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One of the more interesting comments about, well..

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — reading my daily dose of 3QD again after a health-induced lapse, and glad I’m back ]
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One of the more interesting comments about, well, religion, comes from a review by Robert Fay in 3QD of Chinese science fiction master Liu Cixin‘s novel, the first in a trilogy and the one President Obama so praised, The Three Body Problem, reading it in a wide world context:

Sacrifice used to be part-and-parcel of the western self-identity. Jesus on the cross at Calvary was the central spiritual truth of Christendom. The west, of course, left much of this behind during the Enlightenment. The French Revolution further asserted the rights of individuals. If anything, the consumption of consumer goods is the true religion of the west now, and it demands we all act immediately on our impulses, cravings and desires.

This hasn’t worked out well for the planet.

**

Yes, sacrifice, and it’s dual, martyrdom, have all but disappeared, although, well, the Marines understand sacrifice, and the jihadists understand martyrdom.

To take you into the audacity of sacrifice or the self-surrender of martyrdom is beyond me here. Let me just note that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, and the death of Joan of Arc a martyrdom. Arguably, the two ideas are parallel, and meet at infinity, as in the Cure D’Ars observation:

If we knew what a Mass is, we should die of it.

Thus, theologically speaking, the Eucharist (present) cyclically repeats Christ‘s sacrifice on the cross (past), in a transcendent manner which makes of it a foretaste of the Wedding Feast (future) envisioned in the book of Revelation.

But enough!

**

There’s a fine alternative vision of the three body problem in Bill Benzon‘s Time Travelers We Are, Each And All, his account of brain, mind and Beethoven, which, like Robert Fay‘s account of Liu Cixin‘s novel of that name, arrived in today’s edition of 3QD. Benzon is quoting the literary critic Wayne Booth describing a performance of Beethoven‘s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 as constituting unities out of a string quartet, Booth himself and his nwife, and, somehow, both of those and Beethoven — three bodies as one:

There is Beethoven, one hundred and forty-three years ago … writing away at the marvelous theme and variations in the fourth movement. … Here is the four-players doing the best it can to make the revolutionary welding possible. And here we am, doing the best we can to turn our “self” totally into it: all of us impersonally slogging away (these tears about my son’s death? ignore them, irrelevant) to turn ourselves into that deathless quartet.

That unity of three bodies is found, and can be joined, in Beethoven‘s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131:

**

Reading Benzon‘s piece, we can benefit also from his presentation of neurons, their connections and internal workings:

We have no way of directly counting the neurons in the nervous systems, but estimates put the number at roughly 86 billion with an average of 10,000 synapses per neuron.

To specify the brain’s state at a given moment in clock time we need to know the state of each unit component, such as a neuron. One convenient way to do this is to say that a neuron is either firing or it is not. So it can have two states. Neurons are complicated things; each is a living cell with the full complement of machinery that that requires. There’s a lot more to a neuron that whether or not it’s firing.

This description of neurons is in service to a discussion of clock-time and brain states, which is itself in service to a wider discussion of time itself, as our wrist-watches understand it, and as our experience of Beethoven might cause us to discover it.

Following the musical branch of this discussion, we find Benzon quoting Bernstein on ego-loss:

I don’t know whether any of you have experienced that but it’s what everyone in the world is always searching for. When it happens in conducting, it happens because you identify so completely with the composer, you’ve studied him so intently, that it’s as though you’ve written the piece yourself. You completely forget who you are or where you are and you write the piece right there. You just make it up as though you never heard it before. Because you become that composer.

Benzon‘s three into one is Bernstein‘s two into one, and all paths lead to reliving a keynote segment of the life of Beethoven — Beethoven as a musical Everest, with Bernstein and the quartet as sherpas, Booth and his wife and Benzon and you and I as climbers, some at base-camp listening to the great Chuck Berry, some on the final ascent, some planting flags at the peak..

Peak Beethoven is phenomenological unity. Across time, time travel.

**

Oh, the numbers games one can play — Sixteen into forty into one in Tallis’ forty-part motet, Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui — where the very title speaks to the union – I Have Hope in None Other:

Oh and is not religion at the heart of this unity, this unity at the very heart of religion? And is not this braiding of voices, this polyphony, a working of this unity?

**

My early mentor and friend, Herbert Warner Allen, wrote of his own time with Beethoven. As I wrote elsewhere:

Herbert Warner Allen, a classical scholar, sometime newspaper editor and noted authority on wines, experienced a timeless moment between two beats during a performance of one of the Beethoven symphonies. Not knowing quite what had hit him, he went on to research the mystical tradition and wrote three mostly forgotten books [of which the first was aptly named The Timeless Moment] situating his experience within intellectual tradition without nailing it to any particular dogmatic structure. TS Eliot, who published the books, inscribed a book of his own poetry to Warner Allen with the words “from the Srotaapanna to the Arhat, TS Eliot”, with a footnote to explain “Srotaapanna: he who has dipped one toe in the river of the wqaters of enlightenment; Arhat: he who has arrived at the further shore”.

Here’s the almost anonymous A.T. writing to The Times, 19th January 1968:

In your obituary notice of the late Mr. Warner Allen you do not mention the books he wrote describing his “journey on the Mystic Way”. The best known of these books was The Timeless Moment in which he gave some account of a visionary experience that for him “flashed up lightning-wise during a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony at the Queen’s Hall “. In this split second of time he received (as no one reading his books can doubt) a flash of absolute reality that broke through the normal barriers of the conscious mind and left a trail of illumination in its wake. Mr. Allen never claimed to be an advanced mystic or profound philosopher. He described himself as an ordinary man of the world. He spent years unravelling the implications of his strange experience. The resulting volumes were and are of extraordinary interest.

Amen. Warner Allen’s was a Timeless Moment, an ego-loss indeed!

I must have been fifteen or so when I had the great good fortune to meet and be befriended by this extraordinary man..

Tehom and Ruach Elohim in the Pool at Bethesda?

Friday, September 20th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — for Catherine Keller, whose book Face of the Deep is a wonder ]
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Meditating on the first quote below these days, as I gradually make my way into Catherine Keller‘s work of poetic theology, I am reminded of the second —

— as if the first were a general principle, and the second a scaled-down and localized version of that principle.

**

Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep

I’ll return for a full review of this book once I’ve finished reading it — a slower process than I’d have liked, given my current state of health!

Reactions to the Reactionary – The New Scholarship on Fascism, 1

Wednesday, August 14th, 2019

Emlyn Cameron returns to the pages of Zenpundit with the first in a series of reviews of books on Fascism, the entire series forming an essay on the topic — Charles Cameron
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How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them
by Jason Stanley
Random House, 240 pp (2018)
ISBN 978-0-525-51183-0
$26.00

Inheritors of a world we did not build, we are now
witnesses to a decline we did not foresee.

• Timothy Snyder, Road to Unfreedom

We had conceded the entire political landscape, my millennial friends and I, as terrain too treacherous to travel. But the truth was that the territory it covered was simply so staggeringly vast that we felt powerless to navigate it, let alone work it for a future yield. It intimidated us into cynicism: Politicians were serial liars, news sources couldn’t be verified without recourse to other news sources we had to verify, and even if we believed what we were told, we were simply told too much to know what deserved our attention. We needed some initial map that would help us find our way.

Like the narrator of A. E. Housman’s poem, The laws of God, the laws of man, we knew we wanted to reject the authority of leaders who “will be master, right or wrong”, or laws imposed by the foolish based on strength, but we were “stranger[s] and afraid, in a world [we] never made”. Further, in addition to being paralyzed by the scope of politics, we saw no way to escape the results of a system in which we felt incapable of participating. As we were – as with Housman’s narrator – that left only one practicable response: submission.

Luckily, just as Donald Trump raised the stakes of political participation, he inspired a body of popular scholarship on our worst apprehensions for the future.

Jason Stanley, a Yale philosophy professor, has provided a book that helps to complete this project: How Fascism Works lays bare the purpose and mechanism of much of the fascist’s intellectual shell-game.
Hanna Arendt (to whom Stanley pays tribute), Leon Trotsky, and Umberto Eco amongst others have likewise attempted to write an anatomy of fascist thought, but Stanley’s effort, in addition to being explicitly contemporary, achieves a balance of brevity, justification, and application to real world events that makes it a worthy addition to the others.

Though Eco’s 1995 essay Ur-Fascism is structurally similar to Stanley’s book and shares some of the same insights, Eco’s essay was primarily descriptive, while Stanley’s book presents the principles of fascist politics and goes on to dissect their utility to the fascist politician, in a way that Eco doesn’t manage. In essence, where Eco wrote a bird spotters guide to fascism, Stanley offers a concise ornithological textbook.

Take, for instance, the notion of traditionalism: While Eco makes the same observation as Stanley, that fascist movements sanctify the status quo and the past, Stanley drills down into a specific instance – the patriarchal family structure – and outlines why this traditional structure is a handy one for the would-be dictator: it normalizes inequality and makes commonplace a command structure analogous to the one the fascist proposes for the state – a group of people all sharing a blood bond, subservient to a single figure who acts unilaterally to guide and provide for them.

Lacking is only a greater examination of how this androcentric tendency in fascist politics does not exclude the occasional female far-right leader, such as Marine Le Pen. Stanley has said, in a New York Times opinion video, that the leader is “always a he,” which makes this outlier still more worthy of consideration. Perhaps his phrasing is meant to be taken as reflecting the truth to a first approximation, but what enables a woman to take command of a traditionally male focused cult-of-personality would add an interesting dimension to the analysis.

In addition to this, his book articulates some common fascist tendencies that go unrecorded in Eco’s essay, and which enable the reader to more effectively detect the tremors of oncoming totalitarianism. Stanley’s proposal, for instance, that sexual anxiety is central to fascist politics, seems especially salient in modern America (where gender identity is a high-profile point of division between conservatives and liberals) and with reference to contemporary Russia (where Putin’s public addresses make use of homophobic and transphobic rhetoric).

Stanley argues that singling out minorities who challenge traditional sexual and gender norms is efficacious for the fascist, as it both moves to eliminate archetypes for social relationships alternative to the patriarchal model favored by fascists, and enables the first of many oblique attacks on the principle of free expression without directly assailing democratic platitudes. Stanley also manages to tie this to the fascist tendency to decry cities, usually hubs of the attacked minorities, as dens of iniquity, and the rhetorical correlation of the out group with rape and the destruction of mythical purity. Having done this, Stanley is able to identify attacks on sexual minorities as “perhaps the most vivid” of the canaries to eye as leaders draw us further and further into the proverbial coal mine.

The book also offers some interesting discussion of the fascist relationship to truth. In addition to the commonplace insight that fascists lie about the past to create a triumphant nationalist mythology, Stanley argues that the fascist, having spread lies about the laziness and treacherousness of their chosen enemy, also seeks to use policy to so brutalize their victims that the malnourished and abused minority population comes to resemble the abject figures of fascist propaganda, reducing reality to the “truth” that fascists had all along maintained; that the fascist first produces lies to debase the certainty of anything, and then manufactures their “truths”.

It is a book at once enlightening and useful to those looking for some through-line to the news of the day. Learning, per the BBC, that Citizenship and Immigration Services’ acting head has defended an administration move to cut public aid to legal migrants by saying “No one has a right to become an American who isn’t born here as an American” unless they can “be self-sufficient […] as in the American tradition”, a reader of Stanley’s book might take pause and recall a passage that runs “In fascism, the state is an enemy; it is to be replaced by the nation, which consists of self-sufficient individuals who collectively choose to sacrifice for a common goal of ethnic or religious glorification.”

Having seen such an article, and taken such a moment of reflection, the reader may decide they see nothing ominous in this correlation. Even so, how salutary many such reflective pauses could prove to be to the national character, and how much easier they become when so able a teacher has given us an idea of when to take them. And in providing ways of recognizing and describing fascist politics, Stanley’s book sharpens the usefulness of other books tackling similar projects.

It might be said that the interplay of those tactics Stanley has described in his book, and the effective responses Stanley’s Yale colleague Timothy Snyder enumerated in his book, On Tyranny, are the two forces that animate the events in perhaps the most ambitious of these other recent works: Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom (to which I will to return). But, even if not taken as a mandatory supplement to either of Snyder’s works, Stanley’s book substantially enhances and reinforces the lessons of the other two, and vice versa.

Together, they may provide the confidence necessary to uncertain voters, especially among the young, to discard what Mark Fisher called “reflexive impotence” (and the cynicism that guards it) and become educated participants in our politics. If these authors manage it, they will deserve credit and status alongside those offered to the analysts and thinkers to whom they refer in their own work, and those of us so armed may just find ourselves alive to solutions beyond simple concession.

Chuang-tzu or Zhuangzi, it’s a laughing matter [review]

Sunday, July 28th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — cross-posted at BrownPundits — Zhuangzi, a light-hearted philosopher dancing to his own laughter, illuminated by CC Tsai ]
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Zhuangzi: The Way of Nature
translated by Brian Bruya, illustrated by CC Tsai
Princeton University Press, 2019
US $ 22.95

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You may be acquainted with the yin-yang symbol — or as it’s more properly called, the Tai-chih or Taiji — but here’s CC Tsai‘s version, with dragon:

That’s the style of CC Tsai‘s illustrations, which — rather than Brian Bruya‘s translations — are the featured aspect of this version of the Zhuangzi: it also encapsulates the essence of Zhuangzi‘s thought.

Here’s the comic book version of a very comic work of profound, non-invasive philosophy.

**

Zhuangzi is a Taoist, one who would allow the arising and fading away of things in their natural order, with as little thought-commentyary, let alone intervention, as piossible — given the human tendency to go round and round in circles even while sitting still — Laozi‘s Tao Te Ching is the simple and direct exposition of this way of approaching and appreciating life, while Zhuangzi presents the same appreciation in the formm of quizzical tales and (naturally, absent) morals..

Ah. Thus the seagull, Laozi tells Confucius, who came to discuss benevolence and righteousness, doesn’t get white by soaping yup and washing itself, nor does the crow get black by dipping itself in ink: benevolence, similarly, is not a matter of soap and water — it simply arises where it arises.

You get the feeling Laozi wouldn’t mind having left it at the seagulls doing what they do, and likewise with the crows — but Confucius dropped by and asked about benevolence and righteousness, and Laozi responded as was only benevolent and polite..

**

My favorite story in all of Chuang Tzu / Zhuangzi is the story of Lord Wen-hui’s cook Ting, who taught him the natural way of things while cutting up an ox. In Burton Watson‘s translation:

Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee – zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now – now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

“A good cook changes his knife once a year-because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month-because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room – more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until – flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”

“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”

**

That’s a long-ish quote, but its rollicking good humor will have carried you through it, and I wanted to give you a sense of the Zhuangzi as I have known and loved it — to taste it in comparison with CC Tsai‘s vision / version of the same tale, as represented in a couple of frames from his telling:

**

So now we have Burton Watson‘s “the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room” and Brian Bruya‘s “my knife glides in and out between the bone joints, moving as it pleases: the cow suffers no pain and, in the end, doesn’t even know it’s dead.”

Pretty remarkable, either way — but that’s in English, and who knows what contortions a translator must make to move from Chinese into English? Watson‘s Chuang-tsu is closer to Lao-tsu, if you compare the statement of principle to its embodiment in an anecdote:

Ursula Le Guin‘s translation of the Tao Te Ching is even more succinct:

The immaterial enters the impenetrable..

No wonder cook Ting’s vorpal blade went snicker-snack, to borrow a phrase from Lewis Carroll‘s poem, Jabberwocky. And come to think of it, Lewis Carroll, aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the Christ Church, Oxford logician, may indeed be the English language’s native equivalent of the Chinese Zhuangzi.

**

As I hope I have indicated, Chuang Tzu / Zhuangzi, even in translation, is a writer of enormous charm and insight, and CC Tsai‘s presentation marries the conventions of the comic book with classical Chinese artistry to provide an exemplary introduction to one of the world’s great philosopher-humorists.

Delightful. Warmly recommended.

JM Berger’s Extremism, from MIT Press. Brilliant.

Monday, September 24th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — my third JM Berger review, following reviews of Jihad Joe and ISIS: State of Terror ]
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**

I ordered a copy of JM Berger‘s Extremism months early from Amazon, having followed many of the posts in which he was formulating the insights that led to the book, and expecting a volume full of the very detailed diagrams and network analyses they contained:

Image sources:

  • ICCT, Countering Islamic State Messaging Through “Linkage-Based” Analysis
  • Intelwire, EXTREMIST CONSTRUCTION OF IDENTITY
  • **

    These diagrams, and the research that underlies them — the work of JM and his colleague, Haroro J Ingram — attest to JM’s skill at the detailed drill-down level, the equivalent of rock-face drilling in a mine. The book couldn’t be further from my expectations: it attests to an entirely different set of skills, those of simplicity, grace, and a superb command of language.

    JM has the ability to communicate directly with a lay audience at their (our) level. He neither shies away from nuance nor adds needless complications — either of which would be a form of condescension to the reader.

    JM’s writing is direct and clean:

  • Terrorism is a tactic, whereas extremism is a belief system.
  • Extremism is a spectrum of beliefs, not necessarily a simple destination.
  • Group radicalization precedes individual radicalization
  • **

    Above are three of the pull-quotes, extracted from the book’s text, that state some of JM’s basic propositions on lucid, large-print, white on black pages, scattered as needed across the book’s 167 short pages (plus glossary, notes, bibliography, further reading, index)..

  • What extremism is, how extremist ideologies are constructed, and why extremism can escalate into violence
  • That’s the core proposition of the whole work, buttressed as it is with a wealth of detailed research and analysis. And radical…

    JM’s approach is already radical in its (his) refusal to treat only one ideological or religious frame for extremism. Studying both ISIS and home grown Identity groups, those who promote violence and those who arguably foreshadow it, led JM to see extremism itself as the most fruitful category to study — not terrorism, nor Islam, not the Citizen Sovereignty movement nor alt-right, but extremism tout court.

    That broadening of the frame allows Berger a set of analytic insights that were obscured by detail in earlier, more limited studies, and his book is the elegant formulation of those insights, simply, and with a forest of scholarship in support.

    **

    JM lists Impurity, Conspiracy, Dystopia, Existential threat, and Apocalypse as central “crisis narratives” utilized by in-groups as they view out-groups — but it is the in-group-out-group distinction which is central to his thinking, its wrongness characterized by the in-group’s paranoid conspiracist suspicions of the out-group’s impurity, dystopic being the nature of the world now ruled by the out-group, and to be abhorred or saved by the in-, with existential threat and apocalypse providing the sense of time-crunch, urgency.

    All this, I say, with a simplicity and elegance which belies the originality and scholarship that undergirds it.

    Above highly recommended.


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