Overweening Generalist

Friday, December 2, 2011

On Obscure, Coded and Alchemical Texts: Part 1

Preliminary: Vico and Weirdness
There's an essay from 1974 by George Steiner called "On Difficulty" that I've often dipped into or just re-read. In it he provides a taxonomy of difficulties vis a vis the reading of certain texts. But he doesn't address an issue that has long fascinated me: the deliberate obscurantism by a writer out of necessity of not being persecuted by Authority.

As some of you know, I'm fascinated by the writing of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), a quirky Neapolitan scholar who toiled largely unknown in Europe, but was rediscovered in the 19th century and has seen his academic stock rise ever since. He's been "claimed" by fascists, anarchists, liberals, Neo-Cons, and Karl Marx cited him in Kapital. He's now thought of by some as the founder of Anthropology. As a young thinker he, like much of Europe, got caught up in a love for Descartes, but then lost his religion and combatted "Renato"'s ideas for the rest of his life.

If you haven't yet checked in on Vico, his magnum opus is translated in English as The New Science. Vico reads like a Mad Scientist: he's totally brilliant and way ahead of his time and you're floored by the power of his ability to create new views of receiving ancient texts. A few pages later you're wincing as you read, his ideas are so crazy. Then he seems to repeat himself, oddly, because he's done the fashionable thing and tried to lay out a way of understanding an entire body of knowledge in the way that Euclid did, via the positing of axioms, and building from there.

Despite the ostensibly formal structure, Vico's great book is diffuse, tangential, discursive, baroque, and wonderfully nutty.

A more poetic take on Vico comes from the great scholar Anthony Grafton:
"Vico's history of the human race, in short, is less a fresco painted spontaneously than a Watts Tower of found objects, combined in dazzling new ways but often old and battered in themselves..."-p.xxix of the Intro to Dave Marsh's translation of the The New Science

I agree with Grafton. It's also so profound in its insight that I will never stop reading Vico, neither his New Science nor any of the other books that I'm so fortunate someone saw fit to translate from Italian.

I would like to use Vico as both a home base and a jumping off point for a series of essays on obscurity in texts throughout history. When I address the "nutty" and obscure and strange aspects of Vico, I am coming down on the side of those who say that Vico wrote in this obscure manner because he had a very real sense that what he was trying to say about history and language and class warfare, that the Inquisition would do him great harm if he wrote plainly. When I first encountered this idea it knocked me on my ass, and my fascination with this aspect of writing and reading texts throughout history has stayed with me.

                                     When you open a copy of Vico's New Science, you see this, so
                                                 overflowing with symbolism it's a veritable semiotic feast of codes!

The Strange Case of Isaiah Berlin and Leo Strauss
One of the greatest readers and commentators on Vico in the 20th century was Isaiah Berlin, an intellectual of magnificent scope and breadth, with an elegant prose style and a very creative, even playful way of dealing with Great Ideas. I am in awe of Berlin the intellectual. One of the things I have tried to learn from him is this: you get to know a book or author or thinker so well you can talk about his ideas as if you are an Adherent. And yet you are not a believer or hardcore fanatic of any one thinker. It's a sort of intellectual yoga: study a person or a book or a set of philosophical ideas so intensely that a reader or listener will mistake you for an acolyte. I think it's an aspect of love to be able to talk about someone's ideas in a way that makes the original thinker you talk about sound totally fascinating...even if you find some of the ideas personally distasteful.

It's not easy.

And I came upon this passage in Conversations With Isaiah Berlin, that the Iranian intellectual Ramin Jahanbegloo conducted in 1988 and 89, the book being published in 1991:

RJ: What do you think about Leo Strauss and his political philosophy?

Berlin: I knew Leo Strauss personally and liked him. He was a very learned man, a genuine classical and Talmudic scholar, who thought that political philosophy went gravely wrong with Machiavelli - "the teacher of evil" - and has never recovered since. For him, no political thinker since the Middle Ages has found the true path. Burke came nearest to it, but Hobbes and his followers had gone badly wrong and gravely misled others. [...] Objective Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, have been dethroned. [Now here's where it gets meaty- OG] Strauss was a careful, honest and deeply concerned thinker, who seemed to have taught his pupils to read between the lines of the classical philosophers - he had a theory that these thinkers had secret doctrines beneath the overt one - which could only be discovered by hints, allusions, and other symptoms, sometimes because such thinkers thought in this fashion, sometimes for fear of censorship, oppressive regimes and the like. This has been a great stimulus to ingenuity and all kinds of fanciful subtleties, but seems to me to be wrong-headed. Strauss's rejection of the post-Renaissance world as hopelessly corrupted by Positivism and empiricism seems to me to border on the absurd. - pp.31-32

Okay. Wow. First off: When I first happened upon this delightful book of transcribed conversations I had mired myself in a vast Straussian swamp, trying to understand this Godfather of NeoConservatism and how he became so influential. The more I read, the more occult he seemed, with his acolytes, who were largely behind the George W. Bush administration, and, by my way of assessing history, largely responsible for bringing Unistat to its knees, possibly (probably?) never to recover.

From my readings, Berlin's assessment that Strauss's rejection of positivism, empiricism and other, relatively SANE ways of modeling the world and reading political philosophy is not only "absurd," it borders on a systematized insanity. It's a fascinating story, and I wonder if Peter Dale Scott would call the whole Strauss nexus of conservative acolytes as part of Deep Politics or Deep History?

["If history is recorded, then deep history is the sum of events which tend to be officially obscured or even suppressed in traditional books and the media. important recent deep events include the political assassinations of the 1960s, Watergate, Iran-Contra and now 9/11. All these deep events involve what I call the deep state, that part of the state which is not publicly accountable, and pursues its goals by means which will not be approved by a public examination. The CIA (with its ongoing relationships to drug- traffickers) is an obvious aspect of the deep state, but not the only one, perhaps not the dirtiest."-PDS]

That Berlin knew Strauss and liked him! That Strauss tried to "convert" Berlin when Isaiah visited him in Chicago! (p.32, op.cit) That Berlin seems to think it "wrong-headed" that Vico's style is so baroque and weird because of "oppressive regimes"! That I seem to be on the side of Leo Strauss, who, if one gets into arcane critical texts about how Strauss taught his Inner Circle how to read people like Hobbes (see, for example the slim but truly excellent Cloaked In Virtue: Unveiling Leo Strauss and the Rhetoric of American Foreign Policy, by Nicholas Xenos)...I had to step away from the books.

I will say that reading Xenos's book and a few others (like The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet), led me to understand why Ron Suskind was told by a Bush person that Suskind lived in the "reality based community": the Bushies were so steeped in Straussian ideals (which seem to me to be profoundly antidemocratic and yea, I'll say it: fascistic) that their "reality" was being forced on the larger world...

I mean, think about it: they started a $3,000,000,000,000 war on Iraq (according to Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz) with ZERO proof Iraq had anything to do with 9/11...and they got away with it!!!

But I digress. I wanted to illustrate that I found a disagreement between me and Isaiah Berlin, and I do think outside influences can warp the writing and style of a writer. This idea is thought of as paranoid by some people. I will argue my point largely by giving examples as the main ballast for my rhetoric. I think it's related to the long Nightmare of History, and ought more properly be thought of as part of the history of censorship and another of our favorite topics at the Overweening Generalist: book burning.

As I go on with this topic in later installments, I hope to score some points against one of my heroes, Isaiah Berlin, and in so doing make some of you think maybe I'm some seriously Smart Dude who really ought to be paid more attention, if only for the unmitigated brilliant sheen of his thought. <cough>

Here's a 10 minute video on Isaiah and his ideas of Negative vs. Positive liberty. Throw it in at the end here because I think it covers some Hidden History, etc:

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