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.

 

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?

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.

 

Area Family not Suckered by Barbecue Dream

BOSTON, MA – A majority of the Walsh family celebrated the breakdown in talks aiming to bring a large barbecue to the area family’s suburban residence.  The “massive end of summer bash” was deep sixed when father Matt Walsh recognized his overriding responsibility to protect his family from undue expense or inconvenience. 

Clearly ambivalent, Walsh Sr. explained that he admired the family pride and ambition that wife Shirley and youngest daugher Emily brought to planning the get together.  “Obviously a big cookout is a great thing to bring family and friends together.  We even talked about inviting some of the neighbors.  We’d have a reason to put our volleyball net up in the side yard, and there’s the patio out back.  With the grill going and a couple of coolers of beer and soft drinks, something like this could be a real catylst for bringing the neighborhood together.”  Shirley Walsh brought up the possibility that most of the food arrangements would be covered by a “pot luck” system, and that it would be easy to open up space in the fridge and make the oven available for guests with hot dishes. 

However, oldest daugher Sara and twins Mike and Jack put up a surprisingly early, well organized, and persistant resistance to the idea of a “big do” on Spruce Street.  “Everyone knows,” Sara said patiently, “That these things never work out in favor of the hosts.  People blow off their RSVPs; people mooch shamelessly.  You can forget about them bringing good beer.  I just know that even if we shell out for microbrew we’re going to end up with a cooler of Budweisers floating in tepid water.  Dad says he’ll take care of all the shopping beforehand, but he’ll have to send me out at the last second to buy more steak or something.  Yeah I could save the receipt, but what guarantee do I have that he won’t forget to pay me back?”  Shirley Walsh reluctantly conceded that if friends didn’t take their leftovers right back with them that night, they’d be sure to leave only their ugliest, most awkwardly shaped tupperware behind.  “I’d probably take it to work in the trunk of my car, forget it for three months, and then guiltily try to return it, only to find that they didn’t want it back.” Her husband furrowed his brows and appeared to ponder this statement, but not before an expression of neurotic anger flashed across his face.

Emily Walsh was looking forward to finally inviting her friends to swim in the Walsh’s above ground pool, which has been covered all summer, only to see her most powerful argument turned against her by her brothers.  Said Mike Walsh, “If opening the pool is such a big priority for Emily, she should just open the pool.  She probably hasn’t priced out pool cleaning and chemicals for a while.”  Added Jack, with a significant look, “We know whose shoulders this is going to fall on: clearing off the patio, digging everything out of the basement… and when’s the last time you saw Dad pushing the lawn mower?  Then the cleanup.  All for leftover bean salad?”  Sensing an irretrievable disarray in the pro-parties party’s party-planning, Sara Walsh pushed hard on the question of infrastructure.  “I distinctly heard that there was going to be volleyball in the side yard, but now Mom’s offering to sacrifice her hydrangea to allow cars to get in there.  We can’t do both.”  Mom insisted that talks with the Hatchers for next door parking rights were “progressing”.

Several times during the fraught family meeting, the Walsh paterfamilias offered to put matters to a vote, but the no partisans saw the advantage of letting things drift into a stalemate.  With rational decisionmaking off the table, they began needling their father  with the concession that they would support any family activity he wished as long as he offered them blanket immunity from any personal sacrifices or alterations of their routine of any kind.  Finally Walsh snapped, “We probably just aren’t the kind of family that has parties.”  Emily Walsh later sniffed, “Now that we’re not doing it, our friends will probably go party with that redneck Johnson family that likes to set off illegal fireworks and always starts a brawl.  Or even with the Smiths; you can’t leave your car in their neighborhood.”

Two Short Books on World War I

German advance

It’s convenient that the hundredth anniversary has come around, but the real reason I’m reading these is that I was trying to get rid of some books I bought on impulse that are now cluttering up my life. 

I got started with Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger.  When he died in 1998 at the age of 102, Junger was the last living holder of Pour le Merite, the highest military honor of the German Empire (says Wikipedia).  I bought the book a few years ago when I was reading Clive James’ stimulating Cultural Amnesia, a kind of rambling encyclopedia of little known interwar types.  The impression I get is that Junger is a little hard to figure out.  His memoir is important, gripping, well written stuff, but though he was never a Nazi, he’s too militaristic for many people to stomach.

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Ernst Junger

Junger hardly ever looks up from the details of his war in the trenches on the Western Front.  He enlisted first as a rifleman, wanting to be responsible only for himself, but after being wounded the first time he changed his mind and became a commissioned officer.  Even after several promotions, he seems to have been most interested in leading night raids into no man’s land.  He certainly never talks politics, only alluding by way of matters of morale in the ranks.  Though there’s no shortage of gore, and he’s fairly frank about what seem to have been minor nervous breakdowns, he gives the impression of having suffered nothing that a hot breakfast wouldn’t fix.   The long and even the mid term view is completely missing from this book.  The beginning and the end of the war are not discussed.

Overall, Storm of Steel is a dull, even simple read, but I get the sense that there could be a lot going on under the surface.  A psychologist or an historian might really be able to sink his or her teeth in.  What, for example, to make of the publication history of the book?  Junger worked from his diaries, and the first version was apparently more or less a transcription; later versions changed emphases, reducing explicit gore or, so I hear, loading up on military cliches.  The translator of my Penguin edition merely remarks that a full treatment of this subject has not been undertaken.  I imagine it would shed light on a few instances where Junger might be deceiving himself.  For example, after a disastrous raid in which much of his platoon disappeared, he says he felt simply terrible, but then quotes a subordinate who admired Junger’s spirited way of leaping over entaglements.  A phrase like “disturbed only by mosquitoes, shelling, and occasional bombardments of gas” might be drollery, but there is a limit.

While I was still reading Junger, I checked out Norman Stone’s WWI: A Short History.  It certainly is short.  While I hesitate to criticize a work that obviously required a colossal effort of synthesis and compression, I am finding his writing difficult.  I don’t usually need to read a sentence two or three times to work out syntax and antecedents.  It is proving to be an interesting check on Junger; Stone contradicts Junger, for example, in insisting that the Germans enjoyed long advantage in munitions production.  I think I could do better than these two works, entertaining as they are, if I were to make a real effort at learning more about this topic, but I’m not sure I have the time now.  But just in case, are there any books that have helped you understand WWI?

The Wawa Way – What?

I don’t normally read business books, much less promotional corporate histories.  I don’t like advertising and I don’t friend companies on Facebook.  That’s why I found myself vaguely unsettled as I gulped down The Wawa Way. 

“What?  What’s a Wawa?”  Within a fairly well defined area of South Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania, the question is unthinkable, but now I hear the question all too often.   Since I no longer live in Wawaland, being sent The Wawa Way was the next best thing to getting a sub and cappuccino in the mail. 

Wawa is a convenience store, a place to get milk, eggs, sandwiches, gasoline, but it’s more than that.  It’s wildly successful.  Newer, bigger stores appear closer and closer together.  They stay busy and inspire unusual loyalty.  There’s a wide selection of good food and you can fix your coffee yourself.  Since they really took off when I was at the susceptible stages of getting hooked on coffee, starting to pitch in with the driving on family trips, and taking aimless late night spins with friends, I think the chain might be a defining part of my generation.  When I think of Wawa, I remember my dad buying me cappuccino there after I missed the school bus, and our gratitude as Wawa added one store at a time to our long southern road trips.  I don’t know anyone from back home who doesn’t happily jump out of the car at Wawa and head for their personal favorite items. 

Reading about the history of Wawa was like reading the history of my hometown.  I remember many of the changes as they happened: the advent of breakfast sandwiches, the coming of the gas station Wawa, the new coffee pots that still rankle.  That was fun.  I cruised through a lot of the business talk, but a few more substantial things stuck.  Wawa is still a private company, but, as I learned, it came very close to going public about ten years ago.  The author, former Wawa CEO Howard Stoeckel, argues that public control would have worked against the company’s strategy of expanding slowly and never franchising.  Instead of selling to Wall Street, the company sold stock to its employees. 

As I hinted above, I have a jaded, if ignorant, view of business in general.  “Free enterprise” is too vague an idea to be per se great for everyone.  The Wawa Way makes a case for Wawa being one of the good companies, but other than the story of employee stock ownership, it’s a little vague.  Stoeckel says that cashiers are the most important people in the business, but doesn’t say how much they are paid.  He touts programs that are in place to help employees in need, but one doesn’t get a sense of whether employees struggle to pay their share of some more traditional health plan.  He makes much of Wawa’s being closely connected to communities and knowing neighbors, and that’s plausible enough, although off the top of my head I don’t know many Wawa workers.  But for all Wawa’s impression on the local culture, I can say that South Jersey is hardly a hotbed of radical labor empowerment. 

When I looked at the book I was reading and examined my feelings about Wawa, I realized that while scoffing at advertising and corporate spin has definite appeal, a better appreciation of what business does well can also give one a better sense of its limitations.  The best Stoeckel can offer is that Wawa felt really bad over their decision to cut the price of cigarettes.  Soon we may be thinking about gasoline and the car culture that Wawa epitomizes so gloriously in the same way.  Wawa may be my favorite big business, and it won’t save us from tobacco, sprawl, or global warming.  Maybe when our representatives do their jobs and get on these problems, Wawa will turn its attention from the overhyped, underregulated Sunshine State and do something about the sad state of convenience food in New England.

Two Early Americans


Continuing my early American kick, I read The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper.  I’ve also taken out a volume of Washington Irving so I can finish Knickerbocker’s History of New York, which I started listening to on a long trip.

The Last of the Mohicans takes place in upstate New York, so I was surprised to encounter local names I remember from my elementary school days in South Jersey, notably those of the Lenni Lenape and Unami tribes.  The eponymous hero of the novel is one of them, far from his homeland and caught up in the wars of the British, French and Iroquois that I only dimly remember, if at all.

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The woods (my photograph)

As a reminder of those times when the upper Hudson was practically the edge of the Anglo American world, The Last of the Mohicans was interesting.  It’s fascinating to think that when Cooper published this in 1826, the native people and landscapes of the Southwest, now such an integral part of our literature, were a different country.  The appearance of an old chief named Tamanend, said to have negotiated with William Penn and to have later attained to the status of the patron saint Tammany, is another welcome reminder that American history has been going on for a lot longer than I sometimes remember.  Otherwise, Cooper’s plotting is clunky and the 1992 movie with Daniel Day-Lewis seems to me to make some improvements.

Knickerbocker’s History of New York is similarly reorienting, with the added complication that it’s also outrageous satire.  Dietrich Knickerbocker is Irving’s invented Dutch historian, harking back with pompous nostalgia to the days of sleepy patroons, smoking, dozing, growing fat on oysters and donuts, and founding the greatest city on Earth while the Yankees closed in around them.

I’m confident that Irving will merit another post; whether I can put it together is another question.  I’ve begun to read the newly published course on English literature by Jorge Luis Borges and I’m an insignificant sixty pages into Tony Judt’s huge Postwar.  On the other hand, the spring warbler migration should be tapering off, so maybe I’ll spend more time writing.