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Posts Tagged ‘criticism

“Ultimately, it is the desire, not the desired, that we love”*…

Or is it? The web– and the world– are awash in talk of the Mimetic Theory of Desire (or Rivalry, as its creator, René Girard, would also have it). Stanford professor (and Philosophy Talk co-host) Joshua Landy weights in with a heavy word of caution…

Here are two readings of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Which do you think we should be teaching in our schools and universities?

Reading 1. Hamlet is unhappy because he, like all of us, has no desires of his own, and therefore has no being, properly speaking. The best he can do is to find another person to emulate, since that’s the only way anyone ever develops the motivation to do anything. Shakespeare’s genius is to show us this life-changing truth.

Reading 2. Hamlet is unhappy because he, like all of us, is full of body thetans, harmful residue of the aliens brought to Earth by Xenu seventy-five million years ago and disintegrated using nuclear bombs inside volcanoes. Since it is still some time until the practice of auditing comes into being, Hamlet has no chance of becoming “clear”; it is no wonder that he displays such melancholy and aimlessness. Shakespeare’s genius is to show us this life-changing truth.

Whatever you make of the first, I’m rather hoping that you feel at least a bit uncomfortable with the second. If so, I have a follow-up question for you: what exactly is wrong with it? Why not rewrite the textbooks so as to make it our standard understanding of Shakespeare’s play? Surely you can’t fault the logic behind it: if humans have indeed been full of body thetans since they came into existence, and Hamlet is a representation of a human being, Hamlet must be full of body thetans. What is more, if everyone is still full of body thetans, then Shakespeare is doing his contemporaries a huge favor by telling them, and the new textbooks will be doing us a huge favor by telling the world. Your worry, presumably, is that this whole body thetan business is just not true. It’s an outlandish hypothesis, with nothing whatsoever to support it. And since, as Carl Sagan once said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” we would do better to leave it alone.

I think you see where I’m going with this. The fact is, of course, that the first reading is just as outlandish as the second. As I’m about to show (not that it should really need showing), human beings do have desires of their own. That doesn’t mean that all our desires are genuine; it’s always possible to be suckered into buying a new pair of boots, regardless of the fact that they are uglier and shoddier than our old ones, just because they are fashionable. What it means is that some of our desires are genuine. And having some genuine desires, and being able to act on them, is sufficient for the achievement of authenticity. For all we care, Hamlet’s inky cloak could be made by Calvin Klein, his feathered hat by Diane von Furstenberg; the point is that he also has motivations (to know things, to be autonomous, to expose guilt, to have his story told accurately) that come from within, and that those are the ones that count.

To my knowledge, no one in the academy actually reads Hamlet (or anything else) the second way. But plenty read works of literature the first way. René Girard, the founder of the approach, was rewarded for doing so with membership in the Académie française, France’s elite intellectual association. People loved his system so much that they established a Colloquium on Violence and Religion, hosted by the University of Innsbruck, complete with a journal under the ironically apt name Contagion. More recently, Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, loved it so much that he sank millions of dollars into Imitatio, an institute for the dissemination of Girardian thought. And to this day, you’ll find casual references to the idea everywhere, from people who seem to think it’s a truth, one established by René Girard. (Here’s a recent instance from the New York Times opinion pages: “as we have learned from René Girard, this is precisely how desires are born: I desire something by way of imitation, because someone else already has it.”) All of which leads to an inevitable question: what’s the difference between Girardianism and Scientology? Why has the former been more successful in the academy? Why is the madness of theory so, well, contagious?…

Are we really dependent on others for our desires? Does that mechanism inevitably lead to rivalry, scapegoating, and division? @profjoshlandy suggests not: “Deceit, Desire, and the Literature Professor: Why Girardians Exist,” in @StanfordArcade. Via @UriBram in @TheBrowser. Eminently worth reading in full.

* Friedrich Nietzsche (an inspiration to Girard)


As we tease apart theorizing, we might spare a thought for William Whewell; he died on this date in 1866. A scientist, Anglican priest, philosopher, theologian, and historian of science, he was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.

At a time when specialization was increasing, Whewell was renown for the breadth of his work: he published the disciplines of mechanics, physics, geology, astronomy, and economics, while also finding the time to compose poetry, author a Bridgewater Treatise, translate the works of Goethe, and write sermons and theological tracts. In mathematics, Whewell introduced what is now called the Whewell equation, defining the shape of a curve without reference to an arbitrarily chosen coordinate system. He founded mathematical crystallography and developed a revision of  Friedrich Mohs’s classification of minerals. And he organized thousands of volunteers internationally to study ocean tides, in what is now considered one of the first citizen science projects.

But some argue that Whewell’s greatest gift to science was his wordsmithing: He created the words scientist and physicist by analogy with the word artist; they soon replaced the older term natural philosopher. He also named linguisticsconsiliencecatastrophismuniformitarianism, and astigmatism.

Other useful words were coined to help his friends: biometry for John Lubbock; Eocine, Miocene and Pliocene for Charles Lyell; and for Michael Faraday, electrode, anode, cathode, diamagnetic, paramagnetic, and ion (whence the sundry other particle names ending -ion).


“Christmas may not bring a single thing; still, it gives me a song to sing”*…

Our reviewer

At the same time, as Mahalia Jackson said, “if you want me to sing this Christmas song with feeling and the meaning, you better see if you can locate that check.”

Novelist and publisher Tariq Goddard reviews this year’s crop of seasonal songs, for example…

Kelly Clarkson and I at least meet as equals, neither of us having heard of the other, although 25 million album sales mean more people have heard of her than they have me. Her handle on Christmas is not that much more assured than mine – she knows only what the seasonal songs that use the same formulas as hers tell her, which is of course a game of diminishing returns. There is the odd nod on When Christmas Comes Around to modernity (‘Christmas Isn’t Cancelled (Just You)’), but her trite take on tradition, if heard in a public space while experiencing another of life’s seasonal setbacks, may just bring the number of shopping trips down this Yuletide. Meghan Trainor, A Very Trainor Christmas, is more evidence that reality is multi dimensional, a Christmas euphemism for, ‘Are they all fucking mad or are we?’ Meghan is a hyperbolically successful young American whose version of ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’ makes Kim Wilde and Mel Smith’s version sound like Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis — which is unfortunate as her frightened and life-denying version of the track is also by far the best thing on the record.

Billy Idol‘s Happy Holidays was the record I was most looking forward to, and like the later odes of Holderlin, is a lot stranger than you might expect. Idol starts in the only way the voice behind ‘Rebel Yell’ would be expected to, bullishly, going for broke on ‘Frosty The Snowman’ like he wants him to cry more, more, more. Eschewing howling axes for triangles and bells, the song is a Carry On Christmas-style piss take with a wink to music hall, full of fruity nudge nudges and spoken asides, which – unlike the awkward office party singalong it could have been – works because Idol sounds like he is having fun. He is a Bill Sykes that plays to the gallery and not to his demons. Unfortunately by track two he is beginning to grow a little more jaded, as if it is slowly occurring to him that just because we all grow old and still need something to do, that something doesn’t actually need to be this. Still, the realisation that a whole album of this stuff is going to be overkill, does not stop his version of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ from keeping Richard Harris company in the astral bar that never closes, and ‘Auld Lang Syne’, a risk if ever there was one, is genuinely spooky, more Fagin watching the gallows being built from his cell than a new beginning in January.

So much more at “Jingle Hell: Tariq Goddard Reviews Christmas Music,” from @theQuietus. Via always-illuminating The Browser.

* Charles Dickens


As we hum along, we might on the other hand recall that it was on this date in 1955 that Carl Perkins recorded “Blue Suede Shoes,” at Memphis Recording Service (later known, for the record label with which it shared a building, as Sun Studios). Written by Perkins and produced by Sam Phillips, it combined elements of blues, country, and pop music– and is thus considered one of the first rockabilly records.


“Anything down there about your souls?”*…

Herman Melville; drawing by David Levine

Andrew Delbanco on the difficulty, to date, of capturing Herman Melville’s central importance in a biography…

The fact is that Herman Melville is a singularly unyielding subject for literary biography. “One portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another,” as he says of the whale, “but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness…[because] there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like.” The dim record of Melville’s life simply disappears into the glare of his work, and the best one can hope for is to glimpse a few moments of convergence between them…

By what alchemy did an apparently unremarkable boy become the genius who broke open the conventional form of the novel and pushed the American language far beyond where any previous practitioner had taken it? Where did he acquire his knowledge of evil that made him seem mad to his contemporaries, but prescient of our own blasted century?…

On the problem of understanding Melville’s work via his life: “The Great Leviathan.”

* Queequeg, Moby-Dick, Chapter 19


As we wonder about white whales, we might recall that it was on this date in 1855 that David Livingstone became the first European to see (what we now call) Victoria Falls in what is now Zambia-Zimbabwe.



“A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing”*…

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pumped body was like “a brown condom full of walnuts”. Damon Hill’s Formula 1 car was “a modern sculpture propelled by burning money.” Television was “the haunted fish tank”, a sense of humour was merely “common sense, dancing” and a luxury liner was nothing but “a bad play surrounded by water.” Sydney’s Opera House looked like “a portable typewriter full of oyster shells”… and the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland’s maquillage became the most famous make-up in town: “Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff.”

You didn’t need to read Clive James’s books or poems to feel the impact he made on the English language. You only had to watch television or read the papers…

No other writer could capture the popular imagination like this. But this generous, glittering shrapnel of unforgettable imagery all fell outside the realms of Clive’s formal literary career, leaving him with an unfair reputation as a brilliant lightweight who never quite fulfilled his dazzling potential.

The antidote to this is simple. Forget the image; read his work. If Clive James had not been such a popular and familiar figure, it would be even clearer now that we should be mourning the loss, a year ago, of a literary giant…

An appreciation of a late, lamented literary treasure: “The Enduring Prose and Poetry of Clive James.”

Your correspondent heartily recommends James’ remarkable Cultural Amnesia, richly entertaining and deeply enlightening…

This was an 850-page blockbuster, consisting of 106 brief essays, arranged in alphabetical order, on the characters he felt had determined the course of Western culture and liberal democracy’s fight for survival in the twentieth century. Most of those featured were Clive’s heroes—from Akhmatova to Stefan Zweig, by way of Camus and Dick Cavett, Fellini and W.C. Fields, Egon Friedell and Terry Gilliam, Kafka and Keats, Beatrix Potter and Marcel Proust, Tacitus, Waugh and Wittgenstein. Others were his villains—Hitler, Goebbels and Mao, but also Sartre (Stalin’s apologist, “a devil’s advocate worse than the devil himself, because the advocate was smarter”), Edward “Decline and Fall” Gibbon, Alexandra Kollontai and the “dismaying” Walter Benjamin…

See also Adam Gopnik’s appreciation of James, “Clive James Got It Right” (source of the image above).

* Clive James


As we trip the light fantastic, we might recall that it was on this date in 1884 that the first installment of the first edition of The Oxford English Dictionary was published.  Edited by James Murray (“The Professor” in Simon Winchester’s wonderful The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary), it was originally a project of the Philological Society of London, devoted to cataloging the English words that had evaded inclusion in then-current dictionaries.  The first edition had the benefit of 27 years of work, by dozens of contributors; the first installment, the full title of which was A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society, ran to 352-pages, covered the words from A to ant, and cost 12s 6d (or about $668 at current rates). The total sales were only 4,000 copies.

James Murray in the Scriptorium, the home of the OED,
on Banbury Road in Oxford (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 1, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty”*…

Readers will know of your correspondent’s deep affection and respect for Martin Gardner (c.f., e.g., here), so will understand his inability to pass up this appreciation:

You may think that the most interesting man in the world has a scraggly gray beard, drinks Mexican beer, and hangs out with women half his age. But you’re dead wrong. I discovered the real deal, the authentic most interesting man in the world, on the shelves on my local public library when I was a freshman in high school. His name was Martin Gardner.

I first stumbled upon Gardner’s work while rummaging around a bottom shelf in the rear of the library, right below my favorite book in the building, Jean Hugard’s The Royal Road to Card Magic. The Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions, published by Gardner in 1959, represented a big leap from Hugard, yet I devoured as much of it as my 14-year-old mind could comprehend. Much of the math was too advanced for me, but the parts I understood charmed and delighted me. I came back the next week to check out The Second Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions. I followed up with Gardner’s The Numerology of Dr. Matrix and Unexpected Hangings, also on the shelves on the library, and soon purchased a copy of his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science at a used bookstore. Around this same time, I bought, at great expense, a brand new hardbound copy of 536 Curious Problems and Puzzles by Henry Ernest Dudeney, and learned that this treasure trove of strange and peculiar diversions had been edited by (yes, you guessed it) Martin Gardner. I felt like shouting out: “Mama, there’s that man again!”

Later I learned that Gardner’s expertise extended far beyond math and science. I can’t even begin to explain my delight when I discovered that Gardner fraternized with magicians. During my teen years, I spent countless hours practicing card tricks and sleights-of-hand — I never realized my ambition of performing as a card magician, but the finger dexterity later helped when I switched my focus to playing jazz piano — and I was thrilled to learn that Gardner knew Dai Vernon, Frank Garcia, Paul Curry, Ed Marlo, and other masters of playing card prestidigitation. They were not household names. In my mind, someone like Dai Vernon was way too cool to be known by the uninitiated. But these were precisely the kind of mysterious masterminds of obscure arts that Martin Gardner would include among his buddies.

And finally as a humanities student at Stanford I learned about Martin Gardner’s contributions as literary critic and scholar. His annotated guide to Lewis Carroll is a classic work of textual deconstruction (although Gardner would never have used that term), and my boyhood hero also applied his sharp analytical mind to deciphering the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, G.K. Chesterton, and L. Frank Baum. I could continue the list, but you get the idea. Whatever your interests — whether the theory of relativity or “Jabberwocky,” the prisoner’s dilemma or a mean bottom deal from a clean deck, Martin Gardner was your man. He ranks among the greatest autodidacts and polymaths of the 20th century. Or, as I prefer to say, he was the most interesting man in the world, the fellow I would invite to that mythical dinner party where all parties, living or dead, are compelled to accept your invitation…

Read on for Ted Gioia‘s (@tedgioia) appreciation of Gardner’s autobiogrphical works: “Martin Gardner: The Most Interesting Man in the World.”

* Bertrand Russell


As we add it up, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to J. H. C. (Henry) Whitehead; he was born on this date in 1904. A mathematician (and nephew of Alfred North Whitehead), he was a topographer, one of the founders of homotopy theory, an approach to mapping of topological spaces.

Born in Chennai and educated at Oxford and Princeton, he joined the codebreakers at Bletchley Park during World War II and by 1945 was one of some fifteen mathematicians working in the “Newmanry,” a section headed by Max Newman that was responsible for breaking a German teleprinter cipher using machine methods– which included the use of Colossus machines, early digital electronic computers.

He spent the rest of his career at Oxford (where he was Waynflete Professor of Pure Mathematics at Magdalen College). He served as president of the London Mathematical Society, which created two prizes in his memory: the annually-awarded Whitehead Prize and the biennially-awarded Senior Whitehead Prize.


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