Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Thursday, July 31, 2014

LIMITATIONS

I have often quoted a line from Freud that I have never been able actually to find in his writings, leading me to wonder whether I made it up.  It goes something like this [assuming he really wrote it]:  "If there is one subject that the patient will not permit to be discussed in an analysis, sooner or later the entire analysis comes to be about that one subject."  Usually I quote this line when I am talking about progressive, intelligent, thoughtful Jewish writers who have an ineradicable blind spot about Israel.  But Freud's observation [I persist in my belief that he actually said it] has other applications as well.  This thought occurred to me as I was reading Paul Krugman's blog earlier today.

Krugman is everything that one could want in a progressive liberal.  He is wicked smart, witty, very broadly read and educated, on the progressive side of every social issue, seriously concerned about economic inequality, a bulldog when it comes to harrying his less enlightened colleagues in the Economics profession, and, I would imagine, fun to spend some time with.

There is really only one subject that he cannot ever bring himself to talk about, despite the fact that you would think it was staring him in the face every moment of his professional life:  CAPITALISM

Now if you have read Krugman at all, you might suppose that I am totally, comically wrong.  I mean, he talks about capitalism every day of his life, right?  But not really, if you think about it for a moment.  He talks about growth rates, interest rates, unemployment rates, Phillips Curves, quantity easing, and inventory levels.  He talks about the evils of austerity hawks, the inability of conservative economists to admit that they have been wrong for five years, about the failure of inflation to develop, and endlessly many other things.  But he never actually talks about capitalism.  He treats capitalism in roughly the way fish treat water or birds treat air -- as the medium in which they swim or fly, omnipresent, inevitable, necessary.

Krugman is a smart man, and I would bet that he has read Das Kapital [although he probably has not read Marx's doctoral dissertation, which I actually have.]  So if I ever met him and had a chance to engage him in a serious discussion, I am willing to bet that he would be completely unfazed and unimpressed were I to bring up Marx's claim that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class.  I am not sure what he would say.  [I really hope he would not start talking about workers earning their marginal product -- he is smarter than  that.]  But he would have something smooth and even thought out to counter.  Nevertheless, I am dead certain that he feels no need whatsoever to work up a sophisticated knowledgeable defense of capitalism, any more than a sentient fish would feel the need to offer a rationale for water.

Maybe Krugman wouldn't be so much fun to spend time with.

PARIS OBSERVED

1.  Parisians have a great revolutionary tradition.  They regularly engage in huge manifestations, name little city squares after Communist war heroes, and currently have a Socialist government.  Nevertheless, Parisians never jaywalk.  They stand docilely at street corners, waiting patiently for the little red standing man to change to the little green walking man in the pedestrian signals before venturing across the street.

2.  Young French women are always better looking than the young French men they are with.  By contrast, young Italian men are always better looking than the young Italian women they are with.  Young Swedes are all good looking.

3.  Every morning when I take my walk along the Seine I see a river boat pushing a long barge up or down the river.  It is named the DeVinci [not the Da Vinci.  the French call Michelangelo "Michelange."]  I think it is cool to name a tugboat after the immortal Leonardo.

4.  Judging from my informal survey, the French cigarette of choice is the e-cigarette.  They are everywhere.  However, the French Health Minister is planning to ban them in bars and restaurants, while also moving to compel cigarette companies to make their packaging bland and unattractive, apparently convinced that young French men and women will find smoking less appealing if the Marlboro packs are no longer bright red.

5.  HUGANDYOU, the little upscale boutique across the street, is closed for the August vacances.   If Matt's comment from a week ago is right, a lot of people will have to get their drugs or launder their money somewhere else.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

THE CURSE OF THE INTERNET

I have on numerous occasions remarked that when I come to Paris, the voice in my head that has, all my life, told me that I was not working hard enough falls still.  That was indeed once so, but it seems no longer to be true.  Earlier today, Susie asked me what had happened.  I thought about it for a bit and decided that the fault lies squarely with the Internet.  In the old days, when we came to Paris, I was for the entire time essentially incommunicado.  Oh, if it was necessary, I could place a long-distance overseas call [always a  bit complicated with my PhoneCard, what with an eleven digit Pin Number and all], but I felt that the world was unaware of me, and so I could relax.  I feel the same way as soon as I arrive at an airport terminal to catch a plane, which is one of the reasons I like to travel.  Since there is nothing I can do while waiting for the plane, I can relax.  This was also one of the principal attractions of the safari we took last April.  In the Okavango Delta, one is really out of touch.

But now, the world is wired, and I feel myself obligated to stay in touch.  Being unable for  the first two weeks of our stay to make the wireless connection in my apartment work was hell.  I was not relieved, I was frantic.

The same can be said for running a blog.  In the past, each time I finished a book, I felt a sense of relief that lasted for at least a week.  In effect, I could say to the voice in my head, "There!  I've done what you asked.  Now go away and leave me alone."  But a blog, if I may steal a phrase from an earlier period in Gestalt Theory, presents an Objective Demand, rather like a partially completed circle asking to be finished.  No matter how many hundreds of thousands of words I write for this blog, I feel each day the demand to write something new, striking, interesting, original.  If I may paraphrase Ecclesiastes, 12:12, "And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many blogs there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh."

Thank God I have not figured out how to unlock my IPhone!

Monday, July 28, 2014

AN INNER MIGRATION


It is said that during the depths of the Stalin era in the Soviet Union, liberal intellectuals performed an “inner migration.”  Forbidden to emigrate, they traveled inward, to a world of literature and music and a democratic politics that existed only in their minds or in conversations with trusted friends.

Faced with the prospect of a Clinton presidency that could extend until my ninetieth birthday, I have been going on my own inner migrations to a world where what I believe in deeply has at least some chance of coming to pass.  This morning as I walked, I spent some time imagining an Elizabeth Warren run for the 2016 presidency.  I was encouraged in this retreat from reality by a conversation with a good friend for whose political wisdom I have great respect.  He said that he is not entirely convinced Clinton will run, but remarked that Warren would have difficulty being elected.  Thus provoked, I asked myself under what conditions Elizabeth Warren could win the nomination, even against Clinton, and then win in a general election.  I concluded that this would be possible [this is in my private fantasy world, remember] if four conditions could be met.  In what remains of this blog post, I shall sketch those conditions and explain my thinking.  I invite those who share my despair to join me on this inner migration.

Let us begin by assuming that Clinton will in fact run.  If she does not, I actually believe Warren would be the favorite to get the nomination, but even on inner migrations it is well to stay in touch with reality.  My first condition is that Clinton once again run a technically bad campaign for the nomination – not the criminally incompetent campaign she ran in 2008, but a campaign beset by some at least of the same problems.  In 2008, you will recall, she was the odds-on favorite for the nomination, and as the season began, the polls all showed her winning handily.  But Clinton ran an inexcusably bad campaign, headlined by her chief strategist, Marx Penn, whose sheer incompetence should have been grounds for exile from American politics.  The Clinton campaign was riven by internal feuds, which Clinton herself did nothing to resolve, and it completely failed to comprehend the threat posed by Obama’s technically picture perfect ground game until it was too late to recover.  Clinton, encouraged by Mark Penn, put all her chips on a series of big wins on Super Tuesday.  Penn was literally unaware of the fact that the California primary was not a winner-take-all race, and assumed that a win by Clinton in the vote totals would put all of California’s delegates in her pocket.  No one in the Clinton camp, it would seem, knew that Texas runs a series of caucuses as well as a primary, so that Obama could come out of Texas with more delegates despite having lost the primary.  And so on.  Clinton raised tons of money, but did not spend it on a state-of-the-art ground game, as Obama did.

If Clinton has learned from her mistakes and mounts a first-class ground game in 2016, I think no one can beat her.  But there is at least some reason to think that she will not learn from her mistakes; indeed, if it is true, as my old friend Zina Tillona liked to say, that most people do most things the way they do most other things, then Clinton may well repeat her mistakes, and that could give Warren the opening she needs.

The second condition for a Warren presidency is that she needs to start right now, or rather in no more than three or four months, to put together a first-class operation on the ground nation-wide, well before she has any reason to believe that Clinton is going to give her an opening.  Creating that kind of campaign structure takes lots of money, which she can, I believe, raise, and it means recruiting the best young techie experts to assemble the machine.

Let me emphasize the necessity of a very long running start.  If Warren announces for the nomination and puts in some serious effort organizing Iowa, I believe she will actually have a very good chance of winning Iowa, and winning New Hampshire shortly thereafter.  I sense a deep hunger in the liberal Democratic base for a candidate they can love, and Clinton is not that candidate, whereas Warren most definitely is.  But it is impossible to assemble a serious national campaign structure AFTER Iowa and New Hampshire.  When the thunderbolt strikes and Warren suddenly becomes a viable candidate in the eyes of the mainstream media, that campaign structure of paid professionals in regional offices in thirty or forty states has to be up and running, the doors wide open to receive and put to use the volunteers who will come flooding in.  That is what made the Obama campaign a success.  Which means that Warren must decide now unambiguously that she wants to BE president, not simply that she wants to run for president.

If Warren succeeds, against the odds, in securing the nomination, she ought to select Clinton as her running mate.  The downside of this is of course that even a number of women may be hesitant about voting for an all-female ticket, regardless of what they tell pollsters, and I assume there will be a great many men who will balk at supporting such a ticket.  The upside is that the Clinton machine, whatever its strengths, would be working for the ticket, not against it [as I assume it would, however covertly, of Clinton were defeated a second time and were left out in the cold.]

The third condition for a Warren presidency is that the Republicans finally nominate someone they really love, a far right candidate such as Rand Paul or Ted Cruz.  If that happens, Warren-Clinton could win in a landslide.  On the other hand, if the rational fragment of the party again prevailed and got the nomination for Jeb Bush, Warren could have a hard time winning, from the leftish position she occupies, although Clinton would I think defeat Bush.  I actually think this time around the Republicans are going to go with their hearts, and if they do, they will get swamped.

Well, that is as far into my inner migration I got before my walk ended in Place Maubert and I walked up rue Monge to buy a baguette and a briochette au sucre for Susie.  For a few brief minutes, I could believe that my eighties will not be a political wasteland.

PARISIAN EPHEMERA

1.  It is a terrible thing to outlive your time.  I went to the market on Saturday to shop for several dinners and discovered that my favorite vendors were not there -- the fish man, the man from whom I buy cuisses de canard and cailles and coquelets and a demi-lapin [sans tete].  The poissonerie in the square was also closed, and so was my reliable fruit and veggie shop.  Alas, the August vacances started this year on July 26th.  I may be reduced to taking us out to dinner.  Fortunately the tourist trade has grown so large that many restaurants stay open in August, although several of my favorites do not.

2.  Back in the '50s and '60s, when the world and I were young, we all watched the network evening news to find out what was happening.  Walter Cronkite and Huntley/Brinkley [Chet Huntley and David Brinkley] were as close to official state oracles as a secular age offered.  If it wasn't on the evening news, it hadn't happened.  If Cronkite or Huntley or Brinkley said it, it was true.  Time passed, even oracles age, and cable television shouldered its way into our collective consciousness, but it was all right, because CNN was there to pick up the slack.  CNN was authoritative, reliable, and besides belonged to a man who was, or had been, married to Hanoi Jane Fonda.

Well, so much for all that.  Yesterday shortly after lunch, Susie and I went to our café to hang out.  As we sipped our kir, we watched the live television coverage of the final stage of the Tour de France, which ends in Paris with a celebratory ride up the Champs Elysees, around L'Etoile, and back down the Champs Elysees to Place de la Concorde.  When we returned to our apartment, I turned on CNN  International [channel 109, if you are ever in Paris.]  A sprightly weather lady was reporting clear skies for the last stage of the Tour, which she chirpily reported would soon be entering Paris.  She said, in that confident authoritative voice that TV news personalities affect, that it was pretty clear whom the winner would be.  I guess so, since he had already won.

I think from now on I will get my news from Jon Stewart and The Onion.

3.   One of the old reliable Hollywood formulae is the ensemble movie of young aspiring actors, who are thrown into a movie together to see which of them catches on with the audience.  My favorite is The Breakfast Club, with Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall, Molly Ringwald, and Ally Sheedy.  It seems that the wheel of time has come full circle, and ensemble movies are being made with collections of long-in-the-tooth former action stars, dragged out of the Old People's Home for one more special effects romp.  One of the very best is RED, with Bruce Willis, John  Malkovich, Helen Mirren and then forty-five year old Mary-Louise Parker doing a delightful turn as the "young" love interest for Willis.  [RED, incidentally, is an acronym.  It stands for "Retired -- Extremely Dangerous" which perfectly captures the way we old folks like to think of ourselves.]

All over Paris are posters announcing the local opening of Expendables 3, a tongue-in-cheek "action" flic starring, among many others, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, Wesley Snipes, Mel Gibson, Antonio Banderas, and Dolph Lundgren.   I assume that each day of shooting began with a series of testosterone shots for the stars.

Now that I am eighty, I find it very comforting that Hollywood has decided to cater to my demographic.  I fully expect a series of deathbed comedies as I approach ninety.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

PRIDE GOETH BEFORE DESTRUCTION AND AN HAUGHTY SPIRIT BEFORE A FALL

No sooner had I bragged about my culinary skill than fate dealt me a blow designed to remind me that "Pride ..." [PROVERBS 16:18]  I went off to the market this morning to shop for two nights' dinners, only to discover that the poissonerie was closed and my favorite fishmonger was absent from the market as well, despite the fact that Saturday is the biggest market day of the week.  What is more, the little stand where I have been buying cailles, cuisses de canard, coquelets, and fresh lapin for years was not in the market today either.  Why?  Is it the August vacation getting a head start?

I was reduced to buying two cailles from the bucherie in the square, which I prefer not to do, and -- oh the shame of it -- three prepared brochettes of lamb.  Who knew that the gods of the cuisine read blogs?

CLINTON FATIGUE

A current Republican meme is Clinton Fatigue, the notion being pushed by right-wing commentators that Hillary Clinton's less than stellar book tour is evidence that America has tired of the Clintons.  I believe that it is very important to acknowledge truth from whatever source it issues, so I wish to confess that I have indeed been suffering from Clinton fatigue for quite some time. 

Andrew Sullivan has a useful piece reprinted on The Huffington Post that pretty much says it all.  He notes that Clinton has earned twelve million dollars in speaking fees since stepping down from the Secretaryship of State.  I do not begrudge her the money.  It would have been just fine if she had earned it by giving 6,000 talks to progressive groups at $200 a speech [no, that wouldn't do it -- she would have had to give 60,000 speeches to progressive groups at $200 a pop.  I guess that is somewhat unrealistic.  It would work out to about one hundred speeches a day, assuming she took off Sundays to attend the local Southern Baptist church with her husband.]

What hurts is that by the time she formally receives the nomination, the Republicans will have settled upon someone so horrible that practical reason will dictate that I do what I can to ensure her election.  I think it is reasonable to conclude that this is my punishment for sins unspecified in times gone by.  I fear my eighties are not going to be the romp I anticipated.

PERSONAL BEST

Some years ago, when I was still exercising on a treadmill at the Meadowmont Wellness Center rather than taking my morning walk, I remarked to my son, Tobias, that even as I ramped up the speed and angle of elevation of my treadmill day by day, I was painfully conscious of the athletic young men and women running on the treadmills next to me at breakneck speed without apparently even working up a sweat.  He replied very wisely that I must ignore them and concentrate only on achieving my own personal best.

Well, this morning I decided to circumnavigate the 5th arrondissement, a route I take on occasion for my walk.  It always takes me exactly one hour to complete the circuit, but this morning I clocked in at 58 minutes.  A personal best.

While I am recording my little triumphs for what passes for posterity in the digital age, let me report this coup:  On Thursday, Susie called a friend in the States to chat [international calls are free as part of our FranceTelecom package] and I heard her say to her friend that we were going out less often this trip "because the dinners Bob makes are better than the dinners in the restaurants."  Now admittedly we do not patronize up-scale establishments with stars and multiple crossed knives and forks in the Guide Michelin, but still, that is one of the nicest compliments I have ever received, and I thought I would pass it along.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

POLLS


Back in the early nineties, when I was living in Western Massachusetts, Gallup or someone did one of those “name recognition” polls that seem to pop up all the time.  As you might expect, in Massachusetts Teddy Kennedy scored off the charts.  By then, he had been a senator for thirty year or so and was Mr. Massachusetts.  His name recognition score was 95%, way higher than that of any other Massachusetts politician.  But I remember saying to myself, “My God, does that mean that when I am walking in Boston, every twentieth person or so I pass on the street has never heard of Teddy Kennedy?  What rock have they been living under?”

Google tells me that roughly 9% of Americans over the age of 12 use illegal drugs.  That means that when I am driving down the highway at 75 mph, passing cars coming in the other direction at 75 mph, so that we are passing each other at 150 miles per hour, roughly one in eleven of those people rushing by me uses illegal mind-altering drugs!  If I think too much about that, I just want to go back home, crawl into bed, and eat take-out.

Statistics are like that.  We look at the numbers and forget that each percentage point represents a lot of real people.  This thought crossed my mind yet again yesterday when I came upon a report of a series of Gallup polls about the religious beliefs of Americans.  You can read the details here.  The question that caught my eye was the one about how you think the Bible should be understood.  As of last May, 28% of respondents said the Bible was the actual word of God and should be taken literally, word for word.  [This is down 10 percent from forty years ago.]  Now, the population of the United States is estimated to be about 320 million, so if Gallup is to be believed, there are maybe one hundred million people[RW1]  living in this country [not counting little babies who can’t be held responsible quite yet for the nuttiness of their parents] who believe that the Bible should be taken as literally true, word for word.  [We have to assume that all but a tiny handful of these folks mean the Bible in English, by the way.]

What am I to make of this statistical datum?  It would be comforting, but probably wrong, to suppose that this is just a consequence of the social dynamics of poll-taking [a subject about which I have written before, with reference to a classic essay by David Riesman.]  People understand that the answer one gives to a question may not really be a statement of one’s beliefs, but may rather be an occasion for self-identification as a certain sort of American.  Thus, if Gallup were to ask a cross-section of Americans whether Barack Obama has horns, a non-negligible percentage would say yes, but that does not mean they would be genuinely surprised if they were to meet him and find that he does not.  They would understand that the question really being asked was “Do you hate Obama?” and their response to that implied question would indeed be accurate.

But I think there probably really are about one hundred million Americans who think that the Bible [in English] is the Word of God and should be taken literally, word for word.  How can this possibly be?

I brood on things like this a lot when I am not actively engaged in something more useful, and I think I have an answer.  Look, these hundred million men and women are almost certainly averagely intelligent, averagely competent people.  They get through the day, they hold down jobs, they drive, they know how to turn lights on and off, most of them are literate.  And nothing it says in the Bible interferes in any way with this quotidian functionality.

But now let us suppose that Leviticus 5:17 said “Tweets can be no longer than seventeen characters.”  Whoa!  That would call for some serious textual interpretation, because these faithful Fundamentalists know perfectly well that tweets can be 140 characters long, and save for some technologically clued-in Amish, who tend to walk the walk as well as talking the talk, they are not going to cut their tweets short at 17 characters just because the Bible says so.  The same descent into exegetical interpretation would be required if Matthew 6:17 said “Le Bron James is a lousy basketball player.”

But the great thing about the Bible is that it doesn’t say anything at all about the simple facts that simple people know.  Oh, it says Jonah was swallowed by a big fish and lived there for three days until the fish belched him up.  But few if any of those hundred million have actually seen a whale close up, and believing the Jonah story in no way interferes with their daily rounds.

I mean, when I was a boy my father wrote a high school Biology text which, among many other things, said that there are 48 chromosomes in the human cell.  I lived quite comfortably for many years with that piece of misinformation until I found out that early staining techniques had resulted in a miscount – there are actually only 46.

Of course, believing nutty things for religious reasons has real world consequences – it leads these people to support politicians who pass genuinely awful laws designed to impoverish people and blight their lives, so it matters a good deal that one hundred million Americans are Inerrantists.  But holding that belief does not make them dysfunctional in any immediately manifest fashion.

The residential and social self-segregation of American life results in my almost never meeting one of these Fundamentalists.  Even though I live in North Carolina, which is pretty benighted, I don’t get out of Chapel Hill much, and as I have often observed, in Chapel Hill you can go for quite a while without hearing a Southern accent.  So I may be all wrong.  Maybe Gallup could do a poll.

 


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A RESPONSE TO JERRY FRESIA [YET AGAIN]


The creative act is endlessly complex and mysterious, at least to me.  I think I understand what I do, but not what others do.  A great string quartet does not create music, but interpret it, which is surely different.  But I suspect jazz aficionados, of whom I am not one, would say that great jazz combos do in fact create collectively, and on occasion do so on the fly, as it were.

One aspect of my own creative act that has puzzled me for a long time is my tendency, once I have written an essay or a book, to feel that I am now finished with the subject of the writing and so turn to something quite different.  It is as though, by transforming a problem or a text or a theory into my story – since all my writing is the telling of stories – I have transmuted it into a permanent form that I must then leave alone.

After writing my first book, an explication of the central argument of the Critique of Pure Reason, it would have seemed to me de trop then to write a second or a third book on the Critique.  I had wrestled with Kant until I had, I believed, forced him to yield up his argument to me, and that was that.  My second book on Kant dealt with his ethical theory, and in that case I emerged from the struggle unsatisfied.  Hence, many years later, I returned to the task I had been unable to complete and wrote “The Completion of Kant’s Ethical Theory in the Tenets of the Rechtslehre, whose title says that I have now finished that story.

This sense that my writing transforms raw material into a finished story is present even with relatively trifling pieces.  For example, almost exactly a year ago, on July 13, 2013, I wrote a short explication de texte of Emily Dickinson’s poem “I am nobody/Who are You?”  This is a poem that speaks very directly to me, and which I chose as the epigraph of my Autobiography.  I had obviously been thinking about the poem, off and on, for many years, but once I had captured it in the little story I wrote, I was done with it, and I could not imagine returning to it to discuss it further.

I wonder whether other writers experience their act of writing in a similar manner.

NAVEL GAZING


One of the least appealing characteristics of blogging is its ephemeral nature.  Everything evanesces.  Snarks and selfies go viral and last for the lifetime of a Mayfly, while serious writing might just as well have been communicated by Native American smoke signals.  This was brought home to me by reading Irving Finkel’s The Ark Before Noah, which deals in mesmerizing detail with writing that was painstakingly etched on clay tablets and consequently has endured for as much as five millennia.

In the past few days I have been re-reading several of the multi-part tutorials that I posted on this blog several years ago.  Despite having been written and posted seriatim, they were the crystallization of many years of reading, thinking, and teaching – intended to endure, not, like Mission Impossible assignments, to self-destruct after fifteen seconds.  I will say, without a hint of false modesty, that they stand up quite well upon re-reading.  They are all stored on box.net, and have evidently been looked at by at least some people [the essay most often consulted is The Thought of Karl Marx, which I confess pleases me.]

It would be a violation of the implicit norms of the medium for me to re-post them – rather like an anxious Assistant Professor publishing the same journal article twice in a desperate effort to pad a tenure file.  So I will simply invite my readers to follow the link at the top of the page to box.net and take a look.  Think of yourself as browsing in a second-hand bookstore.

Monday, July 21, 2014

CONTINUING PROBLEM

Having nothing better to do, I took a look at the Spam file attached to this blog and discovered some extremely interesting posts and back and forth.   I have not a clue why they got put into a spam file.  Does anyone know how to turn the damn spam filter off?  I would rather have a little bit of spam than lose these interesting comments.

FALSE ALARM

During my morning walk, I noticed that ODEON and VENDOME and TROCADERO and BASTILLE had bullied their way back to the head of the line-up of Batobuses along the Seine, shoving Yves Montand and Jean Gabin to the rear again, so I guess the cultural upheaval has not materialized.

AN URBAN MYSTERY


The funniest of the many writings of Karl Marx is The Holy Family, the boisterous attack on the so-called Young Hegelians by Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels.  My favorite passage is Marx’s faux serious discussion of The Absolute Fruit, his hilarious send-up of Hegelian metaphysics, but the book actually begins with a lengthy anatomization of Les Mystères de Paris, Eugène Sue’s interminable romantic novel.  [Back in the day when I was plowing through as much Marx as I could manage, I actually bought a three-volume edition of Sue’s novel, but it sits, chastely untouched, on my shelves in Chapel Hill.]

Susie and I have our own mystère de Paris, and yesterday evening we got a clue as to its solution.  Our little 330 square foot pied-a-terre is on the ground floor of a copropriété, the French version of a condominium association.  The entrance is a pair of grand French doors off an interior 17th century courtyard, but the one window looks out on rue Maître Albert.  Directly across the street is a little shop, and when we fold back the shutters and open the window, we are looking directly into it.  Over the ten years that we have owned the apartment, the shop has undergone transformations.  First it was a real estate office, then a general handyman shop offering plumbing, carpentry, electricity, and twenty-four hour locksmith service if you locked yourself out of your apartment.  Last year, two gay men opened a very upscale boutique called “Hug and You” that featured seven hundred dollar scarves, thousand dollar jeans [made to measure] and to-die-for two thousand dollar purses.  We have struck up a neighborly friendship with the proprietors, who spend hours out on the street gossiping with friends who come by in a seemingly endless stream.  The two of them live in the apartment just above the shop and have a large cat, whom Susie talks to when it pokes its head out of the window.

We have now spent eight weeks in our apartment during the lifetime of Hug and You, and we have not seen a single solitary person actually buy anything in the shop.  Lots of people walking by have paused to look at the mannequins in the window.  A few have even stepped inside to look around.  But no one, to our knowledge, has ever left carrying a Hug and You shopping bag.

So, our own personal mystère de Paris is this:  How on earth do these two nice men make any money?

Last night we got a clue.  We had walked across the street to have dinner at the pizza place just to the left of Hug and You, and since we were early and the restaurant was empty, the patron wandered over to our table to say hello.  [He knows that we live across the street.]  I leaned forward and said to him softly that the shop next door did not seem to have any customers.  He nodded knowingly and said, “Internet.”

Sure enough, when I Googled it, up came an attractive website with graphics and a video featuring the two proprietors.  So maybe they are making out like gangbusters online, and the shop is just for show.  I certainly hope so.  Susie and I are pulling for them to make a go of it.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

THE ARK BEFORE NOAH


I have now finished reading The Ark Before Noah by Irving Finkel, who is described on the dust jacket as “Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages, and cultures at the British Museum.”  It is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read.  Now, this means less than might at first appear, since, as I have often observed here, I read slowly and not a great deal.  But I have been at it, reading slowly, for the best part of eighty years, and in that time I have managed at my snail’s pace to plow through a considerable number of books.

It would be tedious and impractical for me to do what I would most like to do, which is simply to quote endless passages from Finkel and leave it to you to form your own opinion.  So in this post, I shall try to explain what has impressed me so powerfully about the book, aside from its sprightly style and Finkel’s delightful personality, which are on display on every page.  I urge you strongly to buy a copy and dig into it yourselves.

The oldest civilization known to us today arose in the fertile area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers [hence Meso-potamia] in what is, at least for the moment, Iraq.  Somewhere between five thousand and five thousand four hundred years ago, in that area, writing was invented – for the very first time, so far as anyone today knows  [although there is some argument to the effect that Egyptian hieroglyphics were invented in the same time period, possibly under the influence of cuneiform writing.]  The physical technique used at that time, more than five millennia ago, was to inscribe series of straight wedges in clay tablets with little sticks.  This system of writing is called “cuneiform,” from the Latin “cuneus” for “wedge.” The tablets, which for the most part were small enough to be held in one’s hand, rather like a PDA or large cellphone, were frequently inscribed with writing on both sides.  Some were fired in an oven to harden, others were simply allowed to dry in the sun to an acceptable hardness.  The invention of writing appears to have been spurred by the practical necessity of recording mercantile transactions and keeping track of supplies or promulgating state regulations, but as time went on, the tablets came to be used for personal letters, for literary works, for school exercises, for recording myths and legends, spells and incantations, and for every other purpose to which writing has been put ever since.

THIS ORIGINAL SYSTEM OF WRITING CONTINUED IN ACTIVE USE FOR MORE THAN THREE THOUSAND YEARS.

Let me say that again, because it is the single most astonishing fact I learned from Finkel’s book:

THIS ORIGINAL SYSTEM OF WRITING CONTINUED IN ACTIVE USE FOR MORE THAN THREE THOUSAND YEARS.

For sixty percent of all the time that human beings have been writing, some of them at least were making wedges in clay tablets with styli.  Clay tablets are quite durable, and at last 150,000 of them have been recovered from archeological digs here and there, many of course in damaged or fragmentary condition.

Finkel’s book is about a newly surfaced tablet that records a part of a version of an old and well-established story about a great flood and a boat built at the direction of a god to save a remnant of human and animal life from extinction.  [By the way, in the earliest version of the myth, the gods decide to wipe out human beings because they are too noisy!  Don’t you love it?]

Scholars have long known of a number of such myths, clearly much more ancient than the biblical story of Noah and serving as the sources for the Noah story.  Finkel’s excitement, which he communicates charmingly, derives from the fact that the phrase “the animals entered two by two,” long thought to have been a biblical innovation, appears on this Ark Tablet,” as he calls it, and – even more exciting – from the clear evidence that the ark commanded to be built by a god was an enormous coracle – which is to say, a perfectly circular boat made like a basket from a long, coiled rope sewn together and buttressed with ribs of wood.  These coracles were used by the ancient Mesopotamians and continued to be used right up to the point, not many years ago, when Saddam Hussein, for political reasons, drained the marshlands between the Tigris and Euphrates and thereby destroyed what is arguably the oldest continuous material culture known to man.

Like many humanist intellectuals, my picture of civilization and culture is powerfully shaped by the combined Graeco-Roman-Biblical tradition, whose recorded origins do not reach as far back as the beginning of the first millennium B. C.  The effect of Finkel’s book on me has been to provide a major corrective to that mental image.

Take a look at The Ark Before Noah.  I think it may have the same effect on you.

 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

THE REAL WORLD

While I have been blithely blogging away lightheartedly about matters of no importance, really awful things have been happening in the world.  I feel the need to say something here by way of acknowledgement of this reality, not because I have any useful thoughts to contribute to the public discussion but simply to pay respect to the dead and dying.

The Israeli invasion of Gaza is appalling, both in its brutality and in its wanton disregard for the rights of the Palestinians.  It is not necessary to trace out the sequence of attacks and counterattacks that have led to this invasion, nor is it necessary to detail the failures of wisdom and leadership on both sides.  The occupying power always bears the burden of responsibility for the violence attendant upon occupation -- whether it is Israel, Russia, America, Germany, France or China, or Rome or Persia or the Mongols, for that matter.  The occupying power always reacts with righteous anger when attacked, and always claims that its role as occupying power is thrust upon it reluctantly by the intransigence and violence of the occupied. 

The shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines jet is only made worse by the fact that one hundred of the murdered passengers were HIV-AIDS experts on their way to a conference.  It is not hard to guess what happened, though Obama is being appropriately cautious until the facts have been established.  Putin has been supplying the Ukrainian separatists with ever more sophisticated weaponry, which they have been using with his encouragement and approval to shoot down aircraft of the Ukrainian government.  The separatists, lacking well-trained operators with a command of radar and associated technology, mistook the domestic airliner for a military plane and shot it out of the sky, first bragging online of their accomplishment and then hurriedly taking the boast down when they discovered what they had done.  Since the U.S. does relatively little business with Russia, it feels free to impose economic sanctions, which do seem to be inflicting some damage on the Russian economy.  The Western European powers, some of which rely on Russian natural gas, have been reluctant to cooperate in the regime of sanctions, and are now in a bind because their nationals were among the victims.  What is interesting -- if that is an appropriate term to use in the presence of this crime -- is the extent to which even a continental power like Russia is dependent on its trade with the rest of the world, and hence is susceptible to economic pressure, rather than military threats.  There is after all something good to be said for international capitalism.

VULGAR EMPIRICISM


The Louvre is a very large building standing on the right bank in Paris.  It is essentially a long rectangle oriented east-west along the Seine.  Walking along the left bank this morning, heading for the Assembleé Nationale, I approached the point at which the Louvre begins across the river, and wondered to myself just how long it actually is.  As a philosopher, I should have been casting about for self-evident first premises from which I could deduce its length a priori.  As a Marxist social critic I should have been concerning myself with the structure of exploitation underlying its mystified façade.  But feeling rather chastened by Jamie’s correction of my uninformed speculations about contemporary academic Sociology, I decided to collect some facts.  Accordingly, as I passed the eastern end of the museum, I began to count my paces [a pace is two steps – left right.  I have short legs, so my paces are not much more than five feet each.]

I counted by tens, as is my wont, using my fingers to keep track of the hundreds so that I would not get distracted and lose my way.  By the time I had reached the bridge that crosses the Seine from the end of rue de Bac to the edge of the museum, I had reached 420 paces, which means that the Louvre is not that much under half a mile from one end to the other.  I think we can agree that that is a good deal of museum.

There is something curiously gratifying about personally collecting a fact, although as a philosopher and Marxist critic I would not hope to make a habit of it.  Now, about the underlying ideological significance of the Louvre ….

Friday, July 18, 2014

THE OLD WAYS ARE BEST


I retired six years ago, so I am a retired professor.  But I am not a retired philosopher.  I mean, you cannot retire from philosophy if you are a philosopher, any more than you can retire from poetry if you are a poet.  Of course, you may go for long periods without writing philosophy, or even longer periods of time without writing poetry.  If you are a novelist, you may also go for long periods of time without writing a novel.  Just ask J. D. Salinger, Ralph Ellison, or Joseph Heller.  But you are still a novelist, right?

Be that as it may, there are rules and regulations in the Academy, rules that determine, for example, which Dean you have to see about getting a phone in your office, and if you have given no visible evidence of activity conforming to your official job description for thirty years or so, you may run into resistance from the powers that be.  [After a number of years in the Afro-American Studies Department, I applied for a sabbatical leave.  Since I was required to state the research I proposed to undertake, I said I wanted to write my autobiography.  The Provost, Cora Marrett, who was in fact also a courtesy member of our department, turned me down on the grounds that it was not, given my professional specialty, an appropriate project.  I am very happy to report that she is now Deputy Director of the National Science Foundation, in which position she can ride herd on silly projects like mine nation-wide.]

But though I will, I guess, be a philosopher until I die, there being no established procedure for stripping me of my epaulets, I was reflecting today that for a long time now my mind has been very much less engaged with what passes for philosophy in the profession than with the concepts, insights, methods, and problems of the great tradition of social theory.  Looking back over the tutorials and mini-tutorials I have composed for this blog, I find that I have written at length about all four of the giants of the classical tradition:  Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Karl Mannheim.  [I have long been enchanted by the fact that early in his career, W. E. B. Du Bois went abroad and studied with Max Weber.  For an opportunity like that I would have buckled down and really learned some German!]

These autobiographical reflections were triggered in me when there popped into my head, for no apparent reason, the phrase “the routinization of charisma,” which plays a role in Weber’s discussion of types of legitimate authority, one of the highpoints of his magisterial posthumous work, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft [Economy and Society.]  According to Wikipedia, “In 1998 the International Sociological Association listed this work as the most important sociological book of the 20th century.”  These days, it is the rare doctoral student in Sociology, I would bet, who has ever so much as held one of its volumes in his or her hands.  I genuinely believe that there has been an actual decline in our level of understanding of society in the last century, implausible as that may seem.

 I suppose I ought to explain “routinization of charisma” for anyone who has not encountered the expression.  Chrism, or myrrh, is holy oil, an oil consecrated by a priest and used in religious ceremonies to anoint someone.  By extension, charisma is the personal quality of someone who is perceived as having been anointed or chosen by God for some purpose.  In the course of his profound and very important explication of the origins and varieties of our belief in the legitimacy of the authority claimed by leaders or rulers, Weber argues that the most primitive and fundamental source of this belief is the personal quality of a great warrior or religious figure who inspires in those around him or her a willingness to follow even into battle or on a path of self-sacrifice.  St. Francis had this quality, as did Joan of Arc, Mohandas Gandhi, and many others.  The charisma attaches to the individual by virtue of his or her personal qualities, quite irrespective of lineage or royal appointment or “the consent of the governed.”  Weber labels this personal ability to command the loyalty and sacrifice of others “charismatic authority.”  Note that Weber is not seeking to justify authority claims, but rather to explain a familiar and important social phenomenon.  A somewhat vulgar and debased variant of charismatic authority is what is sometimes called “star quality,” often claimed for entertainers and contemporary politicians.

Because the individual’s success in commanding the loyalty and obedience of followers flows directly from his or her personal qualities --   courage, daring, skill with weapons, saintliness, selflessness – it cannot easily be transferred to a son or daughter or to a faithful follower.  But time passes, and the warrior grows old, the saint feeble.  Unless procedures are established for passing the mantle of leadership to a representative of a new generation, who may of course quite lack the charisma of the old leader, either what has been accomplished through the efforts of the charismatic leader will disappear, or a destructive struggle will break out for the succession.  Inevitably, what began as the individual authority of the remarkable individual comes to be transformed into a stable and transferable claim to rule, capable of being transmitted from generation to generation.

The charisma is routinized.

THIS AND THAT

1.  I may have seen an indication this morning during my walk of a seismic shift in French culture.  When I passed the row of Batobuses anchored for the night on the shores of the Seine, I noticed that the Jean Gabin and the Yves Montand had been promoted from the rear to the front of the row.  If a Simone Signoret shows up, I will know that I am on to something.

2.  Magpie posts a long comment today [or last night], reacting to Chris Langton's critique of something I wrote two years ago.  Out of curiosity, I went back and read the original post, which was an essay I had actually written long ago called "A Critique of Keynesian Economics."  I found my essay quite interesting.  I also had absolutely no recollection of ever having written it.  There are times when I think I am losing it.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A SERIOUS POETIC INTERLUDE

Yesterday evening, we had dinner with our good friends Anne Berry and Philip Minns.  Philip brought along a collection of the poems of e. e. cummings, the poet whose works Susie and I would read to each other sixty-five years ago when we were courting.  The collection did  not contain my favorite cummings poem, but Google instantaneously supplied it.  Here it is, for your delectation.

"Gay" is the captivating cognomen of a Young Woman of cambridge,
mass.
to whom nobody seems to have mentioned ye olde freudian wish;
when i contemplate her uneyes safely ensconced in thick glass
you try if we are a gentleman not to think of(sh)

the world renowned investigator of paper sailors--argonauta argo
harmoniously being with his probably most brilliant pupil mated,
let us not deem it miraculous if their(so to speak)offspring has that largo
appearance of somebody who was hectocotyliferously propagated

when Miss G touched n.y. our skeleton stepped from his cupboard
gallantly offering to demonstrate the biggest best busiest city
and presently found himself rattling for that well known suburb
the bronx(enlivening an otherwise dead silence with harmless quips, out
of Briggs by Kitty)

arriving in an exhausted condition, i purchased two bags of lukewarm
peanuts
with the dime which her mama had generously provided(despite courte-
ous protestations)
and offering Miss Gay one(which she politely refused)set out gaily for
the hyenas
suppressing my frank qualms in deference to her not inobvious perturba-
tions

unhappily, the denizens of the zoo were that day inclined to be uncouthly
erotic
more particularly the primates--from which with dignity square feet
turned abruptly Miss Gay away:
"on the whole"(if you will permit a metaphor savouring slightly of the
demotic)
Miss Gay had nothing to say to the animals and the animals had nothing
to say to Miss Gay

during our return voyage, my pensive companion dimly remarlted some-
thing about "stuffed
fauna" being "very interesting" . . . we also discussed the possibility of
rain. . .
E distant proximity to a Y.W.c.a. she suddenly luffed
--thanking me; and(stating that she hoped we might "meet again
sometime")vanished, gunwale awash. I thereupon loosened my collar
and dove for the nearest l; surreptitiously cogitating
the dictum of a new england sculptor(well on in life)re the helen moller
dancers, whom he considered "elevating--that is, if dancing CAN be ele-
vating"

Miss(believe it or)Gay is a certain Young Woman unacquainted with the
libido
and pursuing a course of instruction at radcliffe college, cambridge, mass.
i try if you are a gentleman not to sense something un poco putrido
when we contemplate her uneyes safely ensconced in thick glass
  

GUILTY PLEASURES

Paul Krugman is not a Marxist.  I understand that I am therefore obligated to disdain him and look askance at those who profess to enjoy his blog.  So it is with a heavy heart and considerable embarrassment that I come before you to confess that I find Krugman funny, informative, and stick-it-to-'em abrasive in his exposure of the follies of his economist colleagues on the right.  To be sure, this just means that he is the wittiest and most amusing of the poor sods chained to the floor of the cave and forced to make educated guesses about the shadows playing on the walls.  Those of us who have struggled up into the light and can see capitalism for what it truly is must never associate in any serious way with the likes of Krugman.  But I enjoy a good snark as much as the next aging revolutionary, and although profundity is plentiful on the far left, wit is rather harder to find.

There, as the Roman Catholic Church discovered ages ago, confession is good for the soul.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

OP ED


Four years ago, I was invited to take part in the half century celebration of the establishment of Social Studies, an undergraduate interdisciplinary major at Harvard of which I was the first Head Tutor.  As long-time readers of this blog may recall, the affair was hi-jacked by a flap over some really ugly statements made by the always loathsome Marty Peretz, who was associated with Social Studies for some years and is remembered fondly by such faux progressives as E. J. Dionne.  I ended up having to revise my remarks at the lunch that day in order to express my dismay at Harvard’s readiness to accept donations to fund a scholarship honoring Peretz [without too much trouble I found an appropriate quotation from Das Kapital for the occasion], and it was those harsh comments that drew such attention as my talk garnered.  But my original intention had been to praise Social Studies for requiring its students to read some of the classic works of social theory – by Marx, Weber, Mannheim, and Durkheim – in which the central theme is the distinction between surface social appearance and underlying social reality.  That distinction, I noted, had all but disappeared from modern Political Sociology, which contents itself with opinion surveys that examine every detail of what people believe, without ever asking why they so often believe what is manifestly untrue.

All of this went through my mind as I read an an Op Ed essay in the NY TIMES by Thomas B. Edsall called The Coming Democratic Schism.  Edsall focuses on a number of opinion surveys of White voters who are reliable supporters of the Democratic Party.  The older White Democrats – forty-eight and up --strongly believe that you cannot get ahead in this country by hard work alone, that the economic disadvantage suffered by Blacks is a result of discrimination, that the government should do more to ameliorate economic inequality, and so forth.  They also strongly support the social agenda of the Democratic Party – Gay Rights, Women’s Rights, etc.  The younger White Democratic Party supporters – thirty-eight and under – share this support for the social agenda, but differ markedly on economic issues.  For example, “77 percent of the younger ‘next generation left’ believes that you can get ahead if you are willing to work hard,” as compared with “the older ‘solid liberal’ group, 67 percent [of whom] responded that hard work is no guarantee of success.”  And so forth.

The point of Edsall’s column is that the younger Democratic Party supporters have pretty much given up the belief of their elders in the systemic or structural causes of the inequalities that characterize American society.  But their solid support for the social agenda makes them virtually unreachable by a Republican Party that continues to make the social issues central to its message.

All of that is no doubt very striking, but Edsall simply never asks the really interesting question, which is, Why do the younger voters hold a set of beliefs that are so completely at odds with reality?  They are not stupid.  They are probably reasonably well-educated.  I would imagine they pay attention to public affairs, and yet their beliefs are completely at odds with the facts.  Surely that is what cries out for explanation.

First of all, a few elementary facts.  In the past forty years, the Gross Domestic Product of the United States, in constant dollars, has increased by roughly 225 percent – i.e., it has a good deal more than doubled.  Measured in 2013 dollars, the GDP was about seven and a half trillion dollars in 1973, and was close to seventeen trillion dollars in 2013.  Over the same forty years, median household income in constant dollars [i.e. the household income below which fall half of all the households in America] has increased by only five percent.  This is a truly astonishing datum.  It might be put this way:  After forty years of hard work, the efforts of the entire country are combining to produce an additional nine and a half trillion dollars of wealth per year, and virtually all of that nine and a half trillion dollars is going to the top half of American households – none of it is “trickling down” to the bottom half.  To put the same point another way, the top half of households are more than twice as well off as they were forty years ago; the bottom half are no better off than they were forty years ago.  What is more, intergenerational social mobility is lower in the United States than in France, Germany, or Great Britain, three countries thought by Americans to be more weighed down by tradition and inherited status than our open, free American society.

So the really interesting question not asked by Edsall is why younger white supporters of the Democratic Party so badly misperceive their own personal life chances and economic situation.

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I have a suspicion, which I will share with you.  It is impossible to grasp the social reality in which one lives without some theoretical conceptual framework.  This is true even of supposedly simple societies – small, rural, economically primitive. [I have argued this at length in my tutorial, “How to Study Society,” available on box.net by following the link at the top of this blog.]   The theoretical insights into the deep structural inequality of capitalism of Marx and the other classical social theorists made their way into American public discourse, in part via the union movement, and for a long while in the first two thirds of the last century helped hundreds of millions of Americans to make sense of their immediate social and economic situation.  But that complex ideological demystification came under assault two generations ago, and has now all but disappeared from the collective consciousness of Americans.  As a consequence, those born and brought up since the Seventies really lack any organized conceptual framework within which to make sense of their world.

What they see most immediately is that their economic well-being is not protected either by the collective action of their fellow workers or by the government actions of Democratic congresses and presidential administrations.  Is their fate dependent on “hard work?”  Oh yes, indeed.  Their access to scarce and ill-paid jobs depends on competition against countless other aspirants.  What they cannot see without the appropriate conceptual framework is that their stagnant prospects are, taken as a whole, a consequence of the exploitative structure of capitalism, not a result of inadequate effort on their part.

It is not at all surprising that this Ayn Rand-esque understanding of the economy coexists in them with the most progressive commitment to social issues.  As I have many times argued on this blog, capitalism is quite comfortable with the elimination of legal discrimination against women or Latinos or African-Americans or gay and lesbian men and women.  It is only uncomfortable with anything that interrupts the steady, reliable exploitation of the working class, and the consequent accumulation of capital.

 

 
 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

PARIS MY PARIS


Paris has not been génial, what with the awful weather and the endlessly frustrating engagement with FranceTelecom, but this morning the City of Light redeemed itself.  As I began my walk at 5:30 a.m., I looked up into a cloudless sky.  A large moon, all but full, hung over the Left Bank, and the streets were clean, quiet, and almost free of cars or people.  I crossed a completely empty parvis Nôtre Dame, emptied of the hundreds of chairs set up for the Bastille Day memorial mass, and turned left on the right bank to walk west along the Seine.  The traffic flows downstream on our side of the river [hence left bank] and upstream on the right bank, but at a bit after 5:30 in the morning there was scarcely anything moving.  Here and there several clusters of young people, ending the night as I was beginning the morning, called to one another or made a show of amorous dalliance.  [Embarrassing confession:  Some years ago I heard on NPR a bit of urban reporting about the Paris government office that dispatches couples around the city to act lovey-dovey in public as an amusement for the tourists.  City employees were alerted by cellphone when a tourist attraction lacked a couple kissing and hurried to fill the gap.  With a credulity that makes me cringe even now, I bought the satirical bit hook line and sinker.  Oh well.]

The Palais de Justice, which occupies much of the other end of the Ȋle de la Cité from Nôtre Dame was gleaming, its façade newly cleaned.  The river flowed quietly, rather more slowly than I walk [faithful readers will recall that once before I measured its rate of flow by pacing myself against a bit of flotsam drifting with the current.]   I walked past the pet shops, pont neuf [the oldest bridge across the Seine!] and the old Samaritaine building that is slowly being transformed into apartments and upscale boutiques by LVMH [Louis Vuitton Möet Hennessey for the fashion challenged.]  As I began the long walk from the east end to the west end of the Louvre, I looked across the river to the wonderful old buildings and the moon above them.  The view of the Left Bank from the quais of the Right Bank is stunning.  I passed the Académie Française, refuge of those desperate to resist the relentless encroachment of Englishisms and Americanisms on the pristine French language.  As I reached the end of the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay came into view with its pair of magnificent huge matching clocks on the north face at each end of what was once a railway station and is now perhaps the most beautiful museum building in France.

Walking along the outside of the Denon wing of the Louvre, which lies just across the street from the quais, you get some sense how huge the entire museum is.  It seems to take forever to make one’s way from Samaritaine at the eastern end to the beginning of the Tuileries Garden just past the western end of the museum.  Inside, there is so much to see that one scarcely notices the distance.  I recall wandering through the Denon wing the first time I visited the Louvre.  As I was passing from one hall to the next, I happened to glance to the right.  There on the wall was one of my favorite paintings, La Bohémienne by Franz Hals.  It was hanging without fanfare among many other paintings as though a harried curator had been able to find no better place for it.  This placement seemed a wanton expression of the bottomless resources of the museum.

The Jardin des Tuilleries starts with a giant Carousel, which never actually seems to be turning, and ends at Place de la Concorde.  The Bastille Day military parade yesterday started at the Arc de Triomphe, made its way down the Champs Elysées, and ended at the reviewing stands in the Place, empty now as I turned to cross over again to the Left Bank.  Google says the affair is the oldest military parade in Europe, and certainly the endless overflights of France’s military aircraft and the rows upon rows of marching soldiers and helmeted motorcyclists must have been a grand sight, judging from the television coverage in our local café.  But the truth is that the Champs Elysées isn’t really good for much except a parade, and France’s days of imperial pretension are long past, the torch having been passed first to Great Britain and then to America.  Still, the French have been pretty depressed lately, so maybe a big parade was what they needed.

Back safely on the Left Bank, I turned again to walk upstream to Nôtre Dame and home.  The two little Batobuses, Jean Gabin and Yves Montand, were there behind the rows of big batobuses, and as it was now just past six, traffic was picking up and the joggers were out.  Since everyone passes me as though I were standing still, I must continually remind myself that I am eighty, so it is something that I am walking at all.

Past the Musée d’Orsay, this time up close on my right, past the Leopold Senghor foot bridge before the Left Bank entrance to which, like a sentinel, stands the unexpected statue of Thomas Jefferson, past pont neuf once again, and then, one block further on, the dark, elegant wooden exterior of Lapérouse, at one time half a century ago awarded the treasured three stars by Guide Michelin but now not even so much as accorded a mention.

The sun was coming up and the moon beginning to disappear in the sky as I approached Place St. Michel and the last leg of my walk.  It was too early for Keyser to be open so I went home to make a breakfast of yesterday’s baguette.  Paris had redeemed its eternal promise.

BRAGGING RIGHTS

One of the great pleasures of retirement in sitting back and watching your students flourish in the world of scholarship.  This is a special delight to me inasmuch as I am, as I have often noted, not really a scholar at all.  My latest intellectual grandchild [as it were] is a new book by Lindsey Swindall, one of the best doctoral students to come through the W. E. B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies during my long tenure as the inaugural Graduate Program Director.  Although I can take no credit at all for Lindsey's fine dissertation, she was my advisee for her first year in the program, and I figure that gives me some claim on everything she has ever done subsequent to that.

Lindsey's latest book, she tells me in an email, is The Path to the Greater, Freer, Truer World: Southern Civil Rights and Anticolonialism, 1937-1955, now published by The University Press of Florida.  You can visit the press' web site here  I have not yet seen it, but if it is anything like her previous publications, it is well worth looking at.

Monday, July 14, 2014

BASTILLE DAY

July 14, 2014:  The two hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the Great War that forever changed Europe, and the twelfth anniversary of the wedding of my son, Patrick, to Diana Schneider, a gifted, charming, dedicated contributor of effort and ideas to a variety of non-profit organizations and the mother of my grandchildren Samuel and Athena.  Susie and I celebrated the day by making one of our periodic outings to the Jardin des Plantes, I on foot and Susie on her Segway.  A trip to a botanical garden with Susie is a learning experience, since she started life as a botanist.  Senior moments, which all of us at this age suffer, for her take the form of forgetting the common names of plants even as she can produce the Latin names flawlessly.  She points to an unimpressive little flower and says "viola tricolor, now what is that called?"  "Pansy?"  I suggest tentatively.  "Yes, of course!"  At eight a.m. the Jardin was home to the usual joggers and a group of middle-aged oriental men and women doing some form of rather slow-moving meditative exercise.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame, our neighborhood church, set out several hundred folding chairs yesterday morning in the parvis in front of the church for the expected overflow crowd attending a commemorative mass in memory of those who lost their lives in 1914-1918.  We may wander over later and see whether we can freeload some of the blessings to be broadcast from inside.

Most of Paris has evaporated for the three day weekend, but the few restaurants still open will be jammed with tourists, so I shall make a simple dinner in this evening -- paupiettes pruneau, caramelized carrots, and rice, washed down with Sancerre blanc for Susie and Beaume de Venise rouge for me.