Review: Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human

Review: Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is not quite as absurd as its title would seem to indicate. If anybody worshipped Shakespeare enough to think that the Bard literally did invent humanity, it would be Bloom. But Bloom’s primary thesis is the only slightly less grandiose claim that Shakespeare, by creating the most persuasively realistic mode of representing personality, shaped our ideas of what it means to be human. This at least falls within the realm of physical possibility.

I quite like the idea of approaching Shakespeare this way, since it allows us to integrate literature into intellectual history. Surely, the great innovators in poetry, prose, and drama must have contributed to our understanding of the human psyche. And Shakespeare’s works may, indeed, represent a great leap in this respect. Unfortunately, Bloom—both by background and temper—is not really up to the task of substantiating this claim. A serious inquiry into Shakespeare’s novel modes of portraying the human would require a broad overview of Shakespeare’s predecessors. There is nothing of the kind in this book; Bloom instead gives us a series of commentaries on each of Shakespeare’s plays.

For my part, I do agree with Bloom that Shakespeare’s greatest gift was his ability to endow his characters with startling depth. And if I can judge from my own reading, this was something quite new in the history of literature, though perhaps not quite as unique to Shakespeare as Bloom asserts. Montaigne and Cervantes—two near-contemporaries of Shakespeare—also portrayed shifting and unfolding characters, and by Bloom’s own admission Chaucer had encroached on this territory several hundred years earlier.

In any case, establishing a claim for intellectual priority in inventing the human is not at all what this book is about. Instead, this book is a reader‘s guide, consisting of a close reading of Shakespeare’s 39 plays. The plays are grouped both chronologically and thematically, from the early comedies to the late romances. Bloom’s attention is admittedly uneven. To some of the minor works he devotes some ten pages or so, while Hamlet gets nearly fifty. In his approach, Bloom is a self-professed follower of Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, and A.C. Bradley—that is, mainly focusing on the character’s personalities and Shakespeare’s methods of representing them.

As you may know, this approach has been out of intellectual fashion for quite some time. Indeed, in many ways Bloom was a deliberate stick in the mud. He was adamantly opposed to reading any kind of social, political, religious, or other message in the plays, and was mostly uninterested in how Shakespeare’s own historical context shaped the play’s content. He was an old-school champion of the autonomy of the aesthetic, of literary excellence existing in a realm apart from the rest of life. You can imagine that this is not especially popular nowadays, to say the least; and Bloom, never one to mince words, is constantly taking swipes at his fellow academics. For the casual reader, this is mostly just a distraction, since most of us just want to enjoy and understand the plays a little better.

Any critic, however broad, will inevitably have strong and weak sections when dealing with a corpus as vast and varied as Shakespeare’s plays. Bloom is no different. I consistently found Bloom at his worst when he was at his most passionate. That is, whenever he felt called upon to rhapsodize over the Bard’s incomparable genius, the book devolved into a string of superlatives that did little to enrich my reading. Thus, ironically, this book is weakest when Shakespeare is at his strongest—particularly in the chapters on Hamlet, King Lear, and the Henry IV plays. Any attempt to analyze the brooding Prince of Denmark or the fat Sir John Falstaff—the Bard’s two greatest creations, according to Bloom—knocks him off his rocker.

By contrast, many of the shorter chapters on Shakespeare’s slightly less famous works are quite strong. Bloom is at his best when he is doing the work of an uncommonly good common reader—that is, merely picking up the play and noting which sections are strong, weak, moving, interesting, disturbing, etc., and then trying to analyze why. This is basically what all of us try to do here on Goodreads, and it just so happens that Bloom is quite good at it. What he is not good at is moving beyond this close, sympathetic reading to arrive at a more general conclusion.

Insofar as Bloom does have a general insight into Shakespeare’s mode of creating the human, it is the concept of self-overhearing. Unfortunately, Bloom does not elaborate on this idea very much, so it is difficult to know exactly what he means by it. As far as I can tell, the idea is that Shakespeare’s characters are never fully able to articulate what they think or feel, but their words always somehow one step behind their psyches. Put another way, Shakespeare’s characters experience a kind of self-alienation, forever trying and failing to fully articulate their own innermost selves. Thus, overhearing their own failed attempts at articulation cause them to change and grow, as they try to correct their own previous failures at self-revelation.

I think this is quite an insightful way of looking at Shakespeare’s characters, and it does pinpoint something novel about Shakespeare’s mode of representation. In most fiction, the characters either articulate exactly what they think, or they articulate the exact opposite (when they are lying, or when they are supposed to be self-deluded). But Shakespeare’s characters are far more subtle than simply dishonest or even self-deluded personas. What they say is never exactly right nor exactly wrong, but forever on the cusp, just missing the mark; and this inability to ever get it exactly right drives the kind of verbal excess that marks Shakespeare’s most powerful speeches—poetry pushing toward the ineffable.

And I do think that this captures something essential about us: that we can hardly ever articulate exactly what we think, how we feel, or what we want; and so there seems to be a disconnect between our innermost core and the outward selves we are able to project. Did Shakespeare first have this insight or did he just perfect its use in the theater? That is a question for a different kind of literary critic than Bloom.

I am spending too much time on this issue of character—since it fascinates me—even though the real value of this book does not consist in its philosophical insights. This book is an excellent companion for reading Shakespeare’s plays, since it allows you to read them alongside a very opinionated, highly intelligent, and fiercely individual reader—which is always valuable.



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2020: New Years Resolutions

2020: New Years Resolutions

I ended my resolutions post last year by promising I would not diet or exercise. Well, I broke the last part of the resolution when I took up running in February. This confirms my suspicion that the best way to motivate yourself is to resolve to do the opposite. So this year I resolve to stop exercising, eat poorly, be very unkind, and just be generally irresponsible and unpleasant.

My travel writing aspirations were only half-successful. Admittedly, I did compensate somewhat by writing long posts on the big NYC museums, but the list of travel writing keeps growing. Here are the big ones:

  • Asturias
  • Chartres
  • Istanbul
  • Marseille
  • Monticello
  • Naples & Pompeii
  • Normandy
  • Padua
  • Paris Cemeteries
  • Venice
  • Versailles
  • Washington D.C.

And this is not all.

In books, I got through most of my resolved reading from last year. My main omissions were the works of Archimedes, Apollonius, and Sir Thomas Heath’s book on Greek mathematics. Apart from this, one of my big goals this year is to read more about economics. I have a large biography of John Maynard Keynes sitting on my shelf. I also have a few scattered books and lectures to guide me. Hopefully I can make some headway in this most dismal of sciences.

In literature, these are the authors in my sights: Lord Byron, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence. In the history of science, here are the big names: Lavoisier, Lyell, and Faraday. And in philosophy I hope to finish reading the works of Plato.

I will do at least one more season (10 episodes) of my podcast. But my big goal is to put more energy into getting published. This includes short stories, articles, and hopefully my old novel. Wish me luck!

2019 in Books

2019 in Books

This has shaped up to be another excellent year in reading. For the most part I kept going with themes that occupied me last year. The history of science is a prominent one. As for primary sources, the only book I completed was a short one, Christiaan Huygens’s Treatise on Light, where he analyzes light as a series of waves. Andrea Wulf’s popular biography of Alexander Humboldt technically falls within the history of science, though the book reads more like a hagiography. Much better—and one of my favorite books of the year—was Thomas Kuhn’s book on the Copernican Revolution. Lawrence Principe’s series of lectures on the history of science rounded out this category for me.

Next year, I hope to finally get to Lavoisier’s book on chemistry, Lyell’s book on geography, and Faraday’s book on electricity and magnetism. We shall see how I do.

As for philosophy, I decided to dip into existentialism. This began with Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful popular work on the subject—which was so charming, in fact, that I think it made existentialism seem a little bit more interesting than it really is. Kierkegaard’s Either/Or was the first serious philosophy book on the list; I found it brilliant, if uneven and ultimately disagreeable. Then there came Sartre’s tome, Being and Nothingness, which was ultimately even less satisfying than Kierkegaard’s book, even if it gives the reader a lot to chew over. Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, if not precisely existentialist, still failed to make much of an impression on me.  La Rouchefoucauld’s Maximes, Baltasar’s Arte de la prudencia, and Pascal’s Pensées had much more in the way of philosophic interest and life advice than these existentialists. 

My travels dictated some of my reading this year. In preparation for a trip to Naples, I read Pliny the Younger’s letters, which include his description of the eruption of Vesuvius; before going to Istanbul, I listened to a history of Byzantium by Kenneth Harl; and in order to ready myself for Normandy, I read a book about the D-Day landings. Yet of all this travel reading, the best was Mary Beard’s book on the Parthenon, which I read a bit too late for my 2018 trip to Athens.

This year, I had a vague idea that I would finally read some books about subjects that fascinated me as a child. This directed me to Stephen Brusette’s book on dinosaurs—badly written but informative—and Bob Brier’s lectures on Ancient Egypt—both informative and extremely entertaining. In this same spirit, I read the Very Short Introduction on Human Evolution, written by Bernard Wood, a former professor of mine. I combined this reading with trips to my favorite childhood museums, the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I marvelled once again over the Tyrannosaurus fossils and the mummies. 

As usual, I tried to read about America for my summer back in the United States. This led me to some really superb books. The first was Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, a man with a story worthy of a musical, play, film, or anything else really. David McCullough’s biography of John Adams was even more enjoyable—the best book of the year, if measured in pure reading pleasure (and the television series was great, too)—while I found Jon Meacham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson quite remarkably bad. Reading about America also means reading about our wars. This led me to McCullough’s short book on the first year of the Revolutionary War, and Ken Burns’s classic documentary on the Civil War (not a book, but book-length).

This year I got around to a few works of fiction that had long been on my list: The Call of the Wild, The Jungle Book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Lord of the Flies… I probably enjoyed them in that order. Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls was much funnier than I thought it would be, given the title, and Balzac’s Père Goriot was likewise more bleakly depressing. But the two outstanding works of fiction, for me, were Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, both of which I greatly loved. I should also mention Benito Pérez Galdós’s wonderful novel, Fortunata y Jacinta, which was one of my major reading challenges of the year—over 1,000 pages of literary Spanish.

A new discovery this year were the lecture series by the Great Courses. I have already mentioned a few of them: Principe’s on the history of science, Harl’s on Byzantium, Brier’s on Ancient Egypt. To this, I must add Edwin Barnhart’s excellent lecture series on the peoples of North and of Central America. The very best, however, may be Robert Greenberg’s introduction to the history of Western music, which was so good it convinced me to start going to the opera. In general these Great Courses fill a perfect niche in my reading, providing in-depth but painless introductions to topics that have long interested me, and allowing me to learn during the walks on my commute. 

But the dominating presence in my reading this year has been William Shakespeare. I read, watched, or listened to fifteen of his plays, and completed Harold Bloom’s enormous guide to the works of the Bard. I may not be convinced that Shakespeare invented humanity, but I am convinced more than ever that he is one of my favorite writers. Now that Shakespeare is done (or nearly done), I will hopefully return to be goal of reading through Plato’s works. Then I’ll have to figure out something else to do with my time.

A partially failed effort was to get more into mathematics, as a complement to my interest in the history of science. I did manage to speed my way through Morris Kline’s calculus textbook—an accomplishment I am rather proud of, even if it probably didn’t do me much good—as well as a short book on performing mental calculations (I forgot most of that already, too). I had hoped to read Thomas Heath’s Manual of Greek Mathematics, as well as some classic Greek mathematicians, but I only managed a hundred pages of the former and a small book by Nichomachus. I hope to read the rest next year.

Despite all these weighty-sounding books, two books this year represent bigger shifts in my actual day-to-day life. Peter Sagal’s book on running was part of my transition from total indolence to regularly exercising, a process that culminated in my running the Madrid half-marathon back in April. I hope to do it again this coming year. I also read a book about chess, as my amateurish interest in the game grew. I am still a very bad chess player; but the fact that I play at all is a big shift from last year, when I professed to scorn all games. Though not really a practical book, David Graeber’s book on bullshit jobs was my most cathartic read for the year, since it seemed to ratify many of my working experiences.

The only other thing worth mentioning is my attempt to turn my book reviews in a podcast. I did this for about twenty books, and then decided that it was a little silly, and stopped. Now my podcast is about life in Spain, which may be just as silly.

I will end this review on a sad note. As you may know, Ted Schmeckpeper died this year. He was one of my favorite people on Goodreads, not so much for his reviews as for his general presence. He helped to make Goodreads into a real community. Ted was also personally kind. Not only did he mail me a book from his own library, but Ted read an early draft of my novel and gave me detailed feedback. He had a rich and full life, as you can tell from his obituary. I miss him.

2019: New Years Resolutions

2019: New Years Resolutions

In manifold ways 2018 was an excellent year. I traveled to places I never expected to see, I read books that had long been on my list, and in general I had a great time. In fact, I did so many things that I have a lot of catching up to do on this blog. And my major resolution is to put even more effort into my writing this year.

So, without further ago, here is an incomplete list of the places I visited that I still need to write about:

One of my resolutions is to brush up on math. I hope, first, to read about Greek mathematics, and even to see if I can penetrate a few works of Archimedes (highly unlikely). I also have a calculus textbook that I hope to use to revive my atrophying abilities (equally improbable).

Meanwhile, I have typically immoderate and unrealistic reading goals. Some hefty existentialist tomes have been weighing me down: books by Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Husserl, to name just three. There are also many classic French writers I have yet to read: Pascal, Balzac, Stendhal, Le Rouchefoucault… And then there are some ponderous and interminable history books that are in my sights.

I should stop myself here, since I will have to eat all of these words. One thing I can be certain of, though, is that I will neither diet nor exercise.

Happy New Years!

2018 in Books

2018 in Books

Few authors, especially the unpublished, can resist the opportunity to read aloud.

2018 has shaped up to be an excellent year in reading. I somehow finished fifteen more books than I had the previous two years. Admittedly, many of my books this year were quite short; some of Plato’s dialogues are arguably more like pamphlets than books, and I read twelve of them this year. These slim volumes were, I hope, compensated by a few ponderous tomes. I stumbled through the two final books of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization, at 1092 and 870 pages; George Santayana’s 862 page treatise on ontology; 1300 pages of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives; and finally William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, weighing in at a tedious 1614 pages. I also attempted to read a 1400 page history of New York City; but I was forced to take a break halfway through to recover from an acute overdose of urbane facts.

The two most prominent themes of this year’s reading have been art and science.

I learned about the works and lives of Picasso, Miró, and Goya, and I savored Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s sketches of brain cells, which are as much artistic as scientific achievements. I also read two books of John Ruskin’s eloquent ravings on the value, morality, and beauty of art. Henry Adams concurred with Ruskin about the superiority of medieval art, as he demonstrated in his book about Chartres. Giorgio Vasari, however, took the reverse position, arguing that the Renaissance saved Europe from centuries of barbarous art; and he proved this thesis in his reverential biographies of Renaissance painters and sculptors. But by far the most compelling book on art I read this year was a collection of Vincent van Gogh’s letters, which reveal a man of extraordinary sensitivity and intelligence.

My reading in science began with two classics in the philosophy of science: Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—both excellent. But after learning the theory I wanted to know the practice; so I started blundering my way through the classics of the Copernican revolution. I began with Ptolemy’s Almagest, and followed this with Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus, Kepler’s Harmonies of the World, and Galileo’s Two New Sciences and Sidereus Nuncius; and I finally reached the capstone of the scientific revolution with Newton’s Principia. Looking at this list, I feel rather proud of myself; but in truth most of this “reading” consisted of flipping through pages of incomprehensible mathematics. I needed secondary sources to even achieve a basic understanding, relying on an abridged and annotated version of Ptolemy, Very Short Introductions to Copernicus and Galileo, and a popularization of Newton written by Colin Pask. And am I any the wiser for all this toil?

I had hoped to do half of my reading this year in Spanish; but with a total twenty books I did not even achieve a quarter. Luckily, many of these were excellent. Federico García Lorca’s trilogy of plays is a remarkable look at the force of tradition in rural Spain. The poetry of Antonio Machado was perhaps even more profound, with its blend of metaphysical calm and romantic sensitivity to nature. I also read two superlative novels from Spanish masters: Marianela by Benito Pérez Galdós, and El árbol de la ciencia by Pío Baroja. To do my homework, I sampled Spain’s golden age, reading Tirso de Molina’s El burlador de Sevilla, and Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna and El caballero de Olmedo. But the highlight of this year’s Spanish books was undoubtedly Don Quijote de la Mancha, which I read in the modernized version by Andrés Trapiello. Not that Cervantes needs any help, but Ortega’s and Unamuno’s commentaries on the Spanish masterpiece did widen my appreciation of that most infinitely entertaining of novels.

The two authors who most dominated my year were Shakespeare and Plato, as I labored under the optimistic delusion that I could read both of their complete works. I still have a long way to go, of course; but any time spent with these two masters is rewarding; and I hope to continue my naive ambition next year. I read very few works of English language fiction this year, of which E.M. Forster’s Howards End was the standout work. As usual, I tried to read about New York and the United States while I was home during the summer. This lead me to pick up Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, John Muir’s The Mountains of California, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, David McCullough’s The Great Bridge, Ron Chernow’s Titan, and Alistair Cooke’s America. None of these was as revelatory as The Power Broker, which I read last summer; but each one shed some light on my vast and aggravating homeland.

The most exciting event on Goodreads this year has been my recent ascension to the most followed reviewer in Spain, with 1,700 new followers just this month. Believe me, I’ve been as baffled as you must be. The mystery was partly solved when I investigated the list of my followers, and found that a large part bear the obvious traces of fake accounts. I would like to take this opportunity to publicly assert that I have not paid for any bot service, and I have no idea why they would choose to follow my reviews. Perhaps the computers have a taste for pretentious prose.

In any case, I would like to thank my fellow reviewers and followers, man or machine, for contributing to this excellent year of reading. You support me in my own endeavors, you inspire me with your intelligence and curiosity, and you provide me a community of thoughtful readers and writers. So may 2019 be as good a year for book enthusiasts as the this one has been.



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NY Museums: The Morgan

NY Museums: The Morgan

This is part of a series on New York City museums. For the other posts, see below:


Just as royalty and nobles have played a crucial role in Europe’s art, providing money and stability to artists, in American history very rich patrons have played an equally important role in the establishment of cultural institutions. From Carnegie, to Frick, to the Rockefellers, great business tycoons have used their enormous wealth to bring culture to the masses; and in this respect J.P. Morgan is no exception.

Unlike the above-mentioned robber barons, Morgan was not an industrialist; his specialty was money itself. A son and eventually a father of a banker, finance was in Morgan’s blood. He had dealings with every major player in business and government of the age, and was instrumental in the creation of the era’s major conglomerates: General Electric (which hailed from Thomas Edison), United States Steel (from Carnegie, Schwab, and Frick), and AT & T (from Alexander Graham Bell)—to name just a prominent few. A large man with a deformed nose, he struck the unflappable John D. Rockefeller as moody and impulsive. But this iconic money-changer and pharaonic materialist was not bereft of an appreciation of higher things.

The Morgan Library & Museum sits right in midtown Manhattan, on Madison Avenue and 36th street. The main building looks quite similar to the Frick: a severe, grey, neoclassical structure. Adjoining this is an attractive brownstone building; and the complex is completed with a sleekly modern—and rather discordant and tasteless—box of an entryway, built in 2006 to help organize the space. This is where the contemporary visitor enters and pays.

No photos are allowed inside the complex, so I am forced to rely on my paltry memory.

320px-JPMorgan
John Pierpont Morgan

As one would expect, the house is richly furnished. The original entrance hall is gorgeously decorated, with Renaissance-style wall frescos and Pompeian motifs; even the floor is attractively patterned. Anyone visiting the banker would know immediately that this was financial royalty. Morgan’s study, where he made decisions that shaped the economy, is a deep shade of scarlet—the rug, the wall paper, the furniture. Morgan himself, with his handlebar mustache sitting under his bulbous nose, presides over the fireplace in the form of a portrait. Few rooms give such an indelible impression of power.

The next room accessible from the entrance hall was, I believe, previously the librarian’s office; now it contains a fine sampling of Morgan’s impressive collection of Babylonian cylinder seals. These are small circular objects made of hard stone, about an inch long, inscribed with delicately carved reliefs. They were used as a sort of signature or official seal, by rolling the seal over soft clay to create a horizontal image. Dozens of these seals were on display in the room. Since the seals themselves do not look like much, they were shown alongside an impression made with the seals, wherein the images can be clearly seen. These typically involve scenes of gods and royalty, and are quite beautiful works of art. Certainly it is a much more elegant way of indicating ownership and approval than illegibly scribbling our names.

800px-Cylinder_seal_Shamash_Louvre_AO9132
This image is from the Louvre. It is in the public domain, taken from Wikimedia Commons

From here I went to the central attraction of the museum: the library itself. Even if it had no books at all, it would be a beautiful space—the ceiling as richly decorated with allegorical friezes as El Escorial’s royal library. Three floors of oaken bookcases line every wall up to the ceiling, each one filled with venerable volumes covered by a protective screen. On the ground level there are display cases that showcase some of the library’s treasures. And these are beyond anything I had expected.

320px-Gutenberg_bible_Old_Testament_Epistle_of_St_Jerome
A page from the University of Texas copy of the Gutenberg Bible (public domain)

Here is the finest collection of manuscripts and rare books that I had ever hoped to see. To begin with, there are three Gutenberg Bibles, the first book published with moveable type in Europe, one of the most iconic books in history. While the invention of printing was, no doubt, a great advance in the history of our species, it must be admitted that the Gutenberg Bibles look rather plain next to the older, handmade ones nearby. The most famous example of these is the Morgan Bible, or Crusader Bible, a brilliantly illuminated Bible showing scenes from the Old Testament, but depicted as if it had occurred in medieval France. (Thus it is easy to mistake the images for depictions of the crusades.) The images are chaotic and violent, but no less compelling for being so; and seeing it such vivid illustrations between the cover of a book does make one a little nostalgic for the days when books were handmade.

Morgan_Bible_10r

The most ornate book in the collection—and the first in the Morgan Library catalogue, MS M.1—is a book of the gospels from the 9th century, around the reign of Charlemagne. (I admit that I cannot remember if I actually saw this book in person, but I did see it in a documentary that mentioned the library.) The cover is a mass of ornately decorated gold, encrusted with precious jewels. The amount of material wealth devoted to this single volume beggars belief—though it does seem a little ironical to decorate a book about Jesus of Nazareth, arch-enemy of the money-changers, so resplendently. While I am on the topic of ironies, I must also add a point made by the journalist Alistair Cooke, that while these super rich tycoons—Carnegie, Frick, Morgan—were buying up the treasures of Europe, they were benefiting from waves of European immigrants willing to work long hours for low wages. And so these robber barons exploited the huddled masses of Europe to buy up its treasures.

Morgan_Beatus

But it is difficult to be indignant for very long when you are looking at such beautiful books. The Morgan Beatus, for example, is a brilliantly illuminated copy of the Commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Liébana, with bright yellows and reds and oranges, showing us a world redeemed and a world aflame. Then there is the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, a wonderful example of gothic illumination. As with so many other illuminated manuscripts, the mind boggles at the amount of time it would have taken to paint a single one of these ornate pages, much less a whole book of them. An example of this is the Farnese Hours, illuminated by Giulio Clovio over a period of nine years. Clovio was a friend of the young El Greco, during his early years in Italy, and the Greek painter created a portrait of the old Italian master, pointing to this masterpiece of Renaissance illumination. The book was completed in 1546, 100 years after the Gutenberg Bible was printed, already the waning years of the art of illumination.

Farnese_hours

Still more exciting than these beautiful books, for me, were the original manuscripts on display. These are the notebooks and pieces of paper where authors and composers first wrote down their masterpieces. Among these is Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with his edits still preserved, as well as nine novels by Sir Walter Scott, including Ivanhoe. Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Lord Byron, and William Makepeace Thackeray also are in attendance; and in music there are handwritten examples from Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and even Bob Dylan (the latter obviously not acquired during Morgan’s lifetime). It is thrilling to see the preserved handwriting of these men (and yes, they are mostly men), since they can appear so unreal behind the printed page. The artists become living, working, fallible souls when you can see them scribbling and scratching out. Even the most iconic works of art were the process of trial and error.

I must say that I was stupefied by the end of my visit. The collection had exceeded my every expectation. Few places are as inspiring as a beautiful library. The museum is a magnificent tribute to the ways that we have preserved and transmitted our culture—in all its manifold facets. From the Babylonian cylinder seals to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” humans continue to scribble, print, draw, paint, and inscribe our art and ideas for the benefit of people in distant times and faraway places.

But there was still one more thing to see. The Morgan has a temporary exhibition space, and when I visited this was dedicated to an exhibit on Henry David Thoreau. This was a stroke of luck, since I had recently finished rereading Walden.

Thoreau

Considering the scanty possessions that Thoreau left behind, the exposition was astonishingly complete. There was Thoreau’s writing desk, over a dozen volumes of Thoreau’s diaries, and Thoreau’s walking stick (notched so that he could measure things on his walks). Also present was every original photograph (there are only two, admittedly) taken of the man. The exhibit was filled with information about his life and extracts of his journals. Seeing his humble collections gathered all in a heap—his scribbled and illegible handwriting, his beat up desk, his pocket-sized images—spoke more eloquently of his life’s project than all the fanciful phrases he ever assembled. And just as with the original manuscripts, seeing his original possessions helped to turn Thoreau from a distant voice into a living, breathing person.

Quotes & Commentary #54: Goethe

Quotes & Commentary #54: Goethe

I have, alas, studied philosophy, / Jurisprudence and medicine too, / And, worst of all, theology / With keen endeavor, through and through— / And here I am, for all my lore, / The wretched fool I was before.

—Goethe, Faust

For many years now I have been an avid autodidact. I have, alas, studied philosophy, ancient and modern, analytic and continental. I have read tomes of history and slogged my way through old poems and enormous novels. I have slammed my intellect against textbooks—physics, chemistry, psychology, economics—often to no avail. Theology, biography, books in foreign tongues, collections of essays and classics of science—I have read them all.

And yet, despite all this, a feeling of ignorance, utter and hopeless ignorance, often plagues me. And this feeling is not entirely illusory. After all, there are still huge swaths of knowledge of which I have not the faintest idea. How does a computer work? What about the history of China, Russia, India, Latin America? How do you grow corn or build a house? How do lithium batteries or Wi-Fi work? The world around me is still, in large part, mysterious. And even if I spend my whole life investigating, there simply isn’t enough time to learn it all.

This bothers me. Partially it is a feeling of being inauthentic. How can I be a citizen of a world I don’t understand? How can I act intelligently and make wise choices if so much is beyond my grasp? One need not be omniscient to live authentically, of course; and partial knowledge, being the best we mortals can ever achieve, is what we must work with. Still, it does seem that the more complex the world becomes, as the global economy weaves more and more lives into a tighter knot, the more we must learn in order to achieve even a basic understanding of the ramifications of our lives.

Thoreau felt this, I think, which is what drove him into the woods. At least there, living simply and in relative isolation, he could hope to come to grips with his world. In our post-industrial society, this is simply impossible. Take, for example, the desk that my computer is sitting on. The top is made of wood. Where was the tree cut down, where was the wood cut up, and who did this? What chemical process was used to dye the wood? And the metal legs: What kind of metal is it, where does it come from, how was it put together? Hundreds of people must have had a hand in this simple table, from its beginning as a tree, to the factory, to the truck that transported it, and the shop that finally sold it.

And this is just a table. Multiplied by all the objects in your life, you can get some idea of how enmeshed you are in relationships and technologies that you do not, and cannot, completely understand. I think this feeling of being ignorant of the sources of your own possessions, the fabric of your daily life, is part of what drives me to read.

The table example only touches on the social world. What about questions about the natural world? How does my body work, and why does it have the shape it has? Where did the universe come from and what are its properties? What is the fundamental truth of things? What is the order of reality? Human science has done an astoundingly successful job in tackling these questions. Indeed, it is by far the most successful example of human intellectual efforts. Even so, the world we have discovered is so amazingly complex that no one mind could understand it all. You have to specialize, and study for years, to hope to deeply understand even one part of it. As for the rest, we must settle for simplified versions, popular accounts, sketchy outlines. And even with this recourse, we must still learn continuously if we hope to survey everything.

The vastness of available knowledge, then, is another reason why I read. But there is still a deeper reason. This has to do with what might be called ‘existential’ questions, questions about the meaning and purpose of life. What does it mean to be good? What does it mean for a society to be just? Why are we here, what should we be doing? Questions like these driver seekers into the arms of poets, philosophers, and preachers. These are the questions that have been asked most persistently by our benighted species. We have been hoping to find our place in the universe since the very beginning. And yet, it is these questions that most trenchantly resist final answers.

Seen in this way, the quest for knowledge may seem hopeless. We may end up feeling like Faust, bitter and disappointed, after a lifetime of effort for negligible results. The utter hopelessness of this search is what, I think drives some into religions, where God serves as a universal explanation and justification, for everything and anything. It drove Faust in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, the impossibility of total knowledge or final answers does not mean that we cannot achieve adequate knowledge and workable answers. Our history, our philosophy, literature, and science, has clearly proven otherwise. So instead of being bitter like Faust and selling our soul to some deity or devil, we should embrace the endlessness of the quest. After all, the world would be terribly boring if we could know everything about it.