Archive for December, 2015

The 12+12 Books of Christmas

Flanööri challenged me to write a Christmas Calendar where we both would write a post about some of our favorite books every day from the 1st of December to Christmas Eve. If either of us missed a post they would have to buy a bottle of Napue gin, voted the best gin in the world. Strict laws against advertising alcohol in Finland forbid me to write too much about Napue, so let me just say that it is delicious and you should try it. In fact, buy a few bottles just in case and enjoy a few refreshing gin and tonics.

The books I posted about were the following:

  1. Paradox and Discovery by John Wisdom
  2. De Satyrica Graecorum Poesi et Romanorum Satira by Isaac Casaubon
  3. Virgil’s Aeneid translated by John Dryden
  4. Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit by Joshua Foa Dienstag
  5.  The Great Chain of Being by Arthur O. Lovejoy
  6. The History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle by Richard Popkin
  7. Utopia by Thomas More
  8. Silmät ilman kasvoja: Kauhu filosofiana (“Eyes Without a Face: Horror as Philosophy”) by Tapani Kilpeläinen
  9. Satires by Horace, Juvenal and Persius
  10. The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
  11. The Uses of Argument by Stephen Toulmin
  12. Meistererzählungen by Franz Kafka
  13. The Enchiridion by Epictetus
  14. History of Aesthetic by Bernard Bosanquet
  15. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti
  16. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
  17. On the Sublime by Longinus
  18. Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable by Samuel Beckett
  19. Mallarmé and the Art of Being Difficult by Malcolm Bowie
  20. Naked Lunch by William Burroughs
  21. Satan’s Rhetoric by Armando Maggi
  22. Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein
  23. Dr. Woodward’s Shield: History, Satire, and Science in Augustan England by Joseph M. Levine
  24. The New Testament by God

They are not necessarily my favorite books of all time, but close enough. Basically, I just picked up books from my shelf, took a picture and wrote something. It was a wonderful way of revisiting literature that I have worked with for a long time. It was like seeing old friends after a long trip around the world.

Both of us completed the challenge and neither of us had to buy the gin. All seemed lost and we were headed towards a ginless future. However, Flanööri’s big brother, a gentleman and a scholar, came to the rescue and got us the gin for Christmas. Which is, as I said, delicious and (probably) good for you.

The 12+12 Books of Christmas #24

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I am not a religious person, but I was raised Lutheran. One might say I am not a religious person because I was raised Lutheran, but that would be mean. Living in a Lutheran country, it is surprisingly difficult to find a copy of the vulgate Bible. For a philologist, the vulgate Bible is a treasure trove of language, whatever you think of its religious contents. You can of course read it online, but of all the books in the world the Bible is the most depressing to read as an ebook. I do not read Hebrew and don’t plan to learn it anytime soon, but I have been casually studying Greek for a while now and own a New Testament in the original Greek which has an interlinear translation into English. I shall peruse it on Christmas Day when we get home from visiting relatives. After all, it is one of the greatest stories ever told.

Thus ends the 12+12 Books of Christmas challenge. My better half has performed admirably well and it looks like neither of us will have to concede our little bet. At stake was a bottle of Napue, the best gin in the world, manufactured by the Kyrö Distillery Company. It’s a shame the resolution of the bet ended in a ginless result, but perhaps we can figure out another bet in the near future. Perhaps we should also raise the stakes to two bottles of Napue? If you’ve read these posts, thanks for the clicks and the likes. It’s nice to see others have enjoyed our scribblings as well.

Merry Christmas!

The 12+12 Books of Christmas #23

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Science in Augustan England was a contradictory and confusing enterprise. The 1600s and especially the 1690s in England have long been a favorite period of historians. So much was going on and so much of what would become the modern world was being formed. Mistakes were plentiful, which is great for historians, because they can pick out something like Newton’s weird mysticism and do the historian’s version of pointing and laughing. Sometimes this is incredibly instructive and helpful to anyone who wants to learn something about the Augustans.

Some time in 1600s, Dr. John Woordward acquired a shield, a French buckler, that was roughly one hundred years old. The shield depicted a scene from ancient lore and Dr. Woodward was able to convince himself that he his shield was actually forged in Roman times. In his mind, and the minds of many others, this was a priceless antique, not a souvenir put together by some French guy a few years back. He was of course completely wrong about his beloved shield and he was mocked by satirists like Pope and the Scriblerians.

Why did Dr. Woodward believe something that was obviously false? In Dr. Woodward’s Shield, Joseph Levine tries to explain the farcical affair that included dubious historical materials:

Why then did Woodward accept the story and defend it with so much erudition? The answer lies in the peculiar authority that the classical historians exercised over Renaissance Europe and later centuries. The humanists were agreed that the classical authors furnished the standards of style and form. […] There was thus an overwhelming disposition to believe.

On the other hand, there was something else brewing in Dr. Woodward’s time:

In Dr. Woodward’s day the debate was reopened by the Dutchman Jacob Perizonius, and it gathered increasing strength in the eighteenth cetury. It was fed, no doubt, by an increase in general skepticism, by the appearance of “historical pyrrhonism” that was beginning to cast doubt on the reliability of all historical sources. The French Jesuit Hardouin announced paradoxically that the classical authors were the invention of medieval monks, since they were found only in medieval manuscripts.

Hardouin’s views were not popular at the time, but they show how far the other way the pendulum could swing. From a total belief in “the virtuoso’s dream” to utter skepticism about all antiquity.

The shield is the centerpiece of Levine’s wonderfully written book, but it’s not its main attraction. The book is about thought at a time when modern science was coming into existence. The rules of evidence and argument were still largely unwritten. There were more than enough of extravagant theories and views flying around. Levine shows his readers a cabinet of curiosities made of theories, ideas and thoughts. It is perhaps one of my favorite books, because it makes a topic many view as quite boring — seventeenth and eighteenth century intellectual history — incredibly vivid and exciting. It has a lot of pointing and laughing, but it is science pointing and laughing at itself. As disrespectful as that is, isn’t it finally what science is all about: recognizing your mistakes and being able to correct them with good humor.

The 12+12 Books of Christmas #22

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The first book by Wittgenstein I remember reading was a Finnish translation of Remarks on Colour. His thinking was utterly fascinating even though I didn’t understand what he was trying to say. The book is not  that difficult to follow, but it was difficult for me to understand why this odd Austrian dude was going on about colors. I did not know about the old debates about primary and secondary qualitites, the whole eighteenth-century scientific business about colours, or much else. I was into heavy metal, guitars, novels and short stories. Wandering to the philosophy section of our town library had unexpected consequences.

I did whatever amounted to googling him at the time and discovered that his most famous work was the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Our town library was small, but very good. It had heavy metal records, guitar lessons, a decent amount of fiction and a philosophy section. I picked up the Tractatus and was disappointed. It was completely different from the book about colors and incomprehensible. It took some time to understand the importance of the work and even though I now understand why Wittgenstein wrote it, I still cannot follow it. Most of what I understand comes from secondary sources. A friend whom I respect highly said he admired Wittgenstein’s style in the Tractatus. I still don’t know what he means.

The third work of Wittgenstein’s I picked up was On Certainty which I chose because it was shorter than the rather menacing thick volume next to it. It was a bit easier, almost like something in between the Tractatus and Remarks on Colour. It was a difficult book and I still read it occasionally — I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

The thick book next to it, Philosophical Investigations, remained on the shelf for a long time until I happened to pick it up due to boredom or whatever. It is the easiest of his books to understand and to follow. There really is nothing difficult about it. Philosophers have to write papers and debate things, so they make up all kinds of things to say about it. When approaching the kind of reasoning Wittgenstein wants to show you in the Investigations, there is no point in overcomplicating matters. It is a pleasure to read and a pleasure to think through. If someone gives you an abstract explanation about what Wittgenstein is trying to accomplish with his magnum opus, that is fine. Philosophers say all kinds of things about Wittgenstein. The Investigations to me is a self-contained piece of writing that nevertheless branches out into the world outside it. It teaches you to think the way Wittgenstein wants you to think. You can learn to do what he does by going through his thought experiments like you would go through an exercise book while learning a language: the point of going through the exercises is to go through the exercises.

If you have not read the Investigations, I suggest you get a copy and make it your coffee table book. Pick it up when you’re bored or have nothing else to do. Don’t think you’re reading the greatest work by one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. You cannot relax into Wittgenstein’s prose if you are too tense. Even if Wittgenstein himself had a violent temper, his book is a patient teacher. Spend as much time with each page as you like. Or you can devour the book in one sitting, and then do it all over again. It really doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do it.

The 12+12 Books of Christmas #21

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When you think of Christmas and books, studies of Renaissance demonology are not the first things that come to mind. If you have friends or relatives into black metal or the occult, Satan’s Rhetoric by Armando Maggi might be a good stocking stuffer. Otherwise, I would steer clear of this one this time of the year. It’s nevertheless a very interesting book for anyone interested in the darker side of western thought during the Renaissance. In terms of the history of ideas, it’s a brilliant romp through a vein of thought that runs across western philosophy. If you want to know why you were absolutely terrified by The Exorcist even though you are not religious, here’s your explanation. Magical thinking of the kind Maggi unearths in the book runs very deep in our culture.

One of the things we learn from the book is that before the fifteenth century, the techniques of exorcism were more or less improvised. The grand Catholic church with its dogmas and rituals and pomp was pretty much making it up as it went along. Nobody really knew what to do with people who were possessed by demons. We get a number of interesting versions of exorcism techniques in Maggi’s study and although things began to coalesce into a coherent ritual, it still reads like the Keystone Cops in ecclesiastical robes.

One of the things the demonologists noticed was that possession always occurred with melancholia, an excess of yellow bile. Not all melancholics were in cahoots with the Devil, but all those who were were also melancholics. In a chapter on one Manuel do Valle de Moura and his De incantantionibus seu ensalmis (1620), Maggi writes:

It is well known, de Moura states, that the devil can exert an enormous power on a human being’s internal representations. As he will state in a later passage of De ensalmis, “the devil can influence our intellect only through phantasms.” In other words, every time a human being rationally or spontaneously formulates a linguistic expression in his or her mind, his or her sentences may be engaged in a dialogic exchange with an interlocutor (God, angels, devils) who is at once internal and external to the thinker’s mind. […] According to Renaissance demonologists, melancholics have a fluctuating identity, ranging from individuals prone to solitary musings to people who, suffering from hallucinations, believe that they have been turned into animals. Thus, it is extremely difficult to determine whether a melancholic is naturally sick or is affected by a devilish perversion.

It is comforting to know that even in de Moura’s time there was a distinction made between natural mental illness and possession. What is more disturbing is the notion that we are all beacons for devils when we form a thought. Our thinking sounds out like radio waves into the unseen world where it is picked up by the denizens of the ether. This is the kind of magical thinking that died at the onset of modernity and the Enlightenment. We had a notion in the West that there was something mysterious about our thoughts and words. They were being listened to. Somebody was at the other end of the line. Some, like the devils de Moura writes about, were even eavesdropping! Although the line has been dead for a long time, we still sometimes think we hear a crackling at the other end and shudder.

The 12+12 Books of Christmas #20

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Naked Lunch by William Burroughs is an important and fascinating book. You can read it as a prophecy from the fifties that predicted the texture of modern life. It predicted new drugs, liposuction and the AIDS epidemic, among other things. It really depends on how much tin foil you are ready wrap around your head when you read Burroughs: he will tell you everything you need to know about electronic mass surveillance, absolute corporate power, mass migration, turning the planet into a Manichean hobbyhorse for the elites, global prison camps, the Internet, whatever you want. He is the quintessential author of the post-postmodern world. If you have not read his mad work, you have probably missed something essential about the world in which you live.

During his adventures our hero, William Lee, travels across the world and imagination to a bizarre facility run by Dr. Benway:

Dr. Benway had been called in as advisor to the Freeland Republic, a place given over to free love and continual bathing. The citizens are well adjusted, cooperative, honest, tolerant and above all clean. But the invoking of Benway indicates all is not well behind that hygienic facade: Benway is a manipulator and coordinator of symbol systems, an expert on all phases of interrogation, brainwashing and control. I have not seen Benway since his precipitate departure from Annexia, where his assignment had been T.D. — Total Demoralization. Benway’s first act was to abolish concentration camps, mass arrest and, except under certain limited and special circumstances, the use of torture.

Total demoralization accomplished, Benway turns his attention to other projects in Annexia and elsewhere. What Burroughs goes on to describe is a Foucauldian society of internalized bureaucratic discipline in satire so delicious it has not been written since Swift:

Every citizen of Annexia was required to apply for and carry on his person at all times a whole portfolio of documents. Citizens were subject to be stopped in the street at any time; and the Examiner, who might be in plain clothes, in various uniforms, often in a bathing suit or pyjamas, sometimes stark naked except for a badge pinned to his left nipple, after checking each paper, would stamp it. On subsequent inspection the citizen was required to show the properly entered stamps of the last inspection. The Examiner, when he stopped a large group, would only examine and stamp the cards of a few. The others were then subject to arrest because their cards were not properly stamped. Arrest meant “provisional detention”; that is, the prisoner would be released if and when his Affidavit of Explanation, properly signed and stamped, was approved by the Assistant Arbiter of Explanations. Since this official hardly ever came to his office, and the Affidavit of Explanation had to be presented in person, the explainers spent weeks and months waiting around in unheated offices with no chairs and no toilet facilities. Documents issued in vanishing ink faded into old pawn tickets. New documents were constantly required. The citizens rushed from one bureau to another in a frenzied attempt to meet impossible deadlines.

This is a hellhole few survive and the survivors are absolutely paranoid: “No one ever looked at anyone else because of the strict law against importuning, with or without verbal approach, anyone for any purpose, sexual or otherwise. […] After a few months of this the citizens cowered in corners like neurotic cats.” I believe Naked Lunch should be mandatory reading for everyone because of passages like the above. It lays out the paranoid, fearful and miserable society we have become. But it also tells you how you are being swindled out loving your neighbor by monsters like Dr. Benway, manipulators of symbol systems who shove their propaganda down our throats like it’s candy. Burroughs’s world is our world. You should pick up his book and study it until you know it by heart.

The 12+12 Books of Christmas #19

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If you are new to reading poetry, I would recommend you start with something like Reading Poetry by Tom Furniss and Michael Bath. Not many people read poetry anymore, which is a shame, so you might want to start with the basics. There are few things better for your language skills, thinking and just pure enjoyment than poetry. Furniss and Bath argue that

the debate over poetic form has to be seen in terms of […] a long-standing debate in philosophy and linguistics over the nature of language itself. […] Whereas Locke and others assume that ideas pre-exist language (for Locke they are derived from sensory impressions) and are simply named by language, Saussure argues that ideas are shaped or even produced by the language system itself.

The above quotation distills the history of the philosophy of language into a few lines and covers a lot of ground, from John Locke (1632-1704) to Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), but it makes an important point. You are not in complete control of your words and thoughts. You have been infected by a virus that guides some of the things you say and do. That virus is the language spoken in your surrounding culture. You use it to think and speak even though it is not of you in any true sense. Poetry forces you to think about this fact of life from different angles. Even if that was the only thing poetry did, it would be worth your time.

If you don’t know where to begin and you read English, start with Shakespeare. From there you can go on to different places in the English canon. I would probably go for Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley next. When you come across interesting but difficult poets, you will need some help from theorists and critics. You will have to study, but that’s a good thing. The more you deepen your knowledge of poetry, the more poetry will give you. Very much like if you know even a little bit of music theory, listening to Bach is a vastly more enjoyable experience than listening to him without any knowledge of music. As you move along, you will bump into many incomprehensible poets and even those who seem to write as if their poetry is not written to be understood. This is normal.

Mallarmé and the Art of Being Difficult by Malcolm Bowie is a fascinating study about what it means to read poetry when you don’t stress meaning too much. That is, when the question “What does the poem mean?” isn’t that important. Poetry isn’t a puzzle to be solved–there are poems like this, but they are the exception. Poetry is more like a space where you can observe ideas fly by and interact. Sometimes you really have to let go of the human need to understand to see this. Bowie writes of Mallarmé:

Mallarmé makes us think again about the directions in which artistic coherence may be pursued and the verbal methods by which it may be articulated. He invites us to take risks. He exposes us to a special kind of anxiety by making it extremely hard for us to extract an idea from a text in a simple, manageable form: we are forced to leave it where it was, hedged about and baffled by its cognates, collaterals and contraries. What at one moment can seem a compressed and richly interfused set of meanings can the next seem a frightening turmoil of disconnected scraps.

You can read poets like Mallarmé and think he’s not being very  nice to the reader by bogarting his meaning. On the other hand, if you don’t attack poetic language as a problem to be solved, you will actually gain some pleasure out of his poetry. Besides, there are more ways of reading than one. Learning to read poets like him is yet another weapon in your arsenal.