Reviews & Rants - Blogging about books, authors, and generally 

Sunday Adventures... prepare for some disappointment

Happy Sunday!


Following my resolve to make the most of this summer and the current heat wave, I thought today was a good day for another adventure. So, I set out and headed North again to try and visit the Dolphin Centre, a charity devoted to the conservation of and education about marine mammals. 



The centre is located on the mouth of the river Spey, which is mostly famous for providing one of the necessities to make whisky. If there is anything that exists in greater number than castles up here, it's distilleries...but that's a topic for another weekend.


The Dolphin Centre is a charity run by volunteers who, aside from staffing the cafe, organise tours of the centre and keep an eye on the local dolphin population. Apparently, there are around 190 of them in the Moray Firth, the area close to the centre. 


Unfortunately, none of them felt like making an appearance today. Not one. 



There were lots of gulls, ... but let's just say it would be more unusual not to see a gull. They are everywhere around these parts. 


Still, it was a nice day out and there were some gorgeous paths around the Spey estuary.



At some point during my walk, the rain set on. It was sunny and sweltering hot when I left home this lunch time. Too hot. The change of weather was magnificent. Even tho it was raining, it was the sort of warm summer rain that smells and feels like poetry.  Loved it.


I hope your Sundays have been fun, too.

The Salt Fish Girl

Salt Fish Girl: A Novel - Larissa Lai

After a month of trying to read a mere 256 pages, I have finally finished this...but I still really don't know what the book was trying to do or what it really was about. 


We have two stories being told in alternate chapters: the story of Nu Wa, a take on the Chinese creation myth, and the story of Miranda, which is set in the future and tells of a girl who was born with an unusual condition - she smells of durian fruit and later develops scales.  


I got the connection between Miranda and Nu Wa, but I'm not sure I got anything out of the book. I guess I needed a bit more in the way of connecting the dots or elaborating on why certain things were the way they were. 


For example what did Miranda's father do for a living that is called "tax collecting" but seems to happen in virtual reality where he still gets beat up every night?


I guess the book just wasn't for me.


Reading progress update: I've read 7%.

Ideen zu einem Versuch, die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu bestimmen - Wilhelm von Humboldt

"Nun aber erfordert die Möglichkeit eines höheren Grades der Freiheit immer einen gleich hohen Grad der Bildung, und das geringere Bedürfnis, gleichsam in einförmigen, verbundenen Massen zu handeln, eine größere Stärke und einen mannigfaltigeren Reichtum der handlenden Individuen."


Roughly, this translates as:


"Now, the possibility of a higher degree of freedom always requires an equally high degree of education, and the lesser need to act, as it were, in monotonous, united masses, [requires] a greater strength and a more manifold wealth [i.e. diversity] of acting individuals."


The [ ] are my own clarifications and are based on my reading/interpretation of Humboldt's text.


This section goes on to say that it should be the aspiration of a ruler of a state to break the shackles of its own people and facilitate that greater degree of freedom. 


This was written at around 1792 - and hence the reference to "rulers" rather than governments - but not published until much later because it did not pass the censors (the book was/is pretty radical).


It is kind of painful to read this at a time of what seems to be a period of political regression on the idea that a government has to place value on the education of its people.


I'm intrigued where Humboldt takes his argument and where he saw the "limits of state action" as the title denotes.





Reading progress update: I've read 270 out of 440 pages.

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails - Sarah Bakewell

A confrontation with Camus had been building for a while. It was almost inevitable, considering how different their views had become. In 1951, Camus published an extended essay, The Rebel, in which he laid out a theory of rebellion and political activism that was very different from the Communist-approved one.

   For Marxists, human beings are destined to progress through predefined stages of history towards a final socialist paradise. The road will be long, but we are bound to get there, and all will be perfect when we do. Camus disagreed on two counts: he did not think that history led to a single inevitable destination, and he did not think there was such a thing as perfection. As long as we have human societies, we will have rebellions. Each time a revolution overturns the ills of a society, a new status quo is created, which then develops its own excesses and injustices. Each generation has a fresh duty to revolt against these, and this will be the case forever.

   Moreover, for Camus, true rebellion does not mean reaching towards an ecstatic vision of a shining city on a hill. It means setting a limit on some very real present state of affairs that has become unacceptable. For example, a slave who has been ordered around all his life suddenly decides he will take no more, and draws a line, saying ‘so far but no further’. Rebellion is a reining in of tyranny. As rebels keep countering new tyrannies, a balance is created: a state of moderation that must be tirelessly renewed and maintained.

   Camus’ vision of endless self-moderating rebellion is appealing – but it was rightly seen as an attack on Soviet Communism and its fellow travellers. Sartre knew that it was directed partly against himself, and he could not forgive Camus for playing into the hands of the right at a delicate historical moment. The book clearly called for a review in Les Temps modernes. Sartre hesitated to rip his old friend to pieces, so he delegated the task to his young colleague Francis Jeanson – who ripped Camus to pieces, damning the The Rebel as an apology for capitalism. Camus defended himself in a seventeen-page letter to the editor, meaning Sartre, although he did not name him. He accused Jeanson of misrepresenting his argument, and added, ‘I am beginning to become a little tired of seeing myself … receive endless lessons in effectiveness from critics who have never done anything more than turn their armchair in history’s direction.’

   This dig prompted Sartre to write his own response after all. It turned into an ad hominem tirade that was overemotional even by his own recent standards. That’s it, said Sartre; their friendship was over. Of course he would miss Camus, especially the old Camus that he remembered from wartime Resistance days. But now that his friend had become a counter-revolutionary, no reconciliation was possible. Again, nothing could trump politics.

   Camus never published a reply to Sartre’s reply, although he did draft one. Again, the rest was silence. Well, not exactly, because ever since this famous quarrel occurred, a little industry of books and articles has flourished, analysing the confrontation to its last punctuation mark. It has come to be seen as a quarrel that defines a whole age and an intellectual milieu. It is often mythologised as a drama in which Sartre, a ‘dreaming boy’ chasing an impossible fantasy, meets his comeuppance in the form of a clear-sighted moral hero who also happens to be cooler and wiser and better-looking: Camus.

   This makes a good story, but I think there are subtler ways to think about it, and that it helps if we make the effort to understand Sartre’s motivation, and to ask why he reacted so intemperately. Pressurised about politics for years, taunted as a decadent bourgeois, Sartre had undergone a conversion experience which had made him see the whole world in a new light. He considered it his duty to renounce personal feeling for Camus. Individual sentiment was a self-indulgence, and must be transcended. Just like Heidegger in his Being and Time period, Sartre thought the important thing was to be resolute at all costs: to grasp what must be done, and do it. In the Algerian War, Camus would choose his mother over justice, but Sartre decided that it was not right to choose his friend if his friend was betraying the working class. Beauvoir, charmed though she had been by Camus in the past, took the same line: The Rebel was a deliberate gift to their enemies at a crucial point in history, and it could not be allowed to pass.

I've really enjoyed the book (there are only a couple of chapters left to read) but apart from being introduced to Husserl's ideas and Merleau-Ponty's, and getting a much better understanding of Simone de Beauvoir's work, the book has mainly confirmed my preferences of Jaspers and Camus over Sartre. It also confirmed my dislike of Heidegger - both as a person and as a philosopher.


I will definitely have to add books by Hannah Arendt and Gabriel Marcel to my TBR, and, in addition to re-reading de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, I also want to re-read more Camus and explore the books of his that I haven't read, yet.


And this, people, is why my TBR is well out of control - books just lead to more books, or as Bakewell expresses it in a summary of one of Merleau-Ponty's ideas:

We can never move definitively from ignorance to certainty, for the thread of the inquiry will constantly lead us back to ignorance again.

Hey, look what turned up today...

The elusive Lucio. And also my EdBookFest tickets.



And can I just say that the World of Books customer service reps have been amazing?

They could have just refunded me for the book, but they actually tried to find it, double-checked that it was the right one, and sent it without really that much delay at all. They also responded to emails within a few hours, with proper responses, not just "we received your email and will look into it".

It is easy to draw attention to bad customer service when it happens, but I love when things go well and I love it even more when I can share a good seller experience.

Reading progress update: I've read 228 out of 440 pages.

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails - Sarah Bakewell

You know, I have never thought about how much the odds must have been stacked against Simone de Beauvoir being recognised in her own right and for her own thoughts rather than just as Sarte's companion. 

By the time I had first read her work, several decades of feminist efforts had taken place and I didn't at the time of my reading The Second Sex appreciate how novel and how daring her book had been at the time of publication (and no I had not read A Room of One's Own by then either). 

The Second Sex draws on years of reading and thinking, as well as on conversations with Sartre, and is by no means the mere adjunct to Sartrean philosophy that it was once taken to be. True, she successfully shocked one feminist interviewer in 1972 by insisting that her main influence in writing it was Being and Nothingness. But seven years later, in another interview, she was adamant that Sartre had nothing to do with working out Hegelian ideas of the Other and the alienated gaze: ‘It was I who thought about that! It was absolutely not Sartre!’

It must have been difficult to be so closely connected to Sartre and have your own work not just disregarded but questioned as to your authorship not just because of the connection but because of your gender.


And the presentation of her work in publishing is infuriating.

The Second Sex could have become established in the canon as one of the great cultural re-evaluations of modern times, a book to set alongside the works of Charles Darwin (who re-situated humans in relation to other animals), Karl Marx (who re-situated high culture in relation to economics) and Sigmund Freud (who re-situated the conscious mind in relation to the unconscious). Beauvoir evaluated human lives afresh by showing that we are profoundly gendered beings: she re-situated men in relation to women. Like the other books, The Second Sex exposed myths. Like the others, its argument was controversial and open to criticism in its specifics – as inevitably happens when one makes major claims. Yet it was never elevated into the pantheon.

   Is this further proof of sexism? Or is it because her existentialist terminology gets in the way? English-speaking readers never even saw most of the latter. It was cut by its first translator in 1953, the zoology professor Howard M. Parshley, largely on the urging of his publisher. Only later, reading the work, did his editor ask him to go easy with the scissors, saying, ‘I am now quite persuaded that this is one of the handful of greatest books on sex ever written.’ It was not just omissions that were the problem; Parshley rendered Beauvoir’s pour-soi (for-itself) as ‘her true nature in itself’, which precisely reverses the existentialist meaning. He turned the title of the second part, ‘L’expérience vécue’ (‘lived experience’), into ‘Woman’s Life Today’ – which, as Toril Moi has observed, makes it sound like the title of a ladies’ magazine. To make matters more confusing and further demean the book, English-language paperback editions through the 1960s and 1970s tended to feature misty-focus naked women on the cover, making it look like a work of soft porn. Her novels got similar treatment. Strangely, this never happened with Sartre’s books. No edition of Being and Nothingness ever featured a muscle-man on the cover wearing only a waiter’s apron. Nor did Sartre’s translator Hazel Barnes simplify his terminology – although she notes in her memoirs that at least one reviewer thought she should have.

The application of dubious covers also happened to Iris Murdoch's books. There is a whole range of Penguin editions that look like erotica. While there are some interesting turns in Murdoch's books, this is a gross misrepresentation of her messages and work. 


It feels even worse with de Beauvoir's book as this is exactly the type of stylised view that she is writing to dispel. 


I really want to re-read The Second Sex....and A Room of One's Own.

Reading progress update: I've read 184 out of 440 pages.

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails - Sarah Bakewell

Even before the war, Heidegger’s philosophising had changed, as he gave up writing about resoluteness, Being-towards-death, and other bracing personal demands on Dasein, and shifted to writing of the need to be attentive and receptive, to wait and to open up – the themes that are woven through the prisoner-of-war dialogue. This change, known as Heidegger’s Kehre, or ‘turn’, was not an abrupt whirl-around as the word suggests, but a slow readjustment, like that of a man in a field who gradually becomes aware of the movement of the breeze in the wheat behind him, and turns to listen.

Oh, noes... more Heidegger.


But at least he's found a way to letting things be what they are. It only took him a few years. I'm thinking he may have done better had he talked to people instead of hiding in his shed.

Letting-be became one of the most important concepts in the later Heidegger, denoting a hands-off way of attending to things. It sounds straightforward. ‘What seems easier’, asks Heidegger, ‘than to let a being be just the being that it is?’ Yet it is not easy at all, because it is not just a matter of turning indifferently away and letting the world get on with its business. We must turn towards things, but in such a way that we don’t ‘challenge’ them. Instead, we allow each being to ‘rest upon itself in its very own being’.

And he's finally gotten around to considering the arts...

Poets and artists ‘let things be’, but they also let things come out and show themselves. They help to ease things into ‘unconcealment’ (Unverborgenheit), which is Heidegger’s rendition of the Greek term alētheia, usually translated as ‘truth’. This is a deeper kind of truth than the mere correspondence of a statement to reality, as when we say ‘The cat is on the mat’ and point to a mat with a cat on it. Long before we can do this, both cat and mat must ‘stand forth out of concealedness’. They must un-hide themselves. Enabling things to unhide themselves is what humans do: it is our distinctive contribution. We are a ‘clearing’, a Lichtung, a sort of open, bright forest glade into which beings can shyly step forward like a deer from the trees.

And all I can think of is, how is this so different from Kant's ideas of "noumena" (things-as-they-are) and "phenomena" (things-as-they-appear-to-be)? Or, rather how is this not the extension that humans (or sentient beings) simply interpret the world around them?


How did it take him that long to discover how the arts work?

Exit West

Exit West - Mohsin Hamid

“We are all migrants through time.” 

Having just finished The Reluctant Fundamentalist before reading Exit West (both are due back at the library), I had high expectations for this book.


Sadly, I didn't get as much out of this one as I hoped I would. I mean the premise is fascinating, a young couple from an unnamed country that is collapsing in a state of civil war is trying to escape and make for a new life in the West. It's the story of so many over the recent years. It's a story that has so much to offer in the way exploring that human condition when faced with survival, faith, interaction with others, etc. 


And yet, I think the book lost it's way a few times during the short story, as if it wasn't sure what it wanted to purvey, what its point was. Many of the issues that Hamid mentioned would have been worthy of exploring further, but he didn't. Maybe it is the brevity of the book that I need to blame, but Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist was equally short and was still more successful in raising and discussing several issues in more depth than Exit West


Or maybe it was the style of this book, the detachment of the narration, that didn't work for me. I'm sure the detachment could have worked to create that obvious divide between the characters and the reader, as if to say "you can witness, but you will never fully understand", but then I guess the book would have failed me because I needed the book to draw me in as the reader and become part of the story to understand the mindset and emotional state of the characters.


Whatever it was, it just didn't work that well for me.

No matter. It was still a worthwhile read.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Mohsin Hamid

“If you have ever, sir, been through a breakup of a romantic relationship that involved great love, you will perhaps understand what I experienced. There is in such situations usually a moment of passion during which the unthinkable is said; this is followed by a sense of euphoria at finally being liberated; the world seems fresh as if seen for the first time then comes the inevitable period of doubt, the desperate and doomed backpedaling of regret; and only later, once emotions have receded, is one able to view with equanimity the journey through which one has passed.” 

I really liked this one. Yes, the story is based on cliches - the immigrant from the impoverished background, the Ivy League education, the high-flying career in the field of finance, the girlfriend (herself a metaphor for America) who can't commit because she's clinging to the past - but I really loved the style of the story: the way that the narrator tells the story to the unknown listener, who may be real or imagined, and who may be there to get at the narrator or who may be there by pure chance.


The novel thrives on the vagueness and ambiguity of the vantage point. One cannot really know what is going on because each construct of the story changes depending on whether you look at it through the eyes of the narrator or the the fictional character that he is narrating to, or even through the eyes of the reader. 


The Sunday Post: Macbeth Country, well more of it... sort of.

Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more.

By Sinel’s death I know I am Thane of Glamis;

But how of Cawdor? The Thane of Cawdor lives,

A prosperous gentleman; and to be King

 Stands not within the prospect of belief,

No more than to be Cawdor. Say from whence

You owe this strange intelligence, or why

Upon this blasted heath you stop our way

With such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you.


- William Shakespeare - Macbeth (Act I, Scene III)


 “I wish the Bard had never written his damned play!

- John Campbell, 5th Earl Cawdor 

It's been a stressful and rather frustrating week at BT HQ last which started with some-Brexit induced admin nightmare, which needed me to seek out the an appointment at Glasgow City Council on Monday because none of the council offices closer to home, i.e. on the other side of the country, were able to offer the required services. This was pretty stressful in itself (had to take a day off work on short notice and nearly panicked when sitting down for getting paperwork checked etc. it looked like I might have misplaced a bit of it ... it did re-appear in a different pile ... but that was one long minute of near panic) but a few days after I received a call from the council officer whose only task in this whole process was to take copies: the copies had turned out blurry and could I "pop in" for another round?


Erm, ... no.


So, several calls with people on withheld numbers and the local Chief Registrar later, we got another plan of action.

As it turns out, if I had submitted my paperwork a few days later, there would have been no need to trek to Glasgow because my local council will start offering the same admin service on Monday. Monday as in from tomorrow. And by local I mean the council office that is is a 10 minute walk away. But of course this was not announced anywhere least of all on the relevant government websites... GAAAAAHH!!!!


Tuesday brought with it a minor surgery - nothing serious, but it needed to be done - which went very well apart from some slight discomfort and the weird experience of asking the consultant to stop telling me in detail what he was about to do. I'm not exaggerating when I tell people that I can't read gory horror stories or thrillers... The descriptions really make me queasy. And as I found out, being at the receiving end of even a minor surgical procedure while being told the descriptions and wherefores of incisions etc. does not make me feel any comfortable at all.

Apparently, my request that the consultant stop the narration and get on with the procedure was unusual and a lot of people want to know the details. Well, each to their own. I now know that I'd rather know the plan step-by-step beforehand but not during.


The rest of this week was a bit of a mess really, but not being one for moping about in fine weather (even if I wasn't allowed to play tennis - because sutures...), I figured it was a fine day for exploring a castle that I had not been to, yet.


Cawdor Castle, near Nairn in the north of Scotland had been on my list for a long, long time. As some of you may know, I have a bit of a thing for Macbeth - both Shakespeare's version and the historical figure - and one of my other favourite castles to spend time at is Glamis (near Forfar), but I just had not had a chance to make the trip to Cawdor (about 3 hours of leisurely driving in good weather). 


It was a fabulous decision. I mean just look at this beauty of a castle:


And the inside of it was just so ... let me show you because they had no problems with people taking plenty of photos of the amazing place:



Just look at them BOOKS! It's a lived in castle. The Dowager Countess does still live there and as one lady-in-a-hurry told me in passing, she does do most of the administration of the castle herself.


Also, there was a maze ... with a minotaur. :D



The castle was built in the late 14th, early 15th century. As the official guide book says:

"A new higher, harder site was chosen (traditionally by a donkey rather than by an architect - creatures with much in common), and as this rocky position was water-bearing yet firm, it could provide both a drinking-well and a strong foundation.

The tall, plain rectangular tower-house consisted of four storeys and a garret, served by a turnpike stair, and with one entrance to the outside world set at upper first floor level: the perfect design to keep out tourists."

So, what's the connection with Shakespeare? 


Well, Macbeth (1005 - 1057) was real, but he was not a Thane of Cawdor (nor of Glamis btw.). King Duncan was killed, but he was killed in outright battle by Macbeth's troops, not in his sleep while being a guest under Macbeth's roof. 


And as for the roof itself: The play was written in 1606 but not printed until 1632, i.e. after Shakespeare's death. However, the places described in the play were apparently added quite late in the play's publication history. So, can we really know whether the locations in the published versions are the ones Shakespeare intended? 


Even if so, Cawdor was not one of them. The play notes Macbeth's castle near Inverness, but this could just as well have meant the original Inverness Castle or another castle in the area - there are several - or it could have just all been invented. After all, it's a play! 


Most of all, of course, the possibility of the Cawdor Castle being the location of that gruesome midnight murder that lost King Duncan his life, Macbeth his sleep, and Lady Macbeth her mind, blows up in a puff of smoke when you look at the dates: the castle wasn't built until the 1400s and the previous castle near Nairn (about 5 miles away) was also built over a hundred years after Kind Duncan's death.  


So, I get that the Campbells, the owners of the castle, get a bit touchy every time some fan of the play takes Shakespeare's play as historical fact. There should be space enough in people's heads to hold both versions and people should have the critical thinking skills to be able to make the distinction between fact and fiction. Otherwise, we are letting entertainment and propaganda form our opinions and write our history books. 


Oh, hang on, ... that's already happened, ... and is still happening.

Reading progress update: I've read 131 out of 440 pages.

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails - Sarah Bakewell

I really like Husserl's outlook. 

For Husserl, therefore, cross-cultural encounters are generally good, because they stimulate people to self-questioning. He suspected that philosophy started in ancient Greece not, as Heidegger would imagine, because the Greeks had a deep, inward-looking relationship with their Being, but because they were a trading people (albeit sometimes a warlike one) who constantly came across alien-worlds of all kinds.

This difference highlights a deeper contrast of attitude between Husserl and Heidegger in the 1930s. During that decade’s events, Heidegger turned increasingly to the archaic, provincial and inward-looking, as prefigured by his article about not going to Berlin. In response to the same events, Husserl turned outwards. He wrote about his life-worlds in a cosmopolitan spirit – and this at a time when ‘cosmopolitan’ was becoming recast as an insult, often interpreted as code for ‘Jewish’. He was isolated in Freiburg, yet he used his last few talks of the 1930s, in Vienna and Prague, to issue a rousing call to the international scholarly community. Seeing the social and intellectual ‘crisis’ around him, he urged them to work together against the rise of irrationalism and mysticism, and against the cult of the merely local, in order to rescue the Enlightenment spirit of shared reason and free inquiry. He did not expect anyone to return to an innocent belief in rationalism, but he did argue that Europeans must protect reason, for if that was lost, the continent and the wider cultural world would be lost with it.

What really struck me in this section was this part:

He wrote about his life-worlds in a cosmopolitan spirit – and this at a time when ‘cosmopolitan’ was becoming recast as an insult, often interpreted as code for ‘Jewish’. He was isolated in Freiburg, yet he used his last few talks of the 1930s, in Vienna and Prague, to issue a rousing call to the international scholarly community. Seeing the social and intellectual ‘crisis’ around him, he urged them to work together against the rise of irrationalism and mysticism, and against the cult of the merely local, in order to rescue the Enlightenment spirit of shared reason and free inquiry.

It struck me because, I cannot get out of my mind that our current Prime Minister is mostly famous for this quote:

But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.

Theresa May, 5 October 2016

It's just as depressing as it is infuriating to see the parallels.


Oh, and by the way, how can Heidegger claim a line of thinking that is based on the position of things and beings "in-the-world" and then seek to explain or justify his theory by ignoring the world around him and turning to his inner voice only.


That makes no sense to me either.

But then, ugh, Heidegger...

The Book Lover / The Reader

The Book Lover - Ali Smith

This was a collection of poems, short stories, and excerpts of novels that Ali Smith put together when asked to reflect upon books, or literary works, that have influenced her. 


I enjoyed this. I loved that a print of the comic strip Beryl the Peril features alongside the poetry of Margaret Tait and others as well as parts of several novels.


There were many selections that I only sampled in this book and that I was happy to move on from sooner than later, but there were also some that I would not have stumbled upon in any other way and of which I really want to read more of.


The Weeping Woman on the Streets of Prague

The Weeping Woman on the Streets of Prague - Emma (Ed.)/ Landry Judith (Translator) Wilson, Judith Landry, Sylvie Germain, Emma Wilson

This is the book I received when my book order was mixed up and my bookseller sent the wrong book...otherwise, I probably would never have known of its existence.


As it turns out, this book tells the story - in the way of a long poem - about the spectre of a woman who appears in various places in Prague of a number of years, then disappears, weeping for various people, or groups or people, or injustices.


I very much enjoyed the idea of the book: the spectre of a weeping woman as the soul of the city grieving for the injustices carried out in history.


However, the repetitive style and and sometimes over-explained descriptions did not make for a gripping read. 

Reading progress update: I've read 97 out of 440 pages.

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails - Sarah Bakewell

Moreover, almost every important thought in Heidegger holds some ambiguity within itself. The most dangerous ideas can also be the ones with most to offer – as in the passages calling us to authenticity and answerability. Most puzzling of all are the sections where he wrote about Mitsein, or being with others: he was the first philosopher to make this experience so central in a philosophical work. He wrote beautifully about ‘solicitude’ for others: about the moments when we ‘leap in’ for another person, out of concern and fellow feeling. Yet none of this enabled Heidegger to show any fellow feeling at all for those suffering or persecuted in Nazi Germany. He could write about Mitsein and solicitude, but he could not apply it to history, or to the predicaments of those around him, including those to whom he seemed close.

Yep. Nothing about the story of Heidegger in Bakewell's narrative is making him sounds any less horrible than what I had read about him previously.


I hope this was somehow the last part of the book about H. I could really do with some more inspiring people. Speaking of which, the sections on Jaspers were rather short. :(

Reading progress update: I've read 74 out of 440 pages. - Part Deux

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails - Sarah Bakewell

I had some time yesterday to ponder more about Heidegger:


Bear with me.


Bakewell really does make a valiant effort in trying to explain his way of thinking, but, man, it is not the easiest of things to follow, which is why this will be a one-chapter-at-a-time book.


With respect to Heidegger's concepts of Being, Bakewell summarises:

For Heidegger, Dasein’s everyday Being is right here: it is Being-in-the-world, or In-der-Welt-sein.

   The main feature of Dasein’s everyday Being-in-the-world right here is that it is usually busy doing something. I don’t tend to contemplate things; I pick them up and act on them. If I hold a hammer, it is not normally to ‘stare at the hammer-Thing’, as Heidegger puts it. (He uses the lovely word das Hammerding.) It is to go to work hammering nails.   

   Moreover, I do my hammering in service of some purpose, such as building a bookcase for my philosophy tomes. The hammer in my hand summons up a whole network of purposes and contexts. It reveals Dasein’s involvement with things: its ‘concern’. He cites examples: producing something, using something, looking after something, and letting something go, as well as negative involvements such as neglecting something, or leaving it undone. These are what he calls ‘deficient’ forms, but they are still forms of concern. They show that Dasein’s Being in general is one of ‘care’. The distinction between ‘care’ and ‘concern’ (Besorgen and Sorge) is confusing, but both mean Dasein is in the world up to the elbows, and it is busy.




For Heidegger, the philosophers’ second-biggest mistake (after forgetfulness of Being) has been to talk about everything as though it was present-at-hand. But that is to separate things from the everyday ‘concernful’ way in which we encounter them most of the time. It turns them into objects for contemplation by an unconcerned subject who has nothing to do all day but gaze at stuff. And then we ask why philosophers seem cut off from everyday life!

   By making this error, philosophers allow the whole structure of worldly Being to fall apart, and then have immense difficulty in getting it back together to resemble anything like the daily existence we recognise. Instead, in Heidegger’s Being-in-the-world, everything comes already linked together. If the structure falls to pieces, that is a ‘deficient’ or secondary state. This is why a smoothly integrated world can be revealed by the simplest actions. A pen conjures up a network of ink, paper, desk and lamp, and ultimately also a network of other people for whom or to whom I am writing, each one with his or her own purposes in the world. As Heidegger wrote elsewhere, a table is not just a table: it is a family table, where ‘the boys like to busy themselves’, or perhaps the table where ‘that decision was made with a friend that time, where that work was written that time, where that holiday was celebrated that time’. We are socially as well as equipmentally involved. Thus, for Heidegger, all Being-in-the-world is also a ‘Being-with’ or Mitsein. We cohabit with others in a ‘with-world’, or Mitwelt.

   The old philosophical problem of how we prove the existence of other minds has now vanished. Dasein swims in the with-world long before it wonders about other minds. Others are those ‘from whom, for the most part, one does not distinguish oneself – those among whom one is too’. Mitsein remains characteristic even of a Dasein that is shipwrecked on a desert island or trying to get away from everyone by living on the top of a pillar, since those situations are defined mainly by reference to the missing fellow Daseins. The Dasein of a stylite is still a Being-with, but it is (Heidegger loves this word) a ‘deficient’ mode of Being-with.

   Heidegger gives an example that brings everything together. I am out for a walk, and I find a boat by the shore. What Being does the boat have for me? It is unlikely to be ‘just’ an object, a boat-thing which I contemplate from some abstract vantage point. Instead, I encounter the boat as (1) a potentially useful thing, in (2) a world which is a network of such things, and (3) in a situation where the boat is clearly useful for someone else, if not for me. The boat lights up equipment, world and Mitsein all at once. If I want to consider it a mere ‘object’, I can, but this does violence to everyday Being.

Did everything in Heidegger's thinking have to have a purpose? I mean, if he looked at a thing "being there" in the way of being at hand and also as being available for something, does that imply he was looking at things with a view to assigning a purpose to it? 
Or was the question of purpose just one way of looking at the thing?


I thought about that yesterday while waiting for an appointment with Glasgow City Council, sipping a coffee at the Royal Exchange and admiring the Duke of Wellington's current hat collection.



I'm not sure that Heidegger would have approved of a purpose that simultaneously included the revered misappropriation of a symbol of rule and order and the ironic contempt for anarchy displayed outside of a gallery of modern art. 


Btw, in all my trips to Glasgow over the years, I have never seen the Duke without a cone. It is a Glaswegian custom and source of pride - someone will adorn the Duke with a locally sourced traffic cone, and by next Monday morning the council will try and remove it. 


I have no idea how this fits in with Heidegger but part of me wonders if he thought everything has a purpose or usefulness and whether he contemplated art or "doing something just because" in his view of the world. 

Reading progress update: I've read 74 out of 440 pages.

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails - Sarah Bakewell

Right, the chapter on Husserl was interesting. I had heard of him but haven't read anything by him or about his take on phenomenology. 

Having read a little more about his thoughts, I'm wondering how his ideas of phenomenology (I'm sick of typing this word already) have influenced Jaspers. Unfortunately, this isn't an area that is being discussed as the book swiftly moves to Heidegger, whose bad-mouthing of Husserl (while Husserl promoted Heidegger) has done nothing to improve my impression of him.


Bakewell does an excellent job at trying to explain the inexplicable Heidegger to the reader. Heidegger's own phrasing is absurd - his point being that he needs the reader to start thinking in terms that are new and not packed with conventional meaning. The problem for me - as a non-Heidegger-wired regular person - is that using language-constructs that people are not familiar with to prove a point fails in its object to communicate an idea. 

Unsurprisingly, thinking back to my own reading of Heidegger's Being and Time many years ago brings up memories of wanting to throw the book in the river. At least thanks to Bakewell's book I now know why it was such a difficult read.

Currently reading

Hut 33: The Complete Series 103 by James Cary
Ideen zu einem Versuch, die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu bestimmen by Wilhelm von Humboldt
Progress: 10%
Celtic Myths by Miranda Aldhouse-Green
Progress: 10/201pages
The Silk Road: A New History by Valerie Hansen
Progress: 7%
Devil's Due by Phyllis Bottome
Progress: 39/336pages
Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection by Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Fry
Progress: 74%