JOSÉ ORTEGA Y GASSET’S THE ORIGIN OF PHILOSOPHY (Norton, $4.00) is an essay which got out of hand. Back in 1943 the distinguished Spanish philosopher was asked to write an epilogue to Julián Mariás’ History of Philosophy. Ortega agreed, but somehow could never complete the assignment. He kept writing away for ten years, and when he died in 1955, the task was not yet finished. The fragments have now been published in a straightforward translation by Toby Talbot.
The failure was not surprising. Acceptance of the invitation meant for Ortega a challenge to survey the whole course of human philosophizing and to distill its significance for modern man. In 1943, the Great War was still in progress; and ten years later the crisis in human events that it marked was not over. Ortega was too scrupulous a thinker to find in history easy answers to the problems of existence in his own day. Perhaps he never finished because he was not really satisfied with his effort to elicit from the great minds of the past the guiding precepts to carry his contemporaries through the difficulties of the present.
Ortega sometimes complained that he was not taken seriously as a philosopher. Even his students, he wrote, regarded him as a literary figure. A felicitous style and a gift for apt illustration embellished his learning and softened the rigor of his arguments. In this book, as in others, the discussion is discursive; and Ortega does not hesitate to wander off in illuminating digressions in the notes and in the text. Whether regarded as formal philosophy or as literature, each page, however, says something enlightening.
There is, moreover, a fundamental seriousness of purpose about the book. What does a retrospective survey of man’s thought reveal? “The history of philosophy prima facie reveals the past to us as a defunct world of errors.” But that preliminary view turns out to be a mask. Regarded more carefully, all the errors appear as incomplete, partial truths. In a still closer view, it becomes a matter of indifference whether the philosophical past is designated as an accumulation of errors or an accumulation of truths because in fact it contains elements of both. It is best understood as an experience through which man has been passing.
These observations lead to the central theme, the ultimate unity of philosophy as an experience. But the task of making philosophy was not a permanent occupation of humanity. This form of speculation began at a fixed point in time in Greece, and although it developed continuously for two thousand years, there is no guarantee of its perpetuation. Hence the significance of Ortega’s inquiry into its origins.
Ortega argues that the birth of philosophy was connected with a distinctive period of freedom, during which society had the spiritual as well as the material resources to indulge its practitioners. Parmenides and Heraclitus — and their successors — dared to be dissatisfied with accepted explanations of the universe and launched an effort to discover a world other than that of simple experience. They sought a truth detached from myth and tradition that they could validate by reason. The quest persisted for centuries; and Ortega has no doubts about its value. But he does have doubts whether the times are any longer propitious to it, and that uncertainty very likely prevented him from bringing his work to a conclusion.
KARL JASPERS’ PHILOSOPHY IS FOR EVERYMAN (Harcourt, Brace & World, $4.50) expresses greater faith if not greater confidence. The book is an outgrowth of a series of television lectures directed by the eminent existentialist philosopher at a lay audience. The mere assumption of the task was an act of faith, for the philosophers of the past usually aimed their teaching at an educated elite. Jaspers regarded his decision to address the masses as “a slap in the face of reality.” It implied: “As it has been till now, so it is. But it ought not and must not remain so.” The modes of understanding that had not yet reached the masses, he insisted, had to be made available to them in the future.
Jaspers’ is a finished work, rigorously outlined, lucidly written, and forcefully argued. Nevertheless, there is a concordance between its message and that of Ortega. The two philosophers were born in the same year, shared much the same intellectual inheritance, and were subject to similar influences.
For Jaspers, as for Ortega, the starting point is science, the revolution in man’s understanding of the realities of the universe. The knowledge which in the eighteenth century revealed the limitations of tradition in the twentieth exposed the inadequacies of reason itself. As a result, Jaspers argues, a total revaluation of ideas is necessary. Briefly he surveys, in turn, history and its pertinence to the present, politics and its connection with freedom, the shortcomings of sociology and psychology, the relationship of myth to metaphysics, and the problems of coping with love and death. In each case, Jaspers draws the reader beyond empirical and rational inquiry to the root of things — to the true meaning and goal of existence. In doing so, he deliberately and consciously points to the limitations of knowledge based on reason. Here are none of the certainties that sustained thinkers of earlier eras.
Characteristically for Ortega and Jaspers, philosophy has ceased to be an integral, all-encompassing system which explains the universe and informs men with assurance what is true and false, right and wrong. Philosophy rather is a mode of thinking, the substantive conclusions of which are rarely stated with precision. It reflects the state of knowledge in the modern world — fragmented, tentative, and shadowed by large areas of doubt.
For centuries philosophy and theology sustained one another. Today even religious faith does not bring the philosopher assurance. A reading of the new edition of PAUL TILLICH’S monumental SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY (University of Chicago Press, $I2.50) shows how painful and demanding belief is for a twentiethcentury thinker who looks honestly at man’s situation. Tillich, who wrote most of this work in the 1950s, was himself markedly influenced by existential philosophy. He recognized boldly that the Christian symbols had become increasingly problematic within the cultural context of his time, and groped for a means of bringing personal faith into accord with rational understanding. Yet in the end Tillich must leave man still in the dark, addressing a remote and inaccessible deity.
In theology, as in philosophy, there can be no certitude. And without assurance of its truth, faith cannot serve a consolatory function. That is the penalty of the novel situation created in our times by the awareness of the limits of man’s knowledge.
Regions of the unknown
In the past century, philosophers have had to take cognizance of, or at least leave room for, the nonrational, unpredictable, and even inexplicable elements in the human situation. F. W. Nietzsche, William James, and Henri Bergson, among others, recognized the importance of instincts and emotional drives. These undefined needs and impulses are not subject to logical or scientific tests of the truth, yet seem to serve a function. The scholar can hardly understand them since he catches only unrelated, disconnected glimpses of their operations.
THE PRINCESS by GUNNAR MATTSSON (Dutton, $3.95) offers one such fleeting view. This account, translated from the Swedish by Joan Bulman, on one level is a simple and moving love story. On another, it is a true narrative of a physical miracle.
A young Finnish novelist meets a girl. He is twenty-six, has just published a best seller, and is bursting with energy. She is three years younger, a nurse, and a victim of Hodgkin’s disease. Her medical training informs her that there is no hope, that she has only months, perhaps weeks, to live.
The unpredictable occurs. They fall in love, and although the prospective term of their life together is brief, are married. They determine, for whatever time they may have, to act as if a normal life awaited them. Foolishly, in the light of what they know, they decide to conceive a child.
The remission of the incurable disease is the miracle. For no known medical reason, the advance of the cancer halts. She lives through the period of the pregnancy, gives birth to a normal child, and at the end is on the verge of recovery.
The story, which would not be credible if it were fiction, is told with moving dignity and restraint. Mercifully, it never becomes maudlin. It is evidence that faith without illusions is capable of effecting impressive results.
ALAN MCGLASHAN’S THE SAVAGE
AND BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY (Houghton Mifflin. $4.00) seeks the traces of the knowledge beyond science in society’s subconscious mind. An English psychiatrist who was once an R.A.F. pilot and a drama critic for the Observer, Dr. McGlashan has compiled an interesting catalogue of daydreams and nightmares, desires and anxieties that lie beneath the surface of man’s consciousness. He has sought his material in folk habits and popular culture, in comic strips and fairy tales. His discursive argument leads to the conclusion that man, without relinquishing his technical triumphs, must “go back to his horn book and learn again the lost alphabet of living.” Thinking should always be guided by feeling, which is a way of recalling the basic wisdom covered up by civilization. “Primitive man has something to tell us, and in the purely symbolic language of our dreams he speaks to us still.”
There is a danger in the promiscuous appeal to folk memory. Dr. McGlashan tells us that “an old countrywoman who used to treat dropsy with decoctions of foxglove from her garden . . . was finally proved to have been, in fact, dispensing an unknown drug called digitalis.” The mold on damp cheeses, which once made a rude plaster for infected wounds, was shown to be the source of penicillin. This is evidence of the practical wisdom hidden in simple hearts. Yet such anecdotes, true or not, provide no basis for generalization.
The fact that the exceptional instance cannot be explained is no proof that love will cure cancer or that the witch doctor’s brew is as effective as that from the laboratory. It shows only that there is much of which we are yet ignorant.
Respect for the primitive is one of the themes of THE GOODBYE LAND by JOSÉ YGLESIAS (Pantheon, $4.95). In 1964, the author went to Spain to seek out the place of his father’s birth and death. The American found the little village in Galicia much as it had been years before when his father had left it to be a cigarmaker in Havana and Tampa, much as it had remained when the old man had brought back to it his mortal disease. The visitor from the metropolitan twentieth century was culturally remote from the peasants absorbed in a changeless routine. Yet the sense of kinship created by the father’s migration established a basis for comprehension.
In the effort to identify his father, the stranger searched the memory of the villagers. He got the sense that they did not know about the passage of time. The cycle of their lives blurred past and present just as their religion blended pagan and Christian elements. The impression of timelessness, with its inference of immemorial wisdom, evokes a sympathetic response in a modern man who is all too aware of the uncertainties caused by rapid change.
Nightmares and daydreams
Popular culture, as Dr. McGlashan points out, often finds ways to express the fears and desires men do not wish to recognize. CARLOS CLARENS’ AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE HORROR FILM (Putnam’s, $6.95) is a valuable chronicle of the nightmares recorded on film.
The movies of the past survive mostly in vague memories, and criticism of them is so ephemeral that any coherent account of the cinema past is welcome. Clarens’ book is thoughtful and well written, and supplemented with a good set of illustrations. It is a unique account of an important cultural phenomenon.
Horror was an essential element of movie-making from the earliest days. The first experiment by Méliès in France led to Dr. Caligari in Germany and to the succession of vehicles for Chaney, Lugosi, and Karloff in Hollywood. These films provided almost the only refuge from the realism which dominated the screen until recently, and they presented imaginative directors with unusual opportunities to explore the potentialities of the medium.
To the audiences these pictures offered the simpler thrill of indulgence in illicit violence. Clarens pays more attention to the producers than to the consumers, and therefore is content to assume that the participation of the spectators has a cleansing effect. They take part in the acts of violence without suffering the consequences. But Clarens makes little effort to trace changes in the content and character of the horror depicted on the film or to assess the influence of popular attitudes upon the sadism and sexual fantasies which seem always to have infused these images.
Appropriately, the book closes with a good discussion of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. In the city ruled by a monster computer, the romantic hero ultimately caused the machine to destroy itself by feeding it unclassifiable information — poetry. He thus expressed the resentment of the individual at being controlled by a science heedless of his feelings.
Sexual daydreams in American popular culture were long most explicitly located in burlesque. IRVING ZEIDMAN’S THE AMERICAN BURLESQUE show (Hawthorn Books, $7.95) is a breezy account that follows the girls through almost a century of exposure. The good old days never were. Before 1900, the shows were a dreary conglomeration of filthy dialogue and licentious songs and dances. Thereafter the various Wheels and Circuits which organized the performances toned down the sex when the law frowned, expanded the areas of nudity when the censors were elsewhere occupied. From beginning to end, to outsiders burlesque seemed a great bore.
Who went and why? These are the questions Zeidman does not ask or answer. He has written a good history of the producers and the houses, of the strippers and the comics, and even of the critics. But the audience is absent. He correctly writes off the aesthetic claims perverse highbrows made on behalf of the shakers and tossers. But the girlies satisfied an emotional need that was not inconsequential and that would be worth understanding.
The people of Sydney had no particular musical tradition, but when they decided to build an opera house, determined that it would be a magnificent one. They raised $800,000 by public subscription and got from the Danish architect Joern Utzon a bold, imaginative design for a building estimated to cost $8 million. Work began in 1959. Six years later, the estimate had risen to $46 million, and the structure was far from finished.
No one minds. The funds come not from taxes but from regular public lotteries; and as the steel and concrete monument rises leisurely in the heart of the harbor, it reminds the Sydneysiders that they have a stake in gambling on what is to come.
The Opera House is characteristic of this continent of a country in which the future is more important than the past. Australia’s great spaces nurture grandiose ambitions. Rapid change and lack of people keep them incomplete.
ELSPETH HUXLEY’S THEIR SHINING ELDORADO (Morrow, $6.95) is the perceptive record of a journey through Australia. Miss Huxley’s earlier travel accounts dealt with Africa and focused largely on the natural environment. Her descriptive skill is evident in this volume too, in the sketches of the cave paintings at Oenpelli or of the Penguin Parade on Phillip Island or of the rainforested Mount Lamington. But in dealing with Australia, she wisely devotes much space to the cities. The book makes no effort to advance a theory of Australian culture, yet its insights and observations leave the reader a coherent impression of the place and its people.
An American is particularly impressed with the comparison with his own civilization. In both the United States and Australia, the evidence of English antecedents survived long after independence — in place names, in language, in literature, and in law. In both countries the frontier significantly shaped national development. The availability of land and the restlessness of the population were of importance in both, and parallel attitudes developed toward space. Perhaps these features of the environment generated in both societies a preference for risk over planning. The two national capitals, Miss Huxley points out, evolved similarly. The American W. B. Griffin was called in to lay out Canberra, just as the Frenchman Pierre L’Enfant was asked to plan Washington — and both carefully-worked-out schemes were largely disregarded.
Australia, however, never felt the influence of Puritanism. There was no check upon the frontiersmen’s urge to gamble, nor upon their indulgence in alcohol or sex. There may be some connection, too, between the lack of a Puritan tradition and the prominence of labor unions in the society. Miss Huxley’s account of Broken Hill, an extraordinary mining town in New South Wales, reveals a degree of control by the unions over the private lives of their members that would be unthinkable in the United States.
The most striking difference is in the population itself. Australia did not feel the impact of immigration from continental Europe as the United States did. Indeed, until the Second World War, there was a firm policy of admitting only British newcomers. In the last two decades, the need for labor and the fear of underpopulation have altered that attitude, and the entry of substantial numbers of Southern and Eastern Europeans may increase the similarity to the American experience.