Open Heart Surgery

November 24, 2010

The Maximes et Réflexions morales (1664) of François de La Rochefoucauld is a collection of witty, cutting, cynical, funny, brutally honest, depressing, and occasionally comforting dissections of the human heart and spirit.  They are of a type of literature for which the French are known, and the tradition of which they are a part is still alive among the elite of modern France.  Consider the quotation from Claude Chabrol in his recent obituary from the NYTimes.  Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde also come to mind.

Here are a few favorites, not in their original order, from my recent dip into the text:

L’hypocrisie est un hommage que le vice rend à la vertu.
Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.

La philosophie triomphe aisément des maux passés et des maux à venir. Mais les maux présents triomphent d’elle.
Philosophy triumps easily over past misfortunes and those to come.  But present ones triumph over it.

Les vieillards aiment à donner de bons préceptes, pour se consoler de n’être plus en état de donner de mauvais exemples.
Old people love to give good advice to console themselves for not being in a state to set a bad example.

C’est une espèce de coquetterie de faire remarquer qu’on n’en fait jamais.
It is a way of flirting to claim that one never flirts.

Les vertus se perdent dans l’intérêt, comme les fleuves se perdent dans la mer.
Virtues lose themselves in self-interest as rivers lose themselves in the sea.

Quand les vices nous quittent, nous nous flattons de la créance que c’est nous qui les quittons.
When our vices quit us, we flatter ourselves by believing that we have quit them.

Comme c’est le caractère des grands esprits de faire entendre en peu de paroles beaucoup de choses, les petits esprits au contraire ont le don de beaucoup parler, et de ne rien dire.
Great characters can say much with few words, while on the contrary, petty characters talk a great deal and say nothing.

Le désir de paraître habile empêche souvent de le devenir.
The desire to appear clever often presents us from being so.

La vertu n’irait pas si loin si la vanité ne lui tenait compagnie.
Virtue would never get so far if vanity did not accompany it.

La souveraine habileté consiste à bien connaître le prix des choses.
The greatest cleverness consists in knowing the value of everything.

C’est une grande habileté que de savoir cacher son habileté.
It is a great cleverness to hide one’s cleverness.

Ce qui paraît générosité n’est souvent qu’une ambition déguisée qui méprise de petits intérêts, pour aller à de plus grands.
What appears as generosity is often nothing but disguised ambition that has put aside petty self-interest in order to advance a greater one.

Une des choses qui fait que l’on trouve si peu de gens qui paraissent raisonnables et agréables dans la conversation, c’est qu’il n’y a presque personne qui ne pense plutôt à ce qu’il veut dire qu’à répondre précisément à ce qu’on lui dit. Les plus habiles et les plus complaisants se contentent de montrer seulement une mine attentive, au même temps que l’on voit dans leurs yeux et dans leur esprit un égarement pour ce qu’on leur dit, et une précipitation pour retourner à ce qu’ils veulent dire; au lieu de considérer que c’est un mauvais moyen de plaire aux autres ou de les persuader, que de chercher si fort à se plaire à soi-même, et que bien écouter et bien répondre est une des plus grandes perfections qu’on puisse avoir dans la conversation.
One of the reasons why so few people seem reasonable and attractive in conversation is that almost everyone thinks more about what he himself wants to say than about answering exactly what is said to him.  The cleverest and most polite people  are content merely to look attentive, while all the time we see in their eyes and minds a distraction from what is being said to them and an impatience to get  back to what they themselves want to say.  Instead, they should reflect that striving so hard to please themselves is a poor way to please or convince other people, land that the ability to listen well and answer well is one of the greatest merits we can have in conversation.

Dans toutes les professions chacun affecte une mine et un extérieur pour paraître ce qu’il veut qu’on le croie. Ainsi on peut dire que le monde n’est composé que de mines.
In all professions,  we affect exterior appearances of what owe wish people to think us.  So, one can say that the world is made of nothing but appearances.

Et un coup de chapeau à mon professeur de Français – cette  petite, vieux, Alsacienne, Mme Schmidt, qui m’a initié à cette maxime:
L’absence diminue les médiocres passions, et augmente les grandes, comme le vent éteint les bougies et allume le feu.

And a tip of the hat to my French teacher – that little old Alsatian, Madame Schmidt, who introduced me to this maxim:
Absence diminishes mediocre passions and strengthens great ones, just as the wind blows out a candle and kindles a fire.

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More and Zen

October 17, 2010

I have been hearing about the new movie, The Social Network, from all over the place.  My first question was simple:  How the heck does Facebook make money, anyway?  Again, the answer is simple – advertisements.  My next question was simple too:  Who cares?  Obviously, a lot of people.

I have a Facebook account, but I rarely use it.  I got it to keep up with my daughter when she was abroad.  I’ve read a lot of critical raves about the movie.  Joe Nocera’s in the NYTimes Business section was the most interesting:  he felt it was an excellent study of an important personality-type in our culture – the entrepreneur.  I get that, but I’m so un-entrepreneurial, that I have little interest in it.

On another planet, I have been reading an old book lately called How to Want What You Have.  It’s by a psychologist who approaches life from a Zen-Cognitive point of view, and it’s very down to earth.  I find that it encapsulates a lot of what I have been thinking for years.  One of the central, and novel ideas he proposes is that it is instinctual for humans to always want MORE.  He says spiritual-meditative-ethical discipline as going against the human grain, but he believes it is necessary because our evolved instinctual drives are out of synch with our culturally evolved existence.  The Buddha and innumerable religious thinkers agree.  I don’t know if his Darwinian take is valid, and I don’t even think it’s necessary, but that’s where he starts.

What brings me to Facebook & How to Want… is that they seem diametrically opposed.  Facebook is all about more, more MORE.  More “friends,” more “celebrity”, more chatter, more pictures, more connections…shading off into my own blog obsession with the number of hits to my site (down lately!)  Zen is all about letting go of more, more, More!

One thing about discussions of Internet “culture” in journalism that strikes me often is the constant failure to evaluate.  Journalism is all about filling columns and tickling readers to come back to read more.  Heavy questions are a turn off.  So in the New Yorker review of the new film, the author writes that Facebook recognizes that “we all treat each other now as packets” of information, not individuals.  Is this…dare I ask it, good?  Okay, it is a fact, it is popular, it might be fun, not everyone is obsessed by it, so…beyond the fact that it made some people fabulously rich, why care???


We are in the 21st century, no?

September 19, 2010

I saw this bumper sticker ahead of me on a van this morning.  I’m no expert on Marxist sociology, but I believe the idea is that ideology is determined by material circumstances, i.e., the means of production determine the dominant ideas of an era.  Okay, so how come this fellow, and he’s in good company, is espousing ideas that are right out of Saint Augustine’s City of God?  Clearly, this driver is a citizen of that heavenly city, not the city of the world.

Or, are we to assume that all the significant elements of society are not much changed today from what they were in the early 5th century A.D?  How else to account for the incredible staying power of these ideas?


When did Paris become romantic?

December 22, 2009

When did Paris get to be the city of romance and of young lovers?  No doubt, the photographs of Robert Doisneau had something to do with it.  Is it a post WWII phenomenon?  I think of Paris for the period before that as being the city of loose women, artists, intellectuals, free-wheeling nightlife, but not exactly romance.  As the WWI song went,

How ya’ going to keep them down on the farm,
after they’ve seen Gay Pa-ree?

This referred to all those rural American doughboy soldiers who’d gotten a taste of Sodom’s delights while on leave in the big city.  And before that, during the Second Empire and the fin de siècle, Paris was the city of sin, lust, greed, wild financial wheeler-dealing, whores and nightclubs, drugs and absinthe, “ballet” dancers for purchase by rich sybarites, and plunging décolletage.  Not exactly the stuff of…romance.

And then there’s the Paris of brutality and political insurrection.  The bloody suppression of the Commune, the revolutions in the streets of 1830 and 1848, with barricades and hand-to-hand fighting.  Looming over it all, the Big One, The French Revolution of 1789, and the ensuing Terror.  Again, not too much romance there.

People talk about how beautiful Paris is, as if the urban plan and the regular facades of the streets exude loveliness and, of course, romance.  More and more, when I think of Paris, I think of its reconstruction under Napoleon III and Hausmann, the ruthless demolition of neighborhoods, the eviction of thousands, the fraud, the corruption, and the waste incurred during the pell mell rebuilding of the city in Napoleon’s image until his ignominious exit in 1871.  The long avenues and the open circles seem to me the marks of authoritarian planning, a dictatorial City Beautiful [in America, urban renewal was called by some negro removal; in Paris, it would have been worker removal] all of which has been imitated by dictators of various intellectual calibers since, from Romania to the Ivory Coast.

I guess I’ve been reading too much Zola.  I was surprised to find how many of his novels deal with precisely this topic, the rebuilding of the city.  The Belly of Paris and The Kill are two that come to mind immediately.  And as for décolletage, he documents it in several texts, most tellingly here where he is describing not a prostitute or courtesan, but a society lady:

When Renée entered the room, a murmur of admiration greeted her.  She was truly divine…her head and bodice were done up adorably.   Her breasts exposed, almost to the nipples…the young woman seemed to emerge stark naked from her sheath of tulle and salin… [more here]

Does the objectification of woman get any more explicit?  Romance?..  A few images from now and then…

   

    

The crowd, Pascal, and the philosophers

June 20, 2009

weegee_coney blaise philosophers

I have been fascinated by Blaise Pascal for a long time.  He was a child prodigy; he invented an early mechanical calculator; he was an accomplished wit and satirist who skewered his opponents in religious controversy in his Provincial Letters; his scientific work on hydrostatics and the debate over the existence of a vacuum were as monumental for the future of physics as was his ground breaking work on geometry and probability theory for mathematics.  And, he was a mystic.

In the last week or two, a few exchanges here and there in my little corner of the blogsphere have brought him to mind once again; specifically his thinking about the role of The Philosopher (thinkers and intellectuals)vis a vis The People, aka The Masses.  In his very short introduction to Pascal (Pascal:  In Praise of Vanity, part of the Great Philosophers series) Ben Rogers teases out Pascal’s thoughts on this topic from his Pensées, that disordered bundle of notes and passages in his papers found after his death.

Sometimes I take Troutsky & Co. @ Thoughtstreaming to task for their leftist-Marxist assumptions about the nature of popular consciousness. I happen to agree with most of their policy prescriptions, but they often sound to me as if they believe that “everyone is just so damn stupid – if they’d just read more theory, or listen to us, they’d see the truth and revolt – but they are drugged (that opium, again…) by popular consumer culture and propaganda so they vote Republican, etc. etc…”  Sometimes these agitators of the Left sound almost as supercilious about The  People as William F. Buckley, that great pseudo-intellectual snob, sounded on a good day.  Pascal addresses just this conflict.

As Rogers reads him, Pascal detected in The Philosophers a “conceited intellectualism – a utopian rationalism – which he was determined to shake and unsettle.”  Even though Pascal assented to the Philosphers’ condemnation of popular vanity – the people don’t know the truth, they are diverted by stupid useless entertainments, they are driven by their passions rather than by analysis – he engages in a “constant swing pro to con” about them.  Some might call it a dialectic.

Thus we have shown that man is vain to pay so much attention to things which do not really matter, and all these opinions have been refuted.

Then we have shown that all these opinions are perfectly sound so that, all these examples of vanity being perfectly justified, ordinary people are not as vain as they are said to be. (#93)

For example, Rogers notes that the “sages” complain that the activities that people pursue are vain and trivial, distracting, and rule out all opportunity for reflection. Pascal responds that this is precisely their point.  As he puts it in a fragment on divertissement:

…those who hold that  people are quite unreasonable to spend all day chasing a hare they would not have wanted to buy, have little knowledge of our nature.  The hare itself would not save us from thinking about death and the miseries distracting us, but the hunting does so.  (#136)

How’s that for a demolition of the Situationist critique of compelled consumption/consumer culture?

Pascal’s thought is subtle and diffuse, but, in sum, he feels that The People have adapted sensibly to the pressures of life served up to them by God and the political order.  At bottom, there is a dark, pessimistic conservatism in his politics.  He says it is necessary for The People to be distracted, and lied to, because if they were told the bald truth about the injustice of society, they would rebel.  Pascal is not a rebel, though he is subversive!  He demolishes the pretentions of the Philosophers who try to demonstrate that the political order is just, and according to God’s law.  He knows it’s a sham.  The people sense this, and they know their relative powerlessness, so they adapt.

One need not endorse Pascal’s bleak realpolitick to accept the wisdom of many of his observations.  He is right – philosophers, sages, agitators, are often out of touch with the real life of the people, and they impose their tastes, views, and aspirations on them, dismissing other approaches to life as surrender to bourgeois hegemony, apathy, or some other political sin.  Thus, the possibilities for overturning the political order are slim to none.  History does not offer much support for the claim that it is eminently feasible.

Moreover, nobody is truly free.  We have free will, but it is limited.  We do not choose where or when we are born.  We cannot start from a blank slate.  We are raised in, and must move forward from the state of things as they are.

Most important, when “thinkers” start riffing on “false-consciousness,” cultural brainwashing, the evils of popular culture, the pernicious influence of the media, think of Pascal and his double-edged critique of “conceited” Philosophers.

More junk from me on Monsieur Blaise:

  • Pascal’s famous wager on the existence of God.
  • Further reflections on divertissement.
  • A note on Pascals most famous mystical passage.