Books

Ton Lemaire : Wandelenderwijs; sporen in het landschap

In dit schitterende boek Ton Lemaire, filosoof en antropoloog met een goede kennis van geschiedenis, dier- en plantenkunde, plus heel veel wandelervaring in heel diverse omgevingen, neemt ons mee op sommige van zijn meest memorablele wandelingen. En dat niet alleen in de zin van het beschrijven van de fysieke wandelingen (al doet hij dat ook, en vaak op een heel interessante en vermakelijke manier), maar ook, wat veel interessanter is, neemt hij ons mee op zijn ‘gedachtenwandelingen’ die ons soms heel ver weg leiden van de tijd en plaats waarin de auteur zich op dat moment bevindt: terug in de tijd en naar de gebieden van cultuur, geschiedenis en filosofie. Het resultaat is een verzameling intelligente essays die ons interessante en vaak belangrijke dingen te vertellen hebben.

Zijn schrijfstijl is zeker niet slecht, al zal hij er waarschijnlijk geen literaire prijzen mee winnen. Maar daar gaat het hier niet om. Dit boek is een plezier om te lezen, en gaf mij regelmatig zin om zelf te gaan wandelen in plaatsen (zoals Lapland en de Dordogne) waar ik anders nooit op het idee was gekomen om erheen te willen gaan! Niet dat ik het altijd 100% eens was met alles dat ik las. In het bijzonder in hoofdstuk X Open plekken vond ik meer dan genoeg om oneens mee te zijn, al kon ik over het algemeen Lemaire zijn standpunten heel goed waarderen.

Ondanks het feit dat Ton Lemaire als filosoof bekend staat, vond ik weinig of niets in dit boek dat ik ‘filosofie’ zou willen noemen. Als ik het hier over ‘filosofie’ heb, dan bedoel ik echte filosofie, in de traditie van Plato, Descartes en Bertrand Russell: het stellen van vragen en het proberen die vragen zo goed mogelijk te beantwoorden. Nee, dat is hier niet te vinden, en dat is geen enkel probleem! Toch lijkt Lemaire af en toe (bijvoorbeeld in hoofdstuk XIV Vogelen in Griekenland) te willen ‘filosoferen’, en diepzinnige, algemeen toepasbare filosofische inzichten te halen uit de feiten die hij presenteert, maar het lukt hem net niet en hij blijft steken op het niveau van vage overpeinzingen. Ook hier en daar (bijvoorbeeld in hoofdstuk IX Nederlandse wandelaars: Van Eeden, Thijsse, Leclercq) beperkt hij zich tot het stellen van een hele waslijst interessante vragen, terwijl hij met een beetje meer onderzoek misschien sommige van deze interessante vragen had kunnen beantwoorden.

Het is vooral om die redenen, denk ik, dat ik Wandelenderwijs ‘alleen maar’ een schitterend boek noem, en geen meesterwerk!

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60 écrivains unis pour la liberté d’expression : Nous Sommes Charlie

I didn’t really have any great hopes for this thin volume containing 60 short texts by (mostly contemporary) French writers inspired by the Charlie Hebdo attack, but the five euros I paid for it in the Hyper-U went to a good cause (Charlie Hebdo) and I thought that with 60 writers there was at least a pretty good chance of finding something worth reading. Unfortunately I didn’t really find that much. Much of the book consisted of the usual meaningless platitudes which undoubtedly well-meaning people invariably come out with after such events, along with plenty of unrealistic advice from people who really have no idea what they’re talking about concerning what “we” all have to do to make sure something like this never happens again. Perhaps the words “60 écrivains unis pour la liberté d’expression” should have been enough to warn me that they’d all be saying the same thing. But no, I exaggerate, it wasn’t quite that bad… (more…)

Maarten H. Rijkens : I always get my sin

First a word of warning: if you don’t speak Dutch then there are various things in this text which you won’t understand – but there again, neither would you understand very much of the book I’m writing about!

I was recently given a present of a somewhat amusing little book going by the name of I always get my sin. It’s the sort of book you can get through in about an hour if you read slowly, although I expect most people just flick through it, reading bits here and there. I wasn’t intending to write anything about it, as I didn’t really think it was worth the trouble, but I somehow found myself writing anyway and eventually decided that I’d pretty well written a blog post so I might as well publish it. (more…)

Bertrand Russell : The Ethics of War

This essay, which was written exactly a century ago in 1915, with the First World War in full swing, asks the question whether war is ever justified, and if so under what circumstances. Knowing that Bertrand Russell’s pacifism had cost him six months in Brixton Prison in 1918, I didn’t expect any surprises here – but in that I was much mistaken. He makes it plain from the start that he does not consider the current war justified, but neither does he take “the extreme Tolstoyan view that war is under all circumstances a crime”. He is a utilitarian, and considers that war is justified if it is for the good of mankind as a whole, a viewpoint which can lead to some (for me) unexpected consequences… (more…)

Etienne Vermeersch : Provençaalse gesprekken

Etienne Vermeersch’s ‘Provençaalse gesprekken’ was een van de meest inspirerende boeken dat ik sinds een tijd had gelezen. Niet dat ik het altijd eens was met meneer Vermeersch, maar de delen waar ik zijn mening niet deelde waren minstens net zo inspirerend als die waarover ik het volledig met hem eens was. Hij heeft mij dus vaak aan het denken gezet… (more…)

Ari Shavit : My Promised Land

Ari Shavit’s ‘My Promised Land’ was a very interesting read which inspired a lot of background research, and by the time I finished it I knew a lot more about Palestine, Israel, Zionism and the whole Middle Eastern conflict than I had done when I started. I’d been given this book by my friend H., who told me it had ‘opened his eyes’ about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and led him to his current strongly pro-Israeli position. Having now read it myself, I can’t quite understand why. Interesting though the book was, it did nothing to make me more sympathetic to Israel – quite the reverse, in fact… (more…)

Jérôme Ferrari : Un dieu un animal

Yet another small masterpiece by someone who’s fast becoming one of my favourite contemporary authors. As well as being brilliantly written, this is one of those powerful novels which continue to reverberate in your head long after you’ve put them down. It’s a short but concentrated book, which with just two main characters and a fairly simple plot offers more insight into human nature than many books several times its length. (more…)

Philip K. Dick : Humpty Dumpty in Oakland

Dick wrote this book in about 1960 but it didn’t finally appear in print until 1986, four years after his death, having apparently been rejected by various publishers. Quite frankly, if I’d been one of those publishers I’d have done the same thing, and if I’d come across this book without having read anything else by PKD it certainly wouldn’t have inspired me to want to read more by the same author. (more…)

Sorj Chalandon : Retour à Killybegs

Retour à Killybegs is a work of fiction, but heavily based on the life and death of Denis Donaldson, a high-ranking member of Sinn Féin and the IRA who spied for the British for 20 years and was murdered in 2006 in County Donegal. (more…)

Bertrand Russell : A History of Western Philosophy

I’d had high expectations of this book, and I wasn’t disappointed. Since reading it I’m very much a confirmed Bertrand Russell fan, and if I was in the habit of putting pictures of my heroes on the wall, I’m sure his would be among them. The full title of the book is A History of Western Philosophy And Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, and the preface to the edition I read starts as follows:

Many histories of philosophy exist, and it has not been my purpose merely to add one to their number. My purpose is to exhibit philosophy as an integral part of social and political life: not as the isolated speculations of remarkable individuals, but as both an effect and a cause of the character of the various communities in which different systems flourished.

In other words, Russell wants to put philosophy into its social and political context, and I think he succeeds very well. That said, and excellent though this book is, it could still have been better if Russell had spent slightly less time on the Middle Ages and on people like Plotinus, St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and dealt more fully with the much more interesting philosophers of the last few centuries. Ever since I started to look into western philosophy in any detail, I’ve become more and more convinced that although many of the pre-Socratic philosophers, certainly up to Democritus, did their best to search for truth in an honest, dispassionate and careful manner, things went rapidly downhill from there on. While people like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle certainly were great thinkers and had some brilliant ideas, the basis of their thought was fundamentally flawed, and they sent philosophy off in completely the wrong direction. As soon as it fell into the hands of the Christians things got even worse, and we have to wait till the Renaissance before they gradually start to improve and get back on the right track. Only with people like Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant can we really say that honest, unprejudiced investigation has regained its rightful place. Reading this book I see plenty of evidence that Russell would more or less agree with this analysis, so why does he waste so much time on the Middle Ages, rather than moving on more quickly to something more interesting? If and when I read this book again, there are large sections which I shall be skipping! (more…)