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Sunday 16 October 2016

NEETs in Enlightenment France

Next up on the French side of things is Denis Diderot's Le Neveau de Rameau or Rameau's Nephew. This edition is available in paperback, hardcover, and on-line. The hardcover edition well-bound and printed on heavy paper. I can not really speak for the paperback edition. The on-line edition includes much of the music mentioned within Le Neveau. The printed text notes when these musical selections are available. The edition contains an astounding amount number of endnotes, completely with images of many of people and places mentioned. Between the dialogue itself and the endnotes, this edition serves as a kind of Who's Who of the French Enlightenment. A ton of work and love clearly went in to this edition. Unfortunately, the translation and original French are printed in separate sections, forcing the reader to flip back and forth to do any comparison. The same is true of the endnotes. I really fish publishers would stick to footnotes and side-by-side translations. This edition could be perfect with those simple layout changes. That said, it is the only dual-language edition in existence as far as I know and beggars can not be choosers.

This is an 18th-century fictitious dialogue between an unnamed narrator MOI, or me, and LUI, or him. LUI does most of the talking. He is a cynical man who is down on his luck despite coming from the well-to-do family of the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. MOI's attempts to defuse his bitter cynicism is feeble. The topics they discuss are numerous so I will have to keep my focus narrow.

One of the topics raised is the notion that those whom history deems "great" men are often failures in other parts of their lives. In other words, the idea is that great men are not good men. For example, it is argued that though Jean-Philippe Rameau was a great composer, he was a dick to his family. Several other examples are given. The explanation for this supposed pattern is that a talented genius must sacrifice other parts of his or her life in pursuit of his or her craft. But I think the reasoning here is flawed. Few people are well-rounded and equally good at all aspects of life. Why should this be any different for the gifted? Being a good composer is a very different skill set than being a good uncle or father (though we only have the scoundrel LUI's word on Rameau's value as a family man). Being great at certain crafts, like musical composition, suggests a high degree of general intelligence but it does not guarantee it. And high general intelligence does not necessarily high morals. I personally believe that very high intelligence helps in developing good morals but I have seen slightly-above-average intelligence allow many people to justify their mercenary pragmatism. But, on the whole, I think we are dealing with a difference of degree, not of kind, and not a particularly large difference at that. In other words, great men and average men conduct themselves much the same in many areas of their lives. I think this notion of the bad great man is an illusion of the availability heuristic. LUI knows one bad great man and can name a few others. But elsewhere he praises many other great men. It is easier to keep a mental catalog of the exceptional assholes than the everyday man. And LUI repeats the same mistake with other groups of people. He knows many bad clergymen, therefore all clergy are bad. He knows many bad fellow Parisians, therefore all of Paris is rotten to the core. None of these things implies bad character. LUI's imagination and memory are simply insufficient to properly judge these things.

After LUI is done condemning the geniuses, he later laments that society is too dumb to recognize true genius, himself being one of the true genius. Yet he is very long on the things he could do, if only society would recognize and support him, and short on the things he has done. Likewise, virtually every other unrecognized genius cited, like Voltaire, is famous to this very day. In short, LUI is just a bitter underachiever at best.

Next up on the list will be Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travel. It is not in French but it is the final work that I need to read in the Swift-Voltaire-Diderot volume. Plus, I am really trying to accelerate my reading of the Summa so that I am not spending the next year finishing it. Stay tuned, buckaroos.

Friday 23 September 2016

How to Become a Mamamouchi

Next up in my French reading is Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. It is in the same Dover volume as Le Tartuffe and has the same translator. Therefore, my comments on the actual edition remain the same as in my last post. I would only note that because this play is largely in prose rather than verse, it is much easier to read. As a result, the shoddy English translation is far less essential.

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is not a play in the typical sense. Instead, it is classified as a comédie-ballet, a short-lived genre of the 17th and 18th centuries. A comédie-ballet is something like a hybrid of an opera and a play. Some elements are staged like a play and others like an opera. Molière wrote the play-like portions. Jean-Baptiste Lully did the music. And the dances were choreographed by Pierre Beauchamp. In the context of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, the main narrative is in the play-like portion. The operatic elements exist within the context of the story itself. That is to say, the music and dancing are logically called for by the story and are not merely secondary mode of story telling. For example, when title character, Monsieur Jourdain, wishes to entertain some dinner guests, he has music played and dances performed for them. During that sequence, the operative style takes over. It should be obvious that simply reading the play would be different from watching a live performance to an even greater degree than normal. Fortunately, a French group called Le Poème Harmonique performed and recorded this play in 2005 complete with music, dance, and 17th century staging practices (including costumes, gestures, and makeup). You can find the DVD on Amazon. It is quite the sensory experience.

As for the play itself, I found it much better than Le Tartuffe. In fact, it is hard to believe that these plays were written by the same man. While Le Tartuffe was full of rather base humor, the jokes in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme are of a much more elevated nature. The first act in particular has some great exchanges between Monsieur Jourdain and the various tutors he has hired. The philosophy tutor in particular was great. I believe the difference in perceived quality may just be down to Molière writing for different audiences. Le Tartuffe seems written for a popular audience. Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, on the other hand, was first performed for King Louis XIV. The implicit joke of the whole play, that a mere merchant can not easily become a gentleman, would likely be a source of anxiety rather than levity for a popular audience. I will be keeping this idea in mind when I read more Molière down the road.

Next up will likely be Denis Diderot's Le Neveau de Rameau. However, I am getting close to the end of the first part of Aquinas' Summa. I still have not decided how many posts the Summa will receive.

Tuesday 6 September 2016

Le Faux Dévot

Next up in my French reading is Molière's Le Tartuffe. This is a no-frills Dover dual-language paper edition, much like my copy of Candide. However, the translation of Tartuffe is a lot less literal than Candide. In fact, some of the translation choices are simply bizarre. This is perplexing because literalness is supposedly part of the Dover dual-language edition philosophy. I do not recommend the translation as anything other than an aide for reading the French. The footnotes, though few, explained everything that I would otherwise have had to look up. For someone just starting out with the French language of today, Molière's French provides a significantly greater challenge than the language of Voltaire. I would not recommend it to another beginner like myself.

Molière himself was an early modern playwright of the mid-17th century, only a few decades after Shakespeare's time. Partly due to the temporal proximity, Molière is often referred to as the French Shakespeare. However, unlike Shakespeare, Molière only dabbled in the genre of comedy. And his comedies are quite different from Shakespeare's due to a much greater influence of the Italian commedia dell'arte on Molière's work. While Shakespeare borrowed elements from commedia once in a while, Molière strongly adheres to the style. His characters are largely the stock characters of commedia with little to distinguish themselves from other characters in other plays adhering to the same archetype. And, true to commedia, the action is largely driven by simplistic and petty emotions most at home in the most lizard-like part of the human brain. It is theatre designed for popular and common appeal. Even the metrical style of Molière relies heavily on rhyming couplets that would appeal even to a child. It seems to me that Molière's comedies have more in common with the old Greek satyr plays than Shakespeare.

The play Tartuffe itself did not appeal to me. Much of the earlier action is a family fighting. On stage, I'm sure all this bustling anger plus a little slapstick would probably elicit a chuckle or two. On paper, however, the characters just seem like jerks. The title character himself is a psychopathic conman out to swindle the head of the household by charming him with his false piety. He does not actually show up until the second half of the play. And until then, half the family thinks he is a living a saint and the other half suspects that he is a fraud. After reading Candide, I was already feeling burnt out on the perennial French trope of the holy hypocrite. Tartuffe did not help at all. In short, every single character in this play lacked depth and thus had little appeal to me.

The ending is perhaps the worst of part of the play. I am not reluctant to spoil because it is absolute garbage. Tartuffe manages to steal some papers incriminating the head of the household. He then uses these papers to get an audience with the king and permission to basically steal the family's house and put the head of the household in prison. When all this is revealed to the family, they are in utter despair. But then, out of nowhere, it is revealed the the king is such a great soul that he can immediately see through the lies of any conman and get at the truth of the matter. From these magical powers, he deduced that Tartuffe is a fraud and family is really a bunch of nice people. Thence Tartuffe is taken to prison just when he thought he won. This is such a blatant example of deus ex machina that it is literally used as one of Wikipedia's examples in the article on deus ex machina. This ending is bad and Molière should feel bad.

Next up on the list will be Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme or The Bourgeois Gentleman. Since it's more Molière and the bulk of its humor derives from outdated class expectations, I am not particularly excited. But maybe Molière will surprise me. And, if nothing else, it will further allow me to empathize with the plight of French secondary school students forced to read Molière.

Wednesday 17 August 2016

Satirizing the Problem of Evil

Skipping around a bit in the list to learn some French, I picked up a dual-language (facing translation) edition of Voltaire's Candide. This edition is a cheap paperback. There are probably better editions of the French and better translations of the English out there. However, side-by-side translations are great for learning a new language. Glancing at the other page when you do not understand something is much faster than looking up a word in a lexicon or dictionary. The translation is serviceable enough, though even with my nascent French I spotted what I would call definite mistakes in the translation. The binding is good for a paperback. The margins are wide, a useful feature when marking up difficult passages. There are footnotes throughout but they are insufficient unless the reader is familiar with obsolete Portuguese currency, Ottoman military ranks, and the Italian for, "It's a shame that I no longer have my balls." Unless you are interested in the dual-language format, I would suggest finding a different translation with better notes.

Voltaire's Candide is a satiric response to parts of the German philosopher Leibniz's Theodicy regarding the problem of evil. One of the eternal questions of philosophy and theology is, if God is good and omnipotent, why do bad things still happen to good people? There are a few ways to answer solve this problem. Leibniz's method was to argue that given man's free will, God's general plan, and the physical limitations of our created universe, we actually live in the best of all possible worlds. While bad things may happen constantly, we will discover at the end of the universe that, given the aforementioned constraints, everything turned out in the optimal way. This may not be optimal from an individual perspective, but it would be optimal in a grand, universal perspective. Until we get near the end of the universe and start tallying up all the utiles, this argument is hard to prove but still interesting to think about.

A lot has been made of Voltaire's "attack" on Leibniz. However, Voltaire was a historian, essayist, and philosopher. He was quite capable of writing a serious refutation of Leibniz. And given the comedic nature of Candide, I have a hard time believing that Voltaire saw his work as much more than playful engagement. He did reject Leibniz's premise, believing that there was simply too much suffering in the world for it to be the best possible world. He also disliked the possibility of Leibniz's idea encouraging a sort of lazy fatalism in people. If we live in the best of all possible world already, why make improvements? In defense of Leibniz on this latter point, I would argue what is the best possible world today is not necessarily the best possible world tomorrow. Since, in Leibniz's framework, free will is one of the limiting factors in the optimality of the world, we can have some influence on it. And I do not want to spoil anything, but the last few lines clearly demonstrate how Leibniz could still be right, despite Voltaire's objections. One of the gifts of intelligence is being able to entertain ideas that one may not actually believe. It is the mark of true genius to be able to do so while making a few good jokes.

To demonstrate the level of suffering in the world, Voltaire has our title character, Candide, bounce all around the world through unlikely circumstances, witnessing the evils of Voltaire's lifetime, such as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Candide, and other characters, visit France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, various parts of South America, and the fabled lost city of El Dorado. Despite all the unfortunate happenings of the book, or perhaps partly because of them, Candide manages to be one of the most genuinely funny books I have ever read. Some Great Books reading definitely helps with appreciating some of the jokes. Plato and Aristotle are particular prerequisites for getting the most out of Candide. Other jokes are perennial, such as Candide's remark that a critic is "someone who loathes the success of others, like a eunuch who hates those capable of enjoying sex." It would not have seemed exceptional before I read Candide, but I guess I am rather lucky to have the balls to be able to praise Voltaire's work.

In short, it is a quick read that both tackles serious metaphysical issues and provides some good laughs. I highly recommend to anyone with either a sense of humor or some metaphysical curiosity. Reading it should be a necessity for someone who possesses both.

Next up will likely be Moliere's Tartuffe and possibly his The Bourgeois Gentleman. My reading of Aquinas' Summa continues but, at the current pace, it will take another nine months to complete. I may review the three major parts separately, however.