So we've read William James and come to understand that truth, out here in the real world, is often a willful interpretation of reality. Okay, but then, to paraphrase an old joke about the weather: now that we now that popular truths are often a thin veneer, what are we going to do about it?
One reason we debate and analyze the nature and meaning of truth is that it has such great power over our everyday lives. Both as individuals and as the collective "we" -- population groups, communities, nations -- we make decisions every day according to what we believe. But there are times when individuals or groups are swayed or snowed over by truths -- "truths" -- that are hard to rationally believe in. At times like these we ought to be able to deploy the understanding we've gained by reading philosophers like William James, Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein, so as to regain our own sense of power against these fraudulent quasi-truths. Yet we often stand powerless in the grip of popular delusion.
Part of the problem, I think, is language. Words are the primary tools in a philosopher's toolkit, but we lack a vocabulary to help us easily categorize, reveal and identify the various contortions of truth that often plague our lives. I'd like to propose a few new words, a new "Pragmatist's Vocabulary", for several different kinds of quasi-truths. By creating these words, we will hopefully be able to discuss the intricate varieties of popular "fact" more handily in the future. I've got three new words in mind today, and since these are all varieties of truth, I'm going in for easy rhymes. Here we go:
As soon as Barack Obama became President of the United States two years ago, I started hearing about "socialism" in America. Opponents of Obama's platform have raised widespread suspicions that his entire presidency is a conspiracy to establish government control over every aspect of our lives. These critics often use words like "socialism", "Marxism", "fascism" and "tyranny" interchangeably, and have so successfully spooked many trusting American citizens that an entire Rally To Restore Sanity (and/or Fear) became necessary in Washington DC this weekend.
Still, of course, the fear remains. And, in fact, vigilant citizens of every nation in the world should always fear government tyranny, because we've seen horrific examples of it in recent times. Frank Dikotter's history book Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 is a real eye-opener for anybody who lives in comfortable freedom and can't quite picture what real tyranny might feel like.
This book will fill in the blanks, and you'll never forget it. From 1958 to 1961, Mao Zedong's Communist Party-led government carried out an experimental program of food redistribution that literally condemned tens of millions -- yes, tens of millions -- of its own rural citizens to slow, painful death by starvation. Farmers were forced to combine their private farms into collectives, and when these collective harvests failed to meet their unrealistic quotas of food, the farmers were forced to continue to work without eating, until they and their families simply died. Government representatives invaded private homes, poking with long sticks for hidden stashes of food, even as the citizens lay dying on the floor (the government representatives, of course, were well-fed).
1. After a whole lot of passionate (and incorrect) guessing, Mario Vargas Llosa has won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature (the dapper fellow above just announced it on a live webcast from Stockholm). I must admit that, while I once enjoyed hearing from this Peruvian novelist at a New York reading with Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie, I don't know much about his work as a whole. I'm looking forward to learning more. And, yeah, I do wish Ngugi wa Thiong'o had taken it. Maybe next year.
2. A Ted Hughes poem dealing directly with his wife Sylvia Plath's suicide has been revealed for the first time.
3. I like Julie Taymor and I really like William Shakespeare's The Tempest, so I'm pretty psyched about a new Julie Taymor film of The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren as a female Prospero, along with the likes of Russell Brand and Alan Cumming in various roles.
Sometimes I feel lazy. Sometimes I don't have a whole blog post in me. Sometimes I just want to show you some literary links.
1. Documents newly discovered in Penzance, England (hidden perhaps by pirates?) indicate for the first time that Victor Hugo based his Hunchback of Notre Dame on a real hunchbacked sculptor hired to work on the great church's restoration. The documents describe a Monsieur Trajan, or Mon Le Bossu, as a "worthy, fatherly and amiable man" who did not like to socialize with the other restoration workers.
3. Oxford University Press wants you to adopt a word. They've got lots of unwanted words, and they'll all be put down if you don't.
In Paul Auster's City of Glass, a mad linguist named Peter Stillman pounds through the streets of Manhattan's Upper West Side, observed by a writer named Daniel Quinn who is impersonating a private detective named Paul Auster. Quinn tracks Stillman's movements in a red notebook and eventually realizes that his daily walks are spelling out the words "TOWER OF BABEL".
I'm impressed that many of you correctly identified the location of the Litkicks Mystery Spot #6. The book was published 25 years ago (!) to little immediate acclaim, and has gradually emerged as one of our era's modern classics. I'm sure I'm not the only person who can't walk through New York City's Upper West Side to this day without thinking of City of Glass.
2. I've always been interested in the real-life stories behind great works of fiction, so this Jezebel gallery is up my alley. Most of these are familiar, but I didn't know that Humbert Humbert's road trip with Lolita Haze was based on a real news story.
I plan to write about Stephen Prothero's God Is Not One on this site soon. Aside from my commentary on the book itself, I'd like to quote with approval a surprising argument from the book's introductory pages:
Scholarly books on religion often use diacritical marks to indicate how a word is pronounced in Sanskrit or other sacred languages. In fact, use of diacriticals is a key way to signal one's scholarly bona fides. But diacritical marks are gibberish to most readers -- is that a breve or a cedilla? -- so I avoid them here except in direct quotations, proper names and citations. If an "s" with a mark underneath or atop it is pronounced like "sh", then it appears here as "sh": the Hindu god Shiva instead of Siva, the Hindu goal of moksha instead of moksa. Diacritical marks also present a barrier to the integration of non-Christian religious terms into English -- a barrier that is better torn down than built up. One reason the Sanskrit term 'nirvana' made it into English dictionaries was its willingness to drop the macron over the a and the underdot accompanying the n. And Hindu scriptures such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are already finding wide acceptance among English speakers without their respective circumflexes.
Amen to that. This is a minority viewpoint, but I completely agree, and am pleased to hear a respected scholar making a point I've often wished to make myself.
North of the Liffey River in the center of the city, across the street from a large hospital, you can still find 7 Eccles Street, where the novel's optimistic everyman hero Leopold Bloom lived with his wife Molly, his enigmatic cat and (presumably) an icebox full of kidneys, giblets and other strange foods which he ate with relish. Here's the house in a 1950 photo, and here's the the Google map itself.
Wednesday's post about the lack of international/intercultural communication on the Internet got my wheels turning. I think there's more to this topic.
Cultural insularity is the world's status quo, and there is currently no momentum at all towards a global language. Sure, the Esperanto organization still runs annual conferences, but we all know Esperanto was a well-intentioned dud. It was founded in 1887 with the publication of a book called Lingvo Internacia by Lazar Zamenhov, a Polish Jew. The movement was a hit, but the language never took root, and by the time Zamenhov died in 1917 Europe was in its worst depths of violence. The Great War provided insurmountable proof that Zamenhov's ideas about global peace through global communication were naive. (His children were then persecuted and murdered during World War II for being Jewish, being Baha'i, and being related to Lazar Zamenhov).
1. What on earth are these little kids doing on this "Kiddie-A-Go-Go" 1967 TV show? Is it the Pony? The Frug, the Watusi, the Mashed Potato, the Alligator? It's pretty cute and weird, whatever they're doing.
2. Friend of LitKicks (FOL) Tim Barrus at Electric Literature! What a combination.