The Idiot (Hakuchi, 1951), Kurosawa’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot (1868-69), opens with a snowy, murky image of the smokestack of a steamer on its way to Hokkaido. According to the script, this is a ferry taking passengers from Aomori to Hakodate on a December night of one of the postwar years which could be placed anywhere between 1945 and 1951. Within seconds the image is invaded by the sound of a foghorn and swallowed up by clouds of steam. The next shot is a close-up of an ice-covered porthole with worn shoes stuck on the sill – a telling detail of the harsh and shoddy conditions of postwar transportation. The camera meanders slowly downstairs, tracking the angled bars of a banister through which one glimpses a crowd of sleeping passengers spread across the floor of the lower deck. The sudden glimpse of a chaotic mass of prone and prostrate bodies cannot but evoke memories of war: dead bodies left on a battlefield, wounded bodies in a hospital at a military camp, or bodies numb with fear, cowering in bomb shelters. In 1951, an overcrowded underdeck would have vividly reminded viewers of the frantic escape of Japanese settlers from China and other colonial territories in anticipation of the allied armies’ arrival. The overcrowded trains of the South Manchuria Railway and ferry transports from Dalian to Japan stayed embedded in cultural memory as desperately chaotic passageways to survival.Continue reading
The MLA invited me to contest the position of Second Vice President this year. Why not, I said, and then learned that the two other nominees were dear friends of mine– so I can go into this election, unlike most of the elections I vote in, knowing that no outcome is undesirable.
The MLA asked me for a statement of professional concerns. Hoo boy, do I ever have some! But they limited my statement to 250 words. Here’s the statement as it stood before I cut it down. There are a lot of things to fix or grouse about, both in the Association and the world it inhabits, but have a look at my shortlist.
The MLA is a hybrid of learned society and professional organization. A learned society exists to advance the interchange of ideas through meetings and publications; a professional organization exists to advance the collective practical interests of a professional group. In good times, the liveliness of discourse and the growth of the profession seem to be two aspects of a single process, and membership in the guild affords access to both; but in hard times, that bond weakens. I hear from my students, who have been facing a remarkably scanty job market for years, that they plan to join the MLA when they have a professional foothold—not, as before, in order to get one. How can we give them a better reason to join and stay?
It is no secret that the career of language and letters, the rise of which was contemporary with the founding of the MLA, is under material threat for reasons beyond our control. Budget-cutting legislatures, boards of trustees influenced by newspaper accounts of the futility of humanities degrees, administrators tempted to balance the books by hiring adjuncts rather than regular faculty, and now heavy-handed attempts by politicians to prescribe what may or may not be taught in schools and colleges make it hard to predict that a viable number of young scholars will enjoy freedom of research and secure employment a generation from now. At such a time the professional organization’s purposes must be manifested clearly.
I look forward to working with the MLA’s staff and membership in arguing for the value of humanistic knowledge. Of primary urgency is combating bans on books, subject matter, and styles of scholarship. We must join other organizations in defending colleagues and programs that defy racial and gender biases inscribed in law and society. But beyond negating the negation, we must put forth and advocate a vision of the good in matters of culture. Some years ago, in the midst of the Bush wars, I was honored to be a member of the committee that published “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World” (Profession, 2007). We demonstrated the benefits of expanding and diversifying the teaching of other languages, ranging from recognizing the value of immigrant communities to lowering the antagonism of political discourse. It is time to revisit these questions, and others.
For the values to be defended are not exclusively tied to foreign language learning, but encompass all facets of reading, debate, critique, and information access. Book bans endanger the very possibility of an informed public. Conscious and persistent lying by political figures undermines the idea of deliberative democracy. Xenophobic myths flatter a public that wants to externalize blame and sees difference as a threat. Defunding cuts off the development of talent and curiosity. We need to counter these threats with such powers as we have: the knowledge of language, semantics, rhetoric, composition, translation, and our readiness to listen to every kind of speech community. I think these powers are adequate to fuel a lasting resistance to narrow-mindedness and exclusion.
E poi basta. A bon entendeur salut.
Tracy Kidder heard Paul say it, and so did I: “he murmured something about how much could be done in Haiti if only he could get his hands on the money that the first world spent on pet grooming.”
Pet grooming? According to the Census Bureau,
The pet care services industry (NAICS code 812910) includes services such as grooming, boarding, training and pet sitting. It does not include veterinary services, boarding horses, transporting pets, pet food or other pet supplies.
With over 100,000 pet care service businesses, this industry increased its number of establishments by more than 60% since 2007, for both employer businesses and self-employed (nonemployer) businesses.
I propose a Paul Farmer Index. Let a percentage of pet-grooming expenses be set aside every year to build free hospitals and clinics for the poor. Get your pets professionally groomed, the more often the better! The best-looking pets will then indeed be man’s best friend and not humanity’s most adorable competitors.
Formalized in 1952 by the United States Congress, people are asked “to turn to God in prayer and meditation.” The president is required by law to sign a proclamation each year, encouraging all Americans to pray on this day (Shouldn’t we all be praying everyday?) – my synagogue newsletter
While I myself pray, I think that the dismissal of those who do not and do not want to is problematic.
Some people dislike God to the point of active hatred. I knew several Holocaust survivors for whom this was the case. God’s inaction severed the covenant. There are others who believe in a faith called maltheism, in which God is real but is the enemy of all mankind, serving to maximize humanity’s agony and frustration. None of these people should be compelled by legislative injunction to “pray to a God who does not save,” as the Alenu puts it. Jews are pluralists out of necessity, lest our rights be trampled on by the much larger majority. We should not try to visit compliance on this much smaller minority.
Yours, Jonathan Cohen
Talking yesterday about a colleague, a friend let slip this formula: “He never says No to a subject, but he’ll debate anything.”
I salute the birth of a sister blog: Barbarism as Method, animated by Elvin Meng. If you heard an echo of Asia as Method (Takeuchi Yoshimi, Chen Kuan-hsing) and of Barbarolexis (Alexandre Leupin), you’re in the right neighborhood. You’ll find intensely material attention paid to old books in languages few speak, with interludes on the Book of Changes, monks with guitars (okay, qins), and dogs that do and don’t bark.
I sometimes think the promise of the Internet faltered at the precise moment when people deserted blogs for the shorter, easier, and often non-verbal communication of FB, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok and so forth. If a few brave scribblers are ready to get back on the leaky vessel of the blog, that’s a good sign. You have enough space in a blog to say something that goes beyond the knee-jerk, and may even involve such turn signals as “But,” “however,” “nonetheless,” “considering that…” and “At the end of the day.” And if you are moved to add a comment, it had better bear comparison with the foregoing, or you’ll feel that you showed up to the party with nothing but an empty trick-or-treat sack. So join the party. In the words of the Book of Songs,
“Yo yo” cry the deer
As they feed on wild bracken.
I have a noble guest:
With harps and strings sound the welcome!
I am not learned as Mr. Sholom Auslander is. I never had the opportunity to go to a yeshiva; the closest was my synagogue’s Hebrew School. But, yes, God does and has done many disagreeable things. In 1670, Baruch Spinoza wrote a book on this subject that Clarence Darrow might have cribbed for his arguments in The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. It is not commonly read these days.
Strangely, people often do not get the God they deserve. Our history is of brutality, persecution, and wars of annihilation (see the Book of Joshua). Our Hebrew Bible speaks in the idioms of violence and comfort; retributive, collective violence, as flashy as a Dirty Harry movie, that drives Mr. Auslander’s classmates wild; comfort in a time when God should be helping human beings pick up the pieces, but is instead smashing the pieces into dust.
When the verse “Pour out thy wrath” comes in the Haggadah, it is an expression of frustration and disappointment that God has not saved us by doing violent deeds on our behalf. It is a wish for a Dirty Harry end to history, where God strikes down the wicked one by one, with a witticism every time. We still have such wishes. 25% of Republicans and 15% of Democrats believe that this country can only return to a true path by exterminating the members of the other party. The two numbers flip every time the Presidency changes party. This is a very Godly solution.
The other solution is Moshiach, whom the Passover Seder prefigures. When God slays the Angel of Death, it may spark in Him a change of heart. The late Rabbi Steinsaltz, in his book on the Lubavitcher Rebbe, says that the Messianic Era will mark a period when the world gets so much better that a couple of decades later, it will segue into the World to Come. All the unfinished business about what God did and what we did will be dropped in favor of love. It will be a universal armistice and reparation. We know that God can act as we do. Still, can’t we posit that we both could learn before it’s too late, before there are no more human beings in the human experiment?
P.S. – If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the argumentum ab intra — the meteorologist who doesn’t believe in wind, the infectious disease doctor who doesn’t believe in vaccines, and, yes, the favorite of the evangelical chicken dinner circuit, the Jewish convert to Christianity who explains why Judaism isn’t “true” from his “insider” perspective. Even though Mr. Auslander has the unrestricted right to denounce his own faith and become an apostate, I worry that Jews and non-Jews alike will get his message but not the context. “Turn it around, turn it around, for everything is in it,” said Rabbi ben Bag-Bag, referring to the Torah. It is all in there, good and bad.
I went to Johns Hopkins the other day to give a talk about what I chose to call “Medical Humanity” (the singular was intentional). One paragraph from the talk, I think, gets the point across:
Taking a phrase from his Haitian interlocutors, Paul often spoke of “stupid deaths”— deaths brought about by human negligence, fecklessness, miserliness, obstinacy, and the like. Death comes to us all, of course, but the point is to forestall the avoidable deaths. Medicine in the immediate sense and in the larger sense of social medicine tries to do that. But are any deaths not stupid? Attempting to fix a meaning on a death is a task that should be approached with the utmost forbearance and caution. But from Gilgamesh on, the job of the humanities has been to surround death with auras of potential meaning. If we who deal in words and images and ideas are unable to hold off stupid deaths, we can at least avert the stupidity of those deaths. Pluck the flowers from the chains, my fellow humanists! Our assumption should rather be that all deaths are stupid, consummately stupid, until proven otherwise.
43 years of friendship have at least taught me that much.
“Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?”
Two empiricists meet in the street. One says, “The sun came up this morning!” The other replies, “Well, you don’t see that every day.”
(from a dream)
I realize that Anna Netrebko is to her country what Elizabeth Schwartzkopf was to hers, but can you imagine if the Soviets had asked Van Cliburn to denounce Eisenhower as a condition of his playing at the Tschaikovsky Competition?
[Commenters elsewhere have pointed out that in the Cliburn example, there was no American “inciting event” on the scale of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I would call these events Operation Hardtack, large-scale U.S. ground testing of nuclear weapons rising to a record high in 1958, and Operation Argus, exo-atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons to in future knock out Soviet air and space defenses. (Operation Argus worked in some respects, but it seeded the continental U.S. with radioactive fallout.)]
This country has learned nothing about nuclear brinksmanship in the past seventy years. 1956: the Hungarians overthrow the USSR puppet government, and Soviet tanks go right back to crush the Hungarians and re-install the puppets. The United States does nothing; Hungary is not worth setting the world on fire. 1968: Roughly the same thing happens in Czechoslovakia. The United States does nothing; Czechoslovakia is not worth setting the world on fire. And then there’s now, where the predictable decision is being made, aided by Putin’s declaration that he will launch if conventional forces arrayed against him seem like they’re going to win. We spent how many millions on RAND and the War Colleges for them not to have come up with an answer for this?
Yes, I’ve heard about the benefits of statesmanly multilateralism. All I can say is that if it doesn’t work before Ukraine is destroyed, it gets the President the “He Kept Us Out Of War” medal, which is what Woodrow Wilson got, and no better.
Today’s headline: “Facing up to the worst-case scenario: Ukraine becomes Syria, and Russia becomes North Korea.” (Article by Piotr Smolar)
At one point in my childhood, records were being played backwards and speculations were rife about a certain pedestrian photographed crossing the street outside the Abbey Road Studios barefoot.
Now the question that agitated us then has a different referent. One much more important for me. I can’t adjust to the loss of the sole person to whom, for 43 years, I could tell everything, try out any stupid idea, appeal for a reality check or an ethics consult.
I am at a loss. Lost in loss.
The ethnic entrepreneurs are at it again! Now a bunch of blackshirts are parading outside a Boston hospital protesting that social justice measures amount to “anti-White genocide.”
I am proud to have such goons as enemies. Genocide, shmenocide. Wouldn’t want them on my side in any case. Even as insecticide.
Let me tell you about tigers, said Zigong. If you shave the hair off it, a tiger or panther skin is no different from a dog’s or sheep’s.
This little moment from the Analects must reflect a prior debate about the kinds of things that bothered the thinkers of 5th-C BCE China. There were those who insisted that if only people followed the rituals of the ancients, and made sure that all the definitions were reflected in actual practices, things would be just dandy. And there were those who sneered at the archaizers as being mere specialists in smells and bells, with no grip on reality (economics, warfare, policy). Two words served as rallying flags in the polarized debate: 質 or substance, and 文 or pattern. In the way such debates around slogans go, everyone was getting stupider by the minute, trying to insult the other side by calling them aesthetes or cavemen, depending on where you started.
Zigong thought of an example that rebuked all of them alike for thinking that they could separate substance from pattern, pattern from substance. A panther’s or tiger’s skin is beautiful, conveys majesty, is worth a lot– but if you were so nihilistic as to shave it bare (removing the evidence of its stripy or spotty patterns), it would be no different from a dog’s skin, and only a fool would do that. The world had not yet advanced to the stage where the possessors of tiger skins would shave them defensively, to avoid being accused of wearing something finer than dog skin. In Zigong’s world, the reminder not to lose sight of what makes for distinction was enough.
I wish you all a happy year of the Tiger, and patterns commensurate with your substance.
Now that state legislatures are lining up to ban books and forbid teaching on the history of inequality in the US (including such troubling topics as slavery, sale of persons, segregation, lynching, and the creation of an underclass with its attendant phantasms), I’ve identified a new career path for myself. For the fulcrum of the issue seems to be “white discomfort,” the fear that knowing the truth about our society and its past might make some people feel bad about themselves. And on that, I have specialized, intimate knowledge!
Most likely, the nightmare scenario is that an angry Black person (other ethnicities eligible as well) will appear, in person or as the narrative voice of a book, and cause the lily-white children seated in the classroom to feel accused or critiqued. Maybe, for many people, this has never happened before. Maybe they would like to prevent it from happening. Well, if an actual Black person is too scary, let me propose myself as a witness to the very discomfort they want to avoid.
Hi! I am a white southerner whose family has been here for over 300 years. You can guess what that means. I have been through the classic stages: obliviousness (it was just the way the world was), recognition (huh! I get to occupy this position in life without having done anything to earn it? that’s weird), rationalization (surely it’s never been so bad, people do exaggerate, maybe the conditions are changing, perhaps there is something worth preserving in the old ways after all), abandonment (no, there was nothing in that system worth keeping, and if I can’t completely eradicate its traces in me, I can start other people on the path of vigilance). The things to avoid are complaining and bragging, the two chief ingredients in social-media personality. Consider how much better life can be if you don’t have anything to brag about and are reluctant to complain! In other words, if you put acknowledgment of wrong forward and don’t expect people to admire you for it. I can reassure the anxious white folk that there will still be room in the world for them after they have embarked on the anti-racist journey, that it will lead them to a better and less paranoid worldview, and that being able to set that horror at a distance will give them kinds of peace that they can never attain by protesting against the very possibility of self-knowledge.
I haven’t taught Descartes for twenty-odd years. When I pulled down my book I was intrigued to see in the margins of the Sixth Meditation a note reading “> Shk.” What could that possibly mean?
The passage in question:
… je me persuadais aisément que je n’avais aucune idée dans mon esprit, qui n’eût passé auparavant par mes sens. Ce n’était pas aussi sans quelque raison que je croyais que ce corps (lequel par un certain droit particulier j’appelais mien) m’appartenait plus proprement et plus étroitement que pas un autre. Car en effet je n’en pouvais jamais être séparé comme des autres corps; je ressentais en lui et pour lui tous mes appétits et toutes mes affections; et enfin j’étais touché des sentiments de plaisir et de douleur en ses parties, et non pas en celles des autres corps qui en sont séparés. (Translation by the duc de Luynes.)
… In this way I easily convinced myself that I had nothing at all in the intellect which I had not previously had in sensation. As for the body which by some special right I called “mine,” my belief that this body, more than any other, belonged to me had some justification. For I could never be separated from it, as I could from other bodies; and I felt all my appetites and emotions in, and on account of, this body; and finally, I was aware of pain and pleasurable tickling in parts of this body, but not in other bodies external to it. (Translation by John Cottingham.)
The cryptic abbreviation, I realized, had to mean “greater than or equal to Shklovsky.” Shklovsky, who in “Art as Device” had proposed that the most intimate aim of writing is to alienate you from what’s taken for granted, to cause you to see things in a new light and question old assumptions. Shklovsky’s favorite examples come from Tolstoy, who often narrates rituals or formalities as if from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know what they’re about, who witnesses the behavior but not its meaning; and in one case he gives the narrative voice over to a horse, who is a piece of property to his “owner” but doesn’t recognize the meaning of “property” at all. Ostranenie or estrangement unsettles our social arrangements by describing them without assenting to them. But Descartes in this passage tells us what it’s like to be embodied in the words that would be used by someone for whom it’s not at all obvious that a living person inhabits a body, or that the body has sensations that are felt by the person whose body it is. The effect is profoundly alienating in its half-hints that if things were otherwise than they chance to be, our selves might wander from body to body or pluck a string of sensation from this or that random flesh-envelope on the horizon. The reader of such a passage wants to know “why?” about something that had never been questioned before. It’s of a pair with this other wondrously alienating passage from the Second Meditation:
… si par hasard je ne regardais d’une fenêtre des hommes qui passent dans la rue, à la vue desquels je ne manque pas de dire que je vois des hommes… et cependant que vois-je de cette fenêtre, sinon des chapeaux et des manteaux, qui peuvent couvrir des spectres ou des hommes feints qui ne se remuent que par ressorts?
… But then if I look out of the window and see men crossing the square, as I just happen to have done, I normally say that I see the men themselves… Yet do I see any more than hats and coats which could conceal automatons?
As Confucius said, 無友不如己。
The other day a colleague of mine refused to advise an undergraduate thesis that was partly about Hegel. The reason? “Because Hegel was a racist.” Well yes, and most Europeans who lived between 1770 and 1830 — even the ones who campaigned against the slave trade and recognized the dignity of Asians, Africans, and Native Americans — had no less racist ideas knocking around their brains and writing-desks. The question is whether there was anything else in there. And Hegel, whose detractor I am proud to be every day, had a lot going on.
It’s just one data-point, just one senior professor at a top university refusing to help a student understand one canonical philosopher, but how typical!
Typical of what?
Professors of literature don’t like to read books. That is the melancholy conclusion to be derived from several of the latest trends in theory, which amount to devices for avoiding the book-reading that is the actual experimental basis of our criticism and analysis. Computer reading and the use of summaries (or translations); studies that slot authors into race and gender categories as a preliminary to determining their importance; postcolonial naming and shaming — all give us ways of handling books by means other than reading, whether it is a matter of delegating an algorithm to pluck out their word-frequencies or pontificating on them by referring to the adjectives attached to their authors, in other words, by relying on gossip.
I like to read books. I am fascinated by them. Just as there are crate-diggers who will give every scratched LP its chance, however obtuse or cheesy the album-cover looks (the weirder the better!), so I’m willing to open any book and read at least a few pages in order to hear out the author’s claim on the world’s attention. The best service a book can render me is to challenge my preconceptions. I don’t like to push them away with an excuse in the style of “Oh, that’s Southern Gothic. I don’t do Southern Gothic.” I may read a few pages and arrive at a provisional judgment, “Aha, two parts Anne Rice and one part Flannery O’Connor, but the ingredients aren’t well-mixed,” and put it aside for someone else. But at least I give the book its chance.
I also try to be aware of what I don’t know: the dark side of the moon, the submerged part of the iceberg, the part of the joke that went over my head. There’s my ethic of reading. It doesn’t start with a preconception that I am ethical and set the standards. It starts from a readiness to find out what others have to say for themselves. It being unlikely for me to approach literature with an attitude of mastery, the best I can manage is an attitude of curiosity and the energy to carry it forward.
But, someone will say, isn’t life limited and the number of books to be read practically unlimited? Well, of course, I may speak as if every book has a right to someone’s attention but that doesn’t mean it has an equal claim on mine. It’s probably best that I don’t live in a huge used bookstore. I pursue certain kinds of excitement and avoid certain kinds of dullness. Taste, or preferences, lead me to drop some books after a glance and to put some on the pile for intensive scrutiny. Experience makes me sensitive to certain signals that ping my likes and dislikes. Epistemologically speaking, a lot of books have nothing new to say to the person who has already had a certain kind of literary experience, so conformation to an existing category is a sign that the book belongs on the discard pile. But discordant signals that imply a different relationship to that category may keep alive an interest in the book. Hasty dismissal is as much to be avoided as the repetition of tautological banalities.
If the message of the “no reading required” schools is that you don’t actually have to read a book in order to say acceptable things about it, the thought that directs my activity is that we don’t know what literature is, in an empirical way, yet; at best we have some intuitions that can be applied inductively, but on condition that they not hinder us from doing the empirical labor. And enjoying it, if we are so set up. If you don’t enjoy reading and discovering new books, you should probably find another line of work, though the absence of actual performance standards makes this profession a tempting one for the effort-adverse.
In today’s Le Monde, there’s a charming interview with the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard.
“What shall I call you?” asks the journalist.
“Matthieu. Or why not, Waffle Iron.”