November 4, 2011

1. Adams and Jefferson

One of the famous anecdotes in American history is that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who were good friends at the end of their lives, both died on July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Adams’ last words were, “Thomas Jefferson still lives.” He didn’t realize that, in far-off Virginia, Jefferson had died earlier that day.

Jefferson’s health had been poor, and when he awoke that morning, he said little except, “Is it The Fourth?” He seemed to be timing his death, he seemed to want to live until The Fourth of July — an especially important day for the author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s death is a case of mind over matter, will over body. Is anyone such a confirmed skeptic as to believe that Jefferson died on The Fourth just by coincidence?

But what about Adams? Was his death also a willed death? Unlike Jefferson, Adams had not been in poor health, and he didn’t seem to be expecting death, or timing his death. When he awoke that morning, he felt well. But at the very time that Jefferson was dying, Adams’ health began to fail. Is it possible that Adams’ death was linked, by a kind of telepathy or synchronicity, to Jefferson’s death? Or was Adams, like Jefferson, holding on until The Fourth, and then willing to die?

2. Joseph Bottum

An interesting piece in the Weekly Standard by Joseph (Jody) Bottum. Bottum says,

Novels have disappeared from public-intellectual life. You can read them if you want, but you don’t have to read them to participate in the serious public discourse of America. A friend uses what he calls the cocktail-party test for a new book: Would you be embarrassed to show up at a get-together of writers and public-intellectual types without having read it? And the last novel he can remember for which that was true was Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities — from 1987.

Bottum’s essay is entitled “The Cocktail-Party Test,” and the subtitle is “Who Now Reads?” Bottum says that when Pynchon published Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973, the novel was dying.

Think about that for a moment: The fundamental art of Western civilization for almost two hundred years — the device by which, more than any other, we tried to explain ourselves to ourselves — just doesn’t count for much anymore.

Bottum ignores Milan Kundera, whom I regard as a great contemporary novelist, and also a great writer of philosophical essays and aphorisms. Bottum also ignores film, which competes with the novel for public attention, and creative talent.

Bottum says that biography is popular today, and so is “genre fiction” — westerns, sci-fi, etc.1 He notes that the novel isn’t the only dead art form:

Novels are hardly the only art to decay. When was the last time you cared about a new opera? Poetry failed the cocktail-party test somewhere around the death of W.H. Auden in 1973. Sculpture got gobbled up by its own theory long before Henry Moore died in 1986. You can be a lively and cultivated guest these days without being able to name a living painter, composer, or playwright you admire.

The cause of this cultural decline? Bottum thinks there’s a failure in “metaphysics,” that is, an inability to make sense of the world as a whole. But he doesn’t draw the obvious conclusion: that we have a dearth of philosophers, and that a new philosophy is the best hope for reversing the trends he observes.

I think the cause was a failure of nerve not in art but in metaphysics. If novelists themselves don’t believe there exists a deep structure of morality and manners that can be discerned by the novel, why should readers believe it? Why should they care?

Is Bottum aiming his remarks at Western civilization in general, or just at American civilization? It isn’t clear; though his ideas are deep, his reasoning is careless, sloppy. This is journalism, not literature.

When other nations speak of Western culture, they typically mean nothing more than movies and pop music. Hard to tell them they’re wrong. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that, outside Hollywood and pop music, we haven’t produced a single major — a single world-historical — work of art since about 1975. Maybe since 1950.

Be we shouldn’t be distressed by this, Bottum says. “These things run in cycles, and what goes down may come up.” Decadence and renaissance. I suspect, though, that the problem can’t be completely solved by a renaissance, can’t be completely solved by a historical cycle, by the swinging of the cultural pendulum. There’s something in modern life, in the modern soul, that runs counter to the sort of culture that Bottum is looking for. The human race appears to have shrunk. As Mill said, in earlier times “the individual was a power in himself; and if he had either great talents or a high social position, he was a considerable power. At present individuals are lost in the crowd.” Does higher culture require an aristocratic society? Does higher culture suffocate in a society that’s democratic, egalitarian?

Bottum concludes by saying that when people advocate defending Western culture, he wonders what culture we have to defend.

3. Tat Tvam Asi

A lively discussion at the local GreatBooks group about a short essay called “Dominant Ideas in the Formation of Indian Culture,” by Franklin Edgerton. Edgerton concludes his essay thus:

The “Golden Rule,” that one ought to treat others like oneself, is as important in Hindu ethics as in Christianity. It is even carried farther, for it applies to animals.... It is summed up in the doctrine of ahimsa, “no injury” to any living being.... It is a logical deduction from the Upanishad doctrine... that the soul or real self of every man is identical with that of the universe (tat tvam asi, “That art thou” [that is you]). It follows, since things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other, that one must identify his own self with all other selves. If he harms others, he harms himself.

You’re not a separate individual, you’re part of the whole, just as a tree (as we argued earlier) isn’t a separate being, it’s part of the soil, the air, the other trees, the sun — it’s part of the whole. One way I could illustrate this idea is to point to your child (assuming you have a child), and say “tat tvam asi,” that is you. Your child is an extension of you — bone of your bone, flesh of your flesh, DNA from your DNA. His joy is your joy, his sadness your sadness. When you die, he lives on, and thus he gives you a kind of immortality, he frees you from death.

Now pretend your child is an adopted child. We can no longer say, “his DNA from your DNA,” but your feelings will be the same — his joy will be your joy, his sadness will be your sadness. Any sort of love causes a melting of individuality, of separateness — even love for an animal, perhaps even love for a plant or an inanimate object. The mystic extends his love from his child to all mankind, and from mankind to all the world; his separateness melts away, he feels part of the whole.

“Wait a minute, wait just a minute. We can love our children, we can love family members, we can love a handful of people, but we certainly can’t love all mankind, not to mention the whole world.” Perhaps it isn’t necessary to love in order to erase separateness. Perhaps it’s enough to not hate. Joseph Campbell admired the Tibetan exiles not because they loved their Chinese conquerors, but because they didn’t hate them.2 So if you think it’s impossible to love everyone, perhaps you’ll admit that it’s possible not to hate anyone.

Now let’s imagine Thoreau at Walden Pond. He feels a connection to the pond, the trees, the stars — to nature as a whole. There isn’t a solid barrier between him and the world, there’s only a screen door. His separateness has dissolved, he feels connected, he feels part of the whole. To feel connected, it isn’t necessary to love someone, or to love everyone, or not to hate anyone, though these may be effective ways to dissolve separateness.

Occult phenomena also erase separateness. Let’s pretend you have a cousin in California whom you talk to on the phone twice a year, and you think about five times a year. Today you think about him. This evening you receive a call from him, and you say, “I was just thinking about you...” Some sort of telepathic communication preceded the phone call. This is a common experience.

Telepathy suggests that we aren’t separate individuals, on some level we’re intertwined. In earlier issues, we mentioned the well-known case of the clock that stops when its owner dies. We’re not just intertwined with other people, we’re intertwined with inanimate objects — we’re intertwined with everything. Astrology isn’t just a silly superstition; you’re intertwined with stars and planets. You’re not a separate individual, you’re part of the whole. Here again we find freedom from death: when you die, the world continues, and since you’re part of the world, you continue.

A note on etymology: tat tvam asi sounds like “that you are,” especially if we substitute for “you” the Latin tu. We often find such resemblances between Sanskrit and Western languages because Sanskrit is part of the same language family (the Indo-European family) as Western languages.3

4. Miscellaneous

A. According to Saint-Exupéry, “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.” If a common goal allows two people to live together as a couple, perhaps it also allows many people to live together as fellow citizens. Ortega said that what allows nations to live and grow is “an inspiring plan for a life in common.”4

B. An interesting piece in the New York Times about St. John’s College, the college that’s known for focusing on the classics. They’re asking professors to teach outside their specialty — asking them to teach subjects that are new and strange to them. This puts the professor on the same level as the students, they’re learning together.

C. Some conservatives are complaining about the “soft money” policy of the Federal Reserve, and urging a return to the gold standard. Meanwhile, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke is recommending a book called Lords of Finance, which argues that high interest rates and adherence to the gold standard helped bring about the Great Depression. Lords of Finance, by Liaquat Ahamed, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for History, and was shortlisted for the 2009 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. It’s the only book that Ahamed has written. Now 59, Ahamed has spent most of his career in the private sector, and has also worked at the World Bank.

Ahamed recommends The World in Depression: 1929-1939, by Charles Kindleberger; he calls it “a fantastic book,” and says that it was one of the inspirations for his own book. Galbraith also had a high opinion of The World in Depression, calling it “the best book on the subject.” Kindleberger also wrote Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises, and World Economic Primacy: 1500-1990. Kindleberger was an MIT professor, with intermittent government posts; he helped design the Marshall Plan.

D. In an earlier issue, I discussed Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short, which deals with the 2008 economic crisis. Now Lewis has published a book called Boomerang, which discusses the economic ills of Iceland, Greece, Ireland, etc. Lewis calls his book Boomerang because money was “thrown out in hope, and is coming back in anger.”

E. In a recent column, David Brooks recommends a book called Thinking, Fast and Slow, which came out on October 25. It’s by Daniel Kahneman, and it discusses research that Kahneman did with his colleague, Amos Tversky. Brooks says that Kahneman and Tversky are the Lewis and Clark of the mind; he says they’re pioneers in exploring how people act, how people are moved by non-rational factors. Though Kahneman is a psychologist, he has written about behavioral economics, and he won a Nobel Prize in Economics. One might compare Kahneman to Dan Ariely, whom I discussed in a recent issue.

F. Leonard Mlodinow won the Literary Science Writing Award for Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. Mlodinow also wrote a bestseller called The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. Mlodinow was a student of Feynman, and wrote a book about him, Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life. Mlodinow collaborated with Stephen Hawking on two books, A Briefer History of Time, and The Grand Design. And Mlodinow wrote a popular book on geometry called Euclid’s Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace.

5. Movies

A. Saw a movie called The Reader (2008). I liked it, it’s tasteful and intelligent, I’m surprised the critics were cool toward it. It’s based on a popular German novel, and it was filmed in Germany, mostly with German actors, so it feels like a foreign movie. But the stars are English (Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes), and the language is English, so you might say it’s “half foreign.” It begins with an affair between a teenage boy and an older woman, then becomes a reflection on the Holocaust and moral responsibility, and concludes with the lives of the boy and the woman intersecting again, 20 or 30 years after their initial encounter. It’s called “The Reader” because the boy reads aloud to the older woman — when he’s a teenager, and then again when he’s a middle-aged man.

B. Also saw a Czech movie, Kolya (1997), which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It’s popular with critics and with the public. A touching story of a 55-year-old bachelor who gets stuck taking care of a 5-year-old boy, Kolya. Their relationship is cool at first, but gradually they become attached to each other. The movie is set in the Czech Republic in the waning days of Communism; as the movie ends, Communism is overthrown.

C. Also saw The Grifters (1990) (a grifter is a con man, a scam artist). I didn’t like it at all, but many critics were impressed with it, including Roger Ebert. Donald Westlake’s screenplay (based on a novel by Jim Thompson) won an Edgar Award.

D. I don’t recommend The Bourne Identity, the first of the Bourne movies, starring Matt Damon as Jason Bourne — or rather, Matt Damon as the man who forgot who he was. It has too much action and violence for my taste — too many fights, murders, car chases, etc. I would give it a B or B-. Roger Ebert gave it 3 stars, and said, “The entire story is a set-up for the martial arts and chases.” The Bourne Identity was made in 2002, and was very popular; it’s based on a Robert Ludlum novel. It was followed by The Bourne Supremacy, which was followed by the most popular film in the series, The Bourne Ultimatum.

E. I highly recommend The Wings of the Dove, a 1997 film based on a 1902 novel by Henry James. I didn’t read the book before seeing the movie; if I had, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the movie as much. I could connect with the characters, they were real for me, I became involved with their fortunes and misfortunes. Critics were much impressed with the movie; the New York Times called it, “a spellbinding screen adaptation [that] succeeds where virtually every other film translation of a James novel has stumbled.” If you’re a Venice-o-phile, you’ll enjoy the numerous views of Venice. The title is based on Psalm 55: “My heart is sore pained within me: and the terrors of death are fallen upon me.... Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest.”

F. I find that Wikipedia makes it more enjoyable to watch movies. It clarifies obscure points of the plot, and throws light on the origin of the film, its reception, etc.

G. Saw a documentary called The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, about an unemployed man, Mark Bittner, who takes care of a flock of parrots in San Francisco. Though not an ornithologist, or even a bird-watcher, Bittner gradually becomes an expert on parrot behavior — how they relate to each other, etc. — and he bonds with the birds. He has a kind of telepathic communication with his bird friends, especially when they’re dying. It’s a humble, small-budget documentary, but it manages to both teach the viewer and touch the viewer. Bittner wrote a book with the same title.

H. Also saw For All Mankind, a documentary about the space program. It’s neither a step-by-step history of space flight, nor a scientific explanation of space flight; rather, it gives you the astronaut’s perspective — how it feels to take off, how it feels to see the earth from a distance, how it feels to drive around the moon, etc. I would give it a B+.

© L. James Hammond 2011
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1. Bottom mentions a biographer whom I hadn’t heard of: Richard Brookhiser. Brookhiser has written biographies of Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Gouverneur Morris, etc. He also wrote America’s First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918. Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review. back
2. The Power of Myth, ch. 5, p. 198 back
3. For more on this topic, see my aphorism on Sanskrit. back
4. Invertebrate Spain, ch. 1 back