Friday, April 27, 2018

We at the Center of the Universe by John Lukacs

Published in 2017, Lukacs's 93rd year
The publication of a book of essays by John Lukacs certainly gives us something to celebrate and ponder. "Celebrate" because Lukacs notes in a couple of these essays that they're written in his 92nd and 93rd years of life. "Ponder" because Lukacs says that he doesn't expect to publish more. I hope that he's wrong, but he has left of a treasure trove of works that contemplate not only significant events in history but that ponder everything from his unique life to our place "at the center of the universe." He ranges from the microcosm to the macrocosm, turning his careful eye to a wide variety of situations, including those of our own lives and those of our ancestors. Celebrate, ponder, and rejoice in the legacy he has provided us.

But at this point, I have to share one disappointment. When I learned the title of the book and of its impending publication, I thought it would surely include or expand upon an essay that Lukacs had written and published in The American Scholar (200) entitled "Putting Man Before Descartes."  The lead essay in this book, "At the Center of the Universe" serves as a coda to the earlier, lengthier essay. It would have been much better if the publisher would have (or could have?) included that essay, which to my knowledge has not been published outside of its original inclusion in The American Scholar. The earlier essay and this essay reflect upon the issue of the knower and the known, which allows Lukacs to display his formidable speculative and philosophical side. As in his Historical Consciousness, he draws upon the earlier practitioners of quantum physics and the English thinker Owen Barfield to explore our place in the universe and how we perceive it. Barfield, beginning in the 1920s, and then after a long hiatus, beginning again in the 1950s, developed a participatory epistemology that is too little appreciated. But Lukacs appreciates it, and he became familiar with Barfield and Barfield's work. This, too, is apparent in the "Putting Man Before Descartes" essay as well as here. Like Barfield, Lukacs is acutely concerned with humankind and our place in this universe in a way that stands outside--but not wholly outside--much of popular scientific thought. History serves as a way of knowing ourselves. 

For those interested, the essay "Putting Man Before Descartes" is cited in my earlier blog post, and you can find many quotes taken from the essay there. I highly commend it. 

The remaining essays in this brief book cover a variety of topics that Lukacs has written about before, but each one provides a welcome further exploration or consideration of what might otherwise be tired topics. Churchill, Stalin, the 1920s, and Madame Bovary are among the subjects that Lukacs considers, carefully examining and judging each topic as if it was a long-lost artifact that held untold secrets for us to tease out. As with almost all of his writing, I get the sense that I'm listening to a master discourse to his students as he ponders a topic. Lukacs's writing style always gives me the feeling that I'm listening to his thinking, not eavesdropping, but that I'm invited in to share his discoveries as he's writing them. It is a joy, and one that I hope doesn't stop with this book, but if it does, I have a shelf-full of his books that I can (and have) gone back to time and again to re-discover and savor this brilliant writer. 

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