A Lost Library

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Mt. Chocorua, Sanford Robinson Gifford via Wikimedia Commons

American Philosophy: A Love Story had an utterly irresistible and all too hard-to-live-up-to premise.  It was this: John Kaag was a struggling philosophy postdoc when by pure chance he wandered onto the rural estate of a long dead Harvard don and into his nearly untouched library of rare books.  William Ernest Hocking, who died in 1966, would have known William James and Robert Frost, and studied under Josiah Royce and Edmund Husserl.  The library he built in the White Mountains of New Hampshire contained a vast trove of American philosophical and religious work as well as first editions of monuments going back to Kant, Hobbes, and Spinoza.  This is the stuff of dreams.  Although Kaag faced no rude awakening, and was instead invited to stay, camp, catalogue, and find a home for the collection, I’m afraid the rest of the book is somewhat paled in comparison.

Kaag chose to join the story of the library with two others.  One is Kaag’s own emotional rebuilding after divorcing his first wife.  It’s not for nothing that he was most drawn to the theme in American philosophy of what makes life worth living.   It makes me feel awfully hard hearted but this is the aspect of the book that works least well, for me anyhow.  I’m sure it’s a matter of perspective.  And now it occurs to me that it’s also no coincidence that Kaag names the sections of his book Hell, Purgatory, and Redemption after Dante’s Divine Comedy, a choice I was happy to just pass over, as it’s my least favorite epic.  (It’s enough of a stretch to imagine leaving Limbo when Homer, Socrates, the Saladin, et al. are hanging out there; I don’t remember if Dante mentions a library.)  Passages of a desperate, confessional bent seemed too abrupt and contrast weirdly with the gently enthusiastic tone of the history of philosophy, the other major theme.

Kaag laments somewhat the Americans’ secondary status viz the European greats; I don’t know if there’s really any helping it.  The philosophy is interesting enough, I suppose, and emphasizes a sort of proto existentialist angle: What becomes of human meaning and freedom after Darwin and physics?  The thread seems to drop, but I got the idea that some of the contacts between Hocking and his students and later French existentialists, testified to in Hocking’s letters, formed a part of Kaag’s actual research.   I don’t remember anything similar in the small part of William James’ Psychology that I read for school.  I found the biography more memorable.  Hocking was a member of the carpenters’ union in San Francisco during the rebuilding, working with redwood lumber so fresh “the sap would jump out if we hit them with a hammer”.  He would later enlist his philosopher friends as masons for his own library.

 

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Coming to America

I’ve been looking for my own copy of Gia-fu Feng and Jane English’s edition of Chuang Tsu for at least five years.  I found one the other night at the Brookline Booksmith.  My parents have one; almost as soon as I moved I was able to find a copy of the matching Tao Te Ching.  I mentioned it here.  I was surprised to find the Chuang Tsu at all.  Although it seems a reissue is available on Amazon, the copy I found is dated 1974, and I’m sure it’s less common than the Tao Te Ching.  Chuang Tsu is described as the Plato to Lao Tsu’s Socrates, his Inner Chapters the “perfect expression” of Taoism.  He is the source of the image of the man who dreams he is a butterfly wondering if he is a butterfly dreaming of being a man.  I’ve actually read the poetic and epigrammatic Tao Te Ching, but I have to admit it may be some time before I do more than look at the gorgeous pictures in this one.

Gia-fu Feng came to the United States after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937.  The period comprising the fall of the emperor, the Japanese invasion, World War II, and the communist takeover was obviously a time of great chaos and destruction.  I know almost nothing about it, and, what’s maybe worse, I don’t even know a book I should read.  The 25th anniversary edition of Feng’s Tao Te Ching contains a tiny snippet of autobiography; here and elsewhere there are tantalizing hints of a longer memoir.

This post was precipitated by a thought that struck me suddenly while poking around after information about Gi-fu Feng: After the fall of the old order in China, there must have been an exodus on the same order as that following the Russian revolution, and yet it doesn’t seem to be given nearly the same credit, so to speak.  I would say that in my mental map of the twentieth century American intellect, the influence of the Russian diaspora far outweighs that of China’s.

This is truly shocking to me, after a fashion, not least because one of my best friends growing up was a recent Chinese immigrant.  But I am really not thinking in such personal terms.  I know almost nothing about it, so perhaps I’m wrong, or merely repeating western prejudice.  It may even be a matter of East Coast versus West Coast, of New York and Boston versus California.  Unlike my father, I never went to school in the western U.S.  It also occurs to me that the Russian influence is closely related to the colossal impact of the Holocaust.  Indeed, it appears that Vladimir Nabokov, the only figure that immediately jumps to mind as a Russian emigre of great importance for American culture (perhaps quite sufficient on his own), lived in Berlin after leaving Russia, and it’s easy to guess why he left.  The cultural effect of the revolution was not immediate, and, similarly, Einstein had his annus mirabilis of 1905 long before he removed to the United States.  Perhaps the impact of the Cultural Revolution is yet to be appreciated here.

Here’s what I want to know: does the cultural impact of the Russian Revolution on America really outweigh that of China’s, despite the obvious parallels?  How far does the effect extend, and are there vast intellectual movements, a hundred and more years old now, whose stories have yet to be told?  Is the translation empire of Pevear and Volokhonsky rooted in the upheavals at the beginning of the twentieth century?  Who, besides Nabokov, am I missing?  Leafing through the Inner Chapters, I found a discussion between Confucius and one Yen Hui.  What is Confucius doing in the Taoist text?  Is there any parallel in the Platonic dialogues of philosophers and demagogues, and the efforts of later and lesser writers like Philostratus to untangle them?  Who can tell?  Without greater cognizance of these matters, do we in our political moment risk throwing away something of inestimable value?

Tolstoy’s Cossacks

When I think of Tolstoy, I think of War and Peace. There’s a lot to it, of course; for some reason my take has become colored by the notion of Tolstoy, born in 1828, writing in the 1850s and ’60s, attempting to understand the colossal struggle of his parents’ and grandparents’ generations against Napoleon. I was a little awestruck when it occurred to me that, if only chronologically, I stood in a similar position relative to World War II. What I tend to forget is that Tolstoy lived a very long life of his own. He served his own time in military, and there is a lot of writing dealing with his very different experiences in the Caucasus and elsewhere. I just read The Cossacks, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

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Tolstoy lived long enough to be photographed in color, in 1908, by the incredible Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944).  You have to check out this photographer.

The Cossacks begins in Moscow, where the young nobleman Dmitry Andreich Olenin takes leave of a couple of friends and sets out in the wee hours of the morning for the Caucasus, having obtained a post as a cadet officer. This initial scene has so little to do with the main part of the story that you might forget it entirely. Olenin, who has gambled, been introduced at court, and toyed with women’s affections while never falling in love, reflects constantly on the triviality of his life up until this point. Heightening the effect of dislocation, before Olenin reaches his destination, the scene changes abruptly to the frontier outpost where we are introduced to the other protagonist, the young Cossack brave Lukashka.

“Cossack” is a challenging term in Russian literature, at least for the dilettante. It falls somewhere between an ethnicity and a job description. For many purposes one probably just needs to imagine a taciturn cavalryman of lower class than the usual aristocratic protagonist. What I gather is that Russian authorities permitted frontier settlements under special law, essentially exchanging land for military service. The Cossacks in the novel speak Russian; this seems to be the general rule, if one allows that the demarcation between Russian and other East Slavic languages like Ukrainian is fluid, and that a Cossack could be expected to pick up a local lingua franca like Tatar. Tatar is a Turkic language, and thus quite unrelated, not only to Russian, but to the Indo-European languages generally. For a final twist, consider that the word Cossack, in Russian, is nearly the same as Kazakh, as in Kazakhstan. It appears to be the same root, but the Kazakh language is Turkic. As usual, the linguistic classification seems to give a secure handhold in a difficult case, while also casting doubt on the notion of ethnicity generally.*

At any rate, the Cossacks were instrumental in a long drawn out conflict known to Wikipedia as the Caucasian War. Between this war and the Cossacks, one could speculate endlessly on comparisons between the Russian Empire, the American, and what we think of as quintessentially imperial Britain or Spain. That Russia seems so bad to us now must have something to do with our unacknowledged similarities. From the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 until the latter part of the century, the Russians pushed into the mountainous land between the Black Sea and the Caspian. (The Cossacks takes place in 1852).  The territory of the U.S.S.R. extended well southwards of the highest range of the Caucasus, when it included the Republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Today the border of the Russian Federation appears to follow that highest range along a nearly straight line from sea to sea; among the southernmost federal subjects are North Ossetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. Russia has been at war in the Caucasus since Tolstoy was a kid.

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The Caucasus (from Wikimedia Commons)

The Cossacks were famed for horsemanship, but Lukashka, in the beginning, hasn’t got a horse. He serves in an outpost on the banks of the Terek river, between the steppe and the mountainous heart of Chechnya. He’s never very far from the village where his mother, sisters, and sweetheart live. It’s depicted as a bucolic, sleepy place, and Lukashka’s fellow soldiers are mostly interested in drinking and hunting. Shortly before Olenin is billeted in the village, Lukashka wins glory by shooting a Chechen who swam across the river at night. Olenin, who seems to have little real military work to do, is shocked by the Cossacks’ bluff indifference to the killing. Overall, though, it fits with Olenin’s idea of the Cossacks as an uncomplicated people living a life as pure and natural as the stags he hunts with the garrulous old Cossack Eroshka and even the mosquitoes that plague them.

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Another of Prokudin-Gorsky’s portraits, from Dagestan (between 1905 and 1915?)

So Olenin experiences a spiritual conversion. He rhapsodizes about the landscape and the people, rails against Moscow society, and tries to keep himself apart from the other officers. He is generous towards Lukashka and Eroshka, who drop in at all hours to sponge his liquor, food, and weapons. This might come off as ironic, but Tolstoy has a very gentle touch. What’s more, one of the people Olenin idealizes is Maryanka, his landlady’s daughter and Lukashka’s betrothed. The love triangle is so obvious that I don’t know how I could stand it. But again, Tolstoy handles it skillfully. I guess the reason is that it’s hard to tell what Olenin really likes more: his new philosophy or the lusty Maryanka.

* I was reading the Maude translation that is free for Kindle. Somewhat unusually, I encountered three words that sorely tried my immediate lexicographical resources, including the OED and a small Russian dictionary. Presumably the Maudes left these untranslated because they are not standard Russian: abrek, chikhir, and kunak. Searching online can be tricky too. An abrek is a mountain man or rustler, the connotation depending on whose side you are on. Chikhir was obviously a drink, often served by the bucket, probably from grapes, but it’s still not clear to me whether it might be distilled and whether it is interchangeable with vodka. Finally, kunak refers to a friendship with serious obligations, perhaps guest friendship, as for example, “This abrek invited me to his house for chikhir and said I could take anything I wanted, so I took this great sword; we’re kunaks.”

The Three Body Trilogy

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Cixin Liu’s trilogy consists of The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End. It is first contact fiction of an abstract bent. Liu’s story is episodic; the trilogy ranges very widely and does not focus on any particular character.  Although I read the books happily enough, it’s not easy to say what I liked about them. I suppose I enjoyed them for Liu’s unpredictability and for some dramatic set pieces. Liu does not worry much about the details or even the plausibility of the technological devices he introduces, but the results are entertaining. I won’t try to discuss them without spoilers.

The three body problem is to predict the motions of three bodies, usually celestial, according to the normal laws of gravity and motion. Mathematicians have wrestled with it since the discovery of calculus and it is known that it’s not susceptible to exact solution in all cases. Characteristically, Liu draws a beautiful portrait of a mathematician plagued by restlessness of soul until he loses himself in contemplation of the beauties of this problem. The character does not appear again. Much of the first book takes place in a game world where the problem serves as motivation for a primer in the history of science, and an introduction to an advanced civilization threatened by its location in a ternary star system. Liu’s telling stories within stories reminded me of Ender’s Game, but in a lighter mood. For example, Turing, Newton, and the emperor of China construct a computer out of a vast host of flag waving medieval soldiers, but they cannot predict the motions of the three suns for long. Despots and sages argue with operatic exaggeration while their hapless subjects suffer the indignity of being dehydrated and stored in warehouses to be gnawed on by rats while they wait for the next spell of fair weather in their chaotic planetary system.

Contact between Earth and the Trisolarans is initiated by an astronomer despairing at the worst depths of the Cultural Revolution. Despite this extreme example (and granting the existence of numerous inhabited worlds in the galaxy) Liu handles the question of whether humanity poses a greater threat to itself than the one posed by alien civilizations with subtlety. He makes the conflict between planets nearly intractable; Liu’s strength is spectacular set pieces of utter, beautiful destruction wreaked by enemies capable of manipulating the structure of matter and space. One of the Trisolaran weapons is the sophon: a proton unfolded unfolded from its string theoretical eleven dimensions to form a surface vaster than a planet and etched with computer circuitry. Rerolled, it becomes a smart particle, capable of travel near light speed and instant quantum communication, and able to bring human science to a halt by lurking in particle colliders.

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These picture from the Hubble Space Telescope are in the public domain.

Human strife is not a major part of the novels.  Panic at imminent alien invasion leads to destruction, but in a madcap register; glassy arcologies tumble down, it’s Lord of the Flies for a little while, but no resentment ensues. It seems to be Liu’s contention that despite the horrors humanity is capable of inflicting on itself, we can and must cooperate to face the universe. But I have to qualify this; as I said, Liu is more subtle than that. Another of Liu’s painstakingly created bit players, after a trying ordeal, communicates vital guidance to earth in the form of a classical fairytale. In the tale, the bad guy destroys his enemies by depicting them in masterly, lifelike paintings.  The world’s powers work together to interpret the tale and are nearly successful, but not quite.  When a few starships escape the solar system, they carry the same people who advocated most heroically for human solidarity and morality.   I wonder if Liu had Thucydides in mind when he wrote of the uncomprehending acrimony that comes between the terrestrial authorities and the spacefarers. It reminded me of the mutinies in the Athenian fleet in Asia, of the zeal with which Athenians prosecuted the leaders of failed campaigns, and the shapeshifting of Alcibiades.

In what I’ve read about the big bang it seems to be a commonplace that conditions early on in the universe were quite different from what we find now. In the dense early universe, fundamental particles, and even laws governing the forces between them, did not take on the different forms we distinguish today. Physicists hope that by understanding the origins of the universe, we might resolve problems like “electroweak symmetry breaking”, or so I’ve read. Or where six or seven or eight extra dimensions got to, presumably. In the struggle to protect themselves from scarcely comprehended threats, Liu has humanity begin to unravel some of these questions of fundamental physics.  But it proves to be a tangled web indeed. I’m now desperately trying to remember if and how Penrose, Hawking, et al, have used the words “Eden” or “Edenic”, to describe the early universe, and whether they might have dared to load that term as Liu ultimately does. (To Orson Scott Card’s name, I might add that Liu reminds me of Neal Stephenson and Philip Pullman.) It’s in these terms, of Eden and the big bang, that Liu counterposes the question of facing the universe with that of facing ourselves.

 

Substitute, by Nicholson Baker

Although I could not be caught entirely by surprise, I winced when Nicholson Baker came right out and promised a “moment by moment account of twenty eight days” spent substitute teaching in Maine.   Baker wrote an entire novel about a ride up an escalator.  This book is seven hundred pages long.  He is not fooling around.  But neither was I.  I reserved the book months ahead of publication.

Nicholson Baker is a stubborn pacifist, a pornographer, and, in the guise of a tweedy library gadfly, a brutal critic of some very big institutions.  In a quiet way he is a prose genius.  Just turning his gaze on a rural school district could be taken for an aggressive act.  Aggressive, though, is not the right word for a man whose novels revolve around escalators, fireplaces, and lawn sprinklers.  He is uniquely suited to a subject that is quotidian and a national controversy.  I sympathize with the outrage of an experienced teacher or classroom assistant who finds herself or himself under the microscope of this man.  On the other hand, they should be honored.  Baker is a major writer.*

Disappointingly, deliberately, Baker is not at his flashiest here.  He is much more straightforward.  Rarely he writes as of a math worksheet, “distended, goitrous dugongs of arithmetical confusion”.  He alludes self deprecatingly to a characteristic, slightly famous passage of The Mezzanine, an obsessive page long footnote about perforation that began “Perforation! Shout it out!”**  A third grader is handed a workbook and Baker can’t resist:

“So the trick with perforation…” I started to say.

Cody ripped out the activity page roughly, leaving some of it behind in the book.

James made a sad cry.

“You’re fine,” I said. “Cody avoided the triangles.”

Baker sympathizes with his charges, but doesn’t rise to the level of some of his autobiographical passages.  Baker once constructed a tremendous emotional edifice, for example, around the glass doorknob where his father hung his neckties.***  His method here is more that of Human Smoke.  (Consider the breadth of a writer who can reach from a Maine elementary school to World War Two.)  Episodes are artlessly left to accumulate and to speak for themselves.  This is not meant to sound harsh.  Have you ever tried to completely describe one day?  It takes some work, even without the constant presence of two dozen or so kids.

Some passages are more effective for being set in this context of trivial detail.  Baker, supervising recess, sees two girls on a swing set.  They are holding onto each other’s chains and pulling gently from side to side.  He is falling into some kind of writerly aesthetic revery (coupled oscillators are a source of deep, beautiful insight in physics) when another teacher intervenes, castigates the girls for breaking playground rules, physically separates them, and threatens to take away their recess.  The ensuing discussion between Baker and the other teacher is conducted in moderate tones, but has the impact of a savage fight.****  The teacher claims to know the girls better than Baker and to know that they were deliberately pushing boundaries that were set after some bloody playtime accident. Such conduct requires an uncompromising response.  This assessment might have been halfway correct, but such strains of thought also belong to our culture of egregious police brutality. 

Baker does stick his neck out at times.  The middle chapters, or rather days, turn out more political.  He believes that children are overmedicated as a result of not fitting in with classroom discipline.  He questions such students in ways that made me cringe, although it’s not clear how paying attention to a kid would be a bad thing.  Although he refrains from presenting grand theses, he has written in other contexts about his ideas for education, like shorter days and no Algebra II.  The people who should really feel threatened and offended by Baker’s work are the star reformers, the Arne Duncans and the entrepreneurs who want to set themselves up as education czars.  I can’t imagine any of them putting this much literary treasure to work to understand what goes on in the lives of students, and, if possible, I have less appetite for their posturing than ever before.

* I’d like to nominate Baker for a National Humanities Medal.  There’s a form online.  It’s really short.  I can’t decide if this would be a silly gesture.

** “The deliberate punctuated weakening of paper and cardboard so that it will tear along an intended path, leaving a row of fine-haired white pills or tuftlets on each new edge!  It is a staggering conception…”

*** This is actually in the novel The Mezzanine.  It’s the best example that came to mind.  The matter of Baker and his biography puzzles me.  His essays vividly depict his childhood.  It’s obvious that all of his novels, being concerned with minutiae in the lives of extremely introspective characters, are somehow autobiographical.  Sometimes the narrative is so interior that it doesn’t make sense to ask whether it happened.  It’s just thought.  On the other hand, with Paul Chowder, Baker takes pleasure in imagining himself as a screwup.  What is Baker really like?  Shaking his hand at a book event doesn’t quite suffice.  I was left wondering if the brief accounts in Substitute of driving to work and eating lunch, cursing under his breath and fiddling with his phone were the closest I’d gotten to Nicholson Baker as he is now.

**** Seriously.  I also recently read a book about a daylong battle for a remote outpost in Afghanistan and a Jack Reacher thriller.  The Afghanistan book was good, but Jack Reacher doesn’t hold up that well against Nick Baker, Substitute.

Literature comes to the Carolinas

John Lawson’s A New Voyage to Carolina is the earliest book I could find on the Carolinas, where I have old family ties.  In December of 1700, Lawson set out from Charleston on an expedition to the interior.  In two months he travelled to the middle of modern day North Carolina and returned northeast to Pamlico Sound, where he started the town of Bath.  I’m not finished with the book, and at any rate I’m scarcely able to comment on its real significance.  Fortunately, Lawson’s style of narration is extremely eccentric and diverting.  It is interesting to consider that Lawson lamented that most of the English traveling to the Americas were “of the meaner sort” and held himself a gentleman and a scholar.  I’m not saying otherwise, but what companions he must have had!

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Lawson encounter’d many Tygers, the dismall’st and most hideous Noise of their frightful Ditties causing great Surprizal

Lawson’s party meets with an accident on the way:

one of our Company being top-heavy, and there being nothing but a small Pole for a Bridge, over a Creek, fell into the Water up to the Chin; my self laughing at the Accident, and not taking good Heed to my Steps, came to the same Misfortune: All our Bedding was wet.  The Wind being at N. W. it froze very hard, which prepar’d such a Night’s Lodging for me, that I never desire to have the like again; the wet Bedding and freezing Air had so qualify’d our Bodies,  that in the Morning when we awak’d, we were nigh frozen to Death, until we had recruited ourselves before a large Fire of the Indians.

I will say this as I get up in the morning: “Recruit yourself!”  On his way from Charleston, Lawson travelled among the scattered plantations of refugee protestant French, and the odd Scot living on marshy islands tending livestock.  He was evidently preceded by other European traders, and he travelled with Indian guides from village to village, where he was generally well received.  Still, it was usual to encounter abandoned fields and (perhaps temporarily) deserted camps where one could make oneself at home.

We found great Store of Indian Peas, (a very good Pulse) Beans, Oyl, Thinkapin Nuts, Corn, barbacu’d Peaches, and Peach-Bread; which Peaches being made into a Quiddony, and so made up into Loves like Barley-Cakes, these cut into thin Slices, and dissolv’d in Water, makes a very grateful Acid, and extraordinary beneficial in Fevers, as hath often been try’d, and approv’d on by our English Practitioners.  The Wind being at N. W. with cold Weather, made us make a large Fire in the Indian’s Cabin; being very intent upon our Cookery, we set the Dwelling on Fire, and with much ado, put it out, tho’ with the Loss of Part of the Roof.

And I get mad when I have to wait too long in line at Dunkin Donuts on the Garden State Parkway!

Spring Follows Summer

I’m still around, I haven’t given up books, and I feel a little guilty about not sharing my thoughts recently. I thought I’d pick up again with something light.

I’ve been reading Don Quixote for almost a year now. It’s occurred to me that there are classics everyone gets even if it’s hard to say what they are about. The baggiest Dickens is melodrama with some good characters, some bad, and some ridiculous. Middlemarch is similar. Don Quixote, however, is about a crazy man playing at chivalry, but I don’t understand it. It’s funny when the ingenious gentleman attacks a bad poet, or when Sancho is tied up like a turtle between a pair of shields and trampled. Yet I hear others are appalled by the violence. Is it comedy or tragedy?

At the beginning of Chapter 53 of the second part, Sancho’s governorship is drawing to its close, and we read that “To imagine that things in this life are always to remain as they are is an idle dream… everything moves in a circle: spring follows summer, summer the harvest, harvest autumn, autumn winter, and winter spring…” This is explicitly credited to the fictional narrator Cid Hamete Benengeli in the midst of a flight of mock eastern philosophizing. It’s funny enough for the double take alone. Despite this it has, according to Samuel Putnam, provoked real debate between those who would let it stand and those, including the Spanish Academy, who would emend the text.

I would love to know of similar cases where a passage in the work of a great humorist has given rise to a such a grammatical controversy boiling down to “did he mean it or not?”  I think that even if it is a mistake, it should probably stand.  And what of the end of Sancho’s rule?  His farcical battle is followed by a resignation worthy of Cincinnatus.  Will I ever understand Don Quixote?