healthy. Also, they marshal evidence from literature and philosophy, and that can make a strong argument.
To me you usually write as if you have no ego at all. I mean that in a good way!
Thanks, I never expected to hear that. I suppose you say that because my writing is the praise of what I love (to borrow Ruskin’s phrase). I try to draw the reader’s attention to what I love.
[After saying that she went to Berkeley and majored in sociology, Sherry wrote] Honestly, I don’t remember much other than I came out with a sour impression of the social sciences.
What a devastating commentary on sociology, on the social sciences in general, on modern education, on Berkeley! A bright young sociology major, with nothing to show for it but a “sour impression”! To be fair, however, I must admit that it’s very easy to criticize education, and very difficult to be an educator yourself.
Your discussion of Tao makes me wonder if there are any Asians left who are actually Taoists.
If you read Zen in the Art of Archery, you’ll see that genuine Zen existed in Japan in the 1930s, probably in the 50s, and quite possibly today. And I suspect that what is true of Japan is also true of Korea, and China. But does it exist in the younger generation? I’m not so sure.
Here’s what an American in Japan wrote to me:
I recently discovered a young British historian named Niall Ferguson. He was interviewed for three hours on C-SPAN (click here or here to see the interview). In the last issue of Phlit, I discussed the dearth of conservatives in academia. Niall Ferguson is one of those rare birds: a conservative in the humanities whom universities are eager to hire. Now 40 years old, he has taught at several colleges in the U.S. and in England, and he’s now starting a position at Harvard. His books are bestsellers, and he has become something of a celebrity.
Ferguson’s specialty is economic history. He thinks that historians have hitherto paid too much attention to politicians, and not enough attention to bankers. As a student at Oxford, his Ph.D. thesis was on hyper-inflation in Germany after World War I; his thesis became a book called Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897-1927. In this book, he argued that Germany could have avoided hyper-inflation. He became interested in questions like “what might have been, if only...?” He became a pioneer in “alternative history” (also known as “counter-factual history,” “virtual history” or “what if” history). He says that exploring what might have happened deepens our understanding of what actually did happen. He edited a book called Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, which discusses such questions as, “what if John F. Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated?”
In an earlier issue of Phlit, I mentioned the possibility of a new approach to history, an approach that sees historical events as fated rather than caused, an approach that asks, “was this event predicted long before it occurred?” Ferguson’s “alternative history” is the opposite of my “predicted history”; perhaps both approaches can be fruitful, can contribute to our understanding of history.
Ferguson’s longest book, and the book of which he is most proud, is his 2-volume history of the Rothschild family. He says that this book draws on primary sources, archival research, while some of his later books, such as Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, draw on secondary sources, and are therefore less scholarly. His book on the Rothschilds showed the influence of a banking family on the modern world. Later he wrote a book called The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000 that went beyond the Rothschild family, and discussed the influence of bankers in general on the modern world. I may choose The Cash Nexus for my book group because the group has hitherto ignored economics, and because I like books that “kill two birds with one stone,” books that bring together two separate subjects (in this case, economics and history). Cross-fertilizing often leads to intellectual progress.
Now Ferguson is writing a biography of one of the Warburgs. Then he’s going to write an “analytical history” (as opposed to a narrative history) of World War II (earlier he wrote an analytical history of World War I, The Pity of War: Explaining World War I). Later he may write a study of Kissinger, with whom he seems to be personally acquainted. It wouldn’t surprise me if someday Ferguson writes a history of the 20th century; he complains that Paul Johnson’s history of the 20th century, Modern Times, isn’t sufficiently scholarly.
Ferguson was asked for lists of his favorite history books, his favorite novels, etc. He’s a big fan of The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918, by A. J. P. Taylor; he was drawn to Oxford because Taylor was there. He’s also a fan of Fritz Stern’s Gold and Iron, which deals with Bismarck and the German Empire. (The phrase “Gold and Iron” recalls Bismarck’s phrase “Blood and Iron,” and finally we have Ferguson’s “Paper and Iron.” Surely Bismarck would be surprised if he knew that his phrase would have not only children but grandchildren.) Ferguson recommends Robert Blake’s biography of Disraeli, Lothar Gall’s biography of Bismarck, Robert Skidelsky’s 3-volume work on Keynes, Primo Levi’s memoirs (which deal with his experiences in Auschwitz), Victor Klemperer’s memoirs of a Jew’s life in Hitler’s Germany, and Viscount Alanbrooke’s war diaries. [Update 2012: Kissinger recommends Jonathan Steinberg’s biography of Bismarck.] Elsewhere, Ferguson discusses a British commando, W. Stanley Moss, author of Ill Met By Moonlight, and A War of Shadows.
Ferguson was asked about Iraq, and he said that Britain had a military presence in Iraq from about 1917 to 1955. He said that the British turned over power to King Faisal in the 1930s, but kept a military force in Iraq; thus, Iraq was in Britain’s “sphere of influence” until 1955, when Britain withdrew completely from Iraq. But my study of Iraqi history leads to a different view. My understanding is that Britain had little or no influence in Iraq after 1932, and that Arab nationalists expelled Iraq’s large Jewish population in the 1930s. The expulsion of Jews from Arab countries makes one wonder if Arabs have a right to complain about the expulsion of Arabs from what is now Israel. Who started it? Who expelled who first? Are both sides equally guilty?
During the 3-hour interview on C-SPAN, viewers called in with questions for Ferguson. One caller asked about Ferguson’s views on good and evil; the caller mentioned a book on evil called People of the Lie, by M. Scott Peck (author of the bestseller, The Road Less Traveled). The issue of good and evil is an issue that I have a special interest in, and that I tried to discuss in a recent Socrates Café. It seems that other people share this interest, including Niall Ferguson. Ferguson said that, in the past, historians wrote about the Nazis without mentioning good and evil. Recently, however, a historian named Michael Burleigh has written a study of the Nazis that views them in terms of the psychology of evil; Ferguson praised Burleigh’s The Third Reich: A New History as a first rate work of scholarship. Ferguson was shrewd enough to connect the phenomenon of evil to the decline of religion; he noted that Dostoyevsky anticipated that the fall of religion would produce a rise of evil. Ferguson says that some sort of religious belief is necessary, but he admits that he isn’t a believer himself. Ferguson fails to see what Mill saw, fails to see that new religious ideas are needed.
I’ve fallen madly in love with E. M. Forster. Our book group is reading Howards End, which is often called Forster’s masterpiece. This is the first Forster novel I’ve ever read, though I read an essay on Ibsen by Forster, and was very impressed by it. Howards End has a lively plot, humor, taste, depth of thought... what more could one ask of a novel? Forster is simply a top-notch writer — cultured, intelligent, gifted. His prose is first rate, but he writes in a colloquial manner, so his prose is somewhat lacking in rhythm, power, beauty. His prose is more remarkable for its lack of vices than for its eye-catching virtues.
Howards End is the name of an English country house; it’s based on a country house where Forster lived as a child. Other Forster novels have foreign settings: A Room With A View is based in Florence, A Passage to India is based on Forster’s first-hand knowledge of India. Howards End was published in 1910, on the eve of World War I; it frequently mentions the British Empire, the German Empire, and the possibility of a collision between the two. Forster’s career as a novelist ended in 1924, with the publication of A Passage to India; for the remaining 46 years of his life, Forster wrote mostly essays and literary criticism.
Many readers dislike Freudian observations. If you’re one of them, I suggest you skip this section (or read it just to remind yourself why you dislike this stuff).
One of the chief male characters in Howards End is Leonard Bast, who lives with a woman named Jacky. A photo of Jacky is described thus: “It had been taken at the time when young ladies called Jacky were often photographed with their mouths open. Teeth of dazzling whiteness extended along either of Jacky’s jaws, and positively weighted her head sideways, so large were they and so numerous.”1 Where had I read about the meaning of big teeth? I checked my notes on Poe, and sure enough, there it was, a Freudian comment on teeth: “The danger of sexuality, the punishment that threatens all who yield, is shown... by the manner in which [a male character] is obsessed by [a female character’s] teeth. And indeed, in psychoanalysis, many cases of male impotence reveal, though more or less buried in the unconscious — strange as it may seem to many a reader — the notion of the female vagina being furnished with teeth, and thus a source of danger in being able to bite and castrate. That Poe’s unconscious, too, held this fantasy, is testified by many of his tales.”2
Forster’s homosexuality can be traced to the fact that his father died when he was just a baby; Forster was raised by his mother and his aunts, and he had no male figure to identify with. Permit me to quote from my book of aphorisms: “The nature of one’s relationships to one’s parents is an important factor in determining whether one becomes a homosexual. Freud thought that male homosexuality originated in early childhood, and could usually be traced to one of the following causes: an especially close relationship to the mother, a mother with a dominating, masculine personality, an absent father, or a bad relationship with the father. Any one of these causes could hinder the son from identifying with his father, and from acquiring his father’s masculine traits.”
Howards End contains a passage on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This passage is the best music commentary I’ve ever read, and also a fine commentary on evil:
Evidently Forster believes, as Jung does, that evil is embedded in the universe. The word “goblin” recurs throughout Howards End; it’s synonymous with “devil,” and closely related to Jung’s term “shadow”.
A. The abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American guards is further evidence (if any were needed) that evil is embedded in the universe, embedded in human nature. Long ago, the Romans said homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to man), but somehow we think that this doesn’t apply to us, and we’re surprised to find that it still applies, that the goblins have returned, and always will return.
Another Roman saying is also applicable to this incident: senatores boni viri, senatus bestia (senators are good men, but the senate is a beast). People who are individually decent can become depraved when they’re in a group; moral restraints that are effective when a person is alone become ineffective when the same person is in a group.
I don’t believe that prisoner abuse makes a mockery of the entire American effort in Iraq. The prisoner abuse scandal should make us humbler and wiser; it should make us see the war, not as a struggle between absolute Good and absolute Evil, but as a struggle between relative good and relative evil. The scandal shouldn’t destroy our belief that the American cause is a just cause, or our hope that the war will leave Iraq a better place.
B. The publishing possibility that I spoke of earlier seems (alas!) to have come to naught. What exactly was that “publishing possibility”? A Brazilian translator came across my website, liked what he saw, and said he would translate my book of aphorisms into Portuguese, and try to publish it in Brazil. It seemed like a great opportunity for me — I had visions of a book tour in Brazil, publishing in the mother country (Portugal), and impressing American publishers (“my book has sold well in China and Brazil”). Now, however, the translator seems to have changed his mind. But I still plan to complete the revision of my book of aphorisms, and perhaps complete the revision of my second book (Realms of Gold: A Sketch of the Western Classics). Then I’ll approach some American publishers, and perhaps some foreign publishers. Pray for me.
I recently received e-mail from Jim Fedor, a Phlit subscriber in Utah:
A new book you might want to look into for your reading group: The Self-Aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Material World.
Jim recommended a magazine called What is Enlightenment? which has an article on the author of The Self-Aware Universe, Amit Goswami, an Indian-American physics professor. The Self-Aware Universe is at the crossroads of science and philosophy, it argues that modern science (especially physics) is consistent with the age-old spiritual wisdom of India, China, etc. Perhaps Goswami would go even further, perhaps he would say that modern science offers proof of the Eastern worldview.
Before I discuss Goswami’s views at greater length, I have a confession to make: I’m woefully ignorant about physics, and I have only the vaguest notion of how physics might impact philosophy. This is a gap in my education, and when I find such gaps, I like to fill them. As I explored Goswami on the Internet, I heard about two books that try to teach laymen about physics:
Now let’s turn to Goswami. Let’s see how his book differs from the two books mentioned above, and let’s see how his thinking relates to the occult, to Jung, to Eastern wisdom, etc. Goswami says that quantum physics is “the only physics we’ve got” and that quantum objects (i.e., all objects) exist outside space and time:
Goswami says that the current worldview tries to trace everything back to matter, but the new worldview believes that mind influences matter as much as matter influences mind:
Goswami describes his philosophy as “monistic idealism”. He sees mind as primary, and matter as secondary, hence the word “idealism”. He doesn’t draw a sharp distinction between mind and matter, hence the word “monistic” (as opposed to dualistic). Goswami regards his monistic idealism as akin to Eastern philosophy, and also akin to the Hermetic tradition in the West:
How does Goswami’s Self-Aware Universe differ from the two books mentioned earlier (The Tao of Physics and The Dancing Wu Li Masters)?
|1.|| Ch. 6 back|
|2.|| The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation, by Marie Bonaparte, ch. 23, “Berenice” back|
|3.||Ch. 5 back|