Should Science Think?

From the December 2014 Print Edition

The question is not quite as facetious as it might sound; it is really rather metaphysical; and it is a question that will ever more inevitably pose itself the more the sciences find themselves constrained rather than liberated by the mechanistic paradigm to which they have been committed for four centuries now. I should note, however, that it is also a question that makes sense only if one is using the word “think” with the perversely distinctive connotation given it by Martin Heidegger when he advanced the somewhat Orphic claim that “die Wissenschaft denkt nicht,” (science does not think). For there is, he insisted, an enormous and inviolable distinction to be drawn between the calculative and quantitative concerns of the scientist on the one hand and, on the other, the properly philosophical or contemplative act of reflection that is the exclusive province of the genuine thinker. Continue Reading »

Roland in Moonlight

From the June/July 2014 Print Edition

In my dream, I had just entered the sitting room of my house. It was still several hours before dawn, but music was quietly playing: I heard the last lines and fading chords of Schubert’s “Der Leiermann,” in the recent recording by Jonas Kaufmann, before silence fell. I was confused at first, but I soon spied my dog, Roland, sitting on the carpet in front of the large bay-window seat, staring out into the night. A soft, pure lunar light, shredded by the pine branches outside the glass into long glistening ribbons of pale silvery blue, poured gently into the room and over his mottled fur of white, brindled brown, and cobalt gray, and for a few moments it almost seemed as if he were himself little more than a pattern of shadows and moonlight. The illusion vanished, however, when he turned his head and held me for an instant in the cool gleam of his eyes, before returning his gaze to the window. “I’m sorry,” he said in that warmly resonant voice of his (so hauntingly similar to Laurence Harvey’s). “Did the singing rouse you? I thought I had the volume down low enough to disturb no one.” Continue Reading »

Gods and Gopniks

From the May 2014 Print Edition

Journalism is the art of translating abysmal ignorance into execrable prose. At least, that is its purest and most minimal essence. There are, of course, practitioners of the trade who possess talents of a higher order—the rare ability, say, to produce complex sentences and coherent paragraphs—and they tend to occupy the more elevated caste of “intellectual journalists.” These, however, are rather like “whores with hearts of gold”: more misty figments of tender fantasy than concrete objects of empirical experience. Most journalism of ideas is little more than a form of empty garrulousness, incessant gossip about half-heard rumors and half-formed opinions, an intense specialization in diffuse generalizations. It is something we all do at social gatherings—creating ephemeral connections with strangers by chattering vacuously about things of which we know nothing—miraculously transformed into a vocation. Continue Reading »

The Nietzsche of Recanati

From the May 2014 Print Edition

Zibaldoneby giacomo leoparditranslated by kathleen baldwin, richard dixon, david gibbons, ann goldstein, gerard slowey, martin thom, and pamela williamsedited by michael caesar and franco d’intinofarrar, straus and giroux, 2,592 pages, $75In the history of Italian literature, arguably only . . . . Continue Reading »

The Love of Wisdom

From the April 2014 Print Edition

I went in at the sign of The Temulent Termagant (a frowsy slattern asplay in a shallow ditch along the wayside, with toes pointing upward, cheeks feverishly flushed, hair and bonnet and skirts wildly disordered, and a fist angrily raised at a rachitic child hobbling by on crutches). A public house I had known well in youth, it was a building beneath whose peeling lintel I had not passed for two decades. It took me only moments to find the Philosopher; I spied him through clouds of tobacco smoke and melancholy, seated alone at a table in a corner, both his glass and the bottle of whiskey beside it about half empty. I had not seen him recently and, as he lifted his head at my approach, I was astonished at his appearance: hair uncropped and disheveled, complexion waxen, the rheum about his pale blue eyes making it seem they peered at me through minute pellicles of hoarfrost. He said nothing when I reached the table, but invited me to sit by extending a hand with nicotine stains like indelible varnish. Continue Reading »

Nabokov’s Supernatural Secret

From the March 2014 Print Edition

In 2009, the remains of Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished last novel, The Original of Laura, were published, more than three decades after the dying author had asked his son Dmitri to destroy them. In 2012, Nabokov’s first large literary work, a play entitled The Tragedy of Mister Morn, appeared in English translation, nearly nine decades after the author had set the Russian text aside. Both releases were occasions of some excitement even though, to be honest, neither work was an especially astonishing performance. The novel, even in its fragmentary form, amply confirms that the late decline in Nabokov’s literary powers—flickeringly evident in Ada (1969), blazingly obvious in Transparent Things (1972) and Look at the Harlequins! (1974)—was both inexorable and steep. The play, on the other hand, is full of glints and glimmers of the literary triumphs to come, and it contains certain motifs—an exiled king incognito, for instance—that would flower magnificently in more mature works; but in itself it is inconsequential. Nabokov is something of an addictive substance to the susceptible, however, and his admirers tend to be grateful for even the meagerest scraps of “new” material (even his lepidopterological papers have enthusiasts who, I think it fair to guess, have little real interest in entomology).What is really significant about these two most recent releases, it seems to me, is that taken together they afford us privileged glimpses of, respectively, the somber dusk and rosy dawn of a literary career that during its long golden day was among the most mysteriously captivating of the twentieth century. First as a Russian émigré in Western Europe writing in his native tongue and then as an American writing in English, Nabokov produced a number of books that, simply as feats of narrative enchantment, came perilously close to perfection. His greatest works—a category that unquestionably comprises The Defense (1930), The Gift (1938), Speak, Memory (1951), Lolita (1955), and Pale Fire (1962), and that arguably also includes Despair (1934), Invitation to a Beheading (1936), The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), and Pnin (1957)—bear witness to their author’s almost uncanny ability to make his own delight in the act of creation immediately felt by his reader. But precisely how he achieved his effects is not always entirely clear.In part, this is because, as an artist, Nabokov was about as sui generis as they come. He may not have been quite the parthenogenetic marvel he seemed to imagine he was (to hear him, he had never been influenced by anyone at all as a writer, but had sprung fully formed from Zeus’ brow with a pen in one hand and a butterfly net in the other), but it is certainly true that his sensibility and his craft were so distinctively his own that he cannot be classed in any school or tradition. Continue Reading »

Roland on Consciousness

From the March 2014 Print Edition

Afew months ago, the morning before my eldest brother was to return home to Norway after a long visit, I dreamed that I had just awakened in the early light of dawn to find my dog Roland sitting at the end of my bed, a bar of softly glaucous shadow—cast by the central casement frame of my double window—draped over his shoulders like a prophet’s mantle. Roland is of middling size, with a shorthaired coat of mottled white, brown, and black, and a handsome face with a coal-black nose and deep brown eyes. I recognized at once the profound melancholy in both his posture and his expression. “What’s wrong?” I said, after a moment of uneasy silence.He slowly shook his head, and then—in a voice plangent with sadness—replied, “I have to leave you. I have to go to Norway with your brother.” Continue Reading »

A Phantom’s Visit (C.B.)

From the February 2014 Print Edition

I could tell at once that he was a ghost. There was a certain translucency about him: The sallow light of the lamp on my library desk shone out not only behind him but through him, acquiring an emerald tint from the specter of his velvet smoking jacket as it did so. I also, nearly as quickly, recognized whose ghost he was. I knew that fierce gaunt face from the few nineteenth-century photographs that we have of him. It was the latter realization, rather than the former, that caused a gasp of wonder to escape my lips. To meet a ghost has never seemed to me a particularly astonishing eventuality; but to meet one of such eminence, and in my own home …“You must excuse me,” he said after a moment, in a voice that somehow was both perfectly audible and yet, at the same time, seemed to emanate from a very great distance; “It was not my intention to cause you alarm.” He had only the slightest trace of a Parisian accent, I noticed.I assured him that, to the contrary, he had done me a great honor by dropping by. Continue Reading »

From a Lost World

From the January 2014 Print Edition

This year, of course, we mark the centenary of the beginning of the end. It was in July of 1914 that European civilization entered its final death throes, the last convulsions of which would not subside for more than thirty years. After that, not even the illusions remained. The great Western project of secular modernity that had begun with the wars of the emergent nation-state back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (conflicts that history, with her superb talent for hidden ironies, calls the “wars of religion”) had reached its logically ineluctable conclusion, carrying away the feeble remnants of Christendom on tides of human blood. Since then, the great moral mission of Western European society has been to arrange the debris in as attractive a style as possible, and to try to translate irreversible decline and disenchantment into some kind of humane ethos.Even though, however, we cannot help but commemorate the start of the Great War this year, it is not an event we can really remember—and not only because practically no one is now alive who has any personal recollection of it. We owe some sort of reverent reflection to those who perished over the following four years (at least, I like to think we do), but the sheer scale of the cataclysm simply defies the scope of any rational imagination. There are those still among us, true, who have vivid memories of the utter brutality of the Second World War. My father, who passed away just this last year, lived through some of the most savage fighting in the European theater, during the push across France into Germany—in the Vosges Mountains, at Bitche, street to street in Heilbronn, and so on—and he experienced horrors that he never related to me or my brothers when we were growing up, but that left an indelible impress upon his mind. Yet even he, he told me more than once, found it impossible imaginatively to encompass the sheer barbarity and madness of the Great War. Continue Reading »