Pete Townshend of the Who has been writing his autobiography for his entire career, starting with the band's first single "I Can't Explain". His rock opera "Tommy" was the symbolic autobiography of a shy and sensitive teenager who becomes a rock star ... transformed into a tall tale about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who uncovers an unnatural skill at pinball (Townshend's electric guitar, of course, was Tommy's pinball machine). The pinball wizard then becomes a famous religious leader until his shallow followers get bored and overthrow him. Tommy is a witty, self-mocking tale about childish wonder and spiritual overreach, and Pete Townshend would go on to reenact a real life version of the same story -- the ascent to fame, the inevitable cruel betrayal of the fans -- over and over again throughout his life.
The same storyline recurs at least four times during Pete Townshend's fascinating new memoir Who I Am. This new book is a worthy summation of a prodigal career, and a satisfyingly revealing (if occasionally compulsive and over-protective) autobiography.
We seem to be living in the age of rock star autobiographies, of course, and Pete Townshend's book appeared on bookshelves at the same time as that of of a fellow introspective searcher, Neil Young, whose Waging Heavy Peace is an uplifting, rambunctious self-portrait but fails as a memoir, because a memoir must dig deep into the dark regions of self-analysis and painful honesty, and Neil Young didn't seem to want to go there. Pete Townshend in Who I Am, on the other hand, is happy to go there.
How can I possibly capture the wealth of goodness inside two thick new volumes of classic lit comix, The Graphic Canon, Vol. 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons and The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2: From "Kubla Khan" to the Bronte Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray? There is a lot of depth here. These collections must be seen.
The three-volume anthology is the work of Russ Kick, one of the editors of the alternative-minded Disinformation website, and Kick's curious sensibility leads to a blissfully broad vision of multicultural literary classicism, from Coyote and the Pebbles: A Native American Folktale by Dayton Edmonds and Micah Farritor to the Mahabharata illustrated by Matt Wiegle to the Arabian Nights, adapted by Andrice Arp to Hagoromo: A Japanese Noh play, adapted by Isabel Greenberg. (And those selections are all from the first volume; I've barely begun to enjoy the second, and a final third is heading our way.)
The great works of western literature are here too, of course: The Odyssey by way of Gareth Hinds, a transgressive Hansel and Gretel by S. Clay Wilson, George Eliot's Middlemarch via Megan Kelso. I can't possibly write about all the pieces that deserve attention in one blog post, but I would like to show a few panels.
Cal Godot asked a good question in response to last weekend's post. When I use the terms "will" and "desire" in the context of ethical philosophy, am I using the terms interchangeably?
Yes, in a strict logical sense, I am using the terms interchangeably. Both "will" and "desire" point to the same thing, the same mysterious and omnipresent phenomenon of human (and animal) life. Yet there is a world of difference between will and desire.
The difference is not in the thing the words points to, but in the connotations captured along the way. The term "will" calls to mind three provocative philosophical texts that have become classics of the modern Western tradition: Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Presentation, Friedrich Nietzsche's The Will to Power and William James's essay collection The Will to Believe. Thus, "will" connotes European romanticism, existentialism and American Pragmatism. It carries a muscular, vigorous, dramatic and conflict-ridden sense. It feels Napoleonic and Apollonian.
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!
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).
It's hard for me to describe how big an influence the Beastie Boys have had on my life. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, I found lifesaving inspiration in records like Paul's Boutique and Check Your Head that I could not have found anywhere else. If it were not for the Beastie Boys, I'm pretty sure there would have never been a Literary Kicks.
I know a bit about the Beastie Boys. I've seen them in concert several times, though the live format didn't play to their strengths. The best way to listen to the Beastie Boys is with earbuds in, the world shut out. Their recordings were dense, complex and sophisticated, their rhymes expertly crafted for maximum effect. Each of the three had a highly distinct voice; you can listen to any line in any Beastie Boys song and immediately know whose voice you're hearing:
Congressman and Republican party rising star Paul Ryan, who has never made a secret of his admiration for Ayn Rand before last week, has suddenly caught a bad case of Vice President fever. Rand's Objectivist ideology is too extreme for many American voters, and so Paul Ryan has begun a campaign push to erase all traces of her influence on his thought.
“I reject her philosophy,” Ryan says firmly. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas,” who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he says.
Well, there are several components to Ayn Rand's philosophy. Epistemologically, she is a rationalist (as was Thomas Aquinas, though his humbler rationalism was more subtle than hers). Psychologically, she is a devout Egoist. Spiritually, she is an atheist (and this is the part of her philosophy Paul Ryan is most eager to distance himself from, even though his newfound and highly convenient embrace of traditional Catholicism isn't impressing several other influential Catholics). But I don't think any of these things should matter very much to voters. Most of us couldn't care less what Paul Ryan thinks about epistemology or psychology or religion.
Paul Ryan was elected by his fellow Republicans for a critically important post in the House of Representatives. He's the chairman of the House Budget Committee, and in this capacity has defined the detailed direction for the USA federal budget for the Republican party. The Paul Ryan budget proposal drastically cuts services that middle class Americans rely on, while lowering taxes for the very wealthy (most obscenely of all, it fails to cut military spending; we can't pay to send poor Americans to college, but profit-bloated military contractors keep getting a blank check). Mitt Romney has called the Paul Ryan budget plan "marvelous". Perhaps the most important question at stake in the upcoming November 2012 elections is whether or not this country will adopt the Paul Ryan budget plan beginning in 2013.
I'm searching for a bright light of truth among the hip young "public philosophers" selling books today. Last weekend, we admired Alain De Botton's sensitive style but worried that he might be the Martha Stewart of philosophy. This weekend, I'd like to look at a harder-hitting upstart, Sam Harris, whose key ethical work is The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.
I got off to a bad start with Sam Harris in 2004 when he rose to fame with an angry book called The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason that identified fundamentalist religion (particularly radical Islam) as a major source of the world's problems. Harris was part of a wave of new atheists, including Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and eventually Christopher Hitchens, who posited Osama bin Laden as the reductio ad absurdum of all organized religion, a formula I completely disagree with (I'm quite sure that "religious hatred" is only a surrogate for ethnic or national hatred, and I suspect that guerrophiles like Osama bin Laden have little authentic interest in religion to begin with).
So I avoided Sam Harris's early books, but he may be improving. His 2010 Moral Landscape is worth digging into and taking quite seriously. This book lays out an extended argument for the real existence of a concrete and universal moral code that could, if properly expressed and understood, significantly, improve the world. This is the kind of ambition I like to see in an ethical philosopher.
The primary challenge facing Sam Harris in this book is not to define a concrete and universal moral code -- not surprisingly, he resorts to a John Stuart Mill-ish Utilitarian approach -- but rather to show that a concrete and universal moral code is possible at all. Harris presents a clear argument for the positive conclusion here, which I will paraphrase as follows:
Whenever Alain De Botton writes a new philosophy book -- which is often -- I root heartily for the guy. The young Swiss intellectual has been aiming to establish himself as the world's foremost public philosopher, seeking the attention of common readers rather than the regard of academic peers by publishing a steady stream of short, friendly books about the way we fall in love, or the work we do to earn a living, or the homes we select to reflect our personalities.
I prefer public philosophers to academic ones (it takes so much more bravery, for one thing, to approach a popular audience) and I want to be an Alain De Botton fan. Unfortunately, for reasons I can't quite explain, I have begun at least seven of his books, and have never felt compelled to finish a single one. I'm always impressed with his sense of mission but put off by a languid, Proustian preciousness of tone, by a sense that I am reading the Martha Stewart of philosophy. His books are illustrated with crisp photos that seem to try to evoke W. G. Sebald, but his meandering prose does not deliver the enigmatic emotional punch of a W. G. Sebald book. The idea of Alain De Botton may be better than the substance ... or perhaps, more optimistically, like Ludwig Wittgenstein he may get better with age.
How would it feel to have been a physicist just before Albert Einstein, or a biologist just before Darwin? I can sympathize with all the dedicated, highly trained scientists who must have toiled in frustration for decades, grasping for insight, groping at patterns, making little discoveries here and there, yet always sensing that they were missing the big idea.
Amateur or professional philosophers today can probably relate, because our field appears to be currently in a state of darkness comparable to physics before Einstein or biology before Darwin. Why do I say this? Well, the big tipoff is the low standing of philosophy as a whole. It's widely considered a quaint and vain hobby, a useless college major that merits half a shelf in every bookstore. We have no famous philosophers, and virtually nobody considers philosophy or ethics important for everyday life.
We are so accustomed to this sad state of affairs that we often forget that societies do not always ignore philosophy; they only do so when the field is moribund. In the half-century before the French revolution, when ethical philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire were making powerful discoveries, philosophers were treated as superstars. Similarly, physicists and biologists probably started getting a whole lot more respect after Einstein and Darwin finally broke the ground that needed to be broken, and may not have gotten much respect before. The standing of any intellectual discipline directly correlates to its level of success ... and it's a sad fact that ethical philosophy has been a flop since the dawn of the modern age.
This is no idle or abstract problem; it amounts to the human disaster of a world that fails to comprehend itself. The spiritual, psychological, social and political problems that ethical philosophy are meant to help fix are going unfixed, and modern society has also come to think of this confusion as normal. Here are a few examples of what I mean: