Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Book Review

Walter Kaufman’s discussion on Goethe, Hegel and Nietzsche in his book, From Shakespeare to Existentialism is illuminating. By the end of the book, however, his insights become less informative and increasingly invidious, irrelevant, and tedious. His chapters on Kierkegaard and Heidegger fail to provide a substantial exposition of the respective philosophical views; instead it focuses on single failings of the philosophers: Kierkegaard is presented as overly, dogmatically Christian and Heidegger, obscure and ambiguous. The book culminates in a tirade against Toynbee taking up what seems like an unnecessarily lengthy discussion (about 50 pages) about a man who is not a scholar, historian, poet, or prophet. If Toynbee has nothing to offer, beyond influence to Americans who don’t know any better, and is rather irrelevant to the topic of existentialism, why bring him up at all? Kaufman’s criticism and scholarship is admirable. But the book lacks aim, focus, and, by its end, objectivity.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Love of Words

I have a special relationship with language. People? Not so much. When I talk, I usually avoid niceties. I get straight to the point, and quite often people think I'm rude or arrogant. They get offended and shy away from me. That's one reason I am somewhat antisocial and choose to remain in my shell. If you can imagine, I lose friends quickly, but the ones I keep I cherish: they are the good ones that have weathered it all, proven their loyalty and love, and I love them for it. I don't complain: one good friend is worth more than a thousand false, two-faced, acquaintances ill disposed towards my persona.

My heightened sensibility to language is probably born out of my multilingual education. My first language was Polish. In third or forth grade I started learning Russian (according to the mandatory elementary school curriculum imposed by our Eastern communist comrades). Then when I was fourteen I moved to the United States, and my rendezvous with English started. Latin was next on the list to learn because, as Thoreau explains, it is impossible to be deliberate in a common tongue. Only when ancient Rome and Greece stopped talking were we able to here the best thoughts of those generations that provided the foundations of Western civilization. So when I look at words, read words, I do not merely translate the visual symbols into sounds: I think about them, analyze them, and relish in them. So when I communicate with people daily, I try to be as brief as possible.

There is a difference between spoken word and written word. Henry David Thoreau tells us that the orator speaks to a mob, but a writer speaks "to the intellect and health of mankind" and to all who can understand him. Our everyday language--words we use to get things done, to communicate simple needs--is not the same as the language of literature. Everyday spoken language is crude, vulgar, brutish,  and transitory. We don't pay attention to how we say things most of the time because we are too familiar with it. Written word or literary language, on the other hand, is deliberate. Writers put effort and energy into what they say. They think about the vocabulary, grammatical constructions, punctuation, and order because they have that luxury.

My economy of spoken word comes from a deep conviction that words should be revered. One should not use them in vain. They make our world possible. Without words our experiences would be meaningless. Words give us a way to describe a world, organize it, explain it, and share it with others.  In fact, they do not only describe the world around us but also create it. Immanuel Kant tells us that all knowledge is not derived from experience: we use the external world in our thinking processes and transform it, using semantic paradigms, into models that make sense to us. In that sense we must admit that the world is somewhat subjective: there are as many worlds as there are minds. Words allow us to partake in the eternal: through them we participate in the history of human race. Maybe it is through words we can feel time.