Category: 2019

Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by R. J. Hollingdale

After reading Sue Prideaux’s biography of Nietzsche, I Am Dynamite!, I wanted to read something from the philosopher himself. I hadn’t read anything of his since On the Genealogy of Morality — or Moralsseven years ago. I wanted to understand better what was bothering the poor man. And how he thought people should live.

Beyond Good and Evil has nine parts. Each part is composed of aphorisms or sections, sometimes a page or two, sometimes a single paragraph. Overall, it was rough going. I often had no idea what he was complaining about (he mostly complains). There were also passages like this, the meaning of which seems clear at first:

Today, … when the herd animal alone obtains and bestows honours in Europe, when “equality of rights” could all too easily change into equality of wrongdoing: I mean into a general war on everything rare, strange, privileged, the higher man, the higher soul, the higher duty, the higher responsibility, creative fullness of power and mastery — today, being noble, wanting to be by oneself, the ability to be different, independence and the need for self-responsibility pertains to the concept “greatness”; and the philosopher will betray something of his ideal when he asserts: “He shall be the greatest who can be the most solitary, the most concealed, the most divergent, the man beyond good and evil, the master of his virtues, the superabundant of will; this shall be called greatness…. [sec. 212].

Nietzsche’s fundamental idea is that the most important fact about human beings is their will to power — their desire to control and create. He was convinced that Christian morality, the morality of “the herd”, with its ideas like “turning the other cheek” and “the meek shall inherit the Earth”, interferes with humanity’s will to power. In particular, it interferes with the will to power of those blessed with genius, the greatest among us. He was well aware of Goethe, Beethoven, Napoleon and Wagner, all towering figures in his opinion, but he apparently believed there would be more such tremendously accomplished figures if only everyday morality didn’t hold them back. In order to achieve greatness, a person must go beyond the standard ideas of good and evil. If one is to achieve greatness, the transvaluation (or reconsideration) of all values is necessary.

But what values should a genius live by? Is it necessary to ignore the Golden Rule? Sacrifice everything else to one’s art or projects? Ignore common courtesy? Trample other people however and whenever it feels right? After reading Nietzsche’s biography, two of his books and several summaries of his ideas, I still don’t know. I also don’t understand why he was so bothered by everyday morality. He seems to have taken the existence of common beliefs about good and evil as a personal affront.

He offers a clue when discussing what “a born, unavoidable psychologist and reader of souls” is confronted by:

The corruption, the ruination of higher human beings, of more strangely constituted souls is the rule: it is dreadful to always have such a rule before one’s eyes [sec. 269].

If anyone has ever been one, Nietzsche was a born psychologist. Perhaps he was speaking for himself in this passage. He must have viewed himself as “strangely constituted”. After he lost his mind, he suffered from extraordinary delusions of grandeur, describing his frequent contacts with the leading statesmen of Europe and sometimes referring to himself as God.

Scholars have determined that Nietzsche was not a German nationalist or an anti-semite. Some say the notion of the Übermensch was not central to his philosophy. So it was surprising to read some of his strongly-worded views. For example:

… that what is right for one cannot … by any means be right for another, that the demand for one morality for all is detrimental to precisely the higher men, in short that there exists an order of rank between man and man, consequently also between morality and morality [sec. 228].

Every elevation of the type man has hitherto been the work of an aristocratic society — and so it will always be: a society which believes in … orders of rank and differences of worth between man and man and needs slavery in some sense or other [257].

The noble caste was always in the beginning the barbarian caste: … they were more complete human beings (which, on every level, also means … “more complete beasts”) [257].

The essential thing in a good and healthy aristocracy is [that it] accepts with a good conscience the sacrifice of innumerable men who for its sake have to be suppressed and reduced to imperfect men, to slaves and instruments. Its fundamental faith must be that society should not exist for the sake of society but only as a foundation and scaffolding upon which a select species of being is able to raise itself .. to a higher existence [258].

One has to … resist all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of the strange and weaker, suppression, severity, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and, at the least and mildest, exploitation… Exploitation … pertains to the essence of the living thing … it is a consequence of the intrinsic will to power [259].

There is master morality and slave morality … The noble type of man feels himself to be the determiner of values, he does not need to be approved of, he judges “what harms me is harmful in itself”, he knows himself to be that which … accords honour to things, he creates values [260].

A morality of the rulers [says] that one has duties only toward one’s equals; that towards beings of a lower rank, towards everything alien, one may act as one wishes or “as the heart dictates” and in any case “beyond good and evil” [260].

The grander, more manifold, more comprehensive life lives beyond the old morality; the “individual” stands there, reduced to his own law-giving, to his own arts and stratagems for self-preservation, self-enhancement, self-redemption [262].

Egoism pertains to the essence of the noble soul, I mean the immovable faith that to a being such as “we are” other beings have to be subordinate by their nature, and sacrifice themselves to us … “it is justice itself” [265].

Nietzsche’s ethical theory might be called “aristocratic egoism” — self-centered behavior for the natural aristocrats among us (not the aristocrats with hereditary titles); a reasonable amount of respect for other aristocrats; and everybody else knowing their place. Who knows how many impressionable readers have taken these ideas seriously enough to have acted on them? The man wasn’t joking when he wrote: “I am dynamite!”

In conclusion, the best thing I can say about Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil is that I no longer feel the need to understand its author.

I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche by Sue Prideaux

I’m more interested in Nietzsche’s philosophy than his life, but I visited a famous bookstore this summer and wanted to buy a book. I’m glad I bought this one.

It’s an understatement to say that Nietzsche was quite a character. He was an accomplished scholar who left the academy when he was 35, citing his poor health. He had enough income (partly from his academic pension) to travel about Europe, develop various friendships, propose marriage a couple times, spend lots of time with Richard Wagner and his wife Cosima, do a great deal of hiking, compose music nobody cared for and write philosophy books hardly anyone bought when they were published. He suffered terribly from unspecified ailments and wrote short bursts of text in order to protect his eyesight.

Although Nietzsche was a fairly normal, although brilliant, young man, he became more eccentric as the years passed, until he totally lost his mind at the age of 55. He lived another eleven years, being watched over by his horrible sister, Elisabeth, one of the nastiest people I’ve ever read about. Being a great admirer of Hitler (who admired her in return), Elisabeth used her control of Nietzsche’s writings to give him a reputation as a proto-Nazi, when in fact he wasn’t a German nationalist or anti-Semitic at all. He was a cultured, mild-mannered European with interesting, vividly-expressed ideas about how to live in a world without using religion as a crutch. (This is the positive, revisionist view of Nietzsche that’s become widely accepted among scholars in the last 70 years.)

I Am Dynamite! won a prize in Britain as the best book of 2019. From the prize’s announcement:

… this magnificent biography of a very strange and difficult subject is wonderfully well-written, lucid and clear-headed. It is full of sharp and stylish turns of phrase, it gallops along at an energetic pace, and it is often extremely and surprisingly funny, with a great gift for characterisation….

Friedrich Nietzsche’s work rocked the foundation of Western thinking, and continues to permeate our culture, high and low – yet he is one of history’s most misunderstood philosophers. Sue Prideaux’s myth-shattering book brings readers into the world of a brilliant, eccentric and deeply troubled man, illuminating the events and people that shaped his life and work. I Am Dynamite! is the essential biography for anyone seeking to understand Nietzsche: the philosopher who foresaw – and sought solutions to – our own troubled times.

Not everyone has been so enthusiastic. Brian Leiter, a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, wrote a review in the Times Literary Supplement (which is mostly behind a paywall):

Prideaux is an especially vivid and engaging writer, who covers the facts of Nietzsche’s life well, although sometimes in soap-operatic detail….If Hollywood were to produce a movie of Nietzsche’s life, this book could provide the blueprint. Hollywood ought, however, to consult some philosophers if the movie is to do better than the book in conveying Nietzsche’s ideas.

Leiter argues briefly that Nietzsche wasn’t skeptical about science — he merely doubted science could teach us how to live. He says Prideaux gives too much importance to Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch and too little to his opinion that “human excellence, and the aesthetic pleasure it provided (think Beethoven or Goethe), made life worth living”. Leiter criticizes Prideaux for implying Nietzsche believed the universe has purpose, when he clearly didn’t, and that he was in pursuit of a “universal morality”, which is more debatable. The professor concludes:

Prideaux has the correct sense that Nietzsche is profound; but it is not clear she has much idea why.

I very much enjoyed this biography, but it is not for those wanting to learn something about the philosophy. Prideaux’s discussions of his ideas are at best superficial, at worst wrong.

I think the professor is a bit harsh in his assessment (as professors often are when a non-specialist writes about one of their particular specialties). I Am Dynamite! explains what it was like to be Friedrich Nietzsche and provides an introduction to his distinctive philosophy. If you want to understand more of what he thought, there are plenty of other books and articles to read, many of which feature opinions from experts who don’t always agree with Professor Leiter. As Nietzsche himself would say, his philosophy, as with most everything else in the world, is open to interpretation.

The Story of the Eye by George Bataille, Translated by Joachim Neugroschel

If your local New Jersey library doesn’t have a book, you can usually get it through the state’s Interlibrary Loan Service. It’s usually easy to find several libraries that will loan you their copy of whatever you want. But New Jersey’s statewide system has only one copy of The Story of the Eye. Rider University must have acquired it because it’s a work of academic interest. Other libraries must have avoided getting it because it’s really, really dirty.

The author, George Bataille (1897-1962), was “a French intellectual and literary figure working in literature, philosophy, anthropology, consumerism, sociology and history of art” [Wikipedia]. He wrote “essays, novels and poetry”. He published The Story of the Eye, a novella, in 1928 using a pseudonym. An American publisher issued this translation fifty years later.

Briefly, the story describes the sexual and criminal adventures of two teenagers, an unnamed boy and a girl named Simone. They are joined for a while by another girl, Marcelle, and later by a British nobleman, Lord Edward. Along the way, there is an absurd amount of sex, described in explicit and bizarrely dramatic fashion, mixed in with suicide, murder and lots and lots of bodily fluids, especially urine. There is bullfighting, an interlude in a pigsty and goings on in a cathedral that the Catholic Church would not like at all. Eyes, eggs and eye- or egg-like objects also turn up in various, usually disgusting ways.

In a phrase, The Story of the Eye is an early example of “transgressive fiction”, a literary genre in which the characters violate the norms and expectations of society in various “unusual or illicit” ways. As such, it’s been discussed and celebrated through the years by a number of academics, intellectuals and artists. Someone even used it as the basis for a movie.

I wouldn’t say I exactly enjoyed reading it. It’s a curiosity. I assumed it was supposed to “mean something”, but didn’t know what. So it was a relief to find a brief final chapter that possibly provides a partial explanation. It’s called “Coincidences”. It describes events from the author’s life that may have given rise to his work. His father was disabled and died of syphilis. His mother tried to kill herself. The “author”, or Bataille, refers to “certain images …, the most scandalous, … those on which the conscious floats indefinitely, unable to endure them without an explosion or aberration” [105]. I don’t know if this final chapter actually describes some of the events from Bataille’s life that led to this story. I do know that The Story of the Eye is an explosion and an aberration.

Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz

Eve’s Hollywood is labeled as fiction but it’s hard to know how much of it’s fictional. First published in 1974, it’s written in the first person and describes the author’s life growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and her adventures as a young woman about town in the 60s. It doesn’t have a plot. It’s a series of usually brief chapters that seem almost randomly placed. We learn about Eve’s parents, her junior high and high school days in Hollywood, various friends and lovers, with stops in New York City and Rome along the way. Perhaps the names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty.

The Eve of the novel, and probably the Eve of reality, are or were a lot of fun to be with. She communicates her love of Los Angeles and makes shrewd observations about human nature. She rhapsodizes about the taquitos you could get at Olvera Street and watching a terrific MacGillivray-Freeman surf movie at the Santa Monica Civic. She tells stories about people and places you’d have like to have known (or avoided). I doubt if some of the people she describes were as beautiful as she says, but maybe they weren’t real anyway.

Did Eve Babitz really let a guy who called himself Bummer Bob crash at her house for a few days, and later find out that he was Bobby Beausoleil, one day to be a key member of the Manson Family?

Did the three sentences that constitute the chapter called “Cary Grant” [269] actually happen?

I once saw Cary Grant up close.

He was beautiful.

He looked exactly like Cary Grant.

I’m glad her books are being reprinted. I’m looking forward to reading her second novel, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., and a collection of her journalism, I Used To Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz. There are much worse ways a person could spend their time.

Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution: The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum by Lee Smolin

Lee Smolin is a theoretical physicist who is dissatisfied with the state of theoretical physics. He is not alone in being dissatisfied. Physicists have two wonderful theories —  quantum mechanics (which deals with the very small) and general relativity (which deals with the very large) — that don’t fit together. Some of them have been trying for decades to reconcile the two theories. In addition, there is a lot about quantum mechanics that seems crazy or at least paradoxical. It’s been argued, therefore, that the theory is incomplete.

Smolin believes that there is a fundamental reality separate from our perceptions that underlies both quantum mechanics and general relativity. He would like to figure out what that reality is. He says this makes him a “realist”.

The first part of the book discusses what Smolin calls “anti-realist” views, primarily the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics (sometimes referred to as the “shut up and calculate” view). He then outlines some competing views, such as Einstein’s, according to which quantum mechanics is incomplete.

In the final chapters, he offers the beginnings of his own theory. I won’t try to explain it, but he begins with an idea proposed by the brilliant German philosopher Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz (who died 300 years ago). Leibniz suggested that the universe is composed of an infinite number of simple substances called”monads”. The Wikipedia article on Leibniz says “each monad is like a little mirror of the universe”, i.e. a mirror reflecting all the other monads.

Near the end of the book, Smolin offers a one-sentence summary of his theory:

The universe consists of nothing but views of itself, each [view being from the perspective of] an event in [the universe’s] history, and the [universe’s] laws act to make these views as diverse as possible [271].

For Smolin, time is a fundamental feature of the universe. Space isn’t. Space emerges from events. Furthermore, the fact that space isn’t fundamental helps explain how two particles that are millions of miles away from each other can be “entangled”, so that an effect on one can immediately affect the other. That’s the idea of “non-locality” that Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”.

Smolin is sure that he doesn’t have all the answers, but he believes it’s worth trying to find them. If you’d like to know more, you’ll have to read the book or find someone else to explain it. There are diagrams and no math!

Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves by Patricia S. Churchland

Patricia Churchland is a well-known professor of philosophy. She is married to another well-known professor of philosophy, Paul Churchland. The Churchlands were profiled in The New Yorker in 2014 in an article called “Two Heads: A Marriage Devoted to the Mind-Body Problem”. They are both associated with a philosophical view known as “eliminative materialism”. Very briefly, it’s the idea that we are mammals, but with especially complex mammalian brains. and that understanding the brain is all we need in order to understand the mind. In fact, once we understand the brain sufficiently well, we (or scientists anyway) will be able to stop using (eliminate) common mental terms like “belief” and “desire” and “intention”, since those terms won’t correspond very well to what actually goes on in the brain.

So when I began reading Touching a Nerve, I expected to learn more about their distinctive philosophical position. Instead, Prof. Churchland describes the latest results in neuroscience and explains what scientists believe goes on in the brain when we live our daily lives, i.e. when we walk around, look at things, think about things, go to sleep, dream or suffer from illnesses like epilepsy and somnambulism. She admits that we still don’t understand a lot about the brain, but points out that neuroscience is a relatively new discipline and that it’s made a great deal of progress. I especially enjoyed her discussion of what happens in the brain that apparently allows us to be conscious in general (not asleep and not in a coma) vs. what happens when we are conscious of something in particular (like a particular sound), and her reflections on reductionism and scientism, two terms often used as pejoratives but that sound very sensible coming from her.

The closest she comes to mentioning eliminative materialism is in the following passage, when she seems to agree (contrary to my expectations given what I knew about the Churchlands) that common mental terms won’t ever wither away:

If, as seems increasingly likely, dreaming, learning, remembering, and being consciously aware are activities of the physical brain, it does not follow that they are not real. Rather, the point is that their reality depends on a neural reality… Nervous systems have many levels of organization, from molecules to the whole brain, and research on all levels contributes to our wider and deeper understanding [263].

I should also mention that the professor shares a number of stories from her childhood, growing up on a farm in Canada, that relate to the subject of the book. She also has an enjoyable style, mixing in expressions you might not expect in a book like this. For example, she says that reporting scientific discoveries “in a way that is both accurate and understandable” in the news media “takes a highly knowledgeable journalist who has the writing talent to put the hay down where the goats can get it” [256].

Here is how the book ends [266]:

Bertrand Russell, philosopher and mathematician, has the last word:

“Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.”

Rock on, Bertie.

American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology by D. W. Pasulka

I don’t know what to make of this book. The author is a professor in the Philosophy and Religion Department at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. The book was published by Oxford University Press. It’s received positive reviews in a number of reputable publications.

For the most part, Professor Pasulka treats the subject of UFOs or “unidentified aerial phenomena” from a scholarly perspective. She says the book is “about contemporary religion, using as a case study the phenomenon known as the UFO. It is also about technology” [1], in particular, how technology can affect the development of religion. A well-known example is how the printing press allowed the the mass production of Bibles in languages other than Latin. Widespread use of that powerful new technology contributed greatly to the Protestant Reformation. Based on her research, she believes there is a “widespread and growing religiosity focused on UFOs”, not only because of evidence or testimony regarding UFOs, but because the mass media (especially TV shows and movies) have convinced millions of people that UFOs represent highly-advanced technology, possibly of extraterrestrial origin.

To further her argument, she points out that religious references to supernatural events and entities often sound just like contemporary reports of strange phenomena in the skies and visitations from otherworldly beings. She argues that people who report contact with extraterrestrials are often greatly affected, in the same way that figures from religious history who reported visions (of the Virgin Mary, for example) were said to be affected.

I’m not sure there really is “widespread and growing religiosity focused on UFOs”. Maybe there will be one day. But I don’t think it’s going to happen unless more evidence is provided. One of the problems with American Cosmic is that the scientists and technologists who speak to the author about their beliefs aren’t identified. She says there is a significant group of well-known, extremely successful individuals who are convinced we are being visited by beings from other worlds or other dimensions. Some of them believe these beings are helping us make technological progress, rather like the mysterious black monoliths did in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Unfortunately, these respected researchers apparently insist on remaining anonymous out of fear that their professional reputations will suffer. So when Professor Pasulka tells us how she visited a secret location in the New Mexico desert in the company of one of these world-famous researchers, and that they found an artifact there, which other scientists later determined was “so anomalous as to be incomprehensible”, which “could not have been generated or created on Earth”, which “could not have been made in this universe”, we  are asked to take her word for it [240].

I didn’t find the parts of the book dealing with the relationship between religion and technology, or the detailed biographies of various researchers, very interesting. The descriptions of UFO sightings and bizarre visitations, however, were interesting in the way that good science fiction can be interesting. I didn’t come away convinced that all of the incredible stories are true. On the other hand, when you read stories in the New York Times or see something like this on CNN, who knows? (Note: the CNN story features the dangerous clown who lives in the White House for a few seconds at the end. Just a warning.)

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill

This book comes with a story. The author got an assignment from an entertainment magazine to write about the effect of the Manson Family murders on Hollywood. It was to be published in 1999, to mark the thirty-year anniversary of the horrible events of August 1969.  The magazine went out of business before he finished the article. In fact, he never finished the article. He finished this book instead. Chaos was published this year, in time to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the murders. He found the subject so complex and so mysterious, he did so much research, he conducted so many interviews, that it took him twenty years to finally publish something (with the help of another writer). The story of how the book got written is part of the book.

I bought Chaos after reading a brief interview with the author in the New York Times. Having grown up in Southern California and being old enough to remember 1969, I was  interested in the topic, not especially in Manson or his followers, but in the setting, the investigation and prosecution, and one of the people involved, Dennis Wilson.

The book’s subtitle refers to the “secret history” of the Sixties. Some of the history the author recounts isn’t that secret. It’s been known for years that police departments, the FBI and the CIA engaged in questionable, even illegal, practices in the Sixties, trying to fight or take advantage of the counterculture.

The real secrets the author uncovers pertain to relationships between Manson and various organs of the state, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Police Department, the office of the L.A. County District Attorney, Manson’s parole officers, scientists on the government payroll and shadowy figures apparently associated with the FBI or CIA. He doesn’t figure out that someone else committed the crimes, but he does cast a lot of doubt on the famous “Helter Skelter” explanation for what happened, i.e. that Manson wanted to start a race war and thought killing innocent people who lived in nice houses would do the trick.

O’Neill lists some of his accomplishments:

I’d discovered [what] no one else had, what I knew I had to share with the world. Like: Stephen Kay [a Manson prosecutor] telling me that my findings were important enough to overturn the verdicts. Lewis Watnick, the retired DA, saying that Manson had to be an informant. [Researcher] Jolly West writing to his CIA handlers to announce that he’d implanted a false memory in someone….The DA’s office conspiring with a judge to replace a defense attorney. Charlie Guenther fighting back tears to tell me about the wiretap he’d heard [which suggested the murders were committed to help jailed Family member Bobby Beausoleil look innocent]. [425-426]

But way too many mysteries remained:

The evidence I’d amassed against the official version of the Manson murders was so voluminous, from so many angles, that it was overdetermined. I could poke a thousand holes in the story, but I couldn’t say what really happened. In fact, the major arms of my research were often in contradiction with one another. It couldn’t be the case that the truth involved a drug burn gone wrong [revenge for being sold poor quality drugs], orgies with Hollywood elite, a counter-insurgency trained CIA infiltrator in the Family, a series of unusually lax sheriff’s deputies and district attorneys and judges and parole officers, an FBI plot to smear leftists and Black Panthers, an effort to see if research on drugged mice applied to hippies, and LSD mind-control experiments tested in the field … could it? There was no way. [394-395]

The two tantalizing theories I came away with were (1) that Manson was a government informant, which explains why he was able to get away with so much obvious criminal behavior without being tossed back in prison for violating his parole, and (2) that an uneducated ex-con like him was able to convince a group of hippies to commit terrible crimes because somebody who had researched the question taught him how to use acid and speed to screw with impressionable people’s minds. Whether either of those theories have any truth to them, you’ll come away from Chaos convinced that there is more to the story than what was reported over and over fifty years ago and has been repeated ever since.

Democracy by Joan Didion

Democracy was Joan Didion’s fourth novel. I began reading her third novel, A Book of Common Prayer, a few days ago, but it didn’t grab me, partly because the writing didn’t sound like Joan Didion. The writing in Democracy, published seven years later (in 1984), does.

The central character is Inez Christian Victor. She is from a prominent Hawaii family and married to a prominent mainland politician. The story Didion tells does not go in a straight line. Instead, she jumps around in time and space. The events she describes tend to involve Inez’s relationship through the years with Jack Lovett, a kind of “international man of mystery”. Lovett is apparently connected to the CIA. Events in the novel take place in New York City, Honolulu, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and, during the war, in Viet Nam.

Didion suggests at one point that we call her “the author”. This “author” supposedly began writing a different novel. She eventually focused on Inez, possibly because Inez is frequently in the public eye, written about and photographed as if she were Jacqueline Kennedy (except that Inez’s husband lost his race for the presidency). I can’t say we get a very clear understanding of Mrs. Victor. She sort of drifts through the novel, reacting to other people. Jack Lovett, the apparent CIA man, and a few other characters have more personality.

One way to look at Inez is to compare her point of view to Didion’s. I’ve sometimes wondered what point Didion is trying to make, especially in her essays. But recently I came upon an article about her written by Daniel Kaufman, a philosophy professor. He offers an answer:

It’s difficult to say, specifically, what I find so compelling about Didion’s work.  With most of the writers whom I admire, there are particular elements to which I can point — Hunter S. Thompson’s fierce independence; Kingsley Amis’s deliciously malevolent sense of humor; George Orwell’s unaffected, unpretentious humanity – but with Didion, the elements that make her work resonate so strongly with me are harder to pinpoint, because so much of it is characterized by ambivalence, sometimes studied, at other times bemused.  Ultimately, it is an ambivalence about whether we should view our lives and the things that happen to us and that we do as having a certain kind of significance; as playing into some meaningful, hopeful, and ultimately vindicating story.  It is Didion’s view that we feel a strong need to believe this – the opening line of The White Album reads, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” — but she is doubtful whether any of these stories are true or even if it is good for us to believe them.

That doesn’t describe her prose, but it helps me understand what she’s often doing. As for her prose, Democracy contains passages like this:

We were sitting in a swamp forest on the edge of Asia in a city that had barely existed a century before and existed now only as the flotsam of some territorial imperative and a woman who had once thought of living in the White House was flicking termites from her teacup and telling me about landing on a series of coral atolls in a seven-passenger plane with a man in a body bag.

An American in a body bag.

An American who, it was being said, had been doing business in situations where there were not supposed to be any Americans.

What did I think about this.

Finally I shrugged.

Inez watched me a moment longer, then shrugged herself.

“Anyway we were together”, she said. “We were together all our lives. If you count thinking about it.”

I wouldn’t read Democracy for the story. There hardly is one. But I enjoyed it anyway.

Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason by Justin E. H. Smith

Smith teaches philosophy at the University of Paris. This book is more of a survey than a history. He has chapters on irrationality as it relates to logic, nature, dreams, art, myth, pseudoscience, humor, the internet and death. He occasionally discusses the fact that the American president is a dangerous buffoon. (Or, as a New York Times columnist put it so well: “The most powerful country in the world is being run by a sundowning demagogue whose oceanic ignorance is matched only by his gargantuan ego”. Or, as a Washington Post columnist concluded: “If he can’t argue that he has delivered prosperity, all that remains is the single most repugnant human being to ever sit in the Oval Office, befouling everything he touches”. But back to the book.)

Smith argues that the difference between rationality and irrationality often depends on one’s perspective. For example, is it rational or irrational to concern ourselves so much with the future when we’re all going to die anyway? It depends on what our goals are. His principal thesis is that “irrationality is as potentially harmful as it is humanly ineradicable, and that efforts to eradicate it are themselves supremely irrational” [287].

It’s an interesting book, but I’d say the first part of that last sentence didn’t need to be proved (irrationality is harmful, both actually and potentially, and will never be eliminated) — and that Smith fails to prove the second part (that efforts to eliminate irrationality are supremely irrational).

This is from his chapter on death and one of the best passages in the book:

… what lifted the soldier out of his foxhole was not his faculty of reason, but rather something deeper, something we share with the animals, which the Greeks called “thumos” and which is sometimes translated as “spiritedness”. It is a faculty that moves the body without any need for deliberation. It is like something that propels us when we are driven by desire, when we dive into a mosh pit or into bed with someone we don’t quite trust. It is something to which we are more prone when we are drunk, or enraged, or enlivened by the solidarity and community of a chanting crowd.

These manifestations of irrationality, it should be clear, are, as he saying goes, beyond good and evil. Life would be unlivable if they were suppressed entirely. But to what precise extent should they be tolerated or, perhaps, encouraged? It will do no good to say flatly that they should be tolerated “in a reasonable balance” or “in moderation”. For the ideal of moderation is one that is derived from reason, and it is manifestly unfair to allow reason to determine what share it should itself have in human life in a competition between it and unreason. So if we can neither eliminate unreason, nor decide on a precise amount of it that will be ideal for human thriving, we will probably just have to accept that this will always remain a matter of contention, that human beings will always be failing or declining to act on the basis of rational calculation of expected outcomes, and that onlookers, critics and gossipers will always disagree as to whether their actions are worthy of blame or praise.

The speeder and the duelist and the others seem guilty of no failure to correctly infer from what they already know, in order to make decisions that maximize their own interests. Rather, in these cases, there is a rejection of the conception of life that it must be a maximization of one’s own long-term interests in order to be a life worth living [263-264].