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A bit of a slow month, but here’s what I read this March:

John Ashbery. I spent several days near the start of this month in a retirement home in Iowa City—not, as you might imagine, the most enthralling place. But I was able to use the opportunity to read, in fairly concentrated doses, both Shadow Train and A Wave, Ashbery’s 11th and 12th books. The former consists entirely of four-by-fours: sixteen line poems split into four stanzas of four lines apiece. Ashbery often shines in long poems, which are naturally suited to his kitchen sink approach, but here the enforced brevity suits him well. The best pieces here are finely honed daggers—“Paradoxes and Oxymorons” and “Farm Film” especially—and overall it is among his most consistently rewarding volumes. A Wave is even better. It’s Ashbery’s best book so far, from the mixed feelings of “At North Farm” to the self-querying of the title poem. Though it’s been some time since the last installment, I do intend to finish what I started with my series of posts exploring “A Wave” in depth.

Denis Diderot. I found the Penguin Classics edition of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew and D’Alembert’s Dream in my local used bookstore and snatched it up. When a discussion group to which I belong decided to discuss the meaning of the Enlightenment today, I took the opportunity to read this volume. I was amply rewarded. In contrast to the stultifying, dogmatic optimism being peddled under the name of the Enlightenment by the likes of Steven Pinker, Diderot reminds us of the movement’s skeptical core and of the intellectual excitement of thinking through new ideas for oneself. Rameau’s Nephew is hilarious, a dialogue in which it is relentlessly unclear which character, if either, speaks for the author, as a genial moralist comes face to face with a thoroughgoing comic nihilist. For my money, though, it’s D’Alembert’s Dream that’s the real gem here. In it, Diderot—through the figure of the dreaming D’Alembert—works out the consequences of a fully secular, materialistic understanding of the world. As a reader, I could feel the intellectual ferment, the froth of thought. It is a useful solace in an age where the public face of atheism—for all it calls itself “skepticism”—is rank dogmatism that recommends offloading all the business of one’s thinking to approved experts. Diderot shows us a better way.

Stanisław Lem. My wife very kindly bought me Lem’s Solaris. I’m rather a fan of the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (it’s between him and Yasujiro Ozu for my favorite), and while Solaris is one of his lesser films, that speaks more to his other films than to Solaris itself. Lem’s book is the basis of the film, so I knew roughly what I was in for, but Tarkovsky took enough liberties with it that it was a new experience. It’s an enjoyable book, but a deeply flawed one. It reminded me why I tend not read sci-fi: the writing is simply not very good for much of the book, especially at the beginning. What’s more, I found that the book consistently raised issues that it left frustratingly unresolved—not so much in terms of plot (though there was some of that) than in terms of the philosophical issues the plot raises. My issue is not with ambiguity itself, but with the fact that Lem did not probe the issues deeply enough to at least clarify the contours of this ambiguity. For instance, the appearance of the “visitors” raises deep issues of realism and idealism: what would it be to encounter not the external world but a world limited by our ideas—ideas that, of course, always fall short of reality. But Lem never satisfactorily addresses this. Most aggravating for me, though, was the mythology of science that ran through the book. I’m currently a graduate student studying philosophy of science, and I simply did not recognize anything of the human activity I study in Lem’s descriptions of the science surrounding Solaris. I hope to write a more extended post on this, so I’ll save the details for later.

As usual, I am in the middle of many books. In addition to continuing to wade through Tsong Khapa’s Ocean of Reasoning, I’ve been reading Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. As far as poetry is concerned, I’m working my way through John KeatsSelected Poetry (Oxford World Classics) and Frank O’Hara’s Selected Poems (Borzoi). I’ve also been working my way through Hackett’s collection of Karl Marx’s Selected Writings.

Here are some remarks on books I read/completed in February.

Jack Gilbert. A local poetry reading group picked Gilbert’s collected poems as their book for February 2018 (the previous month was Peter Reading). Gilbert’s poems obsessively explore loss and the problems of living in a world where loss is omnipresent. They exist in the uncomfortable space between a yearning for solitude (“Going Wrong”) and the need for (fragile, fraught) human connection (the many poems regarding his variously lost lovers). The meeting to discuss this book is tonight; I hope to write something more extended about Gilbert following that.

David Bentley Hart. A friend of mine, who is an admirer of Hart’s, very kindly sent me this collection of essays, many of them book reviews, titled The Dream-Child’s Progress. Hart is an Orthodox Christian; I am avowed atheist, and so it is high praise for me to be able to say that I found this book fun to wrestle with. Hart is sensitive to the riches of the world’s many cultures, religious or otherwise, thinking it a properly Christian attitude to expect that people will have found truth wherever they have put the effort into looking—though of course he believes that Christianity is privileged in this regard. He is most interesting to me when he discusses the history of Christianity and of interpretations of Christian doctrine. He makes no attempt to make early Christianity palatable to contemporary sensibilities, instead actively emphasizing how radically different it was from anything we see today. This is problematic, as he recognizes, but he openly admits to not knowing the solution. I find him weakest in his discussions of atheism—his sympathetic attitude towards the riches of human thought do not, unfortunately, extend so far. He admires atheists such as Nietzsche and Leopardi, but seems to think that any more humane atheistic viewpoint is a hopeless endeavor. The limitation here lies in Hart, not in atheism itself, whatever his protestations to the contrary. Still, despite this shortcoming, he is an engaging writing and a bracing thinker, and I very much enjoyed this book.

Fernando Pessoa. I’ve written about Pessoa before, primarily regarding his prose in The Book of Disquiet. But he is a phenomenal poet as well. I had previously read the Penguin collection of his poetry, A Little Larger than the Entire Universe (tr. Richard Zenith). This month, I read another collection, Fernando Pessoa & Co. (also translated by Zenith), which overlaps the former at a few points, but is largely distinct. Both books have largely the same format: a selection of poems from all four of Pessoa’s poetic heternoyms: Alberto Caiero, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, and Fernando Pessoa himself. As before, I found Reis’ taut, sad, Epicurean odes the most consistently satisfying, though each has something to offer. But I hope Zenith shall one day produce complete editions for each persona. I find that Pessoa shines less in the individual poem than in the entire body of work of a persona. So to read intermittent poems from, say, Caiero’s A Keeper of Sheep feels like viewing mere fragments of a distant whole. Among the options available now, I recommend A Little Larger than the Entire Universe as the superior, especially for de Campos.

John Ashbery. Ashbery’s greatest talent, I think, is to take my thoughts (your thoughts, whoever’s thoughts) and to return them to me more beautiful than he found them. As We Know opens with a 100-page double monologue called “Litany”, which includes the following lines that exemplify that talent perfectly:

Just one minute of contemporary existence
Has so much to offer, but who
Can evaluate it, formulate
The appropriate apothegms, show us
In a few well-chosen words of wisdom
Exactly what is taking place all about us?

Who indeed? As usual with Ashbery, As We Know is filled with poems that slide from beneath our grasp—the “lubricity” of objects that Emerson called “the most unhandsome part of our condition.” Ashbery, however, finds what is handsome in it.

Ron Amundson. Over the past few months, I’ve had the good fortune to re-read Amundson’s philosophical history of evolutionary developmental biology, The Changing Role of the Embryo in Evolutionary Thought with a group of evolutionary developmental biologists. This book has been hugely influential on my academic work, and while I often disagree with it strenuously, it has shaped and continues to shape my understanding of the problem space. To get working biologists’ perspective on it has been a delight, and has helped me to clarify both my admiration and my dissent.

I am, as usual, also in the middle of a number of books. I am continuing to make my way, slowly, through Tsong Khapa’s Ocean of Reasoning, and I am now supplementing it with a similarly slow meander through Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. A while back, I began reading Henry David Thoreau’s collected essays; I have recently picked that back up again. In terms of poetry, I’ve moved on to Ashbery’s Shadow Train, and I’ve also started Oxford’s version of KeatsSelected Poems. In addition, I recently picked up a volume of Octavio Paz’s The Poems of Octavio Paz (New Directions) in my university’s bookstore—I may begin that soon. I’ve been making my way through a collection of Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy (ed. Tiwald and van Norden) and am nearing the end, and I’ve started reading Mark Wilson’s just-published book Physics Avoidance, a fascinating study of the behavior of scientific concepts (a follow-up to his previous, equally interesting book, Wandering Significance).