Just about every adult human being back then had a brain weighing about three kilograms! There was no end to the evil schemes that a thought machine that oversized couldn’t imagine and execute. … This was a very innocent planet, except for those great big brains.
There is a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific that Polynesian settlers on their canoes never reached. In 1854, Herman Melville saw “The Encantadas” through a dark lens, darkly:
Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot, imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea, and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of theEncantadas, or Enchanted Isles. A group rather of extinct volcanoes than of isles, looking much as the world at large might after a penal conflagration.It is to be doubted whether any spot on earth can, in desolateness, furnish a parallel to this group.
Darwin, though, saw the Galapagos islands quite differently when he arrived in September of 1835 He may not have wasted much time praising the landscape in the ways he praised the mind-bending sublimity of Patagonian steppes. But in The Voyage of the Beagle includes this teaser about those soon-to-be-famous Galapagos finches:
Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.
I recognize that hearkening back to Albert Camus in our own post-existentialist moment is controversial. Heck, calling him controversial may even itself be controversial. He’s long struck many as a soft-left deviant in the Sartre circle, nether rigorous nor theoretical enough to pass muster in the long run.
I do love a motorcycle-riding Gauloise puffer, but I’m no dyed-in-the-wool acolyte. Still, I always admired Camus’ evident belief (reminiscent of Kierkegaard) that the best thing writing can do is hint at the complex, ambivalent, ultimately irreproducible ways the actuality of events shapes how individuals experience the world.
His fiction gets at what it means for people to adjust themselves, slowly to adjust themselves, to a new reality. Like, say, a plague that forces everyone slowly to acknowledge they are not going anywhere. Under those circumstances, Camus, hypothesizes, the imprisoned population becomes a collection of invalids: unable to act, unable to escape and barely able to do the only thing they can, which is to bear their present misery until it subsides.
What books gives you comfort and joy in these times, and why? If what we do at the darkest moments is a glimpse of our inner nature, what we read then tells us just as much.
My own thoughts nowadays turn–surprise, surprise–to Hannah Arendt. She has this to say in her unforgettable 1968 book, Men in Dark Times:
“That even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth–this conviction is the inarticulate background against which these profiles were drawn. Eyes so used to darkness as ours will hardly be able to tell whether their light was the light of a candle or that of a blazing sun. But such objective evaluation seems to me a matter of secondary importance which can be safely left to posterity.”
In Episode 1 of Recall this Book, sculptor and Brandeis professor Tory Fair, John and I discussed minimalism. We were just starting out, and I felt a little out of my depth, not only with podcasting but also with the topic. Both Tory and John know a lot about work in their fields that describes itself as (or more often, is described as) minimalist, and they work in fields where the idea of minimalism has a clear definable life, even if artists, critics and others can’t necessarily easily define what it actually is.
I broke ranks and kind of broke the rules by describing the migration of the term minimalism into the realm of “lifestyle.” Broke the rules, I mean, because at first glance it seems that Donald Judd and Samuel Beckett have little more than a name in common with Real Simple or Simplify magazine or the blog Minimalist Baker. It feels a bit like comparing the discipline of anthropology and that store with the clothes made from cool fabrics that don’t seem to fit anyone quite right. I could feel John’s non-nominalist hackles (and mine too, if I’m being honest) ready to rise. Continue reading “Minimalism’s Untidy Travels”
Eagle-eyed fans of Recall This Book will have noticed an implicit pattern: episodes dropped each Wednesday (err, now Thursday), with upcoming episodes announced with the closing credits.
However, that is a pattern that will hold true only during the academic semester, when the whole team is around to get to work. This upcoming week, for example, Brandeis shares in the Boston February break week. So we will defer episode 6, with Martin Puchner, until our return. It will come out on Thursday February 28th. Continue reading “Upcoming Episodes…and More”
Recall This Book is a monthly podcast exploring important books on a pressing topic. Each episode focuses on a contemporary problem or event and zeroes in on a book or books that shed light on it. We look backwards to see into the future: we can understand things about the future by choosing texts that shed a sideways light on our present situation, and attempt to shake up the terms of present debate by showing how a topic was approached in earlier times when a different version of this question had come up before. We aim to have lively barstool discussions–a warm but involved and potentially argumentative hashing out of the best way to think through difficult present-day issues. Sometimes we bring on writers to talk about their own books, sometimes we discuss these works with other academics in the field. Most episodes are hosted by Prof. Elizabeth Ferry, of Brandeis University’s Anthropology Department, and John Plotz, of Brandeis’s English Department.
Our first episode will be released on January 15, with the remainder of our episodes making up our first season released in the following weeks–check back here to listen along, or follow us on twitter at @recallthisbook.