1922 was a special year for modernist literature. On February 2, James Joyce was the shy guest of honor at a small publication party for Ulysses in Paris. Sylvia Beach showed Joyce the book for the first time that day, thus establishing 2/2/22 as its Joycily pleasing official publication date.
Ulysses is one of two pillars of 20th century modernist literature, and the other is The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot, a long and strange poem that arrived to the wastrel world eight months later on October 16, 1922, neatly printed within the debut edition of The Criterion.
Both Ulysses and Waste Land were mash-ups of ancient heroic literature, regurgitated through a pained awareness of the plight of Europe in the age of industrialized war, revolution, capitalism and fast society. The milieu of European urban high culture that produced Ulysses and The Waste-Land in 1922 -- a vast set of personalities that includes Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Andre Breton, W. B. Yeats, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Benito Mussolini, Vladimir Lenin, Mohandas Gandhi, D. H. Lawrence, E. E. Cummings, Wassily Kandinsky, Virginia Woolf, George Gurdjieff, and of course Gertrude Stein -- is the subject of Kevin Jackson's ingeniously simple Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One.
The book is ingeniously simple because it is written as an annotated calendar, moving forward in brisk anecdotes from January to December, constructing a found story along the way. Some entire days are skipped, while other days present enjoyable juxtapositions, like June 30, on which Franz Kafka retired from his job, T. S. Eliot wrote a letter and young Eric Arthur Blair applied to the India Office for a position that would take him to Burma, one of many eventual stops towards his future as George Orwell.
It must mean something that Marcel Proust died on November 18, 1922, one month after Waste Land came out (though it is not known whether or not Proust read Eliot's poem). This was the same month that Howard Carter discovered and plundered the tomb of King Tutankhamen in Egypt, the same month that Crown Prince Hirohito became the new emperor of Japan.
Funny thing: it was only when I began writing about ethical philosophy here on Litkicks that I began writing seriously about history. The two disciplines might not seem to have much in common, but to me they feel intertwined.
Maybe that's because our popular conceptions of both ethics and history show so much confusion, contradiction and willful denial of obvious fact. People often say illogical and nonsensical things when they talk about their moral principles, and they do so as well when they describe what they believe has happened on planet Earth leading up to our present times. It's hard to say whether our typically chauvinistic and ethnocentric conceptions of history cause us to be ethically confused more than our ethical confusions cause us to mangle historical fact. Let's just say that both things happen a lot. If our world will ever have the happy epiphany in ethical philosophy that is our hopeful destiny and due, it will probably be accompanied by a more informed popular grasp of history.
I read a lot of history -- more history than fiction or philosophy or poetry or even (believe it or not) rock star autobiographies. I haven't written about history much here on this blog because, frankly, I'm scared to start. I have too much to say. I don't know where to begin to unload. I think that many things people believe about history are dead wrong -- no, I know this, because every good history book proves this to be true. But I don't want to turn Litkicks into a whirlpool of historical revisionism. Historical revision is a field with an ugly reputation, since revisionism can be used to gain respect for horrific campaigns such as Holocaust denial.
But perhaps historical revision isn't what we need. We need historical vision. We don't need new books to tell us that what we've learned is wrong. We just need to read the damn books we already have. They will tell us that everything we've learned is wrong.
Here are three superb books I've read that have helped me to understand how little we tend to know about the things we think we know.
Back when I was a philosophy student, Immanuel Kant was it. The 18th century Prussian philosopher who pinched off the stiff arguments between the Continental Rationalists and the British Empiricists and ushered in the contemporary era of analytic/existential thought was probably more highly regarded by most of my professors (a highly contentious lot) than any other single figure except maybe Plato.
That doesn't mean Kant was anybody's favorite philosopher, though, either in my college's department or anywhere. He probably wasn't. Everybody respects Kant, but few get excited about him -- probably because his ideas are so widely and generally accepted. He is a foundational figure because he stands as a mediator between opposing ideas.
Kant's greatest achievement in 18th century European philosophy was to mediate a middle ground between two intellectual attitudes that had reached a deadlock. He agreed with the British Empiricists that human beings cannot claim access to absolute truth by means of philosophical argument. But he denied the empiricist's model of the human mind as an empty vessel, accessing reality only by means of sensory experience. Instead, Kant showed, we must realize that the mind constructs its understanding of the outside world, and that therefore our beliefs are grounded in something less flimsy than the phenomenological and epistemological mass of meaninglessness that Bishop George Berkeley and David Hume described.
With this model, suddenly the tedious arguments between Berkeley and Hume and Spinoza and Leibniz seemed to matter less, and western philosophy found several more creative and constructive paths. Philosophy got better after Kant. He led the way to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer, to Soren Kierkegaard and Freidrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and William James, Auguste Comte, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
We don't get many philosophy-related sound bites in our public news cycle, so the story of a guy who got shot in an argument over Immanuel Kant that rippled through the likes of The Guardian, ABC News and Time last week was a notable event. It's revealing, though, that these news outlets only played the story for laughs.
A person got shot over Immanuel Kant? What a joke. It's as if a fight broke out over gang signs at a Beethoven festival -- as if somebody got offended by the nudity in a Rubens painting. Could the ideology of an 18th century Prussian philosopher really matter to anyone today?
These news outlets missed their story. In fact, Kant has been deeply controversial in certain circles, and it's a disappointing sign that our mass media is so out of touch with common thought that these major outlets find the idea of arguing over Kant so quaint.
I love a writer with the gumption to fix the world. The list of great shouting visionaries and Jeremiahs of classic literature includes Henry David Thoreau, whose prescription was nature and simplicity, and T. S. Eliot, who offered humanity the balm of strict religious and academic tradition. it takes a special kind of sensibility to tell the world what it's doing wrong.
Franz Kafka, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein were all social philosophers, but they never made the slightest attempt to recommend a solution to society's problems, though their fellow modernist W. B. Yeats tried. Anton Chekhov did not preach, Leo Tolstoy did. Albert Camus did not, Jean-Paul Sartre did. When the Beat Generation hit, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs all seemed aware of the same fault lines in modern civilization, but it was only Allen Ginsberg who tried to recommend a path to progress through pacifism, sexual liberation and activism, as Jack Kerouac resigned himself to lyrical drunken pessimism and William S. Burroughs built bunkers, both psychic and residential, from which to observe the disasters to come.
Jonathan Franzen is a modern novelist who has the same rare and classic passion to save the world as Thoreau, Tolstoy, Eliot, Yeats, Sartre and Ginsberg, and this one reason I like him so much. Many readers, however, do not like this kind of behavior from a novelist. The enormously successful and popular Franzen (one of the few candidates, in my opinion, for best living American writer today) is now testing his audience's patience for preaching with an unusual new volume, The Kraus Project, an annotated collection of essays by an Austrian Jewish satirist and cultural critic named Karl Kraus who was, Franzen tells us, extremely influential during the twilight years of Vienna before, during and after the First World War, a hundred years ago.
Last weekend I mentioned two keys to appreciating Slavoj Zizek, the popular but controversial Marxist philosopher. First, I said that his philosophical stance if one of defensive advocacy rather than constructive theorizing, that he is best understood as a self-appointed "lawyer for Marxism". Second, I said that Slavoj Zizek can best be understood within the context of the startling history of the country he is from -- by which I refer to both Slovenia, the country he is from now, and Yugoslavia, the nation in which he was born.
I'd like to discuss both points in more depth, and explain why I think these approaches to Zizek's work help in understanding the fervency of his ethical mission.
The philosophy blogosphere (to the extent that such a thing exists) blew up this week after Noam Chomsky opened a can of whoop-butt on Slavoj Zizek, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida. The American philosopher characterized the three European celebrities as posturing phonies who inspire cultish devotion even though their theories cannot be boiled down to meaningful principles. Zizek, the only living representative of Chomsky's three targets, responded by chiding Chomsky for supporting Cambodia's genocidal Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s -- a confusingly musty response, since even a brilliant philosopher ought to be allowed to make one mistake every forty years or so.
Still, a little feud between superstar left-wing philosophers is always fun, and I was able to observe with amused interest because I tend to look kindly on both Chomsky and Zizek (as well as on Derrida and Lacan). Chomsky is on strong ground when he slams these Europeans for being incomprehensible, since he himself has been consistent and intelligible (if sometimes insufficiently charismatic) during his entire long career. But I'm sure that Zizek does not merely engage in "empty posturing". I have myself been able to gain value from reading Zizek's essays and books, even though he tends to meander exhaustingly and dazzle disconnectedly.
Nationalism feels so natural to us -- to all of us, during this age on planet Earth -- that we barely question it. We could solve a few problems by questioning the basic concept of nationalism itself.
Virulent public arguments over immigration reform are currently taking place in the United States of America (a controversial bill may become law this week). Immigration reform has many facets; it involves taxation, employment, ethnicity, health care, education, voting patterns. But with all the talk that's flying around, nobody on either the liberal or conservative side ever acknowledges that the concept of immigration rests upon the more basic concept of nationalism, and that nationalism itself is not a necessary or historically deep-rooted political reality.
In fact, nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon on planet Earth. Historians agree that nationalism began with the American Revolution, French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. It gradually came to dominate Europe and the Americas, and spread to Asia and Africa in the 20th Century. Earlier, Wikipedia says:
In Europe before the development of nationalism, people were generally loyal to a religion or to a particular leader rather than to their nation.
(A few weeks ago, guest blogger Tim Hawken wrote about Immanuel Kant's aesthetic theory. Here's his second Philosophy Weekend piece, on a related subject. Hawken lives in Australia and is the author of 'I Am Satan' and 'Hellbound'.)
You arrive at a contemporary art show with a friend. Excited about the new and interesting things you’ll see, you hurry toward the entry. Out in front there's a stunning installation. It’s a car with pummelled-in sides. Red and white paint is flaking off the doors to reveal rusted panels underneath. The bonnet, however, is flawless blue. The sheen of the paint almost glows with newness. Standing, admiring the work, you say to your friend that perhaps it’s a commentary on America’s motor industry: embattled, but still turning out quality work. The featured artist for the evening emerges from the front door. You’re about to praise his vision, when he smiles sheepishly, indicating the car, “perhaps if I sell some pieces tonight, I’ll be able to fix it up a bit more. It’s still just a heap of junk right now. I’d better get it out of the way before anyone else arrives.” Taking his keys out of his pocket, he jumps in, struggles to start it and rumbles off to the car park.
Embarrassed, you look down to your feet. So, that wasn’t art? Just a few moments ago you were sure it was brilliant. Does it stop being art now that the ‘artist’ called it junk? Or is it still art because you made it so in your mind? Your friend shakes her head at you and walks inside. The question you want to yell after her chokes on your tongue: What makes art, ‘art’ anyway?