A huge realization came to me recently, as I immersed myself in books and old movies about the US Civil War. We all know that the Confederate nation that lost this bitter war was also soundly trounced by the judgement of history, since the Confederacy's key pro-slavery position is clearly on its wrong side.
But the 150 years that have passed since the end of the Southern rebellion might have put a thick patina on the moral arguments that once energized the rebellion, and I made it my goal during my recent bout of Civil War reading to try to understand how a typical well-educated and high-principled Southerner would have explained the Southern position. There were, of course, many thoughtful intellectuals in the Civil War South, and we can take two of the four main characters in Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With The Wind as useful examples. The noble Ashley Wilkes is a brave Confederate officer who loves books, who loses himself in his vast library, who befuddles Scarlett O'Hara with talk of the Gotterdammerung. His equally noble wife Melanie Hamilton Wilkes relishes the opportunity to discuss literature and morality; we first meet her condemning the British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray for being "a cynic" and "not the gentleman Dickens is".
As a lifelong American Northener, I grew up with a shallow perception of Confederate politics as essentially unprincipled. It's clear today that the Confederate position on slavery was terribly wrong -- but even so, an ethical philosopher who wishes to understand history can't stop there. There's a puzzle to be solved, because even though we see the Confederate position to be wrong today, we must recognize that the Confederacy was populated with principled intellectuals who somehow convinced themselves that it was right. How, exactly, did they convince themselves of this, and what can we learn about our own closely held beliefs from their example?
When Vladimir Nabokov read his lectures on literature, he closed all the curtains in the room to make it totally dark and started to speak.
“On the horizon of Russian literature, this is Gogol” -- and the small hall light flashed in the corner. “This is Chekhov” -- and one more star appeared on the ceiling. “This is Dostoevsky” -- Nabokov turned the light on here. “And this is Tolstoy!” The lecturer opened the curtains, and a bright blinding sunlight flooded the room.
Count Leo Tolstoy was the first writer who refused a copyright; he was an opponent of the Russian state system; he fulminated an anathema because he did not accept any religious authorities. He had refused the Nobel Prize, he hated money, and he always took the side of peasants. Many of his unique positions and practices are not known today.
He left us 165 000 sheets of manuscripts, 90 volumes of complete works, and 10 000 letters. He had been looking for the meaning of life and the universal happiness throughout his whole life, and he had found them in one word: kindness.
We all know Tolstoy as the author of long novels like War and Peace and Anna Karenina, which is why some do not realize that Tolstoy could write powerful short letters, stories, or novels. Indeed, his writings are filled with extremely long sentences and scrupulous levels of detail. Interestingly, his handwriting was often barely legible. The only person who could understand it was his wife, Sophia. She had to re-write War and Peace many times before Leo chose the final version to send to his editors. Here is the example of his handwriting:
This week, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham of the Creation Museum in Kentucky spent two and a half hours debating the origin of the universe in a well-publicized update of the Scopes Trial of 1920. I could only endure the tedium of the YouTube broadcast for about a half hour, but even though I didn't watch the whole thing I am pleased by the friendly gesture this event represents. Sometimes a willingness to meet in open debate can be more significant than any actual arguments contained within.
Amidst the social media conversations following the debate, I was also impressed by a page of photos of regular people holding up papers expressing questions or ideas supporting the creationist point of view. I don't get the logic behind some of these expressions -- and yet they all appear to be sincere, and a few may even be meaningful. In the photo above, a woman's comparison of the idea of God and the idea of the Big Band strikes a chord. It is true that the idea of the Big Bang as constantly described by physics teachers and Morgan Freeman is as ultimately inexorable as the traditional idea of God.
An Atlantic Monthly article by David A. Graham titled "Why Has Republican Belief in Evolution Declined So Much?" made the rounds last week, citing a Pew Research Center study that shows the percentage of self-identifying Republican voters in the United States of America who believe in evolution dropping from 54% to 43% since 2009.
Is this a worrying trend? Many of my fellow liberal progressives on Facebook and Twitter seem to think it is. I think the more dangerous trend is that these friends of mine are snapping at the bait. I've said it before and I'll say it again: as enticing as the Darwin vs. creationism debate may look to eager liberals, we should never swallow it. It's a poison pill.
Darwinism is rock-solid science, but anybody who thinks scientific proof has more power to compel personal belief than traditional religion needs to freshen up on William James, the brilliant philosopher who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience and The Will to Believe. In the latter essay, James listed the necessary conditions for typical belief in any possible truth, and showed that personal inclination tends to play a stronger role than preponderance of evidence in most belief situations. Most importantly, James showed that willful belief is a universal human pattern at all levels of intellect and education, and that the selective mechanisms which construct our beliefs do tend to provide enough of the sturdy fabric of truth and understanding required to inform and guide our lives.
A surprising news bulletin made the rounds this week: "Incredible Discovery Reveals Birthplace of Buddha". They did what? The story appears to be credible, though many Westerners like me who feel the significance aren't quite sure how to react. Shouldn't a discovery this momentous be bigger news? Shouldn't it at least be accompanied by some kind of astral event or bright comet? (Oh, right.)
It's strange to think of Buddha's traces in the material world, though Prince Siddhartha Guatama of Kapilavastu was certainly a historical figure, and was a celebrated personality in his community even before he became the Enlightened One. His teachings are similar in many ways to those of Jesus of Nazareth, but their life trajectories were opposite. Jesus was born in poverty and anonymity, and died an early violent death after being hailed as the King of the Jews. Buddha was born a royal, but nobody thought of him as a Prince or King any more by the time he died peacefully at the age of 80.
As some of you may remember, I spent 2009 writing a memoir about my experiences in New York City's New Media industry from 1993 to 2003. I've often wondered if I would ever write an update.
I might someday, and I might even write about the work I've been doing since 2009, when I moved down to Northern Virginia to get married and began working in Washington DC and in Northern Virginia's tech corridor.
I only write memoirs in past tense, so I won't be writing about my current jobs and projects anytime soon. But I wish I could, because lately it's been as exciting as Silicon Alley down in here. The big local story is the epic #fail of the Obama administration's website Healthcare.gov, which was built by several NoVa firms like CGI Federal.
Some of you may wonder why I'm so crazy about rockstar memoirs. Well, I guess it's because I have so much respect for the body of work the great songwriters and musicians of our lifetimes have created.
From Chuck Berry to Mobb Deep, our best rockers, strummers, crooners and rappers are among the great geniuses of our time. When a worthy musician or songwriter writes a book (thus combining two of my favorite things, books and music) I'll usually jump at the chance to read it -- for the sheer pleasure of hearing their sides of the stories, and for the privilege of plugging into their creative minds.
Graham Nash, a British pop singer with the Hollies who jumped the Atlantic Ocean and became part of the otherwise American and quintessentially hippie assemblage known variously as Crosby Stills and Nash, Crosby Stills Nash and Young and Crosby/Nash, has written a new autobiography, Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life, and of course I gobbled it up. I know of Graham Nash not only as the owner of the sweet, peach-toned high voice in beautiful songs like "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" and "Wind on the Water" but also as a political activist and even, perhaps, as a notable role model for "sensible" rockers.
Unlike every other member of CSNY, Graham Nash always evoked calm. He never become a drug fiend (that was Crosby), never showed up onstage looking bloated and dazed (that was Crosby and Stills), never swirled for years in solipsistic head trips producing incomprehensible albums (that was Neil Young, whose quirky memoir Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream I also recently reviewed).
I'm trying real hard to find a way to love Traveling Sprinkler, the new Paul Chowder novel by Nicholson Baker, who is just about my favorite writer in the world, but whose books I increasingly can't stand.
I say "the new Paul Chowder novel" the way one might say "the new Hannibal Lecter novel" or "the new Rabbit Angstrom novel", but the sad truth is that few Nicholson Baker readers were clamoring for a sequel to the first Paul Chowder novel, The Anthologist (which I reviewed and played a song from in 2010). Both Anthologist and the new Sprinkler are narrated in an arch voice by Crowder, a middle-aged literary oddball with a wayward attention span, a childish sense of humor and a wistful yearning for a woman named Roz.
Jack Kerouac's poetry has just been enshrined in the prestigious Library of America series, which would have made him proud. No sooner is the book published, though, than comes the reaction. Bruce Bawer trashes Kerouac mercilessly in The New Criterion, with raw insults that go way over the top:
Grimly reconciled though one may be to the annual flood of books by and about the Beat Generation, it’s particularly depressing to see Jack Kerouac’s poetry, of all things, enshrined in the Library of America, that magnificent series designed to preserve for posterity the treasures of our national literature. To read through these seven hundred–odd pages of Kerouac’s staggeringly slapdash effusions set in elegant Galliard, outfitted with the usual meticulous editorial apparatus, and bound—like Twain’s novels and Lincoln’s speeches—in a beautiful Library of America volume is enough to trigger a serious attack of cognitive dissonance.
Well. I must admit that I too prefer Kerouac's wonderful prose to his vexing poetry. However, I can prove that Jack Kerouac is an important poet, because he has written at least one short poem that seems to mean many things to many people. It goes like this:
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.