Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Philosophy Weekend: The Auguste Comte Awakening

by Levi Asher on Friday, June 1, 2012 06:56 pm

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, 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!

Laurent Binet's Metafictional Dilemma

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, May 15, 2012 08:37 pm

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.

Philosophy Weekend: Ellen Pearlman on Buddhism and the Avant-Garde

by Levi Asher on Saturday, May 12, 2012 08:00 pm

Exactly sixty years ago, in May 1952, 81-year-old Zen Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki began teaching a regular course at Columbia University. 39-year-old modernist composer John Cage attended a few of his lectures, and this is the electric point of contact that starts everything buzzing in Nothing and Everything - The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant Garde: 1942 - 1962, a new book by Ellen Pearlman.

Both men were trailblazers. Suzuki is remembered today as a premier ambassador for Eastern religion in the West, and as the author of the influential books Introduction to Zen Buddhism and Essays in Zen Buddhism. But, Ellen Pearlman reveals in the first chapter of Nothing and Everything, Suzuki had not been considered a very "successful" Buddhist as a young Zen student in Japan. He found a far greater calling as a highly visible foreigner in the West than he could have ever found if he'd stayed in Japan, since his idiosyncratic personality rubbed many Zen masters the wrong way. It was Suzuki's ability to translate key Asian texts into English that gave him a foothold in the United States of America, and he eagerly grabbed the opportunity to pursue his own unique vision of a global Buddhist awakening.

John Cage had already earned a reputation as a rule-breaker in the field of avant-garde music by the time he attended the elderly Suzuki's lectures at Columbia, but it wasn't until after he was exposed to Zen Buddhism (from Suzuki and several other sources) that he was able to conceive of his signature work, 4'33, which thrilled and outraged the world of classical music with its unspeakable simplicity. The composition indicated that the performer should sit at a piano (or any other instrument) and maintain four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.

It's impossible to encapsulate modern, avant-garde and experimental arts within any formula, but Nothing and Everything's purpose is to follow a single thread of excitement among several 20th century innovators within American art, music, theater and literary scenes that was caused by a rising awareness of traditional Buddhist religion and philosophy. The first to follow John Cage were the Dada-inspired innovators of the Fluxus movement in the early 1960s, Alison Knowles, Jackson Mac Low, Num June Paik, Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yoko Ono (who, beyond the scope of this book, would eventually collaborate with John Lennon to present crystalline expressions of Fluxus ideas to the entire world, and become its most famous practitioner).

Kino by Jurgen Fauth

by Levi Asher on Sunday, April 15, 2012 04:51 pm

"As a joke, Steffen introduced me as whomever occurred to him at the moment. I was an orphaned painter, an undercover Spartakist, a science protege on scholarship.  Steffen introduced me, and then I had to keep up the lies -- that was the game. I was a saxophone player in Bix Biederbecke's band. I was a Swedish mesmerist. When I was asked about the leg, I talked about dogfights high above the Somme; when they wanted to hear my award-winning poetry, I said the poems were so Futuristic they hadn't been written yet.  All it took was a straight face.

There was one lie that made me seem more interesting than all the others. Everyone wanted to drink with me, get high with me, and sleep with me when we told them I was a movie director.  It was the lie that turned me into the center of attention and opened the tightest twat.  One night over dinner, Joachim Ringelnatz -- the whimsical poet who wore a sailor's uniform wherever he went -- eyed me funny and asked if I wasn't a bit young to be working for the cinema, "fur's kino".

I had my mouth full of lamb's stew, so Steffen came to my defense.  "Don't you read the papers? Klaus is a prodigy! The youngest director in Neubabelsberg!"

I put down my fork, swallowed, and pointed a finger. "Joachim," I said. "I don't work fur's Kino.  I am Kino!"


Three years later, I was in charge of my own set in Neubabelsberg, the largest studio in Europe, making a movie that I had written.  The producers, the stars, the cameramen and the newspapers all called me Kino, the name I had given myself over Horcher's lamb stew. I was a prodigy, the youngest director in Ufa's history. The lie had become truth."

What glorious chaos! Kino by Jurgen Fauth is the most enjoyable book I've read this year. It's a wild, caroming romp that crashes into German history, Nazi mind control, American pop culture decadence and modern cinema snobbery. The crazy plot soars from beginning to end.

The Workhouse

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, April 10, 2012 05:08 pm

The room in which the boys were fed, was a large stone hall, with a copper at one end: out of which the master, dressed in an apron for the purpose, and assisted by one or two women, ladled the gruel at mealtimes. Of this festive composition each boy had one porringer, and no more—except on occasions of great public rejoicing, when he had two ounces and a quarter of bread besides.

The bowls never wanted washing. The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again; and when they had performed this operation (which never took very long, the spoons being nearly as large as the bowls), they would sit staring at the copper, with such eager eyes, as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed; employing themselves, meanwhile, in sucking their fingers most assiduously, with the view of catching up any stray splashes of gruel that might have been cast thereon. Boys have generally excellent appetites. Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months: at last they got so voracious and wild with hunger, that one boy, who was tall for his age, and hadn't been used to that sort of thing (for his father had kept a small cook-shop), hinted darkly to his companions, that unless he had another basin of gruel per diem, he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next him, who happened to be a weakly youth of tender age. He had a wild, hungry eye; and they implicitly believed him. A council was held; lots were cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening, and ask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist.

The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook's uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbors nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:

"Please, sir, I want some more."

This unforgettable scene from Oliver Twist, first serialized in Bentley's Miscellany -- where exactly in the imagination of Charles Dickens did it take place?

Ruth Richardson, a British historian and preservationist, stumbled upon an amazing answer to this question while advocating against the demolition of the Cleveland Street Workhouse, one of many extant London workhouses like the one described in Oliver Twist. This old building turned out to have a special significance, unknown at the time to the entire world. Charles Dickens, she discovered, had lived on the very same block during several of his turbulent childhood years.

Francois Villon, Poete Maudit

by Michael Norris on Monday, March 26, 2012 08:14 pm

(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”.

Talkin' Occupy With Vanessa Veselka

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, March 13, 2012 09:26 pm

One reason Vanessa Veselka is just about my favorite emerging novelist is that she studies anarchism and counterculture from the inside, allowing her stories to venture into the murky, manic, comic realms of intense political ideology -- a dangerous territory that many novelists lack the courage or knowledge to enter.  But Veselka doesn't write about the kind of politics that appears on TV or computer screens. She writes about the kind of politics that hits us hardest -- the kind that's personal.

Her novel Zazen, which was released a year ago, turned out to be well-timed for the tumultuous year of 2011. I recently had a chance to ask Vanessa Veselka for her perspective on all the political climate changes that have occurred since her novel hit the streets.

Levi: Vanessa, the timing of your novel Zazen was remarkable, in that the book's narrator Delia is obsessed with acts of self-immolation as political protest, while Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in Tunisia, which took place in early 2011, just before your book started hitting the streets, has turned out to be "the self-immolation heard round the world". It kicked off the so-called Arab Spring protests in Egypt, Syria and Libya, and indirectly through this the Occupy Wall Street action in the USA. Time Magazine just announced "The Protester" as the Person of the Year, with a nod to Mohamed Bouazizi.

How have you been reacting to (and/or participating in) this wave of protest that has swept the world in the past year? Have you felt like a part of the Occupy movement? Do you feel hopeful about the nature of these protests?

Vanessa: I have a feeling you are going to regret asking me this. I’ll apologize to you and your readers in advance for wending on. Okay, here goes ...


by Levi Asher on Monday, February 20, 2012 10:17 pm

1. A favorite baseball player of mine died last week.

2. Here's a fun literary site that's been making the rounds: police sketches based on descriptions of fictional characters, by Brian Joseph Davis. I'm particularly impressed by his Emma Bovary and Humbert Humbert, but I sense subconscious influence in the Daisy Buchanan: this sketch does not have the requisite bright ecstatic smile, and looks exactly like Mia Farrow in the movie.

3. Katy Perry says her song Firework was directly inspired by Jack Kerouac's On The Road. I still don't like the song but this helps a little.

Philosophy Weekend: Groupthink, Group Mind

by Levi Asher on Friday, February 17, 2012 09:17 pm

What do the following scenarios have in common?

  • A football stadium erupts in cheers when the home team scores.
  • An army advances towards the enemy in a battle.
  • A family watches TV together.
  • Two people meet, fall in love, get married, stay together for life.
  • Twelve poker players glare at each other as the final table of a tournament begins.
  • A fire department storms into a burning building and saves several lives.
  • A group of marine scientists and ecologists rescue a shoreline from an oil spill.
  • Members of a small town church gather for a weekend's worship.
  • A high school drama department puts on a musical play.
  • A political party conducts an intensive national voter drive on election day.
  • A classroom gathers for a teacher's lesson.

Let's also throw in these somewhat different situations, and look at them in a similar light:

  • A person cries alone in an empty apartment after a bad romantic breakup.
  • A captured war criminal sits on a witness stand in court, and says "I was just following orders."
  • An employee is laid off, and slinks away silently from the office where she's worked for years.
  • A person sits at a computer hitting "refresh" repeatedly on Facebook, hoping to see something new pop up on the Friends stream.
  • A person leaves a crowded city for a day to climb a mountain alone, then sits at the peak for hours enjoying the view.
  • What do all these scenarios have in common? In all of these cases, an outside observer who wishes to understand exactly what is taking place will have to consider not only the isolated thoughts and motivations of each individual person, but also the dynamics of the group as a whole. Each person in each scenario has a private set of feelings, desires, fears, ideals, motivations. But the group itself seems to exert a strong force, often creating a sense that the group has its own feelings, desires, fears, ideals and motivations separate from those of each individual in the group. As the activity plays out, the intentions of the group will often take precedence over the intentions of each individual in the group.

    A family watches TV together. Two of them want to watch a comedy, one wants to watch basketball, one wants to watch a cooking show. They flicker through the channels and find "American Idol". No mathematical equation of (2 * comedy) + basketball + cooking could possibly equal "American Idol", and in fact none of them would enjoy watching this show if they were alone. But they do enjoy watching it together, and the next night they happily gather in the same room to do it again.

    Philosophy Weekend: What is Wealth, and Why Shouldn't We Talk About It?

    by Levi Asher on Saturday, January 21, 2012 07:41 pm

    A surprising moment of revelation has taken place within this year's bizarre Republican presidential primary contest. It began after journalists investigated candidate Mitt Romney's claim that he created over a hundred thousand jobs as chief of Bain Capital, a very successful private equity firm. They discovered instead that during Romney's tenure at Bain Capital the firm was just as likely to profit by investing in struggling companies and stripping them for parts, allowing the businesses to die and selling off their assets (all the while charging the companies high management fees), as it was to profit by enabling jobs.

    Rick Perry (of all people) made a strong point when he called Bain's practices "vulture capitalism", and it was brave of Perry, an otherwise plodding pro-business Reaganite, to make this statement. Newt Gingrich cleverly baited Romney for a full week with questions about Bain and about his own finances, forcing Romney to reveal that as a venture capital investor he has continued to have a luxurious income every year, but has been paying only 15% in taxes, less than half what a typical American pays. The outrage over this has allowed Gingrich to vault himself over Romney in South Carolina's primary this weekend, a stunning upset victory.

    It's gratifying to hear conservatives finally join liberals in criticizing the predatory and hyperactive forms of "extreme capitalism" that Bain represents, which are rooted in the same syndrome of reckless misuse of honest finance that caused the crash of 2007/2008. It has been a conservative basic principle to avoid any criticism of free market capitalism, to blame the crash instead on home ownership initiatives, and to characterize even the slightest critique of economic inequity in the USA as "class warfare". The accusation that critics of Wall Street or tax breaks for the wealthy engage in "class warfare" is intoned repeatedly these days by conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. This tends to be a real conversation-killer, since the term carries such ominous historic undertones. It reminds us of the guillotine, the gulag, Mao's terrible starvation farms.


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