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June 20, 2006

Darwin and Thucydides

The obvious way to organize a history is, duh, chronologically. But, being an ambitious (or pretentious) fellow, I've had this notion that I might run another thread through this history of disbelief, that I might tell the story of the great nineteenth-century British atheist, Charles Bradlaugh, while I'm doing the history. Why (beyond ambition or pretense)? Because this extended biographical sketch would, presumably, give the reader a longer narrative to hang on to as the history follows disbelief from India to Baghdad to Spain to Amsterdam and eventually to Manhattan -- pausing for shorter narratives along the way. Readability, in other words.

I had a thought on how this might actually work while in India many months ago. The key being a connection in the second chapter -- which tracks disbelief in Egypt, India, China, Greece -- between Thucydides, the great Athenian historian, and Charles Darwin. Neither was a particularly aggressive critic of religion. My argument would be, however, that both benefited in crucial ways from the critique of religion that had gained force in their time. Could Thucydides have written his history, with its remarkable absence of supernatural explanation, without the corrosion of the Greek religion caused by the Sophists, among others? Could Darwin have written (or published) Origin of the Species without the attacks on religion of Shelley and Charles Bradlaugh, among others. Making this case would, thus, get Bradlaugh into chapter two.

That's what I'm working on now. It may very well be a bad idea -- especially since jumpiness is a potential problem. And, as usual, I've got to write it to have any idea whether I'll like it.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at June 20, 2006 7:22 PM


Sounds like a great idea to me, you have to have a story line and just a chronological history will not capture attention or reveal the passion this point of view requires to exist. The struggle of anyone is the struggle of us all. Understanding the isolation of the individual thinker seems most revealing by concentrating on an individual story.

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 21, 2006 10:05 AM

Nietzsche and Foucault suggest that chronological history is a forgetting, a construction of power... so yeah, please subvert away... your point that ideas/histories arise not solely out of the mind of an individual but out of that mind in relation to its times/ideas -- and that society's conception of the past--already indicates that your 'history' seems likely to be part of the counter-memory... cool. an unhistory, perhaps?

Posted by: JM at June 21, 2006 10:32 AM

If you ever attempt to unravel strings of tangled Christmas Tree Lights, it really doesn't matter at what point on the string you begin to work, just work it!

A new 'vision' or even frustration could lead ya to put down what you have worked on, to pick up again in a new area...

But when its all said and done, the lights will come on! : )

Posted by: Bonnie Kim at June 21, 2006 3:18 PM

thanks. but I fear there won't be much of the anti-history JM calls for here. (worthy as such a project might be) I want this history of disbelief to read, to be a good read, so I will shamelessly be making use of narrative and the idea that people, interesting people, contribute to the development of ideas. Shelley is an example:
the topic, I hope, is significant, the ideas challenging. and I may, as mentioned above, mess a bit with traditional form. but I won't surrender the desire to tell good tales.

Posted by: mitch at June 21, 2006 7:45 PM

sorry, Mitch: 'anti' never entered my comments. 'un' a very different prefix. please take note of etymology, which i find important (and you read Derrida so I assume you understand this as well). why pose a conflict between 'telling a good tale' and 'messing a bit w/ traditional form' ? as if they are either/or ? you are, i attempted to endorse, already breaking traditional historical parameters of narrative causality in attempting the present structure as described in this post (duh, not to mention having people respond to you on a blog as you write the thing?). Please don't enforce NYT (mis)understanding of deconstruction as 'not a good read, not readable, a surrender' to the pleasure of the text. recommend "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" to anyone interested in the idea of 'counter-memory'.

Posted by: JM at June 21, 2006 10:26 PM

fair enough.

Posted by: mitch at June 22, 2006 1:17 AM

Etymology, Keyrizt, one more thing I know nothing about. Un v anti. So many words and word parts. What does it all mean?

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 22, 2006 11:42 AM

And what the fuck is fair enough? Diplomacy must be part of your NYC lifestyle or is the NYU lifestyle?

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 22, 2006 11:44 AM

JS: on the surface, both these prefixes obviously signify 'against'... As one compelled for some reason to engage in seemingly endless hair-splitting in effort to push beyond the surface of mainstream usage of language, hoping for even the slightest alteration of reality in the act of dialogic encounter, differentiation here takes on significance for me. One way of thinking it comes from this kind of thing:

If you look up 'anti-' you basically just get "against." Period. The binary opposite of : there's no room for nuance; only re=action. I prefer "un-" to attempt a way, through language, to get out from under the dead-end of binary thinking: seek to put into practice what Julia Kristeva termed 'revolution in poetic language.' Not meant to be pretentious or arrogant; simply an effort to think language as difference...... appreciated Mitch's diplomacy, wherever it comes from.

Posted by: JM at June 22, 2006 10:35 PM

I understand and agree, anti=a in athiest, which is why I don't like the word. The believers should be arealityists.

I find, usually, the harder I try to make a point the less likely I do.

Not believing in anything I just sit,
listening to my breathing
After thirty years
It still goes in and out.
--Albert Coelho

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 22, 2006 10:53 PM

thanks....and: don't underestimate the revolution that breathing in and breathing out accomplishes: reality alters with every single breath (doesn't it?)

Posted by: JM at June 22, 2006 11:00 PM

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