Monday, July 27, 2015

Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age

The focus of this rambling treatise disguised as a cultural critique is the relationship between the is and the ought. Susan Nieman explores the works of Kant and Rousseau, Hegel and Hume, in her efforts to describe how our view of “real life” takes shape, how it’s challenged by cruel experience, and how we ought to respond to that challenge. Half Enlightenment philosophy and half developmental psychology, and liberally strewn with clichés about the nihilism and disillusionment of today’s youth, Neiman has a very simple piece of advice to give us—acknowledge the logic of the real, without abandoning our pursuit of the ideal.

Good idea. As a small way of putting the pursuit of the ideal into effect, let me suggest a few ways that her own book might have been improved.

1) Much tighter editing. There are long passages that introduce us to elements in a philosopher’s thought or biography that have no bearing on the issue at hand. It were as if Neiman had written a term paper about Rousseau’s Emile and decided to include the entire thing as a means of padding the book. The presentation would have been more compelling if a hundred pages had been cut.

2) Better philosophy. Neiman is a devout Kantian, and she accepts many of Kant’s odd notions uncritically. For example, the idea that space and time are categories of the human mind, rather than aspects of the world outside out heads; that causality is a necessary principle of understanding; that a categorical rule can be a foundation for ethical behavior. It might have been a better idea for her to use Kant as an example of the delusional thinking that can make it difficult for individuals to open themselves up to the adult world. Kant’s eloquent Scottish predecessor David Hume made two important observations that Kant found it impossible to accept: that life is inherently unpredictable and morality is based on feeling more than on logic.

In light of Neiman’s affection for Kant, it comes as no surprise to find that she misrepresents the theories of his successor Hegel entirely. This is singularly unfortunate, because Hegel’s description of what he calls “the phenomenology of spirit” dovetails nicely with Neiman’s own theories concerning how the developing consciousness comes to grip with “the real.”

Neiman describes the contrast between the two positions in one place as follows:
Hegel, like Leibniz, has the curious effect of bringing us back to the place where we accept the given as given, not because we have followed the Stoic’s advice to detach ourselves from it, but because we have understood something about the nature and necessity of the given itself. For Kant, by contrast, philosophy’s role in helping us grow up is precisely the opposite. It will not console or sooth you; it is practically guaranteed to make your life harder. For the real is not rational, and reason’s task is to make sure we never forget it.
Neiman’s basic mistake here is to imagine that when Hegel refers to “the real” he’s talking about our day-to-day understanding of the life going on all around us. Not so. For Hegel there is only one “reality” and it’s a dynamic one: spirit. Spirit moves though history, and wherever we come upon it—in a noble act or a stunning work of art—we make contact with “the real.” Similarly, our own actions become “real’ only when they’re inspired.

Hegel recognized that we’re seldom entirely satisfied with the things we do, and rightly so. Our actions never fully achieve the desired effect. Thus his philosophy describes the workings of “reality” as a restless and energetic dialectic between thinking and doing fueled by “spirit.” Hegel’s message is the same as Neiman’s, except that it focuses less on glib abstractions and more on genuine historical manifestations of the ideal becoming real. For Hegel, as for Neiman, "growing up" entails participating, forging ahead, strengthening our affections and advancing our ideals, mindful of our failures and inadequacies and reshaping our efforts in light of them.

3) Broader range of reference. Neiman fails to duly appreciate that from the aesthetic (rather than the ethical) point of view, the world can appear quite lovely just as it is. Children appreciate things, of course. Learning to deepen our appreciation as life as it becomes more troublesome and complex is another important aspect of “growing up.”

Neiman does advise us to read Middlemarch, limit our time on the Internet, and consider travel a part of our education. Such platitudinous recommendations are spread throughout the book—so much so that they begin to sound like the lectures we received at the kitchen table from Aunt Betty, who dropped out of grad school to raise a family but doesn’t mind sharing a word of advice from time to time. The only thing missing is the cherry pie.

A book so heavily laden with errors, blindspots, and truisms would not have been worth mentioning, except that Neiman’s pursuit is basically a noble one. At one point I pulled my copy of Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics off the shelf to double-check one of her references and was led to a useful passage exemplifying Kant’s failure to come to grips with Hume’s attack on induction.

To give Neiman credit, she’s trying hard to make some important ideas intelligible, ignoring the quibbles of her academic colleagues in an effort to enrich the lives of common readers like me.

The single worst element of the book is the cover, over which the author perhaps had no control. It shows a cluster of colorful but faded balloons, as if from a child’s birthday party. It’s easy to imagine a bevy of twenty-somethings in a New York marketing department discussing how to make what is essentially an erudite exercise in intellectual history look like a critique of societal ills on the order of David Brooks’s recent forays into that realm. Words in the title such as “subversive” and “infantile” are likewise designed to pull us in.

For myself, I don’t believe we live in an infantile age. On the contrary, I’m often flabbergasted by the depth of insight on display in a wide range of print and online publications and also by the weight of moral concern evident in even the most casual Facebooks posts. “Spirit,” Hegelian or otherwise, continues to percolate through events, and young people continue to surprise their elders by the freshness of their perspectives and the wisdom of the choices they make.

Would young people be better off if they read Kant and Hegel? I doubt it. Would they be better off after reading Neiman's book? Perhaps.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

About Elly - Country Weekend Goes Bad

One of my favorite film genres doesn't even have a name, but we can call it the "country weekend" genre. In such films, family members or friends of long standing go on a short vacation together, share some meals, wine, and conversation, along with perhaps some shocking revelation or illicit encounter, and return home, their lives changed in ways they never could have anticipated.

The classics in the genre include Betrand Tavernier's A Sunday in the Country, Mikhail Mikhalkov's Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano, Claude Sautet's Paul, Vincent, Francois and the Others, and Renoir's seminal Rules of the Game. American attempts would include The Big Chill and The Return of the Secaucus Seven, and Kenneth Bragnaugh's Peter's Friends might also qualify, though I haven't seen it.

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi explores these themes in About Elly, during which three married couples make their way to the Caspian Sea from Tehran for a holiday weekend.

The film starts out with a flurry of activity as the group, traveling in several vehicles, stops for a picnic, and it remains confusing as they arrive at the resort only to find that due to a reservation mix-up, they must accept accommodations in a spacious but seriously rundown seaside villa rather than a more comfortable and secure unit.

Several of the women are virtually indistinguishable to the foreign eye, and it took me quite a while to sort everyone out, but it eventually becomes clear that along with three married couples and several children, another woman has been invited. This is Elly, the kindergarten teacher of Sepideh's daughter. Sepideh is eager to introduce Elly to Ahmad, a recently-divorced friend who's also been invited. 

And therein lies the crux of the drama. To circumvent Iranian legal restrictions on unmarried couples traveling together, Sepideh tells the proprietor of the resort that Elly and Ahmad are newly-weds. As the day progresses, Elly and Ahmad become the butt of numerous wisecracks and knowing smirks and glances. The married couples think this is all in good fun. (Of course, the men will be sleeping in one room, the women in another.) And Ahmad, who finds Elly appealing, is also quick to join in the humor, but Elly finds such over-familiarity embarrassing.

As the group tidies up the villa and prepares the evening meal, there's plenty of dancing and raillery, and even a lively game of charades, though tensions are building below the surface. Why did Sepideh invite this woman, if she's going to be so shy? And why did Sepideh do such a bad job of booking the reservation?

Shohreh is not happy about being so close to the water, which her children find irresistible: They'll have to be watched continually. One of the vehicles gets stuck in the sand. And to top it all off, the next morning Elly decides she wants to go back to Tehran. Sepideh insists that she stay.

By this time, in the midst of all the swimming, the meals, and the volleyball, several marital spats have developed, and the ugly patriarchic underpinnings of Iranian culture have begun to strip the weekend of its remaining vestiges of fun.

And then, Elly disappears.

I don't mean to give away the second half of the film, but Sepideh is eventually forced to admit she knows more about this mysterious Elly than she's let on. The police, the owners of the resort, and a few new characters become involved in a quest to determine what happened to Elly, and who she really is. A good deal of tension develops and recriminations start flying in every direction before things finally get sorted out. Along the way director Farhedi raises a host of troubling questions about honor, lying, and social solidarity.

Unfortunately, they're the kind of questions we can't discuss without giving away too much of the plot.

About Elly makes a good companion piece to Farhedi's subsequent film, A Separation, which deservedly won the 2012 Oscar for best foreign film. It's equally intricate, well-acted, and unpredictable, but slightly less brutal.    

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Bastille Day Meditations

At a time when the Eurozone is fraught with stress, Iran has cut a nuclear deal with the West, China's markets are tanking, a Serb has defended his Wimbledon title with force and his character with a healthy dose of small-town charm, a new pentaquark particle has been discovered, and the Americans are sending a spacecraft alongside a planet so far away that it only circles the sun once every 250 years, Bastille Day arrives—and none too soon.

Unlike the slightly frantic and explosion-centered Fourth of July, Bastille Day has become a more broadly international, non-religious, open-ended celebration of personal liberty, artistic expression, social indulgence, and community values—all the things that make civilized living worthwhile.

Though their political clout has diminished considerably since the nineteenth century, the French maintain a certain cachet as a culture in which nature, life, and work sit in easy harmony with one another.

At the warehouse where I used to work,  members of the receiving department used to celebrate Bastille Day with strong, fresh-roasted coffee, croissants, and marmalade. Year in and year out, we would invite someone from another department—invariably a woman who could speak French—to recite a poem by Apollinaire, Nerval, Rimbaud, or some other deranged poet. Those days are long gone, but I can nevertheless offer a reading of my own, chosen less for substance (I don't know French) than for brevity.

Le Dromadaire
Avec ses quatre dromadaires
Don Pedro d' Alfaroubeira
Courut le monde et 'ladmira.
Il fit ce que je voudrais faire
Si j'avais quatre dromadaires.

We missed the Bastille Day parties in town this year, but on Sunday evening we wandered down with friends to the Dakota on Nicollet Mall to listen to the South Side Aces play the sprightly tunes of Creole jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet.

Tonight will be a quiet celebration: lamb chops on the grill along with grilled red peppers, carrots, and onions, and maybe a bottle of cheap Cote du Rhone. On the turntable? Accordionist Richard Galliano's new duo album, La Vie en Rose, with guitarist Sylvain Luc.

It's a nice album, but if it starts to sound a little too French, we can turn to a CD I picked up today at the library for a dollar—Art of Love: the Music of Machaut. The artist, Robert Sadin, was unfamiliar to me but the CD had been shelved in the "jazz" category. Listening to it on the way home from the library, it struck me as neither jazz nor Machaut, but some sort of African hodgepodge. Yet I suspect a lot of thought went into the arrangements. Glancing at the liner notes Sadin is quoted as saying: "Recent studies suggest that the performing style of the late fourteenth century was not as pristine or as 'classical' as once was believed. In any case, we were looking for a far-reaching, free-form approach to the music." Should be interesting.

I had gone to the library to pick up a book I'd requested, Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet. The introduction was by James Salter, who died recently, and as I read it I came upon a wonderful, and typically Salter-esque phrase. He's describing what it's like to visit Bonnet's 40,000-volume library:

"You recognize, with a kind of terrible joy, all that you haven't read and that you would like to read. Titles and names strike what can only be called chords of desire."

You can probably tell that I'm not getting much done today. But as a woman in Arles once told me, "aujourd'hui personne travail." I think it's the only French sentence I ever understood, and there's a story behind it, but I don't have time to tell it now.

The chipmunks are enjoying the ripening berries on the dogwood outside the bedroom window. And four full-grown turkeys continue to pass by regularly out on the front lawn. Today they remind me of Porthos, Athos, Aramis, and D'Artagnan.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Summer Reading

Does anyone actually go to a beach in the summertime to read? More likely the cabin in the woods, at least in this part of the country. In any case, it's a handy trope for gathering together a list of reading suggestions for idle summer evenings. Here are a few of mine.

Bears: a Brief History, by Bernt Brunner (Yale, 2007)

Everyone likes to talk about bears. And it seems everyone has a few bear stories to tell, though most of them center around unseen bears that wreck the bird feeder or a fear of lurking bears that, in the end, never show up. In this slim volume Brunner, a German, has gathered together a wide variety of information (and misinformation) from around the world about the animal that most closely resembles us—ursa major. The book is crisply written and rich in both folklore and historic illustrations. Opening it at random we come upon sentences like this one:

The moon was shining the night in January 1856 when Leopold von Schrenck, a Russian-German zoologist, geographer, and cultural anthropologist, and Carl Maximowicz, his colleague and illustrator, reached Tebach, a village in easternmost Siberia...

Easy to pick up, and easy to put down, Bears is a perfect woodland summer read.

The Witness of Combines, by Kent Meyers (Minnesota, 1998)

Meyers lost his father at age sixteen, and he lost the family farm near Sleep Eye, Minnesota, the next year because his father was no longer there to manage it. It was a sad time for Kent, though he didn't shed a tear until three years later, when he began to write about it. 

His descriptions of canning tomatoes, chatting about roses with grandma, fixing the hammermill, picking rocks from the fields every spring, watching cuddly little chicks grow up to become his father's birthday dinner, and other farm events, are vivid. 

He occasionally ends a chapter by spelling out simple notions that he's already conveyed effectively in images and sentiments, but such passages are rare and easily forgiven. Kent is trying to illuminate the bonds, and also the empty spaces, that develop between father and son, while at the same time conveying how rich an attachment to a piece of land can be, regardless of the labor involved—perhaps because of the labor involved.

The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack and other Cautionary Tales from Human Evolution, by Ian Tattersall (Macmillan 2015)

It seems a week seldom goes by without some paleoarcheologist unearthing pieces of a skeleton that doesn't have an obvious place on the Hominidae family tree. Tattersall reviews the history of the field, reminding us of names we haven't heard since high school—Peking Man, Java Man, Piltdown Man—and tries to explain why it's been so difficult to modernize the nomenclature of the various branches of the evolutionary tree to more clearly suggest that homo sapiens is only one of many, rather than the final product of a single inevitable progression. Along the way he gives us detailed accounts of the most recent theories regarding the mechanisms by which life continues to develop, which are considerably more complicated (and poorly understood, even by the experts) than we tend to think.    

Ardor, by Roberto Calasso (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

Calasso has been writing about "the sacrifice" since 1984 at least (see The Ruin of Kasch) and in Ardor he returns to that theme, taking on an explication of the collection of pre-Hindu sacrificial hymns and rituals called the Vedas.

The Vedic sacrifice was "an attempt to redress a balance that had been upset and violated forever" when humans began to kill and eat other animals. However, Vedic sacrifice was designed to exalt the act of killing and eating, rather than expiate the guilt associated with it. In any case, it took several forms: sometimes an intellectual dispute, and at other times merely the pouring of a few tablespoons of fresh milk on a carefully laid household fire to the accompaniment of ritual verses, some of them intentionally mumbled, others spoken aloud. A sacrificial plant, perhaps hallucinogenic, was also part of the scheme.

The book is riddled with both arcane information about the ancient Aryans and oracular pronouncements about the seams and fractures of life itself. For example, at one point Calasso takes up the evidently important issue of why a man should not be naked in the presence of the cow. At another he informs us how, in Vedic lore, the four phases of a household fire—first lit, burning, blazing, and reduced to embers—correspond to the divine forms Rudra, Varuna, Indra, and Mitra. 

In a later chapter, he explores the interrelationships described in various Vedic hymns between the Self (ātman), the "I" (aham), awareness (citta), intention (saṃkalpa), knowledge (veda), meditation (dhyana), and discernment (vijñāna).

Along the way he offers references to Parmenides, Schopenhauer, Kafka, and Ignatius of Loyola, among other thinkers, to clarify similarities and (more often) differences between Vedic and Western concepts.

Readers may find it difficult to keep their bearings in the midst of all the digressions, elaborations, and asides. But anyone who has enjoyed Calasso's previous books will be familiar with this method of criss-crossing the landscape of a foreign time and culture. (A more detailed review of Ardor is forthcoming in Rain Taxi Magazine.)

Time Ages in a Hurry, by Antonio Tabucchi (Archipelago, 2015)

Tabucchi is a master story-teller with a vast range of experience, and settling into this collection may remind readers of the pleasure they once took reading Henry James, Chekhov, or Proust.
The "method" of the collection might well be taken from the story "Between Generals":

I've come to realize one thing, that stories are always bigger than we are, they happen to us and we are their protagonists without realizing it, but in the stories we live, we aren't the true protagonists, the true protagonist is the story itself.

The stories this volume aren't thinly veiled autobiography, in short, but well-structured, keenly imagined narratives set in New York, Switzerland, Italy, Croatia, and other locales. The common theme, if there is one, is aging. I don't mean decrepitude, but various forms of awareness that eventually life just runs out. Thus, in one story a man visiting a botanical garden feels a tramontana breeze that sets off some speculations:

He thought of the winds of life, because there are winds that accompany life: the soft zephyr, the warm wind of youth that later the mistral takes it upon itself to cool down, certain southwesterly winds, the sirocco that weakens you, the icy mistral. Air, he thought, life is made of air, a breath and that's it, and after all we too are nothing but a puff, a breath, then one day the machine stops and that breath ends. He stopped too because he was panting...

The story in question is actually a love story, a single, six-page paragraph of interior monologue. It becomes clear (sort of) that the garden holds romantic associations for the narrator. He sees, or hallucinates, a woman hanging clothes on a line. A boy arrives. The two embrace. She sings a song, which the narrator, now slumped against a wall, can hear:

I was in love with the air,
With the air of a woman,
Because the woman was air,  
I was left with a handful of air...

I could go on, but a more complete review can be found in the current print edition of Rain Taxi. It's lovely stuff, though Tabucchi often makes thing difficult by forcing us to ask ourselves: what part of this story actually happened, and what part draws on the narrator's memories and dreams? Andr more fundamentally, what is this story really about?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Charles Lloyd at the Dakota

Ninety minutes of jazz, no breaks between songs, a journey, a roller-coaster ride, an exploration of the psyche, a thumbnail history of jazz, an inventory of human emotions, an endless doodle—pick your cliché.  Never boring, often poignant, tirelessly lyrical, though occasionally irritating, especially near the end of the set, when I was dying for the band to come to the end of a cadenza, bring a number to its conclusion, wrap it up—and start a new one.

I first heard Charles Lloyd at the Guthrie in 1968. I wasn't ready for him then, couldn't get my bearings. A young man named Keith Jarrett was at the keyboard that night. Lloyd has had a long string of distinguished band-mates since then, including Michel Petrucciani, Bobo Stenson, Brad Mehldau, and Jason Moran. His current pianist, Gerald Clayton, is right at home in such company.

Before the set Lloyd said, "I never play clubs anymore. People are eating dinner, cash resister ringing..." He looked around, where many people were eating dinner. Then he added, "...but Lowell [Dakota owner Lowell Pickett], he really digs the music. I'd follow him anywhere." Then  he added in a kindly voice, "Don't worry, go ahead and enjoy your chittlins."

In response to the unending applause after the set, Lloyd came back on stage and delivered a rambling peroration touching on music, kindliness, barbeque sauce on corn-on-the-cob, GMO agriculture, and whether he should wear white socks at the upcoming jazz festival in Iowa City. The rhetorical style landed somewhere between Dave King and Maynard G. Krebs, and it added yet another dimension to an already sweet and genuinely exploratory musical evening.