Monday, August 12, 2013

C. W. Eckersberg, ca. 1815
(Source: Nivaagaard Collection)

Martinus Rørbye, 1835
(Source: Nivaagaard Collection)

Giorgio de Chirico, 1911-1912

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Location and Temperature

Poetry is to time what philosophy is to space. The philosopher locates a concept and clarifies it. The poet tempers an emotion and intensifies it.

Many poets, of course, are sometimes philosophers, sometimes without quite knowing it. Poems are never purely poetic. Mutatis mutandis for philosophers.

[Update: It's actually worth spelling out. Many philosophers are sometimes poets, often without quite mastering it. Philosophical "pieces" are never purely philosophical.

Also, it should be noted that poetry sometimes shades off into politics, always pseudo- or crypto-politics. Likewise, philosophy sometimes veers, always an error, into science.]

Monday, August 05, 2013


A sort of trivial thought hit me today, but worth thinking about a little more, maybe. George Orwell clearly worried publicly about what Tocqueville called "the destiny of mankind". He also, I think, had some hope. 1984 was meant as a piece of rhetoric, not prophecy. He was trying to motivate people to work for a better world. He was a progressive.

So here's the thought. What did progressives hope for in 1948? If we described to them the world in which we live, would they think it dystopian (a nightmare)? Utopian (a mere dream)? Or would they think it's sort of just about what you might hope for, back in 1948.

Of course, a lot would depend on where this progressive was living, I imagine. Much of Europe has been rebuilt and "progressed" in a perhaps impressive way since 1948. But the promise of American post-war prosperity has, just as probably, been a bit disappointing. (Norman Mailer's hopes and fears in 1948, when he had just published The Naked and Dead) might be a good indicator. He had much to say about post-9/11 America, not much of which was flattering.)

Reading Richard Rorty, this afternoon, on "liberal hope" got me thinking about this. He quotes a passage from Nabokov's The Gift, in which a utopia "without equality and without authorities" is (vainly, indifferently) imagined. On that standard, Tocqueville's analysis of American democracy, and his worries about the sort of despotism that "the principle of equality" would bring, precisely because there would still be authority, was dystopian from the start. That is, what Tocqueville was describing was not something that could be perverted in dystopian directions, but which was dystopian in its core assumptions.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Is This Why I've not Yet Written a Book?

I trace among our contemporaries two contrary notions which are equally injurious. One set of men can perceive nothing in the principle of equality but the anarchical tendencies that it engenders; they dread their own free agency, they fear themselves. Other thinkers, less numerous but more enlightened, take a different view: beside that track which starts from the principle of equality to terminate in anarchy, they have at last discovered the road that seems to lead men to inevitable servitude. They shape their souls beforehand to this necessary condition; and, despairing of remaining free, they already do obeisance in their hearts to the master who is soon to appear. The former abandon freedom because they think it dangerous; the latter, because they hold it to be impossible.

If I had entertained the latter conviction, I should not have written this book, but I should have confined myself to deploring in secret the destiny of mankind. (Alexis de Tocqueville)