Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Lawrence Durrell

It was fifteen years ago or so that I discovered the "Alexandria Quartet," Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, by Lawrence Durrell. I remember luxuriating in my recliner (no pretensions to classiness please!), having some wine and that layered cheese, you know, cheddar with creamy stuff alternating, and listening to Gorecki, it was, and reading these dreamy, worldly, intricate novels, soaking in the atmosphere Durrell creates. Everything here is ambiguous and wonderful, and the love of a lifetime is identical to a city and a moment. The novels are famous as an evocation of Alexandria, but the reader is out on the water, riding across the desert, off to Greece. And in Greece a whole lot more of Mr. Durrell, a former British diplomat, awaits the reader fortunate enough to discover him today. His "Sketches from Diplomatic Life," Esprit de Corps, Stiff Upper Lip, and Suave Qui Peut are a masterpiece of English humor, and I would hope to find people high up in the State Department familiar with them, there must be someone, and that's who I would want to talk to. But my personal favorite, a little book (and none of these are over long), is Reflections on a Marine Venus, a more earnest treatment of diplomatic life in provincial Greece after the war, also very funny to be sure, but packed with insights, historical, political, archeological, classical: one simply couldn't find a better host to visit this forgotten world. There is more, notably the novels Tunc and Nunquam (also published together as The Revolt of Aphrodite) and The Dark Labyrinth. It's striking when someone's life experience and someone's skill as a writer are both so considerable and so well-suited to each other. Compare the optimism of Durrell to the cynicism so common to "travel" writers such as Theroux. Which is more inherently insightful, and makes for better company?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Earl Lovelace's Trinidad

The Dragon Can't Dance, Earl Lovelace, Persea Books 1979. Most writers of fiction have good intentions (not that that's a requirement for good literature!), but good writers are rare, and good writers whose experience of the world equips them to shed some light for the rest of us are rarer still. Earl Lovelace manages to transport us to an urban neighborhood of Port of Spain, Trinidad, where the impoverished residents live tot-to-toe with each other, and with their own thwarted dreams. The persistence of the human struggle to achieve something against the powerlessness of poverty is the theme here, woven into stories of young love and bad decisions, jealous neighbors and provocative new bicycles, and strategies for walking past the tough guys on the corner. Carnival, music and costumes are the vehicles for people stubbornly championing their sense of self-worth. You might not want to walk up Calvary Hill and explore around yourself, and Lovelace does us all a service with this devotional writing, preserving a sense of a hard-to-see world.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Stewart on Spinoza and Leibniz

Matthew Stewart, The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World (Norton, 2006). This is a very well-researched intellectual history of two of the so-called Rationalist philosophers of the 17th century, and its success with the public ought to tell publishers a lot about the public appetite for this kind of material. It takes a real talent to popularize this highly abstract subject. This is not a hard-core philosophy book, like reading Stuart Hampshire on Spinoza or Bertrand Russell on Leibniz, but enthusiasts will still enjoy Mr. Stewart's argument that Spinoza was the catalytic philosophical influence on Leibniz, and the thorough review of what is known about these two colorfully contrasting characters. Stewart's repudiation of the old "Rationalist/Empiricist" picture of Early Modern philosophy is right on. He offers a very consistent interpretation of Spinoza that sees him as a full-blown modern physicalist; Chapter 10 merits a careful once or twice through, and is mostly persuasive, as on the impossibility of a personal God or personal immortality on Spinoza's view. My main disagreement with Stewart on Spinoza is that he tends to collapse the mental aspect of things into the physical aspect of things too much. A mental description of a thing is, according to this interpretation, a particular species of physical description. It seems to me that Spinoza is insisting that everything can be understood as having both mental descriptions and physical descriptions, in the context of his metaphysically monist claim that everything is God. I think it is reductive to interpret Spinoza as a physicalist. Another problem is that Stewart doesn't appreciate the importance of modal logic for metaphysics, then and now. Spinoza thought that everything that existed existed necessarily, necessity following from the perfection of God. The idea was that contingency and possibility were illusions of human finitude. The ancients had the same problem from Parmenides to Aristotle, and it wasn't until Frege developed a way to formalize modal operators in the 19th century that logic could truly be said to represent the real world of accidents, contingencies and probabilities. But Leibniz anticipated all of this: he saw that God could still be seen as making a willful (and thus moral) decision in the creation of the world if God chose among possible worlds. Stewart conveys this well, making it the more surprising that he doesn't see where Leibniz went beyond Spinoza on the problem of determinism. Quantifying over the objects in sets of possible worlds is the way that modern computers represent/handle modal operations. The metaphysical implications of possible-worlds modeling is one of the core arguments in the recent revival of metaphysics, for example in debates between David Lewis and Alvin Plantinga. The young Bertrand Russell uncovered the forgotten Leibniz sources and made his own name with the publication of his book The Philosophy of Leibniz in 1900, one of the great interpretive coups of modern philosophy. Stewart waves the whole discussion off thusly: "Russell and others who sought to place the study of logic at the foundation of philosophy claimed to see in Liebniz's metaphysics an astonishingly prescient and coherent application of fundamental principles of logic." This implies that Stewart is a partisan who doesn't like the idea of "the study of logic at the foundation of philosophy," and is antagonized by Russell. Stewart never even bothers to explain possible worlds modeling: the fine index has 24 citations of "modernity," not one of "modality." But I doubt that I'm the only reader who picked up a popular discussion of Spinoza and Leibniz precisely because these metaphysical ideas are currently in the air.