Monday, February 4, 2019

The dense, glittering stream of reality

Perhaps the most philosophical film of last year was Happy as Lazarro, in which the title character is reminiscent in some ways of both Socrates and Christ, and in which vaguely Marxy questions are raised about politico-economic systems and people's lives within them. (To be less obscure: when a group of peasants are moved overnight from a feudal society into a contemporary capitalist one they still end up broke and with very little opportunity to improve their lives. Does this reveal their lack of grit, initiative, etc. or show that the system is to blame? Or, since this is a work of fiction, does it show nothing at all?) But I would like to think of Zama as philosophical too. The best review I've found of it is this one in The New York Review of Books. It's here that the director, Lucrecia Martel's, desire "to film not Don Diego [Zama]’s hallucinations or his distorted perception of the world, but the dense, glittering stream of reality he moves through: the experience that precedes the interior monologue" is described. Also worth reading, though, is Glen Kenny's review, which notes that the film ends "on a scene of verdant nature not entirely stained by humanity." 

The dense, glittering stream of reality through which Zama moves is not only the horrible and absurd colonialism that most reviews focus on but also the verdant and magical natural world, with its llamas, tall grasses, and strangely attired human inhabitants. Zama is mostly talked about in the reviews I've read as an absurd figure living a frustrated and ridiculous life that he deserves because his sins are "of his own making." There is something to this, of course (why would so many critics say it otherwise?, and aren't everyone's sins of their own making?), but he can also be seen, it seems to me, as a kind of everyman. He is described as mediocre, which suggests averageness, and as characterized by "thwarted dignity and unrequited desires, [and] his bewildered attempts to grasp the logic of his predicament and exercise some sort of control." Otherwise known as the human condition, as Geoff Dyer might say.

There is a real danger that I'm projecting (I certainly tend to think "human world bad, natural world good"), but it seems to me that Zama contrasts the violent, mediocre, cruel, and tedious worlds that people make for themselves with the almost literally incredible larger world of beauty and strangeness around us. Zama waits for a transfer to another post that never comes, but the switch he really needs to make is of a different kind.

Searching for Zama led me to Scipio Africanus, which features a recreation of the Battle of Zama. This is literally fascist propaganda (made in Italy in 1937), but it seems tame in comparison with a movie like 300. It's been a while since I saw that film, and I don't plan to watch it again just to get my facts straight, but as I recall 300 pits a bunch of manly British actors playing Spartans against a bizarre coalition of brown and Asian types (didn't some of them look Samurai-ish?), led by a queer Xerxes. My point is not to bash an old movie but to note that the racism, nationalism, and lust for war (or glory) in Scipio Africanus is no worse than we are used to seeing in movies, and in some cases significantly weaker than what can easily be found in contemporary culture. Whether this causes fascism is probably debatable, but it can't be good.                  

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Setiya on Murdoch

Just as anyone who might like Kacey Musgraves has almost certainly already heard her most recent album, so anyone with an interest in Iris Murdoch has probably already read Kieran Setiya's review of Gary Browning on Why Iris Murdoch Matters. Still, if you haven't read it yet, I recommend it. Partly it's a nice example of how to write a generous review. And partly I think this is a useful statement of some key ideas from Murdoch:
Murdoch has three big ideas, of which the first is key. She is fundamentally opposed to a view of “moral psychology,” the activity of deliberation and choice, that she associates with both existentialism and the Oxford moral philosophy of her time. On this view, we first come to a neutral description of our circumstance, which leaves open what to do, and then choose freely among our options, expressing our character or moral principles. For Murdoch, description is never neutral. The moral task is to describe one’s circumstance correctly. Once you find the right description, choice is virtually automatic, though not on that account unfree. This process calls for “unsentimental, detached, unselfish, objective attention […] a kind of intellectual ability to perceive what is true, which is automatically at the same time a suppression of self”; once fully achieved, “true vision occasions right conduct.” “If I attend properly,” Murdoch writes, “I will have no choices and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at.” Murdoch’s second idea is that the primary obstacle to attention is our natural egoism, the “fat relentless ego.” Her third idea is that the answer to egoism, the source of psychic energy that fuels our attention to reality, is love.

These are real things

As far as I know, this was the best song released last year (which I have only just discovered). I found out about Kacey Musgraves from j., via this blog, and Tracyanne Campbell has talked this album up on Twitter, so thanks to both of them for this find. If G.K. Chesterton were to write a country love song it might sound like this.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Highlights of 2018

In no particular order, here's my top ten of things I can remember from this past year:
  1. Beijing
  2. Leipzig
  3. My son got into his first choice university
  4. I read the Bible 
  5. Movies: Blackkklansman and Happy as Lazzaro
  6. Publishing four papers in four months
  7. Seeing Toots and the Maytals at Lockn
  8. TV: Babylon Berlin, Dogs of Berlin, and El Marginal
  9. I made my playlist, which turned out more or less how I wanted it.
  10. I discovered this song, which seems to have influenced two other songs I really like too:

Let's hope 2019 is as good, if not better. Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Is ethics a subject, part II

Here are a couple more passages from the Cora Diamond paper that I mentioned here. The first is the full paragraph from which I quoted, the second is a related footnote.

The paper is "Realism and Resolution: Reply to Warren Goldfarb and Sabina Lovibond" in the Journal of Philosophical Research, Volume XXII, 1997, pp. 75-86.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018


I wonder whether anyone has ever connected Marcel Duchamp's Fountain with Schopenhauer or Kraus, Schopenhauer writes (in The World as Will and Representation) that:
when some external cause or inward disposition lifts us suddenly out of the endless stream of willing, delivers knowledge from the slavery of the will, the attention is no longer directed to the motives of willing, but comprehends things free from their relation to the will, and thus observes them without personal interest, without subjectivity, purely objectively, gives itself entirely up to them so far as they are ideas, but not in so far as they are motives. Then all at once the peace which we were always seeking, but which always fled from us on the former path of the desires, comes to us of its own accord, and it is well with us. It is the painless state which Epicurus prized as the highest good and as the state of the gods; for we are for the moment set free from the miserable striving of the will; we keep the Sabbath of the penal servitude of willing; the wheel of Ixion stands still.
But this is just the state which I described above as necessary for the knowledge of the Idea, as pure contemplation, as sinking oneself in perception, losing oneself in the object, forgetting all individuality, surrendering that kind of knowledge which follows the principle of sufficient reason, and comprehends only relations; the state by means of which at once and inseparably the perceived particular thing is raised to the Idea of its whole species, and the knowing individual to the pure subject of willless knowledge, and as such they are both taken out of the stream [255] of time and all other relations. It is then all one whether we see the sun set from the prison or from the palace.
Inward disposition, the predominance of knowing over willing, can produce this state under any circumstances. This is shown by those admirable Dutch artists who directed this purely objective perception to the most insignificant objects, and established a lasting monument of their objectivity and spiritual peace in their pictures of still life, which the ├Žsthetic beholder does not look on without emotion; for they present to him the peaceful, still, frame of mind of the artist, free from will, which was needed to contemplate such insignificant things so objectively, to observe them so attentively, and to repeat this perception so intelligently; and as the picture enables the onlooker to participate in this state, his emotion is often increased by the contrast between it and the unquiet frame of mind, disturbed by vehement willing, in which he finds himself. In the same spirit, landscape-painters, and particularly Ruisdael, have often painted very insignificant country scenes, which produce the same effect even more agreeably.
He has in mind natural objects and scenes, but one might either mock or try to confirm Schopenhauer's ideas about the objective perception of insignificant objects by presenting a urinal as a work of art.

Then there's Kraus (writing in 1913):
Adolf Loos and I – he literally and I grammatically – have done nothing more than show that there is a difference between an urn and a chamber pot and that it is this distinction above all that provides culture with elbow room. 
I don't know how much Duchamp would have known about either Schopenhauer or Kraus, but Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven might have. 

Even if there is no causal chain from Schopenhauer and/or Kraus to Duchamp (or Freytag-Loringhoven or whoever submitted Fountain), one still might wonder what, if anything, Fountain says or shows about Schopenhauer's philosophy.

OK, back to grading papers.