Guests on Volume 128
• MATTHEW CRAWFORD on how skillful engagement with the material world provides the setting for true individuality
• CARLO LANCELLOTTI on Augusto Del Noce's critique of modernity
• JAMES TURNER on the origins of the humanities in the venerable discipline of philology
• ROD DREHER on what he learned from Dante’s Divine Comedy
• MARK EVAN BONDS on the idea of "absolute music"
• JEREMY BEER on the neglected accomplishments of Booth Tarkington
“I think there’s a fixation on the self that we call individualism, and when I look at people who are engaged in skilled practices doing really impressive things, I don’t see such a fixation on the self. Rather there’s almost a submission to things that have their own intractable ways to them.”
— Matthew Crawford
Philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford attracted attention with his 2009 book Shop Class as Soulcraft, An Inquiry into the Value of Work. His newest book, The World beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, continues Crawford’s investigation into what forms the self. In this interview, Crawford suggests that individuality is very different from the radical individualism often underwriting discussions of self identity. As selves, our individuality is not so much a right granted to us through our capacity to choose as it is an earned competence achieved through habits of submission to various tasks, traditions, and authorities.
• • •
“The denial of God in Marx is not a conclusion; it’s a presupposition. Because, in a sense, in order to be free, humans have to create themselves through their work. In order to create themselves through their work, they cannot be created by somebody else. [Del Noce's] reading of Marx is very theological. He’s not interested in Marx as a political thinker or a political economist. He’s interested in Marx as a metaphysician, as a fundamental philosopher.”
— Carlo Lancellotti
Physicist and mathematician Carlo Lancellotti discusses the life and work of twentieth-century Italian philosopher, Augusto Del Noce. Though Del Noce is a renowned philosopher in Italy, he is virtually unknown among English speakers. Lancellotti’s recent translation of some of Del Noce’s essays, published through McGill-Queen’s Press, marks the first English translation of Del Noce’s work. In this interview, Lancellotti describes Del Noce’s interest in the history of European rationalism, particularly in its culminating manifestation in the revolutionary theories of Karl Marx. Marxism, according to Del Noce, is a watershed movement in which rationalism shifts from a philosophy for the well-educated elite to a “religion” that “reaches the masses.”
• • •
“You can think of a textual philologist, traditionally, as needing to know a great deal about, let’s say Roman culture (if he’s studying the letters of Cicero in the late republic of Roman culture). In order to interpret correctly a letter from Cicero, you need to know a lot about the Roman law courts . . . you need to know about the Roman family . . . you need to know about agriculture . . . So you need to know all this stuff about Roman culture, economy, society, and politics in order to understand the texts of Cicero.”
— James Turner
The word philology once designated the entire range of what we now call the humanities or humanistic studies. Historian James Turner explains how this inquiry into texts and languages involved the sensibility and habit of making comparisons and drawing connections which we typically associate with the humanities. The discipline of philology provided the basis for a mode of research that viewed history as the key to understanding knowledge and culture.
• • •
“I call the Divine Comedy the greatest self-help book ever written because it is very, very practical. Not only is it one of the ultimate expressions of artistic achievement and spiritual achievement in Western civilization, it’s also a very practical work.”
— Rod Dreher
The opening lines to Dante’s Inferno read, “In the middle of the path through life we all must take, I found myself in a dark wood where the way ahead was no longer clear.” Journalist Rod Dreher would be the first to tell you that he was, in many ways, an unlikely candidate for writing a book about Dante’s Divine Comedy, or any other work of great poetry. But as he explains in this interview, the misery that he was experiencing in the middle of the journey of his life was an existential preparation that no amount of scholarship or conventional erudition could have equaled. In a letter to one of his patrons, Dante Alighieri wrote that his Commedia was intended to lead men out of a state of wretchedness into one of happiness. For Dreher, Dante’s aspirations could not have been more perfectly realized. As Dreher recounts, though he was reading the Commedia, the Commedia was reading him.
• • •
Mark Evan Bonds
“The idea of art for art’s sake, which we kind of take for granted, was really quite novel in the 1820s and ‘30s. People just hadn’t thought about it in those terms. It was always assumed that there was some moral quality to art. And the idea that there wouldn’t be—that there wouldn’t be an ethical dimension—was strange and slightly frightening to some people.”
— Mark Evan Bonds
Music historian Mark Evan Bonds discusses the history of the question of whether the effects music has on listeners have anything to do with what music is. In his book, Absolute Music: The History of an Idea, Bonds frames the questions involved as such: “Is music capable by itself of expressing emotions or ideas? If so, how? If not, what — if anything —does music express?” Debates over what music is and what music does are as old as written history and have been discussed throughout the centuries under various configurations and in various permutations. In this interview, Bonds focuses on the new nineteenth-century idea that music does not express meaning in any semantic or semiotic sense, but simply is pure, or absolute, form.
• • •
“I think [Tarkington] qualifies as more prophetic than many of his contemporaries, because, if we have a god now (civilly speaking) surely it is fluidity and malleability when it comes from everything to gender to the ability to remake ourselves genetically… things that Tarkington could never have foreseen. He did, I think, foresee the way . . . certain changes in technology were going to drive changes in our own self conceptions.”
— Jeremy Beer
Booth Tarkington wrote the book upon which Orson Welles's film The Magnificant Ambersons was based. His book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1918, and was a bestseller. Born in Indianapolis in 1869, Tarkington was a proud Midwesterner who was unabashedly out of step with the fashionable writers and critics of the early twentieth century. Jeremy Beer, editor of America Moved: Booth Tarkington’s Memoirs of Time and Place, 1869-1928, talks about Tarkington’s questioning of the vogue “giantism” and speed of early twentieth-century social life.