Posts Tagged ‘Friedrich Nietzsche’

Remembering Umberto Eco, and a meeting of great minds in Cambridge

Monday, February 22nd, 2016
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He remembers. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I didn’t know Umberto Eco, and I read Name of the Rose so many years ago that I had nothing to add to the news of his death on Feb. 19. One friend did, however: Stanford’s Jean-Marie Apostolidès posted his memories of the great Italian author in a short Facebook post. With his permission, I repost a translation of his single encounter with the maestro:

Remembrances of an intimate dinner party in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1984 (if memory serves me). Those present included the great American logician Willard Quine; Umberto Eco, wreathed in the glory of his novel The Name of the Rose, which had just appeared in English; and yours truly, the youngest of the table.

Eco

Maestro (Photo: Rob Bogaerts, Creative Commons)

All three of us were invited by Dante Della Terza, who taught Italian literature at Harvard for many years. Dante and Umberto had known each other for ages, hence the casual nature of the dinner. Dante’s wife had concocted her best Italian specialties, accompanied by a Montepulciano wine, which I will say more about. This friendly communion allowed us to reconstruct the world on a new basis, no doubt we were a little shameless.The four men were, after dining, a little tipsy, treated like pashas by the only woman in attendance that evening. Dante’s wife had indeed spent most of her time at the stove, and I do not believe in our project, changing the status of women had been on our agenda: we were too happy with the situation as it was!

To give our drinking a little intellectual cast, I proposed to my comrades that we compile a list of the ten most important philosophers in the history of thought, those that allowed us to make today’s world a little better. Each had to list their personal choices before we arrived at a common list. Mrs. Della Terza passed pen and paper to each of us. A silence of three or four minutes fell upon the table, despite the grappa that crowned the feast and redoubled our jokes. And then each in turn read his list.

Dante Della Terza

The host for the evening

But when the time came to make the collective list, we were unable to come to agreement, our choices so diverged. Umberto and I had quite a few names in common (Aristotle among the ancients, among modern Nietzsche) but Quine – who had the most clout as an authority in philosophy – brutally rejected all our proposals. A reserved man when sober, the wine had worked wickedly on him. When I advanced the name of Marx, he had a sarcastic smile, then said dismissively: “For me, he’s not even a philosopher.”

When Quine had asked Umberto to read us his own personal list, I discovered the logical basis for my ignorance: with the exception of Henri Poincaré, I did not know any of the thinkers he considered essential for the future of thought.

quine

The great logician

In short, our attempt to improve the world failed miserably. Yet were we not, all four of us, great enlightened ones? This failure did not prevent us from finishing off the evening in good spirits and, with the help of the grappa, we were all perfectly happy and pleased with ourselves when leaving the Della Terza home.

Today when I think back to that memorable evening, I regret not having taken note of names we had chosen. I particularly regret that we, the sage ones, could not come to agreement. If we had, might today’s world be in better shape?

A Christmas Carol: Dickens and Nietzsche and Freud – oy vey!

Thursday, December 24th, 2015
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marleyWhat better way to celebrate Christmas than with a secular Turkish-American writer discussing Charles Dickens‘s A Christmas Carol, in light of modern (Jewish) Freudian psychotherapy?

Elif Batuman tried explaining the relationship of the book to her therapist, but he didn’t get it: “The Ghost [of Christmas Past] in particular reminded me of someone, with his kindness and spookiness, the way he said almost nothing, except to repeat back to Scrooge his own remarks. A few days later, I figured it out, and told my therapist: the Ghost reminded me of him. He didn’t reply, only smiled gently, in a way that I interpreted to mean, ‘I’m an Israeli Freudian, please don’t make me talk about A Christmas Carol.'”

She explains:

At first, it seemed strange to me that such a Jewish discourse should be anticipated so plainly by a Christmas story—one written a decade before Freud was born. But when I thought about it more, it started to seem less strange. Freud read and admired Dickens; his first gift to his fiancée, in 1882, was a copy of David Copperfield. Why wouldn’t he have read A Christmas Carol, which is so much shorter? O.K., he was Jewish, but he was secular. He had a Christmas tree. When I was little, my parents also bought a tree every year, and we would put presents under it, and it was a little bit magical, even though we weren’t Christian. Wasn’t that a big part of Freudianism: that magic is often displaced, but never destroyed?

Sigmund_Freud

Was he just recycling Dickens?

Read the “The Ghosts of Christmas: Was Scrooge the First Psychotherapy Patient?” in the New Yorker here. She describes the darker side of Christmas and Dickens’s dystopian world, but some argue that the classic Christmas story It’s a Wonderful Life does the same thing. According to Wendell Jamieson of the New York Times, the movie portrays “a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.” Well, we wrote about that a few Christmases ago here. This theme was picked up in the mock poster below, which is making the Facebook rounds.

Dante_Giotto

Was Dickens just recycling him?

On the other hand, was A Christmas Carol as a Victorian spin on Dante Alighieri’s much older tale?

“First of all, both main characters begin in a dark wood—vividly illustrated as such in the Comedy and similarly rendered in chimney tops, alleyways, and dense fog in the Carol. The Pilgrim and the Miser have lost their way. Hence, they are taken on a mystical journey for the sake of their reclamation: Dante through Hell, Purgatory, & Heaven; Scrooge through the Past, Present, and Future. The three beasts that Dante meets before his journey begins (leopard, lion, and wolf) function similarly to the omens that Scrooge encounters on Christmas Eve: the hearse, the transformed door-knocker, the ringing bell.”

Read more about that here.

Whatever spin you put on the day, the Book Haven wishes you a Merry Christmas!

miserablelife

We don’t know if there’s a heaven for animals, but we know for sure there’s a hell.

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015
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Mercy, please.

I think the better of Friedrich Nietzsche for this: “On January 3, 1889, he suffered a complete mental collapse when he saw a horse being flogged by a coachman in the city of Turin. He embraced the neck of the horse and wept uncontrollably. That moment of lucid insight into animal torment marked the end of his sanity.”

The incident is described in Robert Pogue Harrison‘s blog post yesterday, “Our Animal Hell,”  in the New York Review of Books, which considers the Pope’s recent remarks on animals, and compares it with our deplorable treatment of animals. I cannot describe how strongly I feel about this topic – people tend to blow you off when you attempt such a thing – so I’m glad Robert has done some of the talking for me, and more eloquently than I have ever done. The post is illustrated with Francisco de Zurbarán‘s famous painting (at left), which I have always found almost unbearable. If you read much about René Girard, you’ll run across the image a lot, used to illustrate his thoughts about sacrifice – he argues, plausibly, that the story of Abraham and Isaac is not a parable of blind and murderous obedience, but rather marks an anthropological shift from the sacrifice of humans to the sacrifice of animals as a substitution.  If you read much of the Old Testament, you’ll realize the ancient city of Jerusalem must have reeked the smell of animal blood and reverberated with the cries of terrified creatures.

An excerpt from Robert’s piece:

Harrison as DJ

With you on this one, Robert. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“We like to think of ourselves as the stewards or even saviors of nature, yet the fact of the matter is, for the animal world at large, the human race represents nothing less than a natural disaster. This applies to all creatures, from those we allow to roam ‘wild’ in designated nature preserves to those we cram together on our chicken farms; from the dancing bears of Anatolia to the bald eagles of Alaska, with their collar monitors; from the laboratory animals we test our cosmetic products’ chemicals on to the sharks whose fins leave the oceans to swim around in our nuptial soups. All creatures are under our yoke; and all, including our beloved horses, dogs, cats, and canaries, are subject to human persecution in one way or another.

“From a quantitative point of view our species guilt is more aggravated today than it ever was in the past, when Plutarch or Pythagoras cried out against animal murder and the consumption of animal flesh. As the French philosopher and biologist Jean Rostand put it, ‘Science has made us gods even before we are worthy of being men.’ While the scale of animal death has increased exponentially, the main issue today is no longer death but the coercive reproduction and perpetuation of animal life under infernal conditions of organic exploitation. Industrialized farming today, in its manipulation of the biological processes of genesis, growth, and multiplication, forces animals like cows, calves, turkeys, pigs, ducks, and geese into artificial, barely endurable forms of existence. Far more demonic than the slaughters and animal sacrifices of the past, our relegation of `these creatures to a standing reserve of consumable stock reduces their ‘lives’ to a worldless, merely mechanical process of flesh production.”

Nicholas Kristof expressed some of the same thoughts in a recent column in The New York Times: “Torture a single chicken and you risk arrest. Abuse hundreds of thousands of chickens for their entire lives? That’s agribusiness.”

Read the whole thing here. Please.

Au revoir, Krzysztof Michalski (June 8,1948 – Feb. 11, 2013)

Monday, February 11th, 2013
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“…the shadow of death falls on my knowledge…”

“Somewhere out beyond all my concepts lies the unfamiliar, dark side of life. It is from there that the shadow of death falls on my knowledge … this is where despair and the longing that time entails originate,” wrote Krzysztof Michalski in last year’s The Flame of Eternity (Princeton University Press).

The death would not have shocked me quite so much had I not, curiously enough, written him yesterday afternoon – about midnight, Vienna time.  He was dying when I pressed the “send” button, and I had no idea.

I did not communicate with him often, but I have exchanged a few letters since my stint as a Milena Jesenská Fellow at Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, which he founded in 1982, and where he served as rector.

I was studying Cold War Poland, contemporary Polish writers, particularly Czesław Miłosz, and he, of course, has been called Poland’s foremost living philosopher.  So I stopped into his office for a long chat over coffee, and learned he had also been a friend of another Nobel laureate, Joseph Brodsky.  There were a number of points of connection, then, but he was a bigshot and I am a very, very littleshot, so I can’t say I was entirely at ease, despite his courtesy.

Among his other numerous awards and honors, was decorated with the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, with the Officer’s Cross of L’Ordre National du Mérite of the Republic of France as well as with the European Cultural Prize (1998).  When he was awarded the Theodor Heuss Prize in 2004, the jury statement read:

“Since the 1980s, the Polish philosopher Krzysztof Michalski has played an important role in the deepening of the political and cultural dialogue between East and West. Before 1989 he contributed to the liberation from Communism, and in the 1990s he supported the development of a democratic civil society in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Michalski and his Vienna Institute combine the highest intellectual standards with policy-oriented approaches and the promotion of young researchers.”

His newest book was a reexamination and new interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy and the central role that the concepts of eternity and time.  Time had been an ongoing preoccupation for him: his earlier books include Logic and Time: An Essay on Husserl’s Theory of Meaning.  In 2010, he published Zrozumiec przemijanie (To Understand Time) in Poland.

Today I’ve been trying to glean the news from the foreign newspapers, mostly Polish and German.  It appears he died of cancer.  There’s nothing in English yet.

Nothing, except the last note I got from him was in May 2011, “Good to hear from you. A pity we missed each other in Cracow. Hopefully we will not do it again, next time.”

Au revoir, then, Krzysztof.

Postscript on 2/14:  Finally. Something appeared in the U.S. yesterday.  This from Boston University’s Daily Free Press, where K.M. taught:  Provost Jean Morrison said “Dr. Michalski’s contribution to cultural exchange and to the teaching and study of philosophy — both here and throughout central and eastern Europe — was substantial.”  David Roochnik, philosophy department chair and professor of philosophy, said Michalski’s legacy extends beyond Boston, as The Institute for Human Sciences was an extremely important institution and played a small role in the fall of communism in Europe.  More here.

Postscript on 3/6:   The memorial service and funeral took place on February 22,  in Warsaw at the Church of the Holy Cross (Bazylika Świętego Krzyża w Warszawie), with the burial following at the Cemetery Cmentarz Bródnowski.  I remember that church well during my walks through Warsaw, with it’s looming, impressive “Sursum Corda” by Pius Weloński.  Alas, I could not attend, except in spirit, nor will I be able to attend the commemoration for Krzysztof Michalski on April 5 in Vienna.  American Philosopher Michael Sandel, member of the Instiutut’s Academic Advisory Board and dear friend of Krzysztof Michalski, will give a lecture in his memory. I’ll post what I can.

“Beauty is not a luxury”: Dana Gioia on the antidotes to power

Saturday, July 21st, 2012
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Dana Gioia‘s new volume of poems, Pity the Beautiful, is getting some early buzz (including a Philadelphia Inquirer review here).  The poet (and former chairman of the NEA) recently sent me the latest issue of Gregory Wolfe‘s Image Journal which includes a satisfyingly long interview – even better than a review.  None of it’s online, so I’ll include a few excerpts from the interview with Erika Koss.  Besides, it meshes nicely with some of the Book Haven’s earlier posts, so I couldn’t resist.

The Book Haven was pleased to include his long poem “Special Treatments Ward” in its entirety, in an earlier post here.  Here’s what he said about the poem in the new interview:

“This was the most difficult poem I’ve ever written. It began when my second son had a serious injury that required an extended stay in a children’s neurological ward where nearly every other child was dying of a brain or spinal tumor. Having lost my first son, I was entirely vulnerable to the pain and confusion of the sick children and their desperate parents. I began to write a poem about how unprepared everyone in the ward was for what they had to face. But the poem kept growing and changing. It took me sixteen years to finish. I didn’t want to finish it. I wanted to forget it, but the poem demanded to be finished.  So the poem is not simply about my first son or my second son, though they are both mentioned. It is about the children who died.”

We also had a post describing “Haunted,” Dana’s ghost story – it’s here.  From the interview:

“Actually, this poem began with the first two lines:'”I don’t believe in ghosts,” he said. “Such nonsense./But years ago I actually saw one.”‘  As soon as I heard those two lines, the whole poem started to unfold, though it took an immense amount of work to create the narrative tone and the musical qualities I wanted. The odd thing about poems is that when the good ones come we often realize that we have been writing them in the back of our mind for years. A single line brings them into existence almost fully formed.”

‘Haunted’ is a ghost story that turns into a love story about a mutually destructive couple, but then at the end the reader realizes that the whole tale was really about something else entirely. The real theme is quite the opposite of what it initially seems. I wanted the poem to have the narrative drive of a great short story but also rise to moments of intense lyricality …”

And the winner is...

He lists among the influential philosophers of his life Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Miguel de Unamuno, Mircea Eliade, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, George Orwell, Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Maritain, and recently René Girard.  What odd bedfellows that crew would be.

But who was the most important philosopher of all?  Surprise.

“One book that has exercised a lifelong influence on me is Saint Augustine‘s City of God, which I first read as a Stanford undergraduate. It has probably shaped my adult life more than any other book except the Gospels. Augustine helped me understand the danger of letting the institutions of power – be they business, government, or academia – in which we spend our daily lives shape our values. We need to understand what it is we give to the City of Man and what we do not. I couldn’t have survived my years in business as a writer had I not resisted the hunger for wealth, power, and status that pervades the world. The same was true for my years in power-mad Washington. Another writer who helped me understand these things was the Marxist philosopher and literary critic Georg Lukács – not a name one usually sees linked with Augustine’s, but he was another compelling analyst of the intellectual and moral corruptions of institutional power.”

Here’s a kind of egalitarianism that goes well beyond Marx: “Beauty is not a luxury,” he insists. “It is humanity’s natural response to the splendor and mystery of creation. To assume that some group doesn’t need beauty is to deny their humanity.”