Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Qaddafi as Caligula

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, October 25, 2011 01:26 pm

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":

Philosophy Weekend: Is The World Becoming Less Violent, or More?

by Levi Asher on Saturday, October 8, 2011 11:41 am

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is a new book by psychologist Steven Pinker (I introduced it here last week, and it's on the cover of today's New York Times Book Review) that documents in exhausting detail how much less violent our planet is than ever before in history. The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It by David A. Bell, one of my all-time favorite history books, is an illuminating look at how the Napoleonic wars following the French Revolution began a new era of vicious ideological warfare in Europe that set the pattern for the genocidal horrors of the past century. War and politics, according to David A. Bell, have never before been as broadly destructive as they are today.

How can both of these books be telling the truth at the same time?


by Levi Asher on Thursday, October 6, 2011 11:43 am

1. Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka, edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, includes pieces by J. G. Ballard, Jorge Luis Borges, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Philip Roth, Rudy Rucker and Robert Crumb. Here's the full table of contents.

2. And the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to ... some dude I never heard of! Which kind of surprises me, since I thought I sort of knew this space. Anyway, meet Tomas Transtromer of Stockholm, Sweden. Words Without Borders has him, of course.

3. I couldn't find any Tomas Transtromer at Asymptote, another new journal of international/translated literature I've started looking at, but they do have Robert Walser (translated by Susan Bernofsky), Lin Yoade and a new translation by Mani Rao of an old Upanishad.

Philosophy Weekend: Why Steven Pinker's Book is Important

by Levi Asher on Sunday, October 2, 2011 11:11 am

The popular psychologist Steven Pinker has written a provocative book about politics and history, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The title comes from Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

This book proposes that we often miss a vital point when we talk about war, violence and genocide. On a broad historical level, says Pinker, mankind is doing great. Fewer people are victimized by war or violent crime than ever before. This cuts against the common idea that our civilization has declined, that the 20th century was a century of military and genocidal horror, that the 21st century is shaping up to be even worse. Pinker explains the moral significance of his contrary findings, and his approach in writing the book, in the introductory chapter:

The belief that violence has increased suggests that the world we made has contaminated us, perhaps irretrievably. The belief that it has decreased suggests that we started off nasty and that the artifices of civilization have moved us in a noble direction, one in which we can hope to continue. This is a big book, but it has to be. First I have to convince you that violence really has gone down over the course of history, knowing that the very idea invites skepticism, incredulity and sometimes anger. Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times.

Not surprisingly, initial reviews of this book are expressing skepticism, incredulity and sometimes anger. Elizabeth Kolbert considers and dismisses the book's purpose in the current New Yorker, objecting to Pinker's cold calculus. Even if statistics prove that the world gets less violent as it civilizes, Kolbert asks, what solace is this to teenage shooting victims in Norway, to the murdered millions of World War II, to inner-city African-Americans unlucky enough to live in depressed housing projects that fail to follow the happy trend? Kolbert's reaction is exactly the one Pinker predicted in his introduction (though, of course, the fact that Pinker anticipated Kolbert's criticism doesn't mean that Kolbert's criticism is invalid).

The book's inevitable critique has an emotional subtext that you won't pick up unless you begin to read the book yourself. Pinker, a Harvard professor who has also written How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, writes with the excited tone of a smart-ass at a party who enjoys offending polite society with uncomfortable truth, and the excitement in his narrative voice becomes palpable during the long passages in which he describes the high incidence of pillage, child slaughter and rape (committed, unfortunately, by the good guys) in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and in every book of the Hebrew Bible. This is a book for pacifists, but like many pacifist books, Better Angels is designed to deliver a punch.

Philosophy Weekend: The Disappeared Auguste Comte

by Levi Asher on Saturday, September 24, 2011 09:50 am

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.

Fictional Glances

by Levi Asher on Monday, September 12, 2011 09:18 pm

1. Ann Beattie's new novel is Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life, an exploration, in Beattie's signature glancing style, into the mind and voice of Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon's first lady. A few fragments have been published in the New Yorker. Mrs. Nixon is likely to be compared to Curtis Sittenfeld's similar projection a few years ago into the soul of Laura Bush.

2. I don't know what to do with Nicholson Baker's new metaphysical sex romp, House of Holes, which apparently shows off the great author's infamous "randy side" yet again. I absolutely love Nicholson Baker's work, except when he writes about love or sex. I wasn't too impressed by Room Temperature or Vox, and quit The Fermata after a few pages. House of Holes appears to take Baker's obsessions with bodily humor to a new level, and I could find nothing to like in the first few pages. Does this mean I'm a prude? I don't think so; I'm simply turned off by the obsessive anality, by the intense delight Baker seems to take in the awkwardness and repulsiveness of physical intimacy. This is a concept of sexuality that I just don't relate to at all. Baker reminds me of a guy I once worked with who became a father for the first time. Whenever anybody in the office asked about the baby, this guy only wanted to talk about the experience of doing diapers. He began obsessively using the word "poopy" around the office. "How's the baby?" someone would ask. "Poopy!" he would exclaim. It finally dawned on me that this guy had been wishing his entire life for a situation in which he was allowed to say the word "poopy" in mixed company, and becoming a father had finally placed him in this situation. Well, that's fine for him, but his concept of fatherhood could not have been further from my own. Likewise, Nicholson Baker's concept of sexuality could not be further from my own. I still consider Baker one of the most wonderful writers of our time, without a doubt (start with The Mezzanine, if you haven't started yet). I don't even mind that he writes books like House of Holes every few years. But it's sad to think that he might lose some potential readers who pick up House of Holes or The Fermata, put it down, and never discover how good Nicholson Baker can be.

Philosophy Weekend: September 11 and the Gift We're Still Carrying

by Levi Asher on Friday, September 9, 2011 06:03 pm

We think of a gift as a desired thing: a birthday present, a box of candy, a charitable endowment. But the word "gift" refers simply to the past tense of "give". A thing that is given is a gift, and we should not assume that every gift we are given is a thing we want to receive.

The word is sometimes used ironically in its negative sense. "He's got a gift for you," says a mother to a father when it's his turn to do the baby's diapers. A venereal disease is jokingly referred to as "the gift that keeps on giving."

Osama bin Laden gave the United States of America, and the entire world, a gift on September 11, 2001. It was a gift we didn't want or expect, a gift we could barely even stand to recognize. Many Americans refuse to admit that we received it, that we still own it. But we do. We're still carrying this gift around.

This is the gift of hate -- and hate is, indeed, the gift that keeps on giving. We've since handed it on to other unwilling and undeserving recipients in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now they suffer with the gift too. It's still with us today, and we see it everywhere. Look at the self-hatred so many Americans still feel, ten years after the horrifying day of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. This knot of rage, this tar baby, this glutinous mass -- it is still inside us, whether we like it or not.

Some try to deal rationally with this gift of hatred that we don't know how to get rid of. For authors like Noam Chomsky, whose 9-11 has been reissued in a new edition, we can exorcise the hatred by confessing our own national sins. Other Americans consider Noam Chomsky's brand of self-criticism an insult to America's glory and honor, but they choke on the same self-hatred in different ways. It's a new meme among some angry Americans to hate the federal government itself, to declare that the only thing the Washington D. C. bureaucracy can do is go away, even if that means no more Social Security, no consumer protection agencies or business regulations, not even a federal emergency management bureau. The federal government has been poisoned, these new extremists say, infiltrated by suspicious agents. It needs to be purged of everything in order to rediscover its Constitutional purity. There may be some logic within this angry anti-government protest movement, but I see plenty of irrational self-hatred here too, and I wonder where the manic pitch of this self-hatred originates.

Philosophy Weekend: What Martin Luther King Endured

by Levi Asher on Friday, August 26, 2011 12:10 pm

I had a chance to check out Washington DC's new Martin Luther King memorial earlier this week. A big opening ceremony featuring President Barack Obama and other significant guests scheduled for this weekend has been postponed for an approaching hurricane, but the memorial is open to visitors, and I found a large and enthusiastic crowd on the day I dropped by.

I was surprised -- maybe I shouldn't have been? -- that nearly everybody besides me who came out to see the memorial was African-American. This points to a disappointing fact I've observed before: even though Martin Luther King has now been enshrined in American history as a legend, a hero and a cliche, his great universal message of activism through nonviolent resistance remains largely neglected and misunderstood in America and around the world. The King approach to solving problems feels every bit as startlingly innovative and unique today as it did in the 1960s. The miraculous fact that King's patient, compromise-based approach can actually succeed in solving "unsolvable" conflicts remains widely ignored, even though the problems we face today are as severe as the problems King faced so brilliantly and successfully in his time. Most people would rather gripe, whine and fight each other than take a risk on loving their neighbors and trying to truly understand and cope with variant points of view.

Martin Luther King never had an easy time getting his peaceful message across. It's well known today that he and his fellow activists had to endure vicious taunts and provocations by their opponents, but King also took a hard beating, often for different reasons, in the allegedly liberal mainstream media, and another hard beating from many of his fellow African-American activists. Like any leader who tries to compromise and rise above the pettiness of simple hatred, he took it from the left and the right, from black and white, from north and south. An early John Updike short story called "Marching Through Boston", published in the New Yorker in January 1966, delivers a refreshingly direct look at how Martin Luther King was seen in his own time.

Ken Kesey's Mobile Transcendentalism

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, August 24, 2011 07:44 am

Magic Trip, a new film by Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, tells the story of novelist Ken Kesey's 1964 road trip across America in a painted bus with a troupe of fanciful hippies and legendary beatnik Neal Cassady at the wheel.

This bus trip was immortalized in Tom Wolfe's 1968 bestseller Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which is also currently in production as a Gus Van Sant film (this will presumably come out near the same time as the long-awaited film of On The Road, which means two major Hollywood films featuring Neal Cassady's driving skills will hit the screens at the same time). Magic Trip, a modest and straightforward documentary, has at least one claim to authenticity over the eventual Van Sant work: it presents the actual film footage produced by the camera-wielding hippies as they drove across the country in 1964.

Philosophy Weekend: Rejecting the Apocalypse

by Levi Asher on Sunday, August 7, 2011 12:56 am

Here's a tough challenge for anybody: talk about politics, about everything our muddled, dysfunctional democratic government is doing wrong, without resorting to the following cliches:

  1. Declaring that the other side is evil.
  2. Declaring that the other side is stupid or uneducated.
  3. Declaring that the other side is so hopelessly corrupt that negotiation or compromise is pointless.

These easy excuses have become very popular in the United States of America, and of course the sentiments are the same on the right and the left. Many of those who find hope in the Tea Party movement believe that our government has been infiltrated by socialists or Marxists ("evil"), that decades of soft-headed liberal education has left Americans unable to understand and appreciate the hard edges of the U. S. Constitution ("stupid", "uneducated"), that Washington D.C. is a nest of thieves that must be wiped clean ("hopelessly corrupt") before our society's true inner goodness can be revealed.

On the other extreme are the frustrated liberals who may have once held some hope for Barack Obama's leadership, but are disgusted with the results so far. They believe our nation is in the grip of racist, hate-filled voters ("evil"), that the Fox News-watching, Rush Limbaugh-listening, Sarah Palin-fan club populace knows nothing about history or economics ("stupid", "uneducated"), that Washington D. C. is a nest of thieves that must be wiped clean ("hopelessly corrupt") before our society's true inner goodness can be revealed.


Subscribe to History