November 2010

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Books That Wrote Me

by Jonathan Wallace

In the fifteen years I have been publishing the Spectacle, there are a few articles never written that I carry around in the back of my mind: on abortion; equality, identity, relative social status and interaction of women and men; racial issues; Freud; and this one. I am happy to check it off my list.

Here are the books which most influenced and formed my philosophy of life, approximately in the order I encountered them.

Most, not all, fit one or more of the following criteria: they are written in clear, simple language, and delineate just one core idea, or a few. One thing I learned from these books is that good, consistent, logical ideas can be expressed in simple, short works. A whole academic culture which has grown up around writers specializing in dense, complex and indirect language (Jacques Derrida is a leading exemplar) is, by these lights, a crock.

"The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam"

The Fitzgerald translation was in an anthology of verse in my house, and I read and re-read it as a child. Although many of its verses contained thoughts which have remained current in me, the one which can be said to be the cornerstone of my world view is:

Tis all a Checker-board of Nights and Days 
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays: 
Hither and thither moves, and mates and slays, 
And one by one back in the Closet lays.   

In the earliest dream I remember, an autumn leaf was wrapped around the world, so I was always predisposed to fatalism in the face of entropy. Khayyam confirmed it, but simultaneously modeled the idea that, instead of simply laying down, we could oppose entropy by making art about it.


Ecclesiastes (which I read as a teenager) stood for the propositions, which accorded nicely with Khayyam's, that there is nothing new under the sun, no end to the making of many books, and that all is vanity.

Henry David Thoreau,"Walden"

I read this book over and over as a teenager and young adult. It doesn't fit my criteria of being simple and clear; it is not really an essay, more a prose poem of stirring metaphors. Thoreau himself, as I figured out later, was a bit of a fraud: no man is truly independent (as I can personally testify) who can walk a short distance to have dinner at Mom's.

There are three or four aphorisms in Walden, however, which have played a large role in my life. Some are the obvious ones, about marching to the beat of a different drummer, or bewaring enterprises requiring new clothes. However, there are two longer quotes which I have used many times in Spectacle essays:

Men have an indistinct notion that if they keep up this activity of joint stocks and spades long enough all will at length ride somewhere, in next to no time, and for nothing; but though a crowd rushes to the depot, and the conductor shouts "All aboard!" when the smoke is blown away and the vapor condensed, it will be perceived that a few are riding, but the rest are run over,--and it will be called, and will be, "A melancholy accident."

This seems to me the perfect metaphor for all human enterprises, capitalistic and even democratic. There always seems to be some breakage, and we never admit in advance that there will be any.

Thoreau was not really inconsistent with the foregoing when he said that ""a tide rises and falls behind every man which can float the British Empire like a chip, if he should ever harbor it in his mind." Mostly we do not harbor it in our mind. I think of this every time I write about oppressive and even murderous governments, which could not last a day if the governed did not tolerate them.

Ernst Renan, "What is A Nation?"

This very brief essay, which I have in mind to translate from the French and publish in the Spectacle one day, advances the idea that nations are an artificial human construction based both on common memories and common forgetfulness. As an example of the latter, Renan points out that in order to feel good about being French, you have to forget the time the nation murdered all the Protestants.

Renan also says that nations are "an every-day referendum", meaning that we effectively reaffirm our wish to belong to them every day of our lives. And that they should not impose membership on sub-groups and areas that no longer vote to belong--a precept, which if humans really believed it, would have solved a lot of problems from the American Civil War through the present day.

Jane Jacobs, "Life and Death of Great American Cities"

The writing of this seminal work of city planning is also simple and clear, though the book is not short. Jacobs discovered that thriving urban areas have a mixture of uses, with a large residential component, small and large businesses, and cultural institutions. She noted that all current city planning created single use areas--huge residential projects with no stores, dead downtown areas devoted only to government or culture. Her prime example was an area of Boston which in the view of the governing powers, was a slum demanding to be cleared, but which on close examination was, in her estimation, a thriving and diverse neighborhood of lower income people which should have been left alone. The World Trade Center project, which came after the initial publication of her book, provides another interesting case study: the construction of the towers cleared out a vital area of small electronic businesses, and substituted a sterile region which was completely dead at night. In Jacobs' world view, Robert Moses was the anti-Christ, constantly tearing down thriving neighborhoods to build huge and useless projects. One of Moses' failed endeavors was to build a cross-Manhattan expressway through the most diverse, thriving and historic parts of Greenwich Village.

J.B. Bury, "The Idea of Progress"

One of my formative childhood experiences was the 1964 World's Fair, where there were two competing pavilions showing bright, clean animatronic versions of the human future (personal helicopters, hydroponics, etc). Nothing I learned in grade school at P.S. 193 contradicted the idea that the human arc is ever upwards, that life will always be improved through better understanding, science and technology. Bury's book length history essay establishes that the idea of progress was unknown until the Renaissance, and is an invention of optimistic writers who must not only oversimplify but (name-check Renan here) forget anything which contradicts their thesis.

In opposition to the idea of progress stand Gibbon's famous aphorism and a classroom game initiated by professor Aaron Streiter at Brooklyn College circa 1972. Gibbon said that history is "indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind. " Streiter challenged our class to say which was the darkest, most violent century in human history. After various guesses that it was the fourth, the twelfth, etc., he said: "No, it is the twentieth."

John Keegan, "The Face of War"

This unique military historian deconstructed the romance and cliche of war. In this book analyzing several famous battles, from Agincourt through the Second World War, he highlights the factor of chance and dispels many truisms. For example, there is no "shock" of cavalry, because horses will not run into each other.

The work we do imposing noble narratives is much the same for wars as for nations. Anyone who has studied the Normandy invasion or Operation Market Garden knows how badly botched the planning was, how rarely parachute and glider troops landed where they were supposed to, how much of the technology didn't work. We won World War II not because we were better human beings, or because we were cleverer at tactics than the Germans, but because Hitler got arrogantly overextended when he invaded Russia, and we had more men and material to sacrifice than Germany or Japan. War is not a noble enterprise, though sometimes necessary; it is a disease of the human condition.

Keegan's work is reminiscent of Tolstoy's analysis of battles in "War and Peace", where luck and disorder are also emphasized.

Alfred Ayer, "Language, Truth and Logic"

In college, I briefly thought I would like to teach philosophy, and even aspired for a short while to be a philosopher. Most such works, especially those written in the nineteenth century and after, are deliberately impenetrable, and definitively fail my "simple and clear" rule. One that does not is Ayer's essay, which failed to find any real world underpinnings for moral language:

[F]undamental ethical conceptions are unanalysable, inasmuch as there is no criterion by which one can test the validity of the judgments in which they occur....[T]hey are mere pseudoconcepts. The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, "You acted wrongly in stealing that money," I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, "You stole that money." In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, "You stole that money", in a particular tone of horror, or written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks.

This is an insight so important that I have quoted it almost as often in the Spectacle as Thoreau's aphorism about the train crash. I suppose that what Ayer said could have made me a nihilist, or thrown me in Dostoevskian despair (Oh no! Everything is permitted!). Instead, it focussed me on the idea that human systems of morality, like nations themselves, are acts of consensus, are in fact legislation. That the real moral endeavor of life is proposing the best rule-book. By that, I do not mean the most utilitarian one, but also the most beautiful one, as beauty too should play a role in legislation, as it does in nationhood.

John Stuart Mill, "On Liberty"

Mill's libertarian essay, suggesting we let other people alone to develop in whatever direction they will, to thrive or wither, so long as they do not harm us, helped me question the paternalism that was unspoken and unquestioned in the milieu where I grew up. Childhood was rife with authority figures, who knew better than we what we should eat and wear, what to read and to think. Supposed precepts of democracy were driven into us by rote lessons; I used to imagine drones marching in lockstep, chanting "Free-dom! Free-dom! Free-dom!" til the word became totally meaningless. Mill's simple, revelatory idea was to ask: How are we personally harmed, by behavior of which we do not approve? There is a big difference between choosing not to eat meat, and dictating that your neighbor may not. A wonderful recent bumper sticker expressing a Mill-ian philosophy: "Disapprove of gay marriage? Don't have one".

Kant, "Groundwork for a Metaphysic of Morals"

I am probably not smart enough to read and understand "Critique of Pure Reason", but in this short essay, Kant presented a stunningly simple idea: we should all not do anything we would not want everyone to do. The guy jumping the turnstile at the subway wants everyone else to pay, so there will continue to be a subway he can ride for free. This ties in beautifully to Jesus' "do unto others" and is related nicely to Mill's thesis that we may do anything which does not harm others.

George Kubler, "The Shape of Time"

In order to think clearly about the world, I found it necessary to break away from the concept that history or individual human life were, or should be, linear. Gibbon, Renan and Bury all helped with that. Kubler argued that innovations in art do not come serially, but at different points in different cultures, and even must be forgotten and sometimes re-remembered. History is not a staircase, but more like the flight of a sparrow.

In the 1990's, working in a software business, I read a lot about software development methodologies, and was very intrigued by the idea of spiral development. Earlier concepts held that software development was a linear, staircase approach: design, code, test. Spiral approaches mimicked actual human experience and thought process better, calling for a bit of design, some coding, test, then some more design, etc.

Hawking, "A Brief History of Time"

I am not nearly smart enough, nor do I have enough math, to begin to understand quantum physics concepts, but Hawking's clear explanations, often using metaphor to explain complex ideas to simple minds like mine, brought me right back to the autumn leaf dream I had when I was six. Time began with the Big Bang and ends with the last whimper. There is no known reason why time's arrow points in one direction, or why the human "now" should have a duration of about one second. Time travel is theoretically possible but we don't have the power to accomplish it. This leads me to believe that there is no actual death except the death of the universe; the people we have lost are all alive somewhere, "up" the timeline from us. We simply can't afford the fare to visit them.

I also find Schrodinger's Cat to be the ultimate metaphor for truth in our time: some things may remain forever ambiguous, may have no settled state, until we open the box; and some boxes may never be opened.

There are many other works which have played a smaller role in my thought: Dawkin's "Selfish Gene", the writings of various authors on technology and morality, smaller glosses on aspects of Roman and other civilizations, books about the nature of war and of the historical memory of war. But these are the works that led to the greatest shifts in my thought, by proposing new, non-linear, ways of thinking about history, life and human endeavor.