If you think that superficiality is a purely pop-culture, low-brow type thing, think again. Gary Wills writing in the most recent New York Review of Books, says this about a new book on reading the western classics:
This book, which was featured on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, comes recommended by some famous Big Thinkers. It is written by well-regarded professors (one of them the chairman of the Harvard philosophy department). This made me rub my eyes with astonishment as I read the book itself, so inept and shallow is it.
The review is one of the most brutal take-downs I’ve ever read in the New York Review and is well worth reading in full. He writes that the purpose of the book is to “to solve the problems of a modern secular culture” by reading the Western canon, except that the authors compare some seriously dubious entrants with the some of the heavies of modern lit:
Another thing that may impress the Big Thinkers is that the authors get their glimpses of the sacred from ”œreading the Western classics.” The two classics they begin with are by David Foster Wallace, ”œthe greatest writer of his generation; perhaps the greatest mind altogether,” and Elizabeth Gilbert, whose Eat, Pray, Love proved its cultural importance by ruling over best-seller lists forever. I know that people often find cultural indicators in what people buy. That is why Big Thinking hovered in the past over Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Charles Reich’s The Greening of America, or Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. But Dreyfus and Kelly stretch this approach when they praise Gilbert’s openness to surface whooshiness, her sacred impulsiveness. Gilbert ”œwrites well only when the god of writing shines upon her, only by the grace of the attendant spirit””the genius””who comes to tell her what to write.” They think she is even more receptive to ”œshining moments” than Wallace.
Of course they do mention the likes of Homer. The only problem is they make a mistake that not even an undergraduate would make:
A striking description of the anxiety of choice occurs when Odysseus is trying to decide how to oust the suitors from his home. No course seems clear to him, and he tosses about in irresolution. The Robert Fitzgerald translation (which the authors usually prefer) says:
…He…rocked, rolling from side to side [entha kai entha],
as a cook turns a sausage, big with blood
and fat, at a scorching blaze, without a pause,
to broil it quick: so he rolled left and right [entha kai entha],
casting about [mermÄ“rizÅn] to see how he, alone,
against the false outrageous crowd of suitors
could press the fight.
Has there ever been a better presentation of the anxiety of choice, which our philosopher-authors tell us Homer knew nothing about? It is true that after this struggle, Athena comes and tells Odysseus to have confidence and go to sleep. But she does not give him a course to follow, and she certainly does not spare him the anguish he has been going through.
They then go on to demolish Augustine. It’s really quite terrible. All of this, in the end, is what George Kenney calls “phony intellectualism,” in this also excellent take-down of a young up and coming intellectual from the New School in New York City:
Meis probably doesn’t recognize the hard work involved in thinking or painting, in telling a story, because he doesn’t do much thinking of his own. He’s too busy bouncing from one representation to another, from one exciting moment to another, to be able to settle into a sustained conversation or any sort of profound contemplative appreciation. And that’s the modern problem.
Kenney is, in the last sentence, alluding to the great problem of the modern age–one of which I am most assuredly guilty of myself: not being able to tear myself away. But I’ve found a cure for some of that lately, being busy with a lot of other long-form writing outside the blog, writing which necessitates three or four hours a day of undisturbed thinking on subjects are arcane as Spanish colonial history in Texas and the evolutionary adaptations of coatis certainly helps. But sitting down and just thinking, or reading a book or holding the New York Review of Books in my hands and reading it cover to cover helps too.
I really do wonder, however, if any of it will do any good. The compulsion to comment, opine, is just too strong sometimes. I really do dislike the rapidity of modern communications and pine for a time pre-internet when I had the luxury of time.
Without the luxury of time our experiences become, as Wills writes, one swoosh after another and that’s a shame.
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