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Showing posts from July 20, 2008

the advocate for the insects

My thesis of the human limit seems, at first glance, to be countered by Lüthi’s persuasive notion that folktale heros and folktale objects possess a depthlessness that can’t be attributed to some stylistic primitiveness. That depthlessness is a narrative choice, as one can see by looking at the legends that circulate at the same time, and within the same circles. If a character displays no astonishment about the world in which “wishes matter”, then perhaps this is a sign of the fact that fundamentally, pre-modern European societies saw the world in the same way as early modern and modern societies – that the world is essentially made for man. In fact, the positivist version of history would say exactly this. Isn’t God simply Man, suitably arrayed in a cosmic fatsuit? Doesn’t Red Riding Hood’s wolf speak French? Aren’t the stars above us tuned to the flushes and faints of the microcosmic Adam? Isn’t the stamp of man on the World since the world was conceived in the minds of men? And, to

lest that thy heart's blood run cold...

Max Lüthi, in his The European Folktale: Form and Nature, systematically contrasts the folktale (Märchen) with the legend (Sagen). Legend, for Lüthi, is something like the Saint’s tale, or the Arthurian tales, which – he claims – endow characters and objects with a “greater three-dimensionality” than folktales. According to Lüthi, folktales are characterized, stylistically, by depthlessness – the other world, the Aber-world, of the supernatural is accepted by the folk tale hero without a blink. “In the Grimms’ folktale of the Seven Ravens, we are told of the little sister who arrives at the glass mountain: ‘What was she to do now? She wanted to save her brothers and had no key to the glass mountain. The good little sister took a knife, cut off one of her little fingers, pit it into the gate, and thus managed to open it. Once she had made her way in, a little dwarf came to meet her” – and so on, without the slightest indication of physical or psychological distress.” (13) Lüthi’s exampl

Franchising the column

LI owes Scott McLemee, who writes a column at Inside Higher Education, a note of thanks for having publicized our column on academic books (appearing every two months now!) at the Austin American Statesman. We did an interview with him in January, which, rather surprisingly, was quoted in a speech by the president of the Association of American University Presses at their convention. For the first and last time in history, I actually had a tiny tiny effect on the world: “ Last month, during his speech at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses, outgoing president Sandy Thatcher quoted from my interview with Roger Gathman, who writes “The Academic Presses” for the Austin paper. “The people making decisions,” Gathman had said, “have to realize that it is in their interest to encourage reading. They have to start thinking about the need to generate an audience. At that level, it makes no sense for all of your cultural coverage to point to activities that do

lies, damn lies, and the conventional wisdom

LI likes to read the econ blogs when times get all roller-coastery. One thing that the blogs share with the thumbsuckers in the papers is that Americans will generally have to get used to lowering their standard of living. This has become the truism du jour, and it goes along with the other truism, which is that Americans have been living way past their standards of living. Of course, that is all nonsense and lies. There is one and only one cause of our present discontents, which is that Americans – by which I mean the bottom 80 percent – have been horribly underpaid for the last thirty years. It is always and everywhere good to remember that wealth comes only from the bottom. Wealth creation simply doesn’t happen at the top – licitly. Of course, we’ve watched wealth creation happen at the top for years, but a close look at it shows that it is merely the piling of one fiction on top of the other. What the top does, at the limit, is administer and manage. For this function, it has succe

what does it mean to orient oneself in thinking?

Kant’s little writings are all too little known, except for the all too known What is Enlightenment. One of his most entertaining papers is entitled “What does it mean to orient oneself in thinking.” It was written to interfere in a dispute between Mendelssohn and Jacobi over the limits of reason and the rights of genius. Mendelssohn, in the course of this dispute, talks about being “oriented” by common sense, or healthy reason, and opts for a religious purified of enthusiasm, worshipping a rational God. Kant, with that driest of dry wits (the wit of the praying mantis as she devours her mate) likes the word orientation (and of course there is a little subdued play here with Mendelssohn as a man from the orient – a Jew). This is how Kant explains it: To orient oneself means, properly: out of a given world region (in the four of which we divide the horizon) to find the other, namely, the place of rising (sunrise). If I look at the son in the heaven at this instant and know that it is

“The double sense of life accuses me...”

In 1797 and 98, Schiller was working on his Wallenstein cycle of plays. Wallenstein, a Bohemian warlord who figured in the thirty years war, was not at first glance an ideal figure for create, in the German language, theater in the Shakespearian vein. In her history of the thirty years war, C.V. Wedgewood pens this portrait: “He was not a popular man: tall, thin, forbidding, his face in the unexpressive portraits which have survived is not prepossessing. No great master painted him and the limners who attempted his saturnine features agree only in a few particulars. The irregular features, the high cheek bones and prominent nose, the heavy jowl, the thick, out jutting underlip... Already Wallenstein had a reputation for pretensions beyond his station. A Czech by birth, speaking the language fluently and allied to many of the leading families, dispossessed and otherwise, Wallenstein was influential if not popular in many sections of society... Meanwhile, before the end of 1623 Wallenste