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The actual title of the book is the titles of the essays: On the Supreme Good, On the Eternity of the World, On Dreams.

This is not by the Boethius you're thinking of. (Yes, there was more than one of them.) The one you're thinking of, the famous one, lived in Rome in the early sixth century and wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while in jail for conspiracy against the emperor.

This one, Boethius of Dacia, was a Master in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Paris in the late thirteenth century. Apart from his being Danish, we know very little about him, except that when the Bishop of Paris held a condemnation of heresy in 1277 some of the propositions were aimed in Boethius' direction.

Which is fair, really, because for medieval philosophy this is odd stuff, rather ahead of its time. 'On the Supreme Good', for instance, insists that happiness is awesome, because you can only be really happy if you are living up to your best nature, i.e. doing good and delighting in it. Happiness was not terribly in vogue in Western Europe at that point. It had the whiff of materialism about it, because clearly if anything other than God made a person happy it was a problem. Boethius' essay only mentions God twice; it's trying to figure out what the highest good for human beings is through pure reason, and concludes that it is contemplation and finding things out and understanding-- and the delight that comes from understanding.

'On Dreams' is an interesting little scientific text, an attempt to explain whether dreams can actually foretell the future, and, again oddly for the time period, he says that they can't. Sometimes things we see in dreams happen through pure coincidence; sometimes we plan things out and solve problems in our dreams, and then carry out our plans when we wake up; sometimes an outside influence, such as a star, is acting on us to raise phantasms in our imaginations, and since that influence continues whether we are awake or asleep we are liable to act the same way under it whether we are dreaming or conscious. But dreams themselves do not foretell, unless one is visited by angels, which he does not rule out.

The centerpiece of the book, though, 'On the Eternity of the World', is an attempt to reconcile the Christian belief in a world created by God in seven days with the Aristotelian belief that the world is infinite and was never created. It was probably influential on Aquinas, who was the next major thinker to try to meld those opposites, and I have to say Boethius does a pretty good job, in a way that I think would later work itself into Renaissance humanism.

What he concludes is that, at the time of his writing, natural science had no way of disproving the idea of an infinitely existing world and no way of proving a creation. Therefore it is correct for the natural scientist to say that as far as he can tell, the world was never created-- as long as he is acting as a natural scientist, and therefore following the rules of his discipline. Each discipline can only conclude that things are correct which they can prove according to their own rules. But, should the natural scientist happen to take off his natural science hat and put on that of a theologian, the rules change. Theology, after all, is the study of things which cannot be proved by logic or reason and must be taken on faith. Therefore, according to the rules of the theologian, one must believe that the world was created. And according to the Bible, the rules of the theologian, namely the path of faith, are the set of rules one should follow beneath all other disciplines, as a simple person. It is possible, then, for a single person to be able to say both that he believes in a creation, and that natural science insists that there was not one, and both statements to be true.

This came perilously close to the idea of double truth, that contradictory things could be true at the same time, which was heretical, and it got him unkind notice. In fact what he was saying is that one set of rules tells you one thing, and another another, and you cannot say a person is lying when they are using a set of rules you have all agreed on as true. You can subsume different sets of rules into each other and use them in different circumstances.

And this was huge, this is why he is remembered, because this is a man who said: theology is not philosophy, they do different things, and theology cannot tell philosophy what to think; neither can philosophy tell theology it has no proof in physical reality. We all know what's true overall, he says, but in limited circumstances other things appear to be true, and it is all right to treat that appearance as factual, when it happens.

From that split between theology and philosophy, eventually, from the idea that the rules of one discipline may not be used on another, comes, centuries later, the Enlightenment.
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I read this book yesterday. For some reason, I find that I can read fairly pleasantly even with eyestrain if I take off my glasses and hold the book the requisite quarter-inch from my nose-- and it does not seem to retard the recovery process-- but the same is not true of computer screens. I therefore expect my computer time to be limited for a while, and if there is anything people put up in the way of significant announcements on LJ/DW, you probably should not expect me to see it for the next week or so, and should contact me in some other way. (Still checking email-- once a day.)

Anyway. This book is a collection of correspondence between Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michel Houellebecq, which took place between late January and mid-July of 2008, and which was kept secret at the time, though always intended for publication.

I have something of a quandary in conveying to you why it is interesting that these two men should be writing to each other, because each of them takes a firm and vehement stand in this text that biographical criticism is a terrible thing, that people take far too much interest in both the public and private lives of writers, that the degrees of celebrity they have attained come with quantities of perjury and slander attached, and that they had far rather people just read their books and talk about those. In fact, that is much of what this book is about, comparing their experiences of being controversial writers, writers who are publicly hated, and discussing why this is and what can be done to endure it.

And I haven't read any of their other books, though I had heard of both men; I picked this up both because Thrud brought it home and because it seemed a reasonable starting point for each writer. Therefore I cannot, as a critic, do what they would certainly prefer and explain the background context of this book in terms of what each of them has written about politics, literature and so on in contrast to the other. All I have is what I can gather from this book, and the sense one has of what a writer is doing from being aware of cultural life (and that sense is what I am sure they would like me to pay no attention to).

Based solely on this book, then, and what each of them says about himself: Lévy is a public figure and celebrity in France, who has written novels, criticism, and reports on various war zones around the world. He has gone to Bosnia, Burma, Chechnya, and other places in significant upheaval and tried to promote international awareness of the atrocities that happen and the issues involved, as well as serving as an advisor to various important figures in these wars and to other statesmen. He has a complex political and personal relationship to Judaism which I am clear on philosophically but not clear about how it expresses itself in his life and other writings, because he didn't talk about that much here. He was a student of Derrida and otherwise associated with what those of us outside France tend to think of as Twentieth-Century French Literature.

Houellebecq is a public figure and something of a celebrity in France who now lives in semi-reclusive exile in Ireland. He has written novels, poetry, and a book on Lovecraft I had heard of. He is regularly accused of being racist, misogynistic, sex-obsessed, pessimistic, and something of a right-wing lunatic; he cheerfully admits to the pessimistic, and does not go sufficiently into the others here for one to make a judgment. He appears to think of most human progress as futile and occasionally despairs of the human race as a whole. His principal philosophy seems to be a kind of extremely atheistic hyper-individualism, rather what you might get if you crossed Sartre with an anarcho-libertarian-- at the age when many teenagers get into heavy metal, he encountered Pascal's Pensées, which had a similarly mind-exploding effect on him (if it is possible to be an atheist Jansenist, I suspect him of being one in some ways). He gives the impression that the literary establishment sees him as something of an enfant terrible.

I repeat, this is what I gathered about them from reading this book. It may or may not have anything to do with the way the rest of the world, including their other writings, sees things.

Their letters are wide-ranging, well-phrased, charming, and unafraid to contradict each other or anything else in the world. They do not reply to one another in the ways that one would expect, but through indirection, seizing on small things that have been said and amplifying them, running off in different directions. They tell secrets, they tell funny anecdotes, they talk about their fathers and their enemies (and I noticed before either of them did that they weren't talking about their mothers). They cite pretty much every major Western philosopher in attempts to explain their worldviews to one another, and then in the next letter jettison all of that because it has been misunderstood and start over. As an example of the art of correspondence, it is quite impressive, and might also serve as an introductory course on French literature (the book is very well-footnoted). There is not a dull moment in it, from the first sentence Houellebecq leads with: "We have, as they say, nothing in common-- except for one essential trait: we are both rather contemptible individuals."

I do rather get the feeling, however, that I would find this book far more interesting and thought-provoking if I were to go out and read everything else both of them has written first, and then see how this is at being a text that deepens and contrasts their views. As a book of itself, it is very readable: as an introductory point, a place to begin either author, it succeeds, but I am not sure it was the right place. I agree, however, that I would prefer to gather information about them from their writings instead from the newspapers, so that is something. And as a conversation overheard between two people I don't know, I enjoyed this very thoroughly.
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I had to read this book after having read Derek Jarman's Chroma. Chroma is not about the theory of color, but is a set of anecdotes, associations, uses, properties, and appearances of colors-- and having read this I now see why Chroma is structured the way it is. The Wittgenstein is about the logic behind the concept of color, and the idea that Wittgenstein evolves is that color is, except in very narrow scientific circumstances, entirely contextual.

So Chroma is Jarman going through and giving you every little bit of context he can think of about various colors, so that maybe you can see something of what he sees in one. Fair enough.

As for why color is entirely contextual.

This is complex, and it doesn't help that the book is in draft, since as with most Wittgenstein it was posthumously assembled from things picked up off the floor of his room (I mean this literally). So it is a repetitive and unstructured read, with a lot of things described by the editor as having been crossed out thrown in for the sake of completeness, and strange punctuation, and so on.

But as nearly as I can make it out.

There is an obvious difference conceptually between the idea of the color 'gold' and the idea of the color 'yellow', yes? Gold shines or glitters, has a patina. Wittgenstein proceeds to demonstrate that there is a similar kind of conceptual difference between the idea of 'white' and the idea of other color words such as 'yellow'. How is this provable?

By reference to the concept of transparency. You can think of a yellow transparency, like a pane of amber glass. You can think of a green or red transparency.

Now think of a white transparency.

Now that you've finished stubbing your mental toe, you can see that white is conceptually different from yellow. There is some difference in how we think about white and spatial depth from the way we think about yellow and spatial depth. What's the difference?

Well, what's the exact description of the difference between gold and yellow? Without reference to science. I mean the conceptual difference.

I don't know and Ludwig doesn't either. Just, there is one.

Also, how do you tell if something is white in the first place? In one light, a thing may appear white. In another, gray. In another, light pink. Which appearance is correct? There are even different colors of white, because a thing that is entirely white can have tints and highlights. So white fades into other colors. It's debatable when something is 'really' white. And if it's white, you use this one conceptual thing, which I just explained that we don't understand, and if it isn't, you don't. So how do you know whether you are invoking in your mind the concept of white, and in what sense?

There is no actual logic behind the use of color-words, is what Ludwig is trying to tell us here. There is only a set of agreed-upon contextual definitions, and we do not know what lies behind those. What we mean by color-blindness is a physically based inability to learn to apply the contextual color definitions that other people use-- which is why a color-blind actor can act the part of a color-sighted person with utter convincingness, because the color contexts are provided by the script when they are plot-relevant.

As a result, Ludwig suggests that we could create systems of color harmony, as we have musical harmony, which are based entirely on arbitrary rules of context, things like 'only use x shade of red when there is no orange', and that the results would be perfectly nice-looking as long as the rules were internally consistent, no matter what the rules might be.

He also believes that color-sighted people ought to be able to imagine a set of color-concepts that bear the same relation to their own as the concepts that color-sighted people understand bear to color-blind people. You can get a color-blind person to believe that you can reliably tell the difference between a red and a green apple by sight, even if they can't do it. So color-sighted people should be able to come up with color-ideas of the same kind, things that other people could conceivably distinguish. I think thinking about it this way helps me a lot when I think about other cultures' color-words, things like the Japanese aoi or Welsh glas.

Ludwig is also despairing about the human race's general illogicality, irrationality, and inability to come up with anything sensible, but then, when isn't he. And the images are lovely-- some of the things that he says when trying to come up with a white transparency or a grey flame make me want to learn to paint. (Why are all color theorists wrong about grey. Seriously. Wittgenstein thinks grey can't be luminous. What is this I don't even. But the rest of it all seems sound.)

So, a dense but rewarding little book, as expected, and well worth putting up with the fact that not only do you have to read each paragraph sixteen times, several of the paragraphs turn up about that often in the draft. Ah well. If somebody ever assembles a book this good off my bedroom floor, I should only be so lucky.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Day before yesterday's review.

I was in fact looking for Wittgenstein's Remarks on Colour in the card catalog when I happened to see this listed. I had no notion it existed. Then after I jumped up and down grinning for a while, I think I kind of levitated to the relevant section of the stacks, and settled in for one of the most delightful hours I have ever had, consisting of Ludwig Wittgenstein telling me that Sir James George Frazer was a total idiot, for many original and awesome reasons. Oh little book where were you in my mythography classes. We always need more good reasons why Frazer was an idiot! It is an entire sub-field!

Anyway, for those of you who don't care about the history of the ongoing scholarly debates about the anthropology of myth (WHY DON'T YOU), this is also a really good book if you are, let us say, a fantasy writer and you would like to think more about the whys and wherefores of mythology and magic, because in completely debunking Frazer's explanations Wittgenstein also comes up with some good things I don't think anyone's said before.

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From Tuesday.

Thrud has a piece in this; unsurprisingly, it is about Osamu Tezuka. I recuse myself from saying what I think of it on the grounds that I proofread the thing.

The rest of it-- hm. Uneven, is the word I would use here. The good pieces can be quite good, but there is at least one piece so terrible that I have been having fantasies about hitting the author with a piece of rolled-up newspaper while just saying NO over and over again. The balance is tipped more towards the not-quite side of things, I'm afraid, but while I cannot necessarily recommend buying this, if you're interested in manga it would be worth checking out of a library. I'm not sure what to tell you if you're primarily interested in philosophy.

This book is one of a long-running series on popular culture and philosophy; its publisher has done volumes on everything from Bruce Springsteen to the iPod (Facebook and Philosophy is listed as in preparation). There is a companion volume on anime which I have not read. The series is an attempt at explanation and discussion of philosophy through the lens of whatever thing is the title of each book, and I would imagine that the success of this depends somewhat on how broad a thing that happens to be. Manga, of course, is an entire medium, which helps everything along a bit. The essays here fall into several categories: one, essays which analyze one or several manga by examining different philosophical viewpoints found in the work; two, essays which explain a philosophy (or several) by drawing examples from manga; three, essays which are perfectly reasonable manga criticism and have nothing particularly to do with philosophy; and four, essays which are sufficiently confusing or unrelated that I have no idea what they are doing here. The first two categories are clearly what the book is trying to do, the third is understandable and not only forgivable but happy-making, and the existence of the fourth troubles me.

Unfortunately, there's more than one in category four. )
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When Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was twenty-four, in the year 1487, he decided to hold a disputation.

This was a fairly common occurrence in the schools: a question would be stated, and a respondent would take up a position on the question and hold it against the arguments of the learned people present. What made Pico's unusual was that he proposed to hold his own against all comers on no fewer than nine hundred separate points of philosophy.

It never happened, because the Pope got hold of the proposed list of points and declared that several of them were not lawful for Christians to discuss. However, Pico published an apologia about it-- explanation and defense of the idea after the fact, but also a genuine apology-- in which he reprinted the speech he had planned to give at the beginning of the disputation. This speech, the Oration on the Dignity of Man, is now the work for which he is principally remembered.

It's one of the core documents of humanism, because it proposes the idea that humanity has dignity and worth not necessarily because of the place we occupy in the order of the cosmos, but because human beings can make themselves into whatever they desire to be and can be so many infinitely varied things. An animal, says Pico, comes into the world with whatever it is going to be imprinted upon it, but a human being may be noble or evil, intellectual or sensual, brave or timorous; certainly we have some inclination towards one thing or another, but there is a substantial element of decision and will.

This idea, which was original to Pico, is very well-stated and argued, though one can see immediately in the oration why it led him into things that the authorities disapproved of, since he states that there is therefore no reason that a person striving after the good should not attain a level coequal to that of the angels-- and then goes into careful discussion about which personal qualities one would have to cultivate to be like each sort of angel, and how noble each quality is in relation to the others-- and suggests that a high-minded magician might use the qualities of virtue in himself to, for instance, talk with or command the angels. In fact a lot of the latter half of the essay is a defense of magic, when it isn't being an attempt to explain that every true philosophy in the world must of necessity be expressing the same thing and therefore going on about how x statement in Zoroaster is equivalent to y statement in Plato. This makes it an odd read for a modern reader, since Pico sounds at one moment rather like Thomas Aquinas and at the next like the guy at the back of the New Age bookstore (that guy is working off materials Pico had translated into Latin, mostly, the other great thing Pico did for the world was good Latin editions of all the neo-Pythagoreans).

Pico was a firm believer in syncretism and cross-cultural transmission of knowledge; he also argues that more Europeans ought to learn Arabic (still true), that Christianity and Judaism are not bitter enemies on a moral level (the terms he uses to say this are problematic and bigoted as all get out, but this was radical given what some other people said back then), and that the secret teachings of the Zoroastrians are identical to those of the Kabbalah (completely untrue, but not a subject most Italian scholars thought about at that time).

It really isn't any wonder someone poisoned him.

The particular edition I read is by Gateway Editions, and the translation seems perfectly reasonable, but the introduction by Russell Kirk is to be avoided with great force as it has not been updated since 1956 and is an honest-to-goodness anti-Communist diatribe of amazing stupidity. Somebody should get them a better preface.
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The unofficial theme of the last two days is 'trying to get all the relevant information to fit in the subject line'.

A note: one of the authors is my roommate.

So this is a book that will be profoundly, life-savingly, devastatingly useful to about ten people in the world, and quite useful to some others, and interesting to a wider selection, and completely irrelevant to the world at large. I fall into the 'quite useful' category, although I am using it as background research for my novel and not for anything academic.

If you are studying intellectual history, it is important to know what books were available at what points in time. If the specific thinker you are interested in did not have access to a work, or did not have access to it in a relevant language, or had access to it only in manuscript, it makes a big difference. The Catalogus Translationem et Commentariorum is attempting to go through all the significant ancient authors and list all editions, printings, commentaries, known manuscripts, translations, excerpts, citations, etc.; but they've been going since 1945 and have produced eight volumes, which is not nearly comprehensive as of yet.

Therefore this, which is focused on the great ancient philosophers and their availability in the Renaissance. It gives the date of the first print edition, the date of translation into Latin, the dates of relevant translations into vernacular and their print editions, and occasionally other useful bibliographical data (it will usually let you know when something was widely circulated in manuscript).

Now, I have a novel with a chunk set in Florence in 1508, so this is useful to me, but I also find it interesting. For example, Marcus Aurelius? Almost unknown in the Renaissance. Survived in only two Greek manuscripts. Translated into English before translation into any other vernacular, which is really weird, and that English not till well into the 1600s. His place in the canon did not come till later. But Diogenes Laertius? Incredibly omnipresent, incredibly reprinted, cited, read, etc. etc., and the major source on biographical data for ancient author after ancient author. Nowadays, not so much.

Or the entire system of commentaries and summaries, which has basically gone by the wayside. The number of works mentioned which are things along the lines of an early Latin commentary on Aristotle translated into the Italian from a single Hebrew print copy picked up by the translator on a trip to Constantinople... we simply do not value commentary this way anymore. Especially now that textual emendation and correction are not participatory exercises for the reading public.

Also, without Marsilio Ficino I swear the history of Europe would be entirely different. The list of things he translated, edited, had printed, corrected, collated, wrote commentaries on, dug out of basements and was generally responsible for is ridiculous. Before him, the only Plato available in Latin was the first half of the Timaeus. After him, the entirety of Plato and vast stretches of ancient commentary on Plato and just about everything we have to this day of the neo-Platonists and neo-Pythagoreans. Did he ever sleep?

Oh, and the various pseudo-Platos, pseudo-Aristotles, pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagites and so on are also covered, along with discussion of when people began to doubt their authenticity, which was almost uniformly after the Renaissance. The Renaissance did not as yet even see the point of differentiating Seneca the Elder (rhetorician) from Seneca the Younger (tragedian).

And I will always love the various Humanist names, there was a translator actually named Hieronymous Wolf, I couldn't get away with that in a fantasy novel as it would be insufficiently realistic.

Therefore I loved this. If it should happen that you are one of the people to whom it would be desperately vital, be aware that it was put out by one of those terrifyingly confusing Italian academic presses, and therefore the best way (or possibly only way) to get hold of it would be through one of the authors (i.e. PM or email me and I'll tell her). Unless you are better than we are at confusing Italian academic presses, in which case please tell us how you manage to get hold of it so we can a) do the same and b) tell others to do likewise. But seriously, the reaction of the Italian press to being informed that if the book were given a barcode, it could be sold on Amazon, was 'but why would anyone want to do that?', so I have no particular faith.
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If you're going to read Stoic philosophy, it's best to do it when you're sick. You see, the Stoics placed illness quite firmly on the list of 'things a person is not responsible for and does not have much control over', so it makes a very good antidote to the current cultural thread that holds that illness is the result of some kind of moral failing (i.e. if one had just taken care of oneself better/not interacted with xyz/done or not done something imponderable one would of course not be ill ever, which is, demonstrably, untrue).

Therefore, when I am annoyed about having spent a very long two days in interminable vocal rehearsals while having, as far as I can figure, a bad sinus infection and a strained chest muscle, I can derive some relaxation from having Epictetus point out to me that the sinus infection is not under my control, the strained chest muscle was a direct result of something I did but was not necessarily a predictable result, and the sitting-through-rehearsals must, on some level, have been a result of my wanting to be there, seeing as how they are a voluntary activity under my control. Which means that by the standard of things directly under my control, which is the standard that matters to the Stoics, this weekend went off perfectly and I should be happy about it.

I promise to get right on that when I'm over the sinus infection.

Seriously, though, it does help, when miserable, to differentiate what one is miserable about that one can control from what one is miserable about and can't. This is the thing that is so seductive about Stoic philosophy. They hold that there is no point in ever being unhappy about anything one can't control, which turns out to be, in the final analysis, most of the world, as the Stoic universe is deterministic. For them, everything that happens was meant to happen: why be upset when things go the only way they can possibly go?

The Encheiridion (which is literally a handbook, the title word's based on the Greek word for hand) is Epictetus' book of advice about how not to be upset about anything, ever. Detachment is the Stoic virtue. (Well, detachment and being happy to fill one's foreordained and correct place in the ever-moving clockwork of the perfectly predestined cosmos.) Mostly it consists of him telling you to think about things as though they were happening to someone else. If a passerby drops a cup and breaks it, you say 'It's one of those things that happens sometimes', but if you drop a cup and break it, you're annoyed, though the objective circumstance that it's one of those things that happens sometimes hasn't changed. Since it's the same circumstance, why are you upset on one occasion but not the other? Epictetus holds that the answer is 'the social convention of property', which is arbitrary, artificial, and ignorable. You're upset because you think you have some kind of control over the cup, and it's just been demonstrated that you don't, because property is not a natural law.

This is exactly the kind of thing that causes me both to applaud and be annoyed at the Stoics, because my position on them tends to be that they're right about the self and terrible at other people; it's a philosophy with an occasionally staggering lack of empathy. I accept his reasons as sensible reasons why I should not be upset if I drop a cup and it breaks, but if someone else drops a cup and it breaks and they're unhappy about it, my response is not going to be 'it's one of those things that happens sometimes', it's going to be 'I'm sorry that happened because it made you unhappy', you know? Epictetus generalizes from the cup to the people around one, that we should be no more sad when people around us die than we would be sad at the deaths of people we've never met, because everybody dies. This seems to me to be ignoring huge swathes of the things about human nature that have caused us to actually live together in social groupings in the first place.

So yeah. Helpful with the annoyingness of my weekend, but as a philosophy with larger applications, the Stoics are never going to be my principal recourse. Fun to read, though, and Epictetus in particular is trying very hard to be clear and sensible, on account of how he is trying not to be Chrysippus, his most famous Stoic predecessor, who is famously as clear as mud. Also, this is a book in which he actually tells you that you should ask yourself more often 'What would Socrates do in this situation?', and those, those are words to live by, right there, especially because the answer is quite frequently 'burst out laughing'. I could see 'What Would Socrates Do?' as a bracelet or a bumper sticker, really, I kind of want one now.
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Some while ago, as I was looking over the entries for the 2009 Diagram Prize For Odd Book Titles, I happened to notice An Intellectual History of Cannibalism (which, correctly, didn't place, as I don't think it's an odd title at all; most of them weren't; my vote for best, though not weirdest, goes to On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers). Anyway. I saw this title, and I said, 'Wow, somebody wrote a book with an audience of Thrud'. As in, I have never seen a book more specifically and obviously written for one person the author has never met or heard of, ever. Therefore we have a copy, and I have been meaning to read it for some while and putting it off because it is very, very dense.

Please note, this is an intellectual history: this is the history of how European philosophy has thought about cannibalism, not an actual history of cannibalism, and therefore this is quite a readable book for persons who are used to the general amount of gore found in, oh, histories of religious conflict and so on. I mean it is not prurient, though I rather wish there weren't chapter-heading illustrations, even though they are useful contemporary art related to whatever is being discussed.

Anyhow, this is very definitely a European history, one ranging from Herodotus to Freud but concentrated on the Enlightenment and the shift from casuistry towards the modern scientific method. As such, it is one of the most valuable books on the history and theory of colonialism and a certain type of racism that I have ever met, although I am not entirely certain that it knows that about itself.

Philosophy! )
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Most pornographers are not in print five hundred years later.

Of course, Aretino has a good claim at inventing the form, or at any rate the literary kind of erotica, the sort that has philosophy and clever wordplay and political satire and enough other material to convince the people who see you with it that you only read it for the articles. Aretino has some aura of literature about him: he had the nickname 'scourge of princes' after the faked last will and testament he wrote for Pope Leo X's pet elephant in 1516. He was painted by Titian, he was painted by Michelangelo. He was never respectable, being both illegitimate and pointedly vicious, but he was read. The Secret Life of Wives is the second of his Ragionamenti, a mock-epic mock-Platonic set of dialogues which also includes The Secret Life of Nuns and The Secret Life of Courtesans. It is, one suspects, the portion he would know the least about-- he never married, he was a friend of Michelangelo's and considered the fact that he occasionally slept with women a mild psychological aberration on his part, as befit that set; more often he preferred men.

This is therefore less a satire on married life, though it is that, then a vicious swipe at the clergy. It's basically a series of shaggy-dog stories, related between a courtesan (who has been both nun and wife, possibly simultaneously) and her maid; the tone is somewhere between something like Petronius, who mostly wants to get a reaction, and de Sade, who wants you to read a pamphlet about republicanism (I have always appreciated that he included tear-out perforations for those persons who did not feel the pamphlet to be the point exactly). Aretino wants to be entertaining, always that, and rather more comedic than erotic necessarily, but he would rather like you to Notice A Theme. The theme, of course, is that chastity is bunk and clerical chastity is mythical as per the following seventy-three examples.

There are two things about this dialogue that make it more pleasant than much erotica, classical or modern. Firstly, although it feels quite male-gazey (Aretino's women are decidedly women conjectured by a man and at one point he very clearly demonstrates Nice Guy Syndrome*, which apparently existed back then, and it is ludicrous) his women have sexual agency. They control their fertility, they decide what they want, they go about getting it intelligently and with determination, they always get it, and they usually aren't punished for it in any way, socially or otherwise. It's clearly part of the never-never of pornography in some ways, but it also rings pleasantly of the Wife of Bath. Secondly, Aretino finds people hilarious, but fondly hilarious; this is not a cruel satire. His attitude can be summarized as: why not? "A spouse is pleasant," says his courtesan, "but I do so enjoy eating out." There is enjoyment here, there is laughter.

Mind you, there is also a degree of grotesquery that means that I do not think that today this reads as erotic erotica. He is determined to demonstrate that people will not let any rational considerations get in the way of what they want, including things like dirt and disease, and he has a way with a disgusting metaphor. Overall, the point nowadays is the parody of Homeric epic that opens the dialogue, the kind wittiness of the courtesan, the pleasant space of the garden they're sitting in to gossip. As I said before, you can, now, read this for the articles, and find them very solid, although, as Michael Nyman could have told you after the programs were withdrawn from a performance of his 2007 setting of Aretino because of their obscenity, he will never, ever be respectable.

*Nice Guy Syndrome is the belief that women must dislike nice guys and in fact prefer people who mistreat them, because otherwise they would totally be sleeping with the holder of this belief, wouldn't they. In fact, he is such a nice guy that women ought to sleep with him, he's all friendly and cares and doesn't that entitle him to something? It is sadly culturally fairly widespread and I hadn't known it went back quite that far.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
New work by an old friend for a late and tired night. My household has had the frustrating experience of trying to find Diderot's grave in St.-Roch; they lost him during the Revolution, it turns out, when the whole floor was dug up and commingled into one large pit. And the rector didn't know who he was.

He was, of course, the man who introduced lesbian porn to European philosophy (no, really, it's right there in The Nun) and a writer with something of Voltaire's blaze and something of Sterne's tricks. His most direct literary descendant is Italo Calvino, and I defy anyone not to find Jacques the Fatalist and his Master an incredibly frustrating experience (but good, I suspect, for the character).

Oh, I don't know, I can't talk about Diderot. There's a bust of him six feet in front of me and to the right, in the nook that contains all the really old books. It is very difficult to write a review about work by someone one has a part-share in a statue of.

At any rate, this is the collection of his shorter work, his five short stories, of which three are a linked trilogy that come to slightly more than novella length. None were intended for publication. Indeed, one was intended as a practical joke the same way The Nun was, letters describing a situation that was supposed to have really happened, an amusement for a friend who lived at a fair distance. All partake in his fragmented nature, the narrative through interjections by imaginary listeners, snatches of pseudonymous speeches; one of these stories is an entire fictional appendix written for a very real and non-fictional memoir by a famous explorer. His themes are love, stupidity, public opinion, the pointlessness of sexual fidelity and the unlikeliness of God. He is funny, charming, confusing, sly, maundering, ridiculously intelligent, subtle in his depiction of character, and second to none in his ability to be in one sentence both two hundred years ahead of himself in the sheer flow of his genius and three words later blazingly, spectacularly, amazingly wrong.

Also you will find him kinder than Voltaire, a little. But with something more of grief.

The short work is probably not the place to start with Diderot-- I'd make that either Jacques the Fatalist or Rameau's Nephew. But it is very fine, if you like its genre (contes philosophiques), and will certainly give anybody a good argument, and an entertaining time spent arguing.

If I were writing a postmodernist review, or one in the style of the subject author, this is where I would have the audience interject, but I shan't, as I already know what the listener ought to be saying to me: go to bed, it's three in the morning. Who needs to go off into rhetorical tricks for that kind of advice? I shall go to bed at once.


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