The Unhurt Locker

March 14, 2010

Even though I read it the day after the Oscars I was intrigued by the fact that the New York Times now traffics in both the same statistical probability work employed by our own Dash Hammerskjold and the intuitive, qualitative methods employed by his arch-enemies. Has Yesterday’s Salad become oracular? Should it be renamed Tomorrow’s Salad?

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”.


February 25, 2010

I have really, really enjoyed the first issue of The Jewish Review of Books. I’ve especially enjoyed reading the 11X19 print edition, particularly since Abe Socher’s introduction to the publication talks about the presumed death of print as prophesied by Dr. Egon Spengler. It can still be enjoyed online of course.

The content is quite varied, with contributions as disparate as Harvey Pekar, Dara Horn (writing on Isaac Rosenfeld and the death of the luftmentsch) and Hillel Halkin (who just strikes me as a baller).

Whither the NFL?

February 9, 2010

As a contrarian and New Yorker I have to take issue with much of the post-Super Bowl chatter that I’ve heard.  Though there was a decent narrative (local wunderkind Peyton Manning takes on his hometown team, a franchise representing a beleaguered city) I do not believe it was a great game.  The NFL has continuously approved rule changes that favor the passing game.  Not only does this cheapen certain benchmarks (10 NFL QB’s threw for 4,000 plus yards this season) it brings a great imbalance to the game.

I have great respect for Drew Brees’ efficiency and the highly cerebral approach and rigorous preparation of Peyton Manning.  I also recognize that there great skill is required to protect these passers as well as these offensive linemen do.  Quick: think about the number of sacks and relative pressure in this Super Bowl; now compare that to how the Giants rattled Tom Brady’s cage two years prior.

But getting quick leads on opponents because of big passing plays leaves a sour taste in my mouth.  Watching a team march down the field consuming yardage and game clock like a pack of ravenous animals is true victory.  It is disheartening for a defense to be pushed backwards – it requires a psychological victory that the passing game simply does not.  While I recognize that Peyton Manning has revolutionized the position and I have tremendous respect for his ability to process, analyze and disect a defense in roughly 40 seconds, I’m not as impressed by the fact that “there’s no defense for a perfect throw”.  Watching a 300 guard pull block or a big halfback get out to the next level and take on a middle linebacker is not as aesthetically pleasing to the untrained eye, but it’s what football’s always been about to me.

“Smart bombs” and aerial bombing campaigns do not give us actual victory or any real sense of a “mission accomplished”.  Territorial acquisition is control.

While stalking some of my favorite academics on the internet today I stumbled upon an interesting network of blogs.  The flagship site appears to be the Campaign for the American Reader, though I originally arrived there through one dedicated to authors discussing what they’ve been reading recently. There is a lot that could be said about a community that advocates reading and seeks fellowship on the internet, usually thought to be a medium at odds with the written word. I’ll leave it up to those more ensconced in cultural and media studies to do the heavy lifting on that one.

Two of the websites linked to this community are devoted to a game I only recently learned about. You open a book to a certain page (one version has it as page 69, the other as page 99) and you simply read. I’ve seen this go around Facebook as well, the idea being that you post whatever you find on that page as your status for the day. Page 99 is apparently inspired by the following quote which graces its masthead: “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” –Ford Madox Ford

Try reaching for the book nearest you.  Not the coolest one or the most interesting, but whatever is physically closest.  Open to 69 or 99 and read.  If you’re so inclined, share with us what you found.  What I ended up with was rather pleasant and quite fitting, but I won’t share its contents in public because it’s of a sensitive nature.  But please, let us know what you find and if if “the whole” is in fact “revealed to you.”

That Monsieur Hammerskjold and I disagree about the relative merit of “The Hurt Locker” is no secret to…well, the two of us.  But his underestimation of this film in such a public forum leaves me with no choice but to defend its honor.  No, this was not a planned “point-counter-point” on our part.  This is merely an argument 1) on behalf of the best film of the year and 2) that it is much better than “Point Break”.

Dash’s points are well taken.  Mrs. Bigelow’s films pursue a similar aesthetic in service of a similar question.  She is interested in the adrenaline junkie, the ultra-modern adventurer who seeks thrills for his own sake.  The gendered language is purposeful here because Bigelow foucses on a central myth of the American male: rugged, individualistic, glory-seeking despite the odds and a hostile environment.  However, it is only with “The Hurt Locker” that she has made something truly salient.

Again, I agree with Dash that “Point Break” is better than is usually thought, though our reasons are quite different.  I read that movie as a subtle yet substantial critique of one aspect of American culture through one particulr incarnation of the myth of the American male just mentioned.  To watch legitimate celebrities (Swayze and Reeves) wax pseudo-philosophical and seek faux-enlightenment at the barrel of a gun is a clever, pithy (hat-tip Dash) and ultimately withering critique of the American west coast.  The movie shows how southern California co-opts and corrupts legitimate spiritual traditions and how even those who purport to reject its plastic, disposable version of consumer capitalism are co-opted by it.  Utah, from America’s interior (and frontier at that!) is also co-opted by it.  (The fact that he is an FBI agent is extremely interesting given the disproportionate number of Mormons who enthusiastically serve in that particular agency).  Though on its surface American culture (and in this film Bigelow has her guns aimed at Hollywood) appears inane and insane, it is also built upon violence.

However, “Point Break” is limited by its gimmicky conceit.  Read the rest of this entry »