Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Philosophy Weekend: Pyetsukh's Book, A British Festival

by Levi Asher on Saturday, June 18, 2011 10:48 pm

Two philosophical entertainments for a pleasant summer weekend:

1. I'm intrigued by a new novel called The New Moscow Philosophy by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh, originally published in 1989 and translated into several languages, but only now available in English in a new edition translated by Krystyna Anna Steiger and published by Twisted Spoon Press of Praque.

I'm only a few pages in, but am already impressed to find in this book a rich, obsessive look at the whole meaning of Russian literature. The endpaper copy explains:

... As two tenants engage in an extended debate over the nature of evil, the take it upon themselves to solve the mystery and nail the culprit, and it becomes clear that the entire tableaux is a reprise of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Displaying a sharp with and a Gogolian sense of the absurd, Pyetsukh visits anew the age-old debate over the relationship between life and art, arguing that in Russia life imitating literature is as true as literature reflecting life.

Philosophy Weekend: Ayn Rand in the News (Paul Ryan, Adam Curtis)

by Levi Asher on Friday, June 10, 2011 10:05 am

There's been an explosion of popular interest in the novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand lately, and not only because I wrote a book called Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong and Why It Matters (which, I'm happy to report, is selling quite well). Rand died nearly three decades ago, but her Objectivist philosophy has made headlines for two different reasons in the past couple of weeks.

She's been a sore point lately for Republican Congressman and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, an avowed admirer. Several Christian groups have been asking why a conservative politician with "family values" credentials would admire and follow the work of a stringent atheist with provocatively modern ideas. Ryan, a Catholic, claims not to be influenced by Rand's dislike of religion, but this answer does not seem to be satisfying his critics. A group called the American Values Network has begun targeting both Rand and Ryan in television commercials, and the Congressman was caught in a "gotcha" video dodging a persistent critic who tries to give him a Bible while asking "why did you choose to model your budget after the extreme ideology of Ayn Rand, rather than on the basis of economic justice and values in the Bible?" Time Magazine calls this Paul Ryan's Ayn Rand Problem.

Philosophy Weekend: Adam Hochschild and the Serious Study of War

by Levi Asher on Saturday, June 4, 2011 06:15 pm

Adam Hochschild, a popular historian whose King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa spelled out the full story of the Belgian debacle that inspired Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, has written a powerful new book about the loose coalition of pacifists and activists that fought bitterly against England's participation in the Boer Wars and World War One a century ago. The book is called To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918.

Hochschild is a rare popular historian who writes not about subjects designed to make male readers feel good about their masculinity (a visit to a bookstore's history section, after all, gives the impression that the Civil War and World War II were the only two wars ever fought) but rather about stunning or vexing episodes from our past that we know nothing about. I was not aware that there was a vigorous pacifist movement in England a hundred years ago. The invisibility of this past movement reminds me of the invisibility of the pacifist cause today, and Adam Hochschild is certainly interested in making the same connection. Here he is in the book's introductory chapter:

Philosophy Weekend: In Transit

by Levi Asher on Sunday, May 29, 2011 05:27 pm

I'm in transit, and still worn out from a busy week. I'll hit you up with some Philosophy Weekend next weekend.

Philosophy Weekend: David Brooks is On To Something

by Levi Asher on Saturday, May 21, 2011 09:56 pm

I never expected to find myself defending the work of David Brooks, a recently famous culture critic whose signature work (until now) was Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, a bland, predictable putdown of "the Starbucks lifestyle" designed for the bestseller list. I don't particularly like his hectic, pushy writing style, and I haven't even read his new book The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. But I did read some articles about it, and noted that the book argues an intriguing proposition: we are constantly influenced by subconscious thoughts and needs that we do not understand well, and most of these subconscious thoughts and needs are group-oriented or collective in nature.

This idea reminds me very much of some of my own recent thoughts about why Carl Jung is more relevant to our times than Ayn Rand. The Social Animal does not sell itself as a Jungian work, but that's what it is (though Brooks's emphasis is scientific where Jung's was mystical). I certainly agree with the book's basic conclusion. It seems that David Brooks may have turned a corner and stumbled upon a truly important and valuable idea.

Philosophy Weekend: The Nest

by Levi Asher on Friday, May 13, 2011 05:47 pm

I'm taking a break this weekend. I've been working hard on my next Kindle book (coming soon) and I just don't have what it takes to put any big ideas together today.

But I'd like to share a time-lapse video of a family of birds in a nest (this link was tweeted by @caryn74, and I'm not even going to do anything with that pun). Nice backyard filmmaking by Fred Marguiles -- as philosophical as anything I could ever write. Have a great weekend ...

On Zazen: A Talk With Vanessa Veselka

by Levi Asher on Monday, May 9, 2011 07:54 pm

Zazen by Vanessa Veselka is an amazing novel, easily one of the most exciting books of the year.

The story is narrated by Della, a recent college graduate with a degree in paleontology, who kills time learning yoga and working in a vegan restaurant while her country, a slightly twisted mirror reflection of today's United States of America, slips into chaos amidst the failures of War A and War B. Della lives with her brother Credence, with whom she shares the disconcerting memories of extreme hippie parenting, and wanders her city (which resembles Portland, Oregon) wrestling with her anxiety, imagining acts of violence and developing desperate crushes on anyone who reaches out to her with a kind word. She's a wry, sarcastic narrator and a troublemaker, and the best thing about Zazen is the chance to see the world through this funny, brainy character's eyes.

As a bittersweet snapshot of a deeply confused alternative hipster counterculture, Zazen is reminiscent of Justin Taylor's The Gospel of Anarchy, another recent book I liked. But Gospel of Anarchy is about post-collegiate anarchists and punks, while Zazen is about post-collegiate anarchists and vegans, and Zazen is about ten times more manic. The comic prose recalls Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown, while the book's sense of traumatic disorientation and social disconnectedness calls to mind Tom McCarthy's Remainder. With all that said, Zazen is like nothing but itself -- a simply original story, emotionally resonant and crammed with nuggets of delightful observation.

This novel is one of the kickoff publications from a new publishing house, Richard Nash's innovative Red Lemonade, which invites you to read the entire novel online. But you may want to buy a copy of this book, or give one to an anarchist/vegan friend. I was very happy to have had a chance to ask Vanessa Veselka some questions about her brilliant work. Here's the conversation we had.

Philosophy Weekend: Explaining Osama Bin Laden

by Levi Asher on Saturday, May 7, 2011 03:12 pm

A video captured from Osama bin Laden's final home has just been released. It shows him watching news coverage of himself on TV, and I find this strangely satisfying to watch, because it underscores what I have always suspected about the basic motivation behind Bin Laden's acts of terror. Why did he do the things he did? These are the three explanations I hear most often:

  • He was simply evil; he hated life and goodness itself.
  • He was a nutjob.
  • He was a religious fanatic.

I'm quite sure that all of these explanations are wrong. It's comforting to picture Bin Laden as a person simply wracked by hatred, and other horrible figures like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin have been frequently described as vile and hateful by those who knew them. But the portrait that emerged of Osama bin Laden from books like Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 did not show a generally hateful streak. He was liked and respected by those closest to him, and he only committed acts of violence against people far away, people who must have seemed like abstractions to him.

Was he a nutjob? This is just a brainless radio show talking point, a punchline. There is not the slightest evidence at all that Osama bin Laden ever suffered from any kind of mental illness.

A religious fanatic? This is what Bin Laden wanted others to believe, but I suspect he was barely religious at all. His calls for "jihad" were entirely based on nationalistic and ethnic rhetoric. Since Sunni Islam largely coincides with an ethnic identity, it was very convenient for him to be fighting for a "religion" when in fact all signs indicate that his goals were thoroughly political and earthbound. He was a rigid traditionalist, but showed no signs of a searching, spiritual mind. Anyone can put on robes and pray, but that doesn't mean we have to believe in their sincerity. There's plenty of reason to suspect that Osama bin Laden's devotion to Islam was shallow and opportunistic.

Philosophy Weekend: Nicholson Baker's Case for Pacifism

by Levi Asher on Sunday, May 1, 2011 11:16 am

I like to mix it up here in these weekend philosophy posts -- Ayn Rand, the free will problem, KRS-One -- but a featured article by Nicholson Baker in the new issue of Harper's Magazine reminds me why I began this series in the first place. I wanted to begin examining the philosophical premises behind the political opinions we all feel deeply about, and try to recover a sense of principle and logic amidst the noise of topical debate. Most of all, as an American who cares deeply about my country's honor and security, I wanted to question the popular enthusiasm for war and militarism that I see all around me.

This interest of mine lies behind many of the ethical discussions I've been holding here, and the weekend posts I care about most are the ones where I deal with it directly, such as the posts titled "Pacifism's Coma" and "The Trauma Theory".

But committed, serious pacifists remain an endangered species in the world today. It's a lonely position to hold, especially since the popular passion for war feeds on itself and has had plenty to feed on in the past ten years. Going further back, the traumas of the continent-wide and world-wide wars that have gripped the planet nonstop since the age of Napoleon seem to have the world still shook, still seething with international hatred and suspicion. The argument for pacifism often seems hopeless (even though I'm sure it's not) and that's why I'm so happy that Nicholson Baker is on the case. This great, wide-ranging author is a witty and inventive postmodern novelist, a piquant literary critic and a stubborn literary preservationist as well as an idiosyncratic and original political writer, and I value his work immensely.

Philosophy Weekend: Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love

by Levi Asher on Sunday, April 24, 2011 10:44 am

There's nothing wrong with the sideways-glance approach to the philosophical canon. Andrew Shaffer's Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love is a slim, friendly book that asks a pertinent question: if folks like Saint Thomas Aquinas, Simone de Beauvoir, John Calvin, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Emanuel Swedenborg were so smart, how did they manage to meet life's most personal challenge? Were they able to find true love, and if so were they able to sustain happy long-term relationships? What can we learn from the choices or mistakes they made?


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