Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Updike's Leviathan—and ours

I am haunted by an image from one of Updike's poems—not the serious ones, but the "light verse" that he segregated from the others at the back of his Collected Poems:

                                                . . . . blue whales
          Grin fathoms down, and through their teeth are strained
         A million lives a minute; each entails,
         In death, a microscopic bit of pain.
                                                               (from Caligula's Dream)

I never thought about the krill that baleen whales, eat or what it might be like to be one of them; thanks to Updike that little gap in my understanding of Darwinian nature has just been filled.

All over the world hundreds of millions are being treated like krill. Here in America we are destroying the lives of only 20 million unemployed people and their families; the politicians of both parties are content to regard their pain as microscopic. It isn't.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Voices of the romantic revolution: Charlotte and Emily Brontë

The following remarks are taken from an essay by Virginia Woolf (in The Common Reader, 1925).

"There is in them some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to observe patiently. This very ardour, rejecting half shades and other minor impediments wings its way past the daily conduct of ordinary people and allies itself with their more inarticulate passion. It makes them poets, or, if they choose to write in prose, intolerant of its restrictions. Hence it is that both Emily and Charlotte are always invoking the help of nature. They both feel the need of some more powerful symbol of the vast and slumbering passions in human nature than words or actions can convey. It is with a description of a storm that Charlotte ends her finest novel, Villette. 'The skies hang full and dark—a wrack sails from the west; the clouds cast themselves into strange forms.' So she calls in nature to describe a state of mind that could not be otherwise expressed. But neither of the sisters observed nature accurately as Dorothy Wordsworth observed it, or painted it minutely as Tennyson painted it. They seized those aspects of the earth which were most akin to what they themselves felt or imputed to their characters, and so their storms, their moors, their lovely spaces of summer weather are not ornaments to decorate a dull page or display the artist's power of observation—they carry on the emotion and light up the meaning of the book.

"The meaning of a book, which lies so often apart from what happens and what is said and consists in some connection with things in themselves different have had for the writer, is necessarily hard to grasp. Especially is this so when, like the Brontës, the writer is poetic, and his meaning inseparable from his language, and itself rather a mood than a particular observation. Wuthering Heights is a more difficult book to understand than Jane Eyre, because Emily was a greater poet than Charlotte. When Charlotte wrote she said 'I love', 'I hate,' 'I suffer'. Her experience, though more intense, is on a level with our own. But there is no 'I' in Wuthering Heights. There are no governesses. There are no employers. There is love, but it is not the love of men and women. Emily was inspired by some more general conception. The impulse that urged her to create was not her own suffering or her own injuries. She looked out upon a world cleft into a gigantic disorder and felt within her the power to unite it in a book. That gigantic ambition is to be felt throughout the novel—a struggle, half thwarted but of superb conviction, to say something through the mouths of her characters which is not merely 'I love' or 'I hate', but 'we, the whole human race' and 'you, the eternal powers . . .' the sentence remains unfinished. It is not strange that it should be so; rather it is astonishing that she can make us feel what she had it in her to say at all. It surges up in the half-articulate word of Catherine Earnshaw, 'If all else perished and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger. I should not seem part of it.' It breaks out again in the presence of the dead. 'I see a repose that neither earth nor hell can break, and I feel an assurance of the endless and shadowless hereafter—the eternity they have entered—where life is boundless in its duration, and love in its sympathy and joy in its fulness.' It is this suggestion of power underlying the apparitions of human nature and lifting them up into the presence of greatness that gives the book its huge stature among other novels."

Friday, May 27, 2011

Updike's unmodernist poetry

Updike, like Frost, Williams, Hardy and Larkin, never wrote a modernist poem. He too speaks in his own voice out of his own experience of the real, the given, the substantial world. Metaphors and other figures of speech, do not become symbols of spiritual things or meanings outside or unsupported by tangible connections with the real, the given, the substantial world.  When Updike was growing up in Shillington, Pennsylvania, he felt no hankering to be another Rimbaud—or Wallace Stevens. He wanted to be a cartoonist.

He wrote his first poem when he was 21, and has this to say about it in the "Preface" to his Collected Poems 1953-1993: "The very first poem here, bearing a comically long title, yet conveyed, with a compression unprecedented in my brief writing career the mythogenetic truth of telephone wires and poles marching across a stretch of Pennsylvania farmland. I still remember the shudder, the triumphant sense of capture with which I got these lines down, not long after my twenty-first birthday."
          Why the Telephone Wires Dip
and the Poles are Cracked and Crooked

             The old men say
             young men in gray
             hung this thread across our plains
             acres and acres ago.

             But we, the enlightened, know
             in point of fact it's what remains
             of the flight of a marvellous crow
             no one saw:
             each pole a caw.

Here's another poem I like, written about thirty years later:


            Pain flattens the world—its bubbles
            of bliss, its epiphanies, its upright
            sticks of day-to-day business—
            And shows us what seriousness is.

            And shows us, too, how those around us
            cannot get in; they cannot share
            our being. Though men talk big
            and challenge silence with laughter

            and women bring their engendering smiles
            and eyes of famous mercy,
            these kind things slide away
            like rain beating on a filthy window

            when pain interposes.
            What children's pageant in gauze
            filled the skulls ballroom before
            the caped dark stranger commanded, Freeze?
            Life is worse than mere folly.  We live
            within a cage wherefrom escape
            annihilates the captive; this, too,
            pain leads us to consider anew.

I could show you many more poems that would be worth your attention; I prefer tell you about certain qualities in Updike's poetry that I don't much care for. He has more to say about his sex life than I at least want to hear. And he likes to show us how much he knows about science—and how wittily he can write about such deep matters as entropy or the valence bonds that bind atoms in molecules. His poem about the moons of Jupiter is a tour de force; but that's all it is.

I don't understand why this poet makes so little use of rhyme—and the music of rhyme— in his 'serious' poetry. (You can feel the power of rhyme as you feel the power of "pain" as it "leads" us to reconsider our view of life in the poem I have just showed you.) Rhyme, he thinks, belongs in "light verse", which he carefully separates off from the good stuff in a special section at the end of the book. It's as if he were afraid of his own wit, afraid that his serious poetry might be contaminated by it. But wit is what makes his good poetry good; a little more music would have made it better. Remember what the Duke said: "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

I welcome comments from Updike's other admirers. Stick to the poetry though.



Monday, May 23, 2011

Philosophy & Curiosity (by Justin E. H. Smith, NY Times, 5-23-11)

 Must one be endowed with curiosity in order to become a philosopher?

Today, in the academic realm, at least, the answer is surely and regrettably no. When a newly minted philosopher goes on the job market, her primary task is to show her prospective colleagues how perfectly focused she has been in graduate school, and to conceal her knowledge of any topic (Shakespeare's sonnets, classical Chinese astronomy, the history of pigeon breeding etc.) that does not fall within the current boundaries of the discipline.

Curiosity-driven activities like insect-collecting and star-gazing have been downgraded to the status of mere hobbies.

But how were these boundaries formed in the first place? Did they spring from the very essence of philosophy, a set of core attributes present at inception, forever fixed and eternal? The answer to that latter question, is also no. What appears to us today to be a core is only what is left over after a centuries-long process by which the virtue of curiosity, once nearly synonymous with philosophy migrated into other disciplines, both scientific and humanistic. As this migration was occurring, many curiosity-driven activities such as insect-collecting and star-gazing, long considered at least tributaries of philosophy were downgraded to the status of mere hobbies. This loss of curiosity has played an important but little noticed role in the widespread perception that professional philosophy has become out of touch with the interests of the broader society.

Let me rush to qualify what no doubt sounds like a harsh assessment of the state of my own discipline. I am certainly not saying that, as individuals, philosophers will not often be curious people in the very best sense of that phrase, but only that they are habituated by their discipline to make a sharp distinction between their sundry interests  and what they do professionally, as philosophers. The distinction is as clear as that between Richard Feynman contribution to theoretical physics and his enjoyment of Tuvan throat-singing.

Today's natural scientist easily distinguishes his own work not only from his hobbies, but also from the activity of his pseudoscientific counterpart. When we look back in history, however, it becomes difficult to keep this distinction in view, for it has often happened that false beliefs have produced significant experimental results and have led to real discoveries. It is no less difficult  to separate the history either of science or of pseudoscience from what I will dare to call the real history of philosophy, for until very recently, what we now call science was not merely of interest to philosophers, but was in fact constitutive of philosophy. In fact, it was not called science at all, but rather natural philosophy.

Thus, tellingly, among the articles in the Philosophical Transactions of 1666, the first year of the journal's publication, we find titles such as "Of a Considerable Load-Stone Digged Out of the Ground in Devonshire" and "Observations Concerning Emmets or Ants, Their Eggs, Production, Progress, Coming to Maturity." Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, researchers studying the properties of magnetism continued to refer to their area of interest as the "magnetical" philosophy and as late as 1808  John Dalton published A New System of Chemical Philosophy. A year later Jean-Baptiste Lamarck brought out his Philosophie Zoologique. Yet by the early 20th century, this usage of the word philosophy had entirely vanished. What happened?

One of the charges brought against Socrates in Plato's great dialogue, "The Apology" is that he speculated about the heavens above, and searched into the earth beneath. Today philosophers are more likely to pick out the other charges—sophism, corrupting the youth, atheism—as most relevant to our understanding of the Socratic-Platonic revolution in the history of Western thought. But what are we to make of this charge of curiosity? It may be that in restyling themselves as scientists, natural philosophers or curiosi, have succeeded in the past few hundred years in overcoming their bad reputation. Little awareness lingers at this point (excepting, say, the occasional nuclear meltdown, when we start to feel we've gone too far too fast) of what might have made the activity of looking into the earth and the heavens a crime.

This restyling occurred over the course of the early modern period, at just the same time as questions that were once purely speculative concerning, for instance, the nature of life, or the causes of planetary orbits, came to be much more tractable than before, thanks to the increasing mathematization of the sciences, and to newly emerging standards for scientific observation and experimentation. Their new tractability by scientists left the philosophers to establish themselves on their own. But what exactly is left over for philosophy to do once the earth, the heavens, the animals and plants, are turned over to this new breed of scientists to explain?

There will certainly always be a place for epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. But in order for a theory of knowledge to tell us much, it needs to draw on examples of knowledge of something or other. And so philosophy agrees to a partial reconciliation with the sciences some years after its divorce from natural philosophy; Philosophy comes back to physics with the philosophy of physics, and to biology with the philosophy of biology, even though physics and biology are no longer part of philosophy itself.

Many philosophers today suppose that to take an interest in a false theory from the past implies a rejection of the idea of truth itself.

Now surely it is a good thing that today there are, say, helminthologists, who can devote all their time to the study of worms without having to worry about how these creatures fit into the cosmic  order, or into God's design, as you wish. But if helminthology has cleared away the cosmological dross that weighed it down back when it was part of natural philosophy, philosophy meanwhile may have lost something that once helped to fuel it: a curiosity about the world in all its detail; rather than to bound its pure activity off from the impure world of worms and so on, philosophy might approach its task through that succinct preposition, 'of', as in "philosophy of physics", or "philosophy of law" which would permit philosophy to stand apart, but not implicitly above, the mundane objects of its attention.

So long as contemporary philosophy conceives itself in that way, it is rather a difficult task to pursue the sort of research on the history of philosophy that is adequate to the material it studies, that respects actors and categories, and that takes seriously theories and entities that have long since been rejected by reasonable people. Consider Kenelm Digby's 1658 account of the "weapon salve," or the treatment of wounds at a distance by manipulation of the weapon that caused them. Digby in fact offered a fascinating, sophisticated application of early modern corpuscularianism [sic] yet many philosophers today suppose that to take an interest in a false theory from the past such as this one, to research it and to write about it, implies a rejection of the idea of truth itself. I myself was once dismissed as insufficiently postmodernist by a referee for a journal to which I submitted an article on the Digby's weapon salve.

There is no basis for such an accusation. For among the great many truths in the world is this one: a man named Digby once believed something false. To take an interest in that false belief is not to reject the truth, but only to wish to fill out our picture of the truth with as much detail as possible, and not because of some aesthetic inclination to the baroque, but rather because false theories are an important part of the puzzle that we as philosophers should be trying to complete: that of determining the range of ways people conceptualize the world around them.

This is a project, I believe, that philosophers ought to recognize themselves as having in common with the other human sciences, and most of all with anthropology, as well as with newer disciplines such as cognitive science, which takes the substantial interconnection between philosophy and the study of the natural world as seriously as it was taken in the 17th century. The new experimental philosophy movement is also returning to an earlier conception of the inseparability of philosophical reflection and scientific inquiry, though curiously "x-phi" advocates describe themselves as breaking with traditional philosophy, rather than as returning to it, which is what in fact they are doing.

But for the most part philosophers prefer to keep their distance from the world, to do philosophy of this or that, and to disavow any interest in reckoning up the actual range of ways in which people, past or present, have explained the world. For some historians of philosophy, this makes things difficult, since we find we cannot live up to the expectation of our colleagues to show the immediate philosophical pay-off of our research, by which of course is meant the relevance to the set of issues that happen to interest them. I believe it is imperative, indeed that it amounts to nothing short of respect paid to the dead, that historians of philosophy resist this demand for relevance. Scholarship in the history of philosophy must not aim to contribute to the resolution of problems on the current philosophical agenda. What it must do instead is reveal the variety of problems that have in different times and places been deemed philosophical, thereby providing a broader context within which current philosophers can understand the contingency, and future transformability, of their own problems. In this way, historians of philosophy contribute to the vitality of current philosophy, but on their own terms, and not on the terms dictated by their non-historian colleagues.

Recently I have noticed, when holding forth on, say, G. W. Leibniz's interest in the pharmaceutical properties of the Brazilian ipecacuanha root, the way in which the term 'erudite' now serves in some philosophical circles as a sort of back-handed compliment. What it really says is that the compliment's recipient cannot quite cut it as a real philosopher, which is to say as a producer of rigorous arguments, and so instead compensates by filling her head with so much historical trivia. Rigor has decidedly won out over erudition as the reigning philosophical virtue, yet it is with a curious lack of rigor that philosophers assume, without argument, that there is a zero-sum competition for space in our heads between rigor and erudition. As Laurence Sterne said, in a related context, this is like assuming that you cannot hiccup and flatulate at the same time.

It is noteworthy in this connection that in 1682 a journal was founded in Leipzig, as the German response to the Philosophical Transactions, with the title Acta Eruditorum, or Acts of the Erudite. This journal, too, contained much on the generation of maggots and other such matters. Now the figure of the eruditus was in the 17th century very close to the curiosus, and it is around the same time that we also witness the foundation of societies of natural philosophers with names such as the Societas Leopoldina Naturae Curiosorum (the Leopoldine Society for Those Who Are Curious about Nature).

It was before the members of this very society that Leibniz, in 1695, at the very peak of his innovation as a metaphysical thinker of the first order, presented what he described as his most important contribution to learning so far: a treatise entitled On the New American Antidysenteric, namely ipecacuanha, better known today through its derivative product, syrup of ipecac. It had already been known that this root, first described in Willem Piso's Natural History of Brazil (1648) could be used to stop diarrhea, and indeed its usefulness in saving Louis XIV from a bad case of dysentery was legendary around Paris when Leibniz lived there in the 1670s. But in front of the audience of German curiosi 20 years later Leibniz could claim for himself the credit for discovering the emetic properties of the root, and again, he would, evidently without hyperbole, compare this discovery favorably to everything else he had yet accomplished, and for which he remains so widely known today.

This is, to put it mildly, very curious. It shows at the very least that Leibniz conceived of his life's work, as a learned man, as a curiosus, and as a philosopher, very differently from the way we conceive of it today, and very differently from the way philosophers today conceive of their own work. And this different conception matters to the historian of philosophy, since to take an interest in Leibniz's pharmaceutical (or mine-engineering or paleontological) interests might, just might, reveal to us something we would not have noticed had we limited ourselves to the canonical treatises. And it might, finally, force us to reconsider the adequacy of our current list of philosophical problems. And even if it doesn't, something else from philosophy's past that has fallen off the list eventually surely will.

As a historian of philosophy I believe it is a terrible thing to attempt to fit figures from the history of philosophy into the narrow confines of a conception of philosophy that has really only emerged over the most recent centuries. Such confinement fails to do justice to the scope and richness of their thought. Perhaps more importantly, it deprives us of the possibility of rediscovering that spirit of curiosity that fueled the development of philosophy during its first few millennia.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Goethe's Faust—A Critique of Modernity?

I shall admit first of all that I don't undertand this poem or its hero, Faust, very well; maybe that's because I don't know German though I doubt it: Goethe was trying to do too much and loaded his poem down with more philosophical and allegorical baggage than it could carry.

I may have a better idea of what Mephistopheles is all about however and shall therefore try to focus my remarks on his role in this poem or play.

Though the poem begins, like Job, with an argument between God and Mephistopheles about the faith or virtuousness of Faust, Goethe loses interest in that question almost immediately; there is nothing even remotely Job-like about Faust or this poem. And since the state of Faust's soul (damned or saved) is not in question either, as it is in earlier versions of the story, including Marlowe's, why does Mephistopheles attach himself to him? What does he have to gain?

Notice, first of all, how different Goethe's Mephistopheles is from Marlowe's. When Marlowe's Dr. Faustus tells Mephistopheles that he (Faustus) doesn't believe in hell or damnation, Mephistopheles proceeds to set him straight:

F: Tell me, what is that Lucifer thy lord?
M: Arch-regent and commander of all spirits.
F: Was not that Lucifer an angel once?
M: Yes, Faustus, and most dearly loved of God.
F: How comes it then that he is Prince of devils?
M: O, by aspiring pride and insolence;
For which God threw him from the face of Heaven.
F: And what are you that you live with Lucifer?
M: Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer?
Conspired against our God with Lucifer,
And are for ever damned with Lucifer.
F: Where are you damned?
M: In hell.
F: How comes it then that you are out of hell?
M: Why this is hell nor am I out of it.
Think'st thou that I who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?
O Faustus! leave these frivolous demands,
Which strike a terror to my fainting soul.

None of this makes any impression on Faustus:

What, is great Mephistopheles so passionate
For being deprived of the joys of heaven?
Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude . . . .
Had I as many souls as many souls as there be stars,
I'd give them all for Mephistopheles.
By him I'll be great Emperor of the world. . . .

Marlowe's Mephistopheles, surprisingly, has principles and feelings; he is appalled at Faustus' foolishness but willing of course to take advantage of it; that's his job.

Goethe's Mephistopheles,  by contrast, is a cynic who has neither feelings nor principles; he does not believe in the possibility of virtuous or disinterested action: those who do strike him as funny. He stalks Faustus because he has a use for him: together they will construct the modern world. Absent from their notion of modernity is any concept of the rule of law.

But first Faust has to be shorn of his humanity. The destruction of Gretchen (first she is seduced, and impregnated, then abandoned) serves this purpose: conscience stricken at first, Faust soon forgets her entirely. So later on, when an old couple refuse to move in order to make way for progress, Faust tells Mephistopheles to get rid of them. He never looks back. He has the kind of power that Marlowe's Faustus had wanted and had never gotten (how odd that Faustus should have been willing to settle for so little) and becomes, not the great benefactor of humanity that he thinks he would like to be, but something monstrous: something like a modern dictator.

The Faustian story is one that Goethe had had plenty of chances to observe during his lifetime, 1749-1832.