Friday, August 15, 2008

The Friday Miscellany: The Dis-Consolations of Philosophy

Books currently lying at the head of my bed, from easiest to hardest to finish for me.

Towers in the Mist, Elizabeth Goudge
First Published: 1938

A historical novel set in the time of Elizabeth I. If it's at all like the author's other books, it will delve into religion and superstition, the hidden depths of the human character, and the beauties and past of the English landscape. I think that "mysticism" is a fitting term for her worldview. What is fascinating in her modern novels, for instance the children's book Linnets and Valerians, is that they depict the twilight of the old British rural microcosm before the onset of American-style modernity. Her great flaws are that she is prone to kitsch and unremitting in her endeavour to "[find] tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in every thing." Aside from that, she is an astoundingly good writer. I've reached Chapter 2. (Biography, list of works)
"Poetry, childhood, memory" (Blog entry on Elizabeth Goudge's writing)


Micromégas, Voltaire
First Published: 1752

[The following is written in French because I want to use the language more often; hopefully this will not bother anyone. Apologies in advance for grammatical and other errors.]
Une courte histoire philosophique qui raconte, j'imagine, la vie d'un géant qui habite une planète de l'étoile Sirius. Le serviable Voltaire, dans une succession de paragraphes qui fourmille de chiffres et de précisions autant que cet oeuvre de Jules Verne qui s'appelle De la terre à la lune (un livre que j'ai lu fidèlement jusqu'à la fin — malgré le fait que ni les obus, ni les clubs scientifiques qui ne sont que de pompeux assemblés d'hommes qui n'ont rien de mieux à faire, m'intéressent beaucoup — mais qui m'a trahi en me laissant confuse et énervée par cette fin qui n'est pas une fin du tout), nous dit qu'il a huit lieues de longueur. Je souhaite passer plein d'heures heureuses en restant assidûment ignorante des implications philosophiques, et en me réjouissant au lieu de cela de l'imagination fort vive de Voltaire, au niveau le moins intellectuel que possible. À ce moment, je suis à la deuxième page (formidable, n'est-ce pas?).

Micromégas (Liens aux textes électroniques du livre)
Voltaire (Biography and list of works)
Voltaire's Page (Link to biographies, works, etc.)


Haydn, Rosemary Hughes
First Published: 1950

A biography of the composer, which begins at the beginning — in the true "I was born of poor but honest parents . . ." vein — and properly trots through, as far as I can tell, to the end. It is accessibly written, well researched, and academic; and, as in duty bound for the sake of the reader, the author gently attempts to put herself in the shoes of Haydn, infuse humour and sympathy, and depict the ambient time and place. My quibble with this approach is that it is fairly unoriginal and too careful. What I particularly like about our copy, a nice beige clothbound edition, is the very brief notes and underlinings that my great-aunt pencilled in. I'm on the third chapter.

JSTOR: Haydn (First page of a review in the journal Music & Letters, 1950)


Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Dava Sobel
First Published: 1995

A pleasantly written and detailed account of the search for a trustworthy way of determining one's location at sea, which consumed the attention of the eighteenth-century scientific establishment and the monarchs who patronized it, until the clockmaker John Harrison finally achieved it by inventing a reliable chronometer. (The required mathematical feats much resemble the ones that Cyrus Harding performs to find the latitude and longitude of Verne's Mysterious Island.) It's also a commentary on the intriguing and fanciful dead ends that scientific research pursues before a lone and embattled figure discovers a way out of the labyrinth. Among the anecdotes, the tale of Sir Clowdisley (I'd always seen it as Cloudsley) Shovell, the admiral whose fleet was wrecked and whose men were worse than decimated on the Scilly Islands in 1707, is in my view scarcely inferior to that of Coriolanus or any other Shakespearean tragic hero. Lastly and incidentally, Dava Sobel's style, and my quibbles regarding it, resembles that of Rosemary Hughes.

Dava Sobel
(Website of the author)
"The Longitude Problem" (Author's article on same subject)
NYT Books: Longitude (Review, viz. synopsis)


Philosophie der Geschichte, G.W.F. Hegel
First Published: 1837

Hegel is, I've found, a forgiving philosopher. He has been my bedtime reading for a while, not because he is easier to read than other authors, but because in a drowsy state I am often more focused and less likely to (metaphorically speaking) chuck away a book in exasperation and do something fun instead. By this means I read all of Shakespeare's plays, except for King John, by the age of eighteen (but I still have no idea what Henry IV is about).

So the first six pages of Hegel's introduction to Philosophie der Geschichte went swimmingly, but then I recognized that it was gibberish to me after all. Now I'm on the eighth page. It's true that the structure of the introduction is clear enough; he classifies the ways one can write a historical work — reporting events, philosophizing about the events, presenting the events in the context of a country or a theme, etc. But this classification is not very helpful, except in making one think (about the purpose of historiography, I suppose), because it is imposed on reality, not integral to it; other people find other categories far more useful, and I don't know if Hegel's are authoritative.

In his History of Western Philosophy, it is evident that Bertrand Russell doesn't have much use for Hegel. (One problem is, I think, that Russell succumbs to the fallacy of blaming everyone from Plato to — well, Hegel, for the 20th-century rise of fascism. Not blaming, exactly, but interpreting their ideas as proto-fascism.) As far as the Philosophie der Geschichte is concerned, he begins by explaining that Hegel divides German history as falling into three periods, where Charlemagne and the Reformation are the watershed events. Then Hegel names these periods the Kingdoms of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Russell's comment, admittedly with reason, is this:
It seems a little odd that the Kingdom of the Holy Ghost should have begun with the bloody and utterly abominable atrocities committed in suppressing the Peasants' War, but Hegel, naturally, does not mention so trivial an accident. Instead, he goes off, as might be expected, into praises of Machiavelli.
Quotation from History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell (London: Unwin, 1984), p.708

No comments: