January 14, 2008

1. The Life of the Mind: 7 Nevers

  1. Never separate the life of the mind into different departments (Inter-disciplinary Approach)
  2. Never let intellectual pursuits predominate at the expense of spiritual life; never let the mind predominate at the expense of the whole person (Spiritual Approach)
  3. Never let truth predominate over beauty, never let content predominate over style; respect literary values, even in a non-fiction work (Aesthetic Approach)
  4. Never become preoccupied with current events, current books, etc.; spend more time with old books than with fresh newspapers (Timeless Approach)
  5. Never let professionals take over, and turn the life of the mind into a job; it should be pleasurable, a leisure-time activity (Pleasure Principle)
  6. Never insist that the universe make sense; accept the mysterious and the inexplicable (Negative Capability)
  7. Never focus on the West and ignore the East; on the other hand, don’t let respect for the East blind you to the merits of the West; respect both East and West (Global Perspective)

2. Chocolat

Saw a movie called Chocolat. It’s a popular American movie based on a popular British novel. It takes place in a small French town, but it’s an English-language movie. A stranger (an unwed mother) moves into town with her daughter and starts a chocolate shop. Her unconventional lifestyle, her disrespect for established religion, and her aphrodisiac chocolate stir up the old-fashioned town. It’s rather enjoyable to watch, but when it’s done, you realize that the movie has no three-dimensional characters, only stale stereotypes — no interesting ideas, only Hollywood concepts. My wife said it reminded her of socialist art — a heavy message, cardboard characters.

The worst person in Chocolat is the highest-ranking aristocrat, Comte de Reynaud. While the aristocrat is ridiculed, the “river rat” (Roux), who resembles a gypsy, is portrayed in a positive light. This is one of Hollywood’s favorite conventions: ridicule the aristocracy, glorify the lower class; we find this convention in Titanic, The Sound of Music, etc. Not only is the aristocracy ridiculed in Chocolat, but also tradition, religion, the establishment. Everything succumbs to the power of the free spirit and free love, traditional values are overturned by the aphrodisiac. The message is, “Don’t look up to anything, don’t respect anything.” One website says “the arrival of the mother/daughter team and their shop transforms the conservative and religious locals into open-minded, fun-loving people.”

3. Milosz and Zen

The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz studied and admired Eastern literature. “His reading of East Asian poetry confirmed Milosz in his preference for poems that ‘honored the object, not the subject’.... He extolled ‘the holy word: Is.’ All that he required for a justification of existence was a description of existence.”1 In the darkest days of World War II, Milosz wrote “The World,” a series of poems that describe the elements of a child’s world: the road, the gate, the porch, the dining room, the stairs.

Milosz believed that the struggle against totalitarianism was a philosophical struggle, a battle of ideas, just as the current struggle against Islamic extremism can be viewed as a philosophical struggle.

While he was respectful of religion, Milosz was impatient with church orthodoxy; “wandering on the outskirts of heresy is about right for me,” he wrote. He admired mystics like Swedenborg.

Like Zen, Milosz took a positive attitude toward life:

You gave me gifts, God-Enchanter.
I give you thanks for good and ill.
Eternal light in everything on earth.
As now, so on the day after my death.

4. Pakistan

Interesting article in the New York Times about Pakistan.2 It was written by the prominent journalist John Burns, and it surveys the history of Pakistan. Burns says that, from its inception in 1947, Pakistan has been highly stratified: “the landowning aristocrats and the tribal chiefs became the political elite of Pakistan.” Pakistan has never been truly democratic, and its periods of “democracy” have been little better than its periods of military rule. Burns quotes William Dalrymple, a specialist on the region:

As Pakistan shows, rigid, corrupt, unrepresentative and flawed democracies without the strong independent institutions of a civil society — a free press, an independent judiciary, an empowered election commission — can foster governments that are every bit as tyrannical as any dictatorship. Justice and democracy are not necessarily synonymous.

Burns points out that, when Benazir Bhutto was in power, corruption was rife:

In 2005, Transparency International, a London-based agency that monitors corruption, said Pakistan under Ms. Bhutto had been the second-most-corrupt country in the world.... French, Swiss and Middle Eastern companies, among others, had paid tens of millions of dollars in kickbacks on Pakistan government contracts into offshore bank accounts held by Ms. Bhutto and her husband.

When the New York Times confronted Bhutto’s husband with evidence of corruption, he admitted the evidence was valid, but questioned why the Times was investigating. “You could investigate anybody who has held power in this country, and you’d find the same. Why us?” As I read this, I was reminded of our earlier discussion of Elie Kedourie:

In Kedourie’s view, the poverty of Third World nations didn’t result from First World exploitation, but rather from their own traditions and cultures. Kedourie says that in India and other countries, colonial rulers tried to establish democracy at the local and provincial level. But “the successful working of such government [Kedourie writes] depends on there being a body of voters not accustomed to passive obedience and able on the other hand to appreciate that the general good can, if only sometimes, have the primacy over private interest. These characteristics being absent, public power remains what it has always been in this tradition, simply the private property of the official power-holders.”

Burns suggests that Musharraf’s military rule isn’t worse, and may even be better, than the civilian rule of Bhutto, Sharif, and others. But military rule prevents the development of democratic mores. Democracy is valuable as education, if not as government. Burns quotes a Pakistani journalist:

Since democracy was effectively killed in its infancy, the later stages of maturity and experience could not be reached. Pakistanis are a normal people and can go as far on the road to democracy as any other nation can. This road we must take; we cannot do without it.

5. The Titanic

I discovered a remarkable fact about the sinking of the Titanic: It was prophesied 14 years before it occurred. “In 1898 [says Wikipedia], Morgan Robertson published a book called Futility in which a ship called Titan sinks after colliding with an iceberg. There are striking similarities between the Titan and the Titanic disasters: both ships sank in the North Atlantic during April, both did not have enough lifeboats, both were travelling at an excessive speed, and both were considered the largest ships of their time.”

6. Pundits and Politics

I’m revising my book of aphorisms. I’m going over back-issues of Phlit, and incorporating Phlit articles into my book of aphorisms. As a result, my book of aphorisms has grown significantly, and improved significantly; it’s no longer the short book that it once was. I’m about 80% done with this process, only the last couple years of Phlit remain to be gone over. Then I’ll print out the book of aphorisms, and read it through from start to finish (and perhaps enlist someone else to read it through from start to finish), and see if any final improvements can be made, before I start peddling it to publishers, etc.

I’m thinking of showing my manuscript to prominent intellectuals, hoping to obtain their support. Perhaps I’ll go to Harvard, and show my manuscript to Bill Kristol and Harvey Mansfield. A day or two ago, the following idle thoughts were flitting through my head: “If I talk to Bill Kristol again, perhaps I’ll ask him why the New York Times hired his right-hand man, David Brooks, to be a columnist. Why didn’t they hire Kristol himself? Perhaps they offered the job to Kristol, but he was too involved with his magazine.” Then yesterday (Sunday, January 6), I heard Bill Kristol introduced by Chris Wallace as “a columnist for the New York Times.” When I went to the Times website, I found that, sure enough, the Times just hired Kristol to write a weekly column.

What an amazing coincidence! Of course, if you didn’t experience it yourself, it isn’t as amazing; the ghost that you see with your own eyes is more amazing than the one you read about. A skeptic would say that it didn’t happen as I’ve described it, or that it was just a coincidence — a chance occurrence. I regard it as an occult phenomenon — some sort of telepathy or precognition. Emerson, who was wary of the occult, spoke of, “The hints we have, the dreams, the coincidences, do make each man stare once or twice in a lifetime.”3 This made me stare, and I’ve stared dozens of times, not just once or twice.

Liberals are appalled that the Times hired Kristol, and have sent numerous protest letters to the Times. One liberal argued that Kristol was wrong about Iraq (wrong to advocate invading Iraq), and therefore he shouldn’t be regarded as a “star writer,” and he shouldn’t be hired by a prestigious publication. It should be noted, however, that Kristol was right to advocate The Surge, he writes superb prose, and his knowledge of American politics is unsurpassed. As for the invasion of Iraq, it will probably be decades before it’s clear whether that was a good move or not. And even if it turns out to be a mistake, should that disqualify Kristol from speaking out on public affairs? Should the Dardanelles debacle have disqualified Churchill from further involvement with public affairs?

A couple months ago, when Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani were sailing along, Kristol said repeatedly that they weren’t secure front-runners, they could be beaten, and probably would be. The Iowa victories of Obama and Huckabee confirmed Kristol’s prediction. But Hillary’s surprising victory in New Hampshire seems to give her at least a 50% chance of gaining the nomination. As for the Republican primary, it looks like a race between Huckabee and McCain.

McCain appeals equally to all social classes. Huckabee, on the other hand, is a populist who appeals to the common man. Huckabee quotes Lincoln: “God must love the common man because He made so many of them.” The significance of names: can you imagine an aristocrat with the name Huckabee?

From being a friend of the common man it’s only a short step to being a foe of the affluent. This is the step that John Edwards has taken, this is what makes Edwards the candidate of class warfare, the candidate many Republicans despise. As for Huckabee, he comes close to being a foe of the affluent, he comes close to “class warfare with a smile,” and this is one reason many Republicans are wary of him.

7. Dracula

In an earlier issue, I mentioned that I was reading Dracula aloud with my daughter. She decided to abandon it, but I was too involved with it to abandon it, so I’m carrying on by myself. The author (Bram Stoker) has a firm sense of place, of geography. First you follow the English clerk (Jonathan Harker) from England to Munich, and from Munich east through Vienna and Budapest to Transylvania (in Romania). Later Stoker describes Whitby, a town on the northeast coast of England. Then he describes the voyage from Varna (on the Black Sea) to Whitby. Do the horror writers of today have such a firm sense of geography? I recommend reading Dracula with a map at hand.

Stoker mentions Whitby Abbey, which has been a ruin since it was sacked by Danish Vikings in 867. Perhaps this east coast of England was particularly susceptible to Danish incursions and Danish influence, while the west coast of England (Wales, etc.) preserved its Celtic heritage, and is sometimes called The Celtic Fringe. At any rate, we meet an old man in Whitby who speaks a local dialect, and he uses a Danish word (the only Danish word I know): “kirkgarth.”4 This word, Stoker’s character says, has “something to do with the church.” It means churchyard, and it can also be spelled Kierkegaard.

If Dracula is occasionally difficult to read, it isn’t because it’s filled with bloody violence; rather, it’s because it’s filled with sugary sentimentality. It’s not great literature, but it has some memorable scenes, and if you’re interested in the occult, you may find it interesting.

Dracula is about vampires, a subject that Stoker has clearly studied. It’s not a subject that I find pleasant or interesting, but it raises a larger subject: the occult in general, how we approach it, how we deal with things that reason says are impossible. Stoker’s hero, Professor Van Helsing, believes that vampires are about, but he doesn’t express this belief to his friends, who probably don’t believe in vampires. As the evidence mounts, and his friends question him more and more, the Professor begins to speak. At first, he tries to persuade his friend to have an open mind toward the occult in general, toward things that seem impossible:

“You are a clever man, friend John. You reason well, and your wit is bold, but you are too prejudiced. You do not let your eyes see nor your ears hear.... Do you not think that there are things which you cannot understand, and yet which are, that some people see things that others cannot? ....Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all, and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.... I suppose now you do not believe in corporeal transference. No? Nor in materialization. No? Nor in astral bodies. No? Nor in the reading of thought. No? Nor in hypnotism...”

“Yes,” I said. “Charcot has proved that pretty well.”

He smiled as he went on, “Then you are satisfied as to it. Yes? And of course then you understand how it act, and can follow the mind of the great Charcot — alas that he is no more! — into the very soul of the patient that he influence. No? Then, friend John, am I to take it that you simply accept fact, and are satisfied to let from premise to conclusion be a blank? No? Then tell me, for I am a student of the brain, how you accept hypnotism and reject the thought reading. Let me tell you, my friend, that there are things done today in electrical science which would have been deemed unholy by the very man who discovered electricity, who would themselves not so long before been burned as wizards. There are always mysteries in life.... Can you tell me why men believe in all ages and places that there are men and women who cannot die?...."

Here I interrupted him. I was getting bewildered. He so crowded on my mind his list of nature’s eccentricities and possible impossibilities that my imagination was getting fired....

“I want you to believe.... in things that you cannot. Let me illustrate. I heard once of an American who so defined faith, ‘that faculty which enables us to believe things which we know to be untrue.’ For one, I follow that man. He meant that we shall have an open mind, and not let a little bit of truth check the rush of the big truth, like a small rock does a railway truck. We get the small truth first. Good! We keep him, and we value him, but all the same we must not let him think himself all the truth in the universe.”

“Then you want me not to let some previous conviction inure the receptivity of my mind with regard to some strange matter. Do I read your lesson aright?”

“Ah, you are my favourite pupil still.”5

8. Freud and the Occult

In his three-volume biography of Freud, Ernest Jones devotes a chapter to Freud’s view of the occult.6 Jones says that telepathy “is by far the most ‘respectable’ element in the field of occultism. [Freud] felt intuitively that telepathy might be the kernel of truth in this obscure field. Yet, as he himself remarked, to accept telepathy was a step of great consequence. It would mean admitting the essential claim of the occultists that mental processes can be independent of the human body. As he pointed out: ‘Dans ces cas pareils, ce n’est que le premier pas qui coûte. [In cases of this kind, it’s only the first step that’s difficult.7]’ It opens the door to endless possibilities.”

Late at night, Freud regaled Jones with stories about occult phenomena. “When I would protest at some of the taller stories [Jones writes] Freud was wont to reply with his favorite quotation: ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy’.... I ventured to reprove him for his inclination to accept occult beliefs on flimsy evidence. His reply was: ‘I don’t like it at all myself, but there is some truth in it.’ ....I then asked him where such beliefs could halt: if one could believe in mental processes floating in the air, one could go on to a belief in angels. He closed the discussion at this point (about three in the morning!) with the remark: ‘Quite so, even der liebe Gott.’” Thus Freud seems to approach Jung’s position — belief in some sort of God based on the uncanny power, and deep wisdom, of the unconscious.

In a recent issue, I wrote, “The skeptics warned Freud that if you give any ground, you’ll be overwhelmed” — overwhelmed by “endless possibilities.” Both sides use this argument. Skeptics like Jones say, “telepathy leads to this, and this leads to that, so we must reject telepathy, we must reject the occult in toto.” Jones calls this “my reductio ad absurdum.” Meanwhile, people who are receptive to the occult use the same argument; they say, “you must admit this, this, and this, therefore you should also be receptive to that, that, and that.” In the above-quoted passage, Professor Van Helsing mentions numerous strange, inexplicable, occult phenomena, in order to prepare his friend for something stranger still (vampires). How can you reject the more strange, Van Helsing reasons, if you admit the strange? Van Helsing says, “tell me... how you accept hypnotism and reject the thought reading.”

© L. James Hammond 2008
visit Phlit home page
make a donation via PayPal

1. See “Czeslaw Milosz, 1911-2004” by Leon Wieseltier in The New York Times, 9/12/04 back
2. “Ghosts That Haunt Pakistan,” 1/6/08 back
3. Emerson: The Mind on Fire, by Robert D. Richardson, ch. 44 back
4. See ch. 6, “1 August” back
5. Ch. 14 back
6. Volume 3, ch. 14 back
7. This phrase originates with Madame du Deffand. In a letter to Horace Walpole (June 6, 1767), Madame du Deffand relates how Cardinal Polignac, a man of vast credulity, told her the old story of the martyrdom of St Denis who, after decapitation, walked two leagues with his head in his hand to the spot where his church was afterwards erected. The cardinal laid special stress on the distance traversed. “The distance is nothing,” quoth Madame, “only the first step is difficult” [La distance n’y fait rien, il n’y a que le premier pas qui coûte]. back