Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


The Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Mystique of William Buck

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, April 1, 2014 02:52 pm

I recently heard about a British Library project to reassemble and digitize a 17th century illustrated edition of the Ramayana, a classical Hindu epic. This sounds pretty cool, and it reminded me of a different edition of the Ramayana that I once owned myself.

This was just a cheap pocket paperback, a novelization of the great poem, published alongside a similar edition of the other great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. These two books, the life work of a young American translator named William Buck, were designed to be accessible and enjoyable versions of their extremely long and complex originals. Of course the great epic poems had to be condensed and simplified to fit into these forms, but the popular paperbacks provide a rich reading experience that must capture at least some of the significance of their gigantic counterparts.

William Buck's Mahabharata is the one I read all the way through and remember most vividly, because it's a colorful, wise and beautiful long tale that begins with the household altercation that resulted in an elephant head being placed on the body of a boy named Ganesha, the son of Shiva, who is noted (in the story that surrounds the story) as the scribe who is writing the text:

Philosophy Weekend: Genocide is Not a Force of Nature

by Levi Asher on Friday, March 28, 2014 10:03 pm

We speak of genocide as a problem from Hell, but we rarely speak of it as an ethical problem that can be solved. This suggests that we have ceased to think of genocide as a problem of human dimensions. We have become as superstitious about genocide as cave dwellers must have been about tornadoes and hurricanes: we see it as a rare force of nature, bigger and stronger than us. We hope the monster never comes our way, and if it ever does we plan to hide.

Philosophers need to get their courage back, because genocide is an ethical problem that must be solved. Organizations like the United Nations and Amnesty International toil weakly to solve it as a political problem, while Doctors Without Borders fights it as a practical problem, striving year after year around the world to alleviate the pain. But none of these organizations are designed to analyze the psychological roots of the problem, or to propose great philosophical epiphanies that might change the world. Indeed, I know I must appear foolish when I suggest that any kind of moral epiphany could possibly help, even though I'm quite sure it could.

We should expect our best ethical philosophers to address this topic often, but the great thinkers of the 20th century shied away. Sartre did not manage to communicate clearly on the topic of genocide, nor did Nozick or Rawls or Tillich or Jaspers or (ahem) Heidegger. Today, we have a few well-known academic ethicists like Derek Parfit, but they tend to steer far clear of bold speculations about the causes of our worst real-world problems. Alain de Botton has created a clever and brazen philosophical website called The Philosophers Mall that attempts to connect trendy news stories about celebrities and pop culture to philosophical questions. De Botton is at least trying to think outside the box -- but a celebration of triviality in philosophy is the opposite of what we need the most.

We are a couple of weeks away from the 20th anniversary of the brutal genocide that took 800,000 lives in Rwanda in April 1994. I'm sure this 20th anniversary will generate some news blips, and perhaps a reminder of the disaster that is still occurring today in Darfur.

The Doyle/Shirley Universe: A Talk With John Shirley

by Bill Ectric on Wednesday, October 16, 2013 12:02 pm

The shaded cobblestone streets of Garden Rest are lined with shops, cottages, a pub, a boarding house near the town square, and of course, something nefarious lurking in dark hinterlands. John Shirley’s Doyle After Death reads like a classic Sherlock Holmes whodunit, with a couple of major differences.

First, it takes place in the afterlife, or as the people of Garden Rest prefer to call it, the Afterworld. A private detective named Nicholas “Nick” Fogg wakes up in the Afterworld after dying in a hotel room in Las Vegas. Also, flashbacks to the detective’s last case among the living give the story a touch of gritty noir realism.

The plot advances at a breezy clip that is somehow both relaxing and exhilarating, and Shirley has a knack for cinematic descriptions. In one nighttime scene, four men look down at the town from a steep hill and see a view like a rich chiaroscuro painting. Shirley's biographical knowledge of Arthur Conan Doyle informs the novel and confirms Shirley as a fan and a history scholar. He even includes an appendix, which expounds upon Doyle’s theories about the spirit world and incorporates those theories into the novel. Comic book collectors speak of the “Marvel universe” and the “DC universe.” This is the Doyle/Shirley universe.

The Awful Movie Dr. Seuss Made in 1953

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, February 27, 2013 08:47 pm

Caryn and I watched an old movie on cable TV recently that left us traumatized for days. Ironically, the movie was trying to be a light-hearted and whimsical children's musical. It was written by Dr. Seuss in 1953. The movie left us traumatized because it was so very, very bad.

I'm talking about the legendary but little-watched 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, a live action film about a boy who hates his piano teacher. This was the only movie Dr. Seuss ever tried to make, and it went over so badly with audiences in 1953 that he never tried again, and the movie nearly disappeared from view. It was almost crazy and psychedelic enough to gain a second life as a midnight cult flick, but it's too excruciatingly boring for the midnight circuit. It's hard to watch without wincing ... often.

5000 Fingers doesn't start out too badly: a sweet kid is suffering through a piano lesson in an antique parlor (this setting must recall Theodor Seuss Geisel's own childhood in Springfield, Massachusetts). The boy falls asleep and has a bad dream in which he's persecuted by his nasty piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker, who is also scheming to marry the kid's widowed mother. In this dream, the kid wears a glove on the top of his beanie, is chased by weird chubby thugs in brightly colored suits who resemble proto-Oompa-Loompas, dodges a pair of roller-skating old men sharing a common beard, and is forced to participate in a 500-kid piano performance on a swirling 5000 key piano.

I assure you that I just made the movie sound better than it is.

Why Am I Reading Harry Potter Again (and Again)?

by Ray Lumpp on Monday, November 12, 2012 08:53 pm

The movies are over, J.K. Rowling has moved on to adult fiction, and yet here I am, lying curled between the couch and the heater, pinching the fat inner spine of The Goblet of Fire between my thumb and forefinger. This is my fifth time. As a teenager, I used to read by closet-light, flipping back to the first chapter immediately after finishing the last, as if expecting something new to happen. Only in Harry’s world could such an enchanted book exist ...

"One cannot read a book: one can only reread it." -Vladimir Nabokov

There is something akin to magic in reading a novel for the first time: the first brush with a new world of characters and creatures is thrilling to imagine; each turn of the page lures us deeper into the mystery of the dream; and, by the end, we arrive at a catharsis of completion and knowing.

Once the mystery is solved, however, the story does not lose its power. In rereading, one can explore the text for hidden delights tucked into each book, free from the burden of mystery and with a keener eye for dramatic irony. Throughout the series, nods and winks to future happenings and cross-textual connections shape the rest of Rowling’s ever-expanding, ever-darkening fantasy world. With a world so vast, it’s difficult to catch it all in one take.

Philosophy Weekend: Does Ultimate Evil Exist?

by Levi Asher on Saturday, January 7, 2012 07:17 pm

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.

Appreciating Neil Peart, Lyricist

by April Rose Schneider on Tuesday, February 22, 2011 08:37 pm

(April Rose Schneider's first Litkicks article was about nearly-forgotten 1960s novelist Richard Farina. Here, she analyzes the poetic sensibility of a not-forgotten but barely appreciated rock drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart of Rush. Enjoy! -- Levi)

Rock and Roll lyrics are generally anything but artful. Flimsy as a piece of tissue in a tornado, the words to most pop or rock songs are best suited for head scratching. Remember "Louie, Louie", first released in 1963?

Christopher Nolan's Inception: Want and Need

by Dedi Felman on Thursday, February 17, 2011 07:29 pm

(Guest blogger Dedi Felman's analysis of screenwriting techniques for this year's popular Oscar-worthy films continues. Previous entries discuss The King's Speech and The Social Network. -- Levi)

Action movies and hyperarticulate idea movies don’t usually go hand in hand. So when Inception blasted onto screens last summer, its unholy marriage of genres at least partly explains why it was accompanied by a white hot publicity streak. Would Chris Nolan forge a bridge between Charlie Kaufman, king of idea-filled films such as Being John Malkovich, and Michael Bay, master of summer popcorn action fare? And could that bastard child possibly be any good as a script? After several reads of Nolan’s screenplay, my unequivocal answer is yes. And the more I dig into this complex script, the more enthusiastic I get. What makes Inception such a daring and well-executed juggling act? And how does Nolan make it all work?

Romania's Literary Star, or Why Americans Are Obsessed With Dracula

by Claudia Moscovici on Monday, January 31, 2011 10:30 pm

As a native Romanian who is also a novelist, I’m very intrigued and, frankly, somewhat baffled by America’s obsession with vampires and the Dracula legend.

Vampire novels and movies seem to keep growing in popularity, even as they’re spoofed by yet other vampire novels and movies. From what I can see, this trend doesn’t seem as popular in Europe. This leads me to wonder: why is America obsessed with vampires? I came up with five main reasons:

Reviewing the Review: September 13 2009

by Levi Asher on Sunday, September 13, 2009 12:01 pm

Has the age of the personalized newspaper suddenly arrived? The cover of my copy of today's New York Times Book Review asks "Why Are Jews Liberals?", and as a Jewish liberal I'm really not used to being singled out like this. I'll have to call a Christian conservative friend and see if he got a custom version too.

A book called Why Are Christians Conservative? would be a great idea, but it appears that the book called Why Are Jews Liberals? already exists, the latest work by neo-conservative Norman Podhoretz, who urges his people in the USA to abandon their Democratic party bias and join him on the gung-ho Republican side. Podhoretz's book is reviewed by his peer intellectual Leon Wieseltier, who commandingly rejects Podhoretz's logic in one of the liveliest articles I've seen in this publication this year.

Podhoretz, Wieseltier claims, has become solipsistic in his assumption of conservative values. Economics and family-values hedging aside, the core argument for a Jewish leap to the right wing remains what it always was: the idea that Israel and USA have a common interest in permanent unilateral military domination of the Middle East -- a sad position that Republicans tend to support more than Democrats. I could barely stop nodding my head happily up and down as Wieseltier took this position apart, reminding those who apparently still do not understand this that a difficult peace, not a glorious holy war, is the only hope worth pursuing in the Middle East.

I haven't always loved Wieseltier's articles in the Book Review, but this is a strong performance, and his high-pitched prose is a pleasure to read. Today's cover article begins with a note of Talmudic grandeur:

"There are four types of people," teaches an ancient rabbinical text. "The one who says: What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours -- this is the common type, but there are some who say that this is the type of Sodom. What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine -- this is a boor. What is mine is yours — a saint. What is yours is mine — a villain."

Brothers and Sisters, is this liberal or conservative?

He maintains the pitch, and the article soars. There are well-aimed personal jabs:

In the absence of arguments, Podhoretz offers memories. "Why Are Jews Liberals?" is yet another one of his autobiographies; his life is a gift that keeps on giving.

There are even good jokes:

There was a basis in reality for the Jewish hope in a liberalizing society and a secularizing culture. What else should the Jews of modernity have done -- chanted the Psalms and waited for Reagan?

My fellow NYTBR critic Jim Sleeper has a less positive opinion of Wiesltier's performance over at the Talking Points Memo Cafe. Sleeper finds in Wieseltier a carpetbagging liberal, crawling back to the winning side after standing with George W. Bush in support of the Iraq War in 2003. I disagree with Sleeper's emphasis here: yes, Wieseltier has to take his lumps for eagerly championing the Iraq invasion. But if he was wrong then, he may be right now, and, by god, doesn't everybody have a right to smarten up?

But then Jim Sleeper's piece is also lively, and manages to puncture Wieseltier's balloon once or twice, as when he casts a doubting look on the critic's rabbinical tone:

Much though I share his disdain for Podhoretz's tribal reductions of Judaism, Wieseltier's frequent, weird displays of religiosity make me wonder if Madonna came to sit at his feet while on her way to the Kabbalah.

And really, that's all I want in a good Book Review article (or a good Talking Points Memo refutation). I just want a little wit, and a strong opinion every now and then. Podhoretz's book looks like a loser, but it has already stirred up some good conversation.

I love to read about politics and history, but always prefer books filled with the raw stuff -- facts, details -- over argument and commentary. It's interesting to note that New York Times Book Review chief Sam Tanenhaus has also just published a book that belongs on the same shelf as Podhoretz's, though it appears to reach conclusions closer to Wieseltier's. I'm guessing it won't be reviewed in these pages, but the book is called The Death of Conservatism, and it's worth a look if you find this type of argument interesting.

But if, like me, you prefer the raw stuff, you may be drawn to Nicholas Thompson's The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan and the History of the Cold War, here reviewed by Mark Atwood Lawrence. The book's author is the grandson of the so-called "hawk", Paul Nitze, who argued (against the advice of George Kennan) for an aggressive military response to Stalin in the Cold War, and this relationship promises a unique angle on an important period in our recent past. I would like to read this book, though I may never find the time.

There are several highly negative reviews in this NYTBR, but not all are as convincing as Wieseltier's. B. R. Myers pans The Old Garden by Hwang Sok-Yong, a South Korean writer who, I understand, spent time in a North Korean prison and is currently very popular in his own land. I understand Myers' objections to the book's apparently confusing chronological approach and sloppy use of language. But I wish this review gave me a better sense of how this book has been received in Korea, and I also sense insular political overtones to this review, involving sympathies that may or may not stand with the rigid regime of North Korea, that I simply don't understand. I was already interested in hearing more about this book (which is being serialized online by its publisher) and I think I'll look a little further before I accept Myers' rejection of the work's value.

Then, Lev Grossman's The Magicians gets rough treatment at the hands of Michael Agger. I've always found Lev Grossman's pop-culture-minded fictional endeavors weak myself, but Agger's superficial reasons for disliking The Magicians are highly off-putting:

Perhaps a fantasy novel meant for adults can't help being a strange mess of effects. It’s similar to inviting everyone to a rave for your 40th-birthday party. Sounds like fun, but aren’t we a little old for this?

Well no, actually. As far as I'm concerned, if we're talking about the possibilities of literature, nobody is ever too old for anything.


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