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The Self-making Man

On Religion Dispatches this morning, I’ve got a new review of Thomas Carlson’s latest book, The Indiscrete Image: Infinitude and Creation of the Human. Carlson was my philosophy teacher at UC Santa Barbara—and a remarkable teacher at that. We worked harder in his graduate seminars that in any other class, and every bit was worth it. I once took an upper-level undergraduate class he gave, too, and his peripatetic lectures, full of dry humor and eerie insights, were the highlight of my week. His writing much resembles his teaching:

The book doesn’t trade any sophistication for accessibility. For one page, at least, there is a separate index just for Greek terms. Carlson has not much mercy for those uninitiated into the particular vocabulary of Heidegger and his inheritors, and at times these figures overshadow the ancient and modern primary sources. The chapter on James Joyce is insightful whether you’ve cracked Finnegans Wake or not. To be sure, when there’s an important point to be made, Carlson drives it home again and again, each time in terms more pregnant than before. His careful prose requires—but also rewards—the reader’s effort.

I hope the book will be read and discussed widely. It raises powerful questions about the possibility and the desirability of turning back the clock on human civilization in the name of tradition or nature. And it does so, precisely, by asking religious tradition about the meaning of human nature.