Shakespeare and the Classics, Donald Hall’s Effects, and the Dangers of Selective Breeding
Shakespeare was certainly more familiar with the classics than most writers today, but Jonathan Bate’s claim that the classics “made” the Bard misses the mark by a fair distance: “Like many critics with an argument to make, Bate’s preferred mode of engagement with the text is assertion rather than exegesis. Nothing wrong with this: literary criticism is a house with many mansions, and there are innumerable ways of writing well about any work or author or moment. All that is required for Bate’s approach to succeed is that his assertions be accurate enough and that the argument they serve be in some sense illuminating.” They often aren’t.
Many of Donald Hall’s effects will be auctioned off to the highest bidder on May 8th. Here’s a list.
In 50 years, the dead may outnumber the living on Facebook—if the platform is still around, that is.
Will Selinger reviews a new book on Montesquieu’s liberalism: “One imagines that Montesquieu’s Liberalism and the Problem of Universal Politics was conceived in the era when liberalism seemed invincible, for its purpose is to chasten and moderate triumphalist liberals. The timing doesn’t seem great, but it would be a shame if this work were overlooked. Callanan’s is one of the most interesting accounts of Montesquieu’s thought to appear in recent years.”
We are getting closer to “manufacturing” babies in a lab, so why is no one talking about the ethics of “selective breeding” on a mass scale.
All the Impressionists loved Argenteuil: “At the time, Argenteuil was a popular suburb of Paris. It was a place of pleasure and relaxation. Parisians could leave the chaos of the city and enjoy the sense of the countryside Argenteuil had to offer. It was only a 15-minute train ride from Paris, so it was a regularly visited town. Argenteuil attracted sailors and rowers from Paris because it sits on the banks of the Seine (La Société des Régates Parisiennes, the most prestigious boating club in Paris, had its headquarters in Argenteuil.) It was a place of fireworks, carnivals, and asparagus. It offered the perfect conditions and scenes for painting outside and it served as the backdrop to what we now view as the most quintessentially ‘impressionist’ paintings.”
Essay of the Day:
In The New Yorker, Adam Kirsch revisits the provocative and influential ideas of Martin Buber:
“I and Thou, a short treatise by the Jewish theologian Martin Buber, was published in German in 1923; by the time it appeared in English, fourteen years later, the translator could already call it ‘one of the epoch-making books of our generation.’ When Buber died, in 1965, his Times obituary focussed mainly on this one book, crediting it with making Buber ‘a pioneer bridge builder between Judaism and Christianity.’ Buber’s philosophy of dialogue had been enthusiastically embraced by such Protestant thinkers as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. Even today, I and Thou remains a staple of religion courses and bookstore spirituality sections, and inspirational quotes from it—‘An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language’—circulate endlessly on social media.
“Yet I and Thou, which uses a generalized, ecumenical vocabulary, has never enjoyed the same stature among Jewish readers as it has with the world at large. After Buber’s death, the novelist Chaim Potok observed, ‘It was a source of considerable anguish and frustration to Martin Buber that he was more appreciated by Christians than by Jews.’ This was a painful irony, since few people in the twentieth century had thought more passionately about Judaism and Jewishness. Buber had written dozens of books about Jewish history, theology, mysticism, and scripture. He was an early adherent of Zionism, worked on translating the Hebrew Bible into German, and popularized Hasidic folklore; during the Nazi period, he ran a Jewish adult-education program in Germany, to sustain the morale of his persecuted people. To Jewish historians, this is the Buber who matters: the writer and teacher whose career spanned the most important events of Jewish modernity, including the end of German-Jewish civilization and the creation of the State of Israel, where he spent the final decades of his life.
“‘Buber was a contested figure,’ Paul Mendes-Flohr writes in his new biography, Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent (Yale). ‘He evoked passionate, often conflicting opinions about his person and thought.’ There were always readers who distrusted Buber’s thinking about Judaism, which was defiantly innovative and anti-traditional. Some people questioned whether he really was a major thinker or just a charismatic impresario of ideas. In the nineteen-twenties, when Judah Magnes, the chancellor of the newly founded Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, tried to hire Buber as a professor, the faculty repeatedly refused to accept him, considering him not quite a true scholar. Only in 1938, as Buber tried to leave Nazi Germany, was a chair found for him—not in religion or philosophy but in the sociology department. The snub was hard for him to bear, and he accepted the appointment only after much internal struggle.
“Reading Buber, it’s not hard to understand why he might inspire suspicion. His prose, shaped by the literary tastes of the early twentieth century, tends to be high flown rather than precise. His book Daniel (1913) is written in a rhapsodic style that owes something to Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra and something to Symbolist poetry: ‘Because we cannot circle above all existence—sleepless, unbroken, boundless, glowing—we content ourselves with being submerged and awakening.’ Even some of his admirers admitted that they couldn’t always be sure of what he was trying to say. (‘I have read it to the end and—understood nothing,’ Magnes wrote after reading Daniel.) The American translator of I and Thou, Walter Kaufmann, acknowledged that Buber ‘tends to blur all contours in the twilight of suggestive but extremely unclear language. Most of Buber’s German readers would be quite incapable of saying what any number of passages probably mean.’
“Such haziness was inevitable, because the questions Buber was trying to answer were the most ineffable ones of human life: What is the meaning of our existence? How can we achieve the feeling of wholeness that we so painfully lack? Above all, Buber asked, how do we find our way to God, now that religious belief has become so challenging for modern, educated people? Anyone who believed it was possible to give crystal-clear answers to such questions would have to be a messiah or a charlatan, and Buber was neither.”
Photo: Walking to Lögberg
Poem: Wendy Videlock, “Whatever It Is”
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