Open Eyes

I’ve been doing Robert Alter a lot. I find I can read long stretches and also linger over short bits with his translations. Whatever they are, they stimulate reflection. He takes unusual views, some of which one casts aside, but others of which provoke consideration.

Lukacs is similar–provoking reflection, teaching you to see things otherwise. With Lukacs you also learn ways of thinking. He is not interested in preserving the categories of subjective and objective; as in: objective = good and subjective = bad. No. Because we know only in ways that are personal and participatory, and because he departs from postmodernism in believing that this is more than a crippling limitation, he develops a style that is personal, full of reminiscing, personal observation and reactions, and engaging–which is to say participatory in a public sense. He recognizes the limits of what he is able to perceive, but we are aware of it: it’s part of how he goes about the point he’s trying to make. And he achieves insights, certainties.

With Alter I’m reading his translations of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, which deal with the limits of wisdom. What can you know? says God to Job. There are things we can know, and there are things we cannot. And it is not to hard to see that it fits with the idea that our knowledge is personal and participatory. Job’s friends trespass the boundaries of human understanding. In Proverbs Wisdom calls to men to widen the boundaries of human understanding. In Ecclesiastes we are called to reckon again with the limits–to own the advantages and realize they are not infinite but limited to our present existence.

It seems to me that wisdom comes with melancholy, but one that allows one to live. So wise men speak about consolation and take the tragic view, rather than the sentimental on one hand, or the cynical on the other. The sentimental view is shallow, refusing the effort of seeing enough–like Job’s friends. The cynical refuses the effort of hope, refuses to be consoled and is made blind to consolations. It mourns no glories faded because it refuses to admit any of them. Perhaps in order to preserve itself. Books, after all, must be read with open eyes.


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