“He is, or has been, in many ways a great man. But for this very reason he is odd. It is only petty men who seem normal.”
—Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
“But if art… is a harmony parallel to nature, as I’ve said, then the exploration of nature should be no less exciting and no less spiritually rewarding than the function of art. I mean, it’s the same field. When one’s bliss is actually science… it has to be. I remember that when I was in prep school, biology was the thing that grabbed me, and now I think of mythology as a function of biology, a statement of the impulse system and the organs. Not something that’s made up in the head. What’s made up in the head is the fiction; what comes out of [the heart] is a myth.”
—Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey
“Her response to any performance, any work of art, was the desire to make another, to make her own.”
—A.S. Byatt, The Children’s Book, which is on the whole both marvelous and exasperating.
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.