I’m midway thru E. C. Mossner’s monumental biography of the Scottish philosopher David Hume, The Life of David Hume. (Another piece of evidence that I AM NOT A SERIOUS STUDENT OF PHILOSOPHY: I’m reading the 1954 edition, printed by Thomas Nelson & Sons in Edinburgh and published over here by the University of Texas Press, rather than the who knows how globally revised 1980 Clarendon Press second edition.) Mossner is good – for the most part compulsively readable, he combines an up-to-the-minute knowledge of Hume commentary (circa 1954) with a solid sense of narrative flow. I wish there were more solid passages of explication and discussion of Hume’s texts, but Mossner largely makes up for that (and golly, there are lots of good commentaries out there) with great anecdotes. Like the obese Hume, describing his visit as part of a military embassy to the Empress Dowager of Austria in 1748:
You must know, that you neither bow nor kneel to Emperors and Empresses; but Curtsy: So that after we had had a little Conversation with her Imperial Majesty, we were to walk backwards, thro a very long Room, curtsying all the way: And there was very great Danger of our falling foul of each other, as well as of tumbling topsy-turvy. She saw the Difficulty we were in: And immediately calld to us: Allez, Allez, Messieurs, san ceremonie: Vous n’etes pas accoutumés a ce mouvement et le placher est glissant. We esteemd ourselves very much oblig’d to her for this Attention, especially my companions, who were desperately afraid of my falling on them & crushing them.
I suppose the first philosopher whose work I really internalized was Wittgenstein, tho I was pretty keen on Spinoza even before I began writing on Zukofsky in earnest. Levinas was my leisure reading during grad school, & Adorno has been looming large for me in the last couple of years. But if I had to choose a single thinker to spend my strolling time in Elysium with, I think it would be the genial skeptic Hume. I can read a passage of Adorno and be mortified by the keenness of his dialectical pessimism –
That intellectuals are at once beneficiaries of a bad society, and yet those on whose socially useless work it largely depends whether a society emancipated from utility is achieved – this is not a contradiction acceptable once and for all and therefore irrelevant. It gnaws incessantly at the objective quality of their work. Whatever the intellectual does, is wrong. He experiences drastically and vitally the ignominious choice that late capitalism secretly presents to all its dependants: to become one more grown-up, or to remain a child. (Minima Moralia 133)
– and then turn, with what must be the rankest bad conscience – but with relief – to one of the most famous passages of Hume, from the conclusion to Book I of the Treatise of Human Nature:
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of back-gammon. I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hour’s amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.
Eric – the guitar on the far right is a gold flake Epiphone Sorrento, visually perhaps the tackiest in my collection, but aurally a real jewel. It’ll be on the block, I think. I’ll let everyone know in advance.