O.P. Recommends: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Discovering America, from The New Yorker’s Politics and More Podcast

Summer 2014 issue of Ms. featuring Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, by Ms. magazine, CC BY-SA 4.0

In this fascinating podcast episode, the brilliant and eloquent Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses her American experience, the absurdity of racism, the increasing orthodoxy and silencing of dissent on the political left, and much more with The New Yorker’s David Remnick. I find Adichie one of the most mesmerizing speakers and conversationalists around today.

Enjoy, and if this podcast episode happens to be your introduction to Adichie’s insightfulness and complex set of perspectives, an internet search of her name will reveal a wealth of talks, interviews, and more… you’re in for one intellectual treat after another!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Robert Burns Letter at the National Library of Scotland in Honor of the Bard’s Birthday

Robert Burns letter to William Niven, 30 August 1786, at National Library of Scotland, special showing 25 January 2018

Robert Burns, aka ‘the Bard’, is, as you may know, one of Scotland’s most honored sons. His poems and songs are widely regarded as among the most beautiful and resonant literary creations of all of Scotland’s people. Some of the people I’ve written about for Ordinary Philosophy were inspired and influenced by Burns, notably Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. I’ll be writing much more and regularly about Burns before long in the context of my upcoming Frederick Douglass in Scotland series and pieces on the Scottish history of ideas, stay tuned!

In honor of Robert Burns’s birthday celebration, aka Burns Night, the National Library of Scotland put one of his original letters on display for a few hours today, with a little informational card that provides a brief context. I’ll be elaborating on the significance of his planned emigration to Jamaica in my next Douglass series as well.

The letter reads:

My Dr Friend,

I have been very throng every since I saw you, and have not got the wh[ole of my] promise performed to you: but you know [the old] Proverb “The break o’ day’s no the bre[ak o’ a] bargain” – Have patience and I will [pay you] all. – I thank you with the most heart-felt sincerity for the worthy knot of lads you introduced me to. – Never did I meet with so many congenial souls together, without one dissonant jar in the Concert. To all and each of them make my friendly Complnts particularly “spunkie, youthfu’ Tammy.” Remember me in the most respectful [manner to the] Baillie, and Mrs Niven, Mr Dun, and the two truly worthy old Gentlemen I had the honor of being introduced to on Friday; tho’ I am afraid the conduct you forced me on may make them see me in a light I would fondly think I do not deserve. –

I will perform the rest of my promise soon. – In the mean time, remember this, never blow my Songs amo[ng] the Million, as I would abhor to hear every Prentice mouthing my poor performances in the streets. – Every one of [my] Maybole friends are welcome to a Copy, if they chuse; but [I w]ish them to go no farther. – I mean it as a small [mark] of my respect for them: a respect as sincere as the [faith] of dying SAINTS. –

I am ever, My Dr Willm Your oblidged,
Robt Burns

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On the Value of Intellectuals, by Brad Kent

“George Bernard Shaw near St Neots from the Millership collection” from the Birmingham Museums Trust, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In times of populism, soundbites, and policy-by-Twitter such as we live in today, the first victims to suffer the slings and arrows of the demagogues are intellectuals. These people have been demonised for prioritising the very thing that defines them: the intellect, or finely reasoned and sound argument. As we celebrate the 161st birthday of Bernard Shaw, one of the most gifted, influential, and well-known intellectuals to have lived, we might use the occasion to reassess the value of intellectuals to a healthy society and why those in power see them as such threats.

Born in Dublin on 26 July 1856 to a father who held heterodox religious opinions and a mother who moved in artistic circles, Shaw was perhaps bound to be unconventional. By age 19 he was convinced that his native Ireland was little more than an uncouth backwater–the national revival had yet to see the light of day–so he established himself in London in order to conquer English letters. He then took his sweet time to do it. In the roughly quarter of a century between his arrival in the metropole and when he finally had a modicum of success, Shaw wrote five novels–most of which remained unpublished until his later years–and eked out a living as a journalist, reviewing music, art, books, and theatre. That eminently readable journalism has been collected in many fine editions, and we see in it an earnest individual not only engaged in assessing the qualities of the material before him–much of which was dreadfully insipid–but eager to raise standards and to cultivate the public. He prodded people to want more and gave them the tools to understand what a better art would look and sound like. And he did so in an inimitable voice that fashioned his renowned alter ego: the great showman and controversialist, GBS.

“George Bernard Shaw, circa 1900” from the Library of Congress, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Shaw became more widely known as a playwright in late 1904, when King Edward broke his chair laughing at the Royal Command performance of Shaw’s play John Bull’s Other Island. He was no longer a journalist by trade, now being able to live by his plays, but Shaw continued to write essays, articles, and letters-to-the-editor in leading papers to set the record straight, to denounce abuses of power, and to suggest more humane courses of action. When he published his plays, he wrote polemical prefaces to accompany them that are sometimes longer than the plays themselves. These prefaces, written on an exhausting range of subjects, are equally learned and entertaining. Indeed, it has been said by some wags that the plays are the price that we pay for his prefaces.

In many ways continuing his fine work as the Fabian Society’s main pamphleteer in the 1890s, his prefaces suggest remedies for the great injustices of his time. And, what’s more, the vast majority of his prescriptions are as topical and provocative today. For example, if you’re American, should you opt for Trumpcare or Obamacare? Read The Doctor’s Dilemma and its preface and you’ll have a compelling case for neither, but rather a comprehensive and fully accessible public healthcare system, the sort now common in Canada and most European countries. That’s right, people were feeling the Bern–we might say the original Bern–well before Mr. Sanders was born.

Some of Shaw’s opinions came at a great cost. When he published Common Sense About the War, which was critical of both German and British jingoism at the outset of the Great War, he ran too much against the grain of the hyper-patriotic press and government propaganda, thereby becoming a pariah to many. But his star gradually returned into the ascendant as the body count mounted and a war-weary population came to share his point of view. The run-away international success of Saint Joan brought him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925 and, as Shaw said, gave him the air of sanctity in his later years.

“George Bernard Shaw with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, May 1949”, from Nehru Memorial Museum & Library. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

However, Shaw always maintained that he was immoral to the bone. He was immoral in the sense that, as a committed socialist in a liberal capitalist society, he didn’t support contemporary mores. Instead, he sought to change the way that society was structured and to do so he proposed absolutely immoral policies. A good number of these beyond universal healthcare have seen the light of day, such as education that prioritises the child’s development and sense of self-worth, the dismantling of the injustices of colonial rule, and voting rights for women. But those in power continue the old tug-of-war, and the intellectuals of today must be as vigilant, courageous, and energetic as Shaw in the defence of liberal humanist and social democratic values. Witness the return of unaffordable tertiary education in the UK, made possible by both Labour and Conservative policies.  We might recall that Shaw co-founded one of these institutions–the renowned London School of Economics–because he believed in their public good.

Whenever Shaw toured the globe in his later decades–he died in 1950 at age 94–he was met by leading politicians, celebrities, and intellectuals who wanted to bask in his wit, wisdom, and benevolence (Jawaharlal Nehru, Charlie Chaplin, and Albert Einstein are a few such people). Time magazine named him amongst the ten most famous people in the world–alongside Hitler and the Pope. Everywhere he went, the press hounded him for a quote. Yet despite the massive fees he could have charged, he never accepted money for his opinions, just as he had declined speaking fees in his poorer days when he travelled Britain to give up to six three-hour lectures a week to praise the benefits of social democracy. He would not be bought–or suffer the appearance of being bought.

On his birthday, then, we would do well to think of Shaw and maybe even read some of his plays, prefaces, or journalism. We might also cherish the service and immorality of intellectuals. And we should always question the motives of those who denigrate their value.

This piece was originally published in OUPBlog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Trail and Monument at Mount Saint Helena, CA

Stevenson Memorial Trail to the summit of Mount Saint Helena. The trailhead is about nine miles north of Calistoga, CA

My sister Therese and I hiked the lovely trail to the summit of Mount Saint Helena on April 22nd, 2017. This hike was Therese’s idea, as are so many of the best ones; thanks, dear sister!

The Stevenson Memorial Trail winds five miles to the summit (one way), about 1,800 feet of climbing all told to the 4,343-foot peak. The entrance to the trail led into dreamy forest, with branches highlighted here and there with fluttering pink plastic ribbons to guide the trail runners in an organized event held here that day. There was a table set up in the parking lot off Highway 29, with drinks, treats, and cheers available for the tired athletes.

On our way up, we discovered the monument mentioned in the sign at the foot of the trail, a handsome little tribute to the memory of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife placed here exactly 94 years ago on May 7th, 1911 by the Napa Club. Stevenson and his new wife Fanny Van de Grift stayed here for an adventurous honeymoon on the cheap, living for two months in an abandoned miners’ cabin. Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and A Child’s Garden of Verses, was seeking adventure, new fodder for his writing which he feared was lagging due to his chronic poor health, and a climate in which his congested lungs could do their best. And he was here for Fanny: he had met her years earlier and fell in love. They had to wait to join their lives together until the divorce from her abusive husband came through, and when it did, he left his native Scotland to join her in her home country.

Monument at the site of the miners’-turned-honeymooners’ cabin on Stevenson Memorial Trail, Mount Saint Helena, Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, CA

The engraved marble tablet on the stone monument reads:

‘This tablet placed by the Club Women of Napa County
Marks the site of the cabin occupied in 1880 by Robert Lewis Stevenson
And bride, while he wrote The Silverado Squatters.

“Doomed to know not winter only spring,
A being trod the flowery April blithely for awhile,
Took his fill of music, joy of thought
And seeing and stayed and went
Nor ever ceased to smile.” – R.L.S.

It was a beautiful hike, the first mile or so lovely and shaded on the narrow switchback trail, the last four mostly fire roads, though we found a couple of steep little shortcuts. The view from the top was spectacular, though not as far as it might have been on a less cloudy day. The wildflowers were lovely too, and the pine and madrone forests (and plentiful poison oak) very much as Stevenson describes them in The Silverado Squatters. It’s the story of his travels to California and his time here in Napa County with Fanny, which is available to read in full online. It’s an amusing and charming story, though the way he describes some Jewish acquaintances is disconcerting unless you keep in mind the prejudices of the time.

Enjoy!

Engraved stone book on the monument at the site of the old cabin on Stevenson Memorial Trail up Mount Saint Helena

Stream near the monument on Stevenson Memorial Trail. Stevenson describes a stream near the old bunkhouse in The Silverado Squatters

Panorama of the view from the peak of Mount Saint Helena, CA, 2017 by Amy Cools

The flat rocks at the peak make a perfect place for a picnic on Mount Saint Helena, CA, 2017 Amy Cools.jpg

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration

Bazzoli, Kathy. ‘The Legend of Mount St. Helena,’ The Weekly Calistogan, May 19, 2015

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894)‘ – The Poetry Foundation website

Robert Louis Stevenson – Marriage‘, from Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia

Robert Louis Stevenson / Mt St. Helena State Park,’ Sonoma Hiking Trails website

Robert Louis Stevenson State Park,’ Napa Valley State Parks Association website

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Silverado Squatters, 1883