November 19th, 2007


The computer in my office suffers from what I now take to be a mild form of epilepsy. No matter how many times I erase the hard drive and reinstall everything, it still ends up staring into space every now and then for no apparent reason. When that happens, I get frustrated. Sometimes I simply get up and leave the room. Most of the time, though, I stick it out with the help of the bookcase to my left. After it becomes apparent that I'm in for a wait, however short, I instinctively swivel and reach back to grab a volume.

The books I like to have ready to hand are ones that I can derive benefit from by only reading a paragraph or two. And most of the books that fall into that category are the sort that speak to long-term preoccupations. Still, like a cliff that faces a raging sea, the façade presented by the spines I can reach without bending over or standing up has manifested both incremental and sudden change over the years. For a long time, the two easiest-to-reach shelves were devoted primarily to books by, about, or in dialogue with the work of Walter Benjamin.

Then, in the summer of 2005, I decided that the bookshelf needed a makeover. I put most of the Benjamin-related titles back in their former location -- across the room, in a location where I have to move obstructions in order to remove most volumes -- and replaced them with books devoted to the history of language and theories of history, which I added to a few works on allegory that I had retained from the previous arrangement. A little later, I made another important modification when I found a way to squeeze in a few books by Paul De Man, Roland Barthes and Giorgio Agamben and also created a subsection for right-wing political philosophy pertaining to the legacy of Carl Schmitt.

Today the bookshelf looks very close to the way it would have at this time of year in 2005. And I find myself drawn to the same few titles that would catch my eye back then. My favorites are Eric Auerbach's Mimesis, Fernand Braudel's The Structures of Everyday Life: Volume I, Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer and Carl Schmitt's The Concept of the Political. Lately, though, I've been inclining in the direction of Agamben's Theory of Prose and Leo Strauss's Natural Right and History. The former has many short chapters, conducive to reading in very short spurts, and the latter invariably helps me think my way past the distractions of the present.

As I write this, though, I'm feeling guilty about the books I don't reach for. I know I'd be enthralled by Kristin Ross's May '68 and Its Afterlives, but for some reason have never removed it from the shelf. The same goes for George Steiner's After Babel, of which I once read a good deal, but now inexplicably avoid. And then there are the texts which I get the urge to leaf through, but usually leave on the shelf because they are literally hard to handle, like Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method. That book is simply too big to grab unless my attention is focused squarely on the task. Nevertheless, I feel that I should be reaching for it a lot more often.

This ends your trip inside my mind, which is only slightly more interesting than a furniture showroom.


From Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History--
The sophist in the precise sense is a teacher of sham wisdom. Sham wisdom is not identical with untrue doctrine. Otherwise Plato would have been a sophist in the eyes of Aristotle, and vice versa. An erring philosopher is something entirely different from a sophist. Nothing prevents a sophist from occasionally and perhaps habitually teaching the truth. What is characteristic of the sophist is unconcern with the truth, i.e. with the truth about the whole. The sophist, in contradistinction to the philosopher, is not set in motion and kept in motion by the sting of the awareness of the fundamental difference between conviction or belief and genuine insight. But this is clearly too general, for unconcern with the truth about the whole is not a preserve of the sophist. The sophist is a man who is unconcerned with the truth, or does not not love wisdom, although he knows better than most other men that wisdom or science is the highest excellence of man. Being aware of the unique character of wisdom, he knows that the honor deriving from wisdom is the highest honor. He is concerned with wisdom, not for its own sake, not because he hates the lie in the soul more than anything else, but for the sake of the honor or the prestige that attends wisdom. He lives or acts on the principle that prestige or superiority to others or having more than others is the highest good (117).