Have you ever wondered about Sharia law, what it really is? Wonder no more. While you may end up as confused at the end of this BBC 4 discussion as you were at the beginning, you will at least understand that your lack of understanding is legitimate.
But then give this a listen! , a discussion on Descartes, which I enjoyed on my I-Pod Shuffle while cleaning the kitchen and the bathroom. Learning through the ear works really well for me and also passes the time when carrying out dull, routine tasks. I appreciate the way these BBC thinkers connect Descartes to the sweep of western philosophy from Aristotle, through Descartes' contemporaries to Nietzsche and Sartre. The contrast between the lucid thought of these men and the muddy waters of Sharia is pretty clear to me after listening to these two programs. While not a big fan of notions of the superiority of western thought in general, it could be because I am not well versed enough in it. When I hear explanations like this I am reminded of all the ways of thinking I take for granted which are not necessarily available to other cultures. After all, laws based on reason and good government, truth,and justice are a pretty good idea! Scientific knowledge is an excellent thing, too. Religion has its place for the religious, but religion without reason or just as an excuse to rule over others is not so great.
Explained as these articulate men and women are so good at doing, the difficulties in my mind about the grounding of philosophy and science just melt away. My next treat, when I do the floors tomorrow, will be listening to a program on Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy.
So what's been doing on my Kindle? Well, I was reading Christopher Hitchins in the new Atlantic on the topic of Rosa Luxemburg's prison letters. I just finished reading a selection of these letters in German that had recently become available for downloading. The publication of these letters in English has caused quite stir. Hitchins finds her work extraordinary. I thought it was beautiful and sad, what she wrote, but what struck me was that she was an ordinary woman. And this in the same sense that Anne Frank was an ordinary girl and Maxie Wander was an ordinary wife. These three were done to death (in Wander's case, due to cancer), and wanted so desperately to live. Knowing their bitter endings is what makes their work so heartbreaking.
Another work that has become available to me in German is Walter Benjamin's Moscow Diary from Stätebilder. Unbelievable. I will never forget the image of Muscovites setting their possessions out on the snow, hoping to sell them. What immiseration! Beyond imagination! He was a wonderful observer and reporter of the life around him. Here is a sample in my translation. He remarks that the atmosphere was like Southern Europe, in the:
Wild proliferation of street merchandising. shoe polish and writing tools, handkerchiefs, doll sleds, swings for children, women's underwear, stuffed birds, clothes hangers--everything pushed out onto the open street, as if it were not 25 below zero but full Neapolitan summer!
They just set their wares out on the mounds of dirty snow, hoping to earn enough money to buy some food.
These were the desperate days after the Bolshevik Revolution, and, as history tells us, things never really got better for the Russians.
Lately I have been re-assessing the work of Kafka and Benjamin and others, because I believe we think of them in the light of events that took place after their deaths. They saw things coming, all right but probably did not realize that it was the Jewish people who would be the target of a deliberate extermination campaign. Certainly their lives and their writing were not built around this future event. Kafka's tragedy, after all, was that tuberculosis blighted his life and killed him young, and that was a common fate then. Could it be that "the law" he wrote about was really a metaphor for the laws of nature and the disease that was killing him, not the laws of man?
And another windfall: the complete works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. I read and very much enjoyed an early novel of his, Fanshawe, which he disowned, wrongly I think.
That's not all!!! Hawthorne spent four years in England as a consul for the U.S. government. He has a lot to say about the characters who drifted into his office looking for help. What I'm reading about now is his exploration of the necropolis that was England in areas he explored around Shakepeare's home of Stratford. He must have looked at every old church graveyard for miles around.
One thing that strikes me about Hawthorne that I never noticed before was how much he must have influenced Henry James, whom he knew personally.. So much of what happens in the work of both men is alluded to covertly and indirectly, and the reader has to work to get the meaning. Sex and violence and death lurk beneath the surface, always. Which is very American, of course. What is Hawthorne saying when he goes on about the bones that nourish the verdant countryside of England? He is a far more fascinating writer than I thought, and it's reading more than just the canonical work that makes me think this.
And yet more (oh such riches are mine) Hawthorne writes a fascinating piece about one Mrs. Bacon, whose life work was to prove beyond doubt that Bacon (an ancestor, I presume) and not Shakespeare had written those plays. He was taken with her and her project and helped her out, even to the extent of getting her work published and writing an introduction to it. It's called The Philosphy of the Plays of Shakspere. I wondered if I could get that book on my Kindle. A long shot, I thought. No! It was there. I downloaded the sample, which contained the Introduction, which is a small masterpiece. The book's a little pricey, so I probably won't buy it. The fact is, Mrs. Bacon was really on to something. Her insight was that the Elizabethans were very secretive and that secretiveness was the signal trait of their times. I think that's true. Of course saying this proves that Bacon was trying to hide the authorship of his plays behind Shakespeare's name is too much of a stretch!
Imagine the digging around in the good old days I would have had to do to find all this stuff. To me, this is the greatest advance in my lifetime, the ability to extend my mind without having to trudge all over the place to find what I'm looking for. In Hilo! In the comfort of my own home in Laz-i-Boy Central! Remember note cards? microfilm? Itchy eyes? Moldy disgusting books? All a thing of the past.' Tis a wonder, indeed.