What happens when an irresistible force meets an unmovable object? In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 150 years ago, 51,000 people died or were severely wounded.
I'm in Gettysburg now, soaking in the historical moment with Civil War buffs, reenactors, curious locals, traveling families, bikers, historians, writers, artists, unidentifiable visitors from North and South. Everyone is friendly -- happy, even, which is strange when you consider the disaster we are here to remember. The only way to know which of the two sides any person might feel they represent is to look at the license plates on their cars.
I don't have much of a Philosophy Weekend post for you this weekend. I'm working on some technical improvements to the website, and I'm also pondering some big themes for the next few weekends. But all I've got to show you today is a clip from a 1993 movie about Ludwig Wittgenstein that I only discovered myself recently.
The always fascinating Derek Jarman lays out the philosopher's story in fairly straight fashion, with Chancy Classay playing the role of the groundbreaking philosopher. I particularly like the part of this clip in which Wittgenstein explains to an impudent student that he really can't absolutely know for sure whether or not he just slapped his own face. If he could know for sure, then the word "know" would not need to exist. I'm not as completely convinced by Wittgenstein's famous statement, also played out in this scene, that "if a lion could speak, we could not understand him". (But then, I've always had an affinity for cats, and I sometimes think I understand them better than I understand humans. Maybe Wittgenstein was a dog person.)
(A few months ago, I received an email from an Australian writer named Tim Hawken who had a few article ideas for Litkicks. I published his Kant on Beauty and Heidegger on Art, and it was only after this that Tim revealed to me that he was writing these pieces under the stress of a family health calamity. For more of the personal story behind today's article, see this post on Tim's own blog. The photo of a deconstructed wristwatch is from a photo essay also on Tim's blog, entitled "Timeless" -- Levi)
Two years ago my wife was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. At 29 years old, she was told that she was going to die. The revelation turned our world upside down. Certainties we held previously about our lives were washed away like sandcastles built in the tidal zone. Only small mounds of faith remained, but the idea of a distant, pain-free death in our twilight years, having lived a full and happy existence, had been demolished.
Instantly, the ‘bucket list’ mentality came into play. We began building a catalogue of things to do before eternal darkness swept in. We quit our corporate jobs and traveled the world. After a year on the road, a reassessment of our life goals led us both back to study: philosophy for me, nutrition for her. What I have come to realize in these recent tumultuous years is this: we were always both dying; we just didn’t realise it yet. Death, of course, is life’s only real certainty. So, why did being told something we both should have known already change our perspective so much?
(A few weeks ago, guest blogger Tim Hawken wrote about Immanuel Kant's aesthetic theory. Here's his second Philosophy Weekend piece, on a related subject. Hawken lives in Australia and is the author of 'I Am Satan' and 'Hellbound'.)
You arrive at a contemporary art show with a friend. Excited about the new and interesting things you’ll see, you hurry toward the entry. Out in front there's a stunning installation. It’s a car with pummelled-in sides. Red and white paint is flaking off the doors to reveal rusted panels underneath. The bonnet, however, is flawless blue. The sheen of the paint almost glows with newness. Standing, admiring the work, you say to your friend that perhaps it’s a commentary on America’s motor industry: embattled, but still turning out quality work. The featured artist for the evening emerges from the front door. You’re about to praise his vision, when he smiles sheepishly, indicating the car, “perhaps if I sell some pieces tonight, I’ll be able to fix it up a bit more. It’s still just a heap of junk right now. I’d better get it out of the way before anyone else arrives.” Taking his keys out of his pocket, he jumps in, struggles to start it and rumbles off to the car park.
Embarrassed, you look down to your feet. So, that wasn’t art? Just a few moments ago you were sure it was brilliant. Does it stop being art now that the ‘artist’ called it junk? Or is it still art because you made it so in your mind? Your friend shakes her head at you and walks inside. The question you want to yell after her chokes on your tongue: What makes art, ‘art’ anyway?
Ask me to name my favorite living writer, and I just might name J. M. Coetzee, formerly of South Africa, now of Australia. I think his best novels are Disgrace, Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man, and I also get a tremendous kick out of his two recent meta-fictional adventures in psychological self-deconstruction, Diary of a Bad Year and Summertime, the latter of which has sometimes been mistakenly assumed to be the third volume of his ongoing memoir, following Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life and Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II. But Summertime, a fragmented third-person narrative about a dead writer named John Coetzee, is no memoir.
Strangely, I'm more likely to recommend his late period works than his most famous novels, which are his earliest ones: Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K and The Master of Petersburg. These books won the author a Nobel prize, but the stone-faced dead seriousness of these downbeat parables can be hard to take. As he got older and more successful, Coetzee seemed to become lighter or warmer-hearted, and began challenging himself to write more playful, experimental and archly self-referential novels. Word is out that his very latest novel, The Childhood of Jesus, may be the most expansively allegorical, spiritually provocative and magnetically enigmatic of them all.
I haven't written as much about Coetzee as about other writers, though I have brushed past his great works here, here and here, and have also discussed his vegetarian principles here. There is something forbidding about Coetzee's stern countenance that always makes it feel unseemly to gush about his work. An admiring review of Childhood of Jesus in Coetzee's hometown rag The Australian says something smart about the difficulty of writing critically about a writer who seems to plumb such mysterious and deep sources of emotion and meaning with his stark, minimalist texts:
There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.'
Thus spake literary critic Isaiah Berlin in a famous 1951 essay about the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who he considered a classic hedgehog: a writer with a singular vision and a focused intensity. Berlin continues:
... there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel -- a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance -- and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle.
I'm still on my Jacques Derrida kick! I've spent a week surfing his works and reading the exciting biography Derrida: A Biography by Benoît Peeters (as recommended to me by a commenter to last weekend's Derrida post).
I now realize how ridiculous it is that I've never studied Derrida or the other deconstructionists and poststructuralists before, since they cover many of the same themes I've been long obsessed with: ethics, language, personal identity, political activism. I now find Derrida deftly reaching the same kinds of conclusions I have been groping towards (but, I'm sure, with much less finesse and skill) in these pages. In short, I feel like I've been a deconstructionist/post-structuralist all my life, but I didn't know it until now.
Years ago, I used to think about oranges, and wonder what I could do about the fact that sometimes an orange just doesn't taste as good as an orange should taste. What is the essence of an orange? How is it possible that something could be an orange but not contain or present the essence of an orange? The more I explored this question, the more new questions it raised. Is an orange called an orange because its color is orange, or is the color orange named after the fruit? If the former, then what would we possibly call the color if the fruit didn't exist? If the latter, then what is the meaning of the blood orange, which has a tart ultra-orange-y taste, but is a lurid red?
The taste of an orange is just as distinct as the color, but as every orange-eater knows, you sometimes pop a slice from a newly peeled orb into your mouth and feel instantly disappointed. All too often an orange tastes like nothing -- flat, fibrous, chewy, watery nothing. Well, way back when I was a kid, I sometimes used to lick a spoon (disgusting, I know, but I was just a kid) and stick it into the jar of Tang orange drink powder that my Mom kept around the house for me. Now that was the essence of orange.
(Interestingly, I never really cared much to drink Tang, which tasted like Kool-Aid and didn't have much tang at all, but I liked to lick the spoon. I would ostentatiously guzzle a glass of Tang in front of my family every now and then to make sure we kept the kitchen well-stocked, but a glass of Tang really never tasted very good, although it was cool that the Apollo astronauts drank it).
The last time I saw Yoko Ono in concert, which was just a year ago, I was handed a small blue plastic puzzle piece in a small fabric bag as I entered the club. It was a very Yoko Ono gesture, and I'm sure the piece symbolized a lot of things: the sky, world peace, an artist's anxiety in facing an audience.
Yoko Ono is a brave performer, but her anxiety and shyness is often evident when she stands on stage. It must be this shyness that drives her exhibitionism and displays of aggression; as a young experimental artist (before she met John Lennon), she created her famous "Cut Piece" (it's described in Ellen Pearlman's recent book Nothing and Everything) in which she invited viewers to cut off pieces of her clothes while she sat still. This gesture wouldn't have been as moving as it was if her anxiety were not so palpable on her face as she sat.
I've been trying for years to get a firm grasp on the work of Jacques Derrida. This philosopher has never fully caught on with the general population in the United States of America (yes, we do have popular philosophers here, but unfortunately they are Aristotle, John Locke and Ayn Rand). However, I know that Derrida has a foothold in academia, and he's vastly respected around the world. I sense a personal affinity with those of his ideas that I've been able to understand, but I've never had much luck reading his books, perhaps because the cultural references of mid 20th-century France are too alien to me, or perhaps because he wrote intentionally in a diffuse and enigmatic style in order to reflect what he saw as the diffuse and enigmatic nature of truth.
Wanting to understand Derrida's ideology simply and concretely (these are the terms on which I like to understand any philosopher), I tried chucking the books and watching a film called Derrida, a "cinema verite" portrait directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering in 2002, just a couple of years before their subject died. This film does a great job of capturing the philosopher's charisma and quick wit, and it also delivers the good news that Jacques Derrida appeared to be happy and well-loved at the end of his life. Perhaps this speaks more positively of his philosophy than any logical analysis could -- still, however, this film fell short for me in one way. It did not attempt to explain his philosophy in top-down terms that I could clearly understand.
I went through a weird sequence of emotions when I spotted a new history book, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 by Yang Jisheng. First, I felt a flash of excitement: this will be the book that will help me to understand this unimaginable episode in history.
But, I quickly realized, I've already read (and blogged about) two thick books that told the horrific story of Mao's manufactured famine: Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikotter and Mao: the Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. I already know the facts. What am I expecting a third book about the same subject to tell me that I don't already know? Did I think I would find new answers to my questions? Was I hoping for Yang Jisheng to come up with a happy ending?
Well ... some truths are so hard to comprehend that it takes three heavy books to pound them into our heads. The truth of what happened in the Chinese countryside between 1958 and 1962 probably falls into this category. The tragedy began as "The Great Leap Forward", an optimistic and progressive experiment in farm collectivization, invented by Mao and eagerly championed by countless government leaders and regional cadres. The ambitious government program quickly descended into a sadistic holocaust, destroying between thirty and thirty-six million lives, before a few sane politicians managed to break through Mao's grip and force an end to the madness. The level of cruelty, illogic and wastefulness that fed this debacle for four painful years is difficult to grasp, and the results are hard to picture. Here's a typical description from Frank Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine: