All modern thought is falsified by a mystique of transgression, which it falls back into even when it is trying to escape. For Lacan, desire is still a by-product of the law. Even the most daring thinkers nowadays do not dare to recognize that prohibition has a protective function with regard to the conflicts inevitably provoked by desire. They would be afraid that people might see them as ‘reactionary’. In the currents of thought that have dominated us for a century, there is one tendency we must never forget: the fear of being regarded as naive or submissive, the desire to play at being the freest thinker—the most ‘radical’, etc. As long as you pander to this desire, you can make the modern intellectual say almost anything you like. This is the new way in which we are still ‘keeping up with the Jonses’.
— Rene Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.
The book itself is a hodgepodge of brilliance and incoherence / irrelevance, but the former outweighs the latter. The notion of defining the difference between “man” and “animal” seems to fascinate older philosophers in a way that I find bizarre or unimportant.
To my mind, the strongest part about American culture American culture’s meta ability to rapidly re-write itself in response to changing conditions and outside influences, including conditions related to Girard’s conception of desire.
“There has been something in my literature, from the first, that goes hand in glove with shame. To be honest, when I published my first books, I expected to bring a certain shame on myself (even though, as I said before, I’ve always hated putting myself forward). What actually happened, and it was a wonderful surprise, was that readers came up to me and said, ‘Not at all, what you describe are human things, some true of human beings in general, others specific to human beings in modern Western societies . . . In fact, we are grateful for you for having the courage to expose them, for having shouldered that part of shame . . .”
—Michel Houellebecq, Public Enemies.
It’s never fully possible to anticipate reader response, which Eco wrote about too.
Shame’s meaning and role does seem to shift with time and place, and yet it gets little airtime in contemporary Western culture.
“It is difficult to believe in a thing when one is alone and there is no one to speak to.”
—Dino Buzzati, The Tartar Steppe. Truth has collective properties, and that’s one reason 1984 and similar political-informational dystopias are so scary: they prevent individuals from exploring or testing their beliefs. This same issue is part of the reason the best scholars worry about political correctness on campus, which attempts to stifle heretical ideas, rather than merely arguing that they are wrong.
The pursuit of easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time. It happens to us today. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.
—Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which is quite good, though the above is out of context.
I wonder how much of the financial arms race is driven by a) parochial housing policies and b) the number of people who genuinely enjoy the work at high-powered firms. Some small number of people do really enjoy being lawyers. Not many, but they exist.
“There are some things it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.”
—Tolkien, The Two Towers.
“Hamlet is not a masterpiece; it’s a muddled tragedy, which fails to bring its disparate sources into a coherent whole. But that’s also why it has become an enigma that continues to fascinate and provoke debate all over the world. Hamlet isn’t a masterpiece on account of its literary qualities; it has become one precisely because it resists our interpretation. Sometimes it’s the weirdness that makes a text go down in history.”
—Umberto Eco, from This is Not the End of the Book (a book that demands to be read in gorgeous hardcover, given the many comments about the physicality of books within). I wonder if the observation about enigma and failure to cohere could apply too to this season of True Detective, which is only charitably coherent. Sadly, though, it is much less linguistically interesting than Hamlet and much less visually interesting than much of what else is in the media.