Do They Play Soccer Against the Upper East Side Philosophers?

In the age of print on demand, every Tom, Dick and Stanislaw can set up a publishing house of his or her own. Some do, at times inventing the name of a publisher just to provide cover for the novel or self-help book one desperately wants to present to an eager world.

But few have sought to compete with university presses, gatekeepers of the high-cultural and scholarly. Let’s be serious, after all—there’s not much buck-bang in being serious. Publish monograph writers without subventions? Publish highbrow, rarefied material without a university to underwrite the losses? The absence of a thousand scholarly and high-literary presses blooming in the age of self-publishing confirms an old truth: Most people aren’t crazy.

All the more reason to welcome Upper West Side Philosophers, Inc., a previously unknown (to this critic) venture that sent along two slim volumes to be considered for the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. At first, looking at the return address, I presumed the package came from a cult that worships Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Not so. In fact the two petite volumes are from far-from-petite names: the much-lauded German poet  Durs Grünbein, winner of Germany’s Büchner and Nietzsche prizes, and the even more renowned German cultural critic Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who has, over his four decades of scintillating work, picked up not just the Büchner Prize, but the Heinrich Böll, Heinrich Heine, and Erich Maria Remarque prizes.

As Singer might have cracked, “They need an NBCC Prize?”

Both Enzensberger’s Fatal Numbers: Why Count On Chance, translated by Karen Leeder, and Grünbein’s The Vocation of Poetry, translated by Michael Eskin, are niftily packaged essays about the size of those excellent “Prickly Paradigm” paperbacks from Marshall Sahlins—no shame in an era when Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit makes the bite-sized book a success many would like to emulate.

On their own merits, both books delight. Grünbein’s essay, prefaced by a warm piece recalling how he learned words from his puzzle-master grandfather, is his 2009 public lecture delivered at Frankfurt’s Goethe University on the 50th anniversary of the Frankfurt Poetry Lectures. It  begins by noting that the lecture is being held in the so-called Poelzig building, the former corporate headquarters of I.G. Farben, developer of the Zyklon B pesticide used in the gas chambers. Frankfurt University bought the building in 1996—it now houses the departments of theology, philosophy, history, culture studies and modern languages.

Grünbein can’t help observing that, across town, the university’s legendary Lecture Hall Number Six, where Adorno wondered about writing poetry after Auschwitz, is slated for demolition. The lecture gets even more stinging as Grünbein turns autobiographical about his fast-rising career and what’s aesthetically possible in poetry today. The Vocation of Poetry makes an inviting entry point to his work—see Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) for more.

The title essay of Enzensberger’s volume, in turn, offers this highly insightful polymath meditating on probability, with historical sweep back to Girolamo Cardano, author of the 1524 treatise On Casting the Die. (If the Paduan scholar  and trickster were alive today, he’d be cheating at three-card-monte in Times Square while holding a research appointment at Columbia.)

Enzensberger, now in his 80s, then ranges forward to pondering the notion that “whenever one is dealing with probabilities, there’s always a  catch.” Gödel, Turing, and Benoit Mandelbrot come into the conversation as Enzensberger mulls over fractals and the frequency distribution of outlier figures such as Christ and Stalin—along the way he plays with the “right of probability theory to exist.” In the book’s second short essay, “On the Metaphysical Antics of Mathematics,” Enzensberger is similarly resourceful,  invoking Robert Musil on the wonder of numbers. Like Grünbein, Enzensberger is a world-class writer and intellect whose work appears in English too rarely—for a broader taste of it, try Zig Zag: The Politics of Culture and Vice Versa (The New Press, 1998).

And who are the generous Manhattan patrons making Grünbein and Enzensberger more available to us? According to the “Upper West Side Philosophers, Inc.” website, two enterprising thinkers and entrepreneurs.

Kathrin Stengel, Ph.D., identified on the site as the group’s co-founder and president,  “studied philosophy at the Universities of Leuven (Belgium), Munich and Konstanz (Germany)” and “has taught philosophy at Seattle University and the Rhode Island School of Design.” Her bio on the site explains that Stengel, in addition to publishing “widely on ethics, aesthetics and epistemology” (she has a book titled Das Subjekt als Grenze (The Subject as Threshold) that compares Wittgenstein with Merleau-Ponty), also organizes “international philosophical events” and teaches Vipassana meditation.

Her co-founder and vice-president is Michael Eskin, Ph.D., identified as “a former Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge” who has “taught at the University of Cambridge and Columbia University.” According to his bio, he publishes on Nabokov, Levinas, Bakhtin, Mandelstam and Celan. One of his engagingly titled publications, issued under the pseudonym Misha Waiman, is 17 Prejudices That We Germans Hold Against America and Americans and That Can’t Quite Be True.

Together—we’re guessing they’re together, since Eskin’s bio says he lives with his wife and three children in Manhattan, and Stengel’s bio says she lives with her husband and three children in Manhattan—they founded Upper West Side Philosophers Inc. a few years ago as “an independent space and place for the practice of philosophy in a way that is rigorous, yet embodied, disciplined, yet relaxed, historically founded, yet geared toward everyday life.”

According to the site, UWSP offers a philosophical studio in which you can practice “Yoga for the Mind”—a registered trademark “R” accompanies the phrase,  in case you think that “Inc.” is pure affectation—and philosophical walks in Riverside Park. You can even “order in” a philosopher “should you prefer practicing philosophical  thinking in a venue of your choice.”

Why shouldn’t one of the world’s oldest professions take a hint from another? At least the site doesn’t describe itself as “Incall/Outcall.”

Is this how Harvard University Press started? Or where Harvard University Press should be headed? Can other university presses get into the act, offering to hand-deliver volumes of, say,  the Loeb Classical Library, to your apartment, accompanied by baklava and ouzo?

Since this is PageView, not a blog on entrepreneurship, we’ll leave it there. As mentioned, the books bring us two world-class authors who should be better known here, especially by American humanists and literati. Further exploration of “Yoga for the Mind” is up to you.

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