Jan 162014

This letter was written to the NYRB in response to Michael Hofmann’s recent review of The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus (translated and annotated by Jonathan Franzen, with assistance and additional notes from Paul Reitter and Daniel Kehlmann):


Early in his review of The Kraus Project, Michael Hofmann observes that “most of Kraus’s writing was ad hominem.” My initial, naive assumption was that Hofmann intended this as a criticism. But it appears instead to be an acknowledgment of common ground, as he goes on to inform us that Kraus was a hypocrite (“Is he the wretched, off-the-peg French-hater in ‘Heine and the Consequences’ or the much-garlanded visitor to Paris fifteen years later, suspicious of Prussia now, and happy to be proposed for the Nobel Prize by nine professors at the Sorbonne?”), a litigious bully, a dictatorial snob (“Kraus is writing to enforce—to inflict, I would almost say—his authority on randomly chosen terrain, along the lines of ‘the very popular is very bad, the popular is very good, only for reasons you need me to understand'”) and most damningly, a self-hating Jew guilty of “dog-whistle anti-semitism of the foulest kind.”

If this has an oddly familiar ring, it may be because it is more or less the same indictment leveled by Walter Kaufmann in a letter to the New York Review of Books in 1973; and even then—as Erich Heller wrote in his lucid response to Kaufmann, still probably the best rebuttal of the charges raised here—it was “not so ‘recent’ that it [did] not tediously repeat arguments that are as old as the shocks of the first readers of Die Fackel.” But what is more troubling than this familiar litany of complaints, is Hofmann’s blithe assurance that they release us from any troublesome obligation to take Kraus seriously, allowing us instead to substitute the free play of elegantly expressed contempt for actual criticism:

It was suggested in 1976, and again in 1986, by Karl Kraus’s early torch-bearer in English, Harry Zohn, and by others at other times, before and since, and probably in between as well, that there is a particular timeliness about the work of this Viennese Jewish writer, who was born in Bohemia in 1874 and died in Vienna in 1936. […] As for “Kraus’s timeliness,” just when was it? Was it 1900, the year after he started his magazine Die Fackel (The Torch)? Or 1910, when he phased out other contributors…Or 1920, when his “vibrant pacifism” would have had, as the Germans say, Hochkonjunktur —a boom? Or 1930, when he was shading into irrelevance and repetitiousness (again)?

One possible answer to this question is that a writer may have something important to say to us now, and still have something important to say to us a decade later. It is suggested with remarkable frequency that Shakespeare, Goethe, and indeed Heine are “timely” as well, and these claims are not usually treated as prima facie absurd or mutually contradictory. And after all, the source of Kraus’s continued relevance is not such a mysterious thing: he was not a “helpless priest of language,” as Hofmann puts it, but its custodian, fanatically alert to its distortion by journalistic mendacity, political and bureaucratic double-speak, and the self-perpetuating jargon of ideologues. His great subject, then, was the tragedy of language’s corruption by power, reflected in his aphoristic remark, with its paradoxical evocation of Faust, that “he who encourages deeds with words desecrates both word and deed and is doubly despicable.” This passage, from his anguished protest in Die Fackel against the outbreak of the First World War, epitomizes the true Krausian aphorism: not an arbitrary witticism surrounded by laborious waffling, as Hoffman would have it, but a flash of insight that emerges with seeming inevitability from the surrounding argument, crystallizing its import and driving it home with terrific force.

Kraus’s concern for language was thus always a passionately moral one. In his role as scourge of the press, he defended prostitutes against the hypocritical censure of the Viennese, striking out at newspapers that condemned prostitution in print while advertising for “escort services” in their own back pages. As a critic of psychoanalysis, he lambasted the psychiatrists’ collusion with the state in horrifying abuses of individual freedom. In each case, what he found most terrible was the ease with which language could be made to paper over atrocity. This is not a unique insight—it is at least as old as Thucydides’ description of the civil war in Corcyra, and is of course found in Orwell—but Kraus was perhaps the single person most possessed by it, and he pursued its implications with remarkable (and frightening) tenacity. It is this, rather than his status as some kind of shadowy influence-broker, that accounts for the esteem in which he was held. It is true that this is not fundamentally a “literary” insight, and in this sense Hofmann is correct to say that Kraus’ place is not in the history of literature. But why should this count against him? Kraus’ Vienna produced not only Hofmann’s favored triumvirate of “Artur Schnitzler in drama, Georg Trakl in poetry, [and] Robert Musil in epic prose,” who had little use for Kraus, but also Adolf Loos in architecture, Arnold Schoenberg in music, and Ludwig Wittgen­stein in philosophy, all of whom admired him deeply (if not without reservations.) The works of Schoenberg and Wittgenstein, at least, would have assumed a vastly different form without him, which is to say that much of music and philosophy in the twentieth century would have as well. For a man who belongs “in the history of aggression, Publizistik, boosterism, feuding, polemics, [and] PR,” and whose intellectual milieu was a “pissing contest,” this is a rather impressive accomplishment. I can only conclude that we need more such pissing contests.

What is at issue here, in any case, is something more important than Kraus’ “historical” importance, however broadly or narrowly construed. Does it even need to be said that the abuses of language against which he protested have only multiplied over the intervening century? We spend each day amidst a welter of comfort­able phrases—examples of which most of us could easily cull, according to our political persuasion, from the dialects of the military, politics, advertising, business, journalism, academia, or countless other sources—that conceal and beautify realities which, if we confronted them directly, we would find unbearable to look upon. The question, then, is not why Kraus is timely, but how, in the foreseeable future, he could possibly stop being so.


Jun 112013

Four years ago I listened to the Van Cliburn competition online, and wrote a post about Haochen Zhang, the young Chinese pianist who eventually shared the gold medal. In this year’s Van Cliburn my favorite pianist was the 20 year-old Russian Nikolay Khozyainov. He is an exceptional musician. As with Zhang,  there is a kind of transparency to his playing. Here is his first recital — with an amazing Gaspard — from the preliminary round:

Hayden Sonata in D Major, Hob. XVI:33
Chopin, Étude in C Major, op. 10, no. 1
Liszt, Transcendental Étude No. 5: Feux follets
Scriabin, Étude in C-sharp Minor, op. 42, no. 5
Ravel, Gaspard de la nuit


Khozyainov’s semi­final perfor­mances received strong reviews from Gregory Issacs, the TheaterJones critic. Here he is with the Brentano Quartet in the Schumann Piano Quintet:

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Feb 232013

Forkhead box protein P2 is a protein expressed by the FOXP2 gene, located on human chromosome 7. First discovered by scientists at Oxford University in 2001, damage to the FOXP2 gene is linked to severe speech and language impairment. Research in the past decade has only begun to unravel the complex role of FOXP2 in human language acqui­si­tion. Ed Yong provides an accessible discussion of parts of this research.

Last week, a study in The Journal of Neuroscience reported that the ex­pres­sion of the FOXP2 protein, in humans, differs between the sexes. In an area of the left frontal cortex associated with language use, girls have about 30% more of this protein than boys. The researchers write, “Our results implicate FOXP2 as a component of the neuro­biological basis of sex differences in vocal communication in mammals.” Here is a brief summary of the study. The sample size was small, but the di­rection the study points does not sur­prise me.


Dec 122012

Introduced by Glenn Gould himself, this was part of a 1963 CBC television production. Here is the approximate text:

So you want to write a fugue.
You got the urge to write a fugue.
You got the nerve to write a fugue.
So go ahead, so go ahead and write a fugue.
Go ahead and write a fugue that we can sing.

Pay no heed, Pay no mind.
Pay no heed to what we tell you,
Pay no mind to what we tell you.
Cast away all that you were told
And the theory that you read.
As we said come and write one,
Oh do come and write one,
Write a fugue that we can sing.

Now the only way to write one
Is to plunge right in and write one.
Just forget the rules and write one,
Just ignore the rules and try.
And the fun of it will get you.
And the joy of it will fetch you.
Its a pleasure that is bound to satisfy.
You'll decide that John Sebastian must have been a very personable guy.

Never be clever
for the sake of being clever,
for the sake of showing off.

For a canon in inversion is a dangerous diversion,
And a bit of augmentation is a serious temptation,
While a stretto diminution is an obvious solution.

So you want to write a fugue?
Write us a fugue that we can sing.

And when you finish writing it
I think you will find a great joy in it.

(Hope so.)
Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained, they say.
But still it is rather hard to start.

Well? Let us try. Right now? Yes.
Now we are going to write a fugue.
We are going to write a good one.
We are going to write a fugue right now.

There is a well-performed animated rendition, with Elizabeth Benson-Guy,  Anita Darian, Charles Bressler, Donald Gramm, and the Julliard Quartet; and here is a delightful Japanese version. Nathan suggests that it might add to your enjoyment to check out the prelude to Die Meistersinger.


Nov 112012

So this is to announce that Charles S. Peirce on the Logic of Number has been pub­lished by Docent Press. It was originally written over 30 years ago.

Charles S. Peirce on the Logic of Number

Here are some extracts from the Introduction:

In 1881 the American philosopher Charles S. Peirce published a remark­able paper in The American Journal of Mathematics called “On the Logic of Number.” Peirce’s paper was a watershed in nineteenth cen­tury mathematics; it contained the first successful axiom system for the natural numbers. Since scholarship has traditionally attributed priority in this regard to the axiom systems of Richard Dedekind, in 1888, and Giuseppe Peano, in 1889, we will show that Peirce’s axiom system is actually equivalent to these better known systems.

It is not generally known that Peirce’s 1881 paper provided the first abstract formulation of the notions of partial and total linear order, that it introduced recursive definitions for arithmetical operations, nor that it proposed the first general definition of cardinal num­bers in terms of ordinals.

Peirce was probably America’s greatest philosopher, and his interest in the foundations of mathematics was closely tied to his main philosophical concerns. Some of his most characteristic philosophical positions – his synechism and his phenomenological categories – bear the direct imprint of his research into the theory of sets and transfinite numbers. Peirce’s 1881 paper, in particular, is important for understanding his view of the nature of mathematics and its relation to deductive logic. It was published concurrently — in the same issue of AJM — with his father’s famous definition of mathematics as the science which draws necessary con­clusions.

In the course of tracing out the implications of Peirce’s 1881 paper, we address the problem of locating his mature philosophy of mathematics vis-à-vis the traditional triad of logicism, formalism, and intuitionism. Although we show that Peirce’s view had similarities to and differences from all three, his understanding of mathematics was essentially sui generis.  Perhaps the most characteristic aspect of Peirce’s approach is that he did not conceive mathematics to require any sort of epistemological foundation, whether in logic, intuition, or by means of constructive completeness proofs. This is why Peirce, in his scheme of categories, characterized mathematics as a First. “There is no more satis­factory way of assuring ourselves of anything,” Peirce said, “than the mathematical way of assuring ourselves of mathematical theorems.”


Oct 222012

Now in his 80’s, George Steiner has written a new book called The Poetry of Thought: from Hellenism to Celan.  This book is the topic of a provocative essay in the Kenyon Review by poet Amit Majmudar. Majmudar describes Steiner as a “brilliant student” who asks what he calls “Steiner Questions” — questions that have no definite answer, but interrogate a tradition in a way that opens up new insights and new possi­bil­ities for synthesis. The ultimate Steiner Question, Majmudar suggests, concerns the place of Steiner himself in the western tradition. He proposes that:

Dante was the beginning of something, and that something—the Europe of the thinkers and novelists and poets—will end with the man who contains it whole, the last European, George Steiner.

Majmudar also has an interesting blog at the Kenyon Review site.


Oct 032012

by William Wordsworth

Thus my days are past
In contradiction; with no skill to part
Vague longing, haply bred by want of power,
From paramount impulse not to be withstood,
A timorous capacity, from prudence,
From circumspection, infinite delay.
Humility and modest awe, themselves
Betray me, serving often for a cloak
To a more subtle selfishness; that now
Locks every function up in blank reserve,
Now dupes me, trusting to an anxious eye
That with intrusive restlessness beats off
Simplicity and self-presented truth.
Ah! better far than this, to stray about
Voluptuously through fields and rural walks,
And ask no record of the hours, resigned
To vacant musing, unreproved neglect
Of all things, and deliberate holiday.
Far better never to have heard the name
Of zeal and just ambition, than to live
Baffled and plagued by a mind that every hour
Turns recreant to her task; takes heart again,
Then feels immediately some hollow thought
Hang like an interdict upon her hopes.
This is my lot; for either still I find
Some imperfection in the chosen theme,
Or see of absolute accomplishment
Much wanting, so much wanting, in myself,
That I recoil and droop, and seek repose
In listlessness from vain perplexity,
Unprofitably travelling toward the grave,
Like a false steward who hath much received
And renders nothing back.

From Book I, lines 237-269. This passage is cited by Richard Eldridge in his response to Robert Pippin’s excellent Participants and Spectators.


Mar 162012

The following chart is taken from America’s Young Adults at 24, a news release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (via Carpe Diem):

According to the 2011 Projections of Education Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, the total number of Ph.D. degrees granted to women first exceeded those granted to men sometime in 2007-2008. Over the next decade, the number of wo­men Ph.D. recipients is expected to grow 1.75 times faster than the number of men reci­pi­ents until, in 2020, the overall ratio will be roughly 5 to 4.

So, is this good?  If not, what is to be done?


Feb 122012

In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, Charles Murray, author of Coming Apart: The State of White Amer­ica, 1960-2010, identifies five common myths about white people:

  1. Working-class whites are more religious than upper-class whites.
  2. Elite colleges are bastions of white upper-middle-class privilege.
  3. Marriage is breaking down throughout white America.
  4. White working-class men have a strong work ethic.
  5. White Americans are yesterday’s news.

Another article, in the NY Times, quotes Murray as remarking that merely extending his thanks “can cause trouble for people in academia.”  This same article says that on a recent visit to Earlham College (my alma mater) Murray’s talk was twice interrupted by fire alarms.

As asserted in an earlier post on American Exceptionalism, Charles Murray is an important ob­server of con­tem­porary society. He is worth listening to despite fire alarms and regard­less of whether or not one agrees with him.  Here is a preview that he wrote last month of Coming Apart, called Belmont and Fishtown.


Nov 302011

by W. H. Auden

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

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Oct 082011

According to Charles Krauthammer — here — this joke is circulating the internet:

“We don’t allow any faster-than-light neutrinos in here,” says the bartender.

A neutrino walks into a bar.

The CERN Press Release describes the result as an anomoly — which indeed it is if the neutrinos arrived in Gran Sasso 60 ns. before leaving Geneva. Perhaps the most per­ti­nent observation in the press release is that “the potential impact on science is too large to draw imme­diate conclusions or attempt physics inter­pre­tations.”


Sep 272011

One of my deep satisfactions during the past decade has been reading Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War. I realize that not everyone shares my obsession for Greek his­tory, and it probably makes more sense anyway to start with Thucydides.  But Yale has clearly done a great service in making available the lecture videos for Donald Kagan’s: Introduction to Ancient Greek History. There are 24 lectures, ranging from the Dark Ages to the Twilight of the Polis — a breathtaking journey with a great historian.

Donald Kagen is Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University. George Steiner called his four volumes on the Peloponnesian War “the foremost works of history pro­duced in North America in this century.” Here is a nice site which celebrates Kagan’s Jefferson Lecture in 2005. It has a biography, an interview, an appre­cia­tion by Barry Strauss of Cornell, and the text of Kagan’s lecture: In Defense of History.


Sep 262011

Walter Russell Mead is James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Hu­man­i­ties at Bard College, and Editor-at-Large of The American Interest.  Mead, the son of an Episcopal priest, was educated at Groton, which he calls “Pundit High”, and Yale, where he still teaches International Security Studies. From 2003 until 2010 Mead was the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. His books include Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World (2001), and God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World (2007).

Mead is also the author of an energetic and well-written blog, Via Meadia, in which he discusses a broad range of foreign and domestic issues. In a recent essay Mead says that his motivation for this blog is “a sense that the world is moving faster than our thought about the world,” a point he also makes in Global Weirding Coming at Us All. Mead describes himself as a Democrat who voted for Obama in 2008. But he often argues against orthodox liberal positions. For instance, he criticizes what he calls “the blue social model” in Beyond the Big City Blues and Why Blue Can’t Save the Inner Cities Part I and Part II. He supports school choice, and he lacerates the green move­ment in such essays as More Green Madness on the Plains. There is a distinctive re­ligious sensibility in his writing, perhaps best illustrated in He Plants His Footsteps on the Sea: Faith Matters.

I find Mead’s blog refreshing, and appreciate his attempt to move beyond the ideological conformity of the aca­demy. His advice to first year college students is given in Back to School.