Monday, November 30, 2009

Book Review: The Lives of the Mind

The Lives the the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse
Roger Kimball
Ivan R. Dee; Chicago (2002)

"In the faculty of writing nonsense, stupidity is no match for genius." -- Walter Bagehot

Imagine how cool it would be if you had correspondence with a friend who shared your literary tastes and philosophical bent, was far better read than you, and was willing to distill the essentials of such epistemologically convoluted thinkers as Hegel into delightful and digestible essays. Such a friend would be estimable, indeed! And, if you are, as I am, lucky enough to be familiar with the work of The New Criterion's Roger Kimball, then you can have a taste of such a friendship.

Had Mr. Kimball sat down with me precisely in mind as his intended audience, he could scarcely have written a more captivating book. I loved everything about this loosely themed collection of essays on some of the most diabolical, some of the most pertinent, some of the most influential thinkers that have shaped our modern understanding of who and why we are. My husband hates philosophy; I philo it. In fact, sitting about musing on various deep, unanswerable questions, preferably with wine and friends and a fire, while outside raindrops fall from leaden skies to pelt the sodden earth, would be a favorite activity of mine, if I could just find some local friends with whom to share these contemplative confabs. Guess I'll have to import them from Chicago. So, I am all alone with Mr. Kimball, while he schools me on philosophers I have read (Decartes, Kierkegaard, Russell), philosophers of whom I had heard (Hegel, Schopenhauer, Santayana, Schiller), and a few of whom I'd never even heard (Wittgenstein, Stove).

But, Lives of the Mind is much more than essays on those lofty gentlemen. Here is the great political philosopher, Alexis deTocqueville; here is the comic novelist, P.G. Wodehouse; here is the prolific Victorian, Anthony Trollope. Rounding it out is the universally known, but seldom read, Plutarch; the French commentator, Aron; French caricaturist, Damuier; and the delightfully difficult to categorize, Bagehot. Roger Kimball brings to each subject a keen eye for the satirical and a surprisingly wicked wit. When he respects an author, he can make you love them by proxy. See if you do not walk away from this book and immediately start reading Wodehouse. C'mon, I dare you. And even when he is skeptical about the value of certain thinkers, such as, say, Hegel, he is still able to offer a readable critique that is saturated with wry humor. All of this combines to make an exceptionally fun adventure through some of the most opaque minds and obscure meditations that have influenced modern intellectual life.

Since Mr. Kimball loves -- nay, relishes -- language and the art of the aphorism, one of the principal treats of Lives of the Mind is the trove of one- and two-liners he unearths from his subjects, polishes, and displays for the reader's amusement and edification. Sometimes funny, sometimes profound, these observational gems are worth the price of admission. Two of the main beneficiaries of this appreciation are Lichtenberg and Péguy, both of whom might have escaped notice had they not been particularly adept at pontifications of the proverbial sort. My favorite from Charles Péguy is, "He who does not bellow the truth when he knows the truth makes himself the accomplice of liars and forgers." To which Kierkegaard might answer, "Subjectivity is truth!" And there's a whole can of worms. One cannot bellow subjectivity; I prefer truth as truth, not truth as perception. But, to spend a good hour or two wrestling those things to the ground is one of the purest pleasures of reading Mr. Kimball's book.

1 comment:

Flicka Spumoni said...

"imagine how cool it would be if you had correspondence with a friend who shared your literary tastes and philosophical bent, was far better read than you,"

This is my distinct pleasure in your friendship!