Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Andrew S. Curran on Diderot


Andrew S. Curran, author of the acclaimed Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely (Other Press, 2019), was the guest speaker in a virtual meeting of the Greater Boston Humanists on 22 November 2020 titled 'Enlightenment, Atheism, and Race'. 

From today's perspective Diderot can be seen as more progressive than Voltaire and Rousseau. The concept of the 'Radical Enlightenment' was discussed, as well as the origins and causes of modern racism. This was an excellent presentation with exceptionally intelligent audience participation.

Curran is also the author of The Anatomy of Blackness: Science and Slavery in an Era of Enlightenment (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

Monday, August 10, 2020

Richard Wright vs Sun Ra

This is only a hypothetical confrontation to have taken place in the 1950s, or posthumously in the '60s. I recently came across an untitled poem that I wrote the same day I wrote this:

UFO (Haiku for Richard Wright)

In a rootless cosmopolitan way, Wright also belongs to Afrofuturism, maybe not so much Afro-....
"I have no religion in the formal sense of the word .... I have no race except that which is forced upon me. I have no country except that to which I'm obliged to belong. I have no traditions. I'm free. I have only the future."
-- Richard Wright, Pagan Spain

My haiku was prompted by a conversation about flying saucers buried in Wright's novel The Outsider. Both Wright and Sun Ra were hot to escape the confines of the Jim Crow South, taking different routes. Both are admirable for different reasons. Sun Ra was a musical genius and quite a charismatic character, but having listened to his blather in person, I could only take so much. So this is what I must have been thinking when I wrote the following, to which I must now give a title in addition to some slight editing and rearrangement:

Richard Wright to Sun Ra From the Tomb

Shaking hands with the ether,
Knowing Natchez was a pile of shit
Spewn over the globe.

Faith in articulate waves
broadcast into the galaxy . . .
and not your crank etymologies
concocted in the Magic City.

Bluesman in Paris
did not settle down,
Hallucinating into the future
And abruptly cut down.

(4 August 2011)

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Philip Roth: 'The Conversion of the Jews'

Philip Roth is a famous name in Jewish American literature, but I never read him or much of any of the Jewish American literature of his era, which would seem to have much to do with the tribulations of assimilation into the American mainstream. I read a story by him, from 1959, for the first time a week ago. And this is the second, for an online class on Jewish culture two days from now:

The Conversion of the Jews by Philip Roth (1959)

This is really brilliant, with multiple ironies. By all means read it, and then read my analysis:

1. Ozzie the child is a child, not having the understanding, perspective, illusions, and inhibitions of the adult.

2. Ozzie doesn't really care whether or not Jesus is God, but he poses the philosophical question about the possibility of virgin birth.

3. Ozzie's reasoning mirrors the absurdity of all religious justification, but freed of understanding or interest in any superstitious tradition, pursues an abstract question.

4. Sticking to his guns, he's willing to suffer and rebel against persecution as a heretic, but flees to the rooftop.

5. On the roof, Ozzie discovers he has a peculiar power, first over the firement, then over the rabbi, then his mother, then the entire crowd.

6. Ozzie's friend Itzie yells for him to jump, and whips up the crowd. They love the spectacle, and they don't particularly care about Ozzie.

7. Ozzie discovers the power of martyrdom.

8. The crowd wants a martyr for its own delectation, not for any principle.

9. The guardians of Jewish religious orthodoxy--the rabbi and mom--don't want a martyr. This is because they don't want Ozzie to die. But this is also a commentary on and condemnation of Christianity.

10. So as not to become a martyr, Ozzie commands the rabbi and mom to bow down and acknowledge that God can do anything, he induces them to kneel and to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the son of God.

11. This is a paradoxical commentary on how Christianity makes converts, by coercion and spectacle. And also, how the Jews can be forced to kowtow to Christianity in order to survive, although in this case, it's because (for the rabbi and mom) they want Ozzie to survive, that is they want the prospective martyr not to be a martyr, and so they humiliate themselves for his sake. So, in this ironic situation, Judaism is subordinated to Christianity, but for the sake of saving a Jew.

12. And nobody should ever be slapped for their thoughts about God.

13. Ergo, Roth condemns both Judaism and Christianity and all religious authority. But paradoxically, while Christianity is posited as a viable theological option, Christianity receives the bulk of the condemnation for the glorification of martyrdom.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Notes from Underground (10): Richard Wright & Ralph Ellison


‘Are the underground men in the works of Wright and Ellison given the same psychological dimensions as those Dostoevsky achieves for his underground figure? The answer is “No,” because the latter two writers borrowed only those characteristics from the pioneer that would serve their purposes. Thus, while Dostoevsky’s undergrounder makes a strong case against the dictates of reason and the laws of nature, the underground men of Wright and Ellison welcome both in their attempt to find meaning in their existence.’

SOURCE: Hayes, Floyd W., III. “The Paradox of the Ethical Criminal in Richard Wright’s Novel The Outsider: A Philosopical Investigation,” Black Renaissance Noire, vol. 13, issue 1, Spring/Summer 2013, pp. 162-171. (Revision of paper prepared for the International Centennial Conference, Celebrating 100 Years of Richard Wright, The American University of Paris, Paris, France, June 19-21, 2008.)
See also:

Lucy Parsons: The Religion of Humanity

“The Christian civilization of Chicago ... permits the heart's blood of your children to be quaffed in the wine cups of the labor robbers. . . . Socialism is the 100-cents-on-the-dollar religion. (Cheers) . . . . We have heard enough about a paradise behind the moon. We want something now. [....] We are tired of hearing about the golden streets of the hereafter. What we want is good paved and drained streets in this world. [....] I want my immortality in this world, and if there is any in the next world we can look after that when we get there.”



       -- Lucy Parsons, “The Religion of Humanity,”
           speech delivered at A. R. Parsons Assembly No. 1
           of the Knights of Labor, Waverly Hall, January 23, 1889

SOURCE: Ashbaugh, Carolyn. Lucy Parsons: American Revolutionary (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 1976) p. 170. For more on this speech and meeting see pp. 169-171.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Fan Zhen (3): Essay on the Extinction of the Soul

I mentioned in two previous posts that I learned of Fan Zhen (450 - 515 AD) via Esperanto, then sought-out English language sources. I have finally located a translation of a key essay, preceded by a biographical and political contextualization of Fan Zhen's intervention against Buddhism:

The First Chinese Materialist / Essay on the Extinction of the Soul (Etienne Balazs / Fan Zhen)

Fan Zhen's materialism is in his argument on the mind-body problem. As is historically the case in much of Chinese philosophical discourse, here there is a mixture of logical argument, anecdotal historical references, appeals to tradition and sages and other authorities. Fan Zhen links his argument against the persistence of the soul after death to the parasitism, otherworldly diversion, and false promises of Buddhist monks he alleges.

Friday, November 15, 2019

My Martin Gardner testimonial

The Martin Gardner Centennial was in 2014 and I commemorated it on this blog. I also submitted my own testimonial to the official web site and linked to it in this post:


Now I'd like to reproduce my contribution here:

Martin Gardner Testimonials: Testimonial 55: Ralph Dumain

As a teenager I discovered Martin Gardner in the 'Mathematical Games' column of the June or July 1967 issue of Scientific American, having innocently bought it at the corner drugstore on account of my boyhood interest in science. That column featured John Horton Conway’s game Sprouts. From then on I was hooked on Gardner’s columns and related books.

In his June 1968 column Gardner proposed a problem concerning Baker’s Solitaire, and followed up with readers’ solutions in subsequent issues. My name appeared with several others in the September 1968 issue. These acknowledgments were not included when the column was anthologized in Mathematical Magic Show: More Puzzles, Games, Diversions, Illusions and Other Mathematical Sleight-of-Mind from Scientific American in 1977.

Gardner’s columns radiated from the base of recreational mathematics to encompass quite a range of topics. Gardner stimulated my interest in the related hobby of abstract strategy board games, but that was only the beginning. Through Gardner I learned about the artist M.C. Escher, the 19th-century fad of four-dimensional space, anamorphic art, Raymond Llull (the godfather of the ars combinatoria), and numerous other fascinating topics reaching into obscure corners of intellectual history.

Gardner’s literary efforts were wide-ranging, but his other major claim to fame was his contribution to the 'skeptics' movement, decades before that movement was formally organized. I read Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science not long after I discovered Gardner. I returned to this book several times over the decades. I was never fully convinced of Gardner’s criteria for the demarcation of science and pseudoscience. In addition to dealing with obvious crackpots, he delved into fringe areas where rationality bleeds into irrationality, such as Alfred Korzybski’s General Semantics, William Reich’s radical psychoanalysis and orgonomy, and Marshall McLuhan’s theory of the media. Still, the range of Gardner’s examples supplied a background I could draw upon throughout my adult life. This book can be said to have stuck with me, but I will forever be indebted to Gardner for all the wonders to which I was introduced via his work on recreational mathematics.

Like so many others I felt a serious loss when Gardner died. I paid tribute to him in my Reason & Society blog, in my podcast of July 19, 2010, and in my web guide to Board Games & Related Games & Recreations. Though my priorities have shifted over the decades, I can still say that Martin Gardner enhanced my life in a particular and unique way. He will always be remembered fondly."

         — Ralph Dumain, librarian and independent scholar, Washington, DC (22 May 2014)