(A few months ago, I received an email from an Australian writer named Tim Hawken who had a few article ideas for Litkicks. I published his Kant on Beauty and Heidegger on Art, and it was only after this that Tim revealed to me that he was writing these pieces under the stress of a family health calamity. For more of the personal story behind today's article, see this post on Tim's own blog. The photo of a deconstructed wristwatch is from a photo essay also on Tim's blog, entitled "Timeless" -- Levi)
Two years ago my wife was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. At 29 years old, she was told that she was going to die. The revelation turned our world upside down. Certainties we held previously about our lives were washed away like sandcastles built in the tidal zone. Only small mounds of faith remained, but the idea of a distant, pain-free death in our twilight years, having lived a full and happy existence, had been demolished.
Instantly, the ‘bucket list’ mentality came into play. We began building a catalogue of things to do before eternal darkness swept in. We quit our corporate jobs and traveled the world. After a year on the road, a reassessment of our life goals led us both back to study: philosophy for me, nutrition for her. What I have come to realize in these recent tumultuous years is this: we were always both dying; we just didn’t realise it yet. Death, of course, is life’s only real certainty. So, why did being told something we both should have known already change our perspective so much?
There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.'
Thus spake literary critic Isaiah Berlin in a famous 1951 essay about the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who he considered a classic hedgehog: a writer with a singular vision and a focused intensity. Berlin continues:
... there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel -- a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance -- and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle.
I'm too lazy to try to put together a coherent "best books of 2012" list on Literary Kicks, though I'm happy to point you to some other good lists. "A Year in Reading" at the Millions overflows with contributions from smart folks like Kate Zambreno, Scott Esposito, Alexander Chee and Ellen Ullman. Elsewhere, Michele Filgate gathers literary reveries over at the Salon What To Read Awards, and here are Ed Champion's faves and Largehearted Boy's monumental list of lists. Finally, plodding earnestly along behind its paywall, here's the New York Times Book Review's Ten Best Books of 2012, which includes 5 novels and 5 works of non-fiction.
Me, I read more non-fiction -- philosophy, history, politics -- than fiction this year, and I can only think of a few novels that impressed me in 2012. Kino by Jurgen Fauth was a refreshing, tantalizing comedy about art cinema obsessions. The World Without You by Joshua Henkin brought a real family to life. Laurent Binet's HHhH seemed to be an acrobatic work of self-exploratory fiction about World War II, wrapped like a KFC Double Down inside another acrobatic work of self-exploratory fiction about itself. (I'm not sure if I just made that sound good, but I really liked the book).
Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck has died. Recordings of his snappy number Take Five have been flying around the Internet in the past two days, but I like this video even better. Brubeck is playing a small concert in Moscow, and obliges when asked to improvise on a Russian theme. But watch what happens -- especially the surprised (and instantly delighted) look on Dave Brubeck's face when he discovers that a member of the audience has begun playing along on violin. A joyful moment.
1. Michael Stutz recently shared his theory that a diner in Jack Kerouac's hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts might have been the inspiration for the name of Sal Paradise, the On The Road narrator. In a follow-up conversation, Michael told me more about the Paradise Diner: it opened in 1937 (when Jack was 15 years old) and can be found on Google Maps here.
2. The poet Adrienne Rich has died. Jamelah Earle has written about this.
3. My younger daughter compelled me to read Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games last year, and we were both fairly blown away by the movie (as was Benoit Lelievre and many, many others). The Atlantic has published a good list of the story's mythological and pop-culture sources. (I'm only surprised this article doesn't mention Gone With The Wind, since Katniss's richly layered love triangle with Peeta and Gale strikes me as a clear echo of Scarlett O'Hara's tortuous confusion over Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes).
How would it feel to have been a physicist just before Albert Einstein, or a biologist just before Darwin? I can sympathize with all the dedicated, highly trained scientists who must have toiled in frustration for decades, grasping for insight, groping at patterns, making little discoveries here and there, yet always sensing that they were missing the big idea.
Amateur or professional philosophers today can probably relate, because our field appears to be currently in a state of darkness comparable to physics before Einstein or biology before Darwin. Why do I say this? Well, the big tipoff is the low standing of philosophy as a whole. It's widely considered a quaint and vain hobby, a useless college major that merits half a shelf in every bookstore. We have no famous philosophers, and virtually nobody considers philosophy or ethics important for everyday life.
We are so accustomed to this sad state of affairs that we often forget that societies do not always ignore philosophy; they only do so when the field is moribund. In the half-century before the French revolution, when ethical philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire were making powerful discoveries, philosophers were treated as superstars. Similarly, physicists and biologists probably started getting a whole lot more respect after Einstein and Darwin finally broke the ground that needed to be broken, and may not have gotten much respect before. The standing of any intellectual discipline directly correlates to its level of success ... and it's a sad fact that ethical philosophy has been a flop since the dawn of the modern age.
This is no idle or abstract problem; it amounts to the human disaster of a world that fails to comprehend itself. The spiritual, psychological, social and political problems that ethical philosophy are meant to help fix are going unfixed, and modern society has also come to think of this confusion as normal. Here are a few examples of what I mean:
1. Isn't this a great book cover? Woolgathering is not a new Patti Smith book, and it shouldn't be mistaken for a sequel to her great Just Kids. In fact, I first bought this when it was a great little Hanuman book that looked like this:
The Hanuman book looked cool, but I think the newly republished New Directions version's cover art may be even better. Shepherd, tend thy flock.
2. Occupy St. Petersburg? Bill Ectric draws some connections between Nikolai Gogol's financial satire Dead Souls and more recent high finance scams.
3. Steve Silberman asks: What kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, really?
Two philosophical entertainments for a pleasant summer weekend:
1. I'm intrigued by a new novel called The New Moscow Philosophy by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh, originally published in 1989 and translated into several languages, but only now available in English in a new edition translated by Krystyna Anna Steiger and published by Twisted Spoon Press of Praque.
I'm only a few pages in, but am already impressed to find in this book a rich, obsessive look at the whole meaning of Russian literature. The endpaper copy explains:
... As two tenants engage in an extended debate over the nature of evil, the take it upon themselves to solve the mystery and nail the culprit, and it becomes clear that the entire tableaux is a reprise of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Displaying a sharp with and a Gogolian sense of the absurd, Pyetsukh visits anew the age-old debate over the relationship between life and art, arguing that in Russia life imitating literature is as true as literature reflecting life.
1. Here's a newly-found old video of Beat Generation/Summer of Love poet Michael McClure reading poetry to caged lions. The last section of the poem consists of McClure yelling "roar" repeatedly. The video might strike some as precious -- Steve Silberman called it "beat kitsch" in a recent tweet -- but it gets cool around the time the lions start roaring back in harmony with McClure. If you can get a bunch of lions to respond to your poetry, you must be doing something right.
2. Suzuki Beane! I heard long ago that YA-novelist Louise Fitzhugh (Harriet the Spy is her most famous book, though I liked The Long Secret even better) began her writing career with an illustrated book, Suzuki Beane, a parody of Hilary Knight's Eloise starring a punky kid with beatnik parents. But I'd never been able to find a copy of the book until I saw a link to this digital version in a Boing-Boing article that also links to a surprising TV show pilot version of the book (the show never got made, which is too bad, because it looks pretty cute). Serious fans of Harriet M. Welsch, Sport and Beth-Ellen will find many echoes of their favorite Fitzhugh books in Suzuki Beane, particularly in the affectionate depictions of the tortuous relationships that sometimes exist between eccentric, artistic parents and their stubborn kids.
1. Okay, enough of that French stuff. A recent link on Books Inq. reminded me of one of the funniest books I've ever read, the neat, smoothly vicious British satire from 1888 and 1889 called Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith.
Diary, originally published as a serial in Punch Magazine, is the fictional record of a humble but optimistic middle-class man who keeps house in the suburbs north of London. The parody of his provincial mind has a sharp, bitter sense that may remind you of P. G. Wodehouse, Noel Coward, the Marx Brothers or Monty Python (it predates all of them). This excellent article about the book from the Dabbler draws an original analogy between the character of young Lupin Pooter, the rebellious son of our respectable diary-keeping hero, and the later character of Jimmy Porter, the Angry Young Man invented by John Osborne.
It's easy to draw connections from Charles Pooter. When I read Diary I always think of the beautiful songs Ray Davies wrote for the Kinks. The character that emerges from many of these Kinks songs is Pooter:
I like my football on a Saturday
Roast beef on Sunday -- all right!