March 18, 2007

1. The Lives of Others

I recently saw the acclaimed German movie The Lives of Others. It’s excellent, one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Full of action and plot, but authentic and true-to-history. You don’t feel that you’re watching a movie, you feel you’re in a real world.

In the last issue of Phlit, I mentioned a Chinese movie that deals with the question, “Is art valuable as a means to a good career? Or is it valuable for its own sake — for the happiness it brings?” The Lives of Others deals with this question, too, albeit briefly. In fact, The Lives of Others deals with several interesting ideas, and it doesn’t use the cheap tricks that most modern movies use — sex, violence, special-effects.

The director and screenwriter, Florian Graf Henckel von Donnersmarck, studied philosophy (and other subjects) at Oxford. Only 33, his career is just starting — and what a start!

In the last issue, we discussed the relationship between social class and physical stature. This young director/screenwriter has an aristocratic background (as his name implies), and he’s very tall (6'9").

2. Books on Biology

I asked a Brown professor for tips on biology/science books for the general reader. Then I investigated her tips on Wikipedia. Here’s what I learned:

  • One of the best biology writers for the general reader is Lewis Thomas, author of The Lives of a Cell, The Medusa and the Snail, etc. Thomas was a student of etymology as well as biology; he wrote a book called Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word-Watcher.
  • Richard Fortey has written several highly-regarded books on biology and evolution, including Life: An Unauthorized Biography: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth. Fortey’s work may be challenging for the general reader.
  • Colin Tudge is the author of The Variety of Life: a survey and a celebration of all the creatures that have ever lived. Wikipedia describes this book as “one of the best accessible references for the phylogeny of life, explaining in clear terms the descent and interrelationships of most kinds of organism.” My Brown friend recommends Tudge’s The Time Before History. Another good book about early man is Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, by Nicholas Wade.
  • While Tudge moves from the dawn of life to the present time, Richard Dawkins moves from the present backwards in a book called The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life. Dawkins spices science with stories and anecdotes.
  • My Brown friend also recommends an Australian writer, Tim Flannery, author of The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People.
  • A good book about Mendel is The Monk in the Garden, by Robin Henig. Henig also wrote Pandora’s Baby, which deals with in-vitro fertilization (“test-tube babies”).
  • A good general work on biology is A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology, by Jim Endersby.
  • Sam Kean has written several popular science books in recent years: The Disappearing Spoon deals with the periodic table; The Violinist’s Thumb deals with genetics; and The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons deals with the brain.
  • Also consider Norton’s Darwin anthology, and Bill Bryson’s bestseller, A Short History of Nearly Everything.

3. Selling Philosophy

I recently exchanged e-mail with Steven Sage, author of Ibsen and Hitler. I mentioned that I was hoping to publish my work in the U.S. He said he might be willing to forward my work to a literary agent, and asked me to send him some material. I was pleased to hear this, but I anticipated that Steven might not like my work; I knew that he was a scholar by training. I wrote, “Please bear in mind that my book isn’t a scholarly work, it’s a literary work — like Emerson’s essays or Nietzsche’s aphorisms.... To be a writer for more than twenty years, with no academic position, and no U.S. publications, is a difficult, precarious position. So I greatly appreciate whatever help you’re able to give me.” Here are excerpts from my e-mail exchange with Steven:

SageAfter printing out and reading your sample chapters of [your manuscript] again, I showed the material to two trusted colleagues who are both professional editors. I wanted a second (and then a third) opinion besides my own, before responding to you about the ms [ms = manuscript]. The first guy spent about 45 minutes at lunch today going over the Preface, Chapter 1 and Chapter 4. Like yourself, this fellow is incidentally a serious reader of Proust; he also holds a doctorate (in History), teaches as an adjunct professor at U. of Maryland, and edits tons of material full time for an academic journal. Without giving your name I noted you’d graduated from Harvard in 1983, & that you maintained a website on literary and philosophic matters. My colleague’s opinions are impartial toward you personally. The second guy just happened to pass by my desk within the past hour; he too holds a doctorate, is also a professor, well read in European intellectual history, a contributor to journals, and an editor of a forthcoming volume. As with the first colleague, I asked him to look at the Preface, Chapter 1 and Chapter 4. Blind review again, without divulging your name. After 20 minutes with the ms. he merely frowned, shook his head, and returned the pages to my hand. Both colleagues concur with me fully that it will be futile to submit the ms. as it is to an agent. Frankly, we all consider it deficient in rigor and lacking focus. In present form we deem it in a word, unmarketable....

Rather than attempting an overly broad piece... you might find it more worthwhile to direct your writing energies on the things that really grab you most.

HammondThanks for your candid analysis, and for showing the ms. to your colleagues. I guess I was right when I said, in my last message, “It appeals to the man-on-the-street, and to lay intellectuals, but it may raise the hackles of academics”....

Of course, [my book] seems overly broad when viewed from an academic/scholarly perspective. But “broad” is what philosophy is. If you compare my work with Nietzsche’s aphorisms or Emerson’s essays (as I suggested you do in an earlier message) then it won’t appear overly broad. It’s part of a tradition — a non-scholarly, non-academic tradition — the tradition of real philosophy.

We all consider it deficient in rigor and lacking focus.

But couldn’t you make the same criticism of (for example) Montaigne’s essays? A literary work shouldn’t have rigor, and focus isn’t a virtue in a literary work. You and your colleagues seem to think that it’s okay for Nietzsche or Montaigne to write like that, but it’s not okay for one of your contemporaries to write like that.

To appreciate an original work by a contemporary is extraordinarily difficult. Proust couldn’t find a publisher, so he self-published.

This fellow is incidentally a serious reader of Proust.

But what would he have said if someone handed him Proust’s work before it was published? Isn’t it extremely likely that “after 20 minutes with the ms. he merely frowned, shook his head, and returned the pages to my hand”? With all due respect to you and your colleagues, I think your reactions could become classics, classics of misunderstanding. They deserve a place next to that immortal reaction to Proust’s manuscript: “I just can’t understand why anyone should take thirty pages to describe how he tosses about in bed because he can’t get to sleep. I clutched my head.”

I come back to my earlier point: the book was both a popular and critical success in Asia. Some of the leading intellectuals in China regarded it as an important work. It was excerpted in numerous Chinese magazines, including the prestigious Du-shu (Reading). It was even reviewed by a prominent Chinese intellectual years before it was published. And it’s a far better book now than it was then.

SageEmbark upon some fresh project. Now it would be better to infuse yourself with a set of new ideas. Think clearly; draw up an outline, and focus on completing some articles which are manageable in scope, that read in a lively fashion, and that don't grandly pretend to philosophical authority. Since you lack a degree and an academic position, you need to build up a credential and that requires carving out a modest niche, at first, then widening it. Drop the grandiose pose....

What does get published now in the realm of non-academic philosophy intended for the general, non-scholarly reader? Christopher Phillips, that's who gets published. As in, his “Socrates” books: Six Questions, Socrates Café, Socrates in Love. If you haven’t looked at these, then do so, IMMEDIATELY if only as a model/example of what can be done, realistically and with abundant success.... How about doing something similar re Jung?

HammondThanks for your suggestions, which are constructive, practical, well-intentioned. Your advice is, as usual, sage (pun intended). The idea of a Jung book is a good one. I might do it if someone engaged me to do it, but I’m not sure if I want to do it just on “a hope and a prayer”. I’ve thought of doing a Nietzsche book (Conversations With Nietzsche), but not in the near future....

As for Christopher Phillips, I’ve read him, I’ve met him, and I despise him. I attacked him in my e-zine. You’re right, though, when you say that Phillips is an interesting example of philosophy for a broad audience; I mention Phillips in my proposal. You speak of “non-academic philosophy intended for the general, non-scholarly reader.” That doesn’t necessarily mean junk philosophy, of the Phillips variety. It could mean real philosophy, the kind that interests posterity. The works of Montaigne, Thoreau, etc. are “non-academic philosophy intended for the general, non-scholarly reader.” Are you willing to admit that academic, scholarly writing isn’t real literature, and doesn’t interest posterity? Of course, I don’t expect you to admit that, but perhaps I can ask you to ponder the possibility....

My immediate goal is to go through back issues of my e-zine, pluck out worthy passages, and work them into my chief book. I should be done with this in 4-6 weeks. Then I may try to publish in English. If I don’t get anywhere, I’ll self-publish. That will allow me to satisfy demand for the book (however small that demand may be), and perhaps to stir up more demand. Then perhaps I’ll go over my second book, and try to ready it, too, for publication. First, I’ll try publishers, then I’ll resort to self-publishing. Meanwhile, I can try to publish my main book in China and Taiwan; perhaps I can speak to those publishers face-to-face this summer. I’ve sold more than 10,000 books in Asia, and they may be receptive to my pitch. This time around, sales should be even better, since the book is bigger and better, and since I may be able to support it with personal appearances. It isn’t every day that an American philosopher gives a book-talk in a China/Taiwan bookstore.

I hope this exchange can teach some future philosopher how much resistance his work will encounter, especially in his own country, especially from professional scholars.

4. A Philosopher’s Notebook

A. Two Essays by Bernard Lewis

In several previous issues, I discussed Bernard Lewis, a leading authority on Islam and Middle Eastern history. Now I’d like to discuss Lewis’s two most well-known essays, both of which discussed Islamic terrorism before 9/11. The first is called “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” and was published in The Atlantic Monthly in September, 1990. The second is called “License to Kill: Usama bin Ladin’s Declaration of Jihad,” and was published in Foreign Affairs in November/December, 1998.

“The Roots of Muslim Rage” traces anti-Western, especially anti-American, feelings to their sources. One of these sources, according to Lewis, is modern German philosophy — Heidegger, etc. — which was popular among Arab intellectuals in the 1930s. Another source was Marxism, as promoted by the Soviets; Marxism was popular in the years after World War II. And finally, there arose “the new mystique of Third Worldism, emanating from Western Europe, particularly France, and later also from the United States, and drawing at times on both these earlier philosophies.”1

In addition to these three schools of thought, there is the simple fact that Western civilization is a leading force in the world, and it leads Muslim countries away from their roots, their traditions:

It is Western capitalism and democracy that provide an authentic and attractive alternative to traditional ways of thought and life. Fundamentalist leaders are not mistaken in seeing in Western civilization the greatest challenge to the way of life that they wish to retain or restore for their people.

Furthermore, Muslim countries have been humiliated by the West, and this humiliation has engendered anger; Lewis speaks of, “a growing awareness, among the heirs of an old, proud, and long dominant civilization, of having been overtaken, overborne, and overwhelmed by those whom they regarded as their inferiors.”

Muslims blamed their problems on the West, and sought to solve their problems by returning to the old ways:

For vast numbers of Middle Easterners, Western-style economic methods brought poverty, Western-style political institutions brought tyranny, even Western-style warfare brought defeat. It is hardly surprising that so many were willing to listen to voices telling them that the old Islamic ways were best and that their only salvation was to throw aside the pagan innovations of the reformers and return to the True Path that God had prescribed for his people.

Lewis finds many positive traits in Muslim civilization:

There is something in the religious culture of Islam which inspired, in even the humblest peasant or peddler, a dignity and a courtesy toward others never exceeded and rarely equaled in other civilizations.

In conclusion, Lewis says that no mere change of policy can eliminate the current tensions:

It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations — the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both. It is crucially important that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but also equally irrational reaction against that rival.

As one reads this last sentence, one wonders if Saddam did indeed provoke us into an ill-advised war in the Islamic heartland.

The second essay, “License to Kill: Usama bin Ladin’s Declaration of Jihad,” tries to explain what bin Ladin’s grievances are. Lewis says that bin Ladin’s chief grievance is the presence of American soldiers in the Muslim “holy of holies,” Saudi Arabia. Ever since the Prophet said on his deathbed, “Let there not be two religions in Arabia,”

the holy land of the Hijaz has been forbidden territory for non-Muslims.... For a non-Muslim even to set foot on the sacred soil is a major offense.... The discovery and exploitation of oil — and the consequent growth of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, from small oasis town to major metropolis — brought a considerable influx of foreigners. Their presence, still seen by many as a desecration, planted the seeds for a growing mood of resentment.... Where their holy land is involved, many Muslims tend to define the struggle — and sometimes also the enemy — in religious terms, seeing the American troops sent to free Kuwait and save Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein as infidel invaders and occupiers.

B. An Essay on the Holocaust

In an earlier issue, I discussed Milton Himmelfarb’s essay “No Hitler, No Holocaust.” Himmelfarb’s essay mentioned an essay called “Was the Holocaust Predictable?” by Jacob Katz. Since this is a question that I’ve often pondered, I decided to have a look. Here are some excerpts from the essay:

  1. Katz says that people were shocked by the Holocaust. How could such a thing happen in an advanced country, in an advanced era? People couldn’t believe that the Nazis would go as far as they did: “Karl Mannheim, the sociologist.... remarked [in 1932] that the Nazis would not dare touch incumbents of full professorships. By April of the same year, when the purging of academic institutions began, Mannheim was one of the first to be thrown out.”2
  2. In the early years of the Nazi regime, Jews drew parallels between Jewish history and current events. Later, however, it became clear that Nazi persecution had no parallel: “To Auschwitz and Treblinka there was no historical analogy.... This was an absolute novum.”3 Katz speaks of, “the radically transcendent nature of the Holocaust.”4 This is a point that I’ve often made, and I’ve added that this novum is related to a philosophical novum — that is, a new and unprecedented situation in philosophy. This new situation is the death of God; as Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky said, the death of God is an epoch-making event, it splits history in two.
  3. While the Holocaust was new, shocking, unbelievable, it appears in retrospect to be predictable, the logical result of anti-Semitic and nationalistic tendencies. “The antinomy persists between the feeling of having been taken by surprise by the events of the Holocaust when they occurred and the inclination, after the fact, to reconstruct those events in such a way as to make them appear inevitable.”5 Here we have an example of the antinomy between Fate and Freedom. Shouldn’t we remain open to both possibilities? Shouldn’t we admit that we’re both fated and free — contradictory as this may seem?
  4. The Enlightenment was optimistic about many things, and it anticipated an end to anti-Semitism. “The Jew’s pariah status seemed to come to an end when, in the wake of 18th-century rationalism and Enlightenment, as well as the ensuing social and political changes in European society, Jews were extricated from their peculiar position and included in the new category of citizens.... In a secularized state and society, so the prognosis went, not only would barriers to the economic, social, and political integration of Jews be removed, but all vestiges of prejudice would also evaporate in the sunlight of reason.”6
  5. In the 1800s, nationalism sometimes mixed with religion. “In France, the politician and journalist Edouard Drumont, the central figure of French anti-Semitism, embraced Catholicism not out of a conviction of its religious truth but rather because it was, he held, a central part of French mentality — a frame of mind to which he declared Jews incapable of conforming even if they were to convert.”7
  6. According to Christian doctrine, Jews could convert and be saved. But the new nationalist/racist ideologies said that Jews would always be Jews, they couldn’t be saved. “The more consistent anti-Semites, like Gyozo Istoczy in Hungary, Edouard Drumont in France, and Eugen Duehring in Germany did not limit their recommendations to the restriction of Jewish rights, but spoke openly of expatriation and extermination.”8
  7. Nazi persecution seemed to prove that Zionism was the best approach for Jews. “The exclusion of Jews from German society seemed to demonstrate unequivocally the error of assimilationist ideologies.”9 Among the assimilated, the suicide rate was high, but the Orthodox and the Zionists tried to make the best of the situation — studying Hebrew, emigrating to Palestine, etc.

C. Freedom vs. Law:
Notes on Whistler, Ruskin, and James

In a recent issue, I discussed Proust’s impressionism, and how it was influenced by Ruskin. Hoping to learn more about this subject, I searched the Internet, and found an article called, “A Sense of Justice: Whistler, Ruskin, James, Impressionism.”10 The author discusses Whistler’s libel suit against Ruskin, and he argues that this suit was closely watched by Henry James, and influenced the novel that James wrote after the suit: A Portrait of a Lady. I found the essay unconvincing, but it raises some interesting issues.

The essay views Ruskin as a precursor of impressionism, and speaks of “Ruskin’s proto-impressionist emphasis on the use of pure, vibrant color to capture nature in its most animated state.” But Ruskin’s impressionism wasn’t completely subjective and individualistic. Ruskin believed that a critic could create a “cultural conversation,” a “moral community.”

Whistler argued that painting should have no connection to anything outside painting — pure art, art for art’s sake. James thought Whistler had gone too far, complaining about Whistler’s “exaggerated emphasis on subjective perception.”11 James insisted that “‘a picture should have some relation to life as well as to painting.’”

But James criticized Ruskin for assuming tyrannical power over the art world:

Art is the one corner of human life [James writes] in which we may take our ease.... One may read a great many pages of Mr. Ruskin without getting a hint of this delightful truth.... And as for Mr. Ruskin’s world’s being a place — his world of art — where we may take life easily, woe to the luckless mortal who enters it with any such disposition. Instead of a garden of delight, he finds a sort of assize court in perpetual session. Instead of a place in which human responsibilities are lightened and suspended, he finds a region governed by a kind of Draconic legislation.

So James thought Whistler too subjective, Ruskin too tyrannical. James wrestled with “these paradoxes of freedom and legislation,” hoping to find a happy medium between these extremes.

In James’ Portrait of a Lady, the protagonist, Isabel Archer, is brought up in a free-spirited environment. As a result, Isabel’s spirit is too free: “Isabel’s education has weakened her character by overstimulating her imagination (the seat of private aesthetic experience) at the expense of good judgment.” As Isabel matures, she develops “a mode of vision that is wedded to sound judgment: one cannot live, James implies, by first impressions alone. And what this teaches her is that freedom means nothing, can be nothing, without a profound sense of constraint.” Isabel stays with her husband, though she probably doesn’t love him or respect him. While Isabel is a model of conjugal fidelity, some may say that she’s too faithful: “Not only does Isabel remain committed to Osmond, but in doing so she seems to renounce life, even to commit a kind of suicide.” Thus, the aesthetic paradox of freedom vs. law becomes the ethical paradox of freedom vs. law.

I was struck by the contrast with Conrad’s famous character, Kurtz, whose great weakness is his lack of restraint. Kurtz achieves freedom — no mean feat — but fails to achieve a balance between freedom and law. Isabel achieves this balance — or at least comes close to it.

In a footnote, I find Ruskin agreeing with one of Nietzsche’s opinions: “‘The discovery of printing [Ruskin said] confused literature into vociferation,’ and inaugurated a ‘universal gabble of fools.’”

© L. James Hammond 2007
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1. We discussed this in an earlier issue. back
2. #4 back
3. #5 back
4. #6 back
5. #1 back
6. #6 back
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9. #5 back
10. Victorian Studies, Volume 42, Number 4, Summer 1999/2000, pp. 593-629 back
11. This isn’t a quote from James, it’s a quote from the author of this essay. back