A Polish philosopher

July 21, 2011

One of the pleasures of this Jesuit life is being a part of such a remarkably mobile international organization.  In my community at Loyola Chicago, one regularly sits down to dinner next to a Bolivian, a Nigerian, a Brazilian, a German, and a Pole.  And the latter two don’t even fight.

The last of these, our resident Polish priest, has been urging me for some time to take a look at a favorite Polish philosopher, whose name had too many consonants in it for me to remember.  I admit, I wasn’t overly eager to dive into tomes of what I was sure would be grim and turgid prose.  When I returned to the house after our Christmas break, however, I found a book by Leszek Kolakowski in my mailbox.  I had been outflanked by the Polish intelligentsia!

Once I read the title, I was won over:  My Correct Views on Everything.  The title comes from the rejoinder Kolakowski wrote in The Socialist Register to the British Marxist E.P Thompson.  Both Thompson and Kolakowski had started off as communists, and both had experienced some disillusionment after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.  Kolakowski’s questioning had run deeper, however, and led him to see that Marxism itself, and not just its manifestation in Stalinism, was rotten to the core.

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Death and taxes

December 16, 2010

I have to confess that given my vow of poverty I tend to think quite a bit more about death than taxes.  And, for similar reasons, I don’t claim to be an expert on any and every political issue, even though here in the blogosphere that’s not always a bar to offering an opinion.

But I’ve been watching the progress of the tax compromise moving its way through Congress this week and there’s something about it that reminds me of the ocean… maybe it’s that fishy smell…

Perhaps my calculator is broken; perhaps my taste for irony is just that much stronger than my taste for Keynesian economics; perhaps I spent too much time around a grandfather who paid for his house in cash; but something in this “compromise” doesn’t make sense to me.  Something, in fact, seems wrong, and I’m beginning to suspect that what is wrong has a moral tinge to it, instead of being an accounting oops or a technical legislative flaw.

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Gordon Gekko returns

October 5, 2010

Oliver Stone’s new Wall Street sequel contains moments of gimmicky directorial over-reach, self-congratulation, wild implausibility, and hackneyed sermonizing.

It’s also a brilliant film.

Stone’s style is often a bit too much for me, but his Wall Street films are American classics.  His ambition in both films is tragedy on a Shakespearean scale, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is worth the risk.  It is a visually beautiful film, from the glittering shots of Manhattan to the Goya masterpiece that hangs over its villain’s fireplace—Saturn Devouring His Son—and its soundtrack is great.

But best of all is Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko, a character on a tragic scale.  When he emerges from prison at the beginning of the film, there’s something in him of King Lear, alone, broke, and abandoned by his family.  As he strides the stage at Fordham University, lecturing on his new book, Is Greed Good?, his hair white and wavy, railing against the real estate bubble, debt, and lack of accountability in the American economy, he has something in him of an Old Testament prophet, an Amos or a Jeremiah.  Gekko’s prophetic aura is heightened by the fact that the movie starts out in the weeks just before the stock market crash of 2008, a crash which he predicts.

If you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading and come back when you have, for the slick-haired Gordon Gekko we came to despise in the first Wall Street is not dead but only dormant.   Read the rest of this entry »


Part I: Mimesis and Economics

August 6, 2009

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Girard famously distinguishes two kinds of desire.  The first is “romantic” desire, the kind of desire most people take to be the normal definition for human desire. There are certain natural desires, and aggression is a distortion from outside of those basic human desires which need to be satisfied.  Thanks to modernity, the Self who has these natural desires can now be “liberated” to express them freely.  Girard calls this the “Romantic Lie.”

Instead, borrowing from Hegel, but also shifting his analysis, Girard thinks of human desire as mimetic.  This means that human desire does not actually know what it wants.  Human desire is shown what it wants by the desires of another person.  Desire is formed by observing what it is that another wants, and making that the object of one’s desire.  He asks us to consider any child’s play room.  Most kids grow quite uninterested in their own toys after a few days or weeks.  If, however, another child comes over and gets excited about what he sees, suddenly the owner will discover anew that he actually does “want” that toy after all, quite a bit.  Desire has been stirred by mimesis. Read the rest of this entry »