Monday, January 4, 2010

Sophie's World

Part I: What It Says

How have I, Adam Swick, a three-day-old child, not only learned to read, but actually read such a long book as Sophie’s World? How is it that, despite my young age, I have decades of memories to draw on in the following discussion? How come I’m so small and made of paper? Why am I wearing shorts—is it not winter in Canada?

No answers exist to these questions! They are mysteries. Let us marvel at them!

This is what Sophie’s World says. There are mysteries everywhere. Let us marvel at them! If we do not (a) recognize them and (b) marvel at them, we are fools. A profound and simple message!

Part II: Why It Is So Good (Part A)

A two-part answer: because philosophy is good, and because it (they!) gave me good dreams.

Let’s imagine that I was once a high school student in the province of Ontario, and that I graduated without knowing anything about philosophy. I knew a lot about Physics and Chemistry, which had succeeded in implanting in my malleable mind such concepts as entropy and the convertibility of matter into energy—concepts capable of producing the above-mentioned experience of marvel. I experienced this “oceanic feeling” (let us rather call it “lakey”) now and then. I remember that when I was feeling unhappy, I would recall how tiny I was in the universe, and what a strange thing it was that I existed at all, and then I’d feel better.

But not until I read Sophie’s World—not until I was past high school—did I properly marvel. This is a book written for fifteen-year-olds. I believe that the effect it has on educationally-deprived twenty-year-olds, as I was then, is even stronger. Imagine being fifty or sixty and encountering Plato’s cave allegory for the first time? I think it would come as a significant shock.

Reading about Plato’s cave came as a significant shock to my twenty-year-old brain. It’s as if there are certain thoughts that one is supposed to have in one’s life. When you have them, the Creator looks proudly down on you, checks something on your file, and tries to reward you. (It is at moments like these that you feel the world may suddenly collapse into a spray of confetti, and a man with a microphone will approach and ask how it feels to have graduated to the next stage of existence.) My reward was an incredibly good dream. I don’t remember what the dream was about, but I remember a full night of excitement and activity. My brain tingled.

I then fell into the habit of reading one chapter before bed each night. I never had a dream quite as good as the one after learning about Plato. But every night I had that same tingling-brain sensation. I think the next-strongest was after the chapter on Darwin, about whom I naturally already knew a lot, without knowing it in such a way that it would give me good dreams.

Why is Sophie’s World so good (Part A)? Because many intelligent people know nothing about philosophy, and it is capable of telling these people about it. Philosophy is capable of giving you interesting thoughts—thoughts which our brains are eager for us to have. As a result, the hedonistic pleasure of good dreams.

Part III: Why It Is So Good (Part B)

Sophie’s World is not just good for what it says. It is also good for the way it tells us about philosophy.

First, it is clearly written. Here is a strange thing about philosophy: it contains these tiny little thoughts, like “perhaps the world of experience is all illusion, and reality is elsewhere”; or, “in a world without God, I must take responsibility for all my actions.” These are simple thoughts that our brain craves for. But philosophers are often unable to express these simple thoughts. They have achieved nothing if they cannot convey their ideas to other people. But so often (Hegel! Heidegger!) they are such terrible writers that it falls to others to explain them.

Jostein Gaarder is an excellent writer. Perhaps, because he is writing for fifteen-year-olds, he can simplify a bit too much. But generally, I do not think this is at all the case. He explains clearly without condescending. And he has a genius for examples and for illustrations. For example, the image of the universe as a magic trick. A rabbit is drawn out of a hat. Each of us is born on the very tip of the rabbit’s fur, where this incredible trick is visible in all its mystery. But as we age we begin to settle into the base of the fur-shaft, where it is warm and comfortable, but where the magic trick is invisible. This is the “bourgeois” mentality. Philosophers climb to the top of the fur-shaft, and seek to stare directly into the eyes of the Creator.

What a fine image! It contains as strong a moral idea as Kant’s categorical imperative.

There is also the strange narrative involving Sophie and Alberto, Hilde and Albert. It was mostly out of curiosity about this framing narrative that I re-read the book in the last little while (since the time of my birth as Adam Swick.) I don’t think there is a better, more sensible use of meta-fiction in any book than the metafictional element in Sophie’s World. As reason begins to become aware of itself as reason in the history of philosophy, Sophie and Alberto begin to become aware of themselves as characters in a book. It’s tremendously clever! I know people who become bored of this book before they reach the “plot twist” around the time of the Enlightenment. I think the danger post-twist is of being too curious about what will happen with Hilde to pay attention to the discussions of Hegel, Kierkegaard, Darwin, Freud, etc.

The thing that interests me most in this weird story, though, is a question that the Major never answers. Why does Alberto Knox (what a terrible name!) suddenly start sending Sophie a course on philosophy? We know why Albert Knag writes his book for Hilde. He wants to teach his fifteen-year-old daughter to experience mystery and to marvel at it. But how come he doesn’t have Sophie’s father (a sailor seldom at home) send her the philosophical primers? After a while, Sophie’s father completely disappears—we know that he is unhappy in his marriage, and it is left there. What does it mean for some strange, badly-named, bearded forty-year-old to suddenly start sending philosophical notes to a fifteen-year-old, and meet with her in the forest and in his apartment? How does he know Sophie? How does he know she’ll be such a fine student? What does he hope to achieve? This man would be arrested and jailed if he tried to do this in real life—and perhaps with reason. One seldom educates for no purpose.

Sophie’s World is clearly written, but not childish! The narrative is tremendously interesting.

Part IV: How We Know We Can Trust Jostein Gaarder

I have heard many pretentious people dismiss Sophie’s World. They probably think Jostein Gaarder is a fool.

Let me tell you, he is no fool. All of the above can be cited as proof. But there is much simpler proof than this. Look in the index. Look under G. Gombrowicz is in the index. Would a fool put Gombrowicz in his book?

I am going to write one more post about philosophical primers. In the next week I will write about Polish writer and incomparable genius Witold Gombrowicz, and his little tiny book, A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes.

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