Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand

For many white Americans after 1865, the abolitionists were the century's villains--not only because they were thought to have been responsible for the way, but because they and their heirs were thought to have been responsible for the humiliation of the South during Reconstruction.  They had driven a wedge into white America, and they did it because they had become infatuated with an idea.  They marched the nation to the brink of self-destruction in the name of an abstraction.  The United States in the 1890s was a society fractured along many lines: the South against the North, the West against the East, labor against capital, agriculture against industry, borrowers against lenders, people who called themselves natives against new immigrants.  In a time when the chance of another civil war did not seem remote, a philosophy that warned against the idolatry of ideas was possibly the only philosophy on which a progressive politics could have been successfully mounted.

In the late 19th century, thinkers were presented with two problems.  First, the civil war was a national tragedy: thinkers needed a philosophy that both allowed for reasonable disagreement and allowed for one side to be correct.  Second, the introduction of Darwinism threatened theological foundations.

So how to reconcile the idea of Truth with the idea of disagreement?  How to reconcile Darwinism with Christianity?

Menand's The Metaphysical Club explains how thinkers starting in the 19th century sought to answer these questions, focusing on four thinkers: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Pierce, and John Dewey.  The book also incorporates a large cast of side-thinkers, who make appearances along the way.

Enter pragmatism: rather than an absolute truth, truth is relative.  Instead, pragmatism preaches tolerance for other views.  Philosophical Darwinism will sort out the good ideas from the bad.  Applied, this leads to interesting practical results.  Rather than a search for truth, focus shifts to process.  The idea is that, a good process will ensure a good result.  A good, robust democracy, then, leads to a good, robust society.  It also means no more civil wars.

Of course, it also means that the minority has to be ready and willing to defer to the majority.  Such deference may seem desirable today, with an overly enthusiastic Tea Party and constant calls to end Obama-care.  However, such deference is difficult to muster in situations where the majority's will subjugates the minority (e.g., Jim Crow).  And as Menand describes it, this is why pragmatism fell out of favor: as the civil rights movement unfolded, a philosophy preaching the virtue of good process felt antiquated--faith in the process did not help if the process itself was broken.

This is a good book and worth reading for anyone interested in the U.S. intellectual climate between the civil war and the first world war.  Also worth reading for anyone interested in a primer on pragmatism, or the philosophies of Holmes, James, Pierce, or Dewey.  As someone interested in Holmes, I enjoyed the portions devoted to him especially.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Ladies Whose Bright Eyes by Ford Madox Ford

"Surely it is pleasant," Mr Sorrell said, "but I cannot see that it is well, and pleasantness is not the whole of life."

"Is it not?" the Lady Dionissia asked wonderingly.

"No, surely not," Mr Sorrell answered.  Are there not such things as duties, ambitions, and responsibilities?"

"I do not know what those things are," she answered.  "In the spring the moles come out of the woods and the little birds sing, and we walk in the gardens and take what pleasure we can.  And then comes the winter, and shuts us up in our castles so that it is not so pleasant; but with jongleurs and ballad-singers we pass the time as well as we may.  And what is there to do?"

Ford Madox Ford wrote Ladies Whose Bright Eyes as a sort of response to Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  Twain's time-traveling protagonist becomes a hero in the Middle Ages because he comes to it with a wealth of modern scientific knowledge that is seen as magic.  Ford's Henry Sorrell, sent back to fourteenth century England in a horrific train wreck, also has fantasies that his modernity will make him a powerful man:

"Why, good Lord," he said, "if it's the fourteenth century I can do anything.  Just think of the things I can invent!  Why, we can begin right bang off with aeroplanes.  There's no need to go through any intermediary stages.  How would you like to go flying through the air, my lady?  I've done it, and there's no reason why you shouldn't.  Why, we can terrorise every city in the world.  We could burn Paris down in a night.  They couldn't do anything--anything at all."

Of course, Sorrell, like most people in his day and ours, has no idea where to begin building an airplane.  Ford's out to mock Twain's notion that a man is wiser or more knowledgeable simply because he was born later in time, and repeatedly stresses how little Sorrell knows about the world he finds himself in.  He has no scientific knowledge to amaze with, and no historical knowledge to help him navigate his surroundings, as he shows in a long and funny riff where he tries to figure out if the fourteenth century had eggs:

He did not know much about history.  He thought eggs had been introduced into England by Sir Walter Raleigh, along with potatoes and brandy.  He did remember--the fact had somehow impressed itself on his mind because it was philological, and he had always taken an interest in the study of languages, which was a sound commercial pursuit--he remembered distinctly having read somewhere that Chaucer or Caxton, taking a voyage from the coast of Kent to Suffolk, had landed in search of eggs.

And yet, despite Ford's send-up of Sorrell as out of his league, he does somehow manage to become widely known as a worker of miracles.  This has nothing to do with his modern knowledge, as in Twain, and everything to do with his mysterious combined with dumb luck, and centers around a valuable golden cross given to him by a woman in the 20th century for transport that he refuses to let go of.  The cross--as much for its monetary value as its religious symbolism--puts Sorrell in the middle of a conflict between the mistresses of two quarreling castles, the conniving Lady Blanche and the beautiful and patient Lady Dionissia.  He pledges his fealty to one, and then, realizing his mistake, to the other.  At the same time, he becomes known as a mystic and religious healer.

Ford has Sorrell receive wisdom from his time-traveling experiences, rather than impart it.  It strains credulity a little to see the Sorrell who once thought eggs came from the Americas suddenly say this to an old knight who asks him for healing:

"Ah, gentle knight, we are in the hands of God and His little angels.  Of how much I may cure or of how little, that I cannot tell you, but I think that surely the cure under God lies more in you than in me.  For your faith will make you whole, or more, or less, according as it is great or little.  This I believe to be the truth of the very truth.  And in this way only, and in no other that I know of, do I think that you could find the fountain of youth.  But for the cross, surely take it into your hand and feel what it is like."

Sorrell's newfound appreciation of Providence is in stark contrast to modern--Ford's modern, and our own--pride about our ability to exert control over the natural world and even over ourselves.  Even though Ford's medieval denizens are particularly gullible when it comes to Sorrell's powers, Ladies Whose Bright Eyes is a serviceable rebuttal to the prevailing idea of the Middle Ages as "Dark Ages" bereft of knowledge.  

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The New American Road Trip Mixtape by Brendan Leonard

Happily semi-rad. That's what the sticker said. I ran into this sticker and its creator, Brendan Leonard, at Red Rock Rendezvous - a rockclimbing festival outside of my own stomping grounds. The pricetag is absurdly expensive - $100 for two days of climbing where I climb every weekend? - but it's a chance to work with AAI guides for super cheap (a private guide would cost upwards of $350), and it's so much more than climbing. 

It's drinking free beer from Fat Tire, watching Steph Davis BASE jump into the festival grounds, drunken slacklining in the dark, having a dance party where everyone is wearing a puffy and a headlamp, watching a dyno bouldering competition, being surrounded by people who love doing what you love doing. I also won a totally sweet little pack in a raffle. I also bought an amazing tent off an older couple in the parking lot - that tent went with them all across America and Europe as they climbed the world, and in the two years since it has been with me to Indiana, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and California. 

But back to the dude with the hair and the stickers. I took one and slapped it on my car having no idea what I was advertising. Semi-rad is a blog that covers everything from The Rules for Dating A Dirtbag to A Big Shout Out To Rocks to life's most important question: Do You Have the Stoke?  (For real - in my friend's group you are judged based on your Stokemeter. Randy and I have had a conversation about Billy's stoke levels - don't worry, they're high). In the two years since, I have read every article on his blog. It is also how I found my favorite podcast, The Dirtbag Diaries, which Brendan is on regularly.

Of course I was going to buy this book, and I knew I was going to love it before I even read it, and I also would probably not recommend it to you. Not because there's anything wrong with you. It's really the book. It's disjointed, illogical, unorganized, repetitive, and if I were his editor we probably wouldn't be friends anymore. It's hard to tell who people are because they are undeveloped and pop in and out of the story out of order - even if both memories come from the same time period. Nonetheless, I am totally going to gift this book to my friends. If you're a climber, hiker, backpacker, biker, camper...if you absolutely are jealous of dirtbags who live out of their car...then you'll totally dig this book (particularly if you like your climbing with some philosophy and failed relationship therapy which is how I started my climbing career). It's part Road Trip book, part Getting Over Her, part Dirtbag. 

Brendan can be totally disarmingly charming at times
"Cellulite is fine. Sweatpants are fine. You can snore, sleep with your mouth open. You can take all those moments of your life that you are not sexy, and you can multiply them all by 100 and add them together, and they disappear when I'm lying behind you and I put one hand on your hip and kiss the back of your neck."

He can also be totally hilarious
"Mountain goats love pee. Our urine is salty, and animals love salt. At high altitudes, we pee on rocks instead of plants, because mountain goats will eat pee-salted plants until an alpine meadow is barren. So I walked away from the goats because I wanted a little privacy. It was if the sound of my zipper was a dinner bell. A narrow white face, curious, popped over a ridge 20 feet from my crotch. Then another one. Jesus Christ, talk about stage fright or performance anxiety...A few months earlier, the National Park Service had advised hikers not to urinate near trials in Olympic National Park, after a mountain goat attacked and killed a 63-year-old man on a trail there. It was the only known fatal mountain goat attack int he park's history...I zipped my pants and briskly walked away. I could wait."

He spends a lot of the book asking the question
What is a life?

Is it what he's doing? Is it what his friends who are childfree but coupled and adventuring are doing? Is it what his friends who are having babies are doing? 

Unfortunately, I do think his writing is better suited to shorter essays and stories, and I think it would be stronger if it were presented as a collection of short stories with a little bit more exposition about the characters in each bit rather than details about his inner/outer life (his toothbrush is mentioned maybe four or six times - put all the toothbrush bits together in one toothbrush section of one story and be done with it!)

This book is a book to read if you want to be inspired, reset your stoke, read ramblings about love, life, and relationships from someone in their 30s, and be reminded of all the reasons you love live an outdoors life and a few reasons why you live an indoors life. I am already planning out a few routes for this summer's camping trip which will be, I hope, semi-rad. 

Hours before meeting Brendon Leonard, we enjoy a birthday toast at Red Rock Rendezvous (we have the same birthday, and it was our birthday, which we announced to every person.)