Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


The Empty Space Where A Peace Movement Should Be

by Levi Asher on Sunday, November 9, 2014 11:08 am

Exactly one hundred years ago today, there was still some hope that the monstrous war that had just broken out between (in quick succession) Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, France, Belgium, Great Britain and Turkey might be over by Christmas. A quick victory was what all the military experts on all the sides had promised, after all.

The Great Fraud wasn’t over by Christmas. Today, we mostly think of the First World War as the prelude to the grudge match that followed it, the Second World War, which was somehow even more destructive. Today, the shrill pitch of global politics shows that we have never really managed to emerge from the cloud of moral poison that emerged from Central Europe in 1914. La Grande Illusion still surrounds us today.

The First World War is almost always remembered by historians as a foolish and massive human tragedy, and that's why a mood of dignified sadness and cosmic frustration hung in the air on November 8 in the Celeste Bartos room of the New York Public Library, where an impressive group of historians and activists gathered for a day-long event called Voices for Peace, 1914-2014.

The host was Lewis Lapham, and the theme of the program appeared to have been inspired by Adam Hochschild's important recent book To End All Wars (which I read and reviewed here on Litkicks), a survey of the long-forgotten pacifist and activist movements that tried to prevent the slide to futile madness in Europe in 1914, and a reminder that the philosophy of pacifism has a long tail.

A Rite of Spring

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, March 19, 2014 09:32 pm

"The people dance passionately on the earth, sanctifying it and becoming one with it."
-- Igor Stravinsky

I'm sure it's a hipster affectation of mine: I try to listen to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring every year when the Spring Equinox comes around. It's a hipster affectation because I don't really know much about classical music, and I can't deny that what thrills me most about this music is not the work itself but the knowledge that it caused a riot in Paris on May 29, 1913 when it was first performed. A riot in an theatre -- that's my idea of a rite of Spring.

The music sounds primal today, though it's hard to imagine how it could have caused a riot. In fact, it was not the music as much as the ballet, daringly choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, that caused the sensation. Le Sacre du Printemps was a Russian debut in France, and as such a symbolic meeting between two nations that would one year later go to war together against Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey.

While I've heard the music often, I've never seen the work performed, and I've only just become aware of a Joffrey Ballet video that presents Stravinsky's music and Nijinsky's ballet in context -- Pictures of Pagan Russia is the subtitle -- so that we can get a better idea of what the whole sensation was about. Here's the first of three parts; you can click through from this one to the next two.

Constellation of Genius: 1922 by Kevin Jackson

by Levi Asher on Thursday, November 7, 2013 08:54 pm

1922 was a special year for modernist literature. On February 2, James Joyce was the shy guest of honor at a small publication party for Ulysses in Paris. Sylvia Beach showed Joyce the book for the first time that day, thus establishing 2/2/22 as its Joycily pleasing official publication date.

Ulysses is one of two pillars of 20th century modernist literature, and the other is The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot, a long and strange poem that arrived to the wastrel world eight months later on October 16, 1922, neatly printed within the debut edition of The Criterion.

Both Ulysses and Waste Land were mash-ups of ancient heroic literature, regurgitated through a pained awareness of the plight of Europe in the age of industrialized war, revolution, capitalism and fast society. The milieu of European urban high culture that produced Ulysses and The Waste-Land in 1922 -- a vast set of personalities that includes Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Andre Breton, W. B. Yeats, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Benito Mussolini, Vladimir Lenin, Mohandas Gandhi, D. H. Lawrence, E. E. Cummings, Wassily Kandinsky, Virginia Woolf, George Gurdjieff, and of course Gertrude Stein -- is the subject of Kevin Jackson's ingeniously simple Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One.

The book is ingeniously simple because it is written as an annotated calendar, moving forward in brisk anecdotes from January to December, constructing a found story along the way. Some entire days are skipped, while other days present enjoyable juxtapositions, like June 30, on which Franz Kafka retired from his job, T. S. Eliot wrote a letter and young Eric Arthur Blair applied to the India Office for a position that would take him to Burma, one of many eventual stops towards his future as George Orwell.

It must mean something that Marcel Proust died on November 18, 1922, one month after Waste Land came out (though it is not known whether or not Proust read Eliot's poem). This was the same month that Howard Carter discovered and plundered the tomb of King Tutankhamen in Egypt, the same month that Crown Prince Hirohito became the new emperor of Japan.

Philosophy Weekend: Faces

by Levi Asher on Saturday, August 24, 2013 06:37 pm

Who wants words, on an August weekend before the final week of the summer? I don't. Let's look at some pictures instead.

Renee Jorgensen Bolinger, a philosophy graduate student at the University of Southern California, has found a fresh way to think about her favorite thinkers: she paints their portraits, mimicking styles of thematically corresponding classic painters. That's Wittgenstein/Mondrian at top left, W. V. O. Quine/Dali top right, Kierkegaard/Lichtenstein bottom left, Philippa Foot/Toulouse-Lautrec bottom right. (I've never heard of Philippa Foot before, but apparently she's a neo-Aristotlean ethicist).

Philosophy Weekend: Tactile Philosophy, from Helen Keller to Jacques Lacan

by Levi Asher on Saturday, July 13, 2013 11:47 am

Tactile philosophy. These words popped into my mind when I saw a beautiful, amazing photograph of a blissful 74-year-old Helen Keller enveloped by a troupe of Martha Graham's dancers, feeling the music and visual expression through vibration and touch, raising her arms and joining in the dance. (Is this not one of the greatest photographs ever taken? Am I the only person who didn't know that this photograph has existed since 1954?)

I was already thinking about the sense of touch on the day I saw this photo. Philosophical rationalists and empiricists have long debated whether or not we experience the world through sensory data alone. This question has never been satisfactorily answered, but I bet many on both sides would agree that touch is the most philosophically final, the most authoritative, of all the human senses. Where the rubber hits the road. The stick a Zen master strikes an inattentive student with. To the extent that we develop our philosophy of life from our sensory experience of the world, it seems likely that our tactile experiences are the most philosophically influential of all.

A person may have been beaten as a child, or may have been deprived, or coddled, or forced at an early age to gain mastery of the physical world in order to survive. In all cases, we must expect this to influence that person's developing sense of ethics and morality. In this light, Helen Keller's achievement as a living example of a capable and communicative deaf-and-blind person is all the more remarkable -- not only because she transcended her assumed limitations, but because she proved that a person who experiences the world primarily through the sense of touch can have a positive attitude. She knows the world in a different way than you or I do, but she too has discovered joy. At the age of 74, she stands in a circle of moving dancers, a beatific smile on her face, and raises the roof.

Philosophy Weekend: Nationalism and Alienation

by Levi Asher on Saturday, June 22, 2013 07:49 pm

Nationalism feels so natural to us -- to all of us, during this age on planet Earth -- that we barely question it. We could solve a few problems by questioning the basic concept of nationalism itself.

Virulent public arguments over immigration reform are currently taking place in the United States of America (a controversial bill may become law this week). Immigration reform has many facets; it involves taxation, employment, ethnicity, health care, education, voting patterns. But with all the talk that's flying around, nobody on either the liberal or conservative side ever acknowledges that the concept of immigration rests upon the more basic concept of nationalism, and that nationalism itself is not a necessary or historically deep-rooted political reality.

In fact, nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon on planet Earth. Historians agree that nationalism began with the American Revolution, French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. It gradually came to dominate Europe and the Americas, and spread to Asia and Africa in the 20th Century. Earlier, Wikipedia says:

In Europe before the development of nationalism, people were generally loyal to a religion or to a particular leader rather than to their nation.

Huxley, De Quincey, Baudelaire, Bowles, Ginsberg, Burroughs: Literature of Substance

by Michael Norris on Tuesday, April 23, 2013 08:04 pm

In his essay The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley describes his experiences after taking a dose of mescaline. At the end of the book, he makes this observation:

That humanity at large will ever be able to dispense with Artificial Paradises seems very unlikely. Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul. […] And for private, for everyday use there have always been chemical intoxicants. All the vegetable sedatives and narcotics, all the euphorics that grow on trees, the hallucinogens that ripen in berries or can be squeezed from roots – all, without exception, have been known and systematically used by human beings from time immemorial.

The use of the term Artificial Paradises by Huxley refers to a book by Charles Baudelaire, Les Paradis Artificiels, which describes Baudelaire’s experiences with hashish. Just as men have longed “to escape, [...] to transcend themselves”, so have writers tried to capture the experience on the page.

Let’s call these attempts to capture the drug experience in printed form "literature of substance" -- "substance" being a word used by David Foster Wallace to very effectively describe agents that get you high, ranging from weed to peyote, and encompassing alcohol and all other chemical and natural concoctions that are used by mankind to escape or transcend.

Philosophy Weekend: Derrida and the Essence of Orange

by Levi Asher on Saturday, February 23, 2013 06:50 pm

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).

Philosophy Weekend: Finding Derrida

by Levi Asher on Saturday, February 16, 2013 06:37 pm

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.

Oulipo For Beginners and Chauvinists, by Scott Esposito and Lauren Elkin

by Levi Asher on Monday, January 21, 2013 08:47 pm

Where is experimental literature in the 21st Century? And where is it supposed to be?

Most generations probably fail to recognize their experimental geniuses in real time. However, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein were recognized in their lifetimes, so it's fair to ask who might be carrying that torch on the literary scene today. Only a few of the usual nominees seem very satisfying. Thomas Pynchon? Don DeLillo? Paul Auster? William Vollman? The late David Foster Wallace? The late W. G. Sebald? Jennifer Egan? Blake Butler? (Please don't bring up Jonathan Lethem in this context).

Some of these writers are doing good work (personally, I'll buy into Auster and Sebald as powerful experimentalists) -- and all of them are certainly knocking themselves out trying to be as experimental as all hell. But that's the problem -- the mainstream American/English hyper-meta-hystero-pomo-X scene is so self-conscious and steroid-driven that the books are just flat out wearying. The experimental scene I'm familiar with is also too solitary. It lacks the sense of unity and community power that a good experimental literary scene needs in order to thrive.

For Americans like me, a look to Europe can help. A movement called Oulipo (Ouvroir de literature potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature) has been growing for half a century, and it is still alive. It was born in Paris in 1960 with the express intention of shaking up the experimental scene. The original principals were Raymond Queneau, Francois Le Lionnais, Jacques Bens and Marcel Duchamp, and later members or quasi-members included Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Jacques Roubaud, Herve Le Tellier, Jacques Jouet, Daniel Levin Becker, Jean Queval, Michele Audin, Henry Mathews and Tom McCarthy.


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