What We Said

What did we talk about at our holiday dinners? (While avoiding sex, money, politics, gossip, maliciousness, and complaints.)

Children’s literature: why do adults read it? Why is it an academic specialty? Political scientists hold conferences on the Harry Potter books, for goodness sakes. Do we read kid lit because we crave stories? All agreed: there aren’t enough stories in adult fiction. We’ve learned to do without melody in music. But it’s hard to get over an addiction to stories. Melodies and stories; both suggest that there’s meaning and purpose in life. Someone notes that the stiffly Catholic magazine First Things, a “Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life” reviews children’s books.  (I remember that a few years ago First Things embarrassed itself with a rave review of the first two volumes in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series. Then the third one appeared uncovering the ultimate purpose of the children’s quest: to pull down Heaven and kill God.)

We talked about popular books on philosophy and philosophers. Most highly recommended: Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. (Wittgenstein and Popper.) And from the same authors: Rousseau’s Dog, which describes “an unseemly fight” between Hume and Rousseau. And Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza. (It’s a betrayal of Spinoza’s universalism to describe the particulars of his life and times.)

Signs of hope. A good mid-winter topic. People know things are going to turn out all right but want assurance. We want a direct line to God. The Well in the Wilderness. If only we didn’t have to rely on texts and the interpretation of texts. It’s pointed out that Rabbinic Judaism tells us to be wary of signs of hope. We’re supposed to be wary of teachings about end times and absolutes. Patience: that’s the rabbis’ advice. They sound like the sages of the Wisdom literature. Or the Stoics, for that matter.

We talked about peace and plenty. We’re living under good laws – well, maybe not the best laws. In a beautiful land, enjoying a gloriously snowy, sunny winter. All the world indicators are improving. More women are in school, more babies live past their first year, more people are listening to Bach. More people are performing Bach! Why aren’t we hopeful, grateful? Why are people so preoccupied with the financial crisis and the environment: the sky’s falling, oceans are rising. (I think of Ulysses’ speech in Troilus and Cressida: “the bounded waters raise their shoulders higher than the shore, to make a sop of all this solid globe.” Fear of floods: that’s an old fear, probably the oldest. The waters below the earth loosed again.)

Can we allow ourselves to look for little signs? Little hopes? Jews are not supposed to read horoscopes. But synagogues in Eastern Europe usually had the Signs of the Zodiac running in a frieze around the sanctuary ceiling. Who knows why?

Money came up after all. The table was covered with chocolate coins in gold foil wrappers. Why do the coins depict eagles and not loons and moose? For that matter why don’t the wrappers depict the Greek and Roman images on the coins that circulated in Palestine at the time of the Maccabean Revolt?

And we didn’t forget to talk about movies. The question was: which do you like better, movies or film?

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