My Stuff

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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

Total Pageviews

Sunday, May 31, 2015


Susie and I set out this morning for a walk to the Jardin du Luxembourg, a large park that lies in the  6th arrondissement on the border of the 5th.  In the middle of the park is a large more or less circular pond in which children sail little boats their parents have rented at a kiosk.  This morning, the pond was taken over by adult enthusiasts who showed up with rather fancy boats, some of them powered by engines and moved hither and yon, guided wirelessly by rather elaborate control boxes.  The boat enthusiasts -- all men, by the way -- seemed to know one another and greeted one another with elaborate handshakes before engaging in lengthy discussions about the technical details of their boats. 

In addition to sailboats of various sizes, there was a busy little harbor fireship complete with a man holding a hose from which, at the press of the controller's button, a stream of water shot out.  The fireship was followed about by a model torpedo boat which, despite making menacing moves, was carefully controlled so that it did not actually bump into any of the other boats.

Everything was tranquil and utterly benign until my eye caught this:

Yes, that really is a model submarine, lurking under the water with only its conning tower showing!  The scene took on an entirely new tonality.  The submarine cruised the pond relentlessly like a shark.  It had no markings that I could see, but I was sure that it was a Nazi U-Boat.

The Jardin will never be quite the same for me again.

Friday, May 29, 2015


I should like to add one final comment, in the form of a story, on the rather wide-ranging discussion that has taken place on this blog about the desirability of reading Hume or Kant or Descartes if you are a dedicated Marxist.  This story is somewhat tangential, but I think it may add something to the discussion.  The following passage comes from the book I wrote about my grandparents, Barnet and Ella Wolff, my father’s parents.  The central character, Abe Shiplacoff, was my grandfather’s close friend and comrade.  Together, they created the Brooklyn branch of the Socialist Party in the first decade of the twentieth century.  Here is the story:

Shiplacoff was a little man with a pinched face and a rather unimposing presence, very much in contrast with Barney, who was a big, barrel-chested man with a booming voice.  But more than any other single person, he can be credited with creating the socialist movement in the Brownsville area of Brooklyn, and leading it to its greatest electoral triumphs in 1917. Looking for background material on Shiplacoff, I stumbled on the following story in a review by John Patrick Diggins of Bertram Wolfe’s autobiography, A Life in Two Centuries. Wolfe is a well-known expert on Soviet Russia and twentieth century communist movements.  I include it here because it seems to me to capture perfectly both the strengths and the weaknesses of the generation of socialist leaders to which Abe Shiplacoff and Barney belonged. The young Bertram Wolfe apparently debated against Shiplacoff, at the Labor Lyceum, over the split in the party produced by the Third International.  The issue was whether dictatorial tactics should replace the democratic procedures of the American Socialist Party. After the debate, Diggins says, “the two adversaries resumed their discussion in a local cafe.”  There then appears this passage quoted from Wolfe’s book:

 “There was an embarrassed silence until Shiplacoff burst into tears.  ‘I have worked so hard all my life,’ he said, ‘for our party and for the labor movement, that I have never had the time to read all those books by Marx and Engels that you have read.’  Then he wept on in silence.  Suddenly, I felt sympathy for him, and more than a little shame, for I had not read ‘all those books’ either.  Moreover, for the first time I understood how much men like
Shiplacoff had given to building the party that my colleagues and I, mostly youngsters, were now tearing apart.  I did not know what to say: we both left our cake and coffee unfinished, but I never forgot the episode.  I began to feel more charitable toward the old-timers whose work we were helping to destroy.  Though I continued to use quotations, I could no longer summon up the scorn with which I had read them to that Brownsville Labor Lyceum meeting.”

I can only comment that I have read ‘all those books,’ and in them you will not find an adequate justification for replacing democratic procedures with dictatorial tactics.  Shiplacoff,
Barney, and the other ‘old-timers’ understood Marx and Engels quite as well as necessary to
devote their lives to building a working-class movement.  Would that Bertram Wolfe had done as much!



Susie and I walked into the 4th arrondissement today to attend a free concert of the music of John Dowland at l'Eglise Notre Dame des Blanc Manteaux.  The concert was pleasant enough, although the sixteen people who showed up were swamped by the large church.  But what caught my attention was the name chosen by the two performers for their little ensemble:  Duo Nausicaa.

This brought to mind a lovely story concerning arguably my worst moment as a test-taking student.  Way back in the Fall of 1951, as a first semester sophomore at Harvard, I enrolled in a required Humanities survey course, Hum 3, taught in sections.  My section leader was an inoffensive little man named, rather appropriately, Mr. Brown.  I was also taking, that semester, two graduate mathematical logic courses taught by Willard Van Orman Quine and Hao Wang, so I considered Hum 3 a good deal beneath me and paid it accordingly little mind.

The first reading assignment in Hum 3 was a prose translation of the Odyssey, which I read as fast as I could, and then promptly forgot, the first weekend of the term.  We also read Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War.  The first hour exam of the course included, among other things, a list of names that we were to identify with a sentence or two.  On the list was "Nausicaa."  Nausicaa, as I am sure all of you recall, is the princess who drags Odysseus off the beach that he has been washed up on after being shipwrecked on his rather extended trip home from the Trojan War.  I could not for the life of me recall who or what Nausicaa was, but it seemed to me that it must be a city state allied either with Athens or Sparta in the aforementioned war, so flipping a mental coin, I put down "Nausicasa:  City state allied with Sparta in the Peloponnesian War."  Mr. Brown had the grace not to mark the answer wrong.  He simply put the following comment:  "!!!!!!!!"

Walking home, my eye caught a poster in a window of the upscale monied 4th arrondissement.

Only in Paris.


Readers of this blog, I realize, have been waiting anxiously for word of the Jean Gabin and Yves Montand batobuses, afraid to ask lest the news be bad.  I am happy to report that both little batobuses are well and parked modestly at the rear of the queue on the Seine near the bridge that connects the National Assembly with the Place de la Concorde.  Since nothing short of visual evidence will reassure, I include a photo taken this morning during my walk with my IPhone.  That is Yves Montand next to Jean Gabin.  Fans of French cinema may rest easy.

Thursday, May 28, 2015


Human beings have been around in their present form – homo sapiens sapiens – for about 150,000 years, give or take a few score millennia.  If we assume that young Cro Magnon men and women did not wait to have babies until they had graduated from college and paid off their student loans, a generation for most of that time would have been, say, fifteen years.  So there have been maybe ten thousand generations of people.  For the first nine thousand nine hundred ninety nine of those generations, old people explained to young people how to shape a promising looking bit of stone into a hand axe or how to protect a castle with a moat or how to rebuild an internal combustion engine.  We are now living in the first generation of the human experience in which young people tell old people how stuff works.

These sober reflections were prompted by my experience yesterday.  Faithful readers will recall my traumatic Parisian struggles last time around to get on the Internet.  This time, as soon as we arrived, I set up my computer and had a go.  No problem.  Nor was there any problem with the telephone [which I rarely use because my French is not good enough to chat on the phone.]  But the television set was a complete non-starter.

So what?, you might reasonably ask.  With all Paris at my doorstep, what need have I for TV?  Well, leaving aside my plebian tastes, there is the problem of my renters.  I advertise the apartment [in the back pages of the New York Review of Books] as having, among other things, TV, and I feel compelled therefore to make the damned thing work.  I tried.  I unplugged the modem and rebooted it [always the first thing to do, as I have learned from Time Warner Cable.]  I unplugged and replugged the cable box [called, in France, rather ominously a “decoder.”]  Then I screwed my courage to the sticking point [I trust you know the source of that cliché – it is the crossbow] and walked over to the nearest Orange store [Orange is what FranceTelecom became when that fine old state corporation was taken private some years ago.]  There I was given an English language phone number to call for help.  [Trying to describe technical problems over the phone is hard enough for me in English – in French it would be a charade.]

I called the number and received a recorded announcement that there was no such number – not promising.  I consulted the Internet and found a completely different number, which did indeed connect me to a young man who spoke quite good English.  I told him my sad story and assured him that I had rebooted the modem, trying to sound as technically proficient as I could manage.   Speaking slowly and distinctly, as one would to a not too bright child, he asked me to look at the TV set.  Did I see a button with an up arrow?  I did.  “Press it,” he suggested.  I pressed it.

The TV set burst into color and sound with Bloomberg International reporting the business news.

I got off the phone as quickly and with as little further embarrassment as I could muster.  Later, reflecting on the experience, it occurred to me that I might have deduced the problem, had I thought about it more deeply.  TV sets in the U. S. typically receive cable signals on channel 3, or sometimes on channel 4.  If the set gets switched to another channel, there is nothing but snow on the screen.  Obviously, one of my renters accidentally or mistakenly pressed the channel button on the set and switched the set to the wrong channel [notice the care with which I distinguish “accidentally” from “mistakenly.”  J. L. Austin would be pleased.]

In the next generation, younger children will explain to older children how things work.

Isaiah 11:6  The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Classstruggle, who has posted many lengthy comments on this blog, some running to several comment spaces, posted a brief comment to my post titled “Keeping My Hand In” that troubled me greatly, and I should like to respond, even though to do so is in a way rather bad-tempered of me.  He [?] said, regarding my report that I had sent copies of the Meditations, the Monadology, Hume’s Treatise, and Kant’s First Critique to a student I am mentoring, “I may have a PDF copy of some of these texts (not that I have read them or care to really). But if I can be of any help, you just let me know.”

That was a very generous thing for him [?] to do, and yet here I am caviling at the parenthetical aside.

That aside is such a profoundly unMarxian thing to say that I had to respond.  I think I am safe in assuming that classstruggle holds Marx in the very highest esteem.  And yet, Marx was one of the most widely and deeply educated people in Western civilization of the past three or four centuries at the very least.  He gobbled up books the way the Cookie Monster gobbles up cookies.  I cannot even begin to imagine how he managed to read as much as he did.  And this was not mere obsession or a demented notion of a good education.  Marx used ideas, quotations, suggestions, facts, and arguments from an unimaginably broad array of written sources, in at least seven different languages and a dozen disciplines.   Those of us who find inspiration and guidance in the thousands of pages Marx wrote ought, it seems to me, to learn from his practice.  We ought to read the great literature of our culture, from antiquity onward.  We ought to read widely in history, in sociology, in the sciences, and yes, in the  neo-classical economics we claim to disdain.  Let us follow Marx’s own practice, and embrace the famous saying of the poet Terence, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” or “I am a man, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.”

Now, I am sure that classstruggle has many pressing obligations that might keep him [?] from reading Hume’s Treatise or Kant’s Critique, but I would urge that he allow himself [?] to feel some passing regret at the missed opportunity.


Yesterday evening, I finished reading The Sixth Extinction, a relatively light, rather chatty and anecdotal, but nevertheless quite interesting book by Elizabeth Kolbert.  There have been five great extinctions – periods of time short by geological standards when as much as fifty or sixty or even ninety percent of all extant species of living things disappeared.  Most of these extinctions were the result of gradual changes in the world’s environment – a rise or drop in temperature, for example.  The last and most famous, the Late Triassic extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs and made ecological room for the expansion of the mammalian population [and eventually, for us], was the result quite literally of an event, the crashing into the earth of a five mile wide asteroid.

Kolbert’s thesis is that human beings are producing a sixth great extinction by their expansion across the planet, their rearrangement of ecological spaces [by clearing forests, building cities, and subdividing old growth areas into parcels too small to support many species, for example], and by raising the planet’s temperature so rapidly that species do not have time to adapt.

This is presented by her as a disaster, but that depends on one’s point of view.  Several years ago, there were reports that the lions in Kruger National Park in South Africa were dying of pneumonia.  This was widely viewed as a crisis, but it was, of course, a success story for the virus or bacterium causing the disease.  E. O. Wilson likes to tell us how successful ants are as a family but not many of us have learned to adopt a formicaedean standpoint.

Anyway, the book is perfect summer reading.  Enjoy.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


One of the liveliest and most engaging of the philosophy graduate students who took my course last semester on Karl Marx’s Critique of Capitalism was a young first year student who has been forced to take a year off from his studies to return home so that he can help to support his mother.  I offered to mentor him this coming year in order to enable him in some manner to continue his study of philosophy during his year in California.  As I have often made clear on this blog, I am deeply suspicious of the contemporary practice of giving doctoral students snippets of philosophy to read – selections from great works, or recent journal articles.  I am unashamedly old-fashioned in my belief that the very best preparation for beginning students is close reading of a number of major texts of Western philosophy.  Accordingly, I arranged to have send the young man copies of Descartes’ Meditations, Leibniz’s Monadology, Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.  Over the coming months, I hope to take him through these works – all of each of them, even the less highly regarded or commented upon parts – and perhaps through other classic works as well, if time permits.  By the time he returns to resume his doctoral studies, he should have some solid grounding for whatever his professors ask him to read.  It should be an interesting experience for me, and perhaps for him as well.


Long, cramped, uneventful flight.  Took me two days to make up the lost sleep.  Ah, to be seventy again.  Walked past the newly renovated La Monnaie.  No sign of Guy Savoy's three star restaurant on the top floor.  Susie and I were awakened this morning by a persistent rhythmic hammering that sounded as though it was right outside our window.  Sure enough, a workman was hard at it stippling a newly plastered façade of the building next door to make it rough and aged looking.  There is something inherently irrational abut trying to make a seventeenth century building look old.

Paris is lovely -- mixed sun and clouds, the weather trending warmer.  Yesterday was Pentecost, a national holiday, and the streets were deserted when I walked at six a.m.  This morning  shopped at the market.  I shall make skate tonight -- a very Parisian meal, I feel.

From time to time, readers report having difficulty posting comments.  This is terra incognita to me, I am afraid.  Wallace Stevens sent me an extremely interesting comment by e-mail after finding himself unable to post it.  With his permission I reproduce it here:

Wallace Stevens:

Your question "What should the foreign and military policy of the United States be?" is an important one.  I think it is pretty clear what it should NOT be.  But I think that in order to address what it should be, we first need to address the notion of "imperialism,"--the term that forms the context in which you raise the question.
Ancient imperialism was a pretty transparent and unapologetic question of theft--the hauling away of booty and the collection of tribute.  Yes, there may have been the odd road, or bridge, or public bath coming back the other way, but there was never any real accounting of the "balance" of such exchanges.  And any improvements to local infrastructure reflected the priorities of the metropolis, not the needs of the colony or vassal state, although some of the improvements were no doubt welcome.  (Older readers of this blog will recall a very funny segment in the Monty Python film "The Life of Brian" on this issue.)  The ancient model of empire was replaced by the commercial/capitalist empire in which the colonies became both captive sources of raw materials, and captive markets for finished goods?the two sides of the profit equation--through various monopolies awarded by the imperial government.  It was no longer a simple matter of "loot."  We are now talking about businesses that made useful things and sold them.  But the colonies did not control the exploitation of their natural resources or collect royalties for use, and they were forced to buy only goods made in the metropolis.  Military power was a means of maintaining and extending these arrangements.
None of the above is true today.  Whatever is taken by the US from other countries is bought and paid for with an equivalent basket of US goods and services.  And if a given country does not want enough of what the US has to offer in exchange for what it produces, the difference is paid for with US debt--i.e., future claims on US goods and services.  Further, such exchanges are based on prices determined by market forces, some competitive, some, like the price of oil, which is largely dependent on Saudi production, not so competitive, that, in the context of a global, capitalist market place, US military might cannot control.
Today, the US certainly has the military capabilities and swagger of an imperial power of old. But it is not at all clear to me what actual good it does the US. For example, the price of oil--a critical commodity for the US and other industrialised societies--seems completely out its grasp.  (You can imagine the rhetoric and reaction in the 19th century if a small,  relatively lightly defended state like Saudi Arabia controlled the supply and therefore the price of coal: A bunch of "wogs" holding the civilised world to ransom, time for gunboats in the harbour, etc., etc.  Not only are all the President's horses and all the President's men incapable of doing anything about the price of oil, but also, supposing they WERE to act, what would the US government do with this power? Force the Saudis to cut back production further (thus benefiting the oil companies by raising prices), or force them to increase production (thus aiding the Western economies as a whole and the (vastly larger) non-petroleum capitalist interests)?  To this one might add that higher prices, which discourage consumption, might not even be in the interests of the oil companies over the longer term. So, what to do, even supposing you were able to act?
The Japanese, the Swiss, the Canadians and others, who have little to no capability of "projecting power," have discovered that you don't need a huge military presence in order to prosper.  All you have to do is stand on the shore waving hard currency and the tankers will come to you!
Yes, there are pirates (sea-born and cyber) and other potential disrupters of the free and peaceful flow of goods, services and capital.  But even Japan has enough of a navy to take on the threat of pirates at sea.  As for the cyber pirates, well, aircraft carriers aren't much help.  What about organized states that might disrupt trade?  Here it is ironic that "enemies" like Iran today, and Iraq pre-2003, are EMBARGOED.  The US, and the West more broadly, actually forces them to withdraw their critical raw material?oil--from the market.
I want to get to your question. In particular I like Gene's alternative #5.  But I have gardening duties and will have to sign off for now.

Friday, May 22, 2015


My bag is packed, I have had a haircut, a taxi is arranged, and there is really nothing more to be done save wait until tomorrow, so I spent some time exploring my IPhone, with special attention to the apps I never use.  I discovered that I have zero birds listed on my life list on my Birds of the World app.  GoogleMaps assured me that I am still in Chapel Hill.  For the tenth time, I checked the weather in Paris.  And then I tapped the iBooks icon.  It turns out that I have A Treatise of Human Nature on my phone [I am old enough to find this astonishing.]  I called up the text and began reading the Introduction.  I feeling of warmth and comfort came over me as I read again the words I first read sixty-four years ago.  How measured, how sane, how charmingly familiar they were.  I am a Kant scholar of some sort and a Marxist, or so I insist, but David Hume is my favorite philosopher.  I do not think I would actually have much enjoyed an evening with Kant or Marx, for all their greatness, but I would give anything to have had the pleasure of an evening with the man whom the French called le bon David.  In my mind he is linked with Jane Austen, who lived perhaps a generation later.  Of both it would always have been the case that they were the smartest person in any room, and yet both were in their way unassuming and modest, allowing others to underestimate them.  Perhaps on the long plane ride I shall pass the time by dipping here and there into Books One, Two, and Three of the Treatise.


As I make last minute preparations for our trip to Paris [haircut -- I do not trust Parisian barbers to snip my few remaining scraggles of hair], I should like to pose a question for my readers.  This is  not a rhetorical question, as the saying has it.  I am genuinely uncertain what I think is the appropriate answer.  The question is this:  What should America's military policy be with regard to the rest of the world?

Some facts, first.  The United States currently has roughly one and a third million men and women under arms, and an additional 850,000 or so in the various reserves and National Guard units.  Its military budget accounts for perhaps not quite 40% of the world wide expenditures on armed forces and related activities and resources.  [Some of America's expenditures are hidden in the budget, so it is difficult to be precise, and I assume the same is true for many other nations.]

For at least the past three quarters of a century, the United States has been pursuing an imperial foreign policy, seeking to establish military hegemony over as much of the earth's surface as it can manage.  So far as I can tell, this drive to world domination has been motivated partly by a desire to make the world safe for American capitalism, and partly to establish supremacy simply for its own sake.  During part of that three quarters of a century, the United States confronted a Soviet empire which, though never as powerful militarily, possessed enough nuclear weapons to create a so-called balance of terror.  Despite the precariousness of that arrangement, the world approached dangerously close to nuclear war only once, in 1962, thanks to the decisions and actions of a liberal Democratic president, John F. Kennedy .

In pursuit of its imperial aims, the United States has overthrown democratically elected governments, subverted progressive indigenous movements, propped up dictators, and engaged in perpetual war.  After the disaster of the Viet Nam War, which came close to destroying the cohesion and effectiveness of the American military, America's political and military rulers carried out the final transformation of America to a classical imperial power by replacing its conscript army with a professional military that could be deployed anywhere in the world with little or no domestic political opposition.

All of this, I take it, is beyond dispute.  For purposes of discussion, I shall simply posit that this is not good.  But it is the reality.  I do not wish to ask here what the United States should have done over the past  three quarters of a century.  That is an important question, but it is not my question today.  Nor do I wish to ask what it is politically possible to do in the United States now.  That too is an important question, and one to which the realistic answer is deeply depressing.  Rather, I am asking:  What should the foreign and military policy of the United States be?

There are four possible answers, so far as I can see.  They are:

1.  Pursue an expansionist, belligerent military policy, seeking to control as much of the world as we can while denying the imperial ambitions of China and other potential contenders wherever  and whenever we can, thereby making the world as safe as we can for capitalism.  That, I take it, is the expressed or unexpressed grand vision of most Republicans and a good many Democrats.

2.  Continue to function as an imperial power dedicated to the protection and advancement of the interests of American capital, but do so in a kinder and gentler fashion.  That, I take it, is roughly Obama's answer.

3.   Dismantle the U. S. military establishment, leaving only so much of it as is required to protect America from a land invasion by Canada or Mexico, or an amphibian invasion by, let us say, China.  Then, keep America's troops at home and let the rest of the world sort itself out as it chooses.  On a good day, this appears to be Rand Paul's policy.

4.  Maintain America's military establishment, but use it, along with America's economic power, for progressive, indeed, revolutionary projects abroad wherever possible.  Undermine and overthrow repressive and reactionary regimes whenever possible, such as, for example, the Saudi regime, or the Russian regime, or the North Korean regime.  Use America's military and economic power to undermine capitalism abroad and to support progressive revolutionary forces wherever they appear.

If we are talking about what would be best, not what is possible, I assume that most of my readers would reject alternatives one and two.  But I am genuinely uncertain whether it would be best to maintain a large military establishment that could be deployed instantly in support of progressive policies, or whether it would be best to dismantle our huge military establishment and adopt what used to be called a Fortress America stance.

Let me make one thing very clear.  I reject utterly and categorically the fantasy that all the evil in the world is a result of past or present American actions, so that if we would simply stop our endless undermining of good regimes and propping up of bad regimes, the world would be a peaceful, progressive, secular place. 

If we choose the third alternative, then we must be prepared to stand by while really terrible things are done in the world [never mind for the moment the really terrible things done in America -- that is a subject for a different discussion.]  If you think the abduction of hundreds of young girls by Nigerian Muslims is something we should do something about, then you must be willing to maintain a standing armed force of considerable size that can be deployed immediately, not after a year of recruitment.   No doubt, America would not need as large a military as it now has, but interventionist policies cannot be pursued on the cheap.

If we choose the fourth alternative, then inevitably there are going to be unintended civilian deaths, the use of drones and other modern weapons, and a state of permanent military readiness with all of the unavoidable consequences.

So, what do people think?  Is there a fifth alternative?

Thursday, May 21, 2015


On Saturday, Susie and I fly off to Paris for a five week stay.  In my mind, I am already walking the streets of the fifth and sixth arrondissements, checking on old familiar buildings, looking to see whether little shops have survived, planning outings [this time, we plan to see the newly renovated and enlarged Picasso Museum in the third arrondissement], and of course imagining the meals I shall cook or the restaurants to which we shall go.  I have decided to try my hand at a recipe for a daube de boeuf Provençale which, oddly enough, is due to none other than Martha Stewart.

A recent TIMES news story brought a number of apparently quite Parisian disparate memories and associations into conjunction.  A little background is called for.  As most people are aware, the automobile tire company Michelin has for many years published an annual guide to touring in France [and now other countries as well], the feature of which is ratings of thousands of hotels and restaurants in every corner of France.  [The Michelin logo is a man made entirely of white tires stacked one on top of the other.  He looks a good deal like the enormous Pillsbury Doughboy in Ghostbusters.] 

The Michelin restaurant critics award from one to three stars to restaurants they consider especially worthy of notice, and an award of three stars identifies a restaurant as one of the great eating places of the world.  I don't like fancy restaurants where cooking is treated as a visual art and sauces are dribbled onto the plate in decorative patterns so that they look nice but are virtually impossible to taste.  I have actually, on two different occasions, gotten a famous restaurant to refund my money after I wrote an angry letter detailing precisely how and why their fancy food tasted bland and uninteresting [but that is a story for another day.]  By the way, it is quite easy these days to drop a thousand dollars for a meal for two including wine at a three star restaurant.

The chefs of three star restaurants are more CEO's than cooks, and they frequently trade on their fame to open less expensive satellite restaurants.  One of the tiny handful of French three star chefs is Guy Savoy.  For the entire time that Susie and I have owned a Paris apartment, on rue Maître Albert in the fifth, there has been a Guy Savoy satellite restaurant, Atelier Maître Albert, down at the end of the street.  It is a very up-scale place, but the food is not, in my opinion, particularly good, save for a saladier du moment with chicken livers that is really quite nice.

So, that is the first fact.  The second fact is that my classic early morning walk in Paris is along the quais on the Left Bank from our apartment to the Assemblée Nationale, which sits across a bridge from Place de la C oncorde.  Along my walk, I pass a large block-long building called La Monnaie de Paris, or The Paris Mint, which was at one time in fact France's mint, where coins were made.  The building dates from the eighteenth century, but The Mint was actually established in 864 [that is not a typo -- really, 864!].  The Mint is located along the south side of the street just at the western most tip of île de la Cité, the lozenge shaped island in the middle of the Seine where the Cathedral of Nôtre Dame stands.  For several years now, the Mint building has been covered with scaffolding, and a large sign announces that it is undergoing a "metalmorphosis" [a really bad joke.]  In March, when we visited Paris for a brief eleven day stay during UNC's Spring break, I saw that the scaffolding was being taken down, signaling that the work was almost done.

Just a few days ago, Susie read in the Times that Guy Savoy is moving his premier signature restaurant into the top floor of the renovated Mint building.  Unfortunately, at six-thirty in the morning, which is when I am usually walking by, the rich and famous will not be entering for a light repast, but maybe there will be a new sign.  Susie thought it would be fund to go in and ride the elevator to the top floor just to get a look, but I am sure there will be a guard at the ground floor entrance screening out the unworthy, so I shall have to content myself with sidelong glance at the top floor windows as I pass.

By the way, Guy Savoy also has a satellite restaurant in Las Vegas.  So much for the traditions of French cuisine.  It probably offers his creative revision of classic Buffalo wings.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


I consider it to be one of my principal functions as a blogger to educate young readers and overseas readers about American politics.  Today, I will explain the meaning of "clown car" for those who fund the term somewhat puzzling.  

Way back on my youth, long before there was a Cirque du Soleil, circuses toured the country by train, setting up their tents in an empty field and offering the folks in rural and small town America a glimpse of spangles and tights and high wire acts and certified wild animals.  There were a number of small tents for side shows, girly shows, houses of mirrors and really scary horror shows, but the main acts were displayed in the big tent.  In the middle of the tent was a wooden ring, inside which the performers would strut their stuff.  Barnum and Bailey's circus was so packed with acts that their big tent featured three rings, with acts going on in all three simultaneously, making it a real challenge for the spectators to decide where to look.  Hence the phrase "three ring circus."

Every circus had a complement of clowns -- men and women dressed up in funny costumes with big floppy shoes, red fright wigs, and padded bellies, who would warm up the crowd by clowning around [as the phrase came to be used].  One of their popular shticks was to hit one another with sticks that made a loud splat when used -- hence the term slapstick for that sort of humor.  There were even a very few clowns -- Emmett Kelly was the most famous -- who were so popular that they became featured acts.  Whenever disaster struck -- an aerialist falling from the high wire, a lion tamer getting mauled -- the clowns would come rushing into the center of the tent maniacally distracting the audience until the mess could be cleaned up [hence the title of Stephen Sondheim's song "Send in the Clowns."]

One of the most popular bits was the arrival of the troupe of clowns at the beginning of the show.  A very small car would chug into the middle of the center ring.  The door would pop open and a clown would roll out onto the sawdust, hop up, and wave to the audience.  Then another clown would get out of the car.  Then another.  And another.  And another.  A seemingly impossible number of clowns of all sizes, shapes, and costumes would somehow get out of that little car, which would then chug noisily off stage.

This is the image that has now morphed into a cliche for the horde of men and women who have announced, or have flirted with announcing, or have threatened to announce their candidacy for the Republican Party's nomination of President of the United states.

Monday, May 18, 2015


Encouraged by the request of two scholars at the University of Washington Bothell to reproduce my Signifying Monkey memorandum in a book they are editing, I thought I would revive another memo I wrote to the same group of students in the same Spring -- this one from two months earlier, concerning the famous Zora Neale Hurston novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.  Who knows?  Maybe it will encourage some of you to read the novel.  Like every other book in our list of fifty, the novel was to be read for one of the bi-weekly meetings of the first year seminar.  It went on that way all year -- another class, another book, another paper.  It was, and remains to this day, an extraordinary educational experience, both for the students and for the members of the Department.

March 19, 1998
 From:               Bob Wolff
To:                   The Members of the Major Works Seminar
Subject:           Their Eyes Were Watching God
I would like to make some preliminary and elementary observations that are designed to deepen your reading of the novel and make your understanding of it more complicated.
First of all, a warning:  Don't make the mistake of supposing that this book, because it is a  novel, and not a theoretical treatise, is simply an unreflective story. Their Eyes, because it is a  direct, powerful, affecting story, is liable to fool you.  To this must be added the fact that critics have tended not to accord to female authors in the African‑American literary tradition the same level of self‑conscious artistry that they impute to male authors in that tradition, and that they automati­cally impute to all white authors in the main, or canonical, tradition of western literature.  It would never occur to a sophisticated literary critic to suppose that Pamela, or Bleak House, or Pride and Prejudice, or The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is simply a good story, told naively and directly by an author with no self‑conscious conception of literary form or technique.  And yet, critics have, oddly enough, been ready to see Hurston in the same tradition that way.  So ‑ be warned!
Now, some absolutely elementary ideas which you should keep with you at all times.
1.         The author of a novel is not the narrator.  The narrator [or, of course, the narrators] exists in the fictional world of the novel;  the author exists in the same real world we inhabit.  Zora Neale Hurston is not Janie.  At every step, on every page, you must ask yourself what literary intention the author has in putting such words as she, or he, does in the mouth of the narrator.  The power of a narrative voice may be so great that it seizes you, overwhelms you, compels you.  Assuming that the author is skillful, that effect on you is inten­tional.  Ask yourself why the author has chosen to create that effect.
2.         Which brings us to the subject of voice.  A novel calls a fictional world into existence by the use of words ["In the Beginning Was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God" ‑ think of Aslan in the Narnia tales roaring the world into existence ‑ as long as there have been novels, novelists have been playing with the connection between authorship and creation.]  Some of those words are the words of the narrator, who may, or may not, be a character in the fictional world [in David Copperfield and Great Expectations, for example, the narrator is the principal character.  In Jane Austen's novels, on the other hand, the narrator is not ‑ but, nevertheless, the narrator is someone whose values, social presuppositions, etc. are clearly historically and socially locatable.]  Some of the words are those of characters in the novel.  Leaving aside picture books, the entire fictional world is conjured up, constituted, created by those words.
Thus, an absolutely central factor in the constitution of the fictional world of the novel is the charac­ter of the voices in which the narrator and other characters speak.  By voice, I mean, in the first instance, the words the characters speak [there is, strictly speaking, nothing else].  But then, by extension, I mean the tone, the choice of locutions [i.e., the diction], etc.  In Their Eyes, for example, Hurston makes an effort to reproduce the sounds, the cadences, the turns of phrase, the grammar, of the colloquial speech of certain segments of African‑American society.  This is, itself, a deliberate and literarily problematic choice for the authors ‑ one that was first faced in the English literary tradition by Sir Walter Scott [who sought to reproduce Scottish dialect.]
One of your central tasks, as a reader, is to become conscious of the voices in a novel, as voices, and to make yourself aware of the literary techniques by which the author is creating and sustaining those voices.  You must, at all times, be asking yourself why the author has made those choices, what the purpose of them is, and what their effects are.
3.         Novelists are readers of novels, just as poets are readers of poetry and composers are listeners to music.  Novelists self‑consciously write against, or with, or to, or about, or in relation to, previous novelists.  This is true of all novelists, of course, but is especially important with regard to Hurston, for one of the central issues that concerns her is the existence of a tradition of African‑American literature and its place in, or relation to, the established tradition of western novels by white authors. 
4.         Novelists are also, quite often, self‑reflective about the nature of art, and about what it is to be an artist.  Frequently, this translates into a concern, in the novel, with voice.  You will find, as you start to read Their Eyes, that it is, in one sense, about voice.  You should try to locate the precise phrases, sentences, passages in which the subject of voice comes up [this is not hard ‑ it runs throughout the novel].  Whose voice?  What is the relationship between the voices of the characters in the novel and the author's voice?  Once again, let me emphasize that voice is important in a novel precisely because, in a novel but not in the real world, voice creates the world.  In life, one can act decisively without ever finding one's voice.  But in a novel, action exists only as voiced by someone [either a character or a narrator].
5.         Finally, with all this in mind, how should you read a novel?  It would appear that anyone who takes all of this advice to heart will become utterly immobilized by it!  Pen in hand, endlessly hunting for evidences of voice, of inner and outer references, alert to self‑referential turns of phrase, you will end up reading novels as though they were chemistry texts.  Right?
Wrong!  The best way I can think of to describe how you should read a novel is to draw an analogy with the way a psychoanalyst has to work.  The analyst listens to the patient, and allows herself to react directly and emotionally to the patient.  The analyst may find that one day she is fascinated by what the patient has to say, and the next day is utterly bored, wishing the hour would end and the patient would leave.  One day the analyst may be sexually aroused by the patient, the next day repelled.  The analyst may find that the presence of the patient is triggering a series of fantasies in her own mind.  And so forth.  To function in a therapeutically effective fashion, the analyst must allow herself to feel all of these feelings, and must at the same time use them as evidences of concealed or subliminal communications from the patient, reflecting on them with all of the theoretical understanding at her disposal.  If she tries to distance herself emotionally from her own reactions, deprecating them as unprofessional;  or, alternatively, if she simply reacts, without using the reactions as the raw material for reflection ‑ in either case, she will not be an effective therapist.
In analogous fashion, you, as the reader of a novel, must allow yourself to be caught up in the novel, to be moved by it, to react as a naive reader for whom there is no distance between self and fictional world.  You must allow yourself to feel, immediately, whatever it is that the words on the page evoke in you.  BUT:  You must, at the same time, reflect on your reactions, use them as the raw material for your interpretation, achieve an ironic distance from the novel while also becoming engaged with it and moved by it.  Only then can you become an effective and insightful reader.
The analyst assumes, as a methodological presupposition of the therapy, that there are repressed wishes, fantasies, memories in the patient's unconscious that will erupt into the patient's discourse and self‑presentation in ways that will allow for therapeutic intervention.  What is more, of course, the analyst encoun­ters only persons who choose to become patients, presumably because they are suffering some sort of pain or unhappiness that they seek to alleviate.  You, as a reader of novels, must start with the methodological pre­supposition that the book you are reading is written by an author sufficiently in control of voice and diction, with a sufficiently interesting literary purpose, to make the reading of the novel worthwhile.  Frequently, of course, that turns out to be false, and you either stop reading, or else plow on to the end and toss the novel aside as not worth reflecting on.  All I ask with regard to this novel [and all novels of course] is that you give them, at least initially, the benefit of the doubt, and that you combine an emotional openness to them as compelling stories with an intelligent, reflective awareness of them as artfully constructed literary works.
Let us now take a look at Their Eyes. 
Hurston was born in 1891 and died in 1960.  She was brought up in Eaton­ville, Florida, the town in which the novel is set.  It was, as she represents it in the novel, an all‑Black town.  The novel takes place in October 1928.  How do I know this?  Because the hurricane that occupies the last segment of the novel was an actual event, pretty much just as it is represented in the novel.
Hurston was, among other things, a skilled folklorist and ethnographer who studied at Barnard College under the great anthropologist Franz Boas.  Between 1927 and 1932, she made a number of trips to the South, beginning with Eatonville, to collect folk tales;  she traveled as well to New Orleans where she gathered material on Voodoo.  All of this made its appearance first in Mules and Men, published in 1935.  In 1937, she wrote Their Eyes in seven weeks [!!], incorporating a good deal of the material of Mules and Men as background.  [For example, in Mules and Men, she describes the store in Eatonville, with its front porch, where the men sat and swapped tales.  The store's owner was Joe Clark(!)]
The novel is constructed economically and with great care.  There are a relatively small number of verbal themes and echoes that hold the narrative together, for which you should be on the lookout.  For example, the second sentence introduces us to the image of the horizon.  That image recurs on pages 28, 85, and 182, and is then reinvoked in the last lines of the novel to pull it together and bring it to a close.  A less significant but still sugges­tive theme is Janie's hair ‑ See pages 2, 47, 51, and 83, for example.  Again, the image of a "high, ruling chair" in which one can sit, surveying the surrounding society ‑ pages 31, 58, 109.  Or, yet again, the very important series of images of trees, branches, and roots ‑ pages 8, 12, 15, 73 and elsewhere, almost certainly Hurston's way of talking about the existence or lack of existence of an Afro‑American tradition.  And, of course, the extraordinarily beauti­ful set of images of the bee in the pear bloom ‑ pages 10, 31, 67, 101 and elsewhere, perhaps the emotionally dominant image in the book.
The trick in reading a novel like this is, at one and the same time, to give yourself up to it emotionally and yet also remain aware of these literary devices and structural features, which the author uses to carry much of her meaning.
A word about the narrative structure of the novel.  It is, of course, a frame structure, though of a rather odd sort.  The novel begins as Janie returns to Eatonville after an eight­een month absence.  She puts her feet in a pan of water to soothe them, and begins to tell her friend, Phoeby, where she has been and what she has done.  174 pages later, she takes her feet out of the water, and the novel comes to an end.  This is a familiar narrative device, but it is here used somewhat oddly ‑ Janie tells Phoeby a great deal about her life before she came to Eatonville ‑ things you would suppose she had already told Phoeby during their twenty‑year friendship ‑ and a great deal about what happened to her in Eatonville, which Phoeby must know, because she was there.  Notice the effect of the frame device ‑ it creates an elegaic effect.  All during the tumultuous events of the Hurricane, for example, we, the readers, know that she has survived, because she is narrating this to Phoeby.  This has the effect of putting distance between us and the narrative, and enhances the rather dreamy quality of the narrative, already set up for us by the pear bloom passage.
What is the novel about?  Well, at the most immediate, accessible level, it is about voice, about Janie's finding a voice and thereby coming into her own as an emotionally and sexually complete person, as an authoritative, active, effective person.  The theme of voice appears almost on every page, beginning with the fourth paragraph of the first page, when she reenters Eatonville and encounters the bander log on the store porch.  ["Bander log," or "bandar log," as it is usually spelled, is a term from Kipling's Jungle Book.  "Bandar" is a Hindu term meaning "people," and the bander log are the log people ‑ i.e., the monkeys, who sit on logs chattering and gossiping.  The dictionary glosses it as "any body of irrespon­sible chatterers," which is just about a perfect description of the people on the porch.  They are, in Henry Louis Gates' term, signifying monkeys.]  As the inner narrative progresses, Janie moves from being silent [with her grandmother] to being silenced [by Joe Starks] to finding a voice, and finally to signifying or playing the dozens on Joe [in the great passage on page 75], who has been swaggering about as a big voice, playing God.  And yet ‑ this, of course, is perhaps the central thematic point made by a number of commentators ‑ Janie does not, like Joe, arrogate voice to herself, and make the achievement of her voice the occasion for setting herself above and against those around her.  Instead, in that very important passage on page 6 [echoed in her grandmother's statement on page 15], she says to Phoeby, "You can tell 'em what Ah say if you wants to.  Dat's just de same as me 'cause mah tongue is in mah friend's mouf."
The pivotal passage in the book, in my judgment [which, needless to say, on matters like this may not be worth the paper it is xeroxed on], is to be found on pages 67‑68, in the paragraph that begins "Janie stood where he left her ..."  It seems clear that Hurston is here echoing du Bois' notion of double consciousness, but with a crucial difference [or revision, as the literary critics like to say.] 
Hurston's revision, it seems to me, is that for du Bois, it is the experience of being a Negro in a white world that makes for the double consciousness, whereas for Janie, it is the experience of being a woman in a man's world that produces this effect.  Notice, by the way, that by setting her novel in Eatonville, which is an all‑black town, she brackets the very doubling to which du Bois is referring.  Janie's only encounters with whites, in the sequences during and after the hurricane at the very end of the novel, are managed in such a fashion that they do not really alter the central thematic development.
Now some questions about the novel, to which we might address ourselves.
First, what is the meaning of the title?  The title phrase is from the hurricane se­quence, of course, page 151, "They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God." The novel is filled with religious metaphors and language, and Joe Starks' quest for a Big Voice, a High Chair, his favorite expression, "I God," and the manner in which he is described by others as authoritative and God‑like, and of course the fact that he is hollow, a false god, lead one to think that this religious theme must have some central significance.  But I must confess I am not sure what it is.
Second, how shall we understand the theme of loneliness that runs through the novel?  Janie is repeatedly described as lonely.  At the end, however, although she is alone, she is no longer lonely.  This needs some explicating.
Third, what are we to make of what is for me the most puzzling passage in the novel, Tea Cake's beating up of Janie?  What is puzzling is not the fact that the incident oc­curs, but the way it is treated by Hurston.  It is introduced more or less gratuitously, in a way that doesn't really advance the plot, and it seems not at all to have colored or qualified Janie's positive memories of Tea Cake at the end of the novel.  Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the incident is accurate, in the sense that the sorts of people Hurston represents in her novel would in fact have responded to such an event in that fashion ‑ both the men and the women.  I am very hesitant simply to embrace an ideologically simple‑minded "feminist" reading of the incident, and construe Hurston as saying in the novel that an independent woman who finds her voice can have no place in her life for a man, because that seems to me incompatible with the tone and language of the final pages.  [See page 184, "Then Tea Cake came prancing around her etc etc."]  So, it is a puzzle.
Finally, a minor matter.  What on earth is the whole Mrs. Turner episode doing in the novel [around pages 130 ff]?  This dispute about Negroes trying to look white, etc, though true to life, no doubt, doesn't seem to have anything to do with the rest of the novel.  Is this obtuseness on my part, authorial clumsiness on Hurston's part, or what?