Wednesday, June 18, 2003

A RADICAL PROPOSAL FOR HIGHER EDUCATION -- ACTUALLY TEACHING: Over at OxBlog, Patrick quotes from some thoughtful and neccessary comments on some of the failings of higher education by Harvard president Lawrence Summers. The problem which Summers focusses on -- the lack of dedication by academics to the vocation of teaching -- is one that bedevils most universities, to a greater or lesser extent (given a certain collegiate rivalry, I can't help but adding that it seemed to me to be much less of a problem at my own alma mater, than at most of the other universities I've heard about or known.)
This is something I've been thinking about quite a bit lately. I've not yet been able to put all of my thoughts together into a coherent post, and I don't have the time to do so now; but I want to, and will. Watch this space. For the time being, though, check out Summers' comments.

I POSE, THEREFORE I AM: The Observer has a fascinating profile of the French public intellectual Bernard-Henri levy.Levy is a complex character, a sort of cross between Voltaire and a clotheshorse. Levy often comes off as a pompous poseur, and many of his writings, as well as his mannerisms, are risible. If any of the many Francophobes currently running around (and running) the US wanted to create an embodiment of the pretensious, self-important, affected French intellectual, they'd fail to come up with a charicature as outsized as Levy.
And yet ...
And yet, while Levy (who, like Jacques Derrida and Albert Camus, was born in Algeria, like Derrida to Jewish parents) has a well-known and infuriating habit of being very cavalier about matters of fact, he's frequently been right about the important things, when it matters and when it's been difficult. He's been a staunch, consistent, high-profile (well, there's the posing again) opponent of racism and nativism in France; he early on drew attention to the Serb genocide against Bosnian Muslims (at a time when his fellow French 'nouveau philosophe', Alain Finkielkraut -- in many ways a more serious thinker, though also given to the issuing of portentous declamations -- was acting as apologist for the government of the Croat genocidaire Tujdman. Ah well. We all make mistakes.) He's also been involved in trying to foster democracy, and oppose radical Islamism, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere. And -- as the profile doesn't note -- Levy was an important member of the group (also including Finkielkraut, Andre Glucksmann, Alain Renault, Luc Ferry, and to some extent Tzetvan Todorov, among others) that reacted against the lock-step leftism dominating French thought in the '60s (whether it took its orientation from Maoist militancy or Heidegerian anti-humanism), and articulated one of the most intellectually dramatic and, for all the hot air, serious defense of humanism and liberalism in recent European thought.
So, how seriously to take a man who admits that his public persona of 'BHL' is a puppet, a mask, and yet claims that 'BHL' is 'a good soldier' in Bernard-Henri Levy's dedicated fight against fascism? How serious a thinker is a man whose ostentatiously displayed volume of Pascal turns out to be a drawer? And what to make of Levi's directorial debut, in which his gorgeou actress wife plays the wife of a dashing intellectual modeled on Levi, who dies in a ballooning accident (as the Observer article says, exploding in his own hot air)?
Well, one shouldn't always take him that seriously. At the same time, one should respect the seriousness underneath the pose, which motivates so many of Levi's forays into intellectual publicity -- and the fact that, for all his personal absurdities and intellectual excesses, he has been, from time to time, in Heine's words, a soldier in the battle for human liberty. Next to many other members of the chattering classes, that's not such a poor achievment.

Monday, June 16, 2003

A NEW LOW: Ok. Now, plenty of people seem to like to attack Maureen Dowd. Heck, I'm not above doing so myself. Generally, though, I try to avoid such things, thinking it a mistake to take her seriously enough to criticize her -- or,. indeed, read her very often.
But, now she's just crossed the line. It's fine if she wants to make fun of Bush and Rumsfeld -- though, really, it's so easy, i don't know why she's so into it (I mean, talk about being an under-achiever!). But bad-mouthing Nigella Lawson -- that's not ok.
It isn't just MoDo's attack on my second or third favourite domestic goddess I object to (by the way, Maureen, I think all that 'domestic goddess' stuff is ironic. It's this thing the Brits have, irony -- closely related to the sarcasm that is the Dowd signature, but somehow subtly different. None of the Brits will explain it to me, though -- trade secret, apparently). It's the generally hectoring, and frivolous, use of feminism.
Now, I can understand where Dowd is coming from. I, too, often find myself wincing as I watch women embrace what seems all too much like the feminie passivity and disguised domestic drudgery of days of yore. But, in my view, the whole point of feminism was to allow women to act and live as they want to -- to have the freedom to be themselves, whether that means going out and climbing up the corporate ladder, or staying home making souffles (or, preferably, something entirely different from either of those options. Though, speaking for myself, I'd probably take the souffle.) The point of women's lib -- of any liberation -- is for people to be able to decide for themselves how to live -- not to make the 'right' decisions. If individual women want to revert to earlier roles and activities, well, it's not what I'd hope for or most like, but I hardly think it represents a deep betrayal or retrogression or cultural disaster.
And then there's Dowd's shotgun approach to the actions of others -- her blanket condemnations. Oh, repressed housewives of the '50s dosed themselves on valium? Well, then, taking prozac must be a sign of female bondage.
This is, I admit, a sore point. On the one hand, I'm rather uncomfortable with the idea of anti-depressants -- and I'm uncomfortable with the attitude, now all too common, that views unhappiness as a disease to be cured. But, while unhappiness itself isn't a disease, but a part of a full and meaningful human life, sometimes the cause of the unhappiness is, in fact, a disease; and if it's really destroying someone's life, then I think they have a right to seek a cure (or not do so, for that matter). I know a number of people -- of both sexes, by the way -- who have been greatly helped by prozac or other anti-depresants; people who needed the help, and who are in no way diminished in my eyes for needing, or accepting, it.
And who the hell is Maureen Dowd to pass flippant judgment on the choices of unhappy people?
But, there's a deep, delicious irony here. Maureen can snipe at women who betray the feminist cause by falling back into outmoded and pernicious stereotypes all she wants. That's scant cover for the fact that Dowd, herself, falls into, and perpetuates, such a stereotype. She approaches political, social and cultural trends from a perspective that is gossipy, flippant, shallow, fashion-conscious, and feline.In short, she's the Louella Parsons of the commentariat.
So, I call upon the NY Times to end this shamefully retrograde and sexist charade. Appoint, oh brave Lelyveld, a female columnist who will write seriously and incisively, who will show that women can think and write as well, with as much dignity and grace, as any male columnist could -- rather than perpetuating harmful old stereotypes about feminine perfidy and frivolity on your editorial pages.
ADDENDUM: Given Mr. Chafetz's special relationship with Ms Dowd, it is perhaps relevant to note that this evening I was able to lure Josh away from studying from his exams for three hours to watch movies tonight (Woody Allen marathon). That's three hours that Mr Chafetz (I hope) spent NOT thinking about how many hours he has left til his exams are over. (Josh, buddy -- get a grip!)
This, according to my esteemed blogging guru, makes me an 'evil man'.
Thanks, Josh. Anytime.
UPDATE: One reader/former co-blogger writes to say that he thinks that firing columnists is the job of the editorials editor (Gail Collins), rather than the editor-in-chief. To which I say: I wasn't seriously addressing a request to Lelyveld, or any other member of the times. It was for humourous effect. Some people are WAY too literal.

Sunday, June 15, 2003

ENLIGHTENMENT IN STONE: I've just learnt of an exhibit devoted to the work of one of my favourite artists -- Jean-Antoine Houdon. Houdon was one of the greatest sculptors in the history of Western Art; his work perfectly captures the spirit of his age, the Enlightenment, as well as the personalities of his subjects -- who included Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, d'Alembert, Jefferson, etc. He also produced many beautiful sculptures of children -- an expression of his age's worship of natural innocence, and its valorization of childhood. His portrait-busts of great men and of young children alike, captured the personality of his subjects in stone to an astonishing degree; ther are among the best, most moving expressions of the vital, egalitarian, buoyant humanism of les lumieres. While Rodin, for instance, is all about might -- rough, monumental, craggy drama, or sweeping emotion -- Houdon captures the often mischievous, sometimes melancholy spark of life in stone with grace and sensitivity. His busts at their best (the famous bust of Voltaire, a good picture of which you can find in this article on the exhibit, or the bust of Diderot held by the Yale University Art Gallery, for instance) not only manage to perfectly capture the character and the gaze of their subjects -- they are so life-like, and so lively, that, staring at them, one begins to expect the stone to melt into flesh, and start moving, at any moment. I find Houdon's sculptures unique in their ability to capture the mobility of the human face -- and, through doing so, to convey the nobility of the human mind.
In short -- once I'm back in the US, I have to see this exhibit. And I highly recommend that anyone else who'll be in the DC area before early September do the same.
DISCLOSURE: Conspiracy-mongers be alerted: the author of the article linked to above was a student of Allan Bloom -- a Straussian.
And he likes Houdon. Now what could THAT mean? Hmm?

ODD COUPLE: Turns out that punk poetess Patti Smith and Virginia Woolf are spiritually bonded. Or something. At least that's what Smith seems to think, according to this Observer profile.
Um, yeah.
Don't get me wrong. Patti Smith is obviously an epochal figure in rock history -- and at its best, her work truly is unique, and deserves to be as influential and well-regarded as it is. But, at the same time, at its worst her work, while still unique, distinctive, and artistically courageous, also sounds to me like a pretentious mess (some of her experiments in rock poetry from the '70s sound, well, risible to me).
Of course, some people might say the same about Woolf. But they, of course, would be wrong and obtuse (while my critical opinions are NEVER such [This from the man who praised Tatu! -- ed.]. Patti Smith has striven long and hard to be a true artist, and has succeeded to a great degree. But Woolf -- well, anything I can say about her would be a bathetic, cliched truism. Her work is just in a different sphere than anything else, that's all.
Speaking of which, it's been too long since I read To the Lighthouse. And I still need to make it to The Waves ...
(Oh, and I could also do with a listen to Horses now, come to think of it.)

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