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The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought
The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought
von Marilynne Robinson
  Taschenbuch

5.0 von 5 Sternen Buy a dozen and give 'em out like candy, 18. September 2000
This is a difficult review to write. I think very highly of Marilynne Robinson's work, and I would hate it if my wooden pedantries scared away even one prospective reader. As described here, the topics discussed in this book may seem dry, or irrelevant to your concerns, or unworthy of further discussion. In fact, "The Death of Adam" is not dry, but exhilarating; not irrelevant, but essential; and it represents a tradition of intelligent, fair-minded discourse that has not been an ideal, let alone a standard, in the 20th century.
It's informative, certainly--not as a collection of facts to be memorized, but as a sort of web of active information, the strands of which you can follow as far as you like. The writing is dazzling, with all the power of a language fully employed by a fully attending author. Her humor is devastating; better still, she uses it therapeutically, as a surgeon uses a scalpel. At its best, "The Death of Adam" makes one aspire to be as curious, thoughtful, compassionate, and honest as its author.
Chief among her concerns is that we treat the past as little more than a scapegoat for our era's problems. Important subjects on which people once failed, honestly, to reach agreement, we now fail even to recognize as important; and ideas of the past are contemptible except where they anticipate ideas of the present. It takes a bit of mental effort to remember that this attitude is not common to all times and places; it takes even more effort to realize what we're in danger of becoming by refusing to question its necessity. One of Ms. Robinson's most radical correctives is "to read major writers, and establish within rough limits what they did and did not say." A reasonable request, and yet...
Here I must bring up an earlier reviewer's remarks. Certainly, everyone should be able to differentiate between fair-minded criticism, and snarls of half-bright belligerence; still, I can't let the remarks of "a reader"--undeserved honorific!--from Washington DC go unchallenged. We have here essays on subjects ranging from neo-Darwinism to Puritanism to market economics. Two fascinating pieces trace the influence of Marguerite de Navarre on John Calvin, another demonstrates the anti-slavery subtext of the McGuffey readers, and yet another discusses the life and writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian who was executed by the Nazis. You'll notice, I hope, that "a reader" has nothing to say about Ms. Robinson's treatment of these subjects, offers no refutation of any of her statements, and suggests no other writer from whom the interested reader might seek better information. Instead, in his or her own inimitable style, "a reader" slaps her wrist for writing "poor prose." Personally, I tremble at daring even to praise so exquisite a prose writer as Ms. Robinson; one has to do it with words, after all!
I am not an academic, thank God, but I didn't find a single word she uses to be obscure. (And had I run into a word I didn't know, I would've appreciated the opportunity to look it up and find out what it meant. I don't think I'm alone in feeling that learning new things is an agreeable fringe benefit of reading books.) If her prose is poor, it's certainly no worse than that of Emerson, Chesterton, Sir Thomas Browne, Dickens, or Tolstoy, which is more than good enough for me.
Ms. Robinson obviously has no desire to baffle anybody; the entire point of this book is to affirm what we owe to ourselves and each other as civilized beings--foremost, perhaps, being the willingness to communicate honestly and in good faith.
But we are to put all this and more aside, so that we may consign Ms. Robinson to an arguably mythical class of environmentalist fanatics. This is a computer-like simulacrum of thought--if "expression of concern," then "diagnosis of hysteria." It's no wonder that so many people believe computers can be programmed to think. The chapter on "Wilderness" comprises barely ten pages out of 254; its historical claims are matters of public record, all perfectly verifiable. If any of its predictions are wrong, I would love to see the evidence (as, I'm sure, would Ms. Robinson). Far from focusing on "the plight of the koala," she mentions the animal once, as an example of how we concentrate on "environmental issues that photograph well."
Marilynne Robinson is also the author of the harrowing (and highly recommended) "Mother Country," the information in which could jaundice the sunniest of souls. And yet, despite having an unexcelled understanding of human cruelty and the drab postulates it thrives on, she's still engaged with the world--still passionate about the human capacity for feeling, knowing, and communicating things of transcendent value. If that's hysteria, I hope it's contagious!
To those who are already familiar with "Death of Adam," I heartily recommend a somewhat kindred book, also available from Amazon: Alan Garner's "The Voice That Thunders."


Uncle Tom's Cabin (Bantam Classics)
Uncle Tom's Cabin (Bantam Classics)
von Harriet Beecher Stowe
  Taschenbuch
Preis: EUR 4,30

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4.0 von 5 Sternen Yet another surprised reader, 27. Juli 2000
I too was surprised by "Uncle Tom's Cabin." I'd expected a poorly written melodrama with (at best) a tepid commitment to abolition and a strong undercurrent of racism. I was wrong. As a novel, I consider it to be better than many of its rough contemporaries (including "A Tale of Two Cities," "Vanity Fair," and "Sartor Resartus"). As an attack on slavery, it is uncompromising, well informed, logically sophisticated, and morally unassailable. It's also exciting, educational, and often funny.
The book has flaws, of course. The quality of the writing is variable, as it is in the works of many greater talents than Stowe. Herman Melville is one of my favorite writers, but I'd be hard-pressed to defend some of his sentences--or even some of his books--on purely literary grounds! There are indeed sentimental passages in "UTC." So what? There are plenty in Hawthorne, Dickens, Ruskin, and the Brontes, too...and lord knows our age has its own garish pieties. There are also a couple (only a couple!) of unfortunate remarks on the "childlike" character of slaves, but nothing so offensive as to render suspect Stowe's passionate belief that blacks are equal to whites in the eyes of God and must not be enslaved. (She also says that differences between blacks and whites do not result from a difference in innate ability, and argues that a white person raised to be a slave would show all the characteristics of one). By contrast, Plato wrote reams in defense of slavery and racialism, and yet people who point this out are considered spoilsports, if not philistines.
The reviewer who claimed to have learned from Stowe that "slavery is no worse than capitalism" has totally misunderstood Stowe, who says that slavery is AS terrible as capitalism. To be precise, Stowe equates the horrors of wage slavery under Victorian Britain's capitalist system of production with those of chattel slavery in the American South. Her definition of capitalism agrees perfectly with that of Karl Marx, who was a pro-abolitionist correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune (and was familiar enough with Stowe to have written a piece on her). Marx said that true capitalism is defined by "the annihilation of self-earned private property; in other words, the expropriation of the labourer." Marx did not consider America a capitalist state, because American workers had at least theoretical upward mobility and could acquire property. This was not at all true of the British working class when "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was written, as Stowe well knew. And there was nothing idiosyncratic about her opinion; contemporaneous books such as "The White Slaves of England" made the same connection between American chattel slavery and British wage slavery. The cruelty of both systems is what led Stowe to claim in an essay that the Civil War was not merely a war against slavery, but "a war for the rights of the working class of society as against the usurpation of privileged aristocracies."
As for the claim that Stowe says Christianity justifies slavery, this is either willful misreading or wishful thinking...she says the opposite so many times, and at such length, that to remove every expression of it would probably shorten the book by half (to the delight, apparently, of most of our nation's English students).
Not sure who to believe? If you're interested enough in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to have slogged through this meandering review, why not read it and see for yourself what Stowe does, and doesn't, say?


Gorfu Contra Nietzsche
Gorfu Contra Nietzsche
von G. E. Gorfu
  Taschenbuch

3.0 von 5 Sternen A Step in the Right Direction, 13. Juli 2000
Rezension bezieht sich auf: Gorfu Contra Nietzsche (Taschenbuch)
As someone who has despised Nietzsche's thought since I first read him, and who finds in his notion of the Will to Power an expression of human mediocrity at its weakest and most pathetic, I expected to enjoy this book a great deal. And yet, despite agreeing with almost everything Gorfu says, I didn't enjoy it because I wasn't impressed by his writing. He claims in the introduction that he set out to critique Nietzsche's ideas as viciously as Nietzsche critiqued the ideas of others; this is perfectly valid, but my concern is that people who are eager to attack Gorfu's conclusions will find ammunition in the often sloppy, sometimes almost hysterical prose that results. For me, a calmer, more straightforward style would've suited the subject better and been more unanswerable. (In her excellent book "The Death of Adam," Marilynne Robinson attacks Nietzsche calmly and with devastating accuracy.)
That said, I have nothing but respect for Gorfu's good intentions, his compassion, and his sympathies with the victims of oppression, all of which are in evidence on every page of this book. I especially liked his comments on the role of the aristocracy in human history.
Speaking of which, an earlier reviewer says Gorfu is "out of line" with academia for claiming that Nietzsche's philosophy is destructive and militaristic. It's instructive to see how the platitudes of one era become the heresies of another. In Nietzsche's time, it was commonly understood--by Nietzsche's detractors and adherents alike--that he was an ardent militarist whose writings inspired German nationalist aggression. One can argue that Nietzsche claimed (on some occasions) to despise German nationalism; considering his self-confessed penchant for contradiction and lying, it's hard to know what to make of this. Nonetheless, it is an established fact that German nationalists from his own day to Hitler's found Nietzsche's writings congenial and said as much--I see no reason not to take their testimony at face value, especially since they speak German as their first language. (In case my use of the word "platitudes" seems out of line as well, I must point out that in 1914, a commentator in the "Nation" noted that "The name of Nietzsche is beginning by the aid of the daily press to take on a sinister meaning for the man in the street." It was widely accepted, then, that Nietzsche and a few other German philosophers were responsible for WWI. Nowadays, of course, we're more concerned with WWII.)
How could academia conspire to white-wash Nietzsche? No conspiracy is necessary. The ideas of Heidigger, who was an avowed Nazi, are routinely discussed by academics who pay little or no attention to the ramifications of his political beliefs. Philosophers must be above such petty squabbles.
Concern about how the academic community will respond strikes me as silly; it is not their job to be the care-takers of Nietzsche's memory, nor would he have wanted them to be. And the idea that Nietzsche's thought is too complex to be judged by anyone but professionals is absurd; again, Nietzsche himself would've rejected it. To him the man of learning was decadence personified. Even the most slavish admirer of Nietzsche might at least concede that in Gorfu's work, he is portrayed as a man whose ideas have consequences; he is alive, whereas in most modern scholarship he's nothing more than a corpse dissected into vanishingly small particles.
I'm not naive enough to think that I'll see Nietzsche's ravings discredited in my lifetime, but I hope very much that Gorfu's work will inspire others to more and greater attacks.


Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder
Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder
von Richard Dawkins
  Taschenbuch
Preis: EUR 12,31

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2.0 von 5 Sternen Mad as a Hornet, or a Hatter?, 13. Juli 2000
I agree with Richard Dawkins that people should find in science that sense of wonder which they too often seek in new-age nonsense. And I agree with an earlier reviewer that in the first fifth of this book, he states his case well and with great sincerity. But soon after that, his bitterness takes over, and except for a few lapses into excited (and sometimes exciting) discussions of natural history, the book becomes little more than scripture for the faithful.
I can't join earlier reviewers in finding Dawkins' prose beautiful or poetic, but it is competent and admirably straightforward. Most of his humor is deployed destructively, which gets wearying; the remainder of his wit I would class as an affected sort of whimsy. The passages in which he gets carried away by the beauty of the world--and the principles that govern it, where sufficiently known--are often charming, but many of his angrier passages are at best coarse and at worst slightly subliterate. Anyone who admires Dawkins is unlikely to be put off by these flaws (or even to see them as flaws). Still, if Dawkins' intention was to coax new sheep into the fold, he may find that the noise of axes being ground frightens them off.
As a passably intelligent rationalist who doesn't take everything Dawkins says as Holy Writ, I must say that I wish he would occasionally allow people to disagree with him without calling them ignorant, stupid, crazy, or evil. There is nothing more eloquent than scientific fact--nothing more corrective of error--so I'm not sure why Dawkins feels the need to add this shrill enumeration of personal grievances to the far more impressive testimony of science. Since he does, I'm not surprised that people who remain unconvinced by his ideas are suspicious of his methods and motives. After all, there are many like-minded popularizers of science who don't allow themselves such venomous outbursts...Sagan and Pinker spring to mind. And although Daniel Dennett can be just as infuriating in his prejudices, I think he's a slightly more levelheaded and engaging prose writer than Dawkins.
Apropos of prejudices, it seems to me that when Dawkins hears words like "religion" or "mysticism," he reflexively conjures up a cabal of inbred fundamentalists, young-earthers, newspaper astrologers, and glassy-eyed new-age chatterboxes. As people interested in scientific truth, most of us do not admire such people any more than Dawkins does.
But when Dawkins pits himself against metaphysical ideas per se, he also pits himself against such deeply religious scientists as Newton, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Descartes, and Faraday. All of these men discovered mathematical equations that form the basis of modern empirical science. These equations are unexcelled in their predictive and descriptive power, and are objectively incontrovertible to a degree that a theorist like Dawkins might well envy.
Did religious notions in any way inspire these men to seek and discover these equations? If so, I suggest that to a certain extent, such equations must be classed among humanity's religious productions. If they devised their equations despite being afflicted with false religious notions, then it surely proves that a) religious belief is not necessarily a barrier to excellence in scientific endeavor; and b) the most brilliant scientists can be mistaken about the nature of existence (which would ideally be a lesson in humility for Dawkins and his most cocksure adherents).
Even in the enlightened twentieth century, some of our greatest scientists were outright mystics. While Dawkins might despise the religious notions so poetically expressed by the physicist Erwin Schrodinger in "My View of the World" or "What is Life?", there is no doubt that Schrodinger finds poetry precisely where Dawkins instructs us to look for it: in evolutionary processes. And notwithstanding his flights of fancy, Schrodinger managed to discover the most fundamental equation of quantum mechanics. Kurt Godel and Albert Einstein were not without their religious notions either, and although Dawkins is well regarded in his field, I submit that the productions of his intellect thusfar are not able to stand with those of Godel, Einstein, or any of the other scientists I've listed here. (And though it's a little unfair, I can't help saying that I would not put even his most enchanting works in the same qualitative class as those of religious artists like Tolstoy, Bach, Raphael, Blake, Flannery O'Connor, or T.S. Eliot.)
Science cleans its own slate, thank heavens, though not as quickly as some of us might wish. My guess is that in one hundred years, Richard Dawkins will be thought of much as Herbert Spencer is today. In Spencer's day, some people called him the most profound philosopher of all time. Today, he's remembered more for his errors and excesses than for any truths he expressed.
(As a postscript, I should note that there are a number of atheist/materialist artists who have made science the focus of their work. Dawkins would do well to consider the Italian Futurists, who praised science and machinery above all else, and were staunch Darwinists to boot. (They were also fascists, and their ranks were considerably thinned by their eagerness to go to war, which they saw as a biological imperative.) And for a look at religion-bashing, science-deifying artwork at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, try the book "Chinese Propaganda Posters" or the Russian film "Salt for Svanetia," both of which are available through Amazon. Atheism may make for better science, but I remain unconvinced that it makes for better art. And if artists often misunderstand science, it's no more unfortunate than that scientists often misunderstand art.)


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