Review of "Explosion in a Cathedral"

Alejo Carpentier’s book Explosion in a Cathedral has the distinction of being amongst Lolita and several of Henry Miller’s novels as books which have required me to reference the dictionary in search of rarely used words. It is in these terms for shipping that the layman doesn’t know and in architecture and science terms of the time as well as the gothic descriptions of surroundings that causes this book to be seen as one of the ur-text’s of Latin American magical realism. Set in the island of Guadeloupe during the time of the French Revolution, the novel’s main characters are three wealthy orphans, the siblings Sofia and Carlo and their sickly cousin Esteban, and the adult Victor Hugues. While the youths are fictional, Victor was in fact a historical personage who was the French Revolutionary government’s military leader of the assault to retake the island of Guadeloupe from the British and later Governor of various French holdings in the Carribean.

The novel begins “I saw them erect the guillotine again to-night” and then follows by telling of the death of the family patriarch. The children isolate themselves from the local community and begin purchasing through catalogs the newest literature, scientific instruments and fine arts that they can fit into their house. They amuse themselves with games of the imagination and experiments with the scientific equipment until Victor comes knocking at the door, bringing with him all of the conflict present in this age of Atlantic revolutions. We quickly learn that though a businessman, Victor idealizes the classical Republican conception of virtue. This aspect of Victor’s can be seen in his quotations of Roman orators while playing pretend with the children as well as his stated manner of identifying his motivations as stemming not from private interests that causes him to profit off of others, but from a notion of universal brotherhood. Such a set of beliefs at such a time sets him in league with a number of interesting characters who make brief appearances amidst the turmoil which soon commences. Voodoo doctors with Masonic ties, and a corrupt Catholic executor of the dead father’s estate are just two examples of the island population. In his characterization and description, Carpentier is deft in showing that each of these characters are not simply representatives of fundamental energies of the age but are also individuals. Through this stylization, he is able to illustrate the social complexities of the global system in a very personal manner.

The play that characterizes Victor’s first appearance in the orphans house soon vanishes as rumors strike upon their idyllic shore that those involved in the Masonic lodges may soon be expelled from the French dominions. Forced to choose between abandoning their new friend and going with him and his black, voodoo practicing associate Oge, they leave and begin an adventure that will cause them to be separated for years and mature in ways that they never thought possible. The characters rich internal life that is shown to be constantly at odds with the situations in which they find themselves. For instance Esteban finds himself trying to navigate the dangerous position of being a Guadeloupean working for the French on the border of Spain with Revolutionary sympathies for the party that has just been ousted in the Thermidorean reaction. Though he has been nothing but felicitous to their cause, as he sees the heads start to roll from Paris outward and surveys the task he’s been assigned as impossible, his beliefs are sorely questioned. Sofia, though loyal to the rhetoric that Victor embodies, abhors the violence that comes with it’s ascent and is empathetic with the Africans who now no longer slaves are forced into capitalist market relations with a mother country that has brought them naught but suffering and compulsive labor.

Timothy Brennan suggests in his introduction to the novel that the book was a prescient defense of the Cuban revolution’s values, an interpretation that I agree with. Unlike, the novels by Rizal that I reviewed earlier, as the above should suggest the novel succeeds not only as a thinly veiled defense of Cuba’s new political powers but as an aesthetic work itself. As a defense of the revolution, it constructs the framework of the conflict impelling the youths out of the comforts of their home as originating amongst foreign powers vying for control of islands viewed as little more that rebellious forced labour populations. Lacking the industrial goods and capacity, the population, history of armed self-defense on the scale with which foreign powers could bring to bear upon them – the island of Guadeloupe and the others around it are de facto tributary vassal states. Such a terrain of complex relationships is not something that is not merely described but narrated, to use a distinction made by Georg Lukacs, in such as way that shows the deep historical research that Carpentier put into the book. One of the issues that I have with Brennan’s interpretation in the introduction is his conception of Sofia as the “only positive character” by citing an interview where Carpentier says that she represents praxis. Praxis understood via Marxist categories is something that is broad and applies to all individual and groups actions that are based upon their beliefs and material situatedness. As such she is not the only positive character. Victor is as well, though in his role of cleansing the inherited oppressions and inhumanity by using those same tools he is deeply alienated. Sofia, from the Greek word signifying wisdom, however sees this as both necessary AND horrible and thus represents the second stage of the transition to a new society.

Also worth mentioning is that in addition to the historically veiled defense of the revolution, the book is also a call to the intellectuals of the period to remove themselves from the confines of their houses and studies, which the children were once in, in order to take an active role in the management and direction of the newly created polity, as Esteban and Sofia do. Victor, a charismatic leader, is the point of convergence for Esteban and Sofia’s respective sentiments of admiration and romance and alludes to the many historical circumstances where intellectuals have rallied around an energetic leader that seeks to level the inherited norms to make way for greater material progress.

One of the methods that I have for a novelists in determining how good a book is if after reading it it makes me want to read their other works, in this case it’s a resounding yes and as soon as I make my way through the other books I have on my list I’ll definitely make an effort to pick up Carpentier’s other renowned novel
The Kingdom of This World.

Book published!

I’m a little behind in getting notice of it, but the book Attention Dynamics Program that I co-authored with my father Dr. Brian Sheen is now available for purchase.

This is a great book for guiding adults, children and their immediate social network to realizing their full potential for happiness, well being, health and peace by utilizing the most effective, evidence-based therapeutic techniques currently available in scientific research today. These include a wide variety of cognitive-based and behavioral oriented techniques.

Readers and participants will learn how to enhance their retention and self-management skills to be able to make better connecting choices at home, work and/or at school. Children will increase their level of self-motivatation, become more organized as well as increasing their effective communication skills by learning and applying the tools they learn.

Review of "Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television"

Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television is the most pleasurable works of contemporary cultural criticism that I’ve read in long time. Some of this pleasure is in knowing most of the television references that Kotsko uses, such as The Wire, Dexter, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and House, while the other is the fact that he foregoes the baroque terminology and labyrinthian logic found in other words of this type I’ve read. Rather than excessively quoting or citing seminal thinkers for justification of his thesis, he relies upon the strength of his argument alone. If this seems unusual to add in a book review, I’ll explain at the end.

Kotsko opens by defining and illustrating a particular character type found within group and social relations: sociopaths. He describes them as amoral, adept manipulators of social conventions that don’t, at least on the surface, fully identify with the social structure of which they are presumed to be a part. Whether or not we are to love, loathe or be ambivalent about sociopaths thus hinges on our understanding of society. Kostko states that a vast majority of humans interactions are scripted in the sense that that they are designed to smooth, ease or otherwise engender a sense of comfort and predictability to our daily patterns of living. Such unwritten rules of behavior structure of our social sphere and can be as simple as not cutting in line, asking a persons level of income and avoiding confrontation. The problem with these rules, however, is two fold. One, there is not unusually a prescribed means for correcting anti-normative social behavior and the social order doesn’t always fulfill the purported function of allaying anxiety and can instead act in a personally, socially and professionally repressive manner. By pointing out the failings of the overvalued social order, Kostko thus provides space for sociopaths to receive a more positive valuation. He then proposes, I believe rightly, that this is part of their appeal to television viewing audiences. Sociopaths may be classified as morally ambiguous or inferior due to their willingness to break conventions, but they are also attractive in their ability to effectively instrumentalize themselves to obtain their desires. It is sociopaths recognition that mores simply perpetuate a specific social order rather than productively provide shared goals and their ability to achieve their goals that makes them attractive to audiences, even if their desires are dubious or in the end don’t give them the satisfaction that they expected.

The flip side of this is ability to mobilize or discard at will social conventions for one’s purpose is found in the category of awkwardness. This has been further described in Kotsko’s book Awkwardness, which I have not read but plan on now that I’ve read this work. In the shorthand explanation Kotsko provides here, Awkwardness occurs in situations where the cultural norms of interactions are unclear, have broken down or don’t exist. Lacking “scripted” socials strategies to follow people feel anxious at the fact that they must exist even only for a few short moments according to their own rules.

Kostko then categorizes different examples of them into three classifications: Schemers, Climber and Enforcers. This tripartition functions more as a continuum from lower (schemer) to highest (enforcer), to allow for some of the sociopathic characters he categorizes as occasionally displaying the traits of others. For instance Gregory House is classified as an Enforcer in the text, however in the show he also is depicted as constantly playing pranks on his colleagues. The classifications themselves relate primarily to characters desires and their perception of barriers to them. Schemers are trying to obtain something they don’t have, climbers are trying to get more of something that they already have, while Enforcers have something and they are trying to keep it.

If this sounds overly simplistic and lacking depth, that’s because it is purposely so as it would defeat the purpose of this review to go into any kind of sustained restatement of Kostko’s analysis of the classifications of sociopathic series protagonists both as I am in accord with them and because of the books relatively short length to do so would give away too much and discourage you from reading something insightful and enjoyable yourself. Instead, I’ll note that the interspersed throughout andante especially towards the end are some devastatingly insightful criticisms, such as how: “our culture-wide fascination with these sociopaths is not sophisticated or rebellious or counter-cultural – rather it serves only to reinforce our collective Stockholm Syndrome” (77).

The conclusion of the text points to the profound social dissatisfaction felt in “late capitalist” society and then illustrates how the listed sociopaths manipulation of the system is insufficient for their goals. Violations of social law are often for the very sake of that law that was broken.For instance Dexter from Dexter, McNulty from The Wire and Jack from 24 all break the law for the sake of the law that is, according to it’s current incarnation, unable to fulfill the promises that it was formed to realize. Kostko’s call for an ever more radical sociopath that “combines the joy of the schemer and the single-mindedness of the enforcer with the creativity, persuasiveness and unsentimental outlook of the climber” is provocative but not simply for the point of being shocking (99). He points, I think correctly, to the manner in which familial and culturally instilled timidity allows for the continuation of a fundamentally anti-social order and the need for people to do more than further it for their own cynical betterment but change it at the root.

Review of "Freud, Adler, and Jung: Discovering the Mind Volume 3"

As Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit was the summation of all philosophy up until that time, and in many ways held criticism against those that made the similar intellectual errors mistakes that he himself or others made, Walter Kauffman’s “Discovering the Mind” trilogy has the same function. The last part of the series, Freud, Adler, and Jung: Discovering the Mind Volume 3 focuses strictly on Freud’s development of psychoanalysis and the developments that followed from his disciples.

For Kauffman Freud is like Abraham. Rather than leading people into the promised land, however, he brings them to an understanding of themselves that can lead to increased self-knowledge and self-actualization should they work towards foregoing self-deception. In the reconstruction of the Freud’s development
of a poetic science that could benefit humankind’s aspirations for greater autonomy, Kauffman shows how it is Goethe’s conception of science that Freud replicated in psychoanalysis and how this means that he is a major contributor to the discovery of the mind.

Freud’s discovery of the importance of sex, his discovery of the importance of childhood experiences for character development, his new therapy, his interpretation of dreams, his psychopathology of everyday life, his interpretation of mental illness, his interpretation of jokes, his analysis of literature, art and religion and even his personality are cited by Kauffman as his key achievements in the discovery of the mind. In each of these sections he clarifies terms of Freud’s that have entered into the everyday vocabulary in order to bring attention to the originators understanding of them rather than watered down popular misunderstandings of them. He does this on the larger conceptual level too, for instance pointing out that Freud never endorsed his patients to decline responsibility for themselves in order to blame their parents, society or religious upbringing. While Freud would say that these factors helped bring about a certain neurosis, this sort of self-victimization was anathema to him. Kauffman also highlights examples of lesser known terms, such as “mischievement”, that ought to enter into our vocabulary and thus help us analyze our life and lead to insights that thus applied could batter our self. Kauffman also points out how it is that certain terms of latter commentators or practitioners of psychoanalysis, such as Thanatos, did not originate from Freud and how he thought that these words obfuscated the object of their description.

Besides the recreation of Freud’s intellectual development and exegesis of some of it’s major components, he is defended by Kauffman from other informed commentators such as Sartre and Popper as well as popular misprisions of his ideas. In brief Poppers criticisms are shown to be coming from the school of science that values only quantitative methods, a methodology that disavows the qualitative development of those under analysis while Sartre’s desire to form an existentialist psychoanalysis based upon the total translucency of consciousness is shown to be out and out baseless when presented with case studies. Rather than using unadulterated rationalism and defending himself dogmatically, we see that Freud consistently based his theories on the empirical situation and revised them when necessary. One of the prime examples is in relation to expanding the source of much human motivation from just the libido to include the aggressive drive.
For doing this and in many other ways he is repeatedly praised as one of if not the most honest man that has lived. Kauffman relates these contribution in a biographical fashion in much the same way that Freud understood himself – it was his outsider status as a Jew in Vienna and his incredible love of literature that helped him to discover a talking cure for people’s neuroses.

In this series thus far, this book is the longest and also the most tedious however this is because a majority of the subsequent analysis devoted to Adler and Jung are concerned with correcting the well-documented but oft-misunderstood breaks between these two with Freud. As Kauffman amply documents, the decision and strategy pursued to achieved personal and professional separation from Freud by these two is intimately connected to the form their intellectual work took. In short Adler and Jung are disparaged for providing no redeemable insights into the human psyche or society and their behavior is shown to be equally opportunistic, uninformed, ignorant, or out and out disturbing.

Adler is shown to be a poor writer that is overly-concerned with escaping the shadow of Freud and establishing himself as a professional by heaping personal insults on him instead of producing work which shows failings, a poor thinker that makes no great effort to understand Nietzsche yet uses a poor approximation of his though in his own work, a man unwilling to revise his theories in the face of new evidence, a man afraid of “idea theft” rather than research and someone that wants at all costs to stay within the bounds of then-current social conventions rather than work towards developing a science that leads to greater knowledge. After the devastating account of Adler, one would assume that Jung could not possibly come off worse, however we see that this is not true.

Jung repeats several of Adler’s qualities such as poor writing skills and the inability to think with a scientific rigor, and adds to it a strange penchant for taking upon the role of guru. Besides deracinating the notion of extroverts and introverts, something that is clearly absent in Freud and is suitable only for positivistic physical sciences and not that of the mind, he examines Jung’s notion of archetypes – probably due to the then ascending influence of Joseph Campbell, parapsychology and occultism. The reasons why this is specious, both on the historical and personal level, are readily apparent and yet still have credibility for a reason that Kauffman is wise to point out – it allows for patients to skip deep personal analysis and instead play with symbols that are magically inherent in the consciousness as a means for self-growth. Here, Kauffman’s differentiation between scholarship and erudition is important to recall – the former being intellectual self-discipline that involves the scrupulous consideration of objections and alternatives while the later is mere book knowledge.

If I give Adler and Jung only a little attention and don’t bother to go into all of Kauffman’s criticisms of them and their work, it is because they serve Kauffman only as negative counter-examples of what self-knowledge looks like. These were men deceiving themselves and others and produced works we, after having placed them in a wider intellectual web, can now leave them behind much in the same way that Kant and Heidegger were in the previous two books.

The closing chapter of the book, titled Mind and Mask, gives a moving summation of what was to be Walter Kauffman’s last project before his unexpected death. Throughout his life Kauffman sought to bring attention to the creative and scientific works that could ennoble a caring reader. This section does not give a distilled, singular method for achieving this, a task that would have been anathema to Kauffman’s method of thinking, but instead presents a series of philosophical precepts, considerations and attitudes that lead to a honest, productive life. Indeed, I dare say, a good life. In this manner Kauffman is reminiscent of Epictetus, who sees the study of philosophy as the means which one orients oneself to a flourishing life. We can say than that intellectual exertion is not enough, but action and embodiment of these qualities are required if we are to life the best possible life of the mind.

Review of "Nietzsche, Heidegger and Buber: Discovering the Mind Volume 2"

Continuing my research into secondary literature to assist forming a course on German philosophy with specific emphasis on psychological tenors I read the second of Walter Kauffman’s trilogy on the discovery of the human mind Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Buber. Given Kaufmann’s widely recognized credentials as a superb teacher and the writer, I was again rewarded with insight in how to make choices for texts to require and those to ignore especially so in this case as Kauffman personally knew Heidegger and Buber, has been widely acclaimed for his translations of Nietzsche and Buber, and is thus in a unique position to weigh the contributions of these three thinkers.

Kauffman, unsurprisingly given his previous writings on Nietzsche in, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, devotes most of the book to laying out the case for Nietzsche’s contributions to, if not founding of, depth psychology. He relies not only on quotes from people such as Freud to demonstrate that he was one of the most self-aware people of his time, but also shows this via his identification as a psychologist (which is not necessarily an indicator of self-knowledge, though in his case it is) that he was concerned with wrestling with the dominant, moralistic and hedonistic assumptions of his age.

Kauffman does to great ends to disabuse many of the misinterpretations of Nietzsche, which abounds due to the style in which he wrote by doing what his detractors have not done – specifically giving contextualized, extensive quotation. Kauffman highlights the psychologically emancipatory aspects of Nietzsche, such as his encouragement of reflective writing practices, his hypothesis on the will to power, his theory of masks, his recognition that not only “philosophy” enriches the study of the human mind but art, literature and religion as well and does so while also noting the problematic aspects of his body of work. While many of Nietzsche’s claims at the time of their publication were considered revolutionary, many of them now seem almost commonplace. Stating that consciousness is a surface that sometimes resists the truth, experiences aren’t absolute but determined by frames and moods, body and spirit are not divided, it is important to to identify one’s heroes and villains to better define oneself now seem platitudinous. However as the first psychologist, and indeed the first psychohistorian, Nietzsche’s contributions to the study of the mind are legion. Just as important as demonstrating Nietzsche’s positions, Kaufmann complicates them and other’s criticisms against them – a practice that he inherited from Nietzsche.

One of the more rewarding sections for me was this second section on Martin Heidegger. During my time as an undergraduate and graduate student, I’d formed a dismal view of Heidegger due to his enthusiasts and the reasons why this was so is explained in Kauffman’s criticism of him. In a few short words Heidegger is shown to be a theologian, a categorization that Heidegger himself claimed and it’s shown that his approach to texts is not so much a matter of interpretation as that of placing his ideas, largely taken from others, onto the text. Kaufmann focuses his reading on Being and Time as this is widely regarded by man, including the author, to be his masterpiece. In the analysis which follows we see that Heidegger’s (1) “existential ontology” is dubious anthropology, (2) his thinking is deeply authoritarian, (3) Heidegger’s analysis of authenticity and inauthenticity is shallow and Manichaean, (4) Heidegger neither solved important problems nor opened them up for fruitful discussion but covered them up, (5) Being and Time belongs to the romantic revival in Germany, (6) Heidegger secularized Christian preaching about guilt, dread, and death but claimed to break with two-thousand years of Western thought, and (7) he blamed his own shortcomings on our “paltry time” rather than take responsibility for himself.

Kaufmann, not one for the same type of inflammatory invective used by Nietzsche, closes his analysis of Heidegger by stating not only that those who look to him to answer important questions due so out of a religious need but also that “he is a false prophet” (238). If this seems out of place for an academic text, one need only look to the above criticisms to see why this is so – or look at the picture included in the text where Heidegger wears the Nazi Party symbol and has the same mustache as Hitler.

Martin Buber is given a very short treatment in the book, a mere 37 pages, for reasons which Kaufmann makes clear as soon as he is introduced. Specifically that even though his major work I and Thou is widely regarded as his “classic work”, it is quickly dismissed as untenably dualistic. While Kauffman admits that it hints at profundity in it’s recognition theory, it is only speciously so and this is why Buber never finished the other books that he planned would build off of this framework. Classifying Buber’s philosophical writing as a conscious variation of Hegel’s early desire to create a rational folk-religion< Kauffman finds Buber's redeeming qualities in his theories of interpretation and re-writings on the Tales of the Hasidim - which he acknowledges as a classic of modern religious writing and wisdom literature. In these latter writings he rejects the theological notion of God which typify exegetical thinking and instead places it within the context of living communities. In Buber's theories of translation, Kauffman points to his recognition that to translate one had to make great efforts to know the author, and that this growing knowledge about someone else enhanced the knowledge of the self. This respect for the other which is also the self is a prominent value and gives insight into how we are to best approach others, as well as ourselves, should we wish to gain deep knowledge.

Review of "Art of Living"

The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness is practical codes for living a good life according to the ancient Greek stoic and sophist Epictetus. While the translation by Sharon Lebell is quite free in its adherence to the original text, hence her deeming it a “new interpretation”, this is not a weakness as the book contains a good amount of pithy insight that can be used as a guide for positive living.

Advice such as “Avoid making idle promises whenever possible, ” “New experiences are meant to deepen out lives and advance us to new levels of competence” and “Most of what passes for legitimate entertainment is inferior or foolish and only caters to or exploits people’s weaknesses” are somewhat platitudinous, but they are nonetheless important reminders as to how one can live a life of character and integrity while adhering to one’s specific life goals. I read this particular translation for the first time as part of research for a course on classical Greek philosophy and drama that I would teach as a F.I.C.A.M. elective. I will be pairing this with selected works of Plato, Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics and some plays by Euripides and Sophocles. What is perhaps most interesting about the book is that much of the self-help literature of today is so similar to its message with the exception that the style of the writing, eighty or so short messages, that it evades the need to present an overarching, developmental thrust.

In this regard I find it difficult to delve into too much analytical depth as to do so would be to engage each brief message directly. What I can say as that even though there is much good here, there is also an element of political quietism to it that those in the modern context and not in the “elite” a fact already recognized by Hegel in his Phenomenology of Spirit. Despite this, however, it is an important read and so short that it begs to be repeatedly read or referenced at random by seekers of inner peace.