My Dream Of Reason

A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Correspondence and criticism gratefully received and always read:

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This week: The tempting of Thomas Pynchon; the philosophy of David Papineau; Dan Wang's China; and books that I have been reading

THIS BUSINESS of extracting an autobiography from Thomas Pynchon, 85, while we still can: Does anyone doubt that such a book would be a best-seller? Does anyone doubt that it would be the most interesting autobiography ever written? Does anyone doubt that it would be Thomas Pynchon's best book? Is this finally a good use-case for Kickstarter?

Last year the science-fiction writer Brandon Sanderson raised $40 million on Kickstarter from 185,000 subscribers by promising delivery of four "secret" novels in the course of 2023.

If Pynchon devotees were able to raise, say, $10 million on Kickstarter or similar, would that be enough to persuade Pynchon to set pen to paper and write an autobiography? Or even just dictate one into his iPhone? Subscribers might get the book chapter by chapter, as a work in progress, before the finished work went on public sale.

There may be better models, but I have kicked the tyres on this one and they seem robust. Dear readers, does any among you have any experience of trying to draw things to Thomas Pynchon's attention? He would have to endorse the project to make it work. His attachment to privacy is one of his most attractive features, but the prospect of $10 million upfront might be worth at least a moment of even Pynchon's time.

After grumbling for years about the impenetrability of much philosophical writing, not least in this letter in recent weeks, I have been handed the key to the mysteries. It is called Philosophical Devices: Proofs, Probabilities, Possibilities, And Sets, and it is a highly readable book written in 2012 by David Papineau, Professor of Philosophy of Science at King's College London and at the City University of New York Graduate Center, and published by the Oxford University Press.

My delight at finally encountering this vade mecum, this Rosetta Stone, this basket of rich, ripe, high-hanging fruit, has been tempered only by my regret at having failed to encounter it when it was published more than ten years ago, in consequence of which I have spent the past ten years bumping up against utterances such as "R = {x: x not-∈ x}" and coming away bruised and baffled. I still prefer plain English to symbolic notation, but at least I begin to understand what I have been complaining about.

Here is Papineau's characterisation of his method, from his introduction, upon which I can scarcely improve:  

I aim to introduce a range of technical ideas without assuming any prior knowledge ... The technical ideas that matter to philosophy can be grasped perfectly well without having to plough through a lot of irrelevant and often boring details.

I owe news of David Papineau's book to my friend and correspondent Anthony Gottlieb, now an historian of philosophy — his Dream Of Reason (2001) and Dream Of Enlightenment (2016) are both joys to read — who was a colleague of mine some years ago at The Economist.

I suspect it was my inability to enjoy Spinoza which moved Anthony to think that an intervention might be required. In the Dream Of Enlightenment, Anthony approvingly cites Bertrand Russell as calling Spinoza “the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers.” Likewise, I thank Robert Keith Thomas for encouraging me to continue with my reading of Spinoza's Tractatus, and for reassuring me that it is not as difficult as I had imagined it to be.

In truth, it is probably all the God in Spinoza which bothers me. I thought the same thing when I was trying to read Descartes. Spinoza offers original and sublime ideas about the Universe, while also trying to accommodate at least the possibility of a relatively conventional God who made the Universe for reasons of Their own. I feel half of my reading time is being wasted, and I am not sure which half. Either God did it all, or there is no God. I could never tell which of those things Descartes believed, and I fear the same impasse with Spinoza.  

It's tempting to think "Well, yes, they had to write like that, the morals of the 17th century did not yet allow for explicit atheism". But we do a similar double-think in our own beliefs today. Our books and newspapers are full of people confidently discussing the future of all manner of things in measured and purportedly scientific terms; and yet at the same time science gives us good reason to believe that world civilisation may collapse relatively soon unless we do something almost unthinkably radical about climate change, which we do not plan to do.  

F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed that the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one's head at the same time was the mark of a "first-rate" intelligence. I counter-claim that the capacity to decide between two such opposing ideas, based on the evidence available, would be more intelligent still, though I cannot manage it myself. I go about my daily life as though all were well with the world, somehow indifferent to my simultaneous expectation that we will all be baking or drowning.

Another joy of the past week has been Dan Wang's annual letter — a letter not to me but to the world at large. Dan is at the top of the hierarchy of people whose reports from China and whose views on China I value. Andrew Batson and Michael Pettis are also right up there. As is Stephen Kotkin, whom I had previously thought of as a Russianist, but who has much of value to say about China. Geremie Barmé is in a category of his own: I go to him as I would to a beloved antiquarian, hoping to rummage around in his stock for as long as I possibly can before he asks me exactly what it is that I am looking for.

Dan's letter this year (looking back on 2022) is mostly about food and mountains, which is in itself an unusual overlap. The world has great mountains, and great food, but the correlation is generally quite low. Yunnan, apparently, has both.

Of Dan's book recommendations I have gone first for The Jesuits, by Markus Friedrich. Here is Dan:

I couldn’t help, as I read about this Catholic order, to compare the Vatican with the Communist Party. It is not only that China is moving towards life terms for the top leader. Both the Holy See and the CCP must dedicate an immense amount of thought to make doctrine fit into a practical philosophy of governance. Sometimes they fail, producing cadres willing only to mouth Marxist or Christian pieties without believing in all the tenets of the faith.

To me, this understates the question. I take it that our beliefs are outside our conscious control, and that we can only infer the beliefs of others through their behaviour, which may not be a reliable guide. Any high-ranking Russian who professed to believe in Marxism in 1982 would be saying in 1992 that they had not believed, but had merely behaved as if they believed, on the grounds that doing otherwise would have brought ruin on themselves and on their country — as proved to be the case.

I wonder in the same vein now about the Pope and his Cardinals. If you lose your faith, as many priests do, and you happen to be in charge of the Catholic church, do you say as much? I would guess not. Imagine the chaos. Imagine your own situation if you lost your faith, resigned as Pope, and then found it again. Bears may poop in woods, but the question of whether the Pope is Catholic is not, to me, entirely rhetorical.

Reading Dan's letter, and thinking about China, what I want to read now is a novel called The Hu Jintao Incident. I have no idea what it would say, but I would buy it like a shot. Perhaps it would be in the vein of The Conspiracy And Death Of Lin Biao. Perhaps it would be something less urgent, more intimate, more like The Successor by Ismail Kadare — perhaps Kadare could even write it, and call it The Predecessor. What happened in the days, hours and minutes before Hu Jintao was hustled off stage? What happened during the cuts in the video? What has happened to Hu Jintao since? We may never know, but that is what fiction is for.

Books I Have Been Reading

Ironweed, by William Kennedy (1983)
I started Ironweed by mistake, thinking it to be about the final years of the gangster Legs Diamond, having read in the New York Times that the author of Ironweed, William Kennedy, was selling the house in Dove Street, Albany, where Diamond was killed. (I also thought that any novel must be pretty special if the film adaptation could attract Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.)

As I have since discovered, Kennedy's Albany Cycle consists of three novels, but only the first of them, Legs, is about Legs Diamond. The second, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, is about a 1930s kidnapping. The third, Ironweed, is about two homeless alcoholics, one of them terminally ill. A bundle of laughs it is not.    

Ironweed is well done, but novels about alcoholics are necessary difficult projects, since alcoholics tend to do a very limited number of things and have a very limited range of priorities, perhaps especially so when they are homeless and/or dying. Leaving Las Vegas worked, as did The Girl On The Train; there is an alcoholic undertow to much of Michel Houellbecq's writing, as there is to Raymond Chandler's and Patricia Highsmith's. I had hoped that Ironweed might likewise surprise on the upside. In truth I can recommend it only as a novel of degradation and despair.

Legs, on the other hand, is exactly what I wanted. Fierce and wry, period noir. Here is the missing link between Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy. Never has Albany seemed so interesting.

Your Driver Is Waiting, by Priya Guns (2023)
Irresistible. Every bit as fast and clever and funny as the reviews say — I think here of the New York Times,  LA Times, Vogue, among others. The book was sold to the publisher as an update of Taxi Driver, and is now being marketed by the publisher in much the same vein, but there is very little here which is derivative. On the contrary, Guns's novel is remarkable for its originality, at least in my demographic. I surrendered immediately to the writing voice. Guns says that she wrote the first draft in four weeks and I believe her: There is a roughness and a recklessness about her style which is perfectly of a piece with her story, staves off any earnestness, and keeps the plates spinning. Frankly, Martin Scorsese should close the circle by buying the rights and filming the book — though the result would be more like After Hours than like Taxi Driver.      

Pragmatism As Anti-Authoritarianism, by Richard Rorty (2021)
Pragmatism is Richard Rorty's last book, and for me his most enjoyable, full of confidence and shorn of technicalities. The ideas in it are genuinely thrilling and subversive. Rorty's message is roughly this: "Reality is what we believe to be true, and we should be constantly updating our beliefs in line with what works best". He is not quite denying reality, but he might as well be. In Rorty's view, government institutions have no business getting religious or philosophical about their vocation. Their job is to dispense justice and happiness, not to leave their mark on history.  

Reading Rorty is like living through the 1960s all over again — wonderfully uplifting but wildly impractical. You might enjoy it for a year or so but you would not want to grow old there. My only regret is that Rorty treats Charles Peirce so cavalierly. The notion that Peirce was a lesser thinker than Dewey seems to me almost absurd. It might help to consolidate Peirce's reputation if there were a biography that did him justice. Daniel Everett has taken on the job, and I hope he delivers.



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