Thursday, September 8, 2011

Seriously, What's the Deal With Spinoza?

There appears to be no edition of his works in print except for a very small (in number of copies) and expensive one published in Holland which you can't get except directly from the publisher. I'm not talking about translations. By "edition" I mean a publication of the original untranslated works. So in Spinoza's case that means a few odds and ends written in Dutch and the rest in Latin. Even in this age when accelerating publishing technology is allowing reprints of pre-copyright books to crop up everywhere like dandelions, you can't even find a reprint of untranslated Spinoza on Amazon except for a volume of posthumous odds and ends of little interest to many folks other than hardcore Spinoza specialists, which the big dumb machines of the reprinting publishers obviously found only by chance. Apparently no editions of his works ever were widely distributed. Yes, translations of Spinoza's works are everywhere. But what on Earth are the translators working from? Are they organized into large groups, each one passing around a single copy of the Ethica or the Tractatus? (Yes, that image is a paraphrased theft from Gaddis. Always steal from the best.)

I myself finally found a copy of each of those works, the Ethica and the Tractatus, on Google Books, which the local university library was able to make into conventional books for me using their Espresso Book Machine. But even those editions on Google Books were poorly printed, so my copies are full of electronically-reproduced smudges and illegibilities.

I went to the philosophy section of that University library, and found, as one would expect, several, nay dozens of square yards of shelf space each of critical editions of Kant, Leibniz, Descartes, Nietzsche. That's the shelf space occupied by the editions, before we get to the voluminous, and I'm sure mostly tedious, I wouldn't know and I won't, life's too short and there's too much actual philosophy, commentary. Schopenhauer is somewhat fucked over in comparison, as he and the rest of us probably would expect -- but would we really expect this to be the extent of the library's holdings of editions, of untranslated works of Spinoza, a philosopher who holds a central place in the work of Leibnitz, Kant and Nietzsche and is even grudgingly granted a central place by the nastily antisemetic Schopenhauer?

Yes, we would, if we had spent as much time as I have looking for such editions in all corners of the Earth. Otherwise we would be shocked. Perhaps even slightly outraged. Seriously. That's it. Eight small-to-medium-sized volumes, the four green ones to the left in the photo, the gray and black one in the middle and the three black ones to the right. All eight volumes old, the newest ones almost a century old, all printed on cheap acidic paper which has long since started to crumble. Because I'd been looking so long everywhere, that was about exactly what I'd expected to find. That's par for the course.

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