December 12, 2009

1. Realms of Gold: Criticism and Defense

I recently sent a copy of my new book, Realms of Gold, to Steven Sage, author of Ibsen and Hitler. Steven is a professional scholar. I’m definitely not a professional scholar; I see myself as The Last of the Educated Laymen. Since my new book is very un-scholarly, Steven took a somewhat critical view of it. We exchanged e-mail:

Sage It’s not evident what your purpose is.
Hammond In his early essay “Richard Wagner in Bayreuth,” Nietzsche wrote:

“The object is not to cut the Gordian knot of Greek culture after the manner adopted by Alexander, and then to leave its frayed ends fluttering in all directions; it is rather to bind it after it has been loosed.... In the person of Wagner I recognise one of these anti-Alexanders: he rivets and locks together all that is isolated....[he] is a Simplifier of the Universe.”

I’m trying to be a simplifier — a simplifier of the world of books, which is perhaps the most important world there is, and the most extensive. Now more than ever, we need to simplify so that the world of culture/knowledge/books doesn’t become too specialized, too fragmented. I think Nietzsche would approve of my book. My book is, in a sense, a philosophical project.

SageChapeaux bas! for perusing the many items discussed in Realms of Gold, as I presume you have.
HammondActually, I mention many books that I haven’t read. For example, on page 22, I write, “If you want to read about ancient philosophy, consider Alfred Edward Taylor, who wrote studies of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.” This sort of remark doesn’t imply that I read this author, does it? And there are many such remarks in my book. My goal isn’t to parade my own erudition, but rather to make useful suggestions for reading, for a broad education. I judge books not only by reading them but also by their reputation — their “smell”, if you will. I believe that Alfred Edward Taylor’s books are worth reading (though I haven’t read them myself), and this belief justifies (in my view) a brief mention of his work.

Let’s put it another way: the number of books that I’ve heard of greatly exceeds the number that I’ve read, and I don’t want to keep silent about all these “heard-of-but-haven’t-read” books. I’m not a professional scholar, I don’t spend lots of time reading, and I’m a slow reader besides, so if I limited myself to discussing books that I’ve actually read, my book would have too narrow a range. Realms of Gold might also be called Jim Hammond’s Opinions on Books — it’s a personal book, a subjective book. I have opinions on books I’ve read, and opinions on books I haven’t read.

Now let’s consider my comments on your book. [“My favorite book about Hitler is Steven Sage’s Ibsen and Hitler, which presents a startling new theory about Hitler, and contains much information about his life and personality, all in a short and readable volume.”] They’re more detailed, and more enthusiastic, than my comments on Alfred Edward Taylor. The reader can tell that I’ve read Steven Sage. I’m grabbing the reader’s sleeve — “ya gotta read this!!”

SageRealms would appear to belong to the undergraduate Educational category.
HammondI prefer not to put it in any category, I prefer to see it as a book for everyone. It wouldn’t work in the undergraduate world because it isn’t politically correct; it focuses on books by Dead White Males, and doesn’t meet the quotas for female and non-white authors. It’s a personal book, an opinionated book, not a quota book. Isn’t every literary work personal? Aren’t Montaigne’s essays personal? Doesn’t Montaigne tell us what books he likes and doesn’t like? Doesn’t Nietzsche tell us that, too?
SageYou’re competing with Wikipedia and other easily-accessed resources for quick, handy, summary information.
HammondI’m a fan of Wikipedia, and I draw on Wikipedia in Realms of Gold. But I’m not really doing the same thing: Wikipedia isn’t personal, or literary. It doesn’t try to recommend. And it doesn’t try to simplify. On the contrary, it militates against simplification -- it fragments, spreads, specializes.
SageThere are, after all, other digests of great and influential books.
HammondI’m not aware of any books that resemble Realms. I don’t try to write a digest, a summary; for example, I make no attempt to summarize Plato’s Republic. Hence I can move rapidly, and cover a lot of ground in a small volume. Furthermore, I don’t stick to “great and influential books”. I mention writers like Steven Sage, who have no influence, but deserve to have influence. I mention Bill Bryson, who doesn’t try to be a great writer, but may help the reader to get a broad education. I give short shrift to some Ancient Classics like Aristotle, but have high praise for some modern works like Zen and the Art of Archery.

I don’t aim at completeness; I skip over major writers like Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Martin Heidegger, etc., etc. I have to skip some writers, I have to be unfair (though I may give these writers their due in a later edition). I can’t read everything, or critique everything, just as a travel writer can’t tell us about every town in the world. But think of all the writers that I don’t skip! Think of all the writers that I try to rescue from oblivion, try to introduce the reader to, try to make enticing for the reader! A book like Realms can boost the reputations of many writers. Could it do even more? Could it revive literature in general? Could it make literature more popular — help literature to compete with other media, other pastimes?

SageYou often use the word “enjoy” in evaluating a book.
HammondThis is characteristic of a layman; us laymen seek enjoyment, pleasure. On the other hand, a professional scholar like yourself gets enjoyment from a paycheck, so he may not insist that he receive enjoyment from the books that led to the paycheck. Montaigne wouldn’t rack his brains over Aristotle because Montaigne was a layman, he wasn’t being paid to read, so he read what he enjoyed. On the other hand, Leo Strauss spent many hours poring over Aristotle because he was a professional scholar; his paycheck, and his scholarly reputation, depended on his knowledge.

My view is that, throughout history, most good books have been written to give the reader pleasure. Homer, Dickens, Tolstoy, Thoreau — they all aim to give the reader pleasure. That doesn’t mean, however, that they aim only to give pleasure, just as the food you eat may give you pleasure, but not only pleasure. From our books, as from our food, we want both nutrition and pleasure.

SageIf to enjoy is the goal, as you well know there are other, far more intensely gratifying experiences than reading heavy tomes: movies, sex, drugs, drinking, sports, games...
HammondMy book doesn’t focus on “heavy tomes”. I seek the light, the witty, the brief, as well as the original and profound. The pleasure that literature offers is different from other pleasures, and can’t be replaced by them; even in this video age, many people still read for pleasure. The pleasure that movies afford may not be as intense as that afforded by sex and drugs, but that doesn’t mean that no one watches movies.
SageThe items you’ve discussed appear to reflect your own training in a particular curriculum.
HammondIf I was ever “trained”, I’m not aware of it. Scholars may be trained, but laymen aren’t. Laymen follow their own wayward spirit, their inner voice. Whatever I’ve learned, I’ve learned by “free reading.” If I hadn’t gone to Harvard, I would know as much as I know now.
SageIn Realms the postmodern set of critiques, and the vocabulary of postmodern criticism, are wholly absent and ignored.
HammondI was influenced by writers like Nietzsche and Freud, who aren’t “postmodern”. I was influenced by old books, not current trends.
SagePostmodernism is still dominant; the young are inculcated in postmodernism on campuses, and you’ve stated that your book is ideal for a young philosopher.
HammondEvery philosopher writes for the next philosopher. I feel that I’ve discovered some things — for example, when I was about 43, I discovered that E. M. Forster is a great writer, and that quantum physics is relevant to philosophy. I want to share these discoveries. If a 20-year-old philosopher reads my book, I’d like him to learn quickly what I learned slowly.
SageIf you reject the whole family of postmodern criticism, you need to say why. Or is it that you haven’t read any postmodernist thinkers?
HammondI’ve tasted that school of thought, and haven’t been captured/enthralled/impressed, so I haven’t gone further. But then again, they haven’t read my work either. I don’t see any need to explain why I ignore the postmodern school. Yes, they’re fashionable in academia, but they haven’t convinced me that they deserve a close reading and a careful rebuttal.

2. Miscellaneous

A. I read a charming piece in the New York Times travel section about the Ridgeway Trail, a walking trail in England that follows a Stone Age route, and takes you past several Stone Age sites, including the Uffington White Horse and the Avebury megaliths. The Ridgeway Trail is 87 miles long, and it’s located about 40 miles west of London. It’s one of nineteen British trails that have been designated National Trails.

I also read an article in Smithsonian magazine about another National Trail, an 84-mile trail along Hadrian’s Wall, in northern England. According to the article, the middle ten miles, stretching westward from Chollerford, is “the most rural, unspoiled and spectacular part of the walk.” All the National Trails have received lots of attention since they were designated, and are now receiving a steady flow of hikers.

Finally, I read a piece in the New York Times about hiking in Wales. “Wales recently became the first country in the world with a formal footpath along its entire coastline — 870 miles of trails.” The author of the piece paid a tour company to carry her luggage and book her hotels. She discovered that the company booked cheap hotels, not good hotels, so she wished that she had done the booking herself.

B. My daughter’s Social Studies textbook introduced me to the Bantu Migrations, which might be called the African version of the Aryan Migrations. The Bantu Migrations originated in what is now Cameroon (west-central Africa), about 3000 BC. From there, Bantu-speaking peoples migrated into southern and eastern Africa. Their superior agricultural techniques and metal-working techniques allowed them to displace hunter-gatherers. According to Wikipedia, “the Bantu expansion was one of the most significant human migrations and cultural transformations within the past few thousand years.” Like the Aryan Migrations, the Bantu Migrations resulted in the spread of the migrating people’s language.

C. I recently became acquainted with Loren Eiseley, a Penn professor who died in 1977. Eiseley wrote about science with poetic flair and philosophical depth. Among his books is Darwin’s Century. His study of early man, The Immense Journey, sold more than a million copies. If you want to try Eiseley, click here for a charming six-page excerpt from The Immense Journey. He seems to grasp the mystical/occult, but only in a vague way. Eiseley is something of a hero in his native Nebraska, and a statue of him is in the state capitol.

D. I recently saw Tracy Kidder interviewed by Brian Lamb. Kidder has written several non-fiction bestsellers, including The Soul of a New Machine (about the development of a new model of computer), Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World, and House (about the building of a house). Kidder lives near Northampton, Massachusetts, and wrote a book about Northampton called Home Town. Kidder is described as a “literary journalist,” similar to John McPhee. In the interview with Brian Lamb, Kidder was unimpressive and uninspired; at one point, he apologized for being incoherent. Incidentally, Paul Farmer’s collaborator in Third World disease-fighting, Dr. Jim Kim, was recently named president of Dartmouth, the first Asian to become president of an Ivy League college.

E. I received e-mail from a Phlit subscriber in San Diego:

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is one of my favorite books. I re-read it every year and keep it on my night table. Why? I need to remind myself of observations such as these:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

F. I recently saw Alan Khazei interviewed on TV.1 He’s running for the Senate seat vacated by the death of Ted Kennedy (more specifically, he’s running in a Democratic primary; the primary is December 8, the general election is January 19). He was in my class at Harvard — in my dorm, too, though we didn’t know each other. In the TV interview, he was very impressive — articulate, knowledgeable, experienced. He has never run for office; he has spent his career in the non-profit sector, the philanthropy sector. He’s a liberal Democrat who supports universal health insurance, but he also favors some Republican ideas, like malpractice reform. His father is an Iranian-American doctor, his mother an Italian-American nurse. If he has any religion, I’m not aware of it. He’s a formidable candidate, but it’s unlikely that he’ll defeat Martha Coakley, the Massachusetts Attorney General. [This was written before the primary, which Coakley did indeed win.]

G. Do immigrants work harder than people born in the U.S.? It seems that immigrants try to prove themselves, try to earn a place in American society. They focus on their career because that’s all they have. Natives, on the other hand, have various relatives, connections, property, roots, and if their relatives occupied a high place in American society, then the only kind of mobility open to them is downward mobility (when you’re on the bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up, and when you’re on the top, there’s nowhere to go but down).

Immigrants may see the U.S. as their salvation (for example, a Jewish family that came to the U.S. in 1930 may feel that the U.S. saved them from the Nazis; a Korean family that came to the U.S. in 1950 may feel that the U.S. saved them from the North Korean despotism). On the other hand, natives may feel that the U.S. didn’t help them at all (if their ancestors were from England, they may think that they’d be better off if their family had stayed in England).

3. Louis Menand on American Academia

In an earlier issue, I discussed Louis Menand’s essay on Lionel Trilling, and I made some disparaging remarks about Menand’s writing. Menand is a Harvard English professor, and writes for the New Yorker. His specialty is American intellectual history, and his magnum opus is The Metaphysical Club, a study of William James, John Dewey, Charles Sanders Peirce, etc.1B His forthcoming study of American academia, The Marketplace of Ideas, was excerpted in a recent issue of Harvard Magazine. I thoroughly enjoyed these excerpts. I find that Menand’s writing improves markedly when he makes an argument that I agree with.

Menand discusses the inner workings of academia, and his piece constitutes one of the most devastating criticisms of academia that I’ve ever seen. He says that academia aims not at producing knowledge, but at producing Ph.D.s:

Since it is the system that ratifies the product — ipso facto, no one outside the community of experts is qualified to rate the value of the work produced within it — the most important function of the system is not the production of knowledge. It is the reproduction of the system. To put it another way, the most important function of the system, both for purposes of its continued survival and for purposes of controlling the market for its products, is the production of the producers. The academic disciplines effectively monopolize (or attempt to monopolize) the production of knowledge in their fields, and they monopolize the production of knowledge producers as well.2

Menand notes that it’s especially difficult to earn a Ph.D. in a field that has no obvious utility:

Weirdly, the less social authority a profession enjoys, the more restrictive the barriers to entry and the more rigid the process of producing new producers tend to become. You can become a lawyer in three years, an M.D. in four years, and an M.D.-Ph.D. in six years, but the median time to a doctoral degree in the humanities disciplines is nine years.

He notes that academics have many advantages over laymen like myself:

The weakest professional, because he or she is backed by the collective authority of the group, has an almost unassailable advantage over the strongest non-professional (the so-called independent scholar) operating alone, since the non-professional must build a reputation by his or her own toil, while the professional’s credibility is given by the institution. That is one of the reasons that people are willing to pay the enormous price in time and income forgone it takes to get the degree: the credential gives them access to the resources of scholarship and to the networks of scholars that circulate their work around the world. The non-academic writer or scholar is largely deprived of those things.

Menand reviews the recent history of American academia. If you earned your Ph.D. in 1960, when American higher education was expanding, then your job prospects were good. By 1970, however, there were too many Ph.D.s, and too few jobs. Since 1970, there has been a shift toward practical fields:

In 2000-01, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in all fields was 50 percent higher than in 1970-71, but the number of degrees in English was down both in absolute numbers — from 64,342 to 51,419 — and as a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees, from 7.6 percent to around 4 percent. There was upward movement in only two major liberal-arts areas: psychology and the life sciences. American higher education has been expanding, but the liberal arts part of the system has been shrinking.

Of course, this increases the difficulty of landing a job as a professor in the humanities.

Menand notes that a declining job pool coincided with an increasing Ph.D. pool:

Between 1989 and 1996... universities gave out more Ph.D.s [every year] than they had the year before. It was plain that the supply curve had completely lost touch with the demand curve in American academic life. That meant if not quite a lost generation of scholars, a lost cohort. This was a period that coincided with attacks on the university for “political correctness,” and it is not a coincidence that many of the most prominent critics of academia were themselves graduate-school dropouts: Dinesh D’Souza, Roger Kimball, Richard Bernstein, David Lehman. Apart from their specific criticisms and their politics, they articulated a mood of disenchantment with the university as a congenial place to work.

Menand says that the road to an academic chair is a long one, and many people don’t reach the destination:

Only about half of the people who enter doctoral programs in English finish them, and only about half of those who finish end up as tenured faculty, the majority of them at institutions that are not research universities. An estimate of the total elapsed time from college graduation to tenure would be somewhere between 15 and 20 years. It is a lengthy apprenticeship.

During this long apprenticeship, Ph.D.s provide cheap labor to universities:

Students continue to check into the doctoral motel, and they don’t seem terribly eager to check out. They like being in a university, and, since there is usually plenty of demand for their quite inexpensive teaching, universities like having them.

Since academic jobs are scarce, a maverick isn’t likely to get one — or even try to get one. So academia develops a group mind, a herd mentality:

It may be that the increased time-to-degree, combined with the weakening job market for liberal arts Ph.D.s, is what is responsible for squeezing the profession into a single ideological box.

The main reason for academics to be concerned about the time it takes to get a degree has to do with the barrier this represents to admission to the profession. The obstacles to entering the academic profession are now so well known that the students who brave them are already self-sorted before they apply to graduate school.... The result is a narrowing of the intellectual range and diversity of those entering the field, and a widening of the philosophical and attitudinal gap that separates academic from non-academic intellectuals. Students who go to graduate school already talk the talk, and they learn to walk the walk as well. There is less ferment from the bottom than is healthy in a field of intellectual inquiry. Liberalism needs conservatism, and orthodoxy needs heterodoxy, if only in order to keep on its toes.

And the obstacles at the other end of the process, the anxieties over placement and tenure, do not encourage iconoclasm either. The academic profession in some areas is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself. If it were easier and cheaper to get in and out of the doctoral motel, the disciplines would have a chance to get oxygenated by people who are much less invested in their paradigms.

Menand notes the uniformity, the lack of diversity, in academia, but he doesn’t note the irony that this lack of diversity exists in the very institutions that are constantly talking about diversity.

It is unlikely that the opinions of the professoriate will ever be a true reflection of the opinions of the public; and, in any case, that would be in itself an unworthy goal. Fostering a greater diversity of views within the professoriate is a worthy goal, however. The evidence suggests that American higher education is going in the opposite direction. Professors tend increasingly to think alike because the profession is increasingly self-selected. The university may not explicitly require conformity on more than scholarly matters, but the existing system implicitly demands and constructs it.

Menand thinks that graduate-school training is too lengthy, too specialized, too unrelated to the work that professors will be doing:

People are taught — more accurately, people are socialized, since the process selects for other attributes in addition to scholarly ability — to become expert in a field of specialized study; and then, at the end of a long, expensive, and highly single-minded process of credentialization, they are asked to perform tasks for which they have had no training whatsoever: to teach their fields to non-specialists, to connect what they teach to issues that students are likely to confront in the world outside the university, to be interdisciplinary, to write for a general audience, to justify their work to people outside their discipline and outside the academy. If we want professors to be better at these things, then we ought to train them differently.

4. Samuel Johnson

In a recent issue of the Weekly Standard, there was an article on Samuel Johnson.3 The author, Edward Short, writes well, and knows his Johnson, but he spends too much time telling us about bad Johnson biographies. Why not pass over the bad ones in silence, or mention them only in passing, and tell us what he recommends? An article like this should focus on the basic facts about Johnson, the most interesting things about Johnson, the biographies that we should read, and the writings of Johnson that we should read.

One recent Johnson biography is by the tireless Jeffrey Meyers. “Meyers has written an engaging book,” Short writes. “Thoroughly in command of his sources, he writes with brisk efficiency and has genuinely new things to say about the life and work. He includes a lively epilogue on the influence Johnson had on such writers as Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Virginia Woolf, and Samuel Beckett.”

While lingering on Peter Martin’s biography, which he roundly criticizes, Short moves rapidly over David Nokes’ biography, which he says is the best of the recent Johnson biographies. Short also praises Nokes’ books on Jane Austen and Jonathan Swift.

If what I call The Philosophy of Today gains ground in the next 50 years, as I believe it will, then Johnson’s stock will fall, while the stock of Blake, Coleridge and others will rise. Johnson lived in an age that respected reason, while the Romantics were in revolt against reason. Thus, Romantics like Blake and Coleridge are akin to The Philosophy of Today, which is also in revolt against reason.

Furthermore, The Philosophy of Today respects Eastern philosophy, especially Zen. If The Philosophy of Today becomes popular, the stock of Zennish writers will rise. Here again, Johnson’s future doesn’t look bright — Johnson is an un-Zennish writer. Consider, for example, his remarks after visiting the ruins of Iona: “Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses; whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings.” Zen’s motto is “Be Here Now,” while Johnson’s motto is “Be Far Away.”

5. Luttwak on Strategy

The Weekly Standard recently ran an article about Edward Luttwak, whom it called “one of America’s leading strategic minds.” Luttwak has written numerous books on military matters, including Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook, and The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire from the First Century AD to the Third. Luttwak also works part-time as an undercover operative.

The Weekly Standard article discussed Luttwak’s latest book, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, in which he “lays out seven principles of Byzantine strategy which he believes would be applicable to the United States in its present strategic situation.

  1. Avoid war by every possible means, in all possible circumstances, but always act as if war might start at any time. Train intensively and be ready for battle at all times . . . The highest purpose of combat readiness is to reduce the probability of having to fight.
  2. Gather intelligence on the enemy and his mentality, and monitor his actions continuously. Efforts to do so by all possible means might not be very productive, but they are seldom wasted.
  3. Campaign vigorously, both offensively and defensively, but avoid battles, especially large-scale battles, except in very favorable circumstances. . . employ force in the smallest possible doses to help persuade the persuadable and harm those not yet amenable to persuasion.
  4. Replace the battle of attrition and occupation of countries with maneuver warfare . . . [T]he object is not to destroy your enemies, because they can become tomorrow’s allies. A multiplicity of enemies can be less of a threat than just one, so long as they can be persuaded to attack one another.
  5. Strive to end wars successfully by recruiting allies to change the balance of power. Diplomacy is even more important during war than peace . . . The most useful allies are those nearest to the enemy.
  6. Subversion is the cheapest path to victory. So cheap, in fact, as compared with the costs and risks of battle, that it must always be attempted, even with the most seemingly irreconcilable enemies.
  7. When diplomacy and subversion are not enough and fighting is unavoidable, use methods and tactics that exploit enemy weaknesses, avoid consuming combat forces, and patiently whittle down the enemy’s strength. This might require much time. But there is no urgency because as soon as one enemy is no more, another will surely take his place. All is constantly changing as rulers and nations rise and fall. Only the empire is eternal — if, that is, it does not exhaust itself.”
Another American strategist, from a later generation, is Max Boot, author of War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today. Boot is conservative, and often writes for The Weekly Standard. Like Luttwak, Boot was born overseas into a Jewish family (Boot was born in Russia, Luttwak in Romania).

© L. James Hammond 2009
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1. October 5, “Greater Boston” with Emily Rooney, on PBS back
1B. For more on William James, consider the biography by Robert D. Richardson (who also wrote biographies of Emerson and Thoreau). Consider also A Stroll With William James, by Jacques Barzun. If you want to read James himself, Richardson edited an anthology, The Heart of William James.

Another book about an intellectual club is The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World, by Laura Snyder. This book deals with four 19th-century English scientists: William Whewell, Charles Babbage, John Herschel, and Richard Jones. back

2. “The Ph.D. Problem: On the professionalization of faculty life, doctoral training, and the academy’s self-renewal,” Harvard Magazine, November-December 2009

Russell Jacoby, a UCLA professor, has also written about American academia. Among his books is The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. He appears in the documentary, Velvet Prisons: Russell Jacoby on American Academia. back

3. “The Good Doctor: Samuel Johnson, writer and sage,” by Edward Short, 11/09/2009, Volume 015, Issue 08 back