Monday, 15 October 2012

Alice B. Toklas, Woody Allen, and Heaven

I’ve begun reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas for a new book club I’ve joined, and have been reminded that she appeared in Woody Allen’s recent movie about midnighting in Paris.  Or was it just Gertrude Stein that we saw, along with Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and the whole lot.

I remember thinking at the time how much Scott Fitzgerald looked like Scott Fitzgerald.  Or was it that when the Woody character meets him, it seemed obvious that was Fitzgerald.

But why?  I’m not really old enough to have met the author of The Great Gatsby; even if I was, we really didn’t move in the same circles.  Yet how real he and Zelda seemed: the best moment of the film, I thought.

Other parts were tiresome, notably when the young Hemingway started spouting lines from his own novels.  I think another character did something similar.  I mean, really.  I’ve written novels; I don’t spout lines from them.  The art that produces fiction is quite different from the art that produces conversation.  The person that I am when I write a novel (or a blog post) is quite different from the person who goes to parties (well, there is no such person) or who has conversations in real life.

But I suppose this device allowed Woody Allen to create a little frisson in moviegoers: oh, that’s a famous line, we could think.  But does Woody Allen go around spouting lines from his movies?  Or movies yet to come?  I’d bet not, but then I don’t move in his circles either and have never met him.

I mostly winced when the famous lines came, but I did have that frisson of recognition when “Scott Fitzgerald” first appeared on screen.  For a moment perhaps I was swept up in the fantasy of meeting famous people I grew up reading.  Woody Allen must have enjoyed making this film, I’m thinking; perhaps it is his vision of Heaven, a place where you could hang out with famous literati and artists.

I remember when I read Dante’s Inferno thinking that the first level of Hell would actually be quite pleasant.  That’s where Dante put Plato and Aristotle, Homer and Cicero, all the virtuous pagans.  And they’re in a pleasant green field.  What could be better?  Certainly not Dante’s Heaven, with its boring angels and hallelujahs.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Bedbugs and the creation of life

Earlier in the week I read the following headline in the paper: "Bed bugs linked to sleep loss, anxiety."  It prompted me to write the following letter to the editor:

“ 'Bed bugs linked to sleep loss, anxiety,' ” the headline said. Oh my God, I thought. Can sleep loss and anxiety somehow produce bedbugs? How can that be? Does anxiety attract bedbugs, like flames attract moths? Does it create bedbugs? Have we finally found out how to create simple forms of life?

"Then I read the article."

The article, of course, simply said that the presence of bedbugs can create anxiety, not the other way around, but we live in a psychosomatic age, we all know the power of our psyches, so why not?

(I'm joking, I think.  But who knows how life began?  Maybe God was anxious one day.  It would explain a lot.)

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Conservatism, Philosophy, Economics, and the Meaning of Life

A friend of mine in our Aristotle reading group accused me of being a conservative the other day.

“What do you mean?” I said.

And he said for him the world was divided into conservatives and progressives.

“What if you consider yourself a moderate?” I said.

“Then you’re just confused,” he said, adding that conservatives generally think things are okay the way they are while progressives think things needs changing.

“What if you think some things need changing while others are okay the way they are?” I said, and he modified his position to say of course everyone thinks that …

So there are no conservatives or radicals, I said, and he said No, it’s a question of emphasis.

I thought about that.  I guess on the whole I think life is pretty good in Canada, so perhaps that makes me a conservative, by my friend’s definition, though I don’t hold with much of what passes for conservative thinking today: I’m against capital punishment and for gun control, I don’t like American intervention in foreign countries (of course, there are some Pat Buchanan-type conservatives who don’t like that either).  I have little interest in economic issues, the deficit, whatever … which perhaps disqualifies me from being either a radical or a conservative.  Perhaps I am just confused.

Or perhaps my friend’s categories need reshaping.

There was a time when I was interested in economic issues, back in my radical days when I believed the Marxist theories about economic forces being the key to everything and thus, aiming for consistency, decided I should study some economics, particularly Marxist economics, meaning that, at the age of 17 I sat down and read volume one of Das Kapital.

(The local library in my well-to-do suburb may even have my name down still on the card for their copy of Marx’s classic, since I didn’t have the capital to spend on purchasing a copy and kept on borrowing theirs.)

Anyway, that was a boring summer.  To all you 17-year-olds out there who might be tempted to do this: don’t spend a summer reading about surplus value and the labour theory of whatever …

Why are radicals so angry, by the way?  They posit a better world (or at least that’s what the Left wanted in my day), but to get there they mainly want to yell at people.

I was never very good at yelling at people, though I dutifully attended a few demonstrations in the day, but shouting slogans, I mean, really, it was a bit too much groupthink.

So the groupthink and the economics, along with reading The God that Failed and realizing that the Marxist theory of history didn’t accord with the facts, made me abandon the follies of my youth …

I was speaking to a young lady of my acquaintance recently, who told me she was thinking of studying economics.  I instinctively grimaced, which upset her.  “Is it better to study history and just learn a bunch of dates?” she said.  Studying economics can explain human interactions, she added.

That gave me pause.  I’m interested in humans.  Maybe I should give economics a chance.

But I wonder.  I am studying philosophy this year, hoping to understand the meaning of life or at least the meaning of philosophy.  It promises to explain some very basic things, but maybe I’d rather not study basic things.  If the economy is like the furnace driving everything in society, that’s all very well, but who wants to study furnaces?

Maybe I should go back to studying history, learn a few more dates.  Though the most interesting course I’ve taken lately was in Chinese philosophy.  That Confucius, he was a cool dude.