Monday, January 30, 2017

Review of Introducing Heidegger

I liked the cartoony style of the book which kept it semi-interesting, but I ended up deciding Heidegger is hardly worth the effort.  I'm sure he helped move some thought along in his time by loosening terms and experimenting with idea-games, but I'm not convinced he did much more to earn his place as one of the fathers of existentialism. I'll be honest and say that his Nazi sympathies and lack of post-war remorse was the final straw for me, but he also struck me as a academic playboy vying for first-chair in the philosophy department.  The very fact that "Being And Time" was practically unfinished and rushed into publication so he could fill the vacancy left by the former chair of his department, Husserl, tells me just about all I need to know about him. No wonder he makes very little sense...he didn't have to! Is this an Emperor-with-no-clothes kind of thing?

It wasn't all a waste, I suppose. I like the idea of 'Da-sein' (human beings defined as 'there-being'--better translated as 'being-there') as a deconstruction and broadening of the idea of what it means to be human--that humanity is a more complex first-principle than what religions, sciences, and philosophies have reduced it too. The idea of Da-sein as being in-the-world is a reminder that Da-sein can't be separated from it's environment, and that it is always Da-sein itself that is considering itself as separate object while not being truly capable of separating itself as idea or object from the environmental fabric with which it is partly identified. The world and even time itself is 'bent' by Da-sein (a foreshadowing of Einstein's rather unoriginal idea) and can therefore only be understand as part of the holistic picture with no beginning/end.

Heidegger expanded on Husserl’s Time-Consciousness which expanded on Bergson’s work. "Husserl believed that time ‘appeared’ in consciousness in much the same way that a musical melody is known. The melody is knowable only through the simultaneous operation of three acts of consciousness:

  1. Retention: notes which are no longer sounding have to be retained in memory
  2. Attention: a ‘primal impression’ of each note, as it sounds, must be gained
  3. Protention: the auditor must ‘listen ahead’ and construct expectations of what might or might not follow.
Time must be viewed in the same way. Not linear, but simultaneous consciousness of all principles at once."

There ya go. The rest was gobbleygook. Well, not really, but it did feel like a spiral into meaningless theology (which I admit I can no longer stomach in the least), politics, academic pedantry, wishful thinking, and ice cream I want ice cream. Plus, he was a friggin Nazi. So...

Well, it was nice to met you Heideggar, but I'd like my sanity back now. As one redditor said about a completely unrelated subject (and I have no idea why I remember this): "Ride free into the scintillating frog sunset, you mad bastard."

Credit for frog sunset quote:

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Review of Utopia by Sir Thomas More

More’s Utopia is a reminder that every human, utopian dream has a short shelf-life. Stories of perfect worlds and heavens are told by imperfect, limited, and selfish people. What were they thinking? It’s actually fairly depressing to think that we don’t know what we want, and even our most beatific visions end in suffering and boredom for someone at first, and eventually all of us, especially the creator. But the attempt itself is delicious! Who but humans would try such an impossible feat? It’s not like any higher or lower life that we know of can do much better. The highest cerebral function of the chimpanzee, our nearest relative, is to toss butt brownies at his atavistic chums. So, yeah, imagining a better world and doing something—anything— to actualize our hopes pretty much buries the competition in their own fecal fancies.

Even setting the idea of progress aside, the willingness to try something great in spite of risked failure is a triumph in itself. And then there’s always the hope that something, however unexpected, will turn out. I love the words of Percy Shelley, “[We] hope, until hope creates from its own wreckage the thing contemplated.” Utopia is a wreck in many ways, but it’s another step towards better, more hopeful wrecks! Utopia’s puritanical morality, metaphysical expectations, and political simplicity are native to the early Renaissance mindset and augurs a worse world by some first-world standards, but it was still far better than the murderous rat-holes that many lived in at the time. And as a dream, it sparked new dreams and new ways to express those dreams.

You cannot read works like this with the same outlook as you would a modern work of creative fiction. As n historical work removed from our political/economical milieu, it does not speak to us with like-mind as it spoke to the people of its time. We have to understand their problems and hopes before we can understand their brave attempts at a solution. Only then can we find the analogy between Utopia and our own utopian strivings.

“Verily, my brother, if thou knewest but a people’s need, its land, its sky, and its neighbor, then wouldst thou divine the law of its surmountings, and why it climbeth up that ladder to its rope” (Nietzsche).

Since the second half of my edition of the book (Norton Critical Edition) was filled with several examples of utopian stories from other writers in other cultures, and essays from literary critics and historians about Utopia and its ramifications, I was able to distill a few more lessons from More’s Utopia. Like trying to read Dante’s Inferno without understanding the thousands of literary allusions to his contemporary society that makes the work all but opaque to modern readers, I would definitely read a reference work or cliff notes along with Utopia to get as much out of it as you can.

On the other hand, reading it for the pure enjoyment of watching old sand-castle-heavens crumble to make way for the newest, dated heavens isn’t a bad way to spend an evening.

Review of On the Road by Kerouac

I know Jack Kerouac regarded himself as a ‘dumbsaint of the mind,’ but this work felt more dumb than saint. Yes, yes…I’m sure he’s a genius. But what an extraordinary waste of time and talent this book represents…and I’m talking about the time/talent it takes to read it, not to mention write it!

Okay, that was fun. But in all sincerity, where did this young dumbsaint go wrong? As a writer he seems enamored with wastrels and good-for-nothings. I found myself wanting to sing him the old protestant Christian Hymn, “Come home!” If there’s anyone who needs a solid come-to-Jesus moment, it’s young, will-less Sal Paradise and his permanently fork-in-the-road friend, Dean Moriarty.

How the bloody hell could anyone like this book? Seriously. If you’re reading this review and you actually liked the book, I would love to know why. Leave a comment. And then slap yourself.  I suppose the virtue of the work could have been the way it gave the establishment the finger, or the way it celebrated middle class opportunity and rebellion, or the way it demonstrated the knee-jerk and reckless ingenuity of vagabonds bred by good ole ‘Merica. To be honest, those are interesting subjects to me; but Kerouac’s style is too rambling, repetitive, mundane, and even at points thrilling for all the wrong reasons. I could find no redeeming value in any of it. The characters were all pieces of shit in the strictest, dictionary sense of the terms. I’ve gone back to the book several times since reading it, wanting—nay…aching!— to find some glimmer of value. Nothing. Maybe it was just a tad too long? Maybe I’m too immature to appreciate the nuanced high-culture from which Jack scrutinized and baptized low-culture? Maybe the feeling of reader-futility was Jack’s exact point? Maybe. Or maybe the book is for dumbsaints.

If you haven’t read it, or even if you have, grant me the honor of summarizing. Sal is a spoiled brat, a supreme example of delayed adulthood, who is always looking for a rush and can’t sit still long enough to get some steady work and stop bumming money off his aunt who keeps sending him money because she’s always afraid he’s going to die as a result of his dumb-as-saint choices. This mindless dolt chases around Dean Moriarty, the only person stupider than himself, and literally follows off every cliff Dean jumps off. Dean is that ‘friend’ which every parent in every home ever has warned their kids about in that phrase, “if they jumped off a cliff, would you?” Yup. Little boy Sal would. I swear that the Darwin Award—conferred on every imbecile who ever killed themselves and thus mercifully removed their genes from the human gene pool—was created just for idiots like Sal and Dean. If one of those boys came after my 13-year-old daughter—after all, they chased pre-teens in the book—I wouldn’t blink to grind their cognitive functions to a halt with an aluminum baseball bat. In self-defense of course.

The only way the ending could have been better would have been if both of the protagonists were publically flogged while being forced to declare, “We are pieces of shit that don’t deserve our privilege of going around stealing, bumming, drinking, drugging, lusting, humping, nearly-child-molesting, women-beating, and pretending to appreciate the life we disgustingly squander as if it’s just another cheap beer!” Yes indeed, that would be a good ending and might nearly redeem the story. I don’t ask for much. Unless the option of them killing themselves was on the table. In which case, I’ll take that.

I really do wish Jack would have been wise enough to use this as some kind of moral fable instead of a play-by-play of his blended experience and fantasy. It was written in a spirit of levity no doubt, but I could hardly stomach the cyclical, spiraling ignorance and unconscious sensualism that seemed the real heart of the story. The literary style displayed all the panache and flourish of a staggering drunk. The theme was so self-destructive, but with accents to try and make it somehow romantic and hilarious. Maybe if the character splurged like that for a day. That might be funny. But for years upon years of adulthood?

Question. What kind of country doesn’t let people like that starve to death? Letting such prodigals eat better than pigs is a crime. Sarcasm aside, there are people who do live and die like these characters. And it’s much less handsome. How is this funny? I mean really funny? Not as in the “they’re stupid” kind of funny, but as in the “this is cool” kind of funny? I consider myself fairly progressive, but let’s not celebrate stupidity as artistry. Stupid people are not artists; they are the art of artists.

For the love of God, don’t feed the dumbsaints.