December 8, 2008

1. Time for a Renaissance?

Perhaps one goal of American literature should be to resurrect the essays-and-criticism tradition of T. S. Eliot, Edmund Wilson, and the New York Intellectuals (Trilling, Kazin, Rahv, etc.). Another goal should be to resurrect the creative tradition of Hemingway, Faulkner, Wolfe, etc.

Perhaps we should aim higher still, perhaps we should aim to resurrect the best ages — Periclean Athens, the Renaissance, etc. Are we inferior to them? Should “we petty men walk under their huge legs, and peep about to find ourselves dishonorable graves”?

The scholarly approach to a renaissance is to build a theater exactly like Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. But is this what Shakespeare himself spent his life doing? Did Shakespeare himself try to duplicate something that was done 500 years earlier? No, Shakespeare was in touch with life itself, and with his own times.

And then there are scholars who advise us to learn Greek and read Plato in the original. But is this what the Greeks themselves did? Did they spend years studying a dead language, and the history of far-off epochs? No, the Greeks observed the world directly, they didn’t spend their lives in libraries.

I don’t deny that theater-building has a certain value, and learning Greek has a certain value, but if our age is going to rival the best ages, we need to do more than study diligently. We need to connect with life directly, we need to listen to our inner voice (call it our soul, if you prefer, or our unconscious). Lichtenberg and Nietzsche argued that, in order to have a second Renaissance, we need less scholarship, not more.

It seems to me that a renaissance should start with a philosophy, a worldview, a comprehensive conception of the universe and our place in it.

2. Anticipations

Chapter 11 of Nuland’s Wisdom of the Body tells the story of a young diabetic girl who was on the verge of death. Her father had died several years earlier, but she felt that she could still feel his presence. Just before Nuland operated on her, she had a vision of her father standing before her, holding up his hand and saying “not yet.” This vision convinced her that the time for her death had not yet come, and she told her mother that she was going to survive, though her situation was dire, though she wasn’t out of danger for another week. Her vision is not unlike the vision of Jung’s that we discussed in a previous issue.

It seems that people often have visions of death or survival, as if their fate is decided in advance. If fate plays such an important role, what role is left for doctors? If the girl’s vision showed her the outcome, did her doctor’s efforts matter? This is the paradox of the human condition: we’re both fated and free; the result is known in advance, yet our efforts somehow matter a lot.

One of the high-school students who died in the Columbine shootings, Rachel Scott, seemed to anticipate early death, and referred to it in diary entries and drawings. Death casts a kind of shadow before it; death is a visitor who rarely drops in unannounced, death calls ahead and says “I’m coming over.” Hence it isn’t surprising that a Columbine victim had an inkling beforehand.

3. Trails and Travels

A popular hiking route in Europe is the Tour du Mont Blanc, which circles Mont Blanc; hikers often start in Chamonix (France), and go counter-clockwise, passing through Italy and Switzerland before returning to Chamonix. The total distance is about 100 miles, and it takes about 10 days.

Another circular route, less well-known than the Tour du Mont Blanc, is the route around the Dachstein Mountains in central Austria. And then there are non-circular trails, such as those in the Via Alpina network.

Tour companies will book your lodgings for you, and sometimes they’ll transport your luggage to the next hotel. Some tour companies:

Exodus Travels
KE Adventure
G Adventures
Distant Journeys
Swiss Trails
REI Adventures

One of the longest and most ancient walking trails in Western Europe is the Via Francigena, a pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome. In England, it was called the Via Romea. Though it isn’t as popular with hikers today as the Way of St. James, the Via Francigena is being improved by various associations and political bodies. One source of information about the Via Francigena is the narrative of Sigeric, Archbishop of Canterbury, who travelled to Rome around the year 1000.

The Way of St. James runs through northern Spain, terminating in Spain’s northwest corner, at the reputed tomb of St. James. But the Way of St. James isn’t only in Spain; throughout Western Europe, there are “feeder trails” for the Way of St. James. (Click here for information about the Swiss “feeder trail.”) The scallop shell has always been a symbol of the Way of St. James, just as the palm leaf symbolized the pilgrimage to the Holy Land (hence “palmer” meant “pilgrim”). If you’re concerned about crowds on the Way of St. James, perhaps you could reserve lodgings through one of the tour companies mentioned above (Utracks, Ryder-Walker, etc.).

Britain has a network of National Trails, and a Ramblers association that organizes walks. A similar group in the U.S. is the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), which organizes short walks in many areas, week-long trips called “August Camp,” etc. Ireland has a trail network, and one long trail that’s part of a Europe-wide network. Vermont Bike Tours (VBT) organizes cycling and walking tours in many different countries. A website called Connecticut Bike Routes has a wealth of information about biking in Connecticut. A group called Rails To Trails Conservancy has a database of RailTrails in the U.S.

In 1977, some people in Bristol, England, decided to build a bike-path (rail-trail) to Bath, 17 miles away. This effort grew into an organization called Sustrans (Sustainable Transport), which in turn grew into a National Cycle Network. (Click here for more info about cycling in England.) Those who want help with routes, hotels, etc. should consider Iron Donkey, a company that offers self-guided tours and also group tours. Wikipedia has a list of rail trails in various countries, especially England and the U.S.; see also the list of “cycleways.” Perhaps the most ambitious bike-path plan is EuroVelo, which aims to create 40,000 miles of paths in Europe.

The most popular bike-path in Germany is along the Elbe; this path starts in Prague, and extends 700 miles to the North Sea. In the vicinity of Dresden, 18 km of the Elbe Valley was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, it lost this status when a bridge was constructed in Dresden. About 100 miles downstream from Dresden (that is, northwest of Dresden) are two more UNESCO sites: Wittenberg (also called “Lutherstadt Wittenberg”), where Martin Luther nailed up his famous theses in 1517, and the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm, which was built in the late 1700s in imitation of the natural English garden (as opposed to the formal Baroque garden). Dessau-Wörlitz has several palaces, as well as gardens; it’s an extensive park, adding up to about 55 square miles.

There are also interesting castles along the Elbe, such as Königstein, which is south of Dresden, about 12 miles from the Czech border. As you approach Dresden from the south, you come to the Bastei, a rocky peak overlooking the Elbe that has inspired painters for centuries. If you’re willing to wander away from the river, Moritzburg Castle is about 10 miles north of Dresden; according to LonelyPlanet, “the palace parkland is ideal for drifting around.” LonelyPlanet is even more enthusiastic about Schloss Weesenstein, which it calls “a magnificent sight... one of the most undervisited and untouched palaces in Germany.... the lovely Baroque park....” Weesenstein is about 10 miles west of Königstein, and 10 miles south of Dresden. Lonely Planet also waxes enthusiastic about the region between Dresden and the Czech border, a region known as Saxon Switzerland: “The Elbe courses through thick forest, past villages and mighty hilltop castles.”

Click here for a Prague bike shop that organizes tours of Prague and environs, and also can rent you a bike for an 8-day ride to Vienna, or for a ride along the Elbe. The bike shop organizes a ride to Karlstejn Castle, which is a popular day-trip from Prague, and a ride to Veltrusy Mansion, which is surrounded by a forest park. My guide book, Blue Guide Prague, recommends a Czech town called Kutna Hora, which is on the UNESCO list (the bike shop doesn’t go there since it’s too far from Prague — about 50 miles). Perhaps a Czech castle inspired Kafka’s The Castle.

Click here for information about cycling in Germany (the Elbe Way is discussed here). Click here for a map of the Elbe. The German Tourism Department also has cycling info. If you want help with organizing your ride, consider companies like Rad & Reisen, which carry your luggage in a van, reserve hotel rooms, etc.

One of the most bike-friendly countries in Europe is Holland (click here or here for info about biking in Holland). If it’s hiking trails you want, try this web page.

One of the best bike paths in the Eastern U.S. runs from Washington, D.C. to Pittsburgh, about 350 miles. The first half runs from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland and is known as the C&O Canal Towpath, while the second half runs from Cumberland, Maryland to Pittsburgh and is known as the Great Allegheny Passage. The Allegheny Trail Alliance says that the Great Allegheny Passage is “complete from Cumberland, MD to Homestead, PA, a distance of 141 miles.” The final mile from Homestead to Pittsburgh is still under construction. There’s also a bike trail that goes south from Washington, D.C. to Mount Vernon, a distance of 18 miles.

The C&O Canal was designed to connect Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River (hence the name “C&O”). The C&O Canal winds alongside the Potomac River through Maryland (for many miles, the Potomac forms the border between Maryland and West Virginia). The C&O was designed to allow Southern planters and businessmen to extend their enterprises to the Great Lakes Region and the Mississippi River, and compete with Northern businesses, which had reached the Great Lakes Region via the Erie Canal.

A company called Walk Japan offers various tours in Japan, including “inn to inn” walks along ancient samurai roads. A company called Oku Japan offers various hiking tours, including self-guided tours.

4. Introducing Kafka

In a recent issue, I mentioned a book about Kafka, illustrated by Robert Crumb; it’s called Introducing Kafka, and it’s part of a series of books “Introducing” various authors and topics. Introducing Kafka is both well-written and well-illustrated. My wife was so fond of it that we requested (from our local library) Introducing Joyce and Introducing Jung. I’ve always viewed Kafka as a humorous writer rather than a philosophical writer, but Introducing Kafka points out that the famous Kabbalah scholar, Gershom Scholem, said that Jewish mysticism was alive and well in Kafka’s work.1

5. The Mail Bag

I received some intelligent and surprising feedback from John Gordon. I see myself as a champion of tradition and the classics against the modern and the avant-garde, but John turns that view upside-down, and argues that I’m deconstructionist and postmodern:

GordonI view the thought of the last two centuries as a war in which modernism is a primarily destructive aggressor against the foundations of Western Civilization. Because you oppose God and reason and morality, I view your project as part of that assault.... We have similar backgrounds — much Eastern and primitive thought, but I have not dismissed Institutional Religion as you have in the first paragraph of your manifesto. There is a wealth of knowledge and inspiration to be found there — and one does not have to reject Jung or Nietzsche to find it.
HammondInstitutional Religion: I agree it has a wealth of knowledge and inspiration, and it inspired leading thinkers in earlier epochs. In our epoch, however, I think its wisdom has become a bit musty, and we need to freshen it, re-package it, etc. And here I think my position is similar to that of Jung and other leading thinkers.
GordonYou begin [your manifesto] with what you do not believe in, which suggests that your intention is primarily negational.
HammondBut I conclude with what I do believe in, which suggests that my intention is primarily positive.
GordonIts title [“The Philosophy of Today”] suggests that it is a philosophy of its own time, thus postmodern in character.
HammondI believe that philosophy grows and evolves, as science grows and evolves. Would a biologist say that today’s biology will be valid forever? Would a biologist say that there will be no more advances, no more breakthroughs, in biology? Since biology grows and evolves, couldn’t we speak of “The Biology of Today”? And if so, why not a Philosophy of Today?
GordonIts pluralistic character supports this view and reminds me of William James, though I have not yet come across a reference to him. Overall, for these reasons I regard it as both deconstructionist (modern) and value-neutral (postmodern). Both movements are antithetical, either opposed or indifferent to that which is greater than them: Judeo-Christian theology and Western theoretical philosophy. Granted, both of these institutions are struggling and are responsible for most of their problems, but they cannot be discarded without peril for they still hold Western Civilization together, however weakened their hold may be.
HammondIf they’re struggling, perhaps they should be re-fashioned, and reborn as the Philosophy of Today. The Philosophy of Today is neither opposed to Western philosophy, nor indifferent to it. The Philosophy of Today grows out of earlier philosophers — grows out of Thoreau, Nietzsche, etc. I see the whole history of Western philosophy as a gradual evolution, and the Philosophy of Today as the latest stage in that evolution. The Philosophy of Today grows out of Thoreau and Nietzsche, as Thoreau grew out of Emerson, as Emerson grew out of Coleridge, etc., etc.
GordonThe core of Judeo-Christianity embodies and reflects the best of Eastern and Western thought, from the contemplative monk to the Thomist scholar. At its core is the fundamental yearning to know and acquiesce to Being. The job of Western philosophy and theology has traditionally been to build social structures to support and encourage that effort. Modern philosophy is the negation of that effort. It is based on a declaration of faith: physical experience and reason are the foundations of thought; matter is the source and substance of the universe.
HammondBut I often argue against materialism, I often argue that there’s a soul/spirit/energy throughout the universe — something intangible, immaterial, mystical.
GordonModern thought did not defeat traditional religion. It ignored it, as you are attempting to do.
HammondBut don’t we all ignore certain things? Has the Pope made a careful study of Zen and Jung? Didn’t Strauss admit that he knew nothing about Eastern philosophy, ignored Eastern philosophy?
GordonI accept that your intentions are to report the current state of Western thought as it is. We will have to agree to disagree on the issue of whether it is evolving or declining. In the meantime, I am reading Jung and will be checking your site from time to time for edification.

6. Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is a Harvard psychology professor who specializes in cognitive science, brain science, etc. For most of his career, he was an MIT professor. He often writes for a general audience; he’s the author of bestselling books such as The Blank Slate.

Pinker is regarded as a champion of evolutionary psychology, which argues that “evolution can explain mind and morality.”2 Specifically, Pinker argues that an aptitude for language is in our genes, because language is an asset in the struggle for survival. Critics of this view, such as Noam Chomsky, argue that language is a product of nurture, not nature, that language isn’t a product of natural selection, but rather a by-product of traits that were selected for.

Evolutionary psychology can be traced to some speculations by Darwin. Later, behaviorists like B. F. Skinner favored a “blank slate” model; they argued that human nature is shaped by nurture, not genes. Then the Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson pioneered “sociobiology,” which argued that human nature was shaped by selection pressures; Wilson is viewed as a founding father of “evolutionary psychology.” Later champions of evolutionary psychology include Pinker and Richard Dawkins. Evolutionary psychology has been roundly criticized by both The Left (Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, etc.) and The Right (Leon Kass, etc.).

Gould and Lewontin argued that language and other human behaviors weren’t selected for, weren’t in our genes, they were by-products of natural selection. Gould and Lewontin developed the “spandrel theory,” which Wikipedia describes thus:

A spandrel is the space that exists between arches, as seen particularly in gothic churches. When visiting Venice, Gould noted that the spandrels of the San Marco cathedral, while quite beautiful, were not a space that was planned by the architect, but rather coincidentally resulted from what the architects deliberately designed — the arches. Gould and Lewontin thus defined “spandrels” in evolutionary biology to mean a feature of an organism that arises as a necessary side consequence of other features, but which is not built directly, piece by piece, as a result of being favored by natural selection.3

Pinker says that most intellectuals, both Left and Right, subscribe to three “linked dogmas,” three false dogmas:

  1. the blank slate (the mind has no innate traits); the full title of Pinker’s book is The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
  2. the noble savage (people are born good and corrupted by society)
  3. the ghost in the machine (each of us has a soul that makes choices free from biology)

I agree with Pinker that the mind isn’t a blank slate; nature is at least as powerful as nurture. But my view of “nature” is different from Pinker’s. I believe that our nature endows us with certain archetypes, and with an urge toward personal growth, toward wholeness (or as Jungians would say, an urge toward realizing The Self). My psychology is Jungian rather than evolutionary.

Are archetypes the product of natural selection? Are they planted in us by God? I’m inclined to think that they come neither from natural selection nor from God; perhaps archetypes are by-products of natural selection, “spandrels.” The archetype of hostile brothers, for example, may be the result of one million years of human history, during which man experienced a great deal of brotherly hate. The archetype of the wise old man may have grown out of countless old men who really were wise.

According to Jungians, the urge toward balance and wholeness plays a key role in human nature. Again, I see this urge as a by-product, a spandrel. Evolution produced a large brain and consciousness. A by-product of consciousness was tension between consciousness and the unconscious, and an urge to resolve that tension in balance and harmony.

If the blank slate (according to Pinker) is Dogma #1, Dogma #2 is the noble savage (people are born good and corrupted by society). Again, I agree with Pinker, but with important qualifications. I agree that people aren’t born good; evil impulses are as numerous, as strong, and as universal as good impulses. But I don’t believe that all evil impulses have a “selection advantage” and are in our genes. Rather, I see them as by-products of traits that were selected for. Consciousness was selected for, shadow and evil accompany consciousness, accompany the tension between consciousness and the unconscious. Man is the most evil animal because he’s the most conscious, and the most tension-filled.

Evolutionary psychologists (like Pinker) may be right to say that violence and war have a survival advantage (Konrad Lorenz made this argument in On Aggression). But many evil actions have no survival advantage; for example, the sadism of a teenager who tortures a cat.

Dogma #3, according to Pinker, is the ghost in the machine (each of us has a soul that makes choices free from biology). I agree with Pinker that there’s no rational soul that makes rational choices. But I do think that there’s a soul. I equate soul with unconscious; thus, I distinguish soul from mind/consciousness.

In short, I find much to agree with in Pinker, and much to disagree with. As for Pinker’s neocon critics, like Leon Kass, here again I both agree and disagree. I agree with Kass’s remarks on rationalism:

With science, the leading wing of modern rationalism, has come the progressive demystification of the world4 ....Biology may do some of its finest work when it is brought to acknowledge and affirm the mysteries of the soul and the mysterious source of life, truth, and goodness.5

I regard Kass and other Straussians as rationalists, so when Straussians criticize scientists for rationalism, I see it as a case of “the pot calling the kettle black.” If we make a scale from one to ten, with ten being an extreme respect for reason, Pinker and Dawkins and many scientist-atheists might be tens, while Straussians would be eights. I would be with Zen and Jung at two or three, so from my perspective both the scientists and the Straussians are excessively rational, and blind to the non-rational powers in man. Nietzsche would be a five, hence the Straussians think he’s not rational enough, while I think he’s too rational (Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard would be fives, too). Aristotle, like the Straussians, would be an eight, hence Straussians can’t praise him too highly (Plato and Socrates would be eights, too).

Neocons like Kass are, in my view, correct to question scientific-rationalism, but they fail to replace it with anything positive. They respect traditional religion and morality, but few of them, if any, are deeply religious themselves; Mansfield, for example, isn’t at all religious. They’re afraid of breaking with traditional religion and morality, so they cling to them, but without intellectual conviction or emotional fervor. At times, they seem to regard traditional religion and morality as important for the masses, even if untenable for intellectuals; “there are different kinds of truths,” said Irving Kristol, “for different kinds of people.”6 The neocons fail to realize that both Eastern philosophy and Jungian psychology offer a positive alternative to scientific-rationalism, an alternative that is satisfying both intellectually and emotionally, that appeals equally to the less educated and the more educated, that enjoys worldwide popularity, that has been tested by time, and that is consistent with Western philosophers like Thoreau and Pater.

Kass is a specialist in bio-ethics. Bio-ethics is at the intersection of biology, ethics, and politics; it’s a subject in which Straussians seem to take a keen interest. Kass is known as a critic of stem-cell research, human cloning, etc. Kass criticizes these practices in the name of human dignity, which Pinker views as a squishy concept. Kass also believes that eating in public violates human dignity. He’s particularly offended by the eating of ice cream cones in public, and speaks of, “those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice-cream cone — a catlike activity.” Isn’t this a slander on cat dignity?

7. Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits: Sonnet 104

Like many other sonnets, this sonnet deals with the march of time, and the aging of the fair youth. I would paraphrase this sonnet thus:

Fair friend, handsome son, you’re as beautiful now as you were when I first saw you as an infant, some 25 years ago. When you entered prison three years ago, you were fresh and youthful, and that hasn’t changed. But you must be aging imperceptibly, like the hand of a clock that seems motionless, but is moving imperceptibly. Hear this, generations unborn: before you existed, perfect beauty had grown old.

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold,
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah, yet doth beauty, like a dial hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived.
    For fear of which, hear this thou age unbred:
    Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.

My paraphrase of this sonnet is, I admit, somewhat speculative. It isn’t entirely clear that “when first your eye I eyed” refers to the fair friend’s infancy. And if it does refer to that infancy (as I contend), then why does the poet suddenly shift to three years ago, when “first I saw you fresh”? In my view, this sonnet doesn’t strengthen the Prince Tudor Theory. On the contrary, if one starts from Prince Tudor, the sonnet is more difficult to interpret.

8. Appendix: Walter Benjamin and Wilhelm Reich

Walter Benjamin was a German-Jewish man-of-letters who was active in the first half of the twentieth century. His family was wealthy, and had lived in France before moving to Berlin. When World War I broke out, Benjamin sympathized with France, and began translating the French poet Baudelaire into German. Later, Benjamin translated Proust. Benjamin wrote various books and essays on Baudelaire, including studies of Paris street life in Baudelaire’s time; Benjamin explored Baudelaire’s concept of the flâneur — the stroller or lounger. Among his friends were such well-known writers as Gershom Scholem (the Kabbalah scholar), Georg Lukács (the Hungarian-Jewish literary critic and philosopher), Theodor Adorno (the German philosopher), and Bertolt Brecht (the German Marxist playwright). Several volumes of Benjamin’s correspondence with these writers have been published. While attempting to escape from Fascist Europe to Portugal, Benjamin died, probably by taking poison.

Wilhelm Reich was an Austrian-American psychologist, active in the first half of the twentieth century. Reich claimed to have discovered a sexual energy, or cosmic energy, that he called orgone. He built boxes called “orgone accumulators,” some of which were large enough for an adult to sit inside. He also built a “cloudbuster” that used an orgone accumulator to cause rainfall, or overcome UFOs. Victorious in his battles with UFOs, Reich was less successful in his battles with the government. In 1956, FDA officials, believing that Reich was guilty of medical fraud, went to Orgonon, destroyed his devices, and burned his books. In 1957, Reich died in prison. Reich is buried in Orgonon, his property in Maine; you can visit the Wilhelm Reich Museum in Orgonon.

© L. James Hammond 2008
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1. p. 11 back
2. The Blank Slate, ch. 7, p. 132 back
3. Article on Gould back
4. The Blank Slate, ch. 7, p. 131 back
5. Wikipedia back
6. The Blank Slate, ch. 7, p. 131. According to the New York Times, “[Irving] Kristol saw religion and a belief in the afterlife as the foundation for the middle-class values he championed. He argued that religion provided a necessary constraint to antisocial, anarchical impulses. Without it, he said, ‘the world falls apart.’ Yet Mr. Kristol’s own religious views were so ambiguous that some friends questioned whether he believed in God. In 1996, he told an interviewer: ‘I’ve always been a believer.’ But, he added, ‘don’t ask me in what.’ ‘That gets too complicated,’ he said. ‘The word “God” confuses everything.’”(9/19/09) back