"On Sunday, April 27, 1913, in her Yonkers, New York, home, sixty-seven-year-old Jennie Hintz tried a new way of practicing her piety. She did not need the assistance of clergy, nor did she need to go to church, as she had given up her faith almost a half century earlier. The kind of devotion she experimented with had nothing to do with institutional Christianity, or Jesus, or the sacraments of her youth. It simply required her to put pen to paper and express in unguarded prose what Friedrich Nietzsche meant to her.
Her writing took the form of a long handwritten letter to Nietzsche's sister and literary executor, Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, to give thanks and praise for her brother's life and though. Hintz, a self-described "spinster", introduced herself as a "great admirer of your brother's philosophy and his morals." She explained that she had been reading Nietzsche's works for over a year and a half, starting with "Beyond Good and Evil", the only Nietzsche volume in her local library at the time ... She said she felt drawn to Nietzsche because "in many points I had already arrived at these truths before he expressed them, but I remained mute keeping them for myself." She did so, she explained, because in dealing with people more educated than she, Hintz found she was not listened to or taken seriously. But reading Nietzsche let her know that there was someone she could relate to."
Friedrich Nietzsche, that strange, alluring bird. His prose could soar, but what happened when this bird landed on the earth? I knew as soon as I heard about the new American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that this book would be valuable, and I could barely wait to read it. I'm a gigantic fan of Friedrich Nietzsche, but his outrageously original books (some of the best include The Birth of Tragedy, Beyond Good & Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Ecce Homo) often leave readers in a state of vertigo. His slashing rants against phony moralists and smug academics were clearly designed to reverberate, but exactly how did they reverberate? To understand a philosopher so conscious of conflict, we must understand the conflicts his own ideas created, because these conflicts are the very manifestation of the philosophy. The fact that this sickly German professor became a celebrity and an icon seems as unlikely as his works themselves, and just as laden with meaning.
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:
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.
I waited a couple of months before letting myself open up Walter Isaacson's acclaimed new biography, Steve Jobs. Given Isaacson's known gift for storytelling and my own penchant for computer-age pop culture history, I knew I'd be in for an obsessive reading experience once I cracked it open. This is a book I needed to clear away some uninterrupted time for.
The most enjoyable part of Steve Jobs is the first section, in which two delightful Silicon Valley counterculture tech nerds named Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak grow up and invent the world-changing Apple II, the first commercially viable personal computer, in 1977. Here, the book offers the familiar satisfying thrill we look for in the early pages of every celebrity biography: those achingly pregnant moments in which the players stand at the precipice of greatness ... and then finally step over.
The dawn of the computer age is always a compelling subject, because we can all relate in some way to the feeling of surprise, personal growth and liberation that has accompanied this rapid pace of technological change (this is a dawn, after all, that we are still somewhere in the middle of). Isaacson's Steve Jobs is a classic computer-age tale of transformation and wonder -- from the quaint beauty of the first Macintosh (a wonderful little machine, so efficient that its entire operating system fit along with several applications and free user space on a single one-megabyte diskette) to the wide smiles generated by the Toy Story movie franchise (this is what Jobs worked on in the 1990s, between the Mac and the iPhone), to the invention of the dynamic iPad device, his last offering to the world before his early death.
I've noticed something strange when talking to friends and relatives and neighbors about politics, or about the future of the world. Many people seem to believe that ultimate evil is a real and powerful force in our lives today. They believe that this evil threatens our families, our society and our nation, and they see it as our responsibility to prepare to fight this evil to the death.
Evil, according to this notion, is an eternal force, absolute and self-sufficient. It is beyond reason or negotiation; it can only be defeated for a generation, after which it will rise again, ready for another battle. We train ourselves for this recurring combat by consuming pop-culture representations of the enemy we must eventually fight: Darth Vader, Voldemort, the White Witch. These mythical creatures are widely understood to have direct correspondents in international history and politics: imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, Red China, Soviet Russia, Al Qaeda, Iraq, Iran.
I have never believed in the existence of ultimate evil, and I suppose this helps explain why I disagree so often with people I talk to about current politics. I was recently struck by the coincidence of two people I was talking with in two separate conversations -- both of them progressive liberals, smart and well-informed -- pointedly declaring to me that they are not pacifists. This is apparently a badge of honor for both of them, or perhaps it's more precisely an insignia of their membership in the army of good vs. evil. When the dark lord shows his face, I will be ready to fight. An awareness of quasi-mythical evil in the dark corners of the world also seems, unfortunately, to be present in nearly every American politician's foreign policy platform.
It must be the philosopher's job today to examine this kind of groupthink critically, and to help us reach a level of understanding that is less childish, less destructive, less obviously cartoonish. This is more vital than ever today, since modern weaponry has made the stakes for war and peace so high, and since cross-cultural paranoia appears to be currently at a hysterical peak.
Cool the engines
red line's getting near
cool the engines
better take it out of gear
-- Boston, 'Cool The Engines'
I'd better take a break, let this Philosophy Weekend thing cool off ... let myself cool off a little bit too.
I've been writing a lot of high-pitched stuff lately, and getting into plenty of debates with friends and relatives everywhere from Thanksgiving dinner to Facebook. It's time for me to step back, review my progress, find my balance, and prepare for a new round of Philosophy Weekend next year.
I began this series sixteen months ago, first with a halting introduction followed a week later by the presentation of my main thesis, which amounts to a defense of the political and personal philosophy known as pacifism. I have gradually come to realize -- this wasn't apparent even to me at first -- that every article I write in this series is related in some way to the argument for pacifism. The connections may be hard to trace, but they are always there.
I'm giving this intense series a Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa break, and will kick off the new year with a new thread in January. Till then, here are a few philosophical links you might like:
"Literary Kicks," says the guy where I pick up my mail, looking at my address on a package. "What is it, sneakers?"
"Books," I say to him. "Books. I'd probably make a lot more money if it was sneakers."
With that said, here are the latest literary links, for your edification and enjoyment:
1. Novelist and critic Walter Kirn, who has suddenly begun live-blogging the Bible, ponders the Tower of Babel.
2. Alan Cumming will star in a one-man performance of Shakespeare's Macbeth.
3. Check out The Books They Gave Me: A Tumblr for images of books given by former lovers. No, I'm not going to make a Herman Cain joke.
Up until the mid-fifties, J.D. Salinger had been circling around the eldest child of the Glass family, Seymour. Seymour appeared as the main character in the short story “A Perfect day for Bananafish”, but for the most part he stayed in the background. At the time of Franny and Zooey he was already dead. But in almost every Glass family story, Seymour was a presence: the soul, conscience and genius behind Les and Bessie Glasses’s large troupe of precocious children.
Now, in twin novelllas packaged in one volume, and appearing in in 1963, Seymour gets top billing. But because these are Salinger novels, Seymour does not come out and speak or perhaps do a little soft shoe for our amusement. Instead, the stories are narrated by his Boswell, his brother Buddy Glass, and once again Seymour is one degree removed from the action of the stories. The name of this collection is Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.
Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is the first and most engaging story in this collection. It concerns the wedding day of Seymour and his wife-to-be, Muriel. The rest of the Glass family is dispersed across the face of the earth due to the war, so it is up to Buddy to be the sole Glass representative at Seymour’s wedding.
Buddy had been drafted into the army, and he arrives in New York, on leave, from Fort Benning on a sweltering June day. He takes a cab to Muriel’s grandmother’s house and waits with the other guests for the arrival of the groom. And waits. And waits. Finally it becomes apparent that Seymour is not going to show up, and all of the guests pile into waiting cars to take them to Muriel’s parent’s house.
Buddy jumps into a car with, among others, the matron of honor, who keeps repeating that she wants to just get her hands on Seymour for ”just two minutes” and do him some bodily harm. Buddy, who at this time has still not introduced himself as Seymour’s brother, sits uncomfortably in the car, not knowing why he is even there.
The car moves along slowly and then comes to a dead stop. Madison Avenue is blocked both north and south due to a parade. The occupants of the car wait in the sweltering heat, a situation that becomes even more uncomfortable when it the others discovers that Buddy is Seymour’s brother. The inhabitants of the car eventually decide to abandon it and head for a nearby Schrafft’s restaurant.
In 1948, J.D. Salinger published the short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” in the New Yorker. This event was a major step in his literary career. First, it brought Salinger serious critical acclaim. Second, it established a working relationship between the author and The New Yorker. The magazine offered Salinger a right of first refusal contract, and he subsequently published his new work almost exclusively in the New Yorker. Third, it marks the first published appearance of Seymour Glass, the oldest sibling in the Glass family. Salinger would go on to chronicle the lives of the Glass family siblings in a series of short stories and novellas.
“Bananafish” is the only story in which Seymour appears in real time. In all the other stories he is either referred to, or described from a distance in time. Nevertheless, the spirit of Seymour pervades all of the stories, and is a constant presence in the thoughts of his younger brothers and sisters.
The "Bananafish" story (which became the opening story in Salinger's beloved collection Nine Stories) is a masterpiece of economy and style. Using mostly dialog to set the scene and give background on the main characters, Salinger presents the barest of facts, describes a series of events, and then lets the reader puzzle out the meaning and fill in his or her own perception of the characters. Salinger at this point in his life was a student of Zen Buddhism, and “Bananafish” is similar to a Zen koan, or riddle, in which a question is posed and the answer is found through meditation and self-examination.
Fifty years ago this September, in 1961, J.D. Salinger published a slim volume containing a short story and a short novel that had both appeared previously in The New Yorker. The book was Franny and Zooey. It appeared ten years after the publication of his best-seller The Catcher in the Rye.
Franny and Zooey is the first book-length treatment of the Glass family. Salinger had already introduced some of the family members in stories such as “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “Down at the Dinghy”. Now, the mythic Glass clan is fleshed out. The family history is revealed for the reader, and all the family members enumerated - the parents: Les and Bessie; and the seven children: Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, the twins Walt and Waker, Zooey and Franny.
Franny Glass is presented almost entirely in dialogue. The youngest of the Glass family, she's a student at an unnamed Eastern college. She is attending a football weekend at her boyfriend Lane Coutell’s school. It is the Yale game, so his school is of the Ivy League variety.
During lunch with Lane at a restaurant, Franny expresses her disenchantment with phony college intellectuals and the egotism that abounds in her school's Theatre department, which caused her to quit her involvement. She also reveals that she has been reading a book called The Way of a Pilgrim. It's a work by a simple Russian pilgrim that describes his spiritual quest, and how he learned to say the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”.
The Jesus prayer is to be repeated continuously until it becomes as much a part of the unconscious functioning of the body as the beating of the heart. After a period of time, the constant repetition of this prayer will lead to a form of spiritual illumination, similar to the meditation on “om” in Buddhism or Hinduism.
Franny suddenly becomes quite ill – it appears that she is in the throes of a complete nervous or spiritual breakdown. She is pale and perspiring, and at one point she goes into the bathroom and cries for about five minutes. Upon returning from the bathroom, she is okay for a while, but then faints. Lane Coutell takes her into the restaurant manager’s office, and then goes to fetch a cab. She is seen at the end of the story in the office, lying on the couch, silently repeating the Jesus prayer.
1. Isn't this a great book cover? Woolgathering is not a new Patti Smith book, and it shouldn't be mistaken for a sequel to her great Just Kids. In fact, I first bought this when it was a great little Hanuman book that looked like this:
The Hanuman book looked cool, but I think the newly republished New Directions version's cover art may be even better. Shepherd, tend thy flock.
2. Occupy St. Petersburg? Bill Ectric draws some connections between Nikolai Gogol's financial satire Dead Souls and more recent high finance scams.
3. Steve Silberman asks: What kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, really?