Tolstoy Epilogue – Boney Demolished

December 30, 2010

I am wrapping up my re-reading of War and Peace, and have reached the Epilogue in which Tolstoy gives us a peek at the settled lives his characters lead after the tumult of 1812.  He starts off with another round in his demolition of Napoleon and The Great Man Theory of History, and then descends into rather tedious domestic relations, before returning to a lengthy essay on causation in history.  A few years later, Tolstoy would begin Anna Karenina with one of literature’s most famous first lines:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

but in his Epilogue, he hasn’t realized this yet, and he is quite boring and almost sentimental in his description of the endless happiness of his happily married figures.  It’s only a few false steps after a journey of a thousand miles though, and they are preceded by one of Tolstoy’s wonderfully condensed valentines to young lovers on the brink of joy as Pierre and Natasha get together:

She glanced back.  For a few seconds they looked silently into each other’s eyes, and the distant and impossible suddenly became near, possible, and inevitable.        .            .            .             .              .              .          .              .            .

What could be the stuff of soap opera melodrama is nothing more than this.  The two lines of evenly spaced dots are in the original.

Tolstoy then goes on to dissect and discard the myth of Napoleon Bonaparte, treating him as an egotistical, short-sighted, vainglorious man, with “childish boldness and self-confidence,” (which echoes Tolstoy’s description of Prince Andrei’s sally at Austerlitz),  who managed to be at the right place at the right time to ride the crest of historical waves, and then be crushed beneath them as they broke.  He was certainly making a valuable correction to the romantic hero-worship of people such as Carlyle, but he goes too far, confusing and conflating the moral and historical meanings of the word “great.”

He describes the invasion of Russia in 1812 in pseudo-scientific, metaphorical terms as waves of migration moving one way and another, causing backwashes, as though he is discussing the great Asiatic migrations of the 5th or 12th centuries, that gave us the barbarian invasions of Rome and the Mongol Hordes.  He never says what causes those waves, and he doesn’t entertain the idea that perhaps a “great man” is simply one who knows when he is at the right place in the right time.  He sees it as simply chance upon chance.  He refers mysteriously to the “purposes” of history, and uses metaphors of the theatre – the last act, the script, the role figures play – and so on.  Perhaps he thinks that God is the director, but it’s a short jump from Tolstoy to Karl Marx who thought he had scientifically described the same laws of history that Tolstoy mystifies.

Perhaps history is bunk, or just one damned thing after another.  Or perhaps there are causes to be discerned in history, but they only hold true for specific instances, and are never universal laws.  Or perhaps causes only exist in retrospect…Tolstoy seems to prefigure Lichanos’ Iron Law of Historical Causation when he says:

Why did it happen this way and not otherwise?                                                                                                                                            Because this is how it happened.

Tolstoy did his historical debunking of Napoleon some fifty years after the fact, but James Gillray was onto the same ideas while Boney was in his glory.  One of his caricatures is at the top of this post, and another, a comic strip political cartoon nearly two centuries before Doonesbury, is shown below.  It illustrates several of the episodes alluded to by Tolstoy in his acid recounting of the rise of the Great Man.

For more Gillray images of Napoleon, visit this excellent site:  Brown University Digial Library



Double-plus good!

August 5, 2010

During my vacation, I am taking an intensive class in beginning Spanish, so I have the language-thing on my mind a lot.  George Orwell spend a lot of time thinking about language too, and his essay, Politics and the English Language is a milestone in the desconstruction of deliberate mis-communication.   Along with many other things from his magnum opus, 1984, the word, Newspeak, has entered our English lexicon as a term for politically motivated distortion of the language.

Newspeak was the language of Ingsoc, the ruling party in the society of 1984.  In a candid moment, its developers state that the purpose of the new language is to make it impossible to think independently.  Language is reduced to a mechanical tool to convey information, with shades of meaning rubbed out.  Not good, better, best, wonderful, etc, but good, plus-good, double-plus good, and triple-plus good.   The instrument of this linguistic assault on truth and independent thought was the Ingsoc dictionary of Newspeak.   Ingsoc lexicographers looked forward to a day when Oldspeak would be forgotten, and children would grow up with Newspeak, knowing, and thinking, nothing else.  The power of Ingsoc would then be unshakeable.

I believe that Orwell had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he wrote this.  Can’t you imagine him gleefully writing an entire appendix to his novel, spinning out all his ideas to their logical and absurd conclusion?  We forget that there are elements of deep, deep black humor in 1984, and that it is in some respects a satire. 

Steven Pinker, a linguist who studies and writes about language, dissected this idea and dismissed it.  He argued that thought precedes language, at least much of the time.  As a consequence, there would be no way for Newspeak to prevent new languages and words from developing, which could, in turn become subersive and intellectually critical slang, jargon, argot, etc. etc.  Just get a few 1985 kids together, and they’ll start inventing new words, if only for insults!

[An interesting aside on this theme is F. Scott Fitzgerald's often cited phrase that the mark of genius is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.   This is from his novel The Crackup.  Did he mean it, or was he being ironic?  I haven't read the book, so I don't know, but people often cite it as though he was being straight.  And then we have Orwell's O'Brien, who says that you must accept that 2+ 2 = 5  if you are told to, and that, of course, freedom is slavery.  Were they all geniuses?]

Language is simply amazing.  It grows like mushrooms after a rain wherever there are people.  Be you an Einstein or Joe Schmoe, your ability to use and play with language is a given, and not at all related to your education and social accomplishments:  Education simply teaches you a specialized use of it.  Language grows up around us just as the younger generation does.  Language pedants are fighting a losing and foolish battle.  As Sancho remarked to Don Quixote,

Once or twice, if I remember correctly, I ‘ve asked your grace not to correct my words if you understand what I mean by them, and when you don’t undertand, to say, ‘ Sancho, you devil, I don’t understand you,’ and if I can’t explain, then you can correct me.


Descartes – pothead?

May 13, 2010

Monty Python did a song about famous philosophers that included the lines:

Réne Descartes was a drunken old fart,
I drink therefore I am!

Now the real truth has been brought to light by that brilliant scholar of the great thinkers of the West,  Frédéric Pagès.  Monsieur Pagès, better known today for his championing of the thought of the forgotten philosopher, Jean-Baptiste Botul, wrote this book, Descartes et le cannabisPourquoi partir en Hollande in 1996.  All of France was celebrating the 400th birthday of the man who started modern philosophy, the one who coined its most famous proposition:  cogito ergo sum [I think, therefore I am.]

Well, what he should have said is, I think, therefore I know that I am, but that’s a trifle.  Of course, how does the I know that it knows, before the I has determined that it knows that it, the I,  is? Pretty obscure.

Pagès brings light to this dark murk by applying the Cartesian method to the mystery of why the most French of philosophers lived most of his adult life in Holland.  And why did this man change his residence practically every year?  The answer: cannabis.  Descartes was a dealer and toker. Amsterdam is the place to be for that.

This explains so many things.



The greatest philosopher who never was!

May 5, 2010

You don’t know who he was?  Read these posts

Et puis, achetez-vous votre T-shirt ici!  Or for you non-francophones,

Buy your T-shirt here!


Nieztsche and the Demon at Noon

April 30, 2010

One post here that has received a tremendous number of comments is my statement about why I think Nietzsche is an overrated thinker.  The fury of many of the comments surprised and amused me.  I might also add, it confirmed me in my opinion of the great philosopher.

Those who disagree, and who have a sense of humor, should read this book by J.B. Botul (Frédéric Pagès), the celebrated “hoaxer” who fooled Bernard Henri-Levy.  Et voilà!

Adolescent j’ai dévoré ses livres.  Certains anti-nietzschéens prétendent d’ailluers que c’est un philosophe pour adolescents…J’avais de cet homme l’image d’un héros, d’un chevalier glorieux marchant d’un pas résolu vers la conquête du monde par la seule force de sa pensée.

As an adolescent, I devoured his books.  Some anti-Nietzscheans claim elsewhere that he is a philosopher for adolescents.  I had an heroic image of this man, a glorious knight marching with a firm step towards the conquest of the world, with only the force of his ideas.

I am reminded of the character in the comedy film, Little Miss Sunshine, the teenager under a vow of silence, who is always “devouring” the pages of Thus Spake Zarathustra.

 


What’s on a philosopher’s mind?

March 2, 2010

When I posted my thoughts on why Nietzsche is an overrated thinker, little did I know that it would evoke such a reaction.  I believe it has gotten more comments than any other post of mine, and some of them are passionate, to say the least.  Well, who says people don’t care about philosophy!  I continued my application of the biographico-critico method of philosphical analysis by weighing in on Ludwig Wittgenstein – was he a phoney?  Not so many reactions there.  Ludwig is not a pop cult figure.

In my Whiner post, I justified my method with this passage:

Look, I know that personal details of biography are not supposed to be the substance of intellectual critiques, but the fact is, a lot of intellectuals develop their complex systems to work out their personal problems. (Wittgenstein was another.) I suspect that for many, their intellectual systems compensate them in some way for something they feel they lack, but that’s my speculation. Some people compensate with serial murder, pedaphilia, adultery, greed, or generally unpleasant behavior: intellectuals do it with ideas.

My delight knew no bounds when I received confirmation and support for my methodological approach in this brilliant passage regarding Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics, written, of course, by Jean-Baptiste Botul, in his groundbreaking work, La vie sexuelle d’Emmanuel Kant. Botul is discussing the fear of “loss of self” that infects many thinkers, and its impact on Kant, as well as his preoccupation with the ability of the mind to grasp the ultimate nature of things, the “thing in itself.”

Un remède contre cette perte: construire une enveloppe.  Les philosophes appellent ces cocon système et consacret leur vie à le tisser.   C’est un remède contre la fragilité.  Tous les philosophes qui en bâti des systèmes ont vécu dans un intense sentiment de fragilité et de précarité.  Spinoza, Kant, Hegel:  ils n’ étaient rien socialement, il leur faillait un toit et des murs, une cuirasse des concepts.   . . .

Il est temps d’en parler, et particulièrment de cette chose en soi, das Ding au sich, la chose qu’elle est réellement, que Kant appelle le  noumène, qui existe mais dont nous ne pouvons rien prover.

Curieuse théorie de la connaissance!  Comme si la science avait affaire à des «choses», des objets permanents, stables.  La science moderne n’étudie pas des «choses» isolées mais des relations, des flux, des champs, des systémes.  Il y a dans la noumène  kantien un fétischisme de la «chose» étonnant.

La Chose, c’est la Sexe.  C’est evident.

Once again, I call on my imperfect translation skills to bring this work to a wider, Anglophone audience:

There is a way to prevent that loss:  construct a protective envelope.  Philosophers call these cocoons systems, and devote their lives to weaving them.  It is a protection against fragility.  All the philosophers who build systems have lived with an intense sense of precariousness and fragility.  Spinoza, Kant, Hegel:  they were never sociable – they built for themselves a roof and walls, a breastplate of concepts.  . . .

We must now speak of these concepts, particularly of  “the thing in itself,” daas Ding au Sich, the thing that is reality, which Kant names noumena, and that exists despite our not being able to prove it.

Curious theory of knowledge!  As if science is concerned with “things,” permanent and stable objects.  Modern science does not study isolated “things,” but the relationships, fluxes, and fields of systems.  There is in the Kantian notion of noumena a stunning fetishism of  “the thing.”

The Thing – it is sex.  It’s obvious.

So true. What else could it be?  Such wisdom.  Bravo Jean-Baptise Botul!


Kant – Dylan – Botul!

February 26, 2010

In an earlier post, I chortled about the gaffe of BHL citing the non-existent philosopher, Jean Baptiste Botul, founder of the philsophical school, Les botulistes, and his book The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant. Thanks to the silly Monsieur BHL for leading me to Frédéric Pagès, the brilliant satirist responsible for it all.  His book on Kant is, as one reviewer called the author of another book of parody that I adore, a work of “gob-smacking genius!”

Consider this:

Quatrième Causerie

DES GRILLONS PLEIN LA TÊTE

Le Dégoût de Vivre:

Ne soyons pas dupes de sa vie apparemment tranquille.  La régularité de son emploi du temps et la montonie de cette vie studieuse cachent des aventures épouvantables, des excursions aux confins de la folie.  Les monstres rôdent.  Les lubies kantiennes sont une camisole de force qu’il s’applique héroiquement pour ne pas bascule dans l’immonde.

Inventé-je?

My best effort at translation:

Fourth Presentation

A HEAD FULL OF CRICKETS

Disgust with Life:

We must not be duped by his [Kant's] apparrently tranquil life.  The regulated way he spent his time and the monotony of his life of study hides frightening adventures, voyages to the edge of madness.  Monsters prowl there.  Kantian ideas are a straight-jacket that he made for himself in a heroic effort to keep from falling into the filth.

Am I making this up?

All this about a man, the apex of Englightenment, nay, Western philosophy, who had habits so regular and dull, that you could set your watch by his schedule of walking around the castle grounds of his university town.  Monsters prowl there, indeed!

The brilliant humor of this parody is that it appears to take on the corpus of Kant’s philsophy, but with only one question in mind:  Did he or did he not have a sex life?  As one who has dipped into biographical material on Wittgenstein and Nietzsche to make some critiques of their work, I was mightily amused!

And the connection to Dylan…you may ask as J. P. Botul rhetorically asked in the passage above, “Am I making this up?”  The phrase, a head full of crickets has, by my reading, the same sense as Bob Dylan’s well known lyric from Maggie’s Farm:

I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.
No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.
Well, I wake in the morning,
Fold my hands and pray for rain.
I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin’ me insane

It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor.
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.

Kant as tormented, alienated artist?  Oppressed and unappreciated Everyman?  Venture no further – monsters prowl there!


Heart of a Dog, encore

February 26, 2010

This Russian film adaptation of Bugakov’s Heart of a Dog is really quite wonderful.  It faithfully presents the book, almost word for word it seems, and adds a few scenes for context and emphasis that are not in the novel.  At first, it seemed a bit tedious, too faithful to the text, but once Sharikov, the dog-become-man, starts wreaking havoc with the settled life of the good doctor, it’s great.  In fact, I think that the movie enhances the novel in some ways, using costumes and sound to sharpen the satirical jabs at class conflict comedy in the young Soviet state.

In the image above, we see the doctor, a bourgeois Frankenstein, having a heart-to-heart with his creation, who has taken the full name, Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov.  Sometimes a dog has wisdom to impart to a graduate of Moscow University, if only he would listen!

Like any good citizen, Sharikov needs his papers to be in order.  You must be ‘registered’ to live in Moscow!  But once he is registered, he is subject to conscription in the militia.  Sharikov, with the heart of a dog and the soul of a street hoodlum, has no interest in fighting.  The house tenant director tells him, ” You are lacking in political consciousness, comrade!”  What’s a dog, er man, to do.  On one side, harried by stuffed shirts who live “like they are always on parade,” and on the other, slogan-spouting party politicals.

In the end,  the doctor has had enough, so he and his assistant fix things up.  Everything is returned to its natural order, and peace reigns once again in the doctor’s flat.  Man and dog are happy.


Tea Party – Palin – Mao

February 14, 2010

Thanks to R. Crumb’s comics for reminding me of this great truth:

A revolution is not a tea party.  Chairman Mao

 

 


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