More Good Books. . .
Clunas, Craig. Art in China.
Clunas' book is better than Tregear's in many ways. Clunas concentrates neither on aesthetic principles nor on style, but in passing he sometimes makes remarks which will help the student of Western art understand why Chinese art looks to 'different' to us:
[Castiglione] was the most successful, if not the only, European missionary to develop a manner of painting which was pleasing to the imperial taste, in its adaptation of Western conventions of shading and depiction of volume to courtly subject matter. [The illustration shows a still-life which combines typically European Baroque illusionism and composition in the object with Chinese concepts of the relationship between the object and its space, and between its representation and the 'canvas'.]
The single-point perspective has been effectively imitated, but the very different techniques used in Antwerp engravings and Chinese wood-block printing for showing mass can be seen in particular....
Clunas is very careful, although apparently sincere, in his political correctness, and very post-modernist in his approach to the relationships between art and society. From the latter approach, which would normally annoy me, comes one of the best features of this book: Clunas' emphasis on the relationships between style, theory, and the post-Tang social construct of the bureaucracy of the learned helped me more in understanding Chinese art than anything else I've seen.
Clunas sometimes lapses into English which only the tenure-culture can explain:
Individual artists' fortunes rose and fell with these policy changes, facing the real personal risk of becoming involved in the factional politics of the age....
The fortunes faced a real personal risk?
But the content is good, the book is well made, the illustrations are mainly good or great artworks, and we'll forgive the little things.
Twain, Mark. Innocents Abroad, or the New Pilgrims Progress, Being Some Account of the Steamship Quaker City's Pleasure Excursion to Europe and the Holy Land....
This book is less of a success than Following the Equator. Twain's success seems to have something to do with his understanding of people's foibles. In Following the Equator, he writes more directly and systematically about people. The Innocents Abroad is more of a conventional travelogue, a catalogue of places seen, often with the places themselves described visually. Societies are more often described than people. It's not the same.
However, some parts of the book succeed. 'Twain' can hold our interest when describing places which arouse our curiosity simply by our lack of knowledge of them, like Gibraltar. He also sometimes returns to his usual ironic style, as when comparing the different cities of Italy. Venice is the inventor of government paranoia, Florence is overblown, and Cittavecchia is nothing but hot.
Twain's democratically distributed sarcasm about all of the various peoples he found in the Holy Land ring suspiciously true. It somehow touched my heart, though, to find that oleanders were as common here then as now.
I have never understood what greatness I am supposed to see in Mark Twain, or in any of the other American authors reserved for torturing pre-college students. Leslie Fiedler's afterword to the NAL edition helps a little in clarifying Twain's cultural significance.
Naipaul, Vidiadhar Surajprasad. Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey. Random House, 1982.
Somebody or other said a few years ago that the current wave of fundamentalism is the death rattle of religion. It was the kind of almost-petitio principii which is common among a certain type of narrow thinkers. The first step is always the same: I believe such-and-such, and therefore it is a fact. I consider religion outdated, therefore religion is outdated, and therefore fundamentalism must be interpreted as the death rattle of religion.
I have no idea what the future of religion will bring. I suppose that Naipaul doesn't either. But fundamentalism is now a social and religious fact which is best understood.
Naipaul's specific subject here is the resurgence of Islamic 'political fundamentalism' in the middle of the twentieth century. As usual, he is good at describing the basic human problems, basic human situations. The people who say 'Islam (or Christianity, or Judaism) is perfect; the problem is that people don't keep it as they should.' The Afghan soldier fighting under terrible conditions, whose only worry is obtaining a Western medication which will give him 'strength for his wife'.
One of the most difficult problems is one which Naipaul discusses more forcefully in an even sadder book than this: Secure Westerners don't seem to understand to what extent cruelty, violence and suffering are still routine in most of the world.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar.
There are many reasons for the continuing popularity of The Bell Jar, and for the popularity and resurgence of Sylvia Plath's work in general.
Novels about severe mental problems and psychiatric hospitalizations usually do well. If the author commits suicide, the book will do even better, for various reasons of ghoulishness and because of society's preoccupation with suicide.
Sylvia Plath has also become a feminist symbol, partly because she was a famous woman of our time, partly because she could easily be turned into an oppressed woman, and partly because she wrote about specifically 'women's subjects'.
The recent death of Ted Hughes and the accompanying spate of publications (including his poetic response to the Plath story) has brought about a further resurgence of Sylvia Plath's works, and novels are easier to read than poetry, especially for politicians.
When it comes right down to it, though, there is something to this book. Something of the human being and a little bit of the poet sometimes show through.
Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Dover, 1998.
When did "continental philosophy" stop being "analytical" and start being "continental"? Descartes and Spinoza still try to adduce logical evidence for their claims. Their evidence may be based on unlikely or hidden assumptions, and they sometimes make mistakes, but the will is there. Trying to find evidence in Nietzsche is like eating chicken broth with a fork. One of my correspondents said I was missing the point: Nietzsche is poetry. Bergson isn't much more demonstrative in his demonstrations.
Bergson's thesis is that today's ultra-mechanism models reality only approximately by subdividing a continuous universe, in which everything has some influence over everything else - if only the very weak influence corresponding to inverse square laws. Mainly, he says that this sloppy model breaks down when dealing with the evolution of certain entities, such as life and intelligence.
His metaphors from an outdated science are irritating at best (and should serve as a warning to others), but his epistemology does help us understand some of the outstanding problems with the nature of time and the structure of matter. Bergson also discusses at length the problems with today's theory of evolution: when all is said and done, one is faced either with numbers that don't fit or with ad hoc solutions with satisfy the university politicians more than the lovers of truth.
Bergson is at his best when dealing with the history of science, and especially when he discusses the history of object, parameter, and time. As to the latter, Bergson's data and reasoning are almost identical to Paul Davies', and his conclusions are opposite. Both claim that our post-Aristotelean concept of causality and our perception of fluid, unidirectional time are incompatible. Davies' conclusion is that our perception of time is an illusion. Bergson's conclusion is that absolute causality is an unnecessary assumption. He also discusses in detail the evolutionary reasons for the cultural preeminence of this assumption.
Bergson's limited causality is far from coffee-house quantum theory, but you're better off trying to make sense of it without my comments.
It's a pity that both our Late Medieval social orthodoxy and Bergson's own faults will prevent his work from being appreciated by the powers that be.
Gordis, Robert. The Book of God and Man: A Study of Job.
In The Book of God and Man, Gordis continues both the critical position and the techniques which he used so successfully to elucidate Ecclesiastes. The critical position:
Underlying ["biblical hypercriticism"] was a basic error - the failure to recognize the wide disparity in time, space, and culture pattern between the modern Western mind and that of an ancient oriental poet. The canons of logic and aesthetics congenial to a modern Western writer cannot be mechanically applied to a literary composition of the ancient East.
As to critical technique, Gordis again emphasizes empathy, etymology, and especially the interpretation of difficult passages as quotations inserted by the original author. Gordis is less convincing in creating a unified whole than he was with Ecclesiastes. This is partly because Job is a more difficult book, both textually and philosophically, and partly because Gordis is more often convinced by his own special pleading.
As usual, Gordis is right and important in all the main points. He correctly notes that the key to the book is the answers out of the whirlwind, and his interpretation of the answers is emotionally convincing, if not proven.
Gordis' own translation of Job, printed here, is excellent, even as poetry.
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Muessen, H. J. How the World Cooks Chicken. Stein and Day, 1983.
I'm not sure if I would write about an ordinary cookbook here, but this is one with general cultural significance, written by a truly educated person.
Muessen discusses the cooking of each region in the context of its history and its cultural connections. He is not afraid to make aesthetic judgements, and he doesn't pull his punches.
How the World Cooks Chicken is also excellent as a practical cookbook. The recipes are authentic, while alternatives are given for some of the more exotic ingredients and processes, but only in addition to the original, not in its stead. The recipes are easy to execute, and are written in plain, common-sense language, unlike a much more famous cookbook which becomes nitpicking in an attempt to become foolproof.
Those recipes which I tried produced excellent results.
Ibsen, Henrik (Archer, William, tr.). The Last Plays. Hill and Wang, 1959.
Everybody seems to agree that Ibsen is among the greatest and most important of the playwrights. What the experts can't seem to agree on is why and how.
Harold Bloom, of course, tries to use a metaphor about Ibsen to show off Harold Bloom.
Shaw considers Ibsen important mainly as the proponent of certain social theories. Ibsen himself emphasizes these quite a bit:
These modern women, ill-used as daughters, as sisters, as wives, not educated according to their gifts, prevented from following their calling, deprived of their inheritance, embittered in temper - it is these who furnish the mothers of the new generation.
And many more.
Mencken (A Doll's House..., Modern Library, n.d.) considers Ibsen great mainly as a master technician of drama:
He gave infinitely more thought to questions of practical dramaturgy - to getting his characters on and off the stage, to building up climaxes, to calculating effects - than he ever gave to the ideational content of his dramas.... [H]e has 'accomplished the feat of doing without a single monologue, in fact, without a single aside'.
But the friend's explanations in A Doll's House are a much cruder device than monologue, and there is an annoying discontinuity where Nora starts to break free. It is in fact the last plays, which William Archer treats with contempt, which are technically perfect. The supernaturalism which Archer dislikes also helps them.
Editions of Ibsen at amazon.com
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience : a Study in Human Nature: Being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion Delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902.
The Harvard positivists are a welcome relief from the intentional pseudo-physics of modern academic philosophy. James & Co. write as clearly and elegantly as they can; they don't feel that long neologisms add scientific respectability. They know that anything which opposes the common sense of an intelligent, educated person needs to be justified. They also know that ad hominem arguments do not answer material questions.
James' book points out the unstated and unbased assumptions behind many of the stylish dichotomies: To say that the content of a certain religion errs in actual fact does not prove that that content has no value, or that that value can only be based on falsehood. To say that the traditions of a certain religion were formed by historical events does not prove that these traditions are false. To say that a certain subjective religious state results from a certain neural state does not prove that it is not inspired, in the religious sense. A statement that the world runs according to rigid laws has not bearing on the existence of a Deity, or even a personal Deity.
Aside from its epistemology, The Varieties of Religious Experience has much to teach about human nature, even in the realm of simple observation. It also includes some important contributions to the history of religion (as opposed to 'religions'). It points out the limitations of modern pseudo-Aristotelean science without falling into the pit of post-modernist denial, much less New Age hogwash.
James has his false enthusiasms, but who doesn't.
Crescas, Hasdai. The Light of the Lord.
"To study the history of philosophy is to study philosophy." Often it is, sometimes not. This book is one of the nots. Its interest is mainly antiquarian.
The Light of the Lord is mainly a discussion of the important issues of The Guide for the Perplexed. It in fact corrects a few of those peculiarities in Aristotle which make his (and Maimonides') demonstrations difficult for us to swallow, such as the a priori assumption that infinities are impossible, or Aristotle's ideas about space occupying space. However, these corrections have mostly historical interest for us, in showing many specific instances in which the schoolteacher's canard about the infallibility of Aristotle in the Middle Ages is false. Steven Katz claims that this book is a significant advance toward modern science, but he's exaggerating.
Some of the discussions in this book still have meaning for us, such as Crescas' ideas about the problem of free will, and some of his remarks about time.
more Good Books. . .
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