Thursday, October 19, 2017

Children and Reading

There must be writers whose parents owned no books...but I have never met one.  My daughter is seven, and some of the other second-grade parents complain that their children don’t read for pleasure.  When I visit their homes, the children’s rooms are crammed with expensive books, but the parents’ rooms are empty.  Those children do not see their parents reading, as I did every day of my childhood.  By contrast, when I walk into an apartment with books on the shelves, books on the bedside tables, books on the floor, and books on the toilet tank, then I know what I would see if I opened the door that says PRIVATE-GROWNUPS KEEP OUT: a child sprawled on the bed, reading.
 - Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

Monday, October 16, 2017

Random Thoughts on Wes Anderson

* Here’s the key to Wes Anderson’s aesthetics.  According to the commentary track on the Moonrise Kingdom DVD all the items on the table in the shot below are CGI.

But the tree house in the image below is real (although its supporting cables have been CGIed out).

So, what looks real is fake and what looks fake is real.

* Anderson’s visual sense is extremely sharp.  All great film-makers are at heart silent film makers.  And I imagine that Anderson would have done very well in the silent era.  I don’t think you could say that about other contemporary directors.  It might take a film or two for Scorsese, Spielberg, Cuaron, etc. to get their footing.  But I imagine that Anderson would glide effortlessly into a cinema of Lang, Murnau, Stroheim, and Dreyer.

Conversely, if movies and their allied arts (TV and comic books) suddenly disappeared I imagine Anderson would find an equally rewarding career as a playwright or novelist.  Once again, I don’t think that could be said of most of his contemporaries (although one imagines Alexander Payne or Paul Thomas Anderson might make good novelists).  

* Wes loves the theater.  Like Ingmar Bergman, he views it as a magical place.  Most of the recent movies set in the world of theater - Black Swan or Birdman - have a much more prosaic view of that environment.  In fact, in Birdman the main character’s magical powers turn out to be nothing but his own madness.

* Wes has a thing about animals.  A dog is killed in both The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom.  A cat is killed in The Grand Budapest Hotel.  Yet he makes outstanding children’s movies featuring animals, such as Fantastic Mr. Fox.  I don't know that this ambivalence actually means anything, I just couldn't help but notice it.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Philosophy of Ransom K. Fern

Fern read two books a day.  It has been said that Aristotle was the last man to be familiar with the whole of his own culture.  Ransom K. Fern had made an impressive attempt to equal Aristotle’s achievement.  He had been somewhat less successful than Aristotle in perceiving patterns in what he knew.
The intellectual mountain had labored to produce a philosophical mouse - and Fern was the first to admit that it was a mouse, and a mangy mouse at that.  As Fern expressed the philosophy conversationally, in its simplest terms:
“You go up to a man, and you say, ‘How are things going, Joe?’  And he says, ‘Oh, fine, fine - couldn’t be better.’  And you look into his eyes, and you see things really couldn’t be much worse.  When you get right down to it, everybody’s having a perfectly lousy time of it, and I mean everybody.  And the hell of it is, nothing seems to help much.” 
  - Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan

Monday, October 09, 2017

Nordic Drear

Finished A Philosophy of Loneliness by Lars Svendsen yesterday.  It was pretty bad.  To begin with, there’s not really a philosophy in it at all.  Svendsen tells us what philosophers and writers have said about loneliness but never puts forward a philosophy of his own.  Nor does he delve into any one thinker on this topic to a satisfying length.  

As a survey it’s rather paltry.  And monotonously formulaic.  Here’s how it goes:  Quote Aristotle about loneliness.  Provide brief paragraph or two of undergrad-level analysis about Aristotle.  Quote Heidegger about loneliness.  Provide brief paragraph or two of undergrad-level analysis about Heidegger.  Quote Tolstoy.  Provide brief paragraph….and so on and so on for 138 pages. 

On the plus side, he reviews the empirical studies about loneliness and concludes that, for the most part, they aren’t reliable or consistent.  Is loneliness increasing or decreasing?  One study say yes.  But a different one says no.  You can select the study to prove what you want.  The media, predictably, usually latches onto the more depressing studies.

But I have a bigger objection to this book. 

I try very hard to avoid thinking in stereotypes.  But Lars isn’t making it easy for me.  When I read that he was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Bergen in Norway it was hard not to picture some dour, bearded, sweater-wearing fellow trudging at twilight through the snow-dappled fjords to his solitary cabin, silently eating his lutefisk and warm beer dinner, then settling in for the night to scribble away at his shitty little book on loneliness. 

Now, according to Lars the empirical studies show that people in Nordic countries are less lonely than people in Spain or Greece or Italy.  Perhaps.  But if this book is any indicator they are as chock full of Nordic gloom and douchebaggery as ever.  

When Svendsen ventures to put forward an opinion of his own it is overwhelmingly dreary, mean, and judgmental.  He is particularly fond of blaming people who feel lonely (in other words, the people most likely to buy his book*).  His attitude goes something like this:  You should learn to appreciate your solitude.  But solitude is bad.  If you're lonely you must be doing something wrong.  It’s probably your fault.

He hammers away at this theme relentlessly and by the end of this book Svendsen’s descended into little better than Scandinavian self-parody.  Here he is a mere three pages before the book’s blessed end:
The fact that you are lonely does not necessarily mean that others have failed you or that they have fallen short.  It can be that it is you who have fallen short in your evaluation of the attachment you actually have to them.  Your loneliness, furthermore, does not mean you can expect others to remedy that loneliness.  No one has a right to a life without loneliness, just as no one has a right to be happy.
On the next page Mr. Cheerful tells us: “Death is lonely.”  He then follows that up with - and I shit you not - quotes from “The Death Song” by Jens Bjorneboe:

         Now the day has arrived and the hour has arrived.
         And you are placed against the wall to bleed.
         And the ones who hold you dear
         Soon fade away from you.
         That's when you will see: it is lonesome to die.

At this point even the loneliest reader should be doubled up with laughter at what a cultural cliche our author has turned out to be.

Finally, at one of the few non-dreary parts of this book, if not the only one, Lars writes:  “It is difficult to avoid describing Rousseau as an arsehole…”  

He's not the only one, Lars, he’s not the only one.

*  I didn't buy this book.  I got if from the library so that I could write a blog post - which, now that I think about it, is probably the loneliest and saddest thing in the world...

Thursday, October 05, 2017


A preposition, I may remark in passing, is about the best thing in the world to end a sentence with.
 - G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, February 17, 1906

Monday, October 02, 2017


We often hear that it is the "consensus of seventeen different intelligence agencies” that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election.  For the moment let’s ignore whether or not that claim is true and focus on a different issue it raises.

Namely, why are there seventeen different intelligence agencies?  That seems like a lot.  I can understand that you would have three of them.  One for the military, one for the FBI, and a final one for everything else (and maybe a fourth one to surveil the other three).  But seventeen…?  That doesn’t inspire confidence at all.  In fact, rather the opposite.  If there are so many, maybe it’s because none of them is getting it right on a consistent basis.  

If you were at a hotel and you asked the concierge “Do you have any restaurants in this hotel?” and he replied “My good sir, we have seventeen restaurant in this hotel!” you might think something was amiss and eat elsewhere.  Suppose you were looking for a math tutor and asked a friend of yours “Do you have a math tutor for your son?”  If he replied “My good sir [hmm..seems to be the same guy], my son has seventeen different math tutors!” you probably wouldn’t hire any of them.  And if you asked a woman “Do you have a fiancĂ©?" and she responded, “I have seventeen fiancĂ©s” you might want to clarify that you meant people and not cats.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Cabbage Soup

The man from the upland village went away first, and as the landlady took him out to the door our Irish friend said to the woman from the foothills, “He seems very nice.”  “Do you think so?” said the woman.  Her nose seemed literally to turn up.  “Well, don’t you?” asked our friend.  “We-e-e-ell,” said the woman, “round about here we don’t care much for people from that village”  “Why not?” asked our friend.  “We-e-e-ell, for one thing, you sometimes go up there and you smell cabbage soup, and you say, ‘That smells good,’ and they say, ‘Oh, we’re just having cabbage soup.’”  A pause fell, and our friend inquired, “Then don’t they offer you any?”  “Oh, yes.”  “And isn’t it good?”  “It’s very good.  But, you see, we grow cabbages down here and they can’t up there, and they never buy any from us, and we’re always missing ours.  So, really, we don’t know what to think.”
 - Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

Thursday, September 21, 2017

On Believing in God

Believing in God dispenses one from believing in anything else - which is an estimable advantage.  
  - E. M. Cioran, Anathemas and Admirations

Thursday, September 14, 2017

War and Criminality

The idea of a legal war or, indeed, a just war, relies on the controllability of the instruments of destruction.  But because uncontrollability is part of that very destructiveness, there is no war that fails to commit a crime against humanity, a destruction of civilian life.  In other words, the international law that prohibits crimes against civilians presupposes that there can be a war without such crimes, reproduced the idea of a “clean” war whose destruction has perfect aim.  Only on such a condition can we distinguish between war and crimes of war.  But if there is no stable way to distinguish permissible collateral damage from the destruction of civilian life, then such crimes are inevitable, and there is no non-criminal war.  In other words, wars become permissible forms of criminality, but they are never non-criminal.
 - Judith Butler, Frames of War

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Reading Dickens

Most people read Dickens before they are out of their teens and seldom look at him again.  How mistakenly?  For Dickens’s work is like a wine that improves with age - the age not of the bottle but of the taster.  The richer the experience of the reader, the riper seems Dickens.  At sixteen one enjoys the extravagant impossibility of his caricatures; at thirty-five what one appreciates is their absolute fidelity to nature.
 - Aldous Huxley “The Critic in the Crib”

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Great Men

V. S. Pritchett on Edward Gibbon's reading habits during his military service:
He took Horace with him on the march and read up the questions of Pagan and Christian theology in his tent. Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing. 
 - “Gibbon and the Home Guard”

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Every Citizen a King a democracy, every ordinary citizen effectively is a king - but a king in a constitutional democracy, a king who only formally decides, whose function is to sign measures proposed by an executive administration.  This is why the problem of democratic rituals is homologous to the big problem of constitutional democracy: how to protect the dignity of the king?  How to maintain the appearance that the king effectively decides, when we all know this is not true?  What we call a “crisis of democracy” does not occur when people stop believing in their own power but, on the contrary, when they stop trusting the elites, those who are supposed to know for them and provide the guidelines, when they experience anxiety signaling that “the (true) throne is empty”, that the decision is now really theirs.  
Slavoj Zizek, Trouble in Paradise