I spend my days sitting at a study carrel, its tiny desk and shelf space overwhelmed by books. There is a reason for each book being there; each one represents a line of thinking, a narrative thread, a potential avenue in my dissertation. Like the space itself I often sit overwhelmed by all of these books and the seemingly infinite yet always overlapping research possibilities they represent. At the recommendation of The Ciceronian, I have decided to present an annotated bibliography of these books, a few at a time, in order to expunge some demons. However, since this is the internet (and more specifically Yesterday’s Salad), I will view these works through the gaze of why they’re important to me and not why they’re important to you. I originally planned to write about all of the books I could squeeze into frame in one picture taken with my cell phone’s camera, but I think I’ll run out of steam before that happens. And so, without further ado, I give you the first part in a series.

Wolfson of Harvard: portrait of a scholar by Leo W. Schwarz; with appreciations by Charles Angoff and Isadore Twersky and an epilogue by Lewis H. Weinstein

This is a biographical study and appreciation of the life and work of one of the greatest scholars of the twentieth century, Harry Austryn Wolfson. Wolfson was the first appointment in Judaic studies at an American university and contributed significant studies in the history of philosophy as well as the philosophy of religion. He was also one of the main advisers of Jacob Agus, the guy I’m writing my dissertation about.

Between Berlin and Slobodka: Jewish transition figures from Eastern Europe by Hillel Goldberg
This book is at times insightful and at times batty. It examines seemingly disparate figures who nevertheless share a background in the world of the Lithuanian Yeshiva in general and in circles associated with the Musar movement in particular. Musar was a phenomenon within East European orthodox Judaism that stressed the perfection of one’s moral character and the cultivation of virtue. What Goldberg does that is interesting is that he studies a figure like Wolfson who completely abandoned Jewish observance in order to pursue the universal claims of philosophy in order to demonstrate that his method of reading philosophical texts was somehow (unconsciously? subconsciously? this part is unclear) inspired by the orthodox Musar thought-world he rejected. Goldberg also looks at those whose continuity with orthodox tradition was unquestioned, like Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the patron saint and revered teacher of thousands of modern orthodox rabbis, Goldberg himself included. This book is just kind of crazy, but it’s kind of fun too. My guy, Agus, grew up in a very similar milieu but came to embrace non-orthodox, liberal Judaism, hence my interest in the book. These questions of intellectual biography consume me these days. How do we weigh continuity versus change? When a figure breaks with a tradition to what extent do they by necessity bring aspects of it along with them? Are we not equally defined by what we reject as we are by what we embrace?

(A draft of this post was saved at 11:11:11. Spoookkkkyyy.)

Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life
Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein by Hilary Putnam

Widely considered one of greatest philosophers of our time, Hilary Putnam’s career has been as varied as it has been important. He is known as a naturalist, a philosopher of science, and an important builder of bridges to span the chasm separating “analytical” and “continental” philosophy. What is less known, however, is that later in life, Putnam began to take an interest in Jewish religious practice. In an autobiographical introduction he tells the reader what brought him late in life to examine works by three of the 20th century’s finest exponents of Jewish religious thought…and Wittgenstein (he explains the seemingly odd choice to include him in the introduction as well). I don’t think I’m going to end up using this book at all, especially since I learned today that somebody recalled it and Butler Library will have my head if I don’t get it back there before the 22nd of this month. What’s really interesting about this book is what it tells us about Putnam himself; about the appeal of religion to even the sharpest of philosophical minds; about how we see people return to religiosity later in life. (Is there any connection here to Said’s argument about “late style”? I’m not being rhetorical; I’m asking because I don’t know.) Another interesting exercise is to link Putnam’s story to the broader narrative of the Jewish intellectual in American life. If Wolfson was an immigrant who was reared in pietistic, East European orthodox Judaism, but left the fold to pursue the universality of scholarship and philosophy, then Putnam (Professor Emeritus at, you guessed it, Harvard!) represents the scholar for whom Wolfson blazed the trail. (I can’t help but think of Tommy Lee Jones’ speech in No Country for Old Men about the dream he has.) Putnam also represents the story coming full circle as the defender of the universal finds himself groping for a way into a tradition previously left behind.

I’ll take my completely blown mind as a sign that it’s time to leave this exercise behind…for now. This has been “Annotated Study Carrel”.

A Modest Proposal

February 3, 2010

America, its been good. You’ve had a good run. You’ve spread some democracy, ended some world wars, and invented consumerism. But I think that it is time to throw in the towel. Yes, I realize we are still at the height of our power; the 90 and early 00s will probably be thought of as the zenith of American power; an untrammeled moment of imperial might, unprecedented power, and utter stupidity. But this is precisely reason to bow out now. For already the music is playing. Do we really want to do the whole decline and fall thing?

Is it really worth it to go on like the Western Roman Empire, only to be battered down by heaping crowds of Goths (probably, in our case rising sea levels, ridic desertification, and loads of cheap, shoddy Chinese products)? Or will we go on in the way of the Eastern Romans, sadly transforming into sad parodies of ourselves, our institutions keeping their names, but becoming little more than keywords we hold for nostalgic value? Do we really want our princeps to become a βασιλευς? I think not. Read the rest of this entry »

Yesterday’s Coffee

January 26, 2010

is it also Today’s? I wake up confronted by a ghost in my coffee pot. It holds the open promise of yesterday and its failure. For it is not all consumed. Shall I throw it out? Let it fill the sink, and let me pretend again that today I will write my thank you notes.  Today, I shall call my senator and tell them to pass a climate change bill. Today, I will eat yesterday’s salad, and not tomorrow. Will this new pot of coffee be wholly consumed? Or will it stare at me again tomorrow, bleary eyed in the kitchen, as I stumble for the grinder?

Zodiac: Beyond genre

January 11, 2008

Perhaps the most terrible part of upholding the toga of the Ciceronian is that one must constantly change ones style, ones topic, and ones very identity, to constantly re-fold oneself into the very salad. I’ve promised the CDS that I would cover Zodiac and so I must, the Ciceronian must always keep his word, excepting when the Catalinarian comes near.

The Zodiac in some sense seems to defy genres. It is not a gory, slasher, revel in the violence serial killer movie of the Se7en/Saw variety. It is not a chilling look at the psyche of serial killers, like Silence of the Lambs. It is also not a revisionist argument for Arthur Leigh Allen, as the Zodiac. It is one of the better movies of the year, but its not great. The realism, the very thing that makes it good, is also what in the end sort of drags it down.

Zodiac begins with upfront, unadorned murders which seem rather wholly unconnected to the rest of the plot. The letters set the movie off, introducing the journalists and an attack upon a cabbie, introduces the excellent Mark Ruffalo, as a police detective. The plot is media-focused, but avidly avoiding the very celebrity hype aspect from which these movies arise. There is a brilliant scene where Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo are at the premier of Dirty Harry together and Ruffalo walks out disgusted by this wet dream cop fantasy. There are also some lovely depictions of police bureaucracy. Ruffalo has to call back and forth to coordinate between three districts to accomplish anything. Its half journalism, half police work and all masculinity. The women in this movie are victims, either actual or psychological of the Zodiac, or sidelined wives who cannot understand the overtly masculine domain which is the pursuit of the Zodiac.

While I’ve glossed over much of the movie, I think the most substantial piece of the movie is the obsessiveness with the pursuit. Paul Avery loses his job, to be replaced by The Jewish Actor, and moves to a boat, because of he no longer can report on crime, just things that may be connected to the Zodiac. Ruffalo’s police inspector wanders across county lines and accusations, hopeless, but refusing to end his search. Gyllenhaal’s character jumps from random clue, to random clue, in an almost entirely unconvincing manner arriving at Leigh as the killer. In the end, the movie becomes more about those who chase the serial killer than the serial killer himself.

Pro amicitia

November 8, 2007

Many times, it has indeed been said, that I speak too much of the great and glorious days of times past, in which there were men of unquestionable character, hard moral fortitude, repressed Freudian desires, and the means to withstand all the vices which the world was able to throw at them. While I think this not an unreasonable attempt, the particular flavor of current audiences seems to now allude me, I find myself, Me, the Ciceronian, entrapped in my own meshes of words which lead me to the conclusion, that neither basketball, nor rhetoric, nor censuring the pursuits of overly soft men is it of any advantage of any sort to me, instead, allow me rather to regale you with a brief description of current events and news, to be concise, a History of My Times and those directly Contemporaneous.  But one might say, and one most wise, might indeed say that the things of which I speak are of great moral benefit to them, for indeed I speak not merely for my own enjoyment, but to produce in all you most wise and awesome readers and commentators the sorts of moral virtues which may indeed be beyond reproach. Fear not wise men, against whom the vices of modernity have not yet triumphed. Let us together, join as one to bring back the pristine state of purity that so characterized the latter days, where ancient and good right, looked forward to times made pure by simplicity, more strong and courageous foes to conquer, and lacking of sophistry and artistry which have so come to characterize our very thoughts and actions, in particular, when one could plunge hands into the deep and lovely fertile soil of Italy, as yet made not more rich by the blood of Italians. You may think I have too long spoken, yet I come now at last to the crux of my point. O ye foolish heirs of the Roman power in our land, why do ye kill each other? Why does blood run red in the streets, in the restaurants, in the cars, and at the gas station? Has enough blood been not yet shed, do you not read of the terrible wars our folk have brought against each other? Indeed, I must protest in the strongest terms, that still you and your capos continue to fight for the paltry scraps of little things, heirs to the great and glorious goodness of the republic, indeed, all may yet be good for you here, even though you speak the half bastardized native tongue, now fully gone! O Italians, I call upon you to unite, to train your weapons upon the barbaroi, to make great the promise of all that was ever of manly strength and virility and strength in our land. Why fight and die upon the streets, one for something small, the other for something even less? Allow not the heavy friendships which characterized our darkest age, and carried away all into the abyss of placid Augustanity once more lead to our own destruction. Rather, let there be peace among all the Roman race, and let not the unholy gore of Remus run once more through alien streets.

Administrative Updates

October 23, 2007

The “About the Saladeers” page has once again been updated, this time to include “theciceronian,” although it does not as of yet include “coffee/paws” as the mystery of its being has yet to be resolved. I’ve also updated the “Drink Index” to reflect changes.

I do not promise to update the “Word” index, although I really would like to.