John Rawls and David Foster Wallace

John RawlsOn this day in 1836, the French composer Leo Delibes was born. He composed primarily for the stage, so: opera and ballet. As you know, I’m not a great lover of later Romantic period music. But as it goes, Delibes really is one of the best. He crafted very strong contrapuntal melodies. For example, although you are probably unaware, you know “The Flower Duet” from his last opera Lakme, which is some of the most beautiful music you will ever hear. Since most of the people in my life hate opera for reasons that do not speak well for a single one of them, I offer up the following Pizzicato from his ballet Sylvia. You all probably know this from the same place we all got our original education in classical music: Looney Tunes:

The great classical guitarist Andres Segovia was born in 1893. Here he is toward the end of his life play Enrique Granados’ Danza in G:

One of the greatest writers of the 20th century David Foster Wallace was born in 1962. He is best known for the novel Infinite Jest, and interestingly, I just requested it from the library. David Foster WallaceI’ve decided to yet again make a pointless effort to write my own expansive postmodern novel with a hundred characters. The problem is not the characters. As a writer, character development is the only thing that I think I’m good at. The problem is the broader structure—making everything work together. And also the absolute overload of creative genius that comes from Wallace on the micro and macro scale. And what my limited mind can only call his breezy style. So my effort is doomed to failure, but at least I’ll get another pass at Infinite Jest. Where I think I might have more success is in mimicking Wallace’s nonfiction. This too is destined to fail. What bothers me about Wallace is that he was so great at describing life and at creating things that made life worth living, but that ultimately he was unable to deal with life. Here he is talking about how funny Kafka is:

And it is this, I think, that makes Kafka’s wit inaccessible to children whom our culture has trained to see jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance. It’s not that students don’t “get” Kafka’s humor but that we’ve taught them to see humor as something you get—the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home. It’s hard to put into words, up at the blackboard, believe me. You can tell them that maybe it’s good they don’t “get” Kafka. You can ask them to imagine his stories as all about a kind of door. To envision us approaching and pounding on this door, increasingly hard, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it; we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and ramming and kicking. That, finally, the door opens… and it opens outward—we’ve been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch.

Actually, it is not funny.

Other birthdays: religious reformer Shah Waliullah (1703); sculptor Goscombe John (1860); Russian painter Pyotr Konchalovsky (1876); French-language playwright Sacha Guitry (1885); English playwright Clemence Dane (1888); writer Anais Nin (1903); actor Ann Sheridan (1915); great director Sam Peckinpah (1925); humorist Erma Bombeck (1927); singer-songwriter Nina Simone (1933); destroyer of music David Geffen (71); actor Alan Rickman (68); and musician Jerry Harrison (65).

The day, however, belongs to the great political philosopher John Rawls who was born on this day in 1921. A few months ago I wrote, John Rawls and Disingenuousness. It was about his concept of universality in political legitimacy. The problem is that Rawls was a serious thinker. Now, all stripes of conservative cloak their faith-based and power-based beliefs in a patina of universality. So instead of arguing that abortion is wrong because God said so, for example, they argue that abortion is wrong because a woman is pregnant with a full citizen, even when it is just a fertilized egg without a brain. Nonetheless, it is thrilling to read Rawls, and spend time thinking about weighty moral issues instead of dealing with all the disingenuous political rhetoric that burbles from the right constantly.

Rawls is best know for his concept of the veil of ignorance. He argued that a just society would be the one you would pick if you didn’t know where you would be born into it. So, for example, no reasonable person would choose a slave society, because they might well end up a slave. Most people would choose a reasonably equitable society. To me, I think that beyond the issue of where you are born in society, you would need to consider how you were born. That would address questions such as, “How are we to treat the physically disabled.” It’s a very useful way of looking at moral questions.

Happy birthday John Rawls!

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