Saturday, February 10, 2007

Dedications -- that's what you need

One of the first things I look at when I open a new book is the dedication page and then the acknowledgements. It's something I certainly think about when I am writing something, perhaps because I know how much attention I pay to others'; apart from the usual interest in who has been included in the 'thanks to...' (and who has been left out!) the style in which the thanks are offered is one of the few sections of an academic book which allows an author to be a bit looser and more personal before getting down to the serious scholarly stuff.

I ought to keep a list of my favourites. I remember seeing somewhere someone thank, as customary, his wife. But unlike the run-of-the mill formulaic thanks, this one read something like: 'And many thanks, as ever, to my wife _______. I won't pretend that this book would not have been written without her, because it would. In fact, it would probably have been written sooner. But I would have been less happy in writing it.' Is that refreshing honesty? Or does it say something peculiar about their marriage? I have no idea, and in a way it doesn't matter, but it made be more likely to read the book even though there is no way the rest of the contents would have shed any light on the matter.

Another recent good example is from David Benatar's Better never to have been. The thesis of the book is that coming into existence is harmful and we would all have been better off never to have been: a paradoxical thought, no doubt, but one which Benatar pursues with a lot of ingenuity. (In rough and ready terms, the argument is that: (1) lives contain both goods and evils; (2) the absence of an evil is positively good while the absence of a good is merely neutral; (3) given the balance of goods and evils in a life and given (2), the fewer lives there are, the better.) To demonstrate his sincere commitment to the conclusion of his argument, the dedication is to his parents, and goes on more or less as follows: 'To my parents, despite the fact that they made me exist'. Not the usual sort of thing you find on those pages.

My most recent effort, in a book on early Greek philosophy (left), is a dedication to my children: 'To ___ and ____, two early thinkers'.


Choppa said...

David Benatar's dedication got me thinking again about how contradictory it is to put thought before being. Like Camus and the existentialist line about not committing suicide being a commitment to a life of total awareness. As if Being or Life would leave any such vital decision (life or death) up to us! The messages we get from Life (Body) - like pain, pleasure, eat, sleep, fuck, etc - have evolved to be impossible to ignore! Maybe not on each and every occasion, but probabilistically and on the whole. It's as if we (our conscious selves) were riding through life on the back of a big strong horse (Being/Emotions), our path consisting of a way through/across/over our circumstances. Now if we're facing the right way, and there's some light (we have some idea of our circumstances) we can help the horse with a nudge here and an encouraging whoop or kick there and enjoy the ride until we fall off the cliff. But if we're facing the wrong way, and it's dark (we have no idea of either horse or circumstances), then we'll have a terribly bumpy and frightening ride.

And the logic of good and evil Benatar uses is remarkable. The absence of an evil is hardly a positive good - I'd say it's more neutral than anything (like fresh but overcast weather that at least isn't a blizzard or a hurricane), but in fact in some cases the presence of an evil can be a positive good - as in the case of certain kinds of pain compelling us to act in a way beneficial to ourselves (fever says "rest!", contractions say "baby coming!", a foul smell says "beware!"), or a fright making us flee some danger. On the other hand, the absence of a good being merely neutral is loading the argument intolerably against the function of "good" for us. To make it simple - if we don't eat, we die, if we don't fuck, we die out. OK for ascetics, stoics, and seekers of Nirvana, but not for the rest of us, who - like it or not - aren't and won't ever be so. A good gives us an unmistakable message from Nature that it's worth having, not just now but again and again. Makes us high on life, so to speak. Sufficient goods make our neutral settings more and more pleasurable over time. At one with ourselves and the world. Inner sunshine. Not so much doing nothing, at a loose end, as ticking over and purring. (I assume here of course the rapid destruction of a baby's innate sunniness during infancy and childhood... :-)

When Benatar removes the pluses from life, with his weighting system, he reflects the alienation of people in capitalist industrial societies (all in an advanced state of historical decay, in terms of potential vs delivery), the kind of thing criticized by thinkers from Rousseau via Marx to Fromm and Marcuse. The astringency of say I A Richards and a lot of 30s intellectuals shown in their condemnation of "sentimentality" and "stock responses", for instance, is a thoughtful expression of this alienation. But the flower bursts up through the asphalt regardless. The blues and rock and roll express elementary plebeian universal human goods and evils. There *is* a rose in Spanish Harlem :-)

Since Benatar's attitude is basically a wilful insistence on riding blindfold and facing the wrong way, it's not surprising the ride is bumpy and upsetting. And contradictory too, as the dedication shows. The "despite" turns the whole dedication into an exercise in sentimentality, and anyhow it's just plain wrong. Nobody's parents "make" anybody exist - if anything does, it's Humanity, as an exemplar of reproductive life. And if Benatar was really committed to his position, he'd off himself. Give me Lucretius on living for real goods and avoiding real evils any day. Or even dear old Horace when he wasn't singing for his supper:

Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret...

jge said...

Benatar holds that even if existing is harmful, ceasing to exist may be not better than continuing to exist. This is logically possible. And anyway: Of course you could rationally think that it is better to die but not kill yourself for want of bravery...