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August 17, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds

Walking the Tight-

rope of Reason

The Precarious Life

of a Rational Animal

Robert Fogelin

Oxford University Press:

204 pp., $22

"We seem to live our intellectual lives on the edge of absurdity," writes philosopher Robert Fogelin. Who stops to think about the assumptions that make everyday life possible? Philosophers! And what makes our lives as intellectual animals so precarious? Inconsistencies! Fogelin loves 'em; the constraints of science make him as happy as an adolescent confronted with rules. He's a skeptic, in the ancient (West Coast) tradition, which means, in American terms: "East Coast skeptics recognize that their knowledge is limited, and this troubles them deeply. West Coast skeptics recognize the same thing but find it liberating." Be comfortable with a lack of certainty, he advises. Fogelin writes with a wonderful sense of danger, as if it matters what philosophers think. How do we get along as well as we do? Because, Fogelin admits, we are not playing by the rules, made by the rulers. We are "playing to win." That is what makes us rational. This is a calorie-burning book.

*

Gentlemen's Blood

A History of Dueling From Swords at Dawn to Pistols at Dusk

Barbara Holland

Bloomsbury: 256 pp, $24.95

"The basic bread and butter duel was fought to cleanse one's honor after an insult, real or fancied," explains Barbara Holland in this high-spirited history of the art. And there's no question that she misses dueling, if only as a "useful safety valve for overheated testosterone." The first reference to a duel (from the Latin duellum, or war between two) was in 501, when Gundebald, king of the Burgundians, made it an official method of solving disputes under regal supervision. The last recorded duel was fought in Peru, between a congressman and the vice president, in September 2002. Holland cheerfully, airily, describes the many forms the duel has taken over the centuries, from official to private. There are the various rules and the various reasons for dueling: honor (a changeful concept), accusations of lying or simple insult. Women are less of a motivation for dueling than one would suppose. Holland covers the emotional globe, from the derring-do of Gold Rush California to the moody Slavic soul ("vodka may be a factor"), resting now and then on a particularly delicious or famous duel -- Hamilton-Burr, Barron-Decatur or various journalists and editors (journalism was "particularly perilous"). She describes a few ways to cheat: cutting hamstrings (the Italians), wearing overly large clothes to obscure the target (a favorite with Andrew Jackson, who was very thin) and, of course, the use of seconds. How to avoid a duel? "If you valued peace," she writes, "you didn't call a German a coward or a Frenchman a liar, or hint to a Spanish grandee that his aunt or his sister wasn't chaste.... In Russia, you stayed out of literature and the cavalry.... [I]n Ireland, best to keep away from horse races, or even from Ireland entirely."

*

Yoga Hotel

Maura Moynihan

Regan Books: 304 pp., $13.95

These gentle stories are set in a harsh world of privilege and poverty, spirituality and hedonism, friendship and social climbing. They are written by an author who loves India but does not romanticize it or its seductiveness to Westerners. Moynihan does not judge her characters and is sympathetic to their weaknesses: the wealthy Western guru-followers in "Masterji"; the young servant in "A Good Job in Delhi," who wants everything his American master has; the young woman working at the American Embassy in "The Visa," who is used by wealthy Delhi socialites to get visas; even the U.N. worker who promises to help some Tibetan refugees and then, overwhelmed by the hopelessness of his job, reneges. Moynihan's style is simple and refreshingly artless, as she immerses herself in the minds and hearts of her characters. The plots are more like journeys than maps. We are never sure where the characters' choices will lead them, until we live alongside them for a while.

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