Saturday, July 17, 2010

Dear diary

First a poem about keeping a diary (by Philip Larkin):

Forget What Did

Stopping the diary
Was a stun to memory,
Was a blank starting,
One no longer cicatrized
By such words, such actions
As bleakened waking.
l wanted them over.
Hurried to burial
And looked back on
Like the wars and winters
Missing behind the Windows
of an opaque childhood.
And the empty pages?
Should they ever be filled
Let it be with observed
Celestial recurrences,
The day the flowers come.
And when the birds go.

I'm not sure that 'Windows' should be capitalized, but that's how it was on the site I copied it from. And it's unlike Larkin to do the contemporary poet's trick of throwing in one word that you have to look up in a dictionary ('cicatrized'--closed by scar formation, healed), but otherwise this is one of his best.

Yesterday I saw Inception and watched the end of Hero. Inception is a lot like The Matrix--entertaining, but not great, and philosophical or thought-provoking, but a bit superficially. So it's a little like Avatar. Its main weaknesses are a lack of beauty and too much action. That is, there is a lot of shooting, explosions, car chases, etc. that are all quite generic and feel like a distraction from the main story. Rightly or wrongly, I didn't feel while it was going on that anything important was ever going to happen as a result of it.

Hero is much better looking but less interesting. It's a myth about the foundation of China that features masses of people dressed in the same colours swarming against a background of a similar colour, and a handful of heroes who have magical, balletic fighting abilities. Like many Japanese samurai movies, the heroes have incredible abilities, but unlike these Japanese films, these abilities are not just amazing but physically impossible. So there is an absurdity about the very idea of them, and, [spoiler alert] of course, even they could not, and do not, prevail against the mass armies of the Emperor. Their heroic acts end up being acts of self-sacrifice for the good of the many. So the film effectively rejects the idea of the hero. It's tempting to try to read something about communism or Confucianism or Chinese culture into this, but I'll resist.

Inception's philosophy is of a strange kind. It seems designed to make you say "Oh wow" or "Cool!", but I can't imagine anyone being really troubled by it (unless they already had some kind of mental illness--then it might be really disturbing). This puzzle-like quality (philosophy as entertainment) is what leads me to call it superficial. Puzzles like this can be solved, perhaps with difficulty, and need not arise in the first place, so they don't really matter much. The kind of philosophical problem that does matter, it seems to me, is the kind that is more than just a puzzle. Logic and a priori argument won't solve these problems. Since they are not purely intellectual they are likely to be expressed with too much soul or heart to be cool, and require something more like therapy than argument. This therapy would be the kind of conversation I tried to describe here. Somehow I think (or intuit or perhaps just feel) that leading words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use would involve poeticizing issues that seem purely intellectual, or seeing the poetry that is already there. And this would involve understanding the relationship between poetry and metaphysics, and the significance of "ordinary language" for Wittgensteinian philosophy.

Which is all to say that I have some vague thoughts at the back of my mind about ordinary language philosophy and the idea that philosophers ought to be concerned with solving problems.

p.s. A. O. Scott pretty much nails Inception in his review here. H/t the wife.

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