Archive for August, 2009

whale’s journey

August 31, 2009

Opening Day! The Fall academic season begins today at our school, we’re all still in figurative 1st place, nobody’s fallen behind, nobody’s out of contention. Let the “corrupting” begin…

I’ll be asking Intro Students the traditional first-day questions: What’s your present understanding of the meaning of “philosophy”? Do you have a personal philosophy that you can summarize in a phrase or a statement? Do you have a favorite philosopher? To answer my own questions: it’s an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly, motivated by love of wisdom and aversion to unexamined prejudice; no*; and William James. (*That’s not Sally Brown’s new philosophy of “no,” just my old reluctance to shrink it to a slogan. But don’t let that stop you.)

Time permitting, we may look at Monty Python’s argument clinic: how not to do it.

And finally we may ponder this wonderful/terrible clip from “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” so expressive of the tragi-comedy of philosophical inquiry and human conscious self-awareness.  The whale’s odyssey is our own, by turns thrilling, hilarious, instructive, and grim. And his journey, full of intrinsic fascination and delight, is over all too quickly. (His destination arrives more abruptly, more unexpectedly, than most of ours. Thankfully so, right?)

It is all about the journey, not the destination. C’est la vie, kids. Let’s have some fun on this trip. Then, may all our landings be soft.

spectators

August 30, 2009

Good show, Older Daughter. She played “Belva” again last night in “The Lottery,” based on a short story by Shirley Jackson that originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1948. It’s a disturbing depiction of a small town’s annual drawing to select one of its citizens for ritual sacrificial stoning. The author said: “I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”

I’m proud to note that “Belva” alone questioned the morality of the barbaric tradition. And not surprised.

Contemporary novelist A.M. Homes reads and discusses the meaning and significance of Jackson’s “terrifying, iconic” story in this New Yorker podcast.

There was another one-act performance as well, following “The Lottery” and leavening the dark mood: British playright Michael Frayn’s hilarious 1991 play “Audience.”

Beneath the levity a disquieting question lurks: to what extent are we all an audience to cruelty and injustice, perpetrated with the tacit blessing of our indifference?

Impact

August 29, 2009

Elizabeth Kolbert nails the hypocrisy of “No Impact” environmental crusaders out to grab an angle and a buck.

“When No Impact Man [Colin Beavan] shuts off the power at his apartment, you might think that his blog would have to go dark (and along with it his compulsive checking of his ratings on Technorati). But every day Beavan bikes to the Writers Room, on Broadway at Waverly Place, and plugs in his laptop… So committed is Beavan to his claim of zero impact that he can’t—or won’t—see the deforestation for the trees. He worries a great deal about the environmental consequences of [wife] Michelle’s tampon use and the shrink-wrap around a block of cheese. But when it comes to his building’s heating system, which is apparently so wasteful that people are opening windows in the middle of winter, he just throws up his hands.”

Kolbert’s right: we’ve had an impact, it’s been (in a huge understatement) deleterious. But it’s also been fortuitous. We must imagine a world without love and friendship, art and beauty, science and technology, philosophy and truth, while we dream of a world without carbon excess. That, and more than a few other unfortunate excrescences of  civilization, have been too much with us. But on the whole I’d still rather be, with W.C., in Philadelphia.

“The world without us” is  a fantasy, and not a pleasant one.  We need to clean up our mess, not fade away.

spiritual atheists

August 28, 2009

James Wood (“God in the Quad,” New Yorker 8.31) is not the first to slam the “new atheists” for being the structurally-identical twins of evangelical zealots, we’ve been hearing about “Darwinian fundamentalism” for a long time. The late Stephen Jay Gould used to toss that epithet around a lot. Jerry Coyne has a good reply.

But Wood, while missing the big picture, is not entirely lost in the forest. I like his implicit call for a more spiritually-circumspect atheism. Not being a theist is not at all the same as being uninterested in the meaning of life and the point of existence. Respectable atheists aren’t just nattering nay-sayers eager to declare their antipathies and all that they’re against; they’re actively and enthusiastically for something too. Succinctly, they’re for what Dawkins has called “growing up in the universe”: breaking free, as a species, from the old limiting dependency on external metaphysical support. Different atheists will expound that idea differently, but it’s ultimately about freedom and independence.

So Wood’s still wandering and waiting for his theological rescue in a “fallen world,” and resenting atheists for not doing likewise: “What is needed is… a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.” No. Atheists are not disappointed. What is really needed from them is a compelling account of why they’re not, and why they think none of us should feel lost in an ungoverned cosmos. It’s our home, the universe, whether we share it with a creator or not.

Much to talk about in “Atheism and Spirituality,” come Spring.

Raw energy, “pure delight”

August 27, 2009

Rebecca Solnit’s new book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster “investigates the fleeting, purposeful joy that fills human beings in the face of disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes and even terrorist attacks…” My favorite example, which she discusses: William James’s reaction to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, his first-hand account of which exudes a strange joy and gratitude for the mere opportunity to be present to witness such unanticipated destruction and its amelioration. It is, I once wrote,

James’s personal account of the great San
Francisco earthquake, an account that must be at least curious
and possibly illuminating to anyone who has ever been visited
with an earthquake experience of his own. My own small quake
experience was in Palm Springs, California, on May 7, 1995, a
relatively insignificant shimmy on the Richter scale (5.0) but
enough to awaken me from a deep sleep at 4 a.m. with an
immediate, inexplicable awareness of exactly what was happening.
I confess that the dominant feeling for me, then, was fear.
James’s firsthand account of the events of April 18, 1906
is, by contrast, not one born of fear at all:
@EXT: [L]ying awake at about half past five . . .I felt the bed
begin to waggle. . . . Sitting up involuntarily and taking a
kneeling position, I was thrown down on my face. The room was
shaken like a rat by a terrier . . . [My] emotion consisted
wholly of glee . . . at the vividness which such an abstract idea
or verbal term as “earthquake” could put on when translated into
sensible reality and verified concretely. . . . I felt no trace
whatever of fear; it was pure delight . . .
@TEXT:James described his total quake experience as “mind-
enlarging,” reporting in the quake’s aftermath a sense of
cheerful solidarity among the survivors, “a kind of uplift in the
sense of a ‘common lot’ that took away the sense of loneliness
that (I imagine) gives the sharpest edge to the more usual kind
of misfortune. . . .”88
It is no coincidence, I think, that one of the first things
James wrote after the quake was an essay called The Energies of
Men. Like Emerson and Thoreau before him, he was alert to the
very human significance of natural events. An earthquake, even a
puny one, is a release of vast amounts of energy. We are
conservators and expenders of energy, too, but much of our effort
is dissipated. “The human individual lives usually far within his
limits . . . [H]e energizes below his maximum, and he behaves
below his optimum,”89 habitually. But here is our greatest seed
of hope: our bad habits were made to be broken. Like Emerson,
James is a champion of self-reliance and the spirit of reform.
Perhaps more than Emerson, he is also a champion of hope as the
collective human urge so admirably displayed by those San
Franciscans whose “hearty frame of mind” and eagerness to make a
fresh beginning amidst natural devastation he found so
uplifting.

an account that must be at least curious and possibly illuminating to anyone who has ever been visited with an earthquake experience of his own. My own small quake experience was in Palm Springs, California, on May 7, 1995, a relatively insignificant shimmy on the Richter scale (5.0) but enough to awaken me from a deep sleep at 4 a.m. with an immediate, inexplicable awareness of exactly what was happening. I confess that the dominant feeling for me, then, was fear.

James’s firsthand account of the events of April 18, 1906 is, by contrast, not one born of fear at all:

Lying awake at about half past five… I felt the bed begin to waggle… Sitting up involuntarily and taking a kneeling position, I was thrown down on my face. The room was shaken like a rat by a terrier… [My] emotion consisted wholly of glee… at the vividness which such an abstract idea or verbal term as “earthquake” could put on when translated into sensible reality and verified concretely. . . . I felt no trace whatever of fear; it was pure delight . . .

James described his total quake experience as “mind-enlarging,” reporting in the quake’s aftermath a sense of cheerful solidarity among the survivors, “a kind of uplift in the sense of a ‘common lot’ that took away the sense of loneliness that (I imagine) gives the sharpest edge to the more usual kind of misfortune. . . .”

It is no coincidence, I think, that one of the first things James wrote after the quake was an essay called “The Energies of Men.” Like Emerson and Thoreau before him, he was alert to the very human significance of natural events. An earthquake, even a puny one, is a release of vast amounts of energy. We are conservators and expenders of energy, too, but much of our effort is dissipated. “The human individual lives usually far within his limits . . . [H]e energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum,” habitually. But here is our greatest seed of hope: our bad habits were made to be broken. Like Emerson, James is a champion of self-reliance and the spirit of reform.

Perhaps more than Emerson, he is also a champion of hope as the collective human urge so admirably displayed by those San Franciscans whose “hearty frame of mind” and eagerness to make a fresh beginning amidst natural devastation he found so uplifting.

Retreat

August 26, 2009

Must be brief this a.m., I’m off to the Faculty Senate retreat. What are we retreating from? Probably from any honest acknowledgement of our marginal power as a body to influence the whim and fiat of administrators, charged to enact the anti-intellectual will of petty politicians and their complacent-but-angry constituents. Our keepers will no doubt seek to assure us of their solidarity with our plight: We’re all just pawns in this short-sighted game of state legislative belt-tightening, “we’re doing all we can” (as Nancy Reagan once prompted poor Ronnie to parrot).

But that’s too cynical. Retreating can mean running away from confrontation with power, flight not fight. Or, it can mean gathering in a safe zone to shore up resources, devise intelligent strategies, and recall what’s worth fighting for.

Last Spring our campus was embroiled in sound and fury and confusion, as the budget axe began to fall we knew not where. Most of our colleagues were spared the worst that had been feared. Our department apparently remains on the hot seat to demonstrate its usefulness, and philosophy’s,  notwithstanding the “Academic Performance Award for your Philosophy graduates’ outstanding performance on the 2008-09 general education test!” It’ll be nice to stand up before the President on Friday at the annual new school year convocation to bask in his ironic recognition. “Again, congratulations to the faculty of the Department of Philosophy for their excellent work with their students!” Thank you. Thank you very much.

Seriously, it’s gratifying to know that we’ve inspired our students not only to excel academically, but to recognize the value of philosophy and to fight for it.

One more redeeming thing about retreating, there will be food. And then, soon, there will be classes. It’s important for us all to remember: that’s why we’re here.

the last man

August 25, 2009

Gospel of Relaxation” admonishes us to lighten and loosen up. It does not, however, urge movement toward “Wall-e” world or anything like it, a lubberland of happiness (James calls it somewhere) in which strength and musculature have become irrelevant and otiose. The point of relaxing is not to make us softer and more comfortable, but to enhance the quality of the passing moment and shore up our store of effective force for the future.

wall-e…the environment [according to some futurists] will more and more require mental power from us, and less and less will ask for bare brute strength. Wars will cease, machines will do all our heavy work, man will become more and more a mere director of nature’s energies, and less and less an exerter of energy on his own account. So that, if the homo sapiens of the future can only digest his food and think, what need will he have of well-developed muscles at all?

…I have heard a fanciful friend make a still further advance in this ‘new-man’ direction. With our future food, he says, itself prepared in liquid form from the chemical elements of the atmosphere, pepsinated or half-digested in advance, and sucked up through a glass tube from a tin can, what need shall we have of teeth, or stomachs even? They may go, along with our muscles and our physical courage, while, challenging ever more and more our proper admiration, will grow the gigantic domes of our crania, arching over our spectacled eyes, and animating our flexible little lips to those floods of learned and ingenious talk which will constitute our most congenial occupation.

I am sure that your flesh creeps at this apocalyptic vision…

Yes. But haven’t we made significant, alarming strides in this very direction since James spoke those words in 1892? And since Nietzsche‘s “last men,” blinking in bovine contentment, declared that they had found ultimate happiness? That, surely, is  not the brand of happiness we need to pursue. What, then?

relax

August 24, 2009

We Americans tend to think of the pursuit of happiness as our hallmark, but a case can be made for stress as our most distinctive national attainment. Natalie Angier writes of the “vicious stress loop” endemic to our way of life. Stress is good to a point, when it moves us to respond to its objective sources and disable them. It is thus a key element in restoring the equilibrium necessary for that fabled pursuit of happinesss.

But we tend to get sidetracked before the “disabling” can happen. Angier:

In humans the brain can think too much, extracting phantom threats from every staff meeting or high school dance, and over time the constant hyperactivation of the stress response can unbalance the entire feedback loop. Reactions that are desirable in limited, targeted quantities become hazardous in promiscuous excess. You need a spike in blood pressure if you’re going to run, to speedily deliver oxygen to your muscles. But chronically elevated blood pressure is a source of multiple medical miseries.

Why should the stressed brain be prone to habit formation? Perhaps to help shunt as many behaviors as possible over to automatic pilot, the better to focus on the crisis at hand. Yet habits can become ruts, and as the novelist Ellen Glasgow observed, “The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.”

It’s still August. Time to relax, rewind and remodel the brain.

Excellent advice. William James said much the same thing way back when, in “Gospel of Relaxation.” But beware the zeal of pursuing relaxation too vigorously, that too can stress you out.  “I fear that some of my fair hearers may may be making an undying resolve to become strenuously relaxed, cost what it will.” Better to let it go, paradoxically enough. “The way to do it is genuinely not to care whether you are doing it or not.”

So, what’s the key to mens sana in corpore sano? It really is pretty basic: exercise, eat right, and chill.  Relax… but not so hard.

If all the other rats will bear that in mind too, we’ll enjoy the race.

burn the bridge

August 23, 2009

Last time I wandered Vanderbilt campus at dusk, to spend a pleasant hour on a pretty day before the curtain rose on another Middle School musical production, I had it pretty much to myself. Not last night. It was Move-in Day, everywhere you turned Dads were lumbering under the weight of dorm-sized appliances and the other necessities of  collegiate life, and officious Moms were directing them. Lots of kids too, many indistinguishable in years from their younger counterparts across the street. There was a mix of apprehension and anticipation in those faces, and exhaustion. I looked to them with anticipation of my own: that’s us in a few short years. As Millie sings, baby will soon be coming home no more. (Well, ’til Fall Break anyway.)

And as for the show, set in the ’20s but more evocative for me of the Mad Men ’60s (with young women aspiring not to careers but to husbands, “modern” meaning heartless and materialistic) : it grew on me over three days, and I might as well surrender to the viral music that won’t leave my brain ’til I replace it. It was fun. Younger Daughter, you were a great “stenog.” And then we got to celebrate Grammy’s birthday with her at the Cheesecake Factory on an almost perfectly autumnal evening. She couldn’t remember the last time she was serenaded at a restuarant.

Fall’s still very agreeably in the air this morning. George Santayana was right: “To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” Or summer. We all really should get back to school.

another successful misattribution

August 22, 2009

To laugh often and much;

To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;

To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;

To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;

To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;

To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.

This is success.

inaccurately attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson



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