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Of despair and buffalo shepherds

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Thinking Through Kierkegaard By Peter J. Mehl, University of Illinois Press, hardcover, $35. Back in the Stone Age, when I came up against college, and lost, there was a sadistic literature professor who sentenced us unsuspecting farm boys just off the turnip truck to read a book by Mr. James Joyce titled “Finnegan’s Wake.” Some of us fought our way into if not through the thing, and some of us fought our way farther or further into it than others of us did. I gave up without much of a fight, and took the easy way out by equipping myself with “A Skeleton’s Key to Finnegan’s Wake,” an autopsy by two famous critics that I assumed would be a kind of Cliff Notes simplification, a Finnegan’s Wake for Dummies that would lead ordinaries like ol’ moi through the great daunting maze. At least I thought it would be the easy way out. In fact, the skeleton key was might near as impenetrable as the original. I didn’t have a clue about either of them. And still don’t. I’ve gone back to them a time or two over the decades with the same result. Anthony Burgess still assures me via a blurb that Finnegan’s Wake might be the most entertaining book ever written, but I might as well be Superman trying to read it through lead-plated dust jackets. I’ve started in the middle. I’ve tried reading it backward, like in Hebrew or Leonardo da Vinci. It wipes the floor with me every time, and in short order. I thought of the Wake and the Key when Peter J. Mehl’s book “Thinking Through Kierkegaard: Existential Identity in a Pluralistic World” arrived last month from the University of Illinois Press (hard cover, $35). Peter J. Mehl is professor of philosophy and religion and an associate dean at the University of Central Arkansas at Conway, and his book is a kind of skeleton key to some of Soren Kierkegaard’s deepest books. Kierkegaard is the 19th century Danish thinker who would be posthumously tag-teamed with Friederich Nietzsche as the first great champions of existentialism, which is a kind of Yogi Berra philosophy in that you cannot espouse it unless you earnestly and sincerely claim not to. It makes no sense but part of its attraction is that is doesn’t pursue sense. Among the Kierkegaard texts that Professor Mehl takes on are “Either/Or” and “The Sickness Unto Death.” These works allegedly aren’t as opaque as “Finnegan’s Wake” — but they are some tough mothers, I’m here to tell you. You don’t read them, any more than Moses read the burning bush; you rassle with them, as Jacob did with the angel, and it is hard work, and making headway may take more time than you’ve budgeted for it. It can take years, and even after that, it may require divine intervention. It requires something else, too. What makes Joyce’s book so difficult is that he invented the language for it anew; he built a vast allegory from a mostly personal vocabulary, so that he knows what the words mean but requires you to puzzle them out or to just plain guess. Some readers are amused by that sort of thing — and join the game happily — but it hacks me off when a writer puts me to work, and on my tab. Damn having to learn Old Greek and Chinese for Ezra Pound, or sagebrush Espanol for Cormac McCarthy. Well, formal philosophical discourse has its own peculiar language, too, just as music, mathematics, the Navajos, and hip-hop do, and if you don’t know the language you’re apt to find yourself in some deep doo-doo even before you espy the end of the first exhausting paragraph. I made a stab at the famous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein not long ago and honestly I never got out of sight of sitting down at the reading table and spitting on my hands. A porcupine would have got as much out of it, and not a well-read porcupine. I really did have a momentary yearn for The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Tractatus before shutting down and moving on a new translation of Martin Heidegger’s “Being and Time,” a birthday gift, thanks a bunch, y’all, at the end of the third paragraph of which I met and commiserated with that porcupine again. Both the Wittgenstein and the Heidegger were translations from the German, and Danish is about 50 times harder to render into English than German is, or so I’ve heard. So there’s one more mountain — the vicissitudes of translation — standing between Professor Mehl and the lowdown he proposes to give us ordinaries on whatever it was that Kierkegaard wanted us to understand about despair and such. And all of this is assuming that we have the capacity, even if the professor does get us there finally, of hanging in there with the Leap of Faith man when his giant brain is cogitating so hard that he sometimes just passes out. “This reexamination of Kierkegaard is recommended for anyone interested in what it means to be a person,” the jacket copy confides, and I think I qualify as far as that goes, but that said, I can’t tell you yea or nay on whether “Thinking Through Kierkegaard” gets Kierkegaard sufficiently thought through. It gnaws on him occasionally when it thinks he has misjudged, but concedes after the fat lady has sung that he still has a much to tell us of great importance. -—Bob Lancaster This month’s other potboiler is “French Colonial Louisiana and the Atlantic World,” edited by Bradley G. Bond, from the Louisiana State University Press in hardcover at $59.95. You have to like this book of essays about the old Louisiana territory, if for no other reason than the one by Christopher Morris, a Texas historian, about the 18th century French vision of Louisiana as a humongous buffalo ranch. Really, they had plans and issued orders to round up all the buffaloes, domesticate them however you domesticate buffaloes, and shear enough wool off of them to make the homeland rich and prosperous again. They would use the local Indians as buffalo shepherds, if it came to that. They anticipated enough wool to put the screws to their English and Spanish trading rivals. “If they had their way,” historian Morris writes, “the stylishly dressed of Europe would adorn themselves in hats of Canadian beaver felt and garments of Louisiana buffalo wool.” This stuff is laughable now, but natural science was mostly just foolishness in the early 1700s, and of all the sciences only astronomy had ventured tentatively very far up out of the pit. Animal science was in such a regressed state that 12,000-year-old cave drawings depicted meat animals infinitely more accurately than the buffalo sketchers who were George Washington’s and Benjamin Franklin’s contemporaries. The 1758 drawing of a buffalo that got these French wool enthusiasts so ecstatic shows a low-slung cow with an idiot sheep’s face and a pom-ponned tail that looks and hangs mighty like the Cowardly Lion’s. “French Colonial Louisiana and the Atlantic World” aims to look at the history of Old Louisiana (which took in present-day Arkansas) from a perspective different from the traditional Yankee one. Just as the West Coast states have begun to view themselves as entities on the Pacific Rim, the historians here see the Gulf Coast states as a segment of a kind of Atlantic Rim, with the region’s history deriving in great part from direct interaction with Spain, France and Great Britain on the other side of the rim. That’s what the “Atlantic World” in the title refers to. It’s a refreshing, often amusing, way to study our past. -—Bob Lancaster


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