A new reading project for the new year

About a month ago, my friend sent me a syllabus that he found from high school that was based on “The Great Books” (specifically The Great Books Tutorial) with texts such as Marx’s Capital, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. While looking at the syllabus, I began to think about the fact that while I have a general understanding of much of the theorists and authors and texts involved, I had never really had the opportunity to read through these books. I began to look more closely at the notion of these Great Books – books which helped shape and form the Western canon and Western thought in general – and began to think about indulging in a study of my own which focused on reading through some of the Western Canon. I have, since, come up with a reading list that I have been following. My hope is to get through a significant portion of this list throughout the new year.

One of the problems that I have been coming back to in regards to this project is the fact that the Western canon is dominated by white men. Once we travel past Augustine of Hippo (an African man) the list does not reach another person who doesn’t fit the criteria of “white male” until we reach Wollstonecraft. Going forward I hope to contemplate ways of bringing in more diverse readings. The alternative is to follow this study of Western canon with an abbreviated look at texts from other cultures and histories. In any case, this bias towards certain types authors can be understood historically, but it is something I hope to keep in mind while reading through these texts.

Below I have presented a reading list that was inspired by The Great Books Tutorial reading list that I found through my friend. I’ve gotten rid of some texts which I feel I have no interest in reading at this time (mostly the theologies of John Calvin and Martin Luther). These may be replaced with more abridged, short studies that take less time than reading through the entirety of something like Calvin’s institutes. Some texts on the list I have already read in the past. These I have marked with an apostrophe. I am unsure if I will re-read them or not over the course of this project. As I have already begun the project (at the beginning of December), texts that I have already read will be marked with (Read) behind them. Note: Some of the “texts” are not actually texts, but plays or musical numbers. I’m interested in more suggestions on classical music as it is something I am interested in, but do not know much about.

The Iliad – Homer (Read)
The Odyssey – Homer (Read)
Oedipus the King – Sophocles (Read)
Oedipus at Colonnus – Sophocles (Read)
Antigone – Sophocles (Read)
Agamemnon – Aeschylus (Read)
The Libation Bearers – Aeschylus (Read)
Eumenides – Aeschylus (Read)
The Poetics – Aristotle (Read)
Gorgias – Plato (Read)
Euthyphro – Plato (Read)
Apology – Plato (Read)
Crito – Plato (Read)
Phaedo – Plato (Read)
The Republic – Plato
Aeneid – Virgil
Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle
De Anima – Aristotle
Theatetus – Plato
Physics – Aristotle
Metaphysics – Aristotle
*The Symposium – Plato
Phaedrus – Plato
On the Nature of Things – Lucretius

On the Incarnation – Athanasius
Confessions – Augustine
City of God – Augustine
Proslogium – Anselm
Monologium – Anselm
Summa Theologiae – Aquinas
**Duns Scotus – Open to Suggestions
Divine Comedy – Dante

Canterbury Tales – Chauncer
As You Like It – Shakespeare
Henry IV – Shakespear
*The Prince – Machiavelli
Richard II – Shakespear
Don Quixote – Cervantes
St. Matthew’s Passion – Bach
Essays – Montaigne
Novum Organon – Bacon
*Discourse on Method – Descartes
*Meditations – Descartes
Pensees – Pascal
Paradise Lost – Milton
Leviathan – Hobbes
*Ethics – Spinoza
Discourse on Metaphysics, Monadology, Principles of Nature and Grace – Leibniz
A Treatise on Human Nature – Hume
Woman Holding a Balance, A Lady Writing  – Vermeer
Gulliver’s Travels – Swift
Second Treatise on Government – Locke
On the Vindication of the Rights of Women – Wollstonecraft
Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics – Kant
Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals – Kant

Wealth of Nations – Adam Smith
The Federalist – Hamilton
Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
*War and Peace – Tolstoy
Logic – Hegel
Phenomenology of Spirit – Hegel
Capital – Marx
Fear and Trembling – Kierkegaard
*Tristan and Isolde – Wagner
Beyond Good and Evil – Nietzsche
*The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoevsky
Democracy in America – de Tocqueville
The Ego and the Id – Freud

This is what I have planned thus far. After this I may look into German Phenomenology with Husserl and Heidegger (and, perhaps, Gadamer). Moving afterwards into French thought with Sartre and Beauvoir. I might also consider reading some structuralist thought such as Saussure, and I might include some Bergson as well. This will not, of course, constitute everything that I read, but I feel that it provides me with a solid foundation of a reading list going forward in the next year and beyond. Through this reading I hope to gain a deeper appreciation for Western though. In this, I hope to be able to examine the threads of culture, literature and philosophy that have provided the groundwork for the Western ideology that I have been educated in and thrown into.

If you have any suggestions for particular translations (or recording) of any of these works, I would be happy to hear them. Thus far I have been using a mixture of public domain texts and what is contained in both my personal and local public library. Thus far, this method has been effective, but I imagine that I will need to purchase some of these texts in the future. I am also open to suggestions on texts to add (or even subtract) from this list. If there is a text (or musical piece) you believe that everyone should read that fits within the lineage I have provided above, please let me know about it, so that I can make to get to it eventually.

 

Update: While I don’t think I’ll be continuing with this plan in the near future (I made it to Aristotle’s Physics), I do hope to continue with this at some point. In any case, I’ll leave it here for the perusal of any who might be interested.

Time Travel

Humanity is constantly in search of a new horizon. Capitalism has brought about a world in which newness, innovation, and transformation are considered the highest virtues. The contemporary marketplace moves at blistering speeds in search of the next horizon. This movement is reflected in our media. Through film, television, and writing, artists are able to depict phenomena which, while impossible in our contemporary settings, allow one to dream of a new horizon. Through narrative one is able to travel not only to the deepest depths of earth an space, but also to the present and the future through the magic of time travel.

One of the gifts of humanity is that we have the ability to dream. Time travel allows us to dream about things that seem an impossibility. Through our narrative media we enable each other to experience these dreams come to life through the text or the screen. Sometimes these dreams seem more understandable than others.

As I see it there are two types of time travel in fiction. There is linear time travel and nonlinear time travel. As far as I know these seem to correspond with a linear and nonlinear view of time. I don’t wish this post to become a rigorous undertaking of different philosophies of time (though I do think that this would be a fun exercise – particularly comparing each with a ancient and modern view of temporality), rather I hope to explore how time travel functions within fictional narratives.

“If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88 miles per hour… you’re gonna see some serious shit.” -Doc Brown, Back to the Future

images-duckduckgo-com

The First time of understanding of time that we reach is a linear understanding. What I mean a “linear” understanding of time is that events happen within a linear space (such that A causes B causes C) within a linear line of time.

linear-time
A perfect example of this is Back to the Future. When an event occurs in the past, its effect changes the future. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly uses a time machine, created by his friend Doc, in order to travel from the year 1985 to 1955. In going to the past, Marty’s actions have impact events as he knows him. Marty and the viewers connection to 1985 is given through a photograph that Marty has of him and his siblings. The seminal movement in the film occurs when Marty saves his father from being hit by his mother’s car. It is this moment which changes everything in the future. Marty’s father is never hit by his mother, thus she never takes him up to her room. Now Marty is the one whom his mother falls in love with. Ignoring the Oedipal implications of the entire film, Marty becomes the figure that his father was supposed to take.

If we posit that Marty’s father being hit by Marty’s mother constitutes point A in their relationship as husband and wife, every event that occurred after this event is, hence force, changed as the result of A never having taken place. When Marty pushes he father out of the way of his mother’s car, Marty changes the future. This is shown in the film through the photograph. As Marty navigates the world of his father and mother, he sees that his siblings begin to fade from the photograph. This ultimately culminates as Marty, himself, begins to fade. In order to restore the future that he had changed, Marty works throughout the film to reunite his father and mother, thus setting off a new series which culminates in the birth of him and his siblings.

The film positions everything as strictly linear. Event A causes event B causes event C. By changing event A, everything that comes afterwards is also changed. This is sometimes known as the butterfly effect – an event where one small action can change everything going forward. So Marty’s actions in the past have an unreserved impact on the future. A paradox occurs from this, however. If Marty never existed, how would he come back to change the past? If Marty changed the past so that he never existed, then it would be impossible for him to change the past.

dbz

One narrative that attempts to circumnavigate this paradox is the world of Dragon Ball. In Dragon Ball Z, the character Trunks travels from the future to warn the other characters of a series of events that will lead to much destruction on the earth. One aspect of this is that the character Goku will die of a heart virus without a cure in the present. Trunks, being from the future, is able to provide a antidote that allows Goku to survive the heart virus. In doing this, Trunks effectively changes an event in time (the death of Goku) which changes the reality of the future. Again, this appears paradoxical. If Trunks comes from the future and saves Goku, the current Trunks will no longer have any reason to come back to the past. The circumstances that lead Trunks to come to the past no longer exist.

Rather than simply allowing the paradox to fester, Dragon Ball presents the present and future as alternative timelines. When Trunks returns to his present, the reality has not changed as a result of his actions in the past. So while the actions in each of the timelines occur as A>B>C the actions in the present timeline does not seem to impact the future one.

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff.”
-the Doctor (Blink)

tardis

Doctor Who presents an example of a nonlinear timeline. Under a nonlinear view events still happen within a linear space (A causes B causes C), but these events do not take place upon a linear line. Using the language of the Doctor, time is “wibbly wobbly”. What the Doctor gets wrong in the given quote is that such a view of time still remains linear (if linear is taken to mean that A causes B causes C) because, as we see from the events of Doctor Who events still take place within the realm of cause and effect. In the diagram below I give and example of what this time might look like:

nonlinear
While the Doctor often warns against creating paradoxes, and often warns against breaking the rules of time, there are many instances in the show where the audience is given evidence of the “time-y wimey” nature of time. One example of this is in the episode entitled “The Fires of Pompeii”.  In the episode, the Doctor and Donna travel to Pompeii just before the volcano is set to explode. Throughout the episode the Doctor is convinced of the rules of time, and, despite Donna’s best efforts, refuses to stop the ruin of Pompeii from occurring. According to the Doctor, to stop this from occurring would be to break the rules of time. Near the culmination of the episode, the Doctor discovers that an alien race is using the volcano to conquer the human race. In order to stop the destruction of humanity, the Doctor must destroy the converter which is holding the volcano at bay, thus causing the destruction of Pompeii. In order to save humanity, the Doctor must sacrifice the city of Pompeii.

In this action, we realize that time is cyclical. The actions of the Doctor were always already taking place. The destruction of Pompeii is a point within the overarching tim-y-wimey, wibbly wobbly reality of time in this universe. If we look at the Fire in Pompeii as point A that caused B (the Doctor knowing about the destruction of Pompeii) it would seem that B would follow from A. Given the strange “wibbly wobbly” nature that is presented in this nonlinear or cyclical view of time, B is able to actually proceed A creating time as more of a flux, rather than a straight path.

Time and time travel are really interesting conundrums. The ways that we’ve theorized time travel in our fictional narratives makes use of our creative energies in ways that provide new pathways through fiction. Our ability to dream is awakened in these energies and pathways.

On Beauty and Sociopaths

bathing-river

As an exercise I’ve decided to think through the connections of two texts I’ve recently read: Adam Kotsko’s Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.

Kotsko’s book goes through a number of different types of ‘sociopaths’ – the schemer, the climber, and the enforcer – each with their own role in different areas of the television landscape. The sociopath, in television fiction (even pervading the world of ‘reality tv’) undermines social norms or mores through their lack of social consciousness. Kotsko argues that “our social orders are long-term strategies for dealing with each other, tools that are useful in a given time and place with no guarantee that they will last,”* and that the sociopath goes without following these social order for their own (or their families) advantage. The schemer – shown through characters like Homer Simpson of the Simpsons and Eric Cartman of South Park – attempt to go around social norms in order to attain some short sighted goal; the climber – for example Don Draper of Mad Men – attempt to use the system as a means to climb within the system; while the enforcer – Jack Bauer of 24 – circumnavigate the system in order to save their “family” (in Jack’s case the United States as a stand in for family). In any case, these men (and, as Kotsko points out, they are all men) don’t function within the normal social mores in order to accomplish their goal.

As Kotsko suggests in his introduction, people living with sociopathy in real life are nothing like these characters. What is given in the sociopath of television is an idealized sociopath. It is interesting that in each of the cases Kotsko presents, the idealized sociopath abuses their lack of social consciousness in order to obtain some aim. It is their very lack of social consciousness which allows them to succeed. Kotsko suggests that sociopathy can be seen in opposition to awkwardness. That “the sociopath, then, whose lack of social connection makes him or her a master manipulator of social norms” (p. 14). I agree with the first part of the sentence – that the sociopath lacks social connection – but not the second – that this allows them to manipulate social norms.

This brings me to the character of Howard Belsey (On Beauty), a 57 year old art history professor at a university called Wellington in Massachusetts. Howard would seem to be the embodiment of one who lacks social connection, but without the ability to manipulate social norms. Howard is a character who one comes to both hate and sympathize with throughout the novel. By cheating on, and subsequently lying to his wife, Howard is a character deserving of contempt. Yet, one is repeatedly shown that Howard is a character who lacks the world outside himself. He lacks the ability to communicate with his family and friends in a way outside of his academic jargon. As one character tells Howard near the end of the book “…you just need to deal with the fact that you’re not the only person in this world” (p. 390). This lack of understanding is a motif repeated throughout the book, and one begins to sympathize with Howard’s inability to truly communicate with anyone through his lack of social connection.

It is precisely this lack of social connection which leads Howard to failure. He is unable to truly apologize to his wife without some sort of theoretical backing – which always seems to lead to more animosity. Furthermore, his self-centredness lead him to cheat on his wife a second time which results in his wife leaving him near the end of the book. Yet despite all that he has done, Howard insists to his children that this is no more than a temporary separation (p. 434) Despite the pain that he has cost his wife, Howard is unable to truly sympathize with her or her situation which ultimately lead to his failure in his marriage.

We see further evidence of this lack of social connection impeding on Howard in his academic career. At 57 and with 10 years on the job, Howard is stuck in a position of limbo within his university. Despite his age and time as a professor, Howard has failed to attain tenure (p. 438). This failure to attain tenure can, at least to some degree, be based on the way Howard is alienated from many of his colleagues through the lack of social connection and social norms. Even his friends, such as Claire Malcolm, acknowledge the lack of the social in Howard: “It was her old joke that Howard was only human in a theoretical sense.” (p. 225).

But is Howard a sociopath? He does live in what seems to be a perpetual state of awkwardness which Kotsko suggests in in contrast with the sociopath. Howard’s scornful reaction to the Glee club (p. 348), as well as the awkwardness he displays with Victoria(318, 390), suggest a man who is self-centred, yet not unaware of how his actions will impact others before he acts. It is as if Howard wishes to be a part of the normal social discourse, but is incapable of doing so. To make things worse, his self-centredness exacerbates his problems.

The book juxtaposes this strange, awkward sociopath with the more traditional sociopathic model of Monty Kipps, Howard’s academic rival. Kipps is a climber who uses the system to his own advantage, undermining Howard’s liberal movements and arguments with his own conservative agenda. Throughout the book Kipps is shown to have success, while Howard fails. Yet, it is revealed throughout that Kipps, for all his pandering to Christian ethics of family, is just as self-motivated as Howard (if not more so). It is suggested throughout the book that Kipps cares little for his wife, and near the end of the book it is revealed that Kipps, like Howard, is cheating on his wife with a student (p. 418). Yet, despite his sociopath tendencies, Kipps is able to go abuse the social norms in order to get ahead while Howard is left behind. Kipps, in the same way as a character like Don Draper, is able to game the system in order to get ahead within it.

It’s interesting to think about a character like Howard in light of Kotsko’s analysis. Where does Howard fit in? Is he awkward, is he a sociopath, is he somewhere in between? In contrast to Monty Kipps, Howard Belsey does not fit the model of schemer, climber, or enforcer. Yet, he retains the lack of social consciousness which is a component of the sociopathic mold. In some sense, this leaves him as a character in limbo – like the sociopath in his inability to follow and conform to social norms, but also awkward in that inability. It may be the case the Howard functions more like an actual person struggling with being a sociopath, rather than the idealized version, while Howard remains in the role of idealized sociopath.

Quotes from the following sources:

Kotsko, Adam. Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television. Reprint edition. John Hunt Publishing, 2012.

Smith, Zadie. On Beauty: A Novel. First Printing edition. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

The Painting:

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Hendrickje Bathing. Painting, 1654. National Gallery, London.