Review: ¿Qué es filosofía?

Review: ¿Qué es filosofía?

¿Qué es filosofía?¿Qué es filosofía? by José Ortega y Gasset

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have always believed that clarity is the courtesy of philosophy…

When I picture Ortega to myself, I imagine a man seated in the middle of a room full of books—the atmosphere smoky from frequent cigarettes—banging furiously away at a typewriter, going at it from morning till evening, rapidly accumulating piles of written pages by his side. Ortega was so prolific, and wrote about so many different things, that he could have filled an entire journal by himself—and nearly did. I have read only a fraction of his collected works, but this has included: an analysis of love, a political reckoning of Spain, a diagnosis of the social ills of Europe, and essays on literature and modern art. Now added to this list is an introduction to philosophy.

What I most admire in Ortega is this flexibility and his fluency: his omnivorous interest in the world and his ability to write smooth prose about complex issues. What I most deprecate is his tendency to rush headlong into a problem, sweep away controversy with grand gestures, and then to drop it at once. In other words, he is profligate with ideas but stingy with systems. His theories are always germinal; he leaves to others the difficult work of rigorous arguments and concrete applications. This is not damaging in cases such as aesthetic criticism, where rigor is hardly possible anyway; but it is ruinous in the case of philosophy, where logical consistency is so crucial.

The result of his approach is this series of lectures, which does not give a coherent view of philosophy’s history or its method. Instead, Ortega offers an essayistic series of opinions about the shortcomings of previous incarnations of philosophy and where he thinks philosophy should go next. I say “opinions” because, crucially, Ortega does not offer anything resembling a formal argument. This makes it difficult to accept his conclusions and, worse, makes it difficult to understand his opinions in the first place, since without the supporting skeleton of an argument his views remain formless.

Nevertheless, a short summary is still possible. Ortega derides science for being concerned with merely “secondary” problems, and mysticism for being irrational. Materialists metastasize existence into something inhuman and discrete, while idealists (such as Descartes) divorce the subject from his surroundings. Ortega’s solution is his phrase, “I am myself and my surroundings,” considering human experience—composed of the interpenetration of subject and surrounding circumstances—the basic fact of philosophy. In this, as in his emphasize on human freedom, he fits in well with existentialists like Heidegger and Sartre. But he differs from then, first, in writing legibly; and second in his strong emphasis on reason.

I think there are the germs of some worthy ideas contained here; but in order to really understand the ontological and epistemological ramifications of his positions, he would have to argue for them in a way entirely absent from this book.

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Review: Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation

Review: Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation

Civilisation:  A Personal ViewCivilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room

I must admit immediately that I have never read nor even laid eyes on this book. I’m sure it’s lovely. This review is, rather, about the television series, which I’d wager is twice as lovely.

Civilisation is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. Kenneth Clark takes his viewer from the Dark Ages, through romanesque, gothic, the Renaissance, the Reformation, baroque, rococo, neoclassicism, impressionism, through the industrial revolution and the two World Wars, all the way up to when the program was made in the late 1960s. This is a remarkable amount of ground to cover for a show with 13 episodes, each 50 minutes long.

Not only chronologically, but in subject matter, this documentary casts a wide net. Although the show’s primary emphasis is on architecture and art, Clark also dips into literature, poetry, music, engineering, politics, and wider social problems like inequality, poverty, oppression, and war. Of course, for lack of time Clark cannot delve too deeply into any one of these subjects; but because the presentation is so skillful and economical, and the selection of material so tasteful, the viewer is nevertheless satisfied at the end of every episode.

The documentary generally shifts between shots of Clark facing the camera, talking to the viewer, and extended, panoramic shots of churches, monuments, paintings, drawings, sculptures, and mountains, while beautiful music plays in the background. Clark himself chose the musical accompaniments to these visuals, and they are uniformly splendid (and this is one reason why I recommend the documentary over the book). More than perhaps anything I’ve seen on a screen, this series is rich, lavish, sumptuous. As the camera pans over the altarpiece of a church, while Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion plays in the background, it’s so lush and gorgeous that it almost gives you a stomach ache.

Aside from these visuals and music, the main attraction of the series is Clark himself. He comes across as refined, cosmopolitan—almost a freak of erudition. But for all that, he is charming and witty, if ultimately a bit cold. One of the strongest impressions I got was that Clark was a man from another time. He looks out of place as he walks through the modern streets, crowded with cars and buzzing with urban life. He has many misgivings about the modern world: he is anti-Marxist, anti-modern art, and certainly didn’t understand the student protests and hippie culture flourishing at the time. In his own words, he was a “stick in the mud,” and I think felt alienated from his time because of his intense appreciation, even worship, of Western art.

This brings me to some of this program’s shortcomings. Most of these are due to the time in which it was made. This is most apparent in the first episode, “The Skin of Our Teeth,” wherein he argues that civilization almost disappeared during the Dark Ages, and comes close to crediting Charlemagne as the savior of all subsequent culture. This requires that he completely discredit both Byzantine and Muslim culture (not to mention Chinese), both of which were doing just fine. He repeats the tired stereotype about Byzantium being a fossilized culture and treats the Muslims as simple destroyers. Later on in the series, he has some uncharitable things to say about the Germans, which I think was a product of growing up during the World War.

A more serious flaw might be that the series bites off more than it can chew. The questions Clark poses to answer are vast. What is civilization? What makes it thrive? What makes it fall apart? Deep questions, but his answers are by comparison shallow. Civilization requires confidence in the future; they cannot be built on fear. Civilization requires rebirth, the constant search for new styles and ideas; but it also requires continuity and tradition, a respect for the past. Civilization is pushed forward by men of genius (and in this series, they’re all men), who enlarge our faculties with their godlike creative powers; men like Michelangelo, Dante, Beethoven, men who are timeless and yet who forever alter the face of culture.

These are interesting answers, but they seem rather superficial to me. They describe, rather than explain, civilization. But of course, this is a documentary, not a monograph. And although Clark asks and tries to answer many questions, I think his primary goal was simply to inspire a sense of the worth, the preciousness, the grandeur of the accomplishments of European civilization. He wants to remind his viewers that our culture is fragile, and that we owe to it not only beautiful paintings and poetry, but also our very ability to see and appreciate the beauty in certain ways, to think about ideas in a certain light, to live not only a happy but a full and rich life.

Maybe this seems pinched and old-fashioned nowadays. Still, I can’t help thinking of all the times that a friend, a fellow student, or even a teacher has made a blanket statement about “Western culture,” “Enlightenment ideas,” “scientific materialism,” or some such thing, while seeming to understand none of it. (I’ve probably done this myself, too.) I’ve been in classes—serious, graduate-level classes—where, amid condemnations of “Western” ideas and gratuitous namedropping of Western philosophers, I realized that I was the only person there, professor included, who actually read some of these authors. I’m not making this up.

I suppose this is just a callow intellectual fashion, and it will eventually pass away. And I also suppose that this might be slightly preferable to the idiotic self-glorification of “European man” that prevailed in earlier times. At present, however, this program is a wonderful corrective to our bad habits of thought. It’s an education, a social critique, and a joy. I hope you get a chance to watch it.

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Review: Alistair Cooke’s America

Review: Alistair Cooke’s America

Alistair Cooke's AmericaAlistair Cooke’s America by Alistair Cooke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… a sign proclaiming in three words that a Roman emperor’s orgy is now a democratic institution. It says: ‘Topless Pizza Lunch.’

(As in my reviews of Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, this review focuses on the documentary, not the tie-in book.)

This documentary is a window into another time, when the public intellectual was a far more respected institution. Nowadays it is hard to imagine a popular program that contained long stretches of a man simply talking into a camera; nor it is easy to think of a contemporary program so fully dominated by the personality of one person. As the subtitle of this program indicates, this is “A Personal View,” not an attempt at impartiality or objectivity. Cooke is giving us America as he sees it, through the eyes of a highly-educated, well-traveled English immigrant.

The 13 episodes of the series follow a chronological scheme, beginning with the French and Spanish colonists and ending with the (then) present day. The exception to this is the first episode, the best in the series, in which Cooke tells his own story—coming to America as a young man during the Great Depression, and taking a road trip out west. As for the other episodes, there are few surprises in Cooke’s choice of subject: the English dissenters, the Revolutionary War, the drafting of the Constitution, the Louisiana Purchase, and so on, all the way up to the Cold War. We see Ellis Island and the Oregon Trail, New England foliage and the Hoover Dam, Hippie communes and Black Baptist churches—a panorama of American scenes.

In many ways this series falls short of the other two major BBC documentaries of the time, Clarke’s Civilisation and Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. Cooke’s America has none of the gorgeous cinematography of the former nor the innovative editing of the latter. Indeed, the shooting style of the documentary is remarkably basic—which is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but in this case it imbued sections of the documentary with a soporific effect. Another difference in quality was due to the level of insight that the programs offer. Cooke, though no chump when it comes to American history, seems an amateur when his expertise is compared to Clarke’s grasp of art and Bronowski’s understanding of science. I was consistently interested, but I cannot say I came away from the program with any deep sense of insight into my vast homeland.

All this being said, there are some delightful sections in the program. Cooke has a great knack for finding fascinating props. He holds up a vial containing tea preserved from the Boston Tea Party, or he holds the manuscript of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in the Morgan Library, or he itemizes the typical equipment and supplies taken by families on the Oregon Trail. And if the information he presents is not exactly striking, his easy eloquence and gentle wit give his facts a pleasing ring. Cooke’s voice—with his faultless Transatlantic accent—was made for broadcasting, and transmits a sense of confident sophistication that is entirely rare today. Most valuable for us is Cooke’s convincing sense of being above partisan politics—an intelligent observer unbound by any tribe. Again, could any similar program exist today?

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Review: Marianela

Review: Marianela

Marianela (Los mejores clásicos)Marianela by Benito Pérez Galdós

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Benito Peréz Galdós is yet another of those Spanish authors whose wide fame in their own language is equalled by their wide obscurity elsewhere. In Spain his reputation as a novelist is second only to Cervantes; and yet the English translation of this book, one of his most famous, is out of print. This is a shame, since Galdós was a writer of rare gifts, a fountain of stories written in beautiful prose. In many ways he is reminiscent of Lope de Vega: both a critical and popular success, whose celebrity did not get in the way of his output. For like the golden age playwright, Galdós was extremely prolific. Apart from his few dozen—and often lengthy—social-realist novels, he wrote five series of historical novels, forty-six novels in all, covering the 19th century in Spain. Dickens was a slug by comparison.

This book is about Marianela, called La Nela, an orphaned, “deformed” adolescent who lives in the mining country in Cantabria. She is described as having spotty skin, thin hair, a malproportioned face, and most notably an underdeveloped body for her age. She is the “lazarillo,” or guide, to Pablo, a blind young man from a rich family. The two fall in love, and share many passionate sentiments on their walks together. But then the brilliant doctor, Teodoro Celepín, comes to visit Pablo, examines him, cures his blindness, and, well, Marianela’s life gets considerably worse. It is a simple story with a tragic arc.

For me the outstanding quality of Galdós’s writing is his prose. It is elegant but readable, balanced but energetic. Though there were many words scattered about that I did not understand, I never felt lost; to the contrary, I read quickly, avidly, completely sucked into the story in a way that is rare for me with Spanish books. As with many novelists, there are two main registers of Galdós’s writing on display: scene-setting description and dialogue. Galdós excels at both. The conversations between La Nela and Pablo, though sentimental in a way that only enamored teenagers can be, was totally convincing. And his description of the desolate, charred, and barren landscape of the mines is an excellent example of how a scene can contribute to the narrative of a book:

El vapor principió a zumbar en las calderas del gran automóvil, que hacía funcionar a un tiempo los aparatos de los talleres y el aparato de lavado. El agua, que tan principal papel desempeñaba en esta operación, comenzó a correr por las altas cañerías, de donde debía saltar sobre los cilindros. Risotadas de mujeres y ladridos de hombres que venían de tomar la mañana [beber aguardiente] precedieron a la faena; y al fin empezaron a girar las cribas cilíndricas con infernal chillido; el agua corría de una en otra, pulverizándose, y la tierra sucia se atormentaba con vertiginoso voltear, todando y cayendo de rueda en rueda hasta convertirse en fino polvo achocolatado.

And in English:

The steam began to hiss in the boilers of the big car, which operated the workshop equipment and the cleaning machines at the same time. The water, which played such a principal role in this operation, began to run through the high pipes, where it had to jump over the cylinders. The guffaws of women and the barks of men who came to take the morning [drink aguardiente] preceded the task; and at last they begun to turn the cylindrical sieves with a hellish shriek; the water ran from one to the other, spraying and splashing, and the dirty earth was tormented with dizzy turning, rolling and falling from wheel to wheel until it became a fine chocolate powder.

Few authors could provide such a gripping description of an industrial process and also present us with a character as memorable as La Nela. She is self-contained but selfless, self-willed but self-abnegating, intelligent but ignorant, a person who was given nothing and so expects nothing, but whose isolation caused her to form a novel perspective. Her notion of the world is pagan; she sees things in mythical, poetic categories that lead everyone around her to chastise her for being unchristian. Her tragedy, like so many, is the plight of undeveloped potential; in other circumstances, she may have done remarkable things; but being born poor, orphaned, and “ugly” has confined her to being a guide.

I have said all this in praise of Galdós prose, his scene-setting, his characterization, but of course there is more to this story. Thematically, this book is also quite rich—the relation between inner and outer sense, between inner and outer worth, the relation between knowledge and love—but I will not get into that. This book was too enjoyable to belabor it with heady analysis. To conclude, this novel has convinced me that Galdós is a master of the craft. I am eager to devour more of his books.

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Review: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Review: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American WestBury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those books whose great merit was in undermining itself. When it was first published, in 1970, it must have been a shock to the Americans who grew up reading and watching movies about the heroic coy boys, settlers, and soldiers who settled the West. It was—and to an extent, remains—a key part of our national myth. But like so many national myths, it left unnoticed the people who were repressed, marginalized, or exterminated on the road to the country’s greatness. Books like this one, a people’s history, told from the perspective of the vanquished, are a necessary corrective to this, and perform an important moral function in our society: shining a light on the misdeed perpetrated by our national heroes.

The greatest testament to the success of a book of this type is to render itself obsolete, and I think this is what has happened in this case—at least, to an extent. For by the time I went to school it was the Dee Brown version of the West, not the Buffalo Bill version, that was taught to us. (Admittedly this must vary a lot depending on where you go to school; I come from quite a liberal area.) Thus the story told in these pages was, however depressing, entirely familiar: broken promises, cultural misunderstandings, blatant dishonesty, and wholesale slaughter. As a result I admit I did not enjoy this book as much as I expected, for everything that Brown narrated was fully expected. Of course, there were moments that pierced through even my dullness, such as the description of the Sand Creek Massacre, which was as horrible as anything I have read about the Holocaust.

Brown is a strong writer, and evokes people and scenes with the power of a good novelist. But I was disappointed at how much of this book is given over to descriptions of battles and skirmishes. The pattern was always the same: the Indians are promised land, the whites decide they want the land after all, tension escalates, and then conflict ensues—with the American military usually coming out the victor. I think it was important that Brown narrate this fighting from the other perspective, since it formed such a cherished part of our myth, but apart from sheer drama I did get much out of it. I would much have preferred that Brown dedicate space to the customs of the groups he is describing—the Navajo, the Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Arapaho, and many more. Without this, we get a sense of brave cultures being swept away, but not a sense of what was actually lost.

A few more criticisms come to mind. Though this book is well-researched and well-sourced, it is clear even at a superficial reading that Brown has imaginatively embellished quite a bit in order to get the novelistic style he was after. More importantly, now that we are (hopefully) moving past this Spaghetti-Western version of American history, I believe a different kind of book is needed. Any book that tells the story exclusively from one side, either victor or vanquished, will leave important parts of the story out. Apart from more ethnographic description of the American Indians in question, I would also have liked a much deeper analysis of the government and settlers. This would have given more insight into why these interactions played out the way they did.

But these criticisms are somewhat unfair, since they are predicated on the book’s success. Without a doubt this was a necessary book, and Brown did us a service in writing it—and in writing it so well.

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Review: Epitome of Copernican Astronomy & Harmonies of the World

Review: Epitome of Copernican Astronomy & Harmonies of the World

Epitome of Copernican Astronomy and Harmonies of the WorldEpitome of Copernican Astronomy and Harmonies of the World by Johannes Kepler

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Earth sings MI, FA, MI so that you may infer even from the syllables that in this our domicile MIsery and FAmine obtain.

Thomas Kuhn switched from studying physics to the history of science when, after teaching a course on outdated scientific models, he discovered that his notion of scientific progress was completely mistaken. As I plow through these old classics in my lackadaisical fashion, I am coming to the same conclusion. For I have discovered that the much-maligned Ptolemy produced a monument of observation and mathematical analysis, and that Copernicus’s revolutionary work relied heavily on this older model and was arguably less convincing. Now I discover that Johannes Kepler, one of the heroes of modern science, was also something of a crackpot.

The mythical image of the ideal scientist, patiently observing, cataloguing, calculating—a person solely concerned with the empirical facts—could not be further removed from Kepler. Few people in history had such a fecund and overactive imagination. Every new observation suggested a dozen theories to his feverish mind, not all of them testable. When Galileo published his Siderius Nuncius, for example, announcing the presence of moons orbiting Jupiter, Kepler immediately concluded that there must be life on Jupiter—and, why not, on all the other planets. Kepler even has a claim of being the first science-fiction writer, with his book Somnium, describing how the earth would appear to inhabitants of the moon (though Lucian of Samothrace, writing in the 2nd Century AD, seems to have priority with his fantastical novella, A True Story). This imaginative book, by the way, may have contributed to the accusations that Kepler’s mother was a witch.

In reading Kepler, I was constantly reminded of a remark by Bertrand Russell: “The first effect of emancipation from the Church was not to make men think rationally, but to open their minds to every sort of antique nonsense.” Similarly, the decline in Aristotle’s metaphysics did not prompt Kepler to reject metaphysical thinking altogether, but rather to speculate with wild abandon. But Kepler’s speculations differed from the ancients’ in two important respects: First, even when his theories are not testable, they are mathematical in nature. Gone are the verbal categories of Aristotle; and in comes the modern notion that nature is the manifestation of numerical harmonies. Second, whenever Kepler’s theories are testable, he tested them, and thoroughly. And he had ample data with which to test his speculations, since he was bequeathed the voluminous observations of his former mentor, Tycho Brahe.

At its worst, Kepler’s method resulted in meaningless numerical coincidences that explained nothing. As many a statistician has learned, if you crunch enough numbers and enough variables, you will eventually stumble upon a serendipitous correlation. This aptly describes Kepler’s use of the five Platonic solids to explain planetary orbits; by trying many combinations, Kepler found that he could create an arrangement of these regular solids, nested within one another, that mostly corresponded with the size of the planets’ orbits. But what does this explain? And how does this help calculation? The answer to both of these questions is negative; the solution merely appeals to Kepler’s sense of mathematical elegance, and reinforced his religious conviction that God must have arranged the world harmoniously.

Another famous example of this is Kepler’s notion of the “harmonies of the world.” By playing with the numbers of the perihelion, aphelion, orbital lengths, and so forth, Kepler assigns a melodic range to each of the planets. Mercury, having the most elongated orbit, has the biggest range; while Venus’s orbit, which most approximates a perfect circle, only produces a single note. Jupiter and Saturn are the basses, of course, while Mars is the tenor, Earth and Venus the altos, and Mercury the soprano. He then suggests (though vaguely) that there are beings on the sun, capable of sensing this heavenly music. (The composer Laurie Spiegel created a piece in which she recreates this music; it is not exactly Bach.) Once more, we naturally ask: What would all this speculation on music and harmonies explain? And once more, the answer is nothing.

Kepler’s writing is full of this sort of thing—torturous explorations of ratios, data, figures, which strike the modern mind as ravings rather than reasoning. But the fact remains that Kepler was one of the great scientific geniuses of history. He was writing in a sort of interim period between the fall of Aristotelian science and the rise of Newtonian physics, a time when the mind of Europe was completely untethered to any recognizable paradigm, free to luxuriate in speculation. Most people in such circumstances would produce nothing but nonsense; but Kepler managed to invent astrophysics.

What gives Kepler a claim to this title was his conception of a scientific law (though he did not put it as such). Astronomers from Ptolemy to Copernicus used schemes to predict planetary movements; but there was no one underlying principle which could explain everything. Kepler’s relentless search for numerical coincidences led him to statements that unified observations of all the planets. These are now known as Kepler’s Laws.

The first of these was the seemingly simple but revolutionary insight that planets orbit in ellipses, with the sun at one of the foci. It is commonly said that previous astronomers preferred circles for petty metaphysical reasons, seeing them as perfect. But there were other reasons, too. Most obviously, the mathematics of shapes inscribed in circles was well-understood; this was the basis of trigonometry.

Yet the use of circles to track orbits that, in reality, are not circular, created some problems. Thus in the Ptolemaic system the astronomer used one circle (the eccentric) for the distance, and another, overlapping circle (the equant) for the speed. When these were combined with the epicycles (used to explain retrogression) the resultant orbits, though composed of perfect circles, were anything but circular. Kepler’s use of ellipses obviated the need for all these circles, reducing a complicated machinery into a single shape. It was this innovation that made the Copernican system so much more efficient than the Ptolemaic one. As Owen Gingerich, a Copernican scholar, has said: “What passes today as the ‘Copernican System’ is in detail the Keplerian system.”

Yet the use of ellipses, by itself, would not have been so useful were it not for Kepler’s Second Law: that planets sweep out equal areas in equal times of their orbits. For when a planet is closest to the sun (at perihelion) it is moving its fastest; and when it is furthest (at aphelion) it is slowest; and this creates a constant ratio (which is the result of the conserved angular momentum of each planet). Ironically, of the two, Ptolemy was closer than Copernicus to this insight, since Ptolemy’s much-maligned equant (the imaginary point around which a planet travels at a constant speed) is a close approximation of the Second Law. Even so, I think that Kepler moved far beyond all previous astronomy with these insights, jumping from observed and analyzed regularities to general principles.

Kepler’s Third Law seemed to have excited the astronomer the most, since he even includes the exact date at which he made the realization: “… on the 8th of March in this year One Thousand Six Hundred and Eighteen but unfelicitously submitted to calculation and rejected as false, finally, summoned back on the 15th of May, with a fresh assault undertaken, outfought the darkness of my mind.” This law states that, for every planet, the ratio of the orbital period squared to the orbital size cubed, is constant. (For the orbital size Kepler used half the major axis of the ellipse.)

While it is no doubt striking that this ratio is almost the same for every planet (this is because the planet’s mass is negligible compared with the sun’s), it is difficult to completely sympathize with Kepler’s excitement, since the resultant law is not useful for predicting orbits, and its significance was only explained much later by Newton as a derivable conclusion from his equations. Kepler, being the man he was, used this mathematical constant to fuel his metaphysical speculations.

However much, then, that Kepler’s theories may strike us nowadays as baseless, crackpot theorizing, he must be given a commanding place in the history of science. The reason I cannot rate this collection any higher is that Kepler is extremely tiresome to read. In his more lucid moments, his imaginative energy is charming. But much of the book consists of whole paragraphs of ratio after ratio, shape after shape, number after number, and so it is easy to get lost or bored. Since I have a decent grasp of music theory, I thought I might be able to get something out of his Harmonies of the World, but I found even that section mostly opaque, swirling in obscure and impenetrable reasoning.

The great irony, then, is that Kepler’s writings can strike the modern-day reader as far less “scientific” than Ptolemy’s; but perhaps we should expect such ironies from a man who helped to inaugurate modern science, but who made his living casting horoscopes.

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Review: Howl and Other Poems

Review: Howl and Other Poems

Howl and Other PoemsHowl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?

On my recent trip to San Francisco I was obliged to buy a copy of this book from the City Lights bookstore. Well, that isn’t the whole story. I visited the book store without knowing anything of its history, left with a copy of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, and then shamefacedly returned to pick up this book when my mother informed me, five minutes later, that it is famous for the “Howl” trial. I had heard recordings of Ginsberg reciting “Howl” many times, but I had never actually owned a copy of this poem. Now, thanks to the timely intervention of my mom, I am bona fide hip.

Like so many obscene books of bygone ages, “Howl” seems remarkably tame nowadays, and it is hard to believe any institution would go through the bother of banning and confiscating it. As in so many other cases of censorship, the attempt to suppress the work backfired, helping to turn poem and poet into icons. In our present, enlightened age, we have realized that, when anything can be published, nothing can be shocking or subversive; so oversaturation accomplishes in a stroke what censorship failed to accomplish in generations. But I am getting rather off the track of this book review.

It is difficult to evaluate “Howl,” since everything innovative about it has been thoroughly absorbed into the culture: obscenity, drugs, jazz, eastern mantras, free-form poems that follow the breath, and so on. Ginsberg’s voice is still with us; and you can hear it for yourself if you go to the right college campus—to pick just one example, New Paltz, in upstate New York, has many psychedelic, socially conscious, very enlightened free-form poets. This is not to say that this poem is no longer enjoyable, only that its appeal is more as a fossil than as a revelation now.

But it is a delightful fossil. For with Ginsberg’s “Howl” I hear the first grumblings of a new phenomenon in society: a group of disaffected youths becoming self-aware as a loose movement—as a counter-culture. Now, there have always been disaffected people who have turned to alcohol, drugs, sex, foreign faiths, and in general that peculiar mix of mysticism and hedonism that gives solace to those who feel they do not have a place in their own society. Yet it was not until the Beats, I believe, that this now quintessential experience was turned into art that defined a whole generation. The irony, of course, is that as soon as a counter-culture becomes faddish, its harmless aspects are absorbed into society, and its radical aspects swept to the side, until the revolt loses its teeth.

In both Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Kerouac’s On the Road I see young men, profoundly disenchanted and disconnected with their world, deeply disgusted with the values of their society, but without much to offer in the way of replacement. Instead they wander “starving hysterical naked” across the country, in search of some sort of epiphany that will clarify their predicament—an elusive truth, to be pursued on highways, in bedrooms, and in the altered states of the mind. Yet until they reach this truth, all they have to offer in opposition to “Moloch” is hedonism—which is exactly the same dilemma unsuccessfully faced by Babbitt.

Needless to say I do not find either alternative convincing, but that does not mean I cannot enjoy Ginsberg’s poems. Now, I do think the book format does not do Ginsberg justice, since the lines are organized by his breath and demand to be read, preferably by him. I will always remember laying awake in my bed in high school, listening to Ginsberg reciting “Howl” and “America,” and feeling strange stirrings of literary rebellion that I could not hope to articulate. A literary triumph, perhaps not, but an essential landmark on the country’s and my own maturity.

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Review: The Great Bridge

Review: The Great Bridge

The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn BridgeThe Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge by David McCullough

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… on a day when two young men were walking on the moon, a very old woman on Long Island would tell reporters that the public excitement over the feat was not so much compared to what she had seen “on the day they opened the Brooklyn Bridge.”

On the inside cover of my copy of this book its previous owner has inserted a little love note. The brief message is written in a very neat script, in red ink, apparently on the eve of a long separation. Now, you may think that a book about the Brooklyn Bridge is a rather odd gift for a lover—and, considering that the book ended up in a used book shop, this may be what the recipient thought, too—but, now that I have read McCullough’s chronicle of the Brooklyn Bridge, I can see why it might inspire such sentimental attachment. For it is a thoroughly lovable book.

This is my first McCullough work, and I am pleased. He is a fine writer. His prose is stylish yet unobtrusive, striking that delicate balance between being intelligible but not simplified. He has a keen eye for the exciting details of a seemingly dry story; and effectively brings together many different threads—the personalities, the politics, the technology—in such a way that the past looms up effortlessly in the imagination. The only parts which I think could have been improved were his explanations of the engineering, since he used too many unfamiliar terms without explaining them, perhaps thinking that such explanations might swell the book to unseemly proportions. In any case, he is a writer, not an engineer, and he shines most when discussing the human experience of the Bridge.

The bridge’s designer was John A. Roebling, who deserves a book unto himself. An eccentric polymath, who among other things studied philosophy under Hegel, he came to America to found a Utopian village and ended up the foremost expert on suspension bridges. The Brooklyn Bridge was his project; but tragically he died during the first year of the project, after his foot was crushed, his toes amputated, and he contracted tetanus. His son, Washington, immediately took over—in many ways just as remarkable a man. A Civil War hero with a tenacious memory, the bridge ruined his health, too, through a combination of stress and the bends.

In those days the bends were known as “caisson sickness,” named for the compartment sunk underwater in order to excavate for the bridge’s foundations. These were filled with pressurized air in order to prevent water from seeping in. Unfortunately, in those days the dangers of rapidly depressurizing were not understood, so many people fell ill during the construction—including Roebling himself, who spent the final years of the bridge’s construction as an invalid, observing the work through a telescope from his apartment. Luckily for him, his wife, Emily, was a remarkable woman—diplomatic and brilliant—and helped to carry the project to completion.

These personalities come alive in McCullough’s narration, turning what could have been a dry chronicle into an enthralling book. And this is not to mention the political corruption, the manufacturing fraud, the deadly accidents, and the glorious celebrations that took place during the fourteen years of the bridge’s construction.

Yesterday I revisited the Brooklyn Bridge, which is beautiful even if you know nothing about it. As a friend and I strolled across in the intense summer heat, elbowing our way through crowds of tourists, I blathered on about all the fun facts I had learned from this book—which I am sure my friend very much appreciated. Sensing his discomfort, I made sure to emphasize that a fraudulent wire manufacturer had tricked the engineers into using sub-par cables, and that a panic broke out a week after the bridge’s opening, which resulted in twelve people being trampled. You see this book has already helped my social life. Maybe next I can write my own love note inside.

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Review: Don Quixote

Review: Don Quixote

Don Quijote de la Mancha: puesto en castellano actual íntegra y fielmente por Andrés TrapielloDon Quijote de la Mancha: puesto en castellano actual íntegra y fielmente por Andrés Trapiello by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I know who I am,” replied don Quijote, “and I know who I can be…”

I bought this book under the sway of a caprice which, if it were not too hackneyed to say so, I would call quixotic. This was two years ago. I was in the royal palace in La Granja de San Ildefonso, near Segovia. I had just toured the palace—one of the finest in Spain—and was about to explore the French gardens, modeled after those in Versailles, when I encountered the gift shop. Normally I do not buy anything in gift shops, since half of it is rubbish and all of it is overpriced. But this book, this particular volume, called out to me and I obeyed.

It was a foolish purchase—not only because I paid gift-shop prices, but because my Spanish was not anywhere near the level I needed to read it. And at the time, I had no idea I would be staying in Spain for so long. There was a very good chance, in other words, that I would never be able to tackle this overpriced brick with Bible-thin pages. At least I left myself some hope. For this is not the original El ingenioso caballero don Quijote de la Mancha—written in Spanish contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s English—but a bastardization: its style diligently modernized by the writer Andrés Trapiello. Even with this crutch, and even with an additional two years of living in Spain, this book was a serious challenge.

Before charging headlong into the thickets of criticism, I want to say a word in praise of Trapiello’s edition. Cervantes’s Spanish is not as difficult as Shakespeare’s English, but it still foreign enough to prove an obstacle even to native speakers. I know many Spaniards, even well-read ones, who have never successfully made it through El Quijote for this very reason (or so they allege). Trapiello has done the Spanish-speaking world a great service, then, since he has successfully made El Quijote as accessible as it would have been to its first readers, while preserving the instantly recognizable Cervantine style. And while I can see why purists would object to this defacement of hallowed beauty, I would counter that, if ever there were a book to painlessly enjoy, it is El Quijote.

To get a taste of the change, here is Trapiello’s opening lines:

En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, vivía no hace mucho un hidalgo de los de lanza ya olvidada, escudo antiguo, rocín flaco y galgo corredor. Consumían tres partes de su hacienda una olla con algo más de vaca que carnero, ropa vieja casi todas las noches, huevos con torreznos los sábados, lentejas los viernes y algún palomino de añadidura los domingos.

And here is the original:

En un lugar de la Mancha, du cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor. Una olla de algo más vaca que carnero, salpicón las más noches, duelos y quebrantos los sábados, lentejas los viernes, algún palomino de añadidura los domingos, consumían tres partes de su hacienda.

Now, undeniably something is lost in the transition. Cervantes’s “duelos y quebrantos” (lit. “aches and pains”), for example, is undeniably more evocative than Trapiello’s “huevos con torreznos” (eggs with bacon); but without Trapiello I would have no idea what Cervantes meant. It is also worth noting how similar the two are; Trapiello has taken care to change only what he must.

Onward to the book itself. But I hesitate. The more I contemplate this book, the more I think that a critic must be as daft as the don and as simple as his squire to think he can get to the bottom of it. Cervantes was either extremely muddle-headed or fantastically subtle, since this book resists any definite conclusions you may try to wring from its pages. Perhaps, like many great books, it simply got out of the author’s control. Just as Tolstoy set out to write the parable of a fallen woman and gave us Anna Karenina, and as Mark Twain set out to write a boys’ book and invented American literature, it seems Cervantes set out to write a satire of chivalric romances and produced one of the great works of universal art. It is as if a New Yorker cartoonist accidentally doodled Guernica.

The key to the book’s enduring beauty, I think, is Cervantes’s special brand of irony. He is the only author I know who can produce scorn and admiration in the same sentence. He is able to ruthlessly make fun of everything under the sun, while in the same moment praising them to the heavens. The book itself embodies this paradox: for it is at once the greatest rejection of chivalric romance and its greatest embodiment—an adventure tale that laughs at adventure tales. There is no question that Cervantes finds the old don ridiculous, and he makes us agree with him; yet by the end, Quijote is more heroic than Sir Galahad himself.

The central question the books asks is whether idealism is noble or silly. There is no question that the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance is a hilarious figure. But do we laugh at his expense, or at our own? Is his idealism pathetic, or is it our realism? The book resists both horns of this dilemma, until finally we must conclude that we are all—dreamers and realists alike—equally ridiculous. For we all reside in a social world whose rules only exist in our beliefs and in our actions, a world which we create but do not design. It is only Quijote who seems to realize (however unconsciously) that, by changing the script, we can recreate the world. And he does. By the time we get to Part Two, everyone is playing along with Quijote.

Even so, I am not able to go so far as Miguel de Unamuno, and consider Quijote a sort of messiah. I do not think Cervantes’s irony permits this. For Quijote truly is out of touch, and frequently gets pummeled for it. And even when his fantasy inspires others to play along, and to help him create his new world, they never do so for disinterested reasons. Some, including Sancho, play along for gain; others do so to control or to help Quijote; and most do it just to have some fun at his expense. This is the dilemma faced by all revolutionaries: they have the vision to see a better world, the courage to usher it in with their actions, and the charisma to inspire others to follow them; but most worldlings chose to play along for ulterior motives, not for ideals; and so the new world becomes as corrupt as the old one. To put this another way, Quijote’s problem is not that he is out of touch with the social order, but that he is out of touch with the human heart.

Much of the greatness of this book lays in the relationship between the don and his squire. Few friendships in literature are so heartwarming. Sancho, in his simplicity, is the only one who can even partially meet Quijote in his new world—as a genuine participant in Quijote’s make-believe. Of course, Sancho is not free from ulterior motives, either. There is the island he is to rule over. But the longer the story goes on, the more Sancho believes in his master, and the less he pursues material gain. We are relieved to see that, when finally offered his island, the squire comes running back to the don in a matter of days. As the only two inhabitants of their new world, as the only two actors in their play, they are homeless without one another.

It is useful to compare Shakespeare’s and Cervantes’s method of characterization. As Harold Bloom points out, Shakespeare’s characters are most truly themselves when they are alone, soliloquizing. When together, on the other hand, even close friends and lovers never seem to communicate perfectly, but talk past each other, or talk for their own benefit, or simply show off. But don Quijote and Sancho Panza are most truly themselves when they are with each other; they draw one another out and spur one another on; they ceaselessly bicker while remaining absolutely loyal; they quibble and squabble while understanding one another perfectly. When they are separated during Sancho’s sojourn on the island, the reader feels that each has lost more than half of himself. For my part, though I am not sure it is more “realistic,” I find Cervantes’s friendship more heartening than the bard’s. Though they begin as polar opposites, the squire and the knight influence one another as the story progresses, eventually coming to resemble one another. This beats Romeo and Juliet by a league.

What strikes most contemporary readers of this ur-novel is its modernity. Formally, Cervantes is far more daring than his Victorian successors. This is admittedly more apparent in Part Two, when Cervantes has his characters travel around a world where Part One has already been published and read widely, and where the spurious Part Two by Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda (a pseudonym) has just been released. This leads to self-referential tricks worthy of the coolest postmodernist: the duo encountering readers of the prequels and commenting on their own portrayal. Another daring touch was Cervantes’s use of the Arabic historian Cide Hamete Berengeli—whose Arabic book, found on the streets of Toledo, he is merely transcribing into Castilian—which allows him to comment on the text he is writing: praising the historian’s scrupulous attention to detail and skipping over boring sections in the “original.”

All this is done, not merely to be clever, but to reinforce the sense of infinite irony that pervades the text. The gap opened up by these tricks is what gives Cervantes room to be so delightfully ambiguous. As the authorship is called into question, and as the characters—who are imaginative actors to begin with—become aware of themselves as characters, the sense of a guiding intelligence crafting the story becomes ever more tenuous. The final irony, then, is that this self-referential irony does not undermine the reality of the story, but only reinforces it. In Part Two, especially, the characters leap from the book into reality, becoming both readers and writers of themselves—so real, indeed, that we risk repeating the don’s error of mistaking the book with reality.

Having said all this in praise of El Quijote, I should mention some of the book’s flaws. These are mostly confined to Part One, wherein Cervantes inserts several short novelas that have, for the most part, aged poorly. At the time there was, apparently, a craze for pastoral love stories involving shepherds and shepherdesses, which nowadays is soppy sentimental trash. One must also admit that Cervantes’s was a very mediocre poet, so the verse scattered throughout these pages can safely be skipped. On the whole, though the book’s most iconic moments are in Part One, Part Two is much superior and more innovative.

Part Two is also far sadder. And this is the last ambiguity: the reader can never fully decide whether to laugh or cry. Tragedy and comedy are blended so deeply together that no emotional response seems adequate. I still have not decided with any certainty how I feel or what I think about this book. All I know is that I wish it could go on forever—that I could read another chapter of don Quijote’s and Sancho Panza’s adventures for the rest of my life. To reach the end is unbearable. Don Quijote should live eternal life. And he will.

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Review: On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres

Review: On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres

On the Revolutions of Heavenly SpheresOn the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres by Nicholas Copernicus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

And though all these things are difficult, almost inconceivable, and quite contrary to the opinion of the multitude, nevertheless in what follows we will with God’s help make them clearer than day—at least for those who are not ignorant of the art of mathematics.

The Copernican Revolution has become the prime exemplar of all the great transformations in our knowledge of the world—a symbol of scientific advance, the paradigmatic clash of reason and religion, a shining illustration of how cold logic can beat out old prejudices. Yet reading this groundbreaking book immediately after attempting Ptolemy’s Almagest—the Bible of geocentric astronomy—reveals far more similarities than differences. Otto Neugebauer was correct in calling Copernicus’s system an ingenious modification of Hellenistic astronomy, for it must be read against the background of Ptolemy in order to grasp its significance.

The most famous section of De revolutionibus was, ironically, not even written by Copernicus, but by the presumptuous Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran theologian who was overseeing the publication of the book, and who included a short preface without consulting or informing Copernicus. Knowing that Copernicus’s hypothesis could prove controversial (Luther considered it heretical), Osiander attempted to minimize its danger by asserting that it was merely a way of calculating celestial positions and did not represent physical reality: “for it is not necessary that the hypotheses should be true, or even probable; but it is enough if they provide a calculate which fits the observations.”

Though this assertion obviously contradicts the body of the work (in which Copernicus argues at length for the reality of the earth’s movement), and though Copernicus and his friends were outraged by the insertion, it did help to shield the book from censure. And arguably Osiander was being a good and true Popperian—believing that science is concerned with making accurate predictions, not in giving us “the truth.” In any case, Osiander was no doubt correct in this assertion: “For it is sufficiently clear that this art is absolutely and profoundly ignorant of the causes of the apparent irregular movements.” Neither Ptolemy nor Copernicus had any coherent explanation of what caused the orbits of the planets, which would not come until Newton.

After this little interpolation, Copernicus himself wastes no time in proclaiming the mobility of the earth. In retrospect, it is remarkable that it took such a long stretch of history for the heliocentric idea to emerge. For it instantly explains many phenomena which, in the Ptolemaic system, are completely baffling. Why do the inner planets (Venus and Mercury) move within a fixed distance of the sun? Why does the perigee (the closest point in the orbit) of the outer planets (Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) occur when they are at opposition (i.e., when they are opposite in the sky from the sun), and why does their apogee (the farthest point) occur when they are in conjunction (when they are hidden behind the sun)? And why do the planets sometimes appear to move backwards relative to the fixed stars?

But putting the earth in orbit between Venus and Mars neatly and instantly explains all of these mysteries. Mercury and Venus always appear a fixed distance from the sun because they are orbiting within the earth’s orbital circle, and thus from our position appear to go back and forth around the sun. Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, by contrast, can appear at any longitudinal distance from the sun because their orbits are outsider ours; but if Mars’ orbit were tracked from Jupiter, for example, it would, like Venus and Mercury, appear to go back and forth around the sun. Also note that Mars will appear to go “backwards” from earth when earth overtakes the red planet, due to our planet’s shorter orbital period. And since Mars will be closest when it is on the same side of the sun as earth (opposition from the sun), and furthest when it is on far side of the sun (conjunction with the sun), this also explains the apogee and perigee positions of the outer planets.

This allows Copernicus to collapse five circles—one for each of the planets, which were needed in the Ptolemaic system to account for these anomalies—into one circle: namely, the earth’s orbit. The advantages are palpable.

Nevertheless, while I think the benefits of putting the planets in orbit around the sun are obvious, perhaps even to a traditionalist, it is not obvious why Copernicus should put the earth in motion around the sun rather than the reverse. Indeed, this is exactly what the eminent astronomer Tycho Brahe did, several generations later. For it makes no observational difference whether the sun or the earth is in motion. And in the Aristotelian physics of the time, the former solution makes a great deal more sense, since the heavens were supposed to be constituted of lightest elements and the earth of the heaviest elements. So how could the heavy earth move so quickly? What is more, there is no concept of inertia in Aristotelian physics, and so no explanation for why people would not fly off the earth if it were in rapid motion.

Copernicus takes a brief stab at answering these obvious counterarguments, even offering a primitive notion of inertia: “As a matter of fact, when a ship floats on over a tranquil sea, all the things outside seem to the voyagers to be moving in a movement which is the image of their own, and they think on the contrary that they themselves and all the things with them are at rest.” Even so, it is obvious that such a brief example does not suffice to refute the entire Aristotelian system. Clearly, a whole new concept of physics was needed if the earth was to be in motion, one which did not arrive until Isaac Newton, born nearly two hundred years after Copernicus. It took a certain amount of boldness, or obtuseness, for Copernicus to proclaim the earth’s motion without at all being able to explain how the heaviest object in the universe—or so they believed—could hurtle through space.

In structure and content, De revolutionibus follows the Algamest pretty closely: beginning with mathematical preliminaries, onward to the orbits of the sun (or, in this case the earth), the moon, and the planets—with plenty of tables to aid calculation—as well as a description of his astronomical instruments and a chart of star locations, and finally ending with deviations in celestial latitude (how far the planets deviate north and south from the ecliptic in their orbits). Copernicus was even more wedded than Ptolemy to the belief that celestial objects travel in perfect circles, which leads him to repudiate Ptolemy’s use of the equant (the point around which a planet moves at a constant speed). The use of the equant upset Copernicus’s sense of elegance, you see, since its center is different from the actual orbit’s center, thus requiring two overlapping circles.

Copernicus’s own solution was an epicyclet, which revolves twice westward (clockwise, from the celestial north pole) for each rotation eastward on the deferent. And so, ironically, though Ptolemy is sometimes mocked for using epicycles, Copernicus followed the same path. I also find it amusing that the combined effect of these circular motions, in both Ptolemy and Copernicus, added up to a non-circular orbit; clearly nature had different notions of elegance than these astronomers. In any case, it would have to wait until Kepler until it was realized that the planets actually follow an ellipse.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that Copernicus’s book is not any easier to use than Ptolemy’s as a recipe book for planetary positions. Now, it is far beyond my powers to even attempt such a calculation. But in his Very Short Introduction to Copernicus (which I recommend), Owen Gingerich takes the reader through the steps to calculation the position of Mars on Copernicus’s birthday: February 19, 1473. To do this you needed the radix, which is a root position of the planet recorded at a specified time; and you also need the planet’s orbital speed (the time needed for one complete orbit, in this case 687 days). The year must be converted into sexigesimal (base 60) system, and then converted in elapsed Egyptian years (which lack a leap year), in order to calculate the time elapsed since the date of the radix’s position (in this case is January 1st, 1 AD). Then this sexigesimal number can be looked up in Copernicus’s tables; but this only gives us the location of Mars with respect to the sun. To find out where it will appear in the sky, we also need the location of earth, which is another tedious process. You get the idea.

I read the bulk of this book while I was on vacation in rural Canada. Faced with the choice between relaxation or self-torture, I naturally chose the latter. While most of my time was spent scratching my head and helplessly scratching the page with a pencil, the experience was enough to show me—as if I needed more demonstration after Ptolemy—that astronomy is not for the faint of heart, but requires intelligence, patience, and care.

There was one advantage to reading the book on vacation. For it is the only time of year when I am in a place without light pollution. The stars, normally hiding behind street lights and apartment buildings, shone in the hundreds. I would have seen even more were it not for the waxing moon. But this did give me the opportunity to get out an old telescope—bought as a birthday present for a cousin, over a decade ago—and examine the moon’s pitted surface. It is humbling to think that even such basic technology was years ahead of Copernicus’s time.

Looking at the brilliant grey circle, surrounded by a halo of white light, I felt connected to the generations of curious souls who looked at the same moon and the same stars, searching for answers. So Copernicus did not, in other words, entirely spoil my vacation.

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