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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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Denis Diderot in the TLS

I have an article in the May 6 Times Literary Supplement on Denis Diderot’s life and philosophy. The article is available to subscribers online here: Moi and Lui and a Beehive.

This excerpt covers some of Diderot’s very diverse influence on subsequent thinkers and writers:

Moi and Lui and a Beehive

Denis Diderot OEUVRES PHILOSOPHIQUES Edited by Michel Delon and Barbara de Negroni 1,413pp. Gallimard. €65.

Philipp Blom WICKED COMPANY Freethinkers and friendship in pre-Revolutionary Paris 384pp. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. £25.

In 1805, over twenty years after the death of the French philosophe Denis Diderot, Goethe read a manuscript of Diderot’s then-unpublished dialogue Le Neveu de Rameau. Captivated, he translated it into German. After reading the translation, Hegel cited Diderot along with only half a dozen other modern philosophers in the Phenomenology of Spirit, alongside Descartes and Kant.

Since then, Diderot has wielded diverse influence across the humanities and sciences. Sigmund Freud credited a passage in Le Neveu de Rameau with anticipating the Oedipus complex, while Simone de Beauvoir singled Diderot out as having championed the cause of women. Karl Marx, who like Diderot also wrote a homage to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, counted Diderot as his favourite writer. Auguste Comte called him the greatest philosopher of the eighteenth century, and a key forerunner of positivism. The pioneering cultural pluralist Johann Herder drew from Diderot’s observations on cultures and language.

Yet well into the twentieth century, Diderot’s intellectual reputation remained comparatively submerged, even in France. He was the least systematic of writers, and his works were published in the least systematic of ways. His modest publication history during his lifetime paled next to the monumental achievement of editing the Encyclopédie, which occupied him for twenty years. Unlike Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, he never published a chef-d’oeuvre. His most sophisticated and radical works were published only posthumously, and their interdisciplinary and non-systematic nature prevented their easy assimilation into the literary or philosophical traditions. His first collected works were not published until 1870. The new Pléiade edition of four volumes, of which the volume under review is the second, is a welcome corrective measure, capturing and contextualizing his unique, eclectic voice and aggressive speculation. Today, Diderot seems more contemporary than his more famous brethren, Voltaire and Rousseau.

Demolition Derby: Jonathan Barnes

It stinks.

"This movie gets my highest rating, 7 out of 10."

This is the funniest vicious review I’ve read in a while, from this week’s TLS. I’m excerpting the best bits, but it’s all of a piece. The nastiest parts are…the quotes.

Glen Duncan THE LAST WEREWOLF 346pp. Canongate. £14.99.

by Jonathan Barnes

Bitten by a werewolf when Queen Victoria was on the throne, Jacob Marlowe (just “Jake” to his friends) has grappled with his lycanthropic inheritance for more than a century-and-a-half… “I really can’t stand it any more”, he tells us, “the living and the killing and the wandering the world without love.” Only when he finally accepts the inevitability of his own extinction does he discover a reason to survive – and to take the fight to his pursuers.

So stark a synopsis does little to suggest the considerable pleasures and occasional disappointments of Glen Duncan’s eighth novel, The Last Werewolf. While much of the cheerfully pulpy subject matter is familiar from numerous comic books, roleplaying games, television series and movies, the voice that the novelist assumes is arrestingly original. Told (at least until a late and slightly unconvincing switch) in the firstperson by Jacob Marlowe himself, Duncan’s monstrous narrator makes for memorably rambunctious company.

Nonchalant about his place in the food chain (on people: “when you get right down to it they’re first and foremost food”) and full of macho swagger (“I’d fucked her six times with preposterous staying power”), he is also philosophical (“snow makes cities innocent again, reveals the frailty of the human gesture against the void”), aphoristic (“total self-disgust is a kind of peace”) and topically droll (“two nights ago I’d eaten a forty-three-year-old hedge fund specialist”).

…Curiously, he also indulges in some literary criticism (“Graham Greene had a semi-parodic relationship with the genres his novels exploited”)….

…Invention flags in the book’s second half as a series of very similar situations are described in almost identical ways: “it happened very fast”; “then several things happened very fast”; “what happened next happened … very fast”; “what happened happened very fast”. While the conclusion appears to gesture towards the possibility of a sequel, one cannot but hope that Duncan can triumph over the temptation to make The Last Werewolf the first instalment in a series.

I can’t imagine how the sops to the book’s virtues made it into the second paragraph.

The TLS reviews Cabinet Magazine

Keith Miller’s review is just surreal. And in the TLS no less.

The journal’s name, avowedly and fairly obviously, comes from the Renaissance Kunstkabinett, the princely chamber of wonders or curiosities, a system of ordering and contemplating the world which was not quite as disorderly as it seemed. There has of late been a revival of this approach in museum culture, a setting aside of Enlightenment taxonomies, which can, somewhat subversively, give the modern bourgeois museum-going public a taste of the old douceur de vivre. This is partly to do with richness, variety, a series of picturesque contrasts, that you don’t quite get if you put all your Japanese sake cups into one big glass case, say, with the oldest on the left and the newest on the right. But it’s also about exposing the public to a vanished world of privilege. The princely cabinet was a theatre of power as much as of knowledge. Certain conventions, certain “objectivities”, were widely upheld – broad Plinian distinctions between animal and mineral were generally if often mistakenly enforced, and a crocodile on the ceiling was de rigueur – but the suzerainty of one particular collector over one particular collection was nonetheless both a metaphorical reflection and a ritualized re-enactment of the divine spark which had, somewhere in the deep past, ignited the feudal principle. And on this spark, we museum-goers can warm our grateful hands today.

You could say that Cabinet works along similarly democratic lines, offering its readers a range of experiences which traditional didactic or organizational principles set aside in favour of a mundane “objectivity”. It is interested in art, nature and – in a fairly lowoctane way – science; in old things and new ones; in words and in pictures, all in an evenhanded but still inescapably capricious way. And the unlikely combinations of tone and subject encountered in its pages strive towards an enchanting, liberating effect: a tapping of the revolutionary energy of the miscellaneous. You can imagine some scholarly tut-tutting about Cabinet’s antitheoretical, and politically quietist, nature – though it is often alarmed about the environment – and you could object that the Park Slope intelligentsia who read the magazine, and from whom it solicits tax-free donations over and above the healthy cover price, constitute a kind of new princely class (it is more or less useless in any kind of workaday scholarly context). But on the whole the journal is a serious attempt to fulfil a frivolous purpose rather than a frivolous attempt to fulfil a serious one.

History’s Bunk Pt DCVII

From the October 15 TLS. Michael Whitby quietly undermines the anthology he’s reviewing, Makers of Ancient Strategy, which purports to relate strategy then and now:

Inevitably, some essays work better than others. In part this arises from two issues noted by Victor Davis Hanson in his introduction, namely that we have very few explicit contemporary discussions of strategies in Antiquity, and that for some of the topics we have little evidence at all and few modern discussions. Hanson’s own contribution, on Epaminondas’ invasion of the Peloponnese in 370-69 bc as archetype for a preventive strike, is particularly problematic in this respect.

We know very little about the events of this expedition and less about its motivation, so that debate as to whether this was a preventive or pre-emptive strike becomes circuitous; the 2003 Iraq war may, or may not, be relevant. Presentation of Epaminondas, who was regarded in Antiquity as a highly principled and effective leader, as an analogue for George Bush’s Iraq war may cause unease. Another difficulty is the contestability of the presentations of some ancient scenarios.

Although Pericles might appear a rare example of an ancient leader whose imperial strategy we can actually grasp, thanks to the assessment of his younger contemporary Thucydides, the problems in the Thucydidean portrait of Pericles are not acknowledged in Donald Kagan’s treatment of soft justifications of Athenian imperial power: many would now question Thucydides’ sharp distinction between Pericles and his successors, with the major difference being the challenge of pan-Hellenic conflict, which Pericles’ financial policies had left Athens ill-equipped to sustain, whereas the rigour of imperial control as experienced by the people of Samos and Lesbos represents continuity.

For Adrian Goldsworthy on Julius Caesar the most relevant modern parallel is Napoleon; it might also have been interesting to explore Ho Chi Minh or Robert Mugabe.

The most illuminating discussion, which provokes thoughts about alternative perspectives on the classical topic, is the first, on Persia. We are inevitably brought up, at least in the West, to view the empire of Darius and Xerxes from the perspective of our Greek sources. Marathon is one of the crucial battles in world history that ensured the triumph of liberty and democracy over authoritarian slavery, and Thermopylae a demonstration of the superiority of free warriors obedient to their country’s laws unto death over a mass of impressed soldiers with no personal stake in their cause. Tom Holland, however, reminds us that an equally valid interpretation sees the Greeks as a terrorist threat to the established order of the Near East, obstinate fanatics who thought nothing of destroying important public buildings with substantial loss of life. On this view, the 300 at Thermopylae are comparable to suicide bombers in their unreasonable attachment to a minority interest that conflicted with the international stability espoused by the cultured and tolerant Persians. The Persian ambition was to bring security and stability to a remote mountainous and impoverished region, but geography and climate were against them, while their opponents also claimed that divine support guaranteed their success. Unfortunately for the Persians, it was the Greeks who composed the historical accounts so that their interpretation prevailed; as a result films such as 300 (2006) introduce further distortions and depict the Persians as precursors to contemporary Middle Eastern bogeymen.

I’m sure Whitby knows Hanson and Kagan’s neocon agenda. He’s more subtle than Gary Brecher, who wrote in 2005 about an earlier Hanson book:

The grimmest joke in the book is that there really is one parallel that holds up when you compare the Peloponnesian War to America’s military history. You bet there is. But here’s the kicker: it’s the one connection Hanson would never, ever allow into print. I’m talking about the creepy way that our Iraq disaster resembles the Athenian invasion of Sicily. When Hanson says, describing the preparations for the expedition to Syracuse, that the Athenians’ “[i]ntelligence about the nature of Sicilian warfare, and the resources of the enemies was either flawed or nonexistent,” you can’t help thinking of Bremer, Perle, the “cakewalk,” and the WMDs. When Hanson talks about how the Persians sat back and watched their enemies to the west bleed each other, you can’t help thinking about the way Iran helped draw us into Iraq by feeding the suckers at the Bush administration fake intel via Chalabi. Then they settled down patiently to watch. And they enjoyed every minute of the war, cheering when we blasted Saddam’s guys and cheering even harder when the insurgents started blasting our troops—with the help of new IED designs straight out of Tehran. When Hanson talks about the way the Persians just reabsorbed the Greek colonies in Asia Minor after the Peloponnesian War had drained the whole Hellenic world of power, you can’t help but imagine the way all of Shia Iraq will be smoothly absorbed into a Greater Iran when we face facts and cut and run.

Dostoevsky’s Sequel

James L. Rice in the TLS clues us in to the unwritten second half of The Brothers Karamazov, which sounds like it would have been a good deal better than Gogol’s disappointing sequel to Dead Souls.

Alyosha remains at the end, to face his destiny, uncertain whether it may be for good or evil. His bonding with the adolescent boys in the village, whose leader Kolya is unmistakably a future radical, points the way to the hero’s role in the unwritten sequel.

Dostoevsky discussed his general plan for the Karamazov sequel with a few people close to him, on different occasions with his wife Anna Grigorievna, and the eminent publisher Aleksei Suvorin (a brooding and devoted friend who was later also a confidant of other complex writers, including Vasily Rozanov and Anton Chekhov). The author’s concept found its way not only into their diaries and memoirs published after the Revolution, but also, through rumour “in Petersburg literary circles”, into the front-page report of an ephemeral Odessa daily newspaper on May 26, 1880 – when Book Ten of The Brothers Karamazov had yet to appear. The anonymous correspondent had attended the author’s public reading of bewildering excerpts from the forthcoming instalment. Despite great admiration for Dostoevsky’s genius, the critic complained that most of his characters were mental cases, who sometimes appeared to communicate by psychic means. Rumour in the tsarist capital had it that Alyosha would become the village schoolmaster, and by obscure “psychic processes in his soul” would arrive at “the idea of assassinating the tsar” (ideya o tsareubiistve). Although the Novorossiiskii Telegraf had a circulation of 6,000 and subscribers as far-flung as Kiev, Moscow, Petersburg, Warsaw and Paris, this astounding remark never reached the authorities. It tallies exactly with the diary of Suvorin published forty-three years later (1923), which directly quotes the novelist on Alyosha’s future: “He would be arrested for a political crime. He would be executed” – very nearly the fate of the author himself in his youth. In the sequel there might have been, of course, any number of plots and paths to such a tragic outcome. In one plausible version, Alyosha retreats to the monastery as a clandestine revolutionary.

The surest proof that The Brothers Karamazov was conceived with such a denouement in store is the very name Karamazov: it is very close to that of Dmitry Karakozov, whose point-blank shot at Tsar Alexander II on April 4, 1866, missed its target but heralded an era of terrorism in Russian politics. Karakozov was publicly executed in Petersburg on September 3, 1866. His deed, incidentally, had interrupted serialization of Crime and Punishment – its hero another deranged student dropout with murderous “Napoleonic” ambitions. The Karamazov plot unfolds at the end of August, 1866, so that Dmitry Karamazov’s arrest for the murder of his father occurs at about dawn on September 3, precisely when in real life the would-be assassin Karakozov was led to the scaffold.

Wishful thinking? Rice implies the same wish that I and so many other teenage Dostoevsky readers have had, that he would stop compensating for what really is an obsession with evil and let his books become the ultimate refutation of Christianity and the Good that they so badly want to be. The goodness in them never achieves the grace of, say, this:


Mirror
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