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Baum On Books

Book Review: BALD

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Here’s a book that’s well named: “Bald.” To emphasize the point, the cover contains an illustration of a man in profile, his pate as smooth as stone, and a back flap front-face photo that shows one hairless Simon Critchley, professor of philosophy, looking a bit perturbed. But not because he’s bald. Critchley announces the fact as his opening sentence: “I’m bald.” The condition started when he was 19 and then, he says, “like the Roman Empire, my hair went into a long and irreversible decline and fall.”

The baldness Critchley trumpets in this engaging essay collection, whose subtitle is: “35 Philosophical Short Cuts" is a different kind. To be bald in prose, says Critchley, means to speak or write “in a plain, unadorned, unveiled and indeed slightly stark way.” To be clear, crisp, jargon-free and with an important point to make.

Critchley, a popular philosopher, is a transplanted Brit from Liverpool who teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York. He notes that a bald style is rare for the professoriate, too many of whom adopt a “pattern of supposed academic rigor which can sometimes stiffen into rigor mortis.” To judge from the essays here, edited by his colleague Peter Catapano, Critchley delivers.

He cites and paraphrases Socrates and his heirs, followers and foes, along with demonstrating his own quirky, witty take on philosophical inquiry today, including the way many in our COVID-challenged and narcissistic “power of now” times respond to fear and anxiety. His musings show wide and critical reading in the humanities — he likes to quote Herman Melville and Nietzsche as his favorite “passive nihilists,” David Bowie as his favorite musician and Liverpool football as his eternal love — not to mention his own yearning to be a stand-up comic.

The essays are arranged by topic, not chronology, as Critchley returns to the same topic as he says, “out of perplexity, fascination and curiosity.” He packs in learning in a relaxed, conversational manner. One essay starts this way: “Crazy Hot. It’s the middle of the Greek summer. Socrates is in Athens, where he bumps into an acquaintance called Phaedrus. They say hi. They begin to talk.”

In another essay Critchley suggests that Hamlet’s famous question, "To Be or Not to Be?" might be answered, “Let Be.” It’s persuasively ingenious. In an essay titled  “Abandon (Nearly) All Hope,” Critchley  manages an attempt at his own belief system. He calls it “skeptical realism," deeply informed by history.  And by an “impassioned affirmation” of our mortality.

His final words riff on the 17th century polymath Blaise Pascal who argued for “thinking well” and acknowledging human frailty, weakness and wretchedness, a sentiment Critchley says is opposite of "morbidity and fatuous pessimism.” Think about it — that well may be the only philosophic stance worth taking now: To get through. To prevail. 

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