Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A basilisk to the bosom
Looking for a good historical smackdown but tired of the same old Newton vs. Leibniz? Have I got a book for you: "Rousseau's Dog," by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. Subtitled "Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment," "Rousseau's Dog" details the public throwdown between philosophers and lunatics Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume.

Rousseau was the brilliant novelist, philosopher, recluse, child-abandoner and paranoid whackjob who fled persecution into the arms of brilliant historian, philosopher, economist, social-climber, and over-eating wackjob David Hume. After Hume escorted Rousseau safely to London, the nature-loving Rousseau discovered he preferred land spreadin' out so far and wide, while the social butterfly Hume discovered he tended to become allergic smelling hay. Comedy ensues.

Gradually, Rousseau becomes paranoid enough to make Howard Hughes seem well groomed, and he writes a classic flame-mail accusing Hume of plotting to destroy his street cred. Hume writes back, in what was known in the 18th century as "tearing him a new one." The ensuing catfight spills out into the public arena – the age-ol' clusterfuckalism known as the British tabs – and eventually sucks in everybody from Voltaire to Benjamin Franklin to Frederick the Great to Horace Walpole, who was sort of 1766's Don Rickles.

Anchoring Rousseau's life throughout all this turmoil is Sultan, who is not only the philosopher's dog, but also his dawg. You'll want to read this book with one hand free, so it's available to point at your ear and move in a circular fashion, while you mutter "cuckoo, cuckoo" as you go.

OK, a wee complaint: I picked up this book because I thought it would be a fun way to learn more about the philosophies of these great thinkers. It really isn't. It stays focused on the smackdown. But the authors are probably aware that we Merkans love a good, bitchy dustup more than we like true intellectual pursuit. If it's logos you're after, cop some Corpus Aristotelicum. But if you're up for a weirdo literary knockdown, Jean-Jacques Rosseau/David Hume makes Gabriel García Márquez/Mario Vargas Llosa seem like Grand Funk Railroad/Three Dog Night.

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