Review: Rameau’s Nephew & D’Alembert’s Dream

Review: Rameau’s Nephew & D’Alembert’s Dream

Rameau's Nephew / d'Alembert's DreamRameau’s Nephew / d’Alembert’s Dream by Denis Diderot

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The best order of things, to my way of thinking, is the one I was meant to be part of, and to hell with the most perfect of worlds if I am not of it.

With this book, I come to the third member of the triumvirate of the French enlightenment. While Diderot’s writing may lack the sharp wit of Voltaire and the soaring lyricism of Rousseau, Diderot is nevertheless just as interesting and perhaps more lovable than his two more famous contemporaries. For Diderot maintained a childlike curiosity and an excitement for ideas that makes his writing straightforwardly pleasant, without any of Voltaire’s satiric malice or Rousseau’s paranoid egotism. It is interesting to note that, though Diderot was a widely respected writer during his lifetime, his most daring and original works, such as these two dialogues, remained unpublished until well after his death. It takes talent to be both a conventional and an unconventional genius.

Rameau’s Nephew, in addition to its philosophical content, is remarkable simply as literature. It consists of a dialogue between a philosopher (who most assume to be Diderot) and the nephew of the famous composer, Jean-Philippe Rameau, who is an eccentric, ne’er-do-well, moocher, bohemian sort of fellow, whose ostensible profession is to give music lessons, but who really makes his living by playing the fool and flattering rich patrons. The conversation takes many twists and turns, which gives Diderot the opportunity to include some barbs against his rivals and enemies. Indeed, it is difficult to say that any topic is the main focus of the conversation, since—as in reality—the speakers break off on tangents, bring up and drop points, interrupt each other and themselves, and so on. This veracity of Diderot’s representation, and the excellent portrait of a hedonist living on the edge of respectable society, give the dialogue a literary value independent of any intellectual considerations. On a philosophical level, what mainly interested me was the confrontation of a virtuous philosopher with a selfish nihilist.

D’Alembert’s Dream is a more strictly philosophical exercise, detailing Diderot’s materialistic theory of biology. His main contention is that all matter is sensitive, or at least potentially sensitive, and thus no mind or soul is needed to explain life, movement, memory, sensation, or thought. Though this hypothesis mainly consists of armchair theorizing, which may sound very facile in the light of serious research, Diderot does put forward a hazy idea of evolution in this dialogue. What is more, in his notion of characteristics disappearing for several generations, and then reappearing, he also hazily hits upon Mendel. Not content to simply write an essay, Diderot puts all this in the mouth of his fellow encyclopedist D’Alembert (who spends most of the dialogue talking in his sleep), Mlle de Lespinasse (a close friend of D’Alembert who hosted a famous salon), and a doctor that serves as Diderot’s mouthpiece. D’Alembert and Mlle de Lespinasse were understandably upset when they heard about this (especially considering that the dialogue ends with a ringing endorsement of masturbation), and even compelled Diderot to burn the manuscript, but another one (in the possession of Grimm) survived.

As I put the book down, I find myself wishing I could spend more time in the company of Diderot, whose writing is warm and direct, witty but not showy, intellectual but not pretentious, daring but not wilfully provocative. It is amazing that one man could find the time to write literary classics while keeping his day job as the editor of the Encyclopédie and a popular playwright.

View all my reviews

Review: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

Review: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

Cutting Through Spiritual MaterialismCutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We do not consider how we are going to vomit; we just vomit.

Chögyam Trungpa was a charismatic and controversial figure in the Western popularization of Buddhism. As a teenager in Tibet, Trungpa fled the Chinese in an escape that involved swimming across a river under gunfire, climbing the Himalayas, and running so short of food that he had to eat his leather belt and bag. Eventually he emigrated to the United States, where he founded several schools, and pioneered a secular interpretation of Buddhism, Shambhala Training. You may be surprised to learn that Trungpa, far from being an ascetic monk, also had notorious penchants for bedding his female students and for going on drunken debauches.

My interest in Trungpa was sparked by reading a book on meditation by his disciple, Pema Chödrön, which I thought was excellent. Spiritual Materialism, Trungpa’s most famous book, contains two series of lectures Trungpa gave, in 1970-71, about the pitfalls of the spiritual path and how to overcome them. As such, this series of lectures is largely theoretical rather than practical—how to think about the spiritual path rather than what to do once you’re on it—even if there are practical ramifications.

‘Spiritual materialism’ is Trungpa’s term for the ways that the ego co-opts spirituality for its own benefit. ‘Ego’ is our sense of self. In Buddhist thought, this sense of self is illusory; the self is a process, not a thing. Ego is the mind’s attempt to create an illusion of solidity where none exists. Put another way, ‘ego’ is the mind’s attempt to reject impermanence.

This attempt takes many forms. We modify our environment, manipulating the material world and bringing it under our control, in order to create a perfectly comfortable world that never challenges or disappoints us. We create intellectual systems—positivism, nationalism, Buddhism—that rationalize and explain the world, that define our place in the world and dictate to us rules of action. We also attempt to analyze ourselves: we use literature, psychology, drugs, prayer, and meditation to achieve a sense of self-consciousness, an awareness of who we are. All of these are the ego’s attempts to solidify both itself and its world, to see the universe as a series of defined shapes rather than an endless flux.

This project of solidification can even use spiritual techniques in its own benefit. The goal of meditation is the dissolution of the ego and the absence of struggle. And yet many who embark on the spiritual path see meditation as a battle with the ego, an attempt to break certain habits, to overcome certain mentalities, to free themselves from illusions. If spirituality is seen in such a way—as ‘you’ against ‘something else’—then you will hit a wall; and this wall will only get stronger the harder you push against it. Only when you give up trying to destroy this wall, when you stop struggling, does the wall disappear; for the wall was the product of your own ‘dualistic’ thinking—once again, ‘you’ against ‘something else’—and ceases to exist when you stop trying to destroy it:

“There is no need to struggle to be free; the absence of struggle is in itself freedom. This egoless state is the attainment of buddhahood.”

It is no use, therefore, to practice acts of extreme asceticism, forceful acts of self-denial. It is no use to try to overcome your own negative qualities—to strive to be good, kind, caring, loving. It is no use to accumulate vast amounts of religious knowledge; nor is it beneficial to accumulate religious titles or honorifics. True spirituality is not a battle, not a quality, not an ultimate analysis, and it is not an accomplishment. All of those things belong to a person, whereas enlightenment contains no sense of me and not-me.

This is my best attempt to summarize the core message of this book. (And please excuse the ponderous style; I’ve been reading Hegel.) Yet I’m not exactly sure how to go about analyzing or evaluating it. Indeed, such criticism seems totally antithetical to the ethos of this book. But I’ll try, nevertheless.

There is an obvious contradiction between Trungpa’s stance on intellectual analysis—as the ego’s vain attempt to solidify its world through intellectual work—and the analysis that he himself undertakes in this book. If all analysis is vain, what makes his any different? To this, I think he would respond that analysis is fine if we take the right attitude towards it—namely, as long as we keep in mind that our analysis is not identical with the reality it attempts to describe, that we can never describe reality perfectly, and that there’s always a chance we are wrong. More succinctly, I think he’d say analysis is fine as long as we don’t take it too seriously. By his own admission, there is no ‘final analysis’ of the human condition; and enlightenment is characterized by the absence of any need to analyze.

Still, there does seem to be the idea in Trungpa’s system that, in attaining this ego-less state, we are experiencing the ‘truth’ of reality, whereas before we were mired in the ‘illusions’ of the ego. In this, you might say that the system is esoteric: true knowledge is the purview of only the truly enlightened. True knowledge, in other words, is not transmissible through speech, but is the result of privileged state which only a few achieve. Bodhisattvas become authorities through their enlightened states, beings who must be listened to because of their special, higher perspectives. Again, I think Trungpa would respond that even the ideas of ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ are dualistic (they involves the sense of ‘me’ knowing ‘something else’), and thus this idea is not applicable to the enlightened.

Putting all this aside, it’s worth asking whether this ego-less state is even desirable. Could we have science, technology, literature, or love without a sense of self? An ego-less world might involve less suffering; but isn’t there something to be said for suffering? Trungpa describes the ego as a monkey creating various worlds—creating for itself its own heaven and hell, a world of animal desire and human intellect—and moving through these self-created worlds in a vain search for perfect happiness, only to have each of its own worlds collapse in turn. And yet, even if I accepted Trungpa’s premise that this struggle is vain, I still think it’s an open question whether perfect tranquility is preferable to vain struggle.

All reservations notwithstanding, I still thought that this book was an enlightening read. While I may be skeptical about the prospect of enlightenment and ego-death, I do think that meditation, as a method of slowing down, of savoring one’s own mental life, and of learning to accept the world around you, is an extremely useful technique. And as a technique, its end is an experience—or perhaps, better yet, an attitude—and the theory that goes along with meditation does not constitute its substance; rather, theory is just a pedagogical tool to help guide less experienced practitioners. It is in this light, I think, that these lectures should be read.

View all my reviews

Review: How to Live, a Life of Montaigne

Review: How to Live, a Life of Montaigne

How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an AnswerHow to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It had the perfect commercial combination: startling originality and easy classification.

With the state of the world—especially of the United States—growing more unsettling and absurd by the day, I felt a need to return to Montaigne, the sanest man in history. Luckily, I had Bakewell’s book tucked away in the event of any crisis of this kind; and I’m happy to report it did take the edge off.

How to Live is a beguiling mixture. While purportedly a biography of Montaigne, it is also, as many reviewers have noted, a biography of Montaigne’s Essays, tracking how they have been reread and reinterpreted in the centuries since their publication. This double-biography is structured as a series of answers to the question: How to live? In the hands of a less able writer, this organizational principle could easily have become a cheap, tacky gimmick; but Bakewell’s skill and taste allow the book to transcend biography into philosophy—or, at the very least, into self-help.

Bakewell herself is hardly a Montaignesque writer. Her prose is disciplined and controlled; and though she must weave philosophy, history, literary criticism, and biography into a coherent narrative, she keeps her material on a tight rein. While Montaigne serves as the “massive gravitational core” of his own essays, holding all the disparate topics together by the force of his personality, Bakewell herself is mostly absent from these pages. Instead, she gives us a loving portrait of Montaigne—the man, his times, and his book. And this was especially interesting for me, since Montaigne, despite writing reams about himself, never manages to give his readers a coherent picture of his life or his society. Bakewell’s book is thus most recommended as a compliment to Montaigne’s Essays, providing a background for Montaigne’s rambles.

Montaigne himself was interesting enough. Best-selling author; modern-day sage; dissatisfied lawyer; literary executor for his deceased friend, Étienne de la Boétie; translator of the obscure theologian, Raymond Sebond; and the reluctant mayor of Bordeaux: Montaigne wore many hats, and most of them well. He even played an important role in the negotiations and maneuverings that took place after the death of Henri III over the question of succession. Today, however, Montaigne is remembered more for his painful descriptions of his kidney stones than his political accomplishments.

The career of Montaigne’s reception was, for me, even more interesting than the story of his life. At first, he was interpreted as a later-day Stoic sage, a Seneca for the sixteenth century. In the next generation, both Pascal and Descartes didn’t like him, the former because Montaigne was too cheerful, the latter because he was too comfortable with uncertainty. The philosophes were fond of Montaigne’s secularism, though they had a very different conception of good prose. Rousseau and the romantics liked Montaigne for his praise of naturalness, his fondness for exotic customs, and his exploration of his own personality. Later, more puritanical generations chided Montaigne for his open attitude towards sex and his detached attitude toward society. Nowadays Montaigne is seen as a prophet of the postmodern, with his emphasis on shifting perspectives and the subjectivism of truth.

As far as Montaigne’s pieces of advice go, I’m happy to report that I was already putting most of them into practice. I don’t worry too much about death (no. 1), I like to travel (no. 14), and, to the best of my knowledge, I have been born (no. 3). I am particularly adept at number 4, “Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted,” though I’m still working on number 13, “Do something no one has done before.” Well, as much as I’d like to be original, I’m happy following in Montaigne’s footsteps; indeed, I agree with Bakewell in thinking that Montaigne’s example is more useful now than ever. I will let her have the final word:

The twenty-first century has everything to gain from a Montaignean sense of life, and, in its most troubled moments so far, it has been sorely in need of a Montaignean politics. It could use his sense of moderation, his love of sociability and courtesy, his suspension of judgment, and his subtle understanding of the psychological mechanisms involved in confrontation and conflict. It needs his conviction that no vision of heaven, no imagined Apocalypse, and no perfectionist fantasy can ever outweigh the tiniest of selves in the real world.

View all my reviews

Review: How to Meditate

Review: How to Meditate

How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your MindHow to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind by Pema Chödrön

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Enlightenment isn’t about going someplace else or attaining something that we don’t have right now. Enlightenment is when the blinders start to come off.

When I was in high school, I spent a few years going to Tae Kwon Do classes. I was never any good. Every time we had sparring practice, I got whooped—that is, unless I accidentally kicked my opponent in the crotch (which I did a lot). But besides the fun of hand-to-hand combat, one thing that kept me coming back was the meditation. After every class, we would spend about ten minutes in a guided meditation. These were not easy. Most often, the master had us holding an uncomfortable or difficult pose, until all my muscles were quivering and shaking and I collapsed.

Sometimes all I felt was pain and struggle; but other times, something would happen. As I listened to the master talk about energy flowing through my body, I could actually feel it. I felt strange forces in my arms and legs, seeming to move through me. This was weird, since I didn’t believe anything the master was saying—at least not in a literal way. I didn’t believe in qi, or energy centers in the body, or any of that stuff; but I felt something, and it was interesting.

This experience left me with a lingering respect for and curiosity about meditation. A book by David D. Burns about anxiety recently reawakened this curiosity. As I read about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I kept thinking that it reminded me of what I knew (or thought I knew) about Buddhism. Besides that, Burns himself drew some parallels with Buddhism in his discussions of fear. So I decided to look into it. A Buddhist friend of mine suggested Pema Chödrön as a place to start; and this book, a practical guide to meditation, seemed perfect.

I was surprised by what I found. The type of meditation Chödrön advocates doesn’t involve holding difficult postures or enduring pain. You don’t even have to close your eyes. Instead, you find a spot, sit up straight, cross your legs (or don’t), and stay there, eyes open, breathing in and breathing out. You don’t focus on energy centers or the cosmic flow of qi. Instead, you just try to focus on your breath. You breathe in, breathe out, and try to keep your attention on the present moment.

I have been doing these exercises for a week now, and I can tell you that being present, focusing on the moment, is far more difficult than you’d think. My mind is like a boiling, bubbling cauldron. Memories randomly appear; fearful fantasies flash into being; my to-do list nags me; an itch on my head irritates; my leg’s falling asleep; a sound triggers an association; a smell makes me think of food; and spasms of impatience surge through me as the time wares on.

Meditation certainly hasn’t induced a Zen-like calm in me so far. But it says a lot that now I’m aware of all these things. Just sitting there noticing what happens in my head, and letting it all pass through me, has been tremendously interesting. I realize that my very brain is not totally under my control. Things are always happening in there, constantly, spontaneously, which draw my attention from the moment; and it takes effort not to get sucked in.

One of the things I like most about Chödrön’s approach is its versatility. You can make anything your object of meditation. You can focus on sounds, sights, tactile sensations, or the taste of an apple. You can focus on fear, anger, sadness, joy, on fantasies or memories. Anything in your life can be the object of meditation, as long as you use it as an opportunity to reconnect with the present moment. Meditation gives you the self-awareness—not through conceptual discussion, but first-hand experience—to learn what your mind is doing and how to interrupt your habitual patterns.

What I find especially appealing is the philosophy. Well, perhaps “philosophy” isn’t the right word; it’s more of an attitude or a mindset. Through the attempt to reconnect with the moment, you realize how much of your experience is transformed by the conceptual overlay you put on top of it. Our heads are full of judgments, opinions, beliefs. We are constantly telling stories about our lives, with ourselves as the protagonist.

Have you ever had an experience like this? When I was in college, I accepted a job doing surveys over the phone. But I was extremely nervous about it. I imagined respondent after respondent yelling at me, hanging up on me, and my manager angry at me and chastising me, and me having a breakdown and getting fired. This fantasy was so strong, I almost couldn’t make myself go to my first day of work. But when I finally did make myself go, shivering with fear, and when I finally made myself call, my voice quaking, I realized that I could do it. What seemed impossible in my imagination was easy in reality. In fact, I ended up loving that job.

This is what I like to call the “novelistic imagination.” Your mind is a natural dramatist—at least, mine is—and it can tell the most outrageous stories about your past, present, and future. But the interesting thing, I’ve found, is that we’re actually quite bad at imagining how things will be. We’re good at imagining possibilities—especially worst-case scenarios—but bad at imagining experiences. That’s because, when we use our novelistic imagination, we assume that life is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. But life is not a story: it’s a collection of moments. And the present moment is so different, and so much richer, than all the wild fantasies in our minds.

My hunch is that we evolved our novelistic imagination as a way of avoiding danger by running scenarios. “If I go so far away, maybe I won’t be back by sundown, and the hyenas over there might smell me, etc.” The problem is that this gets out of hand, which is why we humans get so many stress-related diseases—not to mention suffer from chronic anxiety. We developed the mental faculty to anticipate danger and avoid it; but we can’t turn it off, so we sense danger everywhere.

This is taking me pretty far from the book (so you know it’s a good book, because it’s making me think). I’ll only add that this book strikes me as an ideal introduction to meditation. Chödrön writes with warmth, humor, and understanding. She is brief and to the point, but you don’t feel that she’s leaving anything out. She is practical, encouraging, and inspiring. I encourage anyone whose curious to try it. You can be a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Muslim, or an atheist like me—it doesn’t matter. Meditation is not about believing certain things. To the contrary: it’s about getting past your beliefs about the world, and experiencing the world itself.

View all my reviews