Smart fish

June 25, 2016

“They had been brought up in a tradition that told them in one way or another that the life of the mind and the life of the senses were separate and, indeed, inimical; they had believed, without ever having really thought about it, that one had to be chosen at some expense of the other.” Stoner

This is one of the central contentious issues in the Plato versus Aristotle “struggle” for our civilization’s soul, isn’t it? The genuinely-empiricist impulse is to integrate intelligence and sense, not wall them off. Embodied mind and sense-based knowledge are the only kind we can know.
And I’m still astounded not to have known Stoner until now. John Edward Williams said of his protagonist, “The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner’s sense of a job. Teaching to him is a job-a job in the good and honorable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was… It’s the love of the thing that’s essential… The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilization.”

Love, “a passion neither of the mind nor of the heart, it was a force that comprehended them both…”

Family took me to see Finding Dory last night. A smart fish suffering short-term memory loss had better remember to pay attention to what she sees and hears, and to accept a little help from her friends. Embodied mind and memory, as Aristotle knew, are social. Love it.
6:30/5:33, 74/95, 8:06

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Stoner

June 24, 2016

Well that was a stormy night. Spent the last three hours of it sleeplessly in the library recliner, alongside  our thunderstruck old Angel dog.  She somehow made her way past several closed doors to fetch me at 3 am. Younger Daughter, I discovered, had at some earlier point in the night improvised a blanket tent above the dog bed in an attempt to pacify the terrified pooch. Cute. Nice try.

So, what to do in the recliner at 3 am when sleep eludes? I went to Hoopla and found an audio recording of a book I can’t believe I’d never heard of, Stoner by John Edward Williams. It’s set in a slightly fictionalized early-20th century version of my old college town Columbia MO, about a farm kid who goes off to the university to study agriculture and ends up getting a lit degree and becoming a prof. It didn’t put me to sleep, but I didn’t mind.

“But don’t you know, Mr Stoner?’ Sloane asked. ‘Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.” 

“He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which is simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man.”

“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”

Only sometimes? But it’s not usually a shattering awareness of futility, for me, more just a sense of humility. And, of solidarity with all the other academic under-laborers who’ll never know it all, read it all, or teach it with the requisite “dignity” and depth. Stoner’s people on the farm scratched at the earth, his people in the academy scratch at culture and learning. It all comes from an itch for living that good parents and teachers pay forward.

6 am/5:33, 70/95, 8:06

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Wide open spaces

June 23, 2016

I’m pleased with how eagerly our class has taken to the themes raised by Gros in Philosophy of Walking, the escape from a stultified identity, the freedom of briefly floating on two feet as “just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life,” the thrill of heading out and de- or re-constructing the self, and the pleasing symbiosis of walking, writing, and thinking. “Think while walking, walk while thinking, and let writing be but the light pause, as the body on a walk rests in contemplation of wide open spaces.” Walking in Memphis, walking on old battlefields, I’m Walking

Now we just need to dial back the summer heat a bit so we can take it comfortably outdoors. Hall-walking, like mall-walking and treadmilling, is just not the same. Just talking the walk isn’t either.

6 am/5:33, 79/96/72, 8:06

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Stand and move

June 22, 2016

Today our stroll gets more literal and more Gallic, as we pick up Frederic Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking. Still working our way through The Cave and the Light too, now up to Galileo, another Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Hobbes, and Locke. Herman’s emerging thesis seems to be that real light must shine from above and beyond, must transcend and transform the material earth of things, must impose civilization upon recalcitrant humans who can’t or won’t exit the cave on their own without divine guidance and instruction.

It’ll be interesting to see whether and how our new text engages this thesis. Walkers are an independent breed, we like to stand and move on our own pegs and don’t like the insinuation that we’re incapable of doing so. When I first picked up Gros’s book last summer I was initially put off by what I perceived as the author’s deconstructive and textualist sensibility, specifically the idea that walking deconstructs personal identity and self-possession.

My philosophy of walking [I wrote] denies the dichotomy between working and recreating, the dualism of discoursing and experiencing that I think I read in Frederic Gros. I need now to go back and re-read his Thoreau section, with the question before me: does he also take from Henry what I do, viz., a sense of walking as a form of life that straddles the worlds of text and experience? Again, I must pluralize. Texts, experiences, realities are my quarry, not just words and verbal constructs. Something there is, Horatio (and Jacques), that is not merely dreamed up and written in your philosophy texts. That’s one of the implications of “more day to dawn.”

Later I wasn’t so sure.

I may have been hasty in detecting deconstructionist tendencies in Frederic Gros’s Philosophy of Walking. Overtly at least, he’s on the side of immediate experience and reality, against that of the Derridean overtextualizers. Or so it appears, given his sympathetic rendition of Thoreau’s famous “rocks in place” declaration of independence from tradition, convention, and cultural inertia. Honest writing must first acknowledge the truth of the writer’s own experience. If he cannot tap that well, he has no business writing. “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”

So we’ll see. The question for all who crave reality is where to seek the light, and how. The answer, to begin with, is: Stand, and move.

5:45/5:32, 77/96, 8:06

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Anything could happen

June 21, 2016

I’m not a Sartre fan but his pranksterish youth, his “thus pissed Zarathustra” and a Lindbergh hoax are perversely endearing and humanizing.  And his typical overstatement nonetheless conveys one of the central truths of philosophy, that we ignore life’s vast (though not quite infinite) range of possibility to our detriment. “I suppose it is out of laziness that the world is the same day after day. Today it seemed to want to change. And then, anything, anything could happen.” A juvenile delinquent could even win and refuse a Nobel prize, and be lauded at his death as a secular saint.

Did you see that rare solstice moon last night? A once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event, apparently, for those whose lifetimes are still constrained by time.

The constraint of time, and the administrative compulsion of my insurer, sent me for my annual physical screening yesterday. The doc had a probative question about American philosophy, at the exam’s most dreaded and probing moment. It wasn’t easy to concentrate on my reply but I was grateful for the distraction.

And, I’m grateful for the online publication of my little testimonial essay on John Lachs yesterday at the Berlin Practical Philosophy International Forum. Its concluding questions imply an echo, perhaps disturbing but also potentially invigorating, of Sartre’s “anything could happen.” More important, they imply the possibility that we can make something happen.

6 am/5:32, 77/91/73, 8:06

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Paternal prototype

June 20, 2016

Fathers Day was all about surprise and delight this year, with donuts and catfish, the Times and the pool, the Cubbies at Wrigley on Sunday Night Baseball (with just a short late peek at the Cavs’ moment of triumph) , and finally the phone call from distant Older Daughter.

And of course thoughts of gratitude for my own late father‘s wonderful lifelong modeling of how to live honestly and humbly, to be of service, to be worthy of appreciation. I fear I took him too much for granted. So many other fathers, like the one in today’s poem, were so much less worthy. He was quiet, kind, generous, selfless, supportive, strong. “On the days I am not my father,” I could do much better.

6:30/5:32, 72/92, 8:06

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Above average

June 17, 2016

He is certainly the strangest person I know,” says Roger Angell of Garrison Keillor, about to shuffle off the Prairie Home Companion stage. Fortunately he’ll still be writing, and sharing poetry and history from the Almanac.

We who know him only through his radio performances and his writing don’t know him at all, of course, but he’s been a strangely solid and compelling presence for me ever since my old grad school friend George, the Georgian Kierkegaardian who now teaches in Keillor’s backyard, told me I had to hear PHC back in the very early ’80s. He was right. I’ve had to hear it ever since. I don’t know what I’m going to do with my Saturdays between 5 and 7 pm after July 1, but I’ll probably not listen to the Wobegon-less successor show. Not at first, anyway.

The man and his show, strange as they may be, have always been way above average.

5:30/5:31, 78/87/66, 8:05

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Read, write, and dream

June 16, 2016

Happy Bloomsday, “out of doors gentle summer morning everywhere.” Here, anyway. “Why don’t you write sensible books that people can understand?” But you’ve got to write what’s in you that wants out.

We talked a bit in class about what drives creativity, and agreed that the neo-Platonists were wrong to pin it all on a mystical impulse to draw closer to God. I’m with Erasmus the humanist, who “never felt any need to cleanse away an overwhelming sense of sin,” who just wanted “to walk in a sunlit garden and discuss Cicero and the ancient poets; in short, to read, write, and dream.” 
Dreams drive creativity, and summer’s the great season for dreaming. 

6 am/5:31, 68/97, 8:04

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Modern science at last

June 15, 2016

Bertrand Russell’s History has relatively little to say about the Protestant Reformation, but says it well. Luther and Calvin were “medieval in philosophy,” their abolition of purgatory and repudiation of indulgences diminished the power of the church, their doctrine of predestination affirmed the soul’s fate as “wholly independent of the action of priests.” But lest we conclude that Protestantism represented real spiritual progress over Catholicism, he observes that the former was “just as bigoted” but less powerful, hence “less able to do harm.”

So glad our stroll has brought us at last to the doorstep of modern science, with Galileo and Copernicus on deck. Maybe we should try to squeeze in some extracurricular reading before next week from Dava Sobel (it’s her birthday), author of Galileo’s Daughter and More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos. Or Cosmosapiens. Or The Big Picture

There’s a time and place for making stuff up, but not in place of finding stuff out.

6 am/5:31, 73/91, 8:04

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Banned books

June 14, 2016

A date to celebrate, a practice to deplore, a mindset still with us:

On this date in 1966, the Vatican abolished the Index of Prohibited Books… books that Roman Catholics were forbidden to read for fear of endangering their faith or their morals…

Some of the authors who found their names on the Index at one time or another include astronomers and physicists Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Giordano Bruno, and Johannes Kepler; philosophers John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant, and Jean Paul Sartre; and authors Jonathan Swift, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, and Graham Greene. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was considered for inclusion, because some thought it was a veiled call for revolution, but it was ultimately left off. None of Karl Marx’s work made the list, nor did anything written by Adolph Hitler, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, or Charles Darwin.

The list assaulted the freedom of authors and readers, the latter then an expanding category but now possibly a shrinking one. There’s less need to ban books, now that so many of us voluntarily ignore them. As Mr. Twain said, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”

The Almanac today also makes me want to read Mona Simpson, who said “I use life when it’s better than what I could make up” and “The tincture of life most rarely found in art is happiness.”


5:30/5:31, 74/90, 8:04
podcast

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