"Following various analysts, I see the Enlightenment not simply as a secularist movement, but as Epicurean, a modern retrieval of an ancient philosophy. That identification enables us to highlight various things the 'secular' label screens out—particularly the fact that modern Western culture is not a new thing based on modern science, as is so often assumed, but an ancient worldview with some modern twists and footnotes."
THE HUMAN IS an abstraction that depends on the spread of a condition in which no one lives with anyone anymore. Apolity is what Hannah Arendt calls this state, picking up on the ancient Greek terror of existence outside the city walls.
When we meditate on our deaths to come, great literature appears to me to be a better guide in forming our imaginations well. Our contemporary culture seems unable to offer us little more than heightened consumerism (monogrammed golf bag urns, for instance). With a host of lies about life, such as “You only live once,” “Be all you can be,” “Just do it,” or “You do you,” what might we expect from such a culture regarding their depiction of death? A society that praises hyper-productivity and demands a litany of experiences will have a very difficult time saying, “Rest in peace.”
The modernist revolution failed to win over the public because the public could see that the rejection of cultural continuity, accompanied by aesthetic reductionism, resulted in new buildings that were uglier than the buildings they replaced. Something is seriously wrong when the architects shaping our built environment no longer consider it their responsibility to embody a community’s past as the foundation for its future. At Hudson Yards, architecture is not even about “the future”—it is about what’s happening now, what’s “progressive” now.
To be genuinely avant-garde, then, is to be at the vanguard of disclosing neglected or unknown realities. It follows that artistic expressions which are avant-garde one day will be passé the next. Poggioli shows how this term, passé, is frequently applied to “only recently vanquished avant-gardes.” Discerning what might be genuinely avant-garde, rather than passé, involves that hard-to-articulate literary quality which Coleridge found lacking in Pitt. The process allows artistic expressions to reveal themselves, to disclose something, and the process is related—albeit transposed into a very different framework—to the interplay of interior and exterior reciprocity in a genuinely literary sensibility. When personal and collective authenticity are no longer interweaving in literary constructions, we approach the point where artistic expressions might look and sound avant-garde, but actually be passé, in a manner analogous to the highly literate babble of texts disassociated from any literary depth. At a time when the highest accolades and esteem can be apportioned to such mediocre writing, it is worthwhile to ask what sort of mediocrity we are dealing with in particular cases. That is, are we confronted with the inauthenticity of a) illiterate babble or b) unliterary, passé babble?
"Titus & Scott Beauchamp discuss the view of America from the military--what knowledge of honor, ritual, traditions, hierarchy, & community adds to understanding what's missing in our culture, in our lives, & even in the way we think about our longings. To begin with, we've replaced honor with celebrity."
Power’s book has been lauded widely in the mainstream press and understandably so. For what it tries to achieve, it is close to pitch-perfect. It narrates an engrossing life story with a confessional and at times intimate rhetoric. It purports to explore how far ethical idealists can take the reins of state power for the sake of good, and it concludes that they can do so with no compromises.
Power’s memoir narrates her role in some policies that genuinely “made the world a better place,” as one of the signature phrases of our times demands and the target audience for the book expects. Yet Power is not above acknowledging error and tragedy, notably when her convoy in Cameroon runs over a small boy and kills him. And Power’s story vindicates the nobility of public service, especially for women. Indeed, it accurately reminds readers of continuing exclusions in the male foreign policy elite, even while affirming the feminist possibility of having it all—including the marital bliss and motherhood of two portrayed in recurring scenes. These vignettes, along with anecdotes about Power’s always more than transactional relationship to her family’s cook and nanny and her affection for various sports teams, effectively humanize her throughout the book. Yet at its core, The Education of an Idealist is a deft ethical dodge.
The overall thrust of Power’s argument is to deny the need for any accounting of how good intentions can drive perverse results in the use of state power abroad. Only copping to forgivable or unintentional mistakes, it pushes back against the possibility of ethical compromise in crossing the Rubicon from government critic to government service. It succeeds in doing so, however, only because it studiously avoids serious discussion of how the wrong idealism in power can lead to the worst kind of unintended consequences.
It would be easy, and not entirely wrong, to consider Berlinski primarily a critic of the nihilism of the contemporary world. Which is to say that there are seams of energy running through his work hinting at a humanizing drive beyond merely the desire to argue a point. And so, as iconoclastic as he appears, he stands aloof but not alone. He’s in a distinguished crowd that consists of, among other people: Byung-Chul Han, Roberto Callasso, Theodore Dalrymple, and even the novelists Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Michel Houellebecq. Among contemporary philosophers, he is closest, perhaps, to John Gray, Thomas Nagel, and the late Jerry Fodor: all men who have refused easy answers, and the last two, like him, formidable critics of Darwinism. Berlinski argues forcefully, but every argument also contains an oblique gesture towards the vast mystery of human existence. Oblique gestures, after all, are the ritualistic movements through which humanity itself is cultivated.
Human Nature contains polemical essays and short interviews, but it’s also studded with gnomic parables. There’s the story of a rabbi who makes a deal with the devil to be wiser than he should. There’s the Borges-esque allegory of a blind man, a devoted wife, and a book which contains all knowledge. There’s the tale of a hotel with an infinite number of rooms. These are really the lifeblood of Human Nature, and, one gets the strong sense, the passion of Berlinski, mathematician, scholar, and wisdom-seeker. The parable of the rabbi, his brain turned to mush through the nearly divine ability to see, and commit fully, to the “other side” of any argument ends with the same lesson that Eliot taught us: Humankind cannot bear very much reality. Still, Berlinski teaches us, we do require at least a modicum of truth.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor