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Monday, August 30, 2010


Yesterday, I took a break from my seemingly interminable reading of Michael Slater's biography of Dickens to read a short, exquisite novel, THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR, by the Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa. It was recommended to me by my sister, Barbara, whom I always think of as my big sister, because she is three years older than I, even though she is actually a good deal shorter. The Dickens biography has only about six times as many words as the novel [I counted], but it is taking me forever to get through. As I think I have observed, I have written books in less time than I am reading this one. By the way, I have just finished the chapter in which Slater, with great reserve and a meticulous fidelity to the sources, recounts the rather scrimy sequence of events by which Dickens dumped his wife of twenty some years and the mother of his ten children. Dickens, I am sad to say, was a pig.

Anyway, the contrast between the two books [and between my sister and me] got me thinking about long and short. I write short books. Indeed, several of my books have fewer words than a law journal article by my son, Tobias. [Law professors, for reasons that escape me, refer to these excessively documented monstrosities as "notes."] My Memoir was far and away the longest thing I have ever written, and that is only about 800 pages in double spaced typescript, which probably means that it is maybe two-thirds the length of the Dickens biography. Even my first and most ambitious book, KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, is a modest 336 pages, with many fewer words on each page than the Dickens epic.

Some people seem to run on, whatever they are doing. Think of Whitman in comparison to Dickinson, Samuel Richardson in comparison to Jane Austen, Piero Sraffa in comparison to Marx, or Mahler in comparison to anyone. This is true even of personal styles -- Stanley Cavell compared to Rogers Albritten.

There is nothing particularly important or profound about this observation. I prefer Dickinson to Whitman and Austen to Richardson, but I also prefer Marx to Sraffa [although they are both very great thinkers]. Actually, this post is just a bit of procrastination. The Dickens biography sits there next to my keyboard, silently reproaching me for ignoring it, and I am trying to postpone the moment when I heft it [it must way ten pounds] and stagger on towards page 500. I am, for some reason, incapable of skimming, and to leave a book only half-read feels like a moral failing.

Sigh. Duty calls.


David Pilavin said...

My recommendation: switch to Ray Monk's "Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius" if you haven't read it yet -- it looks big and scary but it is quite intertaining and instructing [at least it was so for me]..

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am constitutionally incapable of just dropping this book and starting another one [save for that little one day vacation to read the Ogawa.] So I shall have to soldier on.

NotHobbes said...

Since you have started this book Professor I have been wondering, did Marx ever meet Dickens?
And if so, are there any records of the conversation that took place

Robert Paul Wolff said...

He did not, alas, though Marx was a very great admirer of Dickens. They inhabited two totally different Londons at the same time. As you may know, Marx actually asked Charles Darwin whether he could dedicate Das Kapital to him, but Darwin declined. In his graveside eulogy, Engels compared Marx to Darwin. Had Dickens and Marx met, by some bizarre confluence of events, Dickens would have had no idea what to make of Marx, I am afraid.

Chris said...

I only read Dickens in grade-school, when the beauty was lost on me. Although I did read Tale of Two Cities. Otherwise, what were the mans politics so to speak? How did he lean?

Secondly, I must say I share your sentiment of feeling immoral for not completing a book. I'm presently, slowly, working my way through Dostoevskys Demons...Meanwhile so many shorter, more captivating books, stare me down.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Dickens' politics were interesting. He was a passionate supporter of factory legislation, child labor laws, etc., fiercely opposed to the Tories, whom he lampooned endlessly [his comic name for the government was The Circumlocution Department], but he riduled Harriet Martineau's suffragist views in the character Mrs. Jellyby. Howwever, he devoted endless time to the most detailed management of a home or prostitutes who had been jailed, and did all manner of other good works. BUT: he was opposed to strikes, insisting that what was needed was more understanding between employers and workers. Taking all in all, by the standards of his time, he was on the right [which is to say, the left] side of things, and he wrote in a deeply moving fashion about the miseries of orphanages and workhouses and solitary confinement prisons and other creations of nineteenth century supposed reformers. I mean, if you compare him with Dostoyevsky or Hemingway or Trolloppe or Richardson or even Austen, he was a stand-up guy.

By the way, many years ago, while working hard on Marx's thought, I read a brilliant biography of him {Marx's Fate, by Jerrold Siegel] that convinced me that Marx also was a pig. It was an enormous let-down. Marx, the immortal theorist of capitalist exploitation, exploited everyone around him -- financially, emotionally, sexually, and otherwise. I guess it is a mistake to look for heroes.

Chris said...

Woah, now that's a tad confusing; how is he a stand up guy when juxtaposed to Hemingway and Dostoevsky? I only know a little bit about each of those two authors biographical history, but I don't know anything that indicates they also were not decent, humane people? Am I missing something? Was Dostoevsky not the good Christian soul he wrote about? And was Hemingway not the way quasi anarcho-communist he wrote about?

Thank you for the information.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Neither Hemingway nor Dostoyevsky did anything. No, I am wrong, I take everything back. Hemingway was an ambulance driver in the Spanish Civil War. OK. Scratch all of that. I must rethink.

NotHobbes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

I am curious -- what is your assessment of the Ogawa book?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I liked the Ogawa book. It is very precise, minimalist, a fascinating exploration of the peculiar premise [a brilliant mathematician who, because of a head wound, has a short term memory of precisely eighty minutes.] Not, I thought, a deep or terribly moving book, bjut elegant.

Nelson Goodman said...

Actually, the story about Marx wanting to dedicate Capital to Darwin is likely apocryphal - its textual basis was a letter of Darwin's, but it was not to Marx but rather to Edward Aveling (companion of Marx's daughter Eleanor and English translator w/ Moore of Marx's Capital), and in relation not to Marx's Capital but Aveling's _The Student's Darwin_.

See Margaret Fay, "Did Marx Offer to Dedicate Capital to Darwin?: A Reassessment of the Evidence," Journal of the History of Ideas vol. 39, p. 133 (1978)

Or a brief, accessible net version:

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Rats. It is a great story. I hate it when the facts get in the way of a great story. Oh well, I'll always have Paris.