Tuesday book: Polish up your pithy aphorisms

Stephen Howe
Monday 31 May 1999 23:02




ALMOST EVERYONE knows the story about Bertrand Russell and the London cabbie. "I 'ad that Lord Russell in the back of the cab once. So I asked: `Well, guv, what's it all about, then? I mean, why are we here?' And you know what? He couldn't tell me!"

Penguin apparently want us to think that this very small book of very small essays by the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski might satisfy that taxi-driver. They have gone for the hard sell. Kolakowski, "one of the world's most admired philosophers" (which is true), "could change your life" (a bit more doubtful). This "popular book of the actual philosophy" (it sounds as though that cabbie works in Penguin publicity) is, we are told in a remarkable blend of cliche and malapropism, full of "easily digestible pearls of wisdom".

In fact, these chewy little pearls are mostly evidence of just how banal the everyday thoughts of a great mind can be. One can certainly see the potential appeal, and the value, of a book like this - or rather, a book like Penguin's mildly hysterical description. A venerable sage distils the wisdom gained from a lifetime's engagement with Spinoza and Husserl, Marx and Bergson, into limpid thoughts on gambling or boredom, on fame, power, lying or self-indulgence. Indeed, Kolakowski himself has, albeit rather far in the past, achieved something along those lines, as with his marvellous short essay "In Praise of Inconsistency" back in the Sixties.

Unfortunately, that remains a good idea for a potential book, not the one Kolakowski has given us. The scattered judgements gathered here are lucid, reasoned and occasionally stimulating; but most are ideas that any intelligent person could have come up with, or indeed that such a person is likely to have had. We should be suspicious of those who seek political power, but they will always be with us. Buying lottery tickets is economically irrational, but rational calculation is not the reason people do such things. Nothing is boring in itself; it all depends what you're interested in...

Perhaps the book is trying to meet a demand which in Britain - unlike, say, Poland or France - does not exist. We don't usually expect academic experts to be of much practical help - and maybe we're right. In some countries, distinguished philosophers are widely assumed to have opinions worth hearing on everything, from which way to vote to the relative importance of love and friendship. Jean-Paul Sartre was the great French model of all-purpose sage, and Jacques Derrida still strives to live up to it.

In Poland, a similar syndrome apparently operates: this book's contents were first aired on television there, just before the news. In Britain, philosophers have no such high profile. We're more likely to turn to novelists or songwriters for guidance on our emotional lives, while historians and critics, not philosophers, moonlight as media pundits. I have several friends who are professional philosophers. Do I expect them to be especially helpful when I'm faced with some logical problem or moral dilemma? Of course not; nor do they expect it of themselves.

If we do demand that great intellects apply their thoughts in everyday life, we're likely to be disappointed. For years my next-door neighbour on one side was a noted social historian, whose writing celebrated the virtues of community, co-operation and the voluntary spirit; on the other side were an Asian couple with little command of English and few social networks outside their own extended family. No prizes for guessing who were the marvellously good, helpful, friendly neighbours, and who the bad.

This book may miss its mark in Britain for another reason. Although Kolakowski's learning ranges across the world, or at least Europe, the thoughts often seem to have been posted specifically to a Warsaw address. Few British readers are likely to have strong views - or any views - about Kolakowski's theme of Polish national characteristics; except perhaps for vague images of a rather quixotic heroism, with cavalry charges against Nazi tanks. Some readers might even need to be told that, when he refers to "the Church" without further qualification, he means the Roman Catholic one.

A final problem lies in what Brits are liable to think is the sheer immodesty of aspiring to teach us how to live, or how we ought to think. The author should not be blamed for the publisher's puff, but there is a certain recurrent tone of bland certitude in the essays themselves. Another earlier piece of Kolakowski's was called, "My Correct Views on Everything": one was left disturbingly unsure how far the title was intended as a joke. The taxi-driver asks him, "`What's it all about, then, guv?' And you know what? He tried to tell me!"

The reviewer's book `Afrocentrism: mythical pasts and imagined homes' is published by Verso

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