Friday, December 11, 2015

Description of the World – Part 25

Postwar French Thought, Volume II: Literary Debate, Texts and Contexts, ed. Denis Hollier and Jeffrey Mehlman (To tell the truth, I haven’t made very good use of this impressive anthology. Nevertheless, it made one strong impression. Reading the 1945 manifesto J.P. Sartre’s wrote to inaugurate Le Temps modernes, I was surprised how credible and relevant it seemed after so many years of thinking of Sartre as very old news indeed. When I was a kid, my friends and I would never consult the paper to find out when the movie started. We just went to the theater and stayed there until we’d seen everything and somebody announced, “This is where we came in.” Reading this old piece, which came out the year of my birth, I had a sudden sense of “this is where we came in.” Of course the moment in my own life I’m speaking about wasn’t my biological birth, but the time in my early adolescence when I became aware of existentialism. My sister let me come along with her to a party of her college friends at the apartment of a guy who everybody called Crowbar. My sister’s circle wasn’t all that advanced, but there were genuine beatniks in attendance that night and one of ‘em was amused to ask a fifteen year old what he thought of Sartre’s idea of radical freedom. I think I said something grave about the reality of human nature or some such thing as if my opinion mattered. I knew I was talking through my hat and subsequently attempted to read Being and Nothingness, realized I needed to understand Kant first, and then hurled myself at the First Critique like a pigeon flying into a plate glass window. I eventually found some potted explanation of what existentialism was, though that didn’t help a great deal. When I could read a serious philosophy book, the Sartre that mattered even a little was the author of the Critique of Dialectical Reason and at that, his flirtation with Maoism was making him seem like a foolish old man trying to hang with teenagers. By the time de Gaulle decided, “You don’t arrest Voltaire,” he had become something of a mascot. Personally, I was rather less tolerant of his blind eye for communism. I assigned one of his books, I forget which, at the beginning of a course I taught on contemporary approaches to Marxism. It was rather a gesture since what the students and I really wanted to do was try to make sense of Foucault and Derrida. They had just appeared on the horizon—the Marxism in the course title was something of a cover story—and Sartre was in the dead zone between active thinker and revered or despised ancestor. Reading the old piece in this anthology made me wonder if he might be coming back into focus again. The editors apparently thought so: the last item in the book is Derrida’s reappraisal of Sartre.)
Fernand Braudel, The Identity of France: Volume One: History and Environment (Braudel was a geographer as well as a historian. The first volume of his book on France is essentially geographical. I wish more historians would begin with geography because it is the structure of the scene and diversity of environments that keeps narratives from turning into soapbox operas. Besides, people just don’t know much geography, even the geography of their own country. It’s a routine complaint that Americans can’t find this or that country on a map, but I wonder how many of ‘em have a gestalt of the way North America is laid out? The maps in conventional history books don’t help much, and it is the historian’s obligation to supply the requisite “describing, seeing, making others see”—that Braudel is so good at. It would also help if, at least once in a while, the places mentioned in the text of  history books were marked on their maps! Of course I have a bias towards geography, which why this exercise is labeled a description of the world, even if I’m trying to be the Strabo of a library rather than of a planet.)

Which brings me to the end of the first bookcase. I think I’ll leave it at that until tomorrow in the spirit of one of the first jokes I ever heard: A guy sees a sign in restaurant window that reads, “Any sandwich $2.00.” He’s a smart aleck so he goes in and orders an elephant steak sandwich. The waiter seems unruffled with the request and disappears into the kitchen. He returns a few minutes later. “I’m sorry, but it’s fifteen minutes before closing and the cook doesn’t want to start on a new elephant.”

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