In about four months we're going to hear a few news blips about the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte's final defeat at Waterloo, which went down on June 18, 1815. It's a good guess that the tone of these news blips will be apathetic and comical, that few attempts will be made at serious understanding or insight.

The lack of public interest in Napoleon represents a great fall in reputation for the French leader who was for his entire adult life the most famous and important person in the world. His reputation was once so gigantic that he remained the most famous and important person in the world long after his death in 1821. His cult of personality outlived him, and "Napoleonic" wars and revolutions would roil Europe and the Americas for at least another 100 years.

Opinions about Napoleon during this long era of emerging nationalism and revolution verged towards extremes: his memory was worshipped in rock-star fashion by progressives and Romantics, and he was vilified as a near-Satanic destroyer of civilization by conservatives and traditionalists. Napoleon was most beloved among aspiring citizens of emerging nations who yearned for liberation from ancient regimes. He was most despised in the countries that were his military enemies, particularly England and Russia. Perhaps it's because his name provoked such an unbearable level of divisiveness that he was eventually passed into history not as an important figure at all, but as a buffoon, a cartoon, a subject of delusion, the punchline to a forgettable joke.

If I search back for my own early sense impressions of the name "Napoleon", I picture a cross-eyed guy in an insane asylum with a three-cornered hat, his hand tucked inside his shirt or strait jacket. This is not Napoleon himself, but rather somebody pretending to be him. The idea of a "Napoleon Delusion" has become such a popular meme that it merits a page on TV Tropes. An article at Straight Dope traces the idea that crazy people thought they were Napoleon to early mentions by William James and William De Morgan. It's worth asking: why would so many crazy people claim to be Napoleon Bonaparte? It seems to be a sign of his once-great renown, of the stunning power -- for good or evil -- his image once evoked.

To modern minds like mine, though, the image of a crazy person ranting as Napoleon has merged with the persona of the historical figure so completely that it becomes surprising to learn that Napoleon Bonaparte himself never went crazy at all -- -not even in his final years of lonely exile. He probably did rant from time to time, but no more than any other grand dictator ever did.

So why has Napoleon's name sunk so low that he is now only remembered as a joke? A world leader who was once widely hated and widely loved has been reduced to a silly cartoon, and today the silly cartoon is all we remember.

A "Napoleon" is also a dessert pastry, and "Waterloo" is a song by ABBA. This trivialization would certainly annoy the Emperor himself, and he would probably interpret the phenomenon as a sign that the anti-Napoleon propaganda of 19th Century England and Russia has dominated over the pro-Napoleon propaganda of France and its allies. Their propaganda was certainly immense in scale. For both England and Russia, Napoleon was the human incarnation of the bloody and anarchic French Revolution. The pitying and damning portrait of revolutionary Paris found in Charles Dickens's Tale of Two Cities shows the intensity of condemnation the mention of revolutionary France once evoked on the British isles.

Literature's cruelest blow to Napoleonic glory was Leo Tolstoy's masterpiece War and Peace, which captures the boastful Emperor at his peak of arrogance and folly. War and Peace was a great literary drubbing, but a sensitive reader should consider that the sublime mind of Leo Tolstoy did not choose easy targets. The fact that Tolstoy considered the grand image of Napoleon Bonaparte to be worth taking down in 1869, fifty years after Bonaparte's death, proves again how important the French Emperor's image remained, even in faraway Russia, throughout the turbulent century that followed his defeat.

The level of Napoleon's rock-star celebrity can blind us to the fact that it was not actually the individual human being but rather the political impulses this human being personified that were the main topic of discussion in 19th Century Europe. The fact that Napoleon may have been prideful or yearned for imperial glory shows a human failing, but one person's human flaws reveal far less about history than the phenomenon that so many millions of other people found this one person inspiring. To a stunning degree, they did.

As the incarnation of the French Revolution, as a personification of the ideals of Rousseau and Voltaire, the people of Europe sanctified Napoleon as the representative of modernism, progressivism, egalitarianism, universal suffrage, "people power". He was appreciated as a breath of fresh air on a stale continent: an anti-cleric, a philo-semite, a breaker of racial and religious and ethnic and economic boundaries.

Whether this persona accurately represented the faulty human being or not, it was the persona itself that stood as a symbolic model of pure concentrated change and made him a hero to generations of intellectuals and artists and scientists. He was the fount of heroism in the modern age, the engine of political dynamism in a world stuck in the past. Charles Dickens could not appreciate Napoleon, but Lord Byron was certainly following a Napoleonic calling when he joined a military mission to liberate Greece from the Ottoman Empire and died at Missolonghi in 1824, as close to a battlefield as he could get. And it's impossible to fully understand Nietzsche's notion of the "ubermensch" without considering that Napoleon had once been Europe's "ubermensch".

Though he damaged his reputation for radicalism once he declared himself an emperor and established his various relatives as hereditary rulers all over Europe, the ideologies perceived as Napoleonic formed a point of origination for various radical movements, most notably Karl Marx's Communism, which was understood in its own time to be built upon the structure of French revolutionary doctrine. Virtually every brand of nationalist or internationalist progressivism of the 19th century would evoke Napoleon's name one way or another, and many powerful leaders would go on to consciously emulate his pursuit of moral greatness through military conquest: Napoleon III in France, Bismarck in Prussia, Simon Bolivar in South America, Andrew Jackson and then Teddy Roosevelt in the USA. We many not naturally think of these distinct historical figures as consciously emulating Napoleon when we remember them today. But if we wish to understand these leaders in the contexts of their own times, we must recognize the shadows they stood in.

The era of glorious Napoleonic warfare began its ugly end in August 1914. The Great War began with Napoleonic fervor on all sides, but quickly descended into depressing and murderous stalemate. A sick new brand of militarism would dominate the 20th Century, with a new cast of characters whose cults of personality had sharper edges. Times had changed -- and yet even so, contemporary records indicate that when Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Winston Churchill, Charles DeGaulle, Douglas McArthur and George S. Patton looked in the mirror, they each saw Napoleon Bonaparte in the glass.

We often think of Communism and Fascism as opposites today, but Fascism emerged from the same Napoleonic fervor as Communism, now flavored with powerful appeals to racial separatism and ethnic hatred. It's no coincidence that both Communism and Fascism thrived in the German, Italian, Slavic and Russian lands that had hosted all of Napoleon's great battles.

It was only after the final tragedy of World War II ended that Europe's last Napoleons began to fade away. This was clearly good riddance all around, but it's a concerning fact that much of the intense intellectual ferment that the name of Napoleon once evoked has been lost to modern understanding, and replaced with cliches of broad comedy.

Our Napoleonic amnesia seems to represent some kind of short circuiting of our shared historical mind. We giggle with bored familiarity at the image of a person whose power of persuasion once shook the earth. It's a lazy way of avoiding the fact that we still don't understand how to process the legacy that impacted our world so much, and not so long ago.

Even in 2015, as ill-begotten notions of military nobility and glory continue to roil our world, the grand contradiction that ended at Waterloo 200 years ago seems still to hold us in its grip, though we still fail to understand it.


Napoleon is barely remembered today, except as a joke. But his influence over the disastrous wars and revolutionary movements of the 20th Century was immense.

view /ContradictionToCartoon
Monday, March 2, 2015 08:02 am
Two comedians dressed as Napoleon
Levi Asher

As Mike Leigh's majestic new movie Mr. Turner begins, the famous British artist J. M. W. Turner's father buys pigments for his son in a dusty London shop. The vast psychedelic arrays of glass jars filled with powders of viridian, chrome, cobalt, barium and ultramarine seem as magical as Diagon Alley in Harry Potter or the Cheese Shop in Monty Python. The pure pleasure of this visual moment is a happy indication that Mike Leigh intends to luxuriate in the beauty of 19th Century England as joyously as he did in Topsy-Turvy, his previous biographical epic, and for Mike Leigh fans this is very good news.

It's a telling fact that as I settled in to watch a movie starring the great actor Timothy Spall as the influential British painter J. M. W. Turner, the artist I was mostly thinking about was Mike Leigh. He is one of my favorite living film directors, but he mostly turns out sensitive modest-budget films about regular people in contemporary settings (I wrote about one of these, Happy Go Lucky, last year). He is known for a low-key natural style, but when he delves into grand history (as he did in Topsy-Turvy, in which Gilbert and Sullivan debut The Mikado at the Savoy) he spares no expense on sets, costumes and period detail. I can think of no other historical film director who achieves such a convincing sensation of realism. When Mr. Turner strolls the riverfront at Margate, we can practically feel the refreshing spray on our cheeks.

But even when Mike Leigh delves into British history it's his emotional intensity that is really epic, and every Mike Leigh film will eventually (after much charming misdirection and improvisation) offer a clash and a resolution. Mr. Turner's affective axis turns on the gruff artist's impulsive and secretive love life. He cruelly manipulates and ignores several women, but eventually manages to find his home in a quiet arrangement with a sea salt's widow, played by Marion Bailey.

Like W. S. Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy, it's clear that the dyspeptic J. M. W. Turner craves the companionship of a loving woman, though he never manages to come to terms with the moral implications of a caring relationship. Turner the celebrity artist is far more confident with his adoring public than with any of the odd human beings he is forced to interact with, and it's impossible not to imagine that Mike Leigh must be painting a portrait of himself with this vision of a stumbling famous artist who lives for his visionary work, while somehow barely managing to survive his everyday life.

Mr. Turner features performances by several regulars in the Mike Leigh acting troupe, like Martin Savage, whose failed-artist character unfortunately doesn't have the dimensionality of his unforgettable George Grossmith in Topsy-Turvy, and Dorothy Atkinson, who played Jessie Bond in Topsy-Turvy and here nearly steals the show as a sickly and silent housekeeper who allows Turner to molest her whenever the impulse strikes. Timothy Spall is also a longtime member of the Mike Leigh troupe (though many film viewers will only recognize him as Peter Pettigrew in Harry Potter), and when he paints by violently stabbing his canvas with a thick brush in Mr. Turner he recalls the dumb London punk he played decades ago in Leigh's Life Is Sweet.

These fine actors appear here as tiny objects in a gigantic world: gorgeous skyscapes and mountain surfaces, railway apparitions, marine infinities. Mike Leigh the cinematic painter is certainly competing with J. M. W. Turner the oil painter in Mr. Turner, and since we're on Mike Leigh's home field he very nearly wins the battle.

I came to this film with no special interest in J. M. W. Turner's art. Like most people today, I am more familiar with the French Impressionists than their British predecessors, and I also find Turner's blues, grays, browns and yellows a difficult palette to love. (I learned in my post-viewing research that Turner's paintings were made with inferior crimsons that have badly faded, which may be why many modern art lovers like myself have trouble feeling as rapturous about Turner's paintings as did critics of his era like John Ruskin, who is portrayed in this film as an eager fanboy with a hilarious upper-class English drawl.)

Turner's paintings have faded, but Mike Leigh's film will certainly give his legacy new life. It occurred to me last year as I wrote about the American director Richard Linklater's remarkable Boyhood that Richard Linklater may be the closest thing the USA has to the genius of Mike Leigh, and I thought about Boyhood again as I watched Mr. Turner. Linklater and Leigh have a special quality in common: neither director is afraid to present a simply happy film.

Like Boyhood, Mr. Turner is a happy film not because it ignores tragedy and cruelty and pathos, but because it incorporates them into a stunning grand vision of redemption and love in an uncaring natural world.


Timothy Spall plays the artist J. M. W. Turner in a beautiful new film directed by Mike Leigh.

view /SpallTurnerLeigh
Tuesday, January 20, 2015 04:56 am
Actor Timothy Spall with director Mike Leigh
Levi Asher

It’s easy to get angry when listening to Sam Harris, a stubborn young philosopher who recently made headlines for joining Bill Maher to condemn the entire religion of Islam on TV (Ben Affleck took the smarter side in this debate). Sam Harris is a pop-culture philosopher with a message of urgent, fervent atheism -- though he has so little respect for religion that he doesn’t even prefer to define himself by this negative belief (there is no word, he points out, for people who don’t believe in Greek myths or in astrology, so we shouldn’t need a word for those who don’t believe in Christianity, Islam or Hinduism either).

I find Sam Harris writings and statements about religion dull and unperceptive. Part of the problem is that he's an overconfident philosopher, heavily armed with a degree in neuroscience from the University of California at Los Angeles. He's so sure of his atheism (he does not want to call it atheism, but I still may do so) that he fails to realize his rote paragraphs have failed to win us over.

Over and over, he lays out a scientific or semantic principle and concludes that he has proven some point. He believes that abstract concepts can be clearly defined and that arguments can be won by declaring logical truths, which is to say that he lives in a world before Nietzsche, before Wittgenstein, before Derrida. This gives him a confidence in his conclusions that is awkward for a more existential philosopher to behold.

However, Sam Harris should not be written off as a hack. He is an energetic philosopher who has managed to establish himself as a voice for other fervent atheists, many of whom congregate at his admirably useful website Project Reason. He has a long career ahead of him, and he has even shown significant signs of improvement -- when he stays off the topic of Islam and away from television talk shows.

It's in his strident books (and television appearances) about religion that Sam Harris is at his worst. Elsewhere, he can be surprisingly good. He's most captivating when using his books to explore territory that is new to him. When he steps outside his intellectual comfort zone, uncertainty and curiosity soften Sam Harris's obnoxious voice, and he becomes at times an original and sensitive thinker.

Harris’s new book is called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, and Harris means something specific by this. He describes a few situations where he or others have felt a sensation of transcendence of the individual self, a feeling that they define as "spirituality". Sam Harris explores the idea that this type of "spirituality" may be scientifically significant. The reason we feel this transcendence, Sam Harris suggests, may be that the individual human self is not actually a scientific thing. The transcendence may actually be real.

The idea that religion's hidden value lies in its emphasis of the scientifically valid phenomenon of the transcendence of the self is the primary message of Waking Up. It's an exciting idea, good enough to make this an interesting and worthwhile book.

Harris acknowledges his debt for this idea to an older contemporary philosopher, Derek Parfit, who has used various explanations, proofs and illustrations to demonstrate that the individual self is not a continuous thing, though it appears to be. The deconstruction of the sense of the individual self is a topic we have explored often ourselves here on Litkicks, particularly in our critique of the philosophy of selfishness that is popular with followers of Ayn Rand.

The highly limited ethical philosophy of Ayn Rand depends completely on a solid and sturdy definition of the self, and it is by pointing out the weakness of this foundation that he have proven Ayn Rand's bold ethical philosophy to be unpersuasive. We've also gone on to explore other considerations about the fragmentary nature of human identity in blog posts with titles like The Elusive Self, The Collective Self, The Shock of the Self, The Ayn Rand Principle and the Two Senses of Self, and Rebooting the Argument Against Egoism.

The idea that the self is an illusion — that we only think we perceive a single continuous “I” that persists through our lives — provides Sam Harris with a single example of a positive aspect to religion. Unfortunately, Harris finds himself so amazed at his own embrace of this one quasi-religious concept that he then devotes large portions of Waking Up to his usual tired religion-bashing, as if to prove to himself and his readers that he hasn't changed too much. Waking Up would have been a better book if he'd left these parts out.

There is a larger deficiency in Sam Harris's model of the self, which is possibly a result of the Derek Parfit idea of the fragmented self being still new to him. While he is able to see that the individual self is a fluid thing, he fails to see the sociological perspective on this, which is that the boundaries of the self does not always have to equate to the boundaries of a single individual human being. The boundaries can sometimes expand to include more than one person at a time.

In everyday life, we often exist within aggregate selves, sharing a community consciousness within working units that seem to operate as group selves, and that even regard themselves in this way. Harris gets far enough to realize that we are not always conscious of ourselves as individuals, but he has not yet made the leap to realize that we are sometimes self-conscious within larger selves which we share with our loved ones and neighbors. This is indeed a fuller understanding of the religious sense of self, and many perplexing facts of our lives and our shared history can be coherently explained once this understanding is gained.

It's also a more realistic understanding of the way we exist in everyday life. Many parents, for instance, see their children standing next to them when they reflect upon themselves. (We see this in action when a parent includes his or her children in his or her Facebook photo.) A team or business or a government or army also takes on the functional characteristics of a cooperative or corporate self; without doing so, it would barely be able to operate as a unit. These are vital points that Sam Harris and others who contemplate the fragmentary nature of the self may not have considered yet, and might appreciate as significant.

These points are especially valuable when examining conflicts between different ethnic, religious or national groups. These conflicts are the most dramatic (and often most tragic) manifestations of group psychology -- and they can never be understood without the use of group psychology. The idea that religion is bad because religion causes war is the most popular dumb idea that results from the failure to understand group psychology.

Sam Harris almost understands something great when he declares that consciousness is fragmentary and that the self is an illusion. He would be closer to grasping the real ethical and existential crisis of human life if he declared that consciousness is fragmentary and that the self is elusive.


Sam Harris almost understands something great when he declares that consciousness is fragmentary and that the self is an illusion. He would be closer if he declared that consciousness is fragmentary and that the self is elusive.

view /SamHarrisWakingUp
Saturday, October 25, 2014 06:57 pm
Waking Up by Sam Harris
Levi Asher

You may have heard about Wittgenstein's poker, or Wittgenstein's nephew or Wittgenstein's mistress or Wittgenstein's ladder. For some reason that I don't fully understand, people like to read books about Wittgenstein's stuff.

Well, it's fitting that Ludwig Wittgenstein shows up in a lot of postmodern novels and pop-culture texts, because he really is that good, and his works really are that relevant today. This enigmatic Jewish-Austrian-Catholic 20th Century philosopher and schoolteacher's fame has grown after his death to the extent that he is now widely regarded as the most important thinker of our age.

There are many other literary treatments besides the four freakishly similar titles above. Ludwig Wittgenstein appears as one of the key signifiers in David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System, a novel I didn't like very much. He also shows up in a new collegiate novel by Lars Iyer, Wittgenstein Jr, a comic whirl about a professor who is not Ludwig Wittgenstein and the unruly students who mock his lectures. I've just started this one and I'm at least enjoying it more than the David Foster Wallace.

But the best stuff I've been reading lately about Wittgenstein is Wittgenstein Day-by-Day, a serious and well-researched Facebook page that tracks Wittgenstein's diary entries as they were written 100 years ago. I've liked this project since its inception, but I began to feel riveted by it when we reached the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One in August. In the autumn of 1914, young Ludwig did the same thing most of his proud fellow young Austrians did. He signed up immediately to fight for his country and his emperor.

This required him to leave England, where he had been carrying on an extraordinarily fruitful collaboration with Bertrand Russell, because England was now Austria's enemy. The 25-year-old logic prodigy found himself on a guard boat called the Goplana on the River Vistula in September 1914. Wittgenstein: Day-by-Day narrates a short daily summary of his daily observations as these new surroundings begin to sink in.

Thursday 17th September, 1914: In his private diary, LW records that the previous night passed quietly, and that he had been on guard duty. The Goplana has sailed up the Vistula to Krakow, whose outskirts, he fears, will be ‘completely occupied by Cossacks’. He also reports that yesterday morning the Lieutenant left the ship and didn’t come back until noon today. No one knows what to do, and they don’t even have money to buy food. Nevertheless he finds himself still in good spirits. ‘Keep thinking about how I can maintain myself’, he finishes.

The young philosopher's format is consistent: he notes the military developments and actions of the day, along with his personal activities and emotions. He tries to find time to "work" -- that is, to indulge himself in his favorite hobby: the analysis of language and meaning, and the attempt to discover the logical foundation of logic itself.

Saturday 19th September, 1914: In his diary, LW records that yesterday evening he had to work up to 11pm on his searchlight. In the night it’s extremely cold, and the men have to sleep in their boots. LW slept badly. He hasn’t changed his clothes or his boots for four days. He worries what will happen to him in Krakow.

LW notes that a proposition like ‘this chair is brown’ seems to say something enormously complicated, since if we wanted to express it in such a way that nobody could raise objections to it on grounds of ambiguity, ‘it would have to be infinitely long’.

(The idea here seems to be that everyday propositions must have a single complete analysis which respects the ‘requirement that sense be determinate’ (Tractatus 3.23), this being equivalent to their being *wholly* unambiguous. Any temporary incompleteness in the specification of a determinate sense can only mean that the end of the analysis hasn’t yet been reached. It’s notable that LW prefers to imagine that the analysis might be infinitely long rather than contemplate the possibility that there’s no single correct analysis, or that the correct analysis represents the proposition as being in *any* respect ambiguous).

If young Ludwig is unhappy about his sudden change of circumstance from Cambridge to the Eastern Front, he barely shows it in this journal. Occasionally he expresses feelings of stress. He consoles himself at times with religious homilies.

Monday 21st September, 1914: In his diary, LW reports that this morning the Goplana arrived in Krakow. He had been on searchlight duty all night. Yesterday, he records, he did a lot of (philosophical) work, but he isn’t very hopeful, ‘because I lacked the right overview’. He also had a discussion with his platoon leader, which cleared the air a little. But today he is a little out of sorts, being still ‘so TIRED’ from many emotions. He notes that he has heard nothing from Vienna, but that he did receive a card from his mother, sent on August 20th. In the evening, though, he received the depressing news that the Lieutenant who had been his commanding officer has been transferred. ‘This news depressed me deeply. I can’t give an exact account, but it’s a compelling cause for despondency. Since then I’ve been deeply sad. Although I am free by the Spirit, the Spirit has left me!’. He ends by recording that he found himself able to do some (philosophical) work in the evening, and that this made him feel better.

From the calm tones of the journal entries up to October 17, 1914, it appears possible that Ludwig Wittgenstein himself did not even know how perilous a position he was in as he stood searchlight duty on this rickety guard boat.

The Vistula River was a hotspot in the autumn of 1914, and I'm not talking about wi-fi. He and his boat the Goplana were right in the middle of the Russian invasion of Galicia, a brutal and massive offensive that completely overran Austria's defensive position on its own territory. The Battle of Galicia in 1914 will go down in history not only as a bloody massacre, but also as a failure of management and planning that would crush the confidence of the Austro-Hungarian army, foretelling years of disaster still ahead.

Today, it's commonplace to ridicule every aspect of Austria's entry into World War One, since we know how the war will end. But in 1914 Austria-Hungary had not yet been crushed, and its a notable fact that a young man as bright as Ludwig Wittgenstein would join its army unthinkingly to defend the society that had raised him so well. He was in the First Army, under the leadership of General Viktor Dankl, who would be briefly celebrated on the home front as a hero for this army's early exploits before it became fully clear that the 1914 battles in Galicia had been a Russian rout.

As his journal entries made clear, Wittgenstein manned the searchlight on the Goplana -- almost too perfect a metaphor for a philosopher on a boat! We know that he was thinking about logic as his light beam pierced the dark skies over the gloomy Vistula. Was he also thinking about the decisions his army's leaders were making? Did he feel confident in Austria's fate, or had he begun to question the foundations of the military logic that had put him on this boat?

Wittgenstein's hopeless adventure with the anguished Austro-Hungarian First Army will presumably be continuing to play out as the centenary of the First World War proceeds on Wittgenstein Day-by-Day. This excellent Facebook page is the work of John Preston of the University of Reading's Philosophy Department. Preston also maintains an informative Wittgenstein Chronology.

I don't know if John Preston is thinking about turning these wartime journal extracts and summaries into a book, but I hope he does. It's a no-brainer what the book should be called: Wittgenstein's Searchlight. At least it'll sell.


For some reason that I don't fully understand, people like to read books about Ludwig Wittgenstein's stuff.

view /WittgensteinSearchlight
Saturday, October 18, 2014 11:40 am
Wittgenstein's journals on Facebook
Levi Asher

I recently listed Ludwig Wittgenstein as one of three essential philosophers who can add surprising clarity and vital new perspective to frustrating debates about ethics, political ideology and the practical problems of our planet. What’s most essential about Wittgenstein is not the conclusions he has drawn about ethics and politics. It's the dynamic and truthful way of thinking that his method represents.

Ludwig Wittgenstein is unique among the great Western philosophers. He is the only major thinker to have become famous as a philosopher twice: first for laying out a belief system and then for returning to destroy his earlier work. Indeed, the remarkable fact that he spent the second (and greater) half of his career refuting everything he achieved in the first half is itself an example of the sublime conductivity of his thought process. It takes a hell of an open mind to do that. And a whole lot of courage.

The early Wittgenstein is best represented by a book called Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, an ambitious attempt to provide a definitive foundation for logic, meaning and language. He wrote it in partnership with Bertrand Russell, his older mentor at Cambridge University, who had spent decades searching for the definitive foundation of logic, meaning and language.

The Promethean goal of Russell's project, which became young Wittgenstein's project as well, was to infuse the experience of being human with a mathematical level of certainty by discovering the deepest roots of language and signification. (To use a modern metaphor that didn't exist in their time, it's as if they wanted to find a way to make natural language consistent, verifiable and executable in the way that computer code is.)

Bertrand Russell and several associates spent years on this project before an excited young Austrian named Wittgenstein burst into their offices at Cambridge University to join the team. Russell quickly recognized the newcomer as a savant whose intellectual dexterity and capacity for discovery exceeded his own, and he enthusiastically supported Wittgenstein in writing his first book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This is how the book begins:

1 The world is all that is the case.

1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things made up of the world.

1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.

1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.

If this was the only book Ludwig Wittgenstein ever wrote, I would hate Ludwig Wittgenstein. Not only would he not be on my list of very favorite philosophers; he would probably be on my list of most hated philosophers, because the perfect logical structure he attempted to display in this book was impressive but impossible to inhabit. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus made Ludwig Wittgenstein famous, but it’s what happened next in his career that made Wittgenstein great.

First, actually, a bunch of terrible distractions happened. The young Austrian academic’s cozy double world of Vienna and Cambridge became itself logically impossible when Austria-Hungary suddenly went to war against England in 1914. Wittgenstein left Cambridge to return home and become an officer in the First World War. He would serve the entire course of the war, and would suffer shame and confusion when Austria-Hungary lost.

There’s a lingering mystery about Wittgenstein’s years in the First World War — the same kind of mystery that would later surround J. D. Salinger’s years in the Second World War. Wittgenstein was not a broken man after 1918, but he was a man in a broken country, and he drifted. A devoted Roman Catholic of mixed Jewish descent with furtive homosexual desires, he caromed from situation to situation around the shattered territories of Central Europe. He frequented dangerous gay bars, embarrassed about his compulsions. He left the city to became a village schoolteacher in South Austria, where he tried to find balance in his teetering state of mind. Eventually he found himself back in Cambridge, England, addressing a new gaggle of academic philosophers who revered him as the author of the Tractatus.

Wittgenstein was happy to be among professors and advanced theoreticians again, but he had a surprising message for the fans of Tractatus. Everything in the book was wrong.

Thus was born the “late Wittgenstein”, eventual author of Philosophical Investigations, which replaces the stiff numbering system of Tractatus with a dreamy and fanciful sequence of aphorisms that were enumerated with simple integers yet proceeded in no obvious order. Where the early Wittgenstein tried to codify language, the late Wittgenstein would try to show that language could never be codified, and that any attempt to do so was unnatural and unhealthy. Instead, we must learn to accept, embrace and enjoy the ultimate incomprehensibility of language and shared meaning, and thus the ultimate incomprehensibility of existence itself.

There are many thought-provoking passages in this book, but the most well-known is a powerful passage I've already quoted on this website twice before. I’m going to quote it yet again, because I remember how explosive these humble words felt to me the first time I read them, and I know that many others have been similarly blown away by these deceptively simple paragraphs. The rambling passage about the word "games" may be the clearest thing Wittgenstein ever wrote; it's his Sermon on the Mount, and once you understand these examples you'll never think about language in the same way again.

66. Consider for example the proceedings that we call "games". I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? -- Don't say: "There must be something common, or they would not be called 'games' " -- but look and see whether there is anything common to all. -- For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look! --

Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships.

Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear.

When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. -- Are they all 'amusing'? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis.

Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! sometimes similarities of detail.

And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.

And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and cries-crossing: sometimes overall similarities.

67. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than "family resemblances"; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and cries-cross in the same way.-And I shall say: 'games' form a family.

And for instance the kinds of number form a family in the same way. Why do we call something a "number"? Well, perhaps because it has a-direct-relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things we call the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.

But if someone wished to say: "There is something common to all these constructions -- namely the disjunction of all their common properties" -- I should reply: Now you are only playing with words. One might as well say: "Something runs through the whole thread -- namely the continuous overlapping of those fibres".

How can we communicate with each other if words cannot be actually defined? Sure, words are useful and they are effective, but complex terms cannot be pinned down to exact meaning. The closer you look at the meaning of a word, the more the meaning scatters.  We should therefore avoid trying to use words in a rigid way, or else we deny the underlying truth that there is no rigidity in thought itself. There are only the transitory and illusory rigidities that we choose to create.

This conclusion is hardly original to Wittgenstein. Existential philosophers like Nietzsche and Heidegger also urged their readers to abandon vain constructions of logical analysis and try to think and live in more primal ways. Jacques Derrida's later concepts of deconstruction and differance seem to point towards the same intuitive approach to thinking that Wittgenstein urged. Millennia earlier, of course, Athenian philosophers batted the same problems of language around, and warily circled the same conclusions. The essence of Zen Buddhist philosophy feels very close to the essence of late Wittgenstein: if the above passage about games is not a great koan, I don't know what is.

Wittgenstein's approach to thinking is especially helpful when discussing politics, or when attempting to conduct an intelligent debate about public policies. This is one of the philosopher's greatest values for us today: we need to think like Wittgenstein so we can have better debates.

Here are three concrete ways thinking like Wittgenstein can make a difference in a political debate:

1. Don't get bogged down in definitions. Enough arguing about the meanings of words! The great ethical philosopher John Rawls tried to define "justice". A Wittgensteinian wouldn't bother trying. We may feel what "justice" means, but we could spend our lives trying to arrive at a complete definition of the word without success, and this wouldn't make our world any more just.

2. Always realize that a person you disagree with may be right at the same time that you are right. A Wittgensteinian does not say “I am right and you are wrong.” A Wittgensteinian might say “I am right and I don’t understand you.” A debate then becomes not an exercise in persuasion but an exercise in communication, an attempt at mutual understanding. Whatever persuasion may take place is more likely to occur after mutual understanding occurs.

3. Always embrace the possibility of change. Once we stop trying to find ultimate definitions for highly significant words like "good" or "evil" or "Communist" or "Capitalist" or "citizen" or "foreigner", we are able to stop imprisoning ourselves and each other with these definitions. One of the most common philosophical mistakes that arise in political debate is the idea that a label such as "good" or "evil" can stick to a person. We all have a clear idea what "good" or "evil" mean, but that doesn't mean we can define what they mean. Recognizing the fact that we can't define "good" or "evil" helps us recognize the fact that we may be flattering ourselves whenever we proudly claim (as human beings tend to do) that we are certifiably "good" and our enemies certifiably "evil".

Thinking like Wittgenstein will not only help us understand politics better. It will help us understand everything better. The question of whether a human being can be certifiably good or evil brings to mind a friendly disagreement I recently had with an author of a psychology book designed to help people from being victimized by psychopaths who habitually prey on trusting friends. This author has herself been severely harmed by a relationship with a person who turned out to be a psychopath, and she has made it her mission to write articles and books to help others who may be similarly vulnerable.

After reading some of her book, I told my friend that I respected her mission and agreed that it was important, but that I could not accept her crisp and clean division of the world into normal people and psychopaths. I didn't say it at the time, but what was bothering me was the non-Wittgensteinian insistence that a precise and certifiable definition of "psychopath" could exist.

I suggested to my friend that while psychopathy is clearly a thing -- a knot of meaning, like the word "game", a "family resemblance" -- it cannot possibly have a clear definition or test case, and thus her analysis might overreach and damage people who were borderline cases and wished to improve themselves. To call someone a psychopath is to imprison that person inside a word.

We must protect potential victims of psychopaths, but we also must understand the complexity of the classification. Is it possible that a person might act as a psychopath for many years, but then find a way to improve his ability to relate to others? Might some form of religious or psychological or interpersonal awakening help? Might there be a kind of person who acts as a psychopath towards one group of people (say, a cruel boss who mistreats employees) while also being intensely empathetic with another group (say, the boss's family at home)?

I suggested to my friend that she attempt a new book that serves the same purpose of protecting victims of psychopaths, but also depicts the essential dynamism and changeability of the human personality. She politely responded to my advice, but I don't think she liked it. She was mainly interested in helping people protect themselves from sociopaths, and didn't think it would help to introduce the complexity of Wittgensteinian logic into her book. I understand why she felt this way.

Thinking like Wittgenstein isn't easy, and it doesn't fit into many of life's urgent requirements. Often we find it easier to not think like Wittgenstein. This is part of human nature. But it's also a reason why we often find it so hard to communicate, and to solve problems.

I think the violent disagreements and genocides and wars that have roiled our planet in the last couple hundred of years stand as proof that we've taken non-Wittgensteinian logic to an unhealthy extreme. Thinking like Wittgenstein might produce miraculous changes, especially if many of us try it at once. The philosopher who completely reinvented himself by refuting his own most celebrated ideas might help us reinvent ourselves too, if we can be as brave and honest in our thinking as he was.


Wittgenstein urged us to accept, embrace and enjoy the ultimate incomprehensibility of language and shared meaning, and thus the ultimate incomprehensibility of existence itself.

view /ThinkingLikeWittgenstein
Saturday, May 31, 2014 08:42 am
Thinking Like Wittgenstein
Levi Asher

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock)
       -- T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

I'll have more to say soon ... too busy reading a very thick book to write much more today. Happy last day of April!


What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow?

view /RootsThatClutch
Wednesday, April 30, 2014 10:44 am
Exposed tree roots by Farm Creek, Woodbridge, Virginia
Levi Asher

"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.

The specific rite of spring that these crazy-dressed people are dancing so hard about is a human sacrifice -- specifically, the sacrifice of a young virgin girl. Like The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, Sacre du Printemps is a work that challenges us to consider our own primitive and superstitious collective past ... though the sociological message is also not what sparked the theater riot in Paris, any more than the music sparked the riot. Contemporary accounts suggest that the audience was just put off by all the stomping on stage.

Enjoy this video of Le Sacre, if you wish ... and may you celebrate your own unique rites of Spring, whatever they may be, today.


The people dance passionately on the earth, sanctifying it and becoming one with it.

view /RiteOfSpring2014
Wednesday, March 19, 2014 09:32 pm
Rite of Spring performed by Joffrey Ballet
Levi Asher

It's because I respect musicians who bravely venture into the dark literary territory of autobiography that I am so fascinated by musical memoirs. It's also why I'm sometimes critical of them. I have high standards regarding what a good memoir should be.

My standards are high but simple. An autobiography of a musician or any other artist must be written in a voice that feels distinct and artistic. It must tell a coherent story in chronological form. Most importantly, a good memoir must tell the truth.

On these terms, I criticized Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace for lacking story coherence, and for substituting undercooked present-tense for thoughtful past-tense. I knocked Steve Tyler's Does The Noise In My Head Bother You? for an inconsistent voice: the first few chapters about Steve's childhood and teenage years were very well written, but once Steve grew up and got famous the book shifted in tone to something like a People magazine interview about his rock star lifestyle. That ain't memoir.

Today I'm going to tell you about a memoir that I bet you never heard of, even though there's a good chance you dearly love the legendary rock band the author of this autobiography played drums for.

I bet you don't know that Nick Mason -- who played drums for Pink Floyd and is the only member of the band who played at every single Pink Floyd concert and on every single Pink Floyd record -- wrote a book called Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd in 2004. Or maybe you've seen this book around and maybe even bought it, but I bet you didn't read it, and didn't know that it contains a full-fledged personal autobiography that is beautiful, warm, informative, funny, inspiring and reflective. Why don't you know this? The publisher screwed it up.

Nick Mason's book should have been published as a straight memoir, like Pete Townshend's memoir or Bob Dylan's memoir or Patti Smith's memoir. Instead, probably because of Nick Mason's lack of celebrity (all the members of Pink Floyd kept a low profile), Inside Out was published as a big coffee table book, crammed with full-page color pictures and Hipgnosis artworks. Sure, the photos are striking, and there's no doubt that Pink Floyd's visual experimentations are good enough to fill a coffee table book. However, the horrible "two-for-one" idea of packaging Nick Mason's autobiography with an visual record of the history of Pink Floyd seriously devalues Nick Mason's text, obscuring his thoughtful words like so many clouds.

Let's face it -- people don't read coffee table books. They buy them as presents, they decorate with them. Inside Out is expensive, and it's the size of a large dinner plate. It's as heavy as a brick. The pages are thick shiny cardboard, so you have to pin the whole contraption down with a wrestler's grip to read a damn page. And you can forget about carrying it on a train or taking it to work for lunch hour. Inside Out was not designed for actual reading, and that's why nobody reads it. There isn't even a Kindle version available.

Could it be that Chronicle Books, publisher of the American edition (and an otherwise excellent and innovative publishing company) didn't know that a Nick Mason memoir would sell on its own, that Pink Floyd is one of the most popular rock bands of all time, that Pink Floyd fans read a lot of books? Have they seen Pink Floyd fans? This book could have been a number one bestseller -- after all, many Pink Floyd albums were.

Word of mouth would have boosted sales, because Nick Mason has a very natural voice and a charming British sense of humor. Here, he's talking about the hangers-on who began to show up after The Wall hit it big:

As always there was some political and financial repercussions as the album climbed the charts. We had lawyers representing all and sundry trying to scramble aboard the gravy train. One voice heard on the album after we recorded a random turning of the TV dial belonged to an actor who thought the success was primarily due to his contribution. We offered him a settlement with the option of doubling the amount if he gave it all to charity. He took the half for himself.

Mason is an observant, detail-minded and philosophical writer. He often muses about the technology of music (or, equally often, the technology of racing cars or lighting systems or houseboats) as it relates to human nature.

I loved the sound he [Alan Parsons] could get on tape for my drums. In rock music, getting this right is still one of the great tests for any engineer. Since the drum's original use was to spur on troops to warfare, rather than winning over a maiden's fair heart, it is hardly surprising that many a battle has been fought over the drum sound.

As the anecdotes accumulate in Inside Out, one suspects that the punchlines only work so well because the stories have been worked out over dinners and wine for decades. Well, this is one reason storytellers go to dinner parties -- to practice -- and it's one reason that older people write such good memoirs.

The passage of years probably also helped to strengthen Nick Mason attitude in life. He appears throughout the career of Pink Floyd to have been a humble, accepting and nonjudgmental person. This is a good trait in a drummer, who has to get along with guitarists and singers, and it must have come in particularly handy for Nick Mason, who spent two decades as half of a rhythm section with Roger Waters, Pink Floyd's genius bassist and a notoriously difficult man.

Mason hints wryly in Inside Out at scenes of near-abuse from the temperamental Waters in cold studios on sleepless nights. But he also makes it clear that he considers Roger a lifelong best friend. On the first page of the book, he and Roger Waters are fellow teenage architecture students in a London school, along with a third architecture student and jazz keyboardist named Rick Wright. The first time Roger Waters spoke to Nick Mason at this school was to ask to borrow his car.

The vehicle in question was a 1930 Austin Seven 'Chummy' which I'd picked up for twenty quid. Roger must have been desperate even to want me to lend it to him. The Austin's cruising speed was so sluggish that I'd once had to give a hitch-hiker a lift out of sheer embarrassment because I was going so slowly he thought I was actually stopping to offer him a ride. I told Roger the car was off the road, which was not entirely true. Part of me was reluctant to lend it out to anyone else, but I think I also found Roger rather menacing. When he spotted me driving the Austin shortly afterwards, he had his first taste of my penchant for occupying that no-man's-land between duplicity and diplomacy. On a previous occasion, Roger had accosted Rick Wright, who was also a student in our class, and asked him for a cigarette, a request Rick turned down point blank. This was an early sign of Rick's legendary generosity.

I love this opening sequence, and I also like the way a closing sequence in the book's final chapter echoes it perfectly. Here, the late-period post-Waters Pink Floyd is picking songs for Division Bell.

At band meetings we now started whittling down the possible songs to the probables. We set up an extremely democratic system whereby David, Rick and I would each award marks out of ten for each song, regardless of who had originally generated the piece. This should have worked smoothly, had Rick not misinterpreted the democratic principles underlying the voting system. He simply awarded all of his ideas the full ten points, and everything else got nil points. This meant that all of Rick's pieces had a ten-point head start, and it took David and me a while to work out why this new album was rapidly becoming a Rick Wright magnum opus …

The same issue reappeared a decade later when we were selecting tracks for inclusion on 'Echoes', the compilation album which required input from David, Rick, myself and Roger. As well as the oars being poked in by a whole galley-load of record company executives, engineers, producers and managers, this time we had to deal with the fact that Roger, like Rick before him, would only vote for his own tracks. God bless democracy.

It's fitting that Nick Mason, Roger Waters and Rick Wright were architecture students, because Pink Floyd's amazing record albums were among the most diagrammatic and conceptually ambitious of the classic rock era. The albums they are most famous for today, though they are not my favorite Pink Floyd albums, are The Wall (a heavy psychological dissection of Roger Waters's personality problems), Wish You Were Here (their gentlest work), and Dark Side of the Moon (their most complete masterpiece). As great as these three records are, I sometimes resent the way they overpower Pink Floyd's previous career, which was even better. I also resent the fact that the blatant, earnest, almost adolescent expressionism of these three rage-filled albums has left an impression that adolescent rage was all Pink Floyd was ever good at. In fact, their earlier records were their best, and these lack the mawkishness of their more famous works.

I'm taking about the amazing experimental albums they recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like Soundtrack from More, Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother. This was after they recovered from the loss of Syd Barrett (whose Pink Floyd-created solo albums during these years are also masterpieces) and all four members of the band began reaching their potential and fully exploring the possibilities of their ensemble.

These were also the years in which Nick Mason's ability to create dramatic and dynamic drum parts became most evident. His name is often neglected when listing drum legends like John Bonham of Led Zeppelin or Keith Moon of the Who, but Mason's clever, theatrical drum style put him in their class. For a glimpse of Nick Mason and the entire band at peak power, here's A Saucerful of Secrets from the Live at Pompeii movie:

The release of Dark Side of the Moon in 1973 ended Pink Floyd's reputation as a collegiate prog band. They transformed into blockbuster rockers, specializing in massive stadium concerts (two of which I was lucky enough to see in my teenage years). During this period Roger Waters began to dominate the band, and much of Nick Mason's later story in Inside Out is about the power struggle that eventually took a surprising twist when David Gilmour and Nick Mason managed to wrest Pink Floyd slyly out of Roger Waters's hands and recreate the band without him. (As a Roger Waters fan, I mostly lost interest in Pink Floyd at this point.)

Nick Mason reveals many musical secrets in this book, such as the fact that he had to play the heartbeat in "Speak to Me" on a drum because their tapes of real heartbeats sounded too "stressful", that the climactic crescendo that segues between "Speak to Me" and "Breathe" is a piano chord played backwards, that Rick Wright played the melody of "See Emily Play" on the fading notes of the Wish You Were Here album as a tribute to Syd Barrett, who Nick Mason remembers as a once "delightful" former band-mate who frighteningly lost his mind.

Nick Mason was as sane as Syd Barrett wasn't, and as calm as Roger Waters wasn't. Together, Barrett and Gilmour and Waters and Mason and Wright produced a body of work that equals that of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, though Pink Floyd has never reached their level of wide acclaim.

This may be because the members so rigorously avoided celebrity -- an avoidance that might have been grounded in necessity, since they didn't really have the personal charisma to achieve it. Pink Floyd was music by nerds, for nerds. That's why I'm sure Inside Out would have sold so well: nerds read a lot of books.

Note: While this review is about the American edition of Inside Out, I see that there is a British edition which may be easier to read, and thankfully is available on a Kindle. This British edition, which I have not seen, apparently also includes an update about Pink Floyd's reunion (including Roger Waters, finally) at Live 8 in 2005. This wondrous 25-minute reunion can be enjoyed in full right here. It'll probably make you want to read this book, and I suggest you try the British edition.


Pink Floyd's drummer has written a clever and honest autobiography, though unfortunately the book's format will keep readers far away.

view /NickMason
Tuesday, March 11, 2014 04:17 pm
Nick Mason and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd
Levi Asher

We need more movies about philosophers. I can only think of very few examples to mention, but David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, a 2011 film about the rivalry between early psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, shows that the format can work. This is an intelligent and straightforward narrative work, based on Christopher Hampton's play The Talking Cure which was itself based on the book A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein by John Kerr.

A Dangerous Method stars Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley as a severely disturbed young psychoanalytic patient named Sabina Spielrein who would eventually defeat her demons and become Jung's illicit lover, Jung and Freud's intellectual partner, and an innovative psychologist in her own right.

The passage of fetchingly hysterical Sabina Spielrein to mature and productive work as a psychologist forms this movie's basic plot, and the famous rivalry between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud swirls around Sabina's success story. The menage a trios plot frame probably helped to make this film possible (a conventional love story always helps an ideological dispute go down) but unfortunately the romantic subtext doesn't particularly gel at any point, and the inevitable comparison to Truffaut's Jules and Jim (or Paul Mazursky's wonderful American knockoff Willie and Phil) doesn't help. Kiera Knightley gets to chew on a lot of furniture in the opening scenes, but once she is cured there is only tepid chemistry between her and the stiff, dignified Carl Jung. This is the least satisfying aspect of A Dangerous Method, and perhaps better chemistry between actors could have helped. (We know that David Cronenberg can film great love scenes; sparks flew like crazy between Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum in his best film, The Fly.)

Sparks do fly here between Fassbender's shy, hesitant Jung and Mortensen's intense, domineering Freud. A Dangerous Method wastes no time getting to their core conflict: Freud saw sexuality as the key to every mental illness, while his younger protege searched for wider and more general causes. When the two first meet in Freud's office (decorated, as seen above, with a wonderful array of significant objects that feel positively Jungian), they already feel the tension of their eventual break. They banter about whether or not Freud's place in the field of psychoanalysis resembles that of Columbus (who saw the shore of a new world, but did not know what shore it was) or Galileo or perhaps Moses, with Jung as his Joshua.

Jung is disappointed to find Freud locked into a defensive and embattled stance against the critics of psychoanalysis, and he gently refuses Freud's urgent invitations to become a partisan in this cultural battle. Jung's interest in the social nature of consciousness and the possible validity of religious impulse alienates Freud. The break as depicted in this film matches exactly the story known to historians of the movement, and is presented with more clarity than theatricality. Cronenberg's artistic restraint is admirable, though perhaps a cinematic flight of fancy or two might have actually helped this work to soar. As it stands, the most emotional moment in the movie comes at the very end, when it is revealed how various heroes of this story were suddenly destroyed in World War Two.

Was the promise of psychoanalytic research itself lost in that disastrous war? I liked A Dangerous Method best as a reminder of the importance of the mission that inspired both Freud and Jung (and other early psychologists like Otto Gross, who also appears within this film's menage). I have written about Carl Jung on this blog once or twice, but not as much as I would like to. His importance is barely recognized in the world today, his reputation nebulous, his ideas considered quaint. His greatest idea was to explore the collective unconscious -- the ways in which we think, feel and act in groups rather than as individuals. This is a vitally important project that has been largely abandoned since the murderous maelstrom of the mid 20th Century. It was not abandoned because it was not important. Perhaps it was abandoned because it was too important.

Carl Jung was once massively famous, but when his name today comes up the context is often biographical or artistic, as when books like his curious creative work The Red Book are newly published. But it is not Carl Jung the person who is most important today -- rather it is the project of understanding the gigantic but often invisible influence that collective consciousness has on individual human existence that is important, and needs to be carried on. Perhaps it's a good thing that David Cronenberg's film A Dangerous Method presents Carl Jung as such a bland character. The real importance of Carl Jung is not in his personality, but in the forgotten project he began.


A David Cronenberg film about the rivalry between two key founders of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

view /ADangerousMethod
Saturday, January 25, 2014 05:52 pm
Jung and Freud in A Dangerous Method
Levi Asher

A couple of really great finds for you today ...

My temperature was no better than lukewarm as I pondered the cover of a book called The Cool School: Writing from America's Hip Underground, a Library of America anthology edited by Glenn O'Brien. The Library of America isn't known for edginess, and books with the word "hip" in their subtitles don't have the greatest track record with me.

Then I looked at the table of contents and immediately realized I had misjudged this book. Wow! We kick off with an excerpt from Mezz Mezzrow's classic jazz memoir Really The Blues, a hell of a good place to start, and instant evidence of an anthologist who knows his stuff. Then we blast away to Henry Miller, Herbert Huncke and Carl Solomon, a sweet rumination on Shakespeare's Hamlet by Delmore Schwartz, followed by "You're Too Hip, Baby" by Terry Southern ... and then just as I start to wonder where the cool women are, a real surprise: the lyrics to the 1952 song "Twisted" by Annie Ross of the now too-little-remembered folk/hipster trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, a comic tune later resurrected by Joni Mitchell that begins with this line:

My analyst told me that I was right out of my head

At this point, there is no doubt that Glenn O'Brien has exceeded his assignment and met the challenge of producing a fresh, sharp literary anthology of cool with more beatnik accuracy and hipster knowledge than anyone could expect. We proceed with moments from Lord Buckley, Gregory Corso, Diane Di Prima, Norman Mailer, Amira Baraka, Fran Landesman, Seymour Krim, Mort Sahl, the well-titled "Siobhnan McKenna Group-Grope" by Ed Sanders, and more from Rudolph Wulitzer, Ishmael Reed, Richard Brautigan, Andy Warhol, Richard Hell, Lynne Tillman, Emily XYZ, Eric Bogosian and (the closer) George Carlin.

Nailed it! If a table of contents can sing, this one is jamming.

I've already raved on this blog about Russ Kick's ambitious project The Graphic Canon, a super-thick multi-volume collection of illustrated spinoffs, takeoffs and impressionist interpretations of great literature from planet Earth. What most impressed me about the first two chronologically-ordered volumes was the broad multi-cultural view of world literature, encompassing illustrated versions of spiritual and religious classics, surprising philosophy texts and plenty of unexpected works of fiction and poetry. The quality of the selections is due to the good taste of Russ Kick, who is far from a member of any academy and was previously the author of You Are Being Lied To: The Disinformation Guide to Media Distortion, Historical Whitewashes and Cultural Myths.

The series has now been completed with the publication of The Graphic Canon, Vol. 3: From Heart of Darkness to Hemingway to Infinite Jest, which begins in the Victorian/pre-modernist era with Matt Kish's dreamy spin on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Rebecca Migdal's gentle take on Kate Chopin's The Awakening. It ends with a painting by Rey Ortega inspired by Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Benjamin Birdie's cartoonish take on David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. In between, of course, we have the great span of 20th Century literature, including writers like James Joyce, Zora Neale Hurston, Samuel Beckett, Rainer Maria Rilke, William Golding and Raymond Carver as seen by familiar illustrators like Robert Crumb, Peter Kuper, Ted Rall and Molly Crabapple, along with many less-familiar and hopefully up-and-coming names.

The third volume seems to verge more towards abstract and non-literal interpretations than the first two. Perhaps it reveals some inner squareness on my part that I most enjoyed the more literal interpretations (like Rebecca Migdal's Kate Chopin) and found the less linear illustrations sometimes thrilling but often disappointing. For instance, I was eager to see what an artist named Juliacks would do with one of my all-time favorite novels, In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan, but the single-image result is as coolly incomprehensible (to me, at least) as a typical expressionist painting in a typical modern art museum, and I can't find a meaningful reference to Brautigan's story in it.

But why would I want to complain about a book so inclusive, so full of potential discovery? A reader could probably spend a full year happily paging through the three volumes of the now-complete Graphic Canon, which is available as a boxed set; I'm not in the habit of recommending holiday presents, but I have to say that this looks like a good gift for anybody who loves literature.

I've also heard that a Graphic Canon of Children's Literature will be hitting the shelves in May 2014. Props to Russ Kick for creating a franchise that the world will long enjoy.


Two great new books explore the legacy of classic modernist and/or hipster literature.

view /CanonsOfCool
Wednesday, December 11, 2013 01:07 pm
The Cool School by Glenn O'Brein, The Graphic Canon by Russ Kick
Levi Asher