The other day, before lunch, before heading off to the storage unit for a bit of pre-shuffle straightening out, I had a long telephone conversation with a friend that touched on this and that but eventually circled around my objection to being said to have a philosophy. A philosophy of any kind. Also: I reject the idea that I belong to any community — not because I’m sort of loner (although I am a bit of a rogue), but because I don’t believe that communities exist. That’s not my philosophy; it’s just my opinion. I have loads and loads of opinions; in fact you might say that I have an opinion about absolutely everything; for, if I haven’t got an opinion about something, that’s because, in my not-very-humble opinion, the something isn’t worth thinking about.  

¶  Matins: At Chron Higher Ed, W A Pannapacker writes warmly about the “middlebrow” nature of The Great Books (1952). When a fellow grad student made a crack about his shelf of leatherette volumes, he put them away.

Eventually all of those beloved volumes were boxed, hidden in a closet, and replaced by hundreds of university-press monographs on literary and cultural criticism—mostly secondhand—along with ever larger piles of mostly unreadable scholarly journals. Of course, such acquisitions only affirmed my middlebrow-status anxiety, since so many of them were motivated by what I thought other people thought, rather than by my own interests.

Reading that, we thought: that’s what middlebrow is — attending to interests other than your own.

Opinions, yes; but no philosophy. “Philosophy” is not just an aggregation of opinions. It’s an earnest attempt to understand the world in systematic terms. Logical deductions from general principles are taken seriously by philosophers because the principles are thought to have an existence outside of the mind of anyone who holds them. This I stoutly reject. As a materialist, I believe in nothing that can’t be dragged into a laboratory for measurement. And that includes love, by the way. The fact that I cannot prove, in any normal, scientific manner, that I love my wife means, for me, that “love” does not exist on the same plane as “gravity.”

¶ Lauds: The Aesthete interviews Scott McBee, a storyboard artist who moonlights as the painter of nine-foot-long elevations of the great old ocean liners. (He hates cruise ships!) Before you reach for your wallet: his prices range from two to three times nine thousand dollars.

Toward the end of the conversation that I was talking about, my friend asked why I hadn’t just said that I was a materialist in the first place. I replied that I had asserted this so many times in the past, and so completely assumed that my friend was aware of my materialism, that I thought it heavy-handed to allude to the fact. (Also, I was in no hurry to end such a lively conversation.) 

¶ Prime: Felix Salmon agrees with Calvin Trillin: it’s the smarty-pantses what did Wall Street in. Banking is best done by the bottom third of the class.

One might argue that “philosophy” and “community” are mere abstractions, convenient carryalls for multiple instances of more of less the same thing (opinions, neighbors), but I reject that. What is interesting about my neighbors is not what we have in common, but what we don’t; and my bundle of opinions is free to evade all if-then constructions. I am not especially wilful or capricious. I don’t set out to be unpredictable. If a measure of consistency helps friends and acquaintances (and neighbors) know in advance what to expect of me, I won’t feel (as many men do) found out and exposed. But my mind is not a puzzle to be solved.

¶ Tierce: Have you got all day? Owing to household uproars, we missed this when it was fresh, but the correspondence between Tom Scocca (of The Awl) and Keith Gessen (of n+1), about an article in the latter’s publication, is as close to boxing as we ever get in the world of letters. In our view, the argument is never truly joined; Mr Gessen defends one of his writers, while Mr Scocca defends his ideas. To the extent that the exchange amounts to a discussion of the history of marriage, we’re inclined to agree with Mr Scocca — not least because we quail at the thought of being on his bad side, ever — but we admire Mr Gessen for not picking up the popcorn.

“Know then thyself” — I take Pope’s advice very much to heart. You really ought to know what you think. You ought to get to the bottom of you, as best you can. You ought to change what you don’t like about yourself, but only for that reason, and not because you’ve got notions that don’t “belong in the sentence.”

(Racking my brain for an example of intellectual inconsistency has led nowhere, probably because my intelligence has been set up to sidestep discomfort, not because I have no inconsistent ideas. I know that I have them, but I can’t think of any at the moment — a besetting sin. From the high horse of generality, I find it difficult if not impossible to pluck the agreeable flowers that grow by the roadside.)

(My friends, on the other hand, may not be as blocked on the subject of me as I seem to be.)

¶ Sext: It’s easy to spot the non-readers at craigslist, what with their Plato Toys and their Candle Operas.

In the wake of the conversation, my myriad opinions took on the metaphoric charm of expensive cigars, and I became a positive Churchill, exuberantly smoking them no matter who minded. I was very happy with this picture — not least because thinking of yourself as Winston Churchill after a certain age (sixty) is quite uplifting. By sixty, one hopes, you have given up on giving up on being young, and the idea of flourishing in your eighties or nineties becomes the sexiest idea imaginable. It sounds creepy, I know; but just wait.

¶ Nones: China’s billionaires. We have to lie down now. While we recover, discuss: are Chinese billionaires more or less likely to wind up in prison than their American counterparts?

My friend Eric Patton just wrote a lovely piece about altruism in the age of Spencer. Eric didn’t mention Herbert Spencer, or Spencer’s coinage, “the survival of the fittest,” but the resonance was there. Perhaps it was overly enthusiastic of me to do so, but I read the passage that Eric quoted, about altruistic Neanderthals, as expressing an important human ideal that was severely dented by the license to be selfish that Darwinism (especially in Spencerian hands) seemed to authorize in the Nineteenth Century and that still operates as a widespread intellectual default. (Chris Hedges’s chapter, in Empire of Illusion, on reality TV shows how set in vulgar concrete Spencer’s idea has become).

¶ Vespers: Thinking of reading something by Nobel Prize-winner Herta Müller? Only 5 of her 20 books have been translated from the German into English. This may be regrettable, but it’s not surprising. While non-Anglophones read more widely in translation, I shouldn’t be surprised to find that Anglophones prefer to read books in the original language whenever they are able. There’s something about English that mangles other ways of thinking. (via Arts Journal)

But what I wanted to mention about Eric’s entry was something else, slightly. “Many of us in the so called coastal elites are barely in contact with persons outside of a narrow band around our age, apart from our relatives (who we don’t usually live with) so we don’t even have to witness natural aging and death until it’s our turn.”

¶ Compline: Many of today’s problems are the result of an inversion: something that used to be scarce is now plentiful, but we’re still primed to seek more of it. Food is an obvious member of this class.  Jonah Lehrer considers another: information.

I wanted to mention this because, in my opinion, I’m an older person worth knowing. Yes! I am plugging myself. When I was Eric’s age, I knew a few crustaceans, and they were not remotely interesting as I am, especially since they smoked nothing like the expansive range of cigars (opinions) that I stock.  And if I do have a “philosophy,” it’s a passionate commitment to stealing not candy but attention from babies.

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