Thursday, August 22, 2019

Book Review: Creation and Anarchy by Giorgio Agamben

This is a book for people who want to dive into words, and the first sign of that comes from how you read the title. "Creation" is indeed a theme of the book, more in the artistic sense than the natural, but the "anarchy" Agamben talks about is about things that have no beginning or "arche" (an-arche). The first essay is about the "archeology" of "works of art" but I associate it with etymology, rather: it's about how Aristotle and company most highly valued the artworks that changed the person, inside, rather than those that produced a physical object. Therefore, contemplation was a high good, much higher than it is today. I'd like to contemplate bringing that back.

Overall, this book is the second I've read by Agamben and both have been the very definition of pithy. These books are only 100 pages or so and 5-6 chapters, but open them up and they have as much depth as the Tardis. Occasional paragraphs get bogged down in philosophical complexities, but Agamben's ability to take words apart and reconstruct their meanings means that if you have a passing knowledge of Greek or Latin, then you're able to keep up with the fundamental ideas, which are what really matter.

The last two essays (of five) are the best, and overlap with David Bosworth's The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America, another little book with big implications. Agamben points out that the conflict between science and religion may reflect how the two disciplines use words: philosophy and science use words of description; law, religion, and magic use words of command. There's a great gulf between describing something passively, and speaking to make something true, respectively. That crystalline insight is an example of why, if you like words, you should read Agamben.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Book Review: The Language God Talks

Herman Wouk has always fascinated me as an author: someone who could write huge, ambitious, and (most uniquely of all) popular books about World War II with what can only be called heart. Like Stephen King, he's not a perfect writer but he's perfectly readable and has something to say beneath the flowing, even breezy, language. Sometimes breezy is a breath of fresh air.

This book is a short work about Richard Feynman and the space program (I happened to start it on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing), as well as Wouk's method for writing The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. I read those in high school but don't remember many details, I just remember how Wouk had a knack for complicated, epic plotting on the scale of the big Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies.

Here he talks about science, writing, and God. Wouk is an American Orthodox Jew and he uses Feynman as a foil for the big questions. In A World from Dust, I end with a plea for conversations exactly like this (though the final imaged conversation isn't as compelling as the actual ones!).

For Wouk, there's actually two "languages God talks" to refer to the title: calculus and the Torah/Talmud. Wouk only speaks the latter, but he speaks it fluently and persuasively. This quote is the center of the book, in which Wouk refers to the "Ghost Light" that stagehands would set on a stage after everyone else had gone home, always burning, to make sure no one would trip and to keep away the ghosts. I'll leave you with this gem:

“For Feynman, the Ghost Light was nothing but his own piercing mind, the spark of Adam in his genius brain, contemplating creation and finding it glorious but senseless. It is a popular view, also the considered view of some, not all, advanced thinkers. As for the author of this causerie, I see a different Ghost Light, distinctly there but very far off and hard to make out. It is not a single brilliant light like Feynman’s intellect. It is an odd irregular flickering flame, like a tumbleweed or low bush that has caught fire. Each time I look, there it is, burning.”