What do you want to talk about?

It is always interesting to get reviews, even if they are not entirely favourable — or perhaps particularly if they are not entirely favourable — and so I was pleased this morning to see that my book [amazon_link id=”1441124152″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling[/amazon_link]  (the original title, incidentally, was the much nicer Troubled Tales, but Bloomsbury, alas, overruled me!), has had received an interesting, although somewhat ambivalent, review from Jeffrey Di Leo, over on the excellent Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

Read more

Two Tales of Horse-Training

Lately, I’ve been thinking about training horses. Admittedly, this has been more of an abstract and philosophical concern than a practical one: generally I don’t have much to do with horses, and horses don’t have much to do with me, even though I sometimes go down to the meadows out of town and admire the beasts from afar. So whilst I haven’t been planning to pack in all the writing and the academic stuff and so on, to take up the mantle of a horse trainer, I have been thinking about is the notion of horse-training as a metaphor for training more broadly.

It was a long time ago now that I first came across the Pāli text, the Bhaddāli sutta, and was charmed—or perhaps taken in—by its account of the virtues of horse training. Bhaddāli, according to the text, is a monk who is unwilling to subject himself to the monastic discipline, on account—the text tells us usefully—of being “like a fool, confused and blundering.” The Buddha then turns to him and asks the confused monk if he remembers a parable that he once told him about horse-training; and because Bhaddāli is a blundering fool (the kind of blundering fool for whom I have a natural sympathy), he has forgotten the parable, so the Buddha repeats it. Here’s an extract, in the translation by [amazon_link id=”086171072X” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Bhikkhu Bodhi[/amazon_link]. Read more

The Evolution of the Concept of De 德 in Early China

For visitors to this blog who are not yet familiar with it, the Sino-Platonic Papers website is a repository of freely-available PDF richness and wonder that should not be overlooked. The purpose of SPP, which is edited by Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations is  “to make available to specialists and the interested public the results of research that, because of its unconventional or controversial nature, might otherwise go unpublished”; and new on SPP is an extended essay called “The Evolution of the Concept of De 德 in Early China” by Scott Barnwell of the admirable Bao Pu blog. Scott’s essay is top of my “to read” pile. I’m particularly interested in the idea of “forgetting” the good that one does, which is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. However, it’s a long paper, so it will be a month or so before I get round to it (must get this manuscript finished first…); but you can get your own copy of the paper here, and I’ll write about it when I have the time and leisure to give it my proper attention.

Not At All Strange

If I’ve been relatively quiet over the past week or so, the main reason for this is that I’ve had my head down, seated here at my desk in Albi, France, and I’ve been editing like crazy, working on what I hope is the penultimate draft of my novel Goat Music. I’m here for two weeks, and so I’m more or less half way through; and it’s been a productive stay so far—I’m on track, I think, to have the draft done by the time I catch the train home next Saturday, which means that I can get an early copy to my publisher some time soon after.

I thought I’d say a bit more about the book here. The novel arose out of a fascination with the story of the musical contest between Apollo and Marsyas that began back when I was an art student. Set in mythological Greece, it plays on the story of the satyr’s competition with the god. The myth, in brief, goes like this: Marsyas challenges Apollo to a contest in music; Apollo wins by means of tactics that are not entirely fair; and then, having won, he flays the satyr alive for his presumption in challenging the gods.

My unease with this story lies in the fact that, for much of European history—although Apollo wins the contest by what could be called unfair means, and then exacts the most horrible punishment by flaying satyr alive—the tendency amongst commentators has been to side with Apollo, to see Marsyas as a fool who was justly defeated, and to proclaim Apollo’s brutality as a victory for all that is good. Read more

Lowering the Bar

If there is one thing that seems almost impossible to escape these days, it is the notion of excellence. As a little demonstration of our contemporary obsession with excellence, try this as an experiment: go to the website of any university and type in the term ‘excellence’. Note down the number of search results. Now type in any particular virtue that you favour, ‘curiosity’, for example, or (don’t say it too loud) ‘wisdom’, and compare your results.

It is clear from little experiments such as this that universities are excessively concerned with being excellent. And this is not just a concern of universities. Everywhere—from the halls of power down to primary school classroom—we hear the language of excellence. Teaching, we are told by government ministers, must be excellent; writers the critics say, must be excellent; and I probably don’t need to remind anybody in the UK that the Olympics in full swing, and that the second of the three so-called ‘Olympic values’ is also ‘excellence’ (along with ‘friendship’ and ‘respect’, apparently). Read more


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: