Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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.

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Thursday, April 30, 2015


I suppose someone whose Internet handle is classstruggle should not be expected to have much in the way of a sense of humor, but I really think his/her response to my lighthearted post about line-standers was, shall we say, somewhat out of proportion.

Lighten up!


One of the great texts of the early days of the discipline of Sociology is the essay, The Metropolis and Modern Life, by the great  nineteenth century German sociologist, Georg Simmel.  I was reminded of it during the trip Susie and I took on Monday to Washington D.C. to see my sister and my son, Tobias, who was in town for the Tuesday Supreme Court hearing on same-sex marriage cases.  An odd conjuncture, you might think.  The connection is this:

Tobias was eager to introduce us to one of his favorite restaurants, Rose's Luxury, which is on 8th street SE in the Capitol District of DC.  The restaurant is very popular, and does not take reservations, so it was agreed that Tobias would drive down from Philadelphia as soon as his teaching duties for the day were done at UPenn Law School, arriving in time to get on line outside the restaurant at about 4:30 p.m.  Barbara, Susie, and I would show up at about that time and have a drink in a nearby bistro while Tobias [and a lawyer friend] stood in line.  A minute or two before 5:30, when the restaurant opens, we would join him and go in together.  All this went swimmingly, and we had a delicious dinner.

While driving to the restaurant from Barbara's apartment, which is in the NW area of the city, we passed the Supreme Court building.  There was a long line of people camped out, prepared to spend the night in order to get into the hearing at ten the next morning.  The room in which the High Court meets is small -- maybe six hundred seats -- and there are no reserved seats, not even for someone like my son who has been admitted to the Supreme Court Bar and had written the lead  amicus brief in the second case to be heard that day, on the question of whether the "full faith and credit" clause requires states to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.  For a case of this historic importance, there would be many, many more people eager to listen to the oral arguments than the room could possibly hold.

How could Tobias possibly hope to get in, when people were already in line eighteen hours before the doors were due to open?  A trifle embarrassed, he admitted that he had paid a professional line-standing company to supply a line-stander, who had in fact been on line since Sunday!  Apparently, professional line-standing is a recognized métier, with enough demand to make it profitable for a company to hire line-standers and make them available when needed.

It was at this point that Georg Simmel came to mind.  In his classic essay, Simmel gives, as an example of the extreme division of labor in modern [i.e., nineteenth century] Paris, les quatorzièmes.  It seems that ladies hosting formal dinner parties were superstitiously averse to having thirteen at table.  Enough dinner parties were arranged each evening, and the unlucky number came up sufficiently often,  to make it worthwhile for a number of socially presentable men to dress in full formal evening clothes at the dinner hour and hire themselves out as "fourteenth at  table" to hostesses in need.



Wednesday, April 29, 2015


One of the odd side-effects of writing an eight hundred page autobiography is that one meets total strangers who know a very great deal about one's life.   A second consequence, at least for an inveterate story-teller like me, is that quite often, when I start to tell a story, my audience nods wearily as if to say, "Oh yes, we recall that one from your autobiography."  I did not put every one of my stories into that account of my life, but I did put quite a number in.  I sometimes feel that I have lived past my sell-by date.

But there are things I did not say in my autobiography, and that has gotten me thinking about famous authors who use elements of their personal lives in their writings.  I have in mind people like Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and -- for all I know -- Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, and Feodor Dostoyevsky.  It is my impression that if Philip Roth wanted to draw on his personal life for a really great scene or character in a novel, the only down side of which would be a permanent breach with a wife or child, he would not even hesitate.  I could not imagine saying anything in my Autobiography  [or elsewhere, for that matter] that might upset one of my sons or even offend a close friend.  The rich and famous are of course fair game.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


I have just returned from Washington, DC, where Susie and I had dinner with my big sister, Barbara [she who periodically puts me onto splendid books on Biology] and my son, Tobias, who was in town for the Supreme Court hearing today on same-sex marriage.  Tobias wrote and submitted a lead amicus brief on the second question before the court [whether same-sex marriages in one jurisdiction must be recognized in other jurisdictions], and as this may be the triumphant culmination of a struggle in which he has played an extremely important part, he wanted to be on hand for the oral arguments.

While I was away, several people offered very interesting comments on my two-part Auerbach post that call for some response from me.  Jerry Fresia in part says this:  "This strict separation of styles seems to be a manifestation of the utter contempt that ruling people have had for the lowest of the low that in their (ruling types) [eyes] have rendered common people historically invisible."  He gives several examples, prompting me to tell [or is it re-tell?] a story of my own experience in South Africa. 

In 1986, while I was lecturing on Marx for five weeks to the second-year Philosophy students at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, I was invited by the Chair of the Department, Jonathan Susman [nephew, I believe, of the famous anti-apartheid member of Parliament Helen Susman] to dinner at the Rand Club -- a downtown Johannesburg institution that is exactly what it sounds like.  I rented a tux [no kidding] and went along.  There were perhaps eight of us at dinner, all men of course, including business leaders and the editor of one of the most important newspapers in South Africa.  The apartheid government had just carried out a series of bombing raids in Mozambique targeting the military wing of the ANC, and the editor was sharing some information not widely known about the raids with those of us around the table.  We were served at the dinner by a number of silent, efficient, tactful Black men.  I recall wondering, "Which of these waiters will be reporting everything that is being said to a local ANC representative just as soon as the dinner ends?"  Even Jonathan Susman, who counted as one of the "liberal" Whites in the South Africa of the time, seemed utterly oblivious to what was really going on.

Jerry also asks whether it could have been possible for the Gospels to have been written in Greek if they were written by common people. The following very interesting discussion courtesy of Google suggests that the answer is yes.  Greek was apparently not, at that time, a language solely or even primarily of upper classes.  But this is a matter about which I know virtually nothing, so you cannot rely on what I say!

Magpie calls our attention to a very important strain of revolutionary thinking that drew both on the Bible and on the writings of Marx, especially, but by no means exclusively, in Latin America.  The ways of the Lord are strange indeed.

Monday, April 27, 2015


The key to Auerbach’s analysis, he tells us in many different ways, is the relationship between the totally different conceptions of the structure of reality that underlie the two passages, and the language with which Homer and the Elohist tell their stories. What is not said in the Genesis story is as significant as what is said in the Odyssey.

As Auerbach proceeds, slowly and with enormous patience, through the entire sweep of the development of Western literature, we see the literary resources crafted by the writers of one era being carried forward and deployed in ever more complex fashion until, by the time he has reached the familiar terrain of the Nineteenth Century novel, we have some appreciation of how much lies beneath the surface in the novels of Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust (the last chapter).

The first passage of Chapter Two is an extended monologue placed by the author, Petronius, in the mouth of one of the guests at a feast being hosted by a parvenu businessman named Trimalchio. The passage is gossipy, circumstantial, full of detail about the backgrounds, pretensions, successes and failures of the other guests seated around the table. Very much in the manner to which we have become accustomed in modern novels, the speaker unconsciously reveals himself, and unintentionally places himself perfectly in the social and economic milieu of which the host, Trimalchio, is a prominent and successful example. (Compare the way in which Becky Sharp reveals herself through her narration in Thackery’s Vanity Fair.) The discourse is vulgar, chatty, and entirely interior to the scene the speaker is describing. The following passage by Auerbach gives some sense of the thrust of his analysis:

Petronius does not say: This is so. Instead he lets an “I,” who is identical neither with himself nor yet with the feigned narrator Encolpius, turn the spotlight of his perception on the company at table – a highly artful procedure in perspective, a sort of twofold mirroring, which I dare not say is unique in antique literature as it has come down to us, but which is most unusual there. In outward form this procedure is certainly nothing new, for of course throughout antique literature characters speak of their experiences and impressions. But nowhere, except in this passage by Petronius, do we have, on the one hand, the most intense subjectivity, which is even heightened by individuality of language, and, on the other hand, an objective intent – for the aim is an objective description of the company at table, including the speaker, through a subjective procedure.

But, Auerbach argues, the convention of the separation of styles makes it impossible for an author like Petronius to discuss anything serious, let alone tragic, concerning the sorts of characters who are attending Trimalchio’s feast. They can only be the subject of comic portrayals, regardless of how accurate and penetrating Petronius’ anatomisation of their character flaws, aspirations, and social origins. What is even more interesting, to my way of thinking, Auerbach notes that although the world portrayed by Petronius is in constant turmoil, with some getting rich quickly, others just as quickly losing their fortunes and falling to the status of slaves, it is, from the point of view of modern social and economic theory, a static world. Individuals rise and fall, but Petronius has no sense of the deeper and longer acting social forces that might be transforming the entire social world, not merely the fortunes of this or that actor in that world.

The same is true of the next passage Auerbach considers, a speech by a rebellious member of the Roman legions by the Roman historian Tacitus. Because Tacitus is a great literary artist, the speech is powerful and effective as a set piece. But although the occasion for the speech is a moment of the greatest uncertainty in the young Roman empire – namely, the death of the first Emperor, Augustus (the speaker, Percennius, is protesting the low wages, long service, and harsh treatment meted out to the common soldiers in the legions) – Tacitus has no sense of or interest in moving historical forces that may bring about changes in the Empire.

After quoting two modern historians of ancient Rome, one of whom, Rostovtzeff, is one of my very favourite historiographers, Auerbach says:

what [both statements] express goes back to the same peculiarity of the ancients’ way of viewing things; it does not see forces, it sees vices and virtues, successes and mistakes… an aristocratic reluctance to become involved with growth processes in the depths, for these processes are felt to be both vulgar and orgiastically lawless.

What Petronius and Tacitus lack, in common with the other Greek and Roman writers of antiquity, Auerbach suggests, is the idea of historical forces moving beneath the surface, forces of which Trimalchio’s dinner party or Percennius’ rebellious speech are merely symptoms or expressions. This is an idea with which we are now quite familiar, and in the novels of Stendahl or Tolstoy or indeed Austen, it finds expression either explicitly or by implication. We might imagine that it would be necessary to jump across many centuries to find a passage that shows us far-reaching forces beginning to stir beneath the surface. But Auerbach locates a passage contemporaneous with Petronius and Tacitus in which something very like this finds expression – the passage in the Gospels in which the Apostle Peter thrice denies Jesus. Jesus, you will recall, has been arrested, and his disciples have been allowed to slip away undetained. But Peter follows Jesus and the officers to the high court, showing uncommon courage. Once there, he is challenged several times to admit that he is one of Jesus’ group, and three times he denies that he is.

As Auerbach makes clear, this is a situation that simply could not be satisfactorily rendered by Greek or Latin authors. First of all, the participants – Peter, a young woman who confronts him, the soldiers, indeed Jesus Himself – are common people of the lowest social order, and the strict separation of styles forbids that anything tragic or momentous or of world-historical importance should be portrayed as involving them in any essential way. As Auerbach rather nicely puts it, “viewed superficially the thing is a police action and its consequences; it takes place entirely among everyday men and women of the common people; anything of the sort would be thought in antique terms only as farce or comedy.” And yet, Peter’s situation is of the most profound significance possible. What is more, this is the man on whom Jesus has chosen to found His church. This is St. Peter, the first Pope, the man from whom flowed an institution that transformed first the Roman Empire and then all of the Western world.

There is much, much more in Auerbach’s analysis of the passage that I simply do not have the space or the energy to capture. But the central idea I want to leave you with is this: The thoroughly modern sociological/historical idea of deep-moving long-running social, economic, and political movements that transform a society – the idea on which Marx’s theories are built, and that finds expression as well in the writings of every great modern social theorist – finds its first primitive powerful expression in these New Testament passages. Originally, the transformations are metaphysical or theological, and are imposed from outside the social order by God – the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection. But the violation of the principle of the Separation of Styles, the presentation of subterranean movements among the common people that will eventually burst forth into world-historical significance, the literary and conceptual possibility of a thoroughly secular deployment of these same ideas in the works of Marx and others – all of this is prefigured in the New Testament two thousand years ago.

Sunday, April 26, 2015


I launched this blog in 2007 and began posting seriously in 2009.  In 2010, in a fury of activity lasting several months, I wrote and posted a Memoir that eventually turned into a 261,000 word Autobiography.  When I had exhausted the literary possibilities of my own life, I turned to more promising subjects, creating "tutorials" as a vehicle for on-line professorial pontificating.  The tutorials, which ranged in length from 20,000 to 30,000 words, gave place to Mini-Tutorials.  These in turn were followed by what I called "Appreciations" -- brief commentaries on books I had particularly liked, intended to encourage my readers to take a look at them for themselves. 

One of the Appreciations with which I was particularly pleased concerned a great work of humanist scholarship, Mimesis by Erich Auerbach.  I have decided to re-post it now, in the hope that there are more recent visitors to this blog who may find it of interest.

Erich Auerbach (1892-1957) was a German Jew trained in the German philological tradition. Forced to flee Germany, he spent the war years in Istanbul, where he wrote his greatest work, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. After the war, Auerbach came to the United States, where, from 1950 to his death, he was a professor at Yale.

Mimesis is a series of twenty chapters, organised chronologically, each of which is a separate essay, capable of standing alone. Each essay begins with an extended passage (in the original followed by a translation) from a work of the Judeo-Christian Greco-Roman literary tradition, which Auerbach then subjects to an intense linguistic, literary, and philosophical analysis. The only exception to this pattern is in the earliest chapters, in which neither the Greek of the Odyssey, nor the Hebrew of the Old Testament nor the Aramaic of the New Testament is reproduced. In many, but not all, of the chapters, the initial passage is paired with a contrasting passage from the same period drawn from a very different literary/philological style.

The greatness of Mimesis is in the extraordinary detail of the several analyses, but there are certain overarching themes that it is good to be aware of as one reads through the book. The first, and most important, theme is the connection between the purely syntactic linguistic resources of the language being used by the author of the passage under examination and the nature of social reality that the author seeks to capture and communicate. Thus, for example, the extreme limitation of the syntactic resources on which the author of the 12th century Chanson de Roland is able to draw results in (or perhaps, is paralleled by) the very blunt, un-nuanced representation of the motivation of Roland and the other characters of the Chanson. (Although the text is 12th century, and reflects the Chivalric ideals of the time, it refers, of course, to events that took place much earlier.) Two centuries later, when Boccaccio wrote the Decameron, he had available to him in early Italian extraordinarily rich syntactic devices that permitted him to capture the motivations and perceptions of a number of characters from different and even incompatible perspectives, all within the same sentences.

This general idea of the relation between linguistic structures and conceptions of social reality is central to the first chapter of my little book, Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, and I think it is fair to say that I was drawing heavily on what I learned from Auerbach when I wrote it, for all that I do not explicitly credit him.

A second theme that plays an important role, in the early chapters especially, is the distinction between high and low literary styles, paralleling the social distinctions of the milieu being represented. All of us are familiar with this distinction from Shakespeare’s plays in which a scene of the most intense seriousness, involving well-born characters, will be followed by a scene of comic buffoonery involving peasants or servants. Auerbach demonstrates quite dramatically that one of the most powerful and revolutionary features of the texts of the New Testament is a mixture of high and low styles that would have been impossible either in the classical Greek literature or in the Roman literature of the first several centuries of this era.

It goes without saying that I shall not attempt to summarise, or even make reference to, all or most of the twenty essays. Rather, I shall focus on several, drawn principally from the earliest portion of the book, to convey something of the complexity and penetration of Auerbach’s discussion.

I shall begin with the first chapter of the book, in which we encounter many of the themes and insights that characterise Auerbach’s work. For the opening chapter, Auerbach chooses two very ancient texts, the first from the 8th century BC, the other from the 6th century BC. The first text is the famous “recognition” scene from the Odyssey. As you will recall (at least, I hope you will recall), at the end of the Trojan War, Odysseus sets out with his followers to return to Ithaca and his wife and son, but for one reason and another, it takes him ten years to complete the journey. He is presumed dead, and a number of suitors are vying for the hand of his widow, Penelope, and for Odysseus’ wealth and position. Odysseus shows up at his home disguised as a wanderer, and is put in charge of a servant who was, when he was young, his nurse. She washes his feet (I think I am recalling this correctly) and in a dramatic moment recognises a scar on his leg as that of her old master, Odysseus. Odysseus warns her to remain silent about her discovery for the moment so that he can study the interactions between his wife and the band of importunate suitors.

This passage is contrasted by Auerbach with an equally famous passage from Genesis 22:1 in which God speaks to Abraham and commands him to make a sacrifice of his only begotten son, Isaac.[i] Abraham obeys, and sets out to the place of sacrifice with Isaac, but at the last moment, as Abraham is about to slay Isaac, he sees a ram caught in the bushes, and substitutes it for his son.

These are equally dramatic passages, but they are treated linguistically by their authors, Auerbach argues, in utterly different ways that reveal to us the completely different conceptions of reality of the Homeric Greeks and the Old Testament Hebrews. It is very, very difficult to capture the subtlety and richness of Auerbach’s discussion without resorting to endless lengthy quotes. The central points of his analysis of the Homeric passage, as I understand him, are these:

The scene “is scrupulously externalized and narrated in leisurely fashion…  Clearly outlined, brightly and uniformly illuminated, men and things stand out in a realm where everything is visible.” One of the key notions here is expressed by the word “externalized.” We are these days (after the literary evolution that Mimesis is designed to explicate) accustomed to distinctions between the inner and outer, the visible and the hidden. The motivations of a character – her hopes, desires, fears, beliefs, anticipations, understandings and misunderstandings – may all be communicated by hints and nods, with revealing turns of phrase, as much by what is not said on the page as what is. But all of this is foreign to Homer. As Auerbach notes, even as Achilles and Hector fight to the death, they utter speeches that express their inner feelings. The key to the Recognition scene, the “McGuffin” as stage buffs would call it, is the old scar on Odysseus’ leg. Once the maid, Euryclea, spots it, she knows that the stranger is her old master. A modern author would not want to slow down the action, or release the tension, by devoting line after line to an explanation of the origin of the scar. Either the modern author would prepare the way for the Recognition by inserting an account of the scar earlier in the text, so that the reader understands its significance instantaneously, or else such an author would leave the scar unexplained, relying on the reader to fill in the blanks. But Homer, Auerbach notes, enters into a complete and unhurried account of the hunting expedition on which Odysseus acquired the scar. The effect, deliberate, Auerbach is sure, is to drain the moment of its tension. In a Homeric text, all is on the surface, all is fully realised, all is externalised.

Auerbach invites us to contrast this with the terrifying story of God’s commandment to sacrifice Isaac. The previous Chapter, Genesis 21, tells the story of the miracle by which the seventy-year old Sarah conceives, and bears Abraham a son, Isaac. This is not simply some story of domestic happiness. It is through Isaac that God will fulfil his promise to Abraham to make him to be fruitful and to multiply. Isaac is to be the son who founds a nation.

Genesis 22 begins abruptly and ominously.

And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, [here] I [am].

And he said, Take now thy son, thine only [son] Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

 What on earth are we to make of this passage? Absolutely nothing in the preceding has prepared us for it. Auerbach’s gloss is worth quoting at length (as is everything else in the book, alas).

Even this opening startles us when we come to it from Homer. Where are the two speakers? We are not told. The reader, however, knows that they are not normally to be found together in one place on earth, that one of them, God, in order to speak to Abraham, must come from somewhere, must enter the earthly realm from unknown heights or depths. Whence does he come, whence does he call to Abraham? We are not told. He does not come, like Zeus or Poseidon, from the Aethopians, where he has been enjoying a sacrificial feast. Nor are we told anything of his reasons for tempting Abraham so terribly.

Note, the temptation is that Abraham, out of love for his only son, through whom the divine promise of multitudes will be fulfilled, might fail to obey God’s command. As Auerbach says at the conclusion of the paragraph from which I have been quoting, “The concept of God held by the Jews is less a cause than a symptom of their manner of comprehending and representing things.”

Like God, Abraham’s position, his location, is unspecified. Is he indoors, out of doors, alone, surrounded by his tribe? It seems not to matter. Nor are we given any details at all of the three day journey that brings him and his son to the place of sacrifice. Both God and Abraham are multi-dimensional. There is a foreground, what is presented in the story, and there are depths and complexities that cannot possibly be contained within any single account. God, of course, is a transcendent figure only a part of which can ever be presented to man. But Abraham too is more than merely a man with a son whom he loves. Abraham is a prophet, the father of nations. He plays a role in a metaphysical story that stretches from Creation to the End of Times.

As Auerbach says:

the relation of the Elohist to the truth of his story remains a far more passionate and definite one than is Homer’s relation… The Bible’s claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer’s, it is tyrannical – it excludes all other claims. The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historical true reality – it insists that it is the only true world, is destined for autocracy… The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us – they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels.

There is much, much more in Auerbach’s analysis of these two passages in his opening chapter, but this is enough, I hope, to convey some sense of the richness and power of his treatment of them. Consider just the last point I quoted him as making. Any fair minded reader, I think, must agree that Homer’s work is far better crafted, as a literary work of art, than the rather abrupt, jumbled together, barely sketched in narratives of Genesis. There are, to be sure, later Books of the Old Testament that achieve a higher level of literary art – one thinks of Psalms, or The Book of Job, among others. But the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, of Noah and his three sons, of the Tower of Babel, of Jacob and Esau (or of Cain and Abel) have the power to terrify us, to seize us by the scruff of the neck and shake us until we tremble, that nothing in Homer can match.


[i] By the way, Kierkegaard has written a wonderful entire book about this story, but that is another matter.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

ICELAND, TRANSPARENCY, AND LANGUAGE [reposted from June 9, 2007]

Last Sunday, Susie and I arrived in Iceland, en route to Paris, for a three day visit with Pall Skulason and Ardur Birgitsdottir. Pall is a philosopher, and the former Rector of the University of Iceland. He and I met through a common interest in the philosophy of education, and Susie and I have spent time with Pall and Ardur in Paris and in Metz. The stopover in Iceland was arranged so that I could give a talk at the University on "The Completion of Kant's Ethical Theory in the Tenets of the Rechtslehre." [don't ask.]

Tuesday was devoted to a sightseeing ride across the Icelandic countryside -- very bleak, very beautiful, enlivened by a visit t0 an extraordinary waterfall. It rained on and off, and the wind was at gale force, so we spent a good deal of time in the car rather than wandering about on foot.

During one drive, Pall said a series of things about the difficulty but also the virtue of trying to write philosophy in Icelandic -- things that connected up with remarks he had made about the history of Iceland and his experience of it. These remarks triggered in me a series of thoughts related to the [as yet unwritten] third volume of the trilogy I planned long ago on the thought of Karl Marx. The first two volumes have been published -- Understanding Marx, an exposition of the mathematical foundations of Marx's economic theories, and Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, a reflection on the literary and philosophical significance of the first ten chapters of Das Kapital. The third volume, tentatively titled The Mystification of the Capitalist World, is intended to unite the mathematical economics and the literary analysis of the first two volumes with a socological and philosophical explication of capitalism, in order to illuminate the way in which capitalism's mystifications defeat our efforts to create a more humane and just society.

The purpose of this post is to try to put down in coherent form the thoughts triggered by Pall's extrordinarily interesting observations about Icelandic history, the Icelandic language, and the unique experience of trying to do philosophy in Icelandic. Whatever there is of interest in these remarks is owed directly to him.

All of this began the day before, during a visit to Iceland's national museum. Pall observed that Icelandic is a very ancient language pretty much unchanged by time -- a fact that he demonstrated by reading without difficulty a 9th or 10th century text exhibited at the museum. He observed that Iceland's history is transparent [his term]. Its founding can be traced to a known date in the 10th century [I may have some of this wrong, for which I ask Pall's forgiveness, but the details are not important], and since the population is very homogeneous, most Icelanders can trace their lineage back many centuries. The origins of the country do not recede into the mists of legend, as do those of France, England, or Germany. I remarked that Americans make the same claim, but that their inability to confront the fact of slavery makes their story of origins mythical and mystified. [I have explored all of this at length in Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, the book I published several years ago about my experiences as a White man in an Afro-American Studies department.]

The next day, as we drove, Pall talked about the challenges posed by his attempt to write philosophy in Icelandic. The problem is that Icelandic lacks the words for many of the key philosophical terms that play so large a role in European philosophy, especially of the past two centuries. One solution to this, which he rejects, even though most of his colleagues adopt it, is simply to bring a number of loan words into Icelandic, taking them for the most part from the German, but also from the French. Now, Icelandic, as Pall explained, is a transparent language. Because it is pure, exhibiting very little in the way of influences from other langages, and really tracing itself back to a proto-Indo-European, when a native Icelandic speaker uses an Icelandic word, he or she can see immediately and without any obscurity exactly what its roots are, and what their original meanings are [since they continue to have those meanings in modern Icelandic.]

This is, when you think about it, an extraordinary fact. If a word used for philosopical purposes is derived via a metaphor from some common root, then the Icelandic ear hears that fact immediately. Since I am the world's worst linguist, I cannot give very good examples of this, but here is one. The German word for "object" is "gegenstand." Now, gegenstand literally means "standing [over] against," which, if I am not totally mistaken, is not far from the root meanings of the Latin words from which "object" is derived.

Imagine, if you will, trying to write philosophy using only words that carry their metaphorical origins, as it were, on their sleeves. I observed that the effort, which was essentially what Pall was attempting by writing philosophy using only Icelandic words, would force you to think through exactly what you were trying to say, and it would stop you from writing something that realy was meaningless but sounded good, because it was expressed in words whose origins were obscured both from the writer and from the reader. [Something like "In the Post-Modern world, the de-centered self interogates meaning by (dis)joining ego and other."]

What does all this have to do with capitalism, exploitation, and the price of gas? Well, if Marx is right [see Moneybags], the exploitative nature of capitalist economic relations is concealed from us, for the most part, by the opacity of the wage-labor relationship and the misrepresentation of commodities as quanta of objective value. Seeing through that mystification to what is really going on, Marx thought, requires not only a critique of economic theory and an unillusioned description of the sphere of production [pace Capital chapter 10] but also a clear-eyed examination of the language with which we talk about our work, commodities, profit, and a society that rests on them.

Perhaps it requires that we try to talk about our own world, as Pall is trying to do philosophy in Icelandic, in a way that makes all the metaphors manifest, all the dissimulations apparent, and all the ideological rationalizations so transparent that they immediately lose their force. The central task, for a radical critic like me, is to speak as much as possible in that fashion, as a way of combating the dominant mystifications of the public discourse of our society.

Just a thought.


I received word this morning that an old friend, Páll Skúlason, passed away last Wednesday.  I met Páll through our shared interest in the philosophy of education.  He was an Icelandic philosopher who served for eight years as the Rector of the University of Iceland.  Susie and I first met Páll and his wife, Auður Birgisdóttir in Paris, and later traveled to Metz to visit them at the home in which they spent a good deal of time.  Later still, we visited them Iceland, and on one occasion Páll arranged for me to give a talk to the Philosophy Department at the University of Iceland [I spoke about Kant's ethical theory.]

Páll was a tall, open, extremely friendly man with a deep interest in the developments taking place in European higher education.  He and I shared our distress at the corporatization of modern universities, and at one point, before Iceland's economic meltdown, even talked about forming a Center for the study of higher education.  He and his wife were unfailing gracious, warm, and welcoming to Susie and me, and I looked forward with great  anticipation to our meetings.

I have formed very few friendships in the larger academic world outside the university in which I happened to be teaching, and my friendship with Páll was very dear to me.  He was only sixty -nine when he passed away.  I shall miss him.

On June 9, 2007, I posted a meditation on some things Páll told me about trying to do philosophy in Icelandic.  As a tribute to him, and because I believe it is of great and lasting importance for how we do philosophy, I shall repost it today following this memorial note.

Friday, April 24, 2015


For as long as I can remember [which is to say, as far back as September, 1950, when I began my undergraduate career], The COOP -- the Harvard Cooperative Society -- has dominated Harvard Square.  I never actually spent much money at the COOP even when I was in residence in Cambridge, Mass, but each year I pay the three dollars [it used to be one] for a little black date book -- my COOP book -- in which I keep track of classes, dinners, doctors' appointments and the like.  Each page covers seven days, and when I turn the page for a new Sunday, I carefully fold down the upper right corner, so that the book always opens to the current week.

Because the COOP is a college store, the COOP book starts with late August, which is roughly the beginning of the academic year, and ends somewhat more than twelve months later so that one has a little overlap.  I never throw old COOP books away, and I have a total of forty-three including the one that is now in operation. 

This is something of a family tradition.  Among the thousands of papers I inherited when my father died, including letters between my grandparents, letters between my parents, and every letter my sister and I ever wrote home, were several dozen of these little date books in my father's or mother's hand [not COOP books, of course.]  They were invaluable when I wrote books about my grandparents and my parents, just as my COOP books were a resource for me as I composed my Autobiography. 

Taking several books at random from the box in which I keep them, I find that on Tuesday, January 17, 1978 there was a Northampton Cub Scout pack meeting at which the boys would race their little homemade cars down a long track.  I was the Cub Master, and hence the Master of Ceremonies.  On Friday, May 24, 1997, I was in Durban, South Africa, where I had gone for my semi-annual visit to the students my little scholarship organization was funding.  From 1-2 p.m. in the Music Building there were auditions, and it was then that I first hear the booming bass-baritone voice of a young man from a Black township, Thamsanqa Zungu.  Thami sang "The Trumpet Shall Sound" from  the Messiah, and I almost fell off my chair when I heard him.  Although he lacked the academic credentials [a "matric," as it is called in South Africa] to enroll at the University of Durban-Westville, I was able to fund his studies as a special student until he won a scholarship at Juilliard.  He is now on the faculty of a South African university.

Turning the little pages of each book, one by one, I am reminded of how long I have lived, and how many people I have known.  Sam Bowles, Milton Cantor, Ann Ferguson, Bob Ackerman, my sons, my first wife, Susie -- there they all are, their lives intersecting with mine.

If you are young and are not completely in thrall to electronic devices, I recommend that you keep your daily planners.  I guarantee that a time will come when you are glad you did.


Two scams have popped up in my In-Box, and I thought I would pass along a warning.  The first is from someone who claims to be on the "ITS Help desk."  There is a problem with my email account, and they just need some information from me so that they can correct it.  The second purports to be from Federal Express, which says it was unable to deliver a package and needs some information about me in order to deliver it.  I actually called Federal Express and they assured me that they never contact recipients by e-mail.  [How would they know your address?]

Just thought you should know.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


My last lecture in my course on Marx took place yesterday.  I have been totally absorbed in Capital for months, and the time has come to find something else to blog about.  Tomorrow evening Susan and I shall attend a baroque music concert at Duke, and then I shall return to brooding about how I am going to occupy my time.

 Critique of Pure Reason, anyone?  [Just kidding.]

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


Matt is of course quite correct.  In my little Bible lesson I switched the places of Noah and Abraham.  Noah shows up in Chapter 5 of Genesis [and hangs around for a while.]  Abraham, or Abram, does not pop up until the end of Chapter 11.  Maybe I should stick to Star Trek.

Monday, April 20, 2015


One of the students in my Marx course, Jack Denton, put me onto a very interesting review essay by Bruce Robbins in a journal called N+1 [although the original reference may have come from Chris, since I put Mr. Denton in touch with Chris for reading suggestions for the final paper in the course.]  I read the essay, which ranges widely over French Marxism of the last thirty years or more, in the course of reviewing a book by Etienne Balibar.  The essay prodded me to say a few things that have emerged from my close reexamination of Capital this semester.

You will have to forgive me if I say some things that I have said before.  I only know three chords on this guitar, so all my songs sound alike.

Bruce Robbins begins his review essay thus:  At a debate in southern California in 2007, the French philosopher Alain Badiou informed the French philosopher Étienne Balibar that he, Balibar, was a reformist. “And you, monsieur,” Balibar replied, “are a theologian.”

This theme, of reformism versus theology in the ranks of Marxists, runs through the entire essay.  In this dispute, I am clearly and unapologetically on the side of reformism, not theology, and I am quite convinced that Marx was as well.  Let me explain, at some length.  Since this is a song about the inadequacies of theology, let me begin with the Bible.

As told in the Old and New Testaments, human history is a story that unfolds according to God's plan in five metaphysical stages:  The Creation, The Fall, The Law, the Incarnation, and The Last Trump.  Man's ontological condition, his relationship to the Almighty, is completely transformed as each stage succeeds the preceding one.  In the first stage, man is without sin.  He walks and talks easily with God.  This stage, Eden, ends with the Fall, the violation of God's commandment not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.  After the Fall and the expulsion from Eden, man lives in sin.  Some time later, God makes a covenant with Abraham, which He renews with Noah.  He then gives to Moses his Law in the form of written Commandments.  The entire period of the Old Testament after the Fall, however long it lasts, and whatever secular events take place during it, is the time when Man lives in sin under The Law.  This stage in history comes to an abrupt end with the Incarnation, through which miraculous event God gives His only begotten Son to save man from the damnation that must otherwise be visited upon him for failing to obey the Law.  With the Passion of Christ, there begins a new stage, the one in which we now live.  In this stage, man is offered the miracle of undeserved salvation, through faith in the promise of Jesus Christ.  ["Belief in God" does not mean "Belief that God exists."  That is taken for granted.  It means belief that God will keep his promise of salvation to all those who trust unreservedly in that promise.]  History ends with the Last Trump, when the graves give up their dead and those who are saved sit at the footstool of the Lord forever in eternal bliss, while those who are damned are denied forever the presence of the Lord.

O.K.  That was fun.  The crucial thing to notice here is that the passage from one stage to the next, according to the Christian story, is abrupt, total, and irreversible.  Nothing of any importance remains the same.  Before the Fall, man is free of sin.  After the Fall, he bears the mark of Original Sin in his soul.  Before the Incarnation, man lives under the Law.  After the Incarnation, the Word is made Flesh, and salvation is by faith [since I am, in my heart of hearts, a Lutheran, I will say by faith alone, as Luther wrote in the margin of his copy of Paul's Epistles.]

Hegel immanentized the transcendent Christian story, and Marx secularized Hegel's version.  So the Creation, the Fall, the Law, and the Incarnation became Primitive Communism, Slavery, Feudalism, and Capitalism, with Socialism playing the role of the Last Trump.  BUT:  along the way, Marx had the genius to understand that the passage from one stage to the next is NOT abrupt, total, and irreversible.  In human history, the transition from one stage to the next is lengthy, complex, and ambiguous -- the product of the decisions, actions, and reactions of countless men and women over centuries.  Marx's work, so completely grounded in his archival historical research, was almost completely focused on the transition that had taken place within the memory of those then living, and indeed was only commencing in many parts of the world:  the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

As a young man, Marx, like all of his contemporaries, was mesmerized by the world-historical upheaval of the French Revolution, and although he understood even in his twenties that that event was the culmination, not the inauguration, of the centuries long transition from feudalism to capitalism, he allowed himself to hope that the next transition, from capitalism to socialism, would come abruptly, violently, and virtually immediately, even in lands like Prussia in which the first tender shoots of capitalist social relations were only beginning to thrust their heads above the soil.  Eventually, Marx knew better.  In 1859, he published the Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, in the Preface to which he wrote these famous and very profound words:

" In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.

The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.

Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.

No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation."

The implication is clear, and thoroughly anti-theological:   The transition from capitalism to socialism [deo volente] must come about through the development within capitalism of the elements of what will eventually become socialist social relations of production.  In the absence of such developments, no movement, however orthodox, however courageous, however true to the ipsissima verba of Marx's writings, can accomplish a transition to socialism. 

Since in this neck of the ideological woods, as in the land of theological disputes, proof texts are much prized, I offer in closing this quotation from that most canonical of all texts, Capital Volume I.  In the long Chapter 10, "The Working Day," Marx details the devices by which factory owners seek to wring a bit more surplus labor time from their workers.  Here is the concluding paragraph:

"It must be acknowledged that our labourer comes out of the process of production other than he entered. In the market he stood as owner of the commodity “labour-power” face to face with other owners of commodities, dealer against dealer. The contract by which he sold to the capitalist his labour-power proved, so to say, in black and white that he disposed of himself freely. The bargain concluded, it is discovered that he was no “free agent,” that the time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the time for which he is forced to sell it, [163] that in fact the vampire will not lose its hold on him “so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.” [164] For “protection” against “the serpent of their agonies,” the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the very workers from selling. by voluntary contract with capital, themselves and their families into slavery and death. [165] In place of the pompous catalogue of the “inalienable rights of man” comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working-day, which shall make clear “when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins.” Quantum mutatus ab illo!"

Take note, all you secular theologians, for whom concern about minimum wage laws or occupational safety and health regulations are a cop-out, a gradualist sell-out.  Karl Marx himself calls for the workers to organize and struggle for passage in England of a bill limiting the working day to ten hours.

Balibar is right.  Badiou is wrong.



Last year, median family income was $53,891.  [This means half of the households were lower, half higher.]   One thousand times $53,891 is $53,891,000.  [I take it this is not controversial, although these days, you never know which parts of math and science Republicans will object  to.]

My proposal:  No young person should inherit more than a millennium of median household income [in 2015 dollars.  Who knows what the dollar will be worth in 3015?]  So, when a billionaire or multi-millionaire dies, he or she can leave $53,891,000 to each child, and all the rest will be taxed by the state.  The proceeds can be used to reduce the FICA tax.

Friday, April 17, 2015


In his comment on the subject of stereotype threat, Charles Parsons reports that when he knew Steele, twenty years ago, Steele had worked on a way to circumvent stereotype threat.  That got me thinking about why it was that we in the UMass Afro-American Studies Department had such success with students who, on their GRE exams, clearly exhibited signs of the condition.  I think several factors contributed to our success, all of which are relevant to a much broader variety of stereotype threat situations.

First of all, as I mentioned, when I saw the discrepancy between the test scores and the student performances, I stopped requiring the test scores.  It would have been a colossal waste of time to try to devise some way of administering the Graduate Record Examination that compensated for the baleful effects of stereotype threat.  We had not worked and struggled and argued and pleaded with those responsible for approving our program so that we could ask people for their GRE scores!  The supposed purpose of the GRE scores was to identify promising candidates for our doctoral program, and when I saw that the test was not working as it was supposed  to work, I stopped looking at the scores.  A little experience proved that the very best identifier for promising students was the writing sample, so after the first year, the Admissions Committee, which was everyone in the Department, read every applicant's sample.  This sounds so obvious as to be trivial, but in fact it is not trivial at all.  People obsess about PSAT scores, SAT scores, ACT scores, LSAT scores, GRE scores, and all manner of "objective" [i.e., easy to grade] tests, as though the goal of a successful educational system is to raise those scores as much as possible and eliminate any variations associated with race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity [or height, weight, and hair color, for that matter.]

Notice that our decision was grounded in a certain self-confidence and also in a capacity for patience.  We were quite certain that we were perfectly capable of judging whether a student was progressing satisfactorily to a doctoral degree that we could be proud of, and we were willing to wait the years it would take before we had been proven right by the dissertations, publications, and job placements of our students.  In a curious way, we were aided and abetted in this self-confidence by the fact that most of the rest of the university thought our program was an academically low-quality sop to Black folks, so they did not expect our students to measure up to their distorted standards of excellence.  Indeed, as I recount in my Autobiography, the Provost as much as said so to our faces in the one meeting we had with him.

The second important fact is that when those students showed up to begin their graduate education, they found a Department all the members of which, save myself, were Black and very, very smart.  I was the Graduate Program Director, of course, but the students pretty quickly twigged onto the fact that I knew very little about Afro-American Studies.  As I liked to joke, I was the shabbes goy of the Department, the little White boy brought in from the next village to do all the scut work no self-respecting academic wanted to spend time on.  There were White students [and Latino and Asian students], but Black, not White, was the "unmarked racial category" in our Department.  Could a Black student make it as an academic?  The question simply never came up.  Since John Bracey and Mike Thelwell and Esther Terry and Bill Strickland and Ernie Allen were all Black, the question was as fatuous as asking, in the Harvard Philosophy Department in which I studied, whether a man could be a good philosopher.

The third reason is that for all of the faculty in the Department, the success of our students was desperately important.  Everyone save for myself had wanted a doctoral program in Afro-American Studies for many years.  Now we had one, and these were our students.  They were in no sense an elite group of students.  Not one of them had come either from a major research university or from an elite private liberal arts college.  One of them was a woman in middle age, and as the years went by, we enrolled a number of such atypical students.  We made very heavy demands on them as students, and held them to a high standard, but we were prepared to give them all the attention and help they needed to succeed.

In the dinner with Steele to which I alluded in my blog post, Esther Terry [the Chair] and I talked about this collective commitment to the success of our students.  Steele said, rather wryly, that in the Stanford Psychology Department, of which he was then Chair, his colleagues viewed graduate students either as useful lab workers or else as an annoyance.

I think there are some interesting lessons to be learned from our experience at UMass.  But if anyone wants to replicate our success, maybe the first thing to do is cancel the Graduate Record Examination.

Thursday, April 16, 2015


OK, in reply to Magpie, as I suspected, Wikipedia has a big article on stereotype threat with lots of actually specific examples.  Take a look.


A few moments ago I was idly channel surfing and I stumbled on a 2005 episode of Gilmore Girls, a show for which I have always had a secret soft spot [I mention this just in case anyone still harbors the illusion that I am an intellectual.]  Rory is sitting in a college lounge reading a big, thick paperback book when a male friend comes in.  "What are you reading?" he asks, "Business or pleasure?"  [I will not even try to identify Rory.]  She holds up the book, and he reads the title:  "The Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy:  Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World.  Pleasure, I assume."

I was blown away.  That has to be the one and only time that Barrington Moore, Jr. has made it onto prime time TV.  I am so envious.  Marcuse, of course, was another matter entirely.  There was even an old New Yorker cartoon referencing him, which I think confers sizable hit points.


My light-hearted post about "imposter syndrome" elicited more than the usual number of comments, perhaps not surprisingly.  In the same passage of the student review document where I encountered that faux term for the first  time was a reference to stereotype threat, which is in  fact a very serious phenomenon that has been the subject of a great deal of fascinating research.  It occurred to me that I ought to say a bit about stereotype threat, for those of you who are not familiar with the subject.  [One caveat:  I read up on this a long time ago and am writing from memory, so I may get some of the details wrong.]

It has long been known that African-American students underperform on standardized tests of the sort that have become ubiquitous in American elementary, secondary, and tertiary education.  When I say they "underperform," I mean not merely that their test scores are, on average, markedly lower than those of White students from the same socio-economic backgrounds, but also that their test scores do not comport with the quality of their minds and of their academic work, as observed and evaluated by experienced teachers.  This underperformance occurs at every level, even among Black students who have done quite well in earlier stages of their education.

Let me give one example from my personal experience.  In 1995, the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, of which I was then a member, received the first applications for our ground-breaking doctoral program, which would welcome its first class of doctoral students the next Fall.  I was scheduled to be the inaugural Graduate Program Director, a position I held for the best twelve years of my long career.  We received twenty-seven applications that first year, and the Graduate Record Examination scores were uniformly abysmally low.  Applicants with fine undergraduate records and interesting credentials appeared, if these scores were to be trusted, to be incapable of putting together coherent English sentences.  We had designed an unusually demanding first year program, the centerpiece of which was [and still is] a two semester double seminar, meeting five hours a week, in which the students would read fifty major works of Afro-American history, politics, literature, and sociology, and write a paper on each of the fifty works.  I was extremely apprehensive, fearful that our program would be far beyond the capabilities of the seven students we had admitted, but my colleagues assured me everything would be just fine.  Well, the students showed up, and they were not illiterate at all!  They indeed did just fine, and a number of them went on to earn doctorates, get tenure track jobs, and publish first-rate scholarly books.  I like to think that I am capable of learning from experience, even though I am a philosopher who is expected to view things sub specie aeternitatis, so as Graduate Program Director I deleted the Graduate Record Exam from the requirements for admission and substituted a requirement of a substantial sample of written work.  The program flourished, graduating a higher percentage of its doctoral students than almost  any other doctoral program in the Humanities, nation-wide.  The UMass Afro-Am doctoral students dominate the annual conventions and have assembled a brilliant record of publication.  The applicants, most of whom apply to several doctoral programs, still have appallingly low GRE scores.

What's up?

A good many years ago, a brilliant African-American psychologist named Claude Steele asked the same question, and launched a fascinating series of experiments to find out.  [When I had dinner with Steele in Amherst, MA many years ago, he was the Chair of the Stanford Psychology Department.  He is currently the Executive Vice-Chancellor and Provost of UC Berkeley.]  Steele formulated the hypothesis that Black students are well aware of the widely-held view that they are dumber than White students, and this awareness, which Steele labeled "stereotype threat," undermines their ability to do well on the sorts of "intelligence tests" that the White world expects them to do badly on.  Steele devised a variety of experimental protocols to test this hypothesis, and again and again, the data proved him correct.  For example, Steele would put together a multiple-choice test, and give it to two groups of college students [mixed White and Black.]  The first group would be told that they were being tested for intelligence;  the second group, given the identical test in identical testing circumstances, would be told that they were being tested on their general knowledge.  Sure enough, the first group of Black students did markedly worse than the second.

Steele then broadened his investigation to other stereotypes.  Women are commonly thought not to be able to do math, so Steele tested two groups of women on the same math exam.  Each group was asked to fill out a little personal data form before taking the test  -- name, address, age, college class, etc.  The last question on the first form, answered just before taking the test, was "gender."  The second form omitted that item.  Lo and behold, the women who were called on to identify themselves as women just before taking the test did worse than those who were not so asked!  Steele was even able to replicate the result by putting the gender question first on the form in one case and last in the other.

Some of Steele's associates tried the idea out on Black and White college athletes.  Two mixed groups of quite physically fit young men were run through a miniature golf course.  One group were told that they were being tested on their golfing ability [golf was a White sport back when the test was run, before Tiger Woods.]  The other group were told they were being tested on their innate athletic ability [which, according to a different stereotype, is an area of Black male superiority.]  Sure enough, the results confirmed the effect of the stereotypes on the subjects.

By the way, here is a truly weird fact.  Claude Steele is a man of the left whose work has done a great deal to counteract the baleful effects of the negative stereotypes of African-Americans and other non-White populations.  Steele has a twin brother, named Shelby Steele, who also has had a distinguished academic career.  Shelby Steele describes himself as a Black Conservative who opposes affirmative action and wrote a book describing Obama as a child of a mixed marriage [as are Claude and Shelby] who has a life-long need to "be black."  Shelby Steele is a fellow of the Hoover Institute at Stanford.

Go figure.




On April 5th I posted a little item about Susie's broken watering can and the speed with which I was able to order a replacement thanks to  Jim expressed some doubt as to whether I would be able to find the same item, and asked for an update.  Yesterday a big box arrived, filled with styrofoam peanuts.  Nested inside was identically the same watering can, minus the leak.  For all I know, it was the last one in the known world, but it is ours now, and Susie is delighted.  [It has a long goose neck and a little spray device as well, all in fetching blue plastic.  A keeper.]

Monday, April 13, 2015


The NY TIMES today has an interestingly sympathetic review of a little potboiler that Gore Vidal cranked out in 1953 under a pseudonym for three thousand dollars, at a time when things were going badly for him and he just needed to make a buck.  The review made me like Vidal even more, because it evoked for me a division in the world of artistic creativity in which I am firmly on one side.

Some great artists adopt a workmanlike attitude toward what they do, not putting on airs or getting the vapors if it is suggested that they accommodate their genius to some quotidien demand.  My hero in this regard is Bach.  I imagine him saying, on a Monday, "Well, the second soprano is out of town, the horn player has a cold, and my violist's wife has just had a baby, so I need to compose a cantata for this Sunday with a tenor, a bass, and an alto and no horn or viola.  But there is a visiting oboist who might be willing to sit in.  Right, then, here we go."  And out comes another exquisitely beautiful work.  In contrast to this healthy, working-stiff approach is the Romantic Artist, who sits alone in his garret, waiting for inspiration to strike so that he can tear, bleeding from his breast, some conception the playing of which would require more musicians than could be rustled up in the entire principality.

I have always been enchanted by the perhaps apocryphal story about Dickens, many, if not all, of whose novels were written in pieces for publication in weekly magazines.  It is said that he went into a shop one day and overheard two women gossiping about the novel he was then writing.  They were wondering what would happen to one of the characters, and Dickens realized that he did not know, as he had not yet written the next episode.

I think perhaps that is why I enjoy maintaining a blog.  The idea is not to go off to a writers' colony where I am cossetted and made much of and given a cabin in the woods where I can commune with my muse until I am struck by an idea.  The blog sits there demanding to be attended to, and if I miss so much as one day I think myself a failure.  To post something that is not badly written, and perhaps even has an interesting idea in it, makes me feel that I have earned my supper.