I can never guess which of my Philosophy Weekend blog posts will turn out to have legs.
Nine months ago, researching the origin of the word 'altruism', I learned that the term had been coined by Auguste Comte, a 19th Century French philosopher I had heard of but knew little about. Comte had developed a humane and optimistic system of political, ethical, scientific and metaphysical philosophy called Positivism, and during his lifetime Positivism was a gigantic sensation around the world. Intrigued, I wrote a blog post to wonder what it signified about our own culture that a major 19th Century philosopher with an ambitious platform of international peace, respect for human diversity and freethinking scientific rigor had fallen completely off the radar immediately after the disaster of the First World War.
What I didn't expect was that my blog post would start getting lots of hits from Google, and would become one of my more popular Philosophy Weekend posts (I do watch my traffic statistics, not to feed my ego but to discern trends in reader interest). Then, a mysterious late comment appeared on my Comte post that brought a big smile to my face. In response to my statement that Positivism was defunct today, and this commenter posted a single sentence reply:
Well, we are not quite that dead, are we?
This was accompanied by a link to Positivists.org, a well-designed website with an active Facebook page and a lively blog. The new web presence is apparently the work of an eager German philosopher named Olaf Simons who appears to have some clue how to use social media to spread a message. Positivism lives!
HHhH, a remarkable new historical novel by a young French author named Laurent Binet, has been getting a lot of attention. The book, a sly and woolly ponderance of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovokia during World War II, is as good as all the hype suggests.
What makes HHhH stand out is the author's approach to his historical plot. Years ago, before he became a published author, he lived and taught in Slovokia and became possessed by the legend of the Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich's assassination in Prague in 1942. He wanted to write a fictional treatment of the event, but he dreaded the banal literary conventions he'd have to grapple with if he wrote a classic work of historical fiction. He also felt overwhelmed by the moral gravity of the terrible story he wanted to tell, and he feared fumbling the fine line between truth and fiction.
So, to make his book possible, he opened up the toolkit known as metafiction. He wrote the story of himself writing this book, interweaving historical scenes with humorous skits about himself as bumbling author. The result is something like the history equivalent of Nicholson Baker's comically self-referential study of John Updike, U and I.
(This introduction to a too-little-known French author is the Litkicks debut of Eamon Loingsigh, whose novella An Affair of Concoctions can be sampled here).
I didn’t come across Comte de Lautréamont right away. I found him only after a long search for the most furious literature I could find, and I suspect others don’t find him quickly either, if they find him at all.
As a disgruntled teen, mainstream writers like Stephen King and dusty fuddies like T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stephens could not slake my brooding brain. Poe turned my head and Coleridge was my favorite Romantic in school, both with drug addictions and personality disorders that were sent desperately to the pen in order to relieve their burdens, financial or emotional. But when I found Bukowski and Kerouac and those who influenced them, I eventually bumped into Comte de Lautréamont, who quickly became even more interesting to me when I heard that translations abound in many languages, except English.
Lautreamont was born as Isidore Lucien Ducasse in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1846, and left it during a time of great turbulence. His mother died soon after giving birth to him, in the midst of the Argentinian-Uruguayan War, and he was raised by his father, a Uruguayan public official of French ancestry. He was sent to school in Paris, France at the age of thirteen. By seventeen he was known at his Lycée as a quick student, yet morbid and sardonic in humor. Memorizing the Romantic writers as well as Dante, Milton, Baudelaire and Racine, he soon decided to become a writer in order “to portray the pleasures of cruelty!”
(Thanks to Brain Pickings, 3 Quarks Daily, The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and many others for noticing Mike Norris and David Richardson's "Beholding Holden" last month. The writer/artist team is back here today with a look at a famous transgressive French poet from half a millennium ago. -- Levi)
I can’t remember when exactly, in some long ago French class, that I first read a poem entitled “Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis”. In English this translates as “Ballad of the Ladies of Times Gone By”.
This poem contains the haunting refrain: “mais où sont les neiges d'antan”. This was translated brilliantly by the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti as “but where are the snows of yesteryear”. Rossetti coined the word "yesteryear", which is still in use today.
The ballade itself comes from a long poem called “The Testament”, written by a French poet of the 15th century: François Villon. In the middle ages, mock testaments, as in Last Will and Testament, were a common form of literary expression. These were satiric verses, often obscene, in which a dying person or more often, an animal, leaves parts of his body to different individuals. In one Testament, a dying pig leaves his bones to a gambler to be made into dice, and his penis to the priest.
Villon had written an earlier, shorter piece called “The Legacy”, in which he used the legal framework of the Last Will and Testament to leave comic bequests to his friends. These were often things which he didn’t own. He left well-known Paris taverns to his drinking buddies. To another friend he left a pair of pants to be redeemed for payment due.
“The Legacy” was written in 1456, upon the occasion of Villon leaving Paris for Angers. The invocation of death is used in a mocking tone, as he declares he has been martyred by his cruel mistress, and is thus bequeathing his earthly possessions while he becomes “one of the Saints of love”.
There were two incarnations of the fabled Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris.
The first store was the labor of love of Sylvia Beach, an American expat from New Jersey. It lasted from 1919 until 1940 when it was closed by the Nazi occupation. But during its best years it was the haunt of “Lost Generation” writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. James Joyce used the shop as his office, and it was here also that Sylvia Beach published Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922.
In 1951, another American (and English language) book store sprang up on the Rive Gauche, on the banks of the Seine, a stone’s throw from Place Saint Michel. This bookstore, originally named Le Mistral, was opened by bohemian wanderer George Whitman. His goal was to create“a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore”. Under the sign “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise”, Whitman opened his bookshop not only for browsing and reading, but he also provided couches and beds for tired literary travelers to spend the night.
In a nod to my childhood fascination with Halloween and things that go bump in the night, I still reserve the month of October for books about dark subjects. I’ll sample the latest in horror fiction or bury myself in non-fiction accounts of unsolved mysteries or infamous killers. This year, my October selections were two recent works of historical non-fiction: Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris by David King and Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast by Jay M. Smith.
At a glance, these books might seem to have little in common, other than the fact that they both take place in France. Monsters of Gévaudan, after all, is about the well-documented events that took place in the rugged, rural mountains of south-central France from in the 1760’s, when a mysterious creature – known simply to the French as La Bête – viciously attacked over 200 women and children, killing at least half. Death in the City of Light, on the other hand, takes place in more modern times, telling the story of a mad doctor who used the chaos of the Occupation to murder scores of Parisian Jews and gangsters eager to flee the beleaguered city. But beyond the French connection and the murderous monsters at the center of each book, many more striking similarities exist.
CHEREA: He was too fond of bad poetry.
LUCIUS: That’s typical ...
CHEREA: Of his age, perhaps, but not of his rank. An emperor with artistic and intellectual inclinations is a contradiction in terms.
LUCIUS: We've had one or two, of course. But there’s misfits in every family. The others had the sense to remain good bureaucrats.
When I watch the shaky camera-phone videos of Col. Qaddafi's violent death that made the rounds last week, I think of Albert Camus's play Caligula. First performed in 1941 in Angers, France (as Camus was writing The Stranger), the historical play presents the legendary Roman emperor as a Dionysian monster, a prisoner of his own charisma and success.
Many historical dramas (for instance, Shakespeare's) emphasize the struggle for power. Camus's Caligula presents a dictator who has achieved complete power, who has reduced every single one of his fellow countrymen to submissive disgrace. With nobody able to challenge or destroy him, his only remaining goal can be to destroy himself.
The play presents Caligula's last days, after the death of his lover and sister has cast him into a final existential swoon. Bored and sickened by the insipid timidity of the senators who surround him, he gathers a council to torture the members for sport. He forces a senator to hand over his beloved wife, and proclaims idly to the group that they will all be killed in order to "reform our economic system":
There once lived a giant of philosophy, a rock star of ethics, now almost completely forgotten, named Auguste Comte. Born in Montpelier in southern France amidst the tumult of the French Revolution, he made it his life's mission to integrate the Revolution's better ideas into a scientific structure, Positivism, that sought rational principles to guide our understanding of both the physical and the moral world.
His scientific writings would gain wide favor in the Darwinian era, but he challenged his readers to follow his arguments beyond science into the thorny arena of culture and politics. He is often cited as the founder of Sociology, and he invented the word "altruism" (in French, altruisme, based on the Latin root for "other"). With a deft perception that often eludes us today, Comte described altruism as a basic fact of human nature -- not an illusory by-product of selfish interests, but a primary, inviolable element of the soul.
Auguste Comte was vastly admired during the late 19th Century, not only by his peers and followers (philosopher John Stuart Mill, novelist George Eliot, theologian Richard Congreve) but also by the public at large. He was a rare intellectual celebrity of international proportions, and his fame grew even greater after his death in 1857. Basking in popularity towards the end of his life, he went so far as to found his own "religion", a scientific and philosophical "Church of Humanity" that would last for decades (one elegant church building is now a tourist attraction in Brazil). He and his followers were so sure that they had found the key to a happy and peaceful world society that they decided to invent a new calendar, the Positivist Calendar, with months and days named after great thinkers (today, according to this calendar, is the 15th of Shakespeare). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Auguste Comte's influence at its peak:
It difficult today to appreciate the interest Comte's thought enjoyed a century ago, for it has received almost no notice during the last five decades. Before the First World War, Comte's movement was active nearly everywhere in the world. The best known case is that of Latin America: Brazil, which owes the motto on its flag ‘Ordem e Progresso’ (Order and Progress) to Comte and Mexico are two prominent examples. The positivists, i.e., the followers of Comte, were equally active in England, the United States and India. And in the case of Turkey, its modern secular character can be traced to Comte's influence on the Young Turks.
We'll always circle back to our Beat roots around here. Here are a few things that've been going on.
1. I spotted the artwork above, a tribute to the epic poem BOMB by Gregory Corso, on a website by a young French artist named Vince Larue, which is mostly dedicated to 1960s culture and the Grateful Dead.
3. The Norman Mailer Center in Cape Cod, Massachusetts is presenting a workshop on the legacy of Hunter S. Thompson, featuring Doug Brinkley.
5. Jerry Cimino of San Francisco's lively Beat Museum is having a great time being an unofficial consultant (on Neal Cassady's dance moves, among other things) for the upcoming On The Road movie, which will be coming out later this year.
I recently read You Can’t Win, the autobiography of Jack Black. This book was a best seller in 1926, and was a favorite of William S. Burroughs. As I read it, I could see how Burroughs’ first novel, Junky, was influenced by Black’s history. But what came to mind more often were recollections of Albert Camus’ The Stranger.
In The Stranger, we follow the events in the life of Meursault, Meursault is a pied-noir: a Frenchman born and raised in colonial Algeria. The title of this book in French is L’Etranger, and the primary of definition of "étranger" is "foreigner". Meursault appears as a foreigner or outsider, living life through physical sensations, but with little meaningful connection to the society around him. At his mother’s funeral he displays no emotion. He is alive only to the sensations of the sun, the sea, and casual sex with Marie, a woman who used to work in his office.
Meursault thus drifts along through life, reacting rather than acting. Through a seemingly meaningless series of events he finds himself on a beach, in the blazing sun, confronting an Arab that had had an altercation with Meursault’s friend Raymond. Meursault has Raymond’s gun in his pocket, and when the Arab draws a knife in the blinding sun, the light glinting off the blade “like a long flashing blade cutting at my forehead”, Meursault pulls the gun and shoots. He then fires four more shots into the body.