My friend Lary Wallace tackles why stoicism is largely misunderstood and not viewed as an early, elegant philosophy, a view I’ve come to share and ponder. The whereof probably stems from the early coupling of stoicism with Sparta and the fearsome emergence of the single-minded, nearly unconquerable Greeks of that era, who encouraged endurance in the face of physical hardship. Endurance translates to a honing of the will, or a view of the mind, of what Wallace calls “indifference.” That’s a really tricky term with shades akin to the Buddhist idea of “letting go,” a way to encourage non-attachment – again a tricky term.
When we’re in this area of Truths, deep understanding, words blur and it brings us to a place where truths slide around and through each other, a philosophical fusion. Anyway, Lary is, as usual, on target in his essay, which can be found here in Aeon, a new online cultural journal that’s one of the best serious websites going now. Look at it…
David Carr, 58, died on the job at The New York Times on Thursday. He was one of the great ones: no pretence, accurate, compassionate, humble. He knew his job as a journalist was not to be part of the story, but to serve the story through facts, from which a truth might be born in and of itself, or as part of a larger story pieced together from multiple sources. I haven’t read his autobiography, The Night of the Gun, which chronicled his drug addiction during the 1980s, but I’m sure it’s him, and it’s good. Here’s a link to media bistro with Carr talking about his first big break in journalism. Also see the other videos featuring Carr at this site.
Typically, skepticism and misapprehension have greeted Dylan’s newest release, Shadows In The Night, based on one of Sinatra’s most enduring classic albums. The lead in the New York Times said, “It’s not a joke.” What disservice…Mark my words: This album will live. Dylan’s recording of under appreciated, early Americana folk music, his own blues songs, and especially this album, which puts him beside Sinatra, the other most enduring singer of the 20th century, will eventually rest beside the best of Dylan’s work. As Dylan said about the recording: it “uncovers” the songs. More generous was this review in The Telegraph: “Dylan sings Sinatra? It shouldn’t work but Shadows In The Night is quite gorgeous, the sound of an old man picking over memories, lost loves, regrets, triumphs and fading hopes amid an ambient tumble of haunting electric instrumentation. It is spooky, bittersweet, mesmerisingly moving and showcases the best singing from Dylan in 25 years. The very concept seems outrageous, which is perhaps why Dylan’s management have been at pains to insist it is not a Sinatra tribute. One was a vocal giant with perfect mix of tone, technique and emotional expression. The other has a voice that David Bowie described as “like sand and glue,” (and that was intended as a compliment). They are artists we listen to for very different reasons. Shadows In The Night is a perfect blend of those heartbreaking classics, digging beneath self-pity to reveal deeper relationship truths.”
By all accounts, Atticus Lish, the son of the editor Gordon Lish, has written a great American novel, in the fullest sense of American. Preparations For The Next Life… I haven’t read it yet, but I can’t resist helping to spread the word on this one. Here’s the New York Review of Books review, and several interviews with Lish on his background and how the book came together. Interview here, here and here.
Here’s the opening paragraph of the NYRB review by Cathleen Schine:
“Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish, is an astounding first novel about a world so large there is, sometimes, nowhere to go; a world so small the people in it, sometimes, get lost. The book has the boundless, epic exhilaration you expect to find only in a writer as mighty as, say, Walt Whitman. It is a love story, a war story, a tale of New York City in which familiar streets become exotic, mysterious, portentous, foul, magnificent. Some of it reads like poetry. All of it moves with a breathless momentum.”
The former critic of the old New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, has written a beautify essay in the current New York Book Review. It’s a cogent assessment of the force of technology on culture and the human soul. More significantly, it’s a prescription for a response and a plea for understanding, patience and perseverance, and most importantly a continued allegiance to humanism, which offers the only hope to counteract the negative implications of a neutral technology that’s open to misuse (think calls to perpetuate physical violence). I was optimistic, looking at the long view, after I read this. Wieseltier, who I talked with briefly one day in Larry McMurtry’s bookstore in Archer City, Texas, (I told him how much I admired his New Republic work; reply: “Thanks…you’re too kind,”) wrote an enduring masterpiece, Kaddish, which sprang from the death of his father in the 60s. Among other things, it’s a plea for reading and continued study, a searching out for a way to lead a sustained, rich, meaningful life. He continues to offer a way through troubled times. Take your time reading this. It will steady troubled and despairing souls.
Here’s the essay.
The magnificent ending of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus:
…The solution of the riddle of life in space
and time lies outside space and time.
(It is not problems of natural science which have to be
6.432 How the world is, is completely indifferent for what is higher.
God does not reveal himself in the world.
6.4321 The facts all belong only to the task and not to its performance.
6.44 Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.
6.45 The contemplation of the world sub specie aeterni is its contemplation
as a limited whole.
The feeling of the world as a limited whole is the mystical
6.5 For an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot
The riddle does not exist.
If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered.
6.51 Scepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would
doubt where a question cannot be asked.
For doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question
only where there is an answer, and this only where something
can be said.
6.52 We feel that even if all possible scientific questions are answered,
the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course
there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.
6.521 The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of
(Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting the sense
of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?)
6.522 There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the
6.53 The right method of philosophy would be this. To say nothing
except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science,
i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then
always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical,
to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to
certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying
to the other—he would not have the feeling that we
were teaching him philosophy—but it would be the only strictly
6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands
me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out
through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw
away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)
He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world
7 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Roxy Pays a Visit
Jan. 9, 1989
My friend, the writer Roxy Gordon, and I are standing beside each other, watching life-sized skeletons dancing in the air. The sounds of rattling bones surround us. Suddenly, I turn into an owl, and I hoot three times deeply, hoo, hoo, hoo. Then I’m awake in my bed, and I’m still hooting in the dark. Who, who, who?
Fly Me to the Moon
May 27, 1989
I’m in a small room talking with a monk. He doesn’t want to answer my questions. He’s called away and leaves me alone in the house. I look through the rooms for books, poems or writing of any type to read. I find a magazine and some old books about stars. I see a scroll painting sticking out from under the monk’s bed. I feel cheap and phony for nosing around behind his back.
Then the monk returns, and we are standing outside in the dark. There’s a threat of danger from somewhere, and the monk says, okay. Suddenly, we’re flying through the vast, cold sky with the moon on our right. We fly through space until we suddenly enter heaven. We turn around and fly faster, downward toward Earth. Then a spacecraft is shooting at us. The monk creates a cloud cover to enter Earth’s atmosphere undetected. Suddenly, I notice several hundred babies are flying behind us and they are in our care — all pure and ready to be born.
When we land on Earth, the babies disappear, and I say, “Be careful, they’ll try to get you.” Then I’m back in the monk’s room. We’re aware someone is searching for us, and we have to leave.
What did Van Gogh know and how did he know it? This is the latest picture (sort of) of the beginning of the universe, taken of a patch of sky showing the temperature and polarization of cosmic microwaves from the end of the Big Bang, as reflected by dust swirling in the magnetic field of the Milky Way. The story from The New York Times is here. (Credit European Space Agency)
Philip Larkin comes under the scalpel again, but this time the hand is friendly. The book, Philip Larkin – Life, Art and Love, takes a look what’s become a focal point of the great poet’s life and work: his seemingly banal Life as a librarian (I never shared that view – library work is richly rewarding for the literary inclined), his Art, which suffered tragic abuse when several critics and higher journalists blurred the picture by noting some seemingly racist and sexist language in his collected letters followed by a respected biography noting the same thing. And along with all that, his secretive Love life was exposed, which came as a shock and added spice to the staid picture he had painted of himself as a bored, suburban bachelor in a staid, middle class town.
Life, Art and Love are given a therapeutic scrubbing in this book, returning him to the shelf of normal, healthy souls who chose to live their life in semi-seclusion and not in the public eye. After all, Larkin’s true charm came from presenting himself as being un-Byron and un-Shelley, and, yet, he is, for our time, as great as the greatest British poets.
Larkin’s steadfast champion over the years, Clive James, gives the book high marks for setting the record straight and throwing water on whatever fainting spells caused the sniping in the first place.
A classic, eclectic anthology on the major world religions is available now from Norton. The book includes some 4,200 pages of texts spanning roughly 3,500 years. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are presented “in their own words,” followed by critical responses, dissents, appreciations, commentaries, poems, songs, broadsides, in short a wide range of material that offers a reader one of the broadest, most comprehensive views possible of humanity’s search for the meaning of life. The overall editor, Jack Miles, discusses the book here.