Thursday, April 9, 2009

Michael Jubien

Michael Jubien majored in mathematics and minored in philosophy at Dartmouth College. He received the Ph.D. in philosophy and logic from the Rockefeller University in 1972 under the direction of Saul Kripke. He has taught at the University of Illinois, Chicago, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the University of California, Davis, and is currently Professor of Philosophy at the University of Florida. He is the author of Ontology, Modality, and the Fallacy of Reference (newly re-issued in paperback by Cambridge University Press) and Contemporary Metaphysics.

His new book, from Oxford University Press, is Possibility.

Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I am about 1000 or so pages into the recent, Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. I read the Garnett translation when I was in high school as part of an effort to go through all of the Modern Library’s Russian classics, but in retrospect I think I was in too much of a hurry and was too young to appreciate the deep and rich beauty of this titan of a book. The early reviews of the P-V translation were so favorable that I decided it was time to read it again, but to read it slowly and carefully this time. This approach has resulted in perhaps the most rewarding reading I’ve ever done.

This is clearly not the place for a book review or a summary of any kind. So I’ll just point to a few aspects of the book that have struck me the most, endearing me to the book. (1) Tolstoy’s detailed portrayal of the elite of Russian society is deeply sympathetic while often rather critical and even cynical. He really seems to be a ‘naturalist’ about people, their charms and their flaws, and their rituals and institutions. (2) His descriptions both of scenes in nature and episodes of human interaction, especially among children and young adults, are often remarkably beautiful and moving. I wish there were space to tell you where to look for some of them. Actually there is: look in War and Peace! (3) Tolstoy seems driven to his ‘historical determinism’ by the reflection that there would otherwise be no reasonable way to explain such absurdities as war: “Fatalism in history is inevitable for the explanation of senseless phenomena…The more we try to explain sensibly these phenomena, the more senseless and incomprehensible they become for us.” (605) (4) But then we have his charming failure to consider ‘hard determinism’ as a defensible philosophical position. He is at pains to urge that the grand plans and decisions of Napoleon, Alexander, Bagration, etc., are not the real causes of events like the pivotal battle of Borodino, despite what historians write. The real causes are massive sums of comparatively tiny decisions of ordinary people (“…if all the sergeants had been unwilling to enlist for a second tour of duty, there also could have been no war…Therefore, all these causes – billions of causes – coincided so as to bring about what happened…Kings are the slaves of history.” (604-5).) But Tolstoy never asks what caused the small decisions! (5) Tolstoy seems to me to be particularly attuned to the emotional lives of his female characters. Anyone who reads this book must come away thinking that Natasha is one of the most wonderful and finely drawn characters in literature.

Concerning the translation itself: (1) I like the fact that the considerable French dialogue remains in French rather than being translated into English along with the Russian (as it is in Garnett). There are footnoted translations of the dialogue. (2) There are excellent historical and cultural endnotes that help make sense of some of what we read, historically and culturally. (3) There is a cast of characters at the front. So you will need three bookmarks to do a good job of reading this book – one for the cast of characters, another for where you are in the endnotes, and of course one for where you are in the novel itself.

A final note: My reading has been much enhanced by the fact that my wife Judy is reading it along with me, though she chose to read the Garnett translation. We’ve had many conversations about what’s going on, and about the differences between the translations. Reading War and Peace is hard if you do it right, like working out. It helps to have a workout buddy!

When I am done with War and Peace I plan an assault on the ‘Ripley’ novels of Patricia Highsmith.
Learn more about Michael Jubien's scholarship at his faculty webpage.

Read more about Ontology, Modality, and the Fallacy of Reference at the Cambridge University Press website, and more about Possibility at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue