Saturday, November 20, 2010

Reading in one's retirement

In piece on NPR’s “All Things Considered” yesterday evening, the Romanian-American writer Andrei Codrescu offered some typically iconoclastic reflections on retiring from teaching in academia. The maverick commentator said that he had been looking forward to reading some of the books that he had always meant to tackle, but hadn't found the time. Yet now that he is a "gentleman of leisure," he has so many things to do that there is actually even less time available. So he just took the books to the Salvation Army.

My experience on retiring five years ago was a little different. I did read some major authors--Aristotle, Montaigne, Tocqueville, for example. I found that the real drawback of this plan is that it is not interactive enough. True, I did learn enough about Aristotle to have a heated argument with my late friend Stephen Heersink. And I sketched out a piece on Tocqueville and Algeria, a neglected topic in the career of that much-covered figure. But I was never able to get the hang of Montaigne’s Essais, with their maddening randomness. I wonder whether those who praise the French savant have actually gotten through that huge tome.

Reading these old books, with their often antiquated attitudes and concerns (so un-PC, you know) and rebarbative terminology is a challenge. Why do it: isn’t retirement a time for enjoyment? (At least as far as the limitations of bodily impairment permit.) The reason, ostensibly, is that reading the classics is ultimately more efficient than consuming the artifacts of popular culture. More efficient? By this I mean that they are richer in content and more thought-provoking than easily digestible pop works.

There is, however, a more cynical explanation that stems from the French sociologist Pierre Bordieu (1930-2002). His book La Distinction (English translation, 1984) purports to rely on empirical research conducted in France between 1963 and 1968 (that fateful year). Judgments of taste, according to Bourdieu, simply mirror power relations in society. More or less arbitrarily, the elites single out certain cultural icons, circulating them among themselves in a kind of closed-circuit system. They then flaunt these talismans to reinforce their dominance over the great unwashed. Social class, then, determines a person’s likes and interests--there is nothing objective about it.

It is all, apparently, a matter of waging the culture wars. Bourdieu holds that even when the subordinate classes may appear to have their own particular idea of 'good taste,' "[i]t must never be forgotten that the working-class 'aesthetic' is a dominated 'aesthetic' which is constantly obliged to define itself in terms of the dominant aesthetics."

In this perspective, preference for the classics is a mere taste niche, a marker of the educated and well-to-do. In short it amounts to nothing more than snobbism and libido dominandi. All this is pretty shitty of Bourdieu.

But matters need not be taken so seriously. The taste-niche approach has been recycled in Christian Lander’s amusing website (and related books). This set of satirical pieces is not about the taste preferences of ALL white people, because rednecks are excluded. Instead, they skewer the habits of upscale, educated types who tend to be concentrated on the two coasts. The items targeted are fairly mundane, such as farmer’s markets, the Daily Show, the guerilla artist Banksy, Asian fusion food, and David Sedaris. Yet white people of this ilk, it seems, only pretend to like classical music, and their efforts to learn foreign languages never get very far. Still the message is not very different from that of Bourdieu. The preferences of these pampered folks reflect their desire to bond with one another and to feel superior to all those rubes in fly-over country who just aren’t up to it.

There may be something in this. However, isn’t it better to get fresh fruits and vegetables at a farmer’s market or to eat Asian fusion cuisine instead of the junk provender found at the fast food chains? And isn’t it better to try to learn a foreign language and only partially succeed than not to try at all?

Moreover, it takes real effort to understand Bach and Shakespeare in a way that accessing the Pet Boys and Jack Kerouac does not. I am not putting down the latter, just saying that the order of difficulty is greater. When one has accomplished a difficult task one needs to give oneself credit and not mourn because of some supposed indulgence in otiose elitism.

So where then did I get my love of the classics? My parents were both college educated, and we had serious books at home. Some were, to be sure, from the Book of the Month Club. But there was The Works of Rabelais (whom I initially mangled as “Rebellious”) and James Joyce’s Ulysses. As a four-eyes I wasn’t much good at sports (the rope climb was the only thing I excelled in during gym periods). So being a junior intellectual seemed the best choice.

In the 'fifties one was guided by “improving” magazines. My favorite for a time was the Saturday Review of Literature. Later, I learned that it was actually middle-brow and fairly light weight, having orchestrated a nasty campaign against the awarding of the Bollingen Prize to Ezra Pound. There was, of course, the Great Books set, propagated under the auspices of the University of Chicago.

Perhaps the most important vehicle of my self-education was the series of Mentor Classics. It was important, I felt, to own books and not just take them out from the library. I couldn’t afford hardbacks, so the Mentors, which originally cost only 35 cents served me just fine. Besides they had catchy, modernistic looking covers. I could carry them around in high school as a badge of my intellectual aspirations. Usually, though, I was ignored by the mass of vulgarians (as I had learned to term them from another paperback, Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary--a book that ruined me forever).

The Mentor Books, published by the New American Library, had begun as an American offshoot of the British Penguins, which Sir Alan Lane had started in Britain in the late thirties. Penguin remains one of the top brand names in the fast-declining publishing industry. At all events, Mentor issued rather plain translations of the Odyssey and the Iliad (so that one could read Homer for the story line alone), as well as selections from Plutarch’s Lives, and Machiavelli’s Prince. There was also John Ciardi’s rendering of Dante’s Inferno. At the outset, the latter was quite a conundrum for me, an atheist at the time. I could see that Dante was quite intelligent (he would have had to be with that elaborate structure of the circles of Hell), and yet he seemed to subscribe to the most appalling Catholic dogmas. I decided that he really couldn’t believe in them, so the whole thing must a satire. Later, after I had accessed the comforts of historical relativism, I understood that what might be well-established truth in one period did not necessarily count as such in another one (our own, in this case).

Mentor also issued contemporary works. I enjoyed Somerset Maugham’s The Summing Up, though after reading his novel Of Human Bondage I realized that the Englishman was something of a light weight. I particularly affected a book by Lancelot Law White, The Next Development in Man. I recently reread it and found it platitudinous. The next development (is it already here?) is the general adoption of something called Unitary Process Thinking. Golly.

At all events, my library of 14,000 volumes leans heavily to the classics--in Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, Spanish and English. I don’t think I will ever understand Plotinus, despite several tries, and reading all of Balzac’s Comedie Humaine represents too much of a time commitment. But just about everything is here: these books are not going to the Salvation Army.

POSTSCRIPT (Dec. 3). By chance I came across some comments of similar import by Michael Dirda in the Times Literary Supplement for Nov. 12. Since the piece ("Freelance") is firewalled, I cannot reproduce it here. For some years, Dirda's engaging book reviews graced the Washington Post. With the decline of that paper's
commitment to the fast-receding Gutenberg Galaxy, Dirda has branched out to other venues, including the TLS.

He starts out by saying that, growing up in a rather humdrum Middle Western environment, he chanced on a copy of Dumas's The Count of Montecristo, seeing in the cultural accomplishments of the unlettered sailor Edmond Dantes a parable for acquiring the essence of high culture by one-self, so to speak. Of course, Dirda was helped by being able to attend Oberlin, a liberal arts college. There he fell in love with classical music.

Back then, or a little earlier (this must have happened in the seventies) high culture seemed a towering edifice, to be scaled if one possibly could. Dirda also mentions the Great Books series, though he questions whether very many purchasers actually cracked these forbidding volumes.

Now all that has changed, as he ruefully remarks after having attended the Comic-Con jamboree in San Diego, with its 125,000 attendees. Comics and manga are the dernier cri. Moreover, instead of the Great Books, today's aspirants to culture are likely to have shelves of Blu-Ray disks, ready to be fired up in their powerful sound and visual systems.

So popular culture has defeated high culture--one positive focus superseding another. What Dirda does not mention is what he wisely eschews in his own criticism: the deadly virus of postmodernism, which slowly kills any enjoyment of literature and art as we have known them.


Friday, November 12, 2010

A great French savant

Review of Patrick Wilcken, Claude Levi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010).

Clearly, even seductively written, this important book will answer the questions you have been dying to pose about the enigmatic French savant but were afraid to ask. That is, almost all the questions. Some passages are paraphrased from the autobiographical writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss, but the material is deftly chosen. Wilcken was able to interview his subject just a few years before he died at the age of 100.

Patrick Wilcken is an expert on Brazil, so that he casts new light on Lévi-Strauss's formative field work in that country in the late 1930s. Using other sources from the period, the author is able to offer a more complex--and if truth be told--less radiant account than the one the French scholar offered in his famous Tristes Tropiques (still probably the first book of his that one should read).

Happily Wilcken deals with both the life and the works, showing how Claude Lévi-Strauss gradually found his way. As a New Yorker I found his account of his subject's years in Gotham City to be quite convincing. As a result of his residence in Brazil and the US, Lévi-Strauss was anything but a typical Parisian intellectual, a breed still by and large reluctant to cope with the reduced standing of France in the world.

Wilcken falls just a little short in two areas, but these are conundrums that have stumped everyone else. First, why did structuralism, a method that had seemed so alluring in the 1960s, fade so quickly? While he was uneasy with the label, Claude Lévi-Strauss continued to practice the approach until his death. But most others abandoned structuralism as too static and rigid--and perhaps inoculated from the necessary solvents of disconfirmation. The events of May 1968 probably had something to do with the matter. More specific to Lévi-Strauss is the over-reliance on the model of linguistics (due to the tutelage of Roman Jakobson) and, in his later years, music, especially that of Richard Wagner.

In keeping with its (Saussurean) linguistic heritage, the structuralism of Claude L-S made much use of binary contrasts or dichotomies: so that the meaning of A resides, very largely in its opposition to B. Yet in the wake of Jacques Derrida, who launched his attack on structuralism as early as 1966, "binaries" are the great bugaboo of postmodernism. Reliance on such contrasts leads, inexorably we are told, to such horrors as racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Surely, I would reply, we can retain this great aid to logical thinking--which goes back to Aristotle's principle of noncontradiction--without sinking into those gross prejudices.

The other lion in the path, so to speak, is the French savant's own magnum opus, the 4-volume Mythologiques. This is nothing less than attempt to offer an integral account of the mythic worlds of the indigenous New World. Lévi-Strauss begins in South America and moves gradually northwards to end, pretty much, in the our Pacific Northwest. In the endeavor he deploys an impressive range of sources--most of them stemming from the library as he never returned to field work after the 1930s. He doesn't explain how so many isolated groups would achieve the massive dialogue his work presupposed. Perhaps the answer lies in a region that Lévi-Strauss neglects: Eastern Siberia from which, most scholars hold, the Amerindians came.

In short, Claude Lévi-Strauss is not the perfect master. But who is? His effulgent intelligence and willingness to tackle just about any problem remain massively inspiring.

PS. Dedicated to cultural comparison as he was, Claude L-S. made some prescient comments about Islam, which he thought inferior to Buddhism. First, he opined that the Algerian problem might be solved by integrating its Muslim population as full citizens of the French state. Tentative moves to this direction in the 'sixties proved unworkable.

Secondly, and quite pertinent to today, he identified the pseudo-universalism of Islam. Muslims claim to be tolerant, egalitarian, and so forth--but only towards other Muslims (and not even always there, as seen in the Sunni-Shi'a conflict). Hence their faith simply amounts to tribalism on a vast scale.


Friday, November 05, 2010

Religion and politics

As those who struggled through all, or even a portion of my extensive MSS on the Abrahamic religions are well aware, I have been unsparing in my critique of all three, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I have constantly sought to relate documents and original beliefs, on the one hand, to present practice, on the other. I have concluded that singing Kumbaya, aka the Rodney King approach--"Let's see if we can all get along"--is not working. It is certainly unfair to the millions and millions of people who have suffered and died because of the these three sets of dogmas. (My texts can be found at [Abrahamica], and at The latter is the more accessible version.)

In my own fashion, then, I have been an "equal opportunity" offender. A plague on all three houses, I say. However, many secularists, including such New Atheists as Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, seem to have it in for Christianity in particular. By contrast, secularists seem to let Muslims off with a pass, even though that faith with its many residues of Arabian backwardness, is in some ways the most dangerous of the three. To be sure, defenders of Islam are seeking to ward off what they regard, perhaps rightly, as a fear of the Other that has been engendered by 9/11 and other incidents. However, these eirenic observers do not show signs of knowing very much about Islam. I do--having taught myself with some labor in order to fulfill my triadic mission.

Some new thoughts are prompted by the dismaying election results last Tuesday. In all the analyses that have been published, I have not seen much discussion of the likelihood that many Tea Partiers and others are reacting against what they perceive as anti-Christianity--something that is not aimed just at Christian beliefs and practices--but against themselves, whether they are believers or not. That is to say, an attack on Christianity as an ethnicity and a heritage, if you will. It cannot escape them that the anti-Christian sentiment is coming mostly from the Northeast and the Pacific rim, home to many outspoken non-Christian and post-Christian citizens.

When one criticizes Judaism, Jews are naturally apprehensive that the critique is aimed at them personally. One should therefore expect that some persons of Christian heritage (of which, I suppose, I am ultimately one) would feel that their group is being singled out by a secularism that mainly has Christianity in its sights. The left-liberal pass--ignoring female genital mutilation, "honor killings," and execution of homosexuals--that is given to Islam has a similar effect. If the effects of religion, at least Abrahamic religion, are on balance deleterious (as I have argued in extenso), that conclusion applies with full force to Islam, just as much as to the other two.

Many are the twists and turns of political correctness. Its latest incarnation seeks to protect Muslims as an embattled minority. This perspective is much too narrow. In some fifty countries in the world, Muslims are a majority--one that limits the rights of non-Muslims, sometimes persecuting them. However, the PC left cares little for the plight of Christians and Jews in those lands--not to mention Zoroastrians, Baha'is, Hindus, Buddhists, and animists, who do not enjoy even the limited tolerance granted to Christians and Jews.


Tuesday, November 02, 2010

No equal opportunity for an equal-opportunity offender?

As I noted in an earlier posting, I found Bill Maher's comments about religion in his film Religulous to be sophomoric. However, the observations were mainly aimed at Christianity and Judaism, so the mainstream media thought that they were just dandy.

Now Maher has dared to do the unthinkable: to say something unfavorable about Islam. In a recent program he expressed dismay that Mohammed is the most popular name now for boys in the United Kingdom. He referenced this comment by noting the movement for Shari'a law in that country--a movement that, up to a point, has been endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Unlike Juan Williams, Maher hasn't been fired--he can't be very easily, since he has his own show (though he was taken off the air briefly for some comments about 9/11).

How has it come about that any comment that is derogatory of Islam is taboo amongst our bien-pensant clerisy? When did these whited sepulchers (to use a religious term) decree that this religion--and this religion only--must always be handled with kid gloves? How can we esteem a religion that enshrines women's inequality, that practices barbaric punishments like chopping off hands, that makes homosexuals into nonpersons? We might expect some version of this affinity among our fire-breathing evangelicals, who hold very similar views, not to mention the rigorist Haredi rabbis of Gush Emunim--but how does one account for it among pious liberals?

Partly it is because they view Muslims as a minority, and therefore, like all minorities, it must be cherished and protected by the Great White Father figures. This view ignores the fact that in most parts of the world in which they live, Muslims are in the majority. A further rationale (I would suppose) is a wish to avoid the Clash of Civilizations by making nice with Muslims. Alas, it is too late for that. For better or worse, that Clash is already upon us, and suspending our heads in the sand, ostrich fashion, is not going to stop it. A final reason for the bien-pensant looniness is guilt over colonialism. However, resentment against colonialism is not going to go away or even abate because would-be-wise Westerners are now practicing self-censorship.

This stance is not merely despicable; it is ineffective.