Hold It All

Category: Intellectuals

Old, Learned, Respectable Bald Heads

I saw this book on my shelf, opened to a page, and found this–

But that is the sort of thing we can expect from the Abstract Owl, the dried-up Western descendant of the Confucianist Dedicated Scholar, who, unlike his Noble but rather unimaginative ancestor, thinks he has some sort of monopoly on—-

“What’s that?” Pooh interrupted.

“What’s what?” I asked.

“What you just said—the Confusionist, Desiccated Scholar.”

“Well, let’s see. The Confusionist, Desiccated Scholar is one who studies Knowledge for the sake of Knowledge, and who keeps what he learns to himself or to his small group, writing pompous and pretentious papers that no one else can understand, rather than working for the enlightenment of others. How’s that?”

“Much better,” said Pooh.

–Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

Title above is line 2 from W. B. Yeats’s poem, “The Scholars”

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Neither Conformism Nor Eccentricity

John Armstrong, Love, Life, Goethe:
Lessons of the Imagination from the Great German Poet

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007

Almost twelve years ago I read this book, and the themes of Bildung and mastery were most striking. I recall theologian Matthew Fox’s distinction between religion and spirituality—religion is what you believe because of what someone else experienced; spirituality is what you believe because of what you’ve experienced. The following passages give a taste of Armstrong’s investigations into Goethe’s spirituality…

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In his writings, Goethe was trying to understand his own life. Goethe was not primarily ‘confessing’ his private failings; he wanted to do something more risky and more valuable: confess his strengths and grasp what had gone well: how he had been happy and successful. He thought, as most writers secretly do, that we could learn from him how to lead better our own lives. 4

The moral is simple: don’t just stare at my life as if it were a puppet show: create your own life, and feel free to take your plots from me. 20

Goethe set himself to conquer this fear [of heights] and gradually, by repeated attempts, completely overcame his fear and was able to enjoy the wonderful prospect without anxiety. 44

The point of self-mastery isn’t to keep oneself good or pure or to resist temptation; we may need to overcome our fears to do some of the things we most want. Self-mastery, here, is the means to pleasure, not the mechanism for resisting its allure. 44

Goethe’s underlying ambition was concerned with personal growth, with the mutual exchange of inner and outer. He did not long to write more and more successful novels, but to become a particular kind of person. Weimar was to offer him a great opportunity. It was his chance to ‘get real.’ The imaginative and expressive powers so evident in the writing of Werther might be raised to even high worth if they could somehow be integrated with a deep appreciation of everyday life. 102 Read the rest of this entry »

Why Do They Come to Hinder Us?

Julien Benda, The Treason of the Intellectuals (La Trahison des Clercs) [1927]

Julien Benda’s Treason of the Intellectuals can be read as a gloss on the Dreyfus Affair. In this polemic against intellectuals who have betrayed their vocation, Benda affirms the contestatory position of a writer like Zola. Benda takes note of the modern perfecting of political passions, particularly those of race, class, and nation. He asserts that “[o]ur age is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds. It will be one of its chief claims to notice in the moral history of humanity.” [27] And it is just the pursuit of such political passions that constitute what Benda deems the “real” world, of the layperson whose expected mission is to pursue practical interests. The true intellectual, on the other hand, has a two-fold mission: to pursue in his or her intellectual path disinterested activity for its own sake and to remind the laypersons that there is a transcendent set of values that ought to be respected. The true intellectual, according to Benda, would have to agree with Jesus’s avowal, “My kingdom is not of this world.” [43] The intellectuals have an utterly pure mission, in contrast to the impure and practical interests that govern the masses: “I only say that the ‘clerks’ who indulged in this fanaticism betrayed their duty, which is precisely to set up a corporation whose sole cult is that of justice and of truth, in opposition to the peoples and the injustices to which they are condemned by their religions of this earth.” [57] It is by steadfastly maintaining allegiance to that cult of justice and truth that the intellectual fulfills her role. Read the rest of this entry »

“I Belong to Chomsky”

The following is the chapter, “Peril,” from The Book of Mev.

 

Spring 1994 was blooming in the Bay Area. We participated in a Good Friday  demonstration at the Lawrence Livermore nuclear laboratory with Steve Kelly and our Pax Christi friends.  The following week, we welcomed Noam Chomsky to our campus.  On several occasions, we had both heard Chomsky fill the huge lecture hall on MIT’s campus when Mev and I lived in Cambridge in 1990-1991.

Chomsky had a slew of engagements. He was kind to include the GTU in his overbooked schedule, which has been overbooked for the last decade and   a half, as  he is constantly on the road, all over the world, giving talks.  That’s what he does best: explicate the nature of U.S. foreign policy in a way that ordinary people can understand. This has long earned him scorn and dismissal by those with the proper PhD political science credentials.  When  I interviewed him in Cambridge, he said to me, “When I enter the Harvard faculty club, you can feel the chill from  those professors.”  And even though he personally had no use for organized religion, he still had strong appreciation of the Catholic militants in Latin America whom he had met and stayed with throughout Nicaragua on a speaking tour there in the mid-1980s.  His anarchist convictions were interwoven with his personal practices:  Even though he was known world-wide as a linguist and philosopher of first rank and a radical political activist, he was eminently down-to-earth. He talked in as many monosyllables as possible because he believed that political commentators so regularly tried to make their specialty arcane and above the heads of folks.  Chomsky was different.  So, although I was delighted that he responded to my late letter of invitation, I wasn’t so surprised.  He’s a mensch, I told Mev.  Or, as my friend Angela, a Reform rabbi,  exclaimed, “He’s my rebbe!”

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For Friends in NYC: Norman Finkelstein Lectures

Check out Norman Finkelstein at the Brooklyn Central Library for his lecture series, “Bracing for the Revolution: Landmark Documents and Speeches in American History”:

Bracing for the Revolution is a free ten-week class offered as part of BPL’s Library School series taught by Norman Finkelstein.

The US is at a crossroads. The status quo cannot endure much longer.  Too many people are hurting and desperate.  They don’t want to repair the system.  They want to radically alter it.  We, the People, are about to embark on a journey into uncharted territory. But it’s still unclear which path will be chosen: the one on the left or on the right. The upcoming elections in November 2018 will present a tantalizing hint.  To prepare for the journey ahead, we must learn from the past, so as to preserve in the future what’s best from the past and so as not to repeat in the future the errors of the past.

This class will critically analyze the most influential and insightful documents and speeches in American history, with an eye to learning practical-political lessons from them. Among the documents we will look at are: Declaration of Independence, US Constitution, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms,” Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Martin Luther King’s “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” Malcolm X’s speech at Oxford, Noam Chomsky’s “Responsibility of the Intellectual.” The last 30 minutes of each class will be devoted to a discussion of current events.

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Jew-in-the-Library, Jew-in-the-Streets

Jill Krementz, The Jewish Writer, Henry Holt and Company, 1998

Portraits, bios, occasionally quotations form this coffee table book collection of Jewish writers, poets, novelists, scholars. Wiesel is here, as is his nemesis Hannah Arendt, as is Norman Finkelstein’s nemesis, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.

Chava Rosenfarb touched me most.

The book’s a testimony to Jewish empowerment, making it (Podhoretz is included), with some occasional sentimentality. The Holocaust survivors are here, a few Yiddish writers, a few Israelis (no women), the young and the ancient, many New Yorkers.

I don’t think the word “Palestinians” is in the whole book, and why should it be? This is a feel-good tribute to the tribe’s success stories. Why muck it up with notice of Israel’s ethnic cleansing program? (But then, if Krementz had done a similar book on “American Writers” in 1982, you wouldn’t be surprised if no one mentioned the recent Indochina cataclysms, compliments of the United States.) Thus, I.B. Singer’s line doesn’t appear to apply to many of these writers: “Life itself is a permanent crisis.” In the Promised Land of American Success, Academy of Arts and Letters, Holocaust and Lower East Side Memorials, how could it be?

What follows is a list of those writers I’d be happy to read (or in some cases, get reacquainted with): Read the rest of this entry »

To Have Been Exiled by Exiles

I was rereading Edward Said’s Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, which is a great collection of essays on literature and  culture with exploration of the experiences of dislocation, exile, migration, and empire as well as an examination of autobiographical themes, like Egypt, music and piano; the intellectual and academic life; and Palestine.  Here are some reflections that caught my attention…

 

[Mahfouz] is not only a Hugo and a Dickens, but also a Galsworthy, a Mann, a Zola, and a Jules Romain. 318

Mahfouz’s novels, his characters and concerns, have been the privileged, if not always emulated, norm for most other Arab novelists, at a time when Arabic literature as a whole has remained marginal to Western readers for whom Fuentes, Garcia Marquez, Soyinka, and Rushdie have acquired vital cultural authority.  320

Indeed, in Lebanon the novel exists largely as a form recording its own impossibility, shading off or breaking into autobiography (as in the remarkable proliferation of Lebanese women’s writing), reportage, pastiche, or apparently authorless discourse.  322

What Khoury finds in these formless works is precisely what Western theorists have called “Post-Modern”: that amalgam principally of autobiography, story, fable, pastiche, and self-parody, highlighted by an insistent and eerie nostalgia.  323

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“My Library Is What Is in My Head”

Leland Poague, ed.Conversations with Susan Sontag
University Press of Mississippi, 1995

Sometimes I feel that, in the end, all I am really defending—but then I say all is everything—is the idea of seriousness, of true seriousness. What strikes me is how unambitious and superficial most American literature is. 245

I write to be part of literature, not for other people. 262

Reading these interviews, I was reminded how clueless I was as a Bellarmine graduate. It was my senior week, 1982, no classes, and I was sitting in the cafeteria waiting to lunch with James Petrick and Paul Fleitz, and prof and poet and Merton intimate Ron Seitz sat beside me and asked me what I wanted to do now.  I mumbled something to him, and he offered me a wry smile as he said, “So you want to be an intellectual, don’t you?”  Yes, Ron, I did, but had precious few models.

I became keenly interested in the work of Susan Sontag quite late, 2003, in fact, while reading her speech for an award in which she linked the witnesses of Oscar Romero and Rachel Corrie, the latter who had been bulldozed to death by an IDF soldier while serving as a volunteer wit the International Solidarity Movement. Later that year, I and friends from St. Louis went to Palestine and gave time with the same organization.  I read many of her essays which were posted at Znet in the following years.   A “gluttonous reader,” Sontag reminded me of Edward Said and George Steiner, whom I began reading in the 1990s.

The following excerpts spoke to me: first, what some of her interviewers made of Sontag, and, second, some of her reflections on themes important to me over the years….

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Bellamy: No one could have been more charming and cooperative. 35

Raddatz: If I had to apply the word “intellectual” to a single person, only she would come to mind. She has a lightening-like joy, an inexhaustible curiosity about events and processes even of the most remote type… 88

Lesser: Her own tone, however, is one of eminent rationality. If she is the modern version of the nineteenth-century sage, then she is certainly a toned-down Ruskin, a sane Nietzsche—and in fact a great part of her appeal as a stylist lies in that reasonable tone of certainty, that restrained assertiveness, that assurance of her own well-groundedness. 92 Read the rest of this entry »

Giving No Peace to Those in the Country Who Are Violating All the Laws of Truth  

She represented the honor and conscience of Russia, and probably nobody will ever know the source of her fanatical courage and love of the work she was doing.

— Liza Umarova, Chechen singer

 

Colleagues helped put together the volume, Is Journalist Worth Dying For? about the intrepid Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, assassinated in 2006.  The book contains writings from the last years of her life as well as stirring testimonies by those who knew her and respected her work.

For years she’d written about the horrors in Chechnya, which earned her the denunciation you’d expect from her own government.  From Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn, such dissidents are ever a thorn in the side of Russian power, which thinks  it is, or should be, worthy only of praise.

Here is a small sample of her voice…

I have never sought my present pariah status and it make me feel like a beached dolphin. I am no political infighter. 

I will not go into the other joys of the path I have chosen: the poisoning, the arrest, the embanking by mail and over the Internet, the telephoned death threats. The main thing is to get on with my job, to describe the life I see, to receive visitors every day in our newspaper’s offices who have nowhere else to bring their troubles, because the Kremlin finds they stories off-message. The only place they can be aired is in our newspaper, Novaya gazeta.

What am I guilty of? I have merely reported what I witnessed, nothing but the truth.    [6]

Believe me, there is nothing more hateful than, in your own country, to feel that you are a target for shooting practice for parasites living it up, eating and drinking at your—a taxpayer’s—expense. And then they have the gall to denigrate you. [17] Read the rest of this entry »

Alexander Cockburn on Edward Said

Only last week did I learn that Alex Cockburn had a book that came out in 2013, A Colossal Wreck. Earlier today I was reading entries from 2003, and came across this tribute to Edward Said.  Here’s an excerpt, with reference to Christopher Hitchens (Andrew Ivers, take a peek): “He never lost the capacity to be wounded by the treachery and opportunism of supposed friends. A few weeks ago he called to ask whether I had read a particularly stupid attack on him by his very old friend Christopher Hitchens in the Atlantic Monthly. He described with pained sarcasm a phone call in which Hitchens had presumably tried to square his own conscience by advertising to Edward the impending assault. I asked Edward why he was surprised, and indeed why he cared. But he was surprised and he did care. His skin was so, so thin, I think because he knew that as long as he lived, as long as he marched onward as a proud, unapologetic and vociferous Palestinian, there would be some enemy on the next housetop down the street eager to pour sewage on his head.”