Moonlight Serenade (please see note 1 below)

So. A Sunday-morning. Head not too dull after a windy bike-ride. And plenty of serious subjects that would qualify for plenty of fragmented, frivolous posts.

I really really should do a lengthy post on my favorite author, whose writings I mostly do not really understand, but whose books are such a consoling presence in my library (2), and to whom I always return: Walter Benjamin .

Or perhaps I can suffice with a second hand post about an article by Adam Kirsch on Benjamin. I think Kirsch got quite close to why Benjamin’s obscure & hermetic writings are so devoutly loved. They’re loved, because Benjamin’s “vision of language […] expresses so eloquently his longing for meaning” .

“the allure of his thought lies in his imagination of a perfected world, in which objects would be redeemed from their imprisoning silence”.

And don’t we all (well those of us that aren’t astrophysics scientists, or theologians, or even mere non-nonsense civil engineers), so don’t we all long to find meaning in a chaotic reality – and finding meaning through the scarce modes of understanding we have at our disposal: words, images, … . Grasping reality poetically …

And so Kirsch concludes (one of the many sentences in his article I feverishly underlined):

“Ultimately, his strange, beautiful works are best read as fragments (3) of a great poem – the poem of a longing that no world, and Benjamin’s least of all (4) , could possibly satisfy”.

Oh and I should also do a ponderous post on “marginality” and “exile” and what Edward Said (1935-2003 Palestinian intellectual ) and Hannah Arendt (1906-1975 Jewish intellectual) had to say about that.

And then I should definitely do a post to fend off any accusations of name-dropping : I don’t drop names, I recite them , reverently & lovingly. Somehow those names serve like talismans – “reminding me of what I value”, evoking a world of wisdom & wit & beauty where I alas cannot often dwell.

Yes, many posts call out to be written, and yet what’s foremost on my mind now: an image of a still, moon-lit garage-court.

Tonight, getting up and looking out of the window, I was startled by the intense moonlight. So clean, so pervasive a light, projecting sharply delineated shadows. And that garage-court so empty and so very still and aloof. . . so completely self-sufficient, not needing any spectators. (5)

Indispensable notes

(1) You’ll need some patience, but just read on, and in the closing paragraph you’ll be duly rewarded with moonlight
(2) Please allow me to call this collection of ramshackle book-cases of mine “my library”, if only to indulge in visions of noble hushed bourgeois interiors
(3) Ha! Indeed, fragments …. Maybe this phrase is also a source to quote for my blog-title
(4) We all know Benjamin never found an intellectual home, lived in poverty in Paris, has never finished his magnum opus, had to flee the Nazis and, when failing to cross the French-Spanish border, committed suicide “in despair and exhaustion”
(5) I’m cheating, this is not a pic from last night’s moonlit vision – it’s a melting snow man in that same court-yard, two years ago – but the self-sufficient stillness is the same


Great inventions, company-offices. Conceived to have us acting at our most rational, efficient and disciplined and thus pivotal in the western creation of wealth and order.

Yes, economic productivity demands impersonal spaces, air-conditioning, artificial light, clear objectives, formal organization charts, impersonal dress-codes. A whole universe set-up to squelch irrational human behavior and censor disruptive human needs.
Just imagine the dramatic plunge efficiency & productivity would take , should human sympathy intervene in the objective assessment of an employee’s worth, should personal likes and dislikes interfere with company-projects.
And imagine all the wasted time if people would bask in a shaft of sun-light instead of working calmly in a neon glow, if people would be gazing at the skies instead of their screens, would sniff the autumnal air instead of breathing air-conditioned nothingness.

Well yes, how to get people with the most diverse persuasions, sensibilities and interests working together efficiently, if not by subordinating the subjective and the personal to a system of shared rational calculations?
Gosh, I wouldn't even dare to rebel against so marvelous a system. Great system. Really.

But oh oh oh .... even after all these years … how often do I mumble this Proust-quote at my desk: “I was trapped in an alien reality, one that was not made for me and against which appeal was not possible” (*)

(*) "Je me trouvais dans une réalité qui n’était pas faite pour moi et contre laquelle il n’y avait pas de recours"

Humanism after Darwin (short & frivolous post)

Let me confess right away, I’m a “humanist” – my heart leaps, my mind exults, whenever I read phrases like:

“one should treat humanity in oneself and others always as an end and never merely as a means” (1)

'Humanitas' signifies “man’s proud and tragic consciousness of self-approved and self-imposed principles, contrasting with his utter subjection to illness, decay and all that is implied in the word ‘mortality’” (2)

“humanism is an attitude [suffused by] the conviction of the dignity of man, based on both the insistence on human values (rationality and freedom) and the acceptance of human limitations (fallibility and frailty): from this two postulates result – responsibility and tolerance” (3)

Humanism, in this interpretation, takes the ambivalence of the human condition fully into account: on the one hand we are but a product of a chance combination of genes. Our deepest emotions, our loftiest thoughts are nothing but chemical interactions and electric charges in our brain cells. We are driven by our selfish genes in the struggle for life. And we are amongst the feeblest creatures of nature – a mere gust of wind or a banal bacterial infection can wipe us out.(4)

And yet, on the other hand, as human beings, we have feelings beyond our primal survival-urges, we can reflect on our condition, we are endowed with sensitivity, reason and empathy.
Therefore we cannot merely hide behind biological or cultural determinism – we can observe and sense, we can learn, we can reflect: so we can and have to take up responsibility for our lives.

And we may not exploit others for our needs, nor physically or mentally hurt or humiliate (5) them - should they be in our way, or should they be in our view too different from us, or too fallible or too frail: because we know that ultimately the other is a self too, who at the very least shares with us a common human vulnerability and sensitivity that our empathy asks to spare.

So no, I don’t in the least see how this humanist attitude of responsibility, tolerance and empathy should be threatened by the findings of genetics or of neuro-science. Humanism is not about the adulation of the Human Being as some perfect metaphysical divinity, humanism is on the contrary very pragmatic in its acknowledgement of our limitations as well as of our possibilities. The materialist basis of our being does not take away the fact that we have these 'feedback systems' - reason, sensitivity and empathy - that create our responsibility towards ourselves and others.

Speaking of “reason”, “sensitivity” and “empathy” as the foundations of this humanist attitude, I hope to avoid being caught in the fallacious dualism of “emotions” versus “ratio”. A dualism that may be obsolete (6), now that is shown that 'good' decision- making involves both emotions and ratio. And what matters, is how 'we' (we = our self-reflective feedback-systems) deal with our emotions, what we do with our rational intellectual capacities. Both emotions and ratio can be used for evil ends.

So this is where the humanist moral imperative enters: the imperative of respect and responsibility towards ourselves and others, a call to summon up whatever grace and dignity we can muster, even when defeated, even at death (7).

(and this is where trumpets should blaze, violins should swell, a choir should burst out in a Beethovenian ode!)

But so, though I don’t at all see positivist science as a menace for Humanism – I fear some moral interpretations of Darwinism and of economic rationalism do pose a threat.
We all know that we are creatures governed by selfish genes that are bent on their survival & reproduction. We all know that in the end only those traits and genes survive, that, well hum that survive, at the expense of other les well adapted, less aggressive variations.
We all know how economics got hold of this “survival of the fittest” principle and of the rule of self-interest to posit a Rational Man and a system of “laisser faire” in which the sum of all these individual pursuits of self-interest in the end produces the best results, as if directed by an “invisible hand” . We all know now that utopian state controlled economics did not work.

And so, yes, evolutionary biology and classical economics alike wrestle with the problem of “altruism”. Altruism! Moral Values! Shock! Horror! The menace of Irrationality!
Indeed, how to explain altruism, how to explain morality in a conceptual framework which posits the selfish struggle for life or the maximization of self-interest or profits as the ultimate driving forces? Self-interest as the one principle that guarantees the most efficient system to arrive at the best results, so the one and only principle that any rational person should heed.

Oh yes, biologists and economist alike are at great pains to find somewhere some selfish reason for altruism - not a year goes by without another theory showing how display of some altruistic behavior might be good to attract potential mates (because it’s a sign of abundant strength, or of good caring skills for off-spring), a theory that therefore can unmask altruism as yet another ploy of the selfish gene. And ah the relief when yet another economic theory shows that “trustworthiness” is nothing but a good strategy to optimize economic interactions and thus to maximize wealth – so yes, yet again rational enlightened self-interest at work!

And here, as a humanist, I disagree. I object to “rational behavior” being exclusively claimed as a utilitarian strategy. I don’t accept that taking a moral stance would only be acceptable if there’s a utilitarian value to it, be it in biological survival terms or in economic profit terms. I object, in the name of humanism, in the name of the humanist concept of human dignity and responsibility. Maximization of wealth is not the only end. I even dare say that for a humanist not even sheer personal survival is the only end … not at whatever price. … not when human dignity, of ourselves or of others is at stake (8).

Empathy may well have evolved as a useful social skill to help along the selfish gene – but now it also presents us, sensitive and pensive humans, with a responsibility that goes beyond the mere self-interest. There is man’s amazing “ability to step out of the food-chain”, to have an altruistic “affection for his fellow creatures of chance’s kingdom”. (9)

So I’d like to conclude with a quote from Richard Dawkins ( the evolutionary scientist par excellence), from his book “The selfish gene” ( the Darwinian book par excellence) :
“We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators”.

(trumpets, violins, choir!)

Edifying quotes & notes (so please, do read them!)

(1) yes, this is one of Kant’s famous categorical imperatives!
(2) Erwin Panofsky in “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline” (a 1940 essay collected in “Meaning in the visual arts”
(3) Ibidem
(4) Paraphrase of Pascal’s pensée : “L’ homme n’est qu’un roseau, le plus faible de la nature; mais c’est un roseau pensant. Il ne faut pas que l’univers entier s’arme pour l’écraser: une vapeur, une goutte d’eau, suffit pour le tuer. Mais, quand l’univers l’écraserait, l’homme serait encore plus noble que ce qui le tue, parce qu’il sait qu’il meurt, et l’avantage que l’univers a sur lui ; l’univers n’en sait rien. Toute notre dignité consiste donc en la pensée »
(5) On human vulnerability to cruelty and humiliation as a shared human condition that we always ought to be sensitive to, I would like to quote Richard Rorty in ”Contingency, irony, and solidarity”. RR is so post-modernly relativist that he shies away from admitting the existence of any universal values, but he does accept this physical and moral vulnerability of the human being as a universally shared trait. I’m happy to quote him at length, so as to prove that postmodernism does not need to preclude humanism!
So here goes: “The idea that we all have an overriding obligation to diminish cruelty, to make human beings equal in respect to their liability to suffering, seems to take for granted that there is something within human beings which deserves respect and protection quite independently of the language they speak. It suggests that […] the ability to feel pain, is what is important, and that differences in vocabulary are much less important. […] Metaphysicians tell us that unless there is some sort of common ur-vocabulary, we have no “reason” not to be cruel to those whose final vocabularies are very unlike ours. […].
The morally relevant definition of a person, a moral subject, to be “something that can be humiliated ”. [Our] sense of human solidarity is [thus] based on a sense of a common danger. So [we] need as much imaginative acquaintance with alternative vocabularies as possible, not just for [our] own edification, but in order to understand the actual and possible humiliation of the people who use these alternative vocabularies […] . What unites [us] with the rest of the species is not a common language but just susceptibility to pain and in particular to that special sort of pain which the brutes do not share with the humans – humiliation."
(6) As far as I am aware of the findings of neuro-science as they get reported in the popular press, it seems that “emotions” and “ratio” collaborate far more in judging and deciding than traditionally was posited. For instance, there’s the case of a man whose brain got damaged in an accident. The damage was done to a part of the brain associated with the emotions. After this accident the man was no longer able to take decisions: he could analyze a problem, draw up long lists of determining elements and of arguments for and against – but he could no longer reach a decision.
(7) This is a paraphrase on some sentences out of Fay Weldon’s “Letters to Alice” . I can’t right now locate them exactly, ….maybe a fine reason to read that book again! I remember it as so erudite and moving a plea for the reading of novels as exercises in empathy and in the finding of moral significance, + its’ an excellent introduction to Jane Austen . Someone who made it all through the Richard Rorty footnote, will have noted note that RR too pleads for the widening of our empathy (through, amongst other things, the reading of novels).n
(8) of course the smart Darwinian can here suffice with a single smug remark: being a humanist then does not seem to be such a good survival strategy amongst the selfish, so in the end these naïve humanist variations will simply get extinct. Euh.Well. Should anyone have a suitable retort, thanks for sharing!
(9) Richard Powers in his “The Goldbug Variations”

It is not difficult to dream a life ...

The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk is movingly modest and candid about his urge to write. In the essay “The Implied Author” (published in “Other Colours” ), he talks about his need to write as his daily fix to make it through the day.
“Literature does not allow a writer to pretend to save the world; rather, it gives him a chance to save [his] day”.

And then he recalls a critical theory speaking of an “implied reader” through whose reading the meaning of a novel truly emerges.
By analogy he muses that “for every unwritten but dreamed novel there must be an implied author. […]”. But since so many practical interruptions and earthly trivialities conspire every day to keep one from becoming the dreamed book’s author, he concludes:

“It is not difficult to dream a book. […] The difficult thing is to become your dream book’s implied author”

Now for any pensive reader this begs of course the variation:

“It is not difficult to dream a life. […] The difficult thing is to become your dreamed life’s implied author”